Saturday, November 19, 2016
I had one whole row to myself on saudia to Jeddah just like other passengers. The meal notice pasted in the galley stated 62 meals catered, so only about 50 passengers on this 777-300ER. i was offered 3 choices of meal - which i chose seafood. The big prawns instantly impressed me. It was the best economy meal i ever had. Slept on the row of seat till Jeddah. Before landing, another meal was served. I was full. Other similar airlines will only serve you one meal and one snack, so SaudiA was really value for money.
The new Jeddah airport is only ready next year. As for now we had to take shuttle bus to passenger terminal for transfer. The waiting hall was small. My original flight to Cairo was cancelled so i had to wait 5 hours before i can fly to Cairo. Later on i learn that it is a common thing - as long as the seats are not filled up, they will cancel the flight and push all the passengers to the next flight to increase the load factor. Even though flight time was only 1+ hour, meal was served. They ran out of chicken so i had to do beef. Unlike the previous 2 meals, i was hungry this time so the meal was served in time, albeit i have to eat only the veggie and skipped the beef.
The flight arrived early in Jeddah. I went to the bank exchange counter to buy visa for usd25 and pasted on my passport. Exchange rate shown was usd1 for 16egp. Just few days ago the official rate was 1usd for 8+egp. The government decided to float the egp to eliminate black market and ease the shortage of usd. Together with the timing of Trump's being elected, usd strengthened and egp dropped to where it is.
I didnt see any sign board with my name so i went outside the terminal to take a look. A very kind taxi driver asked me for my guide number and called him after i declined his invitation to take his metered taxi. I finally met Islam my guide for the airport meet and greet. The taxi driver declined tip even when i asked Islam to tip him of which Islam seemed reluctant. I must say i was indebted to this kind taxi driver in Cairo airport.
There were still shops in opened at this wee hour of 3am. 2 joggers jogged past the bridge above the Nile River. I arrived at my hotel in Giza at around 415am. As expected, lobby is not smoke free and free wifi is only available in lobby. I went to the room to sleep shortafter.
The next thing i know was a phone call into my room and it is already 810am! i overslept! I quickly changed and went out to meet my tour guide Smiley. We hurried to the pyramids (i skipped breakfast, a mistake) which were just opposite the hotel. The sun was bright. Smiley helped me take some fun photos with the pyramids. After that i went to take camel ride (included in the tour) and the teenage camel guide helped me take more fun photos. i nearly fell off the camel when he told me his camel's name is mickey mouse. When i tried to tip this young guide, the older camels owner snatched it from his hand. i gave the tip to this boy again but i guess he will still have to hand it over once i boarded the car.
The next 2 items are unscheduled shopping itinerary - hot oil museum and papyrus museum. Even though the guide called them museum, they are more like tourist shops. I bought some papyrus drawings at super inflated price without much bargaining. i wont survive well in Egypt, as i soon learnt.
After the lunch (i didnt enjoy the food bought by my guide and i didnt have breakfast omg) the guide bought me to Cairo museum. Egypt has rest days on Friday and Saturday so the traffic from Giza to Cairo was not heavy. After some explanation, he went off and let me tour on my own. Some rooms require extra entrance tickets. Some rooms were totally without tourists, the staff pray there. Some rooms photography was forbidden.
Went to the Muslim area of Cairo to visit Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's Biggest Open Air Market. 29
The whole tour ended at 3ish. After i got back to hotel, i was so sleepy i slept through till 12 midnight. After that i couldnt sleep anymore. I just rolled on my bed till 5am and went for breakfast (lesson learnt yesterday). Islam was already at lobby. We drove to the Cairo airport.
Bad news - my 7am flight to Aswan cancelled.
Good news - i was rebooked on 8am flight to Aswan on business class.
Islam couldn't believe his eyes when he went to the Egyptair office to get my flight printout that stated Business class. After i got the printout, Islam left, i continue to queue for security clearance. Once security cleared, one can now approach the check in counters. When i appeared at the business class counter, the lady kindly reminded me that this counter was for business class only. i handed her the printout. She promptly process my check in.
When i opened the luggage carousel to put in my cabin bag, the steward again reminded me the carousel was for business class passengers only. He wanted to see my boarding pass. I handed him and sat down on my seat. The china tour groups were all at the economy seats behind. 80% passengers are from China. The tour guide for the China group (an egyptian who speak Mandarin) was also upgraded to business, his first time. He was telling me that he could get me rooms in Luxor at good rates if i booked through him. The moment i told him I already got bookings made, he declined his chair and went to sleep. I saw him in Luxor a few times with the china tour group.
Normally short domestic i didn't expect meals, but the salmon and croissant served was a surprise.
The lake of Aswan Dam slowly unveiled itself...
Landed in Aswan around 9ish, my lady guide Doaa was already waiting for me. We went to visit the High Dams of Aswan as well as Phillae Temple.
It was in Phillae Temple that I bumped into an Irish lady and her Husband Tom. Another Irish lady (Tom's sister?) married an Egyptian man for 40 years and Tom came to visit them. i had drinks with them. Tom was cheeky and asked me how me how many rooms were there in my house, as he will be visiting his daughter in Melbourne, via Singapore. He came to Singapore before and found Raffle Hotel a tourist trap, but Botanical Garden was cool. They are also going Abu Simbel tomorrow. To my utter surprise, Tom told me the police convoy requirement for travelling from Aswan to Abu Simbel at 3am in the morning was scrapped 2 weeks ago. Now tourists are free to travel to Abu Simbel without police escort at early morning. What a good news?! This police convoy requirement was been in place for many years, even my guide Doaa forgot when it started.
Portrait of me taken by Tom's wife using my camera, she's good.
I bidded farewell to them after exchanging contacts.
There were 2 Isis Hotel in Aswan and my guide thought i was staying in the island one (which was better on hindsight) but turned out i am on the mainland one.
Old Cataract Hotel.
Taxi in Aswan.
View from the hotel.
Tom actually sent me an email shortly after asking if i was keen to join them for afternoon tea at the Cataract Hotel (Raffles sorta in Aswan according to Tom) but i was so sleepy under the hot sun that slept from 3pm till midnight (yes again). I was woken up by mosquitos in the room. I went to the counter to complain and they finally came with insecticides. The tv was showing Invictus and Whiteout (a movie about murder that happened in the Antarctica). I watched the shows while eating my bbq half chicken packed from a local market opposite the hotel at 3pm before i went back to sleep.
The sunrise at Aswan the next morning was awesome. i was admiring the natural beauty by the Nile before having my breakfast. The sunny sideup was well done.
Morning drive out from Aswan, many school children making their way to school.
The journey to Abu Simbel was monotonous. Desert all the way. The driver was telling us that Abu Simbel is only 60km from the first Sudanese town, and Egyptian dont need passport to go there. The actual immigration post of Sudan and Egypt is still 300+km from Abu Simbel though.
We reach a toilet pitstop favoured by the truck drivers 100km from Abu Simbel. This little cafeteria was owned by a professor in Aswan (side income as professors dont earn much in Egypt). The father and the son Ahmad helped managed the place for the professor. Ahmed normally work here for 20 days before he goes back to Aswan for 10 days to rest. No tourists here as usually the convoys whizzed past this post in a hurry. We could stopped here for toilet and tea all thanks to the scrap of convoy system.
Fossils found in the desert:
We reached Abu Simbel temple which was beside the Nasser Lake, first cataract on the Nile around 11am. Vehicles that wish to travel south to Sudan has to take a ferry to cross this lake and continue their journey. I didnt see Tom there. Guides are not allowed to enter the temple so Doaa could only explain to me under the shade outside the temple. There are some personnel guarding the temple. if you pay them tips, they can be your unofficial guide inside the temples. This i realised later when they started to explain the paintings and carvings to the angmo tourists and i was like : thought no guiding allowed?? If you pay they will even put the key of life to the doors of the temple for you to take photograph with.
On the way back, i asked Doaa to helped me buy bottled water and quarter bbq chicken for me (else if i buy them myself i will have to pay more again). No wifi as the router has problem.
I went off to take felucca ride near Mcdonalds. There was tombs of the nobles across the Nile River. After landed on the other side, some nubians got me to ride camel and asked for higher price that when he first touted his service. I shouldnt have let go my guard. i didnt manage to go up to the Tombs of Nobles and ended up paying 120egp for the stupid camel ride. Sunset very early at 5pm in Aswan and the sunset was fabulous.
Then i saw something that looked like a big balloon above the roof of the buildings. it turned out to be the supermoon (only heard about it in the evening on tv). I bet i rarely see a moon so bright and so big, low on horizon. Too bad i was without tripod.
The felucca owner was tired of rowing me back to Mcdonalds on a windless night, so he throwed a rope to another motor boat crossing the Nile. I paid him for price we agreed and he didnt object. Finally an honest nubian unlike the camel rider.
The next morning was the movie Gallipolli, a movie about british soldiers in Egypt. After breakfast, we drove to Edfu and Kom Ombo temples. The drive was not as smooth as yesterday. We drove through villages and the air was dusty. The Nile, the road and the railway run in parallel, switching positions at different sections.
Different design of Nilometer:
Doaa left after the last temple at Kom Ombo and took a bus back to Aswan. The driver and i travelled onward to Luxor.
Around 230pm we reached Luxor. After settling down, I went over to Sinbad Balloons to book a hot air balloon tour for tomorrow morning. The boss quoted me a higher price than he charged others (which i found out the next morning) but still lower than what my tour company quoted me. Booking through hostels with some haggling get you cheaper price for the same item.
At night, i went for the sound and light show at the Karnak Temple. The pillars and structures appeared very beautiful in different colours of light but the narration was boring for me. I fel asleep a few times.
The next day, the van came and pick me up at 430am to the west bank. After that the van went to pick up another guy who is an Argentinian. In the van, i made friends with the American and this Argentinian guy, and learnt that i paid double of what they paid. It is then I realised how much my tour company has been quoting me - nearly 3-4 times of what they have paid!
The excitement of my first balloon ride couldnt be contained. The balloon is HUGE. It was also the first time for the Argentinian guy and we both kept taking pictures of the balloon being fired up. After that we climbed into the balloon. I could feel the heat above my head. The pilot slowly get the balloon up in the air, and we could see the different sites in the west bank from the sky. Other balloons were also around us. The whole experience was magical. The supermoon and the beautiful sunrise took turn to entertain us. When the balloon was about to land, the pilot purposely made the balloon flew above the electric lines and even barge into the top of a palm trees, and we screamed.
Get ready for landing by holding on to the straps, with your back facing the downward side:
Brushing across the palm trees:
Polaroid that Juan gave me as a gift.
Egypt Air inflight magazine cover was a hot air balloon.
The van drove us back to our hotels. My guide for the day was Saimah, and she picked me up around 8ish. She originally came from Cairo and found the pace of life in LUxor a bit slow for her. She first brought me to the Statues of Menons, Hapsepshut Temple and Valley of the Kings in the West Bank, followed by Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple in the East Bank. She gave very good explanations and added in some unique viewpoints of her own that made her stood out from the rest. Even the tourism police in the Karnak Temple told me I had a very unique guide, which I dont deny. I valued her insights. For example, when it come to temples, she said that the kings and queens in Egypt built the temples not because of religions, but rather as a way to legitimise their reign over the land of Egypt, especially if they obtained the throne through questionable means or if they do not have royal blood. Temples were their ways to telling the people that they were the chosen one.
Believed to be used by Joseph for storing grains to last the drought of 7 years, mentioned in the bible.
Moses(?), according to the few men who guard the temple:
In the Valley of the Kings, one can choose any 3 tombs to visit. The tomb of Rameses IX was only opened 6 days ago and I went to see the temple. The tomb of Rameses IV was very colourful. The tomb of Merenptah was huge. One will be impressed by the sheer space and size of this tomb. Saimah said that this king was smart, he knew that paintings will not last, but size and space will always awe its visitors.
After we have visited the west bank, we went back to the east bank for Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. I finally got to see Karnak Temple in the light of day.
Nile river used to flood. The boats could park near Karnak temple in the past:
Lamb head, lion tail:
Obelisk. It didnt look too big, but once you looked at those fallen ones, you will have an idea how big it is.
My guide chatting with the tourism police:
The statues used to line both sides all the way from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple:
After the visit, I went back to hotel and met up with Brad for dinner. We spoke about possibility of camping in the Grand Canyon next time, and thinking that it must be fun if we were able to do the hike and camping. Brad was catching the 7pm train to Luxor. Talking about train, I told him that there was someone from Singapore that did the train ride from San Francisco to New York. Brad told me hd wanted to try it too, nearest train station from Phoenix being Flagstaff, which was quite a distance away.
Brad is a PhD in biotechnology, water management. He will be coming to Singapore to give a talk.
He has written a blog on Egypt. He is clearly a much much better writer than I am :)
URL of his Egypt blog: http://www.sciencetheearth.com/news/bradley-of-arabia
You can click HERE to access the blog.
We parted ways and went back to hotel. I overslept (again!!) and missed the beer moment with Juan.
The next morning I woke up and saw the balloons landing at the opposite bank. Apparently the balloons landed at the villages just opposite my hotel across the river. If I have a small boat I can actually row a boat back to hotel, instead of taking a long detour from the west bank back to the east bank, via the bridge from the far end lol.
After breakfast, I proceed to the airport. I was too early, the immigration people are not even here yet. There were not many international flights from Luxor, so the immigration counters only open later. The staff at the Luxor Airport queued up to buy duty free cigarettes. It was truly a sight at the duty free shop.
The flight was mostly Egyptians that were going Doha for work. Only some Japanese tour group joined this flight.
Leaving Egypt coast line next to Red Sea.
At the Doha airport, I went to the transfer counter to check if there was an earlier flight back to Singapore. She told me my original flight was already the earliest then started counting 1-2-3. She was embarassed when she saw me noticed her counting, and explained that she was trying to see if i can fit in a free Doha city tour in Doha and realised it could be too tight for me.
Wait, what? Free Doha City Tour by Qatar Airways?? I rushed to the counter and register my name. They looked at my boarding pass and said I could join the tour, just come back to the counter by 3pm to collect my transit visa. We went through the immigration counter and boarded a tour bus at the arrival side.
First we drove to see the buildings in Doha, followed by at a quay for yatchs and boats. We were gven 10 minutes photo time in these 2 locations. The last one was visit to Souq Waqif, a hundred-year-old market. We were given 35 minutes free time to shop in this old market. It was a mad rush during our drive as everybody was rushing home after office hours.
Designed by IM Pei:
Our tour bus:
Largest shopping centre in Doha:
Oldest market in Doha:
We were finally back to the airport at around 640pm. I dashed for the immigration counter and security check. A pakistani from Dubai who was here for meeting chatted with me and calmed me down, as I thought I am going to miss my flight.
Turned out that the immigration and security check in Doha airport was smooth, i even have time for shower and light dinner in the lounge before taking the flight. I managed to get a row for some light sleep in the plane as it was not full.
My thoughts on this trip:
1. Luxor turned out to be the cleanest city, with little traffic jam. Rubbish and environmental protection is a big challenge in Egypt. People throw rubbish/cigarette butts on road side, or burn them in open air. Factories spew ash and dust openly. Workers dump construction waste down the floors openly and caused a dust storm. All these could have been avoided.
2. People here smoke a lot, unlike Tanzania. They even allow smoking in airconditioned lobby in 5-star hotels. My goodness.
3. Even the guides are afraid of stall/shop sellers in certain touristic places in Egypt, like the pyramids. They will shout 1 dollar, 5 pounds to get your attention and we all know the price is definitely not 1 dollar or 5 pounds. If the tourist dont buy, they will start scolding/insulting both the tourists and the guides in Arabic. This will scare off tourists.
4. The exchange rate at Cairo airport is good. You can also change for EGP in exchanges and banks everywhere, even at certain ATMS. You can pay tips in EGP or other currencies like USD or Euro or British Pounds. The minimum amount the exchange/bank/ATM will exchange with you is USD20. If you are exchanging at the bank teller instead of ATMs, bring your passport.
5. It was still warm in November, December should be better. I couldnt imagine July/August.
6. Crossing the roads in Luxor and Abu Simbel are still possible, but Cairo is a different beast altogether.
7. Read up before you go Egypt. Dont expect much explanations from your guide. I was so glad I read the history of Egypt for 4-5 times before I go otherwise I will not be able to appreciate the visits to the temples.
8. Certain locations are not worth it, if you read the travel guides/tripadvisors and books before you go, you will have a good idea of which are the tourist traps. The tomb of King Tut in the Valley of The kings is one such.
9. I ended up paying 4-5 times than the usual price on most things. If you go without a tour agent, you will be hasselled. If you go with one, you pay more. It is the devil and the deep blue sea.
10. In Aswan, stay in Elephantine Island for the peace of mind. Never mind about the trouble of crossing the Nile by boats, it is worth the trouble.
11. The camel ride in Aswan near the tombs of nobles was a mistake. I wasted time and money and never got to go up to the high point.
12. Sunrises and sunsets in Egypt were amazing. So was the Supermoon.
13. One hot air balloon ride and one visit to Sound and Light Show are good. If you are going to the Sound and Light Show, make sure you bring a torch light with you, or use the torch app on your phone. The worker walked quite fast between sites on uneven grounds, so you might trip in the dark in the haste of catching up with the group. They need at least a certain number of people (varies from temple to temple) before they do the show.
14. One can visit up to 3 tombs in the Valley of The Kings. You cannot take photographs inside the tombs though, and no guides allowed. Get ready some spare EGP and tip the guards inside to explain more to you. Trust me, it is hard to remember everything that the guide told you beforeyou entered the tombs, in that kind of temperature. How was I supposed to remember 10 wall paintings and the stories associated with it??
15. There will be someone inside/ouside every toilet to ask you for tips. They will help you turn the tap, turn on the hand dryer etc in order to legitimise the collection of tips from you. Just pay.
16. To take the domestic flight in Cairo, first go to Egyptair office to get your printout if you do not already have one. Go through security clearance. Then go to the airline checkin counters to check in luggage and obtain boarding pass. Then go to the gate and board the bus. I am not quite sure how to board the plane in rainny days using shuttle bus, umbrellas should helps. The process is slightly different from other countries, where the first point of contact is normally the check in counters.
17. It is good to have a local SIM card, some travel agents included it as part of the tour. Easier to contact your tour guide.
18. Normally the tour guide will explain the paintings and the structures in the temple to you, then allow you free time for taking photographs on your own, while they go to have break time. They found me quite annoying when I kept taking photographs of items that they pointed to me. They expect me to remember the locations and items of and take photographs on my own later during my free time, instead of taking photos when they were explaining.
19. The questions that I have been asked the most - is it safe to visit Egypt? Honestly I couldn't answer. What you see from media can be disturbing at times. Aswan and Luxor are totally fine though.
20. The second question I got asked was - why Saudi Airline?? Answer is - cos this airline deliver good value. I will fly with them again. Once the new Saudi Airport is ready by next year (InshaAllah), the connecting experience will be much better i hope.
21. How about the Egyptair domestic flight? Awesome. It was good to see the Nile and the temples (if you can see them) from the high ground. You also get to see the Nile flooded plains before the dams were built.
22. The Ethopians are mulling over building of dam in their country, which will affect the Nile in Egypt and Sudan. The Egyptians were worried that, if some crazy fellas bomb the dams in Ethopia, Sudan and Egypt will be finished.
23. Food wise? I like the bbq chicken. Quarter chicken is enough for me. My guide in Aswan, Doaa helped me buy one set from one of the best restaurant in Aswan, delicious.
24. Drink wise? I love the mango juice and the super sweet sugar cane juice in Egypt. Sugar cane juice in LUxor and Aswan were particularly good.
25. When they said papyrus museum or hot oil museum, they are just places for you to bargain and spend money. They are not really musuems. Even if you already told your tour companies that you do not wish to have any shopping, these musuems will still be included in your tour like it or not. Same for rare gem stones factory and alabaster factory visits. Some guides will allow skipping them if you request.
26. I couldnt believe it when i saw that I need to pay USD35 to rent a kettle for one week to boil hot water in Sonesta St George Hotel in Luxor. Srsly.
27. New, or should i say ancient, discovery in Egypt is a on-going affair.
28. Temples lighted up in the night is very beautiful. Bring your tripod.
29. Friday and Saturday are the rest days in Egypt, traffic in Cairo tend to be better on those 2 days.
Thanks for reading. You can access my other travel blogs by clicking this link.