They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

 

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:

 

Where is Ji Won in this photo?

 

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

 

All Roads Lead To Alexandria

All Roads Lead To Alexandria

 

Going to miss Luxor’s West Bank vibes.

 

 

After an eventful 2 days here, we made a mad dash for the Luxor Train Station across the river.

 

 

Getting there 45 minutes early, I took this time to give everyone a memento silver bracelet of “monsoon” written in Egyptian hieroglyphics that Ahmed was able to arrange for us at the last minute.

 

After all, when am I ever going to come back where it all began with such an awesome group of people?

 

 

We then hopped on the daily overnight 8:10pm Watania sleeper train from Luxor to Cairo.

 

 

And like last time, we began our train bender with another cool ass wagon master. Can’t get enough of this.

 

 

Saves so much time and money!

 

 

We turned in early at 11pm after drinks and a short dance party, waking up to sunrise at 5:30am:

 

 

We arrived into Cairo Train Station about an expected 3.5 hours late at 9:00am.

 

 

While I struggled with the issue of buying the maximum 4 tickets per order at the ticket office for our train to Alexandria (leading me to go from counter to counter buying 4 tickets at a time, much to the chagrin of everyone watching me), a small strike team set out to get breakfast for us outside the train station.

We then chilled for a bit in the food court at the train station before boarding one of the half-an-hourly trains to Alexandria.

 

 

We then boarded the 10:00am Train #911 to Alexandria.

 

 

Getting into Alexandria around 3 hours later at around 1:30pm, I stopped for a second to consider how much I’ve changed 10 years ago since I was here. I mean, look at my hair back then.

 

 

From the station we strolled north to Kom el Dikka, literally translating to “pile of rubble.” It’s famous for being home to a relatively well preserved Roman amphitheater, baths, and mosaics:

 

 

From there we turned left up towards the corniche. Unlike the rest of Egypt, nobody batted us an eye except for a “secret” policeman following us to see what this massive group was up to.

 

 

We then dropped off our bags at Triomphe Hotel & Hostel, where we were supposed to stay for the night if it weren’t for a change of plans to return to Cairo tonight (BIG SURPRISE TOMORROW!!!). At this point the secret policeman, who followed us all the way to the hotel, felt satisfied that we weren’t terrorists and then let us be.

 

 

If you need any bit of sightseeing here, then I recommend Kom el-Shouqafa Catacombs, amusingly discovered in 1900 when the ground gave way under a donkey.

 

 

5 minutes nearby stands Pompey’s Pillar, an ancient 25-meter-high granite column constructed in honor of the Emperor Diocletian in AD 297. 

 

 

But reading group vibes, we wanted to experience Alexandria in all its known chillness. So we went directly towards the seaside Corniche and began our walk at Alexandria Bibliotheca.

 

 

Don’t expect anything historic looking of the so-called legendary “Alexandria Library.” While it stands on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, those of you expecting a building besotted by time and conjures up memories of a foregone era of Greco-Roman classical architecture, will be disappointed. This is as modern of a library as you can get.

 

 

From the library Angelica peeled off with Ji Won and Alexandra to see some of the houses that her great grandmother and father used to live in, and the high school her father attended. They even were invited inside a random local’s home to see inside with the help of Angelica’s father on the phone!

 

 

The rest of us otherwise began a leisurely 45 minute stroll along the famous corniche.

 

 

About 20 minutes in we passed by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, honoring the Egyptian military.

 

 

10 minutes later we walked by El-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque, built in 1775 by Algerians over the tomb of the famous 13th century sufi saint, Ahmed Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi.

 

 

We then took a brief stop at famous Azza Ice Cream . . .

 

 

. . . and finished our stroll at  Citadel of Qaitbay.

Built in 1480 by Sultan Qaitbay to protect the city from the crusaders who used to attack the city by sea, and of course, it stands on the exact site of one of the original 7 wonders of the Ancient World: the Alexandria Lighthouse.

They even recycled the stone of the ruined lighthouse for its construction. It saw defense of the city against invaders, from crusaders to Napoleon, and remained in military use as late as 1882 when the British bombarded it.

 

 

Satisfied with our primer of Alexandria, we turned in for dinner at the scenic Sidra By The Citadel at the recommendation of my local friend Perry (whom I met years ago in NYC as one of the waitresses at my favorite hookah bar in the East Village).

This place checks off every single box I look for in living the travel dream: an outdoor balcony serving fresh food overlooking the sea, while smoking hookah and listening to the adhan at sunset…and as much as I hate to admit it, with great WiFi.

 

 

We plan to head back to Cairo on the evening train, but with these vibes, I kind of worry we’ll stay here all night and miss the last big part of our trip — which happens tomorrow!

 

— UPDATED —

Alas, this trip obviously was 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 offce 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!

 

- At time of posting in Alexandria, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 67% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Luxor-y Travel

Luxor-y Travel

 

After the first rounds of goodbye to Likhith and Karthik last night, I noticed that Mihaela is already crying realizing that the trip is halfway over:

 

 

Wrapping up 2 days in Aswan, we planned to set out this morning on a 7:30am train to Luxor, arriving at 10:30am in the morn ng. Since it was an ordinary passenger train and not a sleeper, we planned to buy tickets on the car. However, we were informed the night before by both the train station personnel and our hostel owner El-Amin that the train car had been oddly sold out.

Not to fear though, an even better plan emerged out of this trip hiccup: we would be provided 2 private vans to take us to Luxor, picking us up and dropping us off at our leisure.

So we woke up to a wonderful breakfast on the balcony overlooking the Nile.

 

 

After breakfast at 8:30am, we crossed the ferry over to our vans waiting for us on the East Bank.

 

 

Hopping in our vans, we nearly had an uneventful 3 hour drive to Luxor until 2 random men jumped in, claiming to be our “travel agents” and pushing us to book tours with them.

But we saw through their smokescreen from the very beginning, so we collectively trolled them by pretending to be interested, driving them all the way to the West Bank of Luxor, before telling them everything was booked and then asking why they were there. They promptly sulked and walked away: Mission Failed!

 

 

We then settled in our lodgings at Luxor Guesthouse with its fantastic owner, Ahmed. What a vibe:

 

 

After freshening up, Ahmed arranged us a private ferry right outside his guesthouse to take us over to the East Bank . . .

 

 

. . . and we headed out for Karnak Temple (120 EGP), an open-air museum and the largest temple of the ancient world. They shut their doors at 5:30pm so by the time we got there at 4:31pm, the ticket office initially refused to sell us anymore and let us in.

 

 

. . . But I charmed them with a 200 EGP bribe to let us in, and with a 50% discount as we had our student IDs. WINNING.

 

 

One of my favorite profile pictures was taken 10 years ago here on a timer:

 

 

But now I don’t need a timer. I have friends to take one for me:

 

 

 

… I remember the time it got served 10 years ago:

 

 

And on Grace’s insistence, I serve it again 10 years later:

 

 

How about a side by side comparison:

 

 

Still got it!

 

 

It’s good to be back. Other people also got the idea:

 

 

After Karnak Temple closed down at 5:30pm, we took our ferry 10 minutes down the Nile towards Luxor Temple. I was able to snag a VIP section above from all the tourists on an elevated and underutilized platform.

 

 

Then I took them down to the real thing —

I remember writing 10 years ago: “This is the first time my jaw ever dropped.”

 

 

The same holds true today:

 

 

After about an hour here, we then hopped back on our ferry towards our guesthouse on the West Bank, where we had dinner and toasted our sorrowful goodbyes to Neerharika and Andrena.

Then we danced it up with the guesthouse staff in our party room on the balcony!

 

 

The next morning, thanks to Ahmed, all of us booked the famous sunrise hot air balloon tour over Luxor at 6am:

 

 

This would be a first for me! I had attempted to get on a hot air balloon 8 years ago in Cappadocia, but alas the whole thing got rained out then.

NOT TODAY:

 

 

After 50 minutes in the air, we returned back to Ahmed’s guesthouse where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the balcony at 8:30am.

Then to make things even better for the day, Ahmed himself offered to take us on one of the best tours of the trip so far, while driving us all around the West Bank — the Theban Necropolis used for ritual burials for much of the Pharaonic period, especially during the New Kingdom.

There are so many but instead of a single convenient ticket, you’ll have to buy tickets for each temple.

 

 

I have to mention I endured a lot of bargaining today trying to get a 50% discount with our student IDs, with partial success.

 

 

Halfway through, Ahmed took us to a much needed tea break at an alabaster shop where they let us chop stone for free over some complimentary tea and coffee.

 

 

As for the West Bank itself, there are countless temples and if you had to choose, we recommend seeing the following in order:

Colossi of Memnon, which are 2 massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. I recommend it because they’re both free admission.

 

 

Valley of the Queens, home to Nefertari and the Great Wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Often referred as the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, it is restricted to private tours of 20 people max and costs a pretty penny at LE1,200 (with a max viewing time of 10 min). No discounts for students.

Valley of the Kings, the burial place of most of the pharaohs of Egypt of the New Kingdom:

 

 

Your ticket (250 EGP) to the Valley of the Kings gains you access to 3 temples with extra charges for places like King Tut’s tomb (now essentially empty after everything was moved to the Egyptian museum). If you had to choose, our favorites were Ramses III, IV, and IX.

 

 

Try to find the inexplicable carving of the kangaroo in Ramses III!!!

 

 

Temple of Hatshepsut, One of the more impressive sights on the West Bank:

 

 

Ahmed’s and our personal favorite, Medinet Habu, a temple built by Ramses III:

 

 

Ramesseum: The fallen colossal statue of the pharaoh that inspired the sonnet Ozymandias by Shelley.

 

 

Deir el Medina, originally called Set Maat (the Place of Truth), the village was built to house the workforce of literate priest-craftsmen for the Royal Tombs. 

 

 

The abundant domestic and written remains here make it the very best-studied Ancient Egypt community to date.

 

 

At this point we were all getting really templed out (this crew lasted up to 4), as expected, so we returned in the evening for a much needed lunch and shisha before catching our 8:10pm Watania overnight train back to Cairo.

 

 

- At time of posting in Luxor, Egypt, it was 19 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Life’s Simbel — It’s Abu The People That Make The Trip, Not The Destination

Life’s Simbel — It’s Abu The People That Make The Trip, Not The Destination

 

Credit goes to Ann Wen (who’s not even on the trip!) for the blogpost title.

In our second day in Aswan, we set out for sites outside of the city, beginning with the obligatory tourist pilgrimage to Abu Simbel. This began with a mandatory wake up call at 3:15am for a 3:30am ferry to take us across to the East Bank.

 

 

Our ferry came a little late, which got us a little worried, but after some underslept-caused series of confusions, we were able to get to the other side with 2 trips. We were then met by our 2 vans to take us on our 3 hour journey to Abu Simbel.

 

 

There was a brief 15 minute pee-break in the desert just as the sun began to rise.

 

 

And by 8am we reached the Abu Simbel tourist complex. There was another episode of confusion when after disembarking out buses, a guide approached claiming to have been booked by our hostel. However, after he failed my series of questions (“What’s the name of our hostel? Who was the man that sent you?”), I told him to bugger off. I justified to him that we already had a “PhD-level guide” in the brilliant mind of our very own monsooner, Siavash, who appropiately had split off briefly yesterday to visit the Nubian Museum and obtain this cornucopia of information of where we were going. That worked pretty well and we were left to our own.

Given that Aswan and our hostel do not accept much of credit cards, I was running low on cash to pay for the tickets (255 EGP for adults, 155 for students). Luckily there is an ATM machine on site, and after countless separate transactions of 1500 EGP each — as well as buying cash off of Likhith, Neeharika, and Karthik who were leaving the next day — I was able to have enough to pay for everyone. This was also assisted by the fact that 15 of us brought our student IDs and were able to snag the 100 EGP discount.

 

 

And down we went: Just so you know, Abu Simbel has remained one of my biggest travel misses since my trip to Egypt 10 years ago — it was the thing I really wanted to see that I had missed, and I’ve been yearning a return to see it ever since.

 

 

Well today would be the day I finally have my vengeance.

 

 

 

Carved out of a mountain between 1274 BC and 1244 BC and then lost to the world until it was rediscovered in 1813, Abu Simbel was a feat of engineering —

 

 

Ancient Egyptian architects positioned these temples in such a way that twice a year on February and October 22, sunlight would specifically illuminate the sculpture on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark.

 

 

Due to the displacement of the temple, it is widely believed that this event now occurs one day later than it used to. 

 

 

Scholars have deduced that these foreboding temples at Abu Simbel was originally used to scare off potential enemies intending to enter Egypt from the south, and had been located much further down the hillside while facing the Nile in the same relative positions.

 

 

Due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser, however, the original locations are now underwater. Nevertheless a massive archaeological effort was conducted in the 1960s where each temple was carefully sawed into numbered stone cubes, moved uphill, and reassembled to where it is today before the water rose.

 

 

The Great Temple of Ramses II was reassembled from a fake mountain built like a domed basketball court. This fake mountain looks like solid rock from the outside. You can follow the pathway inside the fake mountain dome to see how the mountain was constructed.

 

 

There’s also a smaller but similar structure past the main complex, built for the Queen:

 

 

After 2 hours here, we returned the 3 hours back to south Aswan to catch our ferry.

 

 

Daytime motorboat rides to the site costs 150 EGP roundtrip for 1-8 people including a one-hour wait, which is generally enough time to see everything. We suggest taking a picture of this sign to use when haggling with the boatmen who will demand 150 EGP each way, although don’t be surprised if you are still pressed for an additional baksheesh. I gave an extra 20.

It’s a 5 minute tranquil way to Agilkia Island, home to Philae Temple (admission: 180 EGP).

 

 

 

Built to honor the god Isis, this was the last ancient temple built in the classical Egyptian architectural style around 690 BC. Like Abu Simbel, it was moved from Philae Island to its present location on Agilkia Island after the flooding of Lake Nasser.

 

 

Next door is Trajan’s Kiosk, a hypaethral Roman temple and one of the largest Ancient Egyptian monuments standing today:

 

 

 

You can perhaps see the submerged island a short distance away, punctuated by the steel columns used in the moving process.

 

 

One quick impromptu group photo before heading back.

 

 

And by 4pm, we were back at our hostel enjoying a long overdue lunch.

 

 

–UPDATE–

 

No matter how this trip ends, today already feels like a goodbye as we leave Aswan. I have never teared up this many times on a single trip. Mihaela was right. Someone always cries on a monsoon. This time, it’s me.

 

 

- At time of posting in Abu Simbel, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 30% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: mostly sunny

 

Finally Coming Together “Aswan!”

Finally Coming Together “Aswan!”

 

By now you might be sick of all these “throwback” nostalgia I’m writing about, 10 years this, and 10 years that.

Thankfully, there’s some new material as I had missed Aswan the last time I was here. Therefore it would be our first stop outside of Cairo after taking the 7:45pm overnight sleeper train from Cairo that I had booked ahead via Watania. 

After a bender last night, we still got in at least full 8 hours in of sleep before waking up to a beautiful southern Egyptian morning.

 

 

We arrived the next morning at 9:25am in Aswan, the smallest of the three major tourist cities (Cairo and Luxor being the other two) on the Nile.

 

 

The furthest south of the three, it boasts a large population of Nubians that resettled from their homeland that had been flooded by Lake Nasser, as well as being the ancient Egyptians’ gateway to the rest Africa. Aswan is also home to many granite quarries from which most of the obelisks that we’ll see in Luxor were sourced.

 

 

We arranged cabs from our guesthouse to pick us up outside the train station . . .

 

 

. . . and took the ferry (5 EGP) over to Elephantine Island for our lodgings at El-Amin Guesthouse:

 

 

After lunch at the hostel, we then booked a private ferry on the Nile for the West Bank at the Tombs of the Nobles (60 EGP):

 

 

Rock-hewn tombs of princes from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period dot along the northern hills of the West Bank.

 

 

The 6th Dynasty tombs are decorated with hieroglyphic biographical texts, wall paintings of everyday life, and inscribed stories describiing the noblemen’s journeys into Africa.

 

 

The LE60 ticket gives you access to the Tombs of Mekhu & Sabni (which reliefs show the invasion of Nubia):

 

 

and the Tomb of Sarenput II (one of the most beautiful and well preserved) on the left side coming up the hill, as well as the Tomb of Sarenput I on the right side:

 

 

All of which will need the key holder waiting for you when you come up.

 

 

We had a swimmingly fine time, you might get hassled by the key holder nonetheless (you probably have to pay him a fee for taking photos). We went in a group to make sure we could take some pictures when the key holder was busy, especially in the Tomb of Sarenput II., but I figured our group was so massive he gave up caring.

 

 

On the right side there is also a tomb with a bat colony at the far end, if you bring a flashlight. I’M BATMAN.

 

 

Climb a steep hill up 10 minutes to reach Kubbet el-Hawa, aka “Dome of the Wind”, a small shrine and tomb for a local sheikh and holy man overlooking an amazing view of Aswan and the Nile river.

 

 

3km away you can walk or take camels (you’re supposed to haggle them down to 50 EGP) to the Monastery of St Simeon (40 EGP), which 300 monks and up to 100 pilgrims at a time once called home.

We took the quick way and took our private ferry over 10 minutes to reach the dock for the Monastery.

 

 

There’s a point where you can see the effects of water on human civilization:

 

 

There is supposed to be an official entrance where you pay for tickets, but we gave up and climbed over a wall.

 

 

We then returned to the East Bank, where we started our walk at Feryal Garden.

 

 

Then we stopped in at the very modern Archangel Michael’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral:

 

 

And keeping to the tradition of entering illegally and exit legally, we did the very same at the cathedral.

 

 

About another 10 minute walk inland you can glimpse the Unfinished Obelisk (60 EGP), the largest known ancient obelisk. Be wary of the guy who demands baksheesh for making you watch an unnecessary movie about obelisks.

 

 

We then finished along the corniche by sunset before returning back to El-Amin Guesthouse for dinner where we were finally reunited with the final 2 members of our trip: Grace & Kasie!!!

 

 

Finally coming together “Aswan!”

 ….And some things don’t change.

 

 

On another note, Chyne just cut his finger with a huge laceration with blood everywhere while I was taking a shower. 

Luckily with the timely arrival of Grace and Kasie (both of whom actually work with me at Mount Sinai Brooklyn ER!) we were able to staunch the bleeding and temporarily fix it with a pressure dressing. Still doing my day job on my side hustle (or is it other way around? I can’t tell anymore).

The following photo(s) may be NSFW! (unless you’re working in a medical setting):

 

 

Given how deep the laceration is at the joint, we’re sending Chyne off to the East Bank of Aswan right now to get some sutures (as hard as it is to believe, I don’t travel with a laceration kit…but I guess now I have to from now on).

 

Update: he’s back and totally fine! Got stitched up by a plastic surgeon in the ER and it cost only 200 EGP.

 

- At time of posting in Aswan, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 28% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Try Not To Be An Old Giza, Will Ya: The Great Pyramids

Try Not To Be An Old Giza, Will Ya: The Great Pyramids

 

After a whirlwind first day in Cairo, we woke up bright and early at 4am for the Pyramids. Just like good old times.

 

 

Today we changed nothing on the plan I did 10 years ago. Everything was planned to the tee to be exactly the same except that instead of 4-5 friends with me, I had 20. 

We drove over from Tahrir Square to the bedouin horse stables where 16 horses were waiting for us by 5:00am. They quickly assigned each of us to a horse based on preferences for “fast”, “slow”, “strong”, or “small.”

 

 

10 years ago, I chose “crazy”:

 

 

Today I chose “crazy fast”:

 

  

We quickly befriended our horses and set off into the darkness (obviously any photos I took came out all black).

10 years ago,

. . . with a sound of a whip breaking through the cold air, my life would change forever. My horse raced off and so did my heart, and I held on for dear life. The poor bastard I was sitting on was galloping away as if we were trying to outrun a jaguar: we were outrunning fate. From the sound of crackling pavement to that of rustling sand, I slowly caught on that I was in the middle of the Sahara desert: Just my horse and I in the blind.

The darkness also overwhelmed me; I couldn’t see anything but the color black under a cloudy night sky. I’m not sure if I could brag that “I was riding that horse with my eyes closed!” but this was close enough. And I knew in my bones that if I had let go for a second, I’d fall and break something: my camera, my limbs, my head, my dignity. So I held tighter. I channeled prior experience on riding mechanical bulls back home. It seemed as every gallop would be the last thing I would ever hear. I remember there was a little voice in my head telling me that I *really* wasn’t in New York anymore (a little slow, a little late).

Then with a high-pitched whistle in front of me I saw a fire burn in the distance. Shadows in the light of the fire pointed. I turned my head over my shoulder . . . 

 

 

As we reached the Giza plateau, dawn began to pierce the night. The muezzin call to prayer, the adhan, began to fill the air around us. Familiar emotions from 10 years ago came back as if stored like muscle memory. As if I smelled the perfume of a former lover, read an old letter to myself, or stepped in a room I used to grow up in, I wept. Luckily nobody saw me in tears through the thickness of twilight.

As the sun began to peek above the haze, we got off our horses to take it all in.

 

 

We watched as an occasional harras of horses galloped across the plain.

 

 

And as the sun continue to rise, we were treated to a breakfast for the ages by our bedouin guides, with the silhouettes of the great pyramids (too covered by a thick haze to be clearly seen) in front of us.

 

  

There was some photobombing.

  

 

And there were some emotions (not just from me): A little birdie tells me that Mihaela also had a moment where she wept out of pure joy. 

Ironic since it was she herself who coined the quote that “at least one person always cries on a monsoon.”

 

 

We then wrapped up our morning with traditional tea by a makeshift bedouin campfire.

 

 

After an hour on the plain, we set off back on our horses back to the stables, bid our guides farewekk and drove towards the Great Pyramids themselves.

 

 

BTW, if you have been following us on our Instagram stories, then you should know how grateful I am to my social media manager on this trip, Diana Klatt.

 

 

And equally so, the rest of my monsooners on this very trip who joined me in my emotional return to a place that changed my life forever.

10 years ago:

Today:

 

 

After an hour with the Great Pyramids, we drove towards Saqqara: a vast, ancient burial ground in Egypt that served as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. 

It is most famous for the Step pyramid of Djoser.

 

 

To the south, we then drove even further towards Dahshur, home to the failed Bent Pyramid, which construction was unsuccessful due to the miscalculations made on the structural weight. 

You can see the big fail right from the outset

 

 

Learning from these mistakes, King Sneferu then built the much more successful Red Pyramid:

 


…where we were able to go inside:

 

 

It’s a long long, seemingly interminable way down. Warning to those who get claustraphobic!

 

 

Once you climb down the 5-10 minutes it takes to reach the end, it takes about another 5 minutes to see whatever it is inside:

 

 

We then returned to our bus and finally rested for lunch in the area.

 

 

We then headed back to Cairo, taking the metro from the Coptic area for our overnight train to Aswan.

 

— AN ENCORE: ONE WEEK LATER —

On our very last day of the trip, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain after saying our goodbyes to everyone

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 would return one week later for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise. This time the mist was gone.

 

 

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. . . .

 

 

- At time of posting in Giza, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 51% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: hazy