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Published: April 19th 2009
It is fair to say that for most Western visitors, Cairo is likely to provide something of a culture shock. Stepping off the plane, we were no exception to this rule, although for probably slightly different reasons to most. Driving in from the airport, we were taken aback by how developed everything was. We looked on at the innumerable neon lights with the amazement of children visiting the Blackpool Illuminations. After almost exactly one hundred days in Africa, we had become well and truly accustomed to nightfall meaning that even large cities are shrouded in darkness. Despite it being 10 o’clock at night, the roads were busy to the point of gridlock. In the likes of Addis Ababa at this time of night you would struggle to find a restaurant open and little more than a handful of taxis cruising the streets.
After checking in at our hotel, we decided to go for a stroll to acclimatise ourselves. We were staying right in the thick of things and therefore stepped out onto one of the city’s main shopping streets. Despite being so late, everything was open and the throngs of shoppers led to it resembling Oxford Street in the run
up to Christmas. It felt as though we truly were in the city that never sleeps. Although the next day we found out that we were actually in the city that sleeps until around midday!
We didn’t expect to find anything particularly endearing about Africa’s most populous city, but resigned ourselves to a potentially lengthily stay, as it seemed a convenient place to obtain the necessary visas for our onward travel. However, from that first night, sat in a street cafe until the early hours of the morning, our hearts were stolen. Quite unexpectedly, we had stumbled upon one of our favourite cities in the world. It is hard to pinpoint quite what it is we like so much about Cairo, but her charm is perhaps best described as being analogous to the appeal of the girl next door
. Admittedly she lacks the super-model good looks of Rio, the sophistication of Paris or the mystique of Marrakesh, but she’s entirely devoid of pretensions, friendly, fun and above all very real.
Our favourite activity whilst in Cairo has been simply immersing ourselves in the chaos. We have whiled away many hours drinking tea in cafes and dining on delicious
food. We have also part-taken in the obligatory pursuits of visiting arguably the world’s most famous tourist attraction and several lesser known sites in the vicinity.
Having spent a good few weeks away from the main tourist trail, we were prepared for a visit to the Pyramids of Giza being something of a shock to the system. Therefore, inadvertently visiting during a sand storm was something of a mixed blessing. Maybe we didn’t see them in their best light, but the adverse weather conditions probably reduced the number of visiting tour groups.
The three pyramids at Giza, the largest of which is the sole surviving wonder of the ancient world, have the potential to provide the visitor with one of the biggest anticlimaxes of the modern world. As with visiting any of world’s most famous sights, it is hard to believe you are looking at the real thing and not a picture. However, unlike, say the Taj Mahal, the pyramids reveal little of added interest even when viewed at close quarters. Having paid the disproportionately large fee to explore the inside of the Great Pyramid, we were surprised not to find as much as a single carving as
reward. That said, climbing inside such an ancient monument was an experience we won’t forget. The wonder of the pyramids is how, when and why they were built and, for us at least, seeing them in the flesh did nothing to add to this. Whilst an indisputably impressive feat of ancient engineering, there is no escaping the fact that they are simply large geometric shapes located incongruously in a suburb of Cairo.
Far more interesting in our opinion and comparatively less visited, are the sites located slightly further out of town at Saqqara and Dashur. These include, the stepped pyramid, the bent pyramid, the red pyramid and number of other impressive tombs. We also spent an enjoyable couple of days exploring Islamic Cairo and its maze-like streets full to bursting with market stalls and mosques.
Before leaving home we were well aware that to some extent our route was likely to be dictated by consular bureaucracy, with many of our potential destinations having stringent entry requirements. However, having thus far obtained visas for Ethiopia and Sudan with relative ease we had been lulled into a false sense of optimism and were largely unprepared for the problems we were
to face in Cairo.
The first country on our route which we needed a visa for was Syria. After four trips to the Syrian Embassy we were finally given a definitive rejection. The reasoning being that we were not residents in Egypt and we needed to apply in our country of residence. However, had we done so before we left, our visas would have expired before we arrived in Syria. We explained this to the entirely unsympathetic Consul, but to no avail. Unfortunately, Syria lies very much in our path and circumnavigating it would be virtually impossible. After some frantic communication with the Syrian Embassy in London, we received confirmation that, contrary to the information in our guide book, we would be able to obtain visas at the border. Needless to say we will be brandishing this email when we try our luck in a few weeks time.
Next on our visa hit-list was Russia. Having done our homework, we were aware that we needed to have a hotel booking and an official invitation. Therefore, we paid a Russian agency to provide us with the necessary paperwork, prior to visiting the embassy. After a couple of visits to
the Russian Embassy and being told to come back another time, despondency was beginning to set in. However, we were pleased to learn of a Russian Consul in Alexandria and decided to try our luck elsewhere whilst also seeing another part of Egypt.
Sadly, despite the remarkable achievement of getting to see the Consul at the first time of asking, he was the epitome of Soviet officialdom. After briefly scanning through our considerable stack of documents, he dismissively reeled off a long list of non-compliances, whilst barely deigning to extend us the courtesy of eye-contact. The most insurmountable of these obstacles was once again our lack of residency in Egypt. With Russia being very much not the sort of country to grant visas on arrival, our plans to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway seem doomed. Whilst mulling over our options, we decided to console ourselves by seeing some of Egypt’s second city .
We found Alexandria to be a very agreeable city and surprisingly laidback for its size. Spread along the Mediterranean coastline it has an undeniably European feel and after the pollution of Cairo, we savoured the fresh sea air. After a few relaxing days and visiting
the impressive catacombs and architecturally bizarre library, we took the train back to Cairo to continue our pursuit of visas.
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