...images from planet Earth
31 January - 17 February 2003
I only spent seven days in Egypt; two and a half in Cairo, two and a half in Luxor and two in Dahab. Flew into Cairo and was picked up by a driver from the hotel I booked.
Cairo is a mad city; on the way from the airport I thought I was going to die in the taxi. Lanes are completely ignored as cars drive at high speed weaving in and out of lanes missing other cars by inches. And horns are constantly being used, as if it's an instinct of Egyptian drivers. Once we counted 64 in a minute. It's even worse for pedestrians. You find that the only way to cross is do what the locals do - just walk across and expect the cars to slow down.
I had read about the Berlin Hotel in downtown Cairo in the Lonely Planet guide. I had e-mailed the owner and reserved a room at 25 USD (nearly LE100) for a double. This had AC and a shower. It wasn't the cheapest option, but accommodation in Cairo tends to be more expensive than other parts of Egypt. It was a bit dark and depressing inside but it was in a good location, 10-15 minutes from the Egyptian museum and the staff are very happy to help you and warn you of touts and scams. We were told about a tour we could do tomorrow. We could hire a driver for a day to take us to Giza, Saqarra, Dashur and Memphis for LE75 which was really cheap (excluding entrance fees for the pyramids, which can add up to quite a bit). So the next day, we left at 7am. We bought our overnight train tickets to Luxor before we set off (LE65 for first class). At Giza, we spent about 2 hours walking around the pyramids and the Sphinx. Only two pyramids are open at any one time and you have to pay LE20 - 40 to go inside depending on which one, in addition to the LE20 entry to the site. We decided not to go in because of the crowds and figured that we could go into one of the pyramids at another site for cheaper. There are lots of camel touts who use the same trick to get you to part with some money. As it was knew to me, I fell for it. They ask you to take a picture of them, then to sit on their camel, insisting no money is wanted. Then they offer to take a picture of you and take you for a short walk, then you are made to feel you owe them something. It's hard to enjoy the pyramids with people hassling you every few minutes. Our next stop was Saqqara, site of the step pyramid which was the first to be built in Egypt. Unfortunately this was closed at the time so we couldn't go inside. We went into a few tombs which weren't all that impressive. Be wary of the armed tourist police as well who will show you around tombs and expect some payment at the end.
Next we visited Dashur. Red Pyramid, which is only 10m shorter than the great pyramid at Giza, was open and we climbed up to the entrance before descending to the chambers within. It took a lot of effort in the intense heat and we were dripping with sweat by the time we descended. The chambers are empty but their size and sloping walls are interesting. We were too tired to go to Memphis so we headed back to downtown Cairo. We couldn't believe it was only 2:30pm.
That night, we boarded the Luxor bound train. It was comfortable, cool and roomy. It filled up so I would recommend reserving seats early the same day or a day before. We left Ramses station at 10pm and arrived about 7am in Luxor. Someone on the TT recommended the Nefertiti Hotel. It was a good location near the temple and there were views of the river and the West Bank from the roof. You can walk from the station but we made the mistake of asking a taxi driver when we were close and he took us a long way round and charged LE5. The rooms were being renovated. Our one cost LE50 and was very good. The guy at reception told us about a tour on the West Bank the following day. It cost LE85 and included a guide and entrance to 3 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, 2 tombs at the Valley of the Queens and the temple of Hatshepsut. We thought about it and decided to go for it. It would have been cheaper to hire a taxi for the day and do it yourself but we got a guide and didn't have the hassle of making arrangements. Later that day we took a microbus to Karnak temple, which was only LE1-2. You have to stop each one that passes and ask if they're going where you're heading. Karnak temple was well worth the visit. It's quite big and we spent about three hours there. The most amazing thing was the Hypostyle Hall with its huge columns with detailed inscriptions. That evening we went on a felluca ride, also organised at the hotel. It was only LE15 and it took us down to Banana Island where you walk around for a bit and get to eat some bananas (entry is LE5). We watched the sun set on the way back.
The next day we left at 7:30 for the tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and told us some general facts about Cairo and the people of Egypt on the way to the West Bank. We started of at the Valley of the Kings and visited the tombs of Ramses III, IV and IX. The detail of the hieroglyphs in these tombs is amazing and it's useful to have a guide explain what they all mean. Queen Hatshepsut's temple is impressive as it is cut from the cliff face. Unfortunately, we couldn't go inside as it was being refurbished so we were given talks about the chapels which could be seen from the outside. Our guide then gave us the choice of either the Valley of the Queens, which he said was similar but not as god as the Valley of the Kings, or a visit to a less popular but interesting site - Deir el-Medina. It is a ruined settlement with a couple of small tombs in almost immaculate condition and it's worth it just for this. The colours are vivid and it's hard to believe how old the tomb is.
We had originally planned to travel to Aswan and Abu Simbel after Luxor but we decided at the last minute that we should see a different side of the country. We were also tired and needed to relax so we decided to go to Dahab, a beach resort on the east of the Sinai peninsular. This wasn't in the LP, but there is a direct bus service from Luxor to Dahab which doesn't use a ferry crossing. It leaves Luxor at 5pm and is supposed to arrive 14 hours later. I bought the tickets in the afternoon for the following day (LE95). That evening we visited Luxor temple. It's open till 10pm and it's much better to see and night because of the lighting. It's also cooler and you can take your time more. It's not as big as Karnak, but just as impressive.
The bus ended up taking 17 hours and we arrived at Dahab at 10am. It was a nightmare journey; even though there was air conditioning, there was no leg room. The person who recommended Dahab to me also recommended a place called Dolphin Camp, so we jumped on a pickup taxi to take us there (LE15 with another couple). It was LE50 for an air conditioned double with shower but the rooms were crap. Dirty, basic, no sheets or toilet paper supplied. There were cheaper rooms for LE30. Dahab used to be a hippie place but there were no signs of that or any drugs. It was a nice atmosphere and we spent two days swimming and relaxing by the beach. Unless you're into diving and snorkelling (which is the main activity there) you may get bored of it after a few days. A nice spot we were at is at the Oxford restaurant huts which are just before the coastline curves round to form the bay. This gives a nice view. All along the beach, there are shelters with mattresses you can sleep on (if you buy something to eat/drink from the owners). We bought our ticket back to Cairo from a travel agent (there are several in Dahab). They charge a few pounds extra and also arrange a taxi to the bus station for LE5. This cost about LE85. The bus left at 10pm and made it to Cairo in no time, arriving at about 6:30 next morning. We checked back into the Berlin Hotel which we had reserved from our previous visit. In the afternoon we went to the Egyptian museum. We spent about three hours there. It's very interesting but there are thousands of exhibits and it's too much to see in one visit, especially as there's no air conditioning in there. Early next morning I flew out of Cairo back to London.
Overall, Egypt is a very cheap place to travel. You can get around for a lot less than what I did. I spent less than 250GBP over the 8 days. The most expensive thing is train/bus travel and the entry fees to tombs/temples etc can add up to quite a bit. With regard to changing money, do it when you arrive in Egypt as the rate is much better there. The Egyptians are very friendly. They will always ask where you're from and will want to make conversation, the only problem being their English is generally not so good so it's a struggle to communicate sometimes. You need to be able to deal with the persistent touts. Be polite and walk away. In a shop where I bought some statues, the guy refused to give me my change, instead offering me some more statues. After raising my voice and threatening to call the tourist police, he eventually gave in but it took ages and was really annoying. The food is another downside to Egypt. Kebabs are everywhere and we ended up buying western food a lot of the time thinking it would be safer to eat. I did discover some nice veggie food on the last day - fiteer, which was vegetables and cheese fried in pastry.
Luxor was my favourite place. It's small, not so busy, friendly and has Luxor temple and the Nile providing some excellent backdrops. I wouldn't have wanted to spend anymore time in Cairo. I think two days was enough. The noise and pollution can do your head in after a while. Of course some people can spend days or weeks there, but it wasn't really for me.