30 August 2009

Israeli stamp syndrome

After a really enjoyable month in Egypt we headed overland to our next destination of Aqaba on the Red Sea coast of Jordan. Egypt and Jordan don't actually share any land borders so the trip involves a brief detour through Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

We arrived at Dahab bus station to be greeted by the unusual sight of lots of shiny new buses. It appears that the only reason that they are shiny and new is because they don't actually use them. When our bus turned up it was a right clapped out old knacker. After our last couple of life threatening journeys on the roads of Egypt at least it was a relief that the hour and a half journey to Taba was completed on time, without breakdowns, collisions or excessive speeding. The biggest danger we faced was when we actually got to the border as we needed to avoid getting the dreaded Israeli stamp syndrome.

Due to the ongoing tensions between Israel and the Arabs, having a Israeli stamp in your passport can cause you problems in parts of the Middle East. Proof of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories can result in you being refused entry into a number of Arab countries. Unfortunately Bahrain, where we fly to en-route to Nepal, is one of those countries. In order to avoid the stigma of the Israeli stamp you have to cajole the immigration official to stamp a separate piece of paper rather than your passport. Although this avoids the problem of the stamp it isn't a foolproof method as you still have an exit stamp for Taba in Egypt and and entry stamp for Aqaba in Jordan. This can only mean that you've been to Israel in between. Hopefully the Bahrain immigration officials won't be too thorough!

Our stay in Israel is probably the shortest amount of time we've ever spent in a country. From when we got the entry stamp on our passport (piece of paper) to when we got our exit stamp must have been no longer than 15 minutes. Which is the time it took to drive across the city of Eilat to get to the Jordanian border. Eilat was a slightly strange place, it must be the only town we've ever been to with an international airport that runs down one side of the high street.

We would have loved to have spent a few days in Israel and gone to see some of the biblical sites such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem (even though we're atheists). However, accommodation and transport were just way too expensive so we've had to save those sights for another time.

Once we exited Israel it was then just a short walk over the Israel / Jordan frontier before grabbing a taxi to Aqaba.

28 August 2009

Excellent Egypt

We've really enjoyed our time in Egypt. There's loads to see and do and unlike sub-Saharan Africa it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to do it. The people are really friendly too, a bit too friendly in one instance. Ok so there's a lot of pestering from touts but at least it's all good natured and fairly harmless.

We've liked Egypt so much that we had planned on staying a bit longer. However; we miss-interpreted the visa information and thought that we had up to three months stay when we've only got one. It's a good job that the woman who runs Alaska Camp mentioned it in passing or we would have been in a wee bit of a pickle with the immigration authorities. As well as a hefty fine you also have to get a signed letter of apology from the British embassy!

So instead of staying for a bit longer we have to leave by the end of the month. Next stop Jordan, where things may go a little bit Indiana Jones at Petra . . . I've packed my hat and whip especially!

Mount Sinai and St Katherine's Monastery

The 2285m peak of Mount Sinai is believed to be the mountain top where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. The only commandment that I received was "Thou must be back at the bus for 10am or risk the wrath of the bus driver and a walk back to Dahab!".

Being as it's another one of those "be at the top for sunrise" and that there's no cable car, Liz decided to give it a miss. I was picked up at about 11pm on Wednesday night, joined a bus load of sleep deprived climbers and driven out into the desert for a couple of hours. We started climbing at 2am and managed to bag a place on the summit about 15 minutes before sunrise.

Climbing in the dark is always an unusual experience as you don't actually get to see what you're climbing up or anything of your surroundings until after sunrise, by which point you're usually on your way back down. The views from the top and on the way back down were quite spectacular and well worth the effort of struggling through the darkness on the way up.

The most dangerous aspect of climbing Mount Sinai is avoiding waking into a camel in the dark. The route we took up the mountain is called the camel trial as, for a fee, the local Bedouin offer the lazy and unfit a ride up on their great stinking beasts.

Because it's pitch black you have to really concentrate on where you're putting feet. This means that you're walking with your head bent down looking at the floor. This in turn makes it quite difficult to keep your eyes peeled for any camels that might be lolloping down hill out of the darkness at you. I had a couple of close shaves where I was nearly crushed under a giant camel hoof.

Being as it is an important site for Christians, Jews and Muslims (I was just there for the climb!), the route up and the summit were absolutely packed. The climb up at times resembled a giant conga snaking up the mountainside. I guess that it's far from the serene and spiritual journey that a lot of those who are on religious pilgrimages imagine it to be!

The route down was via a trail known, rather ominously, as the Steps of Repentance. The route consists of 3750 steps that were laid single handedly by a monk as a form of penance.

Being as I was on my own I ended up joining with a couple of other solo climbers from our bus; Bart, a slightly angry man from the Netherlands, and Basmah, an Arabic speaking Canadian living in Jordan.

Basmah had my dream childhood job and is a pilot, unfortunately for her this mean that she had to put up with me wanting to talk about flying and planes most of the way up and down the mountain.

As we were working our way back down the mountain we met a couple of donkeys going in the opposite direction. Basmah asked the old croan who was herding the beasts if she could have a photo taken with her donkeys. When she started to feed the donkeys some left over biscuits that she had she was admonished by the croan. Apparently because the sun had come up and it was ramadan the donkeys should be fasting!

In the bottom of the valley at the end of the trial lies St Katherine's Monastery.

The monastery was founded in 330AD when a chapel was built beside what was thought to be the burning bush. You can't see the actual burning bush (I guess for health and safety seasons). However; they do allow you to see what is described as a "descendant" of the burning bush.

I guess it must be a cutting!

26 August 2009

Diggin' Dahab

Dahab is often billed as the Koh Samui of the Middle East, in reality they're not like each other at all. The only thing that they have in common is that they are on the sea and the sea is full of fish. The same logic would make Blackpool the Koh Samui of England!

It is very nice here though and incredibly laid back, the exact opposite of Sharm el-Sheikh. We've gone from a five star luxury hotel with swimming pools, private beach and big buffet breakfast to a backpacker guesthouse with . . . not much. To be fair Alaska Camp is really nice and probably one of the better backpacker places that we've stayed at since we started this trip. The room is really smart (and clean!) and we're located just off the beachfront right in the middle of the bay. It just felt like a bit of a come down having stepped straight out of the Hilton.

Dahab town has a really nice atmosphere. The whole of the bay front is lined with Bedouin style bars and restaurants. The bay also has a fairly good reef for snorkeling which is right off the end of the beach.

After a couple of days of soaking up the atmosphere in the bay, yesterday we had a day out at a dive site called the Blue Hole.

The Blue Hole is massive corral fringed sinkhole that drops over 100m deep and is Egypt's most famous dive site. It would have been a nice spot if it wasn't for the fact that half of the tourists in Egypt turned up whilst we were there. At one point there must have been about 80 people circling the reef top, splashing, shouting and scaring the fish away. Not the most relaxing snorkeling trip we've ever done.

25 August 2009

Nightmare journey - part 2

On Thursday we had a bit of a nightmare journey that was partly due to us being in a clapped out old car. We discovered today that going in a new car is probably even more dangerous.

This time instead of crawling through the desert and breaking down every five miles, our taxi driver decided to test out the performance of his car and drive at warp factor 10. I don't think the speedo needle went below 120km/h on the entire journey and seemed to spend most of it's time bouncing around 160. It was the last thing we needed after the near head on collision from a couple of days ago.

22 August 2009

Sharm el-Sheikh

We only booked 2 nights in Sharm el-Sheikh, partly because of the cost of staying there, but also because of the unfavourable write-up that it had in the Lonely Planet Egypt book.
Of all the travel guides that are available we think that the Lonely Planet books are by far the best. The're more detailed, have more maps and reviews, and generally tell you most things that you need to know to get from A to B and what there is to see when you get there. We rarely go anywhere without one, we even have the UK one for when we're at home.

Our main criticism of them though is that anything that is geared more to the package tourism end of the market usually gets slagged off, sometimes quite unfairly. There's an occasional whiff of inverted snobbery where if your not sleeping in an isolated mud hut in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity and a five mile hike to the nearest water supply, then you're just a no good for nothing package tourist scum bag who's hell bent on destroying the environment.

Sharm el-Sheikh is most definately and unashamedly a package tour resort that caters mainly for the needs of Western tourists. The Na'ama Bay area where we stayed consists of a 1km wide bay lined with four and five star all inclusive resorts, shops, bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

As a result the Lonely Planet says you should avoid it or risk being turned into a pillar of salt.
At the end of the day it is what it is and even though it's very package tour orientated, we really liked it. And it's a dam sight prettier than the heinous mess that is Hurghada.

Our stay at the Hilton Sharm Dreams Resort was probably the best bargain we've had so far on this trip. Prior to arrival we were a bit suspicious that our £33 per night deal through kayak may have had some sort of sneaky catch involved with it. It wasn't the case and we had a great couple of nights (once we recovered from the nightmare journey to get there). We had a lovely room with the obligatory towel art, huge buffet breakfast, and best of all, use of the private beach at the even more expensive Hilton Fayrouz Village hotel next door.

20 August 2009

Nightmare journey

Today we had tickets to get the ferry from Hurghada to Sharm el- Sheikh. The distance across the Red Sea is about 50 miles and the journey should only take 90 minutes. It ended up taking over 12 hours for us to get there.

Unfortunately the ferry was cancelled due to rough seas and the only other way to get there was by road. There's only one ferry a day and we couldn't wait for tomorrows as we had a made a non-refundable booking for a hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh. There isn't really any budget accommodation in Sharm but we found a great offer on Kayak which got us a room at the five star Hilton Sharm Dreams Resort for £33 a night, which is quite a saving on the standard listed rate of $350!

After an hour long scrum we managed to secure a couple of seats in a Peugeot 504 estate taxi that would take us to Sharm. It was a bit of a squeeze, along with Liz, myself and the driver we also had three other adults, three children and all our luggage.

The journey by road is a little bit further than the 50 or so miles that the boat takes. First you have to drive 395 km North up the gulf coast, cross the canal at Suez, and then drive another 388 km South back in the direction that you've just come but down the opposite shore. We thought that the bus journey to Hurghada on Tuesday was a bit trying but it was a walk in the park compared to this trip. At least the bus had the benefit of air con to keep the 40 degree desert heat at bay. Unfortunately when our taxi was built, which looks like it was some time in the mid 70's, air con wasn't on the options list. Thankfully neither was a stereo, so this time we were spared the sounds of Quran FM.

The car was also lacking in a few other areas too. There were no seat belts, no functioning hand brake, no door handles on the inside (making it quite hard to shut the doors when you got in) and only one window winder which had to be pulled from the door and passed around if anyone wanted to open or close their window!

As we left Hurghada we stopped to fill up with fuel. After we filled up the smell of petrol in the car was quite overpowering but we just put it down to a bit of spillage somewhere.
I was a bit suspicious when after only about an hours driving we stopped again for more fuel. As the attendant was filling up I got out of the car to stretch my legs and discovered the source of the petrol fumes. As quick as the petrol was being pumped into the car it appeared to be drizzling out of a hole in the fuel tank and onto the floor. The driver seemed to have no concern whatsoever that we were heading out into the desert with a ruptured fuel tank. To make matters worse none of the guages in the car worked so not only did we not know how fast we were going but we also didn't know how fast we were depositing our fuel over the desert, and more importantly, how much we had left.

About another hour or so down the road the car started to judder and shake in the same manner in which a car that has run out of petrol does. Thankfully we hadn't run out but just had a blocked fuel filter. After a 10 minute repair we were back on the road again before we ground to a halt another few miles down the road with the same problem. This pattern continued all the way to Suez where we were treated to the luxury of a new fuel filter.

However; we were about 50 km before Suez when we had an altogether different type of incident.

We were making our way around some fairly tight and winding sections of coast road when were were met by a speeding pick-up truck coming in the opposite direction but on our side of the road. He had come around the corner far too fast and was skidding out of control, head on into our car.

Our septugenarian taxi driver furiously pumped the brakes but being as the pads probably hadn't been changed since King Tut was on the throne nothing much happened. It really was one of those moments where everything goes in slow motion. Thankfully at the last second he remembered that there was also a steering wheel and managed to avoid a full head on collision, hitting each other side on instead. Thankfully, God/Allah knows how, no one was hurt and the car was still driveable (or no less driveable than before bearing in mind the punctured petrol tank and blocked fuel filter).

Just to increase the comfort levels for the paying passengers, when we got to Suez as well as picking up a new fuel filter, we also picked up the drivers son. Taking the occupant count to a very cosy ten plus luggage.

Even though the fuel filter had been fixed we still had plenty of stops on the remainder of the journey. In addition to more stops to fill up with petrol we also had to stop twice to refill the radiator and a couple of additional stops for some random under bonnet tinkering. Finally after 10 hours on the road, and with still over 200km to go to Sharm, the car finally gave up and came to a spluttering halt on the side of the road. After more under bonnet tinkering the driver decided that more extensive repairs were needed. With that he flagged down a passing minibus and loaded us onboard to complete our journey.

After leaving our hotel in Hurghada at 8am, we eventually arrived at our hotel in Sharm just before 10pm, thoroughly dehydrated and covered in a nice crust of dust. We certainly had a few odd looks from the receptionists as we checked in, looking somewhat more dishevelled than the average guest at a Hilton hotel.

19 August 2009


After a quite trying seven and a half hour bus journey through the desert we eventually made it to Hurghada on the Red Sea coast. The trip should have only taken five hours so to liven things up a bit we were blasted with what sounded like Quran FM over the tinny distorted bus speakers for most of the journey.

Just so that we could end the day on a high after our never ending bus journey we went out for dinner and had the worst meal that we've had in a long time. Some of the guide books give Egyptian food a bit of a rough time but we really like it. You can get fantastic mezze (the Middle Eastern equivalent of tapas), kofta, kebabs and a dish called fatta, which is rice and bread soaked in a garlicky vinegary sauce (it sounds odd but is incredibly tasty). You have to have a bit of a poke about but there's also some really good restaurants too, Sofra in Luxor being our favorite so far.

The food we had at Agra Restaurant in Hurghada on Tuesday evening was far from good though. It was supposed to be an Indian restaurant but it wasn't like any Indian we've ever had before. Liz's butter chicken was actually a can of chicken soup with extra lumps of chicken thrown in it. My chicken curry was indescribable . . . Gritty is the best that I can come up with.

Hurghada originally became popular as a dive resort but is now more famous for being a package tour destination for holidaying Russians. You're more likely to be approached by an Egyptian speaking Russian than English (or Arabic).

Apart from the food at Agra Restaurant the other shocking thing about Hurghada is how ugly it is. There's a beautiful stretch of turquoise blue sea along the coast but the town is a real eyesore. It's one of those places where you can't tell if they are in the process of knocking the whole place down or building it up! This is the stunning view from our hotel balcony . . .

We were looking at trying to spend a few days here but I think we can hear Sharm el-Sheikh calling us from across the Gulf of Suez.

17 August 2009

Lovin' Luxor

Egypt gets really hot in the summer, the daytime temperature has been in the high 30's to low 40's since we arrived. As a result there are some really good hotel deals at this time of year to try and tempt you into spending time here whilst the pavements are melting. Thanks to a deal that we found on Expedia we managed to bag a room at the 4 star Iberotel Luxor for less than £20 a night including breakfast. The hotel has a great location right on the river front and even has a floating swimming pool on the Nile.

The best thing about the hotel though is the towel art! We've returned to our room to find the towels sculpted into swans, hearts and a towel boat on a towel ocean. We had a bit of a surprise on our last day when we returned from breakfast to find someone in our bed ordering from room service. . .

In total we've had a week in Luxor but could have easily spent much longer here as there is so much to see. The governor of Luxor claims that it's the worlds greatest open air museum although I'm guessing that he's never been to Rome. The ancient sites are pretty spectacular and much older than anything found in the Italian capital. The main part of the town is on the East Bank of the Nile and is famous for Luxor and Karnak Temples, whilst the West bank contains many of the royal tombs and mausoleums of the pharaohs.

Luxor Temple lies smack bang in the middle of town only a few minutes walk from our hotel. Most of the temple was built in the mid 13th to mid 12th century BC during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II. Although the mosque is a relatively new addition from the 14th century AD.

If you've ever been to the Place de la Concorde in Paris then the pink granite obelisk that resides in the middle of the fountain there originally came from here.

There's also an avenue of sphinxes which used to run all the way to the Temples of Karnak 3km away.

The Temples of Karnak is a vast 2 sq km complex, the oldest parts of which date back to around 2000 BC. The complex was added to for the next 1500 years with each of the pharaohs leaving their mark. There are even bits that were constructed by Alexander the Great around 300 BC.

We also returned to Karnak one evening to see the sound and light show. The show itself was a bit noddy but the walk through the illuminated temple was quite stunning.

We also spent two very hot days exploring the sights of the West Bank. There are hundreds of tombs scattered on the West Bank of the Nile but getting to and around them is quite hard work. The sun was so intense out in the desert that we spent most of our time huddled beneath an umbrella scurrrying from one patch of shade to the next. The only way to avoid the heat is to do what the locals do and find a hole in a temple wall to sleep in until dusk.

The first sight that you encounter on the West Bank is the Colossi of Memnon. At 18m tall the colossi are all that remains of what was the largest Egyptian temple ever built. Unfortunately the temple was mostly built of mud and was washed away by the flooding of the Nile.

The two main attractions of the West Bank are the Valley of the Kings and the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut.

The Valley of the Kings is a complex of 63 royal tombs that includes the infamous tomb of Tutankhamun.

We got to see inside the tombs of Horemheb and Ramses I and IX. Apart form the crippling heat and humidity, the most surprising thing is the clarity of the decoration on the walls of the tombs. They're unbelievably clear considering that they are about 3000 years old. You're not allowed to take photos inside but for a little baksheesh the temple guardians will turn a blind eye and allow you to sneak a couple of shots if you turn your flash off. Here's a few pictures from inside the tomb of Horemheb.

The Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahri is partially cut into the base of a 300m high cliff. Despite the fact that it is nearly 3500 years old it looks nearly brand new.
We also got to see a few of the other sights of the West Bank including the Valley of the Queens, Medinat Habu (Temple of Ramses III) and the Ramesseum (the memorial temple of Ramses II)

The most honest shopkeeper in Egypt?

With the plethora of shops selling tourist tat in Luxor it would be quite difficult to make your stall stand out. One bloke tried to differentiate himself from the crowd by being brutally honest about his wares by shouting "Come and see my bloody crap". At least we think he was a shopkeeper and not some random bloke asking for medical advise on a stool sample.

A blog posting for my granddad

12 August 2009

Cruising down the Nile

On Monday we were to join our cruise boat for the trip from Aswan to Luxor. We really didn't know what to expect. We had booked the 2 night 3 day trip through our hotel in Aswan and it had only cost £100 for the 2 of us. We had been shown a brochure of a boat that looked very nice but we weren't convinced that was the kind of boat we might end up on. The lonely Planet has many warnings of backpackers being sold very disappointing cruises by cheap hotels in Aswan. So as we drew up to our boat, the Sentido hotels and resorts M/S El Mahrousa, we were very pleasantly surprised. It was a great boat! Very smart with a bar, restaurant, lounge and really nice top deck with a pool and lots of loungers.

Our cabin was really smart with ac, tv, two cute little port holes and a decent size bathroom. We got three meals a day served buffet style and announced by a man banging a gong! We also got afternoon tea at 4pm. All very pleasant and much better than we had expected.

Our first night's entertainment was a pub quiz. We managed to win which was very exciting and we got the highest score ever on the boat! Unfortunately there was no prize, but the host did say the prize was to buy everybody else in the quiz a drink! The next night's entertainment was an Egyptian band with a belly dancer and a whirling dervish.

The days were great on the boat! My kind of sightseeing, which involved relaxing on the top deck with a cool drink watching the sights of the Nile glide past and having a refreshing dip in the pool when it got too hot.

We stopped on the way at Kom Ombo. This was superb temple right on the Nile which is dedicated to both the crocodile god Sobek and Horus the elder.

Some of the columns still had some colour on them and the temple is 2500 years old!

There was another good temple on the way at Edfu, however we anchored there late at night and the temple was closed and the boat sailed again the following day at 8am meaning that you would have to have got up at 6.30 to see it, so we have that one a miss. We thoroughly enjoyed our Nile cruise. It was a great way to get from Aswan to Luxor.