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Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

mt sinai

Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

dahab

dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab

dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

dahab

Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

sinai

Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

sinai egypt

There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

sinai egypt

Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

sinai egypt

At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

sinai egypt
I’ll always have Paris!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

sinai egypt

It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

sinai egypt

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.

luxor

luxor

luxor

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.

luxor

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.

luxor

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.

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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.

luxor

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%.

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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.

luxor

luxor

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.

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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).

luxor

luxor

luxor

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!

luxor

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.

luxor

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!

luxor

luxor

luxor

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.

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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!

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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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luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

luxor

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!

luxor

Mummies, Museums, and Mosques: Touring Old Cairo

Mummies, Museums, and Mosques: Touring Old Cairo

January 5th. 8am. Somewhere between Cairo to Aswan.

I’m sitting on the overnight sleeper train, a few hours away from our destination of Aswan in southern Egypt. We (wisely) decided to upgrade from seats to a private sleeper, which includes two bunk-style beds, two meals, our own sink, and total privacy.

It was an investment well worth it! Aside from being a little chilly (as Egypt is this time of year), it was a very pleasant way to pass the evening. And now that the sun’s up, we’ve got a never-ending view of palm trees, barren hills, rural villages, and the occasional lake.

It’s stunning, really. Don’t get me wrong – I love beaches and mountains as much as the next person. But there’s something about the desert, too, a sense of quiet and tranquility I don’t experience in any other setting.

Its beauty is its starkness.

But anyway. I’m not a poet, especially not this early in the morning. Let’s move on.

After our epic day touring Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids, it was time to explore the city of Cairo. Makmud once again picked us up, this time with a lovely Egyptian woman, Fatima. Having spent four years studying inside the Egyptian Museum – among her other education – Fatima, I believe, knows everything about everything relating to Egyptian history!

We spent a starry-eyed two hours wandering the famed Egyptian Museum, hearing stories of pharaohs, mummies, hidden tombs, and buried treasures. We saw Tutankhamen’s gilded funerary mask and all the treasures buried in his tomb. We saw canopic jars, ancient jewels, alabaster sculptures, and dozens of sarcophagi.

The museum even has a section dedicated to mummified animals, which included birds, dogs, a horse, and a 22-foot-long Nile crocodile.

Why anyone would want to mummify a crocodile is beyond me, but hey…it was kinda cool.

Our next stop was Coptic Egypt, where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus supposedly stayed during their exile here. The narrow, partially underground streets are a veritable maze connecting centuries-old churches, synagogues, and Roman fortresses. There’s even a secret passage from the Hanging Church all the way to the ancient Citadel, which was used as an escape route for persecuted Jews and Christians.

cairo

cairo

After lunch and a quick stop at a perfumery/essential oil shop, we braved the city traffic and arrived late afternoon at the mighty Citadel. Perched high atop a hill in central Cairo, this was the seat of the Egyptian kings for over 800 years. Today it houses a military academy, several military museums, and the beautiful Mohammed Ali mosque.

cairo

mosque

Through the sunset and the sand, we even caught a glimpse of the Pyramids off on the horizon.

cairo

But time was slipping away, and we still had a train to catch. We bid farewell to Fatima and Makmud delivered us at our hotel, promising to return in an hour to pick us up. We stocked up on goodies at the local grocery store and snagged a quick bowl of koshary for dinner before heading over to the train station.

As you might imagine, the train station in Cairo is sheer chaos. Fortunately for us, Makmud escorted us all the way through security and to our platform and waited with us until the train arrived.

But that was last night, and this is this morning. In a few hours we’ll arrive in Aswan to continue our tour to Philae Temple, Aswan Dam, and Abu Simbel.

Stay tuned – our tour of Egypt is just getting started!

pyramids

Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

January 4th. 5 am. Cairo, Egypt.

I’m listening to the call to the prayer (the first of five for the day) from the nearby mosques. Through the walls of the hotel room, the beautiful, haunting sound reverberates loudly, assuring everyone is awake.

cairo

Well, not to worry – with the jetlag, I was already wide awake anyway.

I’m sitting in what’s arguably the softest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The funny thing is that the 3-star hotel we’re staying at, across the river from downtown Cairo, has definitely seen better days. The shower is so small I barely fit inside it. The bathroom door doesn’t actually latch shut, and, like everywhere else in Egypt, there’s no heat in our room. (Granted, most of the year it’s scorching hot here, but the first week in January? Not so much).

Anyway, I digress. My favorite feature of this old-but-charming hotel? The elevator doesn’t actually have any doors. You step inside, press a button, and watch the floors go by as you ascend or descend. (Don’t get your fingers caught!)

And yet, despite its humble appearance, this rundown hotel has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. This hotel seems to be a tiny representation of Egypt as a whole – ancient, rundown, yet strangely and surprisingly comfortable.

Let’s face it – Egypt has always been a wild card on the world scene. From Biblical times all the way up to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a major player on the world scene. For over 4,000 years it’s flexed its mighty muscles, exerting a powerful influence on the politics and social structure of the Middle East.

To be fair, most of what we hear of this ancient country – one of the oldest civilizations on earth – is negative. We hear that it’s dangerous, dirty, crowded, and unpredictable.

Is it true? That’s what we came to find out. And yet – like this deliciously comfortable bed in an old hotel – we’re already discovering there’s a lot more to Egypt than meets the eye.

Arrival in Egypt

If you know us at all, you know we’re typically very independent travelers. Given the uncertainty of the times and the enormous scope of the country, we opted to use a tour company this time around. I gotta say – it was awesome to step off the plane in Cairo and find a smiling Egyptian man holding a sign with my name on it!

We breezed through immigration and hopped into a private car (no taxi queues here!) to be whisked away to our aforementioned hotel. The driver was lovely, pointing all sights along the Nile and downtown Egypt along the way – in perfect English, I might add.

When we reach the hotel, we’re greeted by a pretty blond Hungarian woman named Emily who now calls Egypt home. She sits us down to review our 14-day itinerary – every tour, every flight, every train ride. She explains we’ll have a private driver and guide each day (with the exception of Petra, where we’ll join up with a larger group). Then she shows us to the local supermarket, ATM, and Vodafone store, where we got Sim cards for our phones. She wished us well and made us promise to call if we encountered any issues.

After that, we were officially on our own. Since the tour didn’t start until the following day, we had the afternoon to ourselves.

Cairo: Day 1

Item number one on our list (shockingly) was getting some lunch. Since you know we’re major foodies, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

We took the locals’ advice and sat down with two big bowls of koshary, the unofficial comfort food of Egypt. Prepare for a carb coma, because you’re getting a bowl layered with pasta, rice, more pasta, lentils, and tomato sauce. Garnish with a few fried onion, zesty vinegarette, and a dash or two of hot sauce, and you’ve got a delicious meal for about $1.

cairo

RIP, my low-carb diet. See ya in two weeks!

Our jetlagged bodies were begging for rest (especially after consuming 19 pounds of rice and pasta), but we knew better than to give in. To combat our drowsiness, we grabbed and Uber and sat in traffic for over an hour (welcome to Cairo) to go get a late afternoon glimpse of the Pyramids.

A few fast facts about Egypt:

100 million people, 90% of which live along the fertile Nile River.

25 million in Cairo, making it the largest city in all of Africa.

NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.

Yes, you read that right. 25 million people, no traffic lights. I’ll let you imagine what the roads look like.

But you know what? With the horns honking and the horses and donkeys clip-clopping and the Arabic music blasting over the taxi’s speakers, it’s kind of awesome. All the dust you inhale because the windows are down? Not so awesome – but hey, that’s what showers are for).

Along the main road through Giza leading out to the Pyramids, you’ll pass A LOT of police checkpoints. In fact, even our humble hotel greets guests with a massive metal detector. Roadblocks are set up everywhere to slow traffic down (not that you’re moving fast) so heavily-armed police can keep an eye on things. At one point, close to the Pyramids, they even had dogs sniffing all the vehicles and trunks.

A little unnerving? In a way. But in a place like this, I’d rather see them take extra precautions than not enough.

Our Uber delivers us at the historic Mena House Hotel, a 5-star gem that’s sat in the shadow of the Pyramids since 1869. If Disney World had an Egyptian themed resort, this is what it would look like. 40 acres of lush green lawn, fountains, gilded ceilings with glass lanterns, colorful archways, and a too-good-to-be-true backdrop of the Pyramids in their backyard.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Once we’d retrieved our jaws from the floor, we took a seat at Terrace 139, their beautiful outdoor restaurant. Over pots of Egyptian mint tea, meze platters, and a tandoori platter, we drank in the sight of the only-remaining Ancient Wonder of the World.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Then the sun started to go down and the temperature plummeted, reminding us that our Thai blood and flimsy coats weren’t doing us much good. We sat in our first Cairene traffic jam on the way back to “our side” of town and succumbed to jetlag at the ripe ol’ hour of 7:30 pm.

Mint tea and in bed before 8 pm. We’re a couple of real party animals!

It’s okay, though, because we needed some energy for the day that lay ahead.

Cairo: Day 2

We awoke stupid early (thanks to jetlag and the aforementioned call to prayer). Eventually, the breakfast buffet opened and we headed downstairs to find nothing less than an Egyptian feast spread out before us.

We’re talking falafel, freshly baked bread, soft Egyptian white cheese (similar to feta), crisp veggies, boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and our personal favorite: ful (pronounced “fool”), a savory dish of cooked fava beans, cumin, garlic, lemon, and other spices.

Good thing we were hungry!

At 8 am, our guide for the day, Abdul, and our driver, Makmud, arrive to claim us. Both men speak impeccable English and are warm and friendly. We’re feeling very good about our upcoming day!

First Stop: Saqqara

We head south out of Giza about 45 minutes to the ancient complex at Saqqara – both the oldest and the largest archaeological site in Egypt.

saqqara

It’s kind of surreal driving along the relatively green Nile Valley, where palm trees and tall grasses abound. Then, all of a sudden, you come up over a rise and there before you is the great Sahara Desert. It’s nothing but you and sand for almost 3,000 miles – a distance greater than the width of the entire United States!

But don’t worry, Mom – we’re not venturing out into the desert (not this trip, anyway). For now, we passed through three more security checkpoints (lots of big guns and bigger dogs – these guys are no joke) before we parked at the nearly deserted entrance to Saqqara.

saqqara

Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is how EMPTY everything is! From what we hear, prior to the 2011 Revolution, you’d be jostling through these sites with thousands of other tourists.

But these days? It’s like a ghost town – a little eerie considering the sites are full of crypts, tombs, and mummies!

I’m not complaining, though, because empty historical sites make for fantastic pictures. (Do we really want to see a Chinese tour group in every photo?) Abdul leads us through the columned entryway and over to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt.

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

Next, we got to climb down an ancient shaft beneath another burial mound to see an (empty) sarcophagus and hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The passageway was maybe four feet high, so you’re crouched pretty low – recall my morbid fear of caves? – so I dove right in before I had the chance to change my mind.

saqqara

saqqara

Next Stop: Memphis

After touring a few more tombs, we climbed back in the car and headed next to the Memphis Museum. This open-air museum contains artifacts that remain from the ancient capital city of Lower Egypt (remember that the Nile flows from south to north, so the southern half is “Upper Egypt” while the northern part is “Lower Egypt”).

Highlights here are the fallen statue of Ramses II, the second-largest sphinx in Egypt (believed to be Queen Hatshepsut), and an alabaster mummification table.

memphis

memphis

memphis

memphis
Mummification table

Making papyrus

On the way to lunch, we stop briefly at a papyrus shop to see first-hand how the world’s first “paper” is made. Then we pull up the stables near the Pyramids, down a quick bowl of koshary, and prepare for our ride.

Horse Riding Around the Pyramids of Giza

We’re introduced to Horus and Aziz, our fearless mounts of the day. Our ride takes us through the crazy streets of Giza, up a tall sand dune, and across the open desert south of the Pyramids.

cairo

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’ll let my photos do the talking here:

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Words cannot describe how monumentally SMALL you feel gazing at these magnificent structures. It was also incredible to be almost the only ones there, save for a few other tourists riding camels and horses nearby.

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

If you’ve ever wondered if the Pyramids are overrated – they’re NOT.

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pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect introduction for our trip to Egypt!

pyramids

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

Spectacular Ko Phi Phi: The Jewel of the Andaman Sea

The brilliant sunlight warms your skin as you make your way to the bow of the ferry. You inhale a deep breath of salty sea air and sigh, gazing out at the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea and the tiny green islands on the horizon. You pause along the railing and take a sip of sweet, creamy Thai iced tea – probably your third one of the day – and think again how lucky you are to be here.

Today you’re on your way to Ko Phi Phi, one of the most beautiful (and easily accessible) islands on earth.

I recently had the privilege of visiting this gem of an island with my husband and a group of friends. We caught the ferry from nearby Phuket, Phi Phi’s bigger and better-known neighbor, and spent three glorious days exploring the beaches, bays, hills, and forests that make this island the ultimate tropical paradise.

Why Ko Phi Phi is So Amazing

Can you imagine snorkeling through waters as clear as glass and as warm as bathwater? Can you envision a narrow isthmus of land surrounded by spectacular twin lagoons – one a deep blue color and the other turquoise-green? Can you see the soaring green cliffs rising dramatically from the sea and stretching into the cloudless sky? Can you picture yourself climbing up one of those cliffs – which we nicknamed “The Cliff of Insanity” – on nothing but a tattered bit of netting, with sharp rocks and pounding surf below you?

We did it! And I’m eager to share our incredible story with you.

Travelicious.world recently published my first paid travel article about our amazing adventures on Ko Phi Phi. If you’re planning your own trip to beautiful southern Thailand – or if you just want to do a little armchair traveling – I encourage you to check it out!

Click here to read more about Ko Phi Phi!

Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

If I were to tell you that this elderly woman led us on a 6-mile hike up a steep mountain trail and across the Great Wall of China, would you believe me?

Our fearless Sherpa
Our fearless Sherpa

Well, time to start believing, because you’re looking at the face of our fearless leader!

Despite the jet lag, we awoke at 6:30am to prepare for our much-anticipated “Secret Wall Tour.” The specialty of Leo Hostel, the tour promised to take us to an isolated section of the Great Wall, still in its natural state, and assured us that we would be the only human beings in sight.

Quite the claim, right? Having one of the Seven Wonders of the World all to ourselves sounded too good to be true…but how could we not give it a shot?

leo hostel
The street leading to Leo Hostel

After a delicious breakfast of egg fried rice (yum!), we load into a minivan with four other hostel guests – two guys from New York who are working here as English teachers, a Canadian on holiday, and a Brit who just arrived after traveling BY TRAIN from England across Europe, to Moscow, and all the way across Siberia. (Adding that journey to my bucket list as we speak…)

So it was a fun and lively group and we set off for a 2-hour drive to the north of Beijing, dodging ridiculous traffic and streets full of buses, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, donkey-carts, peddlers, and anything else that happened to be in the way!

As we made our way out of the city, the mountains grew taller and the autumn leaves brightened. I was hoping to make it here to see the leaves turn, and I was not disappointed!! The drive was gorgeous, and – as promised – we were making our way to the absolute middle of NOWHERE.

First sighting of the Wall
First sighting of the Wall

En route, the driver pulls over to pick up this little old lady (she was MAYBE 4 feet tall) standing on the side of the road. Neither the driver nor the old woman spoke any English or offered any explanation, so we just giggled amongst ourselves and thought maybe it was the driver’s grandmother hitching a ride.

Boy, were we wrong.

Moments later our driver pulls over in a tiny valley on a one-lane road with no signs of life or civilization, where we’re promptly shooed out of the van by the little old lady. At this point, we’re beginning to wonder if we’re either: a) being kidnapped and held for ransom, or b) unknowingly signed up to be part of a bizarre Chinese science experiment.

Just when we’re certain our fate is sealed, the old lady pulls out a walking stick, points to the side of the mountain, and rattles off  a few words in Chinese. As she takes off up the trail, our driver turns the van around and disappears down the road…without us.

It’s at that moment we realize that “Grandma” is going to be our tour guide across the Great Wall of China.

And WOW, did she show us up! The trail wound around for at least a mile through dense hills and valleys before we even caught our first glimpse of the Wall. She bounded up the trail like a graceful gazelle, all the while motioning for us to keep up with her. Huffing and puffing, we did our best to comply, finally deciding that she must have been a Tibetan Sherpa in her younger years, leading treks up Everest or something!

Trying to keep up...
Trying to keep up…

Since we didn’t know her name, she didn’t speak English, and none of us spoke Chinese, we referred to her simply as “Sherpa.” And like any good Sherpa, she had plenty to teach us young ones! She’d pause along the wall and talk to us in Chinese, all smiles and laughter and absolutely the most adorable human EVER. We all fell in love with her wrinkly, joyful face and the way she’d converse with us as if we actually understood what she was saying.

It was endearing.

great wall

For the next three hours we hiked our brains out, trying (and mostly failing) to keep up with Sherpa. The fierce Siberian wind was whipping in a frenzy, nearly blowing us off the wall a few times. But the sky was as blue as could be and the trees were bright orange, yellow, and red – a perfect representation of autumn in northern China.

Climbing the Great Wall of China was everything I’d hoped and dreamed it would be…and more. True to their word, there was not another living soul in sight besides us and Sherpa. We literally had this Wonder of the World all to ourselves!

At long last, with aching backs and screaming legs, we descended via another route into this tiny village at the foot of the mountains. Lunch was served in a local family’s home, and it was far and away the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted – steaming sticky rice, stir-fried onions, cabbage, beef and peppers, pork and celery, and stewed pumpkin. It was a symphony for the taste buds…and EXACTLY what six starving hikers needed after a grueling day with Sherpa.

Although this trek with Sherpa took place back in 2009, the memory burns brightly in my mind and is still one of my favorite travel tales to share. It was my first real experience getting off the beaten path and away from the tourist traps. Yes, the scenery was incredible. And yes, it’s some pretty good bragging rights to say that you had a section of the Great Wall of China all to yourself.

But you know what sticks out of the most in my mind?

Sherpa.

Is she still out there somewhere, leading unsuspecting backpackers across the rugged Chinese wilderness? Or is she enjoying her well-earned retirement in that little village, gazing out at the distant hills and remembering all the climbs she made? Does she have any idea the positive and powerful impression she made on me and Jeremy, and doubtless many other travelers?

There’s no way of knowing, but I certainly hope she does.