22 March 2007
I'm back home in blighty after a very thrilling, varied and tiring 23 day tour in Egypt. Egypt is a land of contrasts, surprises and wonderment and it's really hard to convey the experience, but I'll do my very best and hope you find it interesting and not too wordy! I am writing a full journal which contains much more detail and references to the history behind the places I visited, but for the blog I'll aim to keep it bite sized and jovial! If you are a glutten for punishment and want the full unabridged version then drop me a line on email and I'll be sure to send you a copy (PDF or Word doc.) when finished - I warn you, that I'm only on day three and already at 4,500 words! (My email address is gkirsty @hotmail.com by the way) Let me begin my report with a review of the actual trip: NILE & BEYOND with Tour Operator: EXPLORE! www.explore.com 2400 Egyptian miles travelled over land, mountains, sea, river & desert Week One: Cairo, Pyramids,, Sphinx, Eyptian Museum, The Islamic Quarter, Suez, Mount Sinai, Dahab, Ras Mohammed, Red Sea Snorkelling. Week Two: Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Aswan, Lake Nasser & the High Dam, Philae, Abu Simbel, 3 days Sailing on the Nile, Hot Air Balloon, Luxor Museum, Valley of the Workers. Week Three: Western Desert, Kharga Oasis, Dakhla Oasis, Farafra Oasis, Bahariya Oasis including Camel Trek to Bedouin Camp, Off Road tour of the White Desert and overnight Camp, return to Cairo. DAY ONE - FRIDAY FEB 23rd So, on Friday February 23rd I set off for Heathrow with help from my good friend Debbie who dropped me at the airport. At midnight I arrived at Cairo airport and my fears about the hassle I might face getting a visa, making it through immigration and collecting my baggage were unfounded as the tour company had arranged for me to be met and transported to the hotel. I travelled alone but met up with another Brit in the arrivals hall- a nice man called Wayne - who was on a different Explore tour but had a free day on Saturday like me so we arranged to meet in the morning and explore the city together. On arrival at my hotel - The Caroline Carillion Hotel, Mohandessin, Cairo - I was greeted with a glass of orange (a nice custom) I was excited to be in Cairo, and amazed to have survived the taxi ride! (Cairo has to be one of the scariest places to drive). After taking in the panoramic view and absorbing the atmosphere, lights, sounds and smells of this 24 hour city, I was ready to sleep. The noise from car horns did keep me awake most of the night however and before too long it was 7am and time to get dressed to meet Wayne. We spent an enjoyable day visiting the Islamic Cairo including The Citadel, Mohamed Ali Mosque and the Khan Al Khalili market. The citadel was built on high ground in the 13th century as a massive fortification against Crusaders. the Mohamed Ali Mosque is the largest building here and a landmark of the city dating from the 19th Century - built using the limestone outer layer (now obviously missing) from the Great Pyramid it is also known for its alabaster ceiling. The Khan Al Khalili market is everything you expect from a Souk - spices, cottons, souvenirs, tacky rubbish, silver and gold with plenty of 'pro-active sales techniques' (otherwise known as hassle) from the traders. I didn't buy anything! It was quite tiring so a brief stop for tea allowed time to watch the people go by before saying farewell and returning to our hotels. That night I met our tour leader called Wael, and 2 travelling companions - Tim from Melbourne and Ed from Calgary. the three of us had supper locally and an early night before a busy day at Giza on Sunday. DAY TWO SATURDAY FEB 25TH Early breakfast with the rest of our group (16 in total). Jan & Alan, Dereck, Celie & John, Chas & Sue, Mark & Karen, Katherine, Anna, Pam & Alan. Plus me, Tim & Ed. A mini bus took us to Giza, west of Cairo collecting our guide for the day en route. His name was Tariq and his enthusiasm for Egyptology was infectious. He gave us a good background to ancient Egypt before showing us around the pyramids and sphinx at Giza and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo itself. There is so much to learn and I find it all fascinating! The Pyramids at Giza. Brief intro - Built between 2600 BC and 2400 there are 3 main pyramids at Giza - the biggest is the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) which stand 137m high containing 2.5 million blocks of limestone - the tallest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower. It's the only remaining wonder of the ancient world still standing - despite the outer casing of limestone being nicked by Mohamed Ali to build his Mosque!. The second biggest is the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) which still retains some of the limestone covering on it's cap (it looks bigger than the others because it stands on higher ground). The third is the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) which has 3 well preserved Pyramids for his Queens on one side. There are many, many other burial tombs and smaller pyramids on the site and we didn't have time to explore them all. I took the opportunity along with the group to visit INSIDE the Pyramid of Khafre to the inner burial chamber of the Pharaoh. although his bdy was not found, it contains the red granite sarchophagus of the King - whcih strangely is too large for the tunnels you crawl through to get to it - so how exactly did they get it there? I don't know! The journey into the burial chamber is tricky and not very pleasant - you shuffle sideways with your body bent double at the waist and head bowed down a stuffy, dark tunnel which descends at 45 degrees nose to bum in a line of tourists. You then come into a short corridoor with a higher ceiling before entering another claustrophobic and cramped tunnel which this time goes up at 45degrees! At the end of this is a short corridoor again which leads into the burial chamber. At this point I was relieved to stand up straight and walk around although the air was incredibly stale, sweaty and sickly to breathe in. The only feature was the sarcophagus - the walls were blank except for 'Giovanni Belzoni March 2 1881' an inscription to mark the discovery of the chamber by the italian archeologist - left there by himself. I spent only a few mninutes inside, and it was hard to imagine the vast weight of stone above and around you, and the conditions the workers endured by candle light with no modern machinery to build this tomb and bring the King to this place. The return to daylight and fresh air was a big relief but I was very pleased to have made the journey. After taking some scenic landscape photos of the pyramids we headed to the Sphinx. This famous statue is part of the Pyramid complex for Pharaoh Khafre. The head is allegedly the image of Khafre it was carved from a block of stone left after limestone was quarried for the building of his adjacent Valley Temple - and all connected to the Pyramid by the Causeway. The Valley Temple is where the King would have been mummified after being brought here by boat from the Nile nearby (thhe river was much closer in those days) before his journey into his burial chamber inside the pyramid. This temple is made of red granite from Aswan - and I was able to visit the quarry later in my tour. The pyramids and sphinx are better than I was led to believe. The area is not as commercial as some might say, and the overall atmosphere on that day was perfect - if a little crowded. I can recommend it for a visit! We had a brief stop at a nearby papyrus museum and shop with a packed lunch of falafel before heading back into Cairo for the Egyptian Museum. This was a highlight for me as I was itching to see the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Like many people I have long been fascinated by the story of Howard Carter and recently learned more about the discovery and life of the boy king. I was not disappointed! Our guide Tariq did an excellent job of showing us the key exhibits inside and left us to roam by ourselves. I paid the extra money to see the mummies of some of the most famous Pharoahs including Ramses II - another King I had become more familiar with before my trip. Well worth the small expense, but left me feeling slightly ill at ease that these ancient bodies had been removed from their sacred tombs to this very undignified place under lights inside a glass case - gawped at by tourists from every corner of the globe. It seemed wrong. The Tutankhamen wing was fabulous - the gold treasures leave you speechless and the quantity and size of the vast array of different possessions buried with him is hard to believe - just how did they get it all inside his small tomb? I understand that some of this collection is coming to London this summer - BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW!!! you won't be disappointed! We returned to our hotel and later had a group dinner in the Islamic area near where I had lunch and afternoon tea - the menu was Egyptian pancakes! Not bad at all. After that we wandered the Souk again and stopped for drinks in a small bar where I tried my first sheesha pipe! This was a brilliant day and a fantastic start to my trip.
21 March 2007
DAY THREE MONDAY FEB 26th We left Cairo and boarded a comfortable bus soon after dawn headed for Suez and the Sinai Peninsular. On our way out of Cairo we stopped to visit the tomb of President Anwar Saddat who was assasinated in 1981, also site of a tomb in rememberance of the unknown soldier. A word here about the National service in Egypt. This is compulsory and men are either posted to Tourist Police duties (guarding monuments and temples), Military Police (road checkpoints and other armed duties) or full military duties. It's clear that many Tourist police regard their work as a necessary bore to be endured but not with any attempt to hide their feelings! Those guarding this spot were dressed in ridiculous costumes which kept blowing about in the wind - one poor bloke had his face covered by the headress he wore and I had to turn away for as i was giggling so much! The skyline of Cairo is mixed up with modern high rise hotels and offices and low level brick housing - often of low quality and built by the residents themselves. It is a massively sprawling city of over 16 million people - we were told that 4 million live along just one street. It is a city of poverty too, and this is evident on every street where Mercedes cars mingle with battered ancient taxis and wagons pulled by donkeys carrying fruit and crops from the agricultural fields which spread out from the Nile. The traffic moves well (or at least it did on that Monday) and the roads are reasonably well maintained, but frankly you would have to be mad to drive there. Everyone ignores the lanes, and drives in a criss cross manner using the horn to move people out of their way - it's mad, scary but somehow entertaining! As you leave Cairo's suburbs, the terrain quickly changes from suburban density to low lying green strips where crops are cultivated to the edge of the barren sands of the desert. The rest of the journey to Suez was largely featureless. The Suez Tunnel was opened in 1869 and designed by a Frenchman Ferdinand de Lessops. It took 10 years and 25000 men to build the 100mile long cutting linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea creating a shipping channel between Europe and the East. You can still see the ships moving through the desert - quite wierd. There is plenty of political history here, which you can read about yourselves! Wael gave a brief and interesting talk on the history before we moved on into Sinai via the road tunnel underneath the canal. Once into Sinai we took the coast road with occasional views of the Red Sea and distant mountains in the West. Sinai is the Eastern most part of Egypt and sparsely populated. It fell into Israeli occupation in the middle of last century and Egypt reclaimed the territory in 1979 but maintains a visible military presence along it's borders. We were accompanied at all times by a police guard (with a gun). During our time in Sinai we became used to the regular police checkpoints along the roads and the site of bored looking (but efficient) police officers! Sinai is mountainous with desert canyons and hiddden valleys carved from the sea millions of years ago and eroded by the wind and sand. The coastal areas are desolate but have long sandy beaches and amazing coral reefs which become the focus of tourism the further south you go towards Sharm el Sheik. Our itinerary kept us off the tourist trail in the main,thankfully. SWIMMING IN THE RED SEA! After 4 hours in the bus we stopped for lunch at a very pleasant hotel and beach restaurant called 'Moon Bay' on the Red sea Coast. By now we had covered about 400 miles and the break was much needed. A brief dip in the sea to cool off followed by lunch on the beach and a short rest and we were back on the bus again for our long drive South East towards our overnight stop at St Catherine's Monastery. This section of the drive became interesting as we turned inland and climbed into the Sinai mountains through 'Wadis' (valleys) fillled with Bedouin villages and Date Palms. We learned that this region once the heartland of Bedouin life and culture centred around camels, date palms and the desert is now altering due to tourism. The Bedouin are now looking to tourists to earn money and are losing the traditions of living in close harmony with their surrounding natural environment. Modern brick buildings provided for schools and housing spoil the landscape and I can't help but feel that the old way of living must be better - even it it means that people like us do not visit the area any more. By dusk we were at a height of 1500m and found our hotel nestling between two giant peaks. We were all bracing ourselves for meeting up at 2am to climb Mount Sinai, so a brief supper and early night were advised. DAY FOUR - TUESDAY FEB 27th I've never done a climb in the middle of the night and saw this as a taste of things to come when I attempt Kilimanjaro! We all managed to meet the bus at 2am which drove the short distance to the start point near the Monastery. I wasn't prepared to see so many others on the climb, there must have been hundreds so once we were through the police checkpoint (even the police were up at 3am) and onto the path we had a trail of walkers in front and behind wearing or carrying torches making a chain of lights all the way up the mountain. We had a 700m climb to the summit to see the sunrise and were blessed with a clear sky filled with stars. All the way up you are offered camels by the Bedouin as an alternative to walking, and along the route are small huts offering hot tea and chocolate to keep your strength up and keep you warm. The huts were snug and warm and a welcome break from the dropping temperatures outside. I can't describe how surreal it feels to walk in the dark along a rubble path which you know is fairly high and close to the edge, with camels and Bedouin appearing out of nowhere almost bumping into you, and the sound of muffled conversations coming from above and below. I tried not to look up as I knew the sight of those torches so far away and so high would affect my determination so I kept my head down and kept putting one foot in front of the other. Sooner than expected we were at The Steps - the final ascent to the summit. More like bolders than actual steps, there are over 700 and it was fairly tough reaching the top. The summit itself is not flat, but rather a range of jagged peaks with sloping stoney areas for sitting on to watch the sunrise. There is a short final ascent to the very top point and the small chapel, but before we tackled that, we rested in one of the summit huts for tea and to hire a warm camel wool blanket to keep us warm until sunrise. Up to the summit at 6am and finding a seating spot wasn't easy so I stood. So many people and jostling that I'm amazed no-one gets pushed over the edge! By 6.20am the sun appeared and the colours on the mountain changed from cool blues, to purple, pink, orange and gold. It was spectacular even prompting a group nearby to sing! With the sunlight upon us it was clear just how high we were and how precarious our position! Once the crowds had cleared I sat on the edge looking down to the next level below and photographed my feet. It was high, not sure how high a drop exactly though. This is the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and despite being atheist, I admit to feeling something special sat up there in the early morning sun. Coming down was easier and by 9am we were eating breakfast in our hotel. After a shower we headed back to the Monastery to have a look around. One of the oldest religious sites in the world it also houses the descendant of the Burning Bush - grown from the root of the original plant. This is a religious attraction and spiritual place for many who took the chance to touch the branches and stand in prayer. Back on the bus, our destination was DAHAB, on the Eastern coast of Sinai. We arrived early afternoon at our hotel 'Danielle' on the beach in an otherwise remote area. We passed acheckpoint which has to be the best job in Egypt - the policeman was under an umbrella with a cool box just yards from the lapping waves on the beach in front of him! I think we were the only people he saw that day. The afternoon was free for much needed R&R so I sat by the pool and wrote some notes, eating french fries and drinking coke! In the evening we had a lovely meal in a fish restaurant on the beach in Dahab, before another earlyish night in advance of our desert jeep safari the next day.
20 March 2007
WEDNESDAY FEB 28th An early morning and another sunrise! this time from the hotel overlooking the Gulf of Aqqaba and the distant shoreline of Saudi Arabia. A bumpy jeep ride took us to a desert region at the foot of the Sinai mountains. Passing through Wadi Dahab, Wadi El Ghaghib and El Murawah, we stopped to leave the jeeps behind and hike for about 90 minutes to the Narrow Canyon. Once covered by the sea, this area was formed by the erosion of water and later winds and sand leaving a barely passable ravine. As a group we made our way through the very narrow slits in the rock, up and over bolders and squeezing through gaps - often leaving the tiniest space between your body and the rockface - to reach an isolated dead end surrounded by a wall of rock. Here there was a small mound of rock where scultors had etched shapes over many years. The silence here was strange - no noise from anywhere. A short walk to meet the jeeps and we were taken to a local Bedouin family Oasis for a superb lunch and the chance to purchase some desert treasures from the small (but enterprising) kids! Well fed and rested, we were then facing a long afternoon of driving to reach the southern most tip of sinai at Ras Mohammed National Park. Leaving the mountains the roads were flat and surrounded by desert and low lying hills. Ras Mohammed national park lies on the coast and is a landscape of fossilised corals. Our camp for the night was ready on arrival as the sun set over the sea. The wind was getting stronger and it was pretty chilly so the large open fire was very welcome. Our hosts had prepared a wind shelter made with blankets and held up with branches tied with rope, each of us had a mattress to lie on and make our beds using the sleeping bags and pillows we'd brought with us. Supper around the fire was good, hot and filling - followed by music, dancing and games - so much fun to be had without alcohol! The stars were brilliant again and before long we were all in our beds. I woke up in the night and saw a desert fox wandering the camp - larger than our British foxes with longer ears, he was gorgeous! The wind had battered our shelter so that some fo the posts collapsed. Sand was everywhere and I don't think anyone had a good sleep - apart from Wael our tour guide who snored until 9am! Breakfast at camp comprised bread, jam, panckaes and chocolate sauce (yum) tea (or Chai) and coffee (Nescafe) & hard boiled eggs. Staying with our desert guides, we took a tour of the national park in jeeps, visiting the Mangroves, visitor centre and the meeting of the two gulfs - Sinai and Aqqaba. The coral reefs were visible from this point and loads of diving boats were racing towards the peninsular from nearby Sharm el Sheik. It was a windy day and not ideal for snorkelling but we found a small bay and had a go. The fish were amazing but the corals became tricky as the sea currents got stronger so we came ashore. Back at camp for lunch - riddled with sand but eatable - we then drove a short way to Sharm el Sheik to board our ferry across the Red Sea leaving Sinair and reaching to Hurghada back on the mainland. The crossing was difficult in strong winds and we were buffetted about, but we got there safely and checked into our very smart hotel 'Sea Garden'. Hurghada is very develpoped for tourism and diving and not my cup of tea. Dinner was at a nearby Italian Resturant which strangley also served Chinese! I thinkk I had a pizza and a 'Sakkara' Egyptian beer. After hiking up Mt Sinai and our desert safari, my clothes were filthy, so I gave them to the hotel to clean and went to bed showered and refreshed - the next day we would be snorkelling again, ths time from the luxury of our own boat!
19 March 2007
FRIDAY MARCH 2nd - Hurghada & Safaga Left the Hotel Sea Garden in Hurghada by bus to travel for 40 minutes south to Safaga diving resort. The corals here are better than Sharm and the resort much quieter. On arrival we had our wetsuts, masks and snorkells fitted (much hilarity - and Katherine your bum did NOT look big!) Our own private boat and crew were waiting so off we went across the Red Sea! Our first anchor point was the edge of a short reef. This was my first coral reef, having snorkelledin the Mediterranean as a teenager. I wasn't prepared for the colours, variety and sheer beauty of the reef. It was just like finding Nemo! I saw all types of fish and couldn't name any of them! We spent about 40 minutes in the sea before coming back to the boat for hot coffee and a breather. As we approached the boat, a Moray eel came towards us on the sea bottom, swimmng like a snake with an ugly thick head - scary! It didn't cause any trouble but Ed dashed off with Katherine's camera to get a shot - I look forward to seeing it! after warm drinks, we then moved position to dive at the pillars of coral. These are about 7 pillars which rise up from the deep and are teeming with fish swimming at eye level so it feels like you are among them. It was amazing, awesome, incredible, wonderful..... Back on the boat again, we had lunch prepared by the crew which was also wonderful, and afterwards we took a small glass boat to a sand island where plenty of other boats and people were enjoying the sea too. We saw nothing in the glass boat - oh well. to entertain ourselves, we made sand sculptures - my Pyramid looked more like the bent pyramid, and Katherine's sphinx became a scarab, only to be accidentally trodden on by Celia! We had fun. Tired but exhilerated we ended the day with a birthday celebration for Alan who was 70 at a restaurant on the beach in Hurghada. SATURDAY MARCH 3rd The next day, we had yet another early start! Since the terrorist shootings in 1996 on Luxor's west bank, all tourist traffic into Luxor and down the Nile Valley is controlled by a police convoy. The convoy leaves at specific times and you can't afford to miss it. So by 7am we were at the holding point along with about 50 or more other coaches. By 9am, the convoy set off heading west towards the Nile. The scenery was desert and mountains with our newish tarmac road winding it's way through. It was strange to see a long snaking line of coaches all following each other with no other traffic on the roads. A short stop for loos and tea after an hour is also the chance for more 'pro active' selling by the locals. Then on again to Luxor via Quena and along the Nile valley. Here the scenery was magic, as the irrigation channels followed the road we could see small farms, mud houses and crops growing whilst small children waved frm their houses and donkey wagons carried their crops along the dirt tracks. Everywhere there were photos waiting to be taken. At points on the road you could see the traffic waiting patiently with a police guard for the convoy to pass before their road could re-open. I imagine that's how the Queen feels when she travels! On arrival in Luxor, the landscape is more built up and greener. sugar Cane, Date Palms, Alfalfa and other crops grow in abundance, with rows upon rows of mud brick dwellings. The centre of Luxor is a smaller version of Cairo with the same frantic traffic mixed with Caleshes (horse & carriage) and liberal use of the horn. Our hotel EMILIO was near the Nile and the stunning Luxor Temple could be seen from the roof top swimming pool terrace. Across the Nile in the distance you could make out the West Bank, Hatshepsut Temple and ridge behind which nestled the Valley of the Kings. I was excied to be here and looking forward to exploring. After checking in and a brief snooze, we met at 1pm for a walking tour of Luxor through the Souk, a quick snack on freshly cooked falafel and up to the Corniche past Luxor Temple and back through a street where the Calesh horses were being washed and fed. Man of the horses are suffering from undernourishment, but you have to harden your heart to it or else I would be bringing them all home to Britain. Luxor is a brilliant place! I had lunch with some of the group on the roof terrace of the hotel, then at 2pm we all met again to take a Calesh ride to KARNAK Temple. The Calesh was fun with Luxor on our right and the Nile on our left. Our guide for the Karnak Temple gave us plenty of information - most of which I couldn't take in. The Temple is vast and dedicated to Amun containing many shrines and monuments added by kings over the centuries. I took over 100 photos. My first real close up experience of real egyptian Hieroglyphics. As the sun dipped, the shadows on the carvings and reliefs inside the temple were sharpened - I could have stayed there for a long time but our Calesh were ready to take us back. After a local supper we all headed to bed for an early night. The next day promised to be a real highlight - a donkey trek at sunrise to The Valley of The Kings!
18 March 2007
SUNDAY MARCH 4th I was so excited I couldn't sleep and was up before my alarm call at 5am. It was dark outside and I was soon packed ready with a rucksack, sun cream, hat, water bottle & camera. I was first into the breakfast room and managed a cup of tea, the hotel had arranged for brekfast bags to take with us, each one containing bread, jam, a hard boiled egg, cucumber and tomato and some fruit juice. By 6am the group was assembled and ready and walking the short distance t the riverbank - we all had some nerves about the donkeys being unsafe and the mood was subdued as we crossed the Nile to the West Bank in the 'EXPLORE!' motorboat. The sun was still slowing rising, and in the sky we could see hot air balloons. The sunrise was really atmospheric making the temple stand out and adding a warm glow to the river and early morning activity all around. Once on dry land, we walked again down the street where our donkeys were waiting. They were much smaller than I expected and looked a bit feeble but well cared for. The saddles were thick & padded and brightly coloured. We learned that 'Oosh' would make them slow down and ' Yalla' would make them go faster! Once mounted, we rode for about 90 minutes along the irrigation channels past mudbrick homes on our left with locals working the strips of lush crops on our right. I saw 'Hoopoos' and Kingfishers and wanted to take photos of everything but my camera was in my bagpack. The dust track we rode was shared with motorbikes, trucks & donkey wagons and a few children watching us with fascination. Soon we turned onto a main road then joined a newish road which took us up a hill past the home of Howard Carter and into the Valley entrance. I think most of us had used 'Oosh' quite a lot on the way up but it was fun! After sliding off, each donkey galloped away to their shed like a mini stampede. The VOK entrance has been modernised this year to accommodate coaches and in future the visiting times will be regulated. For now, were able to pass through the new visitor centre (rather empty) and onto a small train to the centre of the tombs area. For me, this spoiled the romance and mystery of the valley and I felt like I was at a Disney park. Once in the 'hub' of the tombs, the atmosphere is more appropriate thankfully. The tombs are close together and marked with large information boards and singposts help you find each one. Around you are the towering walls of the valley with footpaths snaking all over, looking up it is easy to imagine yourself back in the 19th century digging for the entrances with the hot sun beating down! After a brief talk on the valley and some advice on which tombs to visit, we were free to wander. At this time it was around 9am and the crowds were building. There are over 60 tombs in the valley, but only 12 were open that day, and I chose Rameses III, IV, and IX. I had also chosen to visit the Tomb of Tutankhamun for an extra cost and it was the first place I headed for before the crowds. THE TOMB OF TUTANKHAMUN The history of the discovery is fascinating - Howard Carter excavated across Egypt for over 12 years. He dug in the valley in earnest from 1917 sponsored by Lord Carnarvon. By 1922 Carnarvon concluded there was nothing to be found and withdrew his funding. Carter however pursuaded him to attemp a final dig and paid for the attempt himself. He found the tomb entrance at the end of November - just weeks before the digging license ran out. The pharaoh died suddenly as a young man so his tomb wasn't ready. Instead he was buried in a tomb being prepared for his Priest 'Ay'. So, it's smaller than the others and despite what the guides tell you, it is well worth the effort of a visit! Just a few other people were visiting the tomb, so I took steep entrance alone - it made me feel like Howard Carter! Inside the walls are bare until you turn to the burial chamber which is painted with murals in amazing colour, almost gold in their appearance. Standing on a raised platform you can look down into the open sarcophagus at the body of Tutankhamun lying in a golden coffin... I stood for many minutes taking it all in and was alone apart from an Egyptian man standing watch. It was an amazing experience. As I emerged, another Egyptian man took my photo using my own camera which he had taken off me earlier. He looked old enough to have been there when Tutankhamun was buried! He nevertheless was pleasant and I paid him some 'Baksheesh' for his trouble - I think he has worked out that this little gesture earns him tips! RAMESES III, IV, IX The tombs of Rameses are incredible for their vivid colours and the volume of hieroglyphs and reliefs painted on the walls of each tomb. My knowledge was lacking and I felt that my visit was spoiled by not being able to read the images on the walls, or understand the meaning of the murals depicting each Pharaoh in various forms, alongside the ancient Gods. I made a decision right there to learn more about it! I was also amazed at the sheer size and depth of the tombs - some reaching so deep into the valley that it's impossible to imagine the work required using basic tools over 3000 years ago. We're not able to take photos inside so I can't share any images. The experience of these tombs was amazing, but I was frustrated by the massive number of people pressing their way inside forcing you to shuffle along and not allowing time to just soak up the atmosphere. If I make the trip again I would make sure to visit earlier in the day! LEAVING THE VALLEY to HATSHEPSUT TEMPLE With the sun getting hotter around mid-morning a group of us led by Wael left on foot up a steep footpath leaving the valley tombs below - The view was stunning! We stood for a while to absorb the scene before continuing East over the rim of the mountain and down into the next valley with Luxor ahead of us in the haze and the incredible Temple of Queen Hatshepsut emerging below us against the backdrop of the rockface. After an hour of slow walking and views we were down at ground level to meet our guide and the rest of the group for a tour of the Temple. Built by Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri over 3,400 years ago this was her Mortuary temple. She was the only female Pharaoh and reigned strongly for 20 years. A lot of reconstruction work has been done here since the 1960's by a community of Polish workers who had their own village visible nearby. Many of the statues and columns are replicas but the overall impression is amazing. This was the location of the terrorist shootings in 1996 so the site of an armed guard was reassuring. COLLOSUS OF MEMNON Before lunch we collected our donkeys from their stable shed near the temple and remounted for another bumpy journey back to the riverbank. The return journey took us past the Polish village and down into a mudhut village which we understand is going to be flattened to excavate tombs which lie beneath. We trotted past the Collosus of Memnon statues which stand at 18m guarding the entrance to a long since disappeard mortuary temple for Amenhotep III and soon we were in a busy side street mingling with taxis, buses, schoolchildren and passing shops to the amusement of the shop keepers standing with cigarettes in the doorway. It was a bit humiliating, but part of the 'Egypt' experience! Our donkeys did us all proud and I was sad to say goodbye - mine did linger for a photo before runnng off to his shed. We had lunch at Nile Valley restaurant overlooking the river then took our boat back to the East Bank and our hotel. With a free afternoon I lay by the pool for a while then went to my room for some sleep. Our group dinner that night was the last with Wael and we gave him a card to say goodbye. He was brilliant as our tour leader and I missed him over the next 2 weeks - I think we all did!
MONDAY MARCH 5th Yet another early morning up at 5am! We were to catch a train at 7am bound for Aswan and say goodbye not only to Luxor (just for 6 days) but also to Wael who dropped us at the platform with hugs and handshakes all round. Our group had split, some going home and some going onto the cruise ship Doma. We were 8 people on the platform hoping to meet our train as arranged which carried on board 12 other travellers newly arrived in Cairo 24 hours previously and our Week 2 tour leader called Taso. The train was late! We waited until 9.30am and watched various trains coming and going. Nothing like the British system of flags, whistles and announcements, this was a casual arrival with tea served on the platform and trains leaving just as casually with passengers jogging to jump aboard at the last minute. I was suffering from 'Gyppy tummy' and not very relaxed! My fears were doubled after finally boarding our train when I discovered the most filthy, disgusting loo on the train itself. Enough said, it was truly foul. Taso came to say hello once the train has got moving again. We had 3 hours to Aswan so it was snoozing or reading or watching the scenery. The Train follows the Nile and offered fascinating views of mud villages, river bank and small towns along the route. It became drier to the East and continued to be mountainous. Apart from the loo episode, the journey passed swiftly and on arrival at Aswan we lugged our bags down and up stairs to the street outside. Taxis took our bags and we walked to our hotel 'Cleopatra'. It felt a little wierd to be in a group wth strangers and a new tour leader after building such a strong bond in week one. Our hotel was near to the main Souk street, with a pleasant lobby. The rooms were disappointing though, and for the first time I shared a twin. the rooftop pool was also of a poor standard but in the heat it was a pleasant way to cool down. I skipped lunch and had apple juice to settle my stomach before joining the optional trip to the Aswam Dam and Philae Temple. 12 people squashed into 2 taxis which sped us along fast roads out of Aswan's dusty donkey streets towards the Dam. We first passed over the original dam built by the British and spotted Philae Temple in the distance. We carried on without stopping the newer High Dam. Built by President Nasser to protect the Nile valley from the annual river floods, it has created a massive lake named after him. The Dam enables Egypt to generate electricity which it also exports abroad. The view of the lake gave you an inckling of it's overall size - some 500m long. The photo shows the NILE flowing north from the wall of the Dam. PHILAE TEMPLE The creation of the Lake threatened to submerge some of the ancient Egyptian temples. Philae Temple is very well preserved and dates from 300BC built during the Greco/Roman period and dedicated to ISIS with a shrine to Hathor. It was flooded for some time in its original location and later moved in the 1970's as part of a UNESCO project stone by stone to higher ground on an island nearby. The approach is via motorboats and felt to me a bit like being in the Mediterranean. The Temple is strking and in the setting sun the shadows on the stone carvings and hieroglyphs was wonderful. A roman gateway up from the lake built by Hadrian made me realise just how OLD these Egyptian temples are. In Britain we tend to measure everything by our roman heritage and yet this is 'modern' in Egyptian terms. Cleopatras Needle in London originated here and was donated to Great Britain by Egypt in recognition of help from the Royal Navy in recovering stones from the water. By sunset we were heading back in the boats to our taxis and back to the hotel. Again I skipped supper and stayed in the hotel. I was glad to take an early night as we had aanother early start for ABU SIMBEL. TUESDAY MARCH 6th ABU SIMBEL Alarm at 3.30am to catch our bus at 4.30am and join the tourist convoy to Abu Simbel, some 300 miles further south near the Sudan border in the region known as Nubia. The hotel provided breakfast boxes - same ingredients as in Luxor and I took one despite wanting to stay off food. On the bus I tried to sleep a little but by 6am I was awake and groggy surrounded by people eating from their boxes. I couldn't face it, so wathed the scenery instead. Sunrise was casting blue light on the desert on both sides, no more mountains or greenery to look at. As we got closer to Sudan, the road blocks increased and convoys of trucks were waiting roadside for permission to continue across the border. At 7am we arrived in the small town of Abu Simbel. Lake Nasser nearby is the only feature of the desert but the town hs a modern hospital and otherwise looked charming. The buses park in one large carpark and the hundreds of tourists swarm into the temple visitor centre past a dozen shops trading in souvenirs, cola, fanta, sprite, crisps & icecreams. Abu Simbel was also moved to higher ground to avoid the lake water and a small exhibition tries to convey the enormity of this project. The approach to the temple is via the back of a large dome of gravel which was built from nothing as a new backdrop to the temples. The path rounds to the front with Lake Nasser stretching before you into the distance. The first view of the enormous statues of Rameses II is breathtaking. Our guide (who was bonkers and believed in the Alien theory) shared some tales of Rameses II and showed us what to look for inside the temple which is dedictaed to his war triumphs against the Hyksos in the Battle of Qadesh and his growing egotism which led to him declaring himself a god. The second temple is dedicated to Rameses II's favourite wife Nefertari. However, he had to include statues of himself here too - such was the size of his ego! At the foot of the main temple you are dwarfed by the statues and early graffiti from the explorers is cleary visible from a time when the sand covered the temple making it possible to carve into the stone some 15m above the present entrance. Inside the statues continue and the walls are just awe inspring in their detail and scale. Deep inside the temple is a shrine to the sun god Ra - amazingly the sunrise strikes the exact spot twice a year in spring and autumn. The temple of Nefertari is similar but on a smaller scale with impressive carvings and murals. No photos are allowed inside, but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. An amazing morning and well worth the long trip. We arrived back in Aswan early afternoon and I rested for the remainder of the day. With my 'Aswan Diet' going well and my clothes loosening I opted again for a 'no food' day to avoid any further gyppy tummy. THE UNFINISHED OBELISK I opted out of the Nubian Village visit and along with Jan and Tim went in search of the Unfinished Obelisk which lies in a granite quarry in Aswan. Tim had a map and we walked confidently for 3 miles and still couldn't find it. When we asked directions and eventually arrived we were 4 minutes late! Disheartened we walked back to the hotel via some very dodgy backstreets! After a refreshing drink on the riverbank we then braved the souk together and I bought hibiscus tea and a galabaya in white cotton. Starting to feel hungry again, around 6pm I ate in the hotel with a few others and managed an omelette. Another early night to pack my bags ready for the sailing expedition the following day. WEDNESDAY MARCH 7th Feeling rough again - not sure the omelette was a good idea - I skipped breakfast and the optional camel trek to a local monastery. Several others had also not gone so after dropping our bags at the Feluccas we had a free morning. It as agreed that we couldn't let the Obelisk beat us so hailed a taxi to take us there at 8.30am. This time it was open and packed with tourists! The quarry was used by the Ancient Egyptians to build their granite temples and statues, floating the blocks down the Nile. the unfinished obelisk remains here as it developed a crack in the stone making it useless. It would have been the largest obelisk in Egypt but instead lies here unfinished as a clue to the methods used by the ancients. We had a triumphant photo taken before leaving to join the others at our Feluccas.