Monday, October 30, 2006

Welcome to Cairo

Day 6.
Am writing this a week afterwards so it's all going to be a bit hazy. Arrived in Cairo after a rather nice circle over the Nile. Could see the Four Seasons hotel but sadly not to be staying there. Was a bit worried as to how to find the hotel - I had an address, but no clue as to how to get there! All part of the fun. Anyway, was fast off the plane, and into immigration where in Egypt you are expected to stick your own visa stamps into your passport - like little postage stamps. At least one can chose where in the passport to put them - nothing worse than carelessly placed visa stamps. I now have a nice selection, with St. Petersburg, Nepal, Mauritius and Egypt!

Usual chaos coming out into arrivals. Once out I realised that the ATMs were back inside the secure area, so this being Egypt I talked my way back in! I regretted not just choosing pickup as part of the package. So it was... free shuttle bus to the car park, then walk across from there to a random roundabout. Met an Irish bloke called Brian who was just as clueless as me, and was heading down through Africa with no particular plan! At the roundabout we flagged down a minibus, which would take us somewhere into town. Cost - 1 Egyptian Pound, with an exchange rate of 1:9 for British Pounds, so.. not much.

Bus dropped us in hell.. a crowded hot scene of mayhem underneath a motorway flyover, somewhere in central Cairo. I gave up. Hopped in a cab, with minimal haggling, so paid 10EP. Arrived at the hotel, and found I was sharing a room with an R Lee, who had covered the room with his possessions, including an expensive camera. Did he know he was sharing a room? He was also out with the key, and this not being the classiest of hotels, there were only single keys for rooms, so I was stuck! Nice view of the Nile river though. When he turned up half an hour later, he turned out to be a Canadian Chinese chap. And so to sleep, since by now it was about 2:30am, and we had a wake up call at 7am the following morning! Groan!

At breakfast, which was very unappealing - bread and plastic cheese, we met our guide and the group, before heading off on an air-conditioned bus with our guide Ehab, and first stop was the famous Egyptian Museum. This museum is the main repository in Egypt for all things ancient, and they certainly had much of interest. I paid extra for access to the sections with mummies. What was disappointing was that the place was more like a store room than a museum - hardly any labels on anything, artifacts piled up on top of each other. Without a guide the place would have been completely impossible. I later chatted with our tour leader, Shady, and it would seem that they are building a new museum out in Giza near the pyramids, so perhaps this is the explanation for the neglect. It's certainly wrong that the world's first purpose-built museum, and one with such a significant collection, should be far inferior to most art galleries in London in their explanations!

Next was the biggie... out to Giza. I was surprised at the small distance - Giza is a suburb of Cairo, and the drive there was not more than 15mins. As soon as the bus pulled up into the complex the pyramids came into view. Absolutely incredible. The feeling one has viewing these enormous iconic monuments is almost electric. [GPS: 29.97675N, 31.13293E].

The largest is the Great Pyramid, Cheops, but there are two others. We went into one of them - Chephren - which involved scrabbling down a tiny and steep tunnel (several of the group turned round because of claustrophobia), then along a flat bit where one could stand, then up an equivalent length again and into the large chamber in the centre. The air was very hot and humid (why?), and there was little to see, but it was still eerie being in the centre of the massive structure.

Next we hopped on the bus to see the Sphinx, another image ingrained in one's perception of Egypt. It's still in fairly good condition, with just some scaffolding at the back. Battery on camera died just as I had walked up to viewing point! Probably for the best, as it stopped me from going overboard with photos (still squeezed a couple in of course!)

Finally we moved to another point in the complex which had a good view over the whole site, and several of the group had the excitement of a camel ride (not me, done it in Morocco, no need to do it again voluntarily!). The amusing thing about camel ries is that you get on them when they are sitting down, then they stand up one leg at a time, the result of which is that you are thrown all over the place until all four legs are engaged. Same in reverse when dismounting!

The tour continued to a papyrus shop, where we enjoyed a short demo of how the stuff is made. They collect reeds, soak them in water, chop them up, and then flatten them in a press, before laying them in a lattice arrangement. The demo was linked with the fact that we were supposed to buy something from them afterwards, but not for me. There were lots of beautiful pictures though, and were I not travelling for so long I probably would have picked up a few Egyptian scenes (with the usual danger that when one gets them home they look completely out of place!)

Back to hotel for dinner on the roof-top terrace area, which is surprisingly nice given the rest of the hotel is quite shabby. This is first group dinner, and so far it does seem like a really nice group. Food is hummous and dips, followed by beef curry, and then etremely flaky (I made a complete mess!) baklawa nibbles for pudding.

And so we headed off. We went to Giz rather than Cairo station, as our group leader, Shady (yes that's really his name) didn't want to brave the 30+platforms, 4million passengers main station, and I can understand. Giza wasn't far from the hotel either. At the station, we found out that firstly we had different seats for half the journey, that Shady didn't have at at all (it's festival time after Ramadan, so everyone is on the move), and the concept of "Egyptian Time" means it's fairly unlikely our train will be running on time! The train does arrive, and not too late. Perhaps half an hour.. And the carriages are not bad, though I do have a seat facing the wall. Minimal legroom. This will hurt after 12 hours (estimated!)

BA Eye Goggles on, mp3 player on, sleep time!

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