After exploring the ancient sites near Cairo, it was time to head farther south into the country to visit a few of the antiquities on the Nile valley. I looked into bus schedules, but quickly decided to book a berth on the overnight tourist train from Cairo to Aswan. Arriving at the railway station was an experience in itself. The taxi driver who was taking me there got completely lost, and couldn’t find the entrance to the station. He was able to get close several times, even to the point where we could see the building. Finally after having do some creative reversing (and experiencing some creative swearing from the local vendors!), he gave up trying to reach the drop off point and just pointed me in the correct direction. I gathered up my stuff, and walked the remaining 100 or so meters toward the front entrance.
Once immersed in the chaos of the train station, I quickly appreciated the fact that I was on a tourist class train. During the half hour or so that I was waiting for my train, I must have seen the express train departing into the 9th circle of hell arrive and depart several times! The locals crammed into cars that had no windows, and if they were lucky they might get an old wooden bench to fight over. Of course their ticket cost about 1 percent of what I paid, so it was a pretty in my face concrete example of why most Egyptians see tourists as nothing more than walking wallets.
The train that I got on was nothing like what the locals had. I had my own private compartment (which I got for the equivalent of a two dollar bribe to the porter), soft clean sheets, clean toilets, and even a bar car that played bad techno music all night long. I ended up chatting to a couple of tourists for a few hours, and then headed to bed where I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the wheels clacking against the badly aligned rails.
The next morning I woke up to a beautiful sunrise, and my first view of the Nile river in a rural setting. For another hour or so as the train approached Aswan we passed thru small villages, and got a small glimpse into how rural life was for those Egyptians who lived outside of the cities. We finally pulled into the train station, and were met by an army of touts all trying to entice us to their hotels and tour companies. I’d already selected a hotel based on the Lonely Planet’s recommendation, so I headed over to check in. The hotel was clean, and the owner was friendly, if a little pushy about his tour company. I agreed to go on a felucca ride with a few other people that afternoon, and a trip to Abu Simel the following day, but declined his offer to sail to Luxor on his friend’s boat. I actually had planned to take a felucca downriver to at least Edfu, but the temperatures in January made it a less than attractive idea.
While I was killing time waiting for my felucca ride, I decided to wander down to the Nubian museum. After seeing how chaotic the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo was, I wasn’t really expecting a lot as far as quality. It was quite a nice surprise to see how well presented and organized the displays were! Instead of a random collection of artifacts with little or no information about the objects being shown, this had a complete history of the Nubian culture laid out chronologically in both Arabic and English. I ended up spending nearly two hours wandering around absorbing as much as I could.
After a couple of hours, it was time to head to the docks to meet the other people on the trip, and get onboard. We started our trip by heading to the opposite side of the river where we visited some 2000 year old tombs of early Egyptian noblemen. These were dug into the side of the hill and had a kind of sketchy admission system. There wasn’t any “official” entry station, but instead there were several locals who would show you around and then ask for baksheesh when you left. We didn’t get much information about what we were seeing, but we were informed several times that it was a “beautiful tomb!”
After checking out the tombs, we headed over to Elephantine island in the middle of the river. We were invited to see the local village where the Nubian people lived. Once again, I was less than impressed with how set up it was. One day I’m going to learn not to expect anything else other than bored villagers playacting for the tourists! We wandered around, and the most authentic thing that we saw was the local muslim women hiding from the tourists as we walked by. They seemed genuinely disturbed by our presense, and I was glad to finally leave them in peace. Of course no village visit for tourists would be complete without an invitation to the chief’s house where we could purchase locally made souvineers of dubious quality and authenticity.
We were supposed to go over to one more island, but it was getting close to sunset so our group decided to just cruise around for another hour or so before heading back. This was my favorite part of the whole cruise. just gliding around, powered by nothing but the wind was incredible. We got to see an amazing sunset and then headed back to the dock and the rest of the evening.