Day 1: Arrival and the Pyramids of Giza

I landed at 6 am in Cairo after a lovely day in Mumbai and a relatively sleepless 6.5-hour red-eye. We had landed in Mumbai just after noon on Saturday, the day before Christmas. We checked into a hotel right next to the airport just to avoid spending travel time before a 3 am flight. The day was spent meeting a friend over a fabulous lunch at the “Eve” and then getting some rest. We explored Christmas eve dinner options and ended up eating at the Italian restaurant of the JW – where we were staying. After a short nap, we were up at 11:15 to get ready and head to the airport.

The flight was eventless and the immigration and baggage process was as seamless as could be. The immigration agent asked for no documents and had no questions. The only painful part of the process was to find a pen to fill up a very short immigration form. There was no pen at any counter and we had to ask a travel agency office to lend us one. Right after that is when the adventure started. It took me nearly 10 attempts to find a working ATM and all that hunt had given me up as a hapless tourist. I expectedly overpaid for a ride to the hotel, a small boutique place right next to the pyramids.

The drive was interesting – the buildings around are dilapidated with demolished structures and exposed brick buildings. The air was thick with dust and pollution and the traffic was quite chaotic but the roads are excellent. It took us just under an hour to make it to the Giza area and the traffic had picked up quite a bit by then. Egpyt is an early-morning country!

I had booked a small boutique hotel right by the pyramids to fulfill my desire to stay in a Pyramids view room. I only had a night to stay before the flight to Aswan, so didn’t look for a fancy hotel, just something to survive a night in. The place didn’t even have any signage and was on the 5th floor of a residential building – but it was actually quite a pleasant experience staying there. We reached the hotel at 8:30 am and I was quite sure we would have to wait hours to be able to check in. Someone checked out of the room right then and they told me to have breakfast at the rooftop cafe and the room would be ready – lady luck shone.

The rooftop cafe had a full view of the pyramids, barely a few hundred meters away. The breakfast was a simple omelet, pita bread, ful medames (Egyptian Fava Beans), cheese, and some cold cuts. There was coffee and packed juice to help wash it all down – simple but absolutely delicious. After washing down 2 portions of the breakfast we came down to the room – small but efficient and with a balcony that had the same view. I booked a half-day trip to the pyramids on a horse cart and a walk down the abyss of one of the pyramids.

The horse cart was there on time, and while the pyramids were across the road, the entrance to the complex was on the other side, a few km away. It was a slow bumpy ride, but we got there. The hotel receptionist and our now makeshift guide bought the tickets and in we went. There is so much history that the best guides could only begin to scratch the surface, this one didn’t even do that. He did take us to some great photo spots and offered to click cliched shots.

There are three main pyramids – the largest one of Khufu, a pharaoh of the 4th dynasty, and the next slightly smaller one of his son, Khafre. The smallest of the three belongs to Menkaure, son of Khafre. There are six smaller pyramids belonging to their queens and mothers. The outer layers of each of the three pyramids have been taken away by plunderers to build other monuments in different parts of Egypt. In their crowning glory days, the dull brown rock pyramids were covered in limestone, marble, and granite, respectively. It is worth trying to visualize these grand structures with their fancy facades and colorful paint on top. What remains now is just the perfectly shaped rock structure with a hidden secret – a passageway to the burial chamber deep within.

While nothing remains in the burial chambers anymore, it is still an experience to remember. Entrance is open (for a fee) into the chambers of the two larger pyramids. It is a low-height narrow passage that descends at a constant incline. Footholds have been added to prevent tourists from slipping. The passage opens into a short landing where one can stand up for a bit and then another passage leads upwards and into the main burial chamber. A small room with an open grave in bare sight. If you are claustrophobic like me, it will take a while to get the courage to start, but it is definitely a must-do experience. The Kharfe pyramid is a shorter descend and easier to do. The hardest ones to walk into are in Saqqara – another blog coming up for that.

On the way back, we stopped briefly at the Sphinx – to appreciate the much spoken about half man half animal. This one is said to have the face of the pharaoh Kharfe himself. The structure and its broken nose feature in many a lore including Asterix where the nose was broken by a careless Obelix.

The ride back to the hotel on the slow bullock cart was even longer, and they insisted that we stop at some “bazaar”. We did stop at one place but fortunately didn’t buy anything. I asked the guide if we could eat at some local place. He stopped at this totally non-touristy place where we had some amazing Egyptian food – salads, grilled meats, rice, and even a small chicken stuffed with rice. The food was local, but the prices were still touristy since there was no printer menu. I would need to get used to that.

We rested a while and I walked around to look for some local coffee and get a feel of the place. I got back just in time to click some mood shots of the pyramids at sunset. Soon it was time for dinner. It was drizzling, something that was nearly a once-a-year event. The rooftop cafe apparently did not have a kitchen – just a place to sit with some basic breakfast. Either they could order some outlandishly expensive grills for us, or we could go out and eat them at an outlandish price. We chose the latter. We walked to a nearby restaurant and chose the “mixed grill”, the only dish that seemed to have a fixed price. The fish was tasty but definitely not worth the price. A beer later it was time to go back to the hotel rooftop, have a sheesha, and sleep. Flight to Aswan coming up!

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