Typed up: on the train from Luxor to Cairo
Posted from: Intr@Net Cyber cafe in Cairo
To get to Luxor we paid for an air conditioned bus which would stop at Kom Ombo and Edfu, through our hotel. Because demand was low we got a taxi to Kom Ombo, which was quite comfortable. We had fun talking to Janet who works for Congress and gave us a bit more insight in how laws are made. After Kom Ombo, though, we were put on a minibus which was definitely not air conditioned. This wasn't a problem because the weather was nice, but it's never fun to pay for something and then not get it. To make matters worse we felt extremely rushed at both sites.
Kom Ombo is home to a very nice temple. The main impression it gives is that it's very big. The columns are huge, and not everything is standing anymore but it must have been big. It's home to many carvings of by now familiar pharaonic themes, but on a scale we haven't seen before. We were only given 30 minutes here, and it was just enough to walk by everything and slow down in a place or two. Not enough.
The next stop was Edfu, home to the best preserved cult temple in Egypt, so says our book. It's even bigger than Kom Ombo, and indeed very well preserved. The roof is still intact in most places, as is lots of the original color. Every surface is covered in hieroglyphics and other art. It really hit me how this building would be impressive if it was built today just the way it looked when it was first erected 2000 years ago. Back then most people wouldn't be allowed to see the interior, but just the courtyard and the massive entrance gate are impressive enough. We got 90 minutes here, which was better but not enough either.
Our first night in Luxor we walked to Karnak to see the sound and light show there. The walk was longer than we'd bargained for, but it was nice to talk to the locals a bit when we asked them for directions. Our path basically followed the avenue of the sphinxes, which used to be a road with sphinxes on either side like we'd plant trees in American cities. Today not all of it remains, but there are enough places where there still are big rows of badly damaged sphinxes. Those aren't fenced off, so we saw kids playing soccer as well as hide and seek among them.
The sound and light show was fun. As people said, it's cheesy and melodramatic but that is what makes it fun. Overall it was quite well done and I learned a few things. Karnak is bigger than either of the temples we'd already seen that day, and it really drove home how much time and effort the ancient Egyptians put into their religion. At one point there were 80,000 people working on building and maintaining the temple complex, at which point there weren't more than several million in the entire country! Imagine putting 80,000 people to work in Los Angeles building the biggest church you've ever seen.
In Luxor we stayed at the Nefertiti hotel which came recommended by guidebooks and parents alike. We really enjoyed staying there. The rooms were clean, and the staff consistently went above and beyond our expectations. I've never seen towels and blankets folded as creatively as there. We also got to know a few of the other guests, notably John and Jean who seem to have lived everywhere and have stories about everything.
On our first full day we joined a group of 7 tourists on a guided tour of the West Bank. We visited the Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's temple, and the Valley of the Kings. Between the two valleys we saw 6 tombs, and in my mind they all run together. The one thing that stands out is how bright and well preserved the colors are. Updating my mental image of the ancient temples with all that color, and I realized they must have stood out all the more. Today we like the monochrome style that the temples have now, but back in the day they were covered in all colors of the rainbow which would have really set them apart from their surroundings.
Hatshepsut's Temple was neat to see, with its modern-looking design, but I'd seen enough temples the day before. Still, with a real guide we could appreciate some of the scenes a bit more. Our guide also did a great job explaining the family history and how Hatshepsut came to power in the first place. After two days of seeing lots of tombs and temples, we were kind of done seeing those sights though.
Lucky for us, we'd booked a balloon ride for the following day. Tourism is down, and we could go on a balloon for less than $60 per person. That seemed to cheap to pass up, so we woke up at 4:30am for a 5am pickup. We were shuttled from a taxi to a boat, where we had tea and waited. Then the boat crossed the river and we got a simple balloon briefing (when the captain says "landing position," crouch down). Another taxi took us to a farm field somewhere where balloons were being inflated. We watched 4 balloons go up before it was our turn, which means I had plenty of opportunity to take pictures of the sunrise and big flames.
Then it was our turn, as we scrambled over the edge of the basket into one of 4 compartments. (There were 3 people in each compartment.) Helpers stood by to lift up anybody who had any problem (not be sexist here, but: women) getting in. Then we had to assume the landing position which meant we couldn't see anything that was going on during takeoff. I felt very little vertical movement, and sooner than I expected the captain told us that we could stand up. By the time I was standing we were already way higher than I thought we would be.
Then we just got to enjoy a smooth and peaceful ride, punctuated by noise and heat to keep the balloon's air temperature up. While it was possible to see some old monuments, they were on the other side of the balloon and far away. Mostly what I got to look at was farmland and villages, and it did give us a great perspective. You could really tell how compressed the villages were, in order to maximize the land available for farming. We also saw what people do on rooftops (dry laundry, store trash), and got a good view of the many irrigation channels that make growing crops possible. I would have enjoyed flying around like this anywhere, though.
All too soon it was time to land. Our captain picked a soccer field (just dirt, no grass), and landed us gently. We just had a few short bounces and dragged a little at the end. Almost as soon as we'd landed village kids showed up. Since there are at least 10 balloon flights every morning they must have seen balloons before, but they seemed very excited to see the balloon and real Americans. More kids came out, and a few adults as well. The brave kids start asking for money and pens. I think they got something on the other side of the balloon, but it cannot have been much.
Then the balloon crew arrived and after they took down the balloon we were finally allowed out. Everybody pretty much made a beeline for the taxis and got in. In the taxi the company had brand new T-shirts waiting for us. The German couple behind us decided to push theirs out the door where kids were still asking for anything their English would allow them to ask for. Immediately a fight broke out for the shirts. I was kind of shocked but the German woman was laughing her head off. The fight didn't last very long as a few adults broke it up, but it really drove home that the true nature of people is not what we like to think it is. A pack of dogs would have acted exactly the same way if a big bone was tossed in their midst. Meanwhile the German lady was commenting to her partner about how the strongest boy ended up with the T shirt. We made it home the same way as we got here (but in reverse), and we headed to the hotel roof to have breakfast and contemplate. The balloon flight was great, but the kid fight is something I will remember for a long time.
The rest of the day we didn't do much, besides a few chores and nap and it was a wonderfully relaxing day. The next day we did about the same thing, except instead of a balloon ride we visited Luxor Temple. We'd woken up early and got in at 6:15am, right at the tail end of the sunrise. For the 90 minutes we were there, we were the only tourists in the complex which was a wonderful experience. This temple is much more damages than some others, but it is still very impressive. To walk through it without crowds of people around was much more exciting because it allowed us to feel a bit like we were discovering things, instead of following the people right in front of us. Also, this is the first monument we've been to while the light wasn't super harsh so I enjoyed taking photos as well.
Later in that day we visited the mosque that is built on top of the temple. It was built when the temple was buried under several meters of dirt, so now it is where the temple's roof used to be. The mosque is currently under construction, but a local man showed us around. The construction hid a lot of its beauty, but we still could see the temple columns (hieroglyphs and all) embedded in the walls of the mosque. There were also some other ancient blocks and a Roman column incorporated into the mosque's design. It was all very unique.
Food in Luxor was for us a mixed experience. The highlight was El Masry restaurant, which is one block south of the Nefertiti Hotel. They only sell shish kebab and kofta but it's the best grilled meat we've had in Egypt. The Nefertiti's own restaurant was quite good as well, and we had several cheap meals at a takeout place not too far away. It's the only place where I've seen different prices written on the Arabic menu (which is on the wall) as there is on the English menu (which is in a binder). Pointing this out to the man got us the locals prices, so we didn't complain. The food at the Lotus restaurant was average, but it made up for it with its huge windows which allowed us to look down into the souk to watch merchants and tourists interact. We also had bad food at bad prices, and good food at bad prices.
On our travel day we were woken up even earlier than we'd wanted to because of the Eid prayer call. I don't know if it is strictly a prayer call, but it went on for almost half an hour instead of just a few minutes. I suppose it is a neat part of local culture, but it sure would be nice if they could wait until a reasonable hour (instead of sunrise) to wake everybody up. Anyway, we had no problems packing up and making it to the train station.