A Travellerspoint blog

Mosques, minarets and misfits

The day started with a shady Nile cruise and ended with a visit to the magnificent Citadel

sunny 25 °C
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This, our second full day, was very similar to the first weatherwise, although it dawned ever-so-slightly hazier and muggier, then cleared beautifully later. Our itinerary for Wednesday contained three facets: a cruise on the Nile, preferably on a felucca as that's what Callan really wanted; a visit to the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo; and a detour to the Citadel - a large, walled fortress which overlooks eastern Cairo and contains the towering, evocative Mohammed Ali Mosque.

We saw Cairo downtown proper, or at least parts of it, and it was an unbelievable experience, although tainted by the wheeling-and-dealing that is an integral part of touring Cairo. Said picked us up at 8am. His price for a day spent in his 'care' is E£275, with a tip of about E£45, which is expensive but as Callan noted we certainly get 'bang for our buck'.

He is on-call from 8am-5pm, taking us anywhere we want to go, then waiting where necessary to shuttle us on to the next attraction. He has a comfortable, air-conditioned car, luxurious by Egyptian standards, and although he still tries tirelessly to persuade Callan (or 'Queens' as he calls her) to consider buying perfume and papyrus from his mates, he isn't offensively pushy. Today, however, we became unwittingly embroiled in haggling skulduggery of the Cairo variety. It was an expensive lesson, and one that has left us with a financial dilemma: we may not have enough money left by Saturday and so may have to spend the morning at the hotel when I wanted to see the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza one last time as I don't know when (or if) we'll be back.

On picking us up, Said told us he had arranged with a friend of his to get us on a boattrip of the Nile. It soon transpired that it was to be a motorised boattrip and not the felucca ride (see image directly below) we'd specifically requested. It took an hour-and-a-half to drive to the Corniche (see image second below) on the Nile near central Cairo and when we got out, Said's friend, a smooth-talking man in a robe, ushered us solicitously onto a small, double-decker boat (see image third below) and showed us the 'menu' in Arabic.

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At the bottom of each page was a price - we could take our choice, lucky us. E£300 for an hour's ride or a staggeringly jaw-dropping E£700 for two hours. Callan was shell-shocked. I said we simply didn't have the money. Said quickly tried to take control of what was threatening, for him, to become an embarrassing situation. He sat us down, 'chased' his friend downstairs in a thinly disguised attempt to show us he really had our best interests at heart, and said in his jolly way: ''Now look, my brudda, we make deal. You tell me how much you can afford, no more!''

''If we pay the asking price, we won't have money left,'' I said. It was as simple as that. Indeed, the price was extortionate - the equivalent of £70 - and the whole scenario stank of the sort of cooked-up double-dealing for which Cairo's taxi drivers are notorious. But Said was determined to save the day. He pointed to a smaller boat (see image directly below) nearby, also owned by his robed mate. ''If you go on that one, Meesta David,'' he said, ''it be much cheaper. How much you can pay for that one?''

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We eventually settled on E£200 for both of us - still ridiculously overpriced and Said's friend looked seriously put out. Clearly he'd imagined we'd be throwing our cash at him with a smile. He started to protest but Said, probably for our 'benefit', waved him off and we were set to cruise the Nile for an hour. Romantic this certainly wasn't and I noticed Callan had gone quiet. She was annoyed at the grubby way a price had been reached. Cairo haggling might be part of the experience but it can also ruin an otherwise pleasurable experience.

The cruise was certainly an education. First stop was a small island where I could use the toilet (public toilets are frustratingly hard to come by in Cairo) and where we got to see papyrus, egrets and even a pied kingfisher hovering above the water. A heavy smog had settled over the city, making visibility poor and as a result none of my shots came out particularly well. We passed several small villages, similar to the lagoons in Venice but mired in poverty.

The Nile was dotted with fishermen in small boats (see sequence of images below) and on the islands grew vast banana plantations - well, vast in terms of the fact we were at the centre of one of the most densely populated capital cities in the world. The Nile is a blessing to Egyptians; in fact the country is sometimes referred to as the 'gift of the Nile'. But it is dirty and polluted - not even the most optimistic tourist can deny that. There is litter everywhere, and at one point we saw what seemed to be a lorry-load of garbage sliding into the river (see image beneath fishermen sequence). Egrets pick among the trash and it clogs up some parts of the riverbank yet it doesn't altogether detract from the magic of the place.

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At one point Said told Radar to stop the boat at another point on the island and had us get out and look at the banana plantation. I'm not sure what this achieved, other than for me to sink shoe-deep into soft, squelchy mud. We walked a short way, coming across a field in which two cows were grazing. A tallish, important-looking man strode over to us with a half-smile on his face. I instinctively started to back away, wary of the inevitable sales tack but this time it didn't materialise and we were all soon back on the boat.

Some of the scenes were fascinating. Two men were vigorously washing their goat in the river (see image directly below). I'm not sure if they were preparing it for slaughter but it looked to be a serious business. Further on a woman smilingly encouraged her pretty young daughter to row the boat in which they were fishing. The youngster stood up, took the oars and rowed away. She looked directly at my lens with a wide, toothy grin, her eyes almost entirely hidden by her red beanie, her pigtails static in the calm smoggy conditions (see image second below).

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On the west bank, a large-ish red truck poured its contents (soil or gravel) onto the riverbank (see image directly below); not far away a man stood on the shoreline and stared into the distance, at nothing in particular. Elsewhere, a tall, thin man in a bright, banana-yellow outfit cast out his net, looking for fish, while his mate steadied their boat. And on a riverside settlement, men in dusty blue overalls and white caps loaded what seemed like a thousand building bricks onto two nonchalant, seated camels. The men looked up as we came past but there wasn't much mirth on their faces (see sequence of images directly below).

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So this was what life on the Nile, at least the Nile around Cairo, was all about!

Afterwards, we headed for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Islamic Cairo - it is one of the oldest and largest mosques in Egypt and several guidebooks I'd scanned before our holiday suggested if you are going to see only one mosque in Cairo, it should be this one. It was built between AD 876 and AD 879 by an Abbasid governor sent from Baghdad to rule Iraq. To get us there, Said drove through the streets of Islamic Cairo, which was an experience in itself. There were buzzing marketplaces, men on scooters (see image directly below), others driving donkey carts, and rising timelessly above this cacophony of noise and dust were the spires and minarets of the mosques. It was an unfortgettable scene.

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After removing our shoes and replacing them with 'booties', we entered Ibn Tulun. A huge dome or 'fountain' is located in the centre of the courtyard (see images directly below), surrounded by pointed arches which are inscribed with geometric designs. The original fountain had a gilded dome but this collapsed in AD 968 and the current dome is a 13th-century replacement. The mosque interior is layered with carpets, some of which were being used by those praying but one of the features of particular interest is the Lectern (see third image below) which is called a dikka in Arabic. It is a wooden platform which is used for Quranic recitations and calls to prayer inside the mosque.

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By this time, the smog had mostly burnt off and the sky was as blue as it had been the day before. I decided to scale the spiral minaret (see image directly below) of Ibn Tulun. It was inspired by the tower at the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq and offers great aerial views of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

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Callan has vertigo, so she gave it a miss while I scrambled up the minaret as quickly as I could. There was nobody else there when I arrived at a tiny room at the top of the spire. The two slender floorboards beneath me creaked ominously but I was totally taken in by the scenes around me. Most impressive are the dozens of minarets of different colours, shapes and sizes which dot the skyline. In the distance, I could see Mohammed Ali Mosque in the Citadel (our next destination) as well as loads of satellite dishes perched precariously atop rundown buildings (see sequence of images directly below).

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The sound of the Muslim call to prayer reverberated around me and added to the feeling of being in a mysterious, culturally rich land. This is what travel is all about!

Finally we headed back outside to Said, who now took us to the Citadel (entrance E£40 each), where we spent most of our time around the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, also known as the Alabaster mosque (see images directly below). The Citadel was home to Egypt's rulers for almost 700 years and is, after the Giza pyramids, probably the most popular tourist attraction in Cairo. Although Mohammed Ali Mosque is arguably the most famous mosque in Cairo it was built in a wholly Turkish style between 1830-1848. It was erected on the orders of reformist ruler Mohammed Ali, regarded as the father of modern Egypt.

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The Egyptian children here insisted on asking us for permission to take our photos, a bizarre experience which Callan said made her feel like a movie star. The way these children behaved explained much about how Westerners are regarded in Egypt (and perhaps in other Middle Eastern countries). It also made me realise that when we'd been descended upon by a horde of schoolchildren at Giza the previous day, it was not the threat we had initially anticipated - they just wanted to mob us with questions! And when it comes to the questions they ask, there is a definite pattern.

Western social norms dictate you don't just pounce on someone in the street and ask them a string of personal questions. But Egypt isn't the West, and we were the foreigners here, not the children. This was the order of the questions, in every case: ''What is your name?''; ''Where do you come from?''; ''How old are you?''; ''Are you married?''; ''Have you got bee-bee (baby)?''

The questions are fired brazenly although often we saw the boys and girls huddled together beforehand, plucking up the courage from a distance before they approached us. When they got a friendly response to their questions (it is difficult not to be friendly as the questions are asked in an endearing, genuinely curious manner), they requested permission to take photos of us.

This was surreal and exhausting but enlightening too. Out came their mobile phones in order to take a photo of us for the folks back home - the girls asked Callan and the boys asked me. As they pointed their camera phones at us, their mates piled in from either side to make sure they were snapped as well (see image directly below). And when they realised we were obliging, they stuck around, repeatedly asking the same aforementioned questions, as if the answers had not quite made sense the first time around.

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We were taken aback by our experience here and pleasantly surprised the questions hadn't involved asking for money. In fact, the human side of things rather overshadowed the tourist side - Mohammed Ali Mosque was an aesthetic treat, both inside and out, and looking down over Sultan Hassan Mosque (see image directly below) was also a great experience but those won't be the main reason we remember the Citadel.

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On the way back home we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, which Said quite skilfully negotiated. It all started when he decided to take us on an alternative route in order to avoid the congestion. But almost as soon as he told us he was taking a shortcut, we were sucked into one of the worst traffic jams we've ever been in. It was fascinating to watch. There were no lanes on this particular stretch of road; no traffic lights, just roads feeding onto more roads, which was creating more congestion, all punctuated by a ceaseless litany of hooters. Egyptian music was beginning to take on epic proportions.

But despite the undeniable madness of it all, there is a sort of organised chaos to the driving. How they manage to avoid accidents is anybody's guess but despite the absolute mayhem (not excluding the odd camel, donkey and horse wandering into the traffic) we've yet to see an accident or even a scrape. However, during this jam we saw the first real fight since we've been here. Somebody feeding in from the left pushed into the traffic stream and incurred the wrath of the people in the truck behind us. There was Italian-style shouting and gesticulating but this did nothing to stop the offending vehicle.

I watched, transfixed, as the cars edged ever-closer towards each other, neither prepared to concede an inch. And when they were so close that you couldn't fit a camel's nose hair between them, the offended car backed off and let the offender push in. Up ahead we had to rejoin a main roadprimary artery but there were chaotic jams there, too. It was so bad, passengers were jumping out their vehicles and directing traffic themselves. Despite the disagreement we'd just witnessed, nobody seemed to be in particularly bad humour though. After moving at a snail's pace for about 20 minutes, I remember thinking, 'We are never going to get out of here!'

But we did, of course. As quickly as we'd entered the jam, we left it, and within minutes we were being dropped off at our hotel. Our heads were spinning but our first reaction when we got into our room was to look at each other and laugh until we couldn't laugh anymore.

Crazy. But an addictive sort of crazy...

Posted by davecallan 14:52 Archived in Egypt Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The old and the very old

Not even the relentless touts could spoil a picture perfect day at the Pyramids of Giza

sunny 24 °C
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We woke up leisurely on Tuesday morning and went to the ornate dining room (see directly above) for breakfast. I was wary of eating anything that wasn't sealed so confined myself to yoghurt and copius cups of coffee and tea. Callan had no such compunction and tucked into the Continental and traditional fare with abandon. The other tourists in the dining room also seemed to have little apprehension about eating their fill so I felt I was being overcautious. I decided to use Callan as a guinea pig. If she didn't get a bug, I'd know the food was good to go. If she did, well, it would be coffee and croissants for me and immodium for the missus.

Shortly before 8am we met Said outside the hotel lobby (see directly below). The day had dawned beautifully clear and blue with a fresh but very light breeze which made me realise how lucky we were because it could just as easily have been hazy. (In fact, as the week went on, it became progressively hazier and warmer, so that on the last day it looked like a blanket of fog had settled over Cairo. Whether this was smog or just natural weather is difficult to say but there is no doubt smog does linger over the city like a bad hangover).

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The drive to Giza was mercifully short - we arrived within minutes and arranged to meet Said again outside the hotel at 8am the next morning. He dropped us off at the bottom of the winding, steep hill which leads to the Giza plateau, warning us about the touts and advising us to be careful of getting ripped off by the black-and-white taxis on our way back to the hotel. He said a trip to the hotel that evening should cost between E£10-15 (we ended up paying double that, even after haggling).

We walked up the hill as quickly as we could and soon the Great Pyramid was standing majestically in front of us. So much has been written about the Khufu pyramid that there is no point going into detail about its history, save to say that it is the largest and oldest of the pyramids in the Giza funerary complex and was built by the 4th-dynasty king Khufu, who ruled about 2589 BC. My first impression of it was it wasn’t as big as I’d expected but maybe my expectations had been unrealistic.

The entrance was jam-packed with tour groups being disgorged from an intimidating (and deceptively fast moving) line of tour buses. It was about 8.30am (the site opens at 8am) and already there seemed to be far too many people milling around (see directly below). There are two entrances to the plateau: one is just in front of the Sphinx and the other, near the Great Pyramid, is the side we arrived at. Once we’d bought our tickets and gone through the metal detectors, we walked onto the area holding the last of the world’s seven wonders.

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The Giza plateau consists of three pyramids: the Great (or Khufu) Pyramid; the Pyramid of Khafre (which is recognisable by the limestone casing seen on its summit) and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure, the last pyramid built on the plateau. Although the Great Pyramid is the largest of the three, the Pyramid of Khafre (also known as Khephren) is built on higher ground so it appears to be the biggest. Why was the last pyramid the smallest? This represented either a decline in the king's power or a change in priorities, for instance size no longer meant strength or power.

The pyramids are not the only structures of importance at Giza. Apart from the Sphinx there are several tiny pyramids, known as Queens' Pyramids, and tombs, temples and causeways too. These were the burial locations of the king's families and members of the royal court.

I was raring to go and in my haste left Callan struggling to keep up. As I walked, the touts moved in. Their modus operandi was nearly always the same and during the next four days in Cairo we became accustomed to dealing with it. If the tout was on foot they walk up to you and ask cheerily, ‘Hey, where you from?’, followed by ‘What’s your name?’. Then, ‘Do you want to look at these gifts?’ On that first morning I simply ignored them but was soon to discover acknowledgment of the tout’s greeting, along with a polite but firm refusal of any ‘gifts’ soon deters the salesmen while maintaining a civil atmosphere.

Callan, however, was lagging behind and when I looked back I noticed touts, some of whom were calling her ‘beautiful’, were besieging her. Western women on their own are, sadly, particularly vulnerable to sales harassment and I immediately felt bad that I’d hurried away on my own mission with just the most cursory glance backwards to make sure she was okay. I immediately went back and the touts melted away.

From then on, as we walked around the Great Pyramid (see directly below) we stuck together. But the touts, of course, have their own way of trying to soften up couples. ‘Is this your wife?’ they ask mischievously. ‘You are a very lucky man!’ It’s difficult to get annoyed by that – at least not until the 2,500th time. By far the most forward tout was a youngster selling scarves. He started putting one around my neck. ‘A gift!’ he said. I backed away quickly – I’d read about these guys on the Net. The scarf isn’t anybody’s gift, just another tacky sales strategy.

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So far we’d dealt with the walking touts but now we were about to meet the more serious ones: the camel and horse riders. Their pitch is based on taking you to a series of hills above the plateau from where you can see the pyramids in panorama. It costs about E£30 and I would have done it but Callan is not a fan of horse or camel riding and I didn’t want to leave her to fend for herself while I went gallivanting into the desert.

The camel drivers have an unnerving habit of approaching you atop their animals, which can be intimidating. ‘Hey, where you from?’ ‘What’s your name?’ … you get the idea. Lugging around my very visible camera didn’t make life easy – it was a dead giveaway I was some sort of photographer, even if I was only an amateur, and would thus be most interested in seeing 'great shots', as the touts put it.

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It can’t be said the Egyptian government has been sitting on its hands with regard to this harassment of tourists. The tourist police (see directly above) are by a mile the most ubiquitous uniformed presence I’ve seen in any city anywhere. Many speak English and because they are all over they’re not difficult to find if you’re in a pickle. Dressed almost entirely in black they police the touts but can themselves be quite pesky in terms of negotiating a quick tip.

We had our first experience with one soon after arriving. We were walking towards the Sphinx when we stopped to take a closer look at a small temple (see directly below) attached to the Great Pyramid. A horde of schoolchildren suddenly came running up the road, directly towards us. Just before they got to us, a policeman on a camel charged in, shouting at them to back off and was instantly obeyed - an entire group of school kids came to an immediate halt, then turned tail. We thanked the policeman, who didn't miss a beat by inviting us to take a photo of himself on his camel in front of a pyramid.

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‘Where you from?’

‘England,’ said Callan.

‘Oh,’ he grinned. ‘Manchester United!’ Then: ‘Are you David Beckham?’ And motioning towards Callan: ‘Is she Victoria?’

We had a good laugh – and tipped the policeman, who surreptitiously scanned the horizon before accepting the money. We carried on down the hill towards the Sphinx (see directly below), which also wasn’t as large as I’d expected but was quite impressive nonetheless. In front of it were the remains of a temple. ‘Let’s have a look inside,’ Callan suggested. I wasn’t keen because it didn't look too exciting but went anyway.

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This turned out to be Khafre's Valley Temple which held the king's body prior to burial. It was connected via a causeway to the Pyramid of Khafre, instantly recognisable owing to the limestone casing on its summit (see directly below). We walked through the ruins of the temple and found ourselves right next to the Sphinx, almost at eye level with it. Around us, though, were several touts, this time children. The ringleader on this occasion seemed a nasty piece of work, taunting the Asian tourists who weren't accepting his offers of a 'gift'.

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Shortly after we arrived, however, the tourist police responsible for the temple chased all of them away and before we knew it we were sitting on the causeway, under the pleasant sun, in splendid isolation. The Sphinx may not have been as monumental as I expected but it is deeply impressive nonetheless - it is the earliest known monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt, dated around 2500BC - standing 20m high with prominent paws, a long body and an enigmatic expression that has puzzled historians for centuries. Its nose has been blown off, the most obvious flaw, but this has been well documented as having happened before the 15th century. Oddly, Arabs know the Sphinx as Abu al-Hol, which means the 'father of terror'.

Sitting there, taking this all in was, in retrospect, the best moment of our holiday, and I tried to record as much of it as I could in my diary:

Directly in front of me is the Sphinx, to its left where its back is, rises the Pyramid of Khafre. The sounds are of a tractor chugging up the hill towards the plateau; a group of Asian tourists have arrived on our right and are chattering away. Excavations lay all around us. To our right lies the urban sprawl - the Sphinx Guest House with satellite dishes on top. I can also see the First Egyptian Papyrus Museum. In front of us a stray dog picks among the ruins and a tour bus drives slowly towards the Sphinx extrance. Two men are directly below us, in the fenced off area around the Sphinx's feet, working on some sort of restoration but it's not clear exactly what.

It didn't take long for tourists to start filing in at the rate of a human tsunami so we headed back towards the Great Pyramid in order to visit the pod-shaped Solar Boat Museum (see directly below), which is located on the south side of the pyramid, and which houses a full-size Egyptian boat discovered in pieces in 1954, lying in a pit beside the pyramid. The boat may have been buried for the sun-god or for the pharaoh's journey across the heavens.

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My main reason for wanting to visit, though, was that the museum has a toilet and by this time, after several cups of coffee at breakfast, I was bursting. Entrance is E£40 each, almost as expensive as the Giza plateau itself but the cool interior and toilets made it well worth the cost. Although it wasn't hot outside we had had our fill of the sun for a while. The museum has an entrance metal detector and we were required to remove our shoes and wear protective footwear (see directly below) supplied by the museum.

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The toilet system in the museum works in the same way as Continental Europe, with toilet personnel, usually an elderly woman, manning the area and taking a small tip for keeping it clean. The correct tip, we were told, is E£1 (£.10), which is perfectly reasonable - but when we got there and saw the queue for the toilet we realised the scale of the enterprise. If the 'toilet lady' is getting E£1 for each person using the service, she is making a tidy profit. And why not? The charge is a drop in the ocean to most tourists but probably provides her family with some essential creature comforts.

We explored the museum, which contains a replica of the boat as well as the real thing itself (see directly below), before sitting down in the museum shop where we met Romany N Shaheed, the friendly but not overfamiliar shopkeeper, who told us he was the photographer responsible for some of the postcards of the pyramids in the shop. We bought a few souvenirs for friends and family before I asked Romany's advice on how best to photograph the pyramids. He advised us to take a horse or camel (which, he said, would cost no more than about E£30) and he could arrange a camel for me.

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I debated this with Callan (she was not keen on riding either a camel or a horse, mainly owing to her fear of heights). On the other hand I didn't want to go it alone as that would mean leaving her alone to fend for herself. Romany, however, said he didn't mind Callan sitting at the museum bookshop while I was away. He gave us two postcards showing the internal workings of the pyramids and when we tried to give him E£5, he refused it - which made him seem even more trustworthy.

In the event, we went for another walkabout and I started to realise one of the summits from which all the pyramids can be seen was not so far away after all. At one point, I was lured into a photo opp with a rider and his camel named 'Charlie Brown' (see directly below). Before I knew it, I was snapping away as the rider and 'Charlie Brown' grinned widely. After a few shots, I asked Callan, who had our money, to give the tout E£5. She tried to dig a note out of her pocket but instead of a E£5 it was E£20. 'I'll have that,' said Charlie Brown's owner, almost snatching it out of Callan's hands, 'that's my good luck!'

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'It's our good luck too,' Callan said testily, holding the E£20 back. The rider was visibly miffed as we continued searching for E£5. 'American dollars,' he demanded. 'I want American dollars! Egyptian pounds are worthless.'

'We've changed our cash into Egyptian pounds, so it's that or nothing,' I said, regretting having gotten us into this haggling situation. ''Let's make it E£10 and call it quits.' Callan continued trying to dig out a note smaller than E£20 but, Murphy's law, out came another twenty instead.

'Twenty, make it twenty!' the tout demanded, noting we were getting flustered and just wanted to get rid of him. Finally, Callan found the most elusive ten pound note in the whole of North Africa and he was on his way, looking as grumpy as hell, but with the grubby note firmly clenched in his chubby fingers. I just couldn't fathom his annoyance - OK, so E£10 wasn't enough to turn him into Cairo's first Rockefeller, but he'd hardly done much to earn it.

We carried on walking, met a few more riders offering photos and a ride to the top of the distant hills but marched on, ignoring them. I felt bad about dragging Callan with me but thought if we just kept going that little bit further we might reach a spot that would give us a decent view over the plateau. We walked around the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure, with its jagged outer layer, and, looking back, suddenly realised the pyramids were lining up quite nicely behind us. We traipsed over a small plain, then up a small hill where we sat on a strategically placed rock and surveyed the great spectacle in front of us (see sequence directly below).

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Since we had walked most of the way to the highest viewpoint, the touts suddenly left us alone. We received one more offer but this was easily rebuffed. Shortly after we sat down, we were approached by a robed man on a donkey who looked like he had been time-shuttled straight out of the Old Testament. 'Would you like a nice cold Coke to drink?,' he asked, pointing at the white bag which seemed to be weighing down his tiny donkey. We declined, telling him we'd brought our own drinks, so he moved on to the next tourist.

Over the next hour we amused ourselves observing the remarkable sales technique of this man, who we called 'Moses' because of his resemblance to the Bible character. What he did was take his long-suffering donkey onto a high hill to the left of us which overlooked the plateau and the pyramids beyond. There he waited, out of sight, until the camel riders came riding into view with their tourists. Timing it to perfection, 'Moses' would mount his donkey and move at the pace of a runaway express train towards them. Once there, he was all backslapping bonhomie, shaking their hands, offering to take photos of them - and selling them a can or two of Coke. Then he left them to continue on their way while he moved, once again with deceptive speed, back to his spot on the hill, waiting for the next batch of tourists (see sequence directly below).

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This strategy could never have worked unless 'Moses' was in collusion with the camel riders and over time they had clearly moulded it into a fine art. 'Moses' reminded me of a spider which spins its web, then waits, out of sight on the edge, until a fly (in this case a tourist) is tangled in the strands. Once the fly has been dispatched by the fast-moving spider, it hurries nimbly back to the edge of its web and waits for the next fly. Then again, much the same could be said for any salesman in any part of the world, it was just a real experience to witness it out there in the desert.

He did seem a bit cruel towards his donkey, at one point tapping the braying wretch repeatedly on its neck for no apparent reason but at least he is contributing to Cairo's booming tourist industry. While sitting and watching the world go by on that hill we also witnessed a furious argument (see directly below) between a camel rider and a guy on foot. The dispute was being closely watched by a tourist policeman and eventually seemed to end on settled terms.

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At 3pm, Callan and I headed back towards the pyramids and made for the exit. In what seemed like an instant, the large complex had nearly emptied of tourists as if everyone had suddenly been sucked out in a vortex. Still, the relentless touts tried their luck. On our way back, one was particularly annoying. He tried to persuade us to climb a smaller pyramid in order to get a good viewpoint of the others.

Not so long ago climbing the pyramids was as much of a tourist-must as going inside them but since the 1980s this has been strictly forbidden owing to the damage to the pyramids. There were also a few deaths when tourists took a tumble. 'No climbing' warning signs abound (see directly below) and a small fence acts as a boundary between the pyramids and tourists but this tout, lurking behind small mounds on the plateau, had clearly had success with some tourists or he wouldn't have been quite so persistent. He simply would not take 'no' for an answer and started following us at one point, even changing his tack to get a response: `I take photo of you with your camera'. Annoying they may be but not a soul alive would question the touts' perseverance.

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We got to the Solar Boat Museum to use the toilet, said goodbye to Romany and rushed for the exit as it was nearly 4pm - closing time. As we left I noticed a distressed looking donkey tethered to a rock on the plateau. It kept shaking its head miserably, pulling at the rock, but to no avail. There was no owner in sight. (see directly below). Although it seems the animals weren't particularly well treated we didn't see any deliberate acts of cruelty until our last morning in Cairo (of which more later). At the exit, the animals were heading home, down the same steep, winding hill that we had climbed up in the morning (see second image below). Most of them were on their way to the stable complex at the bottom of the hill. This is where most of the camels, horses and donkeys used on the plateau are kept overnight (see third image below).

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We had no luck finding a black-and-white taxi at the entrance because they would not accept Egyptian pounds so we walked to the bottom of the hill where we found a driver who managed to get us back to the Oasis in a few minutes (the journey was E£30 - E£40 with a tip - although Said said it should be no more than E£15).

We had a great dinner at the Safari Bar next to the swimming pool (see directly below). Callan had a cocktail and a Fajita roll; I had a Saqqara beer and a chicken sandwich, and we both had French onion soup and cappuccinos. It cost us E£155.23, which, at about £16, is very reasonable. Then we went to sleep, exhausted and hoping for a slightly less harried Wednesday.

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Posted by davecallan 02:05 Archived in Egypt Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Back on African soil

On arrival at Cairo International Airport, we were excited - and a little nervous

sunny 20 °C
View Unnamed Trip on davecallan's travel map.

We arrived in Cairo at sunset. My first view of the city was exhilirating – I opened the flap on my plane window and saw a golden sun setting over the Nile. The rays reflected in the river, transforming it into a shimmering, golden serpent. It was a promising start. When we got off at the airport we had to go through the rigmarole of getting our visas although, to be fair, this was a fairly straightforward procedure. First you have to line up at the bank, located near customs, where you buy a slightly-larger-than-business-card sized piece of paper called VISA - appropriately enough. Then you join the border control queue where the VISA is stuck into your passport in double quick time. We collected our baggage and tried to hook up with an English lady who was also going to the Oasis so we could save on taxi costs but we then saw a man holding up a name-board with our names on it.

Before we left the UK we had e-mailed the Oasis Hotel, asking if they could arrange a taxi for us. We were told it would cost US$35 (E£175). Our driver, standing at the airport with a name-board, was called Said. Plucky, squat and bursting with backslapping bonhomie, he motioned us over. We were so relieved to have found a lifeline so soon after disembarking we immediately propositioned him about being our driver for the duration of the holiday. Said was only too happy to accept this offer which, in retrospect, must have seemed for him like manna from heaven.

The drive from the airport was fascinating – the infrastructure was good, there were plenty of towering hotels and apartment blocks and every now and then we glimpsed a billboard displaying the face of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president since October 1981. Although he has been democratically elected in successive polls, the validity of some of the results has been questioned. But the West seems only too pleased a moderate man is in charge of such a strategically important Muslim country.

The airport is north-east of the city centre and the suburb through which you pass on your way into Cairo is a leafy, wealthy looking place called Heliopolis. Giza, on the other hand, is south-west of the centre so getting there requires going through central Cairo and crossing the Nile.

It was getting dark as we passed through Cairo, and I asked Said about the location of the Nile. By way of reply, he suddenly pulled up next to the kerb on a bridge and told us to get out and feel the fresh river breeze. Callan and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. We had had a long, tiring day and just wanted to check in to the Oasis as quickly as possible. We certainly hadn’t expected this nocturnal riverside excursion. Said lit up a Marlboro and explained that in summer hordes of people line the bridges over the Nile to escape the stifling heat. We thanked him but reminded him we wanted to get to the hotel ASAP.

Further on, Said started to tell us about his friends who sell perfume and papyrus, and how it wouldn't take long for us to visit them, if we wanted to. We didn't want to. My heart sank - I'd read before arriving in Cairo that some taxi drivers keep it strictly professional without trying to oblige you to buy from their friends while others can be annoying in their insistence. Said was clearly a member of the latter group and, as it was to turn out, fending off his offers became increasingly tiring.

As we drove on towards Giza, the infrastructure deteriorated dramatically. Many of the roads were unpaved, litter clogged the streets as well as a nearby canal and stray dogs and even the odd egret picked through the rubbish. At one point as the car came to a standstill in a traffic jam beggars and lime sellers knocked repeatedly on the car window. There were no traffic lanes and cars, trucks, bicycles, taxis and motorcycles weave around as it pleases them (see image immediately below). Every now and then a donkey cart or camel is thrown in for good measure.

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The miracle is that despite the apparent chaos we never saw a collision, not even a scrape (at least not until the final day when, on our way back to the airport, a car and a bus seemed to be involved in a very minor collision - more on that later). We noticed Said hooted at almost every car he passed, and almost everything he said was punctuated by a touch of his hooter, almost as if it was a full stop. He explained this habit was proudly celebrated as 'Egyptian music'. In the crush of traffic we saw several tiny black-and-white taxis which, Said said, were a cheap and uninsured option.

Armed police were everywhere, acting as traffic lights and guiding the cars. They must have the most stressful job in Cairo!

The scenes were so surreal I felt as though I'd been transported back in time. One image, in particular, looked as if it had been lifted straight out of the Old Testament. Four or five young men dressed in robes and caps, were squatting in a circle on a street corner, chatting amiably while traffic armageddon erupted around them. Across the canal, roosting in a tree, were several white egrets. They looked totally unfazed by the noise - an island of tranquility in a sea of madness.

The cacophony of traffic contrasted so completely with the orderly, sober driving in England that for a short while we were slightly dazed by it all. We at one point glimpsed the side of one of the pyramids, which was being lit up as part of the nightly Sound & Light Shows held at Giza.

Said finally dropped us off at the hotel and agreed to meet the next morning at 7.45am to take us to the Pyramids of Giza, located a few minutes’ drive from the hotel. We checked in and almost immediately a porter called Mohamed appeared and loaded our suitcases onto a trolley. Once you've passed through the lobby but before you get to the bungalows is an entertainment, at the heart of which is a large pool with a small connecting bridge over it. There is a disco, a poolside restaurant and, on the other side of the pool, a bar. An Italian restaurant takes up an upper deck. The pool has a central fountain which changes colour according to the lights.

We were led past this area and on to our room, which is more of a bungalow, and tipped Mohamed for his efforts. Our first impressions of the Oasis were good; Callan even said later that it is the best hotel we’d stayed in. Most of the rooms are on the ground floor and even though I have never been to India, I imagine it looks something like this. Outside our room, towering palm trees lined the pedestrian paths and the sound of hooters eventually faded to silence. When contrasted with some of the scenes of abject poverty outside, the hotel is indeed an 'oasis'.

Our room consisted of two large double beds, a small fridge, a desk and a spacious bathroom, all ideal for our needs. There was also a TV with Euro News and CNN.

We decided to order in: I ordered a margerita pizza, a Stella beer (authentic Egyptian, apparently) and a cappuccino and Callan ordered a vegeterian pizza and cappuccino. Added onto the cost were a room service charge, a sales tax and 'city tax' of 2%. A young guy called Nasr arrived half an hour later with our dinner. We tipped him as appropriate, then less than an hour later he was back, brandishing a plate of salted peanuts, which he said was a ‘gift’ for us. But there’s no such thing as a free meal, particularly in Egypt, and Nasr got his second tip.

We slept fairly well given it was our first night away from home; perhaps it was just exhaustion from a long day of travel.

Posted by davecallan 23:03 Archived in Egypt Tagged lodging Comments (0)

Cairo on our minds

But could we take the heat of four days in the sprawling Egyptian capital?

In October 2007, after much deliberation, Callan and I decided to visit Cairo, Egypt the following month. We had initially planned to go to Barcelona but the weather there is not guaranteed to be sunny in November and, in any event, it is not significantly warmer than the UK. Cairo’s weather, on the other hand, is ideal in November – the heat isn’t as stifling as it is in summer and early autumn but is still pleasantly sunny and warm.

Callan has always wanted to do a seven-night Nile cruise to Luxor but this was financially beyond our means – even only five nights in Cairo stretched our budget to the limit (and in fact, ended up exceeding it). I wanted to spend at least six nights in Cairo as I had a feeling if we did visit it would be the first and last time so I wanted to see it properly but we could simply not afford to stay that long.

We could, of course, have stayed in a cheaper hotel but a cursory check on the Net proved that staying in anything less than a four-star is asking for trouble. So we settled on the Oasis Hotel in Giza’s Alexandria Desert Road, which we read was close to the Giza plateau.

Once we’d booked the flights and the hotel, we started asking colleagues and acquaintances who had visited Egypt, and specifically Cairo, if they had any advice. The opinions varied greatly – the head of the accounts department where I work heartily recommended it. She goes there regularly and says it’s her favourite holiday destination because the people are so friendly and there is so much culture.

Another colleague, who’d done the cruise but not visited Cairo, said the experience was a culture shock, which she’d at the time been too young to appreciate. Cruelty towards the animals had upset her, she said. And an acquaintance concurred: he was glad he’d gone but wouldn’t go again. The harassment from touts had been a major turn-off and he advised us to use hygienic hand-rub after handling the cash.

Reviews from tourists on the Net also gave us a glimpse into this rambling, ancient metropolis. Some complained about the state of many public toilets while others described their experiences with bad food and water. This last point was my biggest concern. I didn’t want to blow an almighty amount of money to go to Cairo only to spend my time sitting on the toilet with dysentery.

Callan was uneasy about going, and I agreed with her main complaint: if you go on holiday, you want to ‘get away from it all’ and relax, not end up haggling over everything and worrying about hygiene. At the same time I felt we’d never have a better opportunity to see something most people never get to see – the pyramids of Giza and the sphinx. It was maybe worth tolerating all the inconveniences for four days if the reward was seeing this only surviving wonder of the ancient world.

There was, in any event, no point in debating the issue – we were booked on the 9.50am British Midlands flight from Heathrow to Cairo on Monday, 12 November.

Posted by davecallan 09:10 Archived in Egypt Tagged preparation Comments (0)

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