“Don’t take the night train!” people will tell you, “You won’t get to see Egypt if it’s dark!” No, but I will save on a night’s accommodation and the night train becomes a day train when the sun comes up. In our case the night train became half the fucking next day train too. Instead of arriving in Aswan at 11.35am as scheduled it was nearly 3.30pm by the time we stumbled out of the station and through the gauntlet of taxi drivers. I did very much enjoy it though, I love a train ride and the guys selling tea must have read my mind as he burst into our carriage shouting, Shay, shay, shay, shay! just as I was thinking I could murder some dead leaves in hot water.
Anyway, let’s do Aswan then. I don’t know if it’s because it was Friday, the holy day in Islam, or if we just woke up too early for Aswan but it was a ghost town this morning as we shuffled to the river to catch a ferry over to Elephantine Island. That meant there was nowhere to eat and I was going to need something pretty soon or I’d start fighting local stray dogs for scraps. We’d been given a heads up about the area’s mild obsession with Bob Marley so it wasn’t a surprise when we found a guesthouse on the island with a rooftop café bearing the singer’s name. Nope, no idea why but they did a banging breakfast so we’re calling it a win.
There are a couple of small villages which we ended up accidentally exploring as we failed to make sense of our GPS on the way to the ruins at the south of the island. It’s a really cute little place, much quieter than the East Bank but I guess that’s going to happen when you remove cars from the equation. You couldn’t fit a vehicle down these narrow streets even if you wanted to. Maybe a scooter but we didn’t see any of those either. No horns being used like echo location, no engines revving, fucking bliss.
There’s a museum and someone will invariably lead you in and start pointing stuff out for baksheesh whether you want them to or not. We stopped him early after one piece of information involving him pointing at a hole and saying, “It is a well,” handed him LE5 and told him thank you but we wanted to just browse on our own. He looked at the note. “This isn’t enough!” he told us. Well it’s all you’re getting, sunshine. We keep a pocket full of LE5, LE10 and LE20 notes for paying to take a photo, or getting rid of someone hounding us with unsolicited information. It’s not a lot, like 20p? But it’s about right I think. I hope. Obviously I’m going to second guess myself for the rest of the fucking day now.
It’s alright, the museum, but I think it’s more of an annex than the proper museum which was closed. They’ve got some cool shit, like examples of ancient handwriting. They used to use pottery shards to write stuff down like receipts or lists, because broken pottery was easy and cheap, if not free, to come by. We learned that Hieroglyphics had a cursive version used day to day which scholars call Hieratic. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Greek became the main language used in government. Finally, around 642AD Arabic was introduced and over the next couple of centuries slowly became the main language of Egypt.
These ruins then. They’ve done a fuck tonne of restoration work here which I usually love. It’s fun to see the blanks filled in but in this case there are more blanks than recovered stone. It’s fine, it gives you a good idea of how it would have looked and without it we’d just be looking at random piles of rubble. We wandered around trying to work out how to get to a viewing platform that we could fucking see but not access. I guess getting lost whilst wandering aimlessly around ruins is our thing now. Maybe they’ll find our bodies in a few years time, our footprints preserved showing the ever decreasing circles we walked in until we just sat down and gave up.
Nah, we did find the platform and we chilled in the shade for a while, listening to the mosques on the East Bank going off as songs were sung and scriptures were read, blasting out of minarets across town. A quick visit to the Nileometer which used to be used to predict the harvest by how high the river got, then we headed back through the villages to the ferry.
Gilles and Dave had told us about a website called International Greeters where they’d met a local tour guide called Basma and we ended up meeting with her too. I’m going to hazard a guess that she’s the only Greeter in Aswan, and therefore Egypt, but she’s absolutely wonderful. We met her at 7pm and the town had come alive.
There’s a fuck off great big souk here in Aswan which is a market and it’s surprisingly pleasant. Basma took us through it, pointing out a few stalls and telling us that people in Aswan like to do their shopping at night as it’s too bastard hot in the day. Yeah. Fair. It’s particularly hot here, it sort of blasts you as you leave the train station. At least it’s a nice, dry heat though I do feel a little bit desiccated. My piss has been like treacle since we got to Egypt. I’d drink more water but the lack of public toilets scares my baby bladder.
I digress. We had such an amazing evening with Basma. She took us to a few food and drink places starting with a juice stall where we got a sugarcane juice. Surprisingly delicious! I could get a little bit too into this which isn’t ideal given the cost of dental care back home. Then she proceeded to absolutely overfeed us, telling us that the massive portions we’d been getting in restaurants (and actually taking half away with us to have the next day) are kids’ portions. We had sweets and sandwiches, and we strolled down to a riverside club area where we sat and drank tea and tried to fit more sandwiches into my protesting stomach. I even ate liver. It was pretty good but I don’t think I’ll make a habit of it.
We learned a bit about Egyptian culture too. Basma wants to go abroad to get her Masters but her father won’t let her because he’s worried she won’t come back. It’s such a patriarchal society, like, some tea shops are men only so we’ve not really done a lot of tea drinking. It’s impossible to know which ones we’re allowed into. Woman aren’t allowed to move out of their parents’ house until they’re married either. She told us that even if she had the money to buy her own apartment she’s not actually allowed to. It’s such an alien concept to us. She would like more independence, largely so she can go and study outside of Egypt.
On the Saturday we got up early and took a ferry over to see the Tombs of the Nobles on the West Bank. Aswan was, at various points, Egypt’s southern frontier and this is where the governors of the south were buried. Once you’ve paid your entrance fee and walked up the steps you’ve no choice but to pay a bloke to unlock the tombs for you if you want to go inside, and there’s absolutely zero point in visiting if you don’t go inside.
It’s frustrating as fuck but you just have to keep reminding yourself of where you are, and you know what’s expected of you, and you come to Egypt fully aware that you’re going to have to part with money, even if it’s just to get someone to leave you alone. It was quite good having someone to point shit out to us though. He didn’t speak a lot of English but he drew our attention to interesting stuff as well as unlocking doors and switching on lights. I think we might have been undertipping though. Might need to up our baksheesh game for Luxor.
We ferried back over to the East Bank and took a long, hot walk to the Nubian Museum, fending off felucca men and carriage drivers as we went. It’s quite the gauntlet. You can’t walk ten metres without being offered a ride on something. We tried crossing over to get away from them but they fucking find you. It’s like they have an inbuilt tourist radar. Or perhaps they can just see the sun glinting off our sweaty, white faces from a fucking mile.
The museum was quite interesting though. Nubia refers to the area south of Aswan stretching to the north of Khartoum in present day Sudan and over the millenia it fell in and out of the hands of Egypt. It’s mainly information on the history and the culture of the region, the military campaigns waged by various pharaohs, and artifacts discovered in the region. They’ve currently got a temporary exhibition with stuff they’ve dug up from the Tombs of the Nobles including some mummies of priests and their wives.
I think I’m a bit museumed out now which doesn’t bode well for Luxor given the absolute metric fuck tonne of monuments and museums they have there. We’re taking the beast drive down to Abu Simbel tomorrow so hopefully that should rekindle a bit of a spark for really really old shit. Basma reckons if you’ve not seen the temples at Abu Simbel then you’ve not seen Egypt which is a pretty bold claim.
Aswan, Aswan Governorate, Egypt
أسوان ، محافظة أسوان ، مصر
Stayed at: Mozamel Home, Aswan
Useful shit to know…
- The local ferries are LE5 each one way. You pay on the boat for the one to Elephantine Island, and you pay the bloke on the dock for the one to the Tombs.
- The ruins and Aswan museum are LE100 and that covers both things.
- The Tombs of the Nobles cost LE60 then you’ll need to pay a man to open them up for you. We gave him LE20 but I think in hindsight we should have given him LE20 each. We’re really terrible at knowing what to tip.
- The Nubian Museum cost LE140 each.
AC2 Train 996, Cairo To Aswan
- We booked our train ticket online for LE130 each and printed it out at a travel shop as our guesthouse couldn’t do it.
- See The Man In Seat 61 for details of how to do this.
- AC2 was fine. Not actually too cold and the seats were wide with loads of legroom. They recline far enough to get a bit of sleep too but you’ll 100% need earplugs and an eye mask.
- We took train 996 leaving Cairo at 10pm from platform 11.
- As soon as you’re spotted by tourist police outside of the station you’ll be steered into Tourist Information. If you’ve not bought your ticket yet these guys will tell you how, and if you have they’ll give you any information you’ll need.
- We were told our train usually goes from platform 11 but sometimes it’ll change to 8.
- Making your way to your platform, you’re likely to be stopped by cleaners wanting to see your ticket so they can direct you to your platform and/or carry your bags for baksheesh. Men dressed in a white uniform will also ask to see your ticket to tell you where you go but they didn’t ask for money.
- The announcements are in Arabic only. Every time there was an announcement in the last hour of waiting I accosted someone and confirmed we were still in the right place.
- The train actually showed up a few minutes early, left a few minutes late, somehow lost half an hour by the time we got to Giza, and by the time we rolled into Aswan the following day it was four hours late.
- There’s a trolley service in AC2 but tea and food is more expensive than if you buy it from the vendors that walk up and down the train. Listen for the guys shouting, Shay, shay, shay! if you’re gagging for a tea. It should cost LE5.