January 26-28, 2009
We caught an all-night train from Cairo to Aswan, way in the south of Egypt, along the Nile. Most people take the tourist train which is cushy but expensive. We took a regular train which was far less expensive and still very comfortable.
As soon as we got off the train a local guy offered us a hotel room for 40 EL/night, and we took his offer. It often happens that we land the best deals randomly like this, rather than chasing down what Lonely Planet recommends. Our hotel was called Yassein and it was just off the colorful market street. This street is definitely geared for tourists and it has the same shops over and over: spices, clothes, trinkets, snacks.
Aswan has a museum dedicated to the Nubia people. It’s a beautiful building filled with artifacts from thousands of years of history.
The most interesting part of the museum has to do with a major world effort during the 1960’s and 70’s to save monuments along the Nile River. The story goes like this. Egypt has always had problems with the Nile River flooding during the wet season. When the British were in charge they built a dam to try to control the water, but it wasn’t quite big enough to prevent the floods. From 1960 to 1971 the Egyptian government built a new dam, called “High Dam”, that was finally big enough to control the water. When the dam was finished, it caused a new lake to form in southern Egypt (and northern Sudan) – Lake Nasser. This lake flooded dozens of monuments along the shores of the river. The international community saw this catastrophe coming, so they mobilized lots of people (and money) to document all the monuments and to literally move 20 of them to new locations. Some of these monuments were relocated to other countries, but most were simply moved to higher ground. The museum had some interesting photos of the monuments in their original locations (see below).
After the museum we went to dinner at a place called Nubia House Restaurant. The restaurant has nice views over the river and nearby islands, but we missed the view – the place was tricky to find so we went in circles and reached it after sunset. If you go, go earlier and consider going by taxi. Anyhow, the menu was scant but they had a really tasty stew they called “fish oven”.
Abu Simbel is one of the more famous monuments in Upper Egypt (southern Egypt). It includes two temples carved into the side of a mountain; one dedicated to Ramses and one to Nefertari.
Most people visit Abu Simbel as a day-trip from Aswan, even though it’s a further 3 hour drive south. You can actually get there on the regular public bus, but we decided to hop on the tourist bus because it also includes stops in a couple of other attractions on the way back.
For security reasons, the busses to Abu Simbel go in a big “convoy”, but it’s not exactly what you might imagine. When we think “convoy” we imagine all the busses sticking together, with police escort in front and in back (which, actually, is probably the least secure way of transporting tourists – too much attention). For this convoy all busses start at 4 AM in some parking lot where they register their passenger list with the police. Then the police give the go-head signal and the race is on! Each driver does his best to reach Abu Simbel faster than the others. Our bus had a safety feature where if the driver goes above some speed then the bus peeps at him endlessly, but our driver paid no attention to that. As a result, we reached Abu Simbel before most of the crowd.
Here’s the way Abu Simbel looked in its original location:
This gives you an idea of what it took to move it to its new location:
And here’s how it looks today:
The relocation crews did a pretty decent job, right?
In our opinion, the monuments we saw in southern Egypt were far more impressive than the stuff up north (e.g. the pyramids), and Abu Simbel is probably the best of all. The statues and wall carvings here are just far more detailed. In all fairness, they are also much newer than the pyramids – the Egyptians had another thousand years or so to perfect their art.
Photography is not allowed inside the temples. Maybe they do it to protect the art inside from flash bulbs, or maybe they do it to create jobs – vendors outside sell postcards. Pnina picked up some postcards outside from one of these vendors. He then asked her if she wanted to also buy a scarf. She didn’t really want a scarf but she asked the price just out of curiosity. He said 150 EL ($30!). “No thanks”, she said, and she walked along. The vendor followed her, reducing his price little by little. When he reached 25, she caved. The only issue was that she didn’t have exact change, so she offered him either to accept 23 (which she did have in exact change) or to take a 100 and give her change. Vendors here never have change, so he opted for the 23. For all we know, it may still have been a rip-off price, but we find it impressive that she negotiated an 85% reduction without really trying. 🙂
By the way, if you visit Egypt, it really helps to have an international student (or teacher) ID card; with it, you get 50% off admission to most attractions. It really adds up. Abu Simbel cost 90 Egyptian Pounds each (about $18), but it was just one of many attractions where we had to pay entrance fees. We’ve never seen a country where having a student ID helps so much.
On the way back from Abu Simbel we first stopped at High Dam – the really huge dam that caused Lake Nasser to form. This stop turned out to be kind of a dud. We were hoping to see something like Hoover Dam, but actually there wasn’t much to see; just some rocks and an electrical plant:
There were a few panels up with some interesting statistics. For example, in terms of mass this dam is 17 times bigger than Cheops, the biggest of the 3 pyramids in Giza. For this reason people sometimes call this dam “the 4th pyramid”.
But you can read all these statistics online, no need to visit the dam. If you go on the same bus tour to Abu Simbel, we would recommend hopping off the bus when it enters the dam area to avoid paying the entrance fee. Better yet, try to convince everyone on the bus to skip visiting the dam so you’ll have more time at the next stop: Philae.
Philae is another one of the monuments that was relocated when the dam was built. This one is dedicated to the god Isis. Since the monument was originally located on an island, the movers found another (higher) island to place it. Again, they did an awesome job.
Here’s the monument in its original location:
And here are our photos from the new location. It was a pretty large complex and we wished we had more time to wander around.
Heading back to mainland by boat…
There was actually one more stop back in Aswan – a query where you can see a famous unfinished stelae. But we were tired of paying entrance fees and also just plain tired, so we skipped it. We heard from other people that we didn’t miss much.
John & Linda
Before we left Aswan we met a friendly kiwi couple at our hotel: John & Linda.
Both worked as teachers in New Zealand for many years. Then they decided to retire with style. They sold their house, bought an RV, and used it to tour New Zealand for a few months. When they finished seeing their home country, they sold the RV and started traveling the world. That was six years ago! Yup, they’re still traveling. They wrote a book about their first three years which you can find on Lulu: Off Our Rockers. John says that at this rate they can probably afford to travel for another 24 years, so for now their plan is to just travel until they keel over. Wow! Our hats off to you! 🙂
In the News
The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is holding, but barely. Hamas killed one Israeli soldier and Israel retaliated. It’s a funny kind of cease-fire.
Obama did his first TV interview and it was on Al Arabia TV! This is a message to the Arab world that he’s looking to change policies and reach out. Interestingly, George Bush also did an interview on Al Arabia TV, though it wasn’t the first interview of his tenure. Obama also picked George Mitchel to be a special envoy to the middle east, to try to revive the peace efforts.
There were more layoffs back home. Even Microsoft laid off thousands of workers. Having worked at Microsoft before I find this pretty shocking. It’s not an easy company to get hired into, but it’s also not an easy company to get fired from – as a rule, your manager will give you plenty of time to improve performance before letting you go. Yet another sign that the economy is really in bad shape.