ABC – A Bear in Cairo

The Bear is Back!

This trip is to Africa, to Egypt.  I want to get away from the cold in the UK and get a little bit of sun. My first stop, almost inevitably, is Cairo. My flight arrived on time and I breezed through the formalities of getting my visa on arrival and a sim card for my phone. I was soon sitting in a taxi, expecting to be stuck for hours in Cairo’s famous traffic jams – but instead I reached my hotel in only forty minutes.

The next morning, I set off for Cairo’s most famous attraction – the pyramids at Giza, a suburb of the city. Getting there was fun. First, I took Cairo’s metro. This was built recently, with the first line opening in 1987, but already looks rather tired and run down. However, it works well and soon I was at Giza metro station, where several polite Egyptians helped me find the minibus that went to the pyramids. On arrival I joined a queue of people jostling to buy entrance tickets, and then filed in together with many other visitors – mostly Egyptian.

The pyramids and Sphinx from near the entrance to the site

From the entrance to the pyramids was a walk of about 500m up a hill. Every few steps I was proposed a horse or camel ride, and having to dodge other visitors, avoid horse droppings or carts rushing past made the climb something of an ordeal.

I finally got to the base of the Khufu Pyramid, the largest pyramid (although its neighbour, the Khafre Pyramid looks taller because it was built on higher ground). As expected, the “Great Pyramid” was an awesome sight.

Makes you feel small (especially small teddy bears)

It is hard to believe that over 4,500 years ago, human beings had the ability to build something so massive – 2.3 huge blocks of stone, weighing 6 million tonnes in total. It remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for 3,800 years.

I had invested in a ticket to visit the inside – a narrow, low path through the rock climbed steeply into the heart of the pyramid. It was a hot and humid inside and I had to squeeze past people coming the other way – not a place for people with claustrophobia.

Into the heart of the Great Pyramid

Finally, I reached an unremarkable chamber where the king’s equally unremarkable sarcophagus stood. I am sure that this will not be the highlight of my trip, but at least I can say I did it.

The rather disappointing burial chamber of Pharaoh Khufu

From the Great Pyramid I walked around to the Khafre Pyramid and then into the desert to a panoramic view point as camels and horse-drawn carriages sped past me on either side. Again, the walking was hard going – this time from walking through dirty sand littered with camel droppings and discarded plastic bottles.  I was rewarded with a wonderful view of the three pyramids, without the crowds this time.

Finally a view without crowds

I headed back to main entrance, passing the famous “Sphinx” on the way – which in real life looks a lot smaller than in photos. 

My new friend the Sphinx

To get back to the centre of the city, I tried Uber and found that it is by far the best way to get around Cairo. Cars arrive quickly, the “comfort” category ones even have rear seatbelts (a rarity in Egypt), and even after a generous tip, the rides are so cheap that you feel very sorry for the drivers. Forty minutes and $5 later I was back in the centre of Cairo in front of the impressive exterior of the Egyptian Museum.  

Inside, on a first impression the place had an abandoned feeling, like the home of an elder relative who hoarded their possessions throughout their life. Sometimes items were described in Arabic, English and French, sometimes in Arabic and English, sometimes in Arabic only, sometimes not at all…….and once in Braille only. A huge new museum to house Egypt’s archaeological treasures is scheduled to open sometime (its opening has already been postponed by several years), so this might explain the apparent neglect of the current museum.

The Entrance Hall of the Egyptian Museum

However, once I started exploring, I loved the place. I wandered around dimly lit corridors, stumbling upon treasure after treasure. Being able to hunt out exceptional items for myself, became part of the fun.

Some of the Egyptian Museum’s treasures

In most of the rooms there were few visitors, but the presence of a crowd announced the museum’s highlight – the contents of Tutankhamen’s grave (photos not allowed sadly!). Here the display and lighting were perfect, and despite the queue, the items on show dazzled me – not just the famous death mask, but also his jewellery and two coffins. After this memorable sight, I continued to wander around the museum, enjoying lesser-known exhibits like the mummies of the Pharoah’s pets and farm animals (cats, dogs, cows and even one mummified crocodile. At closing time, I sneaked back to the Tutankhamen display for a second look, and enjoyed having the room almost to myself.

Mummified pets in their coffins

I headed back to my hotel and enjoyed the view of the Nile with a non-alcoholic cocktail from the roof terrace.

The view from my hotel – note the “Blue Nile” boat which will feature in my next post

I then headed off to Cairo’s downtown in search of beer – which is not widely available. Outside of high-end hotels, alcohol is served mainly in rather seedy bars. I chose the most respectable looking one and was given a cold beer as soon as I had sat down – beer being the only thing on the menu. The local brew Stella turned out to be perfectly drinkable. 

The local beer Stella in one of the more respectable bars selling alcohol

Dinner was “kushari” – a vegetarian dish made with chickpeas, lentils and pasta in a spicy tomato sauce, prepared by the waiter in front of me with a splash of showmanship. I asked for the bill and was just about to pay what I thought was a very reasonable 227 Egyptian Pounds (7€) when the waiter apologised and said he had made a mistake. I was astonished when the bill for my large meal for two (bears have big appetites!) came back as 127EGP or 4€.

Back at my hotel, I settled down for a quiet night. I had seen one of the wonders of the world – the pyramids and the Sphinx. But I had a nagging feeling that I had simply ticked off an item from Egypt’s (or the world’s) “must see” list rather than actually enjoying the experience. The Egyptian museum, on the other hand, was an unexpected gem of a place, and Cairo’s downtown was chaotic fun.

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