Aswan, Egypt



map 14 Red Sea
Map: With location of Aswan on the Nile River

2200hrs: Arrive Aswan. Most passengers already lined up in the doorway. Porter comes up to sit beside me. Indicates on the quiet that he wants baksheesh … No. Indicates again … No. Indicates…. Ignore him and he goes away.

Step off onto the platform to see a tall, casually dressed young man holding a piece of paper with RUSS written upside down. I can somehow just tell that must be my contact. His eyes fix on me because I’m the only westerner on the train. Introduces himself. His name is Mahmood. He’s polite but not given to talking, simply saying, “Welcome to Aswan”, and “Please follow me Mister Russ”.

We set off on foot outside the station and down the street. No car? Where we going? But we only go about 150 metres or so to a fairly nice looking hotel called the Nuba Nile Hotel. Mahmood sits me at a table where I fill in some paperwork and he gets me booked in. The restaurant is of course closed. Order a chicken wrap and a can of coke to be taken to my room.

The room is spacious. Double room. Has hot water, toilet paper and towels even if they are just the length of one arm. Furniture in good nick. Well painted. Bed quilts, sheets and blankets look clean. The food arrives and I pay the man. No booking up here apparently. Only one TV channel in Arabic so turn it off. Constant noise like water bubbling coming from the refrigerator so turn it off too. Have a shower and get into bed to be entertained by Egyptian yodelling through the wall in the next room for an hour or so before finally falling asleep.

Wednesday 16 Dec 09

0830hrs: Breakfast. One large bowl of cereal available plus milk and sugar. Mostly small meats, salads, cheese and bread. Even some butter and jam. Hot coffee and tea. Lovely hot, strong, unsweetened tea. Collect my gear to clear out. Nothing to pay at Reception.

0920: Still considering whether to get onto the internet to check out the sights of Aswan when my guide appears. He’s 40 minutes early and introduces himself as … Mohammed. Mohammed the Guide II is of average size for an Egyptian but with balding head. He’s friendly, very business like, seems to know his job which you can tell he’s learned his patter off by rote.

His brief consists of reciting facts but with some added emphasis here and there. That’s okay but I wonder if I should take notes or something. At least I can pretty  much understand him so I don’t interrupt for fear he may have to go back to the beginning.  In any case he’s probably speaking the clearest English of any Egyptian that I’ve met so far. I was to learn throughout the day he has a PhD which was earned by translating one section of a wall in the Karnak Temple. It took him 5 years.

Mohammed leads me outside to a black limousine and introduces me to the driver. The vehicle has a worn but luxurious interior with black curtains pulled aside on the inside of the back window. Settle in and away we go. Mohammed starts giving me a bit of commentary, pointing out places of interest as we pass through the city which is a welcome change from yesterday’s guide.

Unfinished Obelisk

Our first call is to the Unfinished Obelisk.  Entry cost £30. Mohammed pauses on a large flag-stoned area in front of a small hill of granite. He picks up a small stone to draw diagrams on the flagstones and gives me a bit of history about this place, then some detail in particular about the Unfinished Obelisk. He points out the path to take and gives me a time to meet him back at the front gate.

260 quarryLeft: Ancient granite quarry site.  All obelisk’s in Egypt were carved from the rock here.

The obelisk itself had been hand carved out of the bare rock just using other stones and basic hand tools. Marks from workers tools are still clearly visible. The shape of it can be clearly seen with three sides completed but without any excavation underneath.  If it had been finished it would have been one third larger than any other obelisk ever erected, measuring 42 metres and weighing over 1,200 tones. Apparently it was abandoned after cracks were found in the granite.

261 unfinished obelisk 262 the tools
the obelisk was carved out of the bedrock on three sides using rocks to scape enough access to starting using hand chisels to shape it, before a crack was found and it was abandoned black rocks like these were used to scrape away the sandstone before the object could be shaped by hand chisels

I wander further along the path after climbing some rough wooden stairs and rocks around and above the obelisk. A Police security guard yells at me when I move past a rope barrier to take a photo.  I yell back at him but hopefully in a jocular manner. He grins and motions me to come closer, then indicates I should follow him somewhere.

We walk along the path for a little way. He keeps saying, “Shortcut” and soon steps over a rope barrier, heading for another cluster of rocks which was obviously another attempt by the ancients to create an obelisk.

This one is much shorter than the first and its top surface is badly damaged as if someone had taken to it with a sledge hammer reducing it to a lot of rubble. However the sides have been excavated and a little stone walkway has been scraped and chiselled to give access all around. The guy takes me around the back to show me how the ancients had been scraping away underneath for about 30cm or so trying to remove the obelisk from its grip in the bare rock.

He points some things out speaking in a staged whisper although there’s no one within cooee distance and the radio on his belt keeps blaring out. He’s acting as if he’s taking a terrible risk by taking me here.

I take some photos and make to move away thanking the guy and offering him £10. I know that’s pretty generous of me but I’d got some good shots. There’s a pained expression on his face. Momentarily forgetting all previous experiences and where I was, I immediately think that maybe I shouldn’t have offered him this bribe. Take the £10 back off him and apologise. Silly me … there’s an even more pained experience so I realise my error and give the money back to him.

Now there’s much shaking of his head accompanied by accentuated tsk, tsk’s.
“No entry here …” he says with suitable unhappy looks.

I think I’m going to have to sign him the deed to my house to make him happy here.
Give him another £10 but this only changes the pained look to something closer to exasperation or annoyance?   Walk off leaving him there.

264 sarcophagus 265 ancient writing
Basic outline of a statue begins to emerge out of the rock centre photo Hieroglyphic writing in one of the granite pits

At the end of the pathway are several shops selling the usual cheap junk. Each shop owner in turn welcomes me to Egypt and tries to get me to look at their particular collection of stuff which is pretty much the same as thousands of other little shops in Egypt.  If none of that is your style there is a final shop selling drinks and packet ice-creams, the kind on sticks. Just keep walking.

Meet Mohammed back at the gate and return to the limo and we set off to Aswan Dam. My new “friend” now forgets about me and starts having an expressive chat with the driver. This sets the standard for the rest of the day while driving around Aswan.

Aswan Dam

Entry cost £20. There are two dams at Aswan. The High Dam and the Old Dam. The Old Dam was completed in 1902 and has a causeway across it. The High Dam was completed in 1970 with Russian assistance. The two dams are now used among other things to control the annual flooding of the Nile River. There are two lakes as a consequence of both dams and one of them is in between the dams. Lake Nasser is supposedly the largest artificial lake in the world so they claim. It’s 550 km long and 35 km at its widest. There are Nile crocodiles in Lake Nasser and in the Nile River upstream, but there are no longer any in the lower reaches. The Nile crocs are freshwater crocs but I understand they can be aggressive, having been known to attack and kill humans.

At the lookout Mohammed points out items of interest and gives me more facts and figures. He tells me that all up the hydro-electric plant has 12 turbines collectively producing over two Gigawatts of power for the whole of Egypt. 11,000 cubic metres of water pass through the dam every second. The scheme was supposed to encourage the establishing of industry here. Maybe it did … or didn’t.

Right: Lookout over Lake Nasser at Aswan Dam.266 lookout

He wanders off somewhere while I take a look about. Spend about 10 minutes or so rubber-necking and return to the limo with a can of coke for each of us. You’d have thought I was giving Mohammed a gold necklace. But I was to find the man is un-buyable as he resumes his sometimes agitated conversation with the driver after telling me we are now going to the Philae Temple. He seems very definite at times only to be met on occasions with, “la,la,la,la,la,la ….” from the driver which I think is equivalent to “no,no,no!”.

Philae Temple

267 templeLeft: Philae Temple was perhaps the most sacred place in the old Egyption religion.

It was dedicated to the goddess Isis and is believed to belong to the period between 4th century BC and the start of the 4th century AD.  Entry cost £50. The temple is still being reconstructed on an island in Lake Nasser between the High and Old Dams. It had been covered with water when the High Dam was built but was subsequently excavated by cutting it up into numbered pieces like a huge jigsaw and reassembling on the nearby island.

Down at the Nile River my man talks to a cluster of boat men whose job it is to take tourists out to the temple. There must be dozens of these little tinnies at the landing point all about 18 feet or so, gaily coloured with tatty canopies just like the Nile ferries. Dozens and dozens more are lined up further out. Am led to one in which a big, unsmiling, coal black Nubian guy is seated in front of an outboard motor with no cover on it. He’s wearing one of the usual off-white or dirty smocks with a scarf which alternates as a turban thing. I wonder briefly if the motor will start.

Right: Nubian boat driver.268 nubian

Once seated the Nubian starts to clatter and bang his boat out from among the cluster amid voluble protests from the other boatmen around. Just as well the tinny is made of thick aluminium. He now turns his attention to the motor and gets it started on the first pull, using a length of cord wrapped around the head of the motor.  It erupts into a cloud of blue smoke which rapidly clears away and we move out into the lake towards the little island on which the Philae Temple was rebuilt.

On the way Mohammed quietly explains the tipping system here, £10-15 for the boat man and £15-20 for the limo driver. Politely doesn’t mention himself, but obviously he’ll be looking for something more substantial. Steep tipping all things considered.  I would guess that kind of money would go a long way for a local Egyptian, but at least he points out various items of interest before landing.

Once on the island he takes me into a room which was once the most holy room in the place where the priest standing in the darkness inside could look out at everybody outside in the light, but he would remain invisible inside in the darkness.  Mohammed arranges to meet me at the coffee shop at midday and again toddles off, probably to speak to our driver again over coffee or something.

This is really an impressive place with massive walls covered in hieroglyphs and relief sculptures. Every wall, every column, every surface is covered in carved symbols or writing. At some point in the past the temple had been taken over by Coptic Monks. They’d been so offended by the carvings and representations of Egyptian Gods that they started defacing them. They didn’t get to all of them but the damage they did do is plain to see.

The monks had even stabled animals in the most holy area of the temple including putting carving rings directly into the walls to which they could tether their animals. Maltese crosses can be seen in places carved into the temple walls and columns, and there’s even an altar with an alcove above it for offerings. Finally, among all the other ruination is graffiti in the form of French writing on the walls engraved by Napoleon’s soldiers during his era of occupation.

269 philae 270 philae
inside the temple hieroglyphs cover much of the walls
271 philae 272 philae
the most holy of rooms showing ring bolts carved into the rock by christian monks to tether animals beautiful columns and wall murals carved into the wall
273 philae 274 philae
in the grounds of the temple complex pieces of stone still to be assembled
275 philae  


Left: a christian maltese cross carved into one of the doorways alongside ancient hieroglyhphs

Am sufficiently “templed out” so wander over to the coffee area which is just a collection of small huts under big shady trees. Mohammed is there talking to friends. He makes to come over but I indicate he should stay with his friends and order a coffee. It doesn’t arrive. A new discovery. If you’re with a tour guide you get served. If you’re on your own forget it.

Take a look at the various junk stuff on sale and then front the counter to at least buy an ice cream on a stick. Give them £100. That’s in spiteful retaliation for ignoring me but they don’t seem to have much trouble cashing it. Anyway, I need the change for the tips I’m yet to pay. Lots of tourists are wandering around and it’s fairly warm so I guess they must be doing a brisk business anyway, even if there are only a couple of people here right now.

Back to the boat, climb on board and return to the boat landing. Slip the Nubian guy his tip who judging by his smooth, unlined face has probably never smiled in his life but manages a quiet, “Thank you”. Step ashore, back into the limo.

1230hrs: Mohammed leaves me back at the Nuba Nile Hotel. I’m to be picked up at 1400hrs by my old mate Mahmood from last night and taken to the Bus Depot. I’ve got an hour and a half to kill so decide to take a walk. Wander along the tree lined esplanade facing the Nile River, stopping at times to watch the felucca boats. The wind’s up today and they’re charging downriver, turning about and tacking back upriver.

Am approached by all kinds of differently dressed men, every one of them polite and enquiring but all trying to drum up some business for themselves. One with a briefcase even offers me a single room for the night for £15. Must have been a goodie. On the way back to the hotel I stand aside for a short and fat woman wearing a brown burka. She’s only as tall as my chest and waddles from side to side rolling like a boat going over a wave, passing unnecessarily close and touching me as she works her way around me. Roll and touch. Roll and touch.

276 aswan 277 aswan
street view – Aswan street view – Aswan
278 aswan 279 aswan
felucca’s on the Nile River – Aswan multiple style dwelling – have to wonder who lives at the top levels

1430hrs: Mahmood picks me up in a yellow private car and takes me out to the bus station. Tells me the bus will leave at 1500hrs. Settle down to wait at the cafe next to the bus station and order a Nescafe for each of us. Waiting, waiting. Find out that one of the staff has had to go somewhere to get two sachets of Nescafe coffee.

An old man in a dirty dark brown smock, a week’s growth of grey beard and a filthy turban comes up with his hand out silently asking for baksheesh. Shake my head. He stands there silently talking to himself and moving his hands about, then moves off into the bus lanes striking odd poses and with his mouth still silently working all the while. Poor man. He comes back after a while and picks up my empty coffee glass and tries to drain any dregs of coffee. Mahmood gives him a glass of water which he gulps down thirstily, spilling most of it down the front of his smock, on the table and over my backpack.

1510hrs: Mahmood points out the bus I’ll be leaving on. Try to tell him he doesn’t have to wait but he doesn’t seem to understand. Tells me he’s working so I let him be. Another bus arrives and the driver gets out and disappears somewhere. Mahmood tells me he’s going off to drink tea. Another elderly portly man who has been wandering around for the past hour trying to cadge money climbs aboard. There’s no one in there so he comes back out again. Someone slaps him on the head sending his turban askew.

Eventually the driver returns and Mahmood leads me towards it. Am a bit confused. He’d told me the other bus was going to Hurghada. This new bus is supposed to be going to Cairo? A Spanish man is also confused. He wants to get to Cairo and had been told the other bus was going there. But all is well. This bus is going first to Hurghada via Luxor then on to Cairo. That is assuming the balding and badly pockmarked rear tyre holds out.

Mahmood points out on the ticket that I have seat number 11.  Climb onboard. An approximately middle aged dumpy Egyptian woman sits herself down in Seat 11. She looks at me quizzically with startling green eyes and pencil thin eyebrows as I draw next to her. Sit myself down in the opposite aisle. I don’t think they pay that much attention to seat numbering as long as there is a seat. In a little while a youngish Egyptian man joins her assuming a lovey-dovey attitude, whereupon the woman adopts an almost permanently pained expression from then on. Would love to know the story going on there.

1540hrs: The bus leaves the station. A man in civilian clothes carrying a little box comes around checking tickets. Says nothing about Seat 11. Apart from me as a foreigner there is the Spaniard and a Brit guy. Apparently no more than five foreigners can catch the same bus because it’s a security thing. Any more than that and a Police escort has to come along as well. Decide to try and stay awake at least until it gets dark. It’s going to be a long night. Stare outside at the passing scenery as we travel along the Nile River. Lots of tall grass, thick clusters of date palms, cultivated fields, mud brick houses in various states of disrepair and regular military check points.

280 nile river 281 locals
cruise ship sailing on the
Nile River
two men sit chatting near the end of the day at an unknown town north of Aswan

1620hrs: Stop at an unknown town for 10 minutes. Manage to buy a small can of coke and a small bottle of cold water.

1840hrs: Stop at a rest stop beside the road near the village or town or city of Esna. Not much here at this stop for food and drinks except for the usual wafer biscuits and packets of chips snacks. There is a rough roof sitting on top of timber poles, no walls and an uneven dirt floor. A man at a table at the rear is selling cups of sweetened hot tea. Look at the toilet off to one side but am not game enough to go in there so walk across the road behind a derelict hut for a piddle.

Back at the rest stop there are several freshly made amphorae’s lined up among the rubbish and clutter lining the road. Earlier beside the road I had seen what I’d assumed to be a small bus shelter except that the bench seat had holes cut in it. They had looked like the sort of toilet where a bin was placed below the hole … but surely not. It wasn’t private enough and sitting right beside the road! Had been kind of curious about that.   Now I understood. The amphora jars are still used to this day as water jugs and they get placed into the holes of the benches to hold them upright.  The water is then available to anyone passing by.

This one here is a larger system with each large jug having a lid. A single cup stands on top of one of the lids and people at intervals come along, remove a lid, dip the cup and take a drink. A very good way to earn a dose of volcanic diahorrea if ever there is one.

282 amphoras 283 drinking spot
amphora’s still being used as a way to store water at a rest stop
between Aswan and Luxor
free water from communal water jars – just help yourself to some projective diahorrea at Esna, Egypt

On the way again. It’s dark outside and a colour movie starts playing from a VHS cassette tape player and flickering on a TV screen mounted up the front. The picture suffers badly from white noise lines, is very jerky and loud. Finally the plot settles down into some kind of melodrama involving mostly shouting, shooting and bloodshed. In between these activities on the screen, a bratty and whinging three year old throws little tantrums and even manages occasionally to sob convincingly at a volume to compare with the movie. Nothing to see outside except when the bus pulls up at the numerous check points.

The movie stops and another is put on. This one is obviously a parody of a James Bond type of film. Although it’s meant to be an Arabic comedy it also involves mostly shouting and lots of shooting, killing people and bloodshed.

2145hrs: Stop at the village of Qena. Loud shouting starts up in the aisle of the bus and a man is being ushered off. A young Egyptian lad tells us the fellow was a friend of the driver and had been demanding a free seat. Stretch the legs for a bit outside though it’s very cold now.

2215hrs. Reach Safaga on the Red Sea coast to the south of Hurghada. Only stop long enough for people to get off and retrieve their luggage.

Midnight: Finally reach El Gouna Bus Depot. I don’t recognise it having not seen it before so wonder where I am for a moment. Apparently I’ve got to get off here. A sign says El Gouna but I still don’t know how far it is to Sekala. Find a taxi who offers to take me for £25 – no problem. There are two guys in the taxi and they take to right to the front gate of the marina – no problem.

Walk down to the boat to find it all in darkness. Roger and Andy are asleep. Creep inside and enormously relieved, climb into bed.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s