Saturday, June 02, 2012

Saturday, June 02, 2012

I was given an all-expense paid holiday trip and I’m not one to splurge on some over-visited destinations or spending days lounging under parasols under the sun along some beach resort.  I would rather retreat to a hamlet in the mountains withdrawn from the chaos of a bustling city or extravagance of beach resorts. 

I was thinking of a unique village and I have been wanting to go to a desert oasis, not the concrete jungle of Dubai or Muscat, but a rather off-the-beaten track.

Then came the idea of going to Siwa Oasis in Egypt.  Why not? It’s isolated and I was looking for a place something quite out of the ordinary.

I flew in to Cairo and spent a night in the city.  I have been to Cairo several times so I chose not to wander around, instead I went directly to the bus terminal – Cairo Gateway or locally known as Turgoman - on my first day and bought a ticket from the counter of West & Mid Delta Bus Company. 

I went back to my accommodation in the downtown and packed my bags.  The very accommodating and informative guy who owned the hostel told me about the whirling dervish performance happening that night, I wouldn’t let the opportunity pass, I’ve been wanting to watch it during my past stays in Cairo.  It was indeed spectacular!

The buses depart from the basement of the modern central bus terminal and it’s past 6:00pm, too much time to burn for my 7:30pm departure, so I bought some snacks and drinks, O don’t want to starve during the overnight trip.  There aren’t much people except for a European family and mostly locals with big luggages waiting for their bus.  Our bus arrived,  although I was not really disappointed, probably I got used to those luxurious buses in Turkey that serves hot beverages and some nibbles but it was a comfortable ride though, airconditioned bus showing Arabic films on TV so I slept all the way to Siwa. 

We arrived at the small bus terminal early in the morning, it’s some kilometer far from the center of the town and I was immediately greeted by the peculiarity of the place - donkey drawn carts fetching alighting passengers?  I took the more modern – at least in local standard – tricycle charging EGP5 to take me to any hotel at the center of the town.  There are 3 or 4 hotels beside each other right at the town center but I entered the Al Kelany Hotel.

Siwa bus terminal.

Bus terminal on the left side and the tourist info center on the right.

The reception guy seemed to have just woken up and gave me a room on the second floor of the building overlooking the main street.  It’s no Holiday Inn but there’s not much option to choose from, there are of course some deluxe eco-resorts far from the center and the ones near are costly.  I’m a budget traveler!

My bus ride and Al Kelany Hotel.

Siwa is one of Egypt's most isolated town with approximately 25,000 inhabitants mostly of ethnic berber origin.  Although most speaks the Arabic language, they do have their own Siwi dialect.  It’s located 50kms away from the Libyan border so historically, it is in the midst of ancient Libyan desert.

Looking down the road below from my hotel window, I’m having this old-west-hollywood-setting feel of the place.  Dusty street lined with couple of taverns, but instead of horses, donkeys dragging wooden carts are marching along and instead of cowboys, men in galabeyas are riding the donkeys.

There are a couple of restaurants, fruits stores, small hotels, a barbershop, internet corner, souvenir shops, an herbal medicine store and mini grocery stores line the main street.  From time to time, I see nice expensive cars and 4WDs, they’re tourists.
Donkey cart around Siwa ... and you think that phone booth is working?

It's quite a small town where donkeys – aside the three-wheeled motor-driven trikes - is still a popular mode of transport among residents.  Locals don their native clothing, western flair is a novelty here.  If you’re gonna be wearing flipflops walking around town, expect to be whipped with dusts on your feet.

Watching the town from the rooftop cafe of the hotel, I could see the ancient Shali Fortess, it felt like I'm in a place in the past.  The town itself has little developments remotely apart from all other cities or towns in Egypt, and I think that makes this place special.  It seemed like everybody knows everyone.

View of the center of the town from the terrace of the hotel..

People may not be responsive like in most touristy places where people speak with you yet they’re not at all hostile.  They’re honest people, they don’t overcharge tourists like in Cairo or Luxor where even pharmacies and small stores take advantage of unsuspecting tourists, I know, it happened to me several times.

There is a humble green park right at the town center, the only place where one could buy a pack of cigarette from a couple of vendors along the street.  For some reasons, they don’t sell cigarettes in stores.

Time stood still in this town, it’s one of those places that you either love it or hate it, depending on your mood.  I love it! 

Siwa is bliss.  An oasis away from the material world.

I’m already excited for some local adventures in the next couple of days to see the Mountain of the Dead, Temple of the Oracle, Cleopatra’s Bath and climb to the top of the Shali Fortess.

Getting there:  Go to the main bus terminal called Cairo Gateway or Turgoman and look for the window of West & Mid Delta Bus Co., it’s second from the left end side when you enter the terminal door.  Fare from Cairo to Siwa Oasis is EGP65 one-way.

Getting out: I don't have a ticket yet coming back to Cairo so I head to the small bus station in Siwa but the ticket office was close and will only open at 4:00pm, so I came back in the afternoon.  The friendly attendant at the ticket booth told me that the 8:00pm bus to Cairo had tire busted, he recommended that I take the 10:00pm bus to Alexandria at EGP50.

There were several military checkpoints along the way during the 9 hours trip and it was very inconvenient especially if you have baggages under the bus compartment, the uniformed military searched baggages on random, even my backpack on the top of the cabin compartment was checked.  Ready your passport with you.  The bus stopped at Marsa Matrouh before heading to Alexandria, and from Alexandria I took the bus that goes to Cairo at 25 EGP.

The bus stops at Cairo downtown but I overslept and ended up at the end of the line near the airport from where I have to take a taxi that costs more than my bus fare, back to downtown.


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