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Egypt - Sharm el Shaken · 2 February 06

Continuing the story…

The next day the cruise ship travelled up the Nile and stopped at Kom Ombo. We got off of the ship and went to visit another magnificent temple with amazing artwork and hieroglyphs. After visiting Kom Ombo for several hours, we went back to the ship and had lunch while the ship moved further up the Nile to Edfu. In Edfu we got off of the boat and split the entire group up into sets of four people to ride horse-and-buggies to the temple at Edfu. This was a pretty harrowing ride through the streets of Edfu that ended in yet another large, ancient temple to be explored (I am starting to actually get bored of ancient Egyptian temples at this point). Dinner was back on the boat. That evening, Bob Brier told us some stories about ancient Egypt (mostly focusing on Tut Ankh Amon) and we took quite a few pictures of the sunset on the Nile from the deck.

The next morning, we arrived in the city of Luxor. Looking out of the window of my cabin, I could see hot air balloons floating above the area on the west bank of the Nile at sunrise. We boarded smaller boats to cross the Nile to the west bank and explored yet another Egyptian temple (the Ramesseum) before going further and visiting the Valley of the Kings (where, presumably, no photography is allowed, but we ran across other tour groups with cameras). We spent a few hours wandering through the valley and going inside several of the underground tombs. Some of them were absolutely amazing with incredible artwork from the Old Kingdom period. I wish that I could have taken pictures. After leaving the Valley of Kings, we drove the buses to an alabaster factory in a small, decrepit-looking village. Many of us took a lot of pictures of the village (and the people) while others did some shopping for stoneware. The level of poverty that many of the Egyptians live in is amazing, but according to Bob, this is actually a rather well-off town. Apparently, they keep living in squalor because 1) they always have, and 2) it is easier to get money from tourists that way. Some of the members of our group were “attacked” by large groups of kids that went nuts at the sight of pens, stickers, balloons, and “bakh shish” (tips… money!). It was quite an experience. After leaving the town, we returned to the boat and were free for the rest of the day.

That evening, a smaller group of us decided to go out into the city of Luxor and visit the marketplace. We walked for a while to find the market (and were clearly following people that did not know where we were going). We ended up wandering through an area of the market that sold vegetables and meats (with vendors trying to get us to buy goat heads and things of that nature). At the end of an hour-long trek through the winding maze of the market, Josh looked at his GPS that he had been carrying with him and pointed out that we had made a complete circle. After some more arguing, the women that we were following became convinced that they finally knew where to go, so we continued following and in about half an hour we were there. “There” turned out to be a cluster of shops much like just about every other that we had seen around the market, but I guess that some of the members of our group knew the owner from previous visits. After hanging out around the shops for about an hour, a few of us started heading back to the ship, following a different (but more obvious) path. The path that we followed took us by the Temple of Luxor. Now that is was well after dark, the entire temple was lit up and we used this opportunity to take a ton of pictures, a few of which might even turn out.

The next morning, those who were interested had an opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride (the same balloons that I had seen the previous morning). About 20 of us took a smaller boat across the Nile again and then took a small bus to a field where the balloon was waiting for us. We somehow crammed all of us (along with the pilot) onto the balloon (the basket of the balloon was separated into five sections) and after a bit of heat that felt like it was singing the top of my head we were up in the sky. This is the first time that I had been in a hot air balloon and the experience was pretty incredible. We floated over the Colossi and saw the temple of Ramesseum from a very different vantage point. Most of the land that we floated over was farmland (lots of sugarcane), but we also floated over small dirty clusters of buildings with kids waving up at us (the only time that the kids were not asking for bakh shish!) and small clusters of farm animals. The ride eventually ended in a muddy sugarcane field that had been recently burned (their form of crop rotation). We had to wait in the balloon for a while while the “ground crew” caught up with us and pulled the balloon to a drier area of the field so that we could get out without walking through shin-deep mud. It was quite an experience.

With a handful of additional bus and boat rides, we finally caught up with the main group as they were exploring the Temple of Karnak. Big temple. Cool obelisks. Lots of more stone and hieroglyphs. Hmmm… After a couple of hours we left and rode the buses to the Temple of Luxor (the same one that Chris, Josh, and I had photographed with all of the lights the night before). By now I was getting very tired of taking pictures of columns, statues, stone, and hieroglyphs so I didn’t take that many pictures (although there was one chamber with light coming through the ceiling that might produce some good shots). After this temple (the last one… yeah!), we ate lunch at a hotel in Luxor and were then supposed to go into the market (yes, the same one that we had visited the evening before) to take more pictures. At this point, I was tired of taking pictures and about a third of the group ended up hanging out in a cafe and relaxing until it was time to leave.

Leaving involved a long trek of getting back on the buses, driving to the airport, getting on a plane to Sharm el Sheikh (on the Sinai peninsula), getting on more buses, and driving for three hours to a small village near St. Catherine’s monastery. It was cold. Very cold. Below freezing cold. We were staying in this village at a hotel that reminded me more of summer camp (lots of small, mostly-disconnected buildings with a big central eating place looking over the whole place). The rooms had heaters, but they were largely ineffective. The rooms were about 60 degrees and the beds were extremely uncomfortable. After the previous day’s escapades (it was now about one o’clock in the morning) I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in spite of the discomfort of the room. A small set of people (maybe about a third of the total group) got up by 3:30am (just a couple of hours of sleep) to climb over 3,500 steps to reach the top of Mt. Sinai by dawn. I believe that they all made it (surprisingly), but many of them rode camels back down (and regretted that, too). That side-trek seemed a bit insane to me – I wasn’t that interested in climbing about thirty stories of stairs in below-freezing temperatures and the dark just to say that I had reached the top.

In the morning (or rather, later that morning) the rest of the group boarded a bus to visit the monastery. St. Catherine’s is a pretty interesting place to visit. It has the most valuable collection of old books and manuscripts outside of the Vatican. There is a museum that displays many icons and artifacts that have been gathered here, but no photography is allowed in the most interesting parts of the monastery. The group members that had climbed Mt. Sinai in the morning only arrived at the monastery just as we were departing, so they didn’t get a chance to take photos there. When we left, we were treated to another three-hour return bus ride to Sharm el Sheikh to stay there overnight.

We stayed at a Marriot on the beach in Sharm el Sheikh. This was the nicest of all of the places that we stayed on this trip. The rooms were clean and spacious and mine had a balcony that overlooked the pool (which, unfortunately, was basically empty because the water was frigid while we were there). After settling in a bit, a bunch of us headed out in the evening to find a place to eat. We started wandering down a path along the beach and eventually cut through one of the hotels to the main street. That is when I finally got a full sense of Sharm el Sheikh. This city is nothing like anything else that we have seen in Egypt. Sharm el Sheikh reminded me more of Las Vegas (but with beaches and fewer casinos) than any of the decrepit (whether large or small) cities that we had visited. We ate dinner at a falafel restaurant and headed back to the hotel for the night.

The next day was basically a free day until the evening, so I got to sleep in for the first time on this entire trip. Many members of the group actually decided to get up early anyway and take part in one of the many available activities (snorkeling, scuba, glass-bottom boat, etc.). The rest of us just hung out around the hotel, got some rest, played some beach volleyball, and ate lunch. In the early afternoon, while I was hanging out in my room, the building suddenly shook violently. The shaking lasted for a few seconds and then stopped. I had been in earthquakes before, but none of them came on as suddenly as this one did. There were no real aftershocks though, so the excitement died down pretty quickly. For a brief moment though, Sharm el Sheikh became “Sharm el Shake”.