Over the last two weeks I’ve been continuing my journey through Egypt, passing through Luxor and Hurghada along the way. It’s been a time filled with very varied experiences and realizations. Now that I’ve been on the road for two months, memories are beginning to blend and emotions compiled into a slowly yet ever-expanding cloud that I carry along in my mind. I’ll call it the “travel cloud”, and I believe it’s a phenomenon that everyone experiences to lesser or greater extent, depending on how long they are gone and who or what they encounter along the way. You start to highlight moments that really stood out, blurring out the less eventful times and building a compressed version of your journey that consists of a discrete sequence of scenes that together make up a greatly imaginative mental movie. I find this a very satisfying process to undergo, to slowly become aware of the story that’s taking shape inside of you, the story that only you have the full understanding of and that makes your journey unique amongst those of others, ultimately the story that you will carry with you after you return home. I consider this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of traveling.
This part of my story starts in Luxor, where I arrived after having spent thirteen hours on an Egyptian air-conditioned express train. “Although refrigerated express train would probably be a more appropriate description”, the Mexican guy next to me mentioned as we were both shivering under a collection of blankets and sweaters, desperately trying to survive the powerful icy wind blowing through the cabin. Quite ironic, given that the ambient temperature outside the train was on average 34 degrees centigrade. It’s a curious fact that backpackers get more colds in warm countries than in colder ones just because they spend more time in overly air-conditioned spaces. Luxor is a rather strange place to visit in present times. The tourism industry has pretty much been gutted in recent years by the prevalent media reports about instability all across Egypt, and the consequences are very visible here. A city center full of hotels and guesthouses almost none of which have any clients, touts and shopkeepers desperately trying to get you to buy anything from them, scores of sailboats idly moored along the quays,… Suffice to say I did not meet many fellow backpackers here, although the lack of social interaction was more than made up for by the incredible sights I got to see.
Of course the main reason to visit Luxor is to see the monumental Valley of Kings. The mountain range containing this valley lies on the east bank of the river Nile adjacent to the ruins of Thebes, the capital of pharaonic Egypt during the Middle Kingdom. It houses the 3500-year-old underground burial chambers of supreme Egyptian rulers like Ramses, Amenhotep, and of course the most famous of them all, Tutankhamun. Stepping inside these tombs and seeing their inside feels hugely overwhelming, surreal, and simply astonishing. Perfectly preserved and beautifully colorful depictions of deities designed to guide the dead into the afterlife cover the walls, alternated by column upon column of detailed hieroglyphic text. The ceilings contain elaborate scenes of the night sky with golden stars and at the core of it all stands the huge monolithic outer sarcophagus, weighing several tons. These places were built almost four millennia ago, yet some of them feel like they could have hosted funeral ceremonies just yesterday. Tutankhamun’s tomb is the only one that was discovered untouched, resulting in arguably the greatest archeological discovery in history. The over 3000 artifacts found there have been moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where I went and saw this collection of incredible finesse and craftsmanship, crowned by the child-pharaoh’s world-famous death mask made from 11kg of pure gold. The Valley of Kings is a site everyone should visit, to get a renewed sense of the tremendous power of long-lasting human achievement and to marvel at the sheer beauty and intricacy of it.
When one morning I woke up and saw a string of hot-air balloons floating peacefully over the desert landscape I decided to investigate, and the next day at 4.30am I was standing in one myself, slowly being lifted into the dawning sky. It surprised me how many people could actually fit into one basket and how cozy that is, although being separated from the group of obnoxiously screaming and selfie-taking Asian tourists by the flamethrower in the middle was probably to everyone’s advantage. The vantage point you have is very different, and much more peaceful compared to being on the ground. I had the Lego set feeling I so often get in an airplane, where everything and everyone seems to be part of one big toy world, but seen at a much more leisurely pace. Watching the distant landscapes from up above one moment, and peeking into private courtyards and observing people’s lives the other. Perfect for naturalists and voyeur voyageurs.
For the first time since I left home I went to the gym. A chance discovery and a bit of bargaining led me to Luxor’s luxury men’s fitness club, and before I knew it I was surrounded by posters of monstrously muscular bodybuilders and men trying to look just a little bit like them. When wanting to run on the only treadmill present I was kindly informed by a staff member that it could not be used for longer than ten minutes for fear of overheating. I pleaded for two cycles, cranked the speed up to 15km/h and smoked the hell out of the poor machine. After that I was banned from the cardio floor so I rejoined the artificially and medicinally crafted beings dwelling in the weight lifting section. Contrary to them however, I first and foremost consider working out a crucial element of remaining in decent shape, which in my opinion is essential to fully be able to enjoy a lengthy time on the road. Even though I do a lot of walking, running, carrying packs, hiking and swimming, visiting a gym once in a while is a great way to get a condensed fitness session. After all, I also do a lot of drinking, sitting on my ass, and eating unhealthy food whenever I feel like it.
After five days of hot and dusty Luxor life, the seaside resort town of Hurghada provided a great backdrop for a week of relaxation and some vitamin sea. Hurghada is essentially a small city surrounded by a plethora of humongous all-inclusive beachside resorts, hugely popular with Russian tourists in a rather Westernized setting. The main activities here are being on the beach, taking boat trips to go snorkeling or diving and relax in the eternal summer. And I have to say, the Red Sea and its marine life are stunning. On the two-day course I took to obtain my Advanced Open Water diving license I saw an incredible underwater world. Scores of fish of all colors and shapes residing in flush coral reefs. A pod of five dolphins with a baby swimming by, among which an adventurous female that came to play with me and my instructor 10m underwater. The inside of a sunken navy destroyer, complete with rusty torpedoes and huge propellers and an ocean wall leading into a black abyss at a cold and silent depth of 40m.
Overall, this seaside week was the perfect way to replenish and recharge for the next couple of days and weeks, during which I will leave Africa after a final weekend in Cairo and continue onward to South-East Asia for the next major leg of my journey, starting in a place I have visited many times before, but which always has offered something new to discover.
October 29th, 2016