Egypt is an onion. My biggest takeaway from backpacking Egypt twice in 5 years is that Egypt is an onion.
When I first visited Egypt as a naive new backpacker, I was obsessed with its ancient history. I wanted to see all the pyramids, temples, and tombs. I took an overnight bus to Luxor for the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and ended up extending my stay to see the lesser-known tombs in the Valley of the Nobles and Workers. I wanted to spend all my days surrounded by history and paid little attention to experiencing modern day Egypt. Could you blame me? Pyramids, mummies, sphinxes and tombs, that’s what Egypt is all about, right? That, and diving in the Red Sea.
I had no idea what I had been missing.
A Touch of Europe
Having had my thirst for all-things Pharaonic quenched, on this second trip I spent days walking aimlessly through the dirty streets of Cairo. I hadn’t noticed this before, but downtown Cairo has a charming old European-style architecture that is a world’s difference from the other cities here. The classy Parisian-vibe contrasted against downtown Cairo’s manic crowd and traffic, but both worlds amalgamated into a uniquely Egyptian scene that defines ‘chaotically beautiful’.
A mosaic mural depicting the arrival of Christianity to Egypt found in one of Coptic Cairo’s many churchesI strayed away from the Islamic quarter in Old Cairo with its Arabic-style mosques and slithered into the Coptic Christian community. Suddenly, I was enveloped by serenity. The intricate Greek and Roman-influenced churches, monasteries, and synagogues were not just a house of God, they were a house of art. Even the cemetery here was worth a few hundred photos!
Outside a monastery, a father beamed proudly as his baby boy got a small Orthodox cross tattooed on his wrist by a teenager no older than 17. The baby wailed in pain as his father held him down. Next to him, a grown man cringed as he gets a portrait of Virgin Mary tattooed on his shoulder by an old man smoking an unashed cigarette.
If that rite of passage didn’t shock me, the expanse of nothingness in the desert did. I had never seen so much nothing until I went on a desert tour to Wadi El-Rayyan in the agriculture town of Al-Fayoum. Driving into the stiffling desert, I was taken aback by so much emptiness, not a single tree, soul nor building could be seen on the horizon. The only thing we saw for hours was just brown sand, blue sky and tyre tracks. That made it all the more amusing when we suddenly arrived at an impressive fossil museum in the middle of nowhere. The Wadi-El Hitan (Whale Valley) Unesco World Heritage Site housed 20-odd well-preserved dinosaur fossils, a museum on climate change, and a small cafe.
After an hour of walking under the sun from one dinosaur to another, lethargy set in. Our Bedouin driver had the best pick-me-up you could get in the desert – he injected adrenalin into our tired muscles by racing up and down sand dunes, and then let us cool off in a stunning oasis aptly called Magic Lake.
Red Sea wonders
The 40-degree Summer heat was getting unbearable after a week of going out and about in the sun. What better excuse to ditch sightseeing for some lazy beach time at the Red Sea coast?! “You have to go diving in Marsa Alam,” my friends cooed; I listened. But what caught my attention more than the six turtles I saw in one dive, was surfacing from the dive to see nothing but sand dunes surrounding me.
As a tropical island girl, the tranquil sight of lush green forests is second nature to me. Ending a dive with empty brown desert was unbelievably odd, it felt almost sacrilegious, like having dinner without desert. Where are the forest, the coconut trees, the seagulls?! My friends were right, the dive was unforgettable, but in more ways than one.
Etc, etc, etc
And then there were the tacky resort towns in Hurghada customised for Arabs and Russians, farm children and their goats napping by the road in Luxor, an excellent modern art museum in Zamalek, the Bedouin culture, the seafood feasts in Alexandria, and my favourite – the Roman-Pharaonic-Hellenistic carvings in the Kom-El Shoqafa Catacombs that boggled my mind to no end.
Egypt is such a multi-faced country. This beautiful mess of a country is like an onion; it has so many fascinating layers awaiting you to discover.
When you arrive in Egypt, I implore you to please do more than just the Pyramids of Giza and a few temples. If you are going to ignore my advice and do an Egyptology-only trip, don’t only visit the Great Pyramid (I think it’s overrated). It may be iconic, but it is not the only pyramid site in Egypt, the Saqqara Step Pyramids, Abusir or the Dashur Pyramids are also worth the visit.
Otherwise, go forth and spend time wandering the cities, lose yourself in the chaos of the markets, and immerse yourself in the fascinating Egyptian history that saw dinosaur fossils, Pharaohs, Greek conquerers, Byzantine emperors, Turkish sultans, French colonists, British Invasion, Israeli forces, nationalistic revolutions, military rule, and so much more.
Explore more than just the Pyramids and I promise you, you’ll go home with a book of stories to tell.
Mei’s vital tips for backpacking Egypt:
1. Uber it: Taxis are cheap but most don’t use meters and many will try to overcharge unsuspecting tourists. Use Uber, or if you can read Arabic, download Careem, the local-version of Uber.
2. Go Bus: Long distance coaches are quite comfortable, but local minibuses can be hell. The best and probably the only bus company with an English website displaying a reliable schedule is Go Bus. Go Bus or go home.
3. Plan ahead: Egypt’s public transport connectivity is still pretty sparse and spotty at places, making it difficult to get off the beaten path. Hiring a taxi or having a car, though expensive, will help you cover more ground. This is a country where it’s best to plan your itinerary and research the public transport availability beforehand. I YOLO-ed it but it was not without hiccups.
4. Carry spare change: I learnt on my last day that Egypt is a tipping country, so do tip the poor (literally) waiters. Fair warning that hotel staff and touts are spoiled by European tourists who tip waaaaay too much, and will brazenly ask for more if you give a local amount. It’s rude and shocking, but you can ignore their crassness and tip what you’re comfortable with.
5. Be careful of the touts: Everyone at the tourist sites will pretend to help you and then ask you for money. The unsolicited tour guides, friendly camel men, guards opening the doors for you, kind strangers lending you a torchlight to see the dark tombs – they all want baksheesh (tips). They will force you into a position where you can’t say no, so be firm in waving them off when you need to.
6. Learn to count: In Arabic, a diamond is 0, a zero is 5, and a seven is 6. It’s confusing as fuck and Egyptian car plates, bus numbers, and price tags are often in Arabic numerals. Memorize it, or carry the translations of the Arabic numerals with you. Although, I have to say shopping at the neighbourhood grocery stores without a clue of how much things costs was pretty fun.
7. Foreigner prices: There are many resort towns that are designed for Europeans, Arabs and upper class Egyptians that charge in Euros/USD. If you are a brokeass backpacker like me, avoid areas that have a separate foreigner price quoted in foreign currency because you will probably hate how unnatural, expensive, and touristic the place is. In Port Ghalib and Marsa Alam, everything in town – from bottled water to excursions and taxis – are charged in Euros!
8. Beat the sun: Avoid going in Summer unless you are spending all your time on the beach, or have a fucking high tolerance for sightseeing in 40 degrees cloudless sky. It’s doable, but this is desert country and the midday heat burns away some comfort and fun.
9. Be safe: Security is tight at many places, so don’t be too alarmed to see rifle-toting military men manning the streets, the highways, and important buildings. Some roads and areas are off limits to foreigners and require special permission and arrangement for travel, don’t be stupid and pull a stunt that will get yourself shot, because it could happen.
10. Save money: Life is cheaper when you have a student card. All admission fees become half price.
11. Juice up: Drink the mango and sugar cane juice.
A note on safety: Don’t drive into the desert alone as the borders to military zones are not clearly marked. Trespass and you risk getting into trouble with the military. Instead, hire a driver or join a desert tour. As a woman, I felt safe walking around town even at night, ironically enough it was only the young kids following me asking for money that made me feel unsafe. The touts tailing you can be very daunting as well but they’re most likely not planning to rob you. Put on your bitchface and make your NOs clear to make them back away.
What to wear: Women need not wear a headscarf as it’s quite a liberal country with a sizable non-Muslim community. You will feel more comfortable dressing conservatively (covered shoulders, knee-length parts) when in public transportation and rural towns. Tank tops are cool in big cities and tourist sites, and you can wear your skimpiest bikinis at the resorts.
Lastly, please don’t be an asshole and go climbing the Pyramids, defacing a tomb or destroying an artifact. Any one random brick in the Pyramid is older than everyone you know put together, show some damn respect.
Have fun in Egypt, slather on copious amount of sunscreen, and don’t get sunstroke! :)
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