Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The pyramids... and other stuff

Waking up on our first full day in Cairo, we wondered to ourselves: "Hmmm, what shall we do today? I wonder if there are any tourist attractions in Cairo? I'm sure there must be something to do and see!"

Oh yeah, I guess there's the pyramids.

So, we had our hotel hire us a driver for the day. Our plan was to go and see the pyramids, and then have him drop us off in the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum. So, after enjoying the view and breakfast from the top floor of our otherwise un-noteworthy hotel, we were off.

The view from the restaurant of our hotel. The minarets were all fatastically tall and ornate here.

The driver seemed to be a friendly and accommodating fellow. That said, he first had us make a small detour to a papyrus shop. This involved the obligatory complimentary tea while watching a bored young lady explain how papyrus is made. Actually, though, it was interesting enough that we ended up being a small piece.

After that, we headed for the pyramids. We'd first caught a glimpse of them as we headed to the papyrus shop on the distant, dusty horizon. But, now, as we drove close they loomed above us (or, a least they did if you ignored the giant KFC sign blocking the way).

Now, admittedly, doing a camel tour is a bit cheesy and touristy (not to mention expensive), but Sarah and I figured "when else are we going to get to ride camels around the pyramids?" So, that's the route we decided to take, and hired some camels.

First off, in case you don't know, camels are a bit gross. I was riding on the front camel, with Sarah's camel attached to mine, and a guide on horseback leading us. Sarah's camel, who's head was effectively right next to my head, was nothing but burps and gargling bellows. Meanwhile, my camel enjoyed letting out dusty farts every time it sat down for me to dismount.

Sarah's camel, Ali baba, growling and gurgling at me. Really, he was quite a pleasant animal.

Also they aren’t the most graceful animals to ride. And, whenever you get off them, you find yourself walking like an intoxicated cowboy. That said, I mean, we were riding camelsnext to the pyramids!!

Sarah and I, and the young assistant of our guide in front of the pyramids.

Like the Taj, Macchu Picchu and so many other places we’ve been fortunate to visit, the Pyramids are larger than life. They’re the type of place that you’ve seen a million pictures of, but that still steal your words away when you actually see them in life. They’re amazing and beyond my ability to describe without lapsing into poetic silliness.

First our tour took us up to a vantage point where we were able to look across at them, and at Cairo spread out beyond them. Then we made our way down to the largest pyramid, Khufu, which was opened to the public. Unfortunately, we arrived at the pyramid at the same time as three packed tour buses. So, in order to go into the pyramid, we had to stand in line with the sunburnt and sweaty masses, while souvenir hawkers swarmed around us like flies on… well… camels.

Me at the base of the the center pyramid. They really are quite big.

Once we met the entrance to the pyramid, we were greeted by even sweater tourists emerging from a tiny hole, maybe four feet by four feet, and seemingly plunging down into the very heart of the pyramid. Each tourist gasping “ah! Fresh air!” as they emerged. Seeing this, Sarah had second thoughts and decided to wait outside, so I descended into the depths alone.

The tunnel into the pyramid was narrow, and angled down at something like a 30 degree slope. Making my way down, I had to scramble with my knees almost to my ears, with other tourists directly in front and behind me. After about 30 yards, it opened into a slightly larger room where I could almost stand up straight, before turning into a sloping tunnel identical to the first, but leading upward. At the end of this was a short flat hallway that finally opened into the main burial chamber. The burial chamber itself was probably 10 feet wide, and both 30 feet long and tall.

Happy to have my Indiana Jones exploring the pyramid moment, I made my way back to meet Sarah. Sadly, no cameras were allowed inside… so the moment is left to my memory alone.

After the main pyramid, our guide took us to see the Sphinx. Sadly, while we were able to stand on a hillside and see its iconic face, actually getting near it would have involved buying an additional entrance ticket. So, after urging our guide to take us as close as possible, we ended our tour and headed back to meet our driver.

The Sphinx. We didn't get quite as close as we probably would havwe liked. But, it was still amazing.

Our driver then took us to an essence (or perfume) shop where they explained how they were made from lotus flowers, allowed us to sample and smell the various types, and then encouraged us to buy some. We had talked to some other tourists in Capetown who raved about the smell of the various essences, but since we weren’t overly impressed and had already spent our money on papyrus and camels, we enjoyed our complimentary 7-Up and headed back to our cab.

Having completed our pyramid tour, our driver dropped us off at the Museum. It was about 2:45 and the museum seemed to be close, but a friendly man on the street said it would open again at 3, after the “siesta” (as he referred to the call to prayer).

Me outside the Egyptian Museum, cameras weren't allowed inside.

The museum itself proved to be exactly what you’d want an Egyptian Museum to be: clutter room after cluttered room of Egyptian artifacts. Countless rooms filled with poorly labels statues, sarcophagi, stone tablets, papyrus scrolls, jewelry, chariots and random ancient Egyptian debris. Since Europe and other parts of the world have effectively stolen most of really noteworthy pieces, most of what was there was not the famous pieces you’d see in Intro to Art History books. But, what was there, they had in countless numbers. The really crowd pleasers though were pieces from Tutankamen’s tomb: his numerous sarcophagi, jewelry and mask. There was also a room dedicated to mummies, but again they were charging extra, so Sarah and I decided to pass on it… promising that we’d see it at the end of our Egyptian leg if we didn’t spend too much money over the next two weeks.

After that long day, we grabbed some dinner and made our way back to our room where the heat and activity caught up with us and we called it an early night.

This morning, we awoke again with a mission: Get tickets to Aswan. The employees of our hotel said it would be impossible without booking a tour package, but after our experience with the Tour Agency in India we told them we weren’t interested. So, crossing the street, we went to the train station.

The train station seems to be built to prevent you from buying train tickets. Nothing is labeled in English, the crowds don’t seem to know how to stand inline and the employees seem to be constantly arguing amongst themselves - taking breaks only to assure you that all the tickets are sold out… for every train… for the rest of time.

Finally, giving up on our dreams of a romantic train ride to Aswan, we went to the bus station. There, rather amazingly, we were quickly able to buy bus tickets to Aswan. Now admittedly the bus ride is 14 hours long, but hey, we’re head to Aswan!


Funky Finds said...

how awesome!

The General said...

Agreed! Thanks for checking out our blog, Funky.