Day 2,3: Abu Simbel and the River before the Nile

Why was our guide calling what I thought was the Nile, Lake Nasser? This question hounded me for a long time before I made the starting discovery that the Nile flows South to North. In addition, the High Dam (in Aswan) creates a massive reservoir that spreads across southern Egypt and Sudan -this is Lake Nasser.

My first domestic flight in Egypt was an interesting experience. I reached the airport well in time anticipating the unknown, even though I had booked business tickets. There was a security check entering the airport where they spotted my 100-pound (EGP) random statue in the bag and wanted to verify that it wasn’t an Egyptian stolen artifact. There was another check before the check-in counters. It was damn chaotic there but I managed to check in quickly given the class of travel. The security line was long but common for everyone – but it moved fast. In no time we were sitting in the security waiting area. That is when we realized we had left all the facilities behind. Let alone the lounge, there was no water vend or even a washroom after the security check. We were just part of a large crowd waiting for several flight to just a handful of destinations.

After boarding, the rest of the flight was a pleasant experience. The seats were comfortable and the food was delicious – bread, cold cuts, and cheese. It was a short flight and in no time we were in the southernmost city of Egypt, Aswan. It was a small airport and there were only a handful of cabs outside. All of them had colluded at a crazy high rate and there is no Uber in Aswan. In hindsight, I should have booked a hotel pickup. I negotiated a bit and then gave in. 500 EGP for a ride that should have been 150.

Aswan was more of a desert than I had anticipated. Even the ride to the hotel gave a glimpse of that. However, the Nile flows right through Aswan and makes the patch all around it very green. Our hotel was right on the river Nile. The check-in to hotel Tolip was nice and the room had a spectacular view of the river. We walked around a bit to find any good lunch options but there didn’t seem to be many restaurants around so we ate in the hotel – the food wasn’t bad.

We slowly rode upstream, passing by some historic-looking sites, a few beautiful birds, a funky-looking hotel, and many sandy slopes. It took much longer than I had expected and I didn’t even know what a Nubian village meant. After about 45 minutes we reached a docking point for a very beautiful but touristy-looking town. Apparently, the Nubian people had to be relocated when the high dam was built and they were given this land just on the banks of the river. Since they couldn’t do much else there, they created this series of shops selling local wares and some cafes – purely targeted at tourists. We walked up, knowing that there wasn’t much time left – there was some hard stop for small boats in the Nile. A quick tour of a few shops and we realized it was all very touristy. We did end up buying some mutton masala and hibiscus tea at some ridiculous price. Then we headed back for the 30 minute ride back. It was nearly dark when we reached.

We had a quiet dinner in the riverside cafe of the restaurant. There wasn’t that much to choose from and the bar menu was surprisingly bare – they had a dancy tonic water but just one type of unnamed gin that got served in a plastic glass. We crashed early and the next day had an early start – a long road trip to Abu Simbel. We had decided not to start too early – most tours go at 4/5 am. Since we had a private car, we picked 7:30.

The hotel served an OK breakfast—a lot of local flavors and generally delicious. We didn’t have much time to eat as the breakfast opened only at 7, leaving us just under 30 minutes. The driver was there on time and seemed quite a pleasant guy. The car was nice and clean and I didn’t smell too much smoke for a change. It took about 30 minutes to get out of the city and the surroundings were soon just a desert. It was a long straight road for miles with nothing but sand formations on both sides. A little further there were some artificial farms with massive irrigation equipment – they were growing wheat and dates in the desert. Most of the country is covered by the desert – being able to productively use that land could be a game-changer.

There was a small shack mid-way with paid toilets, snacks, tea, and coffee. We didn’t stop for too long as this was already a very long drive. It was around 11 when we reached Abu Simbel, a small town. We headed straight to the famous temples that had originally been submerged in the reservoir (Lake Nasser) when the High Dam was constructed. UNESCO funded a project in the late 60s to move these temples piece by piece. While that seemed like an engineering marvel in itself, the temples are a historic masterpiece – massive yet intricate.

Both the temples were constructed by the pharaoh Ramses II, one for himself and the other for his favorite consort Nefateri. The entrance of both these temples is adorned by statues of Ramses II and Nefateri has a lesser presence in her temple. The insides of the temples are spectacular with all walls covered in paintings glorifying the life and deeds of the king and Nefateri. Guides are not allowed inside, so our guide gave us a talk outside with some pictures, and then we walked in peace inside. Since we came late, most of the tours had left and we found the place relatively quiet. An hour quickly passed and we walked out for some pictures of the Lake Nasser which is right outside the temples and a quick bite. We had a typical Egyptian meal at a local restaurant and headed back.

I negotiated with the driver to take us to Luxor the following day. I think he overcharged, but who in Egypt didn’t? He was at least quite nice to us. The drive back was similarly eventless and mostly spent sleeping, Surprisingly we had some free time when we got to the hotel. We were too late for the Philai temple but in time for some bowling in the hotel and then a dinner out. I learned that not many Egyptians ate out and there were very few restaurants in Aswan, just coffee chops. We did find a food court and it wasn’t too bad. Some Mediterranean chicken rolls later we were back in our hotel ready to crash and be ready for a long day – the drive to Luxor with stops at Philai temple, the unfinished Obelix, Kom Ombo, and Edfu.

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