Tourist hassle

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Saturday, January 13, 2007

Luxor is the most monument-heavy town in egypt. (though Giza has the heaviest monuments). In descending order of rank, there's Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, The Temple of Nebu, The valley of the kings, the valley of the queens, The tombs of the nobles and the tombs of the people who built all the other tombs and temples. Among others.  I spent a week looking around and saw most of the highlights, but I'm afraid if you want details you'll have to let google and the photos be your guide.

Except Tutankamun's tomb, which cost's an extra four (english) pounds to go in. (for me. 8 pounds for 'normies'. I had been warned in Dahab that visiting the monuments is a lot cheaper if you have an ISIC card, and that you could get one of these from a shop in Luxor. So, for probably the last time, my out-of-date student card was put to good use, getting me an in-date highly fraudulant ISIC card.) Tut's tomb is rubbish, since it's only little, not very decorated and all the sparkly stuff is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (There was a hell of a lot of sparkly stuff though, they were clearly highly skilled at packing)

Guidebooks, I have decided, are a two edged sword. They do contain some useful or interesting cultural and historical information, some maps which are better than nothing (though some are worse than useless), some information on the main tourist attractions and some worthwhile hotels. However, as Science has proven, you can't observe a thing without affecting the thing you're observing. Thus, places which a guidebook describes as 'blissfully isolated and peaceful' may be crowded with people clutching the guide. Meanwhile, places 'heaving with crowds, best avoided', may have become pleasantly devoid of tourists. This is not always true, of course, but it happens. And where it happens most is in cheap hotels. Expensive hotels have 'standards'. Thats why they're expensive, so a good review is less damaging. Cheap hotels, on the other hand, are wont to let praise such as 'clean rooms, friendly atmosphere' go to their heads, and in no time the rooms are dirty and the atmosphere is one of ill-founded smug superiority. Alternatively, they may get delusions of grandeur and simply double their prices. Or both.

So, I landed at the highly praised 'Happyland Hostel' in Luxor, only to find that a single non-suite room was more than a double en-suite in a proper(ish) hotel in Aswan. However, as has been seen before, one of the problems of traveling by bike is that when I arrive I am tired, sweaty and worn out, and very vulnerable to thinking 'sod it- it's not that much'. Nonetheless, I tried to negotiate:
-It's late. You're not going to fill the room today. What's your best price?
-(smugly superior) we are in the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet. There is one more train from Aswan today. And one from Cairo...

In the end I compromised, staying at Happyland one night, and spending that evening looking for somewhere to spend the rest of the week. This trail led me eventually to the Sherif Hotel, one block away from Happyland. Also in the guide, I later found, but further down the listings and receiving less effusive recommendation, they were offering rooms much the same as Happyland, at one third the price. I booked myself in for the next morning. The evening was passed socialising on their roof, which was partially covered, carpeted and strewn with cushions for the purpose. They also had a stereo playing either Egyptian music or Bob Marley.

My companions for the evening where a group of 'overlanders', who had paid thousands of pounds to travel from Cairo to Capetown overland. Strangers to each other at the outset a week ago, and about to spend months together on a 'truck' (the drivers get quite entertainingly irate if you call it a 'bus') they were very excitable, chatty, and in many respects like Big Brother contestants on day one. 3 days later another group making the same jouney in the opposite direction stayed at the same hotel, so we saw what happens by week 12. It wasn't pretty.

When I presented myself at the Sherif hotel the next morning, it transpired that my booking had been forgotten and my room let to a friendly imposter called Barry. To mitigate their treachery, they offered to let me sleep on the roof for free. After the first night of cool, fresh air on a comfortable mattress of cushions, I arranged to stay there for the rest of the week, promising to buy beer and breakfast to make it worth their while.

The week was spent seeing the sights and relaxing, chatting mainly either with Barry or a Swiss cyclist heading for Sudan, who had ridden from Hurghada to Qena and then up to Luxor. Thus I descovered that one can, in fact, ride from Hurghada to Luxor, contrary to what I'd been told, and that I would be able to ride to Qena when I left. All good news. So it was with high hopes that I finally set off from Luxor, passing the preliminary police checkpoints without attracting so much as a second glance, and got back on the main road to Cairo. It wasn't until I was 10km out of town, at the last checkpoint, that the police flagged me down.
-Where are you from?
-Where are you going?
-You must go with convoy.
-I couldn't keep up...
-You can't cycle this road. You must go back.
-I can cycle this road! A friend of mine did it two days ago!

The conversation carried on in this vein for a little while, but it quickly became clear that he was having none of it. Apparantly the only person who could give me permission was 'the general' so there was nothing for it but to go back and find him. Eventually I located him, at the convoy muster point, sitting in a chair looking away from me down the street and flanked by two deputies. One of these answered my greeting and conducted all further conversation. The general never once even turning to look at me. The upshot of the conversation was that there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of me being allowed to ride to Qena, despite my logical arguments and protestations, but that the cops would give me a lift so I wouldn't have to pay for the inconvenience. Slightly molified, I went and played dominoes in a shisha cafe until it was time for the convoy to depart.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. When I returned to the convoy the cop I'd spoken to was nowhere to be found, so I had to go through the whole discussion again. This time I was told the bike can go in the police car, but I will have to ride in a taxi, but don't worry, the taxi's going anyway so you don't have to pay. This arrangement held for about 2 minutes, before another policeman said the bike couldn't go in the policecar, and would have to go on the roofrack of a different taxi. (Why it couldn't go on the taxi taking me was never satisfactorily explained). So, in this way, the convoy finally got underway.

It's unclear why the drivers in the convoy felt the need to race, since none of them could pass the policecar at the front, but race they did. Most of the journey was spent driving the 'corronors corridor' playing chicken with oncoming traffic. The only conversation was the driver continually asking for 'baksheesh' now the cops weren't around. When we arrived I gave him a few pounds, the conventional level of baksheesh, and went to get my bike. Meanwhile, the driver of the other taxi asked his friend what I'd given him before marching threateningly up to me demanding
-Ten English pounds! You are English, you are rich!
He's right, of course, but my riches have to get me a long way and I didn't feel disposed to donate them to an aggressive taxi driver for a free ride I didn't want for which he'd already received a full fare and tip. I explained this as succinctly as I could:
-No chance.

Luckily the tourist police wandered over before the discussion could grow too heated. (god bless 'em, and the way their arbritariness, corruption and possibly even brutality put the fear of god into any unfortunate native who upsets a tourist). The driver backed down, but one of the Europeans in his car did not share his qualms. Before we even set off this guy had been complaining about carrying the bike and muttering
-you should have known!
I didn't take the time to enquire how exactly I should have known that this stretch of tarmac can be cycled from north to south but not the reverse, and what I should have done about it apart from what I did. But seeing me about to escape the fleecing I so sorely deserved was the last straw for him. he suddenly became irate, screaming 
-I hope you die!
as the taxi pulled away. Nice man.

Back on the bike I rode the 10km to Dendara, the site of another impressive temple, but could only spend 15mins looking around. This was partly because the place was closing soon, and partly because I didn't want to run into that man again.

Finally I made it to a hotel in Qena and headed out in search of food. As I was leaving the hotel manager warned me
-be careful, it's dangerous
Since he volunteered no further information, such as particular areas to avoid, and since I was hungry, I decided to take my chances. It turned out he was right though.

About 100m from the hotel I heard the buzz of a scooter racing down the road towards me. I turned to look in time to see the helmetless juvenile rider swerve to avoid an oncoming minibus (he was speeding down the wrong side of the road) only to ride headlong into a second bus (overtaking the first). The bike burst into splinters while the rider flew onto the windscreen, bouncing fully 2 metres back onto the tarmac. For a moment I was sure he was dead, but he sat up, ashen faced and disorientated but clearly not dead. In moments a crowd had gathered around him and while I was reaching for my mobile phone to call an ambulance one appeared. He was fireman-carried into the ambulance and whisked away. Within two minutes the scene was calm again, scattered scooter shrapnel the only lingering evidence of the violence, apart from my racing pulse and dry mouth. My prefered response to shock, as to most other stimuli, is to eat food and drink water, so I continued my search for dinner.
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