Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hisssss! Dodging traffic on our way to the Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt


Destination: Cairo, Egypt

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed: Juliana Hotel (130EP or $22) Nice, clean place in the Garden District. Free WIFI. Hard to find, especially at night since it's on the third floor of a bank building with a small sign. If you are looking for peace and quiet in the middle of Cairo this is about as good as it gets. That does mean, however, a short walk to restaurants, shops, etc.

Best restaurant: Egyptian food is widely regarded as the worlds worst cuisine but there can still be a few diamonds in the rough. Koshary El Tahrir had excellent koshary ( 5EP/$1 I like to call it leftover surprise - think spaghetti with rice and lentils topped with fried onions & a garlicky vinegar with optional hot sauce - weird but tasty), Falfela is a bit touristy and a tad overpriced, but the hummus and roasted chicken are both excellent. Lastly, the roasted eggplant sandwiches (about $.25-.50) at At Tabei ad-Dumyati was great for an on the go meal before jumping on the train to Aswan!

Best of: 4000 year old burial chambers in the shape of pyramids, rich treasures of the Pharaohs, get "lost" in Islamic Cairo - never a dull moment

Worst of: 20 million people + little to no rainfall + very little government regulation = one of the most polluted locations on the face of the earth. After just one day in the city your snot turns black and coughing is about as common as breathing. The museum could stand some AC.

Most Memorable: Watching the circus like show between touts and package tourists that goes on at the base of the world's best known monuments...The Impressive Pyramids of Giza.

Useful Tip: Always negotiate everywhere in Egypt, for everything unless a price is clearly stated in writing (and even then sometimes). This includes taxis, tours, water, the use of toilets, etc. In the Egyptian Museum there are two mummy rooms included for the price of one ticket - two people can split one ticket as both rooms are similar. Generally speaking, the more aggressive the tout, the more they will attempt to rip you off. Look for the guy who doesn't seem to care - they will usually be your best bet in getting the "local" price.

Bumper to bumper traffic. Streets lines with thousands of black taxis. Pedestrians intermingled in the fray doing a real life version of Frogger. Cars driving without lights on at night. Welcome to Cairo, home to over 20 million people making it the largest city in Africa. It's noisy, polluted, dirty and yet somehow manages to exude a little charm in between the layers of grime. One side of town boasts the famous pyramids of Giza, nearly engulfed by the ever growing city. On the other side lies the heart and soul of Cairo, the chaotic charm of Islamic Cairo. Sandwiched in-between the two the old collides with the new. The oldest river in the world and sustainer of Egyptian life, the Nile, meanders past an ever growing center of business and modernization. Many come and go right to the Pyramids and leave, but giving the city even a moments glance will reveal a side you don't expect.

Upon stepping off the bus at around 11:30pm, we were immediately surrounded by taxi touts. There are an estimated 80,000 taxis in the city and finding one is hardly a question. Finding one with a working meter, however, is virtually impossible. To compound problems, anyone can be a taxi driver, all you need is a car that runs...sorta. Our cabbie didn't have any clue where our hotel was but yet still had the calls for "Baksheesh!" (the word for tip in Arabic) in full gear. A hour later, a tour of Cairo included in the price, and we still hadn't arrived. Not until we got out of the car and walked around deserted streets looking for a small sign that was on the third floor of a bank building did we finally find the place. Once again the cries for Baksheesh came but we didn't have small change to begin with so the pissed off, inept driver sped off. Welcome to Cairo.

Regarded as one of the most important museums in the world, the Egyptian Museum sits square in the heart of Cairo and contains some of the greatest archeological finds of all time. King Tut's treasure (what is not out on loan that is), two rooms of mummies, and loads and loads of statues, bowls and just about everything under the Egyptian sun found along the banks of the Nile over the past 200 years all sit in this aging building. Entrance fees are steep (about $28 per person for museum and mummy rooms), but that's mainly a fundraising effort to build a much needed state of the art museum out near the pyramids. One could spend days here exploring and researching, and some do. For the casual travelers such as ourselves, a half day covers the highlights without too much rushing around. King Tut's treasure trove is simply stunning and overwhelming. Like Russian Stacking Dolls, the boy king was laid to rest under three sarcophagi which were then placed in four shrines. His mask and inner sarcophagi weigh a combined 121 kilos (266 pounds) of solid gold! At the other end of the museum lies the other major highlight...the mummy rooms. Although they cost extra to get into, it's worth it to see them so well preserved after 3000 years, albeit a little bizarre. Sandwiched in between are literally thousands of exhibits that would in most museums be the focal points, but in this one, more of a footnote. The only downside to the museum at the moment is the building itself. Little money has went into it since all the money is being saved for the new place. Many of the display labels are from the 50's or earlier, the building lacks AC - a major drawback in the summer heat, and the whole place has a fine layer of dust. Perhaps sometime in the year 2020 these treasures will finally get a climate controlled home they deserve.

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After getting our feel of ancient history, it was time to step outside and into the 21st Century. A short cab ride away from the modern hotels and buildings cropping up around the Nile, lies the heart of Islamic Cairo. Here, the modern business suits give way to the traditional robes. Aish (Bread) is freshly baked for pennies. No matter the time of day, the streets are alive. This part of town is also a good place to practice, or at least, experience the unique "language" of Cairo. While Arabic is the official language, Cairenes have a couple of unique ways to "say" common phrases. To ask for the check at a restaurant, simply make a slashing motion with one hand across the palm of the other. A nod with the head in conjunction with a "tsk" sound is the way to say no. Our favorite, however, is when they need to come through and you're in the way, they make a "hiss" sound. While in our culture that may be a little rude, here it's normal.

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A trip to Egypt would not be complete without seeing the famous pyramids. Upon seeing these massive monuments it is easy to see how some people may believe them to not be man made, but rather, by aliens or gods. Research has shown however that during the months when the Nile became flooded, thousands of farmers could have been routed away from their lands to build these mausoleums of the pharaohs. With the waters being high, it would also aid in transporting the stones from quarries up stream. While the pyramids at Giza grab all the attention and hoards of tourists, there are over 90 pyramids scattered across the desert plains and a few of them are well worth the effort. We dedicated a full day to visiting a few of the lesser known pyramids as well as the must see ones at Giza.

We started the day at the oldest pyramid known as the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Built by Zoser in 2650 B.C.E., the Step pyramid consists of six levels rising to a height of 60 meters (about 200 feet) and is made entirely of stone making it the oldest stone monument in the world. The pyramid is the centerpiece of a vast funerary complex that includes courtyards, temples and halls connecting them all together. The structure represents the earliest attempt to move away from perishable building materials like mud and wood and gave birth to later Egyptian achievements. As an interesting footnote, the complex is also home to the oldest known graffiti. A visitor to the tomb during the reign of Ramses II (1500 years later, 3000 years ago) scribbled on one of the walls his admiration for Zoser. With Saqqara being the burial place of the ancient city of Memphis (capital of Lower Egypt) the entire area is covered in not only other pyramids, but also more common burial tombs. The social elite would also have elaborate burial tombs built. While they don't match the pyramids in size and height, these other tombs surpass the pyramids in paintings and giving detailed accounts of more day to day life. Most of the walls are adorned with hieroglyphs and scenes of just about everything from battles to birthing.

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Just a little farther South from Saqqara lies a couple of other significant pyramids: The Bent and the Red Pyramids. After successfully mastering the step pyramid concept, the Egyptians would try and build them taller and completely smooth sided. Their first attempt came about 50 years later in the form of what is known today as the Bent Pyramid. Starting at a 54 degree angle, the architects realized halfway up that the building was becoming unstable and could not continue at this angle. The rest of the building was then completed at the more gentle slope of 43 degrees giving the structure a "bent" appearance. Undeterred, the architects began building another pyramid next door, this time starting at a 43 degree angle. The results are known today as the Red Pyramid and represent the first true pyramid ever built. Both pyramids are the same height at 105 meters (about 345 feet) making them the third largest pyramids, only the ones at Giza are larger. As an added bonus, the entrance fee and fee to climb inside are both about half as much as they charge in Giza plus there are no touts and you are likely to have the place to yourself. We played tomb raider and climbed the steep 125 steps down into the inner chambers. Word of warning - stretch before you climb - we didn't and the awkward angle you are forced to climb will leave you a little sore for a couple of kidding. While it was a neat experience to be wandering around inside a 4500 year old building, there was not much to look at. While the architects finally got the right angle, the interior decorators must have had more important things to do. The walls are completely void of any adornment.

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The only remaining "Seven Wonders of the World". Evidence of aliens? Arguably the most recognized man made structure on earth. Whatever you know or have heard of the Pyramids of Giza cannot prepare you for the sight. Here they stand, the largest of which contains 2.3 million blocks each weighing in at around 2.5 tons reaching a height of 146 meters (around 480 feet), as they have for 46 centuries. Standing guard is the iconic Sphinx. With the body of a lion and the face of...well, the Pharaoh himself, the Sphinx is overshadowed by the pyramids but still quite large. Probably the best and worst part of visiting the pyramids today are all the tourists...followed by all the touts. We like to refer to it as somewhat of a circus. Don't get me wrong, the pyramids are impressive and well worth the visit, but watching the touts go to work on the bus loads of overpaying tourists was equally as entertaining. When 1/5 of your economy comes from tourism, and your number one tourist attraction (volume wise) is within easy reach of 20 million people, most of which are at the poverty level or borderline poverty, you have a recipe for hoards of trinket peddlers and camel jockeys all trying to get your attention and separate you from your cash. "Want camel ride?" "Why not?" "I have nice Camel." "It's too hot to walk" "Long walk, take Camel?" "I give you Egyptian price!" "Ok, you don't want to ride, how about lady?" "Come on, nice experience!" I think you get the picture. After finding a shady spot, which are few and far between by the way, we sat down and watched the spectacle ourselves. We recommend doing the same. Sit, have some water, and watch the interactions that occurs. The pyramids themselves are a must see, but the circus that goes on at the bottom will give you a story to tell if nothing else.

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Having our feel of Pyramids and highly congested Cairo, we packed our bags and hit the night train all the way down (or up depending on your perspective) to Aswan.

To see more photos of Cairo click here!

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