Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mount Sinai, Egypt

The Sinai desert.

Our 4th day in Dahab was a painful planning day. We wanted to head up to Mt. Sinai (7497 ft) and then come back down, take a ferry from Sharm el-Sheikh to Hurgada, and then bike to Luxor and Aswan. Unfortunately, the ferry had been requisitioned to help transport Muslims across the Red Sea on their way to Mecca for Hajj. Our only option was to take an overnight bus or taxi to Luxor. We assumed a taxi would be expensive and tried the bus. It was full because it was the Egyptian holiday of Eid. Our smooth talking hostel owner told us that he could get us a ride up to Mt. Sinai and when we got back, he would have a way to get us to Luxor, either by bus or by bus to Cairo and then train to Luxor. It was all becoming a big headache and I just wanted to bike across the Sinai to Cairo and call the trip good.

This is more like the Sinai Desert that I expected.

Saint Catherine's valley.

We took the afternoon ride to Mount Sinai. It took us back through the stunning valley to the north of Dahab that we had biked at dusk. It was great to see it in better lighting. The entire drive up to Saint Catherine's monastery and Mount Sinai was fantastic. I would have loved to have biked it. Betty regretted not biking it too because the big uphill that we were expecting wasn't there. It was just a long slow incline.

A close up of Saint Catherine's monastery.

One of our hiking partners on the way up Mt. Sinai

When we arrived, we were told we would need a guide that would cost us 85 pounds to take us up the well worn camel track to the summit that even a novice could fine. A Dutch group was being told 100 pounds. We pulled the Dutch group aside and asked about forming one big group. The tour guide cartel didn't want to let us combine. After the Dutch couple went to leave, pissed that they were being charged extra for who knows why, the tour guide organizer relented and let us go up with one guide for 85 pounds. While we didn't want him to guide us up, he did have some useful historical information to share.

The view from the top of Mt. Sinai.

The last commercial outpost before you summit Mt. Sinai.

After two hours of easy hiking past Bedouin shops selling tea and chocolate bars, we were at the top and settling in for sunset with about twenty other people, a small church, and a small mosque. The views along the hike only let us look back down one valley. Once we got to the top, we could see in every direction and every direction was incredible.

An overlook from Mt. Sinai.

As soon as the sunset, everyone left in a hurry except two Bedouin salesman who would sleep up on the summit with us. They wanted to be there before the sun came up to rent out blankets and mattresses and to sell hot drinks. After renting us a couple mattresses, they disappeared for a while but when they came back one was impressed by our camp stove that we were making dinner with. Ramen noodles are a great warm meal on cold nights.

Me at sunset.

After dinner, we explored to find a good place to sleep. Our guide had recommended a specific rooftop as nice and quiet. The quiet part is important because people start arriving at 3am to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing directly on to that rooftop, making it pretty cold. We settled onto a platform on the side of the church. We were woken up a couple times when people did come up in the morning, but we were warm so I didn't really care.


Betty trying to stay warm.

Sunrise was an entirely different experience that sunset. Yes, the rocks were illuminated in similar ways as the sun sat close to horizon. However, there was closer to 150 people. Also, the type of people there at sunrise were different. I feel like more of the sunset folks were up for a hike or tourist venture, not for a religious pilgrimage. In the morning, there were people from America, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe, China, and even Egyptians. Some broke out in religious songs. It didn't rival the religious fervor of the mosques of Damascus, but there was definitely something brewing here. There was something connecting a lot of people up on the mountain even if some of us, Betty and I, were just there to enjoy the view while drinking some chai.

Morning psalms on top of Mt. Sinai

Hiking back down Mt. Sinai.

After sunrise, we all left. It made for a pretty big bottleneck on the way down the trail. We eventually got around it when we turned off the main trail to take a different trail down. On the way up, we took the longer camel trail. On the way down, we were going to take the shorter, steeper 3750 Steps of Repentance route to Saint Catherine's monastery that one monk built. That had to be a labor of love.

Saint Catherine's monastery.

When we got to the bottom, we were unable to visit the monastery because it was closed for worship. We just jumped in our van and headed back down to Dahab. When we got down there, our guy had not got us a bus to Luxor or Cairo. We were taking a cab, for about the same price though, to Cairo. We weren't happy, but at least we were leaving the Sinai Peninsula. People really do get caught in Dahab!

The internal decor of our ride to Cairo

A checkpoint on the way across the Sinai Peninsula.

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