Day 4 - Cairo - Shopping & the sleeping train
Today was our last day in Cairo and hence we had plenty of time to kill. We had to board the sleeping train from Cairo to Aswan at dusk and hence had to check out of the hotel at 9AM. But since i had the morning to myself, i decided to hit the gym. I wouldnt say that the gym is state of the art, but definitely has got all the things that one would like to use. The massage and spa were also open. However i avoided that for obvious reasons (its not free). I used the treadmill and the elliptical for an hour and then had to rush back so as not to miss my breakfast. We were all ready by 9 and checked out as planned after taking pics of the hotel where we were put up.
Our first stop for the day was the papyrus institute. In cairo you would find papyrus shops and institutes in plenty at every nook and corner. Here they showed us as to how ancient egyptians made paper from papyrus. The papyrus plants grow abundantly along the Nile. These plants are cut in pieces and soaked in water for a few days. After that they are taken out and the outer skin is peeled off. Now the fiber is soft and flexible and can be easily torn. So they are beaten with a hammer and flattened. This is followed by hard pressing it beneath heavy objects. The ancient people used rocks for this purpose. The colour of the papyrus varies from light to dark brown and depends on the time for which the papyrus is left out in the open for drying. After this the paper is ready to be used. We went around the shop looking at all the portraits made on papyrus. We had an option of writing down our names in hieroglyphics in the papyrus in a oval shaped window called as cartouche. The owner there told us of a method to find the difference between original paper made from papyrus and that made from banana leaves. When you hold the papyrus paper towards a source of light, you can see criss cross lines in the paper showing the fiber whereas in a banana leaf paper the lines would be diagonally outward. However we compared some duplicate ones that some of us had bought the previous day with the original ones by this technique and couldnt ascertain the difference. So much for that guy's technique.
Next stop was at an egyptian cotton shop. Egypt is known for its cotton and hence people want to buy them as a souvenir. But i found the prices way too high and restrained myself from picking any. However the girls in our group entertained themselves by trying out the traditional belly dancer's head gear (known as gallebia) and waist chains for photo shoots. The sales girl encouraged them and helped them wear it. So if you have no interest in buying the cotton dresses then better ask your friends (mostly girls, guys dont have anything to try out) to try out the different head gear and dont forget to get yourselves snapped. It might come in handy when you are searching for some display picture for orkut. However after an hour we were back in our bus en route to the Alabaster mosque.
Here is where i experienced a mini-sand storm first hand. The wind gushed and spew sand all over. We were being pushed by the sheer force of the winds. We finally made our way to the entrance. By this time, sand was all over me, in my hair, eyes, mouth and in my handy cam too. This mosque is built inside a citadel (i dont remember the name of the person who built it), a huge one which you would notice from a long distance. The uniqueness of this mosque is that the entire place is built of alabaster, an ancient material used in Egypt. The outside of the mosque has a clock tower gifted by a french king (King Philip). But the story is that it wasnt supposed to be a gift. In fact it was an exchange for one of the obelisks of queen hatshepsut. To further add to the woes, this clock never worked (what a gift!!). The mosque was brilliantly built with huge columns and a center tower which was brightly painted. The chandeliers inside was another feast to the eyes. The mosque has two long minarets also called as the pencil towers. When we came out we were relieved to find the winds blowing softly.
Have you heard of shopping plazas solely for tourists? Yes there is one here. Its called the Khan-el-Khallili bazaar. It has rows after rows of shops having everything that you would want to buy. Here is where your best bargaining skills come to the fore. The shop keeper will start the bargain at 150 egyptian pounds and then finally sell it to you for 20 egyptian pounds. So you have to bargain like hell in order to do justice to your purchase. Here we were given a hour and a half to roam around and shop till we dropped dead. There were many lanes each full of shops stretching the entire distance for almost a kilometer in all directions. This is the best place to buy your souvenirs and stuff that you wanted to buy for your friends, colleagues, bosses and who ever. A piece of advice from me, whatever you do never wander alone. There is every chance that you might get lost amidst the narrow ways and the locals may start harassing you, more so if you are a woman.
We reached the Giza station around 6:30PM, pretty early since our train's scheduled departure was around 8PM. However friends came to my rescue and we played dumbcharades till the moment the train arrived. The train stops in Giza station only for about ten minutes which was more than enough for 40 people to get in since their baggage were stacked up neatly. So if you are travelling in a much smaller group, then you have plenty of time to board and get settled. Just make sure you have your bags ready and have already decided on the berth nos for your group individuals. The sleeping train as it is called, travels the entire night and reaches Aswan in the morning (this could be the reason for its name, i guess). The train has coupe like compartments with two persons in each coupe. Each coupe has two beds one on the top and the other, the usual seat. The ladder is tucked neatly behind the head rest so that you can take it out and use it when you want to sleep in the upper bunker. However the attendants on board the train serve you on call. So you can ask them to make your bed once you feel sleepy. There is a foldable table for taking your breakfast/dinner. Also there is a table top cum a wash basin on the inside. But the space is pretty cramped. You can either use the heater or the cooler depending on how cold/hot you feel. Dinner was offered immediately after the train started and for those who drink, drinks too were served on request.
We spent the entire night chatting away till early morning when we retired to our beds. And young couples, please dont disturb them. But the train was very bumpy at times, more like a camel ride than a train ride. The train travelled through the night and reached Aswan next day morning at 8:30AM, half an hour behind schedule. The train halts here for half an hour and hence there is no need to panic in getting your baggage out of the compartment. More on the day's trip in Aswan in my next blog.