Travelling independently using public transport
(Sinai part together with my wife, alone the rest)
TERM: 19.10. - 19.11. 2007
ROUTE: Cairo - Dahab
(Sinai desert trip, St. Katherine monastery visit & Mt. Sinai trek) - Sharm el-Sheik (Shark's Bay, Ras Mohammed NP visit) - Alexandria - Siwa
- Bahariya (Black Desert & White Desert visit) - Farafra - Dakhla
- Luxor - Cairo (Giza, Dahshur & Saqqara pyramids visit, Wadi
Natrun monasteries visit)
There seems to be no shortage of information about majority of places of any interest to travellers in Egypt and thus before going there I have not expected to encounter too many surprises. Yet, I have found that the information given about some places is full of myths which are copied from one source to the other and create rather unfounded expectations. This especially concerns curiously unbalanced information about the Western Desert oases, where Siwa seems to be quite overrated in comparison with the other oases, in particular Dakhla. Also information about terrible hassling in Egypt is rather misguiding as it is in fact not especially bad regarding shopkeepers or taxi drivers - of course, the Egyptian omnipresent "baksheesh" (tipping) culture is indeed a very annoying nuisance. To make up for this rather deformed image of Egypt I have prepared this rather detailed trip report, which describes my own, somewhat different views and may thus hopefully give my readers another angle. Yet, as always, please understand that all the opinions and observations given here are highly subjective and based on my personal values.
Transport: Public transport in Egypt is very cheap and
quite effective, but one has to be prepared for a constant struggle as it is
not generally too friendly to independent travellers. Yet, one of the reasons
behind it may be that the Egyptians seem not to really understand the concept
of "system" in doing things - they have got as far as knowing that there is
some system in some things but cannot really grasp its substance. So, e.g. when
using "Western-made" buses which come with their seats numbered, they insist on
issuing numbered tickets and putting people on their given seat but they often
cannot really draw tickets according to the request (like to the left or right
side - and the sun in Egypt is strong and you would like to sit on the shaded
side) or seat people properly. I have frequently witnessed people being
repeatedly reseated according to the best abilities of the bus conductor (or
several conductors vividly discussing the matter and putting their ideas in
practice for a trial) but often it did not work due to a lack of understanding
of the numbering system. So, you better learn Arabic numbers, let the man at
the ticket counter indicate for you which number on the ticket means the seat
number (everything on the tickets is in Arabic, so you likely do not understand a
thing), and find your given seat; if you by coincidence get what you have
wanted and the conductor gets some other idea, try to give him a lesson - he
will be probably amazed by the logic and gladly follow your lead.
1. We flew to Cairo and back with the Czech Airlines (CSA) as this company flies direct from our home town Prague - both flights were OK even if slightly delayed, leg space was about average. In general, regarding the flights the CSA is normal European airline now but dealing with ground personnel in its Prague office is still not so pleasant as the staff seems to be rather undertrained and incompetent.
2. In Egypt we used the local airline Egypt Air for some routes. The planes looked well maintained and the flights were OK even if often modestly late. The company felt as a typical low-cost airline with almost no service on board and average leg space; the tickets bought well ahead of the flying time were indeed very cheap. Their internet booking worked well (even allowing to reserve exact seats) and the payment using a debit card went without problem; there were no problems with using their electronic tickets.
3. Otherwise I used mainly public buses, which are the main means of transport in Egypt and are indeed dead cheap. They connect all major places in Egypt and feel about normal - the Egyptians are of a similar stature as Westerners so there are no problems with your available space. The buses are strictly nonsmoking which you may appreciate as the Egyptians are often very heavy smokers. The buses are frequently full so better book the ticket a day before (it should be enough, not many Egyptians bother to do it) or be prepared to stand for some time. Seats are numbered but do not expect to have much influence on the exact seat you get, its almost random - either the man in the office does not listen to your request, or the bus has different numbering system than the booking sheet, or the bus conductor does not understand the numbering system and forces some distribution of his own (see also the introduction above). The buses are usually air-conditioned (the Upper Egypt buses servicing the oases are the exception) and their air condition works anything from freezing you to an icicle (your personal regulation switch is frequently broken) to not doing any noticeable job - come well prepared for all eventualities. The luggage goes to the storage under the bus deck - contrary to what is written in many guidebooks (and to what is normal in the "developing countries" in general) there seems to be some luggage fee required now - at the beginning I was refusing it as a common scam and always put my luggage into the storage myself to avoid being asked for a "baksheesh" (tip) but later I have noticed that locals indeed pay something too. The luggage handlers asked something like 1EP but usually did not insist on it any more than in other cases of clear "baksheesh" requests; sometimes they issued a ticket for the luggage and in these cases they were more persistent. So, my rule of thumb now would be that when you get a ticket issued you should pay (some 1EP or so) while without a ticket you are entitled to refuse - still, the locals seem to pay always.
4. Another means of transport you are likely to use is the train servicing the route from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan (on this route the Egyptian tourist police is quite persistent in its effort to make it difficult for you to use a bus). Yet, the train is quite comfortable and allows you to catch interesting sights of Egyptian countryside and so I do recommend using it for this route. There are several classes of seating coaches in the Egyptian trains, the kind of my choice is the air-conditioned 2nd class which I have found sufficiently comfortable (very generous leg space, reasonably clean toilets, even too efficient air-conditioning - again, come prepared), and still reasonably cheap (1st class is more expensive and I have not needed any more comfort, 2nd class without air-condition is rather hot and very crowded); the air-conditioned 1st and 2nd classes are strictly nonsmoking, the rest of classes are smoking (very much so). There are also some night sleeping trains with extremely expensive tickets (payable in US$ only), which I have not even thought about. Basically you are requested to travel on few selected trains only ("guarded" by police) but this rule is not too strict - nevertheless, you are not able to buy tickets for an "improper" train ahead and so need to be prepared for a likely necessity to look for a new place several times; still, you should be able to always find some. When boarding a train without a ticket, you will get the ticket issued by the conductor with a small penalty added (about 10EP) - when there is no place available, you will probably - "Inshallah" (God willing) - get help from the coach servant (at least it looked there has been one in each coach) who will find a place for you for a well deserved "baksheesh" (probably by kicking out some other guy without proper ticket). As for the "proper" trains meant to be used by foreigners, you can buy the ticket ahead and book your seat but do not expect not to have any problems. First of all, the same problem of choosing your exact seat applies as described for the buses (sure as hell, I got my ticket to the sunny side of the train, the sunshade next to my seat was missing, and the air-conditioning on my coach was not working for some time - they fixed it later - so I anyway moved to other coach and had to change my seat several times then). Also, I was buying ticket from Luxor to Cairo and got issued and paid for the ticket valid for the whole train route from Aswan to Cairo - it was explained to me, that the "system" (PC reservation this time) did not allow to reserve the seat from Luxor only and so I had to pay for the whole route (I checked with the information office and tourist police in Luxor and they all did talk the same !!??); still, I noticed that the Egyptians boarding the train later along the train way had their reserved seats but did not pay for full route - so it was a scam again, but an official one this time (nice indeed). In general, your choice is to board an "improper" train without ticket and "baksheesh" your way through, or to buy an overcharged ticket for the "proper" train - the final price will be about the same. Both trains feel about the same, the "improper" one stops slightly more frequently but it is little more fun as it is cheaper and so better available for locals.
5. Other means of transport you may need to use are the so-called "service taxi" and "pick-up". The "service taxi" is a typical minivan running along the preset route, leaving when full (well, overcrowded typically) and stopping anywhere along its way - you may want to use it esp. between oases; it costs just slightly more than a bus, luggage travels free, and smoking is sadly allowed (it makes travelling in that small overcrowded thing rather unpleasant as many Egyptians just cannot quit smoking). The "pick-up" is indeed a pick-up truck - sometimes with some seats arranged on its rear, sometimes just an ordinary one - which is used for travelling between villages, esp. off the main road, or within some cities (e.g. Luxor); the ride is usually for a flat fee (very small, typically up to 1EP) no matter how far you go. Yet, typically there are many different routes and there are no signs on the pick-ups, so you need to ask locals who are frequently confused too. Beware that the frequency of this transport is considerably reduced on Fridays. In places where the service taxi and/or pick-ups are running between villages you can also try hitch-hiking as is frequently done by locals too (actually, the locals just stand on side of the road and the drivers stop for them by themselves, but it would probably not work for a foreigner, as "Westerners" are expected to be too rich to need a ride) - you are expected to pay for this ride at least the same price as paid for the pick-up.
6. In the cities you will need to use taxis. There are a lot of them around and they are quite cheap but - as it is typical in "developing countries" - they do not use a meter and so you need to negotiate the price in advance. The asking price is several times the "real" one so it always helps to find out what is the "proper" price - check out your guidebook, look around on the internet, and/or ask in your hotel to get an idea. At Sinai expect much higher prices than in the rest of Egypt but the cars used there are also in much better shape - half of taxis in Cairo are indeed pieces of pathetic junk. In some places the taxis are rarely marked by any sign (Dahab), but otherwise they use some common two-colour pattern (in fact, there are even several kinds of taxis in the biggest cities but it would complicate things too much - just use the small passenger cars which are the cheapest). In some places you can encounter some special kinds of taxi, like donkey carts (Siwa), horse carts (Luxor), or three-wheel "tuk-tuk" vehicles otherwise known esp. from Asia (Wadi Natrun City). In some smaller places there are no private taxi cars available (Western Desert oases) and you need to hire a whole "service taxi" or "pick-up" - they call it "taxi especial" in Egypt - naturally, this is not really cheap. The taxi drivers always look actively for clients so you will hear them shouting on you or blowing their horns but - contrary to what you can read in many trip reports - they are not overly persistent; just use the local customary way of refusing a ride, which is just few quick twists of hand at wrist, and they will stop bothering you. Still, there are some not so typical things about taxis in Egypt too - after stopping the driver always asks first about your destination and many times simply drives away when hearing it - they do it to locals too (this is quite strange for me and I have never encountered it in any other place in the world); another and much more unpleasant thing is that Egyptian taxi drivers have no problem to pick you up without knowing your destination (or understanding what you are saying or both) and drop you just anywhere near ("Inshallah" - and it happened to me even with the Turgoman main bus terminal in Cairo ??!!!) - well, this is annoying indeed and you need to be on guard (during my travels I was always thinking that this could be a problem in an unknown town but I had to go to Egypt to see it happen).
7. Sometimes I also hired a car/taxi for a longer, even a day-long trip and this was usually quite an ordeal (but there have been exceptions too). It seems to me that Egyptian honor code is quite alien to our perception of it - many Egyptians understand a deal as something to stick to as long as they think it is advantageous for them and to drop whenever they do not like it so much any more; yet, of course they are very hurt and angry when you say that they are not delivering as agreed and esp. when you try to give them less money for less work. The longer time beyond the negotiation moment the more likely they get their second thoughts - so when you need to make an agreement for the next day morning you are in a rather difficult situation: if you succeed to negotiate a good deal the guy is not likely to show up or seems not to remember well what the deal was. Also, one of the few things they learned quite well is that highly assertive behaviour we all know from our civil servants or other people holding any kind of monopoly: if you do not like their ideas you quickly get that happy "if-you-do-not-like-it- you-do-not-need-to-take-it" talk and you are facing the choice of either to take a new, highly depleted deal, or risk to lose lots of time with uncertain prognosis. I do not know what to advise here, the only way to be safe would be to strike a deal heavily biased towards the car driver/owner from start - yet, I personally really hate to make a bad behaviour a winning strategy. Besides, sometimes there are exceptions (esp. in places where there is stronger competition) and everything goes smoothly and as agreed. So I would say: negotiate a good deal but not too good, keep your fingers crossed, and be ready for struggle and concessions (good luck).
Accommodation: We/I used budget hotels typically with rooms up to about US$10 (with the exception of Sinai where, if lucky, you would get just about a dorm for this money). In general, the prices for the rooms are very diverse depending on the place, competition, season, and your luck and negotiation skills - for the money mentioned you can sometimes get a quite large air-conditioned room and/or a room with your own bathroom included, or otherwise just a small bare cubicle with some beds only. The price depends on occupancy, so the same room is cheaper when used as a single than as a double - I did not see any single-bed rooms at all and quite often paid the single-room price for a room with three or even more beds. If the bathroom is attached to the room, it normally consists in a toilet bowl (never seen a squat toilet) and a shower (and rarely also a bath tube) in single separate room; the shared bathroom is either the same combination or the water closet and shower are in separated cabins. As it is typical in the "developing countries", you are often requested not to put toilet paper into the toilet due to possible plumbing problems - yet, a separate garbage can is rarely provided and you are requested to throw the used paper into the normal trash can; often an outfit for using the Asian/African water-cleaning method is provided but not always. Hot water shower is (surprisingly for me) almost always available even in very hot places and not too good looking hotels - typically they use a small boiler and I have never really had a problem with hot water not being available. A fan is usually provided and it is quite important during the days (a place to take a siesta in early afternoons is really needed) and in the evenings but it is not really necessary at nights during the time of year of my visit (October/November), possibly with exception of Luxor any time, and Cairo in October (in the oases there is nice cool at night). The single most important thing for your good sleep (and survival at your room even during the day) is to do something about mosquitoes which are very plentiful just about anywhere in Egypt, esp. in the oases, and including the Sinai coast (the only place without mosquitoes was surprisingly Luxor). There is no way you could survive just on a repellent - it is good just for a short time when going about your dinner; at your sleep you would get seriously eaten up. An electric insecticide vaporizer is an option here but I personally prefer a mosquito net - yet, I have never seen a net in any hotel in Egypt and always used my own (it is not always easy to attach the net somewhere - I have made two additional ears to my net allowing to make a tent-like structure out of it and hang it down from a low-lying rope which can usually be attached to some suitable points like picture hooks or door/window hinges). Always ask about breakfast - sometimes it is included even in places where you would not expect it (breakfast typically means a small tea pot, an omelet, a sausage, two or three slices of bread, some fruit, butter, honey, and/or jam); frequently there is a chance to get a discount for the room price when not taking the breakfast. I have found it quite difficult to find an available budget room in Alexandria and esp. Cairo; for Dahab and Sharm I rather booked the rooms for us ahead.
Food: Egyptian food seems to be rather good and tasty but it is difficult to get in some places (esp. oases) - it is said that the best food in Egypt is prepared at home and it is rather uncommon for the Egyptians to eat out. Vegetarian food is an important part of Egyptian cuisine but you do not have much choice on the street (I am not a vegetarian but when in tropical areas prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems). The Egyptian staple food, typically eaten every day by not-so-well locals eating out, esp. "fellahs" (farmers) - is fully vegetarian and consists in "fuul" (boiled fava beans in thick spicy tomato sauce; not too tasty) or "falafel" (fried balls or patties made from spiced mashed fava beans and chickpeas; quite tasty; 10 pcs for 1EP), flatbread (typically made of leavened wheat flour; not bad; 20 pcs for 1EP), and sometimes an addition of some fried vegetables like eggplant or potato; all this is dead cheap and can be bought in street stalls everywhere in poorer neighborhoods - it is either made into sandwiches or put separately to plastic sachets. Another cheap vegetarian food is "koshary" (cooked brown lentils, rice, and macaroni put together in spicy tomato sauce) which I have found really delicious but not been able to find it in the street stalls anywhere out of Cairo. All this food is typically sold not really fresh - it is prepared in advance and sold till it runs out - so, better buy it at places frequented with locals to have chance to get it reasonably fresh ("Inshallah"). In bigger but not too touristy places there are so called "restaurants" but they cannot present any menu (always saying they have it in their head) but they do not really need one as their only offer is the "chicken and rice", looking not especially tempting (I have never dared to try it), and so called "vegetable" which is some green leaves reminding spinach and sometimes potato chips. In touristy places some cheap restaurants are readily available - and locals happily eat there too - usually they have menu in English and the food there is rather good and tasty. It happened to me once in Cairo (but in not any specially looking small restaurant) that some 10% "service fee" was added to the food, so be careful to avoid surprises (the information about it was well hidden, written in fine letters and in Arabic only on their English menu - one more thing they may have learned form us). When buying some basic supplies (like bottled water) in shops, shop around esp. if staying longer in the same place as the prices may differ substantially.
Money: We used a debit card in ATMs with no problem at all (MasterCard). There were several banks with ATMs - we used HSBC Middle East Bank that had ATMs accepting both MasterCard and VISA cards with a withdrawal limit up to 2400EP. When arriving to the Cairo Airport "old" terminal 1, beware that the only ATM in the arrival hall is in the baggage-claim area before the passport control, behind the control there is no ATM and you need to go to the Departure Hall 2 (HSBC). When changing your remaining money back you can use banks as well as Forex - none of them is charging any commission. Beware, that when using your debit/credit card for making direct payments a 3% surcharge is added to the price.
Timing: The timing of our trip was predetermined by the need to wait for the end of Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr holidays (I cannot believe it is really pleasant and safe to travel in time when everybody is nervous because of not eating during the day and not sleeping at night) but it has shown to be a rather good choice. The seawater was still pleasantly warm at the Gulf of Aqaba and it was not so hot in the south and in the oases. The temperature was clearly going down through November - while it was still quite hot in Cairo on November 3, it was rather pleasant there around November 17. Besides, coming to Dahab just after Ramadan turned out to be a very good timing too, as there was very few people there, esp. in the beginning of our week-long stay.
Safety and pestering: I have found Egypt very safe and reasonably friendly. Both petty and violent crime is virtually non-existent in Egypt as the Muslim ethical codex is very strict in this respect and it is normally - "Al Hamdulillah" (Praise be to God) - applied even to foreigners. The people are generally rather friendly or at least disinterested and I never felt really threatened or resented. As for usual hassling - described as terrible in many trip reports - I have not found it much worse than anywhere in the world regarding shop-keepers or taxi drivers. Of course, the Egyptian omnipresent "baksheesh" culture - meaning constant begging for money while more or less cleverly pretending that there is some service done for you (but sometimes even without it) - is a different story and indeed a very annoying nuisance; I have not encountered any nearly that bad level of it anywhere in the world (maybe in Morocco but I am not sure as I was there with a travel agency and so were sheltered by hired local guides). I do understand that this culture is an offspring of one of the pillars of Islam, the requirement of giving "Zakat" (support of the needy), but I do think this principle has been meant, as in other religions, to be a direction for the giver how to become more understanding and less greedy, and not to be an encouragement for the receiver to expect or even demand gifts as a way of living. In general, nobody is bound to give any money for small common helps (like telling the directions), non-asked services, or even nothing at all; unfortunately even children are often engaged in this practice since their early age - in any case, I strongly believe you should never give money for nothing as your momentary money solve nothing for the poor and it makes them believe that begging is a way how to live instead of finding some sustainable way (South-Asian countries are an example that there is a self-sustaining way out for even the poorest parts of the world). Locals are also asked for "baksheesh" frequently and they seem to have no difficulty with ignoring the request or even directly refusing to oblige. And by the way, this culture has unfortunately even worse implications as you are likely to meet people in Egypt who understand their job position as a valid source of their income (it is called "corruption" everywhere else) - e.g., almost all guards at Luxor ancient sites seem to believe that the only reason for them being there is to let people do for money the things which they are precisely supposed to prevent from happening (like taking pictures with a flash in tombs, entering closed places, etc.). Of course, if you really get some help it is absolutely right to reward it as anywhere - common sense will tell you when to pay, just do not feel obliged to throw money around you for nothing. The basic phrase for refusing unwanted offers or requests for "baksheesh" is "la shukran" meaning "no, thanks"; if it does not work drop the "shukran" and say only "la" in a more strict manner and more loudly - usually this is enough. In the cases you are still not left alone, use the word "khalas" (enough) said in a very strict manner - very often it works as a spell and persistent tout or child asking for money (or a pen, the world famous substitute for money, which has of course nothing to do with school) just disappear. If still not successful you are facing rather insistent case and you can expect some problems - first try the rather rude "jalla emshi" ("go away" is the most decent meaning) and next the ultimate threat "bolis" (police) - locals, esp. adult, rather take heed of police which, I have been told, is quick to use corporal punishments (I used this word just about once against a would-be guide at Balat in Dakhla and it did help). In general, do not hesitate to call the police, esp. Tourist Police, for help - they are generally always on your side and likely to get you rid of the pest. Nevertheless, I experienced one more case of needing to resort to this threat and that time I got a logical response from a bunch of children asking for money at Qalamun in Dakhla - they replied "where?" as there was indeed no policeman in sight. The only thing you can do next in such case is just to try to ignore the pests but you are not likely to enjoy himself further on anyway - those kids mentioned started throwing stones next but they have been at least still rather irresolute in it and responded by a flight when I pretended to be picking up some stones too - well, they would not likely turn to stoning with any adults around (as Egyptians do understand well that they need tourist money) but I am not sure what will happen when these guys grew out (better visit Egypt now, I guess ...).
General impression: To put it point-blank, Egypt is rather difficult country and sometimes one gets enough of the struggle. Still, the nature there is very nice and special and there is, of course, a lot of ancient sites to admire. It may appear easier to travel with a group or at least with a guide, who are likely to save you from many problems (whilst creating some other) but that way you are just sheltering yourself from the real Egyptian life, which is indeed interesting and rich. And as always, rather hidden behind that coat of pestering crowd there is a world of normal, hard working Egyptians who are honestly friendly and even interested in meeting rather different human being. So do not hide in that tourist cocoon and go meet real life. It may be hard sometimes but that is the very reason for travelling - to meet new, unexpected, different ...
Note for possible Egyptian readers: I am aware that you may found some of my observations not too pleasant for you or may even feel offended. I am really sorry but this is just how I see it. Still, I am not trying to master you here - in your own country you definitely has every right to go about your life as you like. This information is aimed at my fellow travellers and meant just to prepare them for some rather atypical things to be encountered in Egypt and to give them some hints how to go about it.
We have spent seven days at Dahab and had a very good time - besides enjoying the sea we have also visited the Sinai interior from there: some desert canyons and oases, St. Katherine monastery, and Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa).
Dahab village: Dahab is an original Bedouin settlement (but there is nothing left to be seen of it) turned into a little tourist town. It consists of one short main street and a seaside footpath lined with a string of restaurants, hotels, and even small resorts but everything is still moderately sized (well, mostly) and general atmosphere there is friendly and relaxed (when walking along the footpath you do get approached by restaurant touts but even them are more friendly and even sportful than persistent). Dahab is still far from being a tourist-resorts area like Sharm el-Sheikh but you can already clearly see it coming - south of the main part there is a separated area called "Lagoon" with several large self-contained hotel complexes where people can spent their holiday well sheltered from Egyptian reality, and you can also see starts of new developments of this kind all around the main Dahab; better come soon before the current pleasant atmosphere all disappears. Note: I was using the LP Egypt Guide 2006 and found its Dahab map dead wrong - it is showing some center with banks and so somewhat away from the main Dahab, but it is simply not there at all.
Dahab sea and marine-life tips: There is a
wall reef just next to the shore all along the coast around Dahab and corals
there are alive, colourful and fine and attract a lot of nice and unafraid
fish. The reef forms a narrow flat shallow strip almost everywhere along the
coast, starting right from the shore with long-time dead corals and ending with
sloping drop to depths (very deep in some parts) - the reef wall is all covered
with alive corals of all kinds and some sporadic corals also appear on the
seaside of the flat reef top. So, it is possible to snorkel or dive there right
off the coast without needing a boat, but the reef layout together with quite
common surf makes it rather difficult to enter the sea without damaging the
corals and hurting oneself - you need to find one of the rare places where
there is either natural or more often man-made entry, typically one of the
places used by divers. Seawater temperature was quite pleasant in the end of
October and there was no problem to swim for over an hour without getting cold
through. The tide difference is not too big in the Gulf of Aqaba (up to a meter
at full/new moon).
1. Swimming: Dahab is not really place for swimmers, entry to the sea is usually difficult and there is hardly any beach there - one exception is the Mashraba dive site entry where there is something like a small, stony and rather dirty beach. There would by a very good place for swimming in the sheltered Lagoon area but it is now all taken by completely careless windsurfers from adjacent resorts - thus, if there is any wind swimming there is very dangerous.
2. Snorkelling: In and around Dahab you can snorkel just about anywhere from the shore providing you can find a way to enter the sea safely - the best entering places are those used by divers. There is lots of all kinds of reef fish to be seen there, esp. abundant is otherwise rare lion fish. Two sites good for snorkelling in Dahab itself are the Lighthouse and Mashraba and there are some more in walking distance; also, in front of some dive centers in Dahab there is some sort of entry path established over the reef top. You can also easily hire a taxi to take you to the sites north or south of Dahab or join a snorkelling trip there organized by many hotels and/or dive centers. We have found the Mashraba site right in the middle of Dahab very good for snorkelling - there is lots of fish there (we have even spotted a turtle there one morning) and also esp. good entry to the see via a little beach; the Lighthouse is also good. Snorkelling in the morning is very good in general as the reef wall is well lit by rising sun and you can spot some less common marine creatures. When there is windy the surf may become quite strong making enter to the sea very difficult at many sites - in such case head either to the Mashraba, or better by taxi to the southern sites (Golden Blocks, Moray House, Three Pools) which are somewhat sheltered (a 5EP entrance fee has to be paid when going to these southern sites); the sites in the Lagoon are out now. Average visibility in the sea is above 20 m and it is does not seem to be much affected by windy or stormy weather.
3. Diving: In general, diving in Dahab is very good and quite cheap and I can recommend it without any hesitation. There is an incredible number of diving centers there - the prices for diving are generally quite moderate but there are differences; typically they prefer divers buying several-dive packages and offer a good discount for it. As I am no passionate diver myself I was looking for a dive center offering good prices for individual dives - after thorough search and discussion of things via the internet I picked up the Divers House (divershouse.com) which offered the best prices: EUR18 per dive and EUR25 for the check dive and for a night dive; the prices included equipment rental and transport to the dive sites (and it was also important to me that they always took along for free my non-diving wife to enjoy snorkelling); you can generally discuss your preferences regarding the dive sites, but the exact site to go is (understandably) always decided by the divemaster according to the particular weather situation. I did six dives with them - they were rather efficient, their divemaster and equipment were quite good (well, the flash light I got rented for the night dive was very weak). The check dive is requested from the divers not diving during last six months - it is just an ordinary dive starting with just several usual under-water exercises like picking up the lost regulator and taking off your mask; it is generally required at all Sinai dive centers and it is supposed to be the general PADI requirement but I have never been asked to go through it before in other places of the world. The dives were quite good - the corals in Dahab are in a rather good shape and you can see all kinds of corals there (including some soft ones) and usual variety of reef fish and some scarcer fish too (seen crocodile fish, stone fish, big moray, barracudas). I have done my first night dive there but I have found it rather not worth it (not sure if it was typical night dive yet) - I was quite surprised that there was hardly any fish around and we were looking esp. for "macro stuff". Note: Beware that the Napoleon Reef and Lagoon dive sites are not dived any more as the area has been taken over by windsurfers.
Sinai desert tour: We went for a whole-day tour to the Sinai desert interior using the services of Dahab travel agencies. The tour used a jeep for transport and consisted in a drive north of Dahab, walk through the Coloured Canyon, ride along the Ghazala Valley to the Ain Hudra oasis, walk through the White Canyon, and drive back to Dahab - it was the most popular so called "jeep safari" offered in Dahab by many hotels and travel agencies, which all then pooled their clients together to rented jeeps accompanied by a guide; the usual cost was 150EP per person, we got it for the discounted price of 135EP in our hotel (Penguin Village). The trip was very interesting and allowed us to get a good idea what the Sinai desert was about. Both canyons were quite nice and walks was not too difficult, strenuous, or hot (yet, beware that the Coloured Canyon is not so colourful in reality as it is on pictures, the colours seem to be rather pale for the eyesight - being there I thought all the available pictures had been somehow manipulated but we got the exactly same colourful pictures themselves from there; also beware that the White Canyon is more grey than really white). Ain Hudra was a very nice exemplary little oasis in the middle of desert - just few date palms, several houses, some camels and goats, and a nice pool. The tour organization was OK (still, our guide wasted a lot of time talking to some friends at its beginning and consequenly we had to rush it in the end and got out of the White Canyon some 10 minutes before night darkness) and definitely worth its cost. Note: Originally, I was trying to organize a private tour for us, taking in the White Canyon and Ain Hudra and ending in the village of St. Katherine, but it would cost a fortune and I just gave up. Also, the Rough Guides Egypt Guide gives a mention of a village of Sheikh Hamid (and even its position on included chart map) on the road to St. Katherine just in the place where the dirt road leading to the White Canyon entrance forks from it, and I was considering to find accommodation there and get a transport from there to the White Canyon - yet, I could not get any further information about this village and when we were actually passing along this road we could see that there was no real village there ( just some fenced settlement looking very much as an army camp).
Sinai mountains tour: We went for a whole-day trip to
the Sinai mountains consisting of a short visit of the St. Katherine monastery
and a half-day trek to the top of Mt. Sinai (also called Mt. Moses or "Jebel
Musa", 2285 m a.s.l). The trip was a very lucky result of a tour which did
not work out for the tour agency and turned to a private trip for us. In general,
the tour to the St. Katherine monastery and Mt. Sinai was another very popular
tour offered in Dahab by many hotels and travel agencies which pooled their
clients together to rented microbuses (maybe with a guide too but I would not
know) - there were two options: (i) the "night trip" consisting in a late night
drive to St. Katherine, night climb of the mountain, watching sunrise, descent,
visit of the monastery, and return back to Dahab around midday (60EP per
person, immensely popular option easy to find - yet, we hate night climbing
with no views and mass climbing even more, so it was out for us), and (ii) the "day trip" consisting in a morning drive to St. Katherine, morning visit of the
monastery, afternoon climb of the mountain, watching sunset, night descent, and
night return back to Dahab (100EP per person, much less popular option -
difficult to get as there has to be at least four persons signed in for it).
Besides, the whole area around St. Katherine lies within the St. Katherine
Protectorate with admission fee of US$3 per person (really payable in US$). We
signed for this tour with the Sphinx Safari (based
in the New Sphinx Hotel) for a discounted price of 90EP per person but we were
very lucky as all the other persons in our group later cancelled and the
aforementioned travel agency turned out to be very exceptionally honest; it did
not try to dump the problem on our heads but simply kept its commitment by
renting a private air-conditioned car to drive us there and back for the given
price. Thus we have got an ideal possibility to organize the trip very cheap
(other obvious option would be to hire a more expensive taxi for a day) in our
own pace and enjoyed it very much. There were two different paths leading to
the top of Mt. Sinai: the main easy path used also by camels, and the shorter
but strenuous stairway forking south from the main path just next the southeast
wall of the monastery (beware of an incorrect description given in the
publication "Mount Sinai - A Walking Trail Guide" and else, that put the fork
further east along the main path somewhat away from the monastery). We started
up the main path at about 14:00 and had the mountain almost for ourselves all the
way up (even the kiosks along the path normally selling overpriced drinks were
closed); the hike was quite pleasant due to a breeze, not hot at all; it took
us some three hours of easy walk to get up (the last 500 m was a craggy
staircase). From the top, there is a nice view of the surrounding barren
mountains; yet, the sunset itself is not esp. scenic as the mountain range
westward from Mt. Sinai is actually higher than the one eastward and so there are no
effects of changing colours around - just watching the sun hiding behind the
range. After the sunset you better head down the staircase till you have some light (lasting
some half an hour after sunset) - the rest of the main path is then fine and easy to walk
even at night (still, if there is not enough of moonlight, do not forget a
flashlight). There is a legend spreading about the guides being obligatory even
for the Mt. Sinai climb but it has proved to be complete nonsense (another
Egyptian scam) - we have been never asked about it and the policemen at the
check point did not care; just some local hopefuls have offered their services
but had not been persistent at all. My clear recommendation is not to take any
guide as he would be nothing but nuisance there - you for sure do not need one
on that wide path even when being completely alone, just say no and walk on.
Note: Originally, I planned to spend a night at St. Katherine village and climb
Mt. Katherine ("Jebel Katrina", 2642 m asl, the highest mountain of
Sinai lying few kilometers southwest of Mt. Sinai) but it proved to be too
difficult and costly and I gave up. First of all, as a guide was supposed to be
obligatory for any trips around St. Katherine I contacted local "expert", Mr.
Sheik Mousa, known to have a monopoly for guiding (in fact I read later that
Mr. Farag of the Fox Camp was now allowed to provide these services too) and he
asked the price of 180EP per person for a single guide - incredibly outrageous
price for that well established path on Mt. Katherine where no guide was
clearly needed (well, no surprise when he had that near monopoly); I believe that in
the St. Katherine village you may get a better price but all this setup looked
rather ill-favoured to me and I generally hated rewarding people for bad behaviour.
You may manage to avoid taking that overpriced and needless guide but beware it
is technically illegal and the locals would have no reason to let you do it.
Second, it appeared not so easy to get to St. Katherine village from Dahab or
Sharm: there should be a bus every day going there and back but I were told
that it was very un-dependable and might fail to go several days in a row; even
trying to get a ride with tours going there from Dahab and Sharm every day
might be tricky - I were told that normally the tour microbuses went just when
fully booked and you might find free seat just when somebody decided to stay at
St. Katherine village, which was rather rare. Anyway, when it proved to exist so
easy way to avoid crowds on Mt. Sinai I would say it makes no sense to go
through so much struggle.
The St. Katherine monastery (open daily 9:30-11:45 except Fridays, Sundays, and Greek Orthodox holidays; free admission) consists in quite small walled construction rather nicely set in a deep desert valley. Majority of the monastery is closed to the visitors and you are just allowed to enter - via a small adjacent yard - the nice and interesting basilica of St. Catherine. You do not need much time to see the accessible parts - about an hour is enough. We have been there on Saturday and the monastery was packed full with visitors making it difficult to really feel spirituality of the place.
1. To get to Dahab from Cairo, we first flew to Sharm al-Sheikh and then got a taxi. The Egypt Air flight (their first of the day at 5:00) cost 340EP for both of us, took one hour, was on time and uneventful. There should be no problem to find a taxi at the Sharm airport but it would be a hard work to get a good deal for a ride to Dahab with a price not exceeding about 200EP per car. Therefore, we preferred to settle for an airport pick-up deal offered by our chosen hotel (Penguin Village) that sent a car for us for EUR25 (about 200EP) and saved us from that ordeal after a night travel with no sleep; the quoted price was charged for the whole car and the car sent for us was a small microbus, so if you would be able to find any other travellers heading for Dahab and take them along you would get a ride real cheap.
2. To get to snorkelling sites around Dahab you need to take a taxi (when diving transport is included in the cost) - often, the taxis are not marked in Dahab and you just hang around till you get an offer (it happens very soon, normally). In general, the prices are not really cheap and more or less set - ask for the price at your hotel and do not expect to get any better price (we got a better price agreed once and then it turned out that the car was no taxi - the driver was just an out-of-towner trying to make money (??!), who later asked locals about the "right" price and insisted to get more, involving police, etc. - not worth it..).
Accommodation: Penguin Village Hotel (penguindahab.com), double room with bathroom attached and breakfasts for EUR10 per night (the one called "Camp Style Ensuite" at their website); the room booked ahead via internet together with the airport pick-up. This hotel was heavily recommended and we also had no complaints to rise - the booking were carried out as agreed, the room and whole hotel including its restaurant was OK, and the staff was friendly and efficient (and always ready to organize anything asked for). The hotel looked full so booking ahead was probably a good idea - the booking was free. Note: In general, the south part of Dahab is more quiet and good for sleep while majority of restaurants with possibly noisy discos is in its north part.
1. There are a lot of rather expensive restaurants along the seaside footpath - when walking there you will be approached by not overly persistent touts who may offer a discount; sometimes there may also be some promo actions like two meals for price of one. The only rather cheap restaurant on the footpath is the Chinese restaurant north of the "bridge" which offers rather good vegetarian food - beware that the food is not really Chinese and you need a lot of patience when waiting for your food to arrive. The cheap restaurants are on main El Mashraba street - we have been satisfied, both by menu and quality, at the esp. cheap Gado Restaurant (right opposite to the Penguin Village) and King Chicken Bedouin Restaurant (opposite the Nesima Resort) where I enjoyed one of the few my meat meals ("kofta" - fried patties of nicely spiced minced meat).
2. As for buying supplies we were getting the best prices from a cheerful owner of the small shop next the King Chicken Bedouin Restaurant.
I have spent about two days in the area of Sharn el-Sheikh (my wife left for her planned return home via Cairo just after half a day stay) and had a very good time enjoying the sea in the Sharks Bay and especially the Ras Mohammed National Park. In general, the entire coast in the area is packed tight with rampant resorts for holiday package stays - very terrifying sight for me. Yet, there is also a wall reef all along the coast bustling with marine life that makes a short stay there very tolerable.
Sharks Bay sea and marine-life tips: Similarly
to Dahab, the reef in the Sharks Bay forms a very narrow flat shallow strip
everywhere along the coast, starting right from the shore with long-time dead
corals and ending with sloping drop to sandy bottom some 6 meters below. It is
possible to snorkel there right off the coast and the entry to the sea is very
easy because many resorts have a jetty allowing easy crossing of the wall top and
using a ladder to enter and leave the sea. There is always quite a few people
around you when swimming or snorkelling in the Bay but considering the crowds
the reef in is in a surprisingly good shape, the corals are alive and
nice and there is even more species of fish than in Dahab area and they are
even less afraid of swimmers. The seawater temperature is even little higher
than in Dahab.
1. Swimming: With its easy access to sea, the Sharks Bay is quite a good place for swimmers. All the resorts have some kind of sandy beach with sunbeds provided and all kind of facilities available.
2. Snorkelling: You can snorkel anywhere along the coast in the Bay. In general there is little more people in water at left half of the Bay but the fish is fed there and so it is abundant (seen big Napoleon wrasse there); in right half of the Bay there is less people and you can see there some scarcer kinds of fish (seen tiger ray, eagle ray, and big moray) - access there is, e.g., via a small beach just south the pier for boats to Tiran Island. Average visibility is above 20 meters.
3. Diving: I have not been diving there but there is again a lot of diving centers everywhere in the area offering boat diving trips all around, e.g. to the world class Ras Mohammed NP and Tiran Straight. In general, diving in Sharm el-Sheikh area is considerably more expensive than in Dahab, partly because of necessity to use boats - yet even diving trips to the Ras Mohammed NP are cheaper, when bought in Dahab.
Ras Mohammed NP trip: The Ras Mohammed National Park is
allegedly one of the best diving and snorkelling spots in the world and I have
no reason to dispute this statement. I went there for a whole-day snorkelling
trip using a rented taxi and it was indeed one of the best snorkelling I have
ever done. The Park is constituted by a long narrow peninsula and in particular
by a huge endless wall reef all around it. Especially corals there were just
incredible - they came in all kinds, colours and sizes; there was of course
also a lot of fish but for my uneducated eyes there were no species not seen
before, the fish was just bigger in size (saw several real big Napoleon wrasses
there). Average visibility there is well above 20 meters.
1. Snorkelling tips: The coast in the Park is rather rugged and the surf is considerable and so an access to the sea is not that easy - there is just a few beaches where you can enter the sea relatively easily without any danger to damage the corals or hurt yourself. There are four main beaches in the Park - namely the Main Beach, Aqaba Beaches, Yolanda Beach, and Quay Beach - and all of them are well worth visiting. The southeast Main Beach borders rather deep and wide bay - the long shallow swim out of it ends abruptly with an immense vertical wall going straight into the blue depth (the depths there is supposed to be nearly 800 ms - gulp!!) - when swimming over the reef edge you may need to fight off the fear of falling right down to the unseen bottom; when the tide is low it may become difficult to get over the reef top so get the tide table and plan your visit there for the high tide. Also, the Main Beach is the most popular with tours and swimmers and so you may like to go there early morning to enjoy this incredible place alone. The east Aqaba Beaches is a string of narrow beaches bordering very narrow reef top covered with sharp sporadic corals and ending with another vertical bottomless wall; the surf on this site is rather big and so crossing those few meters of the reef top may not be so easy. The south Yolanda Beach is next the Main Beach and borders a narrow inlet filled in with a flat reef top which is too shallow to swim over it on low tide - enter through a short path over the narrow reef top on the east side of the bay to get to another vertical wall. The last but not least Quay (Suez) Beach clearly differs from the previous ones - it is the only one bordering the considerably less deep Red Sea (all the others border the Gulf of Aqaba) and you may also see there slightly different species of fish and corals; the beach is not so nice and therefore very quiet and the entry to the sea there is easy disregarding the tide. It is said that there may be strong currents around southeast tip of the peninsula so exercise caution when swimming there - but I have not encountered any currents myself.
2. Logistic tips: The Park is supposed to be open from dawn to sunset, the entrance fee is US$5 per person (really payable in US$). To visit, you can join a boat or bus tour organized by many hotels and travel agencies in Sharm for some 150EP, resp. 200EP per person (including the entrance fee and lunch) but I would recommend it just to people not so passionate and determined about snorkelling as myself - I have seen the tour clients to be herded around by their guides on their overly short visits and quickly lead back to the shore for another meal, or quickly recalled by their boat horn to come back on board. Instead I strongly recommend you to hire a taxi for whole day and enjoy the Park in your own pace - I hired an ordinary taxi at Sharks Bay for 250EP and considered it worth every pound spent. In fact, you should be able to get it cheaper (allegedly as low as for 100EP), but it was quite a struggle for me to get even what I managed - it was once again that Egyptian wall of reluctance and lies. At first I discussed the matter with the pick-up driver who brought us to Sharks Bay from the bus station and took his very reasonable asking price 150EP without any haggling (the deal included early morning trip to the Sharm airport and whole day in the park) but he had never showed up for the appointment (as I understood later, he was probably running an unofficial taxi which was technically illegal at Sinai and he probably got his second thoughts); so, we were stuck in the early morning dark without any transport but managed to get my wife to the airport in time. Next I tried to get an ordinary taxi for the day on the main road next the airport and got one with a driver asking 200EP but it turned out later that he probably did not understand my English and thought it would be just for a one-way trip to the Park - after having things explained by other taxi drivers somewhere where he brought me to found out what was going on (by the way, a typical thing often done by non-English speaking taxi drivers) he was asking 400EP which I refused and so was taken back to Sharks Bay for 30EP. After getting organized again I went for another try and this time got - after some haggling - that final deal of 250EP at Sharks Bay at about 7:00 (I had read before that you could get a better deal by getting a taxi to the Sharm "Old Market" (wherever it was) and trying to find a cheaper taxi there but I figured that the two rides would add up anyway to about the same price and I was really regretting the time passing by). Anyway, this driver knew better what he was doing and drove me to the Park and around it without many problems. Yet, it was not so easy altogether: first, in the morning the driver was maintaining that the Park was opening as late as 9:00 but after my insistence he went there right away - when we got to the gate it was open but deserted and the driver was afraid to go in, so he even called somewhere by his mobile and got there an approval to ride on (so this actually saved me from paying the Park entrance fee for myself and for the car - it would be US$10 altogether); second, in the Park the driver started with another one, this time maintaining that we were supposed to leave the Park by 15:00 - yet this was probably just a hoax because when I got out of water after my last swim at about 15:30 he was talking to some policemen and when he started again saying that we had a problem now I simply asked those policemen and they clearly saw none problem at all, next the driver said there would be a problem at the Park gate but when we drove through it some time after 16:00 the policemen there did not take a notice of us; so, all these talkings were either just a try to make his pre-paid day shorter or possibly the result of my - rather typical - venturing along an unused path (obviously, the tours did not spend so much time in the Park). In any case, if you are any serious about snorkelling (and the Park is very much worth every effort) definitely hire your own transport, go early in, and enjoy it as long you manage to float.
1. It was fairly easy to get to Sharm from Dahab as there were many buses serving this route during the day; the taxi in Dahab from its main part to the bus station (built in the middle of nowhere somewhat away) was 10EP.
2. To get around Sharm you need to take a taxi. Yet, the taxi drivers there are really spoiled by rich package tourists and so even the basic prices are rather high and on top of it, it is next to impossible to get them for travellers just passing through (the drivers seem to be skilled psychologists who can clearly see who you are). For comparison: the taxi from Sharks Bay to the airport should be about 20EP for locals experts - on my first ride I just handed this amount to the driver and he become genuinely hurt but I had to pacify him with another 5EP and walked away, on my second try I haggled for the price before the ride and got it down just to 30EP (while promising to get out on the main road in front of the airport thus saving the driver from paying 5EP entrance fee to the airport premises - it was about 100-m walk from there); the price for the Ras Mohammed NP trip should be up to 100EP according to the locals experts. Good luck...
3. Otherwise, there should be cheap "pick ups" running along "Peace Road", the main coastal artery of Sharm, but this road is quite far away from the Sharks Bay.
Accommodation: Sharks Bay Umbi Diving Village (sharksbay.com), bamboo hut with shared bathroom and very good breakfasts for EUR15/12 per double/single per night (the one called "View Hut" at their website); the room booked ahead via internet. According to my research this accommodation should be the cheapest one (!!!) in the Sharm area and I chose it also because of its proximity to the airport and good reputation of the Sharks Bay for snorkelling (proved true). The hut was OK, hot during the day (there were no fan provided) but OK at night, bathroom was near and OK too; the hut was sitting on the top of a cliff just above the beach, offering a good view of the Tiran Island and not so nice vicinity (resorts all around); there was some noise of the planes landing on near airport (very busy day and night) but it was not so bad to disturb our sleep. The other huts were unoccupied so the booking ahead was not probably necessary but it was free and I would hate to stay anywhere else for even more money - for booking they just requested a debit/credit card number to be able to get compensation in case of booking cancelation but I later paid cash for the accommodation. The Village facilities were OK and included a supermarket, good restaurant, and beach with some sunbeds and a jetty for easy sea access. Note: When snorkelling "early" in the morning (everybody is sleeping there till 9:00) I got a bad surprise of not founding my bag left on the beach (with just some basics like towel and so) after coming back - it turned out later that it was removed by the Village security and put to some storage (I asked them to put information about this practice to their welcoming informing letter).
Food: There were no other options in Sharks Bay area but the shops and restaurants of the resorts there. Fortunately, the prices in the supermarket of the Village were still reasonable and its restaurant was quite good and not so expensive. The breakfast was served buffet style with quite a good choice (and you could also get a take-away pack on request a day before). Besides the usual and not-so-cheap full meals on the Village restaurant menu it was also possible to get very tasty and reasonably cheap "starters", which were quite filling and sufficient to keep us happy.
I have been just about passing through Alexandria on my way to Siwa and got a time just for two short walks around the Eastern Harbour Corniche. It was busy with cars day and night and the seawater in the bay was quite dirty - I have not found the place too attractive.
1. I flew Egypt Air to Alexandria (El Nohza airport) from Sharm al-Sheikh for 224EP. The route appeared to be rather downgraded by the airline - when bought in April it was supposed to depart at 10:25, fly nonstop, and arrive at 11:35 - but it was rescheduled several times and ended up flying via Hurghada while departing at 17:40 and arriving at 20:10. The flight was about an hour and half late on departure (as appeared to be all other flights from Sharm that evening) and kept this delay; at least the flight itself was uneventful.
2. To get around Alexandria take a taxi - they are plentiful and quite cheap: 47EP from airport to downtown, 10EP from downtown to Moharrem Bay.
3. When heading from Alexandria to Siwa using the West Delta bus company, the buses leave from the bus terminal in Moharrem Bay (they abandoned their previous terminal next to the Sidi Gaber train station in 2007).
Accommodation: Hotel Union, single room with a
bathroom attached and breakfast for 70EP per night. The place was very
unfriendly and the room (maybe luxurious some 50 years ago) was quite ruined
and total rip off for the price. Yet, it was their last room and I was in no mood for
further search as I arrived there at 23:00 after wandering around Alexandria in search for bus station
and after finding no room available at the LP recommended Hotel Crillon.
Food: I have no idea as I just bought some basic supplies there.
I have spent three days in Siwa and felt rather cheated. Siwa has been heavily
praised in all the guidebooks and majority of trip reports I have seen but I
have found that quite exaggerated and unjustified. Shali (the main settlement
of Siwa) - and the surrounding villages as well - are made up of rather ugly
breeze-block houses, typically half finished and/or incorporating ruins of old
adobe houses. The old adobe town/fortress in the middle of the contemporary
town of Shali has been totally ruined by rain in 1926 and it is now reduced to
nearly a pile of clay, yet elaborately illuminated at night - well, this pile
at least offers a good opportunity to get a nice view all around this large oasis.
Around Shali town there are some other historical sites too but they are in
pitiful ruins as well and not at all attractive (but I admit I am not too much into
ruins); all of them are again "nicely" illuminated at night, which I indeed found
very synthetic and rather disgusting. There is a lot of large palm gardens all
around Siwa but they are mostly rather neglected and do not provide any special
sight (a reason may be that there is actually so much water available in Siwa
just under the surface, that there is no real need to put much effort to
cultivating the gardens to get a good harvest). All around Siwa there are many
natural lakes, typically very shallow and salty and looking uncomfortably
insentient. Also around Siwa there are several mountains of that typical desert
flat-top shape - the most accessible of them is Gebel Dakrur some 4 km southeast
of Shali. Just a kilometer south of Gebel Dakrur there is a good possibility to
easily reach some rather fine examples of sand dunes of the Great Sand Sea and
bring to life those childhood dreams about the Sahara Desert.
Note: The Great Sand Sea is the area of the mysterious "erg" (sandy desert), which covers all the eastern central part of Egypt south of Siwa and east of the other oases (and continues on to Libya) and is practically impenetrable in the east-west direction due to its up to 200-m-tall dunes running uninterrupted in north-south direction for hundreds of kilometers - yet, in general this erg forms just a minority of the Sahara Desert while its 70% is a "hamada" (rocky desert), and "serir" or "reg" (stony desert).
Siwa is very often praised for being especially authentic but I have not seen any reason for this attribute; it has almost nothing which could not be found in other oases and lacks any atmosphere - the way of life in Siwa is in fact quite similar to that in Bahariya. The most striking difference and clear advantage of Siwa is its well developed tourist infrastructure for independent travellers (full spectrum of hotels, real restaurants, bicycles for rent) which is rather missing in other oases - yet, it means also that you actually meet much more tourists in Siwa than in any other oasis. Another typical attribute assigned to Siwa is its remoteness and this one is indeed justified - yet, this is no advantage per se but just one more reason for my final conclusion that currently Siwa is simply not worth the detour. Nevertheless, there is a road under construction between Siwa and Bahariya (after several postponements now scheduled for completion in the end of 2008) and it would allow to take Siwa in as a reasonable part of an uninterrupted tour through the oases even for independent travellers (Cairo-based desert tours already now often pass through Siwa and continue to Bahariya via the old desert road). Note: I am aware that my views of Siwa might be rather controversial but I cannot help it. Indeed, I was actually asking those few travellers I have met in the oases about their opinion of Siwa and all of them (both rather) ranked it as the best - yet, when questioned about the reasons for this ranking the only one they could come up with was its serenity. So probably I just do not have to go so far off my way to find a serenity which I see just about everywhere in nature away from civilization.
1. There are several direct buses from Alexandria to Siwa operated by the West Delta bus company (the first bus leaves at 8:30); the journey costs 27EP and takes about 10 hours with an hour long interruption in Marsa Matrouh. The journey is rather boring - the first half goes along the coastal highway (but too far away from the sea) lined with a lot of newly build but very often uninhabited residential complexes (strange spectacle indeed), the second half crosses a flat serir with no features to set your eyes on.
2. Bicycles can be rented at several places in Shali and they make very good means of transport all around Siwa - all of them are in quite bad shape. I rented mine at the bicycle shop next the Palm Trees Hotel for 10EP per day (half-day rental for 5EP was also available); the bike remained quite bad even after my thorough selection and ordering some improvements, but it was still good enough for the flat terrain.
3. As my next destination after Siwa was Bahariya, I was trying to find some fellow travellers to share the cost of direct transport through desert - the route should have been rather interesting as it passed through all kinds of desert and several uninhabited oases - unfortunately, I could not find anybody in the time window suitable for me and so I went via Cairo in the end (see it described at Bahariya section). In general, the asking price for the transport through desert was from some 1200 to 1800 EP, depending on size of the car (a 4WD car or at least a pick up was needed for the route), and this price would be simply splitted between the passengers; the route would take whole day. When looking for co-passengers go first to the Siwa tourist office and to its director Mr. Mahdi Hweiti (email@example.com), who collects information about prospective passengers and put them together. As for local safari companies, I have found the most reasonable (being friendly and looking capable) the Bedouine House at Sadat St. next the Main Square (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also useful may be Mr. Said Hedawy (email@example.com) of the Traditional Handicraft Shop next the East West Restaurant who can put you together with locals possibly going to Bahariya with a pick up (this should be cheaper - some 800EP per car - as you sit in the rear and get good share of sand).
Accommodation: Palm Trees Hotel at Shali, single room with shared bathroom and without breakfast for 15EP per night. This hotel is often recommended and I have found it also good - the staff was friendly and the room was quite good, esp. considering the price; the hot water availability was rather erratic but it was no problem in that hot weather there.
1. Very good availability of good restaurants is the only clear advantage of Siwa over other oases. There is quite a few restaurants in Shali, many has a menu in English with quite promisingly looking offers. I have been so happy with the East West Restaurant at the Main Square behind the mosque that I never found reason to try other restaurants.
2. For your trips you can get falafel at the food stall just next the East West Restaurant and bread at the hole-in-the-wall shop at the Azmi Kilani St.
I have spent about a day in the Bahariya oasis and found it rather interesting - from there I have taken an independent trip through very scenic desert landscape between Bahariya and Farafra. Bahariya (just as Siwa) is mainly a men's world where all the shopkeepers (and majority of shoppers too) as well as all the guests in the restaurants are men; almost all men wear "galabeya" (a long loose outer garment, looking like a prolonged shirt; it is also worn by women), exception are those wearing some sort of uniform. The women get around only accompanied by a related men (even being it a small son clearly under ten years of age) but they all usually hide at home after dark; they are all dressed in a black flyaway dress and wear "niqab" (a kind of veil which completely covers the face but at least leaves an opening for the eyes); they are allowed to work in the palm gardens (but have to keep all the mentioned dress on all the time) and are driven there and back in donkey carts. There are remnants of an old but still mainly inhabited adobe village on the south face of the hill in the middle of the contemporary town of Bawiti (the main settlement of Bahariya) and you can still find there a few of quite picturesque ancient adobe corners with winding streets and passages - yet, the old adobe houses are being quickly replaced with new walled houses set in a right-angled structure (thus opening the streets to the merciless sun) and it will not take long till the old buildings are all gone. There is a strong spring just under the top of the hill, which is an origin for a cluster of little irrigation streams running down along the north face of the hill and watering palm gardens spread there, making a rather nice scenery (the plants grown also include olive and apricot trees). You need just an evening and/or morning to wander around the old village and the palm gardens to get a full feel of Bahariya but it will give you a good idea of the life in a desert oasis.
Western Desert trip: I went for a whole-day independent
trip to enjoy the scenic desert landscape spread on some 180 km between the
oases of Bahariya and Farafra. The area around Bahariya is characterized by the
so called Black Desert (Sahara Suda) - its base is flat sandy serir
plane but there is lots of smallish round hills protruding from this plane; the
prime colour everywhere is the yellow colour of sand but all landscape seems to
be covered by a cute black "dust", in fact formed by small black volcanic
stones, mostly pyrite. By contrast, the area around Farafra features the so
called White Desert (Sahara Beida) - the same sandy serir plane
is here and there replaced with whitish rocky hamada outcrops and
monoliths, formed of chalk and limestone, and sculpted into sometimes quite
picturesque forms and shapes by wind erosion; the ground is sometimes again
littered with black stones forming crystals and sticks, and with ancient sea
shells turned stone. In between these two areas, there are some other desert features including
some sand dunes and typical flat featureless serir, so a drive from Bahariya
to Farafra provides quite a good review of the desert landscapes. The
guidebooks also accent the place called "Crystal Mountain" which is in fact a
not-especially-interesting small hill distinguished with some quartz outcrops allowing to find there some quite large
In general, there are jeep
tours (locally organized by hotels and attached travel agencies from
Bahariya or Farafra) which take in all these features for some 600EP
the tours typically leave before midday, spend a night in the White
come back next morning. Problem of these tours is that they normally
very similar itineraries and especially that they all confluent to the
favorite spot for the night - so forget about any desert solitude
experience. Nevertheless, as all the main desert features can be
observed just next the sealed
road between Bahariya and Farafra, they can be easily accessed by an
car (i.e. no jeep is really needed). Therefore it is generally possible
to do the trip
independently if you just can find any transport - you can even just take one of the rather infrequent buses or service taxis passing along this
road; of course, when you want to spent a night you need to make your own
preparations (esp. take enough water).
As I wanted to experience a desert solitude, I decided to find in Bahariya my own transport to take me along the sealed road - this proved again to be rather difficult. First I checked in my hotel (Alpenblick) and got quoted the price of 400EP and then I tried to talk to some locals in Bawiti but was told that there were no taxi available in Bahariya; finally I went to Bawiti Tourist Office and the man there referred me quickly to a youngish guy conveniently hanging out in a jeep in front of the Office - I asked for a ride along the paved road starting in the morning and ending in the evening at the White Desert some 20 km before Farafra while stopping wherever along the route at my requests, and ended with no better deal but the trip starting at 9:00 and ending at 17:00 for 300EP. Sure as hell, next morning at some 9:30 it was some other old guy who showed up in an old jeep announcing that he was ready to take me to the White Desert but had to be heading back by 15:00 - after my objections he took me again to the same man in the Tourist Office who explained me quickly that I had to either take this abridged offer or look for another transport; well, after this nice and clear explanation I settled for whatever was left of the original deal. So, at some 9:45 we went to a gas station for gas and after another half an hour finally sailed for the trip. Anyway, the trip itself was nice enough - we were still slightly ahead of the usual tours and so I got chance to stop at the Black Desert and climb one of the hills there alone (I have found the landscape there really nice) just before the tour jeeps started coming in; next we did several stops in some other nice spots along the road (including the not so interesting Crystal Mountain) and some 50 km before Farafra we arrived to a rather small but nice area of white rocks which I was told was the White Desert where I was supposed to get out. Well, it was just some14:00 so I insisted on going on (I wanted to get closer to Farafra to made it easier for me to get a lift to there next morning) and so we went on - yet, the interesting area of white rocks quickly turned back to a rather uninteresting flat serir and so, some 25 km before Farafra, I agreed to be driven back to the original spot of the White Desert and left there (only later I found that there was another area of white chalk monoliths next the road some 18 km before Farafra; the main area of the White Desert visited by the tours is off-road, several kilometers east of the road) - the guy then left whining that he had no lights and long trip ahead (?!!). Anyway, I chose a spot to put my tent for night not far from the road (with almost no traffic - the guy offered to drive me somewhat further away from the road but I declined that to avoid long walk back to the road next morning with all my stuff) and started my solitary meeting with the desert; the area (though small) had all the promised attributes of the White Desert - limestone rocky outcrops (forming small hamada-kind, barren rocky plateau), chalk mushroom-like monoliths, and yellow soft sand patches littered with black pyrite crystals (some of them were nice indeed and made a very good souvenir - found e.g. a nearly perfect octahedron); further away to the west there was a strip of nice steep rocky hills shaped as sugarloaves and behind this strip there was rising a lofty escarpment surrounding the whole Farafra oasis; all this made a nice setting for contemplation and watching the sunset and sunrise. There was almost no wind, and the night was rather warm and very quiet (there was hardly any traffic on the road at night). Next morning I strolled to the road hoping for a ride to Farafra but it turned out to be quite a long exercise in patience and survival; it took me six full hours to get that ride at about 14:00 - still, the cars were passing there with frequency of about two in an hour and I got the ride from the first one ideally suited to pick up a guy with a rather big backpack (being it a small lorry with empty rear platform to put my backpack); in any case, the ride later afternoon would be rather safe as a bus and a service taxi were supposed to pass there. Anyway, I found this long stay in the Sahara desert definitely interesting and have been rather surprised that it was not so difficult to stay well even in high noon heat - even though there was no wind I did not feel hot and did not need much water when just sitting still in a shadow. The guys who gave me the ride were very nice and refused any money for that 50-km ride - there were several police checkpoints along this distance (and later in other parts of the Western Desert as well) and the level of bothering, which police gave to the driver and his mate, was good explanation why nobody was especially eager to pick up a foreigner - they had to answer questions about where they picked me, where me and them were going, etc., and had all the information from their IDs copied to policemen notes; also I had to say which hotel I was going and they were requested and later even tried to drive me right there). To summarize, in spite of another rather annoying experience with Egyptian character, I have found my independent trip very interesting and can recommend it to anybody - I am sure that any fully organized and packed tour would not be so real and complete. Yet, after the experience I would simply go for that 400EP offer of the Hotel Alpenblick.
Transport: There is no direct public transport between Siwa and Bahariya, so it is necessary to go via Marsa Matrouh and Cairo (it would be also possible to go via Alexandria and Cairo but this would take longer as the buses from Matrouh bypass Alexandria via a desert road). There are several buses per day from Siwa to Matrouh operated by the West Delta bus company (12EP) - the first one is scheduled to leave at 7:00 and to arrive at 11:00. From Matrouh there are also several buses per day to Cairo, again operated by the West Delta bus company (46EP) and scheduled to connect to the buses from Siwa (so, there is a bus leaving at 12:00 and supposedly arriving to Cairo Turgoman Station at about 19:00). From Cairo there are several direct buses to Bahariya (some of them go on to Farafra and Dakhla) operated by the Upper Egypt bus company (27EP) - the buses leave from Turgoman Station and stop at Giza and the journey costs 27EP (the first bus leaves Cairo at 7:00 and should arrive to Bawiti at around 12:00).
Alpenblick at Bawiti, single room with shared bathroom (but with a
in the room) and without breakfast for 50EP per night. The place was
unfriendly but the room was OK. Beware that the local cheapie Paradise
Hotel is out of business for good (allegedly closed by police).
Food: Besides rather expensive restaurants in the hotels there were two not especially appetizing restaurants at the main crossroad of Bawiti, serving just chicken and rice. On the main road there were some food stalls serving quite good falafel and also fresh fried potatoes and eggplant; bread was also available there at the hole-in-the-wall shop.
I have spent about a day in the Farafra oasis and again found it interesting. The way of life in Farafra already shows some visible differences from Siwa and Bahariya; especially the role of women is not so passive any more and some of them clearly show their certain self-reliance - some women work as shopkeepers at shops (even alone), walk around alone, wear less dull clothes (meaning some grave colours other than black), and esp. wear just a "chador" (a headcloth completely covering hair but leaving face exposed) instead of the all-covering niqab. There are not many donkey carts to be seen there, being replaced with motorcycles. Farafra is quite small and there is not much settlement there beyond the main village called Qasr al-Farafra. There indeed used to be a "qasr" (meaning fortress in Arabic) standing in the middle of contemporary village but there is not much left of it - it has been nearly all replaced with new walled houses set in a right-angled structure. The main attraction of Farafra now there are its palm gardens which are far the best developed and kept of all the oases - the irrigation channels are mostly well kept and fully operational and the gardens of individual families are separated by well kept mud walls topped with palm brushwood; these "palm gardens" indeed remind more gardens than fields and typically are neatly splitted into various patches, bearing different kinds of crops, and little groves of various fruit trees. The crops grown in the gardens encompass not only dates, olives and apricots but also oranges, apples, grains, corn, and many kinds of vegetables; some cattle is also kept in some gardens. I liked those palm gardens very much and admired work of their keepers - be sure to visit there when passing Farafra.
Transport: I hitchhiked in myself (see Bahariya description) but there were some buses available coming from Cairo and continuing from Bahariya to Farafra, operated by the Upper Egypt bus company.
Accommodation: Hotel Al Waha
at Qasr al-Farafra, single room with shared bathroom and without breakfast for
45EP per night. The place was very unfriendly and the room and esp. the bathroom
were just about bearable - yet, it was the only budget place in Farafra which
explained its exorbitant price.
Food: There was not much choice there - fortunately, the restaurant next to the Badr's Museum quite close to the Hotel Al Waha was not so bad as I was able to negotiate there quite significant changes to their basic chicken-and-rice menu and the food was quite good. Even the choice of food stalls was very limited at Qasr al-Farafra and I could not find a bread shop.
I have spent three days in the Dakhla oasis and enjoyed it very much - visited several villages there, enjoyed sunset in the dunes, and climbed the escarpment to overlook the desert panorama. The Dakhla oasis is spread along the road in the east-west direction - to the north it is bordered by a tall escarpment and to the south by sand fields and dunes of the Great Sand Sea. The way of life in Dakhla regarding the role of women reminds that of Farafra. However, Dakhla is much larger than Farafra and large part of it is cultivated with old kinds of crops grown on rather large fields (some palm gardens are there too but they form just a minority of the husbandry) - all the setting is very similar to the Nile valley agriculture. The "fellahs" (farmers) go to their fields not only by donkey carts and motorcycles (and also some horse wagons), but many of them also rides their donkeys and even horses - for some reason majority of them also wear straw hats (not seen anywhere else in Egypt) and I could not help it feeling like being in a middle of a western movie set somewhere in Mexico. I have found the atmosphere there (esp. at Mut, the main settlement of Dakhla) markedly more pleasant than in other parts of Egypt visited - people seemed to be more friendly and comfortable there. There is not much to see at Mut itself, which looks like a relatively well kept modern town (there are even regularly cleaned wastebaskets there and locals really use them - a thing absolutely unseen anywhere else in Egypt); still, there is an old adobe village on a hill in the middle of Mut, still partly inhabited. Yet around Dakhla, in some villages surrounding Mut, there are much better places to visit to still get a good idea of the old way of life in the oases - the best preserved adobe villages/fortresses can be found at Qasr, Qalamun, and Balat; nevertheless, even there can be seen some signs of decline and coming changes, so better do not wait long to see it before it is gone for ever. There is also a lot of ancient ruins spread around the area - I have not been interested to explore them myself but I am sure that when going there you will be able to enjoy the sites alone without any disturbing noise, so typical for Egyptian monuments. You can set your base in Dakhla either at Mut or Qasr, Mut being slightly better due to its central location. There have been hardly any tourists around it the time of my visit - I have been told that the season in Dakhla runs from December to March. In general, I have found Dakhla the most pleasant, interesting, and diverse of all the Egyptian oases and I strongly recommend to spend some time there - if you have time to visit just one oasis make it Dakhla, if you are touring the oases definitely do not skip it.
Visit of Balat: I have spent half of a day in Balat, a small village some 35 km east of Mut. On a small hill in the middle of Balat sits a quite well preserved old adobe settlement - it is still mostly inhabited and allows you to catch a glimpse of original way of life in the Sahara Desert oases. You can see families going about their ordinary life and you can also enter some houses which are already deserted but are still standing more or less preserved (but some parts of the village are already changing into the ruins too). There is no entrance fee charged - it is just a part of a normal inhabited village; still, expect to be approached by some would-be guides insisting to show you around. I have been approached by two separate hopefuls but refused them as it would be clearly just a nuisance to have them around - yet, one of them proved to be quite persistent and left me alone only after threatening him with police. Anyway, the place has been magic and I strongly recommend to anyone to come to see it.
Round trip west of Mut:
Within a day I climbed the escarpment north of Dakhla to overlook the
desert panorama and visited old adobe sections of Qasr and Qalamun. To get to
the escarpment I went to Qasr and hired a "taxi especial" there (an empty pick
up) to get me to the place called Bir al-Gebel (the place closest to the escarpment and accessible
along a paved road) and climbed up from there. Generally recommended
way up was to find a sand dune reaching all the way up to the
escarpment top and
climb along it - it would be safe but for sure very exhausting way.
Fortunately, when I was getting near the escarpment in a direction of
nearest dune (slightly to the west of the road end) I came across a
and later a little path going up the edge; I went along it and it took me
comfortably (the surface was not a rock but at least a somewhat braced
detritus) almost to
the top where I just easily climbed up the remaining rocky cliff along
many crevices (stil, the rock was quite unpleasantly soft and unstable). The top of
escarpment was a typical hamada, formed by a flat limestone plateau,
which was densely littered with small hard dark-grey stones (probably some kind
of hornfel) - everything was grinded smooth by winds (making the stones nice
souvenir as paperweights). The escarpment offered nice views of the desert
plain bellow with the sand dunes field further south. The escarpment plateau
was rather flat but splitted with deep valleys/crevices, making thus walking
along it rather difficult - therefore I gave up my original plan to walk closer
to Qasr along the plateau and descend there (later I saw that there were
indeed dunes all the way to top there too) but simply went back down along a sand dune and back to the road; while walking along this road I was fortunate
to get a free lift from a passing motorcyclist all the way to the old fortress
at Qasr. The climb was quite nice and interesting experience and I can
recommend it without hesitation to anybody ready to put some effort to coping
with the climb.
Qasr (the second largest settlement in Dakhla some 35 km west of Mut) is a village harbouring a remarkable old adobe village/fortress ("qasr" means fortress in Arabic), hereby the best conserved adobe structure around - it is being kept in a good condition and even further renovated, but it is almost uninhabited and so shown as a rather inanimate museum. There is no entrance fee charged but some locals are often hanging next the main south entrance and insist on guiding you around for a fee. I arrived around midday when there were no would-be guides around (in case you are not so lucky and still want to see the place undisturbed, just circle the outer wall and enter from the north where you should be able to avoid the guides). The fortress was very nice and well worth visiting. Next I went to see another village of Qalamun (there was a side route connecting Qasr and Mut going through Qalamun and there should be pick-ups going along this road - yet, I was hitchhiking while waiting and got a lift after some half an hour waiting before any pick-up actually showed up) which also had a partly inhabited and partly ruined old adobe section. Next to this Qalamun adobe section there were also some quite nice palm gardens, which were otherwise rather rare in Dakhla area. However, Qalamun turned to be somewhat unfriendly, people did not seem to be happy to see me walking around and some of them were asking for "baksheesh" without any attempt to at least pretend to be providing any service at all. I was also followed around by a bunch of small boys who would not go away and even started throwing stones although not being too serious about it. Still, Qalamun is worth visiting especially if you do not have time to see Balat.
Visit of the sand dunes: The sand dunes, part of immense erg of the Great Sand Sea, begin just south of Dakhla and so are easy to visit - Mut, being on the south edge of Dakhla, provides especially good access to the dunes. I have done the trip there one afternoon and enjoyed the sunset in the dunes and it was quite nice experience. To get there, just head south from Mut's "New Mosque square" - first south along the airport road, when this road turns east at the outskirt of the cultivated land continue south along a dirt road, and when this dirt road turns west after some hundred meters continue still south along some jeep tracks; when the tracks end just head on south into the dunes - after climbing over several sand dunes you will become completely encompassed by sand with no sings of life around you; all this takes some one to two hours of walking. You can wait for the sunset there and then walk back - if you have not wandered too far you should be able to get back to the road with the remaining light; while walking back along the road you will very likely get some offers from passing fellahs of a free lift back to Mut on a donkey cart or motorcycle.
1. I took the service taxi leaving Farafra at 13:00 and paid 15EP. The Upper Egypt buses should be also passing Farafra for Dakhla at about 14:00 and 2:00.
2. There is quite good and extensive system of service-taxi and pick-up transport covering all the Dakhla area. At Mut the main hub for the western Dakhla part is at the main Midan at-Tahrir circle, and for the eastern part it is at the 10th of Ramadan St. next the Mut hospital; there is lots of microbuses and pick ups passing through these hubs and heading for different places - it is very confusing and you need to ask the drivers and/or other locals to find the one heading to your destination; the price is usually the flat fee of 1EP, disregarding the distance. While waiting for this transport outside Mut it is common to hitchhike - if you get a lift, you are also expected to pay that 1EP fee.
1. Gardens Hotel at Mut, single room with bathroom attached and without breakfast for 15EP per night. The place was very friendly, the room was small but comfortable and I was very happy there - there were some 30 rooms available but I was the only guest.
2. There is another good hotel in Dakhla area - El Qasr Guesthouse at Qasr, which is world famous for its very friendly atmosphere and good cooking, all created by the hotel manager Mahmoud (familiarly called Hamda). It gets a lot of good reports from passing travellers and I have not found any complaints (besides Hamda's cheating in domino games - watch out). Allegedly, staying there feels like being a child on school vacations at his/her grandmother's house - little patronized but well cared about; I was only eating there once myself but all was indeed just like that - I was able to ask for a vegetarian lunch but when trying to enquire for the details I was said to just wait and see; the lunch was prepared rather quickly, looked fresh, consisted of several different meals, and was even too big to fit into my stomach sadly shrunk after three weeks in Egypt - by far the best meal I had in Dakhla.
Luxor is known and visited for its abundance of monuments left there by the ancient Egyptian civilization - I have spent two days there, mostly browsing around these monuments, and of course found it interesting. Luxor is already lying at the Nile valley and it is also a longtime tourist center, and so it is naturally another world in many aspects comparing to the desert oases discussed before. The way of life in Luxor is much more broad-minded and the roles and dress of women and men are not so strictly set. Luxor feels like a rather small town, the streets even next to the very main ones quickly become shabby and full of rubbish. There are Christian sections in Luxor (one is just north of the train station entrance) but you will not notice any other difference but the crosses and statuettes of saints. Regarding the ancient monuments there is really almost too many sites worth visiting and it is advisable to make some selection; also, not all the sites are equally interesting at close range and so it may be generally equally rewarding to see some sites just from the outside. Last but not least, the admission fees add up quickly and it is advisable to give a thought to one's budget. The sites in Luxor itself (i.e. the Luxor and Karnak temples) can be easily visited on foot within a day, to visit all the sites on the opposite West Bank of the Nile you need to use some sort of transport (it may be e.g. public transport pick up, rented bicycle, taxi, or even a tour). After thorough research, I visited "only" the Karnak Temple (entrance fee 50EP), Valley of the Queens (25EP), Medinet Habu (25EP), Tombs of the Nobles (20EP for the tombs of Sennofer and Rekhmire), and Deir al-Madinah (25EP); from the outside I else surveyed the Luxor Temple, Hatshepsut Temple, Ramesseum, and Colossi of Memnon (as for the famous Valley of the Kings, I skipped it completely for its overcrowding - it is sometimes called "Valley of the buses"). All the sites visited were interesting and worth visiting - Karnak and Medinet Habu temples were both enormous but also featured some very nice reliefs, and the paintings in all the tombs visited were very nice. General advice: When visiting the West Bank with an itinerary similar to mine, go as early as possible (read your guidebook and check the opening hours of ticket office and the sites) and start with the most popular sites (I made a mistake to visit the Valley of the Queens around midday and had difficulties to really enjoy it in very noisy crowds).
1. There is no direct public transport between Dakhla and Luxor, so it is necessary to go by bus to Asyut and switch to a train there (it would be also possible to go to Al Kharga and take a direct train from there but this train goes just once a week on Saturday, if at all). There are several direct buses per day from Dakhla to Asyut operated by the Upper Egypt bus company (25EP) - the first one is scheduled to leave at 6:00 and to arrive around 12:00 (but expect delays). From Asyut there are many trains going south to Luxor but majority of them are slow (so called "ordinary") trains not really enjoyable to go with; still, some of the trains are also the fast trains with the air-conditioned 2nd class seating coaches (my favorite class), which take some five hours to get to Luxor; yet, just some of these trains are supposed to be used by tourists - see also the general discussion above in the beginning of this report (I took the train not supposed to be used by tourists - in fact, I was even put on it by a policeman - and found the ride quite enjoyable).
2. Travelling by train along the Nile valley provides a good opportunity to catch sights of life of majority of Egyptian population, the fellahs (farmers). The train passes along their little fields and irrigation channels bringing water from the Nile river to their fields, and you can see fellahs working their fields all day long (strangely, they seem not to take any "siesta" and work even in the midday heat). Just south of Asyut you can even catch a sight of still used the"shadoof", a famous ancient device - a kind of lever - used to pump water from the Nile to irrigation channels ever since the times of faraons (now naturally mostly replaced with motor pumps).
3. The best way to get to the West Bank is to take a public ferry for the flat tourist fee of 1EP (locals pay even less) - the boats leave very frequently from their pier just next to the Luxor Temple and cross the river in some 10 minutes; you can even take a bicycle along for free. There are also much more expensive motor boats, which do exactly the same service as the public boats; besides you can also rent one of the famous "feluccas" (local wooden sailing boats) - I have no idea how typical it was, but I usually seen them being pulled by motor boats as there was no wind to propel them.
4. A good way to get around the West Bank is using a bicycle rented either in Luxor or on the West Bank. The bike is good not only for travelling between individual ancient sites but also for touring around some of the West Bank villages allowing to observe the everyday life of Egyptian fellahs - those villages represent another world completely different from the tourist ghetto of Luxor. The bikes can be usually rented through any hotel (the fee may be as low as 5EP per day) but do not expect to get any really roadworthy bike this way - as the terrain of the West Bank is rather hilly I strongly recommend to look around for some bike workshops also renting their bikes (there are some in the streets around the northeast corner of the Luxor Temple) as you have at least some choice there and a chance to ask for some adjustments. However, I needed quite a lot of effort to find a bike boasting with at least reasonably functional brakes, and I had to pay 30EP for it at the rental place on Mohammed Farid St. near the Luxor Temple.
Accommodation: Oasis Hotel,
single room with air condition and shared bathroom without breakfast for 15EP
per night - the room was in fact a dormitory with four beds but the competition
was fierce in Luxor as in middle of November it was still before the full season
(yet I was probably also getting real good in bargaining, as the owners got
their second thoughts during my stay and started to speak about putting some
more guests to my assigned room or moving me to another room, which I of course
flatly refused as our deal was very clear - my advice here is to hold to your
key and never ever leave it in the hotel - as they often ask you - or you may
get some unpleasant surprise). Before the Oasis Hotel, I also tried the Grand
Hotel and found it too filthy even for the discounted price of 15EP per night.
Note: The Oasis Hotel were located at the place where the LP Egypt Guide,
Edition 2006 puts the Nubian Oasis Hotel, while a rather upscale hotel of that
name was located near).
Food: There is no shortage of quite cheap restaurants in Luxor frequently offering menu written in English and rather good variety of food. I can strongly recommend the Abu Masoud Restaurant on the Station St. close to the train station, where I got my best food in Egypt - a really delightful vegetarian "moussaka" for 15EP (I was deeply regretting not to find the place sooner). Another good restaurant was the Mish Mish Restaurant on the Televizyon St.
I have spent four days in Cairo and its vicinity and found the city very interesting and colourful - beside the city itself I have also visited pyramid sites at Dahshur, Saqqara, and Giza, and some Coptic monasteries in Wadi Natrun. I spent my time in Cairo mostly wandering around its crowded streets and observing its bustling life and thoroughly enjoyed it - pollution level was high there but still bearable. The part I have found the most interesting was the so-called "Islamic Cairo", which was in fact an old quarter of Cairo well preserving the atmosphere of the Orient, full of life, bustling souqs (markets) and harbouring many mosques (each of them offering different design but common atmosphere of peace) and old medieval buildings - especially the area around the famous bazaar (street of shops) of Khan el-Khalili was magic with its maze of narrow streets and passageways; yet, I would recommend to avoid the Citadel which was highly overpriced (entrance fee 40EP) and lacked any atmosphere of real life. Another famous area of Cairo, I have visited, was the so called "Old Cairo" or "Coptic Cairo", which was a very small place with some of the oldest Cairo monuments - yet, there was principal reconstruction going on there and I could not recognize any soul there; still, you may want to visit the Coptic Museum which my wife found quite interesting and full of spirit (entrance fee 40EP).
Guide for Cairo: Another way to visit Cairo is to hire a guide for a day to take you around - it is worth considering esp. if you do not have much time for your visit. It may give you somewhat different view on Cairo and Egypt while not even being overly expensive (allowing you to save money on logistic). I have not done it myself but I found a female guide for my wife - who went home sooner than myself and had a one-day stopover at Cairo alone - and she has been very satisfied with the guide. The guide name was Nibal Gouda (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.egyptguest.com) and she was especially notable for being able to make substantial changes in her usual route and habits (which is not at all typical for the guides anywhere in the world). She picked up my wife at the airport and took her around Cairo using cheap public transport - they visited Giza pyramids site and walked around the Old/Coptic Cairo and parts of the Islamic Cairo; besides showing my wife around and answering her questions, Nibal even recommended good cheap eateries and helped with getting good prices at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. The price for the whole day (7:00 to 21:00) guiding around Cairo was EUR45 (payable also in EP or US$). We can recommend Nibal without any hesitation even to budget travellers.
Tour of the pyramid sites: The pyramids are symbol of Egypt and nobody can possible skip them when in Egypt - still, they are indeed impressive and definitely worth visiting. I rented a taxi for a whole day and went around the pyramid sites at Dahshur, Saqqara, and Giza and found them all interesting and sufficiently diverse to pay a visit to all of them. The Giza pyramids (entrance fee 50EP; hefty extra fees requested to enter pyramids internal spaces) are the most famous and impressive (the well-known saying "people are afraid of time, the time is afraid of the pyramids" refers to them) but attract little too many people and their buses (allowed to park just next to each of the pyramids) to my liking - go as early as possible to avoid at least the tourists shipped there on day tours coming from Sharm and Hurghada. The Dahshur pyramids (25EP) feel somehow older and indolent and provide better place for some contemplation as they attract far less people (it is possible to enter the "Red Pyramid" for free there; I have done it and found the passage in too discomfortable and the internal spaces too hot to enjoy it at all - it is not worth the effort as far as I am concerned). The Saqqara pyramids (50EP) feel somewhat less impressive but the site contains also lots of other structures and tombs (making it worth visiting especially for people not having time to visit Luxor sites) while attracting considerably smaller crowds. Within this tour you can also visit Memphis, a metropolis of faraonic Egypt - I skipped it as it was nearly nothing left of it. I rented the taxi to ride me around all these sites through my hotel (New Minerva) and was very satisfied - the price was 130EP for the whole day (it was the first asking price and I took it without any haggling as the price should generally be some 100-150 EP); it was an air-conditioned unmarked car and its discreet driver was always waiting and knew the places well (and even fully conformed to my request not to drive me to any shops, alabaster factories and so); in the morning we went first to Giza to get there just at the time of opening, then to Dahshur, and finally to Saqqara; at Giza the car was waiting outside (by the back entrance near the Sphinx) but all the monuments there were close by and there was no reason to multiply the number of cars on the premises, at Dahshur and Saqqara the car was allowed to parking lots next the monuments (ask the driver to drive you between the two main pyramids at Dahshur - they are quite far apart, and between the several car parks near various monuments at Saqqara).
Trip to the Coptic monasteries of Wadi Natrun: I went for a half-day visit of some Coptic monasteries in Wadi Natrun and found it interesting but not so rewarding as expected. The Wadi Natrun lies about 100 km west from Cairo, just next the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, and hosts four still surviving venerable Coptic monasteries, that are supposed to offer an atmosphere of tranquility and contemplation. I have visited namely the Monastery of St. Bishoi (Deir Amba Bishoi) and the Monastery of the Syrians (Deir el-Sourian) and regrettably found them not really living according to their reputation - even if there is still no fee involved, the place has become slightly commercialized and not much solitude for contemplation can be found there any more. The Monastery of St. Bishoi is now ringed with several new churches well towering above it and markedly spoiling its atmosphere. The Monastery of the Syrians is still standing alone and does preserve its atmosphere - unfortunately, I experienced there a typical Egyptian hassle with a would-be guide (insisting on pointing to me some "dificult-to-regognize" images, like the Virgin Mary, for a baksheesh; it was a young boy and he would not go away and leave me alone, so I even have to ask the monk at the gate to get rid of him); very sad, I certainly hoped I would be spared of this at least there. Also, expect to encounter some busloads of tourists there (not really pilgrims), both foreigners and Egyptians, who are not overly meek to the meaning of the place. Besides the monasteries visited, I have also had a quick look at the Monastery of the Romans (Deir Anba Baramus) from the outside (by mistake of my taxi driver) and it looked just as commercialized as the Monastery of St. Bishoi; I have not even tried to visit the Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Maqar) as it is supposed to be impossible to visit it without a pre-arranged permission - after what I have seen I could blame the monks there not a bit. Nevertheless, the Wadi Natrun sites are still well worth visiting if you have enough time to spare - a couple of hours is enough to see what still remains preserved. The trip can be easily done using public transport - first take a bus to Wadi Natrun City from Cairo Turgoman bus station (5EP, buses go every hour and take 2 hours; be careful and do not leave the bus at an extremely ugly concrete bus station in the middle of nowhere - it is at Sadat City some 20 km before Wadi Natrun City) and then take a "tuk-tuk" (a three-wheel motorcycle taxi known from Asia) to the Monastery of St. Bishoi for 2EP; the "tuk-tuks" come back to the St. Bishoi from time to time so there is no problem to get back. The Monastery of the Syrians is just half a kilometer from the Monastery of St. Bishoi so you can easily walk there and back - but it is no serene desert walk any more as the place between these monasteries is now densely planted and heavily irrigated. Note: In my hotel in Cairo I also asked about a possibility to rent a taxi for a day to tour the monasteries, but got quoted price of some 400EP due to the distance from Cairo.
Whirling Dervishes performance: There is an interesting performance offered free of charge at the Wihara al-Ghouri in the Islamic Cairo at 20:30 every Wednesday and Saturday. The performance has nothing to do with real "Whirling Dervishes" (an old Sufi order famous for their Allah worshipping practice of whirling ritual dance) but is just a rather elaborate ethnic show of music (sounding very oriental to my ears) and dance (mostly indeed whirling) performed by a highly professional group of men. It is very good (though slightly slipping to a circus production in the end) and definitely worth visiting. Arrive before 19:00 to secure a good seat in the auditorium as the show is also much visited by tourist groups passing through Cairo).
1. My wife flew Egypt Air from Sharm el-Sheikh to Cairo for 190EP, using its first flight of the day at 6:35; the flight took one hour and was one hour delayed but uneventful otherwise.
2. There are several direct trains going from Luxor and Cairo - three "proper" and several more "improper" seating trains (regarding the trains being meant to be used by foreigners - see also the general discussion above in the beginning of this report), and two expensive sleeping trains. I took the first available "proper" seating train, leaving Luxor at 9:30 and arriving to Cairo at 19:30; the price was 55EP for a seat in an air-conditioned second class couch (in fact, this was the price for the full train route from Aswan to Cairo - see also above).
3. A good way to get around Cairo is its subway ("metro"), which is very cheap (flat fee of 1EP) and reasonably comfortable. The tickets are sold at every station; no announcement regarding stops is given in the trains so study your route ahead. The metro can be used to get to the Turgoman bus station (it is about 200 m west from the Orabi station), to downtown (about 200 m east from the Nasser and Sadat stations), or to the Old/Coptic Cairo (just east of the Mar Girgis station).
4. There is a lot of taxis circulating around Cairo day and night - find out ahead about "correct" prices, bargain hard, and do not hesitate to leave one for another if the driver is too stubborn (often he will gladly drive rearward to get your business then).
5. According to some guidebooks (incl. LP Egypt) there should be boats called "river taxi" running along the Nile through the city center. These would make nice and cheap way to see the city from different angle, but unfortunately ceased operation two years ago for good. There is still a boat running from a right-bank pier under the Tahrir Bridge somewhere to the Cairo university for 1EP (but I have not tried it myself).
When preparing for my trips I always gather from the internet all information available and before I go I put it unsorted into separated documents covering each place to be visited and print those out to use them during the trip. I still have the documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you on request. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.