Travels through/along the length of the Nile in Egypt: Aswan to Alexandria
Sorry for the lack of updates recently – I've been toppling down sand dunes, having tea at desert camp-fires, looking for the 11th commandment and generally spending lots of time in places filled with amazing experience but bad Internet! 🙂
More on all those adventures soon enough, but for now I can continue to share my Egyptian travels with this video documenting my trip from Aswan to Alexandria, all alongside or through the Nile. Note that this video is just in English this time, but the next travel update will have a chat in Arabic.
When you leave the chaos of Cairo, you are instantly hit by how peaceful Aswan is. No constant horns and no polluted skyline. As you can see in the start of the video, you also get the more typical view of the Nile we expect with huge sand dunes right by the bank of the river.
While in Aswan, I got to learn about Nubian culture, as most of those I would speak to were Nubians. This included the Felucca boat and sailor that I hired for the day through a local company. The captain picked me up and brought me as far downstream as we could go for the first half of the day before we turned back.
I can highly recommend this, because it's just so peaceful to have the vastness of the Nile all to yourself, with no noisy motor or other tourists in sight. I also had a nice chat with the captain about Nubians' history in the area. When we made it to the bridge after the last Nubian village, we turned back and headed to Elephantine island and his own village and home where he cooked me a great (vegetarian) meal. From here we checked out the old dam that he still remembers helping to operate.
A journey that would have been even more interesting is to spend several days on the Felucca and have it take you all the way to just before Luxor. This was initially my plan but unfortunately I had no choice but to be…
Cruising down the Nile sick
One catch of the Felucca, because of how simple it is, is that it has no bathrooms. Normally, I'd have no problem waiting several hours, pulling into a bank and going behind a tree (yes, that's your “bathroom” for the entirety of the trip!)
Unfortunately though, something I either ate (a really weird tasting meal I had at a touristy restaurant) or drank (I was so thirsty that when I was eating some Koshary, that I took a sip of their tap water, which is always a terrible idea) left me with really bad diarrhoea and a case of vomiting up nearly everything I ate for almost an entire week.
I started to feel bad my last night in Aswan, when I recorded the Nubian video. I didn't really have the energy to ask intelligent questions, so I let him do most of the talking.
Since I had to cancel the Felucca idea, the only other option apart from the train (which I'd be taking anyway later), driving (which I'd get PLENTY of as you'll see in the next video) or flying, was a cruise ship! Definitely not my style (or budget) of travel, but luckily I got a great last minute deal from a local. Given my situation, it was the best choice because the food was good (although, I barely ate any), there wasn't any swaying on the ship, and I could go on the top deck to appreciate the views, or retreat to my room.
I don't get sick often (last time was in Istanbul), but this time was pretty bad! Using a weighing scale just before I felt sick, and one after I recovered, I saw that I lost over 6kg (13lbs) in just a few days! Not the fun kind of weight loss mind you! It really did feel terrible.
When I arrived in Luxor, the plan was to hopefully recover within a day, and then be able to check out Luxor itself before I continue north. I went to the train station to buy my ticket out in advance, and they were booked out! On the way back to my room, the roads were so bumpy that my stomach felt like it was going through a washing machine cycle and I was even more sick for the next 3 full days, barely leaving my room!
I needed to get to Cairo for my visa-run flight, so I had no choice but to fly out all the way, and come back to Luxor to continue where I left off.
I prefer to avoid scrambling to take medication until I've let something clear my system first, or unless I'm sure it's something serious. I've got a pretty good immune system because of this, and prefer to let it do it's thing first. Because of this, the day I was to leave Luxor, I woke up feeling 100% again, so pleased to have my appetite back, but it was also the day I was to leave Egypt.
Luxor, take 2; tout patrol
There are many amazing tombs and temples in Luxor, but Ancient Egypt isn't really the purpose of this trip for me. I just like walking around and seeing who I meet and what I stumble upon. So after walking the city of Luxor on the east bank, I went up to the boats going to the west bank, and found someone who would drive me to a good spot to hike and then pick me up afterwards, and I haggled him down to a fair price.
Luxor is definitely one of the most touristy spots in Egypt though. The number of touts in some places was overwhelming! When the taxi arrived at the entrance to the valley, 3 touts came straight up to it, and were arguing over which one gets to sell me something so much that they didn't even notice that I had moved on. As you can see in the video, I wasn't dressing very local; hiking a desert mountain is where I draw the line at wearing a woolly jumper/sweater, and certainly want to have a hat on!
For the first part of the hike, it was peaceful (although I did see a huge pile of thousands of plastic bottles that reminded me how little Egyptians care about the environment), and then I passed near a tomb and some other tourists and continued on my way.
A tout saw me in the distance and shouted at me and ran after me up the hill. I knew what his game was so I kept going, but he kept shouting and running up the hill, so I sat on a rock and waited for him…
He arrived panting uncontrolably, as if it was the first time in his life he had ever dealt with a gentle slope of a mountain.
“Sponsbool! Sponsbool mountain!”
I said in Arabic that I didn't understand him. Sponsbool yani eh? – and he replied with “mas'wul!”
Ah ok, so his game was that he was responsible for the mountain. I suppressed an urge to roll my eyes and heard him out. Despite the fact that I was talking only in Egyptian Arabic, he kept replying in English saying how tourists aren't allowed to walk on this mountain alone, and they must be accompanied. I found this odd, because I read up on this before coming, confirmed it was safe at the hotel that morning, and nobody ever suggested anything of the sort.
His uncomfortable and unconfident whole body language screamed fake and there were no more doubts in my mind when he tried to flick out a license for a second to prove that he is here to guide tourists. I barely had time to read the Arabic on it, but didn't see a word of English. Someone provided with a license to prove their legitimacy to tourists would have one with English printed on it, especially in Egypt since English is always visible on anything related to tourism.
This was wasting my time – I had had many chats with touts up to now, and when you're patient you can have great chats with them but something about blatantly lying to my face meant that my patience had run thin and I wanted to get on with this hike.
Since my turn downs weren't working, I took a different approach and pretended to naively suggest that since he was sponsored by the government, he will of course escort me for the next hour or two for free. Of course he suggested a tip, so I very clearly said “1 pound or nothing!” (1 Egyptian pound is only a few euro/dollar cents) and on seeing his stupefied reaction to that, I took the chance to walk on my way up the mountain, shouting back to him to have a nice day bu-bye!
Luckily, this guy was the only really annoying tout I interacted with in two entire months travelling in Egypt.
I made it to the top, saw a great view over Luxor, and then continued hiking down to Hatshepsut temple to hang out with all the Chinese and French tourists. One handy thing about being a polyglot is that you can listen in to pretty much any tour guides that walk past to learn the history of where you are standing 😛
14 hour train journey to Cairo
This time I did buy the train ticket well in advance, and was ready to cover the long trip north back to Cairo by train. There are some cruises that do this segment of the Nile, but they get cancelled unpredictably. Also, having already done a cruise on the Nile and getting no unique experience out of it other than chatting in Mandarin with some passengers, the train seemed more appropriate!
Since a standard ticket was just about €5, I decided to “splash out” and get a first class ticket, for an entire €10 for the 14 hours. From what I can see it wasn't any different. I also took one first class flight when going back to Luxor when I saw it for an OK price, and found it also to be exactly the same as a normal seat, just with a crappy sandwich included. So it seems like there is really no difference in a first class ticket on anything in Egypt, apart from perhaps having other people travelling with less luggage so I had more room for mine.
I was hoping for something like my experience in China where I got to meet some locals and have a great chat on the train, but people kept pretty much to themselves.
I was also kind of hoping that the train would be on tracks right alongside the Nile the whole time, but of course this wouldn't be practical since the residential areas and important parts of the towns would be there, so I mostly got to see farmland taking advantage of the water close to the Nile.
After about 8 hours we stopped in a station in the middle of nowhere… and stayed there for 3 hours. No announcements, no information, just stuck. I wasn't in a huge rush though – so I was taking it all very lightly and used this as an opportunity to start talking to people. I asked a few if they knew what had happened, and they were as clueless as I was, although one person suggested there was a road traffic accident on a track a few kilometres down.
It was a good excuse to break the ice though, and I had a few nice chats about what people do, and why they were travelling. I was starting to get really hungry, because I presumed there'd be more than just crisps (“chips” for my North American friends) and junk food for such a long journey, and one lady I was talking to very kindly offered me a bit of her salad sandwich. No matter how much I tried to turn her down, since it was her meal, she insisted, and I definitely appreciated it!
When the train finally started off again (with no warning, so people sitting outside had to run after it and jump on), the lady behind me said Alhamdulillah! (Praise God!) dozens of times. She was continuing to say it even an hour later. I was thinking more along the lines of Alhamduli-the repair guy or tow truck that cleared the problem from the track.
The girl sitting beside me got off and with the seat free, one of the train conductors came up and demanded it. This guy, unlike my tout friend in the mountain, was very confident in his words and had an air about him that he ran this train, so I scooted over to the window seat and let him have his seat of course. He immediately took out his phone that looked like the one I had in 1999, but with a speaker louder than the smartphone I have now, and played really crappy pop songs very loudly for the next hour.
I tried to ignore this and dozed off to sleep when suddenly…
I was startled awake when I heard a sound that was like someone had slapped me in the face, but I didn't feel anything. It definitely came from my head or very close though. What the hell? I looked around and saw that my window had been seriously cracked.
I turned to the conductor sitting beside me, very confused and he leaned over me, felt the glass a little to make sure it was still somewhat solid and then turned his crappy music back up to as loud as he could, in a true Not-my-problem style if ever there was one.
But… I had so many questions! He had clearly seen this before – what was this mysterious window self-explosion phenomenon? I had just read about meteorites coming down from space in Russia – did one veer off course and hit my window in Egypt? Was Allah trying to give me a sign that I've ignored way too many calls to prayer? Did I sleepwalk my way into headbutting the window? What happened??
The conductor's total disinterest showed me that he wasn't likely to provide an answer, so I just had to stay confused for a few more minutes.
Suddenly, two seats in front of me, the entire window was broken with a loud sound and one of the passengers got some glass in his face and was bleeding! Immediately after, I heard some bangs on the roof of the train and looked out the window and saw… kids throwing rocks.
It was a Friday, and since they weren't in school today it seems that throwing rocks at passing train windows is how they pass their free time? I cautiously lowered my sun-blind, for all the good that would do me if my window exploded inwards. People were making phone calls to explain to the police where we were, but I'll never know if these kids in the middle of nowhere will even realize the consequences of what they are doing.
So I can't quite recommend travelling by train in Egypt with this kind of thing going on, although Egyptians I've mentioned to tell me they've never heard of this, but then again most of them never take the day train from Luxor to Cairo.
Final chat before getting off
In the final hours, when it was too dark to see anything out the window, and the train was starting to get empty, I decided to take out my laptop and try and get some work done. This instantly brought attention my way, so I closed it down after a few minutes. One of those very interested in the foreigner now included one of the military uniformed officers.
He came over and asked if he could sit with me – he looked like he had just turned 20, and didn't have a single word of English (usually most people would try out a little English with me when they saw I was a foreigner). We started chatting and I have never seen anyone so fascinated. He said that he dreams of being able to travel, and I tried to give him some encouragement that it can be cheaper than he thinks. For the moment, he has to serve his time in the military.
His friends in a nearby seat were finding it very amusing that he was talking to a foreigner. I asked further and they were all from the same small town, freshly enrolled and likely hadn't seen anything of the world yet, including interacting with any foreigners, which is why this was such a novelty. He was very nice and bursting with personality.
Movie-esque jump on the train in Cairo
We finally pulled into Cairo much later than I was expecting and I collapsed in a room near the train station and slept in.
There are trains every few hours to Alexandria, but I wanted to get one in particular, so my taxi to the train station slowly crawled through traffic and I got there 3 minutes before the train was due to depart.
I ran up to the first class ticket desk (this time, paying €3 more not because it's better in any way, but simply because there was no queue at the first-class ticket sales counter), and he sold me the ticket with less than a minute to spare, which I was surprised at, since I figured he'd just put me on the next one.
Cairo's train station is incredibly confusing though, so I was desperately trying to find platform 4 (or ٤, which looks like a backwards 3 – with absolutely no signs that I could make out), when a tout came up to me to ask if I needed help with my bag. I don't get this – do I look like a frail 80 year old? This time though, I took him up on his offer simply to have someone dedicated to getting me on that train and told him platform 4 to Alexandria, leaving now! He brought me in the right direction, just in time to see the train take off.
Normally, this is the point where I would have just given up and accepted the loss of a few euro and a couple of hours waiting time, but my tout was way more enthusiastic and ran up and threw my bag into the moving train. That bag is everything I own in the world, so I wasn't quite going to let it go on to Alexandria without me!
I scrambled for 5 pounds to stuff in his hands, and he started protesting that his 20 seconds of work demands a much higher payment. With the lack of time pretty apparent, I tried to convey my feelings with a half a second what-the-fuck look on my face, rather than try to explain it in words, and promptly turned to run after the train. I was amazed that they hadn't closed the doors when the train was already at a jogging pace, but then again, this isn't a European train – safety schmafety!
I ran and jumped on just as the conductor was passing through and about to close the doors manually. I had a triumphant look on my face, like I had just acted out a scene in an action movie, and he returned the look with a disinterested “see it every day pal” and made me instantly think I was actually in a bad comedy…
Alexandria – the end of a long journey
This train was only a couple of hours, so I just went back to sleep, occasionally seeing a few more farms outside the window, until we arrived. I had successfully made it all the way from the start to the end of the Egyptian part of the Nile!
Alexandria, like Cairo, is quite chaotic and I got to hear plenty of car horns. It was OK, since I had a wonderful view of the Mediterranean sea – the first time I ever saw it from this side up close. I had a full day just walking around the city, checking it out, and sat down to drink tea in a corner bar just to have random people to chat to.
It was interesting to be speaking Arabic here though, because I found that the accent/dialect was really different in Aswan and Luxor which posed me a few problems. This was closer to what I was used to from learning the Cairo version, but with some extra words I had never heard. I also found it interesting that there was so much Greek carvings on some buildings, and even a street sign in French reminiscent of Napoleonic rule.
I almost felt like I was back in Europe with so many little things in the city being ever so slightly different and more familiar compared to the rest of Egypt.
After one last sunset view over the sea, it was time to get ready for the next leg of my journey, through deserts to an oasis and then up a mountain of Biblical fame. But more on that another day!