Travelogue: Egypt (Luxor and Cairo) 2008
Adam J Purcell logs his travels to Luxor and Cairo, Egypt, in November 2008.
The nights are drawing in, the temperature is dropping and so are the leaves. Time to nip on a plane to somewhere rather less grey and a lot warmer. Egypt.
Wednesday Morning (5 November 2008): Crawley, Gatwick and plane
It all began on a cold and stormy night. Well, okay it wasn't stormy. It was still night, though, and a tad chilly. It was an unhealthily early start, awake at 04:30 to be over the Dunn's for about 06:00. About the first thing I did that morning was turn on the radio, tuned to BBC Radio 4, to hear the outcome of the American Election. For what felt like about two minutes some American chap was talking about the victory, without mentioning the name of the victor! From what he was saying I suspected it was Obama. Sure enough, finally, his name was mentioned. Being British, I don't get a vote in the American Election (can't say I'd like the idea of other countries having a vote in the UK elections, so I can't really complain!) Nonetheless, I was rather hoping for an Obama win. If I were superstituous I would have taken his victory as a good omen for the holiday. I'm not but I decided to pretend it should be anyway! A good start to the holiday (here's hoping I don't regret that sentiment in years to come!)
Finishing off my final bit of packing (the stuff you can't really do until you are ready to leave) I watched some of Obama'a acceptance speech live on BBC 1. Then I headed out into the cold darkness of the British autumn. 10 minutes up the road I left the car outside the Dunn's house for a week and met up with Karen, Keith, Jamie and, the non-Dunn, Jean. After about 15 minutes of 'has everyone got their passport?', 'have you all got your Egyptian money and Traveler's Cheques?', 'have we got the plane tickets' and the like, we ventured forth into the night again to catch a bus to Gatwick Airport.
The Thomas Cook A320 left Gatwick roughly on time, as I recall. It was a pretty uneventful flight to Luxor International Airport. It was a good 5 hours or so, though. I hate plane trips of more than about 2 hours. It's not fear of flying or anything like that. It's just being stuck in that cramped seat with little or nothing to do for hour upon end. That and I invariably end up with lower back ache. Not good. 11 hour flights are real killers! Fortunately Egypt isn't quite that far away! One gleam of amusement I did get on the flight was the sight of Karen and Jean watching the inflight film - Mamma Mia! If there was the headroom I think they might have stood up to wave their arms over their heads in time with the music!
Fortunately the nightmare at 20,000 feet did eventually end and we touched down in Luxor. I should say that somewhere along the way the sun did rise and, out of the plane window, we got a great view of Venice and then, some time later, lots and lots of desert! Looking back at it, I'm not quite sure where most of Wednesday went. Egypt is 2 hours ahead from the GMT timezone we left, the flight took 5 - 5 1/2 hours. Even if we left Gatwick at 09:45GMT... Hmm, not sure. I believe we got out of the airport at Luxor around about 18:00 local time. Yes, it was well on its way to getting dark again. Was there really any daylight that day? I'm sure I saw a bit out of the window of the plane! We were actually amongst the first out of the airport for our plane load. Jean had rather smartly suggested we get visas at the Egyptian Embassy in London. Or, rather, she took our passports and got them for us. Very kind and saved us a lot of form filling at the airport - and a reduced risk of being turned away, too. Not that anyone was as far a I know. Luxor is very much a tourist economy, so I think they'd have to be seriously concerned about you to turn you and your money away.
Wednesday Evening (5 November 2008): Luxor!
Out into the Luxor twilight. It was still very warm. It was dry. It was my first experience with the locals. Pretty much as soon as I left the terminal building, walking towards our coach to the hotel, someone came up grabbed my suit case. He got Karen's too, as I recall. Not to steal it. In fact I initially asummed it was just a normal porter. And it probably was. At the first opportunity I'd forgotten the golden rule of Egypt (and, to be fair, many places around the world) - people only help you to get money! Of course I was used to Britain where, for example, coach drivers will often help you load your bags into the hold - it's just part of their job, they don't necessarily expect anything for it. It's different in Egypt. People go well out of their way to help you, even when you really don't want it. They want some bakshee - tips, money. Of course being straight off the plane I had no change and I sure as heck wasn't giving them 100 EGP (Egyptian Pounds, roughly about £12 in British Pounds, perhaps about $19 USD). Fortunately they didn't do anything to my vulnerable suit case after I got into the coach and couldn't see it any more. They may be a bit agressive in their helpfulness but I saw no evidence of them being any kind of threat. In fact pretty much every Egyptian I met on the trip was a very jolly sort, especially when they were trying and failing to get your custom!
The Sonesta St. George, Luxor. That was our hotel for the week. Supposedly a 5 star hotel but it certainly isn't by European standards (even less so by American standards, who I've always found to turn good service into a artform - at least at decent hotels I've used). I would suggest the Sonesta St. George to really be a 4 star hotel - it has a good main restaurant, a couple of smaller restaurants (an Italian and a Japanese one), a little coffee shop by reception, a little Middle Eastern restaurant (called Aladdin!) out the back by the pool, a 'British-style lounge' bar and a couple of other bars around the pool (including one which is a 'swim up bar'). Also, of course, it has the inevitable Gym and Spa (which I don't think any of us ever used). There were even a couple of little gift shops! The tenth Doctor would have liked it! All in all it was a generally clean and well specified place. One, very minor, fly in the ointment was that during our visit (indeed for about the preceeding year) they were doing building work to add three new floors to the top of the hotel. On the first night I was woken up at something like 04:00 by what may have been the sound of drilling. It wasn't that loud and I wasn't fully awoken so I quickly drifted back to sleep. The sound can't have lasted for more than about a minute. I don't think I heard it again, certainly wasn't disturbed by the works otherwise, which is quite remarkable really. Even with that I have no complaints about the hotel. I wouldn't hesitate to return there. In fact a couple of nights after getting home I woke up in the night and for a moment thought I was still there. Once my disorientation passed I was most disappointed to find myself at home!
After checking in, getting to our rooms and unpacking, we met up to sally forth for dinner. Fortunately one of our number knew Luxor very well. For Jean this was her fifth (yes, 5th!) trip to Luxor in a few short years. She'd been recommending it for some time and she did all the hard work of organising the trip, including booking it all. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for her hard work. For the rest of us, it was our first time. For the other three I believe it was their first time outside Europe. It wasn't that for me but it was my first time in Africa. Though, as I undertand it, Egypt is far more like the Middle-East than it is like the bulk of Africa. Hopefully one of my trips next year might take me to the other end of the continent, South Africa, and I'll have something to compare it too (not that South Africa is much like central Africa, either...) But I'm drifting! Jean, being the seasoned Luxor traveller that she is, immediately recommended an 'English' restaurant for our first evening meal there. She had a great place in mind, somewhere called Snobs. Apparently this was the first restaurant in Luxor to really raise the bar on food and service quality to 'Western' levels. Good food, I had half a roast chicken (rather a lot of their meat is bird based in Egypt, it seems) and chips - as I said, it themes itself as a British restaurant! That meal cost me roughly 50EGP, or about £6 in GBP, about half what I'd expect to pay back home. That was a fairly typical price for a meal in Luxor. Little wonder I came back home at the end of the trip with over half my spending money left! One thing about Snobs - their uniform is black trousers, a burgundy shirt and a yellow tie. Apart from the tie that was exactly what I happened to be wearing that evening! I must admit I didn't notice until the waiter pointed it out and it still took me a second to cotton on to what he was saying! If I return I'll be sure to pack that same shirt (or similar) and a yellow tie (yes, I do have one!) Perhaps that way I can get my photo taken with them and put on their wall of fame?! Maybe not.
After an excellent meal at Snobs, we returned to the hotel to relax out the back, overlooking the Nile, for an hour or so before heading to bed. One odd thing, or so it seemed to us, was that the hotel has a cinema screen out there. Our quiet moonlit drink by the Nile was accompanied by The Mask - yes, the Jim Carrey film! Most evenings they seem to have some film or other starting at around 21:00. I must admit, I've never actually seen The Mask (the odd piece here and there, but never the whole film). It had been a long day travelling we just wanted to sit and talk, so we ignored it (it wasn't too distracting, as it turned out!)
Thursday Morning (6 November 2008): Investigating Feet Find Luxor
After a slightly restless nights sleep (not really anything to do with the building works - in fact I may not even have heard that bit of drilling had I been in a deeper sleep) we met up for breakfast at around 09:00. Part of the sleep problem was the heat. I hadn't noticed the aircon control in the room before going to bed. That and I seem to regularly have problems sleeping the first night or two at a new place. It wasn't a problem for long in Egypt - for one thing our days would become too exhausting not to sleep! But to breakfast. Pretty standard large hotel affair - a buffet with your usual cereals, breads, cold meats, cheese, yoghurts, etc. Quite continental, I suppose. I'd always go for the croisants and/or bread rolls, hams, cheese, a couple of sausages and a slice or two of madeira cake! A good way to fuel up for the day!
Not wishing to waste any time, our first day was a full one. We had a meeting with the package tour rep at 12:15 (yes, it was bought as a package tour, i.e. flights and hotel together, but we weren't part of any larger group - not as far as we were concerned, anyway. We did our own thing.) Despite our intended independence we did think it was a good idea to book a few excursions through Thomas Cook, particularly our Cairo trip. But I'm getting ahead of myself again. After breakfast we went out and hired a couple of horse and carts (locally known as caleches) for a 'one hour' trip around Luxor to get our bearings. Jean was wise to their ways and specifically told the two drivers (Karen and Jean in one caleche, Keith, Jamie and myself in the second) not to stop for any shopping. It seems the caleche drivers get a little bakshee from some tourist shop owners they know if they can, literally, drive business their way. Funnily enough the horses suddenly needed a little rest just outside a papyrus 'museum' (aka shop)... The shop owner came out to tempt us in but we stayed resolute and refused to enter his establishment. We stayed there, 'resting', for about three or four minutes before the drivers took the hint! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 'one hour' trip we agreed with the drivers was much more like 40 minutes without the shopping. Nonetheless we paid the amount we'd (Jean'd) haggled with them before we started off. Having a famously bad sense of direction I didn't take in much in the way of geography on the caleche trip but on our later travels around the city it did slowly start to lock into place, a few moments of recognition here and there thanks to our trotting around this morning.
Luxor Temple was our next stop, our first real destination of the holiday. My first impressions: it's big. Really big. I should really say tall, rather than big. It does cover quite a large area but it's nothing compared to what we will see later in the holiday. In the entrance is one of a pair of 25 metre (about 80 ft) granite obelisks. I say 'one of a pair' because the matching plinth that once held the other is now empty. To find the missing twin obelisk you would have to travel to Paris (yes, the capital of France). Apparently the Egyptians gave it to the French in 1831. A lot of that sort of thing happened back in those days, it is very clear that the Egyptians didn't apprectiate the value of what they had. I suppose tourism wasn't a very big thing in the 19th century! It certainly is now, though, and they are currently undertaking quite a bit of work in Luxor to both widen the main roads (to the extent of relocating people and knocking their homes down) and cutting a swathe through the city between Luxor Temple and Karnak. A few miles up the road from Luxor Temple a second ancient temple stands - the Karnak Temple Complex. Some 3400 years ago or so a road joined the two temples. That road was lined, on both sides, by hundreds upon hundreds of sphinxes - the Avenue of Sphinxes. They are slowly digging up the old road but obviously over the millenia the modern Luxor has been built over the top of it. A short stretch has been excavated outside the entrance to Luxor Temple (and Karnak for that matter but that was another day for us!) The sphinxes themselves are probably just over 1 1/2 metres tall and they sit on plinths that are a little bit taller than that. That leaves even a tall person looking at their feet. They must be something like 3 metres apart along the side of the avenue. Even the relatively short stretch that is currently uncovered outside Luxor Temple has at least 60 such sphinxes, that I counted! Really an incredible site, it's just a pity that most of them are damaged in some way. I'm told that they all had unique facial features, though on most it is impossible to tell now, over three thousand years later. Many photos were taken, including a sneaky one of Mr Dalek when he wasn't looking. At the end of the Avenue of the Spinxes (the opposite end to the entrance to the temple) a couple of policemen kept an eye on the tourists. One was trying to get my attention, so I walked up the steps towards their wooden shelter. He pointed at a hole in the side of the wooden structure - the perfect elevated place to take a photo of Luxor Temple, down the Avenue of Sphinxes. I took a couple of shots and made to leave - he rubbed his fingers together in the universal 'money' guesture. Even the police here were after bakshee! I thought it was time to get into the swing of things so I fished around for a small denomination note in my pocket (hardly anyone seems to bother with coins out there but then when you have notes going down to a few GBP pence in value, why would you?) Fortunately I'd bought some water earlier (and paid to get into Luxor Temple) so I now had some change. I can't remember how much I gave but it certainly wasn't much in our terms. It did seem enough to make the policeman and his colleague happy though - the vast difference in cost of living in Egypt compared to Britain (especially for Egyptian locals rather than tourists!) probably meant it was a decent amount to them.
With so many impressive sights on the outside of Luxor Temple it took us a while to actually go inside. Ramesses II, in the form of a 3-4 storey tall statue, bid us entry to the temple. For the most part it is open to the air and always was. I forget who it was now but one of our guides (or someone we relatively trusted, anyway!) said they hadn't had any rainfall in Luxor since 1996! I don't know how true that is but the sky only occasionally had a few wispy white clouds (no rain ever coming from any of those in that state), more usually it was a very pleasant shade of unbroken blue. Of course all around us was desert - the only green we saw in Luxor was from plants irrigated directly from the Nile. From the air, on the way in, you could see the absolute artificial lines that marked the edges of the farmland and the beginning of the desert. Quite a remarkable site! I assume the climate was little different in ancient times, which is why the Nile was so important to the ancient Egyptians, as it is to the modern ones. That lack of rainful may make them dependant on the river but it does mean they don't really need to worry about decent roofs too much. That was obviously true in ancient times as both Luxor Temple and Karnak are mainly open to the sky. Even many of their modern homes forgo a proper roof and instead have a half complete level on the top, so they can easily and cheaply increase the size of their home at a later date. In fact the cheap utiliarian look of the modern homes, with their unfinished grey concrete and steel rods sticking out of the top, are in stark contrast to the massive ancient structures and their almost unbelievable workmanship that endures thousands of years later.
I'm looking back at the dozens of photos I took while at Luxor Temple. It really is time that we had 3D photos - these 2D ones just don't do the place justice. Even when you are there your sense of depth and distance is tricked by the sheer scale of it all. We are all used to seeing columns, a few metres tall not a few tens of metres tall! It is only when you see people in the distance, at the feet of the columns, do you really get a sense of size and distance. It's all much bigger and further away than it looks! Also every surface is carved with friezes and hieroglyphs. What with the harsh sun and the sandstorms through the ages almost all of the original colours have long since vanished. Originally the carvings would have been painted in bright colours, probably on a white background. It is hard to even imagine what an incredible spectacle is must have been in its heyday.
To be honest, the holiday was filled with names and dates. Gods and Pharaohs, lineages and dynasties. Most of it went straight in one ear and out the other! So don't expect too many facts and figures in this travelogue - it was all rather overwhelming at the time. It may take me several more visits for it to all settle into my mind but that doesn't in any way detract from the experience of being there, quite the opposite perhaps as it really makes me appreciate the complexity of the history and the timescales involved (even if I couldn't quote them!) One modern oddity, that really stands out when standing in the main Luxor Temple courtyard, is a mosque. Yes, for some reason a modern mosque is built on top of the ancient ruins! It isn't just sitting there in the courtyard, it is instead three storeys off the ground, built directly on top of some of the ancient walls. I presume that the street facing side of the mosque is actually at modern street level, or a short flight of steps up from it. It's slightly weird looking when seen from inside the historic temple, though!
This was my first real look (and touch) of real Egyptian hieroglyphs. Jean introduced me to the concept of a cartouche ("an oblong enclosure with a horizontal line at one end, indicating that the text enclosed is a royal name" as per Wikipedia's cartouche article.) Also, how to recognise a pharaoh, a dead pharoah (this pharoah is deceased - with a curved fake beard (as opposed to a straight one) and/or depicted as part Osiris (mummified and/or green skin)). Then there were the funeral 'barks' (boats). Also recognising slaves with the string around their arms and the priests with their bald heads. So much detail - and that's without even needing to be able to read the hieroglyphs! Fortunately these main features are much the same in all the temples we visited, so by the end of the holiday I was slowly starting to pick up on them!
Just as we were about to leave the magnificent Luxor Temple what looked like a couple of coachloads of school children turned up. Probably Egyptian kids on a school trip, much as I went to the Fishbourne Roman Palace, in my local county of West Sussex, back in my school days. I doubt many of these school children, dragged along as they are, appreciate Luxor Temple as much as we did (I'm sure I'd appreciate Fishbourne a lot more nowadays). Before they arrived, however, the place was very quiet indeed. There were a couple of small little groups with their tour guides and a smattering of independent couples and the like. Now that I think about it, we didn't see too many tourist families, at least not young families. Probably mainly because it was November, certainly schools in Britain were in session and likely so in most places the tourists normally hail from. There might also be an element of Luxor not really being a place that caters for children, they'd probably quickly bore of the history of it all. Thinking back to our breakfasts (the time when we'd get a good idea of the other people in our hotel) I can't remember ever seeing any children in there whatsoever. That seems slightly odd in retrospect! In fact the tourist numbers were quite a bit down, certainly compared to what Jean had experienced in the past and also commented upon by some locals. A little bit early in the season but even so... Could the credit crunch be hitting Luxor already? We booked our holiday before that situation really started to turn bad. A couple of months after we booked our places we looked into adding a sixth member to the party but even in that short time the price had doubled - the Pound was slumping against both the US Dollar and the Egypian Pound. Sadly only the original five of us flew in the end.
Thursday Afternoon (6 November 2008): The Meeting and the Museum
The official taxis in Luxor can be identified by their white with blue colourings. Most look almost as ancient as Luxor Temple and in slightly worse condition! Pretty much all the cars on the road look to be somewhere between 10-20 years old. New looking cars are rare. Given the apparent lack of a first hand market these cars, for the most part, must have come into the country as 'pre-owned'. Either that or there is a city somewhere in Egypt full of new cars (and it certainly isn't Cairo, either). Quite a number of the taxis are 7 seater affairs, not people carriers as we know them in Britain more like estate cars with an extra set of seats behind the normal back seats (lifting those back seats forward to get to them). Those 7 seaters were perfect for us, 2 in the back, 2 in the middle and 1 in the front next to the driver. Sadly our first trip in a Luxor taxi, to take us from Luxor Temple to our hotel, was in a 5 seater! So that was the driver and 1 of us in the front, with the other four of us in the three wide seat in the back. It was very cosy - especially for Jamie who had to sit on someone's lap! It was only a short ride, fortunately. That got us back to the hotel for about midday and our meeting with the Thomas Cook rep.
It was a long and boring meeting. There must have been about 15 of us in one of the hotel conference rooms, listening to the Thomas Cook representative spout local advice and then go through about 20 different excursion options. The advice was either insultingly obvious or nothing that Jean hadn't already warned us about. I suppose the other travelers didn't have the good fortune of having their own Jean, so perhaps I can't really complain about that. For what felt like the best part of an hour the rep went through a double sided A4 page of excursions - nothing we couldn't read off the copies he gave to us at the beginning, save for day changes. He seemed like a decent chap but I really didn't want to be sitting there for that long when we could be out exploring. Nonetheless, we did intend to book some excursions through Thomas Cook, so we did need to be there. The obvious one we wanted (and had been talking about long before we actually set foot on Egyptian soil (sand?)) was the one day Cairo trip. Originally we were thinking about getting the plane to Cairo early one morning, staying the day there and catching a night train back. The Thomas Cook Cairo excursion, at least that week, was a plane in both directions. Fair enough - I really wasn't looking forward to a night train journey anyway (I've heard horror stories of how uncomfortable they are with their little bed pallets, limited or non-existant washing facilities, etc.) The only downside was the price. We were expecting about £130 (GBP), it was actually nearer £200. Still, it didn't seem right to come to Egypt and not visit the Pyramids, though this would be Jean's first visit to Cairo in five trips. The rest of us basically left it to Jean and Karen to decide what excursions to take - I, for one, really wasn't qualified to have an opinion and nor was I particularly constrained financially. Whatever they chose was fine by me. In the end we took four excursions - Cairo (the only really significantly expensive one - about twice as much as the other three combined), a Nile cruise up to Dendera, the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Light Show.
We couldn't immediately book up, we had to meet the rep down in reception a short while later. We went straight down there and huddled around to discuss the choices. They sounded good, even if I didn't really understand them at that point! Eventually the rep joined us and Jean's credit card took the punishment, the other four of us promising to pay her back once she'd had her credit card bill through (and the final cost is know, after credit card currency conversion rates and charges are taken into account). 'Egyptian time' was a phrase I heard a fair bit during my visit. It doesn't refer to the timezone but rather to their somewhat relaxed attitude when it comes to timekeeping! In Britain, and similar societies, most people are in a rush most of the time. Time is in short supply. That's certainly seems to be true of my normal life! So much to do, so little time. Maybe it's the climate, maybe it's to do with the subsistence living that most Egyptians seem to have or maybe it's something else entirely. Whatever it is they do seem to take life at a healthier pace than we do. I can only imagine what we must look like to them, rushing around, craming as much into a day as they might two or three. Demented insects buzzing around, living fast and probably dying young! With that philosphy in mind, as soon as we'd book our excursions we dashed out of the hotel, hailed a taxi (this time a 7 seater!) and made our way to the Museum of Luxor. So much to see, so little time! Don't take that as a complaint, though, I was very much expecting (and indeed hoping for) an exhausting holiday. We're an odd people indeed!
Security, security, everywhere we go there is security. Almost exactly 11 years before our visit (November 1997) an Islamic group opened fire on tourists near Luxor, killing 63 of them. Understandably that hit tourism pretty hard. You can see the legacy of that everyone nowadays. On virtually every street corner in the tourist areas you will find one ore more policeman permanently stationed (not the same one all the time, though!) At every tourist attraction you must put your bag through an airport-style x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector arch. Even entering our hotel we pass a policeman on the outside, a metal detector arch on the inside and at least one hotel security guard (that's what we can see). All the police have hand guns and being from Britain I'm still not really used to seeing policemen with guns (airport police aside). Though we didn't normally notice it, during our coach excursions we would often (perhaps always?) have a police escourt. I'm pretty sure that on some of our trips on the larger coaches we had an extra Egyptian riding up the front, one we weren't introduced to. Security? Almost certainly. That makes the place sound dangerous. Maybe it is but I certainly never got that sense. It almost seemed more like paranoia on the part of the Egyptians. We had no incidents, either when part of a tour party or when off doing our own thing (unprotected, apart from those ever present uniformed police and, no doubt, their plain clothed colleagues). Nor did we hear of anyone having any problems, no terrorist attacks, no muggings, nothing at all. Jean didn't mention any past problems in her prior four trips (or the 50+ trips of some of her friends), either. Perhaps the police and other security measures are more for show or maybe they do act as a deterrant. There is no hint of menace from anyone in Luxor, it feels like a very safe place (and not because of the police - in fact they probably have the reverse effect of making you wonder why there are there at all!)
The Museum of Luxor was closed for a siesta. To reopen at 16:00. I think that was about 20 minutes time for us when we finaly arrived there. We crossed the road to sit on the promenade overlooking the Nile for a bit. Of course we couldn't do this unmolested by hawkers. They tried to sell us a trip on their Felluca (a small wooden sailing boat used for tourism on the Nile), on the other side of the promenade the taxi and caleche drivers were trying to tempt us into their rides and we also had a man trying to sell us international newspapers. We brushed them all off. And the ones that came after them, etc., etc.! This did highlight to me, and I did find it notable, that there were a surprising lack of newsagents and bookshops. Reading really doesn't seem to be their thing. In Cairo I saw one bookshop and that seemed to be exclusively selling religious books. In the truely massive Luxor market I saw one stall selling newspapers. That was pretty much it for the entire holiday, even Luxor airport didn't seem to have an equivalant to WHSmiths or Waterstones. A stark contrast to the UK, where even the smallest local shopping parade will have a newsagents or, at the least, a little grocery shop that sells newspapers. Now I'm not a newspaper reader myself (they are all too willing to destroy innocent people's lives for a good headline) but the lack of printed topical news is a very interesting difference. The apparent lack of good bookshops is bordering on insanity to me (I enjoy a good book and have a little library myself, 1000+ books - so, yes, there's no excuse for my writing style or grammer!) Also, as yet another aside, there were precious few DVDs or CDs to be found anywhere (tourist DVDs of the various temples and museums excepted). I did see one carousel of what looked liked DVDs somewhere - nothing Western that I recognised, I thought they might be either Middle Eastern or, perhaps, Bollywood. We saw several computer component shops and most of those sold DVD players. So, more places selling players than the discs? Very odd place!
The 16:00 opening time came fairly swiftly and we went into the Museum of Luxor. That was after we paid to get in, of course. Still being fairly new to the place I was 'limited' to mainly fairly large denominations of the local currency. I tried to pay with a 200 EGP note (I think the actual fee was something like 80). The man in the kiosk wasn't having it. We were generally thinking in the terms of £1 GBP = 10 EGP (not exact, as noted above, but a good short cut that wasn't too far from the truth). That would make getting into the museum about £8 (about the cost of a cinema ticket back home) and I'd just tried to give him a £20. Nobody would even bat an eyelid over that back home - you'd get the change without comment, the smallest note you'd get out of a cash machine currently being £10. Of course £20 isn't worth all that much back home but I'm sure 200 EGP is worth a fair bit to the average Egypian. Fortunately I was able to get some change off one of my fellow travellers. Otherwise what would I have done? Gone to a bank to get it changed down to smaller notes? After this we did just that, several times, at the Bureau de Change in the hotel.
I'm not sure we visited a single museum that allowed photography. The Museum of Luxor was the first we encountered with this odd ban. The prevailing thought was that this was an attempt to get you to buy the guide books or postcards. Later on into the holiday I changed my opinion on this slightly. There is, no doubt, an element of that but I think they are mainly concerned with flash photography and the damage that can do to the exhibits. They obviously don't trust people to be able to disable the flash on their cameras. Even I forget to do it sometimes - every time I turn my camera back on I have to remember to disable it again (if that's what I want). It's all too easy to quickly slide the on/off switch to off and then back onto on, as needed, without really thinking about it. It does mean that I've got about a 1000 outdoor shots of Egypt and virtually no indoor shots, though.
But back to the Museum of Luxor itself. It's not a massive place, unlike the Museum of Cairo or the major museums in London. We had a leisurely look around it for about 1 1/2 hours or so. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, literally the security and staff must have outnumbered the visitors. They do have some amazing pieces in there, including mummified pharoahs (Ahmose 1 and Ramesses 1) and many items found in Tutankhamun's tomb. The items were incredibly well preserved, especially the items found in Tutankhamun's tomb, such as a wooden chariot that was found in sections in the tomb and they have put together. A 3,300 year old chariot that looks like it could have been made yesterday!
Thursday Evening (6 November 2008): The Moonlit Swim and the Pigeon
Resisting the local transport merchants we decided to walk some of the way back to the hotel, along the Nile promenade. Being November and sometime after 17:00 it was, of course, getting dark by this point. Like all evenings we encountered out there, it was a warm, dry and overall pleasant evening. Nonetheless we decided to jump in a seven seater taxi before we'd made it half way back - it had been a tiring couple of days and none of us were as young as we used to be (some more than others!) We thought it still a little early for dinner and Jamie was wanting to go in the hotel pool, outside the back of the building between it and the Nile. So, we all nipped up to our rooms before meeting again a few minutes later around the pool. I wasn't really intending to have a swim that night (and I do mean night by this point). For about 20 minutes Jamie was trying to work himself up to getting fully immersed. By this point he'd gotten wet to just below his trunks, compaining it was cold! I'm not sure who was in next (it certainly wasn't me, though!) but one of the others, already in their swimwear, decided to show him how it was done. Gingerly they all made their way into the pool, emitting noises of thermal shock as they made their way down the little ladder into the moonlit water. With a bit of badgering I reluctantly agreed to go back up to my room, change into my trunks (under my clothes until poolside - apparently it was frowned upon to walk through the hotel in swimwear, there was a sign somewhere I think!) and I joined them. Of course we had the pool to ourselves at this time of day, there wasn't even anyone on the loungers around it anymore. The builders working on the top of the hotel seemed to be looking down at us, probably amazed by those mad English people (they could probably guess we were English). As I arrived back down there I noticed my friends were around the swim-up bar, ordering drinks. Fearing the cold water I decided to just jump in rather than ease myself in as the others had. It was the right choice. Not nearly as cold as I expected, at least not after the first few seconds. In fact it felt quite pleasantly warm, certainly compared to what I was expecting. I don't know what Jamie was complaining about, especially as it must have been warmer when he first tried to get in (he was, finally, fully immersed by this time). I have to say, despite my initial reluctance, I really enjoyed bobbing around in that pool for what must have been a good 45 minutes or so. I was the last one out, it was just starting to feel a little chilly. Not bad given sunset was a couple of hours or so earlier. Towards the end I did, for the first time ever, get cramp in both my calf muscles (a few minutes apart). Not a particularly nice feeling but it was easily cleared as I treaded water and then just carried on. That aside, I had a great time in that moonlit pool. I was hoping to do that another evening but, in the end, we just didn't get the chance.
Aladdin's was our restaurant of the evening, a little place on the grounds of the hotel, by the pool. Naturally we all got changed into proper clothes, rather than eat in our swimming stuff - that would be insane (more insane than swimming in the pool at night). This is the meal that will forever be remembered as Adam's Pigeon. The outside tables took our fancy, for some reason. As noted above it wasn't a cold night (not by our standard, anyway) and there was no risk of rain, so a moonlit meal by the Nile seemed like a good way to end the day after a moonlit swim. The only problem was the lack of light out there. The waiter lit a few candles but they didn't last very long before a slight breeze snuffed them out. It wasn't pitch black but dark enough to cause me trouble examing my dinner, my pigeon. Well, I'd never had pigeon before - I eat a lot of chicken, sometimes turkey and occasionally duck, so why not try pigeon, I thought. I see a lot of the scavenging birds around my home town of Crawley and, for the most part, they look very plump indeed. The one that showed up my on my plate certainly wasn't! I don't think I've ever seen a scrawnier bird in my entire life. It just seemed to be a ribcage covered with some hard baked on skin, filled with rice. Presumably the rice was supposed to be the main part of the meal because I certainly couldn't find any meat! There was much amusement all around as I tried to see some flesh between the skin and bones in the dark. I failed! I don't know how this pigeon died but I can only assume it was something to do with the lack of food! I won't rush to order pigeon again, that's for sure. Fortunately I had brought a secret stash of Cadbury Wispa bars, some mini Mars bars and mini Aeros for just such an occasion. When I got back to my hotel room I quickly fueled up! Jamie had also left a bit of his mixed grill which I took off his hands...
Karen and I had picked up some postcards and stamps earlier that day, from a friendly shop keeper that Jean knew, just a little bit along the road from our hotel. After our dinner (perhaps I should say 'after their dinner' considering the pigeon incident!) four of us (Jean, Karen, Keith and myself) made our way up into the open air whale lounge. Jamie made his way back to the hotel room to play Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on his PSP. Jean wandered over to a Hookah merchant, just by the Aladdin restaurant and in front of the odd (and very large) wooden whale sculture/building that contained another little restaurant (I think) and, on the top, the open air lounge we were destined for. Jean was well used to the ways of the Hookah as the merchant brought it up to us in the cusioned and rugged lounge. It was like something out of the 1960s, Jean puffing away on her water pipe, surrounded by big bean bags and the like. Karen had a go on the Hookah but it instantly made her dizzy and slightly spaced out, so she shied away from joining Jean again. I think Keith had a quick go on it too but I declined - I'm not one for going near any substance that can be addictive (except chocolate, of course!) We sat their for 20-30 minutes, generally relaxing after the two exhausting days we'd already had. Karen and I wrote our postcards for back home. Naturally we beat them back, despite posting them that night and ourselves not leaving Egypt for another 6 days. Of my two postcards, the first arrived a couple of days after we got back and the second a full week after we returned - that's about 2 weeks from the date of posting! It's the thought that counts!
Coming up to 10PM, it was now well and truly time for bed. We had a 4AM wake up ahead of us the next morning, so we can catch our flight to Cairo. Fortunately Karen had pointed out the rather obvious climate control in the room so it was much cooler that second night and I generally slept better but not perfectly. Not long after dropping off I was awoken by a knock on the door. It was about 11PM and Karen was waking us up. Why? Apparently Jean had had a call from the Thomas Cook rep to say that the flight the next morning was about an hour later than we'd been told. We only had to wake up at 5AM, rather than 4AM! Of course this now being 11PM I again had 6 hours sleep ahead. Nonetheless it was welcome.
Friday Morning (7 November 2008): Another Early Start, the Flight to Cairo and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
From very early on in the planning stages of this Egypian trip there was talk of visiting Cairo for a day. To be honest, back then, I had no idea what was in Luxor and what was in Cairo - I didn't even know for sure which of the two the pyramids could be found. I thought it best to leave such planning to the experts - mainly Jean. Most of what we visited on this trip she had already seen at least once on past visits, hopefuly it wasn't too dull for her, it was certainly invaluable for the rest of us. Cairo was the big exception - this was new to all of us.
My mobile phone alarm went off at 5AM that morning and I stumbled out of bed, trying to remember what it was like to wake up fully rested! A couple of minutes later the hotel room phone rung - it was the reception desk with my 5AM wake up call. We had a few of these during the course of the holiday and they were fairly consistently a couple of minutes behind the time my mobile phone believed it to be. It did give me a chance to get a bit coherant to thank the receptionist, though! A lot of hotels these days use an automated wake up system but this hadn't reached the Sonesta St. George, Luxor, yet.
We all met up, just before 6AM down in the main hotel restaurant for our inclusive breakfast. Officially breakfast didn't start until 6AM but already pretty much all the food was out and we chose a table. We thought we'd gotten up early but looking out of the windows at the back of the hotel, overlooking the Nile and onto the Valley of the Kings on the other side, we could see hot air balloons beginning their ascent as dawn broke. The tourists on those flights must have been up before even 4AM to get over the river and into the balloons by that time! It was quite a sight, at one point I counted at least a dozen brightly coloured hot air balloons in the sky, drifting across above the Valley of the Kings. Looking the other way, into the restaurant we were seated in, we now saw that the room was filling up with Japanese tourists. Clearly they were on a more traditional package tour and were all heading somewhere for the day. From what we could tell they only stayed in the hotel for a couple of days before disappearing. We knew the Japanese were mad due to their TV programmes but what was our excuse for trying to eat breakfast at 6AM whilst on holiday?!
About an hour later we were all packed and ready for our day trip to Cairo. Again we had the whole 'Passports? Check. Money? Check...' thing as we all made sure we could actually get on our plane. A Thomas Cook person found us waiting in reception and it was onto a minibus for the trip back to Luxor International Airport, of course we had to stop at a couple more hotels on the way to pick other fellow travellers - 13 of us in all (including the 5 in our little group). None of us had any hold luggage this time, of course, so we didn't have to contend with over enthusiastic help from any locals looking for a little bakshee. Also our tour guide for the day, an Egypian called Gamal (I hope I'm spelling that right!) was very on the ball and always looking our for us. I think the flight itself was due to take off at about 8AM but was delayed until nearer 8:45. The actual time in the air was almost exactly an hour, I believe, so by the time we got out of Cairo International Airport it was somewhere around 10AM.
Not having noted the number plate on the minibus that took us to Luxor Airport (and not being able to read Egyptian numbers or letters) I couldn't be sure but the minibus that we jumped on at Cairo Aiport looked uncannilly familiar! It couldn't really have been the same vehicle, of course, as the distance between Luxor and Cairo is about 450 miles and no minibus I've ever heard of can do 450 miles an hour. Nonetheless it was a bit spooky and it's not as if we ever saw two other private minibuses looking the same on the entire trip. Thomas Cook clearly had a deal with the company owning the two minibuses but it was unusual uniformity, even given that, compared to what we saw elsewhere in Egypt. It's not a place big on brand names or corporations, at least not in the parts we visited. The average person still seems to shop at market stalls and small, one room, shops owned by the shopkeeper. A bit like a Britain of 50 or more years ago.
Out first stop on our whirlwind tour of Cairo was at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, aka Cairo Museum. A fascinating, if somewhat grueling, experience tht saw us basically led around the place with Gamal (or tour guide) picking out certain exhibits and telling us what they were, their backgrounds, etc. He knew his stuff and despite nearly losing his voice in the noisy (and massive) museum he did a great job of imparting his clearly considerable knowledge. The only problem, as I implied earlier, was that it involved a lot of standing on one spot for several minutes at a time, before walking to another exhibit to do the same. My feet were killing me by the end of it and I just wanted to sit down! As before a lot of the details were going in one ear and out of the other but I certainly got a flavour of it, if not the specifics of every item we looked at. It seemed to be about an hour of that before Gamal said we could now go off on our own and look around the museum for about half an hour. We broke off from the rest of the party and the five of us sought out the famous Gold Death Mask of Tutankhamun. It is very impressive to see in real life, though somehow smaller than I was expecting. In many ways it looks more impressive in that well staged very well known photo of it but to see it in 3D, to actually get almost right up to it (it's in a glass display cabinet, of course) really adds more than that extra dimension. Keith stayed back in that room for a bit as the rest of us made for somewhere to sit down and have a drink. We lost Jean somewhere along the way, so Karen, Jamie and myself ended up going outside and sitting on the wall out the front, in the blazing midday sun, for a bit. How I didn't get sunburnt I have no idea - plenty of factor 50 suncream probably but even then I felt like my skin was burning in the harsh and relentless heat. Soon enough the other two joined us and Jean visited, with her camera, the statues in the gardens at the front of the museum. She didn't take too many photos on the holiday as a whole (she taken photos at most places in previous trips), Cairo was a notable exception.
Friday Afternoon (7 November 2008): Hard Rock Cafe Cairo, The Pyramids and the Sphinx.
Coalescing around our tour guide out of the front of the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities we again became a tour group. Back onto the minibus and off for lunch. We certainly needed it, the day had been long already and there was a lot more in store for us yet. With no idea where we were headed I was pleasantly surprised when we pulled up outside the Hard Rock Cafe, Cairo. At the very least I ought to be able to get a traditional American burger, exactly the sort of thing I needed to keep me going for the day - no meatless pigeon for this meal! In the event they'd laid on an impressive buffet and I ended up eating a fair bit of chicken and some nice chocolate mouse. Karen was the only one to have the salad (more on this later!) We were a little rushed but I did have time to buy a Hard Rock Cafe T-Shirt (the usual white ones, with logo and city name). I have a few of these T-Shirts already from various cities around the worlds, such as Toronto and Cape Town. These were all gifts, however, and I'd never actually bought one myself - in fact this was the first time I'd ever set foot in a Hard Rock Cafe. I was glad to finally be able to buy one of these souvenirs for myself!
With no time to let our meals settle we were back in the minibus and onto the big attraction of the day - the pyramids. And they certainly are big. It was odd, as we approached them we could see the tops of them poking up behind the modern buildings of Cairo, like the ancient world trying not to be obscured by the modern one. I took many photos through the windows of the minibus as the pyramids came into full sight. A modern visitor centre building barred our entrance any closer to the pyramids (although it was basically at the foot of one and this was as close as we would ever get, it turns out). We all traipsed off the minibus to go through yet another security check (probably the fourth of the day already - two at Luxor Airport and one at Cairo Museum). As it turned out we could all have left our bags on the minibus as we met it the other side of the check and got straight back on. Oh, well... Driving a couple of minutes up the road, away from the pyramids and into the desert, we realised we were headed for a designated 'photo spot'. We only spent a few minutes up there, mainly getting group shots of us in front of the desert and three pyramids in the background. Classic touristy stuff, perfect for our needs! Then it was back onto the minibus to approach the pyrmids once more. We were dropped off at another designated location, much more busy with its cars, minibuses, camels, tourists and hawkers. We were pretty close this time, probably almost as close as when we first stopped. Had we had more time we could have gone right up to the nearest pyramid and even climbed on it a little. I rather regret no getting the chance to at least touch one but time was, as ever, short. Some more photos were had and overly aggresive hawkers fought off. I rather failed to fight one in particular off who grabbed by camera and tried to put one of their Keffiyeh head scarfs (the ones that look like tea-towels to our western eyes) on my head for a photo opportunity. I'm not normally one for losing my cool but I did with this one, though not too badly. In the event I decided to let him take the photo so I could get my camera back without having to lose my cool any further. He took two photos and then I threw the keffiyeh back at him and grabbed my camera. He outright asked for bakshee and I just spat 'I didn't even ask you to take the photo.' back at him. Very unprofessional of me but in my defense I was more than a little exhausted and I don't generally take kindly to strangers who snatch my camera out of my hand! Still, the photos look pretty good!
Got to keep moving! Back onto the minibus and now around to the other side of the pyramids (I think!) to see the Great Sphinx of Giza. Twilight was fast approaching and it was gone 4PM, more like 16:20. We approached a gateway to get closer to the most famous of sphinxes only to be barred by some official looking people (including armed tourist police). A rather heated 'debate' ensued between Gamal, our tour guide, and the person in charge of not letting us through. Gamal pleaded but to no avail. We couldn't get any closer. Normally the gates shut at 5PM but today they had closed at 4PM, due to some dignitary or other arriving. Hordes of tourists were being corralled out into the area we were and then moved along off the site. Not only couldn't we get any closer to the sphinx but shortly we would be escorted from the site entirely. We quickly took what photos we could from where we were. We managed to hold on for a good 10 minutes or so as the staggling tourists filed past us. We may not have been as close as we could have been on another day but we did get some fantastic shots of it as the sun descended towards the horizon behind the sphinx.
Friday Evening (7 November 2008): The Market and the Flight Back to Luxor.
Cairo traffic at around 5PM on a Friday is a mad sight to behold. Even worse than London at the same time and that's saying something. This was on our last site to see that day - a colourful and very crowded market known as Khan al-Khalili. Our tour guide prepared us by conveying some horror stories of other tourists who had been diddled by the locals and the universal problems of pickpockets. His warnings made me quite apprehensive but, in the end, none of us had any problems. The place really was heaving with people. The majority were tourists but there were clearly locals in there too. Though it was called a market, which to me means market stalls, it was really more of a high street with shops all the way along the various streets and alleyways. It was a very large place and all too easy to get lost (as we almost did relying on my sense of direction, fortunately Keith knew where I had gone wrong!) We'd lost Jean early on as she had to nip off to the local loo, so it was just the other four of us fighting our way through the crowds and turning down the numerous invitations to browse from the shopkeepers. By this point it was well and truly dark - we'd been stuck in stop-starting traffic for a while to get there. It was a very colourful and vibrant place at night. I didn't dare try to take any photos of the streets themselves after Gamal's warnings. We didn't really buy anything down these streets but just walked, taking it all in. We had a set time to be back in the main square and we arrived back there a little early, worried we'd get hopelessly lost in the twisting alleyways if we venture too far. The other three looked at a quite large shop on the corner of the square for souvenirs but I decided to wait until back in Luxor for that sort of thing. There was some pretty blatant begging going on in that square, there was one little boy, probably no more than about 6, with a baby in his arms who was going around and trying his best to look pitiful at targetted tourists, pointing to his mouth as to indicate food. The cynical side of me (which is not inconsiderable) couldn't help but think this kid lives in relative wealth, doing very nicely off the back of tourists. Certainly you have to harden your heart against such things or you'll be suckered at every turn. There are charities you can give your money to that will guarantee it will help really needy people, certainly this kid didn't look like he'd ever missed a single meal.
Back on the minibus for one last time in Cairo, back to the airport. Having fought our way through the traffic it must have been gone 8PM by the time we arrived. As with the morning flight, Gamal handed out random plane tickets - 14 of them in all (including one for the tour guide), each with a name of one of the 14 on. You'd think with 5 of us at least one of us on one of the two flights would have gotten a ticket with one of our names on, wouldn't you? We didn't! On not sure what the odds on that are but as an internal flight it didn't really matter. We still had the security checks, though, of course. As with the flight to Cairo, it was a fairly unremarkable affair. It was a standard scheduled flight, so we weren't alone. In fact the mid-sized plane was quite full, presumably a lot of the passengers either doing the same as us or a dual centred holiday in both Cairo and Luxor. Certainly we were very much of the opinion that we wouldn't want to spend our entire holiday in Cairo. Though the day had been a manic rush and we missed the chance to strike out on our own, Cairo as a destination doesn't seem to have enough for more than two or three days of activities. The hustle, bustle and general overcrowding certainly reminded us too much of London. We made the right choice in staying at Luxor, without doubt, though Cairo was good to visit.
Something odd happened at Cairo aiport. For some reason that I still don't understand, our flight wasn't called. We waited and we waited. Eventually we were rushed onto the plane, the crowds for other flights parting to let us through like we were some kind of celebrities. We were the last on the plane, the other passengers were all in there waiting for us. No idea what happened - how did they know but we didn't?! A mystery lost in the mists of time now, I suppose. On the plus side, the plane did almost immediately leave once we were aboard. We think it was during this flight back to Luxor that our little toy friend, Mr Dalek, somehow came to be separated from us. We wish him a happy life in Egypt, wherever he finds himself!
It was gone 10PM by the time we were dropped back off at our hotel. We were all pretty tired and it was too late for dinner. Vowing to not get up too early the next morning we parted for our rooms. For me, I thought it more than overdue that I update the blog and twitter that we'd all arrived safely. This would be my first opportunity to use the Internet since leaving the UK. A couple of weeks before leaving for Egypt I emailed the hotel and asked what Internet access was available from the hotel rooms. On my second attempt to get answer they finally replied, though slightly misleadingly ("LE50.00 for half hour, 3 time using", "LE75.00 for one hour, 4 time using" and "LE20.00 for 24 hours, from first use."). It'd read that as 50 EGP for 3 x 1/2 hours, 75 EGP for 4 x 1 hour and 120 EGP for 24 hours. I was wrong. The Internet fees at the Sonesta St George in Luxor are actually 50 EGP for half an hour, split up into as many as three sessions over a 24 hour period, 75 EGP for one hour, split up to a maximum of four sessions over a 24 hour period and, as expected, 120 EGP for as much use as you like during a 24 hour period. I didn't realise this until the man behind the Business Centre desk in the hotel (where you can fax, use their computers for Internet access, etc.) explained it. My plans of four one hour sessions over the week disappeared. Given no other option I plumped for a half hour session for the rather extortionate price of 50 Egyptian Pounds and headed back to my room. I'd already gotten the laptop out just before going to the Business Centre - no luck finding any public free use WiFi in the area of my hotel room. I plugged into the ethernet cable supplied with the room and disappeared somewhere behind the desk. It worked fine, I scratched the card I was given to reveal the passcode and I was online. Time was short so I put a few photos up on the blog and made a twitter entry. With all this faffing around it was now 00:45 - nearly one o'clock in the morning. Really was time for bed. I vowed not to use the hidiously expensive hotel Internet again.
Saturday Morning (8 November 2008): Karnak.
How many hours sleep do we really need? I don't know but certainly I was building up a nice amount of sleep debt and it wasn't going to get better any time soon! We'd agreed to a 'leisurely' 9AM breakfast meet up. That meant me setting my mobile phone alarm clock for 8AM. So about 7 hours sleep. Best since the holiday began, I suppose but not enough to offset the fatigue that had already built up. I woke up wishing I'd gotten to sleep a couple of hours ealier, as I could have done had it not been for my attempts to get an Internet connection! But rough as I was feeling it was nothing compared to what Karen was feeling. Sitting in my room, watching CNN (the only English speaking news channel available in the hotel - I would have liked BBC News 24...) and recording an audio diary entry at about 08:45, waiting to go down to breakfast, I heard another knock on the door. It was Keith. Apparently Karen had been up most of the night vomitting. Nice. It sounded to me very much like heat exhaustion. I didn't notice at the time but she was the only one not to cover her head all through the day. Karen was also the only one to eat the salad at the Hard Rock Cafe and later said is seemed a bit off in some way. I'd still go with heat exhaustion, though. A valuable lession for all of us. Jean was very careful to warn us away from the local water, don't even use it to clean our teeth and certainly never, ever, drink it. No ice in drinks and also beware of salad that might have been washed with tap water. We wouldn't expect that at a decent restaurant or hotel that tends to cater for tourists but it is hard to know. I should also note that it isn't that the water isn't clean - it is. The problem is a difference in the way they treat their water in Egypt compared to, for example, the UK. If you are staying for a month or more you can drink the local water, make yourself ill for a couple of days and then be okay with it once your body it accustomed. Problem is you might suffer the same problem when returning home! I don't claim to understand it but that is what I've been told. Apart from Karen this time none of us got ill, fortunately. So, two lessons here really - be very careful with the water and just as careful to protect yourself (particularly your head) from the sun.
We had arranged the previous night with reception to pick up some lunch boxes when we left in the morning. After our manic rushing around in Cairo we were determined to take our time at Karnak. There's no point going somewhere if you are too rushed to appreciate it. We had nothing else planned until the evening, either, so no reason not to take it as a more reasonable pace. After our breakfast (too late to see any hot air balloons) the four of us that were fighting fit gather in the reception lobby and made our way out into the scorching heat, soon after 10AM. As we were leaving someone stopped us. I'm not 100% sure but I think it was either a tourist policeman who was assigned to the hotel or a hotel security guard. Certainly someone who was attached to the hotel in some way. We said yes. The original plan was to get a couple of caleches to go to Karnak but with Karen out of it we decided to just get a taxi instead. The chap who had asked us if we wanted a taxi seemed to call someone on his mobile. I'd assumed he'd just be walking down the hotel steps to the road and summon a taxi for us. Apparently not, though. We waited a few minutes and finally he led us down to a taxi that had just pulled up. Sounds a bit sinister now I write this but it didn't feel that way at the time. I can only assume he phone a taxi driver friend of his to put a bit of business this friend's way. No doubt the friend kicked a bit of our taxi fare back to the guard. Didn't appear to affect the price we paid, though. As always Jean asked how much to Karnak and the price of 40 EGP was given, 10 EGP each (or a little over £1 GBP). We weren't in a haggling mood and knew it was a little on the steep side but this way we just wouldn't give a tip - he'd made enough from the fair alone. It was also a fairly trivial amount of money in our terms, anyway.
The Karnak temple complex really is a massive place. Not just tall this time but also wide and deep, in short it covers a very large area and the buildings are on a scale that seems totally at odds with reality! It's like we were wandering around a giant's castle. Nowhere does it feel more like that than in the Hypostyle Hall. Try to imagine a column some 10 metres tall (about 30ft), 3 metres wide (about 9ft) and now imagine a room with 134 of them, closely packed together. It is absolutely insane but incredibly impressive! That rather sums up Karnak in general. On the inside there were many of the now familiar friezes and hieroglyphs depicting the pharoah in contact with the gods, looking eye to eye with them (though the gods are usually sitting and the pharoah standing, making him shorter if they were to stand). The inside would only be seen by the priests and the pharoah but not the common people - they'd just be able to look at the images on the outside of the temple. Those outside images are very different to the ones on the inside. The outer walls are covered in battle scenes, showing what a mighty and fearsome warrior the pharoah was.
When we arrived at Karnak I was initially a bit concerned to see about a dozen large coaches parked there, their former occupants presumably somewhere in the ancient temple complex (or perhaps temple city might be a more apt name!) The place was so vast, though, that you'd have no idea that so many people were scattered around inside of it. We went to some parts and we might only see, quite literally, only one or two other people wander through whilst we were there. It was in some of these lesser traveled bits that we got a really good idea of how these places might have looked 3000 years ago, with some of the original paint still visible. There was even one part where you could clearly still see the yellow and black striping on the back of an image of a bee. Around the top of some of the columns in the Hypostyle Hall you can still see painted papyrus and lotus leaves. The colours are very bright, almost gaudy, and reminds me of more modern bold mediterranean colours. It must have been quite a sight in its day.
For lunch we sat at a table in the picnic area and ate our hotel supplied packed lunches. We did buy some water and ice lollies from the shop, so we didn't feel we were on their table under completely false pretenses! It was a little on the expensive side, too - a captive audience. Whilst there were were accosted by all manner of wildlife, or not-so-wild life as it was. A group of goats roamed the area (one of the smaller ones with a front and back leg tied together with string, enough slack so it could walk but not enough that it could properly run). Some tiny little brown birds (I've no idea what species!) also joined us, as did a little lizard or two.
Saturday Evening (8 November 2008): The Karnak Sound and Light Show.
We got back to the hotel at about 3PM, knowing we would return to Karnak that evening for the Karnak Sound and Light Show. In the meantime Karen was feeling somewhat better and we sat out at the back of the hotel for a bit. We ordered dinner from one of the waiters who served drinks and bar food to the guests lounging around the pool and on the tables behind. We each had chicken nuggets and chips!
Later that evening, around about 7PM, I think, we once again gathered in the hotel reception lobby to be picked up by Thomas Cook again. This time it was for a minibus back to Karnak, now in darkness, for the famous Sound and Light show. They have two or three such shows a night this time of year, usually each in a different language (as we left we could hear the next show beginning in German, but I'm getting ahead of myself again!) The first half of the show draws you through some of the main areas of Karnak. A couple of hundred of us would surge forward to the next area as it lit up and the area behind went dark. Voices boomed out around the ancient stonework telling the history of Thebes (as Karnak was originally known). All very impressive, though (again) quite a lot of names and dates to take in if you are new to the subject. The second half of the roughly 1 1/2 hour show was, thankfully by that point, at a single location - one with rows of seats that I had noticed when we visited in daylight. Different areas of Karnak would light up in our middle distance and the story continued. The one thing I really took away from the story was just how incredibly long Thebes was in use for, over a thousand years. That really puts our modern history and current affairs into perspective! The other thing I came away thinking was - I need to buy an Egyptian history DVD before the dramatic in-character history told by the Karnak Sound and Light Show will really make sense to me!