Sunday, June 28, 2009
Another Greek Sailing Adventure
As long time readers of my blog know, I like to go to Greece every now and then and sail around the islands. We did this last in August/September of 2006 (you can read about it here: A Journey to Greece, Sailing in Odysseus’ Track Part 1, Part 2, and subsequent drive up the Amalfi Coast and visit to ancient Pompeij and a few places in the Tuscany region). We made a similar trip in September of 2008. We once again drove down to Venice from Austria, got on a ferry to Greece (Iguomenitsa) and then hopped on a boat with Neil in Lefkas. I could probably write the same review of the journey as I did 2 years earlier. It was still great fun to take the ship out of Venice and all that. However, there isn’t anything really new to report on that part of the trip.
The same could be said about a lot of the trip. We went to Lefkas, stocked up on a bunch of goods we put on the boat, and off we sailed. That is Ellen, and myself, but also my parents came along time time, and Neil - owner of www.LefkasYachts.com - was our skipper again, as I still wouldn’t be comfortable operating a boat all on my own. (A little bit of sailing isn’t a problem, but when a wind storm blows over and you have to make sure the boat is anchored properly, I would not be comfortable on my own).
On our first leg, we sailed out of Lefkas down to Mytikas (on the main land across from Lefkas), where we once again had an excellent dinner of various Greek delicacies. It was all good, but we really came for the Octopus. I am not a big Octopus fan myself – since it generally is a chewy mess – but in Mythos, you will find the best Octopus of all time. Tender as steak, and super tasty. If you ever are in the area, you just have to try it out!
Over the next few days we continued on to various islands and villages. Overall, this was pretty similar to our trip 2 years earlier. One just tends to go back to favorite places, and when sailing in the Ionian Islands, places like Fiskardo (on Kefalonia) are always great stops. Slightly overcrowded perhaps, but late in the season (September), it really isn’t too bad. However, we did go to a few new places as well. In particular, Assos stood out for me as a very cute little port of call.
Some classical Greek scenery in Assos.
One of the things that is really neat in Greece is that one can go pretty much anywhere, and each little town or village one comes up to has a quay (“dock”) one can simply pull up to and spend a few hours or the night. There always are tavernas nearby, and one is ready for a great night of food and partying in a typical Greek fashion. It is quite unlike anywhere else.
The weather we encountered made the trip quite interesting. While it was still better than back home in Houston (where hurricane Ike slammed into our area with devastating effect), and while most of the days were quite sunny, we had a stretch of a few days of rain and a pretty severe wind storm. One night, while anchored in Fiskardo, some other boats were ripped loose and slammed into the rocks at the opposite side of the port. We had to assist in a rescue operation. Not that anyone got hurt, but several boats ended up on the rocks and were severely damaged.
We ended up sailing in some pretty high winds and some serious waves. Top boat speed (measured by GPS) was 11.8knots… pretty darn fast for this type of boat...
We also tried a new thing this time around: Yacht racing!
We didn’t have a huge amount of time, but we had 2 opportunities to partake in races. One was a 3-day “rally” around some of the islands. We passed on this one, since it simply would have taken too much time and we weren’t into it quite that seriously, but we ended up by accident (or perhaps by Neil’s planning ;-)) in the same port as the starting location for one of the legs. So we informally took part of it anyway, and it turns out that we pretty much would have kicked everyone’s butt if we really would have competed officially. Despite the fact that we dragged our dingy – the small boat – behind our boat, to the dismay of a lot of the competitors :-).
Encouraged by this result, we decided to compete in the big Ionian Regatta, which had several hundred boats and yachts compete. This was quite the experience. One just hasn’t really seen what these boats can do until one goes for the mad scramble that is 200 boats trying to cross the start line at the same time.
The start of the Ionian Regatta. Ourskipper Neil is concentrating hard, while we are goofing around, trying to avoid the apparently traditional food fight… (yeah, I don’t quite get it either).
The regatta was split into 2 groups, with a group of smaller boats getting a head start of 10 minutes (since they are not as fast as the bigger ones) and the group of larger yachts going second (we were part of the later group). Neil did very well getting us going. Unfortunately, the wind stopped about 15 minutes after the start and everyone just sat there for 2 hours trying to move a little bit and getting into the wind first whenever it came around. We weren’t overly lucky in this endeavor, but we still did OK.
Once the wind picked back up, we did OK. Neil is a great sailor and he got us pretty close to the front of the pack, even though some of the other boats were significantly larger and thus theoretically faster. Unfortunately, about half way through the race, the traveler on the main boom broke, throwing us into a frenzy trying to fix it. It left us with very limited ability to adjust the size of the main sail, but luckily, the winds stayed pretty steady and we weren’t too severely handicapped.
One the home stretch towards the town of Syvota. Some boats are quite far ahead, but we still came in 13th.
When it was all said and done, and handicaps were calculated in (each boat has a certain handicap to adjust for things such as size, type of propeller, and all kinds of other things), it turned out we came in 13th. Not too bad at all for our first race, and considering there were several hundred boats in the race. We were happy and ready to celebrate our victory in one of the many tavernas in Syvota (this was the port that marked the finish of the Regatta). Unfortunately, we had to leave that same evening to make it back to our ferry to Italy in time. Oh well, we will party the next time. This time around, a little snack and glass of Retsina had to do:
A short celebration of a good racing result.
Posted @ 1:13 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com) -
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Windsurfing in Egypt (and other Water Sports)
Readers of my blog have recently seen my general overview of our trip to Egypt (“Relaxing with the Pharaohs”), our trip to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and our trip to Cairo and the Pyramids. All these things were awesome, once in a lifetime experiences. However, my main reason for going to Egypt, and the main reason why we will certainly be back, is the incredible water sports, and in particular windsurfing, that is to be had there.
In fact, we didn’t go to Egypt with a specific location or hotel in mind at all. Instead, I first searched for a good windsurfing station, and then picked a hotel nearby. The one station that looked best to me was Surfmotion, owned by German transplant Peter Mueller. The Station features tons of Neil Pryde, JP, and Fanatic equipment. None older than 6 months, and plenty of equipment on hand at all times. In hindsight, this is exactly the station I’d pick again (although I just went to look up their web site, and the site seems to be gone… I hope they are still there). Surfmotion is actually right on the grounds of the Abu Soma Intercontinental hotel, which is a very nice, albeit somewhat pricey hotel. Nice rooms, OK food, and the usual hard Egyptian beds.
From a windsurfing point of view, it doesn’t get much better than Soma Bay, assuming you like flat water. The sea is incredible. No matter how far out you go, you will look down into turquoise, unthreatening water everywhere. A little further out you get a bit of chop, but close in, especially at low tide, you will sail like in a flying carpet, with the biggest bumps being an inch or two at most. Perfect to practice your jibes and tricks. The wind generally starts around 10 o’clock in the morning and picks up more and more, and it dies down again between 3pm and 5pm, sometimes going a little later. This makes it pretty easy to schedule things for experts and beginners alike. High-wind times turn Soma Bay into a great playground for advanced sailors, while the flat water and the shape of the bay combined with wind direction make it an ideal location for first-timers.
Surfmotion provides both windsurfing and kiteboarding. “Kiters” are in the area a little upwind in some very shallow water (especially during low tide), while windsurfers sail out right from the surf station. This is a very convenient separation since it avoids the usual problems when kite boarders (with their kites on long strings) and windwurfers (with long masts) get tangled up.
Here are a few photos taken right from Surfmotion:
We spent most of our time windsurfing. We slept till about 9 or 9:30, then walked over to the surf station, started out picking our gear (you have an assigned board, although you can change any time if you want… but this assures nobody runs of with your board. Sails you pick as needed), and often, Ellen would take some lessons as long as the wind wasn’t too strong. (Note: They have a competent staff or instructors for both windsurfing and kite surfing). Then, the wind would start picking up and I would sail myself, generally switching down to at least one smaller sail size as the day went on. (Switching gear is exceedingly painless, as the Surfmotion staff will already wait for you at the beach and pick up your sail and hand you whatever you need, without you even having to leave the water… awesome! :-)). In the late afternoon, we would return to the hotel’s beach on the other side of the small peninsula it is on, and do some relaxing or ride the camel on the beach (the hotel has their own camel).
Note: Surfmotion doesn’t serve any actual food they make there, but you can order sandwiches ahead of time. Tell them the evening before and they will bring whatever you order from Hurghada. This is generally a good idea as the hotel didn’t offer much in terms of quick snacks. And who wants to go to a sit-down restaurant in a 15 minute windsurfing break?
The Surfmotion station photographed from the Abu Soma hotel. The water is just to the right out of the frame…
The equipment provided by Surfmotion is excellent. I am always worried when I rent gear, because it can make or break your vacation. However, here, everything is brand new. Yes, it is rental gear and gets a lot of use, but you get excellent sails, boards, and even the fins are very good (usually, rental equipment has awful fins!). I ended up with Neil Pryde sails and Fanatic boards. JP is a little more expensive to rent and I considered upgrading, but once I sailed the Fanatic board, I was highly satisfied and didn’t bother to change.
Note that there is tons of other water sport to be had at the same location. In fact, there is even a second windsurfing station right on the property of the Abu Soma hotel. Surfmotion is German run (clientele being international) and the other one (can’t recall the name) is British operated with mainly British clients and seemingly catering more towards beginners. Also right on the premises is a German operated diving school. You can take a scuba diving course right there and get licensed (the German operated business providing excellent lessons and international licenses like anywhere else). Of course, you can also take scuba trips right from there if you are already an experienced scuba diver.
We considered taking the scuba lessons. However, windsurfing conditions were so good, we just didn’t have time. Maybe next time. We did however go on snorkeling trips, and frankly, this was by far the best snorkeling experience I ever had. (For comparison, I have snorkeled in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Brazil, and Egypt was better by an order of magnitude!). From what I understand, it is also one of the world’s best locations for scuba-diving.
I did end up taking kite surfing lessons. There wasn’t all that much time for that either, but I spend 2 hours and was lucky enough to pass all the tests at the end to get an international kite surfing license. This was fun, and I am glad I did it. I even ended up buying a kite afterwards. However, I have to admit I still like windsurfing a lot better.
As far as as wind conditions go: It doesn’t get much better than Egypt. When it is hot, the wind blows and it blows very steady (especially in the summer… I hear it isn’t as consistent in the winter). And of course this being Egypt, it is always hot. You can look up the weather in Hurghada online. I am convinced they just put up a static page. It is always the same…
This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:
Posted @ 1:28 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Cairo, The Sphinx & the Pyramids, and Taking a Rest in Khufu’s Sarcophagus
The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, the Nile, the Red Sea. All worthwhile things to see on a trip to Egypt. However, there is one sight that tops all the other Egyptian sights, quite possible any other sight in the world: The Pyramids.
So when we went to Egypt, we knew we must to to see the Pyramids, even though we were in Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and the Pyramids (which are practically in Cairo) are not exactly around the corner. We had the choice of driving to Cairo by bus, which would have been a 2-day trip and not exactly a lot of fun I imagine, or take the more expensive option and fly from Hurghada to Cairo and back the same day. We took option number 2, and in hindsight, that was the much better choice. It still made for a very long day as we left our hotel before 4am in the morning. The flight itself was quick and uneventful. We actually had expected a very small plane (like a 6-seater), which I looked forward to, but it turned out to be a regular small passenger plane.
Of course, Cairo itself is quite an interesting place to visit as well. It is one of the world’s largest cities (#10 or #11 or so, with a population of about 17,000,000), and the largest city in Africa. It’s a sprawling part Arab and (small) part Christian metropolitan area in the dessert, with the Nile flowing down the middle, creating a little bit of a green stripe. The rest if all sand-colored (including most of the buildings). Even the sky as a red-ish tint, as there is tons of sandy dust in the air. (And I would guess a good part of that is probably just pollution). Mix in some very high temperatures (even for my taste) and you have quite the experience. Every breath you take feels like you are getting your lungs sandblasted. Not very pleasant at all to be honest. I can’t believe people live there year round. I guess one must get used to it, but I am sure the health-implications remain.
Cairo as seen from the Alabaster Mosque. Everything is red-ish brown, including the air…
But we were only there for a day, so our mind was on other things. Our tour of Cairo started out with a trip to Muhammad Ali’s Alabaster Mosque (no, not the boxer). This actually turned out to be quite interesting and educational. I found it interesting that even though we aren’t Muslims, we were still welcome there, and overall, the experience put the Muslim faith into a different light for me. Personally, I am always very open minded about such things anyway, but I think it would be particularly interesting for people who hold a prejudice against it. We really just had to take our shoes off (people kneel in there, so they don’t want the carpets to get dirty) and in we went. Quite interesting.
Anyway: Our main goal in coming to Cairo wasn’t to learn about the Muslim faith, but to see some ancient Egyptian stuff. Our next stop gave us a really good dose of that: The Egyptian Museum. This place has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities anywhere in the world. I knew that before. What I didn’t realize beforehand was that they do so in a relatively small amount of space. And of course, there are a gazillion people visiting. The experience in fact was not entirely unlike riding the London Subway during rush hour. Smelly sweaty people are pressed up against each other, trying to catch a glimpse of various ancient artifacts. The temperature inside the museum probably being a good 20 degrees warmer than outside. It almost made me dizzy. I am sure it must have been above 50 degrees centigrade in there (more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit). So it is safe to say that this isn’t the kind of museum you spend a lot of time in, enjoying all the sights and taking it all in at your pace. Still, it was an interesting experience.
There are 2 things that really stand out in the museum (and are well worth the extra price of admission): King Tut’s treasure, and their collection of actual real mummies. King Tut’s treasure includes his gold treasure with the actual burial mask he wore (the famous solid gold mask you always think of when anyone mentions King Tut) as well as tons of other items that are either enormously valuable (generally solid gold) or interesting for other reasons (such as a 5,000 year old fold-up camping bed with even the metal hinges still working… amazing!). This was one of the highlights of the trip for me (and that is when I started regretting that I didn’t see his tomb).
The collection of mummies is quite grotesque in a way. You would through it and you see the actual bodies of 5,000 year old people (Kings, mainly). All the important ones are right there. We visited their tombs a few days before in the Valley of the Kings and now we saw the actual bodies right in front of us. Very unusual. (Come to think of it, they may be the only dead human bodies I have ever personally seen up close). On a side-note: This part of the museum is also less crowded and well air conditioned. Probably worth the price of admission right there.
So that was the museum, but now we were ready to move on to the main attraction: The Pyramids and the Sphinx!
The Pyramids. Look closely, and you will see the city of Cairo right in the background.
When looking at pictures of the Pyramids and the Sphinx, one really gets quite a wrong expression of it all. The Pyramids are not out in the middle of the dessert somewhere. They are really in a suburb of Cairo on the edge of town. Pictures are usually taken so one only sees the dessert, but when taken from the other side, one can clearly see that they are right in town (on “One Pyramid Street”, if memory serves me correctly). Also, the Sphinx is not right next to the Pyramids, and it is significantly smaller than I expected. Once again, it is mainly due to the pictures taken from an angle that makes the Sphinx look large and right next to the Pyramids rather than it being quite a bit smaller and a few miles off.
In any event: The whole thing did not disappoint. We came up the the Pyramids with our tour bus, and the guide gave us a few different options: 1) go inside the Big Pyramid (Khufu’s Pyramid, a.k.a. “Cheops Pyramid”), which was a hot, and – according to the guide – strenuous affair, or 2) go inside the medium size Pyramid which was a leisurely stroll in and out (and also less expensive). As you can imagine, I didn’t want any part of option number 2. I hadn’t come all the way to Egypt to see some average Pyramid nobody really cares about (quick: Name the King who built the second largest Pyramid of all time… see! Nobody knows). So we went into the large Pyramid, while the entire bus load of our co-travelers went for the smaller one. It really amazed me. Not a single other person went for the main attraction.
So we made our way up a few steps the outside and then went through the entrance tunnel into the Grand Gallery, a huge “hall” leading up the the burial chamber of King Khufu/Cheops. It is a fairly steep flight of stairs leading up a little ways, but it really wasn’t all that exhausting. I am not sure why the guide recommended we shouldn’t do it. After all, just this one chamber is well known enough to make it all worth it. (Note: You are not supposed to be taking pictures inside the Pyramid – I think they want you do pay for it if you do – and yes, I do admit that I tried to snap a picture with my iPhone, but it didn’t turn out at all…).
Once you pass the Grand Gallery, you enter the burial chamber, a big and somewhat featureless rectangular chamber with hieroglyphics on the wall. What really makes this impressive of course is not just the overall size of it all, but also the history behind it. When you stand inside this place and you think back 5,000 years, and imagine the laborers building it all, or the funeral procession carrying in the sarcophagus of the dead King Khufu. You look around yourself and you see the same chamber they saw back then, and you see the sarcophagus they used then, and you experience a sensation quite unlike any other.
When we were in the Great Pyramid, only a handful of other people were in there at the same time. There were 2 British girls from another tour group, and there was an Egyptian guide/guard in the chamber at the same time. He tried to show us a few things in the chamber in his broken English, and managed to communicate enough to make it all more interesting. He even dared me to get inside the sarcophagus and lay down in it, which I did. So I ended up laying down inside the outer sarcophagus, King Khufu’s final resting place. And as if that wasn’t enough, the guide took the other three people by the hand and rounded them up around the sarcophagus and started to chant his best imitation of what is presumably an ancient Egyptian death chant. It all added up to an experience unlike any other that I am sure to never forget.
After a little while, I got back up and out of the sarcophagus. I considered laying in there waiting for the next tourists to walk into the chamber and then jump up and give them a good scare, but the whole scene was so eerie, I considered it possible that people might have an actual heart attack. Inside a grave no less. How ironic would that be? Well, ironic maybe, but not funny, so I didn’t do it.
We left the Big Pyramid and re-joined the rest of our group, who had an uneventful and not nearly as memorable time in the other pyramid. Not too surprising, when we told them about our adventures, they all regretted that they didn’t also go in the big one. I don’t blame them. They are now returning to their homes knowing they got oh-so-close to one of the most impressing achievements of mankind yet they chose to go into the smaller and much less impressive pyramid, just to save a few bucks and to avoid what turned out to be a not very hard exercise.
Here I am, with my very own camel in front of the Pyramids.
Of course we still all got to see the Pyramids from the outside, and that by itself is an incredibly impressive experience. They are so large, it is hard to even comprehend it all while you are there. You really have to make yourself look at people and other things in front of the Pyramids to get a good sense of the scale. And make sure you take a picture while you are there. Even with a camel in tow, as there are lots of Egyptians there with their camels, looking to earn a bit of bakshish (tip) in return. It will cost you a few bucks, but it is a cool experience to sit on a camel in front of the pyramids.
Once we had done all our picture taking from all kinds of angles and distances (they actually drove us to a scenic overlook a few miles off) we went on to see the Sphinx. Like I mention above, it is smaller than I expected, but nevertheless, it is very impressive. Expect a ton of people there, so take your pictures while you can and before the mass of people pushes you on. I recommend to take some pictures from a little way off with the Pyramids in the background. Yes, you end up with the same deceptive pictures as anyone else that make it look like the Sphinx is right next to the Pyramids, but who cares? They will be some cool pictures nevertheless.
Yes, I know. My head is bigger than the Spinx’es. Thanks for pointing that out :-)
So that was that. We then went on to a few more sights with our tour group. We went to the obligatory “Papyrus Museum” where we actually learned how papyrus was made (which was somewhat interesting, and we all appreciated the air-conditioning). We also went on the the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar, which is one of the largest Bazaars in Africa, we were told. It was quite impressive and I am happy to report that the merchants there were outspoken and made jokes and tried to get you to buy, but they were not nearly as pushy as I expected them to be. I enjoyed the experience. Sadly, this is also the place where a few months after our visit (February 2009), a bomb killed a French girl.
The Bazaar in Cairo
And that was it. After the visit to the bazaar, we hurried back to the airport and ultimately back to our hotel which we reached more than 24 hours after we had left. A long day for sure. It was hot, and the quality of the air in Cairo was so bad, Ellen actually contracted bronchitis (or a similar temporary breathing problem). I would say it was all worth it though. There aren’t that many days in one’s life where one goes to bad knowing that the events of the day will be fondly remembered for the rest of one’s life.
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Posted @ 2:21 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com) -
Saturday, June 06, 2009
Luxor, Hatshepsut’s Temple, and the Valley of the Kings
We went to Egypt to relax, swim, snorkel, and of course windsurf (see my previous post). Nevertheless, when you go to Egypt (especially the first time around) and you have even a remote interest in archeology and/or culture, you must go and see the local sights, including various Egyptian temples, tombs, and of course the Pyramids. (Heck, even if you normally do not have an interest in archeology or culture, you must go and see these sights!). Personally, I love Egyptology anyway. How can you not? 5,000 years ago, these people already did stuff and had culture that some countries are even lacking to this day! 5,000 years! It is hard to imagine. To illustrate the point: I went to Delphi in Greece where things are 2,000 years old. Quite old one might think. But 2,000 years ago, when the Greek went to the Oracle in Delphi, the Sphinx was already older than Delphi is now! The old Egyptian stuff was already ancient, when other ancient stuff was still brand-spanking-new! It boggles the mind.
So when we went to the Red Sea, we intended to go on a few trips within Egypt to see some of this stuff. After doing some initial research , we decided to not arrange for anything ahead of time. I looked a few things up and decided that we could either do something on our own, or book a local tour. In the end, we used local tour organizers (“local” being an odd term in this sense, since all local organizers seem to be either German or British run). It actually turns out that that was the only way to go. Tourists can’t just rent cars in Egypt and drive around. I assume one could probably get a special permit or license or something if one lived there a long time, but for tourists, everyone simply told us it couldn’t be done. And that was OK with us in the end, because the tours were inexpensive. Besides, I have always felt that with a knowledgeable tour guide, a pile of rubble turns into an interesting archeological site full of stories, history, and excitement.
In the end, we decided to take two different tours. One to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, and the other (which I will blog about separately) to Cairo to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx (among other things). For both, there generally were two options. 1) be part of a larger tourist group, and 2) rent your own driver and guide in a single car. For the Luxor trip, we decided to go with option number 2, and as it turned out, it was by far the better deal. For just a few bucks more than in the group, we had our own car that went where we wanted and when we wanted, with the air condition set the way we wanted, and I guess theoretically with the music playing we wanted (although our guide had a somewhat odd taste – which included playing the same song a million times – which we let him get away with).
Our trip to Luxor started pretty early in the morning (5am if I remember correctly). Our guide with driver and car came to our hotel and picked us up. The hotel (Intercontinental Abu Soma) was nice enough to prepare to-go portions rather than our regular breakfast and dinner. Our first leg in this trip was to go to the nearest town, which was the starting location for the “convoy to Luxor”. As it turns out, Egypt is very particular about protecting tourists, and even though few incidents happened in the last decades, I guess it never hurts to err on the cautious side. For this reason, no tourist trips drive across country on their own, but instead, everyone has to be part of a convoy. Our particular convoy included several hundred vehicles, and we are told in the winter (which is high season) it could be ten times as many. The convoy includes a number of police cars, and as it turns out, along the path of the convoy, local security blocks off all other roads, and no other cars may drive at the same time. There even are scout cars that to ahead to make sure there isn’t anything undesirable the way, such as a car bomb. It seems to be quite a secure system. Not that it has ever really been needed. We are told there never were any incidents of any kind, and I guess the overall system makes sure it stays that way.
Driving in this convoy is a particular experience all in its own. For some reason, drivers seem to be compelled to pass each other vigorously (especially on the return trip when it gets late). I am not sure what the point of all this is, since nobody can actually pass the police car driving at the very front. I guess people just want to be among the first cars that get to the final destination. The result of all this is a mad scramble, and it seems to be best to not pay too much attention to it all, which will probably save you a few gray hairs.
Overall, this entire setup (especially with our personal car) worked out very well. Our guide was great (although he was mainly a German guide who didn’t know that we were mainly interested in English descriptions, but he did a great job speaking English too). We talked about anything, from Archeological sites to religion and Arab clothing. He was a very nice, open minded, and really smart guy, and it was very interesting to learn about more about Arab culture and the life of a modern Egyptian.
The Temple of Karnak
Our first stop was the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. `This is really a collection of various sites. Imagine it more like a town that grew over time with various temples and sites. All of it is a 5,000 year old open-air museum of vast proportions. This is also the second most visited archeological site in all of Egypt, second only to the Pyramids.
The entrance to the Temple of Karnak, with its gazillion visitors.
Pharaohnic statues at the Temple of Karnak
Even though this wasn’t the main tourist season, the place was packed with people when we were there. I was glad we had our own personal guide, so we could try to weave through all the other people and visit a few locations when they seemed the least busy. And there were all kinds of things to see here, from typical temples, to obelisks, and tons of statues and hieroglyphics. Amazingly, some of the drawings are still showing their original, 5,000 year old colors. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Can you imagine painting your house in a way that lasts 5,000 years?!?
Personally, I am quite interested in Egyptology, but I didn’t know all that much about the Temple of Karnak. It is a pretty cool sight, but it is also in some ways the least spectacular of all the places we went there (which is still more spectacular than just about any other archeological site I have ever seen). I think part of the reason for it being so popular is that this is right in the middle of Luxor and very easy to get to.
The Valley of the Kings
The second stop of the trip took us to the Valley of the Kings, the main reason for me to go on this particular trip. This is where a lot of the Pharaohs have their tombs, including Tut Ankh Amun (“King Tut”) as well as many others. The location is near Luxor, but across the Nile and perhaps a 15 minute’s drive into the dessert. When you go there, you pay a fee to get into the valley, which entitles you to go into 3 different tombs out of a total of 63. Different tombs are open on different days, and the choice that presents itself is up to chance. (However, Tut Ankh Amon’s tomb is a separate ticket purchase that is not included in the standard ticket, but on the other hand, you apparently almost always have the choice to see it, unless there is something unusual going on).
Note: It is hot in the Valley of the Kings! This is one of the hottest places on earth, especially in mid-August when we were there. We live in Houston, so we are used to the heat, and I personally have an unusually high tolerance for heat. It didn’t overly bother be, but even I noticed it, especially inside the tombs. Bring plenty of water, and don’t overdo it!
This enclosure protects the entrance to King Tut’s small tomb.
When we were there, we started out seeing the tomb of King Ramses II (he is the guy who build the Temple of Abu Simbel, one of the most recognizable Egyptian sights). This is a tomb close to the entrance of the valley, and thus easy to get to. It is also a large tomb that is a simple straight shot down into the mountain to the grave chamber (note: the mummy isn’t in this tomb, but we saw it in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). It reminded me a little bit of an ancient subway entrance with hieroglyphics on the wall. Tons of other people where there to see it, so you ended up walking in the right-hand side, being pushed forward by the steady flow of people, making your way in and out in just a few minutes. Don't get me wrong: It was very impressive and I would have been satisfied with that experience alone. However, it was to get much better.
The second tomb we saw was right near the first one (Tuthmosis I, if I remember correctly), and it was a bit more excitement in terms of architecture. It went around a few bends and there were traps for grave robbers on the way in, and it offered somewhat of an Indiana Jones feeling to it. From a plain archeological point of view it was also quite interesting, with several different chambers and lots of drawings and hieroglyphics. Once again, tons of people though, pushing you in and out (with the first few fainting from the heat).
So now we were down to our last choice, and this is where having our own guide came in really handy. Instead of just going to the next closest open tomb, he told us that we could also go and see the tomb of Tuthmosis the 2nd, which was in the far end of the valley, a little bit up a cliff. Not a lot of people went there, he said, because of the short climb up. This sounded just like what we wanted, so off we went. I was excited about this, because this particular tomb is known to be one of the most sophisticated ones (finally, watching thousands of hours of the Discovery Channel is paying off for me). The actual climb wasn’t really all that bad as it turned out. A few very steep flights of stairs up and that was it. Only the heat made it a bit harder than some people might want. The actual entrance to the tomb is quite small and a steep flight of stairs down, leading past grave-robber traps and through a number of very nicely decorated chambers, around a bend, and finally down into the grave chamber with the sarcophagus still there.
When we were in this tomb, we were the only ones, except for an old Egyptian who made sure nobody took any photographs, or at least not without giving him some Bakshish (tip) first). The entire tomb was completely silent, and their air, with all its super-fine dessert sand dust, which felt a lot like breathing gypsum enriched air, felt like it hadn’t moved in 5,000 years. We spent quite a bit of time in this tomb, taking in all the sights in quite and with all the time we wanted to take, with the old man trying his best in his broken English to explain the meaning of different drawings and pointing out various details. Just the feeling of being in this place was out of this world. It was very hot, yes, but otherwise, I think it is a shame that not a lot of people go and see this, as this was a much better experience than any of the other tombs we saw. After some time (and giving the old man his well deserved tip), we climbed back out through the narrow entrance and knew we would never forget this experience. With the time seeming to stand still, and the old man in the tomb, one felt like Howard Carter (the discoverer of Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb) might come strolling around the corner in his old outfit any minute.
Ellen and Markus just having emerged from the tomb of Tuthmosis II.
If you ever visit the Valley of the Kings, make sure you do something like this! Don’t just visit the 3 tombs everyone else visits that day. Go our of your way and see something that is not overrun and do it at your own pace. As it turned out, we were the only ones that visited Tuthmosis II’s tomb that day, and that was pretty cool I thought. It also meant that the old man spent all day inside this tomb waiting for just us, to show us around. This makes the tip we gave him a hard earned day’s income. Keep that in mind when you consider how much you want to give them. (And yes, you should give them something. It is just part of the deal and the culture. When in Egypt, do like the Egyptians do…)
The only thing I regret about having visited the Valley of the Kings is that we didn’t go to see Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb. Sure, it is a very small and unexciting tomb. Almost like entering a small apartment with a flight of stairs leading into just a few small rooms. And sure, it costs extra, and takes extra time, as you probably have to get in line. Our guide thought it wasn’t worth it, and I think he probably is right in some ways. But on the other hand, it is King Tut’s tomb! It is where the treasure came from (which we went to see in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), and regardless of how insignificant a Pharaoh he was, and regardless of how small the tomb is, it is still a place everyone knows about. Also, his actual mummy is in the tomb, so you can see King Tut himself right then and there. I do wish I would have seen this, and hopefully, I will get to go back and take a look at some future trip to Egypt.
Our trip then continued on to the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut, which is really just on the other side of the Valley of the Kings, although one has to take the long way around. On the way, we also stopped at a place that still manufactured hand-made alabaster ware. This was one of the downsides of having the private car: There is no good way to get out of being dragged through such shopping experiences, and the pressure to buy is enormous. We went to the alabaster place, and also to a “Papyrus Museum”, which was mostly a common papyrus shop, as they have them all over Egypt. If you travel in a larger group, it isn’t as hard not to buy anything, but if you are the only customers in the shop, and a demonstration is done for you,, there really isn’t much you can do other than buy an inexpensive piece. Oh well, it made of a nice souvenir. (Really, the only way to get out of this is to tell the driver not to go there, but he is instructed by the tour company to do so, and pushing the matter may cause a very awkward situation. Just consider it part of the price of admission).
The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut was impressive. I am really not sure what else to say about it, other than that I would consider it a must-see if you are in the area. A picture is probably worth a thousand words:
The temple of Hatshepsut.
Crossing the Nile
Finally, our day was just about to come to an end. The last part of the trip was to cross the Nile again, which this time, we did on a small boat, which took us not just across, but also a little up the river, past the Old Winter Palace hotel, which is so rich in history, including dame Agatha Christie having spent a lot of time there, and I assume having written some of her countless novels there. Quite an experience in itself, and something I am glad I have done. This gave us a glimpse of what it must be like to take a cruise on the Nile, which is another item I have yet to check off my bucket list.
A boat trip on the Nile
And that concluded the day. Certainly, it was a day in my life I won’t forget. I saw a lot of things that day which I’d recommend for everyone to see at least once in their life.
This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:
Posted @ 5:47 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -