Egypt - Along the Nile
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
After another hotel breakfast, we packed our bags, checked out and were actually early! The driver showed up at 9am grumbling that we are running late, when actually he was running late. Oh well.
Head off in small 'sedan' with 'air-conditioning' for drive to Luxor. We meet up with the police convoy. Hmmm... wonder why we need to go with police escort.
Start off at 9:15. Things brighten when Louisa determines that it is about a 210km drive. With average speed of 90+km it should take no more than 2.5 hours, not the 4 we were told. Drive about 30 minutes, then reach first police road stop. We sit, and sit. We notice the armed soldiers on the embankments along the road and decide to read the books about Egypt to determine the reason for the high security.
Our research uncovers that we must drive through the Islamic fundamentalist area that has a tendency for violence. The tour book reassures us that tourist attacks, which are to deter tourism which is Egypt's primary industry, are few.
After waiting more than 30 minutes we start off. We repeat the above pattern throughout the journey. The driving style and patterns grab our attention diverting us from the security threat (well, issue). It seems that the drivers in the convoy like to play a game. It is important who can vie to be the first tourist car behind the police escort.
Anything goes. Driving in the lane of oncoming traffic is common. This is either to gain a better view of traffic ahead, or to block the attempted pass of another vehicle. Even the police pickup truck appeared to find the lane of oncoming traffic an appropriate lane. There also appears to be a quite-complicated use of flashers, lights and horns as a language between the drivers. But we could not figure out the pattern.
We arrive at the Hilton Luxor 4.5 hours later. The Intercontinental's box lunch had fed us well, so we put on our bathing suits to lounge by the pool in Luxor. It was quite a lovely spot, overlooking the palm-tree lined Nile. The heat seemed unbearable, so after an hour of lying in the shade we headed indoors for air-conditioning.
Amigo Tours called to confirm their representative would come by the hotel in the morning with all of our vouchers. Good. With everything set, and having relaxed, we headed into downtown Luxor about 5pm. The taxi drivers in Luxor are renowned for their astronomical prices and terrible behavior. Ours would only drive us to 'the best' shop in town (i.e. the one that gives him a kickback). This seemed fine since we wanted a few items. We got quite a good price for the drive, too.
The shop was full of trinkets, carpets and supposed papyrus. We wanted none of these items. After 30 seconds we tried to leave, but the boys and men would only direct us to the inner stairway that leads from lame shop to lame shop. We went through a concealed door to the street with the shopowners yelling at us.
The actual bazaar presented the normal atmosphere filled with souvenirs. We wandered through the streets of The Souk until we found a new straw hat and sarong for Louisa. Both bargaining sessions we felt that we mastered paying less than 50% of the original asking price.
With goods in hand we popped in an internet cafe for an email to the family then had dinner at an Egyptian restaurant in the bazaar. Delicious!
We walked to the front of the Luxor Temple and found it attractively lit up with spotlights. Very beautiful. Tried a few photos, but they were blurry. We have the memories, though. Then we returned to the Hilton for bed.
The Hilton provided a breakfast feast with an omelet and waffle stations. The Amigo Tours rep stopped by the hotel afterwards with our tickets. Another discussion followed about type of payment, amount of payment and services included. After a while on the phone with the General Manager all was straightened out and we head tickets in hand.
During breakfast Louisa noticed two English woman in discussion with frequent looks her/our way. After checking for toilet paper on either one of our feet, she tried to ignore the glances and hushed conversation. While getting a glass of orange juice, one of the British woman approached and asked where she purchased her sarong, as it is 'glorious'. Louisa shared the shop and price, very relieved, and pleased at the confirmation of a good purchase.
The rest of the morning we relaxed by the pool (in the shade) as it was already quite hot. The handy hotel shuttle dropped us at the Abercrombie & Kent boat.
Immediately upon walking onto the boat, we knew that we had stumbled into the good life. The boat exudes poshness. The crew greeted us with cool wet towels and refreshing drinks, practically hated to ask us to fill in a registration form, then escorted us to our cabin, er suite. Somehow we ended up in a posh suite at the front of the boat with a fantastic 120 degree view down the Nile. Oh, yes! Perhaps Amigo Tours is quite worth the Egyptian style haggling!
Before lunch we explored every inch of the ship, during which time we met the captain, and the chef. Lunch was a delicious spread. We were assigned to a table with the only other 'freelance' English speakers on the ship, an English couple Steve and Linda.
The balance of the afternoon, Tom savored the cool, air-conditioned cabin while Louisa bathed (roasted) in the afternoon sun.
The four of us, and our guide Ismael, left for the East Bank sights of Luxor at 4:30. The four of us shared an entire coach ourselves. It seemed rather silly. First we stopped at the Karnak Temple complex.
It is rather extensive and interesting. We were struck with the amount of hieroglyphics. Every surface is covered by them, with glimpses of magnificent colors shining through in protected corners.
A couple of hours later we entered the smaller Luxor Temple. It contains a variety of different styles which make it quite interesting. Not the least being the still-in-use mosque that was built on top of one of the temple's buildings during the 1800's. We happened to be passing through during one of the 5 daily prayer times which added a surreal element to the visit.
During dinner the four of us chatted about Ismael. It turns out none of us enjoyed his style of lecture. We chatted with the boat manager, and were encouraged to give him another go in the morning (seeing as it was too late in the evening for a new guide by dawn).
Tom and I headed into town for a last jaunt. On our way back to the boat we witnesses a rather angry man with a large knife in his clenched fist lunging after another man. A group of men tried to hold the arms of the man with the knife. As we strolled by the grouped seemed to be calming the situation slightly. Quite exciting. We flagged down the next taxi.
On board, Tom quickly went to sleep in consideration of the 5am wake-up call. Louisa was drawn into Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. At 1:00am, Tom forced the light off.
The 5;00am wake-up call arrived like an express train. In a dazed state, we made it through breakfast and onto the bus. The 30 minute bus ride provided a comforting lull. Seeing the Valley of Kings from a distance finally broke the trance.
We were the first, and only, tourists in the Tomb of Ramses VI. Magnificent! The colors and extent of the drawings and hieroglyphics are astounding. Ismael gave a lengthy overview of the various stories and icons along the walls and ceiling. On our way out, a huge tour busload of Spaniards appeared. Glorious first tomb!
We also toured the tomb of Meneptah. It contains a well-preserved sarcophagus as well as wall paintings, especially in the burial chamber.
The third tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. We admired the painted ceiling and huge sarcophagus, but the tomb did not compare to Ramses VI.
We rode the tram back to the parking lot, reminding us of Disney World. Back on the bus, we headed down the valley to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. She was the only female ruler of Egypt, and stylized herself as a man in many ways. The temple was huge and impressive, with quite a bit of restoration work going on. We admired the painted walls, including the ones that introduced green paint for the first time.
On the way out we had a "special treat," a visit to an artisan's tomb. This man was a chief artist in the nearby town set up to build the tombs and temples of the pharoahs. If they were rich and successful enough, as this man was, they could build their own tombs, and paint them on their days off. He is depicted with his wife, but is attributed to have had an affair with Queen Hatshepsut.
We thought we were headed to the Valley of the Queens after that, but instead were taken to town. After a quick stop at a book store full of books about Egypt (in English), a not-so-subtle ploy for us to support Ismael's friend, we drove to the boat. During our visit to the Valley of the Kings, the boat had navigated upstream to the bridge, shortening our journey by a few km.
After lunch we relaxed on the sun deck reading, waving to the Egyptians on the banks, and sprinting to the pool. Steve (Ash) and Linda had secured one of the huge shade umbrellas, which we shared along with lots of laughter.
The late afternoon entertainment was the Esna lock. We stayed on the sun deck for the entire process. The lock opened recently, shortening the journey by a day! It fits 2 of the huge boats and raises them (or lowers them) eight meters. We found it quite interesting.
The sun was fierce, so after the excitement of the lock we adjourned to our cool, air-conditioned cabin. Louisa finished the sequel to Bridget Jones' Diary, laughing until the end. We emerged for tea, but then relaxed again until the cocktail party.
The evening was quite lovely with a cool breeze. The Nile was covered with ripply waves. The boat was docked against the wall in Esna, providing a great view of the small town.
After the nice cocktail reception, we headed into another good dinner. The best feature being the fun conversation with Linda and Ash. We debated a stroll through the town, but changed our minds at the sight of the battlefield of vendors and horse carriages.
Our guide suggested that we visit the temple at Esna early, before breakfast. We strolled through along the street before the shops were open and came upon the temple in complete tranquility. The temple offered more than we expected based on our readings. We spent over an hour learning the stories and the history. Ismael finished the morning tour by leading us through the back streets of the town where we saw how many Egyptians live which was quite sobering.
Back onboard we joined the rest for breakfast then adjourned to the sun deck while the other group went to the temple. It was divine to visit without the crowds, then have the boat to ourselves! We relaxed during the cruise to Edfu.
The boat pulled into Edfu after lunch. Abercrombie had horses and buggies waiting to take us through town to the temple. While it was scorching to walk along the sand to enter the temple, seeing the large, well-preserved temple was impressive. Its walls are covered in hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings. Along with being very complete, the temple has a more complex design which added to the visit. Tom walked down a flight of steps to explore. It was quite dark under the building where the stairs ended, he took a step forward and landed in the Nile! All of us laughed as we learned that is a 'nilometer', how they measure the height of the river, and in the ancient times determined the amount of taxes.
Waiting for their innocent prey as we exited the temple were the viciously aggressive vendors. Unlike other places, these men surrounded the tourists, yelling, and creating mass chaos. Their favorite ploy was to quote a price, lure you away to their shop then change the pounds to English rather than Egyptian (5x).
We shopped for gallabahs for the evening fiesta. While chaotic, we enjoyed the bargaining until the boys started grabbing our arms and reaching for Tom's money. Steve, Linda and Tom each bought a gallabah for 15Epounds each. We escaped in the horse and buggy and retreated into the tranquility of cruising down the Nile.
We dined under motor on the trip to Kom Ombo. Everyone on board participated in the gallabah party. Most, including Louisa, rented outfits from the shop on board. Tom cleverly negotiated a free rental for Louisa in exchange for his hard-to-find large gallabah. We fashioned headdresses out of pillowcases, which worked quite well.
The ship's photographer had each couple pose with the woman worshipping the man, posed as a deity. What a load of laughs!
After dinner, the crew performed Egyptian music. The tone was quite upbeat and fun. Some of the crew demonstrated great rhythm with traditional dances. Then they encouraged audience participation through conga lines and the like.
After awhile we escaped to the sun deck with Linda and Steve to enjoy the nigh cruise. The full moon filled the horizon while stars filled the sky. Suddenly the captain appeared and insisted that we join the party again. He escorted Louisa into the lunge on his arm, which raised a few alarms.
We were brought to the front of the room with the Egyptian couple on board then two of the waiters walked in, each with a heart-shaped honeymoon cake! We posed for a few pictures, then went through a cutting the cake procedure. However, rather than feeding each other, we both ate the cake at the same time - making it appear to be a kiss. How embarrassing!
We slept in this morning, until 7am, then got up for breakfast and a tour of Kom Ombo temple at 8. We walked the short distance past fields of potatoes and corn, sweating even though it was early.
Kom Ombo was much like the previous temples - huge columns with a bit of color still clinging to the capitals, doors and rooms on a giant's scale, and hieroglyphic carvings on every available surface. This is the only known temple dedicated to two gods, Sobek (the crocodile) and Horus the Elder (a falcon). Another special aspect is the association with early medicine, because there are apparently medical instruments depicted on the walls. Our book suggests that these are more likely mummification equipment, but that doesn't make as good a story. Unfortunately, Ismael's explanation of this temple left something to be desired, so we supplemented with a bit of reading from the book.
After an hour or so at the temple, we returned to the boat to continue the cruise. We relaxed and showered in the room, then joined Ash and Linda on the sun deck. Louisa started to develop a bit of heat rash, so she headed in for a nap in the cool, while Tom dived in the pool and enjoyed the warm breezes on top.
Just as we were finishing our buffet lunch, we arrived in Aswan. This city is much more upscale than Luxor, with hotels and shops that don't seem to be falling down as you look at them. We spent a little while working out details with various tour guides (Ash and Linda signed up for Abu Simbel tomorrow, but unfortunately won't be on the same flights as us), and then headed off to see Aswan.
Ismael took us first to the unfinished obelisk, in a quarry of rose granite close to town. The heat was fierce, and even the blowing wind seemed to be searing our skin. Ismael told us it was over 45C, which is about 113F. The obelisk was interesting, because it brought home the engineering challenges that the ancients solved to build these monuments - it is HUGE. It is unfinished because it cracked when they were carving it.
Next we were off to see the Aswan High Dam. To get there, you cross the old dam, which was built at the first cataract by the British at the turn of the century. The new dam was built by the Soviets in the 1960's, and has the gigantic Lake Nasser behind it. It's really not that impressive to look at, and the spillway looks particularly scary - no carved channel here, just sand dunes and buildings that would be washed away.
Next stop was the Philae temple, which was rescued from a nearby island submerged in the lake. Since the temple is on a new island, we had a small boat ferry us across the lake that is between the two dams. It is nearly impossible to tell that Philae has been moved - it looks like it's been there for centuries. Again, this is a temple like all others, with nice rows of columns and big rooms. It is well lit inside, because there is a sound and light show in the evenings (as there seems to be in nearly every temple).
After the ride back across the lake and down into town, we declined an offer to go to a perfume shop and instead went for a felucca ride on the Nile. These wide sailboats are really quite nice as long as you're not packed in like sardines and have plenty of water to drink. We relaxed on the wooden benches and enjoyed the breeze as the captain took us across to Kitchener's Island. This formerly private island is now a botanical garden, and seems to have fallen into some disrepair. We walked around a bit, but the heat was getting to us, so we soon headed back to the felucca. They sailed us down the river to the Nile Adventurer, and after a bit of acrobatic disembarking, we were back in the AC.
We had a bit of afternoon tea and cookies, then retired to the room for much-needed showers.
Refreshed, we donned our 'posh frocks' for the gala dinner. We enjoyed the leisurely pace and final conversation with Steve and Linda. Abercrombie organized evening entertainment of local dancing. Linda and I successfully hid from the belly dancer.
For the second act, a man performed 15 minutes of continuous spins (in the same direction) while changing various items in his hands and his skirts. After fighting dizziness, we rather enjoyed this novel act.
The good-bye with Steve and Linda was filled with laughter, as had our four days together. We look forward to crossing paths again in the future.
Morning came early, with our alarm going off at 5. We quickly dressed and downed the continental breakfast the staff had prepared especially for us. A few minutes later we met Ashref from Amigo Tours, to take us to the airport. Ashref greeted Louisa in Spanish, so of course she replied in the same language, and it was a few minutes before he figured out that we were more comfortable in English. His English was excellent, and although we did not have him as a guide, he seemed quite friendly and knowledgeable, so we would easily recommend him over any of the other Amigo Tours guides we've met.
In the airport he took care of getting us boarding passes, and gave us clear instructions as to what to do in Abu Simbel. We then waited for the short flight, jockeying for position to sit on the left side of the aircraft so as to see the temple as we land.
The jockeying was for naught - the plane was a widebody, and already nearly filled with folks flying from Luxor or Cairo, and all the left side seats were taken. We got an exit row, though, and relaxed for the short flight. Upon arrival, we braved the crazy crowd getting boarding passes for the return, and found one of the free busses to the temple.
We bought our tickets and soon the included English-speaking guide Ehab called for our tour. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He is not allowed to explain in the temples, so he gave us a long spiel outside, then let us go in and explore on our own.
The facade of Abu Simbel is much more amazing than the photos - it is awe-inspiring. Ramses II wanted it to be the first thing that invaders and traders from the south would see as they entered Egypt, to demonstrate what a powerful kingdom they were entering. The inside of the temple is not as impressive as some of the others we saw, particularly those in Luxor.
The smaller temple of Nefertari was also interesting, although we found it funny that Ramses was so vain that 4 of the 6 colossi in front are of him, not her. The inside was nothing special, if you've seen the other temples along the Nile. The only difference about these two temples is that they were originally carved from the rock, instead of built of huge blocks. Also, the scenes painted on the walls are bigger, with one individual image rather than many rows of graphical stories.
Of course, one of the other amazing things about Abu Simbel is how they moved it to escape Lake Nasser after they built the Aswan High Dam. We couldn't see any evidence in the temples of the moving operation, which was pretty impressive. They also moved the face of the mountain, however, and took a bit less care with that - you can see the seams.
After about an hour and a half at Abu Simbel we headed back to the bus for the airport. We had just enough time to explore the temples, but we didn't linger. And it was pretty darn hot when we left - we wouldn't want to be there in the afternoon.
The flight back was uneventful, and we met Ashref at the airport. Since we had paid for transfers, we expected to go into town during our 3 hour layover, but Ashref seemed to think we were just staying in the airport. We twisted his arm a bit, and he took us in to find a restaurant for lunch.
After a bit of looking (it's Friday, the Muslim day of worship), we found a place that was about to close for the noon prayer, but they let us in on the condition that we eat fast. We gobbled down a great lunch of kofta and grilled chicken in 15 minutes, and paid the non-tourist price of about $8 total.
We stopped by an ATM on the way back to the airport, which worked great - the first one we found in Egypt. We then waited for our flight to Cairo.
On arrival in Cairo we waited an eternity in a chaotic mob for our bags to arrive, and then braved the taxi line to get to our hotel. Cairo driving is just as bad as they say - anywhere there's two lanes there's room for at least 3 cars across. And they do seem to honk their horns every few seconds, just to make sure it still works.
We then had to wrangle with the Intercontinental Semiramis to get them to honor our rate. We had made the reservation on the internet, and neglected to print out the confirmation. The manager finally approved the discounted rate, and we went up to our room to relax.
Later, we checked out the many restaurants in the hotel, settling on one called the Birdcage, which served us an excellent meal. Then we headed to bed, quite tired from our early start.
After enjoying the sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental, Gabby met us in the lobby. From the first moment, her warmth and kindness were apparent.
She hurried us to the Egyptian Museum where she was a curator for 10 years while studying for her Ph.D.. She took us through the maze of rooms and relics. We would have been lost without her as the exhibits are hardly labeled. King Tut's exhibit astounded us. The sheer number of items left in his tomb is amazing, let alone that they are intricate and valuable pieces. It is hard to imagine what must have been in the other tombs for pharaohs who had lengthy reigns.
Next Gabby drove us to Memphis, with its few items. Then to Saqqara to see the 15 pyramids there. While not as well known, this stop was interesting. There is a tomb for a high priest with well preserved paintings on the walls. She explained to us all of the stories with lots of humor. We also walked into our first pyramid and were struck with how plain and simple its interior is.
Our drive into and out of Saqqara provided us with a close view of Egyptian life. The dirt roads were lined with men and children walking, usually with either a bundle of goods or with a burro. It was clear that their lives are simple with a focus on sustenance - growing or trading for life's necessities.
While in writing the Egyptian government offers 13 years of compulsory education. In practice, however, attending is not enforced due to the population explosion. Most schools run two half days in attempts to reach more children, but still this does not create enough spaces. Combined with a 'typical' parent mentality that their children are their labor force, many children do not attend school (and the parents believe in large families).
We stopped at a carpet factory. (This seems rather obligatory.) We considered it an educational experience. The proprietor walked us through the factory with children working the looms (only children's hands are small enough). Then he ushered us into the showroom, offered us cold sodas and started bulling out large silk carpets. We lasted for 15 minutes. Surprisingly all of the carpets were easy to resist. And we learned about what we like and do not like in carpet colors, designs and materials. This should prove fruitful later in the year when we go carpet shopping in Nepal!
We arrived at the pyramids. They rise out of the sand on the edge of Cairo. Very odd to have the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid lined with modern buildings. The pyramids were larger than imagined, and in fantastic condition. Gabby was excellent at keeping the camel-ride vendors at bay while we learned about the construction, positioning and decoration of the pyramids.
Tom and I climbed into the pyramid of Menkaure (the grandson). Again, the walls of the steep passageways and rooms are not decorated.
We continued around to the Sphinx and the mortuary temple. While walking through the latter, Tom and I discussed the similarity between the Incan and Egyptian building techniques. We wondered how two civilizations separated by 1000's of miles and years produced amazingly similar buildings.
The three of us shared interesting debates about the origin of the Sphinx. Gabby attributed some of the building techniques to lasers, which is a theory we had not heard or read. But many questions go unanswered with this one. Our guide book offered a controversial theory that the Sphinx is significantly older than current estimates, but Gabby adamantly denied any truth to it. It provided for good discussion.
On the way home we decided to stop at a government papyrus store. Gabby assured us that they only offer real papyrus and good workmanship. We were doubtful, but decided to look. One hour later we left with a 4ft by 2ft papyrus depicting The Judgment, complete with Isis, Hathor and many of the other gods whom we learned about along the Nile. We love it! We laughed that it is the first significant souvenir of the year.
Gabby dropped us at the hotel happy, hot and dusty. We said our good-byes and encouraged her or her daughter to get in touch if they come to the US next year.
In the morning we had requested a room change due to the loud noise created by the service elevator. the man behind the desk said that it would be taken care of when we returned, while in true Semiramis style, nothing had been done and the front desk staff acted as if they could not be bothered. Finally, they arranged for a transfer. We adjourned to our room and devoured the fruit basket. After an hour and two phone calls, the bell boy showed up with the keys.
Finally at 6:30 we took our much wanted showers. Unusual for us, we turned on the TV and became engrossed in the British Open. This lead to watching the Wedding Singer with its excellent sound track. At 10:00 Tom declared starvation and we ordered room service. We continued our movie marathon with Gattica, a mildly interesting sci-fi movie. The movie channel advertised An Officer and a Gentleman, but it did not come on, so we finally turned off the TV and turned in after midnight.
Today we slept in. The hotel found out it was our honeymoon, so they had sent up a fruit plate, which we finished for breakfast. Then we lounged and watched a bit of the Tiger Woods show at the British Open.
We headed out for lunch to McDonald's, because it was close, cheap and fast (which the hotel restaurants are not). We then walked around the city for a while, going nowhere in particular. On our way back we stopped in at an internet cafe, but the power had gone out. We checked out the offerings at the hotel, as well, but they were expensive. In the end, we rented a laptop for an hour to organize pictures, so we would have enough disks for the remainder of the trip.
We started to feel sluggish, so we headed to the hotel's impressive gym for a good workout. Louisa was the only woman in the coed section, which one man did not expect. He came in wearing only a towel. In order to get an accurate reading on the scale he had the attendant hold up his towel and shield his nakedness from Louisa. This definitely raised an eyebrow or two!
We asked the concierge to book a nice dinner for us at Arabesque, but they were closed for renovations, so they suggested Paprika instead. We had a nice walk along the Nile to the restaurant, which was a dumpy, overpriced tourist trap. The food was not bad, but we had a better meal for a third the price in Aswan a few days ago.
We then walked back along the Nile to the internet cafe, which was up and running now. After putting up the journals and reading a few emails, we returned to our hotel and went to bed relatively early, having enjoyed our 9 month anniversary very much.
After a leisurely breakfast of frothy cappuccinos and reading the newspaper, we hopped in a taxi to the Citadel. We entered the walled compound and walked through the streets lined with 4 or 5 meter tall walls. The compound houses many mosques, museums and still-active military offices. The main mosque is that of Mohammed Ali Pasha named for the historical Egyptian leader. The size of the mosque impresses grandeur upon any visitor, along with its vastness and ornateness inside. Out the back is a fantastic view over Cairo showing modern buildings, the even bigger Sultan al-Nasser Mohammed Mosque, and the falling-down apartment buildings that together give the city its character.
Next stop was the Khan al-Khalili market. While not impressed by any of the goods, walking along the narrow street along with hundreds of Egyptians, and sharing the road with cars was an experience.
We hopped in a taxi to return to the hotel only to become caught in terrible traffic. The taxi dropped us at McDonald's for a quick lunch which we took back to the hotel. After showering, we were on our way for a marathon intercontinental day of flying.
The cashier informed us that the hotel's computers were down and we could not check out for '5 minutes.' 10 minutes later the bellhop lectured us that we needed to be on the road or we were going to be late to the airport, but the computers were still down. Finally the manager produced a bill from a stack on the counter (frustrating). The hotel was charging us a higher rate than our reservation. On check-in we had the same problem, but after 20 minutes at that time it was supposedly corrected. This started a long discussion during which the desk manager would disappear into the back to determine if his manger would approve the rate change. We felt as if we were in a car showroom trying to buy a car. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and we are later and later for our flight. Finally we convince the desk manager to allow Louisa to have access to the internet to print out our confirmation while he charges Tom our 'correct rate.' If the print out did not show the lower rate, then the hotel would charge us the difference. Their computers were painfully slow. Tom handed him the printout with the lower rate and he disappeared again to show his manager. Aagh! After 5 minutes and no reappearance we left a card with the desk clerk and got in our cab... almost one hour later.
During this time Louisa filled out a comment card, detailing our frustrations and the poor service we had received. (Nearly a month later we received an email from the general manager - they had refunded he cost of one of our nights, as a compensation. So at least someone there is listening. We did enjoy our stay, and would conditionally recommend it.)
Traffic was terrible, unlike anytime during the weekend. The cabbie did his best and delivered us to the airport where we sprinted up to the Gulf Air desk. They did not blink an eye, and gave us great seats. We had just enough time (and cash) to buy a charm at the airport - cheaper than the market street - and we were off.
Some impressions of Egypt: they seemed to have transferred their ancient ability to fit stones together into a new ability to fit cars onto the road - you can't stick a piece of paper between either of them.
There is such a thing as too much security. Men with machine guns stand on nearly every corner. Most are friendly, or just bored, but the constant presence of armed men is a bit unnerving.
The country is littered with half-built buildings, with apparently nobody working on them. We heard from someone that there was a tax incentive for starting construction, but apparently no incentive for actually finishing.
We read Cairo's English newspaper every day, and it's not exactly unbiased reporting. Peace treaties notwithstanding, the Israelis are still the enemy, as exhibited by many articles blaming them for ills that have befallen Egypt and her neighbors.
How does one travel from a third world country to a communist stronghold? By taking 4 very long plane rides. We win the Gulf Air customers of the day as we traveled from Cairo to Hong Kong via Bahrain and Bangkok. Bahrain was over 90F and at least 85% humidity when we landed in pitch darkness at 7:30pm. We could not imagine what it must be like during the day. No wonder so many Arabs travel to Egypt for the summer!
We chatted with the friendly woman at the tourist desk who gave us some insight into Bahrain. Unfortunately the slick internet cafe was closed for renovations, so we wandered the duty free shops. Tom spied Nutella so we bought ourselves a jar. Yum! Otherwise our 3 hour layover was spent people-watching.
The second leg was absolutely packed, and we had terrible seats. Tom folded neatly into the space provided, but it made the 7 hour flight seem mighty long. We managed to successfully sleep for a good portion of it, though which was our saving grace. We landed in Bangkok and were on the ground for over an hour during our stopover. Three more hours and we arrived in Hong Kong's new airport.
We had less than 45 minutes to explore the airport, which looks very slick, but we did manage to find the fourth Harry Potter book!
The Dragon Air flight was empty, and on a new plane, which quelled Louisa's fears of the safety record of a Chinese airline.
Our guide met us in the Beijing airport and transferred us to the hotel. We showered, had a quick dinner nearby (yes, Chinese food) and headed to bed, quite exhausted.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on