The Middle East (Part 8/8) - Egypt - Luxor & Aswan

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Falukah on the Nile at Aswan, Egypt
Plain sailing: a falukah on the Nile at Aswan

Travel restrictions

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.

Nubian man, Aswan, Egypt
Nubian man, Aswan

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.

Egptian family, Al-Aksir, Red Sea Coast, Egypt
Egptian family, Al-Aksir, Red Sea Coast


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.

Hapshepsut Temple, Luxor, Egypt
Hapshepsut Temple, Luxor - not off the beaten track

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.

Temple, Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt
Temple, Valley of the Kings

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.