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Saved from the Nile!

Visiting Magnificent Abu Simbel

sunny 23 °C

With the gift of more time, we’d have stuck with tradition and travelled south from Luxor to Aswan via boat. I have nothing but fantastic memories of the trip I took twelve years ago on a traditional Egyptian sailboat called a felucca, but – next time – we’d splash out on one of the elegant cruise ships that make the trip in about four days. Today, however, we caught another inexpensive Egypt Air flight down to Aswan, and even managed to squeeze in a detour to magnificent Abu Simbel on the way.

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Abu Simbel on approach. The monument is such a tourist draw that it earned its own air strip. The alternative is a four to five hour drive from Aswan.

Abu Simbel is a massive temple that was built during Ramses II’s reign over 3300 years ago. Ramses intended the monument to intimidate neighbouring countries with its four statues each towering to twenty metres. Of interest, the monument was moved in 1960 after an international appeal to save a number of Egyptian treasures that would otherwise have been lost to Lake Nasser with the opening of the Aswan High Dam. It cost more than US$40 million to chop Abu Simbel up into hundreds of pieces and then re-erect it about 65 metres higher and 200 metres back, a debt that is allegedly still being repaid.

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Ramses II up close. You can see how the faces were cut off during the relocation.

Our flight to Abu Simbel was full of tour groups who we proceeded to race to the monument. Since there’s only one reason to fly to Abu Simbel, Egypt Air puts on a complimentary bus for the five minute drive which saved us the agonizing negotiation with a cab driver. On arrival, a helpful young man showed us a short cut that ensured we’d arrive at the ticket office ahead of the tour groups (he even declined ‘baksheesh’ for his services!), and with the first tickets of the session in hand we soon found ourselves through security and facing the back of the artificial hill created to house the monuments.

Lloyd spontaneously erupted into a brisk jog, which looked quite amusing as he was wheeling our overnight case (we have proper luggage again now!) through sand and stone in his haste. I understood immediately that he wanted to get there before the gaggle of groups and quickly caught up with him, leaving Roger some distance behind us and no doubt wondering what on earth we were doing exerting so much energy in the heat of the day.

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The effort was worth it! We practically had Abu Simbel to ourselves for a precious few minutes.

Though I had seen Abu Simbel previously in 1995, it’s the kind of place that remains shockingly impressive even on second viewing.

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On the right: Lloyd looking as if he’s planning on moving into Little Abu Simbel which is next door to the main attraction, and was also moved in 1960.

But new to me was the opportunity to experience the rooms behind the statues which were closed on my previous visit. While getting to Abu Simbel involved some additional expense and - even more precious - time, it was easily worth it. We'd recommend missing Abu Simbel at your peril!

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Posted by jacquiedro 10:51 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Temples, Tombs and Hot Air Balloons

Luxor: Mummy Capital of the World

sunny 18 °C

Pyramids aside, Luxor is probably the next most common stop on Egypt’s tourist trek. With two simply amazing temples within a stone’s throw of any hotel in town, and numerous valleys filled with the hundreds of tombs many thousands years of age, it’s easy to see why we were anxious to squeeze in as much as we could in our day and a half in town.

We started at Karnak, a short caleshe (horse-driven carriage) ride out of town. You can quickly get lost wandering around Karnak’s multitude of carved columns, admiring the hieroglyphics and images, some of which still display scraps of the original blues and yellows and reds. With its bold, primary colours, the temple must have looked quite garish in its youth, but I prefer it now with the limestone exposed and faded colours, leaving more to the imagination.

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The temple as it now stands is easily one of the most impressive sites in Egypt. Large sections of the temple, however, have not been reconstructed, leaving instead heaps and heaps of limestone blocks strewn around the site. It's simply a massive jigsaw waiting for the next set of overseas-funded archeologists to arrive and progress. That said, many blocks have been looted over the years and used in local buildings, so some jigsaws will never be complete!

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For Monday morning, we had arranged a hot air balloon ride to take in Luxor from the sky. We had an early start at 5am to get there, but after crossing the Nile and taking a short bus ride, we were rewarded with a skyline full of hot air balloons beautifully illuminated by the early morning sun.

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The Colossi of Memnon - two 60 feet high statues of Amenhotep III. Hot air balloons are a fairly recent addition to their 3400 year old vista....

“Is it your first time in a hot air balloon?” asked our flight captain, eliciting nods from most of the passengers on board. But rather than offering the reassurance we were all looking for, he gave the international standard ‘humourous’ response: “Great. It’s my first time too!”.

Somehow, given the fact we knew almost nothing about the safety record of our Egyptian operator, we weren’t laughing. But the captain seemed to know what he was doing as he changed two 50 gallon propane bottles and tested the four burners, and before we could get too nervous about the combination of gas and fire we found ourselves gliding across the sugarcane field that served as our launch-site.

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And, of course, the view from the balloon was spectacular. To the west (in the direction of the tombs), the sky was clear, while to the east (over Luxor) was still a little hazy. Contrary to the sales pitch, the balloons do not fly over the Valley of the Kings, but you still enjoy a very nice view over Luxor, the Nile, and the temple of Hatshepsut.

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After our second breakfast, we headed out of town to the Valley of the Kings with a guide and driver in tow. There are actually 63 tombs in Valley of the Kings, of which 11 are currently open to visitors. Our entrance tickets entitled us to view three tombs, and we relied solely on our guide to recommend the most worthwhile. Generally, you should aim for the Pharaohs with the longest reigns because work on the tomb lasted the duration of the reign. As a result, the tombs associated with the Pharaohs with the longest reigns are the most elaborate. Unfortunately, the tomb of Ramses II (who reigned for 66 years) has been closed for some time, but at our guide’s recommendation, we stopped by Ramses I, Ramses III and Ramses IV.

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Photography is not allowed within the tombs, so Lloyd adopted this surreptitious approach.

Unlike the temples whose colours have mostly faded through millennia of sun exposure, the tombs have – in many cases – maintained much of their original veneers. In some cases, it seems as though the painting was freshened up only yesterday, and it is Christian, Roman or Greek graffiti that litters many of the monuments.

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We couldn’t snap within the tombs, but here is an example of some graffiti at Luxor and Philae Temples.

Finally, we enjojed getting a little closer to the the temple of Hapshetsut. We’d seen it that morning from the hot air balloon and it is a very enjoyable site to visit given its very complete (reconstructed) exterior. This was also the site of the 1997 massacre of tourists which resulted in the massive deployment of tourist police, watch towers and metal detectors at every attraction we visited.

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We rounded out an extremely busy and long day with dinner at 'Genesis', a self-proclaimed British Pub that turned out to be the most surreal dining experience of the trip. While we loved the quirky, seasonal decor, complete with giant inflated Santa, two cages crammed full of live birds some of which have the run of the place, the food was absolutely diabolical. We actually witnessed Rog's dinner being delivered as a take out by another vendor which resulted in his meal probably being the best of the bunch. Mine was untouchable. Simply avoid at all costs!

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We wished we'd made a faster 'Exodus' from 'Genesis'....

Overall, we had a great time in Luxor. Understand, though, that tourism IS the economy here which means you’re never far from the next Egyptian seeking to extract the maximum amount you're willing to pay. There’s no such thing as the ‘going rate’ for a taxi or tour or postcard. Rather, prices are set according to where you come from, how well dressed you are and – perhaps most importantly – what hotel you’re staying at. Occasional bartering can be fun, but – as independent travelers – its omni-presence was wearing to say the least. With no way to know the fair price, we knew only that the offered price was inevitably grossly inflated.

Posted by jacquiedro 19:20 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Cairo Quickstep Amidst the Pyramids

sunny 18 °C

With Lloyd turning 37 today, there was no better way to convince ourselves that we’re still young than a visit to a couple of 5,000 year old pyramids! And so we spent the day visiting the pyramids at both Saqqara and Giza, which allowed us the opportunity to see how the pyramid concept developed from a stepped version to the smoother pyramids that we all associate with Egypt.

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The stepped pyramid on the left – the first egyptian pyramid - was built more than 4700 years ago for Pharoah Djoser, whereas the famous Pyramid of Khufu on the right was built about 200 years later.

The pyramids are, of course, among the most recognizable images on the planet, with only David Beckham and Princess Di ranking higher according to my highly scientific survey. So it’s only when you get up really close to these massive monuments (and I’m talking about the pyramids now) that you come across anything unexpected. For some, it’s simply the scale, as the true size of the pyramids can only really be appreciated when standing at the base looking up. For others, and I’d put myself in this category, it’s the massive sandstone blocks. Some of these boulders are taller than me!

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From a distance, the pyramids look quite smooth but up close they are quite clumsy looking because the original, smooth limestone veneer that once covered the boulders has eroded over time. Exposed, the engineering accomplishment is almost unthinkable, and you can’t help but wonder at the monumental arrogance displayed by Egypt’s long, long-ago narcissistic leaders.

The contrast with Cairo today is also unavoidable. It would take a good deal more time in country to uncover just how this nation capitalized on the intellectual advantage it clearly enjoyed all those years ago. For Cairo is a dirty, chaotic city where thousands of public servants idle the hours away presumably with purpose but with little visible achievement. Monuments for which we paid hefty entrance fees were frequently strewn with litter while employees allowed themselves to be disturbed to check tickets only on their own schedule. Tourist police seemingly erected false barriers which would mysteriously be removed with the help of a little baksheesh. To the tourist, Egypt appears a corrupt country with little pride, even less discipline and – perhaps worst of all – a complete lack of care. It seems impossible to me that today’s Egypt would be capable of the pyramids. Further, I don’t believe the notion that Egypt has yet to regain the greatness it enjoyed several millennia ago is lost on its population.

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We had a fabulous day, nonetheless, thanks in large part to the extremely knowledgeable guide that Roger had arranged.

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To celebrate Lloyd’s birthday, we splashed out tonight and took Roger and girlfriend Ellen to the Hyatt’s 42nd floor restaurant. We thought the revolving restaurant, with impressive 360° views over nighttime Cairo, would be a treat. In fact, we suspect that the almost imperceptible motion of the rotation left us all a little nauseated, but couldn’t isolate the effect of the motion from the menu prices which probably also had the same effect. Unfortunately, the food itself did little to redeem the restaurant (with steaks cooked incorrectly, lukewarm vegetables etc), and it was a good thing we had chocolate cake back at Rog’s apartment to console ourselves.

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On the left, Lloyd with one of his two chocolate birthday cakes. This one was generously donated to the Lloyd Thyen Chocoholic Fund by my Mum. The other was a ‘hiking cake’ baked by Rog’s following his Mum’s recipe. Lloyd was in chocolate heaven! On the right, Roger had to lend his brother a jacket to get into the restaurant.... chic, no?

On Friday, we intended to get out and explore Cairo, but our plans were stilted when Lloyd got more than he bargained for at the Four Seasons Brunch Buffet. Within a few hours, he was curled up in bed experiencing excruciating stomach cramps and chills that left him shivering violently from top to toe. In between emergency – and I mean emergency - visits to the bathroom, we piled on as many layers as we could find to try and stop the chills while Roger rushed out to the local pharmacy and returned to administer local ‘miracle cure’ Antinol.

Of course, we should have expected it. Most people who come to Egypt experience ‘Mummy Tummy’ (aka Cairo Quickstep or Pharoah’s Revenge), and it can knock you out for three or four days. I had it so bad back in 1995 that my strategy this time was simply not to eat (woohoo! I might be able to fit into my bridesmaid dress after all!). The Antinol seemed to do the trick, however, and the worst of Lloyd’s sickness passed within 24 hours. While we lost two days intended for Cairo exploration, at least we’d be able to pick up the trail on Sunday morning, with our flights down to Luxor.

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Posted by jacquiedro 08:27 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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