Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dead Sea

So I've come down with a flu bug of some sort. Timing wise, I guess this is probably the best time to get sick (if sickness was mandatory), i.e. at the end of a trip.

The Middle East adventure has reached its finale and is quickly coming to an end. Yesterday's itinerary was again FULL ON. We packed in the Dead Sea, Madaba (best known for a large Byzantine-era mosaic map of The Holly Land), Karak Castle (an ancient Crusader stronghold) and Mt Nebo (burial place of Moses). Dead Sea was definitely an interesting experience. The Dead Sea is famous for the extreme salinity (33.7%, or 9 times that of the ocean) - a result of the high evaporation rate that occurs in that particular location. Many white salt crystals are actually visible on the shoreline. You don't swim so much in the Dead Sea; the more accurate description is bob. The water is so buoyant that balancing can get tricky - quite an unusual sensation.

Because the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth (at 1,300 feet below sea level), it is closest to all the deep Earth's minerals e.g. chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine. Combined with the low U.V and the higher atmospheric pressure, the Dead Sea is believed to have special healing and cosmetic uses. This explains the liberal use and application of the mud by tourists.

More about the other 'highlights' another time

Red Sea, Wadi Rum and Petra

The itinerary in Jordan over the past couple days has been FULL ON. Early starts and late finishes.

Given that we are on a windy bus ride (on route to the Dead Sea for yes, another buffet lunch and then a swim), brevity is in order.

We arrived via a hydrofoil service from Egypt (Nuweiba, where I experienced the worst toilet on this trip) to Jordan (Aqaba). The sea sickness tablet completely knocked me out so I can't give you any insights about the hydrofoil or the journey. After a buffet dinner, we headed out to Petra By Night. Petra, also referred to as the rose-red city is located deep inside a narrow desert gorge and holds the remains of the once lost Nabataean city. Most people will recognise Petra from the last scene of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', specifically the Treasury (see photos 1 and 2). To get to the Treasury, you must walk through the towering siq walls. The siq was formed as a result of tectonic plate movement - the massive boulders on either side of the siq path actually match up like a jig-saw puzzle. The siq is about 2kms and leads you to the Treasury. However, Petra is much more than the siq and the Treasury. In ancient times, Petra was a city admired for its refined culture, incredible architecture and ingenious complex of dams and water channels. We spent all of yesterday exploring Petra. There was a lot of walking and a lot of sun and sweating. We covered around 10kms and managed to see the Monastery (see picture 3) and the tombs (carved into the mountain sides). There were still more things to explore but by 3.30pm (we started at 8am), our feet/legs went on strike.

The reward for a long tiring day was at turkish bath - sauna, a full body scrub and a bit of a massage.

We also did some snorkeling in the Red Sea (not to be confused with the Dead Sea) at Aqaba a few days ago. The corals started very close to the shoreline so most of us are sporting some nice coral cuts/gashes. My left calf looks like I've had a run in with Wolverine. There sea floor was also littered with sea urchins (spiky little suckers). Our Canadian friend managed to stand on one 5 minutes into the snorkel. He now has 8 urchin spikes on his foot. They are supposed to dissolve with time, but walking with spikes in your foot is not fun - I had a few on my heel.
Wadi rum was also on our itinerary, but I'm feeling car sick so I'm gonna stop.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mt Sinai

Wake up call was at 1am this morning. A door knocker with heavy fists (perhaps the fists of God) cane around and bashed on our door. Wearily, we got ourselves geared up for the trek up Mt Sinai.

Mt Sinai is synonymous with Moses and the 10 commandments - the laws that God gave to the Israelites. The summit is 2285 metres from sea level. The buffet style living was not conducive to this kind of hiking!

There are 2 routes available for the pilgrimage up/down the mountain:

- the longer and shallower camel path (approximately 2.5 hours on foot, 4kms uphill and walkers & camels share the path; or

- the 3,750 Steps of Repentance in the ravine behind the monastery, laid by one monk as a form of repentence

The last part to the summit, which everybody has to do, is a steep incline consisting of 300 steps.

We took the camel path up and the Steps of Repentance down. Our trek began at 2.30am. The only light available was the halogen beams from our torches, and the bright stars that shone down on us (Orion's belt has never been so bright). Half of the group opted for camels, and the others (including yours truly) toughed it out on foot on the camel path. Every so often, a camel would pop out of nowhere, and every so often there would be a camel/human traffic jam or a camel/human/camel sandwich. It was quite a surreal experience. The path was not smooth at all - littered with uneven rocks, pebbles and camel poop. The hike to the summit is made that much harder with the hundreds of tourists/pilgrims that share the path; all rushing up to see the sunrise at 5.40am. Amazingly, there were quite a lot of older people (with walking sticks and all) doing the hike. I have to say, the hike was not easy, so I was super impressed with their will power and perseverance.

Mt Sinai is Bedouin country (original habitants). Bedouins are out in full force during the trek - leading the camels, leading the walking groups, loitering on various points on the climb selling camel services. Our Bedouon was a young boy. He does the entire trek 4 times a week!

We took the Steps of Repentance down the mountain. I think the legs started shaking at about step 500. At least we escaped the crowd and camels on the return journey.

Surprise surprise, a buffet breakfast awaited upon our return. After a quick shower, we headed to St Katherine's Monastery - the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. The monastery is dedicated to St Katherine, the legendary martyr of Alexandria who was tortured on a spike wheel and beheaded for her Christianity. Her body was supposedly transported by angels away and onto the the slopes of Gebel Katatina, which is 600kms from Mt Sinai. The body was found 300 years later by monks from the monastery.

St Katherine's Monastery is also the place where you will find the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. The bush that exits today (see last picture) is a descendant of the original burning bush.

We are now waiting on the hydrofoil bound for Jordan. The immigration/visa process was a slight nightmare and not very clean. Hopefully there will be no sea sickness.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back in Cairo - Bound for Mt Sinai

We took the overnight sleeper train from Aswan back to Cairo today. The ride was even bumpier than the original journey, and smooth breaking was not a skill they taught in Egypt train driving school.

Our time in Aswan ended very nicely with a felucca sail around the Nile for a few hours. Also risked suffering extreme diarrhoea and swam in the dirty Nile water after a wee bit (heh) of peer pressure. It was cold and surprisingly fresh, but hard to keep afloat (fresh water).

Our 'free day' in Cairo was basically an eating tour of Cairo. Yes we did start off at the Al Azhar mosque (the oldest mosque in Cairo); a creepy guy rorted us for 20 Egyptian pounds each for a semi guided tour. He had the audacity to ask for more at the end, and then requested for pens 'for the children'. On top of that, he wanted us to lie about the 20 pounds to his superior. Presumably because a semi guided tour should cost way less!

The rorting continued when we sat down for Egyptian coffees and mango juices at a cafe well known for its interior design (mirrors) and the bazaar merchants that frequent in and out of the cafe with goods to sell. After some nifty trickery and persistence, one Ali Baba selling 'leather' foot stools rorted us with synthetic foot stools at 200 Egyptian pounds (approx $50AUD) for 3 packs. He demonstrated the authenticity of the 'leather' foot stools by lighting a flame over the material (it didn't burn). In retrospect, he was hastily rushing through the marketing and sale process.

At the point of sale, the tricky Ali Baba handed over wrapped packages that contained fake synthetic foot stools. We were wondering why he kept burning his fingers when demonstrating the flame trick. Now we realise it is because he would rather burn his thumb than the dodgy material. To add salt into the wounds, another Ali Baba selling exactly the same foot stools quoted 3 for 100 Egyptian pounds. It was at this point that we declared, as Wayne put it, "War on Egypt". We formed a search party for dodgy Ali Baba and fortuitously, both he and the 2nd Ali Baba walked past the cafe as we were heading out. It was us versus the Ali Babas. The outcome? Extra pack for free (see 4th photo); all non-leather.

We escaped an attempted pick pocketing attempt by a bunch of kids. Their strategy was: distraction and then attack. The cutest kids would come up and act cute, ask your name, dance etc. Once the cute kids secure your attention, the older uglier kids move in from behind and target the backpacks. Luckily we were on dodgy high alert and escaped unscathed.

Now on the bus bound for Mt Sinai - the bus ride will take 7 hours. We left the party half the tour group behind including the ABBA gang (Scots) and the Aussie couple. The Scots were really good value, particularly when we made them spell "Gogol Bordello" (i.e. G-O-G-O).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Abu Simbel

Early start this morning (3am), destination: Abu Simbel, well known for the mammoth salvaging exercise in the 1960s to prevent the two temples (commissioned by Ramses II) from disappearing into the man-made Lake Nasser.

The original temples were carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile. The creation of the world's largest artificial lake, Lake Nasser, led to the flooding of many antiquities and the near extinction of the Nubian race. Some temples did in fact disappear beneath the lake. Abu Simbel was one of the temples that was disassembled, and subsequently assembled on a higher ground. The incredible engineering rescue feat took 4 years and $40 USD. They literally cut the temples into 2000+ blocks and then reconstructed inside a specially built mountain further away from the banks of Lake Nasser. The original site where Abu Simbel temples stood has since also disappeared under Lake Nasser.

Tourists visit Abu Simbel in large guarded convoys of buses with security checkpoints every so often. The buses hooned down the 2 lane desert highways as if it was one long one way road -- it wasn't.

The temples themselves were a self created homage to Ramses II. Ramses II definitely had megalomanic tendencies. Not only did he have many large statues of himself, he also portrayed himself as a god by commissioning artworks that included Ramses II in the company and on equal footing with other gods. The carvings at Abu Simbel also depict Ramses II as a friend and ally to the Nubians. This I believe is one of the oldest example of political propaganda. Add in Ramses II's playboy ways (although not confirmed, it has been said that Ramses II had more than 60 wives.

We are now on a sleeper train to Cairo. Goodbye to Melodie for all the good times.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kom Ombo and Aswan

We meandered through the Temple of Kom Ombo in the town Kom Ombo yesterday afternoon. Kom Ombo is located on the Nile and 65kms south of Edfu

Things of note in Kom Ombo area: Kom Ombo Temple, the crocodile God Sobek, and Nubians (a near extinct indigenous dark skinned group from southern Egypt).

The dual temple of Kom Ombo is known for its symmetrical sides - left half is dedicated to the crocodile God Sobeka, and right half is dedicated to the falcon God Haroeris (see picture 2 for excellent modern day representation using only shadows). Everything in the temple is doubled and perfectly symmetrical along the main axis of the temple e.g. twin entrances, twin courts, twin hypostyle halls, double alter in the centre of the court for both gods etc.

There is also a peculiar scene on the back wall of the temple which is thought to be the first representation of medical instruments for performing surgery dating from the days of the Roman Egypt. The Nilometre was also present - a measuring device designed to measure the rise and fall of the Nile. The Nilometre takes the form of a graduated column and sits well below the level of the Nile on a paved area at the bottom of a flight of steps. More tax is levied if the level rises.

The temple visit was followed by a relaxing sit down in a sheesha and ice cream tent. In the evening, we partied Egyptian style, complete with Egyptian style clothes & accessories.

The cruise style holiday is ... well very cruisy. Buffets three times a day and itinerary can as hectic or relaxing as you make it. The food has been very good. A good mix between traditional (falafel, baklava, moussaka, kunafa, shai tea) and non-traditional (lasagne, chips). There is a mini pool on the upper deck, but it is constantly half filled, perhaps because of the evaporation? And its always interesting to socialise with such a diverse bunch of travellers, from the typical annoying Canadian loud mouth to 4 Scots that look just like ABBA.

We docked in Aswan this morning. We have so far squeezed in a walk through the bazaar and experienced a camel ride in the desert in the afternoon. The camel ride reminded me of the scene in Spaceballs just before the group collapsed from dehydration. The camels were amazingly calm and responsive. Yet again I had to swap camels (though not before nearly getting bucked off) half way through the journey. Dismounting is a scary process. They are such cute creatures and they sound like chewbacca - for real!

We are now waiting for buffet dinner and then will go see a light show at the philae temple in Aswan. 2am star tomorrow morning for Abu Simbel!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Edfu - Edfu Temple

Our sail towards southern upper Egypt brought us to the town of Edfu where Edfu Temple stands.

Edfu Temple in a few simplistic words is: Horus mania. Horus is the falcon god and the son of Osiris and Isis. The story of Horus, his plight and his reign can be seen all over the temple e.g. his battle with evil Uncle Seth (also a pig/dog/hippo), his union with Hathor.

Edfu Temple is the second largest temple in Egypt after Karnak and probably the best preserved. It was built in the Ptolemaic period between 237 and 57 BC, and took 140 years to finish. Over time, the temple became buried under of 12 meters of sand and layers of river silt deposited by the Nile. It took workers 40 years to excavate and free the temple of the sand.

Interestingly, the Christians in its quest for world religion domination during the Roman Empire attempted to deface and destroy the temple by scraping the carved reliefs and burning the ceilings. The deep cuts across the wall facades and blackened ceilings are both visible.

We are now sailing down the Nile towards Kom Ombo. The buffet style breakfasts, lunches and dinners is contributing to a healthy waist line. Feel so sorry for the donkeys.

Luxor - Valley of the Kings

5am wake up call for a 5.30am start to the VK - Valley of the Kings.

In a way, it was useful to start the trip with a relatively new city like Dubai, and then contrast it with Egypt which is dripped with history - and 3000 BC worth it. Dubai spoilt us with luxury; Egypt is spoiling us with sheer magnitude and reverence. The legends, the stories, the Kings and their Queens, their temples, their tombs, their plights, their successes, the homages, the language, the hieroglyphs, their symbols (Shar is now obsessed with the ankh), the food! Perhaps Egypt was the ancient version of Dubai.

We met out donkeys shortly after wake-up call. The donkeys were very small, looked malnourished but they made their way to VK very efficiently. Although, mine did decide to take a detour into the fields on the way back. That was apparently a punishable offense because I had to swap donkeys and Mohammed & Mohammed (our guides) let him/her go.

It was stinking HOT at VK. Nearly passed out from dehydration. The valley was chosen because of its natural pyramid appearance. The kings were buried within the valley in large tombs, and the usual tomb plan consisted of a long inclined rock-cut corridor, descending through one or more halls to the burial chamber. There are 63 reported tombs, with discoveries as late as 2008. We got to see 5 tombs including: tutankhamun (KV 62), Ramses II, Ramses V and VI.

The tombs were amazing, and so lavish - and this is without all the treasure and valuables. The Egyptians believed that an elaborate set of burial customs were necessary to ensure their immortality after death. These rituals and protocols included mummification, casting of magic spells, and burial with specific grave goods thought to be needed in the afterlife.

No camera policy was enforced at VK. I tried to sneak in a photo with the phone but got busted by the security guard. In usual dodgy - or perhaps the better word is capitalistic - fashion, the guard signalled for money so I paid him off with 20 egyptian pounds (approx $4 AUD). Modern Egyptians are money hungry, kinda understandable when the average wage is something like 2 Egyptian pounds per day.

It was a long hot morning under the sun. We returned to the Melodie tired and crisp. My afternoon nanna nap turned into a deep sleep and I missed the pirates!

We have also discovered the art of scarf folding! Very useful.

YDG and Eric also gave me a surprise ring with hieroglyphics engravings. I like and very cool!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Journey to Luxor

We spent the night experiencing inertia driven tossing and turning on the sleeper train ride from Cairo to Luxor. In fact, if you were lucky enough to get a bottom bunk (no protective guard) and facing the same direction as the train, the chances of falling off the bed in the middle of the night are very good.

It was a rocky ride and having to walk down a longish corridor for a loo visit while getting thrown from side-to-side was quite a physical challenge.

We arrived in Luxor at around 6.30am and boarded the M/S Melodie. Trying to guess our boat from the fleet of boats/cruise ships lined up along the cornish was quite exciting. Ours turned out to be the smallest, but the interior is newly refurbished and just scrapes past Eric's standards. Funny thing is that we have to walk through 4 other cruise ships to get to our ship. The Melodie will be our home for the next 3 nights.

Our horse carriage journey to Karnak Temple was marred by cross ghetto horse carriage vendor fighting/stalement. The south-side horse carriage vendors showed their disapproval when we all hopped into horse drawn carriages owned by the north-side. Not sure what the street rules are but the south-side gang attempted to block our route and thwart our journey. Shouting and a bit of rif raf ensued. Good tourist entertainment for the rest of us.

Karnak Temple is estimated to be as old 4000 BC. Karnak is the site of ruined temples, chapels, pylons, statues etc amassed over 2000 years by various pharaohs, including Tutankhamun's father. It really is a site to be marvelled at. Such history and grandeur. Those ancient Egyptians sure knew how to make their mark. Our 'Egyptologist' guide was a bit of a mad wise man who claims he gave Gough Whitlam a tour around Karnak. He demanded your undivided attention and came down hard on silly tourists who thought it would be appropriate to climb on to the statues. I wish he came down on those silly pubescent tourists who thought it would be appropriate to dress in mini skirts and tiny tank tops. Ugh, it was so extremely inappropriate and wrong.

The afternoon/evening was mostly spent at the local bazaar. We spent 1 hour in literally the first shop at the bazaar. There is still a whole strip of shops to explore

We have a 5am wake up call tomorrow so better hit the sack.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It has been a long day. We unnecessarily woke up one hour earlier than required (4.45am), thanks to misleading information courtesy of Emirates Airlines. I don't know why we all naturally assumed that the clocks on our typical Egyptian quality rooms (i.e. budget motel style) were wrong.

We were treated to yet another buffet breakfast - the count is now 4 boo-fays in 3 days. The falafels were delish. After a bit of prepping from Fran our tour guide (don't drink tap water, you will get hassled etc), we navigated through the crazy the maniac traffic then without much warning, BLAM! There they were: the Pyramids of Egypt. The sight was quite amazing - the sheer size and sophistication of the Pyramids and Sphinx was/is amazing. We also climbed inside the Great Pyramid of Giza (also called the Pyramid of Khufu and Pyramid of Cheops) for a glimpse of the burial chamber. Not one for the claustrophobics.

About to head off to our sleeper train which will bring us to Luxor.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dubai, aka Do-Buy

We had an important event to wake up for this morning.

Buffet breakfast.

Unbelievably, this morning's buffet was our THIRD consecutive buffet since leaving Sydney yesterday! This means that all our meals so far have been all-you-can-eat boo-fays. This more than makes up for the kilos that we have lost through dehydration. Thank God for air-conditioning.

Speaking of religion, Ramadan has been quite an interesting experience. There is to be no eating, drinking and public affection during the holy month and as a sign of respect, tourists should equally refrain from partaking in any of the above. As you would expect, the liquid restriction was rather tough particularly when you're roaming around in a desert. Water never tasted so good I tell you.

Dubai is essentially a crazy sim-desert city prospering off the back of oil discovery in 1966. This is a city where you can get gas at about 30 AU cents per litre (compared to water at $1+ per litre). Looking at Dubai, you begin to understand the significance of oil, and why the U.S were so keen to "help" Iraq.

The oil money that has poured into Dubai has translated into some of the craziest ideas, e.g.:

* an underwater hotel.
* a building that has levels that rotate in sync with the clock. This means that you will go to sleep facing say north and wake up facing, say west.
* a indoor ski field annexed to a shopping centre. There are plans to build the world's largest ski domes.
* a residential village which sits on top of a lagoon (of course, the lagoon will be man-made).
* a self contained village called "the world" which will look like a map of the world. Rod Stewart has already acquired the U.K for $20m.
* a jurassic style park.

Then of course, there is the perverse goal to have the 'best' of everything:
* biggest airport
* tallest building (sways 5m at the very top)
* biggest Disneyland
* biggest sports city
* biggest shopping centre
* fastest metro
* fastest elevator

You have to wonder whether this all comes a price. Dubai is a city built in a desert. It was never a city blessed with natural resources so consider the intense energy and water consumption. It is not surprising that Dubai owns the dubious honour of the most water consumption per capita.

Our big bus tour guide (we had to chase down the big bus in a taxi!) mentioned that the oil will run out in 2010. Not sure if that's true but Dubai has certainly milked it for all it is worth. The gaudy show of wealth and unnecessary excesses is not for me but it is amazing that they managed to cultivate barren desert land.

In Cairo now. The apple sheesha was yum but it wasn't a great start when the toilet decided not to work and leak dirty toilet water into the bathroom. We also managed to get the time wrong - stupid Emirates told us the wrong time. BUT we do get to see the pyramids and the Egyptian museum today.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dubai - First Impressions

First impression of Dubai: HOT. We touched down at around about 5.20am and it was already hitting 30+ degrees Celsius.

We are now keeping ourselves chilled (this is probably the right context to use the word 'chillax' but it is such an awful word) in our 5 star Crown Plaza room before we brave the humidity at 10am - when all the shops open.

Dubai is spacious ... and rather barren. There is a lot of construction leaving the city feeling slightly primitive, but yet futuristic.

A big day ahead. Feels like we have been awake forever. Suspension of time is not so bad on your birthday.


Just disembarked our A380 and now in Dubai International airport. It feels like a Vegas casino with its palm trees and bright lights.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In Love with Emirates

So many movies, we estimate over 300. And there is 30 Rock. Am super SUPER impressed. No need for iPod, DS or book

I can have my holiday on this plane!

Off to a good (customer service) start

A choice of mags and newspapers.

Jetstar this aint.

Enroute to Bday Extravaganza

First stop, Dubai.

Have never flown Emirates so this will be a treat or should I say bazaar.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Hubby Hubby

Ben and Jerry (coming to Australia in October 2009 according to their website) have renamed their popular flavour "chubby hubby" to "hubby hubby" in recognition of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Vermont. Vermont is the 1st U.S state to legalise same-sex marriage through legislature as opposed to judicial ruling/case law - go small G government!

Ben and Jerry's renaming flavour choice is perplexing. Why would you rename it to a word that means married man when the whole point of the exercise is to celebrate gender neutrality? The even more curious thing is that they have so many other flavour to choose from - what about:
  • Imagine Whirled Peace to Imagine Queer Peace
  • Everything But The becomes Everything Including The
  • Chocolate Therapy could be Same Sex Therapy
Or have I missed the point?