Friday, December 24, 2010

Aswan, Egypt

There are thousands of feluccas on the Nile near Aswan.

Our train ride to Aswan from Luxor, I expected an experience similar to Europe. It was better. When we arrived, they were eager to help store our bikes, but this was because they wanted baksheesh. When we got off the train, they weren't shy about asking for it. Once we got on the train, we found our first class car pretty easily. It was almost empty even though most of the train was full. The seats were comfortable. There was room to spread out. I was loving it. The scenery was interesting. On the west side of the train, there was desert. On the east side, there was the Nile River, lush green irrigated farmland, and possibly a dune in the distance. It was a drastic contrast that was a little surreal because you got the different views by looking out the opposite sides of the train.

Looking out the opposite sides of the train.

The view out the west side of the train.

When we arrived at Aswan, we had some trouble finding a hotel. One that we found would only let us store our bikes in the ground floor foyer while the reception was upstairs. They insisted the street was busy and that someone would see if someone tried to steal our bikes. I insisted that the street was busy and anyone interested in taking them would see them unattended. They didn't budge. We left and eventually found a place that we had to go up a street of steps to get to.

Feluccas on the Nile.

More feluccas.

After checking in, we decided to get to visit the large Elephantine island in the middle of Nile. There was a 1 pound ferry to get across. The kid said the tickets were 5 pounds. I said we knew otherwise. An old guy came around and said it was a special rate for the holiday. I gave a long winded version of saying bull that one another kid salesman snickered at. He knew I knew what we were talking about, but he wasn't making the decisions. While this was happening, an Egyptian guy came by and paid 1 pound. We said, see, the price is 1. They said it was just because he was a regular. We wanted to go to the island, but we weren't willing to play into this ridiculousness. We walked. Their price didn't change when we left. Usually, it does.

Nubian boat and home.

Boy trying to hitch a ride with our felucca in his own boat.

While we walked down the river to let me clear my head from the frustration of people trying to rip me off, a bunch of felucca drivers harassed us. One guy wasn't too aggressive and didn't get under my skin. We started chatting. Sooner or later, he talked us in to going for a sail around the island instead of going to it. It might be the best thing we did in Aswan. It was peaceful. It was quiet. No cars. Just Betty, me, and our two captains as we sailed around Elephantine Island as the sunset. At one point, one of our captains used a cup to take a drink directly out of the Nile. We asked him about and he said it was safe because it was so far up river. I wasn't willing to try it for myself.


Felucca at sunset.

After the felucca ride, we grabbed dinner at a place that didn't have any prices on the menu. The host quickly filled them in when we asked. After dinner, we headed back to our hotel for the night. We were going to be getting picked up at 3:30am for a day tour down to Abu Simbel and needed some sleep. I had decided that I wanted to take a tour because I was sick of going through the frustrations of making each step happen by ourselves. With the tour, they would take care of everything. There are two tour options, a short one and a long one that stops at extra places on the way back. When we were getting ready for bed, we decided that we did not want to do the longer tour so we called down to change it. When Betty called around 10pm(?), they let us know that both tours were full and they could not get us on. Betty asked when they planned to tell us that or if they were going to wait until 3:30am in their morning. They didn't get it and said, 'Well, we are telling you now.' I suspect we would have found out at 3:30am in the morning.

Bread baker in the souq.

Morning in the souq.

The next morning, we went for a stroll in the souq before it really got busy. On our way through, we found a spice guy selling variety packs that were displayed together brilliantly. A few of you now have those packets as presents. From the souq, we filled up the rest of our day with a quick tour of the sights just outside of Aswan: the High Dam, the Temple of Philae, and the unfinished obelisk.

Spices in the souq.

Our first stop was the High Dam. Before the dam was built, the Nile River flooded every year and brought nutrients to the floodplain and delta. It made for ideal farming during good years, but the floods unpredictability also led to unpredictable crop yields. Some years it might be right. Other times, it might be too high and wipe out crops or too low and a drought would spread. The dam stopped the unpredictability, but it also keeps the annual nutrients from reaching the floodplain and delta. Even though the dam is culturally interesting, it is not that interesting to visit, unless maybe you are an engineer and can appreciate the hydroelectric plant. It isn't as dramatic as the Hoover. It is just a huge wide dam. You drive up on it. You look out over the giant lake that was created, Lake Nassar, and then leave.

Lake Nassar.

Hydroelectric dam at the High Dam.

Temple of Philae.

Next up was the Temple of Philae, which was my favorite site near Aswan. It was taken apart and moved when they built the High Dam because the lake that formed would have flooded the temple. To get to the new temple site, you had to take a boat. Once there, you were free to explore. The temple was the usual set of wonderful Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics, but two things were different. One, it was on a small island surrounded by Lake Nasser. Two, the type of people we were visiting with. Sure, there were plenty of Western tourists, but there were a ton of Muslim tourists too. Based on the number of families there, I think it was getting a ton of Egyptian visitors because of the holiday of Eid.

Kids posing at the Temple of Philae.

A Muslim tourist at the Temple of Philae.

At this site, I finally got a video of some of the so called Egyptian security. There have been a few terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt over the years (maybe 7 in 20 years). I assume a lot of the security measures are in response to these attacks and a desire to keep the tourist dollar flowing into the country. As a tourist, you can't drive yourself through most parts of Egypt without a police escort. In some areas, they force you to join a convoy. On every road, there are multiple checkpoints. In every tourist town, there is at least one guy sitting at banks, at major road access points, at the Temples, and at any place a tourist might go. However, they don't do seem to do anything. We have this same perception problem in the USA. We don't know how many attacks the invasive security actually stop at home or in Egypt. Granted, I never pulled a gun out, but I think most of it is just a show in Egypt. Just take a look at this video:

Egyptian Security at the Temple of Philae.

Temple of Philae doorway.

Temple of Philae hieroglyhpics. Check out the cross on the left that was added when it was converted to a church.

Temple of Philae courtyard.

The one Egyptian guy I stayed with said that the one thing that the security is in place for is for the tourists to get help getting rid of the over aggressive salesman. Apparently, it used to be worse of a problem. I didn't see the tourist police helping anyone. A more jaded take on what the security does it that they collect baksheesh. At multiple sites, security would let you cross lines and even take your picture, if you gave them a tip. One interesting thing to realize was that we were not the only ones being harassed for baksheesh. A well-to-do Egyptian couple from Cairo was more fair skinned and dressed nicer than most Egyptians even though they were born and raised in Cairo. They said they would always get treated like tourists until they opened their mouths. Our driver around Aswan had a passenger with us. He got stopped and harassed for it at the security checkpoint for the Temple of Philae. I don't know if he paid, but when he got back in the car, he was fuming about police and baksheesh. The final time that I saw non-foreigner tourists get hassled was when a policeman stopped traffic to let an Egyptian man we were riding with get out of a parking spot. He said it was a joke that the guy helped and we did not need it, but he also said that he didn't dare not give some money to the policeman because of what they could do.

Temple of Philae art.

Temple of Philae columns.

On our boat ride out to the Temple of Philae.

Our last stop on our short tour was the unfinished obelisk. An obelisk is a 4 side pillar with a pyramid like top. One of the Pharaoh's had ordered the biggest obelisk ever to be built. To cut it out, they used rocks about twice the size of a fist to break the stone around the obelisk away. It looks like they almost had three sides completed when the obelisk cracked. They abandoned it and left it there for us to find and marvel at. Curiously, there are only 9 ancient Egyptian obelisks left standing in Egypt. The rest have been moved. The Roman Empire particularly liked them. Italy has 18. Then, there are 4 in the England, where so many other Egyptian treasures have been taken. Finally, there is 1 each in Israel, France, Turkey, Poland, and the USA ('Cleopatra's Needle' in Central Park).

This unfinished obelisk would have been the biggest ever.

The tool used to cut out stone.

When we got back from our tour, it was time to get ready to leave Aswan. Since we had eaten feast food in Luxor we thought Eid was done and didn't have any concerns about booking our tickets back to Cairo. We were wrong. Eid is a multiday feast that just keeps going and going. After spending too much time fighting to keep our place in line, we found out all the trains were full. The song We Gotta Get Out of Ghis Place by the Animals kept going through my head. We went to an Internet cafe to see if we could book tickets online. We found one site. We couldn't book online. We called. They said there was one available the next night, which is when we wanted to leave, but we had to go to the station to pick it up. They didn't give us a reservation number or take our name. I asked how the station would know the ticket was ours. They just said to go get them. Betty went to fight the lines again. I stayed online looking for possibilities and making phone calls. After only ten minutes, Betty came back and Willy Wonka's We got a Golden Ticket was practically busting out of her. We were good to go.

Pushing to hold a place in line.

McDonalds boathouse.

To celebrate, Betty coaxed me into going to for a treat she knew I'd been missing, a milkshake. The only place she could guarantee I'd get one that was up to par, instead of flavored milk, was the McDonald's boathouse. The milkshake was fantastic. Having a McDonald's in an old boat house was pretty cool too, if not a little weird. The view was fantastic and a great way to close out our time in Aswan.

A Mobile ATM.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Luxor, Egypt

Luxor, Egypt. Home to the Valley of the Kings where most of the New Kingdom Pharaoh's were buried until we dug them up and moved them to museums around the world. We arrived in Luxor in the morning, immediately biked into town to a hotel, and then headed for the valley.

Schindler's Lift. Get it? Haha.

To get to the valley, you have to take a ferry, and then get back to the valley which is 5km away from the Nile. I'm not sure how the other tourists do it because I didn't see cabs, but it was ideal for our bikes. It was great. There are a couple different companies that rent out bikes, but not every tourist up there was on bike. A lot came on a tour bus. When you leave the river and head towards the valley, you see mountains ahead. Eventually, you creep up on two colossus that mark the start of archaeological sites and the way to the Valley of the Kings.

Entry colossus.

On the colossus side of the mountains, there is a couple temples, monasteries, and the Valley of the Queens. We headed right back to visit of the Valley of the Kings first. To get to the Valley of the Kings you need to head north on the main road and then wrap around to the back side of the mountains. The main road is littered with tourist shops, especially the alabaster factories with poor English translations that seemed like I should vote for them (X for Alabaster, instead of the X Alabaster). Once you leave the main road and start into the valley, the mountain scenery is stunning. The roads, like all Middle Eastern roads, were in spectacular condition.

There were 20-30 of these eye sores that were alabaster factories.

At the Valley of the Kings, we bought our entrance ticket and opted to walk up the small hill instead of taking the 5 Egyptian pound, 3 minute, tram ride. The best part about the tram is that you can't see how far the tram goes when you are buying your tickets. As soon as you get a glimpse around the first curve, you realize just how short the tram ride is. It seemed like trickery to me. Anyway, there are 63 tombs in the Valley, but only 18 that are ever open to the public. Of those, 6 are usually closed for repair work. We decided to head right to the back of the valley and then work our way forward.

The bike ride up to the Valley of the Kings.

The first three tombs we visited were neat, but nothing spectacular. They were generally a straight corridor that opened up into a larger room at end. Sometimes, they had a smaller room in the middle. The art would get more elaborate the closer you got to the sarcophagus' room. It was interesting to see that some of the artwork was incomplete because the Pharaoh died before they were done.

An underground map of the burial tombs.

There seemed to always be two guys working the popular tombs. One guy stood at the entrance and checked your ticket. The other guy followed you into the tomb with a flashlight and things to show you so that he could earn baksheesh (a tip). Even if you told them, you didn't want to have them show you anything, they would show you anyway and ask for baksheesh. It would be so nice to spend some time in the tomb in silence, but instead this guy is chattering in your ear to look at this and look at that. Every once in a while, they definitely point out something that you would have otherwise missed. Most of the time, their help isn't needed though and they took away from the experience rather than added to it. I find it maddening.

An Egyptian tomb.

After we visited the back three tombs, we started for the other ones near the front. The first one took us up a ton of steps. When we got there, the guy would not let us in because our ticket was only good to visit three tombs. Upon closer inspection of the ticket, it did say that it was only good for three tombs. Betty and I were frustrated because no one told us that and it didn't say that anywhere when we were buying tickets. It seemed like just another way to way to milk tourists for money, even if it was official. We decided to buy into the Egyptian system and offered the guy baksheesh to let us in. Unbelievably, he said no. I was shocked. It was nice to meet the first guy involved in the tourism business that wasn't corrupt. OK, that is a poor exaggeration and I was frustrated that he wouldn't let us in, but it was also nice to see the rules being upheld for a change.

A sarcophagus.

We went down to buy tickets to see more tombs. There are three tombs that require special tickets because of the number of visitors they were receiving. The King Tut tomb isn't supposed to be that great, especially since everything inside it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The ticket salesman said that if we really wanted to see the best tomb we should not get a ticket for three random ones, but to buy the special ticket for Ramses VI tomb. The Ramses VI doesn't have anything in it either, but it has the most remaining artwork on the walls.

The Ramses VI tomb was the best that we visited. Because it was the best tomb I had been in yet and because I was feeling petulant about the three tomb ticket, I decided to use my video camera to film my walk down the tomb even though it is prohibited. The sign at the tomb says no flash photography, but there are others that say none at all at the entrance to Valley. It isn't the clearest, but I knew they didn't allow it. Somehow the guy saw Betty or my camera and came running down. We gave him our camera batteries and he let us continue down.

The front side of the Valley of the Kings.

The tomb was amazing. I can't describe the colors and hieroglyphs very well. All I can say is that these are the best that you'll find in quantity and quality in the Valley of the Kings. The rooms were bigger and the art work was more extensive. I realize that calling the hieroglyphs artwork probably isn't accurate, but they are pictures and I can't necessarily tell when something is artwork versus writing. Most of the hieroglyphic writing was the same size and written in neat rows and columns. However, some of those same hieroglyphs seemed to be drawn in much larger sizes.

Walking into the Ramses VI tomb.

On the way out, the guy who took our batteries approached us. He wanted us to put the batteries back in. Foolishly, I complied. I figured he wanted to make us delete the photos. As soon as the battery was in, he grabbed the camera out of my hand. I started to fight him, but it was my small fragile video camera that would break if we did that. After making a huge todo about how we could get in big trouble if he turned us in, he gave the camera back and let us go with more baksheesh in his pocket. I was much happier to give him $10 than have to buy a new $25 battery.

Betty and I clashed about how to handle this situation. She wanted to go right to the police. She was right that the police would chastise the guy for taking our camera and not turning us in, but I felt certain that giving this guy baksheesh would be an easier way out of the problem than paying an official fine and who knows what else to the police. Of course, it is just as likely the police would take baksheesh, but more of it, to rectify the situation.

Egyptian artwork in a temple.

After visiting the amazing Ramses VI tomb, it was time to leave the Valley of the Kings. There were a number of temples on the other side of the mountains that we wanted to check out before the sunset. Our first stop was Deir al-Medina. The site wasn't what we were expecting. Someone has recommended it as one of the best. It had one hot tomb that was in a lot better condition that others we had seen, but we didn't see why it was recommended. We also didn't see the building that was pictured on our ticket. We asked someone and they directed us a few kilometers to the north. We walked that direction, but just found a great temple that no other tourists were at. We did not find the one on the picture. After talking to a few people, we found out that the picture on the ticket was to a different monastery that you had to buy a different ticket for. All I can really say is that I don't know how these things work. It makes no sense to have a picture of a monastery on a ticket that isn't for that monastery.

Medinet Habu temple.

Colossus at the Habu Temple.

Giant pillars at the Habu Temple.

Our next stop was the Huba Temple, my favorite spot in Luxor. I can't figure out a specific reason why I loved it so much. I wish I had a picture from the air. This temple is huge and has a great backdrop of the mountains behind it. It wasn't too crowded either. Some of the columns would take 3-4 people to get their arms around. Maybe the video can show you what I mean, but it might be a 'have to be there' place.

Habu Temple doorway with mountain backdrop.

Habu Temple cooking cauldrons, just kidding.

Habu Temple walking tour and request for baksheesh.

Next up, was a big big lunch. I think the dish we had was called fatta. It was some kind of soggy bread at the bottom of a bowl of chickpeas dribbled in pasta sauce, I think. The important part was that they said I could have as many free refills as I wanted. I was starving so this was perfect. I think they were giving out free refills because they had been serving it up for the Eid feast earlier in the day. They had to get rid of it one way or the other and I was happy to help.

Deir al-Bahari

Our original plan had been to leave after lunch and head back to the town, but we had been sucked into wanting to see the temple that was on our ticket. That temple was Deir al-Bahari so we retraced our steps to head back over there. It seemed a lot farther than the first time we rode over there. When we arrived, it was very, very busy. It felt busier than the Valley of the Kings, but I suspect there was actually less people, but less room to spread out. Deir al-Bahari is actually three temples, but we, and everyone else, seemed to only visit one, Hatshepsut’s Temple. The temple looks fabulous because it was restored, but apparently it was a poor restoration and the details are not like the original. The most notable parts about the temple for me were the human parts.

Deir al-Bahari columns.

There was a small contingent of women, probably Eastern European, who were doing sexy poses around the temple. I saw this in Hawaii for the first time and saw it again here. It is weird. Most people want to look good in their photos, but this was taking it to a new level. The other memory of people I have is that on the way out, I saw two Russian girls being followed for almost 100 yards by salesman. One salesman was grabbing the girl's arm and trying to make her turn around. I know how I reacted in Cairo when the guy did that briefly to me. I can't imagine my reaction if a guy followed me a hundred yards while trying to physically turn me around. They kept their cool until they got back to their larger group, that included men.

Luxor Temple.

Luxor city plaza.

That night, we booked a train ticket down to Aswan and checked out downtown Luxor. The neatest part might have been the Luxor Temple which was converted to a church and now holds a mosque. However, I think the general scene at the central plaza took the cake. Eid was still going on and the entire town seemed to be out. Young kids were playing soccer. Older kids were checking each other out. Parents were watching their kids. It was the place to see and be seen. Betty and I saw it all from the balcony of Snack Time. A restaurant serving up favorite western treats, like grilled cheese and brownies.

Karnak Temple columns.

Karnak Temple statue.

The next morning we were off to Luxor's second most famous monument, Karnak. It is a large collection of temples. I believe it is the largest outside of Giza. Because it was the most talked about ruins site in Luxor, I had expectations. As we all know, expectations are the mistake that ruin so many good things in life. The ruins were good, but they were't great. The temple was similar to Huba. In fact, it was probably bigger, but something was missing. I don't know what.

Karnak Temple obelisk

Karnak Temple's row of ram headed sphinx.

I can't remember the rest of the day. We had a few words with our terrible hotel clerk when we went to check out. His defense was that he was just following policy. I can't remember how many things he did to grate on our American sense of customer service. I realize that we, as Americans, can suffer from a bit of entitlement. This wasn't the case. I have lowering my standards during my entire trip. This was just ridiculous. It left a bad taste in our mouth that was completely wiped out when we realized just how pleasant our train ride to Aswan was going to be.

I was surprised how few Arabic showings there are, just one, for the Karnak Temple sound and light show. I realize that Luxor is an international tourist destination, but I thought they would get more Arabic visitors.