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Published: February 27th 2006
The dark scenery flying by...
On the Wagon-lit sleeper to Aswan
The train rolls into the station. May face cringes a little as I lay eyes on the old, worn out, dirty exterior. After a short inspection, the interior was actually very nice. Compared to the Reunification Express in Vietnam, it was excellent. I am not used to travelling first class, but here I was, rearranging my luggage in my first class sleeper cabin. Sleeper trains has become my favourite way to travel, sitting in the bar, sipping on a Johnnie Walker and Coke and watching the darkened scenery fly by. Theres nothing better paying one price for a bed and transport. 10 hours later, we arrived in Aswan. We fought our way through the barrage of obligitory touts trying to lure us to thier hotels. I, team 2, (personal joke) was sent to hunt down a hotel. It took a few hours to get a suitable one but we finally settled on the Isis. It turns out that a couple that had been staying at the Cosmopolitan in Cairo and was in the room next to us on the train, David and Jackie, who are from Melbourne, were also staying at the Isis. They had arranged accommodation through an agent, which,
Sailing peacefully on the Nile, Aswan.
after experiencing some of the locals who will rip you off at any opportunity, I felt could've been a bad idea. He did offer the room at a discounted price so we accepted. He then told us about all the wonderful things he could arrange for us. Such as trips to Abu Simbel, the Aswan High Dam, then a cruise up the Nile to Luxor plus accommodation there, plus, plus, plus. This was definatley shaping up to be a grand rip off. I was thinking about David and Jackie and how they organised all this through him aswell. It seemed to be all in order and at a reasonable price so we booked the next four or five days at his mercy. David and Jackie had pretty much booked the same things as us, so we were to travel mostly together for the next few days.
The Isis was great. After getting settled, we sat, Nile side, watching the feluccas sail by with lush tropical palm trees and desert hills in the backround. This town is just how I imagined Egypt. It's a fair sized town, almost a city, but it has a laid back vibe to it. We
Seagulls dive for their lunch in the Nile
sat for an hour or two, sipping our coffees and admiring the view of the Nile which is so much more picturesque than in Cairo.
Later that afternoon was one of our first arranged group trips to various locations around Aswan. We loaded up this small van with about 11 of us, a guide and off we went, the first stop was the High Dam. I was very impressed with Hoover Dam in the US but this modern peice of monumental engineering makes Hoover Dam look miniscule. The dimentions are phenomenal, 3.6km across, 980m at the base and 111m high. I couldn't quite wrap my head around how big that really is untill I was to see it first hand. The Dam is so big that the water collected behind it became the largest man made lake in the world. It stretches 460km's south to the Sudanese boarder and is known as Lake Nasser. The project was quite controversial for several reasons. One issue was due to the water build up, several pharaonic monuments had to be moved and rescued in a US$40 million UNESCO project. The next stop was the temple of Philae. One of the monuments moved
Lunch time 2
Seagulls dive for their lunch in the Nile
in the rescue, this magnificent temple was dedicated to Isis. We had a guide with us on this little tour of the Aswan surrounds, the poor guy was just trying to do his job but he kept loosing us all as we inevitably dispersed around the site on our own. He persisted to keep us all together and fill us in on the many facts about the temple, however, he never really handled us. He eventually gave up and just let us wander around on our own. We hopped back in our little boat that we used to get here, and we made our way to the last site of the day. The Unfinished Obelisk wasn't really what I was expecting. We arrive at the site and I begin to take pictures of this curious trench carved from solid granite. I then took a picture of a similar trench about 5 metres to it's left. When the man began to explain what we were looking at, it made more sense. The large peice of granite in between the two trenches was the obelisk but it wasn't completely carved out, hence the reason why it was unfinished. Had the obelisk been
THe High Dam on the outskirts of Aswan. This is not even a quarter of the way across.
finished, it would've been absolutley massive. The idea is to carve out the shape of the obelisk, then carve out the rock beside it so it can be rolled over onto transport and taken away. It's an absolute mammoth job that apparently took only 7 months. The reason for it not being used is that is had a large crack in the side. It would've been very disheartening working so hard for so long only to never use it.
The next day started in a very unusual way. Dave and Jackie joined us in the mini bus, we made our way up the hill then stopped in a group of other cars and buses. This was the day we were to visit Abu Simbel, Egypt's most famous monument behind the Pyramids. From Aswan, there are only two ways to get there. Egypt Air has flights but after reading the safety record, a police convoy sounded much safer. There has been much trouble in the past with local terrorist groups around the Nile Valley. Most famously, was the massacre of 58 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997. Since then, security has increased dramatically at all the
Me in Egypt
My mate Chris wanted a picture of me infront of the flag. Maybe the pics infront of the pyramids weren't enough to prove I was there. :)
major tourist sites plus around Cairo. Police, carrying automatic weapons, stand guard everywhere throughout the country and to get to Abu Simbel by road, you must take a police convoy. We pile in the mini bus with a driver, "english translator" and police officer complete with radio and AK-47. We swerve in between the road block that indicates we are now driving in the desert and from here, a no go zone for private vehicles. From what I always understood, driving in a convoy involved having a lead security vehicle, the middle cars, which are the valuble cargo, then a trailing security vehicle. It seemed that for some reason, we were the lead vehicle and we screamed off down the road somewhere in excess of 150km/h and lost sight of the other vehicles within a few minutes. There was one car, however, that dispite doing these high speeds, was literally no more than 1m behind us.
3 hours of desert driving through the barren, Egyptian landscape, we pull up at Abu Simbel. After entering the gate and rounding the corner, we are met by the sight of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Hathor. The Temple of Hathor is
a very impressive temple carved out of solid rock. Here, like most places in Egypt, you can't take cameras in. There is no explanation given and when you ask someone why, no one seems to know. So we wander in and look around. It was very nice but we were very keen to get to Abu Simbel so we make the short walk to the foot of the temple. Ramses II's Great Temple of Abu Simbel is a massive structure and, like the Temple of Hathor, carved into rock. The four statues of the gods Ra-Harakhty, Amun, Ptah and the defiled pharaoh himself loom over you. As I stood there, gazing up 20m to the top of the statues and beyond, I never stop marvelling at the monumental dimentions of the temples in Egypt. Abu Simbel sits 40km's north of the Sudan/Egypt border and the idea is that when people sail down the Nile from Sudan and the rest of Africa, the first sight of Egypt they see is the huge temple of Abu Simbel. It is there to project the power and granduer of Egypt. It was the highlight of the trip so far.
The trip back to
Philae Temple 2
The stairs to nowhere
Aswan was far from the highlight. As it was getting later in the day, it was, of course, getting darker. The drivers in Egypt are horrible at the best of times but this guy was the worst. For some reason he had a fascination with driving on the wrong side of the road, which is sort of funny in the middle of the day when there is a long straight road ahead. At night, overtaking people over crests of hills and around corners, it went very quickly from being funny to dangerous. We insisted that he stay on the right side of the road. Our english "translator" all of a sudden didn't speak english, which is the usual scenario when they don't want to talk to you. He also just pulled over onto the wrong side of the road for no reason. We told them time after time to stay on the right side of the road but they "didn't understand" what we ment. The police in the front seat obviously didn't care and did nothing about it either. They also have a strange way of passing other cars out of town, it involves turning off and flicking high-beams to
the other driver, which is makes it even more dangerous. Just to add to the danger of it all, we had the man following us behind with no lights on and no more than 1m behind still doing around 130km/h. Slightly safely back in Aswan, we told our agent about the driver and while he apologised, we knew nothing would be done. My advice if anyone is planning on doing the same trip, even with the terrible safety record, fly, its safer.
The next day, we began our Nile Cruise to Luxor. The boat (or rather a smaller version of an ocean liner) didn't leave untill 1pm so we took a felucca ride around the islands which sit in the middle of the Nile in Aswan. It was far from blowing a gale so we were mainly floating on the Nile's strong current. After a few peaceful hours and a visit to the botanical garden, we were ready to set sail bound for Luxor. We made our way to the sun deck and settled in for a pleasent cruise down the Nile. After travelling so much it was nice to lay back on the recliner and feel the gentle
Philae Temple 4
It wasn't always Hieroglyphs
breeze waft over my face. The scenery was just as you imagine the Nile, lush green palm trees on the Nile's edge, the barren desert mountains in the distance and the occational felucca sailing past.
The first stop was at Kom-Ombo to visit the Temple of Sobek & Haroeris. The temple stands on a picturesque promontory, with some of the nicest markets I have seen in Egypt, at a bend in the Nile. The sun slowly sets over the water and the light streamed into the temple giving it a beautiful red glow. The temple was fantastic and although I have seen more temples and monuments than I even care count, I never seem to get over how much effort goes into them.
That night started the towels on the bed routine. Everytime we left the room for a few hours, the cleaners came in and made little animals out of our towels. The first night was 2 swans. They, of course, hang around the room waiting for a tip. The boat made its way to our next stop, Edfu.
At the crack of dawn, the phone rings at 5:45am. We had an hour to get breakfast
and get off the boat to the next feature, the Temple of Horus. Being so damn early, I never quite made breakfast and wasn't really keen about seeing another temple. I made the effort regardless because I know I will most likely never come back to Egypt. A short horse and carriage trip took us to the temple. What makes temples in Egypt so amazing is they seem to get bigger and bigger. Taking about 200 years to complete, this well preserved temple is small at first but as you get closer, it stands over you in amazing fashion. The massive stone fascade has a huge doorway that leads into a series of rooms and smaller temples. The more you look, the more rooms you find.
Returning to our cabin, we find a large flower made of towels on the bed with the man outside waiting for his tip. I decided to have a shower as we set sail to Luxor. The wall of the shower suddenly ran into me and I realised that there had been a large shudder. When I went up to the sun deck, mum motioned me to come quick. I looked over the edge
Philae Temple 6
I'm surprised I was allowed to photograph this one
of the boat to see a large dent in the nose of the neighbouring boat. Apparently we bounced off one and ran into another as we tried to leave the docked area. My faith in Egyptian drivers of all kinds was tainted further. We had the rest of the day to sit back and relax and we sailed into Luxor that night.
We spent the last night on the boat and were treated to some entertainment. First was a twirling dervish who never seemed to stop spinning for 2 songs. The next was a belly dancer who invited me and Jackie up for an attempted belly dance. Jackie did pretty well but I'm afraid I need some practice.
Returning that night to the room, we were shocked as there was a huge crocodile on the floor wearing dads sunglasses. The man definatley earned his tip with that one.
Waking up early, getting our stuff squared away in the hotel, gives us a chance to head out to our first attraction early. The Valley of the Kings is truly an amazing place. After the Ancient Egyptians realised massive pyramids aren't the best way to keep the pharaoh and
The Unfinished Obelisk
Was impressive once I knew what I was looking at
his treasures safe from looters, this magnificent valley was chosen as more of a surrepticious location for the pharaohs to make their journey to the next life. We walk down the valley and arrive at our first tomb.
Thutmosis III, who ruled egypt from 1504 to 1450BC, was the best tomb I saw that day. I first had a large climb up a steel staircase to get to the entrance about 15m off the ground. As I walk between the towering mountians, it felt like what I must imagine the walk leading up to Petra in Jordan must be like. At the entrance, I look way down the long stairs into a dark underground abyss. I climb down further and further and the temperature gets higher and higher. The first room is around 10m lower than the entrance. It is covered in amazing paint work that it is still vibrant after 3500 years. I make the trek further down into the mountian and the temperature raises another 4 or 5 degrees. This is the cartouche shaped burial chamber and Thutmosis III's sarcophagus is at the end. I shine my torch into the sarcophagus to see the figure of a
Ready to depart
lady engraved into the rock. There was no photography allowed, of course, but after David offered a little "Baksheesh" (tip) to the "guard", he was able to snap off a shot. It goes to prove that there is no reason for not being able to take pictures apart from giving locals a chance to make money by bribes and selling postcards.
We also visited the tombs of Seti I and Rameses III. When you pay the entry fee, you gain admission to 3 tombs minus the Tomb of Ay and Tutankhamun which requires a seperate price. We figure while we are here and just for bragging rights we might as well pay the extra 70 pound (35 for me with my youth card :>) and see the most famous pharaoh's tomb, Tutankhamun. We have heard time and time again about how plain and boring Tutankhamun's tomb is. We descended into the deep and while the tomb is far from as impressive as others, it is still very interesting. The sarcophagus still lays with King Tut's mummy still inside. One interesting thing I learned was that while Tutankhamun's tomb was so famous for being pretty much still intact, it had
The barren desert
On the way to Abu Simbel
been looted twice before Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. We rise out of the deep and feel we have seen the best of the Valley of the Kings.
On the way back we also caught The Temple of Hatshepsut which is a series of terraces rising out of the eastern side of the Theban mountains. It was also the site of the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists by local terrorists. Needless to say, police presence was at a high. Also on the stop off list was the Temple of Memnon. Two 18m high statues are all that remains of what was the largest single temple in Egypt.
Our tour guide wanted to also get to the Temple of Karnak and Temple of Luxor in the afternoon but were too stuffed and decided to do it the next day.
The Temple of Karnak is possibly the most impressive sight to see in Egypt after the Pyramids. It is actually not just one temple, but a series of temples added to by Pharaoh after Pharaoh over a span of about 1500 years. The highlight for me is The Great Hypostyle Hall. Work was begun by Seti I, contributed
The barren desert 2
That's David in the distance
to by Amenhotep III and finnished by Seti I's son Ramesses II, it covers 6000 sq metres and is the largest Hypostyle hall in the world. The centre columns reach a staggering 75ft in the air. It simply amazes me that even after all the fabulous things I have seen, I can still be blown away by yet another temple.
Next on the list was the less impressive, but still amazing, Temple of Luxor. Mostly built by Amenhotep III, it was added to over the centuries by Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Nectanebo, Alexander The Great and numerous Romans. In the 13th century, arabs built a mosque on top of one of the courts and it is now too old and valuble to pull down. It's quite interesting to see an ancient mosque sitting on top of an even more ancient temple. There is also the Avenue of Sphinxes on the outside which at one point used to stretch all way from the Temple of Luxor to the Temple of Karnak, a distance of about 3km.
Luxor is such a nicer place than Cairo. Street sweepers, public bins and a constant stream of cleaners keep Luxor relatively clean and tidy.
The Temple of Hathor
Just near The Temple of Abu Simbel
It is also much more laid back with less people hassling you and less traffic with much transport by horse and carriage. So that's about it. Our Egyptian journey has come to a near end. We catch the Wagon-lit Sleeper to Cairo tonight, arrive early in the morning and leave for Dubai that night. I'm afraid I haven't had the time to discribe my adventures as detailed as I usually do because there has been a lot to see and do. This blog has already taken me about 4 days and it covers much more than what I usually write about. After all was done we had travelled by plane, car, bus, horse and carriage, train, boat, felucca, camel and foot. All the organising we made through that original agent worked out really well for a great price.
Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC, "Nowhere are there so many marvellous things... nor in the world besides are to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness" and no truer words were written. It awes me to think that any one of these massive ancient monuments that I have seen could be the source of so much tourism if
The Temple of Hathor 2
The gate keeper guards his post
they were in another country, but they are all in Egypt. It is the birthplace of undoubtedly the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. Having said all that, there is definately two faces to Egypt. The ancient face that draws so many travellers from all over the world, then there is the modern face. It saddens me to think that in the current state, Egypt can't look after it's citizens, it's visitors and it's fascinating legacy it's ancestors have left. Egypt is a poor country and it need not be. With revenue from tourism alone, if properly managed, I'm certain that Egypt could still be one of the greatest and well off countries on earth. We have witnessed on many occasions how corruption staunches the way of life and the proper care of certain historical sites. I think it's safe to say that while I have been blown away by the ancient face, it will be the modern face that will keep me away in the future. I'm glad I have come and have had a great time. Maybe in the future, if the country gets on track, I may consider coming back. Untill then I'll leave it as
The Temple of Hathor 3
Used with permission of David Chandler
a strong recommendation for anyone to visit only once.
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