Updated: Mar 31, 2019
I took a train down the Nile to Luxor from Cairo. To give some idea of the disparity between 'tourist' prices and ordinary prices for Egyptians, the night train (a 10-11 hour journey), which foreigners are strongly encouraged to take, costs about $80 per person. The day train, 1st class ticket costs about $15 per person. 2nd class $9. Despite having to waste a day traveling, the prohibitive price of the night train gave very little choice. Up until this point, I had avoided having to travel in convoy, which a lot of tourists to Egypt do, or even having to worry about only taking certain trains or buses which the police want you to be on as a tourist. Travelling south down the Nile valley from Cairo, or even east or west across the desert from anywhere in the Nile valley, involves certain travel restrictions however. This is basically the result of the short terrorist bombing campaign in the 90's and the isolated bombings in 2005. The authorities have reacted in a heavy-handed, over-zealous way, ostensibly to 'protect' tourists from the terrorist threat (some tourists were targeted in Sinai, but mainly in large hotels) - and this is why the 'convoy' system, in which large groups of tourist buses travel together down the highways at certain times, exist. In reality, you can dodge this quite easily when you travel from one major city to another, as I did here, but can cause problems when you find yourself in a small village by the Red Sea, as I was to find out to my cost later. In my view, it's all a ridiculous over-reaction, fuelled by paranoia of losing its most valuable commodity - tourism - and supported both by the police, who no doubt take back-handers left, right and centre, and the tourist agencies, taxi drivers, bus operators and countless other people who stand to make lots of dollars from scared tourists traveling round in nice big flocks to keep themselves safe from the wolves. Only, they're not really safe; If I was a terrorist, and was of the mind to blow up some tourists, I think I would find it quite easy to find a nice big line of traffic and lob a bomb at it, knowing that I wouldn't be risking killing any of my fellow Muslims.
Lifeblood of Egypt
The train journey down the Nile was pleasant if unspectacular. Unlike the rest of the country, which is utterly barren and mainly desert, the Nile valley is spectacularly lush and green. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt, and, along with tourists, allows the country to function at a reasonably comfortable level by African standards. Without these two things, it would be on its knees. I mean, it is a very poor country - annual average income is something less than $2000 - but it would be on a par with neighbouring Sudan or nearby Chad were it not for this. The Nile flows over 6000km through 9 countries, but arguably Egypt is the country which profits most greatly from it. The Nile still supports much of the population living along its banks, with the Egyptians living in otherwise inhospitable regions of the Sahara. The river floods every summer, depositing fertile silt on the plains. The flow of the river is disturbed at several points by 'cataracts', which are sections of faster-flowing water with many small islands, shallow water, and rocks, forming an obstacle to navigation by boats.The Nile made the land surrounding it extremely fertile when it flooded or was inundated annually. The Egyptians were able to cultivate wheat and crops around the Nile, providing food for the general population. Also, the Nile's water attracted game such as water buffalo and after the Persians introduced them in the 7th century BC, camels. Crocodiles also existed all along the Nile until relatively recently - they were mostly hunted to extinction down the length of the river, but still exist in large numbers in Lake Nasser, the huge reservoir further south which was created by flooding ancient Nubia to create what is at 350km the biggest man-made lake in the world.
On the train, I got talking to a French couple and a Russian couple. It's a theory of mine that travelling couples are rarely interesting to meet, and I was proved right here. The French couple seemed obsessed with not spending money, and went on tediously about how little money they had spent so far, and how little they intended to spend on the rest of the trip. They seemed almost evangelical about it. Although I personally am a fan of not overspending, they took it to great lengths, and even chided me for wasting money on a modest breakfast that I bought on the train for a couple of dollars. The Frenchman smugly produced some ready-made croissants with little plastic packets of marmalade and a flask of coffee. I would later bump into this irritating couple back in Hurghada, proudly telling me how they had sneaked into one of the hotels with private beaches, pretending to be customers and avoiding paying for going in. The Russian couple - naturalized Canadians - had the usual attitudes of those escaping their homeland for somewhere 'better' - quite disparaging about everything, eager to tell you how unsatisfactory everything is in comparison to their new found homeland. Alexandria, in their opinion, was unremarkable and 'could be done in an afternoon'. Cairo - 'too many people, ugly'; the Red Sea 'too crowded'. Basically, they were enjoying having a bad time and confirming to themselves Canada was better. They seemed to actively enjoy criticizing everything they saw around them; at about 5pm, when the train should have been nearing Luxor, the guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me with great pleasure and what seemed like a touch of schadenfreude that the train, according to the conductor, would be 'a little late' - three hours late in fact. He had a very big, smug and self-satisfied grin on his face, as if it confirmed everything he knew about the world. He shrugged his shoulders and said 'we are in Egypt!' I tried to have a doze, and failed. I have to admit I've been places where I've met better backpackers.
Luxor - the bad news
We got to Luxor at 8pm, after 12 hours and about 650km. We were met at the station by the inevitable touts, but refused them and made our way to a recommended hostel in the middle of the souq, downtown. Luxor is unquestionably the tourist - and hassle - capital of Egypt. But it's given a run for it's money by Aswan and the Pyramids of Giza. I was ripped off buying a couple of beers, doubly - charged too much and then short-changed, only realizing it when it was too late. Practically everyone in the city lives off tourists - the whole place is basically a huge outdoor museum - and everyone speaks several languages and is proficient at convincing you that you want to buy something. Most people are out for 'baksheesh' (tips or backhanders), for the slightest service rendered, sometimes for nothing at all other than the fact you are foreign and they are not. At one point, we were walking down a street, and looked into someone's back yard - it looked interesting, so we peeked in. A woman beckoned us in. She pointed to a rough bench and said 'that's where I sleep'. I looked at her. She was smartly dressed and was holding a mobile phone in her hand. 'Can you give me some baksheesh?' I gave her 20 pounds - $0.50. 'Is that all? haven't you got a 50?' she asked. This type of attitude I find annoying in the extreme. Most Egyptians are genuinely poor, and they work hard to scrape a living. This woman clearly was making a decent living from begging. If tourists stopped coming to Egypt, towns like Luxor would just fall apart. Everywhere you turn, particularly anywhere along the river or near any of the major monuments - which are just about everywhere in Luxor - you get accosted by someone trying to sell you something, show you around, take you somewhere or rip you off. All of these things make Luxor tiresome and taxing on your patience. You just have to develop a fixed, steely, determined forward stare, and an inner determination to get from a to b without being waylaid. The most loaded - and usually the first question - that people on the street ask you in Egypt is 'where are you from?'. This one question puts you instantly into a social and economic framework that they can understand and subsequently manipulate you with - and when you refuse to answer this question, it drives them to distraction. Alternatively, if you tell them you're from some unlikely place like Belarus or Albania, they get confused, but don't usually believe you. I usually say I'm from Poland in these situations, to hedge my bets.
Luxor - the good news
On the other hand, Luxor is incredible. It has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to monuments, temples, tombs and relics from antiquity. The Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Tombs of the Nobles, Karnak, the Temple of Hapshepsut, Tuttenkhamoun's tomb...these are just the most important sites, and there are countless others to see. If you were serious about it, you could spend two weeks here and not see everything. As a layman, you get confused and don't really know where to start. For this reason, people sign up en-masse for group tours and leave it to other people to decide where they should go. This is a reasonable thing to do I suppose in the case of Luxor because unless you know something about the subject and are sure about which of the hundreds of tombs or temples you want to see, it's damn near impossible to decide for yourself - especially if you're pressed for time. I decided not to do a group tour though, and instead hired bicycles to try and see the main sights in one day. Of course this was overly-ambitious, and I ended up seeing only a fraction of what there was to see on the west bank, and virtually nothing at all of the east bank. Most of the sights are located on the west bank though, so it's better to start there. As you cycle west from the river, some high mountains rear up from the plains, and as you get closer you see little excavations in the side of the mountain face where some of the tombs have been dug. The main attraction is called The Valley of the Kings and it is a place of death, where nothing grows on its scorching cliffs. It is a majestic place of the pharaohs who once lay there in great sarcophagi, awaiting immortality. The isolated valley behind the Temple of Hapshepsut is dominated by the pyramid-shaped mountain peak of Al-Qurn (The Horn). Having cycled up to the edge of the magnificent Hapshepsut temple, which appears to have been built into the cliff-face by nature herself, I decided not to proceed any further because of the masses of tourists already inside. From a distance, they looked like ants milling around. There were scores of tour buses in the car park, and hundreds of touts trying to lure them in. One gullible couple, fresh off the plane, were made to pay 100 Egyptian pounds for a bottle of water and a packet of Pringles ($20). this is a good weekly wage in Egypt. We decided to climb up, high out of the valley and up a mountain path that would take us along a ridge, up The Horn peak and down the other side to the Valley of the Kings.
The views from up there were just amazing, some up of the best in Egypt, I was told. Amazingly, hardly anyone else had thought to do the same thing. It was a tough 90 minute climb in the hot sun - about 25 degrees and no shade - so maybe they were right. But the silence and beauty there was amazing. I descended to the Valley of the Kings and checked out a few tombs - one of the Ramses', Tuthmosis iv, Seti i. I was just trying to avoid huge groups, so I didn't see any of the more important ones. The carvings, colour in the engravings and state of the tombs seemed only a few hundred years old, not over four thousand. A taxi journey back to the bike was overpriced but overall it was worth it and, without the whole tour group thing spoiling the ambience, would have been truly fantastic. I made it back to the ferry over the Nile for sunset. I hadn't, perhaps, quite 'done' Luxor, but as I've said before, I'm no archaeological trainspotter, and I had no intention of going to every tomb and sarcophogus in Luxor - a taste was enough for me, and besides, my time was almost up. I had a flight back home from Hurgadha in three days and still had one more major city to see - Aswan.
More travel headaches
I went to Aswan on a night bus. This was easier said than done - the convoy system was in effect in this region, and shared taxi drivers refused to let me travel with them, leaving me reliant on buses (there only being one train line in Egypt, down the Nile from Alex to Aswan). Buses in Egypt are rubbish - slow, overcrowded, prone to break-downs and lateness, often never arriving at their destinations at all. I was made to wait for a bus for two hours before being told it wasn't coming; the night-bus I wouldn't have been allowed on at all if it weren't for extreme persistence and willingness to pay a substantial sum of baksheesh. The trip took 9 hours and was extremely uncomfortable - especially at the beginning, when everyone on the bus (no foreigners) were all staring and frowning at me. 'you should be on the convoy', the guy next to me said. 'is better for you tourist'. I was, it was clear, unwelcome. Whether this was down to genuine concern for my welfare, support for the travel sector, or simply repetition of government advice/propaganda, I never found out. I can say I never felt that Egypt was at all dangerous, certainly not enough for me to give up on independent travel and throw my lot in with the organized tours anyway. Eventually, after a prolonged police stop at which I thought I was going to be thrown off the bus, we got moving and I got talking to the guy next to me. He agreed with me that the policing and travel rules for foreigners in Egypt are crazy and unhelpful, but he shrugged his shoulders and said that 'is good against terrorists', and left it at that. Quite how not letting a foreigner travel on a locals' bus is helping in the fight against terrorism, I don't know.
Aswan - laid back charms
Aswan was similar to Luxor in many ways, but not so loaded with monuments and sights - although no less loaded with touts and persistent, annoying taxi drivers and felukah boat captains. It has a distinctly different feel to the rest of Egypt - you're quite far south here and nearing the Sudan - and you really begin to feel you're on the African continent. The area to the south of Aswan, flooded to create Lake Nasser, is called Nubia, and is an ancient kingdom. Many Egyptian Nubians were forcibly resettled to make room for Lake Nasser after the construction of the dams at Aswan. Nubian villages can now be found north of Aswan on the west bank of the Nile and on Elephantine Island, and many Nubians live in large cities such as Cairo.
Egyptian Nubians tend to be far more socio-economically disadvantaged within Egypt, and they of course rely on tourists to supplement their income by selling small trinkets and souvenirs - many of which are simple but good quality things and worth buying if you're going to buy souvenirs at all - it's always nicer to support an ailing culture and give money to those who really need it. The island in the middle of the Nile here (Elephantine) is an excellent place to explore this culture, with ancient villages with mud-brick huts, little warrens of streets and wizened old men cultivating fields or smoking sheesha pipes. It was an oasis away from the modern, busy market and station areas of Aswan, and somewhere to escape the noise and crowds. The Nubian culture, which is best seen in this area and parts of northern Sudan along the Nile, has been mostly wiped out, and the Nubians have paid a high price for the greater good in Egypt - millions of hectares of land, villages, homes, lost under Lake Nasser. It reminded me a bit of the Kurdistanis in eastern Turkey, another culture spread in two or more countries without a land of its own - which also lost of territory to a lake building project. All in all, it feels like the start of 'black Africa' - and is quite separate from what I'd seen so far in the rest of Egypt, culturally and economically. It's literally and metaphorically an island in the middle of Egypt.
Other things to see in or near Aswan; 'The Old Cataract', a world famous Edwardian era hotel in which Agatha Christie set part of 'Death on the Nile'; a hotel which harks back to a bygone age and which fits the whole lethargic, archaic feel of Aswan. Very difficult to get into if you're not a resident - I became a bit of a joke to the guards by the gate, who kept asking which room I was staying in before allowing me in, and who would laugh and turn me away every time I came up with a number like 6, 305, 117 or 896, saying 'there is no room number like that'. Anything, absolutely anything, official, vaguely connected with the government, or touristy, is expensive and surrounded by armed police in Egypt, most of whom seem listless and bored due to lack of terrorists. I cycled to the Aswan High Dam, and ridiculously had to hire a taxi to get across it because the police wouldn't allow me to cycle across. (It was disappointing; for a construction which took 12 years to build and used more ten times more building material than the Pyramids, it was extremely unspectacular and not very high at all). I did some other sightseeing stuff in Aswan, hiking up a hill and across a desert on the desert on the west bank on the final day to get to some tombs and St. Simeon's fortified monastary which was a long and sweaty but worthwhile hike, and another good way to escape the crowds, not that there were too many in Aswan. The views afforded back over the Nile to Aswan and over Elephantine Isle were superb. I was in such a good mood on the way back that I finally gave in to one of the persistent felukah touts and took a boat trip as the sun set - a fitting ending to an unforgettable trip, along the Nile on a sail boat, taking in the last sunset I'd see in Egypt. Worth the $15 fee for sure.
All Worth it
I had grown a bit tired of travelling alone and being treated like walking dollars, and I was finally ready to come home after a eight week trip which had taken me through six countries, several major cities and countless unforgettable experiencea. Egypt had been good but I was at the end of a long trip and at times my patience was wearing a bit thin. I'd like to have continued down the Nile to see Abu Simbal, near the Sudanese border and site of more incredible monuments, but my time had run out. This was the end of the line for me - all that was left was a night in the scrappy tourist town by the coast at Hurgadha before flying home. Spending some time in Sinai had been crucial, as its laid-back vibe in and around Dahab was a counter-balance to the hassles and crowds down the Nile Valley. Despite all its sights and amazing monuments, the Nile Valley experience is tainted somewhat by the people you meet as a tourist (and every foreigner is treated as one) - the over-zealous police, the tooting taxi-drivers who curb-crawl behind you because they hope for a high fare, the faux 'guides' at all the sights, the market traders, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and ubiquitous touts - all these things spoil the heart of Egypt, and I suspect that when I go back there (which I will) to see the more undiscovered western desert regions, I will see a completely different country. On the occasions when I got talking to some 'real' people in Egypt, ie ones who had no interest in money, I met really great people with big hearts, who were genuinely welcoming and glad to see me. This reflected my experience of the Middle East in general; almost everywhere I had been, but especially those places off the beaten track, I had met friendliness, welcoming people who were curious and interested, genuinely happy to see a traveller in their country. Terrorism is obviously always at the back of your mind when you travel through the Levant - there is no denying it's a possibility - but it stays at the back of it, because you feel at the same time to be with some of the best people on Earth. I look back on my trip through the Levant as a golden era, when travel was relatively safe and easy and I was blessed with the ability to move around in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt more or less unhindered. I hope that this day will return. In the meantime, aside from Syria which is still not safe to visit, look beyond the headlines and go to the region after checking travel advisories. You won't regret it.
Currently, Egypt is considered safe to visit, but in certain areas only. Here is the travel advisory as of May 2018. All of the places I visited in these blogs are considered safe except Dahab - the Sinai peninsula is an ISIS and Muslim brotherhood hotbed, so independent travel is not possible. Independent travel along the Nile Valley as I described it is highly unlikely if not impossible. Package tours may now be the only option. No large-scale attacks on tourists have happened since 2005. Desert regions to the west are not considered safe.
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This blog is the final part of an eight part series. To see the previous part, on Sinai & Cairo, please go here: