Cairo, Alexandria and Suez

We arrived in Cairo just as the Eid al-Adha celebration was starting. As a result, everyone was trying to leave town to get back to their families and the traffic was even more chaotic than usual! We thought Albania and Turkey were bad, but they were nothing compared to this. Cars weave in and out of lanes, overtaking on both sides – that is if they’re not just straddling more than one lane – and despite it being dark, only about half the drivers bother with lights. And not forgetting the “beep, be be beep, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep” that could mean anything from “watch out I’m coming through” to “want to get in?” (taxis) to “get out of my way!”. We have to say, after witnessing the journey from the airport to our hotel, we were glad we weren’t having to negotiate the traffic ourselves in Charlie.

We’d decided that to get the most out of our time in Cairo we would book on a couple of day tours. Not only does this make life a little easier in terms of trying to find places but, more importantly, we’d learn more of the history than if we relied on reading up on it ourselves. We dived right in and our first day was spent seeing the pyramids and sphinx at Giza, as well as the less-visited pyramids at Sakkara and Dahshur. We started out early and were driven to meet our guide, Mai, in Giza. A couple of things that struck us as we were driven out there, as well as throughout the day: 1. there is rubbish everywhere – piled up as well as all over the streets and flowing down the banks and into rivers/streams; 2. the majority of buildings are pretty rundown and all the roofs are covered in satellite dishes. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to capture this in a photo, but it gave this image of some kind of concrete/satellite jungle.

We had a really good day and can thank our fantastic guide Mai and Memphis tours for overflowing our brains with useful facts and information. We also had a great driver who, as well as expertly negotiating the traffic, after hearing us ask about the sweet potato carts went and bought us some while we were at one of the sites. Yum.

The pyramids – the only of the ancient wonders of the world to be largely complete [check] – are something you can’t miss out if you come to Egypt and the sheer size of them, particularly the Great Pyramid, are awe-inspiring. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, but thankfully for us, tourism is down following the revolution, so it wasn’t quite as busy and we didn’t get as hassled as can often be the case. We’d definitely recommend including the other pyramids in a visit as you will be one of very few tourists there.

A few useful/less bits of information for you:

  • The average weight of the stones that make up the Great Pyramid is 2.5 tonnes, but some weight up to 50 tonnes.
  • The people that built the pyramids were paid workers and not slaves.
  • If you used all the stones of the Great Pyramid it would build the equivalent of half the Wall of China (we’re not sure we believe this one, but it sounded good).
  • Initially at 146.5m, now approx 139m, the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years. It’s still believed to be the tallest “hand”, as opposed to “machine” built structure.
  • The Red Pyramid is a great example of what the pyramids of Giza used to look like as much of the outer casing is still intact.
  • The Bent Pyramid got its shape after a fault with the architect’s design was discovered. The angle was too steep and the pyramid would have caved in on itself due to the weight, so they had to alter it halfway through building it.
  • The Stepped Pyramid was the first pyramid ever built (around 2,630 BC) and inspired those that followed. It was originally only one “story” high, but was added to as it couldn’t be seen behind the enclosure wall.

The next day we went on our second and final tour, this time to the Citadel and Mohamed Ali mosque, the Egyptian museum and Coptic/old town. For this tour we tried out Egypt Day Tours and had another great day led by our guide Mina. A few observations from this tour … 1. As well as being an interesting place to visit, the view of Cairo from the Citadel is amazing. It really starts to give you an idea of just how huge Cairo is. 2. From wandering around the museum, it never ceases to amaze just how advanced the Ancient Egyptians were. This can be seen not only from the intricate jewels and decorations (particularly those from Tutankhamen’s tomb, not to mention his mask), but also from the fact that they made things like glass and folding beds/chairs! 3. Eid involves eating A LOT of meat. It means “Feast of the Sacrifice” and we saw numerous cows being transported in the backs of trucks to their ultimate fate. We drove along a typical market street where we saw cows, goats and sheep in various stages of slaughter, blood flowing onto the road. Quite different to what we’re used to at home, but something we’re sure we’ll see a lot more of as the journey continues. And nothing is wasted – we could already see the skins being sold on the side of the road!

From Cairo we moved on to Alexandria, where we would (hopefully!) be collecting Charlie. As we arrived at our more traveller-style hostel, as opposed to the hotels we’d stayed in recently, we were brought back down to earth with a bit of a bump. We were particularly amused by the rickety lift that had no door, so you could potentially jump or fall out between floors … if so inclined! However despite it being somewhat shabby, the staff were incredibly helpful and it was a good place to meet other travellers.

We spent most of our time in Alex doing research, waiting for information on the process for clearing Charlie and then for Marcello, actually going through this process (Karen being considered a distraction for the Arab men!). So we didn’t actually visit any of the sites, other than those we could easily wander to. One thing that was particularly frustrating to discover whilst we were reading up on other travellers’ news was that, despite us doing hours and hours of research before we left, we somehow missed the fact that a ferry from Mersin in Turkey to Port Said had started running. Something that would have saved us a lot of time, money and hassle. However, it obviously wasn’t meant to be, so we spent just over a week and quite a few dollars in Alexandria instead.

NB: For any overlanders, we’ll do a separate post on the shipping/clearing process.

As for Alexandria itself, we had a bit of a wander about, particularly along the corniche of the harbour: past the new library (the biggest library in the world), up to the Citadel and by the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi mosque. These are all quite impressive individually, but you can’t quite get over the fact that Alexandria has a very rundown and dirty feel to it: something that unfortunately detracts from what’s good about the city. A quote about Alexandria from Michael Palin probably sums it up best, referring to it as “Cannes with acne”.

Having said this, we certainly can’t say anything bad about the people we’ve met. We’ve had incredibly warm welcomes and offers of help from both people on the street and those we’ve chatted to in shops/restaurants. We can’t imagine many London shopkeepers telling us to come back if there’s anything at all we need or they can help with.

It’s also been interesting hearing local people’s thoughts about the revolution. Whilst everyone is in agreement that it was/is a good thing, a common view is that the vast majority are impatient to see the benefits and change NOW and unfortunately don’t necessarily realise that it can and will be a long process. It was also confirmed to Marcello by one of the taxi drivers that some of the chaos/rule-breaking, for example driving the wrong way down a one-way street, wouldn’t have happened, or at least not been tolerated, before the revolution. That’s just one small example and perhaps it’s understandable not to be able to resist bending the rules if you know you’re going to get away with it. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t result in progress taking even longer.

So, after eight days, we finally had Charlie back and were able to hit the road again. We were heading to the Red Sea, but due to the distance decided to stop for the night in Suez. This was the first time we would be negotiating the roads without a full GPS system to guide us (we had a few technical hitches with our Tracks 4 Africa maps).To get to Suez we had to head back to the outskirts of Cairo: perhaps a baptism of fire?! Luckily there aren’t too many main roads in Egypt, so we adopted the tactic of if we weren’t sure of a turn off, just keep driving on the road we were on. This ended up serving us well and, other than negotiating the crazy traffic, we made it to Suez without any issues.

We booked into one of the few hotels in Suez (Red Sea Hotel) so we could hit the road again early the next day. The restaurant had great views of the Canal, so we had a drink watching the massive container ships cruise by. Quite surreal.

From Suez we headed down the coast road for Sharm, despite having been told it was closed. We did however have a police escort for part of the journey – we assume after the increase in the security alert. We think they were a bit frustrated that Charlie couldn’t go any faster as they spent most of the escort practically driving in our boot, occasionally hooting for full effect! It was a bit odd looking in the mirror and seeing a van full of cops close behind (and spying the machine gun poking out the back) knowing they were there for our protection. Luckily the journey passed without any dramas and we made it Sharm in time for a quick dip in the Red Sea. Pure bliss!

From here Karen is leaving Marcello to chill in Sharm for a few days while she pops back to the UK for a wedding and to visit family and friends. Nice.

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