Cairo to Beni Suef
Time to leave Cairo and head southwards. I was up and out the door of the hotel for 6am. My intended destination, Beni Suef. A filthy, polluted canal to my left hand side as I took my first steps into the unknown. Apparently, the locals call this farmers or green road.
Air thick with smoke, I pedalled towards Saqqara to see the first pyramid built by the Egyptians, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. Unfortunately, I was to early and the guards at the complex wouldn’t let me enter. They wouldn’t let me take a photo from the gate either! Rather than wait 30 mins, I decided to push on, I had a long day ahead.
After 35km of cycling, I came upon another pyramid complex named the Dahshur Pyramids. Archaeologists date these pyramids to being built between 2613 to 2589bc. I paid my entrance fee 60ep and cycled towards the Red Pyramid.
Built during the reign of the pharaoh Sneferu, the Red Pyramid is believed to have been the first smooth sided pyramid ever built.
From the Red Pyramid a nicely constructed path took me to the Bent Pyramid! This pyramid was built with the intention of moving away from the traditional ‘step’ pyramid design.
The next pyramid I came across is named the Black Pyramid. The official line says it was built during the reign of King Amenemhat III and was abandoned because the desert sands beneath were to unstable to support the weight of the structure. I wonder how the desert sands support the other pyramid structures!!
From the complex I headed back towards the ‘green’ road, stopping in a tatty village to put air in my tyres. My first impression of the Egyptians, very hospitable, like every Islamic Country I have visited.
The road was flat so I thought I was making good progress. This region of the Nile Valley consists of the broad floodplain and lies between steep limestone or sandstone hills, the desert always on the horizon..
Kids waving and shouting ‘hi, where do you come from,’ Offers of tea from the elders working the fields, I was happy in the saddle.
Aswell as having to deal with all the motorised traffic, it also appeared that donkeys play an important role in the Valley as the principal load carrier, as they did in ancient times. Ive probably seen more donkeys today than ever before.
Long flat stretches of road for most of the day, the sun was burning holes in my clothes as the day wore on.
Lots of refreshment stops and by mid afternoon, I was grateful for these small shacks. The snack sellers where always happy to chat in broken English. The kids always curious of the strange Englishman on a bicycle.
After 100km in the saddle I passed the Meidum Pyramid.
With time pushing on, I decided not to detour towards the complex, I still had 50km to reach my destination. I kept cycling until reaching the Faiyum-Beni Suef overpass. A boy in a village stated it was 5km to Beni Suef and I felt a sense of relief. However, it turned out to be 35km, it was a slog. I reached my destination just as it was getting dark. Touching 150km in the saddle. I found a hotel for 70ep (£3) and moved in. A bit ramshackle but it had hot water for a shower.
After a shower, I went out to find some food. I was half way through a meal when an undercover cop turned up. He followed me around town until I went back to my hotel. The next morning after a great nights sleep, who would be waiting to escort me out of town, 4 cops in a car!!
Beni Suef to Minya
A 7am start and treated like a VIP. I was escorted through Beni Suef to the edge of town by 4 cops in a squad car. At the edge of Beni Suef, I was passed over to the next district cops. They asked if I wanted to put the bicycle in the pick up. I refused, so they followed behind, a little disgruntled. We reached a town named Biba after 25km and I stopped for breakfast.
Falafel for breakfast. The restaurant owner refused payment, thank you for your generosity. The police swapped with the next district and we were off again.
The road was flat again. It’s cold until around 10ish. I start off wearing a t shirt and chequered shirt and by noon I’m taking off layers. Every town I pass through the cops do a change of guard. Some speak English, some don’t. In general they are very helpful.
Today I was cycling along the Aswan Western Agricultural road.
Passing through the towns of Al Fashn and Al Fant, the air was still smokey. Donkeys, rickshaws, you name it, it comes at you from all directions.
We reached the town of Maghaghah and I found myself in a police station drinking tea with the top dog and three of his chief lieutenants. It felt rather bizarre!
Once through the formalities at Maghaghah I pushed on, with fresh cops in tow. I find they become more disgruntled later in the day, as my legs become tired and my need for breaks more frequent.
Most of the towns look similar. Fairly big in size. Half built with a mosque or two reciting the Koran through a loud speaker. Most need a good clean. Garbage is strewn everywhere.
After passing through Matay and Samalut, I reached my destination for the day, Minya. I had four cops in a car and six cops in a pick up escort me to my hotel.
The back street hotel left a lot to be desired. Rundown but with lots of potential. Art decor gone pharaoh style. I paid 70ep (£3) and had all the cops, who had escorted me to the hotel sleep outside. That’s what I call first class service. VIP or what!!!
Minya to Asuf
I didn’t have a shower last night, I didn’t like the look of the bathroom!! I slept like a baby, as one would expect after cycling 300km in two days.
Today was more of the same. Passed from one security car to the next in each town. With it being a Friday, the road was very quiet.
Back on the Agricultural road, it was cold when I set off. Opting for my coat, my shirt covered in dust.
The road was flat again. The Nile River to my left hand side, fields of sugar cane to my right.
Friday being a non working day, lots of Egyptians seemed to be spending there time drinking tea and smoking the shesha pipe.
I passed through the towns of Mansafis, Abu Qurqas and Mallawi were I stopped to eat Falafel. Three falafel sandwiches, 7ep, a good meal and cheap!
From Mallawi my next port of call and cop change was Dayrout.
Through Dayrout or as the Egyptians spell it Dairut and I stopped for a break. My legs where feeling the pain today and it was time to embrace it. The cops duly obliged in waiting but were eager to get going.
After munching on the best bananas ever we set off. More flat cycling, men coming out of the mosques after prayer. I stopped in the sizeable town of Al Qusiyyah and had a tea and more bananas. I contemplated staying for the night. Friendly locals, it seemed like a good crazy place.
Whilst drinking tea, two chaps where driving round in a car with no windows. They do things differently here and the cops don’t seem to care.
From Al Qusiyyah it was one last push to Asyut. If it wasn’t for the police, I would stay with the locals. They escort me every step of the way. I know there intentions are good but I really like the Egyptians. They are friendly and even though they are curious, they are not in your face.
We reached Asyut and the police booked me into a very modern hotel near the train station. It’s 200ep a night and worth it. I may take a rest day tomorrow. I’ve covered over 400km in three days and my legs feel sore.
Asyut to Sohag
Asyut, home to 400,000 Egyptians. Situated in the middle of Egypt, it is famous for its large textile industry. Historically, Asyut has a dark past. From the 18th century, Asyut was the final destination of the slave caravans on the ‘40 days road’ from Darfur in Sudan. From Asyut, the slaves then traveled to Cairo were they where sold to the Ottomans. The sultan of Darfur and the merchants who travelled the ‘40 days road’ are now living in hell.
After a rest day in Asyut, I continued the journey south. I picked up the Qena-Menfalout road which hugs the Nile. The air was cool and after 10km, with no police presence, I turned off the major road near Qirqaris.
Over some train tracks, over a bridge. I turned left onto a more rural road. Traffic was lighter and the Egyptians friendly.
A canal ran alongside the road, utilised by the Egyptian farmers as the primary source of water for there crops. Alongside the canal ran the Egyptian Rail track which transports over 800 million passengers yearly. Apparently, fares are kept low as a social service.
I reached the first major town on this road, Baqur and was invited to join the wholesale orange traders for a cup of coffee.
In Baqur district this year, Egyptian security forces shot and killed seven muslim men ‘thought’ to be connected with a radical Muslim group. Killed because they ‘thought’ these men where going to attack the large Coptic Christian population in this district. Whose radical?
Through Baqur, the road was smooth and tree lined.
I reached the town of Sidfa and stopped for a falafel sandwich. I was mobbed by a group of school kids. They were very friendly and all wanted a selfie. My peaceful rest for lunch went out the window.
I duly obliged with the selfies before moving on. Back on the road, kids and mothers waved. As soon as I got the camera from the bag, the mothers ran for cover.
When not running from the camera, the women of the villages were busy baking bread by the side of the road. The Egyptian diet is very simple of which bread is an important item. Fingers are used as knife and fork.
The earliest inhabitants of Egypt lived in huts made from papyrus reeds. They then discovered that the mud left behind after the annual flooding of the Nile could be baked into bricks. The poor lived in these mud huts because they where cheap to build, whilst the rich built houses from stone. In recent times, the Egyptian government has experimented in self help projects with state funds.
I pushed on until reaching the large town of Tahta. I asked a man named Mahmoud, sitting outside a large building, for directions. He invited me for a cup of tea and I obliged.
Mahmoud as it turned out, is one of those special human beings. We chatted about our respective countries and how similar they are. How times are hard, prices rising. He spoke very good English. He helps the poor in Egypt.
In his free time Mahmoud helps those who are incapable of working and earning an income. These cases are mainly the elderly, orphans, widows and those with a severe illness. The Egyptian Food Bank provides the needy with food, gas cookers and other essential items so that the poor don’t suffer from hunger.
Currently, there are over 850 million people worldwide suffering from hunger and poverty. Everyone should have the right to basic needs.
From Tahta, Mahmoud directed me back towards the major highway. I was about 20 km from Sohag when the police caught up with me. I was then escorted all the way into busy Sohag, taking a hotel near the train station.
Sohag to Qena
The towns of Sohag and Qena are separated by 140km. I rose early and the police were waiting. Through the backstreets of Sohag. Kids going to school, cars clogging the narrow and dusty streets.
The Sohag police followed for 20km before the changing of the guard. The road was under repair. Slow going, the police pushing for me to put the bicycle in the pickup.
I reached the busy town of Al Hags after 50km and had a long wait. The police wouldn’t let me go on alone. I had to wait but I was fed falafel. A cop arrived on a motorbike and he escorted me onwards.
The fields lining the road where full of birds, particularly the Cattle Egret. Unfazed by the traffic and humans, these birds seemed to be feeding on insects in the shallow water.
At the next police checkpoint I met a 20 year old German named Mano. He was also on a bicycle and heading south. We waited over an hour for the police to get there act together.
It was still 75km to Qena when we set off. The time was nearing 2pm. At Nagaa Hammadi, we crossed a bridge to the east bank of the Nile. The road was quiet, rural with the desert within touching distance.
The route was like a rainbow. Desert yellow, agricultural green, water blue and black tarmac. The sun was beating down as we picked up the pace. Little traffic.
The police changed the guard only once at Dishna. We stopped in Dishna to grab a bite to eat. With the sun going down, we agreed to put our bicycles in the pickup for the last 15kms into Qena.
My first impression of Qena was how clean it was compared to other Egyptian towns. The traffic was semi orderly. Cheap hotels and very cheap food, Qena came as a real surprise.
Qena to Luxor
Breakfast included in the price of the hotel room. Great deal. Today was to be a short day. 68km from Qena to Luxor. We set off without the police but we were stopped at the first checkpoint. Manu put his bicycle in the police pickup, I refused. An ageing policeman, with one star on his collar, started going mental at me in Arabic. I just smiled and refused to comply. His work mates fell about laughing. They set off without me.
I was left to my own devices. I cycled along the east bank of the Nile. The road was busy. Tour buses heading to Luxor and then onto Aswan probably.
Farmers in the fields tending to there hard work. Flowers of many colours lined the road, enjoying the cool morning breeze.
After 30km of cycling the police returned hoping to convince me to get in the pickup. I refused outright. I told them I was on holiday and here to enjoy Egypt. One of the policeman agreed and told the one star cop to leave me be.
I kept on cycling unhindered. I stopped in the town of Qus for a rest.
Chatting to the locals smoking the shesha pipe and drinking tea. I haven’t felt threatened in Egypt. Maybe I don’t see the danger? Kids coming out of school have been the only issue. Sometimes they ask for a dollar and run after the bicycle. It’s no big deal.
10km from Luxor I caught up with Manu at a police checkpoint. We cycled the remaining km into Luxor with the cops in tow. Luxor has changed a lot since I was last here. Shirley Valentines smoking the shesha pipe. Whatever floats your felucca. We booked into the Happy Land hotel for 3 pounds. It’s clean and the owner is cool.
Once known as Thebes, the ancient religious capital of Egypt. Today, Luxor is characterised as the ‘worlds greatest open air museum’. Within Luxor itself, you have the temples complexes of Karnak and Luxor.
The Luxor complex was built from sandstone or Nubian sandstone. The Egyptians used a technique to build these structures known today as illusionism. At the site of the Luxor complex, there used to be two granite obelisks at the site entrance, (there is only one now, the other is in Paris at the Place de la Concorde) that were not the same height. The Egyptian builders created the illusion that they were the same height due to the layout of the temple complex.
Unlike other temple complexes in the area, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a cult god or a place of rest for one of the Egyptian pharaohs. Instead Luxor Temple was dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship, a place where many of the Kings of Egypt were crowned.
On the West Bank of the Nile, I visited the valley of the Kings, a world heritage site. This place was the major burial site of the royal figures of Egypt and privileged nobles for a period of 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC. The eternal homes of these privileged few where huge and decorated with religious text and images, the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The workmen who built these tombs lived in a village named Deir el Medina. It is believed that these workmen are the first people in history to down tools and protest against the authorities due to a lack of food.
I also visited other burial tombs in the area. The question I asked myself was not how they built these complex’s, but how did these pharaohs become leaders of people and how did they subjugate the populace.
The first known recorded settled civilisation lived along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Mesopotamia, modern day southern Iraq. The city named Sumer was settled between 5500 and 4000 BC and the people where known as Sumerians. During this same time period, hunters and gatherers moved to the Nile valley from less fertile areas of Africa and south west Asia and began to settle.
These hunter gathering groups were built on equality. They didn’t have permanent leaders, there was no hierarchy. They shared the responsibilities between the group collectively. Then along came the rise of agriculture and the evolution of the mind.
Through agriculture, humans began to hoard food and resources. The more evolved mind in Egyptian society at this time will have shown hunter gathering people how to farm the land and induce them to settle in one place. The human being whose mind was more aware, conscious, during this period in human history became the voluntary leader. By making life a little easier, no more hunting animals or gathering berries, a hierarchy evolved. Humans began having bigger families and the population grew.
As the population began to grow and society became more complex, these leaders had to create some kind of order. They created this order by using fear, the basic nature of humanity. These leaders began to exploit and cultivate fear using geography and religion.
In Egypt, the Nile Valley is green and fertile. Crops grow and water is in abundance, Outside this region, desert dominates, a harsh environment. The cost of disobeying the King was high. There was nowhere else to go. The rulers understood this and leadership grew to despotism.
The rulers of ancient Egypt based there authority on religious beliefs. Having shown hunter gathering people how to farm the land, written text in the form of religion was introduced into the equation. By informing society that gods controlled everything on earth, and the rulers controlled Egypt, society concluded that the pharaohs must be god-Kings. Therefore, if they didnt obey the god-Kings who speak directly to the gods who control everything on earth, the land wouldn’t regenerate. The reality of living a hunter gathering lifestyle once more, put fear in the minds of the simple Egyptian people. In time, the skills of the hunter gathers would have been lost and the folklore and culture would have many tales of danger and hardship. So society would have been living in a state of fear and suffering due to crop failure and famine.
A pyramid system was set up with the pharaohs at the top. Then followed the nobles, priests and officials who would collect taxes. The next level down you had the merchants and artisans who worked full time building palaces, temples and tombs. At the bottom of the pyramid you had the farmers, servants and slaves. Is it possible they used mud ramps to climb the social pyramid!!! That is how inequality rose 7000 years ago in Egypt, which allowed the pharaohs to live a life of opulence, taking there treasures to the vaults of the underworld.
Luxor to Edfu
I spent 3 days in Luxor seeing the sights and wandering the town. I highly recommend the Happy Land Hotel. I paid 100ep, breakfast included. Fast WiFi, clean, upstairs chilling area.
The number of tourists visiting Egypt in recent years has declined massively. Walking through tourists towns like Luxor and Aswan, western faces are few and far between. Tourist shops are closed, big hotels are empty and the tourists boats stand idle along the Nile shores. I was happy to leave Luxor, I found the people a bit false, 1 dollar there new saviour.
I cycled out of Luxor along the shores of the east bank of the Nile. I passed through two check posts, the police were not interested in me. Nearing the community of Tod, a chap on a motorbike pulled up alongside. He spoke very good English and he invited me back to his house for a tea. I agreed to his hospitality.
Off the main highway and through the Egyptian country lanes. I arrived at my friends new house. I was introduced to his 16 year old son. We chatted about Middle East politics and how the media in the West portrays the Arab world. We chatted about Egyptian history and how not much has changed. It was a positive interaction.
I stayed for 30 minutes at my new friends house. I had a long day ahead. I was chauffeured back to the highway through villages untouched from modern conveniences. People looked with surprise.
Back on the highway heading south, passing through the towns of Ash Shaghab and Esna. Liter lined the road, plastic bags a blight on the landscape.
Plastic bags are a huge threat to the environment. They have a massive impact on natural ecosystems causing the death of aquatic organisms, animals and birds. It is estimated over 1 trillion single use plastic bags are consumed world wide every year.
I stopped in Esna for some shade and a lunch break. I didn’t like the look of the roadside restaurant. Opting for a packet of nuts and and a bar of chocolate washed down with water, going for the safe option.
I pushed on from Esna with still another 50km to Edfu. The further south I go, I feel the heat rising. At the end of a days cycling, my t shirt is always crusty from sweat and the salt from the road.
About 35km outside Edfu I came upon a police checkpoint. The first time in the day I was stopped. I was told to sit down and wait for an escort. The police radioed for an escort to come from Edfu, an hours wait.
I applied some reason and told them I would meet the pickup enroute. At first they refused but eventually saw sense.
Once through the checkpoint, the desert landscape began to encroach upon the road. Architecture changed from multi storey brick apartments to single storey mud houses with dome roofs.
Simple shacks and villages lined the route into Edfu. Men sat at tables playing dominoes, a popular past time in the Egyptian cafes.
I reached Edfu just as the sun was setting. A busy little town on the West Bank of the Nile. A temple here dedicated to the sun god Horus. I booked into a hotel and settled in for the night. I treated myself to a pizza, 35 Egyptian pounds.
Edfu to Aswan.
Breakfast included in the hotel price. I was up and out of Edfu for 9am. Rather than retrace my steps back to the east bank of the Nile, I decided on another direction, hoping to find the Nile and cross to the east bank. It wasn’t to be and I ended up cycling on the Great Western Desert Highway.
With no amenities and only carrying two litres of water and no food, it was going to be a long day. On a positive note, the traffic was light and no people!
During the Neolithic Age, the Western Desert was thought to have been semi-arid grassland. Home to wildlife and groups of hunter gatherers. Today, this desert is uninhabited as I found out for myself.
Cycling the western highway. Flat cycling, trucks and cars drive at speed. I didn’t see any donkeys today, camels neither. At intersections that led back towards the Nile, there was always an ambulance outpost where water was obtainable.
Garbage is only recycled in Alexandria and Cairo. In other areas of Egypt, garbage is dumped in the desert, the Nile and on the streets. It’s a real problem.
As I ambled along, I thought how the desert could be used to create energy via solar panels. I didn’t see a single solar panel for 120km to Aswan.
After 75km of cycling I did come across a roadworkers encampment. I was fed a potato stew with bread, along with a tea. I was very grateful, just what I needed.
I pushed on, counting down the km to Aswan. I had a litre of water and two oranges to keep me company.
I reached Aswan at 6pm. It was dark and I had to find a room. It took me nearly two hours until I found a suitable hotel. Most of the hotels were out my price range, 35 dollars upwards. I then stumbled upon the Keylang Hotel. The owner quoted 22 dollars and then showed me the Egyptian quarter for 120 Egyptian pounds. Clean with shared bathroom, I moved in.