Sunday, November 4, 2007

Egypt - Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, Valley of the Kings

I'm glad that I'm doing this entry after having spent a week here as now the overall attack on the senses has become a bit more charming. Entering Egypt through Cairo is amazing as you are instantly immersed in a very bustling Arab culture. Cairo has 20 million people with an additional 3 million commuting daily. They say that breathing the air in Cairo is the equivalent of smoking 30 cigarettes a day!!

Our initial experience was with a horrible hotel but we were moved first thing the next day and from there could start to witness some of what is Cairo from the relative comfort of the Swiss Inn. Right next door to this very modern hotel there are animals on the rooftops. The donkey carts share the road with vehicles and it was not unusual to see a herd of sheep or goats go past the hotel down what would be Bow Trail!!

The driving here as throughout Europe is amazing as they have few traffic lights (in Cairo they use traffic police) and the cars weave in and out like a school of fish totally ignoring the lines on the road. We were told the lines are really for decoration!!

Our guide Mohamed took us to his flat for a meal on the first day and very proudly presently a BBQ'd goat (complete with head and eyeballs) on a bed of rice. The look on Cathy's face said it all!! It was actually very good and tasted like turkey.

We started our touring the next day on camels and donkeys at the pyramids of Giza.(Giza is actually a suburb like Midnapore - no delineation from Cairo). I can't believe that I came all the way to Egypt to have a horse lay down on me though - I think the poor thing was just so tired! The pyramids represent Cheops the father and Chephren and Mycerinus, 2 of his sons. We came from the desert side and it was truly an amzing sight to behold. Cheops rises 136 metres in the air and took 30 years to build. Some of the stones weigh 15 tons and there are 2,300,000 of them.

Our next day in Cairo was spent at the Egyptian Museum where you can do a trip through time and start to orient yourself to the various Gods and their symbols. The girls both have a very good grasp as to who is what and why!! The second floor is mostly dedicated to the treasures taken from Tut's tomb. His funerary mask weighs 11kg and is solid gold!

We also spent a morning where we did Coptic Cairo (the old Christian faction), a synagogue and a mosque all in 3 hours. It is quite a trick to keep all of the time lines of the Kings here in order and also to be able to identify the Gods. It would really be worth your while to get a grasp on these things before arriving and carry something with you as a remeinder. Here they like to speak of the Dynasties of which there are 30 and not of the year.

One of the churches we saw (St. Sergius) had a crypt in the basement where the Holy Family spent 6 months as they fled Herod and his killing of all the babies.

We left Cairo on a 10Pm flight to Aswan and were picked up by a very elderly gentleman and piled into his equally old Peugeot station wagon (it even had fur on the dashboard!) It is amazing how we have become quite accustomed to hopping into a vehicle without seatbelts! This old fellow took us to our hotel with our luggage bouncing around untethered on the top of the car. We slept for about an hour and then we got up and drove 3 hours to see the magnificence of Abu Simbel.

Abu Simbel is the site of 2 temples that they moved when they built the High Dam. The first one is to Ramses II which they moved in 807 pieces and the second is to his favorite wife (and mother to some of his 150 children) Neferteri. They moved it in 245 pieces. These Temples are the ones you see with the colossal (22 metres high) statues of RamsesII. It was very busy and very hot despite being only 9AM. These tombs are of course not air-conditioned and it is like walking into a sauna in many cases. The average tourist gives off 2.8 kg of sweat and they are trying to figure out how to save the treasures from the damage that this and the CO2 that we give off poses.

The next day John, Dave Anna and Cathy went to the High Dam and the amazing Temple of Philae while Paul succumbed to tummy troubles and pure fatigue from the day before and stayes with me at the hotel. Everyone by this point was a little iffy in the belly and in a land where there is very little toilet papaer and you have to have some kind of small change to pay for it.

Our train ride to Luxor that night was quite magnificent in big comfy easychair type seats that lay back. The other people on the train and at the monuments are mostly French at this point as it is their All Saints holidays.

Luxor is a dream with very clean air and right on the Nile (okay so 78 of the 80 million Egyptians live right on the Nile!). We spent our first night in a quite nice hotel and then got up to see the most amazing Temple in Egypt - the Temple of Karnak. This temple was built over the course of 1500 years and added on to by several different Kings. The middle hall contains 134 huge (15-22m high) columns that are decorated and some still have their original coloring of orange and blue.

The second temple of the day was the Luxor Temple which is smaller but still overwhelming in the detail. It seems like every wall and every column in every direction is carved with depictions of the Kings and their travels and conquests and offerings to the Gods and of course the Gods themselves.

Every day has included some kind of luncj for us. Most of these have been in restaurants with a buffet on the Nile. There really is some great food and lots of cooked eggplant tomato, zucchini and potato. Their favorite meal is called Koshuri and is a mixture of pasta, rice, lentils and onions on which you can put any one of a number of sauces. It is quite delicious and filling. We have avoided anything uncooked or without a thick skin (we have eaten the bananas which grow here). There is always chicken and beef and of course no pork (Muslim country).

Tthe real key here is to get the early start before the 35C heat of the day. The real busy season is starting and the busloads of tourists is really quite overwhelming. We got a 7AM on the next day and crossed the Nile to go from the East (or first life ) side to the West (or 2nd or afterlife) side. About a 30 minute drive from Luxor up into the hills lies the Valley of the Kings. This is where they have so far discovered 63 tombs (the last being KV 63 discovered last year), the most significnt being that of King Tut. His tomb survived intact as it was beneath another tomb until Howard Carter stumbled upon it in 1922. His mummy was held inside a solid gold sarcophagus which lay inside another gold sarcophagus which then lay inside 4 other boxes inlaid with varying degrees of gold. It only makes you wonder what the tombs of some of the greater Kings would have held!

This was a very strenuous day as the tombs are built up in the hills and then a big climb down (ducking your head during the climb)the shaft into the tomb. We saw Ramses IX and Tuhmosis III (whose stepmother Queen Hatshepsut was the only woman to rule Egypt as Pharaoh).

We left the Valley and went to Queen Hatshepsuts Palace which is this huge 3 levelled place carved from the side of the mountain. There are 3 large terraces and it was on one of these that 58 tourists were killed in 1997 (we didn't tell the kids this). Security is very tight everywhere you go and even in the hotels you walk through medal detectors as you enter the hotel.

We decided to change our program and not go back to Cairo and spend 2 days in a van to see the desert and camp out. In stead we had to switch hotels in order to stay in Luxor. Our next hotel was not very nice but we had to stay there as Luxor is so full.

We took a horse-drawn carriage to the night market and spent an hour or so looking at the spices and cotton as well as all th e usual tourist stuff (fake this and that). We had spent some time this day at an alabaster plaace where everything is hand carved from the various kinds of stone (Onyx, moonstone, greenstone, and of course alabaster).

Yesterday morning we took things into our own hands and walked up the street and booked ourselves into a 5 star hotel for our last night. It is kind of like going from a rundown Best Western to the Ritz!! (our hotel is actually called the Steigenberger and is worthy of every star). We made a deal with the guy at the desk (they love their Baksheesh or tip or bribe) and scored a Suite and the room next to it overlooking the Nile with huge balconies, as well as dinner, 2 breakfasts and a late checkout! I don't think our guides were very happy that we'd taken things into our own hands, but I am sitting in my big fuzzy robe in my room with the computer and over my shoulder there are hot air balloons taking off on the other side of the Nile. I can see the feluccas starting for the day (we took 2 felucca rides - they are sailboats - which was definitely a highlight) and hear them setting up breakfast on the terraces below.

This is a good way to end our trip as we will be rested tonight as we start our 24 hour journey home through 4 countries. We are all craving fruits and vegetables and a big 'ol salad!! The people here have been amazingly kind and we will remember several of them with fondness (and hope they don't die of cancer as their cheap pastime is smoking (a carton of cigarettes is $1)

It is now 8Am and the pool is opening and the lounge chairs are beckoning!! Holly

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