February 27, 2019

The Good, Bad & Ugly of the Middle East – Part 2

In the first part of the Middle East series, I reflected on Jordan’s hospitality and great sights. In fitting with the theme, let’s go back to our first country which was Egypt. One thing that can make or break a person’s impression of a country is the people and unfortunately, this is where Egypt failed despite having wonders such as the Pyramids and the low cost of travel.
Pharaoh Khafre's Pyramid

Egypt’s Bad People

Harassment was commonplace wherever we went in Egypt. Taxi drivers, merchants, and even people offering camel rides don’t seem to take no for an answer; always claiming they can “offer a good price” and many of them follow you or show stuff in your face. It's best to ignore them. People there demand a tip (baksheesh) for almost everything including watching shoes in a mosque, opening doors, or taking pictures. Some locals would try to take selfies with random tourists, which we found weird. Dealing with merchants meant haggling over the price of everything to avoid being ripped off, though tourists are expected to pay multiple times more than locals for site admission and transportation including overnight sleeper trains.
Outside Khan El Khalili - Cairo's main market
At their worst, some Egyptians will outright scam you which almost happened to us when getting to the Pyramids. While I am thankful Helen stopped me and no money was lost, the situation wasted enough time to ruin our pyramid experience and is something I am ashamed of. I wouldn't recommend taking Cairo's metro when heading to the Pyramids, given that was how we got suckered in. Cairo is one of the few cities where I recommend Uber – despite the language barrier – to ensure you get to the right place given the poor reputation of Cairo’s taxi drivers, though some people may feel more comfortable going with a tour group instead.

Crazy Cairo
Cairo is heavily polluted and an unpleasant place for pedestrians
If you thought streets in Toronto (or other North American cities) were unsafe, they are a breeze compared to those in Cairo. Not only are there 20 million people to deal with, crossing Cairo’s streets was a real challenge and the pollution was so bad you could smell it. No way we were going to bike there, though we still noticed a few carrying large bread trays on their bikes despite bike lanes being nonexistent.
The koshari is one of Egypt's best known dishes
When it comes to food, no trip to Egypt can be complete without some koshari; a delicious dish of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and tomato sauce. Abu Tarek – near the Dahab Hostel we stayed at – serves it fast with a large bowl costing only 30 Egyptian Pounds ($2.25)!
Saint Samaan the Tanner Cave Church
While in Cairo, we started with the Saint Samaan the Tanner cave church. Getting there involved riding a tuk tuk through Manisheyat Nasir (a.k.a. garbage city) whose residents (Zabaleen) recycle 80% of the trash they collect; putting many Western cities to shame. We then walked around Islamic Cairo with their mosques, the historic Muizz Street, and the Abdel Zaher bookstore. Among the mosques, the Al Azhar was the most beautiful with marble floors and stunning architecture.
Inside the Egyptian Museum
The second day got us some time at the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum before taking the overnight sleeper train to Luxor. The Egyptian Museum’s vast collection – including mummies – would require several days to see them all, though not all artifacts are properly labelled.

Luxor’s Temples and Tombs

The Pyramids may be Egypt’s biggest attraction, but Luxor – the Ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes – puts Cairo to shame with the number of temples and tombs, as well as the reduced stress in getting around. At least two days are needed to visit Luxor, though some people recommended three or four days.
Entrance to King Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings
We hired a guide for our two days in Luxor who wasn’t that great. For the first day, we visited Luxor’s West Bank starting with the Valley of the Kings where the tombs of the Pharaohs were found. The base admission allows you to visit three tombs, though certain ones such as King Tutankhamen’s cost extra. Photos are technically not allowed inside the tombs despite there being a photo permit (what’s the point?), but we still saw many tourists with cameras. Given the beauty inside the tombs, who could blame them?
At Queen Hatshepsut's Temple
The other West Bank destinations we visited include Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, Tomb of the Nobles, Deir el Medina (where the Kings Valley workers stayed), Valley of the Queens, and Medinat Habu. While we didn’t visit Queen Nefetari’s tomb given the steep admission fee of 1000 Egyptian Pounds ($75), you can admire its beauty on YouTube.
Karnak Temple is one of the main sights of Luxor's East Bank
Since the second morning was free, we took a ferry and rented bikes on the West Bank. Despite there not being any cycling infrastructure, the traffic was light five to ten minutes into our ride which helped make cycling decent. We used the time to visit Caravanserai Luxor – which sells local handmade crafts – Medinat Habu (again), and the Ramesseum. We met up with the guide on the East Bank to visit the Karnak and Luxor Temples before another train ride to Aswan.

Aswan’s Relaxing Charm

Among the three cities we visited, Aswan was by far the most laid back. One exception was waking up at 3 AM for the three hour drive to Abu Simbel near the Sudan border. While the two temples at Abu Simbel for Ramses II and Queen Nefetari are impressive and had to be relocated during the Aswan High Dam construction, it wasn’t worth the drive. Maybe we should have visited Philae Island instead?
The temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel wasn't worth the three hour drive
We spent the afternoon and night on a felucca sail boat and the service we got was top notch. We could get off as often or as little as we wanted, so we walked along Aswan’s Botanical Gardens which had beautiful trees and flowers. As for food, we had delicious fresh fish for lunch, a chicken and vegetable dinner at the captain’s Nubian home, and a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast. We slept on the boat which was decent – including covering on all sides to shield us from the wind – and woke up to some excellent bird watching.
Our felucca experience was top notch with fresh fish for lunch
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the bike tour we booked from Bet El Kerem Guesthouse. There wasn’t a proper guide. Just a driver who carried a reserve bike and didn’t speak English, and the guesthouse owner wasn’t willing to bargain. It’s a shame, given there were beautifully decorated Nubian homes along the road.

Despite the not so good people in Egypt, I will save my harshest criticism for Israel in my final post. You can check more of my photos from Egypt here.

Safe travels,
Rob Z (e-mail)

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