13 – A day at the Museum

11th Dec, 0750hrs, Boomerang Hotel, Luxor
Another backdated entry to 9th Dec: I slept in last, too tired from all the walking. Then woke up, took the metro down to Doqqi, back where the Singapore embassy is. They were quite nice, gave me my two Letters of Introduction. I bet they are thinking why this nutty guy is going to all these places. I eregistered my destinations at the MFA last night (ya finally!) on advice from the guy. No charge for the letters.

Just had to post this, wall cleaners!

I checked out, got some food, then headed for the museum around lunchtime. Since I don’t have access to my room, I planned something less strenous today. That being said, I must have spent like 5 and a half hours at the museum, milling around. Checking out the extensive exhibits. No photography here, so it’s just me taking in the sights. I’m having a bit of monument fatigue now, after the pyramids, museum, Karnak and today (11th) im going to Luxor’s west bank. It’s to much info to read up and I gave up trying to see everything like the first few days (too expensive and after a while i cant tell which monument is which.

the exterior of the museum by night

It was dark when I exited, had a bit of time, took the metro down to Coptic Cairo, but the gateway leading to the main enclosure was closed. Decided to just leave and make my way down to the train station where it is warmer.

The Cairo to Aswan train itself is comfortable, air conditioned. I initially got dumped into 2nd class, no thanks to some “helpful” guy who insisted on directing me there… wrongly. And i even paid him some baksheesh for that. But the locals there were more fun and helpful than the foreigners in 1st class. I stayed for 20 minutes on the airline seat before the correct guy came along to fill up my seat. I made my way down the cabins to the 6 in a room cabins, which were considerably more comfortable and slept.

12 – And finally…the Pyramids

10th Dec, 2030hrs, Boomerang Hotel, Luxor (this entry is backdated)

And finally, on Day 12, I visit the Pyramids of Giza, but first, I’ll talk about more interesting stuff. If there was an award for Cairo’s most prolific walker I would probably win it hands down. Over the past couple days, I have done a prodigous amount of walking. I actually like walking; you see things, you get time to think, and you burn some calories. So let’s see how much I did. Discounting the previous day’s jaunt into Islamic Cairo (3.5km), i did about 4.5km in the morning that day, and another 6km in the evening. In sandals. Yes, i think I’m crazy too.

I started the day making my way down to Ramses train station to book my ticket to Luxor (165 EGP, 1st class). They tell me it’s the same price from Cairo to Luxor as well as Cairo to Aswan. Sounds a bit dubious, and daft, since the distance to Aswan is 3 hours longer than Luxor.

Nile over Zamalek, with the Cairo tower in the background

Next, the order of the day is to go back to the Sudan embassy. Got back my passport, with the Sudan visa  =). Then I thought, hey why not go down to the Eritrea embassy and get their visa now, since I have a couple days in Cairo. So off I went on foot, across Downtown, eastwards, cutting through Zamalek and into Mohindessin districts. Which on this paper doesn’t sound like much, but is actually a heck of a long distance along the busy highway (4.5km). I collected soot and carbon along the way. Spent another half hour wandering around the preported Eritrean embassy, before realizing Lonely Planet marked the wrong location (hooray for cartoony tourist brochure). At the embassy, the staff told me that I need to fill up the application form, include 2 photos, and introduction letter from my embassy and 260 EGP. It will take 2 to 3 days…Two things do not agree with me. One, I didn’t expect an LoI would be needed (no research I did mentioned this) and two, I don’t have 2 to 3 days to wait in Cairo. Thus, the staff told me I should get it in Sudan instead if I am planning to enter Eritrea from Sudan. So that was that. Anyway the info gained would help for anyone interested to apply for the visa in Cairo, I hope.

A little disappointed, I will need to go back to the Singapore embassy in Cairo the next day to get a Letter for Eritrea visa. Later that night, I would email the guys from the embassy and request for both Letters of Introduction into Eritrea and Somaliland, just in case.

Next, determined not to waste the rest of the day (it was around 1pm), I flagged a metered taxi (these are less of a hassle, and there is no chance of me paying prices like 50 EGP for a cab ride back when I was a newbie in Egypt). I didn’t take the buses, or microbuses, cos I just didn’t understand them or the complex hand-signals the locals used to indicate where they want to go. For example, a raised palm rotated “television Kumar’s banana hello” in Alex indicates I want to go to the bus terminal. I’ve also seen “cat tickling” , “3 finger ok” indicating some other place. And the hand signals are not limited to bus hailing either. Asking for the bill is a T shape with a cutting motion. Another one is pursing all your fingers in one hand together and point upwards, reminiscent of the “italian ?caso?”. I have a hunch it means the same thing too. =P.

Pics with me inside, by demand =P

Back to the taxi. A half hour ride from Mohandinsen to the Giza Pyramids is 25.75 EGP. Tipped the driver since he put me right in front of the quieter of the two entrances into the site, away from the touts. Surprisingly not that many tourists as i expected. Maybe because it was late afternoon, or because the place was big enough to accomodate the busloads. I looped around Cheops and Khefu, lingering at the Sphinx. And avoided the constant camel ride men with their “where are you from” and  “you know how much?”. Accosted by camel guy who was probably more alarmed when I gave a distressed look after he attempted to put on his kuffiya on me for a picture.

On the way back, got redirected by the police to the entrance without the public buses. Not sure why, but I ended up walking the whole stretch of Al-Ahram Road (Pyramids Road). That’s about 6km eastwards. I had time, so just walked through the Giza suburbs, checking out the hotels and department stores along the way. Eventually I would reach the Giza metro station. From there, its easy to get back from. Alternatively, instead of walking, the price to take any of the buses on that stretch is 1 EGP, just as for Giza square / metro. I think all the buses go straight till there.

Came back near the hotel. Caught part of Al-Ahly vs Zamalek, the local derby match where all the Cairenes sit and watch (its like Pool vs Everton etc). I washed up; I was covered in sand and soot.

11 – Navigating Cairo

9th Dec, 0040hrs, New Palace Hotel, Cairo
The problem with this hotel room is that it is a bit cold since the underside of the two doorways that lead out to the balcony are not sealed. This also means that mosquitoes are attracted to the warmer room and somehow find their way in. Add to that the fact that it will be way too cold if I do switch on the fan, the end result is that I am mosquito food tonight.

I’ve taken to all sorts of ways to carry my maps around to help me navigate the streets of Cairo. I have a tourist map in my pouch, cartoonish but all the street names are there. I don’t want to lug my thick LP around, so i’m taking pics of the maps i need with my digicam. I also occasionally bring my netbook. I’ve gotten access to a softcopy Egypt guide thanks to a traveller i met and i refer to it on my netbook.

The first order of the day would be to visit the Sudanese embassy. With my Letter of Introduction tightly grasped in my hand, I headed down Midan Tahrir. This was the first time I was in Downtown proper, all the while I have been at the northern end around Midan Arabi where this hotel is. Needless to say I got lost, which would be a common occurence over the next couple of days. The Sudanese embassy is a nondescript office. I got in queue, filled up my app with 2 photos, 2 copies of passport, 2 copies of app form, 1 Letter of Introduction and 100 USD. “Come back next day at 10am”. Phew, relief as I’ll get the visa within 24 hours. I’ve heard other nationalities wait really long for theirs. Went back to hotel via the Metro (Sadat to Attaba). The good thing about the metro is that it is clear and non-confusing and only 1 EGP any distance. Much less stressful than riding on the Cairo roads in my opinion.

Cairo roads: I’m going to digress a little and talk about the roads. There are always traffic jams. I have taken photos where cars are locked bumper to bumper and everyone is just honking away. The other thing is that no one really follows traffic lights. Cars criss cross junctions and turn into side lanes. Once in a while you have a policeman trying to control traffic at a 4-way junction. Trying to cross the road is like playing frogger. Whenever there is an opening, jump through. The cars (most of them) slow down for you. What i do is not hesitate and just go, sticking down my palm like a primary school kid crossing the road. After a while, it comes naturally.

Around 1pm, off I go again, this time to Islamic Cairo. It is around a 2.5km walk down from Attaba Metro exit where 26th of July ends and Al Azhar road begins. The crowd changes as I walked from Downtown area to Islamic Cairo. Roads get more haphazard. New smells greet me, and the downtown buildings give way to minarets and arches. Found the famed Al-Azhar university and mosque. It’s the second oldest continuously running uni in the world. Wandered into the university and even into the buildings. It feels very much like any other uni out there. There’s a lot of foreign students too, judging by the number of non-Egyptian faces. Went into the mosque, did my Asar there, and just sat around for a bit admiring the architecture.

After that, crossed the road to check out Khan Al-Khalili. It was all tourists being badgered by vendors. So after a half dozen “laa’ shukran”s, i changed direction and headed south instead. I’ve decided the best way is to do a no thank you and smile. Or if it’s an obvious overpriced knick knack i dont need, just add a wink and walk off. Found myself on the road leading to the twin minareted Bab Zuwayla gate. The whole stretch was filled with locals shopping and buying stuff. After which, realised it was already dark, and despite there being a ton more things to see here, I decided to call it a day and head back.

Tomorrow’s (8th Dec) agenda would be getting my train tix, going back to the Sudan embassy, and the pyramids. Signing off: Red (aka mosquito food)

ps. if you are reading this from facebook. Do take a look at the actual blog at http://furiouspanda.blogspot.com as well. The header pic is lovely, and the videos actually work over there.

Interlude: Food in Cairo

After more than a week in Egypt, I am finding my way around with the Egyptian street food. Here is a sampling.

Kushairi –  Like i mentioned, i cannot really take too much of this tomato paste, rice, spaghetti, macaroni, lentil combo. Tried it twice (the second time with non-existent minced meat in Dahab for additional 4 EGP!). But it is cheap and filling 3 EGP upwards for small to bigger sized cups.

kushairi – looks like leftover food, but surprisingly filling 

Ta’miyya – This is the Egyptian term for falafel, which is fried chickpeas and fava beans. It tastes great, is filling and cheap. One falafel in a pita is around 1 EGP, add in 0.5 pounds with an egg. I can eat these all day and be happy. Except this one time I was eating one while surfing and the Internet got cut off. Page not found. There I was stumped, with bits of falafel on my shirt. I call it a “Felafel 404” situation.

Shawarma sandwiches – These are a bit like your Subway sandwiches. Meat slices spiced perfectly and stuffed into the french loaf. It’s a miracle i have not succumbed to the runs, I had so much of roadside 2 EGP (one in Alex bus station came with great spicy pickle combo) over the first few days when it was all i knew how to order. These days I’m a pro =) Depending on how big your sandwich is, it ranges from 2 to maybe 7 EGP, i think. I’ve seen shops selling at 20 EGP too.

street shawarma, with torshi

Kofta sandwich – This is similar to the previous, except the kofta is a minced meat spiced and clumped up into sausage shapes. Same price too, and really tasty. Just pop into the shop selling, order yours, pay, get the receipt, and go to the serving counter to exchange for your sandwich.

Hummus – These dips are lovely. Whether with tahina, olive, chick peas, or other dips which are equally tasty though i have no idea what they are. Taken with flatbread.

Bread with cheese – It is just frenchloaf, with dollops of cheese and sugary liquid (jam?) inside. Yummy breakfast at 1 EGP or less.

Rice with milk – This is dessert. Mine was 1.25 from a shop in the wall. Served cold, it is VERY sweet but very satisfying.

Fresh fruit juice – Everywhere juice sellers will serve fresh fruit juice. I’ve had sugar cane at 1 EGP and orange juice at 3 EGP (tourist trap zone at Islamic Cairo!) They can mix up and there’s a special mix of fruits too.

Halawa Bars – This is technically not street food, but it deserves a mention. I am a halawa junkie now. These cost 0.5 EGP and are bought off the grocery marts. After I finished my muesli bars from home, these halawa bars take their place. I have lots in my pack now as emergency food. True, they are meant to be eaten with bread, but packed in these bars, they are so convenient. And fattening (100g contains 469 calories, 183 of those from Fat)

Halawa bars and tahina dip
Bakeries – I ‘ve yet to try them but there are bakeries serving various types of bread all around.

Roasted chicken – I’ve wanted to try these since Dahab, but never got around to having them. Those in Dahab were apparently overpriced and for the one i wanted to try yesterday in Islamic Cairo, the fella was bugging me with his “5 pounds for a photo” routine…Maybe I’ll have pigeon too.

Of course, there’s other stuff like shish kebabs, shish tawooks but those everyone knows =)

Here’s a good post with pics of some of the above. I never got round to photographing most of the food.

There you have it, a selection of street food i have been gorging myself upon. I daresay i am gaining weight here!

7 – Cairo orientation 101

3rd Dec, 2000hrs, New Palace Hotel, Downtown Cairo
I haven’t gotten out of bed all evening, having free wifi in your hotel is bad. It is keeping me from exploring Cairo. Started the day in the overnight bus from Siwa to Cairo. There was a draft under the bus and everyone was cold. During a rest stop, I geared up in my balaclava, thick industrial gloves and hid inside my sleeping bag. Slept like a log after.

Reached Cairo early morning 8am, got a place recommended by Eba, the New Palace Hotel. Free  wifi was the clincher. Unloaded and off I went to try the Cairo metro to Doqqi district (1 EGP). The Singapore embassy there is where I will request for the Letter of Introduction that’s needed to apply for a Sudanese visa. After several rounds of wandering the area (omar adnan sadiqi street, perpendicular to Babel Street), and finding the Chad and Mozambique embassies along the way, ia finally found Singapore. It was a simple affair, give your passport over and voila, in 10 minutes. No fees either. And to answer the question “Why not get the LoI in Singapore before you leave?” the answer is clear: The whole thing was in arabic. =)

the efficient metro system

More or less, got my orientation in Cairo downtown. Tried taking the metro, found the bus terminal. All needed when i’m back here next week with limited time. On the way back, had my first taste of kushairi, a mish mash of rice, spaghetti and macaroni soaked in tomato based sauce, shallots and beans (large 3 EGP). I don’t think my stomache agrees with the mix. But it is cheap and filling. Came back into the hotel, got connected enough to even watch last week’s episode of Survivor.

After speaking to the hostel guys, I decided to make a move to Dahab tonight. Yes i know it’s crazy, another consecutive night of overland bus travel. I tell myself I’ll slow things down and just settle in Dahab for a couple of days. Leaving on the 0030hrs train later.