Jun 022008

The feeling of Luxor was very different from what I’d expected – and very different from Cairo. It’s a small town. And it feels almost half-done – most of the roads are unpaved, most buildings unfinished. People sit lining the streets selling pigeons in wooden cages, cooking round pita on stone plates, sorting trays of vegetables and camel meat with flies buzzing around, children begging for a pound or two, women on bicycles with large trays of bread balanced on their heads, and of course, people gathered around smoking sheesha.

This is the Luxor on the East bank of the Nile. Most of the well-known historic sites and artifacts lie on the West bank. So we hopped on a ferry across the river, rented a pair of bikes, and rode to the Valley of the Kings.

Man, Luxor is just littered with artifacts! Thousand-year-old statues just sitting in gutters next to the road. They’re neck-deep in ruins and relics! Simply amazing.

By far the most impressive to me were two colossus statues, the Colossi of Memnon.

The ride started out very relaxing and pleasant, but by the time we finally got to the valley, we regretted not just taking a cab. I thought for sure one of us would have a heat stroke on the way. We later learned that the average temperature that day was 108, and we hadn’t brought nearly enough water. D’oh.

The Valley of the Kings is a long thin valley with entranceways to several dozen large tombs lining either side. Each tomb is internally decorated with shockingly well-preserved carvings and paintings, mostly hieroglyphic. This is very different from what I’d imagined (a valley filled of ruins), as all the beauty is concealed underground – the valley looks deceptively bland from above.

It would’ve been just mindblowing, if not for the droves and droves of tourists; after entering the first tomb Mike and I started to feel a bit like cattle. It was also weird that an admission ticket for the valley limits you to a maximum of three tombs. Why not just let you enter as many as you have time for? They didn’t even offer tickets for “additional tombs.” Weird.

Well, good thing we were in Egypt – where bribing our way into a fourth tomb was cheap and easy!

Slightly more frustrating was when a guard noticed us taking a photo inside. “You use camera, now must give me baksheesh!” he said – just moments after we’d “tipped” his buddy a little something extra to let us inside. It was a crappy picture anyway, so I just said “Oh, sorry – if you really mind, I’ll just erase the photo I guess.” “No, you use camera! Must give baksheesh or I call police.”

…I’m going to start calling this country “Baksheesh.”

After satisfying ourselves that we’d gotten the gist of the Valley, we hiked out and over the towering cliffs and down to Deir al-Bahri (Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut) on the other side. It was a brief but very cool hike, with a fabulous view of the Nile Valley.

It’s pretty crazy how Egypt is a country with so much barren desert and just a small bit of dense population crammed around this one life-giving river.

We made it down just in the nick of time to get into Al-Bahri before closing, and not wanting to hike back over the mountain to our bikes, hired a motorcycle to drive us back, then hitched a ride to the Nile on a passing pickup.

This driver was refreshingly friendly. One thing I should say about Egyptians is that many of them are very, very kind and hospitable. They smile and chat with you, often making a genuinely effort to help with whatever you need. Mahmoud was literally one of the most considerate hosts I’ve encountered in my life.

Its just unfortunate that so many of the ones who interact with tourists are in the business of lying to cheat you out of your money – it requires you to be suspicious of almost anyone approaching with a smile. Someone sees you photographing a friend and comes up with a smile, offering to shoot you together – a common and very considerate offer I’ve both given and received in many parts of the world. But then he starts demanding money. That’s something I’ve never experienced. Another very common approach is to have someone offer you directions. If you seem hesitant, they’ll say something like “Come my friend, do as you like, but believe me I don’t make no money – just like to help.” Then he leads you to his shop instead of where he claimed. “Please, just come and let me give you my business card – it’s right on the way – I promise that’s all.” You enter briefly so as not to seem rude. Suddenly you’re having products thrust into your face, forcing you to literally place them on the floor if you want to get back to what you were doing. So much for directions.

Later that evening back on the East bank, we dropped in for a light-up at Luxor Temple. So THIS is what the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Vegas was modeled after!

Just spectacular.

Massive stone columns and towering obelisks from thousands of years ago.

Finally, we hurried to the mummification museum just minutes before closing. Damn, what a tiring day.

The next morning we woke up super early to take a convoy an hour and a half into the desert to Dendera, a massive sprawling necropolis. We arrived at the convoy the instant it pulled away. Wouldn’t you know it? The one time on the entire trip that something left spot-on time.

But it turned out okay because instead, we went to Karnak temple just a few minutes’ walk away.

Colossus. And sprawling. And intricately decorated. Karnak actually contains the largest hypostyle hall in the world, once boasting 17 towering obelisks, only 2 of which survive today. They were cut and carved in Aswan over 220km down the Nile. How they managed such a feat 3 millennia ago simply boggles the mind.

Finally, we wrapped up our stay in Luxor with a felluca ride up the river to Banana Island. Good thing we bargained the price from 250 pounds down to 50 – because when we got to banana “island” (not really an island) there was an admission cost that wasn’t mentioned until we got there. And despite his assurances and promises, our host still insisted on a baksheesh after dropping us off.

I really just wish they’d be honest from the start, when you ask how much something will cost. I guess baksheesh is just something utterly separate and distinct from price in Egypt. “Tell me the total, final, complete outlay of cash this will require, including everything.” It still won’t include baksheesh.

Mike and I were starting to feel ready to move on from Egypt.

(Note: This entry was originally posted on Aug 2; I later changed the date to fit the chronology of events.)

  2 Responses to “Valley of Kings, Town of Relics”

  1. after this description, Egypt doesn’t sound too awesome

  2. Well, it really just depends on your tolerance to hassle. Egypt itself is pretty spectacular – it’s just that over time, it did start to wear me down. Sometimes you just want to go out for a bite to eat or have a quick conversation on the phone without someone walking up and interrupting you every 30 seconds 🙂

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