Picked up at 4:40 and driven to the river to board a boat. It was a chilly start, but free tea on the longboat warmed me up. A nice Brazilian couple were on the boat too. You can always tell Brazilians because they invariably wear Brazilian football shirts. A Belgium couple were on board too. They weren’t wearing Belgian football shirts. Lots of boats were here, and we were ferried across the Nile to waiting minivans, which shuttled us to the take-off sites for the hot air balloons.
I’d never ridden in a hot air balloon before, and felt a childish excitement. There were about 10 balloons or more being inflated – spears of flame were shooting through the darkness and one by one the balloons stood up to attention and people climbed in. There were about 18 of us in the balloon, and the huge basket was divided into 6 sections. I was on an outside section with the Brazilian couple. The pilot shot the flame again and again into the balloon, and it felt like someone was holding a bunsen burner to my skin and was almost unbearable. Men with thick moustaches surrounded the basket helping keep it steady. We lifted off slowly, and I panicked a little. Not much to stop you from falling out. We soared all the way up to 3,000 feet, other balloons around us were glowing on and off like lightbulbs, framed by the rising sun. We flew over the West Bank, the Valley of the Queens, the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple, Ramesseum, Medinat Habu – all temples I would later visit. The Nile was on the other side, and fertile land yielding vegetable, fruit and sugarcane.
Later, we floated down to the sugarcane fields and then up again, the captain controlling the elevation but not the direction as such. To plot a potential route, marker balloons are sent up, and captains monitor their direction at different elevations, thereby being able to roughly plot of course. We ended up going for an hour and 40 minutes, much longer than the others, and we floated over villages where we were clearly a novelty and not a daily norm. As we landed, the men of the village worked to steady the basket, and kids ran to the balloon – some had been chasing us for 10 minutes, and arrived panting. They were rough, ill-shod village kids, and some were after thieving, so we were all careful to hang onto our stuff. The captain gave us all certificates highlighting our achievement, and we were put into minivans for the journey back to the West Bank Visitors Centre and ticket office. It had been a remarkable start to the day, and it wasn’t even 8am yet.
Got out at the ticket office place and bought tickets for various tombs and temples, then headed off to the closest, Medinat Habu, Ramses’ III magnificent memorial temple, with the rugged Thebon mountains as a backdrop. Some men in grubby thobes with moustaches were loitering, trying to pick off sleepy tour group members, pointing out photo opportunities, posing for photos etc, beginning their day of nuisance. From here, I walked to the Valley of the Queens, which has about 75 tombs belonging to queens of the 19th and 20th dynasties. It’s tombs had some interesting reliefs, but were generally unimpressive, and the demands for backsheesh tiresome. I then decided on taking an epic walk from here all the way to the Valley of the Kings, a slightly treacherous climb over the rugged mountains and loose scree. I got right to the top to see commanding views of the lunar-like landscape. At some point along the journey I met a team of archeologists documenting various ceramics they’d found that day. A team of Egyptian navvies were busy piling stones in buckets and taking them away while another team sifted through them looking for anything that could be documented. Here were real archeologists in the field. It was all reminiscent of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they re digging for the Ark of the Covenant. I chatted with the team of 3 – a French woman, and a couple of Belgians, 2 of them old and 1 young. The senior one said she’d been coming here every single dig season for 20 years. Archeology wasn’t just her job, it was her passion, but doesn’t pay well, she complained. But, she’d rather be here than at home, she added.
I scrambled down to the Valley of the Kings. The view from above was mightily impressive. I was quite a site to the tour groups, scrambling down dusty, sweaty and tired. I’d arrived in the middle of the area, which contains 63 royal tombs from the New Kingdom period of 1550 – 1069 BC in an isolated valley dominated by the pyramid peak of Al Qum (The Horn), where I’d just come from. I went to the guardhouse, and bought a ticket for Tutankhaman’s tomb for a whopping 100LE, and tried to get past the guard, who told me I needed a general admission ticket too, for 80LE, and that I had to go back to the entrance. I protested, saying I’d just walked from the Valley of the Queens, so he said he could help me by having a word with the guy I’d just bought the ticket from. Fuck. It meant a 10LE backhander, half of which was going to the ticket seller, but they let me in with a ‘special ticket’, which allowed me into 3 tombs. The first I went to was the Tomb of Ramses III, one of the longest tombs at 125m, still beautifully decorated with colourful painted sunken reliefs featuring the traditional ritual texts (Litany of Ra, Book of Gates) and Ramses before the Gods. Ramses isn’t there any more, his sarcophagus is in the Louvre in Paris, it’s lid in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and his mummy in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, showing the importance of these the last of Egypt’s warrior pharoahs, and the lack of respect shown in scattering their bodies and burial paraphernalia around the world.
From here I chose 2 other tombs, neither quite as fascinating as Ramses III, the last particularly woeful and devoid of reliefs, the shaft on the verge of collapse. Despite it being well-lit, I was offered a torch at the entrance which I saw as suspicious, so refused. A guard followed me anyway with a torch, and shone it into the coffin at the bottom, so I felt obliged to give him a pound for his ‘trouble’. Damn! The last tomb I visited was that of Tutankhamun, discovered by Egyptologist Howard Carter who slaved away for 6 seasons (or rather he paid Egyptian workers a slave labour wage to do it for him) and he discovered a priceless cache of treasures in the tomb, most of which is now in the Cairo Museum and Luxor Museum. I wandered down, expecting something amazing….only the mummy of Tutankhamun remains, looking rather forlorn. Surely he should be moved to the Royal Mummies area in the Egyptian Museum to chill with the other Pharaohs? Disappointed, I left and had a coke and a mars bar at the visitor centre. I hadn’t eaten anything since last night, and had only drunk a small bottle of water, in spite of my punishing hike from the Valley of the Queens to the Valley of the Kings. From here, I thought about walking to Devi-al-Bahri and the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, but gave up after 100m and succumbed to Mohammed the taxi driver in his battered excuse for a car. I was glad I did – it would have been a long walk.
Hatshepsut was magnificent. It’s at the foot of dramatic rugged limestone cliffs that rise 300m above the desert plain, the sandstone blending wonderfully in with the cliffs to create a beautiful harmony. Scores of scantily-clad Russians were here already, a harsh contrast to the temple’s grace, as were 3 bus loads of Chinese and Japanese tourists, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the place. The walk up to it was grand enough, and inside, temple ‘guards’ in white and grey thobes were indulging in the wily game of ‘fleece the tourist.’ I managed to get a photo diary of one of them working on a Japanese photographer, pointing at good photo spots, beckoning him successfully over roped areas, and demanding backsheesh. Hilarious. Left and hopped back in my taxi to the Ramesseum temple, built by Ramses II and part of his funerary complex. It’s a bit off the tourist trail, and not visited by big tour groups, but I certainly found it worthwhile, the huge headless statues out in front with the scattered remains of part of the temple and rugged mountainous backdrop providing ample photo opportunities. I got accosted by a troop of schoolchildren on a trip, which was nice. They were curious and friendly, and posed for loads of snaps, and didn’t ask for backsheesh. Refreshing.
Left and went across the road to the impressive Tombs of the Nobles, again a seldom-visited site, not on the tour bus itinerary. I wearily accepted a guide’s offer of taking me to the 7 tombs I had tickets for, as I noticed they were scattered throughout the hills, and there are over 400 of them, and I was knackered and suffering from dehydration and lack of food in an area recorded as one of the hottest on earth. My guide Hassan, in headdress and thobe, walked me to the tombs, the most impressive being the 2nd one, the Tomb of Sennofer, deep underground. The ceiling is covered with clear paintings of grapes and vines, and the surrounding walls and columns depict Sennofer and the different women in his life, including wife and daughter, creating touching scenes of love. In another interesting tomb, the guard ‘working’ there offered to take me deep, deep down a dark chamber, to where animals used to be sacrificed. He opened up a side gate that led down a deep shaft, and we went down together. This was real Indiana Jones stuff, and we eventually got to the bottom. Pitch black. Silence. Eerie. I could only imagine what scenes must have played out so many thousand years ago down in this well-cut, musty chamber. I tried stopping my mind from going to dark places too, lest I get paranoid and freak out, especially as the guard started doing some kind of dance and mimicking killing an animal in the manner of a madman.
We surfaced after a while, and I gave him 7LE, which he pretended wasn’t enough, but I didn’t care and sat down, exhausted. It was 3pm. All I’d had since yesterday was a mars bar and 2 small bottles of water. I sensed sunstroke and dehydration creeping up on me, my dizziness and parched mouth and feeling of weakness taking over my senses. It was time to leave. I got the taxi driver to take me to a restaurant opposite the Medinat Habu temple, the first one I’d been to that day. I could barely eat, I suddenly felt so weak. Not since Halong Bay Vietnam have I felt so bad. I was suffering from mild sunstroke and dehydration. After eating the chicken and rice meal, with bread and hummus, I felt much better, regained my strength, and was ready to go back to the East Bank. First, we stopped at the Colossi of Mermon, 2 faceless statues that rise 18m from the plain, keeping a lonely vigil of the landscape and temples behind. It was a fitting way to end an exhausting day in the West Bank. I’d fitted in a day what most would sensibly only do in 2 days at best. I felt very satisfied with my day’s work as I boarded the public ferry and crossed over to the East Bank 1LE.
The sun was setting, and I found a shady spot on the Corniche to sit and listen to music for a while. I was approached by a shoeshiner, who offered to clean my dusty hiking boots for 2LE. Wearily, I said yes. He seemed nice, friendly and sympathetic, though he had a silent friend keeping watch over everything. As we talked, he brushed and and cleaned both my boots, and used something he called a ‘special polish’ for my type of boot. Bollocks. This, of course, would cost me more, to the tune of 50LE, in fact. I said nothing until he’d finished. “I’m not giving you 50LE” I said, calmly, after making sure I’d got both boots back on my feet. “I’m giving you 2LE, like we agreed on.”
Then came a predictably miserable pack of lies and mind games, and we settled for 15LE, I gave him one 10LE and a 5LE note. Cunningly, he skillfully switched the 10 for another 5 that was up his sleeve with a trickery and cunning only those that have lived in poverty all their lives can do. “You only gave me two 5s” he said, convincingly. I wasn’t as convinced though, and I walked away, telling him he’d lost my respect and that he would never polish my shoes in this town again! I felt slightly cheated, even though 15LE isn’t a lot of money. I walked up and down the promenade, baiting him and his friend, then told myself to stop being an idiot. If I were him, I’d be trying to fleece tourists too. His was a life of hand to mouth, living to work, working to live, no social security for him, no giro to cash in. I walked away and to the Ibertol Hotel, which had a lovely sunset spot around the back, free of hassle. I was able to walk through and take photos for free of course, using my whiteness, as with any place of the like in Asia of Africa, a horrible kind of prejudice against their own kind still existing. Watched a glorious sunset over the Nile-side swimming pool full of privileged fat white tourists splashing about with other privileged whites in a dangerously privileged bubble, then headed away to the hotel. On the way back, I bumped by chance into Omran, the greasy-haired charmer I’d met before, and he again invited me to drink tea with him, and later to go out to some local bars and maybe “to my friend’s house so we can make the sex with Egyptian girls” as he so bluntly put it. Bored and with nothing to do later I accepted (the drinks part anyway), and told him I’d meet him later. I popped to McDonalds as I hankered for a strawberry milkshake. In there, I met Sue and Geoff from the Kings Head. They were supposed to be home now, but terrible weather in England meant Easyjet cancelling flights, and they’d been moved to a new hotel fully paid for until Monday, 3 days from now. Lucky or unlucky for some. I’d have rather been stranded somewhere a little more chilled, but there you go. The Brazilian couple from the balloon ride were here too, heading off to Luxor Temple for a night viewing. Ah…Mcdonalds, the meeting place of all homesick Westerners.
Back at the hotel I collected my laundry, showered, changed, and left my shitty little boxroom as quickly as possible. I went to one of the restaurants close by and ordered a pizza and a couple of Sakaras, then decided to take a chance and call Omran. I’d sussed him out as someone who wouldn’t take me for a ride. I was gonna buy him a few beers and some cigs, for sure, but in return I’d get to go to a ‘real’ Egyptian bar where tourists never go.
He was waiting outside McDonalds, and we headed off to a bar at a dodgy local hotel. Predictably, it was full of men smoking and drinking Stella. 3 waitresses whom Omran deemed as ‘pretty’ but in fact were anything but, served us and did the rounds, flirting with the men whose hard faces melted into boyish grins as soon as the women said anything to them – the rogues! I’m sure I recognised some of the ‘holy men’, guards / guides / scam artists from the temples in here, spending the money they’d successfully pillaged from the stupid tourists. A fat old Western woman was in the corner drinking wine, laughing and joking with 3 enormous Egyptians, clearly loving being the centre of attention, and again I was reminded that there is a God. Good guys go to Heaven, Bad guys to Pattaya or Angeles, Good girls go to heaven, bad girls to Egypt or Sri Lanka.
From this rather disappointing place, we went to another disappointing place of the same ilk. But then, Omran called his ‘friend’ and we secured a home invitation. Quick as a flash, we downed our drinks, and I bought some more from the liquor corner, before we headed off in a taxi. We arrived in a dark street and went upstairs to a spacious apartment, where a couple of blokes and hijab-wearing women were gathered. We sat rather awkwardly and drank our drinks with Omran’s friends, 2 beautiful local girls from his hometown. It was fun, and I relaxed after a while. After a few drinks, Omran and I walked back. Omran was full of booze, and promises to teach me Arabic, a road trip to Hurghada, investment in hotels, he being a ‘rich man’ in Hurghada. I politely went along with all his fantasies, as we headed to the pier, brothers in arms for a moment. I walked him back to the public ferry as he lived in the West Bank, and also because he would be stopped by police if I wasn’t with him – being drunk in the street is taboo here, and a big lump of backsheesh would need to be paid to a policeman to get away with a night in the cell.
I got back to the hotel at 3am. I’d been up 23 hours. What a day.