Team VA's Wonderings

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Riding the Night Train

Day 66 Cairo (to Aswan)
I have decided that Cairo is bonkers. I walked to the train station about 8.15 to get a ticket for tonight. There was hardly a car on the road or pedestrian on the pavement/road or a shop open. At 11/12 last night it was total gridlock, a cacophony of horns and people everywhere. Travel tip-time your Cairo arrival to the morning.

Getting a train ticket for the sleeper to Aswan epitomised why I will never fully get on here in Egypt. You should bear in mind that is a relatively expensive tourist oriented service (at least I’m pretty certain we’re paying a lot more for our tickets). Last night when I turned up and walked through they’re open doors, the 4 people behind the desk ignored me, failed to acknowledge my presence and then after a couple of minutes one of them turns to me and says ‘closed’, as if only a retarded person wouldn’t realise that and walks off. This morning, I get asked what I want, I go through it and then get told they’re not open for another half hour. So I sit and wait, then the same guy asks me again what I want. He disappears into the back office and tells me I’m getting the last ticket, he waves casually at 2 people and disappears. These 2 then both ignore me until 2 minutes later one of them just says ‘passport’. To be fair I felt quite lucky as quite a crowd had surrounded me by now and I wasn’t sure anyone was ever going to get me my ticket. Then a German guy asks for a ticket and gets a surly ‘it’s full’ and nothing more-no ‘there’s space tomorrow’, or you could try the non sleeper service. He then asks if there’s space for tomorrow, the customer service agent (ho ho) disappears into the back office and returns to say he can have a ticket for today. I know my (former) career means I instantly pull any system to pieces, but I think most folks would find this mental. It’s small things maybe, but typical and crazy. I’m of course used to the fact by now that I had to go and pay someone totally different for my ticket.

Now I knew I was just in Cairo for the day I decided I’d go to the Egyptian museum. I took a walk past some of the more notable building and before going to the museum I went for a look at the Nile. I would have to check a map, but not sure I've ever seen the Nile before. It’s proper big and not looking dirty either.

So to the Egyptian museum, where I jotted down a lot of thoughts, which will likely render this stream of consciousness nonsense for you; aide memoire for me you see. For those that haven’t heard of the Egyptian Museum it has a reputation for being chaotic and stuffed full of unbelievable artefacts. I think that’s quite fair.

With it being such a big attraction, I had been hyped up for a tout onslaught. Going to the Nile first, I guess I didn’t come the main way and only had a couple of taxis beep at me. There are a lot of guided groups here, which was a mixed blessing. There’s so much to see here that the groups can act as a way of pointing out highlights. They can also make it damn difficult to actually see anything.

Just after you enter (sans camera) two colossal statues of Ramses and Amenhotep greet you. One of the consistently stunning things here is the condition of what is on display. I guess it has a lot to do with where they were before they were museumed, but there are many things that look all but brand new.

The King Narmer palette commemorates the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt and I suppose you could view it as the start of Egyptology. It’s 50cm tall, double sided with beautiful engraved pictures and in absolute mint conditions. Oh, and it’s from 3,100 BC. There are probably less than 10 museums in the world that wouldn’t dedicate a room to this and have it as a cornerstone of the collection. I had to look for it.

The museum looks less like the closing shots of Raiders than I had expected, but there’s a fair amount of confusion and pallet trucks, ropes across rooms piled up with stuff-this is Egypt after all. I am continually struck by the size and condition of the exhibits. Huge numbers of exhibits are bigger than me, even more must be heavier than me. I’m used to Greco-Roman statues, where the heads and limbs are usually missing. This place is Wow. Some of the hard stones and posings used by the Egyptians will have helped preservation (as well as being buried in some cases), but so much of this looks just finished. There are massive statues made of granite-amazing. I have to temper some of this and say that a good dusting wouldn’t go astray in parts.

Did I mention they’ve some big stuff? The colossus of Amenhotep 3 has feet the size of my upper body. It wouldn’t fit into most musea.

Aside from slightly frayed edges the Triad of Menkaure (a 3 figure piece is basalt) lookes perfect. It’s nearly 5 thousand years old. It’s abiut 75cm tall and the three sculpts are wonderful; Michelangelo would have been happy with it and this is from a time when I didn’t think anything like this could be done.

The museum is to shut in a year or two and move to a state of the art purpose built facility. I hope this will stop fuckwits touching and leaning on things. It’s quite distressing and somehow made worse that the museum employs plenty of people, but they’re involved in bureaucratically delaying you getting into the museum not throwing out morons who are damaging the very things they’ve come to see. Rather than checking ID pointlessly all across the country they could redeploy people to look after the country’s heritage (and economy); they could pick some of the litter up while they’re at it.

Of course, were one allowed a camera, this is about 5 years of top class Stand by Your Statue.

I cannot get over the quality of the sculpting; I always thought architecture, not art, when thinking of ancient Egypt. On some statues, chapels and sarcophagi the pigment preservation is also extraordinary.

There so much here, and so much more in the British Museum, that it begins to sink in just how much the Egyptians created back in the day.

There’s more labelling than I’d expected, but it still provides relatively little background, storytelling or context. At some points I’m not sure if that matters, it’s all so overwhelming.

They’ve got the only remaining representation of Khufu here. It was found in his mother’s tomb and is 7.5cm high. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw it: Khufu built the Great Pyramid.

How’s this for a job title ‘Seneb, chief of all the dwarfs of the Royal Wardrobe’: I guess they had small doors.

At the end of the ground floor I found the Greco Roman statues, with all their arms and heads missing.

As I approach the Tutankhamun section, I can’t shake Kurt Russell in Stargate going ‘give my regards to King Tut asshole’. I was aware that Tut wasn’t a major pharaoh, but the owner of a tomb that was well preserved and stocked. I found out part of the reason for this was because he was the last of his dynasty, they lobbed in all the other stuff that was no longer needed.

Before King Tut there’s been a fair bit of gold and although the workmanship is undeniably phenomenal, I can’t love because I just find gold so irredeemably naff. KT’s death mask has 11kg of the stuff and is the business-not because of sheer weight of gold, but because the gold is used as the canvass and the real design is what has been added.

I have clearly been in the Muslim world for quite a while now, as I am getting shocked by some of the things the tourists are wearing. Apart from the guy in the wifebeater, I am really talking about the ladies. I know I berated Ahmed in the last post, but I’m not sure hot pants and crop tops are a culturally sensitive dress option. I’m sensing that a lot of folk in Cairo are fresh off the plane.

The museum has a room called ‘the Royal tombs of Tanis’, which contains jewellery and funerary miscellany. Anyone hoping to see a Map Room or a Well of Souls will be sorely disappointed. My planned return to Dahab has eliminated my visit to Tanis-there’s nothing really there beyond the Indiana Jones pilgrimage (it’s been a while since I mentioned him). While I’m on the subject, I am very up for a big night day of release get together to see whatever the new one is called-I remember it was ridiculous. Let’s hope it’s not just odd numbered Indy flicks that are brilliant.

In summary, not one of the world’s great musea, but one of the very finest collections. If they get the new place right this will be one of the great places in the world.

As everyone seems to, I spent hours in the Egyptian museum, so I headed back to the area of the hotel, grabbed some Kushari and decided to spite the taxi drivers and take the metro to the train station.

If I have to travel 12-15 hours on something, I think train is my first choice. Probably followed by boat, plane, bus. I do like sleeper trains. Mr F and I managed 5in a fortnight a few years back. In case you’ve not had the joy of being on the night train

The seat turns into one bed and then a bunk appears above that. I thought I was going to have it to myself, but at Giza I was joined by Ram. Ram was Indian and very tired, so I didn’t get a whole lot of conversation out of him, but he was yet another Indian who wasn’t all that into cricket. He thought England’s last tour to India was under Nasser in 2001. Perhaps I set the bar too high, but I am yet to find an Indian who knows anything vaguely like as much about cricket as I do. I’m not sure anyone over there watches it: when Mick and I were out there, they always seemed to be a day behind on the score. Anyway, nice bloke till he started snoring.

Day 67 Aswan
Hmmm. Egyptian travel is reliably unreliable. Train ended up over 3 hours late, which canned my entire morning and the early afternoon. This has meant streamlining my logistics and trusting my (nice and well recommended) hotel for getting to Abu Simbel and on the Felucca back up to Luxor. This has created another change of plan: I’d always meant to do 3 nights on the Felucca, but having seen a Felucca and looked at where you get on day 3, I’ve chopped this back and am just doing 2 nights.

Apparently there were repairs on the train overnight, personally I think the driver was YTS. When I learnt to drive, the first few times I used the brakes I would keep pushing the brake pedal down until it got to the end-my thinking being that by the time you stopped you needed the brake fully on. For those who didn’t do this, the result is that you slow gently and then stop with an unexpected jolt. This happened every time we stopped. Still, it was the nicest and cleanest bed I’ve had in ages and I stayed in it a good bit longer. Still liking the night train.

Aswan is seriously hot (and I’m still travelling with a thermometer). Perhaps this is making me walk very slowly, but I am struggling not to think that the scale on my map is off. It seems to take an awful long time to walk round here. This meant lunch was very late and I then missed the unfinished obelisk, which would have weighed 1168tonnes, but they found a flaw in the stone and gave up.

I passed through the unexciting Fatimid cemetery and headed for the Nubian museum. The Nubian were the big losers from the Aswan dams. Especially the high dam which created Lake Nasser and put their land under water. The international community pulled together to rescue the archaeology-hence the temple in the Met in New York and the 20 or so sites that were moved in Egypt (including Abu Simbel and Philae where I’ll be on Sunday). I’ll talk more about that then, but here’s Abu before and after.

The museum is a kind of thankyou to the Nubians, though some of this was a bit pottery and flints for me. They had a few statues and a realy good section on the international rescue operation. Egyptian museums really need to get into Audio Visual, this is crying out for computer simulations and showing the temples move and water rise: this is no dusty old museum, this is clearly new and expensive. I’d have spent the money they used for the VIP room in a different way. Someone should be using this as a mascot for a sporting tournament

Day 68 Aswan
Luxor is split by the Nile and there is a lot to see on both banks. Aswan is mostly on the Eastern banks, but the tombs of the nobles are on the West Bank where the monastery can be reached (I didn’t bother). Also in the middle of the Nile is Elephantine Island. Most people Felucca their way round here, but I went for the public ferry route.

I knew exactly where the Elephantine ferry was, but was less sure on the West Bank. I must have reeked of being not quite sure as I went down the steps to the boat.

‘Where you going?’

‘West Bank.’

‘This ferry is for the Nubian village.’

‘On the West Bank?’

‘Yes, but there’s no way to the Noble Tombs from there.’
{sounds suspect}
‘So where’s the ferry to the tombs?’

‘There’s never been one. I’ve been here 20 years.’

‘Yes there is.’

‘Why would I lie to you?’
{wants to say because you’re Egyptian and can’t help it}

‘So I go on your boat.’

‘I give you good price.’ Starts to describe tour….

‘I’m getting on the ferry. Bye.’
{walks over to pay}
‘Five pounds.’

‘No it’s not, it’s one.’
{hands over pound and walks onto boat}

This is the only country where I have ever seen the LP or Rough Guide recommend organised trips as a way to escape the hassle. This is meant to be chilled out Aswan; Luxor will be fun. Got asked for 5 pounds again on the way back.

Coming back to a previous theme, even the ferry has to have a women section, which I inevitably sit in until told to move (German bloke does the same when I go to Elephantine). Boat takes 30-40. I noticed that when the women’s bit is full the boat doesn’t go, if the men’s bit is full we’re straight off. The metro has the same thing and the girl who helped me in Cairo and came in the men’s bit with me got some grief. This is a country of 12 year old sex pests. Jade and Lewti told me they followed round Luxor by boys going ‘can you sex us?’ It’s driving me mad and I’m a bloke.

At the tombs I notice that the admission had gone up from 20 to 25 (bits of paper are stuck over the old prices). I hand over a 20 and a 5 to the guy on the ticket desk, in front of which is a woman who appears to be taking records in a ledger. I’m not paying much attention and can feel something being pushed into my hand: I see it’s the £5 note. I must look confused and get a conspiratorial nod towards the woman. Not wishing to cause it, I take my ticket and pocket the £5. It all seems a bit odd that he’s charged me the old price. Then I look at my ticket. It’s a £15 student ticket-5 for me and 5 for him I guess. It’s different, the other times this has happened I’ve still paid full price.

The tombs are up a hill

they have some nice details,

but for me the real thing is the view back to the East Bank, the Nile and Elephantine.

Ferry back, quick bite, more liquid (I really can’t drink enough). In fact it’s worth mentioning the heat. My clothes (especially my zip off trousers) seem particularly dry; the money is really dried out. It’s like the resident water in things has been burnt off.

And then the Ferry to Elephantine. The Aswan museum looks like a relic and I guess some of the best bits are now in the Nubian museum, but you have to buy a ticket to get to the remains of Abu, the ancient town. Archaeologists are still at work there today-even on a Saturday, which should be a day off for the Egyptians, Swiss and Germans who are at it.

Pride of place apparently belongs to the two Nilometers. I didn’t think they were much to look at, but what a word. They do what you expect and measure the height of the river. Back in the day, the higher the water, the higher the taxes. The logic being river=harvest=prosperity.

A lot of people are travelling here by boat. There msut be at least 15 or so of these

Can you see the Felucca in the foreground? I hope we don’t hit by one of those big buggers.

I think I’ve just had the last logistics burst of the trip. The Felucca is booked, I’ve mailed place I want to stay in Luxor, booked a night time flight from Luxor to Sharm, mailed both hostel and dive shop in Dahab and booked myself into the King Tut hostel in Cairo for the last 3 nights. This is the first place I have chosen based on its name for a while-last time I did that was a hole in NZ. Apart from a boat trip to Abydos and the bus to Cairo, I think I’m done.

Up at 3 am tomorrow for the convoy to Abu Simbel. I have a feeling I may have something to say on the convoy………


  • Snoring on overnight trains must be a national trait of all Indians given our previous experience.
    You should have challenged him to a game of chess...could have been a laugh!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:33 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home