I dreamed of visiting Egypt since I was an elementary school child learning about pharaohs and pyramids for the first time. I finally got my wish in March 2007 as I stepped out of the terminal at the Cairo International Airport to begin a whirlwind tour of the country in less then 10 days. Arriving in Cairo Arriving at Cairo’s international airport can be a challenge if you arrive unprepared as I did. As you pass through the terminal to immigration there are no signs or instructions of what to do. If you are in need of a visa it would greatly ease your arrival to know that you need to purchase one from the bank kiosks that line the arrival terminal before you get to the immigration lines. The terminal will be filled with people waiting for immigration and the chaos of travel group expeditor's attempting to find their charges and speed them through the visa process. Patience is definitely a virtue in this situation. Upon leaving the terminal I was confronted with a teeming throng of humanity outside. Hundreds of “taxi" drivers wait to persuade the weary traveller to accept their offer for a ride to the hotel and there is no official taxi stand in sight. Likely best to have the hotel arrange transfer from the airport or be prepared to bargain. Giza and the Horse She Rode In On Friends who had traveled to Egypt previously had warned me not to spend too much time in Cairo. This was the best advice I received in advance of my trip. Although the city is huge and sprawling – it is possible to see everything you want to see in a day and a half. We spent 2 nights and 2 days there. The highlight of the visit to Cairo is the short journey from the downtown hotels to the pyramids at Giza. It is amazing to note how these hulking monuments of ancient history stand against the modern Cairo skyline like some sort of surreal spaceships on the landscape.
My trip to Giza brought with it lesson number two for any traveler’s trip to Egypt – beware of the traveler tout. While waiting for me to arrive the previous evening my traveling companion had arranged for a driver to take me around the city and out to Giza the following day. This gesture was well appreciated as we were short on time and I had a lot I wanted to see. Unfortunately I made one big mistake – I did not have a firm idea of what I wanted to do or in what order.
Overall the day went well – my driver was friendly and relatively safe in the crazy Cairo traffic. His English was passable and we managed to speak throughout the day on a variety of topics. However, the day began badly in Giza. Eager to see the great pyramids – I asked to go there first. As we approached the area of the pyramids the driver asked me if I wanted a camel, a horse, or a horse and carriage. Knowing the camel trick from friends who had been taken on short rides for exorbitant prices, I immediately said no to that quite firmly and asked if we could walk to the site and explore. The driver indicated it was hot in the desert and this might not be the best idea – which should have been my first tip off as it was not warm at all that morning. Suddenly we were on back streets near the pyramids with horse stables run out of shop fronts all around us.
Although I indicated I was not interested in the horses I was not firm enough. Try Try Try… was the call of the shopkeeper of the stable that we stopped at. Before I knew it I was on a horse and caught. Needless to say I found myself paying an exorbitant price for an hour on a dirty horse in the desert and my pyramid experience was ruined. I could see the tour groups circling the great monuments from my horse in the desert. I still had the experience of seeing them – but could not get close enough to really have the experience I was looking for. That said – I learned my lesson about the tourist tout in Egypt. Know what you want, Be firm, ask the price first, agree on the price, again be firm, say NO when things begin moving outside the area of agreement. Final bit of advice to wary travelers – arrange a tour of Cairo and Giza through your hotel or with a guide recommended by your guidebook. Save the hassle and your pocketbook.
Dust to dust… mummies and more
I had been told time and time again that the Egyptian museum is a must-see in Egypt. This is agreed for serious history buffs and those who want to see the mummy collection featured by the museum. However, for those simply curious the museum is a maze of dusty relics which have little to no illustrative information available about them. We chose to guide ourselves through using our guidebook rather than to pay one of the eager Egyptologists outside jockeying to give us a tour. It was the right decision. We saw everything we wanted to see in the museum – including the gruesome mummy collection – in a morning. We were greatly aided by the fact that the crowds were unusually light during the day we chose to visit – but still we felt satisfied by our self-guided tour.
Man made wonders of Egypt
After a short flight to Aswan on the afternoon of the second full day in Egypt, we entered our planes, trains, and automobiles phase of the trip. Aswan features one of the wonders of the modern world – the Aswan High Dam – which is credited with controlling the mighty Nile River and also the site of major cold war tension when the Russians stepped in to fund and provide technical expertise for the dam after Nasser’s independent politics alienated him from the west.
While the unimpressive dam gets all the credit in Aswan – the town is actually quite lovely and the site of one of the best ancient sites in Egypt – the Temple of Philae. Philae can be reached only by boat – making it a bit of a hassle… but well worth the effort as the views of the ancient temple against the colorful Nile landscape is amazing.
We traveled to Aswan for the purpose of making the 3 hour journey south to the famed temples at Abu Simbol. After a number of issues hiring a minibus to take us on the 6 hour round-trip journey and a sleepless night in a hotel full of Egyptian schoolchildren likely on their first trip away from home – we found our chariot awaiting us at 4am for the long journey south.
Some might say that the trip to Abu Simbol is not worth the 6 hours in a car and a sleepless night – but they would be wrong. A nap on the bus is worth it to wake up in this magnificent place on the shores of Lake Nasser. The temple was "saved" from the rising waters of the lake formed by the high dam by UNESCO. Cut from the cliff it previously occupied – King Ramses’s foreboding welcome to those traveling south on the Nile is impressive even in its current resting place - a fake mountainside just up the cliff from its original location – is a bit strange.
Luxor Means Luxury
After our marathon trip to Aswan and Abu Simbol the team was ready for some serious R and R. As we boarded a dirty train for the 4 hour trip north to Luxor – we had high hopes that the familiar surroundings of the Sheraton Hotel there would be just the ticket. We were not disappointed. The hotel – surrounded by lush gardens and set directly on the banks of the Nile – was just what the doctor ordered. We sank into a world of Sheraton burgers and guided tours.
our arrangements in Luxor are divided into east and west bank excursions. The Temple at Karnak is the feature of the east bank tour. Karnak is an amazing, sprawling ancient temple complex that will inspire anyone interested in seeing, touching and wandering through history. The temple at Luxor is fascinating as well – if for no other reason that the mosque built on one side of it gives you an idea of how deep in the sands the ancient monuments were before they were dug out and restored.
Although for both west bank sites we had an excellent guide – we felt that we could have done the east bank trip to both Karnak and Luxor temples on our own with a guidebook and a taxi. We would have also likely put some time to wander around the souk and other areas of the Luxor city center – which has a lovely walk along the river as well as shopping and restaurants that were recommended but we did not explore.
The west bank was something different though. In this case we felt as though our time and money was well spent with our excellent guide – Gad. Although Gad had a bit of an Egyptian mafia-cool attitude going – he knew his stuff and loved his history. Talking about centuries gone kings and their tombs in the Valley of the Kings the listener could not help but get caught in his pride and excitement.
The Valleys of the Kings and Queens, as well as the Hatsheput Temple in Thebes on the west bank of the Nile are the jewels of Egypt’s tourism crown. Each tomb is below ground – but not as far as one might imagine. We were surprised by this and asked Gad why the tombs lay "undiscovered" for so long. We were immediately informed that the tombs were not "discovered". Western archeologists may have been making "discoveries" for themselves – but the local people always knew the general location of the ancient sites.
In general, the magnificent and bright colors of the Goddess Nut stretched over the massive limestone tomb of King Ramses IV and the other sites of the Valley of the Kings is well worth the trip. Unfortunately the closure of Queen Nefertari’s tomb makes the Valley of the Queens a bit disappointing. The stop at the overpriced Alabaster factory also was not a highlight – but interesting and without too many sales hassles.
Continuing our theme of interesting travel options in Egypt we decided to take an afternoon bus from Luxor to Hurghada on the Red Sea Coast. Luckily at this point we had learned the lesson of being firm and sticking to your plan, because despite our research of bus options we were repeatedly lied to and discouraged in our plan by our Luxor tour agent, the hotel staff, and the taxi we hired to go to the bus station. Everyone advised and nearly forced us to take a hired car as part of the official convoy trip between the two cities. Our guidebook indicated this was unnecessary and it was.
The convoy system was developed by the Egyptian government following a series of terrorist attacks on tourists in the mid-1990s. Like everything connected to tourism in Egypt the system has become a method for tour operators and everyone else connected to them to siphon money off the unsuspecting tourist and worse yet it plays on a fear for one’s security – which is not helpful to increasing the reach of the tourist dollar in the country. Although there are some areas where security is a concern – guidebooks are clear on where these areas are. The savvy visitor does not need the Egyptian tourism police and their lazy ways to nanny you through your visit to this fascinating country if you are interested in traveling on your own.
Thus – after a 5 hour bus ride along the fertile Nile and the deserts leading to the coast – we arrived in Hurghada and then were whisked to our luxury Sheraton Miramar resort in El Gouna via private car arranged by the hotel. We arrived in the Disney-like resort designed by American Architect Michael Graves and enveloped ourselves in three lazy days by the pool and swimming in the Red Sea.
Although we did not see much of the coast in and around Hurghada on our arrival – but we made a subsequent trip into town later during our stay. Hurghada is a development disaster. Although the sea coast here is lovely – development of it has proceeded unchecked and one can barely reach the beach through the maze of half-finished concrete buildings. The town caters to eastern European and Russian holiday makers looking for a bargain – as well as students backpacking through Egypt. Thus it is full of cheap eats, t-shirt shops, and cafes with beer for a decent price. Needless to say we were happy that we ended up in our Arabian Disney resort in El Gouna – although the Sheraton Miramar was certainly more Orlando than Cairo.
When I first considered a trip to Egypt as part of my holiday break plans from my work in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was inspired by my own interests in the country – both historical and architectural. However, I was surprised how negative the reaction of friends and colleagues was to my plans.
Some people were concerned about my security traveling in the country and others were concerned about how relaxing the experience would be based on their own experiences addressing the hassles of tourist touts and constant sales techniques directed at visitors to Egypt. On the first point - I found Egypt surprisingly safe, clean, and friendly. Witness the hordes of fellow travelers I encountered everywhere I went and clearly I am not alone. However, I did find the enormous police presence everywhere in the country which rather than making me feel safe contributed to a feeling of oppression. I was particularly annoyed in Cairo to find that the tourist police at every site in the city would not let my driver into most of the sites or demanded he pay a bribe to accompany me inside. Based on the comments many of the Egyptians I met made about their government – the prominence of the police and the cult of Mubarek’s personality is not doing much to improve the state of life in this colorful and wonderfully unique country.
Overall I found my travels in Egypt to be better than anything I could have expected. Although I found myself learning to not make eye contact or respond to constant cries of "what country?" from every taxi driver, store keeper, and street urchin for fear of being trapped in a hard sell – I enjoyed my travels immensely. I found it surprisingly easy to get around. Trains and buses were cheap and on time – although a bit dirty and slow. Egypt Air was relatively cheap and would be an easy way to get around to various destinations. Best of all tickets can be booked online – although prices go up steeply within a week of travel and planes are notoriously delayed. I did have a few bad experiences – particularly the horse trick in Giza – and got tired of constantly haggling with people over prices – but nothing outshone the positive nature of the experience. I would highly recommend traveling to Egypt to anyone and the country is a place I hope to return to.