The good, the bad, and the ugly: the Egyptian metropoles

The road from Hurghada to Gizeh leads North along the Red Sea coast, before swerving West to cross the desert again. We had been warned by the Aussies, who had passed on this road the day before, to prepare for some touristic nightmares on the way, but the actual truth nevertheless hit us hard. The first 100something kilometers after Hurghada are relatively unpopulated and calm, but getting closer to our turnoff it started to get ugly. Resorts and hotel complexes started creeping up left and right, one more hideous than the other. They unfortunately also increased in size, up unto the point of the surreal. Nothing to the left but a small stretch of sand and the sea, nothing to the right but desert and rocks, and BAM, huge hotels with huge shopping malls and huge parking spaces. Lots of the smaller and older hotels were already in states of decay, lots of the new big ones only half built. An especially ugly construction site reminded us immediately of the caves we had seen dug in the stone close to Asswan, and the remnants of the noble tombs in Luxor. It looked positively like a huge, multistorey grave yard, ready to swallow the lost souls of all these tourists that come here to seek sun and sea…

When we hit the turn off to the desert road to Cairo, we got another definite sign that we had left non-toruist country for good: Not only that the road stations (to become toll station some day?) are all styled in proper ancient Egyptian style, the road is a 4 (FOUR!) lane highway. Not that there are that many cars on it to justify four lanes, but this – together wilt multiple rest stops on the way that provided shades – made driving very comfortable indeed. Maybe too comfortable, because once we got in a 40km radius to Cairo, it started to get nasty. We had been warned about Cairo traffic and had decided early on to skip it and go straight to Gizeh. What we had not anticipated is that there is no real skipping it. You can skip the inner city traffic of course, which is already good. But to get to Gizeh you have to go on the Cairo Ring Road – or at least our GPS told us so. And the Ring Road is Anarchy, which we did not mind much at the 30 to 40 km/h you could reach in Dar or Addis, but which became a real nightmare at 100km per hour on a four lane highway. Unfortunately, we still had not tamed the GPS, which also meant we frequently took a wrong turnoff, or passed the right one, and had to find our way back. When it looked like the GPS was asking us to do the whole circle again, we gave up and took a semi-legal offturn into Gizeh town. Unfortunately the camera battery was already flat at that time, because we drove through the most surreal urban landscape we had ever seen. 18-storey highrise buildings, so narrowly built that they allowed barely two cars to pass below, no tar or gravel, only earth and puddles in between. A labyrinth of tiny streets, all running in more or less straight lines, but all without names, and only a fraction of them on the GPS. Several stretches of mud-and-water that forced traffic into one line as the puddle on the other side was too deep to get through. Anne dubbed it soon “urban offroad”, because this is what it felt like. With several breaks in between to double check on the GPS, we made it finally to the corner of the road where our hotel was supposed to be – only to find out that it was a mayor junction with four roads leading towards all, all one way, all in the wrong direction. Fuck them all, we said, and drove against the traffic. It has advantages to have a bike sometimes, and it also has advantages that there is anarchy on the road. We made our way to the right side eventually and started the search for the hotel. This time, the GPS location as indicated on google maps was wrong, and it took us another two stops to one again give up and make a desperate phone call to the hotel to pick us up where we were.*

The guys at the Pyramids View Inn were really nice though, and we had the best parking so far in Egypt because we could actually park In the hotel. They opened the big front door, and Jan drove the bikes up the slippery marble stairs and parked them next to the stairway. Anne was out of order again thanks to the heat and could barely remember to unbuckle her helmet before taking it off. It had taken us two hours to find the hotel, and of course the sun had fried us in our gear when crossing through the inner city traffic of Gizeh. We spent the rest of the day chilling in our (clean, comfy, climatised) room, only venturing out to get us some chicken and bread which we ate on the rooftop terrace, watching the sun set behind the pyramids. What we saw of Gizah that evening was not too enticing for a longer stay – the hotel was the cleanest one we had come across on our travel so far, but the surroundings were among the filthiest in contrast. So we congratulated ourselves that we’d only spend a night here.

The plan for the next day was to get a souvenir picture with the bikes in front of the pyramids and then leave for Alexandria. Only they did not let us in. Cars yes, bikes no. In this case for once we would have offered a baksheesh, because we really wanted this picture. Alas, our pleading was in vain. In the end, Anne rushed in to take at least a few pictures of the pyramids and the Sphinx, while Jan kept watch at the fully loaded bikes. At least we had gotten some nice backalley shots on our way to the pyramids, including Jan overtaking a camel rider and Anne fending off some dogs by revving up the bike.

We hit the road to Alexandria, where we were meeting up with our fellow motorbike traveller Omar. Omar is a friend of our South African friend Jolandie. We had not met him before, but he had already had put us into contact with Mohammed in Khartoum and Karim in Hurghada, resulting in some of our nicest meetings on the road. Omar and his daughter Tamara picked us up in a Mall and guided us through Alexandria to his place, where we could not only park our bikes for a while, but where also offered to stay in an apartment of our own. We very gladly accepted, and following Omars recommendation headed for the beach soon afterwards, to catch the last afternoon soon over the Mediterranean. To see the Mediterranean after crossing the African continent was a bit emotional. There, on the other side, was Europe – so close already! We washed our feet in the shallow water and hung out for a few hours, just watching the sea and the frantic Egyptian lifeguard, who was all the time blowing his whistle, waving his arms at people and shooing them around. In the evening we met up with Omar and some of his friends, just hanging out in front of the apartment building where he lived – in a corner where a cool breeze was going – drinking tea and talking about everything and nothing. Beautiful calm evening.

The next day was a Tuesday, and we had planned to travel to Cairo by train, exploring the city a bit before coming back to Alex. Only Anne was not feeling too well, and until we had arrived at the train station it had gotten worse. Nausea, dizziness and diarrhea led to us ending up in The German hospital that day, where they put Anne on the drip and ran some tests. Nothing serious, though we had to wait for the results of the Malaria test for two days. We returned to Omars place and camped out at his little biker lounge this time, which is fortunately equipped with a little bathroom as well. Two days of lying very low restored Anne somewhat, and we left with the train to Cairo on Friday. Finally off to see the capital, and we were not sad in the least that our little babies stood safe and sound in Omars garage for this time…

We like going on the train, and apart from some troubles with the online booking and the fact that everybody in Alexandria train station points you to another platform when you ask where the train for Cairo leaves, it was a very nice and relaxed experience. We were especially mesmerized that you could turn the seats around so they face each other, and got some weird looks by the locals when we played around with that feature and even took pictures. We need that on German trains!

As most often here in the non-touristic areas of Egypt, people did not speak much English, and it took us a while to understand that the friendly eldery man who had asked us for our ticket was actually not the conductor, but a “freelance” worker who then wanted some baksheesh for having showed us the seats that we had already found.

The train has air conditioning and is cooled down to some point above freezing, but otherwise we can’t complain. Germans not being able to complain about a train, that must be a first! The train left 14:00 pm sharp (!), it arrived on the minute punctual in Cairo (!!), and above all it was quite cheap with only 36 Pound per person (roughly 4 Euro), for a 2,5 hour ride. Well, cheap for us. If you have a typical income of an Egyptian it is far from that.

On arrival in Cairo we bumped into a German student of archeology (the second one already here in Egypt), who told us that the metro station at Tahir square we had planned to get off was closed. But taxis are easy to get, when you know what you ought to pay, and after some haggling we got someone to take us to the Dahab hostel, where we wanted to stay. We ended our first day in Cairo by strolling around the neighborhood a bit and stumbled upon an open-street-car-garage – a row of old and beaten cars parked in the curb, with some guys sitting behind small desks on the sidewalk, taking apart and cleaning different parts. We stopped and chatted to the guys there with our Arab-German-English mixture for a while, confirming that it was a Volvo only garage – though we doubt it would qualify as a dealership contract. We know these open street workshops from all over Africa, and it somehow feels nice to see this also in Egypt, which otherwise feels so un-African. We at Abou Tarek, the most famous Koshari place in Egypt, and proof that you can make serious money by selling a simple 10-pound-staple dish – the place runs over several storeys, walls and floors are covered in (fake?) marble and glitzy chandeliers hang over indoor fountains…

The next morning we went off to explore the old islamic city, which still sports parts of the old city wall and gates as well as mosques and caravanserei buildings – and of course a huge souq. The whole area is quite neat and well kept, but the further down you go the more authentic the souq becomes, and thus the more loud and lively. It’s like an explosion of people, animals and goods, making it extremely interesting – we were constantly craning our necks, “Did you see the rabbits, ducks and doves there munching away next to their slaughtered kin at the butcher?” “That one is selling coal from his cellar!” “Balancing a tray of bread on his head, cycling and sending a message on his phone, that is skill…” – but also very exhausting. When we were back in the hostel late afternoon, we fell on the bed and went to sleep straight away. We went to a very colonial place for dinner, the Cafe Riche, which like all places we have been so far to in Egypt allows you to smoke in the same room where everybody eats, and looks wonderfully 1930ies. In the evening we heavily abused the great WiFi at the Dohab hostel and shared a beer on the rooftop terrace, having finally, and for the first time ever in Egypt, found a liquor shop. We reckon that will also be the last time we see something like that here.

The next day was already our last day in Cairo, as Annes unforseen tummy bug had eaten away at our time planning. We decided to visit the Egyptian Museum. We had already been warned that it is basically rooms after rooms stuffed with priceless exhibits, without much story-telling or explanation in between, and that is what we found. We had decided to go straight for the crown jewels – Tutenchamuns tomb treasure, that is – and only wander around a bit through the rest. The quality and sheer amount of the exhibits is mindblowing, but also mindblowing is the lack of care some of them receive – rows and rows of sarcophagus, statues and sphinxes of granite and marble and whatnot, just lined up without barrier for the visitors to touch and rub them, which they OF COURSE do, never mind the very few signs who say you shouldn’t. We saw lion heads who had been rubbed so often that they had already lost their shape, and all exhibits that were accessible like that had dark black patches where people had touched them. At the same time, Egypt seems to be very eager to “re-patriate” all items that have been stolen (basically all of Europe is littered with those steals, starting with but not ending with Napoleon) or bought from grave diggers (which is not better than stealing, maybe worse). Anne was a staunch supporter of that claim up to the point of entering that museum. Now she is against it. To be true, most exhibits are behind glass, but most of a million still leaves hundreds out in the open. It was difficult for us to understand what qualified an exhibit to be protected and put behind glass, and others to be put at the mercy of tourists. But better keep the bust of Nefertiti (Neue Museum in Berlin) and the Stone of Rosetta (British Museum in London) where they are for now.

We met for lunch with Christina, a German physiotherapist we had met in Hurghada, and who has been working as physiotherapist for some years now in Egypt (because they need ladies to work on ladies ;-)). Took the train back to Alexandria at 4pm, this time a cheaper one, which was then more like the commuter train experiences we know from Germany. Still quite ok and only 20 minutes late! We crushed the evening again in Omars biker heaven, trying to convince him to ride with us to Port Said the next day, while he tried to persuade us to stay a bit longer in Alex. But we have to say, even if we love Egypt, we are really itchy to get going again and get on this boat to Turkey. The road to Port Said was going to be our last stretch on African soil, and we went to sleep a bit excited at the thought….

*We mapped all places we stayed in on our GPS route tracking, so whoever wants to follow our route through Egypt at least won’t have to follow our many wrong turn-offs…