Wednesday , June 20, 2018

Unwrapping the secrets of Egypt

WHENEVER there’s time and money, I travel. Solo yolo.

Yes, it’s very exciting, but the most challenging element, especially in the Mediterranean where English is scarcely used, is the idea of walking around and getting lost. Fun as it may seem, I don’t wish this to happen while I’m out and about in Egypt, barely four hours from Dubai.

The shifting sands…

Dodging mostly battered vehicles through crowded streets, the airport taxi runs past rows of seemingly untended buildings. Moderate winds stir up dust and fumes; the skyline seems to disappear.

Standing before a nondescript, dusty grey apartment on a chilly morning in downtown Cairo, I’m afraid I’m at the wrong address. Though I have scrupulously chosen my living space in terms of convenience, close to Tahrir Square (which isn’t really square), the Egyptian Museum and the metro, something is amiss. With a shaky, unlit lift and cramped musty quarters, the broken-down hotel looks like something straight out of my worst nightmare. What am I to do? Spice it up!

Tracing history back to thousands of years is not something you can get easily interested in, but Egypt’s enormous gallery of unrivaled antiques rouses everyone’s curiosity. I am sure to find deeper insight in the museum of excavated treasures in the heart of Cairo. Entrance fee is $10 inclusive of access to priceless royal mummies, the golden death mask and other invaluable possessions of Tutankhamun (restricted areas for photos). Surprisingly, statues and hieroglyphs hardly convey the whole story, so I need to hire a guide to walk me through prehistory and further unravel these relics of ancient civilization. Not only is archaeology informative in dating a site through artifacts, but also provides strong clues in determining exactly which period relics are from.

I take pleasure in strolling through bustling city streets, while albeit nerve-wracking. With few Asians around, I don’t stand out like a sore thumb, so I don’t let the jumble turn me away. Hence, I tread the narrow streets and alleyways of Khan Al Khalili’s charming shops selling just about anything. I deliberately avoid the temptation of eating a crisp falafel (fried ball of chickpeas for snack), wary of unintended consequences.

While catching the metro from Tahrir Square to Mar Girgis Station (Old Cairo), some commuters keep stealing sneaky glances at me. I keep my cool, until outside of the station, where people mill around. With remnants of what was once a stronghold for Christianity, this arid site depicts an old-world charm complete with Coptic churches, and where a synagogue and a mosque coexist in harmony. Sadly, this religious minority is often fractured by hostilities and social stigma.

…the faded tombs for rulers…

Providing the most beautiful view from first light to sunset are the distinct Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, both still standing the test of time. While death-defying stunts of people surreptitiously climbing up to the tops are perilous, they are also damaging to the monuments’ already weathered state.

When the car hired from Cairo to Giza drops me off at the area for horse-drawn carriages, it doesn’t take long to realize that my plan is not going the way I want. The tourist’s entrance is nowhere in sight, the sweltering midday heat makes my skin scream in agony, and locals use all sorts of distracting horse riding methods to earn. I wish they’d stop following me, but, on second thought, it doesn’t hurt to pay $15 for my riding comfort. Unaware then, the brunt of my blunder is being exhorted to giving a tip, in any currency! The whole episode gets awkwardly heartbreaking, to say the least. After all, there’s a rather easy path for gentle walks.

I proceed on foot, consumed by the urge to get close to the pyramids. The new Grand Egyptian Museum, a gem in Giza, where Tutankhamun’s worldly assets have recently been moved to, stands near the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.

…and somewhere in between

Whichever way is convenient, tourists can travel by train, fly outside greater Cairo or commute with locals by public transport.

In the southern part of Egypt, the Nile flows between Luxor, a city most-visited (after Cairo), on the east, and dedicated tombs for pharaohs and their wives called The Valleys of the Kings and Queens, on the west. Regarded as an open-air museum, this region is home to a plethora of grand monuments, noble temples, underground mausoleums and archaeological heritage.

Sharm El Sheikh was once abuzz with an immense influx of Europeans. At one point a perfect holiday destination, it now has a days-gone-by feel. After the 2015 Metrojet disaster in Sinai, holidaymakers are still fearful about their safety, affecting the business of various Red Sea resorts.

A sweeping desert though desolate, it is flecked with biblical sites. The Sinai Peninsula has incredible hikes for those with no fear; however, it remains a particularly treacherous area, sparking rumors of attack on security forces and civilians.

Political turmoil, violent protests and terror plots have greatly impacted Egypt’s tourism industry. What now?

Itinerary. Check. Security. Double check.

*This story does not aim to dampen travel plans, but as with visiting any unfamiliar place, always practice caution and prudence wherever your wandering feet may lead you.