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Published: April 19th 2012
Greetings from Luxor, with this my final travel blog update on my Egypt trip 2012. Writing this one from the departure lounge in Luxor Airport, though will be waiting till I get home before I upload this and the latest batch of photos onto my page. So if you are reading this now, I have arrived back safely.
Wow – rather a mixed bag of feelings about the last few days to be honest. I believe I last wrote when just about to leave the amazing oases of the Western Desert, and their stunning landscapes. My original plan being to travel directly by private car from Al-Kharga oasis to Luxor along a little-used desert road being curtailed by the fact that this road has recently been made off-limits to foreigners due to the lack of security from desert bandits in the area, I ended up getting two shared fill-up-and-go type affairs, the first from Dakhla to Al-Kharga, and the second onto a small provincial city on the Nile called Asyut. Making excellent time, having arrived in Asyut by lunchtime after 5 hours of cramped, hot conditions bunched up in a minibus and then a Peugeot estate with
a friendly and jovial sample of the local populace, I thought why not head on to Luxor there and then cos I’d be there by sunset if there’s a train. Unfortunately there wasn’t, the trains were fully booked for the rest of the day, and I did end up spending the night in Asyut.
A very different experience in Asyut – if I had seen a handful of fellow tourists on the Western Desert circuit, I was very much the only Westerner in town here. The people were super-friendly though, with lots of “hellos” and “welcomes”, and the town pleasant enough being on the banks of the Nile. I still find it incredible how this, the longest river in the world, manages to support life in what would otherwise be a huge, inhospitable desert. The vast majority of my journey to Asyut was through parched lands of aridness, while the final 5km or so passed through irrigated fields of almost tropical lushness – what a contrast. The Nile Valley was originally so green due to the annual floods which occurred for three months every summer. The Ancient Egyptians believed this was due to the tears cried by the goddess
Isis over the death of her husband Osiris, but it can be more accurately explained as heavy precipitation occurring in the Nile source countries, Ethiopia and Uganda. However, since the building of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 (Geography teacher!), the floods have been regulated, and the cultivated area remains so due to extensive systems of irrigation and fertilisation. The Valley, from its beginnings in Egypt in Lake Nasser in the far south, to the Delta region as it enters Cairo and then splits off into several distributaries, is just that – a valley only around 10km wide the whole way, supporting almost the whole of the Egyptian population, through mostly irrigated farming using the waters of the Nile. And amazing fact, though unsurprising considering the desert nature of the country, the Nile has no tributaries at all joining it throughout the whole of its journey in Egypt – it's just that one vast waterway!
Anyway, Asyut was a pleasant stopover, although the next day the Lonely Planet and other sources were right in saying that there is heavy security for foreigners in the town. While the previous afternoon, the policemen stationed outside my hotel were happy to let
me wander around alone, just asking me where I was going, Saturday morning they escorted me, three armed policemen in their police car, to the station, where I was handed over to the police on duty there, who waited with me on the platform and saw me onto the train. As mentioned, this is due to the recent history of this part of the Nile Valley, which from Cairo to Luxor during the 1990s was completely off-limits to foreigners due to Islamic insurgency in the area, often targeting said foreigners. While nothing has happened there for 15 years, they still take their responsibility of looking after foreigners seriously, which I felt most honoured by actually. Although to be honest, I did draw less attention from the people when I wandered around alone than when I was accompanied by three armed police guards, but no harm done there…!
Thus, trained it to here, Luxor, on Saturday morning, and was met with a big shock, referring now back to my earlier comment about having a mixed bag of feelings for this place. I can honestly say that in my experiences this is the worst place in the world (and believe me,
Sunset, Dakhla Oasis
I think the best sunset snap I've ever taken...
I’ve seen a few places…!) for tourist hassle. Even a tad worse than India I feel - you just cannot walk anywhere in most of Luxor and surrounds without calls from every single direction for “taxi?”, “caleche?” (horse-drawn carriage), “felucca-ride”, “buy souvenirs”, “change money” etc – it’s just relentless. About half the people take a gentle no and shake of the head for an answer, the rest will follow you, insist, repeat back to you what you say to them – “no thank you?”, “why not?”, ask where you are from, continually say “excuse me, can you hear me, hello?”, and grab your arm to which I just immediately respond “don’t touch me” as I find that just deplorable. I have tried various methods over the last few days to deal with them, some more successful, others less so, but the best way I have found as always is just to wear sunglasses and listen to my MP3 player, oblivious to anything going on around me and just plain ignoring no matter what they say to me (and there have been insults too…). The minute you show any response, they jump on you. It’s dire, and to be honest it
really has got to me at times, and speaking with other tourists here, gets to them too. The people don’t seem to understand that the more they push, the more they drive people away, and I for one am not the only one who won’t be coming back here for exactly that reason (although another reason is that there are still plenty more countries for me to cover too…!). Another factor it seems is the huge reduction in tourism this last year, with apparently 20% the amount of visitors than is normal for this time of year. Metaphorically speaking, and it often felt like this, over the last year, the hustlers and touts have become ravenous dogs thirsty for blood, and like a pack of wolves, groups of them will just latch on to any foreigner they see. What a malarchy, and definitely glad to be getting away from this. What a shame for this to blight my final experience of Egypt, as the rest of the country apart from the Pyramids has been so welcoming and the people so nice – I am going to try very hard to keep this memory ahead of my latter…
is the bad, but the good is just amazing – seriously splendid! Egypt is just so unique! While Roman ruins for example are scattered all over the place, throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt (and perhaps parts of Sudan) is the only place you can find these ancient, unique and just magnificent ruins of the world’s first major civilisation, and spanning almost three millennia, certainly the longest! After the awe and splendour of the Old Kingdom Pyramids of Giza, the New Kingdom Temples and Tombs of Luxor are just as impressive. In my three full days here, I have not got enough of the sights, and although I have seen all the major ones, there are plenty more out there. The first day, after a lunchtime nap, I checked out the Luxor Temple, slap bang in the centre of town. Apart from me, there must only have been around 8 other tourists there, this being one of the major sights of the area, and indicating the dire state of tourism here at the moment.
Second day, the Valley of the Kings, with the incredible detail and colour gracing the walls of the tombs of ancient Egyptian
pharaohs including most of the Ramses, and Tutankhamun himself. Upon visiting the latter, with the king’s mummy itself there, along with the stone sarcophagus holding one of the three wooden/golden sarcophagi inside as well as his famous death mask (this and the other two sarcophagi are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) , there was just one other tourist apart from me! Amazing, for such an important place. Also visited the nearby Valley of the Queens and famous statues, the Colossi of Memnon, and finally the splendid Temple of Hatshepshut. The funny thing about Egyptian Pharaohs is that we only see today their funerary temples, grand edifices built solely to prepare the king’s body for mummification and entrance into the afterlife, and their tombs. The palaces, on the other hand, were made of mudbrick, and have over the millennia been eroded away into insignificance. These Ancient Egyptians just gave so much of their wealth, effort and resources to preserving themselves in the afterlife, that there remains very little of what they did, where they lived and so on, in their present life.
This last temple, the funerary Temple of Hatshepshut, who many academics argue claim to be
the most important female pharaoh in Egypt (contending with Cleopatra and Nefertiti, if she really was Pharaoh…), was also unfortunately the scene of the horrific massacre of foreign tourists by the Gama’a al-Islamiyya (mentioned in previous blog entry) in 1997, in which 62 people, mostly tourists, were brutally shot, hacked and their bodies dismembered. I vaguely remember when it happened, but it apparently sent the whole of Egypt into shock, and was the beginning of the swift end of popular support for the Islamic insurgency of the 1990s. Certainly a very sobering event to keep in mind while touring the stunning temple. (And by the way, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who I wrote about in my Cairo blog entry, has thankfully been banned from competing in next month’s presidential elections, along with the Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater. Certainly a relief I believe to the future democratic development of Egypt, as well as the stability of the Middle Eastern region as a whole)
My third day in Luxor involved a visit to the massive Karnak Temple north of town - the largest ancient religious structure built, being able to contain both St Peter's Rome and St Paul's London combined,
and with its stunning Hypostile Hall of 134 papyrus-reed shaped columns in the middle, it was just incredible. A great morning spent there touring the place, although I did have to share it with busloads of tourists who come in daily from the nearby Red Sea resort of Hurghada, again mainly of the Russian variety, who actually provided a very effective buffer for me against the hordes of touts and hustlers encamped outside...!
And finally, yesterday, probably the best. A 10 hour cruise on the Nile up north and back, to the Temple of Dendara, cult centre of Hathor, Egyptian goddess of love and pleasure. Whilst not so popular on the tourist trail due to its remoteness, it apparently remains the most intact of Temples in the whole of Egypt, and still has its roof – something which just adds to the magic and wonder of the place. You can climb on to the roof via an ancient spiral staircase, and down into the crypts through a tunnel which you have to crawl through. If that weren’t enough, the cruise itself on the Nile was just magical, seeing the river at all times of the day, from sunrise to
sunset, as the local farmers irrigate their land using its waters, local women wash their clothes, and local kids have a splashing whale of a time.
So Luxor in a nutshell: if you can put up with the hassle, and the heat (42 degrees today, and this is only April!), then I’d recommend Luxor and its sights to anyone.
All in all, I’ve had a great trip. Egypt is a stunning and very friendly country, and there is really so much to see away from the hard-trodden tourist trail. While this trail of Ancient Egypt has been trodden for thousands of years, there really is so much more to see besides. I hope this travel blog has done the place justice. Right now, I’m just about to board my flight very tired – the last few days of heat and hassle seem to have taken their toll - and will be looking forward very shortly, as usual, to my own bed, a hot bath and a beer.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and hope the photos do the place justice – unfortunately I have no photos of the hassling touts and hustlers as this would probably just
cause more problems, but believe me, they are out there.
Until the next time, most likely the Summer and perhaps some Asian lands this time, bis-salaama, so long and farewell.
I am writing this post-script now after having returned back safely, after a flipping nightmare of a journey! Yesterday afternoon, with impeccable timing, the annual Khamasin sandstorm hit Egypt, with desert winds and sands arriving there from other parts of North Africa. The whole of the country was affected including Luxor, with visibility down to 700m and less, causing major disruption all over. Most flights were cancelled or delayed nationwide, and my EasyJet flight coming in from Gatwick Airport was diverted to nearby Hurghada. Fortunately, 4 hours later, visibility had improved enough for the plane to finally arrive and take off again at 9.30pm Egyptian time. We did however have to make an unscheduled stop off on the way back in Rome, for a relief crew to take over, and eventually arrived in Gatwick at 3.30am UK time. With very little public transport around at that time, I finally made it home this morning at 6am, bleary eyed and exhausted, with a bit
The Colossi of Memnon, West Bank
of sand in the hair to boot too! So today has just been spent sleeping and chilling, and after updating this blog and uploading the photos now, there is as usual a hot bath and a cold beer waiting for me upstairs as I sit back and contemplate my amazing journey through Egypt. Thanks again for reading :0)
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