Day 7-8: Bahariya, Cairo, Luxor and two journeys from hell

by - November 22, 2010

Danni and one of the Khozam family
As the epic title suggests, the last few days have been fairly busy.  They also, due to lack of any reasonable amount of sleep involved, can be counted as one continuous day.  We started in Bahariya, where our hostel had provided a lift into town to the local minibus station.  The previous day we had hoped to buy bus tickets to Cairo, but unfortunately they had all sold out.  As a result, we had to do the next best thing in the form of a minibus that left the oasis when enough people had decided that they wanted to make the 300km journey back to Cairo.  Before we left, we bid farewell to the Khozam family, who we had been staying with.  We had actually got fairly friendly with them all and it was a shame to go.  The younger of the sons had seen me writing the blog and wanted to have his photo on it, so here it is.  The minibus back to Cairo was quicker than the normal bus, with a journey time of more like 3 and a half hours than 5, but was more expensive and also very cramped.  On top of this, it didn’t actually stop, so was pretty unpleasant.  But it was better than being stranded in the Sahara.
Khan el-Khalili market, Cairo

We arrived back in Cairo at about 3 in the afternoon and headed for the Khan el-Khalili market, after briefly dropping off our bags at the hostel that we had stayed at.  The market is a large area of shops and souqs which is the direct equivalent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which I had unfortunately missed last year due to Eid.  The shops sold pretty much anything - from spices to souvenirs to clothes to bric-a-brac items as obscure as a photo of Saddam Hussein.   It was also probably the area of Cairo where we were most open to be hassled, as the cushioned western tourists in their coaches were common there, so everybody wanted to talk to you and sell you stuff.  Just a hint for when you go, make sure your shoes are shiny - my boots are ingrained with desert sand and dirt and had every single shoeshiner in the area following me.  This wasn’t helped by Tom pointing at my feet everytime we saw one.  I didn’t actually buy anything (or have my boots cleaned - dirty shoes make me feel like a proper traveler), but it was worth going in just to get the feel for the place.  Despite the intensity of some of the bargaining and hassling, there was an air of good humour about it all, which was both surprising and pleasant.  After a brief Turkish coffee and collecting our bags, we headed for the station.

First class on the Cairo-Luxor line
Our train to Luxor left at 10pm and it was now 6, so we had a fair bit of time to kill.  We decided to head back to our hostel to pick up our Lonely Planets and get some ideas.  The fact that we then ended up visiting two seedy Egyptian bars, where all they sold was the one Egyptian beer (Egyptian Stella) and were full of smoke and drunks, was ENTIRELY Tom’s idea.  He said it was to see the other side of life and culture in Egypt, so I begrudgingly accepted his two hour underworld tour.  Not a moment too soon it was time to head for the station.  The Egyptian rail system was installed by the British when they were a major power here.  A lot of the trains that are used were produced in Britain and contain first, second and third classes.  Walking along the platform to first class (the only class that tourists are allowed in) via third class was a real eye-opener.  Both Danni and I were reminded of the conditions of the trains used in the Holocaust.  There were no lights on and just a sea of faces in the carriages.  To give you an indication of the wealth divide over here, first class is only about 10GBP more than third class.

Luxor Temple, Luxor
We had decided that a sleeper train was too expensive, so we planned to just fall asleep on the train itself.  Unfortunately this was easier said than done, due to a variety of factors.  Firstly Egyptian rail tracks hardly lend themselves to a smooth ride, secondly the train was full of a group of like 30 people from China who seemed to have purposefully psyched themselves up to be as noisy and excited as possible on the journey and thirdly because the seats were uncomfortable and difficult to lie down in.  I slept on our luggage, Tom slept on the floor and Danni slept across the seats.  To top it off, the mosquito/bed bug damage that my skin sustained in the desert meant that I spent most of the “night” scratching.  I reckon we probably got about 2 hours sleep in the journey which left Cairo at 10pm and arrived at Luxor at 8am.  All in all, a pretty horrific journey, but an essential part of seeing as much of the country as possible in the time we had.

Great Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple
On arrival in Luxor we headed straight for our hotel.  Danni and I had decided to splash out a bit for the final leg of our journey and were staying at the New Pola Hotel, with a balcony overlooking the Nile and a rooftop pool.  As luxurious as this may sound (and it is pretty nice), it only cost us 15GBP a night - less than most of the hostels on Overlord.  Tom had found a hostel in town, but decided to hang around at our pool anyway.  He and Danni were tired from the journey so spent the day by the pool sleeping, but I was restless and wanted to see some sights, so took myself off to the Luxor Temple in the town centre.  Having spent an hour or so walking around here, I got a taxi to the temple of Karnak in the north.

The view the policeman showed me of Karnak
 The temple of Karnak is the biggest religious building ever constructed and is roughly the size of 10 cathedrals.  The Great Hypostyle Hall alone, one of the most recognizable monuments in Egypt, could hold both St. Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome.  The temple itself is a massive complex of smaller shrines and halls, so it is essential to have some kind of guide - either in the form of paying a local, or using the Lonely Planet.  The locals in the temple are very amusing.  Dressed in traditional Arab clothing, they wander around the site and will pounce on tourists, telling them a few facts and then asking for “bakshish” - a small fee for the service.  While I totally ignored most of these, after wandering to a particularly deserted part of the temple I found a policeman who took me to several places where there were some particularly good photos.  The police in Egypt perform a very strange role - they are everywhere and heavily armed, and yet spend most of their time sitting around or giving directions.  There were, for example, three riot vans parked at the end of our street in Cairo for the whole time we were there, with about 50 heavily armed policemen who just sat around smoking.  This one was armed with an AK-47, so made a particularly amusing tour guide for the five minutes he walked with me.  The complex is difficult to describe because it is so unlike everywhere else.  The closest I can come to is to say that it is like a smaller version of Pompeii, except that it is far more intact (there is a lot of paint remaining on columns for example).  I spent about two hours wandering around here before heading back.  That evening we watched our first proper Nile sunset from our rooftop pool, before going out for a properly traditional meal in a backstreet Luxor restaurant - Tom had pigeon, to give you an example of how traditional it was.  FINALLY we got back to the hotel at about half 11 for our first actual sleep since we left the desert.

Sunset over the Nile from our balcony

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