Sunday, January 27, 2008

The curse of Tuthmosis III

The train is already at the platform when we enter the station. A gendarme stops us to ask where we are going. "Luxor". He then directs us to a seat by a smelly toilet. We move down the train and find empty seats on the busy train near the back. Before the train leaves another policeman finds us and asks us to come with him. So we walk back the length of the train until we reach a carriage where the copper tells a man to move. We take the empty seats and the policeman sits near us. Opposite him is another policeman facing the other way. This one is accompanying a Japanese couple. We have been assigned an escort for a three hour train journey. A woman who sits facing us with her daughter and son offers us bananas, bread and cheese. We can't refuse her kindness but have nothing to offer in return.

Luxor is a bit of a crazy town. The first road we walk down is completely dug up for its whole length. This is not an uncommon sight - instead of working on short sections of a road to minimise the inconvenience, the opposite occurs. It looks like there may be three men doing the work - or are they just bored passersby staring endlessly into that trench? Our hotel manager is a smiley jokey man whom we instantly distrust simply for these traits. It rains again and the streets become an obstacle course of mud and puddles. Oh the joy.

Luxor comes from the arabic Al Uqsur which means The Palaces. It was here that the Pharoahs had their capital, Thebes, and where they built great temples for their gods. It is also where most of them were buried in decorated tombs cut out of the rock. We visit the huge temple complex of Karnak which is series of reconstructed courtyards, statues and obelisks. One large room is filled with decorated columns - incredibly impressive and perfect for hide-and-seek. The following day we cross the Nile and hire bikes to visit the Valley of the Kings. In a narrow dry valley are the tombs of many of the kings - the most famous being the last one discovered - Tutankhamun's. We skip this in favour of three others. The tomb of Tuthmosis III ("the Napoloeon of Egypt" apparently - although I wonder what ol' Boney would say about this) has difficult access through an opening cut high up a cliff and then across a deep shaft - to deter tomb robbers and people like Harrison Ford, presumably. His sarcophagus is in-situ, guarded over by a weasly old man in a grubby turban who thrusts a torch inside to illuminate the decoration and thrusts his spare hand out for some baksheesh. (There is a deep-rooted tradition for baksheesh in Egypt. On an earlier trip where we took a minibus with other tourists, the driver asked us for a tip. An old American man said "Yeah, keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble" before jumping off the bus.) We blank him and head off to the tomb of Ramses III . We enter a narrow corridor undergound and admire the scenes painted along the walls and in the alcoves. A coachload of tourists rush past and down to the end, and then double-back. It looks like they haven't seen anything - just going through the motions. We follow them to Ramses I's tomb. He's pulled the biggest crowd - a mixture of Russians and Brits on a day trip from the coast - all boob tubes, silly hats and flip-flops. What would the Pharoahs think? Groovy! judging by their outfits.

We are constantly trying to avoid being overcharged - it's a daily sport which we bemoan, yet we feel no guilt about using fake ISIC cards to pay to enter Egypt's sights. Everything is half price for students. We bought our cards from a shifty restaurant owner in Palmyra, Syria, who was very cloak and dagger about it all, verging on paranoid. He had a small boy in the back room doing the business on a computer. It seems like everyone we met who went there came away with one. Our small investment has finally paid dividends and enabled us to see more than we probably would have otherwise.

The next day I awake with a dodgy stomach and spend the day in close proximity to the toilet. At one point it feels like the Nile is flowing out of me. This is obviously a result of a pharaonic curse, and nothing to do with the moussaka I ate the night before. The following day I take a tablet to bung me up and we hire bikes again to visit the temple of Hatshepsut. This woman became a pharoah whilst some young whippersnapper (Tuthmosis III as it happens) came of age. Apparently her period of rule was a peaceful and prosperous time. Hmmm, may be there's a lesson to be learned here. Afterwards we visit tombs of nobles which are dotted around a village, which was built over them. Their decoration is superb - some painted, others carved in relief. The tomb guards sidle up to offer the opportunity of taking illicit photographs or to descend dark stairwells that are out of bounds. They all have bad teeth and rummy eyes. Down by the Nile the sugar cane is being harvested - lush green fields contrast sharply with the dry rocky hills and the concrete town. We take the boat back across the river one more time and catch a night bus to Cairo. I have a sore backside but not sure whether it's from two days riding a Chinese bicycle or one day sat on a toilet.

Monday, January 21, 2008

La, la, la, la, la, la means....

Our hotel's entrance is on an unsalubrious backstreet, up two flights of stairs. It is shared with the back door of a bank, the National Bank of Egypt, through which there seems to be an inordinate amount of traffic, including men with suitcases, who look like they should be hotel guests, but are probably Up To No Good. Probably symbolic of the country's economy. But our room looks out over the Nile - the best view we've had in ages and for just 7 pounds 50 a night. It is simply wonderful. The river flows down the valley majestically, a green belt through the sand that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean. In ancient times the river would flood with summer rains from further south, and replenish the soil with alluvial silt, providing the fertile ground for the world's first nation state. Nowadays the huge damn regulates the flow all year round, which means more crops can be grown, but without the natural fertiliser. The damn has also displaced the Nubian people living in Upper Egypt, as well as many ancient temples.
It appears the money was spent on rescuing the temples. We visit large temples at Abu Simbel that were carved out of the face of the cliffs beside the river. Incredibly these have been dismantled and rebuilt 65 metres higher, above the level of the huge Lake Nasser. They are imposing structures fronted by huge statues and filled with incredible carved reliefs depicting the power and the glory of Pharoah Ramses II. I am thrilled to see a whole wall showing his battle with the Hittites at Kardesh
in Syria. In Turkey we saw the peace treaty prepared afterwards between the two empires - the first in the world. The temples were built at the southern entrance to Egypt and stood as a sign to all who passed. We then visit another temple complex that was relocated from one submerged island to a higher one that was then remodelled in its original image. The size and scale of the operation is unimaginable, and the results are impressive. The temple was dedicated to Isis and was finally closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian 250 years after the rest of the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity. Whilst other invaders perpetuated rule by Pharaonic dynasty, the Romans finally brought it to an end, after nearly 3000 years. I can't describe the wonder of the monuments or explain the feeling of being at the 'cradle of civilisation' in the Nile basin - today the country seems so distant from its rich heritage. It feels poor and neglected.

There's an interesting ethnic mix to Egypt. The country has been invaded by Libyans, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs and the Egyptians have invaded northern Nubia. Is this an African country or a Middle Eastern one? Probably both. It feels more conservative than the countries we have recently passed through.

La means 'no' in arabic, but it might as well mean 'I love you' for all the effect it has on the touts in Aswan. Like mosquitoes, they are persistent, an irritating buzzing sound in the ear "Felucca ride? Taxi? Caleche? Come and look - anything you want just 5 pounds". As Gayle reminds me when I get annoyed, these guys are only trying to scratch a living from probably the largest source of income there is round here. Sometimes we have a laugh and a joke with them, and often we simply ignore them. There is a smart and clean street through the souk, but it's only full of tourist tat and tatty tourists. The real souk is a collection of sandy streets that come alive in the evening - far more interesting to us. We eat kushari - "Egyptian comfort food" as one friend describes it - a blend of pasta, rice and noodles with a tomato and chilli sauce.
The climate charts in our guidebook tell us it never rains in Aswan. One night, past midnight, we hear cars going past blaring their horns. Outside it's raining.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

One-way ticket to Feluccaville

We take the "fast" ferry to the Sinai coast of Egypt. The journey is short but seems to last the whole day and we arrive in the dive resort of Dahab in the dark. Fortunately there are friends to meet us and the other two backpackers off the bus. "Welcome friend to Egypt, you want taxi? which hotel?" We are surrounded by four lads in hooded tops who herd us into a pick-up truck like sheep. "You need cheap hotel? Only 15 pounds. Come look." "Baa, baa" we bleat, as we hurtle down a road in the pitch dark. Our new friends are not as tough as they look, and drop us off where we want to go, without any further touting. So maybe Egypt is not as bad as they say.....(?)

We spend the next few days relaxing in windy Dahab. Gayle dives and I read in the sunshine whilst our Support Team at home sort out our banking problems (thank you!). It's windy every day but we have a great place to stay (German-run), and there are other travellers to swap information with. AD, who looks like Father Christmas having a well-deserved holiday, gives us the low-down on Egypt and we trade with information on Jordan and Jerusalem. He's heading to Yemen and Gayle is sorely tempted with a diversion. After five days here we realise we haven't seen a single Egyptian woman. The whole place is set up for tourists and beyond the strip of hotels, restaurants and shops there appears to be nothing but desert and the rugged dry mountains of the Sinai. It's soulless, but hassle free.

Our attempts to reach Mount Sinai are easily foiled. We say farewell and head off to catch the bus. There isn't one. "Problem", we are told. "How about tomorrow?" we ask. "Maybe. Ring first." Our friend James came through here before us and hitched for 8 hours when the bus didn't come. We head back to our hotel. After two days of no bus we decide to catch a real bus to Cairo instead. It's a weary day along bleak coastline and under the Suez before finally reaching the Big Smoke - 20 million people they reckon live here, and it looks like they are all out and about when we arrive. Here there is only one rule of the road - survival of the fittest. We are well-trained though, and think nothing of heading across a six-lane road with no break in the traffic - although preferably downstream of a local. We finally find a decent hotel but with a miserable receptionist - a tough call, the man is a git, but we are too tired to resist his charmlessness and we stay. Downown Cairo is bustling with window-shoppers, cruising the streets, admiring the displays of shoes, checked sweaters, saucy underwear, cheap watches. The pavements are crowded with street hawkers specialising in the same things - belts, ties, socks and hats. Men crowd into the cinemas to watch some "hit 'em hard, hit 'em low, shoot 'em up" shlock. There's a juice bar - fantastic.

We visit "Islamic Cairo" - the scruffy old part of the city, full of mosques and madrassas, and a large souq. We walk all day through the busy sreets, and down narrow lanes, dusty dirt roads through poor areas where we witness the only orderly queueing in the whole of Egypt - for the free bread provided by the government. The city has a shabby friendly feel about it. Our favourite place is a large 9th century mosque built with mud brick and timber - it's simple and elegant. The following day we check out the museum - passing through lots of security checks before entering the most dismal building - a 19th century warehouse of dusty pharaonic exhibits. The collection is huge, and poorly displayed, but still fascinating. The contents of Tutankhamun's tomb is the highlight - from the boomerangs to the wig boxes to the sandals to the jewellery. The head mask is an impressive solid 11kg of gold, but was he really cross-eyed?? Wonderful stuff.

Of course, we couldn't leave Cairo without visiting the pyramids at Giza, could we? No. After the crowded one hour bus journey it was a pleasure to be set free amongst the postcard and camel touts. Do we want a horse and carriage? Ha, ha, of course not. We had met one couple (street performers, juggling on a unicycle - at least that's what they said) who got suckered for a 35 quid pony ride around. Just when we think we've escaped the touts one more turbaned man approaches out of nowhere. After only 15 minutes a policeman tries to stop us wandering off - pointing at his watch telling us the site is now closed. Its only 4 o'clock so we ignore him. It is a strange feeling - visiting these monuments that are so familiar, so famous. Close up they are quite enormous impressive structures and from a distance, standing in line on a plateau above the river, they seem so dramatic and alien. The sun is setting and we wait for the light to change. The place is suddenly deserted and peaceful Finally another policeman asks us to leave - he is surprised to see us. It's after 5 and everyone, even the touts, have gone home.Later on we take the night train to Aswan in Upper Egypt. In the morning we can see lush fields and palm groves on one side of the train and barren desert on the other. Aswan feels very small-town after Cairo and quiet. Our first walk along the Nile inspires a rush of touts, like mosquitoes sensing fresh blood, offering to take us on a felucca ride. The river is full of these small sailing boats, zig-zaggin up and down the river - they are a trademark symbol of the Nile.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Indiana Jones & the busloads of tourists

News Year Eve, and we are in Madaba, Jordan. We have seen the sights and eaten our regulation houmous, fuul and falafel. The highlight is undoubtedly the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church depicting the Christian world as it was then known. Sadly not all of it survives, but bang in the middle is Jerusalem. We agree it will be the last mosaic we travel to see. Madaba is a quiet little town, with a large number of christians - indicated by the large number of beer shops. We are staying in the Pilgrim's House - which is less ascetic than it sounds - or so we thought until the heating fails to come on in the evening. There's also no hot water. But the satellite TV does work, so we can huddle around this and tune in to Al Jazeera or BBC World or God TV if we wish. The streets are empty and there's nothing else to do. Eventually we find someone who can give us a heater and we celebrate the New Year with a very long card game and a can of beer in bed. How bacchanalian. Suddenly there are fireworks and firecrackers and people in the streets, but it all dies down too quickly.

I am struggling to like Jordan. The travelling is difficult and the tourist infrastructure is geared up for coach parties or fast-spending people on short holidays who do short tours. We never pay the same price for a cup of tea. It gets to the point where we ask the price of each individual element of a meal before ordering, and even then we get overcharged. At this point we offer what we think is the correct price and the man usually shrugs and says "Fine, no problem". We take a bus to Wadi Musa with Kenny and Kingri, two Singaporean students studying at Cambridge. They have been to Iran and we ask them about the food there. "Famine" is the reply. Apparently it can be hard to find a restaurant open. Jordan starts to look opulent.

Wadi Musa is the village at the head of a dry valley that descends through the hills down to the great African/Syria divide. In these red sandstone hills were built the pre-Roman city of Petra, made famous by Harrison Ford et al. It is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the usual tourist circus that this entails. Bus loads and bus loads. However, there are only a small number of visitors staying in Wadi Musa - goodness knows where the rest come from. We spend a couple of days wandering around the fabulous dramatic rocky dry landscape, joining the hoards at the main sites, and avoiding them on the high climbs above them all. Our favourite walk leads us down a dry canyon full of affluvial debris metres high. It finally narrows into smooth winding rock walls - giving us the sensation of being the flood waters that have shaped the route, taking 90 degree turns then twisting the opposite direction, finally falling out into a wide sun-drenched valley.
We end our days in Jordan at Aqaba, on the Red Sea, and while Gayle does a couple of dives I discover that our bank has stopped our cards. I try to earn some falafel money juggling at traffic lights, but give up after too many close shaves with bemused and beserk taxi drivers.