bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

Down the Nile

20/11/2010 CAIRO TO ASWAN

- Distance: 985km
- Cycling days: 11
- Rest days: 2
- Average distance per day: 89.5km
- Terrain: flat, tarmac roads
- Weather: cloudless skies, not a drop of rain, not a waft of humidity
- Bike issues: (lots of) punctures, broken rear driving-side spoke, sore butts, sweaty smelly cycling shorts
- Total cycling distance since London: 3802km

We left Cairo on a high. We'd found a niche in the city and were happy with it. Plus we'd spent an amazing week with Jamie in the desert. J had to leave for the airport at 5o'clock on the morning we were to set off, so we thought it wise to wake with him and beat the morning traffic and the heat.

Where does Cairo end and the rest of Egypt begin? No idea. For at least the first 500km, there isn't a stretch along the Nile that isn't built upon and populated. No wild camping here. We did try, on our first night. We turned off the main road and cycled 10km away from the green strip of the Nile into the Western Desert. The sun was coming down and we spotted a small dune that could provide sufficient cover once darkness came. We waited until there were no cars in sight and leaped behind the first mound of sand. Here we planned to wait until complete darkness to move all of our stuff behind the next dune. All seemed to be going well and we congratulated ourselves on our cunning. Us? Scared of camping wild in Africa? Pah. Victory lasted the time it took Reza to smoke a single cigarette. Ahead of us, in the acres of desolate uninhabited land, there was movement. A man was approaching, fast, heading towards us like a homing pigeon. Gown flowing behind him. His face, now discernable, revealed a young man of 25 or so, mustachioed. Stern look on his face. The landowner? Barefoot: unlikely. His only English were the words "dollar" and "police", but our conversation went something like, "You can't sleep here. The police will come. You must stay at my place. I give you food and roof, you give me dollar." "How much?" "One dollar." "One dollar?" "Ten dollar." "First you show me place, then I show you money." Instincts were telling us this wasn't a clear cut ok situation, but we followed anyway. He led us to a building made of 4 white mud-brick walls, divided into 3 rooms. On had a thatched roof. There was little else in the place except for one other person, a man of similar age and description. We relaxed after they gave us tea and food; we agreed to give them 50 Egyptian pounds (6 sterling pounds) in return. Too much of course, but it was dark and we had little choice now. We slept fully clothed on their rugs in the "living room", with our Leatherman knife open between us. Daybreak brought relief; we had slept undisturbed and the other two were still fast asleep on the other side of the room. We went to our bikes, still loaded and locked together. Out of the corner of Reza's eye, something unusual: one of my earrings on the dirt floor. How careless! Turning around: had we really fastened our bags so sloppily? We realised Reza's shoes were missing, then found them discarded behind a wall, under some bricks. "I may have left them there for safekeeping - stranger things have happened when I've been this tired." None of our belongings were missing, but many had magically moved from the bottom of one bag to another. (They must have been looking for money and found none - it was on us - they had obviously found no interest in our camera or videorecorder.) Had they really made such a poor attempt at hiding what they'd done? Just as we were wondering this out loud, one of them came through the doorway. Stretching and yawning, he smiled. "Salamalekum." Surely they won't notice that we've been through all their belongings, he thought... we were so careful to put everything back where we found it. "You go?" Reza was still holding the trainer he'd retrieved from behind the wall. "Yes, we go now."

And so we proceded to the road, feeling puzzled and slightly queezy rather than particularly wronged or scared. Another day, another adventure. We stayed in a hotel that night, and the following morning, we found the police at our doorstep, and from then on, in permanence on our tails. Others had mentioned this may happen (it was the famed convoy - nothing more sinister and nothing to do with the night before - though we did wonder, for some time, if it had anything to do with Reza being Iranian, as somebody had suggested to us). We weren't disturbed by it at first, in fact they were, for the most part, relaxed and friendly. Our freedom was limited though, tea breaks shortened, overnight resting places dictated by what was judged appropriate by the forces. Forget our budget, prices raised fourfold in those 5 days. There are 3 evenings to mention within that period, and each sway on the awful-to-hilarious scale. This period, geographically, is located between Mallawi and Sohat on the Nile. In sequence:

Evening #1. Mallawi.
The City of Doom. Post-apocalyptic. Like the feeling you get reading "The Road" by Cormack MacCarthy, but with more people, and instead of everything being grey, it is brown. Rubbish piles in the streets; some piles are on fire. Under foot, slime and mud. This is where germs are born. (I get diarrhoea after Mallawi). We give up on exploring the city and sit instead on chairs in front of the hotel. I fall asleep. Reza is still awake and he describes: "...the hotel overlooks the river Nile. I would like to tell you that it was beautiful, a massive expanse of fresh clean water giving life to a country otherwise made of desert. But I cannot. Rubbish covers almost the entire East and West banks. I take another sip of my warm Coke. As I wonder if any creature is robust enough to withstand this level of pollution, a hotel worker pushes past my chair, gurgling the phlegm at the back of his throat, carrying a large dust bin filled to the brim. I watch him dodge the traffic accross the road. He strategically places himself on a broken piece of wall, holds the bin over his head and proceeds to empty its contents into the Nile. The extra height from the wall gives his enough leverage to ensure that the majority of the rubbish ended close to or within the river itself. This is obviously a technique passed on to him from previous workers. He expells the contents of his mouth in the same direction for good measure. As he returns to the hotel smiling, happy with his efforts, he looks at my can of Coke and offers me the bin, I smile back at him and take another sip of the warm sweet liquid. I kindly decline his offer. I wonder how long my can will sit on the banks of the Nile? Will explorers find it a thousand years from now and place it in a glass cabinet within a grand museum? And what will they make of the green triangular symbol on its side?"

Evening #2. Asyut.
After Mallawi, I feel like crap, literally. It is a long day spent cycling in the sun, clutching my belly everytime my gut spasms in rebellion against whatever I submitted it to in the City of Doom. By the end of it, Reza is friendly with the police captain of the team following us, whose name was Islam. He brings us to a "nice but cheap" hotel he knows personally, that overlooks the Nile. A price is agreed with the receptionist: 90 Egyptian pounds - a little more that we are used to paying, but breakfast is included and the ensuite bathroom suits my pressing and frequent needs. We shower, eat, relax back with tea and backgammon. Suddenly we hear commotion and shouting below our balcony. A bespectacled, goggle-eyed, rotten-toothed man comes up the stairs and stops in front of us. He churns out rolls of Arabic, and when he realises he's not being understood, slaps our 90 pounds on the table and writes on one of the notes: 180+180=360. Grunts. Any attempt at conversation is blatantly futile, so we call Islam to get him to try and knock some sense into the hotel manager. He is unsuccessful and instead insists on coming to pick us up and show us to another hotel. An hour and a half later, he turns up in a red sports car with his wife and two kids. He has grown less friendly, and speeds away through town so that we, on our bikes, eventually loose him ahead of us. We find our own hotel room (at 130 pounds), by which time Islam pitches up in front of the doors, acting offended and like we've somehow wronged him as well as the whole of Asyut.

Evening #3. Sohat.
They really don't like tourists in this area. No hotel, from the filthiest to the less filthy, will budge on the ridiculous first price they give us. We move on each time, until the police, who insist on staying until we find somewhere, give up hope and bring us to a Coptic church. We walk though the large courtyard, past some coffins, they chat to a few people, we hand around, time passes, then we meet a friendly guy called Mansour who helps us out a great deal. He gets the Father of the church to receive us. He, in turn, makes a few phone calls, and eventually finds luck with a friend of his, an Orthodox hotel owner who says we can stay for 75pounds, with breakfast. Three hours after arriving in town, we finally settle in to our room. In the morning we meet the owner, Amir, over tea; he is a charming chap, who now lives in France and runs a Mexican/Italian restaurant. He has a sharp dislike for Egyptian Arab culture, of which he talks extensively; he had left the country aged 17.

Mansour had suggested that we make Abydos our next night's stop. 10km off the main road, Abydos is a small tranquil village that hosts one of the most important temples in ancient Egyptian history. We were not disappointed in following his advice. We were met on arrival by Tahir, a groomed and elegant man who showed us to one of the finished appartments in his hotel under construction, and was generous in the price he offered. We found a beautifully done place, with large rooms, tall ceilings, clean white sheets and white walls. He gave us free use of the kitchen and washing mashine, and invited us to have dinner at the other hotel he co-runs with his cousin and an eccentric Dutch woman named Yvonne. We met a host of women around the dinner table, who were here for three weeks as friends or family of Yvonne's and for training in the art of ancient Egyptian healing. Indeed, as well as being a temple dedicated to seven of the most important Egyptian gods and the venue for the ritualistic passage to royalty for the future Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt, Abydos was a place to which many travelled for the healing powers of the water source that pooled at the back of the temple. People still come for this purpose and stories of recent "cures" were told at dinnertime. Yvonne had actually followed the footsteps of an English woman, "Umm Seti", who had settled in Abydos some 50 years previously, having believed her whole life that she was the reincarnation of a young woman who was once the lover of Seti, an Egyptian God and King who had lived 3000 years ago. Umm Seti was also a respected Egyptologist and had taken a local kid, Mohammad, under her wing, to teach him the art of Ancient Egyptian healing. That man, is turned out, was Tahir's cousin. We loved Abydos so much that we decided to stay another night in the company of these fascinating people.

When we left, the roads were peaceful, as though the spiritual power of Abydos really had had an effect. The police having lost interest in us may also have played a part, but the roads were less busy, the countryside more beautiful and less populated, and the fewer people more friendly. We swiftly made it to Luxor where we had another rest day in the shade of the many trees in the town's one campsite. All the overlanders travelling our direction seemed to be there, and we met a couple of other lone cyclists, one young Austrian, and one 67 year old Serb, who spoke only Serbian, albeit in an extremely expressive and gesticulating fashion which forced you to pay your upmost attention and eventually understand him. Full of energy, we understand he has been going on long cycling expeditions since 1987. Unfortunately, 10 days previously, his gaz cooker had exploded and set his tent on fire whilst he was in it. He had to jump through the flames and had bad burns on his face and his legs. Relatively nonplussed, he wanted our advice on what the Egyptian doctors had given him (some local anaesthetic spray), and whether there was anything else he should be doing. There wasn't - the wounds were healing well and were clean. We are pleased to say we saw him again today in Aswan and many of them have completely cleared up.

Before we go, we must mention one or two of the prominent features of Egypt that come to light when cycling through it. One is the noise. The Mosque with its chanting 5 times per day through the microphone. The shouting. The honking. Egyptians love honking and find any reason to do so valid. Honk! Here I am! Honk! I've just changed gear! Honk! Scratched my ear! Honk ! HELLOOOOOO! HOW ARE YOU????!! WHAT IS YOUR NAAAAAAAME??!!! Reza gives a pretty good description of the second and third, IE: 1) the filth, and 2) Egyptian DIY. The setting for this description is a hotel in Idfu: "We sat drinking freshly pressed guava juice, reading entries from previous travellers... great host... good rates... excellent breakfast. Things were looking up. And then... we were shown to our room. The receptionist proudly showed us the ensuite bathroom. The walls were yellow, mould eating away at the damp that had blistered the paint. The bed frames were made from salvaged metal from a previous era, mattresses made of a coarse fabric so tightly packed that it made concrete feel soft. The carpet was covered with a film of slime that seemed to spread from the bathroom, greeny brown in colour. The bathroom itself was a concrete extension in the corner of the room. We could see from it's contruction that the owner enjoyed a spot of DIY... self taught. In had a basin, toilet and a pipe outlet which doubled as a shower, all within reach of eachother - probably designed for the modern Egyptian man, giving the user the opportunity to shave, shower and shit all at the same time. After our sweaty and dusty day cycling, I attempted to wash my hands before our dinner. Turning the cold water handle left a thick residue on my fingers. With my now clean hands, I turned the water off... dirty again. Feeling less clean than before I entered the bathroom, I realised I was in fact in an anti-bathroom! Enter clean, leave dirty! Anyway, there were no cockroaches in the room. They were probably eaten by the rats, who themselves had long since packed and left for a cleaner environement." We won't name and shame, they are really all the same!

Anyhow, we have made it to Aswan. What's more, we got here with two days to spare, four days left on our Sudanese visa, and we are the pround holders of two second-class tickets for the 48 hour ferry to Sudan accross lake Nasser. I will update our home page to "We are now in... Sudan", because I don't know how long we may otherwise be in the country without the world knowing it. God forbid!

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