Egypt, the mysterious land of the Pharoahs. Egypt has been portrayed in all stories since the beginning of civilization from the Bible to movies and novels. Recently, the country is also undergoing a tremendous transformation as old political systems in the Middle East collapse amid the rising Arab Spring. We booked a tour with Chan Brothers (www.chanbrothers.com) in 2011 to visit Egypt for 10 days. This was before all the political troubles started and little did we know that shortly after the tour ended, the country would descend into chaos.
The tour started off with the tour group flying into Luxor. We departed on a Qatar Airlines flight, transiting at Doha and finally landing in Luxor where our local guide was waiting for us.
We arrived on New Year’s eve before 2011 and were to stay a couple of nights in Luxor. There’s something about guided tours I hate is that they will bring you on a sight seeing trip straight away after you have taken a 15 hours overnight flight and expect you to be awake for the commentary.
Luxor was once known as the city of Thebes and the capital of ancient Egypt. Today it’s a small city that depends mainly on tourism as people come to see the ancient temples that lie within the city itself. Karnak Temple was the first place to visit after we got off the plane. This temple complex was once the religious centre of Thebes.
We woke to a new year after the night’s festivities. Spending a new year in Egypt, and dining by the banks of the famed River Nile. What an experience!
Any visit to Luxor is not complete without a trip to the Valley of the Kings where the tombs of many Pharaohs lie. The valley is famous because of the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun and subsequent legends about the curse of the Pharaohs. Unfortunately, tourists are not allowed to bring cameras into the Valley of the Kings, so I have no photos to share and you probably have to visit the place for yourself.
River Nile Cruise
One of the highlights of the tour is a 4 days cruise along the River Nile. We would stop at various towns along the river to visit the attractions. The cruise goes upriver and ends at Aswan where we would then take a domestic flight to Cairo.
As the boat travels upriver, we are going against the current and the going is quite slow. In the night we passed through the Esna Locks. The lock system is used to transfer ships from the low side of the river to the high side, and vice versa.
The tour provided us with a horse drawn carriage ride to the temple. I presume this is the usual way things are done here. Since there was a long line of carriages and tourists from all the boats were riding on them.
We finally reached Aswan and were to spend a night there on the boat. Aswan is in the south of Egypt and is close to Sudan. Due to the unstable political situation in Sudan, security is quite heavy in Aswan and you can see military personnel and police everywhere. We were to visit the fabled temples of Ramesses II in Abu Simbel. As the temples were quite close to Sudan, we required a military escort for all the tour groups. The trip really felt like a military operation. We woke up at 4am, went to the assembly point where all the buses, military trucks and jeeps were waiting, boarded the assigned buses and the whole convoy moved off by 5am. We even had an armed guard inside the bus. After a 3 hours drive along the desert where we passed a few military checkpoints, we finally arrived in Abu Simbel.
The 2 temples were originally carved out of the mountain side, but were moved to their present location in 1968 and the artificial mountains were built. This was due to the construction of the Aswan High dam which flooded the valley where the temples were originally located in.
After the visit to Abu Simbel, we had to endure another 3 hours drive back to Aswan.
Later in the day, we had a felucca cruise along the Nile. The people of Aswan are mainly Nubians from Africa, and they have a village on Elephantine island and their traditional sailing boats are called feluccas. Our felucca cruise would take us to Elephantine Island to visit their village.
We spent another night on the boat, although the boat was just anchored along the shore. The next day we continued on our visit in Aswan.
From Aswan, we took a domestic flight to Cairo, capital of Egypt. Cairo is also the largest city in the Middle East and Africa and is a center of Islamic influence.
Finally, we also get to visit the most famous sight in Egypt, the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx.
A visit to Cairo would not be complete if you did not visit the Egyptian Museum. Again, no photos are allowed inside the museum. Inside you will see relics from ancient Egypt like the gold mask of King Tutankhamen, the sarcophagi of the pharaohs, and of course the mummies. Unfortunately, you would need to pay extra to view the mummies (100 Egyptian pounds). We decided to skip it as the crowd to view it was quite large with a long waiting time.
The city founded by Alexander the Great is the second largest city in Egypt and located on the north coast along the Mediterranean Sea. This was a day excursion and we left early in the morning.
Most visitors need a visa to enter Egypt, but this is done on arrival at the immigration. You just pay for the tourist visa (US$25) which is like a sticker, stick it on an empty page in your passport and go to the immigration counter to get it stamped.
We changed our money at the airport. Only major currencies like US dollars, Sterling pounds and Euro are accepted.
Food was mainly middle eastern with a lot of beans and vegetables. Just be careful on the hygiene as a couple of people in our tour group got diarrhea after eating some unclean food or un-boiled water.
The biggest peeve is that a lot of the locals at the attractions treat every tourist like a walking ATM and make it their national duty to try to hustle some money out of you. Public toilets are usually free, but someone will stand outside and try to demand that tourists pay to enter the toilet. It’s up to you to give, but to avoid any unpleasantness, we usually give the fellow 1~2 Egyptian pounds, which is basically 15~30 cents. As we were on a guided tour a lot of the tips and fees were taken care of by the local guide. If you are on your own, it would be better to bargain and agree on all costs before paying for anything.
Weather during December was perfect. It was around 15°C to 20°C in the day, and cooler at night. A jacket was all that was needed to keep warm. I heard that it’s very hot in summer.
As we left Cairo through the international airport, we could see that the situation was already getting chaotic. There were long lines of locals and tourists trying to enter the airport, and the airport security was busy X-raying and examining every piece of luggage. There was a certain amount of tension in the air. It would have taken us hours just to clear the initial checking, but the local tour company arranged to have a fast clearance for us. So it took us only around an hour to have our luggage checked in, and our boarding passes issued. We left Egypt on the 9th of January 2011 and the revolution that was to topple President Mubarak started on 25 January.