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! (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.
…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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.