Woah, If I thought Beijing was a culture shock after leaving Mongolia, Cairo goes above and beyond! Never before I have I muttered the words “and this is how I die” so may times in quick succession whilst crossing the road. Crossing the road here is kind-of like how you do it in South-East Asia – you pick your gap, fix your gaze on the other side (whilst still keeping a sly eye on the traffic) and walk across at a steady pace, hoping to get to the other side in one piece. The only difference here is that instead of a thousand scooters to navigate, they are cars, moving at very high speeds! Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings only seem to be a loose guide for drivers to follow.
I am going to start off by saying that I didn’t have the best experiences in Cairo/Giza, at least at the start. It is certainly not a reflection of the entire country and it’s people as I met lots of really nice and friendly people too, but the proportion of disrespectful men made me feel so uncomfortable here that after two days I just wanted to leave and head straight back to beautiful, respectful, quiet Mongolia. I was hissed at, clicked at, kissed at, shouted at from across the street “hey lady, HEY!”, “Wooowwww” and the list goes on, with the worst being a man offering me his genitals at the pyramids. I was respectful towards the local culture and covered up (I wore shorts one day as I had been told that this was ok for tourists to do in tourist areas and it was so hot – but never again!), but despite this they could still tell I was a tall, pale red-head who was obviously not from there. I don’t understand why they think that treating people like this is ok? I never felt like anyone was going to physically harm me, but constantly feeling like I was a piece of meat just wasn’t nice. All tourists get hassled a lot here, because we aren’t anything but a walking ATM machine right? But I feel like it is much worse for me as a solo female traveler that chose to explore the city on my own and not in a tour group. I ended up giving several men a piece of my mind and a short lecture on respect for women. Did it make a difference? I have no idea. But I felt better about it.
Despite all of this, there are some really great things to see and do in this city and this country. The sheer age of the ancient relics that are still around is enough to blow your mind, let alone the colossal size of many of the structures.
On the west side of the Nile is the city of Giza (Cairo is on the east side), and The Pyramids of Giza really are incredible. They were all built as tombs for the great Pharaohs. The oldest and largest is the Great Pyramid of Khufu (c 2600BC), that towers at 135m high and is made from some 2.3 million blocks of stone. It used to be taller when it was covered in a limestone casing, but this has unfortunately been removed over the centuries to be used for other buildings. The sides of the pyramid are oriented almost exactly true north, south, east, west with barely any error in alignment of the right angled sides. Lying behind this pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum, that houses a 43m long cedar boat discovered disassembled in it’s own burial pit next to the pyramid in 1954. The 1200+ pieces were painstakingly pieced back together and it is one of the oldest boats in existence. It is worth the extra fee to enter this museum to see this beautiful boat. (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the details on prices and how to get there).
The next largest pyramid is the Pyramid of Khafra (c. 2500BC), with the apex still covered by the limestone casing. Behind this stands the Pyramid of Menkaura. I entered this pyramid down the steep and claustrophobic corridor into the burial chamber, chiselled out of the bedrock. The only other person down there at the time was another Australian who invited me to meditate with him. Sitting in the silent chamber directly underneath the apex of the pyramid was very moving. I could feel the energy from great structure around me as a tear spontaneously rolled down my face.
Located just down the hill from the pyramids lies The Sphinx, a recumbent lion with the face of Khafra. Carved from the bedrock, it has been well-preserved mainly thanks to being covered by sand over the centuries. The nose of the face is missing and the beard resides in a museum in London, but the rest of it is intact. From a distance it looked smaller than I had expected, largely due to it sitting in a sunken area, but up close it is huge and very impressive.
Back on the east side of the Nile is the Egyptian Museum that contains an absolutely massive collection of ancient egyptian artefacts. This is only a fraction of what is held in the Museum’s vaults, and a large new museum is currently being built. Packed wall to ceiling with priceless pieces from gold statues to a room of mummies, I was surprised to see that many items were not held behind glass, allowing overly-curious visitors to touch things (!). There is a lack of labelling on many items, so if you are interested in knowing more about the artefacts, a guided tour would be a good idea. There are 100 rooms in the museum, so allocate a couple of hours to get through it all.
There are so many interesting areas to explore in Cairo. And when you get off the main tourist trail the craziness settles down a little. Walking around the smaller streets you can really feel a vibrant infectious energy from the local people. There are small coffee houses everywhere, where the locals sit and play very loud and dramatic dominoes or chess and smoke shishas, and these coffee houses spill out onto the road in the evenings as plastic tables and chairs are placed outside.
Islamic Cairo is old and beautiful. The Mosques are stunning, the sunset from Al Azhar Park is beautiful and the Khan Al Khalili bazaar is a fun and buzzing maze of stalls. The deeper you delve into the market the less touristy souvenirs and more local goods you will find. There is interesting food to try from super cheap falafel wraps and street-side sweets (one of my favourites is basbousa – a honey semolina cake) to cozy restaurants with friendly staff.
The Nitty gritty:
- I decided to see the pyramids on my own and not on a tour, which was a lot cheaper. It wasn’t very difficult, but it did mean that I had to fight off a tonne of horse/camel/carriage/tour guide vendors all on my own, which got a bit old. And the sexual harassment I got was probably worse because I was on my own. You catch the metro from Cairo to Giza (3LP) and then either hop in a minibus or a taxi to the pyramids (3LP). Ignore anyone telling you that you MUST have a camel or horse to enter the pyramid grounds and just continue up the hill to purchase your ticket from the main office. The entry fee was 80LP. I paid an extra 50LP to enter the Pyramid of Menkaura (this and the Pyramid of Khafra open on rotation). It costs an extra 200LP to enter the Great Pyramid – I was told it wasn’t that different from the smaller pyramid so I didn’t bother. The Solar Boat Museum was an extra 60LP, paid at the door to the museum.
- After you enter the ground you DO NOT need to show anyone your entry ticket. People will try and take them off you to ‘check them’ and then ask to be paid to give them back.
- Check your change! I was short changed so many times even at ticket counters. They will try and confuse you by asking for extra notes and then giving you the wrong change.
- I chose to walk around the pyramids on my own, no camel or horse. People will tell you that you will DIE if you do this and it is impossible to do on foot because it is KILOMETRES to the pyramids, which is a complete lie.
- I heard afterwards that Fridays (the day I went) are the worst day to go to the pyramids as it is usually the busiest day for both tourists and locals.
- I don’t know how I feel about animals being used for the type of intense tourism, such as at the pyramids. For some people it is their only source of income for their family, but I feel that better regulations need to be put in place for the animals. The horses and camels work in very hot and dry conditions on hard ground for many hours per day. Some of them looked very well looked after, however some were on the thin side and had obvious lameness issues. I hated seeing the horses pulling carriages slide on all four feet down the steep bitumen road to the Sphinx. A few were almost falling down on this slope with a carriage full of people, and nobody got off to lighten the load for the horse.
- You can also visit a couple of other pyramids situated further south on the west side of the Nile – the Pyramids of Memphis and Saqqarah I didn’t see them as it was either a costly taxi ride or a tour to go there. But I heard that they were pretty cool too.
- The currency here is the Egyptian Pound – some vendors will try and trick you by saying “5 pounds” – check if they mean English or Egyptian pounds!
- The call of prayer rings through the city of Cairo several times a day, blasting from speakers on the mosques and other places. Be prepared for it to wake you up in the mornings, but after a couple of days it starts to become more of a background noise.
- The air pollution in this city is very high, and there is a lot of rubbish on the streets, so don’t wear your nicest shoes in this city.
- I stayed at My Hotel Hostel in Cairo. A cosy small hostel right next to the Egyptian Museum. It was clean, the location was good and it included breakfast 🙂
- Getting around the city is relatively easy. The Metro is quick and cheap, you can walk to quite a few places, and for some of these harder to get to areas I caught an Uber, as I felt more comfortable doing this on my own.
- I caught an Uber to the airport. They are currently building a railway line to the airport but it is not finished yet. The Uber cost about half of the price that my hotel gave me for a taxi.
- I ate from a fair few small street stalls but these are a few restaurants I ate at:
- Tabouli – delicious Lebanese food in a really cosy setting.
- Kazaz – cheap takeaway and dine-in arabic food.
- Felfela – another cosy restaurant with lovely staff and good food. The dolmades (vine leaves) were really delicious!
Check out my other posts from my adventures in Egypt: