Destination: Aswan, Egypt
Number of Days Spent: 4
Where we stayed: Hathor Hotel ($16) One of our better value hotels on the trip. A/C, refrigerator, roof top pool (a little dirty but acceptable), and this great view overlooking the Nile. They also organized the trip to Abu Simbel for 80 EP with a stop at Philae, High Dam and unfinished Obelisk on the way back, 70 EP without; it's a shared trip with about half of the other budget hotels sharing one van and good value considering the difficulties of getting to Abu Simbel and lack of cheap accommodation once there.
Best restaurant: El-Tahrer Pizza, right across the street from the train station, had decent pizza and a good value compared to it's competitor across the street - Biti Pizza. For a little more upscale (but still reasonable - this is Egypt after all) one block west and two blocks south on the left side of the street from the train station was an excellent restaurant serving local food (including a truly amazing vegetarian platter). We think it was called Maka but we can't remember for sure.
Best of: The ruins at Abu Simbel in our opinion are the best in Egypt! While in Aswan you simply must take a felucca (small sailboat) at least once on the Nile!
Worst of: The shop keepers in the souq are relentless and rude. One even tried to touch Tracy; his hand was met with my fist - jerk. Even after that he tried to still sell us the shirt as we walked away.
Most Memorable: "Come! I want to make you a good deal on the water!" - uttered by an anxious shopkeeper selling staples. After refuting his offer of 3 EP (55 cents) for a liter of water once and walking away, he came down to 2.5 EP (45 cents) for Dasani Water (name brand). Had we have found the off brand water (Siwa is a common one) the going rate should be 2 EP (35 cents). When in Egypt it pays big time to know how much stuff should cost. If you just hand over the cash you usually get the "local" price.
Useful Tip: There are two different trains that run from Cairo to Aswan via Luxor overnight. The sleeper train will set you back $60 one way, but another car, oftentimes on the same train, offers a seat for around $20. You have to go to the station or pay a little extra to the hotel to get them in advance, but at a third of the price it's not a bad ride and gets you there all the same.
Sitting just north of Lake Nasser (world's largest artificial lake) and the High Dam sits the unassuming town of Aswan population around 1 million. Where Cairo and the cities of the north thump and pound 24/7, Aswan and the south quietly pass the time. Much like the slow and meandering river that is it's life blood, the people of Aswan are a more relaxed bunch as a whole and live a simpler life. Aswan was an important military and trade outpost on ancient Egypt's southern borders and it's quarries of granite were important for monument building. It also makes for an excellent jumping off place for the temples of Philae and Abu Simbel, two important and still to this day impressive feats.
Upon arriving on the overnight train from Cairo around noon, we checked into our hotel and did what most Egyptians do in the afternoons - take it easy. In the summer, with temps reaching close to 50 C (over 120 F), everything slows down to a standstill between 1-5. Shops close, workers take a long siesta and many Muslims head to afternoon prayer. Taking advantage of our hotel's tiny rooftop pool, we cooled off in the afternoon waiting till closer to sunset to find a felucca for a sunset cruise.
"Where to find a felucca captain? Ha, they are like flies - they find you! Just walk across the street." ~ man behind the counter of our hotel when asked where to go to arrange a felucca ride. With hundreds of feluccas and a handful of tourists visiting in the summer months, be prepared to be swarmed by every captain available the moment you set foot on the Corniche. One captain went by Captain Chill and offered us a "Chill" ride...a nice time to relax. After a bit of negotiating, we ended up paying 20 EP (15 EP + 5 EP for baksheesh - total about $3.50) each (there were four of us) for a couple of hours sailing around the tiny islands and rocks dotting the Nile culminating with an excellent sunset view. Aside from the occasional mentions of "baksheesh" (if you go a day in Egypt without hearing it at least once, you must not be in Egypt) and finding out that "chill" means "Want some weed?" it was a relaxing couple of hours out on the water. The sunset views were well worth it.
The next day we were off to see Abu Simbel. There are a couple of ways to get here. One is on an expensive plane. Yet another is to hop on one of the cruise ships that ply the waters of Lake Nasser...also quite expensive. The most interesting and far less expensive way is to take a day tour from Aswan via the Government mandated convoy. When terrorists started targeting tourists in the late 90's and early 00's the government instigated the convoy policy to help protect one of it's most valuable industries (tourism in Egypt accounts for 1/5 of the nation's GDP). Now that the troubles are over (for the most part) they still have this asinine way of handling the issue. Every tour bus, van, taxi & tourist carrying private car meets up at 5am in Aswan. The police part of the convoy consists of a couple of Barney Fife's with pistols (probably one bullet each...they're expensive) in a squad car barreling down the deserted desert highway well beyond reasonable limits. This forces all the drivers into NASCAR mentality. Taxi's overtaking three at a time, tour buses overtaking tour buses...all in an effort to be the first ones in the parking lot. Not sure how this is supposed to keep us all safe and it's a major farce if you ask me but we managed to make it there terrorist and caution flag free.
Once there, you are greeted by a man made hill overlooking Lake Nasser. Abu Simbel was one of several temples that would have been lost to the rising waters of the Lake had it not been for UNESCO. The temple was painstakingly cut into over 2000 pieces each weighing 10-45 tons and moved up and out of harms way over a period of about 4 years. It's only fitting that it took a modern feat to save this ancient one from destruction. After rounding the hill, you are greeted by the iconic statues of Ramses II. Like guardian centurions, this temple was built for a couple of purposes. One was to celebrate the conquests of Ramses II and honor the gods that made all things possible. The other was to serve as a warning to other African tribes that the nation of Egypt was strong and powerful.
Standing alongside the great ruler, almost lost in the scene, are his wife, mother and some of his favorite children, albeit about 1/3 the size of himself.
The inside of the monument continues his ode to himself and his greatness. Ramses II ruled for 67 years making him one of the longest reigning pharaohs. During that time, he oversaw several important building projects. Aside from this temple, he had another one built in his honor in the valley of Kings at Luxor and expanded on Karnak, also at Luxor, the largest temple ever built and arguably the most important temple in Egyptian history (more on that in a couple of postings). On the walls are depictions of some of his battles, the most famous of which is the pharaoh riding a chariot into battle against the Hittites (present day Syria), seemingly single handedly willing his army to victory. In another feat of Egyptian engineering the entire temple was built at just the right angle to where the sun rises and peers into the temple all the way to the inner chamber on the 22nd days of February and October every year.
Nearly overwhelmed by it's famous neighbor, the temple of Hathor sits just opposite Ramses II. Hathor was the goddess of fertility, one of the more important gods in Egypt and was represented mainly as a cow. One interesting note that makes this temple a little different than others is the depiction of the pharaoh and his wife at the same height. Inside are shrines to Hathor along with statues of Ramses and his wife.
Just outside of Aswan between the new and old dams lies the stunningly beautiful Temple of Isis on Philae Island, a temple only befitting of the mother of kings, Isis. In the middle of the Nile, the buildings standing today date starting from the last of the Egyptian kings, 300 B.C.E., all the way up until around 300 C.E. where Isis had become one of the most worshiped gods in all of the Roman empire. After the embrace of Christianity spread, the temple was defaced and transformed to a chapel and then later again defaced by Muslims. With it's importance to society lasting into the common era the remains are well intact. The columns and wall are carved with inscriptions depicting stories of the gods.
The day tour also stops at the Aswan High Dam and the Unfinished Obelisk, both really not worth the price of admission unless you are really into modern dams and rock quarries. Only half the van bothered to see the dam (and only half of this duo for that matter) and the Obelisk will remain a mystery as no one bothered to get out to see that.
Back in town, we organized our boat trip down the Nile which wasn't leaving for a couple of days so we had a little extra time to kill in Aswan.
After an action packed day the prior day, we opted to take it easy and head over to Elephantine Island. The island has a unique blend of past, present and future all packed into an easily walkable space. At one end of the island lies the oldest settlement at Aswan, Abu, which was established for trading ivory and as a fortress protecting the southern border of Egypt. At the far other end of the island lies possibly the future of the island, the Movenpick Hotel and resort. As more tourists find this a pleasant stop and the threat of terrorism becomes more of a distant memory, resorts such as this will sadly begin to outgrow their allotted space. And somewhere in between the two extremes lies a couple of Nubian Villages representing the present. The majority of the inhabitants here live a much simpler life than that of the city proper. Women bake bread and weave mats for pennies a day, children find pleasure from a plastic bag for a toy kite and the men sit around and smoke sheesha in between taking the boat out fishing. On our little trip, we found all the above along with at least two "mayors" attempting to aid us on our journey to his "approved" shop and a couple of "baksheesh" kids. While it's not much, and the proximity to major tourist attractions make it more "Disneyland" Nubian village, it's an interesting enough place to wander around for a couple of hours and it gives a glimpse into the more rural life of Egypt.
Outside of Cairo, Aswan has one of the largest souqs in Egypt. If there ever was a sign that the local economy hangs on every last tourist dollar, euro or pound this place would take top honors. Stretching for over eight city blocks, the souq is filled, and I mean filled with every tourist souvenir imaginable. Anything from African handicrafts to stuffed zebras can be had and bargaining here is an absolute must. With so many shops and so few tourists it's a wonder how this many stores exist. Even if you are not shopping, it's an experience to just walk up and down and hear the often times feeble attempts to get you to turn around and look at their junk. Anything from walking right in front of you to yells of "You are so lucky (to me) my friend! How many camels you want for her (referring to Tracy)?" At times it can be a bit overbearing, but if you take it in stride and just realize they are trying anything they can to make a few bucks it can be fun.
After getting our feel of the markets, we boarded the little cruise ship for a couple of days on the oldest river in the world, the Nile river from Aswan down to Luxor.