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Egypt without tears

As a country that has fascinated travellers for centuries, Egypt can be considered to be the original tourist destination. When the ancient Greek historian Herodotus visited the country during the 5th Century BCE, he felt compelled to write an account of the wondrous things that he had seen. Additional comments can be found on some Egyptian monuments and ruins in the form of graffiti from Greek and Roman travellers and Napoleonic troops. So when you travel remember that you are yet another tourist in a long list of many!

Traffic, tourism and tricksters
Like many other kids I always loved the stories of the Pharaohs in school history lessons and so I was unbelievably excited to arrive in Cairo. Unfortunately, modern Cairo did not seem to have anything particularly magical about it. I tried really hard during my entire visit to find something I liked but, apart from the food, I think that Cairo must be an acquired taste – if you live long enough to cross its roads. Why countries like Egypt do not produce more motor racing champions is beyond me. The local drivers drive at top speed boxed in by vehicles on all sides, but seem to have relatively few accidents. Many Egyptians pedestrians could also find work as stunt men in action films. During our first day we were horrified to see a car clip a pedestrian, knock him to the ground and drive off. Other pedestrians seemed relatively unconcerned, although they would not have been able to get anywhere near him to offer help, due to all the other would be motor racing champions hurtling down the road. Yet the man simply got up, cursed the driver and ran off through the approaching cars. This did nothing for our confidence in crossing roads in Egypt!

The Sphinx

Egypt is surprisingly well organised for travelling and visitors have several modes of transport at their disposal – from modern planes that race the country to the humble feluccas that amble leisurely up and down the fabulous Nile. In your quest to discover ancient Egypt it is worth travelling the country just to experience the range of people, cultures and landscapes that exist. As tourism plays such a major role for Egypt there are hordes of agencies and would be travel agents in Cairo and every other city. Although it is worth trying to do some visits yourself, events in Egypt in recent years have meant that you can only visit certain sites with organised tours.

Unfortunately sorting out the good travel agents or advisers from the bad is virtually impossible in Egypt. It is also complicated by the fact that even if they want to squeeze as much money out of you as possible, due to your naivety, many of the bad guides still want you to have a good time. As a result, bargaining is one skill you will pick up from your visit to Egypt, whether you like it or not!

On occasions when we did challenge various cheats, they would deny the accusations, smile and tell us that the money would not mean much to us in the long-term but that the memories of Egypt would live with us forever. Therefore in their book we were getting a fair deal. It is simply ‘business’ as one cheat, who managed to trick us to use his friend’s hotel, admitted afterwards. The terrible thing is that they appear so genuinely friendly that one part of you almost admires them for getting past your guard. Also, do not for a moment think that they lack intelligence. They can sweet-talk you in a multitude of languages. If they cannot attract your attention with English they will feel free to try Russian, Hindi, Swedish or Japanese.

Despite our best efforts we were never able to keep ahead of all the tricks and games that many of these people played in order to inflate the costs of journeys and visits. Without insider knowledge from locals and perhaps psychic powers it seems impossible. Ofcourse there were plenty of honest people we encountered during our journey, who warned us about getting cheated, but however hard we tried the next person we encountered would somehow work a bit of extra money out of us. If there were an Olympic event for cheating some of the Egyptian guides would be strong contenders for the gold medal – but they would try to win in style!

Sightseeing and sailing
Our first visit was to the pyramids in Giza. Although you will be taken to the most well known pyramids, such as the Great pyramid of Khufu, in the distance you will see countless others glistening in the sunlight. Several persistent, self-appointed guides will attempt to give you (mostly feeble) explanations for their construction but perhaps it is just best to appreciate the pyramids for what they are – amazing examples of human ingenuity. Equally, the Sphinx, though it may appear smaller than imagined, should be valued for its mystery. Amazing though all these monuments were, my over riding memory is of the camels we had for the journey, which could break wind for up to a minute at a time. Their capacity for natural gas production was, in a disgusting way, quite impressive.

Before leaving Cairo we paid a visit to the centrally located Egyptian Museum, which houses a phenomenal range of ancient artifacts. It is impossible to see everything even in one day. One of the high points, if you can get past the ever-present and aggressive crowds, is the Tutankhamun gallery. The 1,700 items on display are beautiful and give an insight into the incredible wealth and power of the Pharaohs. It is no wonder that the rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s treasures captured the public’s imagination.

Abu Simbel

Travelling south overnight we reached the Aswan region of Egypt, from where an unbelievable feat of engineering took place in moving ancient temples to higher ground when the Aswan dam was constructed. It is sad to note that despite the range of sights you may see, a number of temples remain under the water and are lost to history. Aswan is part of Nubia, a region that lies between Egypt and Sudan. The atmosphere here is relaxed and calm – a very different experience to Cairo. We met some of the friendliest people in this area and it is probably my favourite area of Egypt.

Some of the most fabulous ruins lie at Abu Simbel not far from the Sudanese border. The trip itself is an experience, as tours must follow a police escort through the desert that departs before sunrise. The complete darkness is a good reminder of how bleak and inhospitable the desert is, but the long journey is worth it! The Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel is a monumental architectural achievement that leaves you in no doubt about the magnificence of the Pharaohs. Along with the Temple of Hathor, which Ramses II built for his wife Queen Nefertari, these two structures will leave you forever impressed at how advanced this great civilisation was so many centuries ago. Make sure you take the early tour because in the afternoon mass tour groups descend upon the site, having flown down from various cities, with all the stereotypical behaviour that it entails.

After the hectic visits to numerous temples around Aswan, we found that sailing up the Nile on a felucca was a perfect way to relax. There are elements of life on the shores that look as if they have not changed for centuries and you begin to understand how the Nile played such a central role in the life of ancient Egypt. A few days on a felucca takes you away from the materialism of modern life and our tiny crew helped us gain an insight into a part of Egypt that few take the time to explore. Watching the sunset on the Nile was the perfect end to our days of sailing and the tranquility was only ruined when huge, noisy cruise ships sped by and jolted the felucca! One morning we received an early wake up call when a cruise ship set off a small wave that came over the side of the boat and showered us all with cold water.

As a special favour for our last night, our captain asked us if we would like to visit a small Egyptian village. We had no idea where we stopped but it was definitely not a usual tourist destination. It was fascinating to visit as this represented the real Egypt that is never portrayed on television. However, we were soon brought back down to earth when several people came to greet us and tell us about their favourite football team in Europe. If television is not covering their side of the world, they are certainly gaining a regular insight into part of ours! For fun, our captain bought me a local Nubian headdress and showed me how to put it on. For the spectators on the banks of the river, watching the dumb tourist try to act like a local was absolutely hilarious and they cheered and clapped during the entire time.

Felucca on the Nile

Using the felucca trip, we were able to head north to Luxor to explore the fascinating Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut, the famous female Pharaoh. The two Valleys feature ongoing archaeological excavations and what you end up seeing is only a small fraction of what exists and must be still be hidden in the surrounding landscape. The long passageways descending into the royal tombs are richly and colourfully decorated, with the full range of breathtaking imagery that we have come to associate with the ancient Egyptians. When you do exit, the vastness of the location makes you wonder if we will ever fully understand what lay behind the Pharaohs’ relentless drive to construct these immense structures.

Once back in Cairo we decided to take a journey to Alexandria on the northern coast. Thanks to earthquakes, wars and other catastrophes, the legendary wonders of this ancient city now lie hidden deep below the modern streets and under the sea. You have to look hard to find parts of the city that allude to their former splendour. Apparently, the city is currently undergoing a revival and its inhabitants are taking a greater interest in the city’s former glories. In years to come some of the most famous monuments and structures of the city may be rediscovered so that they can be appreciated by a modern generation. However, for the moment you can only use your imagination to determine what it must have been once like.

A visit to Egypt is an immensely rewarding experience and will leave you hugely impressed by its history. With all the advances in today’s society it is easy to forget how highly developed ancient Egypt was for its time. It is no coincidence that other famous civilisations held the ancient Egyptians in high regard. Anyone who wishes to experience some of the magic for themselves should pay a visit to the country, as they will not be disappointed!

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