Poll Star's Wonderings

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ice Cold in Alex

Day 57-58 Dahab to Sharm. Nope, Dahab to Alexandria. Via Cairo
I think it’s fair to say I regret the extra day in Aqaba. Writing this I am sat in a hotel room in Alexandria rather than being on a bus to Luxor as I expected. I am quite ludicrously tired-combination of late nights, early starts, diving and a bloody night bus.

Just after my last post I headed up with my still warm laptop to see Mohammed at Divers Down under and sort my kit out for the Thistlegorm/Ras Mohammed trip. ‘I’m so sorry my friend’ he said; I realised immediately that the weather had f*cked me. The port authorities had banned any boats from going out so 34 people I don’t know and I weren’t going diving. Staying on till Friday for the next trip didn’t seem an option-the weather was a risk and I wasn’t sure I had enough time. I’d missed the bus to Luxor for the day. I guess most normal people would have shrugged, had a beer and caught the bus the following day-essentially as planned minus the diving. With a typically special approach I replanned the remaining 4 weeks of the trip and got a night bus to Cairo. I had to miss dinner at Samir’s house (an Egyptian Norbert, Carolyn and I had been hanging out with) and I was dog tired by the time I got on the bus.

Still I was excited to be on a night bus to Cairo and determined to go and see Madness again. I hear it’s been windy in England too. If I hadn’t been here disappointed at my diving being cancelled, I’d have been in Cheltenham disappointed at the racing being cancelled.

So the new plan? Well I decided that a 9 hour night bus wasn’t enough travel, so followed it up with a taxi to the Ramses train station and a 3 and a half hour train journey. In part I felt I couldn’t be doing with Cairo just yet, I didn’t fancy checking into a hotel at 8 a.m. and logistically the possibility of 3 stays in Cairo sounded dumb. So I’m in Alexandria.

Hopefully from here, it’s onto
• Siwa Oasis from where I hope to find a driver at a price to take me across the desert to
• Bahariyya Oasis for the White and Black deserts, then a bus to
• Cairo, hopefully just to catch the night train to
• Aswan and Abu Simbel then 3 nights on a
• Felucca up to
• Luxor after which comes the clever bit, time permitting get a flight to
• Sharm, then a bus to
• Dahab, where I can dive the wreck and the reef before getting a night bus to
• Cairo
And if I do all that in the 28 nights that remain I am going to be a pale shadow of a man as I ease myself into my business class seat for the flight back to England and Gary Linker’s woeful presentation of the Masters.

I didn’t sleep much on the bus, but it seemed a bit unnecessary that people were disturbed/woken up on 3 separate occasions to have their tickets checked and another 3 to have their passports glanced at. Overall it was a pretty straightforward 16 hour journey, although my bag is pretty much wrecked now and will need nursing back to England.

The temptation to flop into bed at the Hotel Union (Billy Bragg approved I’m sure) was pretty strong, but I ventured out with Matt and Sarah who I’d met on the way from Dahab. We started by heading to the Fort Qaitbey, which was built in the 1400s on the sight of the Pharos of Alexandria-the third of this trip’s wonders of the ancient world and another destroyed by earthquake. There’s some stone in the fort’s walls that came from the lighthouse, but in truth there’s little to see.

The Mosque of An Nabi Daniel was much more successful-at least for Matt and I, for Sarah wasn’t allowed into the vast majority of it. Stylistically it was very classical, but the condition made it me think it had to be quite recent and it turned out to be from 1943.

Day 59 Alexandria
Alex has a great history, but it is mostly under the current city or the sea. Much of this can be explained by the population: in the 1940s there were 300,000, now there’s about 4 million. In all honesty, it’s not too clear what has attracted them except for the urban drift that has occurred in so many of the world’s struggling economies.

Egypt and I are going to have our problems. I was aware of this before I left, that awareness has since been heightened by talking to other travellers and my limited exposure to a couple of the country’s less hassley spots. I don’t like being hassled: someone needs to produce the I don’t want a taxi, a donkey, a camel, to go to your shop Laa Shukran t-shirt so you can just point. It is continual and very tedious and I utterly cannot get my head round it. Most tourists head for the hills the moment someone approaches them and starts the banter, it’s all so counter productive. Me being me, I can’t resist pointing this out today. People standing in the doorways of their own shops, surveying the pavement look to me as if they’ve found an ideal way of stopping folk entering their store. I found it utterly mental as two staff followed me round a bakery this morning as I looked at what I was going to get. I don’t like the whole bartering way of things, I much prefer the price to be the price and be clearly advertised. I buy a lot more that way as well. And I know that things here are going to painful

Then there’s the baksheesh: essentially someone points out the entirely obvious, tries to wrest your bag from your hand, follows you round giving you an unsolicited and unwanted guided tour (tourist police did it at the fort yesterday), generally hangs round you and is annoying and then expects some cash for it. The guy who was sweeping up outside the opera house this morning kept leering at me and then looked expectant as I left. I’m going to sound terrible here, but I’ve a lot more respect for beggars than this-it’s honest and doesn’t involve pissing you off. And I know it is going to get a whole lot worse. I’m feeling that, outside Dahab, I’m going to be lucky to make any genuine contact with locals. Egypt has been widely described as a country where you’re a wallet in legs and I think I have that idea a little too firmly lodged in my brain. I’m going to enjoy it, but it’s going to drive me mad on occasions.

I realise how fortunate I am, especially compared to the average, but it is insane and somehow lacks the charm of India. Anyhow, rant over. In between being offered a large number of services, what did I do today?

I started with an ambitious plan, which I soon rationalised as the day drifted on and I felt the need for a siesta. Alexandria holds Egypt’s only Roman theatre: it’s a small, but quite sweet affair that was found when digging the foundations for some flats. It makes you wonder what else may come to light. I have to say the highlight was the area that contained a few of the pieces that the underwater archaeologists had removed from the sea, with accompanying photos of divers and massive hulking statues and pieces of building being hoisted from the sea.

I moved onto the Alexandria museum, which is quite a nice compact place divided into historical periods. The story that caught my eye was the British bombardment in 1882. The Arabs’ machine guns weren’t very good so they couldn’t reach the British navy, who stayed out of reach and blew the living crap out of Alexandria’s fortifications: it seems very British Empire, inflicting maximum local damage, while safely sipping a gin and tonic-Blackadder echoed in my head ‘well, it was a viciously sharp slice of mango’. I hope Rowan Atkinson is remembered for that and not Mr Bean.

The museum also contained some pieces, which struck me as classic Egyptology.

I went to see the Greco Roman museum, but it was very shut-in that the door was open, but there was chaos everywhere inside. They’re clearly doing a lot of work, which is interesting as the LP says on 2005 they were redoing the place and were nearly finished. Instead I settled for lunch and a doze: I actually went back to get some more clothes as it had been getting a little ice cold in the Alexandria museum, but then the bed looked comfy. Missing the Greco Roman may have been no bad thing: I am getting rather museum and ruined out. I am going to need some rather more spectacular sights to get the enthusiasm really flowing; fortunately I know that Egypt will oblige.

So to the library. This is a recent development and probably the symbol of modern Alexandria. Next to the library is the planetarium

Sorry, I mean Death Star. I think more architects should look to the Empire for their inspiration. The library is clearly a way on calling on Alexandria’s past in an attempt to position the city as a modern place worth considering. I think it’s great to see so much effort (and money) go into books in a country with 50% illiteracy. Egypt seems to have more of an affinity with books that Jordan and Syria: I’ve seen several large markety bits with books. When I went to a ‘really good book store’ In Aqaba, it was awful and very expensive. You might argue that health and more direct forms of education would be a better use of money, but there were lots of people in the library using it, including a very good number of women.

The building’s exterior is decorated at the back by all the world’s alphabets

neatly reflecting the library’s aim to be Egypt’s window on the world and the world’s window on Egypt. From the other side it’s supposed to look like a discus buried in the ground.

I’m not sure why. Inside it is magnificent and super modern. Very light as of course a library should be.

All this made me think once again that I must visit the British Library, a building that has fascinated me since seeing a programme about it on BBC2 (natch).

While I was in the library, I got a text from Mr A to say that the Noonster had won £400 on the third race of their postponed Cheltanham trip. Good work Luke-spend it on curry and sport, not nappies and pushchairs I say.

Looking out over the bay from the hotel foyer (on the fifth floor), I couldn’t help but think I could see what Alexander saw in the location, but much of that has been lost and I wasn’t sure there was a great deal for the modern vistor

I think I blame Kate for this post-she would keep going on about how Poms whinge.

Desert tomorrow-8.30 bus to the Siwa Oasis.


  • Hi John! You sound like you're busy. The Thistlegorm trip was great (although don't plan to sleep much on the boat down) so I hope the weather holds for your return to Dahab.

    I had an e-mail from Petra at Aswan Individual to say you e-mailed! I hope they can sort something out for you!

    Loving the Union Hotel. Billy in Brum has nearly sold out but he's got London dates and is playing Cambridge Folk Festival in August so get your tickets in!

    Will follow your travels with envy


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:17 PM  

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