Wednesday 31 October 2007

Sunrise on Mount Sinai (Day 10)

A beeping sound from my cell phone woke me up at 2:15 AM. I only had time to freshen up and grab my backpack. Jeeps took us a bit closer to the mountain. From there we continued on foot.

The plan was to get to the top of Mt. Sinai (aka. Mountain of Moses) and enjoy a beautiful sunrise at 2288 meters above sea level. On the way up we tried to ignore many Bedouins offering a camel ride to the top. There was a camel on almost every turn to the top. And let me point out that the winding path had countless turns. We made it to the top in time to have a cup of tea and to sit around for a while in the peaceful atmosphere before the night started turning into a new day. There are a whole bunch of teahouses at the top, so it wasn't too difficult to find a cup of tea.

The sunrise was was just magnificent. I think there was nobody around that could resist taking photos... Many photos.

There is also a cute little chapel on the top (Mount Moses Chapel). As our guide told us we were lucky to find it unlocked.

On the way down we stopped at the St. Catherine Monastery. It was built by order of Emperor Justinian in 6th century A.D. to enclose a chapel standing at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. The bush (supposedly the original one) is still there today. It is a unique kind of blackberry bush that can be found nowhere else in Sinai.

The monastery's library keeps the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. In addition to that it also houses many mosaics, the best collection of early icons in the world, a bunch of chalices and reliquaries and so much more.
Because it is a Greek Orthodox monastery the majority of inscriptions are in Greek.

The tour of the Monastery of St. Catherine was followed by a breakfast at our hotel. After that we were off to the desert. The Bedouins provided a couple of Toyota jeeps together with two drivers, a cook and supplies for three days. The original plan was to stay in the desert for three days, but once again Allah disagreed. Malesh.

The official explanation was that the government was having troubles with some of the Bedouin clans. All tourists were forbidden to spend the night in the desert until the disagreement was resolved.
We tried to make the best of the situation and decided to spend the two nights on the edge of the desert in a small town of Nuweiba.

On our first day in the Sinai desert we went exploring an interesting little canyon, visited a Bedouin desert settlement and stopped at a desert well, still in use today.

But more about all of that in my next post...


Monday 29 October 2007

First contact with the Bedouins (Day 9)

I think the majority of our group were glad to leave Hurghada behind. Around noon we boarded a catamaran which took us across the Red sea to Sharm el Sheikh.

The ride was a bit rough due to strong winds, which are quite usual for this area. The captain didn't seem to bother and waves were splashing way over window height all the time. Some of the other passengers had quite a hard time. There was even some puking going on but I tried hard to ignore that. However, we made it to Sinai peninsula in one peace.

From Sharm el Sheikh we headed inland to the town of St.Katherine. After settling in a cute little hotel, we had lunch and were afterwards amused by a group of Japanese cyclists preparing for training. They were obviously some big-time cycling enthusiasts. Who else would go cycling in the desert?

A short walk around the town followed. We met Abdullah - our Bedouin guide for the next few days. At a Bedouin-run tourist camping site he offered us some black tea with fresh mint and then took us around. We tried some freshly picked almonds from a tree at Fox camp. There were many local herbs growing in the gardens. Since recently they even have a computer with internet connection.

Our walk continued with a climb to a nearby hill overlooking the town of St.Katherine. Near the top there were these two local girls. They were quite shy, yet very beautiful.

And it wasn't just us guys who had thoughts like that. Since our girlfriends were standing around, we admired them quietly. The female part of our group also noticed their beauty and commented loudly about the need to watch us guys a bit closer around these parts.

I made a gesture suggesting that I would like to take a photo. Almost instantly both of the girls covered their faces. Regardless of that one of them stood up and nodded. The other one did not seem seem to like it and they exchanged a few words on the subject.
There was just something very special about her, but unfortunately you can't capture that with a photo camera. You can take a look for yourself.

On our way back to town we were told they served beer in a hotel next to ours. Of course we took the chance. After a quick beer (really, it was just one beer!) we went to the hotel to get some sleep.

No, we weren't that sleepy but our adventure was once again scheduled to continue in the middle of the night...


Wednesday 24 October 2007

A pyramid or a mountain? (Day 8)

As I have already mentioned in my previous post, all those temples were slowly beginning to bore us. I knew that later on I would be sorry for leaving out any one of them. It would be ideal if we could get to taste as much of genuine Egypt and at the same time see all the spectacular old buildings. In reality it is quite hard to squeeze all that into two weeks.

We started Day 8 with a tour of the Valley of the kings. It is situated under this pyramid-like hill. Historians suggest that when the old kingdoms didn't do all that well anymore, their pharaohs couldn't afford huge man made final resting places like the pyramids.

This place with a natural pyramid was obviously just a perfect substitution. Many pharaohs chose this valley as their final resting place.

We visited some of the more interesting underground burial chambers in the valley and moved on. We went to the Valley of the queens on foot. When we told Osama (our Egyptian guide) of our intentions, he was just shaking his head in disbelief and announced:

Nori Slovenci! Matjaz and his group of nori Slovenci!

That literally means "crazy Slovenians". In Slovene obviously.
Supposedly not many visitors choose to walk up that hill in midday heat. Strange isn't it?

We just had to laugh at his jokes - he knew a few words of Slovenian and used them repetitively in English sentences. He also understood quite a lot of Slovenian. You don't see that too often even when traveling around Europe.

So we went to the top of the hill where we could enjoy a beautiful view of the Valley of the kings on one side and the Valley of the queens on the other. From there we descended to the other side of the hill to the Temple of queen Hatchepsut in the Valley of the queens.

We had a gorgeous view of the Queen Hot-chicken-soup Temple (as our local guide Osama renamed the Queen Hatchepsut temple). On the way down we went by a couple more recent tombs. They were supposedly used by people living nearby.
Osama, as a true Egyptian didn't accompany us but instead took an air-conditioned bus to the temple.

The temple is very well preserved. There is still original paint on some of the walls and statues. It was scorching hot, so we didn't hang around for too long.

When we got on our bus we thanked God (Allah in this case) for the air-conditioning. The bus took us to the town of Hurghada (Al-Ghardaqah).

It stretches for many kilometers along the sea. Once a Russian airbase stood there, but now the only types of buildings are hotels, look-alike shops and ugly residential buildings for the hotel and shop personnel. In my opinion Hurghada has no soul whatsoever.

We ran into many groups of Russian tourists. We were told that many of the shops were owned by Russians. In some of them even fur caps and coats were on display.
I guess I don't need to stress the temperature outside was around 45 degrees Celsius at that time.

With my girlfriend M. we both agreed that this was the most unpleasant place on our trip and would not want to see it again. That is quite unfortunate, because beside Sharm el Sheikh it is the destination most frequently offered in Slovenian travel catalogs.


Monday 22 October 2007

The last meal on the Nile (Day 7)

We woke up to find ourselves at a totally different place from last night. We had been sailing for quite some time that morning and have reached Luxor by that time. Our Nubian crew had already prepared a nice breakfast for us. We enjoyed our last meal on the river Nile.

On our itinerary for the day were a couple of nearby temples. First we stopped at Luxor Temple. It is quite huge and hieroglyphs on the buildings are very well preserved. We were slowly getting tired of with different kinds of temples, so after a short while we moved on to our next destination - another temple.

Our next stop was the Karnak Temple. It is even bigger then the one before. Here we also saw one of the magnificent Egyptian obelisks.

Today there are 28 known ancient Egyptian obelisks scattered across the globe. Only 8 of those are still in Egypt. Others have been moved (mostly stolen) by various countries. 11 stand in Italy, 4 in UK and the others are owned by France, Israel, Poland, Turkey and USA. Egyptian government tries to claim them back but is not very successful in doing that.

In the evening we took a walk around the city of Luxor. We tried to find the Bazaar to annoy local merchants. We got so ruthless in our haggling that on some occasions we were even thrown out of a shop. Nevertheless I am pretty much sure that we didn't always get what we wanted by local prices.


Thursday 18 October 2007

The Nubian Nile experience (Day 6)

The first part of our day on the Nile (described in my previous post) continued with some more relaxing and soaking up the positive atmosphere.

Crew members constantly kept doing something I didn't dare. When they were thirsty, they simply reached over the edge of our boat for a fresh glass of Nile.
If I did that, I guess I would still have diarrhea today. Thanks, but no thanks!

After we finished with our lunch (for more details you can check out the previous post) it was time for a swim in the Nile. The water was surprisingly clear and we enjoyed every part of it!
I did it despite reading in a couple of years old guidebook that if someone happens to fall into the river Nile, he should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Even one of my readers here shared a story about an aching finger after dipping it in the Nile (you can read about that in comments to this post).

Before the night crept upon us we tied our feluka to the river bank and watched some local boys playing soccer. They were quite good and were obviously having fun.

I went on a short walk through the nearby fields and took a few nice photos. One of them was with this local, doing some field work. Of course afterwards he wouldn't go away without some baksheesh.

After a beautiful sunset the Nubians built a fire and grabbed their drums. People say they are born with a musical ear. I had to agree.
We danced around the fire and tried to sing along. Music lasted long into the night and died out hours later together with the fire.

After some time sitting in the dark by the river, watching millions of stars, we went to our feluka to catch some sleep. I went to sleep thinking of the excitement a new morning might bring us.


Monday 15 October 2007

Curse of the Pharaohs (Day 6)

First thing in the morning we boarded a feluka in Aswan. The plan was to get down the Nile with an occasional stop.

Our first stop was in a Nubian village. It was much needed, because the effects of the Curse of the Pharaohs were just kicking in.

It was a simple village, with colorful walls around the houses. We were invited into one of those to have tea. It is a habit in Egypt to offer a glass of tea to a guest. Usually one can choose among a few different ones: karkade, mint, black or black with fresh mint. Low quality black tea blend is the most common. They all come with a load of sugar.
I usually have my tea without sugar, so I had to adapt to the Egyptian way.

The Nubian house we were visiting also had a large yard enclosed inside a wall. On the sandy floor there was a half made feluka sail.
In one of the yard's corners stood a toilet. I am not exaggerating when I say that our party of 13 visited it more then 15 times in half an hour. I think you can figure it out yourself.
No, it wasn't that pretty and yes, it was the good old Pharaoh's curse. The tea after our camel ride the day before was definitely the thing to blame. Oh well, what could we do - when it's there you just have to live with it for a few days. It just meant we had to start taking anti diarrhea pills and everywhere we went, toilet paper went with us. I didn't go so far to try to use the local water hose way of cleaning myself.

This didn't stop us from tasting more interesting local dishes and drinks. On one of our next stops it was time for some freshly prepared local food by our Nubian crew. We had aish (local flat bread), vegetables (cucumbers and tomatoes), feta-like salty cheese and bean kofta (fried green-bean balls).

I took a few photos of those dishes - you should have no trouble guessing which is which.

We followed our guide's example and stuffed the bread with different combinations of those dishes. It was a simple yet very delicious lunch.

There was even a large amount of watermelon for desert. I flushed it all down with a cold beer. Ahhhh... it felt good. It is not always easy to get hold of a beer in Islamic countries, so we took every opportunity we could.

Later in the afternoon we were about to meet the Nile from up close and personal. But more about that in my next post.


Friday 12 October 2007

Greatest health hazard in Egypt... (Day 5) not eating local food and drinking tap water. It is not falling into the Nile. And not all those big bad terrorists (who are supposedly strolling around) either.
In my opinion the greatest threat to one's health when traveling around Egypt is driving in a protected convoy!

Some of you might think:

What could go wrong? They are protected to be safe, right?

Wrong! These convoys are a laugh by my opinion.
Every driver tries to overtake the one in front of him. And for what? To get to the finish line first? Not really. There's an army truck in front and it is a matter of minutes being the second or eighty-seventh.
Repeatedly overtaking buses in front of ours at full throttle, ignoring traffic in the opposite direction, seemed like the best idea ever. To our driver, that is.

However, if you are a tourist in Egypt you can only travel between cities in convoys. This was the government's answer to some terrorist related incidents some years ago. If anything now they have an easier job then before - more damage can be done with one blow. That's my opinion.
We had to join one of these convoys at two in the morning to get to Abu Simbel. We arrived there just after sunrise.

The most amazing thing about Abu Simbel is the fact they have moved it peace by peace from another place, which is now underwater. The water level rose after the Aswan high dam was built. This created the largest artificial lake in the World - Lake Nasser.

A funny thing is that they made a mistake in the process of moving it.
Originally it was designed in a way that twice a year at sunrise sun has shined on two of the three statues situated in the deepest chamber of the temple. It was supposed to happen on the birthday of Ramses II (February 20th) and also on the day of his coronation (October 20th).
Well since they moved the temple this doesn't happen on the same day anymore. Due to a minor miscalculation it occurs one day later. It is simply unthinkable that around 1200 BC they could calculate something like that, and today we still couldn't do it properly.

After taking a bunch of photos we continued to The high Sad el-Ali-Dam (high Aswan Dam) which was built between 1960 and 1971. Today it provides electricity for the whole country and there is still some left for export to neighboring countries.

Next on our schedule was the island temple at Philae. This one was constructed over a three-century period, by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, and completed by the Roman emperors. It was moved many times because of the rising Nile after the eruption of the dams.

Soon it was time for our convoy to head back to Aswan. From there we went across the Nile on one of many felukas (a feluka is an Egyptian wooden boat with a large sail). On the other bank we went off a boat and onto a ship - a desert ship.

For those of you who don't know it yet, desert ship is another name for a camel.

The camel ride took almost a whole hour. Camel guides directed us to a Nubian village, where we had a glass of tea and a snack.

We didn't know it at the time, but that's where the Curse of the Pharaohs fell upon us...


Wednesday 10 October 2007

Night train to Aswan (Day 4)

If you want to get from Cairo to Aswan one of the easiest ways is to catch a night train. You simply buy a ticket, get on the train in the evening, get a comfortable chair, fall asleep and wake up in Aswan eight hours later.

Well that's in theory. In reality it took around 15 hours and a new locomotive to get to our destination. Well we got used to that kind of stuff at this point.

When the train stopped on a occasional train station, I tried to take a photo or two through the train window. I had quite a hard time doing that - those windows haven't been washed for a while.

As our guide wisely pointed out:

All you need to know about the way things work in the Middle-East can be represented with three letters - IBM

No, not the company, but the acronym - I.B.M.

Letter I stands for Insha'Allah - If Allah wills. People finish their promises pretty often with these words. This means that if something doesn't happen, well it wasn't meant to happen in the first place.
Letter B stands for Bokra - Tomorrow. When someone promises something will happen bokra, he usually doesn't literally mean tomorrow, but sometime in the near future.
Letter M stands for Malesh - Never mind. When Allah doesn't will and Bokra never comes, then instead of upsetting yourself you can say Malesh and forget about it.

When you accept these things, everything is much more enjoyable in Egypt. The same was with our train - Allah's plan was a bit different from our schedule, but we eventually got to Aswan, thought to ourselves: "Malesh" and were moving on.

First we settled in a hotel. This one was much better compared to the one in Cairo. We could even enjoy a beautiful view of the Nile from our balcony.

Then we went on a round walk around the city center. The walk also included a bazaar. It didn't take us long to notice the lack of rubbish laying around. That's compared to Cairo of course.

Hunger was slowly getting to us and our guide took us to a local pizza place. Not Italian kind of pizza, but its Egyptian version. It was delicious!

After that it was time to catch some sleep. Our schedule continued at 2AM the next day. Yup, that's right - at two in the morning we were moving on.


Monday 8 October 2007

Zabbaleen - People of the rubbish (Day 3)

This is the second part of Day 3 of our Egyptian Adventure. You can read about the first part in the previous post.

When we left the Mosque of Mohammed Ali our next stop was Rubbish city. But we knew nothing about it at that moment.

Our bus dropped us at a suspiciously looking part of the city. There was a strange smell in the air, but we got used to that by then. We just thought: "We're in Cairo after all, this is something normal."

With every step, we went deeper into a strange suburb. Soon garbage of all sorts was literally piled all around us. People were going through those heaps of all sorts of stuff with a strange enthusiasm and an occasional pig was rummaging around for something eatable.
Children were playing around and looking curiously at 12 strange Slovenians. They were quite cute and some of them just wanted to say hello or introduce themself to a strange foreigner. No one asked for baksheesh.
We got used by then to be approached by people asking for baksheesh in return for some strange favor they just came up with or even just like that.

After we got through this part of the city we went uphill. Steep rocky slopes were carved with various biblical motives. We made a stop at an interesting church which was carved into the side of a hill. Our guide decided it was time for an explanation.

He explained to us a few things about the place we had just seen. First of all, those people we had seen were mostly Christians (Muslims have no need for pigs). People we had seen live there by their own choice. Sorting rubbish is what Zabbaleen (people of the rubbish in Arabic) do for a living. And they earn enough to fall into Egyptian middle class. Ground floors of their houses are used for sorting rubbish. Upper floors however are mostly well furnished. The backyards also serve as parking places for fancy cars (Mercedes, Mitsubishi or BMW is not a strange sight in those streets).
On our way back to the bus, we looked at the same things as before through a totally different pair of glasses.

Did you know that two million Egyptians live in family tombs? The bus dropped us in front of one such tomb. Our guide has even arranged for us to take a look inside. The family didn't seem to mind. They got a nice amount of Egyptian Pounds afterwards to make us feel welcome. After fifteen minutes or so we moved on.

We were slowly starting to feel hungry and a meal followed. We stopped at a local place for a meal of kushary. It is made of Egyptian lentils, rice and macaroni casserole. Served with tomato sauce and some other extra spicy sauce.

It didn't look too promising but surprisingly it was very tasty. I think most of us liked it. One portion of kushary plus half a liter bottle of water costs approximately 1/4 of a Euro. I think two such portions should be enough to take you through the day. 1/2 of a Euro to provide food for a day is a bargain by my standards.

An afternoon walk through the streets of Islamic Cairo was really picturesque. It was a shame we were in a bit of a hurry and there wasn't enough time for some serious photography. Even that couldn't spoil a couple of nice photos.
In the old days big, stone wells were built throughout the city for everyone to have access to fresh drinking water. Nowadays, small plastic water wells (the orange thing on the photo below) can be seen in the middle of busy streets.

When the night fell we had a walk through Khan el Khalili Bazaar. This was one heck of a haggling experience. It felt like we were thrown to the lions.
When time it was time to leave we were already eating those lions. Well we weren't, but it felt like that. I guess in the end we were still not buying stuff at local prices, but maybe sometimes we came close.

After leaving the Bazaar behind, we went to the train station where we caught a night train to Aswan.


Friday 5 October 2007

Goodbye to cockroach roommates (Day 3)

This was one busy day, so I decided to divide it into two posts. Here is the first part.

Our second morning in Cairo started with our luggage being loaded onto the bus waiting in front of the Cosmopolitan hotel. The hotel staff who tried to arrange the luggage loading, failed the simple task completely. After half an hour watching two luggage boys walking up and down the hotel hall and waiting for who knows what, we loaded the stuff ourselves. That was not a problem at all, but a part of the deal at the hotel was also luggage transport to and from our rooms. So our guide wanted it to happen. It was the first real taste of Egyptian (non)efficiency.

During the wait I also observed a light bulb changing procedure on the lobby chandelier. It took 4 people, 3 of which were just standing around philosophizing. I must say the show was quite amusing.

After that we left the worst hotel of our trip behind (along with our little cockroach roommates). And it had 3 stars like all of the further ones. This tells you all you need to know about Egyptian standards.

Most of our day was spent at the Egyptian museum, which houses more than 120.000 relics and antiquities. It is well worth spending at least half a day at this place. Things you don't see in empty pyramid tombs are mostly on display here (along with the famous golden death mask of Tutankhamun).
Roughly one quarter of the museum (half of the first floor) comprises relics from the tomb of Tutankhamun. He is believed to be one of the least significant pharaohs, but his treasure is still unbelievable. One can't even imagine what amount of riches had to accompany the most important of the pharaohs on the journey into the afterlife. Those were all stolen by grave robbers.
You can't take almost anything inside. They even take away your camera - so no photos from inside the museum.

Our next destination was Mosque of Mohammed Ali. A huge fortified building, which took 18 years to build (1830-48). For me this was the first mosque I have seen from the inside. I liked its simple, yet beautiful decoration.

In the central courtyard it houses a chintzy clock. A gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It has never worked (supposedly it was damaged during transport). What a scam!

Next we were up for a surprise. It wasn't even announced in our trip plan, but it sure was interesting...

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