Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.
This is one of those posts.
The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”
This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.
But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.
Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.
I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.
Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.
1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.
Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm
After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.
The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.
So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!
We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.
Peak monsooning the way I missed it.
And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.
Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.
The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.
And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.
We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.
Don’t drop the toilet paper!
And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.
There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.
After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.
Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:
After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.
By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,
The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.
If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.
As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”
But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.
As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.
As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,
Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.
After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.
In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:
Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.
And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:
Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:
Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:
Others braved the chill:
The silence here at sunrise was deafening.
How’s your Thursday morning been?
After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.
During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.
After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.
The mushroom and chicken just got served.
And not just by me:
Cue the M.I.A. music:
“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”
After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:
This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.
And this one I just had for lunch today:
At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.
We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:
By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:
Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.
And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.
Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.
But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.
But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.
So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.
It’s time to say goodbye, for real.
But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”
“See you later.”
— AN ENCORE —
The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.
The story that started it all.
And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:
This view never gets old.
So how much have I changed the past 10 years?
Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .
. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.
After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”).
There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!
From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .
. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.
We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.
If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .
. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .
. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .
- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear