Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Istanbul and Cairo

Warning: The next couple of posts are going to be long!:)  If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time you know that I am already long winded, but trying to write about everything we did in Egypt and Jordan - well, it's gonna take a couple pages!:)

Wednesday, March 31st
On March 31st we headed to Cairo (via Istanbul) for our 8 day Middle Eastern Vacation!  It all started on the train back from Colmar, France when Sarah, Zann, Nathan and I were discussing places we wanted to visit.  Egypt was the first placed discussed and we were all like - Let's Do It!  A bunch of planning emails, phone calls and dinners later we were booked!  I seriously couldn't believe it happened!  Yeah for living in Europe and the flight not being expensive or long to Egypt!  (It defnitely helped with my case of let's go NOW while we live in Switzerland!)

Once the trip was official, I put "Tickets to Egypt are booked " as my status on Facebook.  Sarah and Josh Teitelman saw it and asked to join the party!  After a bunch of yes we are coming, no we can't come, yes we want to, no we can't do the same itinerary, we finally get a "we are booked" from them - thank goodness!  I love it when a plan comes together - and thank you Facebook - you are a great thing:)!

The best priced flight we could get gave us a 5 1/2 hour lay over in Istanbul, Turkey.  We weren't pysched about that, but it was way better than paying the $500 extra per ticket to fly straight to Cairo.  The night before we left Zann had the brilliant idea to post "What to do in Istanbul on a 5 hour layover" on TripAdvisor and everyone said to go to the Sultanahmet District.  Way better idea than hanging out at the airport don't you think? Absolutely!

We actually ran into The Teitelmans in Istanbul (they had missed their connection), so they ended up on the same flight to Cairo with us.  Problem was - a bunch of people from their flight out of London missed their connections so they had to hang out at the airport to wait on their official boarding passes while we headed into the city.:(  Totally sucked but at least they made it on the flight with us.

To get into Turkey you have to have a Visa, so we headed to the Visa counter, paid the $20 bucks and were on our merry way (yes it was that easy).  We were advised to be back 2 hours before our flight which didn't give us much time, but still didn't deter us!

Everyone on TripAdvisor had suggested taking a cab, but my cheap wonderful husband was adamant about taking public transportation.  In hindsight, this was a wonderful idea - the traffic we saw from the tram was really bad and the Istanbul public transportation system was very nice and easy to use (but do remember to take out Turkish Lira before heading to the metro)!  The public transportation officials spoke great English and helped us get our tickets (fyi - it takes two coins to get there and two coins to get back) and told us where to switch to the tram.  Great first impression of Turkey!  (Just in case anyone wants to do this, take the train from the airport to Zeytinburnu then switch to the tram and get off at the Sultanahmet stop - it takes about 45 minutes). 

From what we saw, Istanbul was a very clean city and was even named the European Capital of Culture for 2010.  I would love to spend a weekend there to see all the sites (especially the Grand Bazaar:)) and eat some doner kebabs (I can't believe we didn't do this - I LOVE doner kebabs and to have one in Turkey?  be still my heart!). 

In our (very) short time we were able to see the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and just walk around and soak in the atmosphere for a bit.  We probably had enough time to see the bazaar, but we decided that actually making our flight to Egypt was a better idea!  (I also can't believe we missed the Hippodrome because I think it was right there where we were.  We didn't plan very well for Istanbul as we just thought about going into the city the night before!)  It was still a cool experience though and as Nathan and I count countries we visit - we got to "check off" Turkey!:)

The Blue Mosque

So you know Nathan's humor with the camera - he thought this was hilarious -
the Turkish version of Duke Power:)

After landing in Cairo, we all needed to buy our Visas to get into Egypt (we could have done this in our own country but we were all too lazy). This is also pretty easy to do but the line was kind of long  (because everyone else on our flight had to do the same thing).  The Visa cost $20 and they took Egyptian pounds, Euros, and Dollars (no credit cards so make sure to have cash)- funny enough we ended up paying in dollars!  Not sure where they even came from considering we all live in Europe:)!

Once we got our luggage we had bad news - Sarah and Josh's bag didn't arrive.:(  This was a major cluster because the same thing happened with everyone else from the original London flight.  I swear Egypt Air acting like nothing like this had ever happened before and major chaos ensued.  Really?  Can't you just check the computers - they had their bag tags?  About 1 hour and 45 minutes later they were told that their bags would "probably" arrive tomorrow.  Awesome - thanks for the vote of confidence guys.

We had heard that a driver was imperative in Cairo and that a tour guide would be nice.  Memphis Tours was rated #1 on TripAdvisor, so we decided to book our entire trip with them before we arrived.  We have never participated in a planned trip (as in - every hour is planned for you), but I will have to say it was nice in Egypt.  The cool thing about Memphis Tours was that we were able to "make up" our own itinerary and it was just going to be the 6 of us the whole time (no big bus of tourists - thank God!).  It was so great to not have to worry about anything once we got there, because all the "work" had been done prior to our arrival.  Nice change for once - no stress at all!

Although there were a few blips, we were very impressed with Memphis Tours and would highly recommend using them when heading to Egypt & Jordan.  Our drivers were safe and all our guides were very friendly and knowledgeable!  I have no idea how they do all the coordination for hundreds of people per day, but all in all it was way more smooth than I ever thought it could be - worth every penny in my book - for sure!

Our first guide - Hamada - who waited for almost 2 hours while holding this sign - and look he's still smiling!

Memphis booked all our hotels and we stayed at the Barcelo Hotel near the pyramids while in Cairo (it took about 1 hour to get there from the airport).  I thought the hotel was nice and clean (I would recommend it to you) and it was in a great location to start our tour of the Pyramids on Thursday morning.  Note: the traffic in Cairo is insane so it was great to already be near the pyramids!

The night we arrived in Cairo the boys set out to find money and drinks and to attempt crossing the street.  They ran into a police man that told them there was an ATM at the end of a dark alley (one of the only shady things that happened the whole trip and thank goodness they weren't dumb enough to find out if this was true), then an Egyptian street peddler left his ice cream stand to walk them to a "grocery store" - so nice!  They also crossed the street (twice) which was a major feat, because it was a free for all - with 4 actual lanes but 8 rows of cars mixed in with people and donkeys - definitely an experience!  And they didn't have street lights or stop signs  (only U-turns) so the traffic never actually stopped!

Night Cap at the Barcelo!

Thursday, April 1st
Thursday morning we met our guide, Mido, around 10 am and headed to the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerinus.  (Cheops being the biggest and the "Great Wonder of the World").

Were those there last night?:)
  View of the pyramids from our car (about 5 - 10 mins from our hotel). I'm not sure what I was envisioning - but I didn't expect them to "pop up right there" considering we were in the city on a very busy street!

Mido was a very good and knowledgable tour guide who although was patient also kept saying "Yalla beina" translated from arabic to english as "Let's Go - quickly".  This soon became our favorite word as we were always "yalla beina"ing!:)   Mido also told us up front that he would never remember all of our names so he nicknamed us "Ramses" after Egypt's most powerful and celebrated pharoah - Ramses II.  So we heard a lot of "Yalla beina Ramses.  Yalla beina" all day!:)

Posing like the Egyptian Pharoahs and Queens - Mido made us do it - seriously!

You feel really small when standing next to the Great Pyramid!

See what I mean - tiny?!

The Great Pyramid is actually the one to the far left - it just looks smaller from where we were standing.

Me "picking up" the pyramid - you HAVE to take the cheesy tourist pictures - right?:)

I just thought this was a cool shot looking off into Cairo but yikes the smog is bad!

We decided to go into the Chephren Pyramid as they only give out so many tickets to the Cheops pyramid and we were too late.  Not that there is anything to see inside the pyramids (everything had either been stolen or taken to a museum) but you can't go all the way to Egypt, stand in front of the pyramids, and not go in - right?  However, if you are clastrophobic, I vote that you think twice about going into the pyramids.  The walk way into the pyramid is only 3 feet high, so you are bent over the whole way in and the whole way out.  We were forbidden to take pictures (they even confiscated cameras on the way in), but somehow Sara's point and shoot made it!  So here we are at the pharoah's crypt - you can see this room had higher ceilings than the walk way - so it was a nice break from being hunched over, but it was about 15 degrees hotter and a lot more humid than the outside so no one stayed for very long:)!

The Pharoah's crypt

Then it was on to the Sphinx and the Valley Temple.  The Sphinx was truly amazing to see in person - it is said to be the oldest known monumental sculpture having been started around 2555 B.C.!  The whole time we were in Cairo I kept thinking about how intelligent the ancient Egyptians were and what they accomplished so long ago - it is almost unfathomable!  Wow!

Great shot of the entire Sphinx - thanks Josh!

It took this photo while standing out in front of the Sphinx - if you look closely you can see that the red awning in the middle fo the photo is a Pizza Hut! I definitetly wasn't expect that!:)

In between the pyramids and the museum we saw how Papyrus paper is made (and I had to buy a souvenir - of course), ate the best Chicken Swarma I have ever had, and saw the city streets.

You know if I was this focused during the demonstration... 

 I was definitely going to buy one!  We got the "Tree of Life" and I can't wait to frame it for our house!

It was really sad to see how some of the Egyptian people live today.  We were amazed at how many apartment building were started and never finished, but yet people still lived in them - including on top of the top level that was completed with blankets/tents.  Cairo is a very polluted city - not surprising since we didn't see one public trash can they whole time we were there!  That coupled with the fact that almost 7 million people live in 83. sq feet (plus tourists) it isn't surprising there is trash literally everywhere.

These buildings aren't really "under construction" they are basically done - at least that is what we were told - it is common for builders to run out of money so that is how the building will remain until more funding is available (which might be never).

I do like how everyone has Satelite TV though:)

Excuse me - can I park my donkey here?

Can you see the trash every where?  Very sad.

We ended our tour with a trip to the Egyptian Museum.  The highlight was King Tut's tomb collection, but we also really enjoyed the mummified cobra - we aren't that hard to please!:)  Again no photos were allowed so you are going to have to go for yourself!:)

Entrance to the Egyptian Museum

After a little siesta at the hotel we were picked up for our Nile Cruise - you know how I love to be on a boat!  The food was actually pretty good for a buffet (the hummus to die for), but the highlight was most definitely - the belly dancer and whirling dervish dance!  They were the best we saw while in Egypt!  We all recommend this Nile Cruise company - Nile Crystal.

"Mr. William, you have a phone call."

Cruising down the Nile - baby!

Belly Dancing (or just shaking it) on the Nile!

Whirlish Dervish!  This guy was amazing!

Put your hands up -  Put your hands up!

Finally after an exciting/exhausting day we headed up to bed.  And by we, I mean Sara T and I.  The rest of the clan waited up for the Teitelman's suitcase to arrive.   How much trouble could they get into without our supervision for a few hours- not that much right?  Wrong.  All I am going to say is that there was a bar - with alcohol - unattended.  And when you are not being waited on by the staff - what are you supposed to do? 

I'm not sure what happened between here and...

Here.  And I don't think I want to know for fear of imprisonment!:)
FYI - so they don't get into trouble (not sure if you can joke about this kind of stuff when in a Muslim country) - a waiter eventually came, and they told him exactly what they had poured.  And, that is their story and they are sticking to it!

Next up - Sharm el Sheikh!

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