Thursday, March 17, 2011

Luxor - East Side!!!!!!!!

We arrived in Luxor on the overnight train from Cairo.  Overnight travel, with a bed or full-flat seat, for example, a first-class airplane seat, or more likely, an Argentine bus seat or sleeper train, has become one of my favorite ways to get around.  We got off the train around 8:30 AM after a brief stand-off with our cabin attendant, who had positioned himself directly in the doorway and let passengers off only after they gave the required baksheesh.  Our complication arose because while he was busy blocking the door, I was handling all our luggage, our backpacks, and our money, and had no free hands to take the tip from my pocket and give it to him – for all his help with, say, our luggage….  But as they say, “Welcome to Egypt.  You are welcome.”

Our overnight train berth.  Within minutes
of our occupying the "room" it was somehow already messy.  Not pictured is how Jesse arranged her clothes such that no part of her skin touched any part of the train.  That is, socks were tucked into pants, into which she had tucked her shirt, and then wrapped a scarf fully around her head, neck and shoulders.  I slept in the nude. 
Though there are many benefits of overnight travel, the food has never been one of them.  In a country notorious for its bad food, we were not surprised when Egypt Rail's offerings were below par.  Starting in the lower left corner and moving clockwise you can see the yellow rice, beige fish (we think), a tan meat patty (ewwww), a yellow fruitcake, a tan bun, white pudding, and lastly, an unidentifiable yellow and white starch.  You will have to believe me that we did not scarf down all the green veggies before taking the photo.  Thankfully, we had plenty of chips, cookies, and other snacks that we purchase at the station.

A quick walk from the train station to the ferry gave us the opportunity to refuse countless offers for hotels, taxis, ferries, and tour-guides, and eventually we made it across the river, and into a taxi.  The driver then trotted out the old Egyptian chestnut that one or two more passengers are heading to a hotel right near ours and literally just a minute or two away.  It never ceases to amaze me that despite the waiting and additional passengers the fare never goes down.  Calling his bluff, I pulled out the timer on my phone and started it.  “Two minutes” I told him, and then we were walking.  The timer’s large font is great in these circumstances.  Within 30 seconds, he relented, and then shockingly, pulled our luggage out of his car and it seemed we were out a taxi, and he was out a fare.  In actuality, he was merely passing us off to a friend of his, who was willing to leave immediately, and that lucky driver was the man we eventually hired to drive us around Luxor.

A much needed (and delicious) coffee break at the Beit Sabee.
The plan was to visit the massive Karnak Temple, take lunch, and then visit Luxor Temple at sunset.  Our first stop, however, was a falafel stand on the side of road.  This is when we first learned our driver was not to be trusted.  We knew a falafel sandwich cost between 1-2 Egyptian Pounds, but he suggested that instead of my ordering it, because they would try to cheat me, he would make the purchase and get us a good price.  For him, he said, they would only charge 10 Pounds!  I told him I would be fine and got the tourist price of 3 pounds per sandwich.  A bit high, but then again, its hard to haggle when only 16 cents separates me from a hot, crispy falafel.

Karnak Temple
Karnak's impossing entryway.

Karnak is huge.  Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, breaking ground in the Middle Kingdom (2055 BC) and building through the Ptolemaic times (30 BC).  It is the largest ancient religious site in the world and the second most visited historical site in Egypt, after the Giza Pyramids (been there, done that).  So when our driver suggested that we meet him in the parking lot in about an hour, I told him that we would take as long as we wanted, and that it would likely be two hours or more.  And that he should be waiting for us when we were finished.  Tickets in hand we began the now expected routine of dodging, ignoring, or expressing total indifference to the tens of “official” tour guides who could explain this “utterly incomprehensible” or “totally mysterious” or “multi-religious” ancient site to us for only $20 USD, $10 USD, or $5 USD depending on how far past them we made when they named their price.  Going in solo turned out, as it almost always is for us, the right choice.  Cruising around just the two of us let us take in Karnak in delightful silence, and at our own pace.

Jesse and Ramses I.
Here Jesse takes the stance of his wife, whose importance and role is signified by her
statue standing just slightly taller than Ramses's knee.  Its good to be Pharaoh.
This family asked Jesse to take a photo of them.  And when she went to take the camera,
they explained that what they actually wanted was her in the photo!  This happened all the time in
Egypt (and India), but for some reason, they never asked me to join in the family fun!
Karnak is chock full of cool stuff.  An entryway lined with ram-headed sphinxes, huge pylons (walls) carved with giant hieroglyphics, Ramses statutes, obelisks, and a man-made lake just to name a few.  In particular, the Great Hypostyle Hall was incredible.  It is a 50,000 sq ft enclosure with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows.  And they are massive.  The photos hardly do it justice.

There are so many columns!

Just one corridor of the Great Hypostyle Hall.

Another corridor, showing just how big the columns are.
Column after column after column
All the columns were painted, and supposedly, the entire area was covered by a roof.  At times, the pharaoh would have the temple flooded and take a boat ride through his man-made little lake.

Later on in our exploration we were invited by two guards to slip behind the closed signs and check out some of the partially renovated ruins.  We found some giant seated Ramses to take photos with, served as the top of some legs-only statues, and then were invited to climb some staircase where the guards took our hands, touched them to a scared place on the rocks (100% made-up), touched them to our foreheads, and then to our hearts, blessed us, and had us kiss (fun!).  But this kind of fun could only be bought with some serious baksheesh.  And because the first guard recruited a second guard to “help” with the rule-breaking we were on the hook for double baksheesh.  I gave them what I considered a very generous tip for showing us these “special” areas, taking bad mediocre photos of us, and doing the exact opposite of what their job required of them.  And as expected, the good mood soured the moment they saw the amount of my baksheesh, and also as expected, they each broke into Oscar-deserving performances concerning its inadequacy, gasped in outrage of receiving “nothing” (though it was probably more than a full week’s salary for each of them) despite the risk they took so we could see a few more (of the same) statues, and even going so far as to find a small tear in the bill I gave them and throwing it on the ground crying that no bank would take such an old and damaged bill.  Only when I went to pick up the “worthless” bill did they all of a sudden decide that it was good enough, and snatched the note from the ground, pleading all the while, “Missssster, pleeeeeez.  We take statue, we take photo, so poor, at least double, at least.”  But as we’ve long said, if they don’t complain about the size of the tip, you have overpaid, and by a lot.  So when I told them I knew it was a good tip and began walking away our overpayment was confirmed because literally, within 50 feet the same guys, the ones who I had paid so little they actually threw my tip on the ground, ran over to me and told me about other “beery special, beery nice places” they could show us.  Thanks, but no thanks.

A fun, but pretty poorly framed, photo of us behind the "closed" sign.
It seems the security guards are neither taught how to keep people out of the closed areas
nor how to take photos of the people they allow in with the "closed" monuments.

Jesse filling in for the lost upper portion of a Ramses statue.
Presumably it was carried off after a $2.50 tip to the man assigned to guard it.
Us at the top of the special closed stairway.  We were doubly uncertain about climbing up a roped off stairwell.
These ruins are old, and certainly not 100% stable.
"Special photo, special photo!"  On the right side you can see the second guard assisting in the rule-breaking.
"Kiss, kiss, kiss!" they chanted.  Jesse wasn't even wearing her wedding ring.
It must have been so scandalous for the modest Egyptians!
Hungry and drained from the baksheesh experience we headed back to the parking lot to meet our driver and head to lunch.  After winning a brief fight with our driver over where we should go to lunch, we made it to the highly-recommended Sofra ( and passed on the Moon Palace, a place he described as “beery good, beery clean, and nice man.”  He did not describe the actual reason he liked the place, which was that he would get a free lunch for bringing us there.  At Sofra we relaxed with our fresh lemon and strawberry juices and waited for the day to pass, so I could photograph Luxor Temple around sunset.

Luxor Temple

And photograph it I did.  Wandering throughout the temple we flitted between tens of large tour groups, listening to snippets of the canned tour guide speeches (“And this tying of the lotus and the papyrus plants represents the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt…”)  Blah, blah, blah.  We heard it so many times we understood it in French, German, and even Japanese, but it was still always funny to hear an Egyptian speaking in Japanese.

Still there were lots of cool statues whose photos needed taking.  With and without us:
At the smaller, but still cool, hypostle hall at Luxor Temple.
We got yelled at during this photo because we were not allowed
to stand on that column without paying baksheesh.
Nothing like a little matchy matchy with Ramses
A shot down the hypostle hall at sunset.
The begining of the row of sphinxes that suposedly ran the entire 3 km from Luxor Temple to Karnak.
Just another giant statue of Ramses
And at the end of the day we had our final fight with our driver.  Despite having hired him for two full days, he had arranged to make an airport pick-up that evening, and our slow pace throughout the day left him without much time to drop us off at our hotel – on the west bank of the Nile – and then return to the airport on the east bank.  As we raced home (which was fine with me) he was literally screaming into his cell phone, presumably about his airport pick-up, and he told us that he would drop us near, but not at, our hotel.  This was immediately refused, and though he relented, the ride back was a rather tense and unpleasant end to an otherwise fun day.

We finished up the day with dinner at Hapi Hapu near the Madinaut Hapu.  And while the meal was just OK (I got the tiniest chicken leg and thigh I had seen since the one-biter I got in Valparaiso), after our meal we had tea and chatted with the owner for about an hour.

There is no need to hire a car & driver to do the Luxor East bank.  Karnak is only 3 KM from Luxor temple, and the parking lots of both sites are filled with taxis for the short one-off trips. If you are coming from the west bank Luxor Temple is literally right at the ferry, though you’ll have to walk around the site to get to the entrance.

Lunch at Sofra was really good.  The juices were good as were the meatballs. 

* Thanks Wikipedia.


  1. Love your new banner at the top of the post. I remember being amazed at the size and scope of the Temples in Karnak and Luxor. Ramses thought pretty highly of himself. It was good to be king. I loved seeing it then and love reading about it now.

  2. I recognize the technique in the second to last photo. Strangely (or not), the only nice shots I took in India in aperature mode are the ones you took while teaching me how the technique!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.