Wednesday, 20 November 2013

City of contrasts

How many countries do you know of that have been studied so much by so many clever people that they actually have a name for the specialist field of study? Egyptology, Egyptologists ...
The Blast From The Past series takes us to one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

TIME seems to stand still in Egypt, birthplace of one of the most ancient civilisations on earth. While traffic and humanity zip around frenetically in the apparent chaos of modern Cairo, other things proceed at a pace that the Pharoahs’ loyal subjects might find familiar if they were reborn today.
The Petronas Adventure Team (PAT) had looked forward to exploring many of the wonders along the road leading northward from the Sudanese border to the Egyptian capital, such as the Valley of the Kings and the temples at Luxor.
The Trans Sahara expedition’s 18 vehicles had made it safely across Lake Nasser (which the Sudanese call Nubian Lake) after a 48-hour voyage on two barges, and the adventurers were raring to continue with their journey. However, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly in this part of the world. There is red tape, more red tape and, just when you think there cannot possibly be any more paper work, there are yet more documents to be filled and processed.
Three whole days passed before border officials released all the vehicles, which were finally allowed to be driven on Egyptian roads with the appropriate number plates in Arabic. Each day, the participants checked out of their hotel and waited in the lobby for their vehicles to emerge.
Each afternoon, they had to check back in because there was no sign of their vehicles, nor any indication as to when these might be allowed out.
The team members followed a tight schedule, and the delay at the border meant that they had to skip many of the splendid sights along the way, much to their disappointment.
The convoy rolled into Cairo on the afternoon of Sept 7, and pulled up at the lovely Oberoi Mena House Hotel, in the shadows of the great pyramids of Giza, minutes before I arrived after a long flight from Malaysia via Doha, Qatar.
Cairo is a hive of activity, a sprawling metropolis of some 25 million residents and millions of foreign tourists drawn by the splendours of ancient Egypt. The country’s unique charms certainly justify its status as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, but modern Cairo takes some getting used to.
Traffic is best described as chaotic, with cars going slow on the left lane (the equivalent of the fast lane in a left-hand-drive country), and fast in the middle and right lanes, or any lane, for that matter. A no entry sign may be interpreted as you cannot go this way, or you shouldn’t but you can if you must, or it’s to be ignored. Headlamps are apparently optional; you can turn them on at night or otherwise, use your parking lights, or do whatever you feel like doing.
The roads are crammed with old and battered Fiats and Peugeots jostling for position with newer cars, mostly from Asian manufacturers like Hyundai, Daewoo and Toyota, semi-trailers and donkey carts, plus the occasional camel, especially in touristy areas.
Security is tight everywhere, and policemen toting AK-47 assault rifles are conspicuous at many intersections. The Egyptian authorities are taking no chances with their main source of income, following several deadly attacks on tourists by fanatics and anti-government groups in the past few years.
Special tourism police, smartly dressed in tailored suits and with barely-concealed submachine guns tucked into holsters, have been assigned to accompany the PAT team during visits to, among others, the light and sound show (pic above) at the Sphynx, and a drive through Giza plateau, home of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
At the pyramids complex, the PAT veterans had a reunion of sorts when they bumped into some travellers whom they had crossed paths with on Africa Trek 2003, their expedition through southern Africa.
There is plenty of time for the team to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo, and shop for the obligatory souvenirs. One of the highlights of the stay here is a dinner cruise on the Nile, complete with performances by belly dancers. The technical crew have been busy searching for parts for some vehicles that have encountered minor problems.
After Cairo, the expedition will head for Alexandria, where Petronas has substantial investments in petrochemical facilities. The PAT team members will help entertain and educate handicapped children in a community relations project there. Next up is a drive along the coastal road, which will take participants through World War II battlegrounds such as El Alamein and Marsa Matruh. They will then across the border into Libya, where the first night’ s stop will be at Tobruk.