Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for Egypt

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

8 - 14 November Egypt
The desert and the Giza pyramids
The Whitlocks at the Pyramids - Click to enlargeThe flight to Cairo went well and our arrival was fairly uncomplicated, although we discovered that actually we did need visas (obtainable on arrival)! At the airport Nick was approached by Hassan, from a company called Echo Tours, who said that he could arrange everything from accommodation in Cairo to guided tours of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, all at a good price. We let him show us what he had to offer. We ended up booking a package for 200 GBP, to include all our accommodation in budget hotels, and trips to the Giza pyramids and the desert, and a two-day excursion to Luxor. How exciting!

We spent our first night in the hotel we had pre-booked: Luna Hotel on Talaat Harb Street (www.hotellunacairo.com), which I’d recommend, and the rest of our time in the rather grubby, less attractive New Palace Hotel.

On Sunday, two days after we arrived, we went on the desert tour to the pyramids of Memphis and Sakarra, and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Our guide, Ramadan, was excellent and knew loads about Ancient Egypt. Memphis, we discovered, was not only the home of Elvis in Tenessee, but was in fact the ancient capital of Egypt and home to another great king; Rameses II. Then we went on to Sakarra for the oldest of the pyramids, the step pyramid. Thomas amazed us all throughout the day with his knowledge of Ancient Egypt, and Ramadan was really impressed! He knew the names of all the gods, the different types of pyramid, even the meaning of some of the symbols; eg. the shape of the crowns worn by kings, which signify which parts of Egypt they ruled.
The Great Pyramids at Giza were so colossal it was totally awesome to consider that ancient people (2600 BC) managed to engineer them. At the biggest of them Nick and I stood and gazed up, wondering how engineers would go about building something like that today (should there be a demand, of course). One king, or perhaps one member of his immediate family, would be buried in each, sometimes inside the pyramid itself, sometimes deep under the pyramid. The pyramid itself would be constructed throughout the lifetime of its would-be occupant. We saw one “unfinished” pyramid which, it’s believed, was left unfinished because the king died before it was completed. At one of the smaller pyramids we climbed down the narrow passage way into the tomb itself. It was weird going down the narrow, low-roofed stairs, knowing that four-and-a-half thousand years ago, people did just that, with the mummified remains of their queen.
At a place called Panoramic View, aptly named for its view of the three pyramids all in a row, we took a camel ride. It was a gimmicky, touristy thing to do, but the children wanted a ride and it was fun, although I felt a bit sorry for the poor camels, resigned to their life of ferrying tourists from one car park to another, where your tour bus picks you up again.
Then we went to see the Sphinx. It is an enormous beast carved into the rock, which gazes out from its position in front of the largest pyramid over what must have been (before Cairo developed on the edge of the desert) a wide sweeping plain.

Of course, over the course of the day, we were taken to the obligatory shops! Firstly a place where papyrus is made, where we were shown how the paper is made from the plant, and then sold some pictures (we couldn’t resist - this time at least!). Later we went to a perfumery. It was lovely and we were treated to some hibiscus drink (“Egyptian whisky”) and some exquisite smells, but could not, this time, be persuaded to part with any more cash!

Perhaps the craziest thing was the weather. Yes, it actually rained on us (again) while we were looking at the pyramids in the desert!

On Monday we checked out of the New Palace, leaving our two big rucksacks in their store cupboard, to take only Tom’s smaller sack with us to Luxor. During the day we visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Unfortunately we only had a couple of hours there as, during Ramadan, they close early, and it was already about midday when we arrived. Fascinating stuff, though! The Ancient Egyptians were really fantastic at preserving things! While looking at the artefacts that were found in Tutankhamon’s tomb, Nick commented that it was as though he really has been preserved for ever, as these things were almost left to “give” him to future generations. There was so much gold! Items of jewellry and symbols of various gods were found wrapped in the bandages around the corpse, and hundreds of gold and brightly coloured items were elsewhere in his tomb. The solid gold coffin which is on display in the museum was itself inside five other sarcophagi of gradually increasing sizes, before finally being sealed into the tomb itself. Tom was in his element and was especially excited to see the infamous Mask of Tutankhamon, King Tut’s funeral mask.
The most bizarre, and slightly creepy, section of the museum is the room where actual mummies are displayed. It was pretty weird to be wandering among the mummified remains of people who lived thousands of years ago, some with portraits over the face. The mummified animals were interesting though. These were sometimes pets of the deceased, mummified along with their master, or were intended to provide food in the afterlife, or used as a sacrifice to the gods.

8 - 14 November Egypt
Tom studies the hieroglyphics at Karnak - Click to enlargeOn Monday night we took the train to Luxor. The journey was OK. We were in a seating compartment (no beds) but it was first class which meant plenty of leg room, and Tom volunteered to sleep on the floor! We shared our compartment with two Dutch men, who were very nice. We chatted and shared snacks.

On arrival at Luxor, at 7am, we were met by Khaled, an Echo agent, and were driven to our hotel, the Golden Palace on Television Street. We had little time to freshen up, as the excursion was leaving (for some unfathomable reason, as there was no shortage of time to complete the West Bank tour) at 7.30.

Tuesday's tour took us to the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor: The Valley of the Kings, the temple of Queen Hatshepsout, and the Valley of the Queens. The focus on the West bank is the setting sun, symbolising death, and therefore that is where all the tombs have been found, while the East bank was the centre of life, and worship in huge impressive temples.
The tombs were amazing. You could go down inside and see all the chambers, deep under the earth, where the kings and queens of Egypt were buried, with their treasures around them and their internal organs elsewhere! Inside the tombs the walls were cut quite smoothly and decorated from floor to ceiling with hieroglyphics and scenes depicting what was to be expected in the here-after. These pictures are intact and stunning, especially where the brilliant colours used still remain.

On Wednesday we were taken to see the temples on the East bank. The Karnak Temples were the most impressive, with immense columns, carved every inch with hieroglyphics and intricate symbols and designs. Tom is absolutely fascinated by these. He started to sketch some of the symbols for a record for himself, and later in the day I bought him a book on hieroglyphics.

We really liked Luxor! It was great to be out of the complete chaos of Cairo for a while. All of the Egyptian people we have met have been extremely friendly. You cannot walk a few steps down the street without people saying 'hello' or 'welcome' or shaking hands and asking where you are from. In Luxor there was a fantastic atmosphere. Children trotted along beside us and chatted in what little English they knew. Traders of many kinds wanted to make money out of us, but most seemed just as happy if we simply stopped for a chat!

On Wednesday afternoon we allowed ourselves to be talked into going for a felucca ride on the river. A felucca is an old-fashioned fishing boat, powered only by the wind. We were taken out for one hour by Raul, who is 15 and has been working on the boats for three years. There was not much wind. It was a still, hot afternoon, but it was lovely and peaceful on the river, and luckily, Esther didn't manage to spot any crocodiles!

We caught the night train back to Cairo. The journey was uneventful. Esther slept on the floor at our feet, and we all rested fairly well, arriving back in the city at 8.30. We checked back in to the not-so-palacial New Palace, and had a lazy day to recover from the journey.

8 - 14 november Egypt
Nick shopping in Cairo - Click to enlargeWe found some great fast-food in Cairo. It took us a while, wandering through the crowded streets on Thursday evening, but when we did stumble across a little local restaurant it was excellent. We ordered two full meals to share, as well as a plate of falafel (fritters made of potatoes, onion and spinach, perhaps!). We had chicken and shish-kebeb, rice, vegetables - stewed courgette, aubergine, onion, tomato and pepper - salads, pitta bread and, of course, the falafel. It was plenty for all of us. At the side of the restaurant they were frying crisps. A man brought over a small plate of them for the children to try, and they were so delicious that we ended up buying some to take away. The total bill came to 25 Egyptian pounds, less than 3 quid!

On Friday, our last day in Egypt, we met a man called Soliman who took us on a walking tour of the old part of Cairo. It was a fascinating walk. The citadelle itself, with the remains of its walls and gates from the 10th century, when Islamic people from Tunisia settled there, was not far from where we were staying and, on the way, we had the chance to watch craftsmen making traditional musical instruments, all intricately decorated in wood and mother-of-pearl. Nick had a go at playing an 'oot' and was sorely tempted to buy one, but the trouble and expense of sending it home, as well as the fact that we have already bought a souvenir of Egypt - the papyrus - led us to decide, reluctantly, to leave musical instruments for another day.
In old Islamic Cairo we saw the ancient gates which used to keep out invaders. The original iron-clad wooden gates still stand. As well as the old mosque with its beautiful minaret, which places the half-moon Islamic symbol high in the sky, we saw architecture influenced by the Turkish and the British colonials. In the narrow streets of Old Cairo, traders sold everything from ornate water-pipes (Nick was tempted again) to rat traps, to Ramadan lanterns. Soliman took us to see some traditional craftsmen using mother-of-pearl to decorate wooden furniture and boxes. It was amazingly intricate and beautiful. We admired the work greatly, but stubbornly refused to buy, although we were both tempted, once again.
At the end of our walk, Soliman took us back to where we had started in a taxi. We paid his very reasonable fee, thanked him and were on our way.

Hassan, from the airport, picked us up at 10.30pm, to return us there for our onward flight. We all really enjoyed our busy stay in Egypt. Especially, of course, the amazing artefacts and monuments left by the ancient civilisation which thrived there on the banks of the Nile, but also the warmth of the welcome we found there, here in the 21st century.

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