Cairo

Strangely enough, one of the most memorable things about Cairo was just getting there in the first place.  We were coming from Luxor, and had decided to catch the train:  we were looking forward to a relaxed day spent reading and occasionally looking out the window to the splendour of the Nile.

As we knew from the Man in Seat 61 – the internet bible of all things train-travel related – catching the train in Egypt can be slightly cumbersome.  Officially – ‘for your safety,’ of course – foreigners are only supposed to be allowed to catch the overnight sleeper trains (which are, obviously, ridiculously more expensive – and which also mean that you miss any daytime sight of the Nile).  In practice, we’d had no trouble in Aswan just buying tickets from there to Luxor the day before we wanted to travel that segment.  We hoped that it would be the same story from Luxor, but alas…

We tried buying them at the train station three times during our time in Luxor (including as soon as we arrived), only to be told the train was full.  Various reports on the internet have it that this is what they tell you just to get rid of you, in the hope that you’ll then accept the offer of some friendly local (presumably friendly to the guy at the ticket counter, as well as to you!) conveniently at hand to offer to help you get what you’re after (at some substantially inflated price).  But we’d read, and were told by the man at the ticket counter (after we persisted in asking for long enough for him to spot that his tactic wasn’t working) that you could just get on the train and buy tickets from the conductor once on.  Excellent news, and that’s exactly what we proceeded to do.

Except that the train was full, at least in first class (other classes are, well, not recommended).  Though that’s not to say that I necessarily believe it was the first time we tried to buy tickets.

It wasn’t “you have to get off now” full, but it was “no seat reservation for you” full.  So we spent our ten hours of following the Nile mostly standing in the aisles, or hopping from seat to unoccupied seat as locals got on or off at stops along the way, each only to be replaced by a new puzzled-looking face holding a ticket for the seat, wondering why there was a tired-looking foreigner sitting in it.  First class is nice and all, but it’s definitely better when you’re not on your feet.

Anyway, having made it to Cairo, we basically had two tasks:  the pyramids, and the Cairo Museum.  (We also had a third:  find an internet café we could use to upload the millions of photos we were collecting to the internet, so they’d be backed up if the unthinkable happened – so far in Egypt our internet access had been spotty, to say the least.  But despite an hour or so’s searching on day one, we failed miserably at that task until we stumbled across one just around the corner on our last day in town:  the hordes of western coffee shops that Wikitravel had us expecting to fall over at every turn have presumably all closed up in the economic downturn and the chaos of the revolution.)

A blackened, burned-out building beside and behind the Cairo Museum

The Cairo Museum. I’m not sure specifically what the blackened building on the left is, but it’s somewhat typical of many of the buildings on Tahrir Square. This is not an area of Cairo you’re encouraged to visit when there are any protests happening…

The Cairo Museum left me in two minds.  There’s a lot of cool stuff there, but I’ve never realised before quite how important it is that a museum be logically set out and explained and labelled to tell a story.  The Cairo Museum is very much mummies, mummies, everywhere, but nought to stop to think [about].  To bastardise a vaguely inapt couplet.  It’s a collection of some very impressive pieces, I have no doubt.  Except that I have no idea what most of them were, or why I should care.

There are certainly some very grand-looking and beautiful artefacts (although unfortunately the spoilsports won’t let you take photos in the museum, so I have no pretty pictures to share, I’m afraid).  But rather than a fascinating learning experience, the Museum often feels like the religious relic equivalent of an old folks’ home – not the most interesting location, but somewhere you can put your assorted collection of otherwise-ignored old stuff and not feel too bad about it.

The Museum does house the contents of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, though, which was genuinely intriguing.  Especially since we’d been to the tomb itself earlier in the week.  The most fascinating exhibit by far, King Tut’s stuff takes up at least twenty times as much space in the Museum as there had been in the tomb itself.  Packing him up amongst the pretty, shiny stuff he was taking with him to the afterlife must have been an impressive effort in solving a 3D jigsaw puzzle.  With the added constraint of getting the stuff in there through the entrance tunnel.  Personally, I’m picturing King Tut asking his mates if they could help him with the couch when he moved in, although I’m sure that’s not the image that the exhibit is supposed to conjure up…

The Pyramid of Khafre

The Pyramid of Khafre

There’s not a lot to say about the pyramids, in many respects.  I’m guessing you probably all know at least roughly what they look like, so there’s not a lot to describe.  And while you can go inside two of them, you’re just seeing now-empty chambers that won’t benefit much from a wordy exposition.

We spent a whole day out at Giza – on foot, doing all our exploring by ourselves (without a tour group to constrain us), wandering all around for the full day politely – and sometimes not-so-politely – declining offers of camel rides all the while.  Especially rewarding was the walk out into the desert to see them from a distance, with Cairo in the background.  The pyramids are surprisingly close in to modern Cairo:  whenever I’d heard “Pyramids of Giza”, I hadn’t really understood that Giza is literally a suburb of Egypt’s primary sprawling metropolis.  But that’s on one side;  on the other, there’s a vast expanse of sand, which you can spend hours strolling off into to find the perfect vantage on the pyramids and their surrounds.

From front to back: the Pyramid of Menkaure with its three mini-pyramids, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Great Pyramid of Giza

Pyramids on left, Cairo on right, vast expanse of sand everywhere else

Having spent those hours wandering through the dunes, idly wondering just how far up a pyramid we’d be able to climb before being shot (or at the very least, loudly whistled at) by a bored-looking security dude, we headed in the direction of the Sphinx.  And once done with that, we headed out in the direction of the Sphinx’s gaze.  To Pizza Hut.  Right smack bang in front of one of the ancient world’s greater wonders, the apparent focus of the giant stone creature’s timeless gaze.  Having had our fill putting back in whatever fat the walk in the desert had taken out, we wandered back out and around Giza for a bit, before returning to the same establishment for dessert.  Well, not just for dessert.  Our actual purpose was fulfilled when we made our way up onto the fast food chain’s rooftop, to see the sun disappear behind the Pyramid of Khafre.

The sun setting behind the Pyramid of Khafre, with the Great Pyramid of Giza on the right and the Pyramid of Menkaure on the left

Sunset, as viewed from the roof of the Pizza Hut in front of the Sphinx

Which, we felt, was a fitting conclusion to our adventures in Egypt.

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