Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs, To the heart of the Sinai Desert

Chapter Five - To the heart of the Sinai Desert

From Ismailia we headed for the Sinai. Getting there is very easy. You can make use of the free ferry. The crossing takes about 10 minutes, I believe. I can't remember exactly. I was busy talking to a UN observer, who had some interesting things to tell. The sight of a UN jeep on the ferry (and many soldiers) immediately set the trend of what we were going to see a lot in this desert : military presence. I heard of some people who avoided the Sinai because of this, but I think this is plain stupid. Okay, there are many army camps, road blocks and soldiers (hitch-)hiking along the way and you see quite some military vehicles (often off-road), but what's the problem ? It's not a threat, it's an experience to travel in this once (and maybe still a bit) volatile area that has such an astounding scenery. All the army people we came across were very friendly (almost none of them speaks English). The soldiers have to hitchhike from their posts to their base and vice-versa, so you see many of them walking on the roads. If you try to imagine yourself in their place, you will no doubt stop and give them a lift.

If you travel by car, one thing to remember, is to fill up with gas in Ismailia before you take the ferry. If you're like us heading for Nakhl, you will be glad you did. Underway it's all real desert with few settlements. Supposedly fuel can be obtained in Bir al-Jifjafa, but don't bank on that (and if there is, is it the right fuel, e.g. octane 90 ? Forget about unleaded in Egypt BTW).

North Sinai desert roadThe road to al-Jifjafa is, like I said before, 'real' desert. I mean, it's a desert as we all think of : sand everywhere, the highest places being some sand dunes, few or no settlements, the only people Bedouins with their camels walking in the distance.

Bir al-Jifjafa is a small place with nothing to do. The way to Bir at-Thamada offers about the same scenery. Thamada is so small that you almost don't notice passing it. From there on, some low mountains start creeping in.
From the road block at the junction to Ras Sudr it's an excellent road straight to the city of Nakhl, population 160.

Nakhl is the only place of importance in central Sinai (in fact this is the centre). Here, you can find almost everything that you could need at this point. We needed fuel before we could drive to Ras al-Gindi. First thing you'll see on your left hand-side just before entering Nakhl 'centre', is a hotel. There are more, but more about these later. There are at least two fuel stations and a couple of 'supermarkets'. I would avoid the one just next to the CO-OP fuel station at the roundabout in the centre. This is the place where we experienced the refilled bottle scam (see earlier in this travelogue). And what's more, their prices are ridiculous. They can double at the last moment for no reason. Bargaining is what you'll have to do here. And hard ! Save yourself the trouble and cross the roundabout where you'll see a place just marked 'Supermarket'. All products are conveniently placed so that you can immediately see what's available. Everything has a price tag on it, only in Arabic though. As in so many other occasions it really, really pays off to learn the numbers. It's little trouble and very easy. The shop owner of course suspected that we couldn't read them and asked more. I just said : "So, you want xx pounds (the real, tagged price) for that (pointing to it), eh ?" He said : "Ah yes, that IS xx (my price) pounds." If you want, you can then start bargaining, but he won't come down. What he likes to do, is rounding down the totals. It's a very friendly and helpful man though. Ask for directions to the bakery here. I can also point it out to you : coming from the direction we came (Bir at-Thamada) continue straight from the roundabout (or coming out of the Supermarket, turn right immediately). After 200 meters or so you'll see the telephone office on your left. Continue on for another 300 meters approximately. The bakery is the last house on the left (any similarity to a well-known movie is purely coincidental). It's a small free-standing building and is unmarked. Normally you'll see some people (mostly soldiers) queuing at the small window. Take a look inside. The people will be surprised to see you. The breads come fresh out of the oven and are delicious. We paid E£2 for twenty. Egyptians pay half, but that's normal I heard (from several persons, not here), as the government pays the other half.
Making international phone calls from the telephone office (directions : see above) here is no problem, be it that there can be long waits (one or more hours).

Ras-al-GindiWe had everything we needed, so we headed for Ras al-Gindi, which features the fortress of Salah ad-Din. It's along the road to Ras Sudr on a distinctive hill that can already be seen on the right hand-side from miles away. This main road is not very good because of potholes, but they're well navigable. The road up the hill is easy to miss. We certainly were puzzled on how to get up. But, we were lucky : a soldier that we gave a lift to his base pointed out the track to us. This is it : if you reach an army base on your left, just near the mountain, then you've come too far. You should have turned right before. It's a small unpaved road that is almost invisible. It has a bad surface, but nevertheless it was perfectly driveable for the Suzuki. You can only drive a limited distance. From there on, you have to continue on foot. If you're reasonably fit, it's not too hard. We made it all the way up in less than ten minutes. And, if you can't find it, try to get help from the soldiers at the nearby army posts. There's one really near (like I said before), and there's one a couple of kilometres further down the road, direction Sudr. Often, you'll see the army men strolling on the road. They will be very glad to get a ride. This makes it very easy to ask them about the fortress route. Once up, you can see what remains of this castle.

Due to its strategic position it has been heavily damaged during the last Sinai wars. Still, some parts are relatively unharmed. It's all there to give you an impression how it once looked like : the defensive walls, a watchtower, a mosque, the living quarters, the underground water reservoir, the holes through which the carrier-pigeons were released,... Some of the entrances and windows have interesting and good-looking engravings.

You may not be too impressed by these ruins, but you will be by the breathtaking view over the surrounding (North) Sinai Desert that you get. It's really mind-blowing ! This place can easily compete with the mountain scenery from the south, I think.

After this trip, we went back to Nakhl. Like I probably mentioned before, there's little of interest here. Nakhl is built along the Suez-Taba road, which crosses some of the southern expansions of the Wadi al-Arish. This important connection was always defended by the fortress of Nakhl. Unfortunately, it has been damaged during the wars. This is what I heard. I asked around about it, but nobody could point it out to me. I could only suppose that conditions are too harsh in the desert to be bothered by your own history.

Now for the hotels: there are some, although not many foreigners want to stay the night here. There's the one that I mentioned in the introduction to Nakhl (near the CO-OP fuel station). I can't remember its name but it's the one that I'd check out if I would stay here again. The other ones are situated to the east of the roundabout, along the road to Thamad and Taba. What I heard, is that one called the Al-Rai is good. Rooms should be around the E£25 tag.
We chose another one, accidentally, when we were looking for the Al-Rai. When we came to the end of the built-up area along this road, we decided to ask directions in a restaurant in a hexagonal or octagonal shape (there's no sign bearing a name. It's painted red, you'll notice it if you drive there; it's past the last fuel station on the left). The waiter didn't understand a word of English. He said : "Ah hotel !" and signed us to come along with him. We walked to a small, square building that was about 30 meters behind the restaurant. In it were some bungalow-style rooms without toilet. There was a shared bathroom outside. The room was rather clean (although not too). The toilets were (literally) shit. Nevertheless, I thought that we could as well spend the night there. "How much is it ?" The man wrote down E£50 !! A ridiculous price for such a room. I suggested E£20, and eventually we came to a price of E£35. This seemed to be less than their normal asking price as the waiter sent off someone to ask the manager if this was all right. He returned 5 or 10 minutes later. It was okay. The price was still too much for my liking, but I considered that they probably try to take as much advantage of tourists as possible in this God-forsaken hole. So, what the heck. I said : "So that's the price for one night, right ?" "Yes. One night !" "Okay. We'll take it. Is breakfast included ?" The man didn't understand my reply at all, and instead of answering my question, he started to count the hours, pointing them out on his watch : "Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, one,.... One night !" I said : "Yes. One night. Tomorrow we leave." He didn't understand. The counting restarted. And afterwards, about fifteen times more. Really, no joke ! I started to suspect that he wanted us to leave at one o'clock in the night. I told that to my friend, who answered : "Don't be crazy, man. What kind of reasonable person would do that? He probably doesn't understand what you mean and wants to know if you'd like to stay only one night." I thought he was right, but anyway took the waiter's arm and counted on : "One, two, three, four, five, six", meaning 'we leave at six o'clock in the morning'. He didn't understand and said : "No ! No ! One ! One night !" "Yes, one night !", I replied. I got tired of it and just said to him that it was okay, and that we'd take it. He wanted our passports and immediate payment. We complied. "Good night !" He left us. We were hungry and went to the 'hotel' 's restaurant. A menu was not available. Our friend, the waiter, was at it again, understanding less than nothing. It turned out they had only chicken soup and roasted chicken 'n' rice. Fine by us. Everything was served almost cold. It was expensive too. No doubt, the fifteen pounds we had bargained off the room had been added to this bill again. Also this, I had expected. I realised that we'd been very stupid staying here in the first place, and even more so by eating here. Picking another restaurant would have been a smarter move. Problem is that I suffered from a terribly upset stomach from the chlorinated water that I had drunk. Or was it caused by something else ? I didn't know, but it hurt, so I was easily pleased that day and didn't bother too much.

As there's not much to do in Nakhl (nothing, really), we decided to go to bed early that night (around eight). Luckily we had done so, because it was quarter to one in the night when there was a pounding on the door. I opened it and there he was, our passports in his hand : the waiter ! One last time - with a big smile on his face - he re-started his counting procedure. I continued on again until six o'clock, but he said "No ! No !", meanwhile rubbing his fingers together in the commonly known gesture, meaning 'money'. I thought "F**k you, man ! Let's leave !" I was really tired of this smart-arse. We packed our stuff and five minutes later left in a cloud of dust.

After a while, we arrived at the village of Thamad. It's a very quiet place and there's a cafeteria where you can have some tea or a small lunch. My friend had some. I stayed in the car, because I was close to throwing up (probably because I ate on an already upset stomach).
When I was sitting there, I realised that there's much more traffic on the Sinai roads at night than during the daytime. No private cars, though. Not one ! It were all trucks and buses. There was one of them every seven minutes (average).
We continued a few kilometres and decided to catch some more sleep. Otherwise, we would miss too much of the scenery, which is just the point of coming here. We drove onto a small stretch of sand, a little off-road, where we were safe for the trucks. It was incredible how well you could see the stars here. Everything was so peaceful that I actually didn't mind that we had been kicked out of our room. I gazed for some more minutes, then decided to take a nap. It wasn't so bad, 'cause the Suzuki is a comfortable car to sleep in. First we were there in our T-shirts. After a while we had to put on a pullover. Then, we covered ourselves with a large towel. Finally, it was so cold that we had to force ourselves in our sleeping bags. I'd highly recommend taking one with you in the Sinai. It gets really cold at night ! We would find that out even better, later in Katrina. Even if you don't use it for the cold, it's also convenient to use in dirty beds.
A couple of hours later we woke up. The sun was already shining. There was no more traffic (or very little indeed). I felt surprisingly good, my stomach was okay. We left for Taba.

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