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Night Train from Cairo & other Ancient Egyptian Ruins


May 7, 2012 by Jools Stone

Today’s guest post comes from Katrina Stovold of Tour Absurd, who found that Egypt’s trains were just as ruinous as the country’s more celebrated ancient treasures…

Egypt is a land of unimaginable riches in the forms of art, culture, history, language, architecture, and agriculture.  Although our trip was just over a week in length, we’d managed to squeeze a lot into our itinerary.  We wanted to see every notable excavation between Cairo and Nubia.  We planned rides in trains, planes, automobiles and boats.  We thought we might even thumb down a camel to round it out.

Funnily enough, and in keeping with our “ancient ruins” theme, we discovered the trains were just about worthy of their own exhibit at the archaeological museum.

this train's so old it's in black and white!

This train’s so old it’s in black and white! (via Wikimedia Commons)

We arrived in the evening of our first day and enjoyed the lush surroundings of our hotel.  This may actually have set our standards a little high for the rest of the trip, since it was built in a former palace.  The place was HUGE and boasted several restaurants, shops, swimming pools, and even live entertainment.  Dario indulged in the opportunity to smoke a shisha (aka, hookah) pipe while I amused myself by repeatedly asking him, “Whooooo aaaare youuu?” à la Alice in Wonderland.

spot the camel!

…and that’s a small one (pyramid that is, not the camel)!

The next day our tour coordinator came to pick us up and take us to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in the morning and the pyramids of Giza in the afternoon.  We were taking an overnight train from Cairo to Luxor to maximize our sightseeing time and save the cost of a night’s lodging – meals included!  Everything was so exciting – it was going to be like a bonus round of the Grand Tour from centuries past, only very, very quick.

After spending not nearly enough time at the museum, we were whisked off to a mediocre buffet lunch followed by a visit to the pyramids.  We got there so late we were in danger of not being allowed entrance.  Wesa, our guide, had connections, however, and had made sure to reserve our tickets for the Great Pyramid earlier in the day.  We were the last ones in, so we actually got to stand inside with only one other person.

We passed on visiting the ubiquitous perfume factories and the laser light show at the Sphinx, so ended up sitting around a fluorescent lit train station with a tour company babysitter, of sorts.  There wasn’t much available at the snack shop, so we sipped on orange Fantas and tried to engage our overseer in conversation.  Although quite friendly and willing to chat, it soon became obvious that we didn’t have much in common.  Not to worry – we were looking forward to the train and our private sleeper car!


ENR locomotive by Yusuke Kawasaki

Not our train, but of a similar vintage.  (By Yusuke Kawasaki via Wikimedia Commons.)

When we boarded it became obvious rather quickly that the accommodations were not quite as fabulous as the palace the night before.  The bathrooms, in particular, were …questionable.  Still, we had our own little room with a tiny sink for hand washing and teeth brushing – and meals were included.

most impressive

Impressive motor skills: brushing teeth while not falling over.

We soon discovered that our clever plan was not quite as ingenious as we’d hoped.  Besides the frightening toilet situation, there was no way to control the air temperature.  It may (or may not) surprise you to hear that November in Egypt brings about some rather chilly evenings.  For some reason the cabin climate controls were set to “Freeze Tourists To Death” cold.  There were no sheets or covers other than the tiny travel blanket I’d brought with me, and the bunks were too small for one person.  That meant no sharing of precious, precious body heat.  We were doomed.

Dario thought the overall design of the train seemed familiar.  His suspicions were soon confirmed when he located markings from the previous owner of the train: Ferrovie dello Stato.  Yes, this train had lived a previous life in Italy, most likely under the auspices of Trenitalia.  Probably a marvel of modern engineering in its time, the train was now a rickety, worn out old thing that deserved a pension and a nice retirement home on a beach somewhere.  Yes, we truly were doomed.

Oh, but wait – meals were included!  That makes everything better, right?

what I wouldn't give for a pork sausage

Not pictured: about 3 other random, plain bread products.  Mm, mmm!

Best thing I can say about the meal is that, well, it was included.  And there was an orange.  I suppose the meat was halal, too, but if the animals didn’t suffer, we sure did.

I think EgyptAir set us up for a fall.  Airline food is supposed to be bad, but they managed to make a more than decent meal for us at several thousand feet above the Mediterranean.  Even the rice was a masterpiece of flavor.  And of course this was followed by the aforementioned gorgeous hotel restaurants.  This… this train “food” was appalling.  We stuffed down just enough to squelch the growling of our bellies and finished the last bits of our sodas from the station.

We tried to watch some videos on a laptop to take our minds off the freezing cold and disappointing dinner, but it didn’t work very well.  I don’t know if trains have shocks, but if they do, this one needed to have them checked.  Or maybe the tracks were warped from desert heat.  Or maybe, just maybe, there was a pharaoh’s curse, after all. In any case, it was a very wobbly, rattle-y, chilly night.

good thing we brought a camera to record the moment

Our breathtaking view of the sun rising over the fields of Egypt.

We managed to make it through the night without turning into tourist-cicles.  I held out a brief hope that breakfast would be somewhat better than dinner.  Foolish me!  Well, at least there was the view.  …Kinda.

The stamp on the glass indicates that it was made by an Egyptian company.  I wondered if the glass had been shipped to Italy at some point in the manufacturing process, then come home for a glorious reunion with its country again, bringing along its new friend, Train.  If, on the other hand, the glass was newer than the rest of the equipment, it would go a long way toward explaining some of the, ah, quality issues we experienced.

Once we arrived safely in Luxor, another tour company representative picked us up and transported us to the waterfront to check into our Nile cruise vessel.  We asked him to contact the home office and switch up our plans for the return part of our journey.  We had decided to fork over the extra cash for a flight and another night in the swanky hotel.

that's right - it's the NILE!

The view from our room aboard the cruise ship.  Not bad.

Funny thing is, the length of river that is open for cruising – between Luxor and Aswan – only takes about 3 hours on the train.  Cruise companies manage to stretch it into an affair that lasts for several days, stopping at 2 temples per day and having wacky costume dance nights and other amusements aboard the ship.  But that’s ok, we wanted a bit of silliness – and we certainly got it.

On a more serious note, our trip was made in November 2009,  just over a year before the Jan. 25 revolution.  One of the many things Egyptians were angry about was how so much money from tourism comes into the country, yet how little actually gets put back into basic infrastructure.  I can’t help but think that the uncomfortable train journey we took was one of the symptoms of the bigger problem.  As silly and facetious as I often am, I am still awestruck at the bravery and determination of the Egyptian people.  I still hope and pray that their revolution will lead to lasting change.

Abu Simbel

If they can move Abu Simbel, Egyptians can succeed with the revolution – and change the world.

As mentioned, on this trip we traveled with a tour company.  This is actually a rather unusual thing for us to do.  Normally we are all about independent travel, especially meeting up with our numerous CouchSurfing friends around the world.  With such a tight schedule, however, this seemed the best option.  If you’d like to read a wonderful piece about wrangling with the bureaucracy of Egyptian National Railways from an independent traveler’s perspective – including some important information about tourist vs. local trains – please read this great piece from Travels With A Nine Year Old.

In refreshing my memory about this journey, I came across the website of a train company that offers the same service but appears to be quite a bit nicer.  There’s an actual dining car and a choice of entree, even.  If memory serves, the prices are about the same as what we paid.  When we go back, perhaps we’ll give it another shot.  Maybe the stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor will open up, too.

And yes, we are definitely going back.  Egypt, rickety trains and all, is simply too amazing to visit only once.

Looking for more on African trains? Check out this review of the Tazara train through Tanzania and Malawi.


  1. Mark Smith says:

    Cor, saw the title and assumed you’d travelled on a rickety 2nd & 3rd class slow train with the locals, the ones tourists never go on… Had some great adventures on those years ago…

    Surprised to see you were referring to the air-conditioned tourist deluxe sleeper! Watania now run these trains, so the website you found and mention at the end (the train you might try next time) is in fact one in the same as the train you used.

    Personally, I love cold air-con in hot countries, hate getting on a sleeper train that’s been sitting in the sidings all day heating up, so you can’t get under the covers for three hours until the namby-pamby European-style air-con gets a grip.

    Trenitalia? Odd, these cars should be East German 1980s built, refurbed by CAF (a Spanish company) in the 1990s. What was marked Trenitalia?

    • Jools Stone says:

      Thanks for visiting Mark and welcome! 🙂 I shall have to check with my guest poster friend on those points and let you know.

  2. Katrina says:

    Hi, Mark. The company may be the same, but the photos they show and the services they offer on the website now were not available on our trip.

    Dario found markings that said “Ferrovie dello Stato” which, as stated, generally means Trenitalia. Maybe we just got, ah, “lucky” and found the only former Italian train in the fleet. I can only attest to our experience. 🙂

    As for the temperature, we went in November. The evenings were quite nippy. The daytime got scorchingly hot for a few hours in the afternoon, but that was it. Had we gone during the hot months we might have appreciated the air conditioning more, but that was not the case. It was far too cold. We actually had to buy some long sleeved clothing while we were there, as we’d foolishly brought only thin cotton with short sleeves and one lightweight pullover apiece. The tour representative who met us at the airport was wearing slacks and a padded coat. “Well, yes, it’s winter here!” he said. Oops!

    • Jools Stone says:

      Ha, I would prob not have bargained on it being that chilly there at that time myself! Many thanks again Katrina for this very enjoyable post. The Watania one does look good, at least online anyway. 🙂

  3. Wow, way to sell the train travel experience! LOL. Seriously, that sounds like a bit of a nightmare, and I’m fairly certain we’d have switched to a flight on the way back as well. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who firmly believes that travel is more about the destination than the journey, as the process of “getting there” is usually a pain in the butt. As much as I’m looking forward to taking my daughter to NYC this summer, I’m dreading the 14-hour drive…

  4. Mark Smith says:


    When people tell me that travel is all about the destination not the journey, I generally find that their only points of reference are long-haul flights and long laborious car journeys, and have seldom or never experienced a journey by train or ship, not strapped in, with room to move around, things to see, time and space to chat and think, flat beds to sleep in in your own little room, restaurants to eat in, and so on.

    Or put another way, if it isn’t better to travel than to arrive, it may suggest the need to adjust the way you travel…

  5. Marlys says:

    And to think I’m badgering hubby to go on a sleeper train journey one of these days. Well, perhaps not in Egypt.

  6. Wow…what an experience you had! OH and that food looked so mouthwateringly delicious!! NOT! You poor guy…you endured a lot and I really enjoyed your perspective on the journey. I love train travel and while your journey wasn’t anything to write home about, it did bring back fond memories of my journey from Florence to Paris where we too had a private cabin and bunks with sheets and blankets…thank God. At the time, I didn’t realize that was a luxury but after reading your post…oh boy..I guess we were living the good life.

  7. Katrina says:

    @Bret – oh, do what Jools suggests and take the train! I used to take it on the west coast of the US all the time. (Took the Green Tortoise bus from Seattle to SF once, too. Oh, the memories!) I’ve wanted to do an east coast, and a couple of cross country trips, for a while now. Would love to hear what you end up doing!

    @Mark – agree that how you travel is important. Some of our best travel days were taking it slow on trains and overnight ferries, while some of our worst were taking the fast, “efficient” options. Have to question what standards determine efficiency when one is left feeling drained, irritable, and fed up with travel!

    @Marlys – I have high hopes that Egypt will come out of this period with vast improvements for the people of the country, but it may take some time. In the meantime, YES! Do get him to go on an overnight train in Europe. Did so on my first trip to Italy and it was such fun!

    @Jeff – Oh, see? You need to talk to Marlys and tell her and hubby all about that. Sounds wonderful! I really need to do that one of these days. My overnight train in Italy was a budget trip, so no private cabin. Sounds so, so nice!

  8. A holiday in Egypt is absolutely a mixture of highs and lows, I think. There are a lot of improvements that need to made to the infrastructure (can you imagine travelling on one of the non-tourist trains?) and yet it’s also a wonderful place to visit. I’d a tear in my eye when I saw my first pyramid …

  9. Katrina says:

    The non-tourist trains actually intrigue me quite a bit. I think some of our discomfort/disappointment came from the fact that we had paid a fair amount for the overall trip and had some expectations in place. I’d really love to go back and see Egypt from a less insulated standpoint. We became friends with one of the fellows who worked on the boat, but normally we come home with loads of new stories about wonderful people and smiles along the way.

    Re: infrastructure, here’s hoping the people of Egypt continue on their movement toward freedom, a government genuinely of their choosing, and the vast improvements in the quality of life that they so richly deserve.

  10. Liam Powell says:

    I promise I’ll be visiting Egypt someday! 🙂 I envy you for seeing the pyramids personally. It is included my Bucket list!

  11. Katrina says:

    Oh, Liam, if we had had more time… there are so many more pyramids to see than just those at Giza! We didn’t even get to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Make sure that your bucket lists includes “plenty of time to explore Egypt”, too. 😉

    I also learned that there are some fantastic pyramids in Sudan (you can read a bit here: ). Oh, and if you ever pass through Rome, check out the Pyramid of Cestius. It’s smaller and of a different design, but still pretty cool!

  12. Katrina says:

    Had to look that up, Jools. 😛

  13. SArah says:

    A vacation in Egypt is absolutely a mixture of highs and lows, I think. Besides, it is among the most memorable events that leave you full of lifetime experience.

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