Egypt

Blog - January/February 2020

Continued from: Jordan

Monday 6th January 2020 - South Sinai

It was an extremely minor earthquake. I didn't even notice. Slept right through it. I was chatting to a good guy who worked at the resort over breakfast. About half an hour into the conversation he casually mentioned if I had felt the earthquake last night. I thought he was joking. He pointed to the waves lapping at the shore. Normally the Red Sea is too narrow to create waves of its own. I vaguely recall a dog whining in the night but thought nothing of it. Obviously I was grateful no one was hurt but at the same time slightly annoyed that I'd slept through my first earthquake. I've always been curious to know what the ground moving beneath your feet felt like. I later googled the earthquake. It hadn't made the news. I headed off up into the mountains of Sinai. I soon had company. A police van seemed to be following me. A couple of times they offered me a lift. I politely declined. They kept following me. I know that Sinai has had security problems in the past but sitting on my back wheel seemed a little excessive. I tried to speak to them but no one spoke any English. All I could ascertain was that they were going to keep following me. They could have made themselves useful and cycled in front. There was a headwind. It was interesting to have a support car tagging along. I could pretend I was some kind of elite athlete out on a training run. Not a very good support car mind. Lots of guns, no sport drinks. The road was incredible. Wide open vistas as I meandered up into a landscape of rugged sandstone mountains. I was heading towards St Katerine but I had a long way to go. I'd done 80km mostly uphill on little sleep. I had another 50km to go mostly uphill. I wasn't going to make it before nightfall. I had never planned to. I didn't want to camp too high because the temperatures here plummet at night. How to shake the police? I had to get my tent out of my panniers and show it to them saying 'me, tent, sleep' and point out into the mountains. They were having none of it. They were adamant that I was not to camp here. I had no choice but to get in the police van where they drove me towards St Katerine. They dropped me at the junction, pointed towards St Katerine and said '5km, hotels, go'. I cycled a few hundred metres down the road and camped in the mountains.

Tuesday 7th January 2020 - South Sinai

I've had a few cold nights in my tent recently cycling across Europe in winter. None colder than last night. The water that I kept inside the tent was frozen solid in the morning. I slept in everything in my bag. Woolly hat pulled down to the top of my nose. Down jacket zipped up to the bottom of my nose. I still haven't worked out how to keep my nose warm. My down jacket no longer deserves the name. It's so old there's not a lot of down left in it. A cagoule would be warmer. I was so frozen first thing that I seemed to lose my sense of balance. I fell over for no apparent reason whilst packing up. Fortunately I had a few kilometres uphill to begin with and pedalled hard to get warm. Visited the 6th century monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Got a glimpse of the peak where a man named Moses received the ten commandments. I then descended down to the Gulf of Suez. Or at least I tried to. More fun and games with the police. I had to wait for an hour at a checkpoint as there was a section they would not let me cycle. I spent the rest of the day either cycling or sat in the back of a police van with armed soldiers. At one checkpoint I chatted to a nice Syrian family (living in Cairo since the war) and they were having the same issues even though they were travelling in a car. They had to get a police convoy everywhere. It seems foreigners are not allowed to travel independently in Sinai. The police want you where they can see you. Ended up by the Gulf of Suez with the same camping dilemma as yesterday. How to shake the police? I thought I'd finally managed to persuade my escort that I was going to camp so there was no need to keep following me. They went on ahead. As soon as they were out of sight I took a dirt road down a gorge and slept like a log down at the warmth of sea level.

Wednesday 8th January 2020 - Gulf of Suez

Enjoyed a good kilometre of solo cycling before I heard sirens blaring behind. The next thing I know a police car pulls sharply in front of me. Another one pulls up behind and another pulls up alongside. I tried my best not to laugh. I was surrounded by 12 police asking me where I slept. They said I had suddenly disappeared last night and they were worried about me. I did my best to explain that I had just gone a little way into the mountains at the end of the day to camp like I always do. They asked me to write all this down in a police log book. The police then followed me all day. For a while the headwind was quite nasty and we were both doing 5km/hr along the Gulf of Suez. At lunch a policeman said that such attention is not just Sinai. I can expect the same throughout Egypt except in Cairo. This had me concerned. I can't even stop for a pee without a policeman watching. True enough I crossed over the state border and nothing changed. At a checkpoint they insisted that I be driven to the next checkpoint at Suez. I thought I'd try a little defiance to see what happened. I refused to get in the van, got on my bike and shot off down the road. They just followed. Now it was camp time again. I would find a place and they would shake their heads and wag their fingers at me. I asked Why? Not having a mutual language one of the police officers just did his Al Pacino at the end of Scarface impression. Right. I would find another camp spot but I would get Al Pacino again. This went on until one serious looking officer came up to me and shouted what might have been the Arabic for 'GET IN THE BACK OF THE VAN'. Defiance over. I complied and was driven to a shit hole of a hotel in the shit hole that is Suez and left to contemplate how to cycle freely in Egypt without getting arrested.

Thursday 9th January 2020 - Cairo

I came out of the hotel in the morning to find the police waiting for me. No point resisting. I tried it on a little yesterday but they are under orders to chaperone all tourists travelling independently. Nothing will deter them and I must respect that. I let them drop me on the outskirts of Cairo where I was free again. The outskirts of Cairo is still 60km from the centre. Grim cycling into an almighty headwind. The only relief I would get was when a heavily laden truck would join the highway. They take ages getting up to speed. I would tuck in behind and enjoy some wind free cycling and try to keep up. No such thing as cycle lanes in Cairo. At times I found myself on a 5 lane motorway. I say 'lane' but everyone just careers across the road at 100 miles an hour looking for a clear run. Things got steadily more chaotic as I approached the city centre. All good fun though. There is a beauty in the chaos. Got lost in some back streets and stumbled across an awesome flea market. I bought some socks. Eventually found my AirBnb and collapsed exhausted. I haven't had a proper rest since I set off from London 3 months ago but I now have a few days in Cairo to chill and work out where I'm heading.

Fri 10th - Weds 15th January 2020 - Cairo

I struggled to find the love for Cairo. I enjoyed ambling around the souqs and flea markets. The people are gregarious and friendly but Cairo reminds me a lot of the cities in India and this isn't a good thing. The purpose of the car horn is rendered useless from over-use. I got quite a lot of hassle from people trying to sell me stuff. At these times I pretend I'm Chinese and can't speak English. I don't think they believe me. The big problem in Cairo though is the air. The WHO says the air quality in Cairo is twenty times over the acceptable level. I can believe it. Cycling around it is hard to breathe. Or more it is easy to breathe but you would rather not. It's terrible what's happening in Australia at the moment but it's just the norm for cities like Cairo and Delhi. They say the air quality in Cairo is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Everyone in Cairo smokes a pack of cigarettes a day anyway so maybe it doesn't matter. Or maybe it matters double. I can't decide. I liked my AirBnb flat in an authentic neighbourhood that was run down but charming in its own way. I'm not one to be bothered by decor. Just ask my tenant in London. Everything worked. Hot water, Wi-Fi, stove, fridge. That's all that mattered to me. Although the noise from outside was 24 hours so I slept on my camping mat in a corner of the lounge the furthest point away from the streets. Great restaurant downstairs that served up large portions of Kushari, a staple Egyptian dish, much loved by the masses and me because it is cheap and filling. Made of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. There was also an amazing bakery across the road. I spent a lot of time flicking between the two. Oh yeah, I also went to see the Pyramids.

Thursday 16th January 2020 - Beni Suef

Clean clothes! What a joy to put on your cycling clobber in the morning without wincing. They say that denial ain't just a river in Egypt. The Nile, however, is a river in Egypt and I followed it as I escaped Cairo. Navigation was easy but breathing was unpleasant with factories pumping out thick black smoke to mingle with the general Cairo smog. All a bit bleak to begin with tract housing, vacant lots, haphazard sewage and a lot of depressed petrochemical light industry. Eventually I made it away from the Cairo outskirts and into more rural areas. The cycling improved. In my attempts to keep to the river I would leave the main road and find myself on narrow goat paths alongside the fertile farmlands that cling to the river. This was enjoyable but slow because of goats. To keep a semblance of progress I would often re-join the main road and stick it out with the traffic. On the plus side I didn't see a policeman all day and made the most of the opportunity for an easy wild camp in a disused quarry.

Friday 17th January 2020 - Al Minya

My freedom didn't last long. A few kilometres down the road I was picked up by the police and that was that. I was surrounded for the rest of the day. Initially I resisted all offers of a lift. They would sit on my back wheel however and I was always aware of their presence. Eventually a senior looking policeman practically forced me into the police van. I wasn't very happy about this. They seemed to think it wasn't safe out here. They just want me in the van so they can hurry me to the next checkpoint where I will no longer be their responsibility. I'm not particularly bothered about wasting police time. It's not like I ask them to follow me. Every checkpoint I pass through there's about twenty of them sat around doing nothing. It does strike me as a terrible waste of petrol though. What would Greta say? There are 100km/hr speed signs everywhere along the road. After the fifth car roared past at 200km/hr I pointed this out to the driver. I was well up for a high speed police chase. He just pointed to his cigarette as if to say 'can't you see I'm smoking'. Got back on my bike again at the next checkpoint but no hope of camping with police in tow so I ended up in a hotel. I got annoyed when an officer was placed at the hotel entrance and wouldn't let me go to the shop to buy vegetables. He was only placated when the kindly hotel owner got an A4 piece of paper out and wrote something along the lines of 'I, James Anderton, do hereby declare that I will go down the road to buy vegetables at my own risk.' We all signed at the bottom. Then I was allowed to venture into the unknown to buy vegetables. Ridiculous.

Saturday 18th January 2020 - Asyut

I enjoyed my police escort today. A friendly bunch. They were with me all day instead of the usual 20km relay from checkpoint to checkpoint. A couple spoke a little English. They were just in a police car, with no space for a bike, so no constant midering to get in the van. They didn't sit on my wheel. I didn't know where they were half the time. They would just come alongside every half an hour or so and check I was OK. Whenever I stopped for a coffee they would join me and tell me to take as long as I liked. We'd chat and I'd find out a little more about the security situation in Egypt. After the 2011 November revolution and the ensuing, albeit brief, rule of the Muslim Brotherhood tourist numbers almost dropped to zero. Egypt has been stable for a few years now and the tourists have started to come back but in nowhere near the same numbers as before the troubles. The police are paranoid about any further incidents that would setback the recovery. Therefore they keep a close eye on all tourists. The guys I spoke to admit it's excessive to follow cyclists everywhere but we are a niche and not part of the big picture. The big picture being the hordes of people who come from all over the world to visit the the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the Red Sea resorts. Pissing off a few cyclists is a small price to pay to ensure the tourists keep coming. Obviously tourism is a massive source of income for the country. Basically they were saying 'Sorry but you are stuck with us'. I can respect that. I appreciated the honesty. They told me that all foreigners are getting the same treatment they just aren't aware of it. All tour operators have plain clothes policemen in their ranks to ensure safety. All tour buses will have a plain clothes policeman on board. There are similar police trailing independent tourists in all the tourist spots around the country. They just don't bother to be inconspicuous with cyclists. Fair enough. All interesting stuff. I enjoyed my cycle today. Once again along the Nile simmering in the sunshine. A rare tailwind and approximately 0m of climbing meant I covered a lot of ground. The policemen saw me into a hotel in Asyut, gave me a bag of oranges and said 'Strong man, we like you.'

Sunday 19th January 2020 - Nag Hammadi

Most of Egypt is a desert. It would pretty much be all desert if it wasn't for the Nile. The Nile brings water and water brings life. Either side of the river is teeming with it. Peaceful and quiet it is not but as a snapshot into how the majority of Egyptians live outside of the big cities it was ideal. Rickshaws, horse-carts, tuk tuks, cars, motorbikes, heavily laden donkeys and me all competing for space. It is good fun to speed through. There are cheap-eats, cafes, banana stalls, shops, fruit juice vendors, kebab shops and vegetable stalls all along the route. The men smoke hookahs in the shade and stare into space. The women bustle along with the shopping expertly balanced on their heads and the kids run around being kids. In these in between places they do not see many foreigners other than through the darkened windows of a tour bus. I got a warm welcome everywhere. The men would invite me to join them in every cafe I stopped at. Even the women in full burka give me a wave and you can see from their eyes that they are smiling. The kids roar encouragement as I go by. To be honest for all I know they could be shouting obscenities. I just wave anyway. Spreading out from the river there are vast tracts of fields growing wheat, tomatoes, sugar cane and vegetables with palm groves dotted here and there. The young and the old can be seen harvesting the fields and loading their wares onto poor donkeys who lug them to the nearest market. Taking it all in under a clear blue sky and a tailwind made for an enjoyable day. Made it to to the town of Naga Hammadi and went for dinner with the police. We talked about football.

Monday 20th January 2020 - Luxor

I've been managing to get along with my police escorts for the most part but not today. The officer in charge was a ******. The police van was driving a few hundred yards in front of me when it drove straight into a rickshaw driver on the side of the road and sent him into a canal. The officer then got out and shouted at the rickshaw driver for damaging his van. I went and helped the poor rickshaw driver who was hopping around in clear discomfort and wagged my finger angrily at the policeman and told him to learn how to drive. He didn't like that. When we got going again he beeped his horn at me everytime I slowed down and told me to get a move on. I've seen enough films to know how to shake a tail so when we hit the town of Qena I took advantage of some traffic, gave him the old one-two, made a sharp U-turn, nipped down a couple of side streets and enjoyed a bit of freedom in a quiet cafe. Back on the road I was soon picked up again but with no repercussions for my little manoeuvre back there. I made it to Luxor in good time and went to check out the Valley of the Kings before it went dark. The valley is where rock cut tombs were excavated for the pharaohs, including Tutankhamun, and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. A major draw for tourists visiting Egypt. For me it was more impressive than the Pyramids.

Tuesday 21st January 2020 - Wadi Abu Desert

Luxor was a bit of a detour. I now wanted to head north east to the Red Sea coast at Safaga. Initially I had to re-trace my steps and therefore was only too happy to accept a lift from the police for once. They dropped me in Qena and I headed off into the desert. After the hustle and bustle of the Nile it was good to be out in the wide open peace of the desert. Even with a police van chugging along behind me. They were a good bunch though. They kept pulling alongside and offering me biscuits and oranges. When I was flagging into a headwind they pulled in front to give me some protection. They would not let me camp however. They were adamant. Camping is not understood here. You won't find any camping equipment in Egypt. No hotels in the desert so my only option was to pitch my tent in a police compound up the road. It wasn't as bad as it sounds. The police were good company. Plied me with bread and chai. I am, of course, endlessly polite. Even to the policekids who keep showing me youTube videos of Mo Salah on their phones. Even to the policeman who woke me up at 1am with 'Mister James, would you like a cup of chai'. Even to the policekid who insisted on taking a selfie as I brushed my teeth at 6am. Clearly bored. It can't be much fun being a policeman in the desert.

Wednesday 22nd January 2020 - Safaga

Amazing cycle today as the road wound upwards and then through a stunning canyon before finally dropping down to the Red Sea. Crossing over into a new state I was made to wait at a checkpoint for nearly 2 hours as they worked out what to do with me. It was OK though. I sat next to a policekid and we watched Rambo on his phone. Met the big chief of police who told me he has three wives and that I need to get in the van for the next section. I refused and he asked how long it would take me to cycle the next 14km. I lied and said 20 minutes. He said off you go then but if it takes you a second longer we will arrest you. Pretty sure he was joking but I still cycled like the clappers. Not even close but I wasn't arrested. Made it to the Red Sea and the coastal city of Safaga where I dropped my tail again. I'm getting good at it. I might become a getaway driver. I was going to try and camp by the Red Sea but the wind was mental so I ended up finding a hotel anyway. The owner would have checked me in with the police.

Thursday 22nd Jan to 4th Feb - Safaga

I spent a lot longer in Safaga than I expected to. Mostly eating. Perversely I always seem to eat more on the days when I cycle nowhere than on the days where I cycle all day. Maybe not so perverse. When I'm cycling there are 7 hours in a day when I'm unable to eat because I'm cycling. Transferring peanuts from pocket to mouth whilst pedaling doesn't count. When I'm not cycling there are zero hours in the day when I'm unable to eat. As a result I do little else. Making up for lost time. The hunger is insatiable and the eating becomes habitual. This is why I can never stop this cycling life. I'd just become obese and die. It did me good though to replenish the lost pounds. My trousers did not need a belt when I set off. After 3 months of cycling I had to buy a belt. After 2 weeks of incessant eating I no longer need the belt. I listened to a lot of music. Launched myself into Infinite Jest. Binged on Netflix. All in Spanish to kid myself that I'm learning and not just binging on Netflix. Managed 4,172 words on 'The effect of serfdom on the Russian psyche'. Thought about joining Instagram but the mere thinking about it gave me the howling fantods and I ended up deleting all inactive social media accounts I remembered once creating in an effort to be a modern person. I swam in the sea everyday. Played volleyball with Germans. Walked my Air Bnb neighbours dog whilst he was at work. Initially I took time out to give my back a rest. I've been experiencing a little discomfort recently which I wanted to nip in the bud. When I was ready to get going there seemed to be some kind of boat strike and I've had to wait a week to get the ferry across to Saudi Arabia. A country that was not on my radar a month ago. I've enjoyed my time in the Middle East and want to see some more of it whilst I am in the area. My plan is to now cycle around Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman before heading across the water to Pakistan but there's little point talking of plans when I rarely keep to them. This time next week I could be in Uruguay.

Continue: Saudi Arabia