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First taste of Egypt

After five weeks or so stuck in Riyadh I was starting to go stir crazy. So I looked at Skyscanner to see it there were any options for a weekend away. One caught my eye, a flight from Qassim (200 miles north of Riyadh) to Alexandria. So a week past Thursday after work I headed up the highway for my flight. The drive was uneventful – desert and more desert and then nightfall. With 3 lanes each way the road was OK, just the usual loonies on the unregulated roads outside of the cities and screaming past doing anything up to 200kmh. The opening lyrics to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” kept coming into my head, even though I couldn't smell any calitas. I hadn’t been sure about the carrier Nile Air – whom I had never heard of – and I had read some horror stories about some African regional airlines. But before booking I had Googled them and found they had 6 aircraft, all Airbus 320s, no accidents recorded and seemed to be quite modern.

The chap whom I was sitting next to on the plane offered me a lift into the city, which I accepted, It saved me 45 minutes in a taxi from Borg El Arab airfield which is about as close to Alexandria as Prestwick is to Glasgow. He was an interesting character, and was in the oil import / export business. Nothing unusual about that in this part of the world except that he imports oil into KSA. This surely is even more extreme than taking coals to Newcastle. On enquiry, I found that he buys oil in Turkey and ships it in to Saudi. There can be a price difference of as much as 20%. What he didn’t say was the actual origin of the oil. Now, there are some countries that can have embargoes in place and are keen to get exports via the black market. I’m not saying that this was his source, but I did wonder.

A bonus reason for visiting Alexandria is that my name is one of the anglicised versions of Alexander. So I had an affinity which pleased the hotel staff and others who asked me my name. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC, and nowadays goes by the Egyptian name of El Iskandaria.

I stayed in the Grand Royal Alex Hotel which is in the city centre, about two streets back from the sea front – or corniche – as they call them in the middle east. Whilst the name of the hotel was impressive, sadly it was only accurate on two of the four named points. The hotel was nominally four-star, and based on the service and the food I would have given it three, however the maintenance levels were poor and the bedroom carpet was ten years overdue replacement and that – in my opinion – dragged it down another notch. The air conditioning in my room was effective and fierce, and in volume terms was only a few decibels below that of a Vulcan bomber on take-off. So the choice was sleep or breathe easily. The hotel quality turned out to be completely symptomatic of everywhere I went and everything I saw. The country is fading, the architecture is crumbling and there is a clear lack of public investment in the infrastructure. Individual Egyptians that I met were friendly and polite however there were precious few tourists about. When I go to a country for the first time, I find an early indication of how it will be is when I change money at the airport. Clean and crisp money usually denotes an ordered and tidy country. That’s what we get in the UK, the Euro-zone (usually), and Canada / USA. On the other hand Egypt’s pounds (LE) were in grubby and crumpled notes, and this proved to be a fair description of the places I saw.

On the Friday morning it was raining heavily so I headed off by train to Cairo (where the weather was better). Egyptian National Railways offer an hourly service and the naming of these indicate the timing, comfort and fare basis. The “Special” trains take about 2h30m, have fully air-conditioned stock and dining facilities, “Express” are air-con and take about three hours, and “Ordinary” services are unclassified and take up to 4h40m. A first class single fare on the Special was 57LE (GBP 5.50) if you turn up and buy it on board, or 45LE if you join the chaotic queue in the booking hall and try and get a reservation. The joruney from Alex to Cairo is through the Nile delta, and a most fertile area it is. Farmlands and towns and a huge sky to look at. This was something straight out of a geography lesson from school. Irrigation systems ranged from electric pumping houses to Archimedes' screws powered by oxen. Wonderful. On arrival in Cairo Ramses station I transferred to a local train to Giza, a station on the outskirts of the city. You will have guessed where I was going, of course.

Outside Giza station I was approached by a group of taxi drivers all offering to take me to see the pyramids. I explained that I wanted to go to the pyramids entrance point (I had looked the options up on Trip Advisor), wait half an hour and return to the station. One taxi driver quoted 200LE and then in front of me they concluded a Dutch auction amongst themselves, finally one offering to take me for 100LE. As he was the one who seemed to speak the best English I had intended to use him anyway. The journey was along pitted and uncompleted roads through unattractive high-rise housing schemes. The road ended at a metal fence, where the desert started, and 500 metres ahead there were the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.


No explanation needed here. Camera faced the sun so subjects were backlit.

I had decided not to go in, as to do the site justice I would have needed about three hours. I would rather read it up via the multitude of learned texts that have been written over the years. My decision was confirmed by the rabble of “show-ers” (“I show you the entrance”, I show you best price” etc) who clamoured to take me here and there in the site, and  had I gone in I believe I would have been endlessly hassled. Normally I prefer not to go places as part of a guided group tour, but here I think it would have been preferable. So after 15 minutes drinking in the sight of the 7,000 year old history of the area, I turned round and faced again the hustle of the city.

From Giza station I took the metro back to the city centre and moseyed around for a while before heading back to Alexandria. Cairo was noisy, busy, dirty, vibrant, poor, colourful, but I felt there was tension in the air, with a heavy armed police presence. I am sorry to say that I suspect there may be further trouble in the streets in the foreseeable future.

Saturday in Alexandria was sunny, and I spent the day getting about and seeing its sights. First on the list was the citadel at the end of the harbour wall. This was built in 1477 on the site of the Great Pharos (lighthouse) which was one of the ancient Seven Wonders and which was felled by earthquake in 1303. Much of the citadel was built with stone from the Pharos. Next was a visit to the old souk (open air market) in the city. Here were traders selling everything from spice to textiles, fruit, fake watches and handbags, chandlery and street food. Colourful and exciting, but I was wary, being on my own. Then I went off to the Roman “Colonnades of Pompei”, a site at Amud El-Sawari that was the preserved Roman ruins of Alexandria. Of particular interest was the underground catacombs and library. It seemed very wrong somehow to be looking at “modern” stuff such as Roman ruins in Egypt, when some of the monuments and history there are 5,000 years older than that.


Alexandria Citadel…..                                                                     ......and a Lada taxi outside it

Although the country is predominantly Muslim, there are enough remnants of the British occupations of the early 20th century and other civilisations to temper the excesses. Egypt is a multi-faith country and Christians live in relative peace there. I found the Episcopalian St Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria however was unable to see inside. And of course Alexandria is at the trading crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe so has had many influences over the centuries. Arabic is the spoken and written language (pity they don't still use hieroglyphics - that would have been so much more understandable).    

One of the highlights (for me anyway) was the opportunity to explore the virtual outdoor transport museum that is Alexandria’s tram system. If this was in any western European city it would have been ripped up years ago. Venerable battered old cars fought their way through the streets, and the rate of progress was so slow that it would have been quicker to walk. Alexandrians have no respect for it and were constantly being cajoled by bell, whistle or the driver dismounting and remonstrating to move their cars / trade stalls / horses and carts / lorries etc out of the way to let the tram progress. Several streets were one-way for road traffic yet were laid with dual tracks and a tram would fight its way upstream against the tide of cars cramming down upon it. Never before have I seen anything like it. Traffic lights did not recognise or make preference for the trams. The vehicles themselves seem to be second hand imports from European and north American systems and operate on trolley pickups rather than pantographs. Stops to manually operate points (no auto selection by powering from the driver) or to reconnect the trolley wheel with the overhead wire were common. For a transport connoisseur like me it is a dated delight but hopelessly impractical in the 21st century. I fear that when there is another round of investment needed or budget cuts, the whole 32km network will close.


Not a scrapyard – trams waiting to enter service.                        Following a tram through the fruit market.

All too soon it was time to head back to the airport. A taxi was summoned to the hotel, and it was one of the city’s ubiquitous black and yellow Ladas. For younger readers, a Lada was a cheap car made in the former Soviet Union and was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The models in use in Alexandria were mostly the Riva 2105, and in roadworthiness gave the trams a run for their money. (A point aside, on a particular tram journey we went down a street where the central trade was rebuilding cars. Piles of front ends and back ends of cars stood waiting to be welded to new running mates. “Cut and shut” – illegal in the EU – is alive and thriving there in Egypt). The journey to the airport was hair-raising and easily the scariest I have ever made. These Ladas have the crashworthiness of a soggy cardboard box. For safety I sat in the rear seat alongside my case. The Lada might be OK as a city taxi, but like a Routemaster bus it is useless on the open road. Maximum speed was 80kph (50 mph), and we were being overtaken by lorries on the inside lane. Half an hour into the journey on an unlit stretch of 2-lane highway a rear tyre blew out. The driver managed to get the car over to the ditch side and then proceeded to change the wheel. I got out for my own safety. The warning lights on the Lada were very feeble, so I augmented them by switching on the flashlight function on my mobile phone and alternatively illuminating the poor driver’s worksite and waving it violently to warn off approaching traffic. Scared? – yes, particularly for the driver who was working on the open traffic side of the taxi. After 15 minutes of intense worry, all was fixed and we continued the journey without further drama. Fortunately I had left plenty of time to get to the airport and made the check-in OK. The remainder of the journey back to Riyadh was uneventful. - apart from me not being able to get the lyrics of the 1960s Family Favourite's "Three Wheels on my Wagon" song out of my head!

So, would I go back to Egypt? Yes, probably. I loved the historical aspects of it and Elaine and I would like to have a proper look at the ancient sites up the Nile valley towards Luxor. The traditional cruise would be great, but I would splash out and go top class if we could afford it. I don’t feel compelled to go back to Cairo until it has sorted itself out, and that might take a while. But Alexandria has a fascination that did attract me, and I might be tempted. OK, it’s not the best resort on the Med, but coming from Riyadh…. The only place that I have been that I can compare it to is Havana (before they let the Americans in). Crumbling grandeur but with distant hope.


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