Chapter Seven - Katrina - Where Moses roamed
From Nuweiba we went to Katrina. The road goes through some spectacular scenery. At the Nuweiba side, you can see some nicely colored mountains. There are some strange rock formations on the way also. Continuing to about halfway, you'll come to one of the most spectacular Sinai sights : the Wadi Ghazzel. The road goes down through it, but before driving on, be sure to stop and enjoy the view. You'll notice the place without any problems, coming from Nuweiba. It's not so obvious in the other direction. There are some annoying Bedouins trying to sell you their stuff. If you want something, bargain hard.
Katrina Monastery Our first day in Katrina it was very windy and raining. So, we decided to check out some hotels. First, there's a hotel at Katrina Airport. I can't remember the name. I have a bit of a problem with names. But you cannot miss it : there's only one hotel at the airport. It's a rather nice place, seemingly. They are very surprised to see someone coming in, especially when it's a foreigner. They want E£89 for a double. Coming from the airport, direction St. Catherine's, you soon come to a crossing. It's a checkpoint. Right goes to Wadi Feiran, left to Katrina. At this crossing there's the Green Lodge. This is were we finally decided to stay, because all the rest is bloody expensive (except the al-Fairoz) and I found it rather cosy. A spot in a five-bed dorm is E£25, which you can try to bargain down (hard !) to E£21 (our price), which is more than enough for this place. The rooms are not spotless, but they do just fine. A nice thing is that on closing days of the monastery (so, also every Sunday), there are almost no people and you'll have a whole dorm for yourself. You can also opt for a much cheaper tent. I think they can place about 70 people in the Lodge (tents and rooms together). Toilets are shared and outside. Power is supplied by a generator. In our case they began starting it up at around 8PM. By 9 it was running. Around midnight it was turned off already. This was especially annoying, as I had developed diarrhoea that night. Be sure to have a flashlight or ask for candles on forehand. It's also possible to eat here. Next door there are a few small shops and a fuel station.
Turning left at the crossing, you immediately see a small chapel on your left. This is the tomb of the prophet Saleh. Continue on and you drive through a hamlet called Zeituna. There you find the Morgenland Chalets. A small bungalow costs US$40. Continue further and you arrive at the Katrina roundabout. To the left - just before the turn-off to the monastery - there's a spring and on a hill a tomb and a small chapel. The tomb is the one of the prophet Haron (or Aaron). Next to it is a chapel called the 'Chapel of the Golden Calf'. The small hill which it's on, is near the plain of el-Raha, or the Valley of Rest. This is the place where the Israelites camped for a year and where the well-known Golden Calf episode took place. Around here is also the Tourist village, with prices I don't even mention, and the al-Fairoz Hotel. A bed in a dorm is still E£12. There are also a couple of bungalows that rate higher, but are private. They were all hired when we checked the place out, though. Final option : the St. Catherine's Monastery Hostel. A dormitory bed goes for E£30 with breakfast AND dinner. I found the rooms rather grubby and very small. And what's more, the people running the hostel are aggressive. I just went there to check out the prices and the rooms, not sure yet if I'd stay. One of the guys was constantly telling me I had to take a room, that they were closing the reception right now, that I had to pay, etc. Annoying. I decided the Green Lodge was a nicer place to stay, told him so and left. The next day when I was visiting the monastery, I saw him again and he demanded E£30 for staying in the hostel. I had an unpleasant time trying to explain that I didn't, and finally left him standing there. Sorry, but I just can't recommend this place. Okay, you get breakfast and dinner, but so what ? If you're going to climb Mt. Sinai early that night, breakfast in the morning doesn't mean much, I should think. To me 'atmosphere' is everything, and I just couldn't sense any here.
To eat, I'd recommend the Panorama Restaurant in the village near the post-office. They have a good selection of dishes. They also claim to have American hamburgers, but I suppose they've never been there. Prices are high here, but almost everything is in Katrina. I don't really look at amounts, but compare prices with quality and quantity. I considered this the best. Next door are a couple of (expensive) souvenir shops. I found the stalls on the way to monastery cheaper and they are willing to bargain.
Climbing Mt. Sinai. We started off at around 2AM. There was much wind and it was rather cold, but at night it always is. Apart from the camel 'jockeys' there are also some guides waiting for you at the starting point. They want E£30 for their help. Whether you're alone or in a group, the price was the same. We decided to save our money, and went up on our own. They'll tell you that it's difficult to go up on your own, but it isn't. The path is clear, even in the dark. A good flashlight is essential though.
Getting higher, it became colder and colder. We were happy to see some tea stands on the way. A cuppa costs E£1.50. My friend spilled some drops on my bag. Not a long time later, it was all frozen. On the top it was at least -5 °C out of the wind. In the wind probably around -20 °C. This just to tell you that I was glad that I was wearing six layers of clothing. My Minolta camera refused to work and even with brand-new, heated-up batteries it only just worked. Man, this was cold ! Always wear (warm) enough clothing and never attempt this climb in the rain ! For those who couldn't stand the cold, there was some shelter in the tea stands on the top (and along the way) and enough blankets were available.
It is best to ascend the normal way and to descend by means of the Steps of Repentance. Along this way, you pass under two stone arches : St. Stephen's Gate and Confession Gate.
The monastery of St. Catherine was not really what I had expected. The area within the walls where you have access to is very, very limited : the church, the burning bush, Moses' well and a collection of crosses and icons. Fortunately, the splendid church with all its decorations makes up a lot for this. Outside the walls, there's the nice garden and the ossuary. This building, which contains the bones of many monks, is not clearly marked. And it's locked, but there's somebody around who will open up the place for you. Inside, there's another gate obscuring much of the view. To the left, there are some niches with bones. To the right, is what appears to be a truckload of skulls. In front of you are the matching bones. But also - and this is interesting - a complete skeleton of a monk, still dressed in his habit. Unfortunately, it's all very far away. If you take any pictures, the doorman will demand a little baksheesh.
A walk around the monastery walls can also be interesting. The best views of the monastery you'll get if you climb up part of the mountain in front of the entrance. Those when descending the Steps of Repentance aren't bad either !
Wadi Feiran is at the foot of one of the highest mountains of the Sinai : the 2070 meter high Jebel Serbal. Only Jebel Katrina and Jebel Musa are higher. In the Wadi is the beautiful oasis of the same name. It's the biggest oasis in the Sinai. I've been told that this is the ancient Pharan, which has also been identified with the Biblical Rediphim, where Moses struck the rock and water gushed forth (although this one is more likely to be today's Wadi Refaid). It should be here that the old Roman road from Eilat (anc. Aila) to Suez (anc. Clysma) reached its most southern point. Centre of the oasis is the Tell Mehred. Roman, Byzantine and Nabataean remains can be found here. Also some of the dwellings and loam churches of the first Christian hermits. Ask some of the Bedouins to show them to you as some of these are easily found, but some aren't. Expect those guys to demand payment (they seemed to be very keen on US Dollars here).