Race or relaxation?

“Blah blablah blablablah?”
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Mmmh…  Go? Where?”
“Abydos, please?”
“Aha! Yes, you follow me!” (Big smile)

Wide-eyed with surprise and slightly in awe of these two crazy tourists in their even crazier car, the police officer on his motorbike decided to take his self-appointed escort duty very serious. Driving ahead, he stopped traffic for us at busy intersections, occasionally turned on his siren and strobe lights, and waved us through many police checkpoints. We made good time on our way to Abydos. Surrounded by horse-drawn carts and pickup trucks carrying people, camels and agricultural products, we felt like VIP’s. Or did we not take this police escort serious enough?

Northern Upper Egypt (roughly between Cairo and Luxor) saw an Islamist uprising during the 1990’s, which most people will remember by the attacks on tourists at some of the spectacular sights found in this area. As a result, individual travel is impossible here, instead requiring tourists to hurtle through this beautiful area in their air-conditioned coaches and private taxis as part of armed convoys. We had entirely forgotten about this of course… later research indicated to us that the state of affairs in this area is complete confusion. Even the police are unsure of the rules now, whether we were allowed to do what we did or not.

Did we take an unnecessary risk? We believe not, in hindsight. Some people think travelling in a convoy makes you safer, and others believe it makes you more of a target. The nature of traveling at break-neck speeds, trapped between coaches and decrepit taxis, with the surrounding police cars behaving like they are part of the Paris-Dakar rally, poses risks too. Our advice is to travel by yourself, and get good information from local sources while doing it. Pack a good load of patience and humor though!

Abydos was the main centre of the cult of Osiris, god of the dead. The Great Temple of Seti I is the main structure to be found here, and the most impressive. Its air of mystery can be attributed to its completeness, as only a small amount of restoration was required to make it one of the most complete temples of Egypt. This stunning piece of history, which includes the only ‘kings list’ in its original location, was the cultural highlight of our visit to Egypt.

Following the Nile, we eventually reached Cairo late at night. Tumultuous traffic, incomprehensible road-signs and undecipherable maps in the Lonely Planet did not make it easy, but thanks to Melody and our trusted GPS we finally arrived at Selma’s Campsite. Dog-tired we set up our roof-tent and discussed our travel pace. It was now February 24, and we were already halfway through Egypt, having seen Tunisia and Libya on the way. Two months for two-and-a-half countries! Too fast…

Stormy weather
Cairo hit us like a thunderstorm… literally. Our first day we spend shopping for groceries and spares for Fiona. We were amazed at how a Carrefour supermarket lifts your spirits after two months searching for fresh meats and vegetables in open-air markets. The Toyota dealer also provided a new timing-belt, and traffic on the ring road was chaotic, but not more than expected. Arriving back at the campsite, with dark clouds gathering in the distance, we decided to put out the awning just in case a spot of rain might hit us. Not a moment to soon… within minutes the ground was white, covered in hailstones the size of golf balls! Hanging on to the lines of the awning, we could only just prevent it from taking off. After this freak storm abated, we saw and heard the extent of the damage. Not only had one of the brick walls surrounding the campsite been blown over, Selma told us this was the first time ever she had seen ice raining from the sky. She had lived here more than 30 years! The local news that night showed chaos, roads blocked and tunnels filled with abandoned cars… we went to sleep hoping there would still be an Old City to visit the next day…

A clear, smog-free sky welcomed us to the heart of the city, and the next World Heritage Site on our list: Historic Cairo. Glad to have taken a taxi into the centre (the traffic inside the Cairene ring road stunned us into silence) we quickly found the trick to having an enjoyable stay in this crazy city. Just go to a major tourist attraction, quickly take a few left and right turns, and lose yourself in what you find: the true face of Cairo. Narrow alleys, street vendors genuinely surprised to see a tourist and the hubbub of people going about their daily business. A few hours walking around can see you span millennia, from the mosques of the height of the Islamic Empire to the glittering shopping malls of today. But to get to the most famous of constructs, there is no other option but joining the tourist track.

Memphis and it’s Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Gizah to Dahshur
The pyramids, what can we say. They are big, that is about the gist of them. Ok, ok, they are very big and impressive in the sense that someone actually took the effort to build them… but to say they were mind-blowing would be a serious overstatement, in our humble opinion. We found the pyramids to be un-inspiring, un-photogenic, expensive to visit, dirty, crowded and generally a disappointment after the beautiful temples and tombs in the South. I guess you have to see them once in your life though… so we did.

More goodbyes
As before, travelling on a timetable, we had to leave too soon. Again, we left behind friends, this time Tom and Jemma, Klaas and Willi, and several other Overlanders heading south towards the Sudan, while we headed east towards Asia. More and more we realized we would really be on our own soon. Nobody seemed to take our route, heading east across Jordan and Saudi towards the Emirates, Oman, Iran, and further and further… to start with the crossing of the Suez Canal, crossing from the African continent into Asia Minor.

There we were, expecting a sunset ferry ride for this historic crossing from continent to continent, only to find it is just a three-minute ride through a tunnel. How un-romantic. The scenery made up for it though, as Eastern Egypt and the Sinai desert soon proved. A mountainous desert wasteland, hauntingly beautiful, rough, rugged and inhospitable awaited us. Dotted with oasis’ of quiet life, we realized how much we had missed the outdoors, and happily explored the region around the next World Heritage Site on our list: Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The St. Catherine Protectorate, created to preserve the area around the Monastery and fabled Mt. Sinai, hosts a wealth of historical sites to the world’s three main monotheistic religions. Stepping through the Monastery’s main entrance is like stepping back in time… to see one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel, one of the only surviving churches of early Christianity, is awe-inspiring. Do not forget to have a look at the ‘descendant’ of the original Burning Bush.

Having traversed the Sinai, we briefly rested in Dahab. This backpacker favorite, with its laid-back atmosphere and crystal clear waters, is a tranquil refuge from the desert heat and the package-deal tourist groups. It did not provide us with the rest and relaxation we had so much looked forward to. Something bugged us, made us move forward again. The next day in Nuweiba, from where a ferry would take us across the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan, we finally found out what was wrong: we were going too fast. At this travel pace we would be too exhausted to actually enjoy what we had set out to do: be free.

Our planned route to Asia would take us from Iran through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into China. If we felt exhausted already, how were we ever going to cross the four countries between Iran and China in the planned six weeks? So we decided to change our plans, give ourselves more time in Oman and Iran, and reach India by crossing Pakistan. This would give us time to relax, enjoy our freedom, and actually stop occasionally to let our experiences settle in our heads.

Refreshed, relaxed and at ease we departed Egypt, richer in experiences and eager to try a different way of travelling.

Exit Egypt – Welcome to Jordan
Just to reassure anyone interested in Egyptian bureaucracy, leaving by international ferry is not easier than entering Egypt by land border, and is certainly no less chaotic… it took about seven hours to get on board the ferry and depart. In comparison: the visas, customs clearances, insurance etc. in Jordan took exactly 30 minutes…