Egypt for Indians
Egypt boasts of an ancient civilisation, an exotic people and one of the seven wonders of the world – exactly why it’s choc-a-bloc with western tourists. Indians however, are few and far between. Mostly, they aren’t quite sure what Egypt has on offer, and sometimes, they’ve been subjected to a string of complaints from those who return. True, tourist Egypt isn’t India-friendly and almost everything, from the prices and the service to the shopping and sight-seeing is geared to dollar wielding westerners. Even so, an Egyptian holiday can become a holiday of a life-time.
This north African country is filled to the brim with wonderfully preserved monuments, temples and tombs, many of which are over 5000 years old. The stories woven around each are thrilling, either the stuff of romance…or horror. Then there’s the Nile, cutting it’s way across the raw desert.
You can see it all, for less money than Europe, and there’s a bonus. It’s not just churches, shopping and scenery that you get, but loads of ancient history. As long as you spend right and see everything ofcourse.
To to see or not to see?
As Egypt is teeming with monuments, it becomes hard to see them all if you are on a short trip. Finally, whether to see a particular monument is a subjective decision and is best made by you – before you leave. (See box for list of important monuments). Getting into the details of the itinerary (instead of leaving it to your tour operater) also prepares you for the hidden costs of sight-seeing. The tour may be pre-paid, but there are prices within prices and these will have to be borne by you. The ticket to the pyramids doesn’t cover your going inside one, and a ticket to the museum will not get you into the Mummy room. And when it comes to the tombs, a ticket will enable you to see any three tombs, but not Tutankhamun’s. These costs are far more than the entry ticket. Cameras cost as well, and video cameras cost even more. (See box for approximate prices).
Shopping can turn into a nightmare, although Egypt is a shopper’s paradise. Travel agents and guides in Egypt will invariably steer you to shops of their choice where you are over-charged and the guide walks off with a commission. This can be avoided if you do the shopping by yourself on your ‘free’ day in Cairo. If your hotel is in town, the markets won’t be far. Cabs are easily available, inexpensive, and safe. Their charges are arbitrary however, and it’s best to enquire beforehand what it costs to travel a particular distance. Taking a cab just outside your hotel is not a good idea.
Cairo’s most famous market, Khan-el-Khalili bazaar, an exotic version of Mumbai’s Crawford market, is worth a see, even if you don’t want to shop. It’s a tourist spot, and you can spend hours here, drinking Arabian shai or their Hibiscus drink Karakare or perhaps taking puffs from a hookah. There are plenty of cafés to lunch.
Be cautious while shopping however. Though one can get good bargains here, prices quoted are exorbitant, inflated to suit the pockets of western tourists. You could also come away with fake goods, banana leaf paintings instead of papyrus, or ordinary stone or glass jewellery in the guise of semi-precious stones. Low-value items are usually quoted at ten to twenty times their actual price, and high value items at double or triple their price. Egypt may be a poor country, but nothing is cheap, not for tourists. A small item like a key chain will set you back by about 30 LE, and if you get it at that price, consider it a bargain. It’s best to ask trusted locals about actual prices (this does not include your guide) or just be smart, discerning and bargain like crazy. More often than not, a sweet word will get you a better bargain than hard brokering, as Egyptians are a gentle, friendly people. And if you go armed with a few Arabic phrases, it works like magic.
Tipping is an exasperating aspect of touring Egypt. Everyone, from drivers, guides, to hotel managers blatantly hanker for tips, substantial tips. At the end of your cruise, hotel managers at ship hotels will unashamedly push an unmarked envelope towards you, asking you to deposit your tips in there, even if you have not asked for any extra service. Indians are at a disadvantage here as the tips expected are what the average European can pay. On the flip side, stealing is almost non-existent. There is no fear of you being mugged or getting into a scrape either. Egyptian cities are well-policed and there are special tourist police who are everywhere, making it seem like a police state. One of the reasons why eve-teasing is non-existent. Egyptians may frown upon foreigners who wander around in skimpy clothes, but no one stares.
Hotels can be a disappointment. A three-star hotel in Cairo has sparkling clean bathrooms and spotless sheets, but that’s where the favorable comparison ends with Indian three-star hotels. If you want four-star comfort, expect three-star comfort, and if you want luxury, go for the deluxe hotels. This also applies to the Nile cruise ship (a cruise is part of all Egypt tours), although you might get lucky here if you get a new ship. Ask if there is entertainment on board. A belly dancer is quite the normal fare.
Getting into the details of your itinerary is important because it ensures that you get adequate rest. There is plenty of walking (in the hot desert) to be done on any particular day, and it gets impossible to do if you are required to rise at 2 a.m., catch a flight, arrive at your destination at six a.m., leave the airport at seven a.m. and rush on to a full day of sight-seeing without being checked into a hotel. On the other hand, you could find yourself at a loose end in some town, with half a day free and nothing to do except to lounge around at your hotel. There’s no cable worth seeing there, so forget about that idea.
The best time to visit Egypt is in winter, although any month except for May/June/July is fine. The nights are cool and even if you travel in April, you’ll need to take light woollens.
At Cairo: You Must See:
1. The pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. Built in 2500 BC for the Pharaoh Kheops and his descendents, Khephren and Menkaure, there are three major pyramids here.
2. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Contains treasures from different periods, starting from about 2700 B.C and actual mummies of some of the Pharaoh’s as well as treasures from Tutankhamoun’s tomb, including his gold coffin, made of 450 pounds of solid gold.
3. Khan –el- Khalili market.
If you have time, do see:
1. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara. A short drive from Cairo, it’s the earliest known pyramid and the oldest stone structure on this planet.
2. The Giza Sound and Light Show
3. The Coptic Museum
You can safely skip:
- The ancient city of Memphis, not too far from Cairo.
- The pyramids of Dahshour and of Meidum.
- The old churches and mosques.
- The Pharaohnic Village
At Luxor you must see:
1. The Valley of the Kings which contain the tombs of the Pharaohs and are buried deep within the sandstone cliffs. They contain ancient inscriptions and drawings.
2. Queen Hatshepsut’s temple. A three-tiered mortuary temple built in limestone in 15th century BC for the most famous Egyptian queen (Cleopatra was Greek).
3. Karnak temple. The largest temple complex in the world
4. Luxor temple. Dedicated to the God Amon, it lies on the banks of the Nile.
5. The Colossi of Memnon. These gigantic statues of Amenhotep III were carved out of sandstone.
If you have time do see: The Luxor museum.
You can safely skip:
- The Valley of the Queens
- The temples at Dendera and Esna
- The tombs of the Nobles
- The Sound and Light show at Karnak
At Aswan you must see:
1. The Abu Simbel temple. Built by Ramses II, it is carved out of the sandstone cliffs.
2. The Unfinished Obelisk. This particular Obelisk is at an ancient stone quarry and is believed to be of Queen Hatshepshut.
3. The Philai temple.
If you have time do see: The Nubian museum.
You can safely skip:
- The Nubian Village
- The Elephantine island
- The High Dam.
Alexandria: This is a beautiful sea-side town, of great importance to the Romans and the Greeks. On an 8-day tour, it’s best to give it a miss. If you do go there:
Sights to see:
* The Qaitbay Citadel. An important fort in the 15th century AD.
* Pompey’s Pillar: Made of red granite, it is the biggest memorial column in Egypt.
* There is also a Roman cemetry, palace gardens, the Hepsis temple, the Temple of Amon and a Roman Amphitheatre.
4. The Nile Cruise.
One of the best cruises in the world, it is a part and parcel of every tourist’s itinerary. The Nile is clean, blue and peaceful to behold. Ship stewards are friendly, and helpful. Usually if you are traveling in a guided tour, the tour operator sends a guide with you on the ship to explain the different sights on the way. However, be warned that he will attempt to sit with you at the table and spend time with you socially. While some foreigners who travel in large groups welcome this, we discouraged it. We were a couple (not that it deterred the guide) and wanted privacy. We also met a family of five from New Zealand who were very upset with this arrangement. No amounts of hints they gave worked with the guide and they were too polite to tell him to leave. However we told our guide that could he please leave us alone, and he did.
During the cruise, from Luxor to Aswan or vice versa, the ship will dock at:
The Edfu Temple. Built in the 3rd century B.C, it is dedicated to Horus, the falcon-god. Its one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. The carvings are very beautiful.
The Komombo Temple. One of the more recent temples, built in the 2nd century B.C. by Ptolemy VI, it’s dedicated to two gods, Horus and Sobik.
The ship will also pass through The Esna Lock. You can see the difference in water levels in the photograph and it is quite fascinating to see the way the ship rises as the water is gradually raised to the same level as on the other side. You can read about how a Lock (water transport) works here.
- Khan-el-Khalili – Ceramics, Clothes, Jewellery, Art Spices, Carpets, Brass, Copperware, Glass and Leatherwork.
- The Tentmakers Bazaar – Handmade appliqués.
- Egypt Crafts Center – Gifts and souvenirs.
- The Spice market.
- The Nomad Gallery – Jewellery, Crafts, Clothes,
- Souvenirs Colour Gallery – Souvenirs, Arabic utensils, Pottery.
- Redaa el-Marwam
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