Cairo In a Day
Cairo is the capital of Egypt and, with a total population in excess of 16 million people, one of the largest cities... Situated on the Nile river, Cairo is famous for its own history, preserved in the fabulous medieval Islamic city and Coptic sites in Old Cairo. The Egyptian Museum in the centre of town is a must see, with its countless Ancient Egyptian artifacts, as is shopping at the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. No trip to Cairo would be complete without a visit to the Giza Pyramids.
I had an opportunity to visit Egypt a couple of years ago when my friends found a very good deal for tickets to fly there, but I ended up starting a new job and was not able to join them. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so I wanted to make a stop there on my trip. Unfortunately, due to my round-the-world ticket rules, it was technically a layover meaning that it would have to be less than 24 hours. I was able to set up my flights such that I would get there early in the morning and leave in the evening, giving me a day to spend in Cairo.
As I only had one day, I decided to hire a tour guide to take me around the city and at the end of it, I was glad I did. I found Mohammed through the listing of tour guides on TripAdvisor and he quoted me $150 for a day tour including pick up/drop off at the airport. While getting a hold of him was a struggle, partially due to the fact that I could not check my email frequently because of the poor internet access in Cape Town, and because he never seemed to pick up his phone, he turned out to be a very friendly guy around my age. He also brought another guy with him who was going to be our driver for the day while he was doing the talking.
Since my flight arrived at 6 am, all of the touristy places were still closed, so we headed out for a morning cruise on the Nile river in a Felucca- a traditional Egyptian sailboat. There was little wind so it was not very exciting and took us a while to get back - just in time to start heading out to the Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids are no longer in the desert by themselves, but rather at the edge of the city so we encountered some traffic on the way which gave me a chance to look around. I was amazed to see the half-built buildings out of red brick everywhere - unfinished, with no windows, with steel support rods sticking out, and people living there! Apparently, living in an 'unfinished' building allows people to pay significantly less taxes so a lot of buildings are left in that state. Combined with trash, and sand/dust everywhere, it did not paint a good picture of Cairo for me.
Once we arrived to the pyramids, Mohammed gave me a brief history lesson on how and why they came to be. Standing by the largest of them - the Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), I could not shake off the feeling of 'eh, so what?' I mean, it was really impressive how people were able to build such a structure from such huge blocks of sandstone so many years ago. So my geeky side was pretty impressed. But, having been to Mexico and seeing the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan, the Egyptian pyramids really did not give produce that grandiose feeling I was expecting.
For an extra charge, they allow people to go inside the Great Pyramid, but Mohammed advised me not to do it as I could go inside the smaller pyramid built for king's mother for free. It was nothing too impressive, but at least I can claim that I have been inside a pyramid now. Of course, the visit to the pyramids would not be complete without a camel ride, so I did that and it was very similar to riding a horse, easier to get on/off, but just a bit more rougher ride. We finished up the tour of the complex by going to see the Sphinx and once again I had a feeling of disappointment - it was much smaller than I had imagined.
What I was impressed with was our next stop at a papyrus gallery. As part of their sales pitch, they do a quick demo on how papyrus is made - the stem of papyrus is cleaned of the outside green skin, then thinly sliced and soaked in water for six days. Once the water is squeezed out, the thin layers are overlaid horizontally and vertically to create a sheet, which is then placed under a press for another six days. Simple, right? My only question is how did someone came up with something like that? Oh, and on top of that, papyrus is fully washable so it can be reused over and over while maintaining its strenght. Cool stuff! They were also had lots of different paintings available for sale, but I did not buy anything as I am set on not getting any souvenirs (and then hauling them with me) on this trip.
For the same reason I did not get anything at the papyrus gallery, our trip to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar was not very exciting as I was not going to buy anything. We quickly ran through the narrow rows of vendors and the only thing I ended up buying was a box of dried figs which were, well, kind of dry. Being the figs city, I was hoping to get some good figs while I was there, but I guess it was partially my fault for not making that a priority. Mohammed did mention a deliciously sounding drink that I will have to try when I get back - a blend of milk and figs. That brings us to our lunch, for which they took me to a buffet the I was not really impressed with. Supposedly, it was Egyptian food, but it was clearly set up for the tourists and did not have anything unusual. I guess the chicken was seasoned pretty well, but otherwise I did not get my appetite for authentic food satisfied.
After lunch we headed out to the now-famous Tahrir square where the Egyptian revolution protests took place earlier this year. Mohammed mentioned as a matter of fact that he was there and got shot in the leg, as were many others. We saw the office building all burned up by the previous government to destroy some of the evidence of wrongdoings. But our main goal was to visit the Egyptian museum, which has recovered almost all pieces looted during the uprising.
Mohammed walked me through the main parts of the museum and then gave me an hour to stroll around on my own. Well, it was interesting because many of the artifacts originally found in and around pyramids were stored there now, but after a while all the different tombs, statues, and figurines were starting to look alike - my usual museum syndrome.
That was the end of it for me. I paid Mohammed for the tour and his driver dropped me off at the airport. On the topic of driving - that was probably the most memorable experience of the day for me. Chaotic does not describe what it was like. Throughout the day we encountered only one traffic light that was operational and, even then, nobody was paying attention to it. It is just one large traffic jam with three lanes occupied by five rows of cars just a few inches apart, barely paying any attention to pedestrians. I have seen some crazy driving in Puerto Rico and Ukraine/Russia, but that was the most chaotic by far. In the end, the journey to the airport took us about an hour in the evening. The same journey took us about ten minutes in the early morning before the streets got congested...
One last random observation that I kept coming back to throughout the day (while being stuck in traffic) is that it seemed like there were a lot of Russian-made cars there. And while somewhat true - there were a bunch of Lada's on the road, the car that I saw the most was a model of Fiat that looked exactly like Moskvich. Why would the Soviet Union rip off one of those instead of, say, Mercedes, beats me.
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