One month in Egypt - one more to go
Christmas in Amman
[Denna reseuppdatering skriver jag endast på engelska då det blev mycket mer än jag trodde. Jag känner bara till tre personer som får denna uppdatering som inte talar Engelska - men som ändå kan få översättningshjälp - men om det är fler som vill ha uppdateringen på Svenska, hör av er! Det har tagit några modiga timmar att skriva detta mail...]
Hi everyone, here's an update on what's been going on since my last massmail on Christmas Eve. I can hardly believe it's already been a month and a week since then, a lot happened but at the same time it hardly feels like more than a fortnight ago that we left Amman heading for Egypt.
Christmas in Amman
Christmas Eve in Amman was an interesting experience for me as I followed Bettina to Christmas mass in one of Ammans catholic churches at ten o'clock at night. It was freezing cold, windy and rain was pouring down as we left our [cold] hotel room walking the two kilometers or so up the hill to church... Getting into church where the heating system was at full blast was nice, to say the least. Not exactly the best tactical move to keep the attendees awake during the sermon I believe but we enjoyed it immensely as our room in Amman was rather damp and cold at nights. Daytime was no problem as I spent most time at the internet café where Ahmet was working hard on finding the optimal solution for heating the office during the cold months.
About the sermon... first, the stage (as I prefer calling the altar) was flanked by a rather large scale model of a stable, complete with statues of the Jesus child, Mary & Josef + other statists of the story. This model was draped with rather cheesy looking lighting fittings blinking in a number of colours and different patterns.
Second, the whole sermon was held in Arabic of which I understand an extremely, bare minimum (like 'counting' and saying 'Hello'). Since I'm more of a heathen this didn't bother me very much but was more of a plus point as I could now focus on watching the actors facial expressions and body language instead. This turned out to be highly amusing and I had a great time watching one of the choir boys (or whatever you call the two poor guys standing behind the main star throughout the performance holding various holy items) fighting sleep. At one time he almost fell over but managed to regain his balance just in time. Apart from him a small boy two rows in front of us was playing with one of those automatic umbrellas the whole time and I was half hoping he'd manage to tip a couple of chairs over with it but he managed to avoid annoying anyone else than his mother :-)
On the whole, the performance was quite conventional until it was time for the "Grande Finale" when the priest, followed by a dozen people, decided to take a walk around the church holding the papier maché Jesus child in front of him like a trophy. As if this scene was not hilarious enough, to finish the sermon off, the entire congregation (excluding a few select souls) walked single file up to the stage (altar) and kissed said doll before leaving!
To sum it all up I thought it was like watching an old movie from the 1920s before they had sound. Poor script & bad acting peppered with farce like scenes! Not bad for entertainment on Christmas Eve. I enjoyed it a lot!
The last two days of the Christmas weekend was also spent in Amman. Most of that time we both stayed at Ahmets internet place, Al-Kawthar Centre, enjoying the luxury of a heated room, quick internet connection and his hospitality to the full before leaving Amman to be in Cairo for New Year's Eve.
The trip to Cairo
It felt quite sad to leave Amman after ten days in which we had already started to develop the typical habits of a settled down life. However it was with the promise of a warmer climate ahead that we got on the bus to Aqaba early in the morning of the 27th. The trip there was uneventful as we travelled on the desert highway all the way and the landscape there is rather dull as opposed to the more picturesqe landscapes of the Kings Highway further west.
As soon as we got of the bus in Aqaba we felt relieved - it was already markedly warmer than in Amman. Great! Getting to and on the ferry for Nuweiba in Egypt was as easy as getting a taxi (tourist price, of course) to the port, getting tickets and wait til the ferry filled up. By sunset we were off and headed for Egypt...
...where we arrived three hours later. Dashing off the boat towards the customs officials long before anyone else even got moving from the harbour area. Immigration was already taken care of on board and customs turned out to be an equally quick affair so all we had to do was await the next bus to Cairo. Sitting on the bus waiting for departure we watched fascinated as the local population came through customs dragging what seemed to be whole households - if not houses - in sacks, boxes and whatnot. The loading of the bus finally ended and we took off at midnight to cross the Sinai... just as the temperature started dropping outside. To our horror we soon realized that the bus was running the aircon at full blast, not exactly helping to keep the cold of the desert night at bay! After some half hour or so several passengers complained as the temperature was now approaching 10 C or so. Unfortunately, the driver and the conductor managed to communicate, the aircon was broken and would continue to run at max cold for the duration of the trip! Aaaaargh! It wasn't long until the interior of the bus was so cold that we could see our breaths... It was a long, hard night before we finally arrived in Cairo and could get some circulation in our now hypothermic bodies again.
At first sight, Cairo seemed quite nice and reminded me a little of Calcutta with its many old houses from the French and the British. Walking down quiet morning streets in a T-shirt with the backpack and looking for someplace to stay didn't feel bad at all despite this being a major city.
How wrong we were! Our first day in Cairo was spent running around the embassy district and visiting numerous travel agencies to prepare our onward travel to Iran through Saudiarabia (turned out to be difficult, of course). We soon realized that Cairo was just as noisy, polluted and overcrowded as we heard some people tell us. To add insult to injury we were even met with scorn and downright hostility at numerous occasions. Not exactly a very warm welcome!
This first impression stayed with us throughout our visit in Cairo and after a couple of days we even started fantasizing about having some mace at hand, or even a tazer gun, to retaliate when some idiot decided that tourists are fair game.
Not to be deterred by such antics we still spent a fair amount of time seeing the sights of the city and even managed to find a few quiet spots here and there. Of the places we visited in Cairo I liked 'Coptic Cairo' the best. This is the old part of town where the towns coptic christian population lives. The whole area seemed littered with churches and small little shrines. Most of them rather low key but wonderfully silent and relaxing to stroll through. An excellent museum of coptic culture, arts and crafts was also to be seen and the whole area felt like a well needed break from the tiring streets of Cairo.
Second best must definately be the Cairo museum which is so crammed with exhibits that one could easily spend a whole week in there to cover every room just briefly. We decided to avoid the masses and entered just two hours before closing as most tour groups have already been through by that time of day. This turned out to be just about 1½ hour too short and the last 3rd of the museum we had to skip altogether as the staff ushered us out again.
Third best, the Citadel and the mosques west of it. The mosques for the great stone work found there and the Citadel for the excellent views over Cairo. From there we could see the Cairo skyline complete with the pyramids of Giza at the horizon. An unreal sight.
Which brings us to the pyramids which I thought to be quite a disappointment to be truthful. Sure, they're rather impressive considering the lack of heavy machinery at their time of construction but I guess I was expecting more. For one, I was saddened by the fact that there was now paved access roads all the way up to and between the pyramids carrying a neverending procession of huge tourbuses. To one side of the pyramids the construction of a large sports arena or something like it also destroys the majestic sight of three pyramids situated in the midst of the desert as must have been the case some fifty years ago or so. The spinx... needs a facelift *urgently*! I believe that's what's been attempted but the constant experimentation has rendered this famous monument looking more like a failed concrete experiment than a sandstone sculpture of several thousand years of age. To be missed! On a positive note: the site of the pyramids at Giza was not too crowded since Egyptians weren't even allowed to visit the site on public holidays to avoid overcrowding! I don't know if the Egyptians would agree that this was a positive decision but we felt rather grateful!
New Year in Cairo
Our New Year was nowhere near as exciting as Christmas in Amman. We had very modest plans for our celebration which in all consisted of a half bottle red wine, a nice dinner and a stroll down the riverside to see the fireworks at midnight. The dinner part we managed alright. The nile riverside walk, check. The wine, absolutely like clockwork (fell fast asleep after one glass each... more training needed!). However, someone messed up their planning and on the stroke of midnight absolutely *nothing* happened. For five minutes, at least, we stood wondering whether our clocks were wrong or if the Egyptians simply don't celebrate New Year. Seems like the latter. We got our fun for the night though as we were approached by a corteous man asking what time it was and after ten minutes of exchanging pleasantries told us the [surely made up] story of how he once fitted a Swedish woman with glasses (he claimed to be an optician) and in return got sexual favours! We left shortly after and laughed all the way back home.
It is no overstatement to say we were overjoyed with leaving Cairo after six nights there. On the morning of January 3rd we got on the bus headed for Bawati in the Bahariya Oasis which is one of the western oases of Egypt. As if telling us to leave, Cairo showed its ugliest side in the morning and travelling down the east side of the river we could just barely make out the silhouettes of the large skyscrapers on the other side of the river through the morning smog! Yuck!
On our way out through the Cairo suburbs we got a first glimpse of how exactly those areas look where 'house collapses' is a part of daily life - I have never ever seen such crummy looking buildings anywhere else in the world and can't imagine how anyone dare live in them! 30x30 cm concrete pillars evenly spaced out in a square, the holes in between filled out with bricks of unglazed clay (or even mud in some cases), seemingly by the local kids judging by the quality of the work. The buildings give of the air of something that would collapse should a bicycle happened to be leaned against one of the outer walls!
Gradually the cityscape disappeared and was replace with desert broken up here and there by small settlements and hills but on the whole not quite the sand desert we were expecting.
Arrival in Bawati felt great - despite the numerous touts homing in on us few tourists getting off the bus in the middle of the village to take us to 'cheap hotel'. We ended up in a quiet place called... "Alpenblick"! Not many alps outside the window there but apparently some old german had earlier lived on the spot where the hotel was now situated and thus the name! Just to be able to sit outside in the sun hearing nothing but the birds singing, breathing the fresh air felt like an extreme luxury after a week in Cairo!
Unfortunately Bawati turned out to have its downsides as we discovered as we happened to set out for the village museum (a local artist producing clay figures inspired by local scenes) at the same time as the schools finished for the day. Throngs of loud, obnoxious kids - all wanting pens, money or simply 'baksheesh' - followed us all the way to the museum and would not get tired of shouting no matter what we tried. Finally one adult along the street reacted and told the pests to let go - that helped, almost, four or five of them persisted until they found some other prey in the form of some carloads of tourists just outside the museum. Seems like child raising is a non-issue here in Egypt just like in many of the Asian countries I've visited before which would probably account for the behaviour of many of the adults as well (particularily men seem to have problems acting in a mature manner here).
In all, we spent three nights in Bawati which was more than enough. We skipped the chance to see the 'white desert' - an area where chalk has been sculptured into all kinds of shapes by the wind & sand - since most organized tours from Bawati was heavily overpriced. Instead, we enjoyed walks into the plantations and one day out in the desert on rented bicycles... a mistake. As anyone trying to bicycle on a beach knows that the narrow tires of a bicycle doesn't fit very well with the soft sand! We ended up dragging our bicycles beside us for half of the way and saw maybe half of what we would have seen if we'd walked instead. Oh, the glorious wisdom of hindsight!
Why we didn't stay in Farafra Oasis
Our next move was meant to be Farafra Oasis, the smallest of the western oases, from which we hoped to be able to take a day trip - or even walk - out to the white desert. Sure, we passed the white desert and saw it from the bus going from Bawati to Farafra but walking around it would've been nice. Unfortunately Farafra only has one hotel which, it would seem, has decided to cater only to the wealthier 2-week travellers. As we got of the bus and saw it disappear into the village we were informed that the prices was an exorbitant E£ 20 pp for a bed in a room without bathroom and excluding breakfast. None of these beds were however availible so a double with bathroom inside for E£80/night was the only option apart from sleeping in a 2-person tent for E£10 pp! [A double+bath should be no more than £25-40]
We wouldn't take none of that and strapped on our packs to walk into town to see if there'd be some other form of accomodation availible. None what-so-ever. Alas, we got on the same bus we rode in on (parked for lunch, lucky us) and left for Dhakla Oasis after a brief one hour visit to Farafra. As the road snaked out of Farfra, leaving the scattered plantations behind, we finally caught glimpse of vast expanses of pure sand desert with some large dunes zig- zagging their way across the plain like giant snakes! Awesome!
Lazy days in El-Qasr, Dhakla Oasis
Arriving in Mut, the main city of Dhakla Oasis, we were immediately approached by a guy presenting himself as 'Nasser' who wanted to take us to his hotel. "Just to take a look", as he said. Being used to this type of approach we got rid of him fairly quickly and walked up the road to the ugly looking 'Mubarez Hotel' where most tour groups stay. We got a good deal and decided to stay the night while researching the hotel scene in the evening. Some hours of walking around town felt like a relief. Sure, the city felt a bit like a part of some gigantic communist experiment with its wide streets and newly built (but still half fallen down) housing projects as part of the 'New Valley Project' which aims to divert Nile water into the oases to draw the population of Egypt away from the overpopulated Nile valley. But the city sure was friendly! We once again had the feeling that people welcoming us in the streets actually *meant* it as opposed to the ridicule and hassling tone we heard in Cairo and to some extent in Bawati. Great! Spent that evening drinking tea with the guys at the Furat Hotel downtown who showed us pictures of the surroundings (to sell us a tour, of course, but really relaxed atmosphere) and smalltalked for some hour.
The day after we checked out of the Mubarez, got hold of the guy 'Nasser' from last night and checked out his 'hotel' located in a small village five kilometers east of Mut. The place was supposed to be an 'local style mud house' in which tourists now could stay. How much 'local style' it really was is hard to tell but from what we've seen in other local houses people tend to keep their houses clean even if they're made out of mud. This place had a rather errant water supply and rooms that looked like they hadn't been cleaned for years! Despite that we decided to stay for at least a night since the surrounding area - in the middle of nowhere, NO TRAFFIC NOISE - was as rural as it gets. The hot spring just around the corner was a nice touch although bathing in it during the day was impossible for women unless they have exhibitionist tendencies and enjoy being watched by dozens of local men & kids.
After just two nights we got rather fed up with the constant "cool party guy" style of Nasser which we felt wasn't completely honest to neither us nor himself so we left for a small village named El-Qasr, 35 km west of Mut. We had seen glimpses of this place as we passed through on the bus from Farafra and liked the look of the sand dunes as they marched across the cultivated patches of land.
As we got off the pickup in the centre of El-Qasr and walked into the 'El-Qasr Resthouse' we immediately picked up a good feeling. About five minutes later the guy running the resthouse, Mohammed, shows up with two glasses of tea, excuses himself for not being with us sooner, throws us a smile and shows us the rooms. We know at once that this is the place to stay to relax for a while to catch up on ourselves after being on the road constantly after leaving Germany in early November.
We ended up spending just over two weeks in El-Qasr which surely must be one of the best, if not *the* best, places in Egypt. The resthouse was absolutely perfect and run in a passionate manner by said lovely Mohammed whose concern for the guests wellbeing was so unlike any other place we'd stayed on our trip so far. Not only content with doing his bare minimum but frequently adding the extra finishing touches like, for example, baking a cake for evening dessert! Excellent place! Anyone planning to visit Egypt *has* to go there. Not to be missed!
The guesthouse was not all we saw though. From the rooftop of the guesthouse the view was astounding with the old part of town - built out of mud - in the foreground set against a small mountainrange of desert mountains, slopes covered with gigantic sand dunes! Walking through the old part of town was like being transported some hundred years back in time but it was quite clear that this part of town was being 'discontinued' as the inhabitants move out to settle in more modern concrete structures instead.
That these mud constructions can stand at all against the elements remains a mystery to me but at least the [almost total] lack of rain in the area prevents water from eroding them. Visiting the site of Amheyda, three kilometers south of town, we saw exactly how such a settlement looks after some thousand years of wind erosion. Houses fill up with sand and the parts sticking up above the dunes slowly erode until nothing is left but the stabilizing agents of the mud bricks. In the case of Amheyda that was pottery - the whole site was just completely covered in shards that crunched under foot as we stepped around the ruins. At Amheyda we were also lucky enough to get a two hour talk with Jim, an archeologist staying at our resthouse in El-Qasr, who was there mapping an old building containing a number of kilns for future excavations. To me, many archeological sites like this one just looks like a lot of bricks, period, but getting it all explained by someone like Jim was a real kick and as we left for home that day I almost felt like taking up archeology as a profession!
Archeological sightseeing aside, the most enjoyable pastime in El- Qasr was definately trekking around the desert plateau and up the mountains behind the old part of town. Out there were only silence, vast stretches of sand, stone and gravel and us - beautiful! The first time we went up there we found numerous fossils from the time when the area used to be sea floor. Let me tell you that it's a weird feeling walking around in the bone dry desert, ca. 700 km away from the sea picking up seashells & shrimplike skeletons!
Of course we had to climb the mountains as well and we managed to get up to the top of them two times to enjoy the view of the cultivated land down below with huge bands of sanddunes marching across them into the distance. Awesome view and so soothing for the soul! Nature definately beats man hands down when it comes to producing interesting sights!
Leaving paradise, back to the world - with police escort
It was with mixed feelings that we finally left El-Qasr after fifteen days. Sad to leave this wonderful, relaxing place and Mohammed behind, knowing very well that this most certainly was the highlight of our Egypt tour. But again, happy to be on the road again and very much looking forward to regain contact with the outside world through email - the only thing we missed in El-Qasr. [Rather telling, isn't it?]
So we took a pickup to Mut, got on a service bus (minibuses serving as share taxis) and headed of to Kharga Oasis, also this oasis part of the 'New Valley Project' which was easy to see from the great number of housing projects all around town.
Plans were to stay in Kharga Oasis for three nights to see the Hibis temple, tombs of Bagawat and the two roman forts south of town. A tough itinerary by our standards (slowly, slowly) but the city didn't seem very interesting to us and we were itching to get back within email range soon!
As we set out towards the Hibis temple, 2 km north of town, the first morning we'd only walked around 300 metres when a big guy in gigantic boots, black jeans & a pullover wearing a walkie-talkie addressed us asking where we were going. Our answer didn't seem to please him very much and upon hearing that we were *walking* there he urged us to take a taxi. Ah! This we knew how to handle and politely refused the attempt to get us into a taxi by just keeping on walking.
It took some time before we realized we were actually being followed - by a pickup truck from the 'tourist police', the guy from earlier sitting in the passenger seat in front and two armed policemen in the back. They were slowly driving about 20 metres behind us and upon seeing that we spotted them they drove up and asked us where we were heading. Same answer as last time and the big guy almost looked as if he was in physical pain! It was now clear to us that we were having our very own private escort - a car full of armed bodyguards albeit not very enthusiastic about their mission.
We'd heard about extremism against tourists in Egypt and guessed that the numerous checkpoints around the country was part of the attempt to root out the terrorists but following tourists around like this could hardly be necessary! It didn't exactly feel relaxing... The comment of the guy for us to 'get a taxi' now also made complete sense as it must be dead boring driving the car at walking speed behind us all day. We (Bettina and I) were even joking that if they'd insist on following us around all day they might as well drive us around town and see; two blocks further ahead another police pickup was parked. Out of the pickup steps the captain of the unit and explains that 'the big guy' is there for our protection and if we would like we could just ride with them instead of walking! Of course this was not normal procedure but since we insisted on walking...
So, we got in the car and got a ride to the tourist office, immigration (for visa extension), Hibis temple and the tombs of Bagawat after we returned to the immigration office to pick up our passports again. Our whole sightseeing of the areas was quite rushed as it wasn't exactly relaxing having four people just dieing to get rid of you so they could go back to sleep or whatever they preferred doing. After the immigration office we said goodbye to our escort and resumed our walk - now to the museum. Still followed by the same pickup though! After about one 6th of the museum I was once again approached by the big guy with the walkie-talkie who now asked if we were 'finished' since he'd developed a 'headache'. [We thought he was stressed out by actually having to work soooo hard...] I, coldheartedly, replied that we 'might be a while' upon which he looked like he'd collapse on the floor crying :-)
Our final walk through town back to the hotel lasted another hour or so, still followed by the pickup truck now filled with rather grim faces. They made one final attempt to get us to 'play nice' by asking when we were heading for the hotel again and just to be test them I replied 'six or seven' which probably was about four hours too much for them. No more communication with our friends in the pickup after that! We actually returned to the hotel around three o'clock having rushed through most of town way quicker than we wanted and decided that it wasn't worth staying another day if we didn't get to choose where and when we wanted to go somewhere! The *really* idiotic part of this whole tale is that as we got out of the hotel later that evening to have something to eat there was no police escort, no questions no nothing! What good does it make to stalk tourists all day long if they are free to get killed during night? Our opined that the Egyptians should use the resources of the tourist police to track down and eliminate the threat instead of harassing tourists!
We therefor left Kharga on the first bus the following day, headed for Luxor via Assiut since we weren't allowed to get on the direct bus Kharga -> Luxor. Our guess is that the tourist police only want to have to bother with one bus to 'protect'... Upon arrival in Assiut we at once checked for the next bus to Luxor but were told by the tourist police that 14.30 was the earliest one and 'would we please get on the train' instead whereafter we were ushered by a civil officer into the train station, forced to buy first class tickets and made to 'stay put' until the train arrived.
As we got on the train we were 'helped' by our police guard to find our seats (he messed up) and two tourists already on the train looked us knowingly in the eyes as we passed by. We were not alone in being frustrated over the tourist police! Later, as the train rolled out of the station, Bettina went over to speak to the couple who were both from Germany. They'd been travelling along the Nile river from Cairo and our little complaints over the tourist police was *nothing* at what they'd experienced. They'd been forced to pay loads of money extra just to be allowed to go where they wanted to go and had constantly had a pickup or two following them around! This country definately doesn't have a single clue as of how to treat independent travellers and I doubt it very much if the package tourists get a better reception!
We have now been five nights in Luxor and have managed to get around to most of the sites where we wanted to go. (Karnak, Valley of Queens, Tombs of the Nobles, Ramesseum, Habo temple) and will tomorrow get on the bus to visit the temple of Horus in Edfu as a daytrip. Luxor has been far better than we feared. We'd heard such bad stories about the hassle and rudeness of the place and are quite happy to tell that it's more noisy and dirty than hassle and rudeness. Well, not really. There *is* a lot of hassle and rudeness but at least it's out in the open and it's then much easier to 'fight back'. For example it 'only' took me about ten minutes to get rid of all of the hotel touts that followed us from the train station while we were searching a hotel. Two of them lost their temper and one bowed out gracefully seeing he'd lost this customer.
Walking the streets is not too bad since the salesmen usually take 'no' for an answer after just 2-3 times as opposed to other places where they just don't get it!
Oh, the sites? Quite astounding really! Especially the 'Habo temple' was a fabulous place to visit with the massive 1st pylon measuring 67x27 metres in size and being completely covered with hieroglyphs. There are also not too many tourists around at the moment despite this being the end of a two week school holiday here in Egypt. Maybe all the other tourists just visit 'The valley of Kings' and the 'temple of Hatsepshut' - two places we avoided just for that reason.
The visit to the tombs of the Nobles was also a highlight as the frescoes in those tombs depicted the life of the common man instead of the hundreds of different gods and deities that fill the walls of the royal tombs. For anyone visiting Luxor I can also recommend that walking is the way to get around the west bank - we managed to see all the above sites in just one afternoon (5½ hours) without even stressing or walking hard. No taxi or bicycle needed!
From here we'll go to Assuan to see the dam and what ever else there is to see there (some more temples I believe). We won't be going to the famous 'Abu Simbel' since rumour has it that booking a $80 flight is the only way to get there. Said rumour also tells how this is due to the airline being owned by a nephew of the president... If we can get a bus, we'll go, otherwise we'll skip it.
A short return to Cairo after Assuan to sort out our onward travel plans (wish to go through Saudi but have to try for an Iranian visa first), send packages home and pick up letters in the AmEx office.
We will then go on to see the Sinai, Red sea, Alexandria and Siwa Oasis before finally leaving Egypt behind sometime by the end of February. The most likely travel route will be a boat to Cyprus to catch the first ferry back to Turkey to enter Iran from there.
Depending on the kind of Iranian visa we get we'll stay anything between 3 to 6 weeks in the country before entering Pakistan for which our visa runs out on the 15th of June by which time we'll finally enter India! INDIA! Great!
That's about it for now. Depending on internet access I'll try to send travel updates a bit more frequent to keep the length to a more manageable size and possibly even write it in Swedish as well.
Look forward to hearing from you all!
PS! We have a *very* basic homepage where you can see how our travel route progresses. Text and pictures might be added at a later date but for now it's just some maps with all our overnight stops marked in at <http://wegototrip.to/>. DS!