12/10/2009

Upper Egypt



To kick off December I hopped on a train headed south, to Luxor. After three straight weeks of sleeping in the same city, an escape from the bustle of Cairo was in order. My old train car scraped to a halt in the heart of town just after 9am, and I dove into the familiar travel routine: find cheap bed, find cheap food, rent cheap bike and explore to heart's content. The routine works even better when I insist on a bike with a seat cushion, but there was no such luck in Luxor. Still, launching down the corniche that morning, the only thing on my mind was reaching the bright cliffs above the west bank, screaming at me to cross the river and begin wandering.


Once called Thebes, this small stretch of Nile is dotted with as much history as anywhere on earth. Its array of temples, tombs and monuments spans thousands of years of history that predates the rest of what we call history. Scattered throughout the lush fields banking the Nile, standing above the desert floor further afield and etched into the towering western cliffs are dozens of sites worthy of their own private spots on the World Heritage list: the Tombs of the Nobles, the Ramesseum, Medinat Habu, Deir al-Bahiri (and the Temple of Hatshepsut), and the Valleys of Kings and Queens, to name a few. The sun kept me happily hijabed under a Taliban headscarf throughout the afternoon as I hopped from temple to tomb. I finally hid in the shade of a small, saw-dust strewn koshari joint in Gurna. When it was too dark to see anything, I ferried back from the West Bank with another bellyful of koshari. The second day my lovely routine turned hellish from the moment I first sat down on the bike seat. Combined with yesterday's wanderlust, the iron seat had taken a toll. I winced as I rode off for a second day of wandering. 

After a frustrating hour or two at the station establishing that foreigners are absolutely not allowed to board any microbus south, I returned to the train station and boarded a 3rd class car, by curiosity. At the very least it worth the money: just three dollars for the five-hour journey to Aswan, half of which was spent standing in a train car packed full of fellahin, piles of luggage and a smattering of livestock. The car itself looked about how the Cairo metro may after another fifty years or so without maintenance or cleaning. My upper class Egyptian friends, who swear they're middle class, refuse the take the Cairo metro. 

In Aswan, I made it to the river and enjoyed my best Nile sunset yet. As there seemed to be no other way, I signed up for an Abu Simbel jaunt the following morning at 3am. The road south of Aswan was dotted with checkpoints, and my patience for Egyptian red tape was wearing thin. Half-asleep, I felt out a seat by a Korean, two Brits and a trio of Spaniards and woke up just before sunrise, the minibus cruising past Lake Nasser. Shortly thereafter we pulled into a giant parking lot lined with souvenir shops funneling a mass of tourists through the gates of Abu Simbel. Despite the crowd, upon glimpsing the temples for the first time I decided the whole trip had been worth the cost in freedom and Egyptian pounds. Moved 200 meters in 30 ton sections at a cost of $40 million back when Lake Nasser was created, this spectacular pair of giant mountain temples was stunning. Preserving the giant statues of Ramses II, three out of four of them still sitting 20 meters tall and staring at the horizon through enormous stone eyeballs, was alone worth the giant effort made back in the sixties. Moving two entire mountains without chipping roomfuls of delicate stonework deserves an applause. On the return route, we stopped off at the High Dam, entry to which required another high-priced ticket. Wandering the bushes nearby a giant monument built in the spirit of Nasser's glory years, I noticed a big hole in the chain fence and, naturally, climbed through, admitted to the High Dam area for free. Spotted, whistled at and then chased down by guards ten minutes later, I was escorted out past the ticket window. The final stop was the Temple of Philae, reached by boat, where plenty from the Bible and Wilbur Smith's River God would have likely taken place. I negotiated the price for our group: everyone was ready to pay twenty pounds, but I got it down to four each and was proud of myself. The boatman wanted to throw me overboard. 

The next night I joined a French couple of evolutionary biologists and a vagabond Ecuadorian on an extreme budget felucca ride down the Nile. The boatman spent the first hour trying to convince the French that they should go back to Aswan instead of keeping to the agreed-upon route, and the next hour complaining to me about how arrogant the French people were for not letting him screw them over. Like a good number of travelers I've met in Egypt, the couple had already been swindled past the point of frustration during the course of their trip, and I was sorry they hadn't met many representatives of the honest majority of Egyptians, the millions of good people hiding beyond the shops and hotels and kiosks practically sealing in the tourist trail.

We pulled onto shore near a Nubian village in the afternoon. Wary of another tourist trap, I was happily surprised: it was indeed a Nubian village. Wandering off to explore the adobe alleyways, I shared some shay with a household of curious but friendly faces, faces that seemed to belong much further south than Egypt. It proved a refreshing stop: no money asked, no souvenirs on sale, no baksheesh, just pure Nubian hospitality. Tethered to shore, I built an incredible fire with my Ecuadorian compadre and we all shivered through a freezing night on the boat's deck. Although we'd all been told we were headed for Kom Ombo (about halfway to Luxor), the next morning we disembarked just ten miles north of Aswan. We could do nothing but laugh. I joined the Ecuadorian to check out the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu, the latter being perhaps the most massive stone structure I've seen. 

We reached Luxor by evening. Free wifi took me to the top of McDonald's, where I pondered how wonderful it was to down a hamburger and check my email right across the street from Luxor temple. I upgraded to second class for the return train to Cairo, waking up back in the cold, smoggy chaos of the capital.


1 comment:

ann said...

Wow, Joseph, a great blog and beautiful pictures. Can't wait to hear about the exhibition--wish we could be there to see it.