Our trip began, as so many of ours do, with a frantic dash to the airport.
The flight was running about an hour late on account of the wild weather in Amsterdam the previous day, so we took the opportunity to move the car from the short to long-term carpark before wandering through security. Only random shoe-scans this time so I got to keep my boots on, and I didn't even set off the metal detector.
Despite the delay we still had time to make our connection at Amsterdam, which was then delayed for a while waiting for other passengers who had allowed less time. Despite this they made up time on the flight so we still arrived at around 2am as expected. Watched Cars in flight instead of doing something useful with my time. I'd forgotten how much nicer inter-continental flights are.
Stepping off the plane it was cold and dark, but you could smell it was somewhere new and different. In the airport, much like any other airport, we purchased visa stamps for our passports. These were postage-stamp type stamps, not ink type stamps. We wondered if something had got lost in translation at some stage. Joined the crowd to shuffle through passport control, got the stamps stamped (ink stamp), then collected our luggage without hassle.
Followed the crowd toward the exit. David was waylaid by a taxi tout quoting a fare well above what the guidebook led us to expect. He extracted himself, we brushed off another even higher quote, then reached the entrance and the actual taxi drivers. A brief tussle between two of them, then the victor dragged our cases to his taxi, the trip now only costing us the equivalent of £6.50. Still technically tourist mark-up price, but not too bad.
Our hotel was the Nile Hilton, mostly because cheaper hotels all advised they only had baths, not showers, and David can't live without a shower. They checked under the taxi for surprises at the driveway entrance, then ushered us through the metal detector apparently unconcerned that we set it off. Presumably it doesn't apply to people who are so obviously tourists.
Our room on the 5th floor with a Nile view was very nice indeed. Only downside with the location was the noise.
Aside from the traffic, which shall feature further in this travel report, the bank of the river at this point was home to some tourist river cruise boats and horse&carriage rides. The boats were brightly lit up in neon and flashing lights, and they played loud music pretty much all night. At first I thought the door must not be sealing properly or something, but on opening it we discovered that no, it was actually blocking quite a lot of the noise.
The first room we were assigned had a broken lock, so they shifted us further down the corridor. I mention this only because it meant that we were located over a section currently undergoing some renovations. The workers were busy there until about 2am in the mornings, presumably they made noise too but you couldn't really hear it over the rest.
By this stage it was about 4am, so we settled down to catch a few hours sleep before tackling the mother of cities.
We pulled ourselves from bed just early enough to catch breakfast at 10:30. I think that gave us about five hours of interrupted sleep. Moving a little slowly, we were out on the footpath before midday.
We had no particular fixed plans for the day beyond wandering around and seeing what there was to see, and hopefully ending up at the Khan el Kahlili bazaar to see if we could find some long-sleeve shirts (as we are a bit short of such things).
We had barely rounded the corner before David was waylaid by a tout, and before you know it we were being guided across a busy road on the pretext of being directed to Kahn el Khalili. Hang on, the river is just over there so I know that's west, and that Khan el Khalili is almost definitely not south of us...
Anyway, we were quickly deposited in a perfume & papyrus shop and served tea while the shop owner presented samples described their use. David was quickly persuaded to spend far too much on a few bottles of essential oils, I realised I'd better stop just watching them skillfully maneuver him and refused the papyrus, at least until it dropped to a point were I was willing to allow David to agree just in order to facilitate an escape.
Now we discovered that the price on the perfume was not for the quantity actually held in the bottles, so David had actually agreed to spend even more than I thought! A shortage of cash was good for some further discounting, but he didn't pick up my attempt at an unsubtle hint to just use his confusion as a good reason to reduce the amount he was buying. Oh well. They are nice perfumes, and there are worse souvenirs to bring back from Egypt. (The inflatable Anubis in one of the hotel shops, for example).
Since they were still getting such an appalling good deal, they threw in some extra papyrus pictures and a couple of decorative bottles.
The tout returned, put us back on the real road to Khan el Kahlili, and advised David not to speak to strangers, and if anyone tries to be a guide just tell them you know where you're going and keep walking. This amused me enormously. We were such easy marks even the tout felt a bit bad about it.
Anyway, I wouldn't call this a bad experience. From our tout we learned how to cross Cairo roads - an essential and very valuable skill. It's a lot like frogger, but the real key is to pick a steady pace and stick to it. The traffic will avoid you if you behave predictably. (A local non-tout jokingly suggested closing our eyes when we tackled a crossing on our own a little later). Lights and zebra crossings really do mean nothing.
We also learned just how friendly and smooth the egyptian merchants can be, any western salesperson appears a clumsy amateur by comparison. It doesn't matter how many guidebooks you read, they can't really prepare you for the experience.
And we got to sit in a shop and sip egyptian tea, which is one of those experiences you're supposed to have in Egypt.
So, we continued on our way through Cairo. David was still proving to be a magnet for touts and hustlers of all sorts, and this wouldn't change at all. He's just too damn polite. I on the other hand am not, and took it upon myself to ensure the safety of our remaining funds. David was not impressed. Being pushed, pulled and harangued by his small wife probably deducted many points from his manly status but, meh, if he won't defend me from dodgy men wanting a kiss or tell people that X camels are insufficient and I am beyond price, then tough luck.
(From the delivery, I suspect offering to buy me for X camels is the Egyptian equivalent to Australian dropbears. Something you do to tourists just because... well, they're tourists. If they don't do enough research to know better then they deserve to spend the rest of the trip looking nervously up at the trees.)
Anyway, we ended up wandering in a confusing maze of shoe stalls and tools in what I think was probably the outer extremities of Khan el Kahlili. Here we shared the narrow spaces with cute little trucks, scooters, donkeys hauling carts, humans hauling carts, fellow peds, and the occasional barrow selling food, all in addition to the store front displays.
We found our way back to main streets, then stumbled upon the Ezbekiya Gardens. We paid the £2 entry fee for foreigners, just so that we could have someplace quiet to sit and figure out where we were. I also took the opportunity to try and beat my hair into submission - it is not accustomed to being so confined and was rebelling against the head scarf.
More random walking, we discovered that the Ramses statue outside the Ramses train station had been moved since our guidebook was written. I was entertaining thoughts of sampling the local food if we could find a place that seemed safe to eat from, but David was unconvinced. More walking followed and eventually we ended up back at the hotel about four hours after our departure. The pollution wasn't anywhere near as bad as we had expected, I was only just feeling a little sore around the eyes, which technically makes it better than London. On the other hand, I did seem to have an awful lot of dirt in my nose.
We ate a late lunch at the hotel, unadventurous but tasty five-star cheeseburgers.
After a little feet resting in the room, we stepped out again and wandered around the corner to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum.
We only had a couple of hours until closing time, but we managed to zip around most of the free galleries. This of course included the vast assortment of stuff from Tutankhamun's tomb. I remembered some of the gold from when it traveled to Australia (when I was in high school, we had a trip to Melbourne to look at it).
Depending on how reverential you feel we should be toward ancient history, I may or may not be a good person to walk around a museum with. But the shrine did look a lot like a fire sprinkler system, and chair technology really hasn't advanced as far as you'd expect in several millennia. The dice collection included, alongside the standard 6-sided dies, a wide assortment of pretty shiny variations and even some D20's - cue comments on ancient egyptian gamers.
The endless procession of painted wooden coffins was remarkable, scarabs are nifty, but I'm not keen on alabaster. I could of course go on at far greater length, but there are plenty of good books that will do a better job of that.
We emerged to find the sun had set, so we toddled back to the hotel to rest our aching feet and stunned brains. We discovered the back entrance to the hotel, which was a much more pedestrian friendly way to go.
After showering and dozing a little, we decided to head to the top floor and check the prices at the Rotisserie Belvedere. We expected to faint and then eat somewhere else, but by UK standards it was actually fairly reasonably priced.
They were having a quiet night, so we got a seat right by the windows with a view over the Nile, where I also got to enjoy the live entertainment of a busy road intersection.
Cairo traffic is insane, it really shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Markings on the road are purely decorative, lanes can be invented wherever you can fit. Indicators do get used, if traffic is heavy enough to require it, but mostly they communicate in a language of horn beeps. "Hello", "I am here", "I'm passing" "I'm not stopping", "I am a bus" etc. If they want to say "what the hell are you doing?" they roll down the window and do it personally.
The intersection I was watching had a lot of U-turns, and people turning into or crossing to the hotel driveway. Taxis think nothing of turning right from the left lane across three lanes of traffic, even if they then end up joining a queue and blocking those lanes. U-turns are best executed two or three cars abreast, critical mass being required before you can break the flow of traffic. Buses have sufficient mass to enforce their right of way.
The dinner was amazing. Being quiet, we were waited on with extreme diligence. The bread was plentiful, they gave us a free entree since we didn't order one and they probably had fresh red-sea shrimp to dispose of. The steaks were an example of beef perfection. David ordered a chocolate "biscuit" dessert that turned out to be more of a cake with a soft rich chocolate center that I was rather jealous of. I however had to find out what a strawberry cuppachino was when it was a dessert - I'm still not sure I know but it was nice, refreshing, and very strawberry.
After this gastronomic indulgence we waddled back to our room to research the next day and try to get some sleep while the all-night party raged outside.
We were supposed to start early, but by the time we got ourselves organised it was about 10:30 before we left the hotel.
After some consideration we had decided to hire a taxi for the day to take us on a little tour. Going through the hotel we were quoted 350 egyptian pounds, (about £35), which was very tourist hotel-markup-price but did mean we got a relatively reputable, experienced driver with good english who took good care of his 32 year old car. Or was that 34? Standard vintage for Egyptian taxis anyway, but in better condition. No seat belts in the back, but despite this and the Cairo traffic I felt safer than with some Melbourne or Glasgow taxi drivers. For added value he also gave us advice on how much and who to tip, and who to avoid and how, even if we didn't always manage to follow it.
First stop was Dashur, "a long way" away at about half an hour as the egyptian taxi drives. This included a stop for photos in the middle of the bridge over the Nile, and a pause at a road-side stand to pick up some local bread to snack on. The drive took us through the sorts of places and past the things you expect to see in Egypt; fields with little workers shacks, date palms, donkeys pulling carts, those cows with the big curvy horns, villages, papyrus plants, and so forth.
Then suddenly, there was dessert. Tourist police noted our presence, we bought tickets, and then on to the Pyramids of Dashur - the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid.
The road to the Bent pyramid is rough enough that you want a 4-wheel drive or bold taxi driver to attempt it. The tour buses just do the Red pyramid. As our first ever pyramid it was much photographed as we wandered around it, the tourist police with their guns and camel playing guides. (This is standard practice, although as we were the only ones there we got both police officers guiding us around).
I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to climb any of the pyramids, but the police were very keen to encourage it and take your photo in hopes of a good tip, and David never could resist a view. So we clambered to the top of the small queen's pyramid and looked out at the remains of the black pyramid and rolling desert.
At the Red pyramid we were able to climb inside, descending the shaft to look at the three chambers inside. The air was stifling and dusty, but the chambers were very impressive - mostly just for the size of the stones.
Next stop was Saqqara, stopping for some food and drinks on the way. Here we saw the Step Pyramid and pyramid of Userkaf, along with a temple whose name escapes me, a confusing array of deep pits, ditches and temple remains, and a small pyramid easily confused for another spoil heap from excavations.
Back up the road a little, we inadvertently picked up a guide for the mastabas of Mereruka and Ankh-Ma-Hor, but that was ok because by this stage it was quite handy to have someone direct our attention and identify the various paintings on the walls. It's quite odd to see these things that are so familiar and realise you're actually seeing originals in their proper place for the first time.
We climbed down inside the Pyramid of Teti, less impressive than the Red Pyramid but helped by the guide pointing out where things had been before being carted off to the Egyptian museum. Outside, we had the background noise of an excavation in progress.
From here our taxi dropped us into the care of a papyrus shop while he took a tea break and hoped for commissions. No, not more papyrus! We got a demonstration of how it was made, and to play with the plant, and drinks, so quite interesting really. I did actually like Judgement picture and with a little experience on our side we did at least get it down to half the marked price and resist all urging to buy more. We would however resist papyrus with a passion after this.
Final stop for the day was Giza. It some ways it was not as bad as I expected, not so crowded or full of people selling tourist tat. The camel touts however were complete bastards, and David still hadn't quite got the hang of avoiding manipulation tactics. My attempt to buy him out with UK pound coins was unfortunately foiled by him handing them money as well, but I got mine back since they couldn't actually use the coins and decided to try and get me to change them for egyptian money.
"You change for egyptian pounds?"
"Ok." Take coins quickly while offered.
"You give egyptian pounds?"
"Is not for me, is for camel!"
They buggered off as the tourist police started to show an interest and we mostly avoided further harassment by moving about quickly to take our photos. I'm glad our first pyramids of the day were at Dashur, which was a very pleasant experience.
We had to leave as the site was closing. That they had a closing time hadn't really occurred to me, they have a night show so I just assumed they would open at least until sunset (still at least half an hour away). We tried the Sphinx anyway but couldn't get in so had to settle for photos from the gate as the other tourists poured out. Obviously should have hurried things along in the papyrus shop. If we get back some time, we need to catch up with Memphis, the solar boat museum, and the Sphinx.
We returned to the hotel, paid about £42 for the taxi tour and food, which by our standards was pretty good for the days adventure.
After resting and cleaning up a little, (and taking some photos of the nice sunset over cairo) we took a cheaper dinner in the hotel's Italian restaurant (Egyptians cooking Italian, much as you'd expect really. Nice enough, but not quite the mix you expect).
Keen to make the most of our short trip, we wandered out to experience a little of Cairo at night. It was much the same as Cairo by day, except crossing the roads was a little scarier since using your lights was optional. Most shops being closed made for a quieter and more relaxed walk where we could look around without having to actively avoid anyone. Along the riverfront we declined boat, horse and taxi rides (*bip*bip* = "Want a taxi?").
Our last day in Cairo dawned, a hazy one. I only woke a couple of times during the night, but it took a while for me to warm to the day.
A few notes on clothing. The guides all disagree on how conservative you should dress as a tourist in Cairo. I'd opted for the head scarf since long blonde hair seemed asking for trouble, and ended up wearing layers since it turned out most of my shirts have fairly low neck lines. For this final day I was wearing a skirt instead of jeans. The main difference seemed to be that it immediately marked me as wife by default, whereas in jeans there was some indecision as to whether I was wife or girlfriend. It started with going in to breakfast and being greeted as "Mrs Cook" instead of nothing at all, and seemed to continue throughout the day. There were also no camel bids, although maybe we just didn't look so much like first day tourists now.
We started the day by crossing the river and making our way to the Cairo tower. This was fairly easy and painless, at regular intervals police or possibly other security-type people simply pointed the direction out when they saw us coming. We found a street lined by Eucalypts - "Home!". They were very healthy looking specimens, trunks a metre wide and very dense foliage, apparently the middle of the Nile agrees with them.
Unfortunately the hazy day meant the view was not so good, I could just make out a blurry pyramid outline on the horizon, but it wasn't clear enough for the camera to see it.
From there we walked up to Zamalek, seeking a CD shop David liked the sound of. Gezira and Zemalek are a posh part of town, which was pretty obvious walking through them. Turned out the CD shop was gone, and since we were now far from a Metro station and our next destination we braved a taxi back to the Ezbekiya Gardens.
We stopped in the gardens again to eat, then sought out the street of musical instrument shops. Lots of pretty instruments, but David didn't find a flute he fancied. We then worked our way back and this time succeeded in finding the main part of the Khan el Kalili bazaar.
The dresses were beautiful, but I'd never wear them so there didn't seem much point in buying those. I might have been tempted by the shorter shirt-type versions a lot of women were wearing with jeans or skirts, but didn't see many of those. Nothing else clothes-like really grabbed me. The spices were interesting but we didn't want those (hang-over from being Australian, you always immediately dismiss any food product as a possible purchase to take home). Jewelry, but nothing I liked as I mostly left chunky silver jewelry a while back, I'm currently liking enamel designs but there was very little of that. Housewares and glassware, too hard to transport even if I needed them.
We had a fairly good method for avoiding being caught by keen traders now. They would generally pounce on David, so I kept walking, then he could say something like "Oops, there goes my wife, gotta go".
In the end I headed back to the edge and the tourist traps for a statue of Anubis (a god I've always had a soft spot for, he seems the sort with whom one could sit and discuss diverse matters with over several cups of tea). To date most of the money had been passing through David's hands since he was the one automatically approached for such things. I was determined to have my go at haggling and and got a modest reduction so my statue only cost about £3.50. I'm sure I could do better with practice.
The stall I bought from happened to be standing in front of a small, very old looking mosque. So a short discussion later the stall holder took us in for a look, and handing over some of our few remaining notes got us taken up the minaret stairs to the roof for a view down onto Kahn el Kahlili.
Looking down at the jumble of decaying buildings as the sun was beginning to get low in the sky gave a much better feel for just how old this place was, and how alive it still is. A quiet moment above the bustle to just look around with awe.
Back down, then walking again through Islamic Cairo in the direction of the Citadel. Busy, crowded streets full of stalls, then you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself in an almost empty street, oddly quiet as the noise of traffic is suddenly blocked by thick walls. A street full of clothes gives way to food, animals, prayer mats, patchwork rugs.
Eventually we emerged from the maze, surprisingly on target, and found the citadel. The area had a surprisingly high proportion of history students who weren't guides willing to show you the way to the Blue Mosque. Veteran tourists by this time we brushed them off politely, they politely wished us well, and we grabbed a few more photos in the last of the light.
We still hadn't made it to Old Cairo, and I really wanted to see what this hanging church looked like. A taxi tout came to try again, so we negotiated a price to a metro station (since the Coptic quarter was "very far" and far more than we wanted to spend). Less well-behaved than our other taxis he wanted more when we got there, but didn't get it, just as well since he cheated and took us to a metro station further up the line. Not that it mattered, it was still only one egyptian pound to our destination.
Night had fallen. I don't know if it's possible to see the gate the church is built on, but if so we couldn't see it in the dark. We wandered about a bit, then took a look inside. Officially the church was closed, but in Cairo rules are made to be bent so we were allowed two minutes to poke our heads in and be impressed at the decorations, expressing thanks in small currency on the way back out. We were starting to get the hang of this place.
We took the metro back to the hotel and collapsed in our room after a good eight hours or so on the move. Room service arrived, at which point we remembered that room service in a place like this wasn't just a case of handing in a tray with the plates on it.
We devoured our meal, then moved on to the balcony. The night was a little milder than previously so while David took photos of the moon setting over Cairo I settled down on a chair to watch the traffic play and listen to the music from the boats.
It was at this point that I realised I'd come to quite like Cairo.
On day one it didn't seem so promising. It's rather a place of inner beauty, the streets are dirty, the buildings mostly present at best an uninteresting facade to the world. I think you would have to live there to really appreciate it, and it's not a place I could live, I lack the necessary survival skills. But for all the frantic bustle, noise and chaos, people there are actually surprisingly relaxed and friendly. The touts have got individual mentions, if I were to include everyone who said Hello or "Welcome to Egypt" it would have become rather repetitive and this would been an even longer report.
A city this old should have settled into quiet retirement and self-contemplation by now, or collapsed completely under its own weight. It shouldn't work, but it somehow does. There's more life and vitality there than I've ever experienced in a city before, and for a little while it seemed perfectly sensible that the traffic would want to beep out "I'm alive" messages at regular intervals.
If we go back one day, we have to catch up with Old Cairo by daylight, the City of the Dead, and more of the museums.
We checked out at 12:30am, having dozed a little and taken a final wander past the Hilton Mall shops. A taxi whisked us to the airport for slightly less than the outward journey, and we passed through the first layer of security to get to the check-in desks.
There we waited for them to open. 45mins to the airport? Half that, apparently.
Through passport control to get our stamps stamped again, no sign of the tricky customs things we'd been led to expect. Nothing interesting in the airport shops either so we settled down to doze until boarding time.
The return flights were uneventful, we dozed on the plane. Arrived back home by about 11am and spent the day dozing and catching up on the mundane things like mail and shopping. Cairo already seeming like a dream, too different for memories to be useful in everyday life.
As always, there are more photos in the Scrapbook. I've spared you most of the variations-on-a-pyramid shots.