Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ride like an Egyptian, visit like a Russian

We wake up at a very unwholesome five o’clock in the morning with the muezzin violently screaming through the vessel’s speakers. Suddenly dozens of men dressed in white night gowns start bowing to the rhythm. It takes until eleven before we reach the port. 
We watch the whole unloading and disembarking scene patiently. It’s no use getting down there along with the rest of the passengers, pushing and shoving for a breath of fresh air. We were the last ones to board and we’ll be the last to leave, as our bikes are inconveniently positioned on the side opposite the exit gate.

When finally everything’s cleared, we cannot disembark, because someone’s disappeared with our passports for the last couple of hours to get entry stamps. Since nobody can provide us with updates on the process, I decide to get off to look for our documents myself. What are they going to do? Arrest me? One of the crew reluctantly accompanies me to the administration building, probably thinking what an arrogant, independent, insubordinate white b*** I am. We go into a couple of offices and within the next ten minutes I’m back with our papers. 

Then we have to get our bikes through customs, a notoriously nerve wrecking process. First we’re told that we’ll have to wait till Saturday (today’s Thursday) because we are late and offices close within half an hour. We give them a piece of our mind and tell them that if their colleagues have decided to take us hostage for a couple of hours, they’ll just have to do overtime. We have to pay a customs fee in Egyptian pounds, 530£ per motorcycle to be exact. Of course there’s no ATM on the grounds and no official forex bureau. Very convenient indeed, for the fixer Kamal, who is the only one changing Euros. At first he wanted to screw me over with the rate, seeing I was desperate, but somehow I managed to haggle a fair deal. 

Maybe because he is going to earn money of us anyway, because he is the only one allowed to mediate with the Traffic Police, to get our Arabic license plates and a special insurance, because although it says so on the yellow card, COMESA isn’t valid in Egypt. We wait outside, together with the South Africans who are clearing their cars. By four o’clock, just as we decided to build a party and barbeque some steaks right there in the parking lot, Kamal comes back with our plates and papers.
Luckily the guard that has to do a baggage check at the gate shows some mercy and only takes a quick peak in our tank bags. Then we’re finally released. I feel like I could drink a whole pool, but I have to go for a bottle of water at three times the normal price instead. By the time we check into our hotel, we’re already seriously pissed off about the Egyptians and their merchant’s spirit. Even going out to do some grocery shopping or buy some falafel involves serious bargaining, where the shop owner will simply refuse to sell you anything at the going rate!

Fortunately the hotel is a gem compared to the usual Sudanese nightmares. It has all the modern luxuries you may want plus a rooftop pool at a reasonable price (breakfast with pancakes included!). It even smells clean! An, Jo, Kristina and Andrew are also staying there and together we have a wonderful time, with interesting talks, duty free beers and a ridiculous game we name “the whirlpool”. 

We take care of all the practicalities – including a chain replacement for Nicolaas’ bike – on our first day in Aswan, so we can visit Abu Simbel on my birthday. This involves waking up at a quarter to three in the morning, stepping into a minibus which joins a convoy, riding for three and a half hours to visit the temples in two hours and then turn back. But I can’t say I regret it. It is very majestic indeed and due to the low season heat and post revolution paranoia, there were very few other tourists. Without the guards that consider it part of their job description to sexually harass female visitors, the visit was even serene. A late afternoon sailing trip on the Nile followed by dinner and late night swimming in the pool complete what has been a wonderful day.

It’s hard to get started again, to saddle the bikes and take off in this heat. The fertile Nile valley is at times beautiful to see, but the many villages, police checkpoints and speed bumps slow us down drastically. We get particularly annoyed with the reckless and selfish driving of the Egyptians. 

In Edfu, we take a detour to the Temple of Horus. The parking lot is completely empty and we have the grounds all to ourselves, to wander through dark alleys, up staircases and around pillars in the magnificently conserved temple complex. 
When we get back on the road, the sunlight has already changed colors. Half an hour later, we are stopped by traffic police for a routine passport control. Just when we hope to get as far as possible before sunset, they keep us waiting and finally want to send us back to Edfu to pick up a police escort. No way. We try to discuss, knowing that the convoy and escort requirement has been cancelled since 2009 on this road, but when they refuse to hand in, we manage to get our passports back and ride off against their will. The whole situation has cost us a lot of time and we are forced to ride the last hours to Luxor in the dark.

Since our last Adventure in Kenya, it has become very tempting to treat ourselves to a little luxury. So we take a nice hotel with a view on the Temple of Luxor, right in front of the alley of the Sphinxes. From there, we explore the monuments on the West Bank: starting with the Valley of the Kings – where a few mostly Russian tour groups don’t prevent us from being completely on our own in the Tomb of Tutanchamon – and ending with the Temple of Hatshepsut, where we witness how these organized tours spend literally 15 minutes on site before the bus starts honking. The guards don’t seem to be used to people who actually show interest and try to earn some baksheesh by luring us into places with restricted access. We loathe their way of ruining the atmosphere with their loud voices and mostly useless comments. 

Back in Luxor, we have a temple-view dinner at McDonald’s before visiting the nicely lit monument in the center of town. After visiting the temple complex in Karnak next day and being sun-fried and saturated with obelisks and hieroglyphs, we stumble across our fellow travelers Jo/An and Andrew/Kristina on the parking lot. The reunion is short, because we have just had the news that we ought to be in Israel on the 22nd of July, well in advance for the boat to Italy. It leaves us with 2 days to cross the 1200km to Cairo via the Western Desert, and even then we will unlikely be in Israel before Shabbat starts on Friday afternoon. Beautiful as it may be, rushing past the White Desert will only leave us more frustrated, so we decide to abandon that plan. Instead, we’ll take the fast highway through the Eastern Desert and along the Red Sea coast.

We ride the incredible 785km to Cairo in one day. It doesn’t feel like we’ve missed anything: after all the sprawling resorts being constructed along the coast from Hurghada to Suez can hardly be called eye candy. 

Crossing Cairo at night is something else though. We have read that it is the largest city in Africa, and for once we tend to believe it. Roads of moderate quality, unfinished but rather well planned, wind through the suburbs to a vast city center. For 40kms we are riding through the city before reaching Giza. On the way, we come closer to several traffic accidents than ever before in any African city, because of the utter life-threatening and ruthless driving of most cars. A rare motorcyclist or quad risks his life in the high speed traffic jams.

For more pics
see album "Ride like an Egyptian, visit like a Russian"
We find the room with pyramid-view, pay a Russian-style quick visit next morning (where we learn that the price of a camel ride has undergone deflation to £2 (€ 0.25) because of the lack of tourists), and then start the horrific ride through the city center, back to the east. 

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