Notes from the Egyptian Desert

Nobuko, my friend and traveler, leaves her lasting impressions about the Egyptian desert. She is on her way to Amman/Jordan now.

Visiting the desert is truly my most favorite thing to do. I enjoy it more than beaches. The complete silence and the sky reaching from horizon to horizon, whichever way I look, make me feel so FREE like nothing else does.

From Dakhla to Bahariya, it takes 6 hours and 50 E pounds by bus. I wish  I could have travelled during the day to enjoy the scenery, but due to the time crunch my underestimation had created, I had to take a bus at 5pm. So I only had 1 hour to see the landscape. About the depressed tourism situation, I had reported earlier.

But things must be worse than I can see, because many hotels in Bahariya, the most visited oasis in the western oasis area, have disconnected their phones or do not answer the phone. Among the ones that are still operating, Desert Safari Home was the budget choice at 50 E pounds per night for a single room. The son of the owner, Mohammed, picked me up at the bus station at 11:30pm. The owner Mr. Badr received me at the hotel, but I was  too tired to chat.

The next morning I learned that there was another guest there!! In Luxor and Dakhla, I was the only guest. I was very happy to have  company, and possibly being able to go on an overnight desert trip and share the cost with this person. If you are alone, the price for a two-day trip costs a whopping 700 E pounds. But with two people, the price per person drops to 400 E pounds.

The other guest was a Spanish woman my age, she also has been traveling alone for one year. And thankfully we hit it off! I tried to convince her to do a three-day trip with me, but due to financial reason, we settled on the two-day trip. Really, the more people, the cheaper when you travel. The more people you have with you, the better your chance of succeeding in bargaining on prices of room and transportation (you can even hire an entire vehicle!). You can also share the cost to hire a driver / guide.

That day we took it easy and only did a mini tour for two hours (35 E pounds per person). The excursion was short, but high was its intensity, because we had to go across many sand dunes. The driver, Sahid, is a Bedouin who looks like a “gangsta” with his sunglasses on. But he becomes like a small child with complete sweetness when he smiles. He agreed in good humor when I made him pose with me for a photo of us looking like two mean “gangsta”!

Nobuko desert gangsta

Driving over sand dunes is not an easy fleet. One must have the ability to gauge how much momentum or control is needed to go up/down the dunes without getting stuck or flipping the jeep over, and the skills to deliver the calculated maneuvers. He was more than competent because he drove it like he was playing in a sand box with his mini car.

The next day, we headed out around 11am. We were so happy to have Sahid as our driver again. The first stop was the Black Desert. I was not so excited about this one, but oh boy, it is so beautiful there! The black volcanic rocks turned into black sand and it covers a vast area like powdered sugar sprinkled over a pound cake, creating a gradation of color shift from brown to black.

Black Desert in Egypt

Black Desert in Egypt

Because of this effect, you can see even the most subtle sand waves created by the desert wind which go on for miles. Wow. No eye catching frills, only the simple tone gradations of two colors. But because of this simplicity and the vastness of the view, it’s a painting done by nature on the largest canvas, and to me, it is far more moving and beautiful than famous pieces in any given museum.

After  lunch and a few more stops, we reached the White Desert – another incredible landscape. It looks like thousands of odd shaped pieces of white growth are sticking out of the desert floor which itself is also largely white with patches of brown sand. Upon getting off the jeep, I realized that the desert floor of this area is actually entirely white, if all the sand was swept off.

White Desert in Egypt

White Desert in Egypt

White Desert

Nobuko in the White Desert, Egypt

Nobuko in the White Desert, Egypt

 

Its color is evidence that the area was once a sea bed and the desert floor contains salt. We walked around while Sahid set up camp and cooked for us. We found so many sea shells – in their original shape and still intact – on the ground. The white “rocks” looked like cloud patches and the white ground shaped like waves by the continuous winds. It made me feel as if I was walking on the surface of the ocean, or in the sky.

Sahid is a great cook. He made a chicken – rice – vegetable dish. It sounds simple, but I have never had a chicken dish like that one before. And we enjoyed a bonfire, with a full stomach and the desert night sky, it was hypnotizing staring at the fire. Two foxes visited us to get the leftovers. They were so small!  After they had their fill, they used our plastic cups for toys, and played with them for a long time without getting bored.

Our camp did not have a roof. Since it does not rain, and the wind was not strong, it was perfect. I fell asleep fast, but I was awakened when I felt through the blanket one of the foxes walking over my legs.

Sahid said there used to be as many as 35-40 groups coming to the White Desert to camp before the revolution when tourism was still booming. So the foxes must have gotten used to being around people. That night we were the only ones in the area, and we felt lucky to enjoy the quietness of the desert.

Edit: The photos were added on 14 May 2013.

Notes from Luxor, Assiyut, and the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt

Nobuko has been sharing her experience about travels to Cairo, Luxor, and now Assiyut and the Dakhla Oasis. See what she has to say.

Part 1: Getting from Cairo to Luxor

Getting from Cairo to Luxor was a breeze – but at $60 per bed, it is not cheap. The tourist sleeper train, which leaves from Giza station, was very comfortable with small 2-bed cabins that included clean sheets, a pillow and blanket, and a basin. Also included in the price were a pretty hearty dinner and breakfast which was served in your cabin. I shared the cabin with a Samoan woman who is a New Zealand citizen. She was also traveling alone for one year so we had much to talk about. The whole trip took 10 hours.

Part 2: Getting from Luxor to the Dakhla Oasis

Now, the transit from Luxor to the western Dakhla Oasis was an arduous one. It took me 16 hours to arrive there via Assiyut (more about that train route on TripAdvisor). I took a local train at 7:30am (cost less than 20 E pounds) which arrived in Assiyut at 1:30pm after enduring an incredibly dusty path. There was only one car for first class, but there aren’t any noticeable differences between first and second class.

I met a group of four female college students who kept me company by teaching me Arabic. I remember only one word from this lesson, which is magnun = crazy. After they got off, other women filled their seats. But these women made me feel uncomfortable by continious laughing at the sight of me. I think the laughter was not malicious, but I left to move to another seat.

Assiyut is a large city. But the bus station is only a five-minute walk to the left  from the train station. The direct bus to Dakhla did not leave til 6pm, so I decided to take the bus at 3pm to the Khagra Oasis which is located two hours before reaching Dakhla. My plan was to take another bus from Kharga to Dakhla. The ride to Kharga was hot but smooth, arriving at 6:30pm. But the onward bus from there did not leave til 8:30pm – which meant I would not arrive in Dakhla til 11:30!  By this time I was simply exhausted, so when I learned this I was going to look for an accommodation in Kharga.

I do not speak Arabic. There were many instances where I really wished that I had studied some words. But there is always someone who speaks some English and offers me much needed help. A group of college girls got me in a taxi with them, and I was taken to a micro bus headed to Dakhla. During the travel, they fed me and gave me drinks. When we reached Dakhla, one of them gave me a ride to an accommodation in her boyfriend’s car. So I was in bed before 10:30pm.

The travel route I had taken I would not recommend to anyone. But unfortunately, there aren’t many other options unless one has $130 to spend on a five-hour taxi ride from Luxor to Dakhla.

Dakhla itself does not have any sites. 30km away from it, there is Al Qasr, an abandoned medieval fort city made of mud and bricks which served as the capital for the area for a long time. It’s a surreal experience to walk through the maze of small streets in this ghost town. Some multi-storied houses are more than 1200 years old and still standing in good enough condition for us to walk in. The wood of Acacia trees was used for constructions and for city gates for its durability. To make it extra strong and preservable, it was soaked in salt water first. As a testament, none of the acacia trees were crumbling. Amazing!Acacia wood was also used for curving the prayer areas which decorate the doorway of the houses. These prayer boards record the dates when the house was built and the names of the artists who curved the boards.

The whole city was designed to remain cool in the hot desert climate by making narrow streets which created much shaded areas. The narrow and bending streets also served as a defense tactic to prevent invaders from marching into the city with  high velocity and momentum.

Aside from Al Qasr, the Dakhla Oasis was supposed to be famous for its hot springs. However, these are cemented structures with pumps that pour spring water into the pools. And due to the prolonged decline in tourism over the past few years, the pools had moss growing inside and some pumps were not operating. So my dream of getting into natural hot springs were miserably shattered.

The hotel staff were very nice people, but they did not speak English. This was a problem apart from getting breakfast and getting a wi-fi password. I could not get a map or contact information for the tourist office in town because they did not understand what I was asking for. I aimlessly wandered the streets looking for the tourist information office. Someone picked me up and drove me to the tourist police office. Probably they didn’t know what else to do with me. There finally I met the officer Mr. Mahmud, who spoke English. He gave me some tea and a snack, and called the tourist office on my behalf. With directions in my hand, I headed to the tourist office, but got lost within a few minutes.

Mr. Mahmud probably figured that I would get lost, so he came after me and drove me to my destination. There I met Mr. Omar Dahi who agreed to guide me to Al Qasr. But I admit, it was so much fun to ride in police cars! Now I understand why cops are one of the most popular attraction among the elementary school kids on  career day!

Dakhla Oasis, also spelt Dakhleh and translates to the inner oasis, is one of the seven oases of Egypt’s Western Desert. Dakhla Oasis lies in the New Valley Governorate, 350 km from the Nile and between the oases of Farafra and Kharga. (source: Wikipedia)

Notes from Luxor

Nobuko’s latest travel report is mainly about Luxor/Egypt and its shortcomings.

Yes, you read it right. I said “kuso”(*). Luxor sucked big time. I had planned on being there for  three days, but after being there for five hours, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out! So I left only after 24 hours.

Tourism is down in all of Egypt since the revolution, and the air of desperation is very palpable at the pyramids of Giza and Luxor. What’s sad is that vendors and all people who work in tourism are super aggressive – mostly toward each other. It made me feel awful to see that. And it certainly made my transactions very difficult.

For example, in Luxor, asking for a bottle of water at shops, most places tried to overcharge me. So I continued to look for one that sells it for a reasonable price. Then the previous sellers (some followed me and pestered me along the way) got angry with the shop where I bought the water. If I asked taxi drivers for the price (and repeated the same pattern as above), huge verbal fights broke out.

Whenever this happened,  I just walked away and tried to find mini buses that go my way, but only stated the name of the area I wanted to go to. But even bus drivers who should operate under a fixed fare tried to overcharge by tenfold. I found one honest driver who gave me back 0.5 E pound after I had given him 1 E. Until then, I did not  know the true fare of the mini bus ride.

In Luxor, which consists of the East and West banks, there are numerous sites. If you try to cover them all, you can spend a fortune on entrance fees (most ranging from 25-70 E pounds). On the West bank, the sites are not so close to one another. I saw some people bicycling. This is a feasible way if you have time and don’t mind the heat, because there are no steep hills to climb and it’s much cheaper than a tour.

I took a tour of the West bank. It said half day, but in reality it’s only  four hours. The pick up at the hotel on the East bank and the drive to the West bank = 1hour, go visit four sites such as  the Valley of the Kings, the temple of Hatshepsut, the Mortuary Temple of  Ramesseum, but one of which is actually a souvenir shop = 4 hours total. Then the drive back to the East bank took another hour. In addition, the guide we had gave us very very basic information about the sites at the entrances, and left us to wander around alone inside the sites.

We saw other groups who had their guides accompanying them inside, and  giving detailed explanations about the symbols, history, etc. So it varies widely. I paid 285 E pounds which included the entrance fee. But I think it was only worth a fraction of it. Sorry, I’m being very judgmental here, but this is my objective review.

In comparison, on the East bank, you can visit sites on your own easily. Within the city proper, there are two major sites: the Temple of Luxor and the Karnak Temple. They are much more impressive visually than those on the West bank. A historian may have different opinions, but for a general public who didn’t do their homework (me), these temples are the places to go to take photos and be amused by the size of its structures. I especially enjoyed being at the Karnak Temple. The Luxor Temple is a mere 15 minutes walk from the train station and many accommodations.

The Karnak Temple is about 3km from the Luxor temple. Just walk north along the street along the Nile river. But the heat can be wearing you down and you would have to deal with the beveragevendors / horse & taxi drivers constantly hustling you for business the whole way. I took a mini bus from the train station, though finding one that goes there, was not easy. It took 20 minutes to find one that goes there without a rip-off fare. Coming back from Karnak was easy because all of them go towards the Luxor Temple or to the train station.

There are some bars across the street from the Luxor Temple. I sat there and had beers looking at the Luxor Temple at sunset. I walked back to my hotel around 9pm. Though tourism is almost dead, the town itself seemed alive after dark. Major streets are well lit with many shops open and with a lot of foot traffic. Even smaller and dimmer streets had some shops with locals sitting on stoops, so I felt safe to walk alone.

As for Giza, on the way to the Pyramids, the taxi driver told me to roll up the windows and lock the doors. I saw why… as soon as touts hanging out at the entrance saw me, they chased the taxi, ganged together at the windows, and some even tried to open the door! When they could not get their way, they barricaded the path (! What are they, mobs?) and yelled out all imaginable lies, such as “Taxis are not allowed inside!”or  “You have to take the camel!”, “You need to pay a taxi fee of 100 E pound here!”, “The Pyramids are closed today (the most ridiculous one I heard!!)”. When my driver slowly proceeded forward, several of these guys jumped on the car bonnet and on the top of the trunk. They were determined to get me when I came out of the taxi.

As I got out to buy tickets, they followed me. Some even offered to buy it for me with an added “service charge” of 30 E pounds. They must think I’m so stupid, or they are so stupid to think anyone can be so stupid!  After purchasing the ticket, they demanded that I show them the ticket. I ignored them and walked away.

One of them touched me, so I hissed at him loud and called security. I mean, come on… a group of about 20 Egyptians saw this and took me in. After that, I was off-limit. So I enjoyed taking pictures freely without having any guard asking me for baksheesh for doing what I was entitled to do for free to begin with.

Their behavior is childish, mean, and ridiculous. They are only strangling their own throat by doing this as it encourages a further decline in tourism.

The Pyramids are wonderful to see. Note that going inside costs extra. There is a Light Show at night. Now that I think about it, visiting at night may have been a better option because of the cooler temperature and dramatic effects.

Pyramids are everywhere around Cairo! After Giza, my taxi driver Mr. Ali, took me to Dahshur and Saqqara. Saqqara has many sites including the famous Step Pyramid (now under renovation) whereas Dahshur has two pyramids, the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid.  But I really enjoyed Dahshur because the two pyramids are far apart from one another, and there is nothing else around them except vast open space! And the whole place had only 11 visitors, including myself. Also, the Red Pyramid has an inside chamber much like the one at the Great Pyramid in Giza which you can go into for no extra cost while the one at crowded Giza will set you back by 100E pounds. Both Dahshur and Saqqaraand were completely free of touts and vendors, and the guards were pretty friendly without asking for baksheesh.

The streets of Cairo, away from the tourist drag, are filled with wonderful encounters with friendly locals! Shop keepers of blanket shops, kitchen wear, and even tire shops, gave me sales pitches, clearly joking, knowing that I’m a tourist and  won’t need their merchandise.

This playfulness almost always turned into conversations – many times people wanting to know my name, my job, whereabouts of my family, my impression of Egypt, and suggestions of which sites to visit near their shops. Some would inform me to make sure to give their names so that I can get a discount on entrance fee, because they know the guards at these sites. Very refreshing interactions because they treated me as a person, not as a walking ATM.

My favorite places were old Cairo (aka Citadel), and the area sandwiched between the famed Khan Al Khalili Bazaar and the Citadel. This was also a bazaar area, but more for the locals. On the other hand, the Khan Al Khalili Bazaar has tons of souvenir shops and is geared towards tourists. The difference in atmosphere is felt instantly when walking from Khan Al Khalili to the local bazaar, the details of which is described above in previous sections. Also, this area is full of wonderful surprises for the lovers of Islamic architecture! There are many mosques that date back to 800-1000 AD.

All you have to do is walk along the narrow street, and  they just pop up right and left without you even trying to find them! A few to be noted are the Al Hakim Mosque, the Bab Zuweila Gate, and the Al Ghuri Complex. Many of these places have guys who will take you to the top of the minaret for baksheesh, and the views are well worth the money. In Citadel, there is an aqueduct which I have not visited. The oldest part was built in 712 AD!

In conclusion, I enjoyed visiting Islamic architecture much much more than the Pharaoh sites.

Having said all this, I really question my role in tourism in so called Third world / developing countries: I have money to spend and want to spend it wisely and ethically. But after thinking it over for a while, I concluded that it is not possible to be politically correct. The disparity of economic status that exists between someone like me and the local people is substantial. So it is human nature to want to justify overcharging the tourists because both we and they know we can afford it.

And I think in some cases, like India which charges 10 times more in entrance fees to foreigners, it is justified. But lying and cheating some trusting people shamelessly is wrong. Instead, they should do what Butan is doing: make it  legal practice to charge loads to foreign tourists from economically privileged countries (I heard it is $200 per day). Some tourists actually derive much enjoyment from the process of haggling and out-witting overcharging or lie-telling vendors. So for them, hustle free situations are like coffee without caffeine. But that’s not for everyone.

Me? I enjoy haggling, but only with vendors who know the limit and have a sense of humor. I don’t like to deal with angry and nasty people. Plenty of those are found in governmental offices in the U.S., some of whom I have no choice but to visit occasionally. And I have spent enough time with them already.

* kuso stands for sh@3 in Japanese.

Behind Egyptian bars

Nobuko – behind Egyptian bars (just kidding!)

Notes From Cairo

Nobuko left Nepal a couple of days ago and is now in Cairo. This is what she has to say.

Hi! I arrived in Cairo today. Staying at the apartment of a couch-surfing host. What a place! It’s kind of quiet, surprisingly. But perhaps, other areas of the city are more crowded and noisy.
The airport was quiet and almost dead as well, with only my prime time flight coming in at 1 pm.

But the locals are fun loving and enjoy using a soft greediness, wrapped in humorous jokes that I could not help but to laugh and give in a little!! Women, on the back of motorcycles noticing me sitting in a taxi and cracking a big smile and waving with a loud “hello!!” Even women, fully clothed  in Muslim black attire complete with hijab headscarves walk into a local bar and …(gulp), not only drinking, but also smoking cigarettes! An unbelievable and unacceptable sight if this had taken place in India. I was  shocked. But in a ticklish, giddy, comradely way.

(Note: Before passing through Nepal to come to Egypt, Nobuko spent some time again in India)

What stands out here is the good and hearty sense of humor people possess, which is proudly and happily displayed with a big grin or a wink. It’s contagious. And its a good thing. Since I have turned into such a hardened and cold bitch, I welcome their easy and  fun loving attitude to melt me back into my natural outgoing, open self.

I like this shift  in my outlook. I feel that  I can finish my trip in a good way.
Tomorrow I’m viewing the pyramids!

All Gizah Pyramids

All Gizah Pyramids

(Photo credit: Wikipedia.file.All_Gizah_Pyramids)

I went ahead and got a preview of what Nobuko is going to see today.

Wonder what she has to say about Egyptian street vendors based on this excerpt:

“You can’t walk down here at all. It can’t be a short cut because you get stopped every few seconds.” [moves aside to let an elderly woman pass] “See? I bet she left the house when she was 10!”

— Karl Pilkington, travel host of “An Idiot Abroad”