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The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

The Temple of Karnak and Luxor: Where Time Stands Still

January 8. 4 pm. Luxor.

I’m sitting on the deck of an old-fashioned felucca, the same sailing boats Egyptians have used for thousands of years. Our captain, Saleh, works with his first mate to unfurl the sails and push the tiny boat into the Nile’s mighty current.

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There’s no motor on this boat, which means it’ll be slow going today. But that’s okay. There’s nothing we want to do for the next hour except lay back, drink some karkade (hibiscus tea), and reminisce about the two incredible days we’ve spent in Luxor.

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Our horse ride yesterday morning was spectacular – a perfect introduction to the region’s impressive history. In the afternoon we met our guide for the next two days, Rumany, a big jolly man somewhat reminisce of an Egyptian Santa Claus. Rumany had a habit of cracking himself up with his own jokes, which made our tours that much more entertaining.

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We began on the East Bank with what would be both my and Jeremy’s favorite temple in Egypt – Karnak.

It’s a city of temples constructed over a period of 2,000 years (2055BC-100AD), back when the surrounding city was known as Thebes. The temple is dedicated to the worship of the Theban trinity of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. It’s considered the single largest religious structure ever made, covering a total area of 200 square acres.

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To put it into perspective, the inner Great Temple area alone is large enough to hold St. Peter’s Basilica, Milan Cathedral, and Notre Dame Cathedral side-by-side inside it.

Okay, so it’s big. But how does it look?

In a word: Awe-inspiring.

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The most impressive feature is the Hypostyle Hall, consisting of 134 towering columns spanning an area of 54,000 square feet (16,500m). 4,000-year-old paint still clings to some of the hieroglyphics. Only 20% of the original temple remains, but it’s a darn impressive 20%.

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With the sun sinking lower, we made the short drive back into the heart of Luxor. Next stop: the appropriately named Luxor Temple. It spans over 1,000 years of history, from its original construction in 1390BC to the granite shrine dedicated to Alexander the Great in 332BC. It also houses a Coptic church and a mosque.

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Though not as large as its cousin Karnak, it’s still a beautiful and impressive sight. We wandered its ancient columns, pillars, and obelisks as dusk faded and the temple lit up.

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This blog wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to Sofra, a traditional Egyptian house converted into an elegant, affordable, and delicious restaurant. The food was so great we dined there three nights in a row! Among their specialties we tried were stuffed pigeon, stewed rabbit, roasted lamb shank, and a dizzying variety of hot and cold mezes (appetizers).

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Breakfast at our hotel was not overrated either. Ful, an omelet station, fresh bread, veggies, and four types of cheese. I see nothing wrong with this picture!

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We needed the fuel for another long day of touring. Rumany picked us up again (all smiles and laughter) and we crossed the bridge to Luxor’s West Bank to begin our day.

Once the ancient Egyptian capital shifted from Memphis in the north (near Cairo) to Thebes (now Luxor), the kings decided to hide their burial chambers in the mountains rather than build huge pyramids. Thus, the Valley of the Kings (and the Queens) began.

To date, 64 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, including the still-intact tomb of Tutankhamun. This was noteworthy because the other tombs had long ago been pillaged and robbed of their treasures.

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King Tut’s tomb was believed to be “cursed” because Howard Carter and the men who discovered it all died within two years. In reality, though, scientists suspect something used to preserve the mummy slowly “poisoned” the air over thousands of years.

Whichever theory you subscribe to, it’s an incredible sight to behold. We toured three of the 64 tombs, all of which are empty now except for giant sarcophagi (yes, that’s a word) and floor-to-ceiling hieroglyphics. Sorry I don’t have photos for you, but cameras aren’t allowed inside the tombs!

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Next stop: the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The only female Pharaoh in Egyptian history, theories abound about this powerful woman. She’s often portrayed as a man and supposedly claimed to be a demi-god. Could she have been the woman who found and raised baby Moses?

No one can say for certain, but her tomb carved into the mountain speaks of Egypt’s once-mighty status. Interestingly, despite her impressive mortuarium, her remains have never been found.

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Speaking of queens, the last stop on our West Bank tour was the Valley of the Queens. 80 tombs have been discovered here, although nowhere near as large or ornate as the Valley of the Kings.

We were literally the only ones there!

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After a quick stop at the Colossi of Memnon and a farewell to Rumany, we took the ferry across the Nile and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the riverbank. When we were offered a private felucca sail for 100 pounds (about $5), we couldn’t resist.

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So here we are, drifting lazily down the Nile in our very own felucca. Saleh even let us pilot his boat for part of the journey!

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Luxor has been beyond amazing – sights, people, horses, food. I can’t wait to see what Dahab and the Red Sea have in store for us!

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Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

Aswan & Abu Simbel: Jewels of Upper Egypt

January 6. 3 pm. Aswan.

I’m sitting on the east bank of the river Nile, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. In a few moments we’ll be heading to the train station and onward to Luxor, but for now I’m reflecting on two days spent in Upper Egypt (which is actually the southernmost part, because the Nile flows from south to north).

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Anyway. After a surprisingly pleasant 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, we arrived in Aswan yesterday at 10 am. Instantly it had a different “feel” than Cairo did. Cairo, for the most part, felt like a crowded and more hectic version of a large European city.

When we got off the train in Aswan, on the other hand, we were definitely in Africa. The streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and donkey-drawn carts. Although temperatures were warmer, the locals were more conservatively dressed, especially the women. Most people had much darker skin, too, evidence of their ancient Nubian background (which they are indeed very proud of).

We meet our driver and head to our hotel, situated a few miles out of downtown on a hilltop overlooking the Nile. For the moment, we appear to be the hotel’s only guests. Since our tour doesn’t start until later in the afternoon, we enjoy a leisurely lunch on the empty but beautiful pool deck.

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There’s no menu, but the cook, Gaman, proudly assures us he can cook any Nubian dish we like. Since we know nothing about Nubian food, we ask him to surprise us. He soon returns – wearing a jacket and tie this time – with enough food to feed the Egyptian army.

No, really.

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Gaman presents us with bread, rice, salad, carrot-lentil soup, a whole grilled chicken, pickled vegetables, and our first taste of molokhyna, a local green sauce made from spinach, okra, and mild spices. The food was delicious, his service exceptional, and the whole thing was a little surreal, considering there was not another soul in sight.

With overstuffed bellies (we barely made a dent in all the food he provided – I do hope the staff finished it!), we headed outside to meet our guide and another young couple from Brazil. We transfer to a minivan and are joined by a couple from Philadelphia (the first Americans we’ve met on the trip) and the six of us set off for the famed Temple of Philae.

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This temple is noteworthy for a few reasons.

First, it was built around 280BC by Ptolemy II, son of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander the Great’s Generals who ruled the divided Greek empire after his death). It was built on an island using features of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architecture. And for hundreds of years after Christianity spread through Egypt, it was used as a Coptic church.

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But what really makes this temple interesting? The entire thing was deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt on a different island during the 1960s.

Why? Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam during that decade. The dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. This enormous reservoir required many things to be relocated, including hundreds of Nubian villages, the temples at Abu Simbel (more on those later) and also the beautiful Philae Temple.

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You’d never know it wasn’t in its original location, because it was perfectly reconstructed. It’s a unique blend of architectural styles, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic crosses, Greek and Coptic writing, and a spectacular setting.

To reach it, you pass through a small Nubian market and board a local ferry boat. The boat ride alone is a treat; the temple itself is the icing on the cake!

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After returning to the mainland, we made a quick stop at the top of Aswan High Dam, where we learned more about its construction and impressive size. The dam is over half a mile wide at its base and has a volume greater than SEVENTEEN Great Pyramids of Giza!

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Interestingly, the dam also created a protected habitat for Nile crocodiles in the reservoir behind it. There are no wild crocs anywhere in Egypt beyond the dam, from Aswan all the way to Cairo and the Mediterranean.

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Thanks to lingering jetlag and our very early start the next day, we crashed around 7 pm. Received a wake-up call bright and early (dark and early, actually) at 3:30 the next morning so we could prepare for our tour of Abu Simbel.

For this tour, we joined about 20 other travelers on a full-sized bus. Thank goodness, because the journey south to Abu Simbel (near the border of Sudan) takes over three hours each way. We snagged a few more hours of sleep before the bus rattled to a stop on the side of the highway so we could enjoy the sunrise over the Sahara.

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After driving past sand, sand, and more sand, we arrived at the waterfront temples of Abu Simbel. These majestic structures sit on the shores of Lake Nasser, the same artificial lake created by the Aswan High Dam. We were over a hundred and fifty miles south of Aswan at this point, but we’d barely covered a fraction of the lake’s shoreline!

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Like Philae, these iconic temples were also relocated from the original place. Otherwise, our guide explained, they’d be located about 200 feet underwater. They were carved during the reign of Ramses II and his wife, Nefertari, in the 13th century BCE.

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Our visit was memorable but short, as we had to be back to Aswan to catch our afternoon train. Four hours later we were back in Aswan, where we now sit enjoying a final view of the Upper Nile.

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And now…off to Luxor!

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From Heritage Sites to Hill Stations: Bhaktapur, Nepal

From Heritage Sites to Hill Stations: Bhaktapur, Nepal

The employees at the Madhuban Guesthouse where we’ve been staying in Kathmandu have been awesome.

More than awesome, in fact. With only one day left in Kathmandu Valley and two different areas we wanted to hit, we asked about the possibility of hiring a car and driver for the day. (I would not attempt to navigate the psychotic traffic in a car or on a moped if my life depended on it!) The guesthouse kindly arranged a driver for the day to shuttle us 15 miles west to the ancient city of Bhaktapur, then an additional 20 miles up into the foothills to the little hill station town of Nagarkot.

Cost for car and driver all day = $40. A tour to Bhaktapur alone would’ve cost $40 each, so I think we got ourselves a pretty sweet deal. (Always research your options for stuff like this – sometimes it pays to join a tour group, and sometimes it pays to go private!)

So we climb into said car, and said driver whisks away through the dust (have I mentioned the dust yet?), traffic, and smog to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Bhaktapur.

Literally translated as “Place of Devotees,” Bhaktapur was once the greatest of the three Newar kingdoms in Kathmandu Valley. Until recently, it was the best preserved of the ancient cities, but the 2015 earthquake sadly brought down many of its beautiful buildings.

One building that emerged unscathed in Bhaktapur is the beautiful Nyatapola Temple, a 5-storey pagoda that happens to be the tallest in all of Nepal. It was built in 1701 and has withstood several major earthquakes.

We enjoyed a rooftop lunch at a guesthouse just behind the temple, giving us an amazing view of the city and the surrounding foothills. Even better? It got warm enough to shed our coats!

After lunch we wandered down to Potter’s Square, where Bhaktapur craftsmen have been making pottery the same way for centuries.

On our way back to the car, we stopped for a specialty one can find only in Bhaktapur – Ju Ju Dhau, or “King Curd.” This is a slightly sweet, slightly sour curd made from water buffalo milk, with a texture similar to ricotta cheese. Like all the other dairy products we’ve tried in Nepal, it was delicious!

The 15-mile drive up to hilltop Nagarkot took well over an hour because….well, let’s just say the roads in Nepal aren’t exactly in the best condition. In fact, I read in a travel guide that you are THIRTY TIMES more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than any other country on earth!

Not only are the roads narrow, winding, and without guardrails, but they’re alternately paved, dirt, mud, broken rocks, gigantic potholes, or any other type of material. Add in maniacal drivers, motorbikes, pedestrians, rogue cows and other livestock, and you’ve got a pretty decent recipe for disaster.

Not that any of that should deter you from visiting. Far from it! It’s all just part of the experience.

Chaos aside, it was a spectacular view on the drive up out of the valley. If you’re anything like me, you pictured Nepal as a land of barren rocks, open spaces, and mountain peaks, because that’s pretty much the only photos you ever see. And to be sure, the mountains look exactly like that.

But the valleys? They are LUSH. Green, tropical, and vibrant, full of terraced rice fields, banana trees, bamboo forests, even the occasional palm tree!

As we climbed higher we passed through an enormous pine forest that obscured the view for a while…and then we emerged at the top of the hill.

Nagarkot itself isn’t much to look at – a handful of guesthouses and roadside snack shacks. But drive a little higher (7000 feet or 2000m), and you reach a viewing tower that offers a 360 panorama of Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas.

On a clear day, you can see Mt. Everest from the tower, but alas…there was just enough cloud cover to obscure the highest peaks.

No worries, though! Everest isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – there’s always next time! It was still a spectacular view…even if the climb up the ladder to the top of the viewing tower was a little nerve-wracking.

Upon our return to dusty Kathmandu, we headed into the lively neighborhood of Thamel and into a restaurant that came highly recommended – OR2K. Strange name, amazing atmosphere.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the HEAT that wraps around you like a warm, cozy blanket. This is the first place we felt indoor heating, courtesy of the enormous heat lamps scattered around the restuarants (which I’m fairly sure would be a health care violation and fire hazard in any other country, but hey, when in Nepal…). Black lights line the ceiling and candles illuminate the tables that sit low to the ground, with comfy cushions for patrons to dine on. Take off your shoes, be escorted to said table, and be handed a glow in the dark menu.


Seriously, this place was awesome.

We selected a cheese platter for two, comprised of a variety of locally made cheeses – cow, water buffalo, yak, and goat were all on offer, with veggies and freshly baked breads (even gluten free buckwheat roti for Jeremy!) Dessert was a chocolate-pumpkin tart on a gluten free pecan crust.

Hands down, best meal of the trip so far, and one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever eaten in!

Bus Journey to Pokhara

Our day began at 6am – still pitch black and near freezing outside. We awoke to discover there was a taxi strike (apparently this happens all the time here), so chances of getting a taxi to the bus station were zero.

So what did the awesome staff at our guesthouse do? They WALKED us probably a mile through the dark, winding streets of Kathmandu to the road where our bus to Pokhara sat waiting. And I’m glad they did, because even with Google Maps I’m pretty sure we would have gotten lost!

The first thing we noticed when we boarded the $8 bus was a big sign advertising Free Wifi. We’re in a country with almost no infrastructure, no indoor heating, barely passable roadways, and frequent power cuts…but they have FREE WIFI on their long distance buses.

Craziness.

Anyway, we grabbed a few hard-boiled eggs on the roadside for “breakfast” before we set on our six hour (make that eight-and-a-half hour) bus ride 130 miles (200km) northwest to the scenic lakeside town of Pokhara. Even for the well-seasoned traveler, this bus ride will test every ounce of your physical, mental, and emotional energy.

Here’s why:

For starters (you guessed it) there’s no heat onboard. I was SO RELIEVED to see AIR CONDITIONING vents for travelers in the summertime, but those of us who visit in the winter? We can freeze our butts off, apparently, because that’s exactly what we did. Huddled under every layer of clothing we owned, hands buried in gloves and extra beanies, double layers of snowboarding socks…all to stay alive.

Okay, maybe not STAY ALIVE, but it was pretty darn cold.

Then there’s the road itself. I don’t think “hairpin turns” does this road justice, because you’re not factoring in the completely vertical valley walls, thousands of feet above (and below) you, nor the noticeable lack of guard rails, nor the reduced visibility from dust or fog, nor the maniacal drivers of buses, trucks, cars, and motorbikes, nor the occasional rogue cow or herd of goats, nor the many incidents of rockfall that have splayed across the roadways (creating major backups while people attempt to clean the mess).

That whole 30-times-more-likely-to-die-on-Nepal-roads-than-anywhere-else-in-the-world-thing? I understand now. Loud and clear.

Obviously, we survived the ordeal, because I am sitting here writing to you. But between the cold, the bumps, the wild careening around turns, the hacking Chinese tourists behind us, the relentless screeching of the brakes and shifting of the gears…it was a long, looooooooooooooooooooooong day.

But the scenery, I have to say, made it worth it. Beautiful river valleys, terraced hillsides, lush green forests, banana trees, tiny towns, and an occasional glimpse of the Himalayas…it was spectacular. Staring out the window gave us something to do other than think about our imminent cases of frostbite. Along the way, the bus stopped for both buffet breakfast and lunch, at cute little roadside restaurants, which was unexpectedly nice and gave us a chance to get the ice cold blood moving again.

As we neared Pokhara, the mighty peaks of the Annapurna range glistened on the horizon. We’re still traveling through thick jungle, mind you, but just above it are these glittering white peaks between 25,000-27,500 feet (7,500-8,100m) high.

Banana trees and Himalayas…who’d have thought?
First clear view of Annapurna

Truly, utterly mind-blowing.

After aforementioned bus escapades and one lengthy traffic jam less than a mile from our destination, we arrived in the idyllic town of Pokhara. Thrilled to be getting OFF THE BUS, we took a short taxi ride to our lovely $20/night accommodation at Hotel Orchid. Our local trekking guide, Akash, was there to greet us and discuss the details of the trek we decided upon – the 4-day Poon Hill trek at the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit.

After the necessary trekking permit paperwork was complete, we headed to a nearby store to rent sleeping bags and decent hiking shoes for the journey. With the last of our energy, we stumbled up to our sixth-floor room (no elevator, of course) just in time to see the sun setting and the Himalayas lit up in golden-pink alpenglow.

It was an awesome end to a VERY long day!

TGFHH – Thank Goodness For Happy Hour!