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!)