It is May 11th and I should be in exotic Katmandu again preparing for a new trek from Luckla along the same route I took in 2019 through Namchae Bazar, over the Mongla Pass to Dole, then at some point veering off the route to Everest base camp and instead trekking to Cho Yu base camp at 5200 meters.
Instead, I am arriving in hot, dirty, muggy Cairo because five days ago Nepal closed their borders due to a serious Covid outbreak.
So here I am back in Cairo wondering what there is to see and do that I haven’t already done. After a little research and a lot of badgering by a tour operator I stumbled across as I was settling in I have decided to put my time here to good use visiting two places I have not seen – Aswan and the Sinai. Additionally, I will revisit the National Museum in Cairo during the morning before the heat builds and try to enjoy the unairconditioned museum more than I did in the hot August afternoon in 2019 and visit the new Museum of Egyptian Civilization just opened which is displaying all of the mummies that were not looted by the Brits and French for their museums.
My first full day in Egypt started as an absolute nightmare. The small SUV’s air conditioner was worthless and my driver was an absolute idiot who drove around in circles for 4 friking hours with no idea where he was going. We were supposed to be traveling 120 kilometers South West of Cairo into the Sahara Desert to the El Fayoum Oasis to see Qarun Lake, a beautiful waterfall, Wadi Al Rayyan, Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley), take a Jeep tour out into the dunes and visit a Bedouin village for a barb–b–que lunch.
I became suspicious that we were wandering aimlessly when I noticed I was taking the same photo of the same butcher stall hour after hour. In fact, we passed the damn place so many times the sheep carcass hanging from the rack went from freshly butchered to mostly bare bones between our many passes. I had weirdly taken my own version of a slow motion time lapse photo without even trying.
After a sustained loud blast of obscenities from me the driver broke down and began asking every other person how to get to the Oasis. I don’t speak a word of Egyptian but just from the looks on peoples’ faces and the body language I could tell that I wasn’t alone in thinking this guy should have been riding on the short bus instead of driving an SUV through the desert!
Eventually we found the lake and it was a huge disappointment. The 78 square mile salt water lake was once a 550+ square mile fresh water lake that provided the area with water for irrigation that made the region a fertile bread basket for ancient Egyptians. We simply zipped by at 80 kilometers an hour without even wasting space in my I Phone with a photograph. From the lake we drove on to Magic Lake and the highly touted “magnificent “waterfall.
The lake was far from magic and the magnificent waterfall turned out to be a five foot cascade from a drainage ditch on its way to the less than magic lake. The lake gets its misleading name from a claim that it changes colors with the light. Spoiler alert – It Doesn’t.
At this point I was rescued from the half-witted. SUV driver by a Bedouin that traded in his camel for a Toyota Sequoia with leather seats (in lieu of the jeep). The plush Sequoia makes a very strange sand yacht but at least it was air conditioned and comfortable. And this driver knew what he was doing and where the hell he was going. First he drove me across the desert with the peddle to the metal to reach Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley).
Incredibly archeologist have found the vertebra of a pod of ten whales in the middle of the vast Sahara desert. And I guess I am just geeky enough to think that was pretty cool. They have reassembled the skeletons and left them as an open air museum where each was found,
From Whale Valley we sped across up and over huge 100+ foot dunes in this luxury SUV climbing near perpendicular walls of sand then shooting across the table top mesas only to fly off the other side sliding down loose sand to the valley floor only to speed up to catch the next sand wave. The ride was the highlight of the day and my hat is off to the Bedouin Evil Knievel – this camel jockey was also an expert off road driver.
We finished the off road tour by going to the driver’s home for a fantastic lunch of grilled chicken, desert salad, rice, potatoes cooked in a tomato stock and flat bread washed down by cool sweet hibiscus juice served in a large tent. Then it was back to the miserable little crappy AC SUV with Sling Blade as my driver for a two hour drive back to Cairo.
One interesting tidbit – we stopped at an agricultural water wheel (photo included). This is exactly the same self-propelled waterwheel design invented and employed by the Romans over 2000 years ago to move water through a vast network of canals and channels to irrigate huge square miles of acres of lands for crops which were used to supply Rome and the Roman legions with all of the empire’s food stuff.
Day 2 in Cairo was devoted to first visiting the National Museum. This visit at 9am was much more comfortable than my last visit in 2019. Unfortunately many of the exhibits are in the process of being moved to the new museum scheduled to open in the 4th quarter of 2021. Fortunately many of the best exhibits and pieces were still in place and I had an excellent guide (Emad Mamdouh) who did a wonderful job of explaining the many artifacts and weaving the history of ancient Egypt together in both an interesting and informative way without overwhelming me.
Next up we visited the new Museum of Egyptian Civilization in its brand new beautifully designed and air conditioned building. The primary purpose of this museum is to house the many mummies in climate controlled environments. The mummies are a bit creepy and to be honest – you only really need to see one. They all look alike – shriveled, brown, leathery and small. But I soldiered on and passed through room after room of human jerky.
This might be a good time to gross you out and tell you how the mummification process works. First they remove all the vital organs from the body. Part of the brain is removed by using a hook through the nose and the remainder is removed via a small hole drilled thru the back of the scull. Next they make a 13 inch slice down the left side of the torso and use this to extract, the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc….
The body is drained of all fluids then it is filled with salt and covered in salt and let set for weeks on end. The organs are all placed in alabaster jars and placed in an alabaster carrier for safe keeping until the organs and body are reunited in the afterlife.
The heart is set aside for judgement day. Thoth , the god of judgement, will place the heart upon a scale and upon the other tray of the scale he will place an ostrich feather. If the heart is lighter than the feather the man led a good life and would be rewarded in the afterlife. If his heart was heavier than the feather that meant the heart was dark with past sins and deeds and the person was doomed to a miserable afterlife.
After leaving the Museum we grabbed a quick lunch of grilled lamb and rice in the Souks wandered around a bit then back to the hotel to prepare for my flight to Aswan.
To my surprise Aswan may be my favorite city in all of Egypt. It is no-where near as crowded or dirty as Cairo and the atmosphere seems much more laid back. There are plenty of temples, tombs, and monasteries to entertain plus the very interesting Nubian Village and the very elegant Old Cataract Hotel. But if I am totally honest I loved the place so much because l absolutely loved my tour guide. The lovely and enthusiastic Miss Do Aq (Whats App # +201221849297) was fantastic! She was informative, attentive, entertaining and fun. I highly recommend her!
While in Aswan we visited the High Dam, Unfinished Obelisk, Philae Temple, Abu Simbel Temples, Kom Ombo Temple, the EdfuTemples, the Nubian Village, Tombs of the Nobles, Nubian Museum, the Archeological Site on Elephantine Island, the Aswan Botanical Garden, Monastery of St. Simeon, and the Old Cataract Hotel.
And for good measure we enjoyed a Nile sunset dinner cruise on a Felucca (a traditional wooden sailing boat) and used the Felucca instead of a car to tour the Tombs of the Nobles, St. Simeon Monastery, the Botanical Gardens, Elephantine Island and the Cataract Hotel.
Interesting fact about the Temples in and around Aswan – none of them are where the Pharaohs left them. If you guessed Aliens moved them you would be wrong. The governments of the world joined forces and moved them when they were all submerged under Lake Nasser and the Nile after the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971. The engineering involved in creating temporary dams around each temple then disassembling each temple block by block and each huge statue in giant chunks then reassembling them correctly without disturbing the many reliefs and statues is amazing. And they did such an incredible job of using sandstone to hide the cut marks between stones that it is nearly impossible to tell it is a giant granite lego set. In fact the only way you can tell the temples are not perfect is that the colors of the reliefs have all faded from decades under water before the rescue effort.
And the temples were not the only thing displaced by the 1971 high dam. The entire Nubian Village was submerged and had to be relocated on the west bank of the Nile across from Elephantine Island. To be honest the Village has the most interesting buildings in the entire city and worth spending a half day and lunch there.
And speaking of an interesting building and food – the Old Cataract Hotel is without a doubt the best place to stay in all of Egypt and if you can’t afford to stay there at least have lunch or High Tea there. The elegant old historic British Colonial era 5-star hotel was originally the palace of King Fouad.
In 1899 Thomas Cook built the hotel around the old palace and the grand dame’s guest list includes; Tsar Nickolas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Princess Diana, and Agatha Christie. In fact, portions Christie’s novel Death on the Nile take place in the hotel. I have included photos that don’t really do the old girl justice. The place would be worth the price just for the ambiance but the food is fantastic and the service is top notch. Take it from a chronic complainer this is worth a visit!
So to sum up! Spend three days in Aswan. Stay at the Old Cataract Hotel. Hire my friend DOAA as your tour guide. And be sure to schedule a sunset dinner felucca cruise along the Nile.
Next stop was a long drive down the Sinai to walk in the footsteps of Moses. I flew back to Cairo spent the night and rose bright and early for the long drive to Mount Sinai. Imagine my surprise when the same idiot driver met me in the hotel lobby. I immediately knew this was not going to be good. This guy would have screw up written all over him if he could write. And sure enough, we had not traveled an hour before he ran over something on the four lane interstate and caused a flat tire. So I killed an hour sitting by the interstate basting in the hot Sinai sun as the banjo player from Deliverance tried to figure out how a jack worked.
Tire changed we were back on the road when I got my second surprise of the day. We weren’t driving over the Suez Canal – we were going under it in a tunnel. So I didn’t even get to see the famed Canal. Once on the Sinai our first stop was to see Moses Springs. This is where Moses and his followers fleeing Egypt were in desperate need of water. According to the Old Testament Moses struck the ground with his staff and up popped a bubbling spring of fresh water. In fact he must have struck the ground 11 times because there are 11 large wells – one for each tribe.
From Moses Springs it is still another four hours to the little town of St. Katherine’s and my supposed 4 star hotel. The drive was interesting in that there were military checkpoints all along the route requiring inspection after inspection of my passport and quick searches of our car for explosives. And the last hour and 30 minutes we drove in an escorted convoy to discourage any would be terrorists from separating my head from my shoulders.
We finally arrived at the “4 star hotel” which was about as plush as a Nepalize village guesthouse. The TV was from the 1950s, the bed was just a pad over plywood, the shower was a two by two foot corner of the small bathroom with just a naked bulb for light. Fortunately I spent very little time in the room. We arrived late in the afternoon just in time for dinner. I was actually only in the room from 8pm until 12:45am when I left to trek up Mount Sinai to catch sunrise from the summit.
I began the trek around 1:30am and arrived at the summit at 5:30am just ahead of the sunrise. The hike up was just under 6 miles from the car park/army checkpoint and included just over a 6,000 vertical feet elevation gain. As you might guess a hike up the mountain to catch a sunrise by definition is mostly in the pitch black of night. A nice feature of the trek is that enterprising Bedouins have built stone tea houses/stores spaced just to the correct distance and elevation gain to provide a nice place to rest and drink a cup of sweet Bedouin tea or purchase a bottle of water or soda and a snack.
I was surprised by the number of people on the trail to the summit. In spite of the Covid fears and difficult terrain there were probably a hundred other insomniacs groping through the dark in Moses’ footsteps to meet the sun. All ages, shapes and sizes slowly making their way toward the top and when someone could go no further a johnnie on the spot Bedouin would be there with a camel to rent to carry them the rest of the way.
Several decades ago I spent a lot of time climbing mountains all across North and South America as well as Europe. And I always looked forward to seeing the sunrise from the summits I climbed. But I have to say watching the sun come up over this desolate baron land was very special. Maybe because I am 20 years older and the effort is much harder giving me a better appreciation for the struggle to reach the summit or maybe it was because of the summit’s special place in Christian mythology but I smiled as the sun made its way into the sky.
But I couldn’t help wonder if I was going to receive a new set of instructions for mankind chiseled into stone tablets. But alas, no divine moment for me. I did get an orange Fanta and Snickers Bar from a Bedouin though. The coolest thing at the summit was a small Orthodox Chapel for the Cristian faithful as well as a small Mosque for those of follow the tenets of Islam.
All the photos of the route were actually taken on the way down the mountain. And I can report that the hot desert landscape begins to cook as early as 7am. The trek back down was easier on the body but the temperature made it just as brutal it its own way.
On the way down we stopped at Saint Katherine’s Monastery to see what the Greek Orthodox Monks claim is the original burning bush that spoke to Moses and the well where Moses first met his wife Zipporah – daughter of Jethro. Unfortunately most of the rest of the Monastery was closed due to Covid. So I missed what I was told is a beautiful basilica as well as the bone room that houses all the skulls and bones of past monks.
Saint Katherine’s is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world founded as a small church in 330 AD by Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. The monastery’s library has the second largest religious collection in the world with over 6,000 manuscripts and volumes. And its Icon Collection is said to be the single most important in the world with works dating back to the 5th century. Fortunately the library and Icon Collection was open so I spent a good hour looking at all the incredible old volumes written in both Greek and Syrian.
And after the Monastery visit it was back to the hotel to check out, eat breakfast then reconnect with my slow witted driver for the long 6 hour drive back to Cairo.
Next morning I was off to Tunisia to begin Phase 2 of Plan B to fill the time I am locked out of Nepal and India due to Covid outbreaks.
Again I would like to offer a sincere testimonial for one of my favorite guides ever DOAA. She was my guide in Aswan but she is an expert on Egyptian history and culture with a degree in Archeology and Hieroglyphics and can serve as a guide in Aswan, Luxor, Giza, Cairo, Alexandria, or the Sinai. She is smart, energetic, and enthusiastic and does not overwhelm you with dry facts and dates. And by dealing with her directly you can cut out the tour operator and save considerable money. Should you be interested in her services she can be reached on Whats App at +20 122 184 9297 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.