Monday, November 23, 2009

Under the Sea, the Red Sea - Dahab, Egypt

Destination: Dahab, Egypt
Number of Days Spent:  7 days
Where we stayed:   We stayed at Seventh Heaven for one night (40 Egyptian pounds - $8) but moved because the fan in our non-AC room was way too weak to compete with the Egyptian heat.  We spent the next six nights at Penguin Village which had excellent AC but very salty water (60 Egyptian pounds - $13).  We weren't really impressed with the staff either, they were pretty lazy and non-responsive.  There was a good Thai restaurant right next to Seven Heaven though, don't miss it if you are missing spicy Thai food & in the area (good curry, medium pad thai). 
Who we dove with:  Big Blue Diving - We would dive with them again.  The equipment was in good condition & the dive master was professional.  We paid around $30 per dive with all equipment including a trip to Ros Mohammed & Thistlegorm (with transport to Sharm).   While we enjoyed our dives here, in particularly the Canyon, there is a lot of damage to the reefs near town so check around before deciding which sites to go to.   
Best restaurant:   El Asseel (just behind the New Sphinx Hotel) had the BEST falafel we have had yet.  The sandwiches included fresh bread, tasty falafel, Arabic salad and spicy tahini for 3 pounds ($.65).  One was a great snack and two a filling meal.  The Sea Bride Restaurant had excellent fresh calamari & shrimp for bargain prices.  Recommended by a local it wasn't on the beach but what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for with excellent food.  The prices were excellent with a 1/4 kilo of grilled or fried calamari for 30 Egyptian pounds ($6) or a 1/4 kilo of shrimp for 55 Egyptian pounds ($11).  All dinners included fish soup, a huge plate of Arabic salad, tahini, baba ghanoush (sp?), a spicy sauce for the seafood, rice & pita bread. Other honorable mentions go to Penguin or Funny Mummy for a great seaside atmosphere complete with pillows, terrific milkshakes (for Tracy it was banana and for Jason chocolate - a whopping 15 pounds each - $3) & sheesha (5 Egyptian - $1), Nirvana Indian restaurant for channa masala, King Chicken for their 1/2 chicken meal big enough for two (23 pounds including 1/2 a roasted chicken, Arabic salad, tahini & bread) & the Thai place with no name (look for the signs and go up the steps) near Seventh Heaven for curries (sadly the pad thai was missing cilantro & bean sprouts but would have been excellent if that was included).  Yeah, we ate a lot in Dahab.  We could practically feel our waistlines expanding once again :-)
Best of:  Big fluffy pillows, endless hookah, cool ocean breezes, good diving and snorkeling at the infamous Blue Hole & Canyon.  The atmosphere here is so relaxed and a stroll along the boardwalk is relatively stress free compared to other tourist hot spots in Egypt.
Worst of:  The tap water in Dahab is really salty.  All of the hotels have the same problem but I think that ours was definitely one of the worst...soap refused to lather and after stepping out of the shower it felt like a film covered your body).  As much as we hated to leave we really started to look forward to a proper shower with fresh water.
Most Memorable:   Night diving in the Canyon watching the phosphoresce all aglow like twinkling little stars, only at 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) down. 

Useful Tip:   All the restaurants along the water are overpriced and quite similar in offerings and price.  With so many restaurants and so few tourists, negotiating your meal is possible.  For example, what if I bring a couple of people along, can we get free appetizers?  How about dessert?  Free apple Hookah?  Nearly all will offer some sort of "hook" to keep you coming back or give them a try in the first place.  Of course, walking one block away from the ocean will bring the prices down drastically and the afore mentioned couple of restaurants served up much better fare than what we had on the strip.
Take a deep breath.  1, 2, 3.  Ok now exhale.  That's it...let it all out.  One more time.  And again.  Now imagine some ocean waves lapping gently up against the rocks.  Can you hear it?  Good.  Are you in a comfy place?  A couple of soft, fluffy pillows perhaps?  Perfectly relaxed?  Good.  Now let's begin.
We arrived from Luxor after 22 grueling hours on a bus.  Not what we had in mind when we boarded (it was advertised as a 14 hour ride).  Four passport checks at government checkpoints and inexplicably five ticket checks (One would think that checking the ticket once you boarded would be good enough) prevented us from having a decent nights sleep.  Deep breath. 1, 2, 3.
Good thing we stepped off the bus in Dahab and not Cairo.  This somewhat sleepy town has been a backpacker refuge for several decades is now attracting independent travelers to its relaxed and pleasant atmosphere.  While Sharm el-Sheikh has become a package tourist destination complete with hundreds of high rises vying for every square inch of waterfront property, Dahab has somehow managed to avoid most of the commercialization (sparing a few hotels just outside of town).  We were hoping for exactly this type of atmosphere when we decided to save Dahab for last on our tour of Egypt.     
The Nile may have its Pyramids and Temples, but the Sinai Peninsula attracts its fair share of tourists as well.  But it's not what is on land that draws most of the attention, but what lies in the water just off shore.  The area has long been considered one of the top dive and snorkeling centers in the world.  With an abundance of natural corals, unique underwater formations and scores of ship wrecks, the area has a little something for everyone.    Without further ado here are some of our photos from our week of diving (sans Ros Mohammed & Thistlegorm which are on another post):
IMG_0202 [640x480] IMG_0196 [640x480] IMG_0199 [640x480] IMG_0201 [640x480] IMG_0215 [640x480] IMG_0314 [640x480] IMG_0325 [640x480] IMG_0349 [640x480]
 IMG_0341 [640x480] IMG_0369 [640x480]
IMG_0359 [640x480] IMG_0354 [640x480]
In addition to diving, we spent our evenings hanging out with friends, eating tons of falafel & seafood, enjoying the fluffy pillows at the seaside restaurants and partaking in our fair share of apple sheesha.  Relaxing...yes...healthy...certainly not.  Good thing it only lasted a week! 
IMG_0189 [640x480] IMG_0188 [640x480]IMG_0387 [640x480]  
To see more photos of Dahab click here!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Raiding King's Tombs and snacking on Falafel stuffed Aish: Luxor, Egypt

Destination: Luxor, Egypt
Number of Days Spent:  3 days
Where we stayed:  Oasis Hotel (50 EP/$8), not to be confused with the Nubian Oasis Hotel across the street.  Helpful owners, huge private room w/ A/C, reasonably clean for the price.  Only drawback are the multiple flights of stairs you have to take to get to your room and then to the rooftop patio.  Consider it your morning workout.
Best restaurant:    The falafel stand across the street from Luxor temple near McDonalds was an excellent choice for a cheap meal (2EP/$.25 per sandwich), they will try and take advantage of you on the price, just point at the Arabic sign and say "2 pound".     
Best of:  Reading like a who's who of Egyptian greats - the Valley of Kings, Queens and Nobles housed the likes of Ramses II, King Tut and several other greats.  Karnak Temple is the largest religious structure ever to be built and is awe inspiring even til this day.
Worst of:   The light show is overpriced for what it is.
Most Memorable:    Our hotel gave us directions to the Aish bakery (bread).  For mere pennies we got piping hot pita bread fresh from the hole in the wall bakery...literally a hole in the wall.  Something about lining up with the locals that makes you feel like you hit a jackpot.

Useful Tip:   Avoid the taxis & carriages and take the microbus whenever possible.  They circle around town all day long and are numerous.  Hail one down and ask if they will take you to your destination i.e. Karnak.  Travel across town for $.25!  Remember to confirm the price before getting in.  Ask at your hotel so you know how much it should cost and then insist on that price or wait for the next one.  NOTE - they will honor this price even at night when the taxi touts are circling.  You just have to know what you're looking for and what the price should be. 
Luxor, or ancient Thebes, is arguably the best collection of Egyptian history in one spot.  No where else is there such a vast collection of tombs, temples and royal palaces.  Like modern day Paris or New York, Thebes represented THE place to live and die.  Pharaohs would have their eternal resting places constructed on the western bank while constructing and expanding temples on the eastern bank of the Nile.  The greatest of pharaohs like Ramses II and Hatshepsut (one of the rare female pharaohs) to name a couple, would have temples built and dedicated in their honor immortalizing themselves as gods.  The results of their efforts have mostly been preserved thanks to the shifting sands of the Saharan Desert.  Covered under layers upon layers of sand and time, many of these "eternal homes" have been unearthed in recent years revealing hoards of jeweled treasures...most notably the famous King Tut.  Perhaps the best is yet to come however as this area is still scattered with scores of teams of archeologists scouring the earth, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack and the next big score.
We started our time in Luxor on the living side, the East bank with the Temple Complex of Karnak.  Covering over 2 square kilometers, this complex was worked on, destroyed, rebuilt and expanded over the course of 1500 years.  During the New Kingdom era (around 1500-1000 B.C.E.) the temple reached its zenith.  The capital was relocated from Memphis (near Modern Cairo) to Thebes and the temple became the most important in all of Egypt.  With Egypt expanding its borders and wealth flowing in, the pharaohs would add more and more to the temple.  Records on the walls indicate that over 81,000 people worked and lived on and for the temple.  Because nearly all the pharaohs would add to the complex, wandering through the temple is like taking a crash course in Egyptian architectural style of the New Kingdom Era.  The deeper you venture, the older the temple gets. 
The "youngest" part of the temple are the row of Sphinxes just outside the main entrance dating to around 500 B.C.E.  At one time, these statues stretched in a row from Karnak all the way to Luxor temple, three kilometers away.  The path was used as part of a ceremony to honor the gods during harvest time.  Today, there are few of these statues left between the two great temples but the governor of Luxor has grandioso plans and is attempting to clean out and restore the path to its original glory. 
IMG_7746 [640x480]
Near the center of the complex stands one of the greatest religious monuments ever constructed - the Great Hypostyle Hall.  Consisting of 134 massive concrete pillars, the hall is large enough to fit the two largest churches in existence today combined.  Each pillar is intricately carved and topped with papyrus shaped caps.  Much like the lotus pedal is to Buddhism, the Egyptians believed that the mound of life sprang from the waters of the Nile surrounded by a swamp of papyrus reeds.  Most of the columns were erected by none other than the great Ramses II, finishing off where his father, Seti I had left off.
IMG_7711 [640x480] IMG_7744 [640x480]
Beyond the Hypostyle Hall lies another highlight of the complex, the Obelisk of Hatshepsut.  In a country with what would seemingly be hundreds of Obelisks, the Obelisk of Hatshepsut is the largest of them all.  Not sure if that includes all of the obelisks that have been hauled off to other countries, but as far as we know, it's the largest in Egypt anyway's.
IMG_7728 [640x480]IMG_7721 [640x480]
  IMG_7727 [640x480]IMG_7739 [640x480]
After careful deliberation, we decided that we would spring for one night show while in Egypt.  All the major temples have some sort of show at night.  When we read in Lonely Planet that the one at Karnak was something akin to a Hollywood spectacle, we could not resist the temptation.  At $20 a pop, the ultra kitsch show lacked in show stopping special effects one would expect.  The hour and a half "show" was more like a narrated walk through the temple at night.  The only saving grace is that you get a chance to see the temple lit up at night giving it an eerie feeling.  Perhaps they can take the extra money and hire Steven Spielberg to spiff it up a bit.  At the very least they could take the money and pay the guards a decent wage so they wouldn't have to resort to asking for "baksheesh."  
IMG_0017 [640x480] IMG_0013 [640x480]
IMG_7802 [640x480] IMG_0018 [640x480]
Back in town and just up the bank from the Nile lies Luxor Temple.  The temple was built as somewhat of a "summer" home for the gods normally residing at Karnak.  During the annual floods, the shrines to the gods would be loaded up on barges and either carried by priests or floated up the Nile to reside here for a couple of weeks.  The temple itself was largely built by Amenhotep III (King Tut's grandpa) and Ramses II (who else).  Over the centuries since its completion, the temple has taken on many forms.  The Romans would turn it into a fort which would also be used as such by the Arabs.  During the 14th century, a mosque was built here and is still in use today.  Not nearly as large or sprawling as it's neighbor to the north, Luxor temple still is an impressive structure, particularly as the sun sets. 
IMG_7758 [640x480] IMG_7754 [640x480]
IMG_7788 [640x480]IMG_7762 [640x480] 
IMG_7781 [640x480]  IMG_7798 [640x480]
As the suns rays brought life to the west side of the Nile, the east side represented the sun setting and snuffing out life.  Temples and monuments to life and religion dominate the east bank.  Tombs, monuments, and shrines to death scatter the barren desert plains of the west bank.  The Valley of the Kings & Queens along with the Valley of the Nobles house hundreds of tombs.  At first glance, there is not much to see.  Standing in the unforgiving heat and staring out into the hills of white sand will give one an understanding as to how so many of these tombs are still left to be uncovered.  It all adds to the mystique and amazement when you first walk down into the tombs.  Covered from top to bottom, brightly painted murals stand much as they did when they were first painted on those walls some 3500 years earlier.  The pigments of color were preserved thanks to no sunlight and outside interference.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside the tombs due to careless flash photography. 
 IMG_0021 [640x480]
Aside from the tombs, there are also several memorial monuments, or individual shrines, dedicated to the most famous of pharaohs.  We visited Deir al-Bahri, or as it is better known as Hatshepsut's (loosely pronounced "Hot Chicken Soup") Temple.  This place is listed as one of the hottest places on earth and visiting here in the middle of August was probably not our smartest move.  Hatshepsut was one of the few female pharaohs and went to great lengths to prove that she was just as great as any male pharaoh.  After seizing the throne from her dead brother/husband (have to keep the blood line going I suppose) she ruled for about 15 years.  During that time she built the afore mentioned Obelisk at Karnak and this magnificent burial shrine.  Built directly into the hillside, the temple has become one of the most iconic images of ancient Egypt.  Built on three levels, the temple has multiple columns and a massive central ramp leading to the top tiers.  On the second level, each pillar is fronted by what appears to be statues of a male pharaoh, but they are none other than Hatshepsut herself.  The Female pharaoh went to great lengths to prove she was just as strong as any man, even wearing the trademark "beard". 
IMG_0024 [640x480] IMG_0032 [640x480]
IMG_0062 [640x480]   IMG_0042 [640x480] IMG_0039 [640x480]
IMG_0044 [640x480] IMG_0048 [640x480]
Our last stop on our tour of the east bank was at the Colossi of Memnon.  Pretty much a quick obligatory stop as you have to pass them to get to virtually anywhere on the east bank, these statues are all that remain of a once great temple.  Proving that building a temple out of mud and sand near a annually flooding river is never a good idea, these twin statues once stood guard for the largest temple ever built in Egypt.  Today they stand guard for a large field and several souvenir stalls. 
IMG_0070 [640x480]
We spent our last day in town strolling along the market, stocking up on enough food to last through our 22 hour bus ride to Dahab & enjoying free Internet & A/C with a view of Luxor temple at the local McDonald's.  McDonald's you say?  Well, sometimes an ice cream cone (with AC) hits the spot!
IMG_0072 [640x480]
To see more photos of Luxor click here!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cruising the Nile! Aswan to Luxor, Egypt


Destination: Nile River - stops in Kom Umbo & Edfu

Number of Days Spent: 3 days, 2 nights

Where we stayed: Oberoi Nephtis - $90 per person including all meals (we booked this cruise the day before it left through a contact our hotel recommend). His name was Waleed Ali - - 002 0102509588. I would definitely recommend Waleed's services to other travelers. He gave us the options that worked with our dates and took us on a tour of the ship. He was very professional during the entire process. Oh and he gave us a great recommendation for a local restaurant in Aswan (see that blog, the restaurant was Maka). Thanks Waleed! The ship itself was good. While it certainly shows some signs of age, it was immaculately clean and well taken care of with a very friendly staff. It also had a pool and its own workout machine...check out the pic!

IMG_7668 [640x480]IMG_7698 [640x480]

Best restaurant: All meals were included. The food was pretty good too, like most cruises we certainly didn't go hungry!

Best of: More outstanding temples, the beautiful contrast of green river banks and dry deserts side by side, realizing that this scene has changed very little for over 4000 years

Worst of: Booking this cruise last minute gave us no opportunity to choose our shipmates which happened to be one large group of French speaking Algerians on what apparently was a honeymoon getaway of some sorts. We felt a bit out of place, but had fun all the same.

Most Memorable: Love it or hate it, the sun is an awesome presence lending a hand in a couple of favorite memories: sipping our beers as we watched it disappear over the horizon and basking in its rays as they illuminated the ancient past.

IMG_7598 [640x480] IMG_7640 [640x480]

Useful Tip: The cabins on the ship come with refrigerators. Bring your own water (and beer) on board to save some serious money. A bottle of water on the ship was 10 EP ($2) which was 4X the asking price in a local stores.

While the Nile stretches for thousands of miles through several countries making it the longest river in the world, this small stretch of a little over 150 miles between Aswan and Luxor receives the lion's share of attention. It is here that the river reaches its widest part, nearly two miles wide and is arguably the most beautiful stretch. The Nile is also thought to be the oldest river in the world and one of only two that flows north (The other being the ironically named New River in North Carolina and Virginia). While the origins of man is a debate for the ages, no one can deny the importance of this river to early civilization. Without its life giving waters, Egypt would not have ever existed and along with it the pyramids, temples and tombs would have never been erected. The world as a whole has changed so much since those monuments were erected and yet little has seemed to change here. Farming is still a major way of life for most of the inhabitants here. Beasts of burden and manual labor still remain the predominant way of cultivating the land. Fish are still caught with hand thrown nets. Children pass the time splashing in the water. Given the limiting options for travel in this area, hopping on some sort of boat is really the only way to see life on the Nile. There are several options in vessels ranging from the feluccas (sans bathrooms, showers, etc.) for about $20-30 per day all the way up to 5-star luxury liners setting you back over $1000 per day. We opted for a middle option since the thought of not having a bathroom for three days combined with the "hidden" charges that a felucca captain entails (not to mention the constant mention of baksheesh) made it worth the few extra bucks.

IMG_7538 [640x480] IMG_7541 [640x480] IMG_7544 [640x480] IMG_7672 [640x480]

Our boat didn't leave until the afternoon, so we had some time in the morning to stock up on a few provisions while docked in Aswan. Feeling in the mood for a couple of beers or wine to celebrate the night, we went in search of the elusive elixir. Alcohol is hard to come by in Muslim countries, but there are a couple of "Egypt Free" Stores that sell a small selection of beverages. You have to have a foreign issued passport and expect variations of Heineken to be just about your only choice as far as beer is concerned. We picked up some Luxor Beer (total crap) and Amstel Light (Heineken brand) and wine, well, better visit another country for that. While they certainly were not the best beers ever, they sure taste good on hot days!

Once all were on board, we set sail for our first stop, Kom Ombo. Resting on the banks of a crook in the river, Kom Ombo is a unique temple in that it was dedicated to two different gods - the crocodile god Sobek and the ever present Falcon god Horus. While the temple was built in the New Kingdom style (from 1550 to 1000 B.C.E. - Ramses II time) it was actually built during the post Alexander Ptolemy times (from 331 till around 50 B.C.E. - just before Cleopatra). Much of Alexander's success in conquering kingdoms was his willingness to not only allow local customs to continue, but to encourage it. Most of the temples that stand today in this area were built during the immediate years after Alexander and dedicated to the Egyptian gods. As a result, he, and the rulers following him were welcomed with very little hostility. The temple contains many inscriptions depicting the crowning of kings by the gods, religious stories of the gods and a few "how too's" on daily rituals.

IMG_7560 [640x480] IMG_7568 [640x480] IMG_7587 [640x480] IMG_7592 [640x480]

After a peaceful night on our boat, we awoke to explore Edfu the following morning. Unlike Kom Ombo, the temple of Horus at Edfu lies right in the heart of the town. The moment you step foot off the boat, the touts come out in full force trying to get you to take a horse and carriage down to the ruins and are quite persistent. While it is a good 30 minute walk from the river, the walk itself can be quite rewarding. While everyone else from our ship visited the temples as part of a tour, we were allowed to do things on our own enabling us to wander the streets just a bit. Buses can't capture the sights and sounds of ordinary people carrying out everyday life. Speak the universal language of money and haggle for a piece of fruit or a fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. Watch the black robed women barter for a couple of tomatoes. Nearly get run over by young teenage boys riding on makeshift carts lead by donkeys. This is real life, the real Egypt.

IMG_7609 [640x480] IMG_7665 [640x480] IMG_7664 [640x480] IMG_7667 [640x480]

The temple of Horus, much like the temple at Kom Ombo, was built during the Ptolemaic (Cleopatra's dad finished it to be exact) times. Dedicated once again to the falcon god Horus, the temple was built on a slight hill away from the Nile river to avoid the yearly floods. As a result, the temple today has withstood the test of time far better than most of it's contemporaries. Once again, the walls are lined with stories of the Gods, mainly centered around Horus and all of his accolades. A couple of complete 2300 year old statues of the falcon god stand impressively as you enter the inner chambers. An oculus giving the sun a chance to illuminate the chambers complete the scene.

IMG_7620 [640x480] IMG_7621 [640x480] IMG_7635 [640x480] IMG_7645 [640x480]

The rest of the time was spent relaxing on the ship. We caught up on some reading, swam in the pool for a bit, and watched the banks of the Nile. The last highlight of the trip was passing through the lock at Esna. Not exactly the Panama Canal, but a lock all the same.

IMG_7687 [640x480] IMG_7691 [640x480]

Having successfully navigated the locks, the ship arrived in Luxor without incident and we were off to explore all that Luxor has to offer!

To see more photos of our Nile cruise click here.