Egypt – Part 1

Well, I’ve put this off for long enough; I can delay no further. There are other things I want to blog but can’t because the Egypt telling hangs over me like Damocles’ sword. Still no pictures of course, but I’m closer to getting the 200 odd photos pruned down.

Travel day, which basically means lots of running around, double checking the essentials like tickets, passport, money etc., and double-checking transit times. Somehow, despite all the preparation that went into all this, Penny still managed to forget some things, so we had to go to Farnborough to picks something up from her work. Then she forgot her wallet in Farnborough. I spent the rest of the day checking to see if she’d left her limbs casually lying around…
EgyptAir was quite pleasant. Immense amount of legroom in Economy. Unprecedented! Some passengers were surprised by the fact that no alcohol was served during the flight though…
Arrival in Cairo airport was the first part of the adventure really. Navigating customs, visas (including figuring out where to stick those bloody stamps) and passport control was somewhat confusing. This was then followed by a coach trip to the hotel along some utterly atrocious roads. Looking out of the window, past the skyline bristling with satellite dishes, it became clear that Cairo was no modernised version of an ancient Egyptian city. This was a semi-modern Islamic city, air heavy with pollution, roads often barely paved and surrounded by the ghettos of farmers housing. I don’t say this to disparage Cairo, I found the city to be vibrant and filled with a strong spirit, I’m just being honest.
An early start so we can get to Giza before it a) fills up with tourists and b) before it gets too hot. The pyramids themselves are visually impressive. Sure they look short and squat from a distance, as some observers have commented, but once you get up close you realise that each level of stone blocks is nearly man-height. Those things are immense, and when you take into account their precision measurements and their perfect north-south alignment, you realise why these are one of the seven wonders of the world. Penny and I crawled into one of the pyramids, through narrow, stooped passageways, to find ourselves in the simple, unadorned burial chamber in the centre of the structure. Humid with the moisture from the breath of visitors, this room was surrounded by tons of stone, positioned over six thousand years ago.
There were a few things to be aware of at Giza:
  1. Do not get on the camels! No matter what you are offered, no matter the compliment, no matter the price, getting on the camels is a bad idea. It might be cheap, and a bit fun, to get on, but the camel drivers then send the camel westwards toward Libya and don’t let you off or take you back until you hand over everything you have on you. The locals call them the desert mafia. This didn’t happen to me, though we did see evidence of it.
  2. I had the somewhat surreal experience of a representative of the Tourism and Antiquities Police fish a scrap of papyrus out of his back pocket and try to flog it to me as “an authentic and ancient artefact”. The fact the some people still try this makes me wonder how often tourists actually fall for it. And it becomes clear the TAP are not above a little trade on the side.
  3. Baksheesh. Generally translated as ‘tips’ this doesn’t even begin to cover it. It is ubiquitous, it is demanded and expected rather than being a gratuity and for many it is their sole income. Somebody holds a door open for you? Baksheesh. Gives you directions? Baksheesh. Someone takes your picture, explains a statue, helps you out of a boat or carries your bag? You get the idea. It take some getting used to, but it’s best not to brush it off as the annoyance it seems. We tended to carry 50 piastre and one Egyptian pound (5p and 10p respectively) notes in easy to reach pockets and hand them out whenever required. It kept the locals smiling and they tended to leave you alone after the baksheesh had been paid instead of following you around, hurling Arabic at you (presumably accusing you of being a miser, counting how many children\donkeys\goats they had to feed etc.) Trying anything to avoid the ‘helpful’ locals, tended to be far more effort than it was actually worth. Accept the help if realistic and hand over 5p.
Moving on from the pyramids we arrive at the Sphinx, which is visually more interesting than it is impressive. I found it fascinating to note the preciseness of the parts of the structure that had been buried under the sand, compared to the sloppy concrete ‘repairs’ and the disproportionate head. Many archaeologists state that the head of the pharaoh Khufu. As to why his head seems so small compared to the rest of the body? Who knows, maybe the builders started off precise and accurate, but got bored half way up.
“You know what, guv? I sphinx we’ve done some fantastic paws on this ‘ere beastie, but you know what? The ‘ead of our god-king, long may ‘e reign? Can’t be arsed!”
I prefer the theory that there was a different head in place and that Khufu had his features chiselled in in place, a fairly common activity in Ancient Egyptian history.
Next up was the Egyptian Museum. I’m really glad we had a guide in here, the labelling and signage was appalling! Obviously the most impressive exhibits were the artefacts of Tutankhamun. The deathmask in particular was awe-inspiring. My mother had seen this in the travelling exhibit that toured the world way back in the day and it really was worth seeing. No photo does it justice.
Finally, a group dinner in a local restaurant and back to the hotel.
Train journey from Cairo to Luxor for ten hours!
We had the first class carriage, which was very comfortable and air-conditioned. But despite being first class, the loos were outrageous! Believe me, you wanted to touch nothing! Even being near the thing made you feel unclean! Utterly, utterly foul! And those were first class loos!
Upon arrival in Luxor, we get taken to our ship by calesh, a horse-drawn carriage. Very nice indeed.
That’s it, one third of the way through and more to come soon!