Egypt: Cairo and the Overnight Train

Day 3 (March 11, 2007): Cairo to Aswan: First the Egyptian Museum where our guide will take us back back to ancient Egypt and the time of the Pharaohs. From her to Giza for a guided tour of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx. In the evening we board our overnight train for Aswan. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

I was up at 6:00 and got to breakfast by 7:00. At 7:30 we boarded the bus and went to the Great Pyramid Complex. There was a lot more traffic this morning then there had been when I came in on Friday. We went through a roundabout that had people standing all around it, apparently this is where people wait to be picked up by local transportation to take them to work. We got to the pyramids at 8:00 and got tickets for the Great Pyramid (built for Cheops (AKA Khufu) in 2560 BC). Sherif told us that they only sell 250 or so tickets for the pyramid in the morning and then another set in the afternoon so if you’re not there early enough you won’t get tickets. The tickets were 100 LE (50 LE for students, which I managed to get with my expired student card – go me!).

No cameras are allowed in Cheops Pyramid, but we could have easily gotten one in, security consisted of occasionally asking people if they had cameras, they didn’t even look in people’s bags. When we were waiting on line Adam and I tried to convince each other to go and get a camera, but neither of us did. Walking up to the entrance was a little scary since you had to walk up part of the pyramid and while there were stairs, there were no railings and the stones were each almost as tall as me.

Inside the pyramid was initially like a cave but then there was a narrow (wide enough for about one and a half people but was designed for one person going up and one person going down) passage with an incline and low ceiling, a challenge for claustrophobics. When we were waiting to go up this passage people were coming down and they looked a little shocked, it had me a little worried. At the top of this passage there was a bigger room with a high ceiling (I think the top of the pyramid) and a steep incline to climb. After that you went under two low pillars from the ceiling and were finally in the burial chamber. It was a big dark room with an empty broken coffin type thing in the middle. I, like many other people, were a bit disappointed. We expected a bunch of painted rooms, and this was not that. And then we had to go back down, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that there were a ton of people still coming in, and now people who had gone up after us were starting to come down, needless to say it was getting really crowded inside and it was quite hot to add to it. I think they need to get rid of a number limit on the people going in and just have better control of the number of people inside the pyramid at any one time.

After the pyramid we got our cameras from the bus and took pictures of ourselves on the pyramid. As we moved around the pyramid Tara wanted to go look at a tomb on the side. The tomb was for Senegemib, who was a Chief Justice. This tomb, while above ground, was more like everyone had expected in the pyramid. It was a couple different rooms and carvings in the walls. The guy inside was really friendly and wanted to take our pictures. Tara quickly handed her camera to the guy while Tim and I hesitated expecting him to run off with the camera. But he was nice and in the end we all gave him our cameras and he even gave them back before asking for baksheesh (tip).

After that tomb we started to walk over to the second pyramid but didn’t get far before a guy started to demand Karen’s camera because she was taking a picture of the policeman on a camel with the 2nd pyramid in the background. I guess his “job” is to take people’s pictures with the police and the pyramid. She almost gave the camera to the guy before Tim pretty much dragged her away.

By the time we got to the second pyramid (Khafre’s Pyramid) it was 9:30 and we didn’t really have time to go inside since we were meeting Sherif at 9:45. While we were standing around there were quite a few kids walking around trying to sell us stuff (mostly cheesy replicas of the pyramids), but it wasn’t overwhelming or nearly as bad as I expected.

The bus then drove us to a look out spot past the third pyramid (Menkaure’s Pyramid). Everyone jumped out for pictures and some guy harassed Tim and I to take a picture with him. We tried really hard to avoid him but these guys all stand in the way of the view so you can’t, it culminated with him pretty much plopping a thing on my head, handing me a stick and Tim taking the picture. Then Tim had to get in the picture. In the end I sorda wandered away a bit while Tim told him he didn’t have any money on him. The picture was free, but he wanted baksheesh and since we made every reasonable effort to avoid this guy, I didn’t feel bad about not giving him anything.

After that Sherif took us to the camel guy for our camel rides. I must admit I was really excited to ride a camel and despite all the bad things I heard about camels. I did not get peed on and it didn’t spit!

My camel was attached to Reid and Jacquie’s camels and our guide was on a donkey, so our camels went faster then everyone else’s. Getting on wasn’t the easiest and when he stood up I was a little freaked out since he did the back legs first and I felt like I was going to take a header. And camels don’t make for the smoothest ride, but it’s a camel and that’s cool in its own right, even if it made me nervous. So the camels took us from the area of the 3rd pyramid through the desert to the Sphinx. Along the way I noticed a lot of garbage in the desert, which is disappointing; I wanted to see miles of clean sand. As we came around a corner you could see the head of the Sphinx sticking out of the ground. There were also areas being excavated in the pyramid complex, a reminder that there is still a lot to be found in Egypt.

Near the Sphinx we got off our camels and Sherif talked to us about the complex, embalming (which takes 70 days) and the Sphinx. Then he pointed us in the direction of the embalming building which would lead us to the side of the Sphinx, and told us where to meet him. At the front of the embalming building there was insanity! Holy people trying to sell crap! Ok, it wasn’t all crap, I thought the singing and dancing camels were kinda cute (my sister wasn’t so enchanted by the one I bought my nephew), but I was not ready for these people, you couldn’t take a step without walking by one of them. Inside the embalming building there were a ton of people, you could barely walk around. I went up to see the Sphinx which was pretty cool. I had recently seen a show where they talked about the Sphinx and how they are doing restoration work on it, so the bottom of it seemed to be in better shape then the top. It would probably help if someone hadn’t chiseled off the nose of it. After that we met for our group photo with the Sphinx and Pyramids in the background then we walked to the bus.

Our next stop was the Egyptian Museum. On the way we drove through downtown Cairo which wasn’t looking much better then the other day. Though maybe the buildings weren’t quite as bad as I thought, they were just ugly and the city is dirty. What I did notice was a lot of garbage, everywhere. Along one of the roads there was a small river and intermittently there would be heaps of garbage in it. And generally the roads and sidewalks would be a littered. I started to wonder what type of organized trash collection they had. As a general theme throughout the trip I noticed a distinct lack of garbage cans and when there was one it was hidden/small or not very garbage can like. I think this lack of garbage can thing makes it difficult for well intentioned people to throw garbage out properly, adding to the liter in the city. Sherif showed us where the nice part of town is, in Giza (on the West Bank of the Nile) on the Nile where a 1 bedroom apartment costs about 2 Million Egyptian Pounds. While this area did seem a bit nicer, it was NOT Park Avenue, though I’m sure the view from these buildings is amazing.

Sherif told us we would not be able to bring our cameras into the museum, which is true and disappointing. After having been to the Louvre and the Hermitage (which were both originally built as palaces) this museum wasn’t nearly as fancy as I am used to. Apparently after having been to two of the most famous museums in the world and maybe a handful of other museums I have become a museum snob. But I saw more pieces here then I saw in the Louvre and I stayed awake here which I couldn’t manage to do at the Hermitage, so I guess this was a better experience. Actually, it was a great experience. Sherif gave a great tour, he didn’t try to overload us with info, but chose some select pieces related to our travels in Egypt and gave a good explanation of them and Egyptian art in general. We saw pieces from Hatshepsut, Ramses II, King Tut and others. We finished up with the items from King Tut’s tomb, and based on the amount of stuff in his tomb (which is the only tomb they have found intact) I couldn’t even fathom what they would have found in Ramses II’s tomb if it had not been raided. Sherif directed us to the King Tut room and the Mummy room. We all went in the King Tut room which has his coffins (his body was inside 3, 2 are displayed in the King Tut Room, the 3rd holds his body in his tomb at the Valley of the Kings), his famous mask and other items. No one was in front of the mask when I walked in so I went there first and just stared at it for a minute. It was amazing, even by today’s standards. I would have to say the same about the coffins, they’re incredibly ornate.

My next stop was the Mummy Room; I went with Jacqui, Adam and Jenna. I tried to get the student rate again, but I was busted. Though the guy gave me a student ticket but charged me 80 LE instead of the full 100 LE, so I wonder if he pocketed the 30 LE (the student rate is 50 LE). Mummies are weird looking and freaky, but since I doubt I’ll have this opportunity again, I had to do it, besides they are a couple thousand years old so I guess they can look weird. With our last 20 minutes I went to the Hilton with Jacqui, Adam and Ed to get money. The most exciting part of this trip was the bathroom, they have a really nice bathroom here and the woman wasn’t asking us for baksheesh either.

We met at 2:30 outside the museum and were finally going to lunch. When we arrived the waiters put a bunch of stuff on the table, hummus, green stuff that tasted like cold pea soup, salsa, kosheri, pitas and falafel. I should mention that I am really picky with food and was nervous that I would starve while here. But with the encouragement of my tour mates I tried everything and I survived, I even liked most of it. Then we had a main course, I had chicken, which was very good.

Back on the bus after lunch were on the way to the papyrus store. When the bus went to turn around, we were hit by a car with a female driver. The bus driver got out and tried to help her put her headlight back in, but they couldn’t get it in so she put it in her car and she drove off. Apparently, no one really has car insurance and when you get in an accident you just help each other out and go on your way. At the papyrus shop a girl did a little demo of how papyrus paper is made, how to tell if it’s real and showed us a couple popular pieces. I bought 2 different pieces. One was of my sign (cancer) with my name on it and the other had camels walking through the desert past the pyramids. I would have liked to get one with more Egyptian type of art on it, but I couldn’t honestly see myself hanging any of it in my room. The two pieces I bought are hanging in my dining room.

Our next stop was a perfumery in a Nubian village near the pyramids. Here we got to experience some Egyptian hospitality. When we came in they served us all the drink of our choice, told us a little about themselves and then brought out some samples. I had heard they do this in Egypt, and that it’s not just a ploy to get you to buy stuff, it’s just their hospitality. Before going I swore I wasn’t getting any perfume. Needless to say the samples they had us try were quite nice and I bought a bottle of Lotus Flower for my mother. I think the part of this stop was that was funny was that just as many men as women were trying the perfumes, it was funny to look across the room and see all these guys smelling perfume. Towards the end they offered a second round of drinks and sheesha. There was another tour in another room at the place and a couple people were leaving when we were leaving. A woman saw the sheesha and thought it was pot and asked about it. Someone told her it was a water pipe with tobacco, she was basically horrified and said it was disgusting. At this point I didn’t totally get the whole sheesha thing and even I knew she was being an ignorant tourist. Then it was time to go to the train station.

I had heard a variety of stories about the overnight train to Aswan. They ranged from being ok to hearing that people didn’t use the bathroom for 20 hours because it was so gross. We arrived a little past 8:00 and Sherif arraigned to have our bags brought over to the platform where our train car was (since we were 20 people we would have a whole car to ourselves). While we waited for our train (which was leaving at 8:45) we had time to buy some snacks in case dinner wasn’t enough for us, I bought some chips. Our room was really small but had two seats and two fold down beds (the seats were also the fold down bed) and a sink. It wasn’t fancy but it was clean and more modern then I thought it would be. We had dinner in our cabins, which consisted of a burger that I think had peppers in it, something unidentifiable and cake. It’s best described as bad airplane food.

After dinner people hung out in the hallway for a bit then went to the club car. I didn’t stay there too long since it was smoky. Then I hung out in our train car talking to people and eventually made my way back to the club car since that was where the action was. At some point Ed spilled a drink on himself, which really sucked for him, especially since most people had there cameras with them. I went back to my room around midnight.

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