I am writing on one of my last evenings in Cairo, Egypt. My father, George, has been here for the past week, which has been fabulous. I found out that he would arrive about ten days before I did, which made his visit a very nice bonus for when I got here.
Since the last travel update from Jerusalem on July 13, I have experienced quite a bit, and it feels as though things are moving quickly on this trip.
Before I could meet my father in Cairo, I first made the 480-mile journey south from Jerusalem across two deserts – the Negev and the Sinai – over the course of seven days. The ride began on July sixteenth at 6:30a.m. My friend James and I rolled our bicycles out of the Petra Hostel at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, and, after a short bit of confusing navigation, set out on the 25-mile descent to Jericho and then the Dead Sea.
My friend James had ridden with me on this tour previously in eastern Europe for a little more than a week from Budva, Montenegro to a point just south of the border of Greece. After making plans – in early May – to reunite in Jerusalem, it was a great pleasure not only to have found him again, but also to have had the chance to have toured with him for a couple of days.
James accompanied me for two days down to the city of En Gedi, which lies about 50 miles southwest of Jerusalem along the coast of the Dead Sea. There we took a day to rest in an air conditioned hostel before parting ways – me toward Cairo, James back toward the base of the 25 mile climb to Jerusalem, and then up and on to Jerusalem once again.
At our 5:30a.m. start time – an hour before sunrise – on the coast of the Dead Sea, temperatures were probably somewhere in the high 80s to low 90s. According to James’ thermometer, the high temperature on July 15 was 105 degrees Fahrenheit between 1 and 2 p.m. Not incapacitating, but not exactly invigorating. These deserts make me appreciate cold drinks, shade, and air conditioning in ways that I had previously never appreciated them.
In order to travel through such places safely and with any semblance of comfort, everybody develops some kind of system to work against the heat. After all, this was bicycle touring in the middle of July in the Negev and Sinai Deserts. I found it to be reasonably safe, and not entirely uncomfortable, although the other tourists I met (and there were a few) as well as myself had all developed a system for travel that sought to minimize danger, risk, pain, etc. The two major heat illnesses are heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Both can be avoided by minimizing sun exposure, overheating, and dehydration.
The first thing that I did for the ride to Cairo was to cover myself in important places – eyes, ears, neck, hands, elbows – from the sun. I used various things to do this including sun screen, bandana (see photos!), sunglasses, helmet and visor. I also wore a light, white cotton t-shirt that helped to keep me cool. Next, because temperatures were high, I carried enough water (10-12 liters at once) that I was able to continuously pour water onto myself when necessary to keep my clothing wet and to still have plenty of water to drink for the next two days. In other words, I had, at any given time, a surplus of six liters of water that was stowed away and not in use; this served as a sort of safety cushion when riding across mostly-deserted country. Between the towns of Taba, Egypt (E side of the Sinai peninsula) and Suez, Egypt (W side of Peninsula), there are stretches of 100 miles between towns. It is quite an empty, hot place. In Israel I did not carry much extra water because distances between towns are short; in Egypt, distances are great, and so, correspondingly, were the quantities of water that I carried.
I was carrying a ridiculous amount of water, and pouring it all over the place. I was drinking all of it too. It is really incredible how much water is involved with riding a bicycle through the desert in summertime during the middle of the day. When I arrived in Suez after two and a half long days, I pulled four liters of water from my bags that had never been touched during the entire crossing of the Sinai Desert. In other words, I carried eight pounds of water that were never used. But I am glad to have carried them, because I never knew when an injury might occur or when a seizure might happen. Better safe than sorry.
I would begin my days as early as possible – usually around six a.m. – and then ride fairly steadily until eleven a.m. at which point it was very hot. Between eleven and four, I would find myself riding for thirty minute stretches – our perhaps 45 minutes – and then taking breaks for thirty minutes to cool down. Occasionally I would rest for two hours while waiting for the weather to cool, and then resume travel at three or four p.m. But I am not very patient, so usually I would just ride during mid-day heat, and then rest to cool, ride, rest, and so on, and continue to make sure that I stayed well fed, hydrated, covered in sun screen, and soaked with water throughout the process. It was sort of a new experience for me to ride in such heat for such a long period of time.
Enough on heat though. It was an enjoyable new challenge, but I hope that I do not have to deal with a great deal more of it.
The journey to Cairo was in two phases: Israel and Egypt. Riding through Israel was quite a bit easier in the sense that there is a lot more population in Israel than there is in the Sinai desert of Egypt. I rode east (and down) from Jerusalem to Jericho – the oldest city in the world according to the sign next to it – and then made my way straight south to Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city along Highway 90. 90 is great quality asphalt with good shoulder and frequent places to get water for about 200 miles or so all the way to Eilat. Along the way, there are several small towns/settlements, each with a hostel, a research institute, and a small population of hardy-seeming people who either farm, research, sell gasoline, or enforce the law out in the middle of the desert. It is a very strange place, really. But when you ride up to any of these settlements, the electronic gates will open for your bicycle, and you can ride ½ mile in to a hostel or to a research institute to get water from a refrigerated tap. That was the only thing I cared about: refrigerated water. There is also a large weapons range in the Paran desert, about 2/3 of the way to Eilat, where I saw F-15s and F-16s flying low overhead again and again and again, making passes over the only gas station on the road for miles.
After four days, I had arrived in Eilat. Eilat is sort of like a mixture of Tijuana and San Diego, but much smaller than both of those places. Combined. If you know what I mean. Maybe you don’t. Well, perhaps you will get the chance to visit one day. I slept in a hostel there to cool off from a few days of desert riding, and awoke early to cross to Egypt. Once there, I told the customs agent in Taba that I planned to visit Cairo. He told me to return to Eilat to have my passport stamped. I wheeled my bike back across into Israel, through their X-Ray machines, answered questions about Syrian stamps on my passport, and 90 minutes later, was in Israel once more. Three hours after that, I had visited the Egyptian Consulate in Eilat, and had gotten a visa to visit Cairo for the cost of sixty Israeli Shekels. I liked the idea that I could not pay for the visa with Egyptian Pounds, which was the only money I had after converting all of my Shekels to Pounds when crossing the first time. Fortunately, it was no problem to convert EL back to Shekels at a shopping mall not too far from the Consulate.
The Egyptian Visa is one of the more beautiful visas I have in my passport, however, so I was satisfied with the entire experience. Being newly equipped with the visa to visit Cairo, I began the journey back to the border, about an hour from the consulate by bicycle. En route, I stopped to watch as a group of police cars used some small explosives to blow up a bag of laundry that they were concerned about. They stopped traffic in both directions – including bicycles – including my bicycle – to haul the laundry bag into the middle of the road. Then an officer in protective armor strung detonator cord from the bag over a distance of about 100 yards back to a police car, and ignited the cord. Everybody in attendance – about 500 motorists and pedestrians close enough to see what was going on – saw and heard a loud boom as the bag of clothing transformed into a disheveled heap of tattered rags and small bits of burned cloth in the middle of the road. Another officer went out there with a broom, and swept it all to the side before waving the all clear. Threat nullified. Traffic could now be allowed to travel on the road again.
When I entered the Taba crossing for the third time, I was a familiar face at the checkpoint, so they pretty much just waved me through. My bike still had to pass through the Egyptian X-Ray machines again, as did all of my bags. The customs agent was satisfied with the stamps from the consulate, however (thank God), so I left the station, and walked my bike into Taba, Egypt. Now, I had to get from Taba to Cairo. There was a big Hilton Hotel right next to me, so I decided to go there to ask for a map of Sinai. Big mistake.
I won’t write that story here, because it would be too easy to fill this website with so many of those stories that happen while traveling – like the story of crossing through the Israeli border station three times and seeing the police deal with a bag of laundry. Suffice to say that they happen all the time and that they are the rule and not the exception. They should not scare you away from traveling, however, because in my experience, these stories are also the rules of everyday life: the wait at the DMV, the mix up at the pharmacy, etc.
I think that this tedium is why so many bicycle tourists avoid cities. I cannot bring myself to do it though. For all of the chaos, I love cities, and I cannot handle days, weeks, months of open road with no time spent in cities with thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people. Messy though it is to enter them, exit them, deal with bicycles in them. Cities are where many of my best memories have happened. And where many of my hopes lie.
Cairo has been a bit messier and more chaotic than the other cities I have visited. It is the largest city I have ever visited, having between 20 and 25 million inhabitants according to word on the street. According to Wikipedia, its metro-area population is only 16+ million, but I don’t believe that for a second. Wikipedia has been known to have errors from time to time, and I believe that this may be the case with the figures for Cairo’s population.
Cairo is more hectic than other cities I have visited, yes, but after a few days here, I am comfortable, and if I were to be told that I were to be spending a few months here, it would be just fine. It is a livable, beautiful city. Cairo is, in fact, amazing. It has a huge amount of stuff going on. There is a subway system here, there are tons of cheap taxis, I can ride my bike around – though not entirely in a safe manner considering the traffic – and there is WiFi. There are lots of interesting people. It seems to be the center of the Arabic film world, with various theaters showing Arabic films. If only I spoke Arabic. Still, it is uplifting to see an entire film industry that I never knew existed.
The Nile is huge and beautiful. My father and I went sailing on it two nights ago for $10 each, looking at all of the searing bright lights – “Hitachi,” “Sofitel,” “Sheraton,” “Hilton,” “LG,” “CocaCola,” etc. It is a remarkable scene. The Nile by night is the most calm place that you will find in Cairo, at any time, any place, ever. You are in a vast, wide, river, that feels like an amphitheater of sorts, walled in by these massive, gleaming hotels in the close distance around you. Every thirty seconds, a small boat floats by with strings of cheerful flashing lights and arabic dance music playing loudly to entertain groups of tourists on board. Giant dinner cruises float lazily along, feluccas sail by quietly and darkly. But the true spirit of the Nile is in the small motorized flashing boats with dance music and partying tourists. This is what the Nile is all about in Cairo. Or perhaps it is the Feluccas. Maybe it is all of it. I told my Dad that I am happy that he wanted to go out on the Nile, because it is not something that I would have done had he not visited.
Cairo also has the Pyramids. Or rather, Giza has them. Giza is about 15 miles – or so – west of downtown. A few fun facts about the Pyramids…Before the 14th century, the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Giza was the tallest building in the world at 147 meters (481 feet, 40 stories; this was the tallest building in the world for 3,800 years until the construction of the Lincoln Cathedral in England in the year 1300). The Great Pyramid is now only 136 meters tall after erosion has taken away some material from the top. The sides of the Great Pyramid are 230.5 meters in length to within 4.4cm of each other. The pyramids of Giza are all aligned nearly perfectly to true north.
The Sound and Light Show, held nightly at Giza, is narrated by Omar Sharif. This is not to be missed. My Dad and I visited the Pyramids first by night to watch the sound and light show, which, like the Pyramids themselves, was spectacularly over the top.Then, two days later, we returned for more at 7:30a.m. In July, these are the only humane times to visit the Pyramids – early morning and night. The Pyramids are an incredible scene. From my point of view finishing up a long tour of Europe and the Mediterranean, it did not feel like the horrendous tourist trap that everybody had been warning me about. You do walk through metal detectors to access them – you walk through metal detectors to access anything worth accessing once you get past Syria it seems – and once on the other side, you see throngs of tourists and vendors. But the crowds are fairly calm, and pretty spread out. It was a beautiful morning.
There is a sense with the Pyramids of not being able to believe that those are actually the Pyramids and that you are actually there. On both of the occasions that my Dad and I approached them, it was difficult to pay any kind of attention to conversations in the taxis that were taking us there. All we could do was try to get as many pictures as possible of these amazing buildings while giving polite “uh huh,” and “right” responses to the conversation around us. I did not care.
And it is funny, because once you actually get there, the whole thing feels like a carnival scene, and you are quickly ready to be finished and to get back to Cairo. This is usually how things work with me when I go to a museum, or to see a site, and it was no different with the Pyramids, buildings that I have been riding to see since I left Telluride. I will venture out to see them – most likely – a third time before I leave Cairo. They truly are compelling and fascinating buildings. And for once, they are really interesting to read about as well. Unlike the other stops along the way, I find myself being very interested in material about these buildings, saying over and over, “These. People. Were. CRAZY!!” So, I have reached the Pyramids at last. Twice. And if circumstances allow, I will get a chance to visit them a third time before I fly to Mumbai, India in a few days.
That is the subject for my next update. After long thought and discussion with my parents, I have decided not to travel via the overland route to India, but to fly there. This means that I will not travel through Iran or through Pakistan, and that my route will be shortened by roughly 1500-2000 miles. But as my friend James told me when I informed him that I had cheated for about 300-400 miles, “Ah, that’s no problem. Just spin it off on the trainer when you get home.” So perhaps I will. He also suggested the Sarah Conner Chronicles to keep me entertained during the process. I think that I might also need to invest in the combined DVD seasons of CSI (Las Vegas, Miami and New York in order to get me through that much mileage on the trainer. No. It is not my favorite entertainment. But 490 episodes of CSI have been aired, and it might be my only hope if I am to go the overland route by trainer.
For now, however, the focus will be on getting to the trainer. That means riding from Mumbai, India to Calcutta, India, and from there across Bangladesh and Myanmar/Burma and into China. Through China to Shanghai. That is my planned route across the mainland of Asia. There is still a lot of room to make specific plans, but I do, at least, have the dots that I wish to connect. From Shanghai, I can move over to Japan, where the tour will resume, and then fly back to the U.S.A. after doing some touring and getting some publicity in Japan.
That is all for now, from Cairo. I will post photographs from the Sinai and Negev deserts in the next two days before departing Cairo. Until then, enjoy the photograph of the Sphinx and of the Great Pyramids by night. They definitely do the Pyramids right here in Cairo. For showing a monument such as the Pyramids, Cairo is the perfect city. And I am very glad that my Dad was able to join in the experience of all of it.