From Alexandria I needed to find a way to get to Aswan, which is about 675 miles away. I decided to take the only direct train (which is for locals, tourists are supposed to take the sleeper class ones that originate in Cairo and cost three times more, but provide a bed). I have slept in chairs on overnight trains before without an issue and assumed that buying a seat in first class would keep the riff-raff out and afford me at least a half-way decent nights sleep. I can’t count the number of times that I have misjudged my ability to handle “local” things on this trip, but this certainly adds another. Apparently in my old age I require more luxury than the cheapest options offer: though I really should have expected problems with a train ride / night of accommodation for $23… For starters, EVERYONE in Egypt smokes. And not just a little, but relentlessly. So even though they were “kind” enough not to smoke in the actual carriages, only in the small connection areas between the train compartments, the ventilation holes in the walls allowed me the great privilege of total immersion in cigarette smoke. The other problem was that the train made so many stops that there were constantly people coming on and off the train and unfortunately for those who buy tickets, the conductors don’t often check them, so I’m guessing there were quite a few people risking the fines… And what first class train doesn’t have power points? My kindle died halfway through, so I had very little to do for the second half of the journey. Oh, and did I mention that this was an 18 hour train ride?!?!
Nevertheless, I arrived in Aswan, not a super happy camper, but in one (very smelly) piece. And it seemed my luck had changed. The draw for going to Aswan is that it is the jumping off point for Abu Simbel – the temple that Ramses built to commemorate himself and his queen, Nefertari. The Abu Simbel Festival only happens twice a year; once on February 22 (the date of Ramses’ ascension to the throne) and on October 22 (his birthday). Abu Simbel was architecturally designed so that the inner sanctum would only light up twice a year (those two days), which would obviously be cool to see and most likely pretty popular. So I was nervous showing up the day before that minibuses in the convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel would be full, but the lack of tourism in Egypt right now definitely helped me out and I got a seat.
However, it’s a three hour drive from Aswan, and the event takes place at sunrise… So I got picked up from my hotel at midnight. The Egyptian Government mandates that all travel between Aswan and Abu Simbel must be done in a police convoy. So the convoy left at 1am on our journey. What I can’t understand is how a line of dozens of buses passing through on a specific schedule would make terrorist attacks more difficult… But that’s the way it works and I arrived at 4am, in complete darkness. There was already a line forming at the main temple of Ramses, so I join. And then proceed to wait for nearly two hours for the sun to come up. No one had any idea what was going on, or even what the “light” was going to be and none of the armed guards offered any explanations. So finally at about 6:05am everyone gets shoved to the side of the entrance and then shoved into the temple like cattle. You weave through the outer columns and then pass the inner sanctum (basically just a statue at the back of the temple) before getting literally pushed out the exit. Unfortunately because they were rushing everyone through so quickly before the sun rose further and the effect was gone, I only got a brief look, but at least I did see it, even if I don’t have decent photographic proof.