Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Nubian city of Aswan is located at the northern end of the first Cataract at Egypt’s ancient southern frontier, boasting of a nice wide panorama of the Nile river flowing languidly down from the world’s largest man-made lake – the Lake Nasser.  In ancient history, the city supplies the valuable granite rocks used in the construction of majestic structures and obelisks found in several historical sights around the country.

I flew directly from Cairo via the small aircraft of Egyptair Express which landed at the Aswan airport early in the evening.  Compared to Cairo where even the regular car rentals and meet-and-assist companies were competing for arriving tourists right before you exit the terminal, here were few taxis waiting outside of the small arrival hall, some are not even taxis but private cars vying for your custom.

The wind blows and it's moderately cold so I said, oh it's not that hot after all – not until the following day. I didn't trust my Egyptian colleague at work (no offense intended but they tend to exaggerate) who told me that I was crazy going there at this time of the year, “it is so hot as he was trying to dissuade me.   I should have listened as it seriously was so hot in the day time, though the wind gets cooler when the sun goes down. So I guess that's the reason why the place is more popular during winter time.

It took about half-hour from the airport to the city center up to the doorstep of the hotel. I booked a cheap hotel but the location was excellent exactly fronting the Nile river, a spectacular view from the window.

View from the window of my room at Memnon Hotel.

Memnon Hotel along the boulevard.

My room at Memnon Hotel - see the view from the window?

I was dead-beat from two consecutive flights (I was in another city before Cairo) with really bad headache, I decided not to do any demanding tour and so I went walking along the river promenade.  
The long graceful river is a sight in itself, after all, the Nile has played a long productive and counter-productive role in history and it runs along eleven countries in Northern Africa making it the longest river in the world!  It's 6,650 km long and ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

It's for that reason I chose the hotel that was facing the Nile.  Not a luxury hotel, I'm mostly a budget traveler and I still can't afford that but hey, I have a view of the river the whole time I am inside my room.  Most of the historical sites – monuments and temples – are located along the Nile.  Egyptians depended on the river since the ancient times as evidenced by most settlements located near or along the banks.  There are several feluccas and huge cruise ships that run between Aswan and Luxor, one huge ship was moored right in front of my window.

The best way to get brief orientation of this city is to walk along the side of the river, many locals – families and joggers – parade along its length especially starting late afternoons, and as the sun starts to set down slowly behind the sandy desert hills of the opposite bank, it seizes the Nile river scene in a perfect dramatic moment better than watching your favorite soap opera on TV.  I never turned on the TV in my room the whole time I was in Aswan.  I lied.  I did watch some news, who am I kidding?

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A floating restaurant along the Nile.

Excellent location of McDonald's along the cornische.

Except for few felucca captains who kept on bugging me along the way, not a lot of tourists I guess, otherwise I can’t be bothered.  The Korniche AlNil – that long boulevard where you'll find several local restaurants and (the invasion of) American fastfood chains including McDonalds and KFC – is a pleasant place to dine as all of them are overlooking the river. Aside from the felucca men who were really persistent (did I mention that again?) - nothing much annoyed my lazy walk – oh yes, that guy who came up to me (yes, on my face!) and asked me if I remembered him - "I used to work at the  Moevenpick Hotel" in the west bank.  Do I look like I could afford the Moevenpick?  ha ha ha.  With a quizzical look on my face, I ignored him – try a different trick d*ck!  And I thought Aswan is devoid of scams.

Before noon time, I walked about a kilometer from Memnon Hotel where I was staying to the city’s museum – the International Museum of Nubia or Nubian Museum for short.  "International" because the museum was established with the collaboration of UNESCO’s multinational team of archeologists and technical personnel.  The entrance is near Basma Hotel and I found a long queue of gleeful local school children on a museum tour and some tourists.  Entry fee was EGP50.  It was inaugurated in 1997 and a plaque indicated that it won the Agha-Khan Award of Architecture in 2001.

The Nubian Museum – dedicated to Nubian culture and civilization – houses a large collection of around three thousand pieces of antiquities, dating from the Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic era which are organized chronologically. On exhibit are treasures from UNESCO’s salvage campaign done at the time the High Dam was constructed. There were two huge imposing statues of Ramses II upon entry.

I surmise after some time that this Ramses guy is really egocentric,  most of his figures ranges from huge to gigantic except of course those alabaster statuettes at souvenir shops.

The artifacts which are housed in three floors (unlike its Cairo counterpart which ironically is a lot bigger and has more stuff to offer but crammed) here it’s rather orderly and visitors can easily follow the order of movements between periods of history. 

Statue of Ramses II at the lobby of the Nubian Museum.

Human skeleton at the museum.

Mummy at the museum.

The vast area surrounding the building is landscaped and there are several things to see around it too.  Standing at the garden at the back of the museum, you'll get a nice view of the neighboring Fatimid graveyard.

Fatimid graveyard.

Coming back from the museum, I encountered my very first conman on this trip, Egypt has a lot of that so be warned.

I should have walked back to the hotel but the sun was really scorching so I took one of the taxis parked near the entrance of the museum and we agreed on the fare (EGP5) yet when we reached the hotel (I knew it from his face!) he told me it was far and demanded EGP10 when he knew for a fact that it’s walkable.  We have argued for a while but I succumbed to his demand and - remembering my Egyptian colleagues at work with their favorite hand gesture and expression - I raised both my hands in the air like in a state of prayer that gave him the silent impression that I want to impart – "God, let this be the only income this scumbag will earn this day".  He knows the gesture and he wanted to return my money but I closed his door and walked away.  

Late in the afternoon and frustrated by the thought of getting tricked (if the taxi driver asked for the fare increase in a nice way, I am no way a penny-pincher) I have to be tricked, no one likes to be tricked, I was persuaded by one felucca guy to take a tour along the Nile river, actually I wanted to, I was planning to, I just don’t want to be bothered in the early hour of the morning.  So I took a felucca tour just for the experience besides I felt sympathetic to the felucca boatman.  He had approached me probably 4 times and followed me for minutes distressed about the lack of tourists and business – so I gave in not without bargaining though.  EGP20/hour and I said I need only 2 hours, yet I ended up paying 50, 10 as a tip, I was on a tipping mood after seeing the difficulty of starting the felucca boat – climbing up the lofty wooden pole to set down the sail, that's acrobatic there!  A felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat, no noisy motor, depending only on the winds blowing its white triangular sail to move around the Nile river.

The felucca captain preparing our sail.

This writer onboard the felucca.

The felucca captain (no assistant) escorted me to his boat and laid down the small wooden bridge to connect to the pavement, so it's a bit shaky and I have to do some balancing act.  We sailed around and along the Nile, it was calm watching the sights along the banks, and feeling like a real tourist for the first time. We passed by the sights beside the westbank, there were camel and donkey rides to take one around the sights at the west bank but I was not really in the mood in  getting off the boat. I told the captain that I just want to relax on the felucca and wait for the sun to go down. The sunset was a spectacular sight along the Nile painting the scene in colors of tranquil melancholy.

The captain was telling me that these feluccas can also take people on an overnight trip to Komombo and Edfu or all the way to Luxor. But it’s not on my plan, besides I know that 2 days onboard entails sleeping inside the covered felucca at night with pesky mosquitoes as bedmates near the banks as these boats do not sail at night.  That means too, that I may have to use any nearby local houses for those "calls of nature" occasions or worse - hide amongst the bushes!  It must have been fun though, just not on my schedule.

Sunset sailing at the Nile River.

Dinner time, I have searched for the famous El Masry Restaurant located at the souq area.  Looked nice from the outside but not that big a place as I’ve pictured it, about 8 big tables inside draped with white table cloth, good dining plates and cutleries. Strangely, there was only one person dining, so when the guy left, I was the only one there or maybe it was a bit early in the evening? 

The waiter handed me the menu and since I've heard about the pigeon dish which I haven't tried in my entire life so I ordered the Stuffed Pigeon set meal. Staffs were friendly.  The green salad and freshly baked flat-rounded pita bread came first followed by a delicious bowl of lentil soup and after few minutes came the stuffed pigeon along with a vegetable sauce dip and rice.  The pigeon looked really good but the bloated size of the poor thing is largely rice stuffing, little meat to it.  I did not know how to eat a pigeon so I didn't get much of the meat, I just eat the rice stuffing. I did not enjoy it that much, besides, I don't like the taste of the pigeon, maybe that is how it should taste but I won't be eating pigeon again. I finished my dinner with a steaming cup of red karkadeh (hibiscus tea) at EGP5 which helped rinse the after-taste of the meat.  The set meal costs EGP47 excluding drinks.  I couldn't devour on that pigeon though if I have seen those poor wounded creatures they're selling on the market in Luxor.  My very first pet was a cute tiny chick and I remember crying when the poor chick died one sad morning devoured by an army of ants.

My set meal - Stuffed Pigeon at El Masry Restaurant.

I came to Aswan primarily to see Abu Simbel and Temple of Isis in Philae before heading to Luxor.  That pretty much summed up my first day.  Next day – Temple of Isis in Philae – unless I got lazy, anyway I have got plenty of time on this trip.

Getting in/out:  

EgyptAir fly direct to/from Aswan.

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  1. Since Egypt is a great historical country and it's lovely to visit ancient places out there or discover new destinations. I appreciate this nice trip post.
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