Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Travel notes from Aswan

Jumping on the band wagon of holiday jottings, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about travel in Aswan and Lake Nasser on slow news days(Aswan today, and Lake Nasser when I get my act together). There are plenty of "what it was like" articles floating around the Internet and covered on this blog, so I thought I'd avoid describing all the glories of each site (multitudinous though they are) and, instead, talk about some of the less exciting but still useful things you might like to know if you're contemplating a trip to the area. You can click on thumbnails to see the bigger image.

Firstly, my thanks to our guide Mahmoud Abd El Mola for his expertise and practical advice. He was one of the best tour guides I've met in all my visits to Egypt.

Getting to Aswan turned out to be fun and games. Direct flights to Aswan from overseas have been suspended, so you have to fly into Luxor and take a coach or train. The coach trip took four hours (we were told three). As the check in time was three hours before the flight, and the flight was over five hours long, this made for a very long day - even longer on the reverse leg of the trip, because the plane was an hour late leaving. It is very tiring. It is something to consider when you are thinking of a trip to Aswan.

Aswan is now big. Visiting again Aswan after nearly 10 years was an amazing eye opener, and not quite what I remembered. It has grown considerably, with new buildings (domestic, industrial, civic, military) still going up at a staggering rate. It seemed unlikely that the cause of all this growth could be tourism alone, so we asked Mahmoud, who gave us a list of the economic activities in the immediate vicinity. This included two sugar refineries, a steel works, a Coca Cola factory and a fertilizer plant serving the entire of Upper Egypt - the second major plant is at Alexandria and serves Lower Egypt. Fertilizer is now a necessity in Egypt, due to the build up of the fertile African silt behind the Aswan dam. There is also granite quarrying and the maintenance of the hydroelectric plants and turbines of the two Aswan dams, plus fishing, with a canning plant near Kalabsha. Tourism is obviously a contributing factor, with numerous hotels and restaurants, an endless stream of cruise boats and the management of archaeological monuments.

The main town itself is an odd mixture. The Nile-side Corniche (the road that borders the Nile) has good views over the river with its islands and constant flow of feluccas and decorative motor boats, and the constant pestering to take boat rides is not as insistent as that of Luxor - but it is still wearing, even with the necessary Egyptian Arabic to be firmly but politely negative. The buildings that front the Corniche are mainly banks and hotels with apartments above, and are neither attractive nor particularly interesting - and most are really quite ugly. Go beyond the corniche, and there are some interesting side roads, but until you reach the bits where tourists don't venture (and are therefore not a target) prepare to be nagged for attention. Aswan does have a more cosmopolitan air about it than some Egyptian towns, and has a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere that is instantly endearing. I'm not sure how it achieves this, but it does!

Looking at the residents of Aswan, one of the big changes in the last ten years, consistent with what I have seen elsewhere in Egypt, is that Egyptian women nearly all wear Islamic headscarves. There was a period in Egypt when women abandoned their headscarves as a significant gesture of independence, but this has clearly been reversed wholescale. Farouk Hosni was put under pressure to resign when he suggested that this was "regressive", but he is clearly losing the battle, if recent visits to Egypt are anything to go by (to see coverage of this issue, see the BBC website at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6169170.stm. Having that, one of the other surprises is how many young Egyptians, women included, are clothed in western type clothes. Although many of the men are still wearing traditional galabeyas, most of the student age men, and some young women. are wearing branded trainers, jeans, and t-shirts. There are far fewer women dressed in the full hijab that covers both the face and the contours of the body, than I have seen elswhere - for example, in Cairo.

Aswan is at the First Cataract. For those of you who know very little about the area, the First Cataract is a series of granite islands and beds, which form rapids and waterfalls and is now impassable due to the creation of the Aswan High Dam. Before the dam, the annual floods used to cascade over the rocks and at these times the river was navigable by expert pilots. Aswan is the site of the ancient Egyptian city Syene, which was actually based on the defensible island of Elephantine over a 2km square area. Today the ruins of Syene include the famous Nileometer, several temples and a number of hieroglyphic inscriptions on granite outcrops. Views across the Nile and visits to the west bank are spectacular, with small boats everywhere day and night. The sceneary is wonderful.

A number of restaurants outside the hotels were recommended, some of which have their own ferry boats to take you to their island locations. There is the fish restaurant called Khalim, near the railway station at the far northern end of Aswan, and the Nubian Restaurant which has its own ferry opposite the Egypt Air office at the far south of Aswan, under the Coptic Cathedral. There's no MacDonalds just yet, but apparently plans are afoot after the success of the one in Luxor. The Old Cataract's restaurant is good, but needs booking in advance.

If you want to use a bank, the opening times should be investigated. They are open in the morning and evening, but not in the afternoon. The one at the New Cataract Hotel opens at 7pm. It is also worth noting that the bank at the New Cataract (can't for the life of me remember which bank) will only change travellers cheques into Egyptian, not foreign currency. This turned out to be a complete pain because our hotel, the Old Cataract, only accepts payment for bar bills etc in foreign currency. You may want to take sufficient cash with you to pay for any drinks etc you sign for (and the beers are expensive at 25LE a go).

On the subject of banks, I tried to use my debit card in a hotel ATM machine at the Old Cataract Hotel. Not only was it refused, but it didn't work on my return to the U.K. (thanks HSBC) in spite of the fact that I have used it quite happily in the past. That resulted in a long and heated conversation with HSBC at London Bridge station, where I found myself in the pouring rain without enough cash to get myself home, and a flat refusal from the hole in the wall! You may want to chat to your bank before you go if you feel you might wish to use an ATM machine.

If you have other mobile phone or Web access needs, you will find that your mobile phone should receive a good signal, because Vodafone's cellular network has good coverage in Egypt. Call costs are expensive, but you can purchase an Egyptian SIM before you go which might be worth investigating. Ask your travel company. Internet is not readily available at hotels, unlike the big hotels on the Red Sea coast - although an Email terminal was available at the Old Cataract. There are Internet Cafes along the Corniche that you might be able to use. I had planned on a web-free fortnight so I resisted the temptation to go and delve around in one.

On the subject of hotels, the Old Cataract is very comfortable and truly beautiful in a completely over the top sort of way, the housekeeping team were great, the pool area was pristine, the terrace was a joy, and the food was lovely. However, the service was very poor (trying to get served on the terrace became something of a game) and the staff, including waiters, the receptionist and the cashier, speak only very little French and English. I found that the French was more successful than English, but both were a struggle. Normally this wouldn't bother me on holiday, but the Old Cataract positions itself as a hotel which caters to English and French speaking guests, and my Arabic is still composed of parrot-learned phrases. If you are not resident at the hotel you cannot use the famous terrace, which does seem fair to the residents. You will be allowed to use other restaurants and bars, but you will have to spend a minimum of 85LE to do so. You will be charged this even if your drinks etc do not come to that amount.
The Movenpick, which used to be the Oberai, is located on its own island and is the proud possessor of the ghastly concrete tower that is the main landmark of the Aswan sky line. It is in the process of being completely overhauled. A new building is going up at one end of the island, and the existing hotel and gardens are very tatty and run down. It was almost abandoned, apart from workmen and a small group of young Japanese people. It has a nice little shopping zone, where I bought my usual bottle of sandalwood oil, and the people running it are a friendly bunch without being in any way pushy. The best thing about it are the ice cream and the views over Qubbat al-Hawwa (where the Old Kingdom rock-cut tombs are located). I look forward to seeing the place when it has been re-vamped.
We didn't get to the big Isis hotel, a vast, sprawling pink affair also on its own island, but others I spoke to said that it was very comfortable but bland.

We visited a number of must-see sites, which I will mention in brief. Unaccountably we never got to Elephantine Island, which is a hop, skip and a jump from the Old Cataract, and we didn't revisit the unfinished obelisk for a third time. Nor did we get to Silsila.
The Coptic Cathedral is locked up at the moment, but you can go and rustle someone up and they will be delighted to open it up for you and take you round it. It is closed for the construction of the dome (under a splendid edifice of wooden scaffoling emantating from the middle of the Cathedral). This is a very modern building, with some beautiful glass, screens and icons, all commissioned from respected artists. Well worth a look, and if Manuela takes you round, you will be rewarded with a very articulate explanation. There is an excavation currently running next door to the Cathedral.
We went to Philae with our guide, and the whole ticket office and embarkation point were unutterable bedlam - but all very good natured. We were there at 10.30am, so perhaps an earlier or later time would have been calmer. Philae itself was very busy, but very beautiful. It has the same magic that I remember from 10 years ago, which most Graeco-Roman temples lack. It is well worth a bit of a queue to visit it. The little shopping zone in the ticket square is one of the more approachable. You will be asked to come and look inside, but there is none of the over the top pressure that you find at many other places.
The highlight for me was the visit to the Old Kingdom rock cut tombs at Qubbat al Hawa. I would encourage anyone who can cope with the long flight of steps up to the tombs to go. I was relieved that the tomb of Serenput II was open - and astonished at how fabulous it is even in real life, with the corridor of mummiform statues leading to the amazing paintings. The paintings, shown in books and on web pages, are not the huge murals that I had envisaged, but breathtakingly elegant compositions measuring about six feet square.
The monastery of St Simeon involved a boat ride and a 15 minute walk (camels are available, but accidents are not covered on standard travel insurance). The only other Coptic monasteries I have visited were fully operational ones in the Eastern Desert, and this one was abandoned in the thirteenth century, but it gives you a real sense of what the monastic life was like. You also pass the official home of the bishop of the Coptic Cathedral on the way.

The Nubia Museum is excellent. The ground floor has a good display of statues and a small number of mummies.
One gallery on the ground floor is turned over to black and white photographs of rescue work in Nubia before Lake Nasser arrived. There are many images of relocated sites in their original locations. There others of sites undergoing excavation. Many sites were abandoned to the Lake. These photographs are fascinating and of very good quality, but many of them are heart breaking because you know that they show places now beneath the lake.
The main museum display is to be found in the basement. The exhibits are clearly laid out in chronological order with information boards that explain the part of Egypt's past that you are looking at. The time span covers the prehistoric to modern periods, with a section at the end dedicated to Nubian art, craft and agricultural activities. The downsides are poor lighting and absolutely dire labelling of individual cabinets and artefacts.
The museum extends into an extensive garden, with a fabricated rock art cave featuring a false cave with some genuine rock art incorporated into its walls, and numerous individual items - including stelae, bits of monuments, two obelisks and a number of other monuments.
There is a guide book with a good describtion of Nubia's geological and archaeological past as well as its modern history, a museum map and some good photographs of some of the exhibits for 15LE, but if you arrive for opening time in the morning they don't keep a float so you will need the exact money. The shop also sells the usual selection of reproductions and tourist guides.
The museum is open seven days a week from 0900-1300 and 1700-2100, and tickets currently cost 40LE per person.

For shopping, you can hit the town or the hotels. We didn't make it to the soukh where the inhabitants of Aswan do their shopping - a shame, because this was certainly part of the plan. In other areas where tourists are specifically catered for you will need to be prepared to be pushed, shoved, grabbed and draped with items of clothing. You need to negotiate the price. There are three prices, according to Mahmoud: Stupid tourist, tourist and Egyptian. We found Mahmoud a useful source of information on what you should expect to pay for a given item. He gave us the following rough guidelines: For a Nubian cap 5LE, for a t-short 20-30LE, for a light scarf 15-20LE and for a shawl 40-50LE. The least stressful shopping areas were the area just in front of the Philae temple ticket office, the New Cataract and the Movenpick hotels. I went slightly mad at the New Cataract, where a book shop turned out to be a treasure trove - as well as current publications from the American University in Cairo, there was a good collection of unusual second hand books. I picked up some fabulous titles.

Getting around Aswan can be done by boat, kalesh (horse and carriage) or taxi. We got a price of 30LE for a ride in a motor boat from the Old Cataract at one end of town, to the Movenpick at the other. A taxi from one end of Aswan to the other will cost you, one way, 15-20LE. I didn't gather what you should expect to pay for a kalesh. Be very sure to negotiate and agree prices BEFORE you get into the vehicle. If you are taking a kalesh, do look at the condition of the horse - most seemed to be in very good condition, but one was a dreadful sight. We didn't make it to Elephantine, but there is a local ferry across from the 3rd jetty along (walking north from the Coptic Cathedral) which costs 1-2LE (The Aswan Museum, on the island, costs 25LE per person and is open from 9am-3/4pm).

Photography in Aswan is fairly straight forward, at the time of writing, at the sites we visited, as follows.

  • At Philae there are no restrictions and you can even use flash.
  • At the Nubian Museum you don't need a special ticket, and you can use a camera without flash. However, without flash not even my camera (which has a 1600ASA setting) could achieve anything more than fairly poor results.
  • At the sites of New Kalabsha, photography is fine without a special ticket, but without flash
  • At the Old Kingdom tombs photography is fine without a special ticket, but without flash

If your taste runs to wildlife, you may have the opportunity to go on a tour which encompasses Kitchener's Island and a bird watching tour by boat. Although you can certainly visit the Island on your own to walk around the lovely botanic gardens, the bird watching tour is well worth the time, because not only do you see some wonderful bird life, but you become familiar with the network of granite islands and reed beds that dot the First Cataract. This trip was a real highlight.

I hope that this little lot is of some interest. I'll deposit a selection of the photographs I took on a web page.

Useful references for anyone planning a visit are:

  • Alberto Silotti. Aswan, Egypt Pocket Guide. American University in Cairo Press. 2002. Not much info on things like opening times, but provides some useful short summaries of the the sites, a short description of Aswan and a good overview of the Nubia Museum.
  • William J. Murnane. Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt. Penguin. 1996. I have found this book, now tragically out of print, by far the best guide to ancient Egypt. It seems to be quite readily available from sites like Exedra and Amazon's Marketplace, but it is worth hunting around for a reasonable price. The diagrams and descriptions are excellent.
  • Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt. Hermes House. 2002. This has both good descriptions, though not as detailed as Murnane's, and good photographs.
  • Fouad Ibrahim and Barbara Ibrahim. Egypt, An Economic Geography. I.B. Tauris. 2003. By far the best introduction I have found so far to modern Egypt. If you want to understand the pros and cons of the Aswan High Dam, look no further.
  • Su Bayfield's Egypt Sites website has a page dedicated to the sights and sites at and near Aswan at: http://www.egyptsites.co.uk/upper/aswan/menu.html
  • Bonnie Sampsell. Travellers Guide to the Geology of Egypt. AUC. 2003. I was going to say that I never go to Egypt without this book, but I somehow managed to leave it at home. If you want to understand the topography and geomorphology of the surrounding landscape, you can do very little better than this elegant piece of work.

For anyone interested in Egyptian desert rock art (sketched engravings), I photographed up some sundry First Cataract examples which I've put online at:
You'll need a broadband connection.

A friend has just pointed out that I was fairly incendiary on the subject of Gatwick and GB Airways when we came back to the UK. Gatwick was chaos - a half hour wait in an unending single queue to the checkout desks, shifting forward every minute or so in 6-inch increments. There were older people in that queue who really didn't need it. Luxor airport, by ironic comparison, was a well-managed breeze at the checkout.
GB Airways are the charter branch of British Airways. They were, in my opinion, unbelievably disorganized - many of the basic inflight logisitcs were sloppy. If I ever use the charter option again to get low cut flights to Egypt, I'll be hunting frantically for someone else to fly with. I wrote them a four page letter of complaint.
If you do fly with them, they have the British Airways rules on baggage restrictions, as publicized recently in the media. The biggest impact of this, particularly on older people, is that you can only take one piece of luggage, even if two pieces still weigh less, combined, than the total permitted weight. It's a good idea to take your own water and wine if you want it (they had run out on the return journey - a five and a half hour flight), be prepared to eat what your given (no choice offered, even though different dishes were available - and it was pretty vile anyway), accept the fact that you may have a) no movie or b) the wrong movie (both scenarios occurred), that they will run out of blankets a few minutes into the flight, and that if you feel moved to comment on the situation, the small print in their on-board complaints form tries to lure you into signing up for promotional material from them.


Anonymous said...

What camera do you have that has a 16,000 asa?

Andie said...

So I got carried away with the 0s. Apologies for the grave offense. But since you asked, Mr/Ms Anonymous, it is a Canon D10. You can actually push it even further than that (3200 - correct number of 0s this time, please note), but the grain becomes very difficult to de-speckle even in top rate software.
The Canon D10 is just brilliant. It cost a fortune when it first came out, which is when it was bought for me as a present, but has been replaced twice, and the newer version were a lot less expensive. I believe that the current model is the D30, and that its low light quality has improved considerably.
To be fair to the camera, I wasn't using my "museum lens" but the one I take on holiday - a 28-300mm telephoto zoom, which is great for holiday snaps, but doesn't lend itself well to low light conditions due to all the optics that get between the light source and the camera.
That camera is the love of my life, even if it doesn't support 16,000 ASA!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a lesson or two or a new camera will help you with your photography.

Andie said...


Anonymous said...
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