Tuesday 15 Dec 09
0230hrs: Phone alarm goes off only a short while after I’d finally drifted off to sleep. Andy still sitting up. He’d waited up to make sure I wouldn’t miss my bus and has been trying to get grib files for a weather forecast for when we leave Hurghada. Hasn’t been having much success. Makes me a quick cup of tea. There’s no milk so he uses lemon in the style that he favours. Hits the spot admirably. Very appreciative of this gesture.
0315hrs: Quite cold standing at the front gate waiting for the bus, but luckily I’d put on a thermal singlet underneath in anticipation. Minibus turns up and I’m the only passenger. Head south along the main road turning into various resorts and collecting other people. Nearly all of them Russian except for two British women travelling together. Both are probably in their early thirties. One is a first generation English lady with Indian parents. The other is plump with short blond spiky hair and facial piercings sporting an ample bosom with the words I’M SPECIAL across the front.
Lots of new developments everywhere. New resorts are operating with paying guests right in among several unfinished buildings.
0430hrs: Arrive at a bus terminal and change into one of the larger buses for the trip to Luxor. It’s comfortable enough except for the wobbly wheel at the back but it’s not too noticeable once the driver gets some speed up. The bus doesn’t have any heating. Maybe it’s died from underuse, or the driver has forgotten to switch it on but by dawn I’m wishing I’d had a blanket. Once dawn begins to light up the country I can see extensive agriculture fields. Most plots look small.
Morning: Meet an English speaking guide in Luxor with a wide smile who calls himself Cassanova. Now it’s not that I think I’m a particularly expert romantic kind of guy but I don’t really think this bloke could sweep women off their feet like his namesake. He’s wearing one of those trendy white smocks popular with the everyday Muslim set, and a white turban wrapped around the head with a tail hanging rakishly over his left shoulder. Just the thing to turn a girl’s head I suppose.
I wonder if it’s his real name. No nonsense sort of man. He happens to be the tour leader in charge of everybody including the Russians, who have their own Russian speaking guide. That one is a fairly arrogant type of individual perhaps in keeping with the customers. I suppose it’s with a touch of dislike that I note he has a long set of curly eye lashes that have no place belonging on a bloke.
Casanova identifies everyone by their various accommodations. In my case I’m simply “Marina” but he calls the two Brit girls “Habibi”. I’m told it means “sweetie” which doesn’t really sound like a hotel but maybe this is how he gets the girls in. We get packed into a minibus and head straight for Karnak Temple.
Karnak is a vast open air museum. Entry cost is £65 and located in the ancient city of Thebes, now the modern city of Luxor. It comprises a number of different temples built over time with approximately 30 Pharaohs contributing.
Make no doubt. This is the second largest ancient religious site in the world after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The original site area was roughly a mile by two miles and was the
The most spectacular building is the Temple of Amun with an entry via the
Casanova is a man on a mission. Rush, rush, rush. Regular calls throughout the day for Marina or Habibi as one of us falls a bit behind to look at something a bit closely or take a photo. Despite the detail he goes into I can’t understand what he’s saying most of the time anyway. Did manage to figure out that all those guts he keeps referring to are actually Gods. I just wish he wouldn’t keep asking his own questions like, “Why did he kill his own stepmother?” Sometimes I don’t even understand the question and become lost while he drones answering himself.
After allowing time to wander about on our own for about half an hour we’re herded back into the minibus to drive back to the Nile River. No commentary about anything we’re driving past. Am quickly finding it’s necessary to know all about what you are going to see before you go on any tour, because the guides in a number of ways just aren’t going to be much use.
With not much else to do as we drive through the country I try to envision what a funeral procession might have looked like as it made its way across these same agricultural fields so long ago to the Valley of the Kings or to the Valley of the Queens.
We find ourselves directed onto gaily coloured ferries which are small aluminium boats of about 25 feet with tattered canopies, chipped paint and with bench seating along the sides. Set out across the rive under outboard motor power to the West Bank where we board a different minibus.
Colossi of Memnos
No entry cost. Pull up at two large statues which turn out to be called the Colossi of Memnos. Casanova takes off somewhere with the two Brits leaving me with the Russian guide who doesn’t tell me much. Probably trained by the Egyptians. Though he does deign to give me a quick explanation to the order of a couple of minutes, which had taken him the best part of about 10 minutes explanation to the Russians. Maybe it takes a long time to get to the point when speaking Russian. Among some of the bits of information he tells me that I manage to understand, is that the left statue is of Queen Nefertiti. I accept that because I know no better but later find that’s incorrect.
The statues were sculpted out of large quartzite sandstone 3,500 years ago of
Hang around waiting, waiting, waiting. Locals sitting at roadside stalls calling and trying to get people over to buy their crappy stuff, the same kind you find everywhere you go.
Entry cost nothing. Our minibus eventually turns up about 45 minutes or so later. The usual pack and squeeze and off we go. After a while we stop at a place with several brightly coloured shops nearly all proclaiming to be an alabaster factory. They show us how pottery used to be made by hand using stones and simple iron tools. They also sculpt onyx, basalt, granite and a phospher rock that glows in the dark and is very expensive. Three small palm sized fish sculptures are priced at USD $35 – best price.
Outside, one of the workers who had been demonstrating how the rough alabaster used to be chiselled with a spike hammer picks up a piece of rough alabaster rock. Tries to pull a sale job on me. There’s a bloody great pile of the stuff thrown into a discard heap just metres away. Local children aged 8 to 10 years are out hustling cheap plaster cast statuettes. Some of the younger, more stupid Russians start bargaining with them and the price drops right down to as low as £1 – about 20 cents. I wonder if the buyer’s think they’re getting a bargain.
The children are also quick to pose for photos and do stupid antics in return for a little baksheesh, which is forthcoming from the older Russian women who I guess must be as thick as they think it’s cute.
Stand around in the sun waiting for Casanova to return. The Russian guide is having tea and a chat inside the shop. Our original minibus arrives instead, but the driver just gets out and goes inside one of the shops for tea and a chat as well. No chairs or shade so we all sit in the minibus until Casanova reappears from somewhere with the two Brit girls. We now wait while they are put through the money squeeze as well. Casanova joins the local tea and chat party. Children hang around the windows of the minibus still trying to flog off their own little plaster-cast “antiques” and telling us we should buy now because the shops have “crazy prices”.
1200hrs: Finally underway again. There have been no refreshments all morning and limited opportunity to buy any. Off to the Valley of the Kings where Casanova takes off again with the two Brits and tells me to go with the Russian … again. I had thought I was to go to the Valley of the Kings but he insists that I’m down for the Valley of the Queens instead. This is starting to get a bit irritating. Am wishing now I’d insisted on a printed itinerary. Over to the Valley of the Queens with the Russians who are unusually quiet. Perhaps they’d been brow-beaten again by their guide not to ask questions.
Valley of the Queens
The Valley of the Queens is located on the West Bank of the Nile River opposite the city of Luxor. There are between 75 and 80 tombs. Entry cost £35.
On arrival the Russian guide gives everybody a chat, gesturing everywhere with many attendant eyes following his every move. Not understanding a word I take the time to look around. I see a kind of bare dirt mountain valley with a dirt roadway leading up to a number of cement-bordered holes in the hills. All around are many more cement-bordered holes in the ground with steel mesh grills to prevent access. These are all tomb entrances apparently.
Everyone starts to move off leaving me standing there wondering what’s happening. The Russian guide gives me a quick spiel most of which I don’t understand, points out where I should go. He then takes off to talk with someone back down at the entrance gate. Being unusually smart I work out that I’m to go “There, there and then there … 1, 2, 3”.
A notice board with some useful information stands near the main gate containing instructions that camera’s are to be left back in the bus please. And apparently I can’t visit the Tomb of Nefertiti because it’s a controlled environmental thing. She was one of five wives of Ramessus II but seems to be the most famous. Set off up the path of the hill for the three other tombs.
The Tomb of Queen Tyti is believed to have been the wife of Ramessus III and may also have been his daughter. She might also have been the mother of Ramessus IV. The other two tombs belong to different princes, the sons Ramessus III. The latter son was Prince Amenhikhopeshef and his tomb is amongst the best preserved in Egypt. He was about 9 years old when he died. A premature baby was found in that tomb as well. This belonged to the Princes’ mother who apparently aborted when she heard about the Prince’s death so they put them both into the same tomb.
Mostly the tombs consist of a corridor with a couple of side rooms and a burial chamber. All the walls have hieroglyph paintings and symbols. All the tombs are much the same sort of thing, except for the
Find myself waiting with the Russians again at the front gate for our driver to return. When he does we squeeze ourselves back into the bus and tour around until we finish up at the Valley of the Kings. Casanova appears with the two Brit girls in tow.
1315hrs: Head back to the Nile River, board another ferry and motor across the river. Make a landing underneath the Maro Restaurant. Buffet meal with selection of hot or cold dishes, deserts and even gelato ice cream but you have to buy the coffee if you want some. Can’t complain about this. It’s all good quality food. The sort of appreciation you have when you are starving or thirsty in a desert.
1400hrs: Calls of “Marina” echo around the restaurant as I’m trying to take a photograph of a felucca on the river below a balcony. Am fed up with this rush, rush business. I keep bawling back “Casanova” until he comes hurrying back. I say, “G’day”, give him my sweetest smile then head up the stairs to the road above. The Brits and I are now handed to yet another guide who places us in a taxi and takes us to the Morris Hotel. It’s the end of the tour and this is where the two girls will be staying tonight. My new mate tells me to please wait in the lounge.
Some minutes later he returns after getting the girls booked in. Tells me I’ll be picked up at 5pm to be taken to the train station. All that rushing and now I’ve got a three hours to fill in. My man suggests maybe I could do something? … Maybe the Temple of Luxor, Museum of Mummification? … ahhh all is now revealed. You see if you can rush everybody and get rid of them early you might be able to squeeze a few more dollars more with something else. You have to have a grudging admiration at their persistency in trying to wring an extra dollar or two out of you.
With nothing better to do a deal is struck to visit these two places with transport and an English speaking guide for £150 but I’ll have to pay the entry fees. Away we go.
Down at the river are scores of idle felucca’s waiting for customers. Lots of Arabic chatting when I show up until one is selected and I climb aboard to meet a young man named Mohammed and a teenager whose name I don’t catch because it’s different to Mohammed. I guess I’m just used to everybody being called Mohammed. In short order they work the boat along the side of a large metal cruise boat with steep sides until they find clear air, then steer the boat out into the river as the sails fill reluctantly with a soft breeze.
The tide is strong, running probably up to two knots out in the middle. Our boys take the boat over to the other side of the Nile working our way upstream. We travel so close to the bank that occasionally the younger chap has to jump over the side to push us off. My first thought is for crocodiles but I’m told there’s none left here. They’re all above the Aswan Dam in Lake Nasser. Having light winds is good though because as a sailor myself, I get to watch how they work the lateen sail rig. It’s heavy work.
Mohammed the Sailor tells me he’s 19 years old and started working on this boat when he was 10 years old. The owner has three other boats and pays him £300 a month, so he has to rely on tourists to bump up his take home pay. During his younger years he used to go down to the boat after school and during holidays to help make more money for his family. Some day he hopes to own his own boat. I get the feeling it’s going to be a long wait for him.
The boys put the boat around to head back downstream and drop the centreboard. The sail immediately fills sending us scooting along roughly four or five knots with the help of the current. They obviously know what they are doing and we get back to our departure point just a little after four pm. The lad throws the anchor but it doesn’t catch so Mohammed has a go at it. Once we’re securely pinned to the river bottom they get busy to lash up the sails. Mohammed strips off his jeans to shorts and starts scaling first the mast, then the boom reaching high up above so as to roll, wrap and tie the sail to the boom. Takes him about 10 minutes. Mohammed is a great host and asks me to please take another cup of tea with them. I accept the offer and the lad gets busy making it. Unfortunately I now have to rush the tea and meet my driver to take me to the railway station.
I am so impressed with young Mohammed the Sailor. He’s a genuine young man, very polite who tried hard to make sure I enjoyed the ride. Slip him £50 when I shake his hand goodbye which is the largest tip I think I’ve ever given anyone. There was no doubt he sincerely appreciated it. I only hope it helps him to one day to find his dream and I came away with the interesting experience of having sailed on the Nile River on a felucca.
It’s 4:35 pm. There’s my guide with a taxi and we start out for the train station. On the way as I look around, it seems to me that Luxor is probably the cleanest place I’ve seen so far. Streets are neat and mostly swept. Gardens look fairly well tended. Footpaths not too badly torn up. Looked at the city with a fresh set of eyes because I’d learned something from the two Brit girls. They’d been told that builders in Egypt only build and sell the shells of buildings. New owners can then finish the building to their own final designs and taste. I suppose there’s some merit in seeing the building half finished in Egypt. At least you can see how well it’s built, I mean whether it is likely to fall down in the first breeze or stay up a bit longer.
1700hrs: On arrival at the train station my man buys my train ticket for Car 1, Seat 2 in First Class right up the front of the train. Tells me the train is leaving at 5:50 pm. With time to kill I wander across the road to a cafe. Ask for a Nescafe and directions to the WC. Stinky in there, and I do mean stinky. Try to hold my breath but I’m simply busting so have to take a breath in little gasps. Come out and have my coffee. A shoe polisher comes along so give him the job for £5 – I mean I’m rich right? Sip the coffee and watch the multitude of Police standing around watching other people. Some more of them around the side and down the street. See at least one of them in plain clothes being totally unsuccessful in being inconspicuous.
At the railway station am able to work out which platform to take to Aswan. A sign on the stairs tells me but I don’t know which side of the platform. The notice board is all in Arabic and the times seem to be about five hours out of whack, but whether ahead or behind I can’t work out. Finally meet a man who can speak English who tells me which side and which direction the train will come from. Settle down to read a book.
1830hrs: Train arrives. Look for Car 1 but there’s no seat 2. A seated man holds his hand out for my ticket, reads it then points back along the train. Walk back and find another man who holds his hand out for my ticket. Motions me to follow and heads back up the train past the first man then point out seat 22. Doesn’t appear to be too many passengers anyway. Take a look around. Worn carpet on the floor. Fabric on seats not too bad. There’s a sense of things being dusty but the outside of the train is a definite reality. Filthy would be a better word.
1850hrs: Train moves off only 50 minutes late. Conductor comes around, looks at my ticket, hands it back without a word and moves on. Other people come on board, some giving me a curious look. Too tired to worry about them or anything else so settle down to try and get a bit of sleep. Besides it’s pitch black outside anyway. A waiter comes around trying to sell me a small tray of something. I decline. It’s the last I see of him. Wish I had brought some water. The trip itself is uneventful with several stops. Some of them apparently in the middle of nowhere. Manage to snatch little bits of sleep.
MORE TO FOLLOW