07 January, 2011

Jan 4, 2011

Day 17
On the sleeper train to Cairo. We opted to upgrade from the way we traveled south in order to return north with the added luxury of lying flat. Which was quite nice, and the bathrooms were a big improvement. Although these things sound “high-maintenance”, call us picky. Getting back to our last full day in Cairo refreshed and restored was another added benefit.
You have to just give over to Cairo traffic during cab rides... it has to be experienced to be understood. Words can’t describe the chaos, the clamor, the random donkey carts and pedestrians in death-defying acts, and I cringe to think of how an ambulance would arrive or depart in time should someone meet an ill fate.
We ventured out with Mike & Jess who had also upgraded to sleeper. A quick consult of our trusty Footprints guide and we hopped a cab (flagged by the hotel, no hassle) to Al-Qala-at Salah al-Din, or the Citadel, founded in 1172 by none other than Salah al-Din. But even on the trip across town our impressions began to shift.

“We are so over Cairo,” we had said to each other wearily.
After the bucolic and pharaonic wonders we’d seen in the desert sands and along the banks of the Nile, the prospect of such a honking, heaving, smoke-belching metropolis seemed a particularly unpleasant way to end our visit. But we were wrong. Crossing the river, we prepared ourselves for more of the same as we went through Downtown... which shocked me by how silent it was; calm, and gorgeous architecturally a blend of old and new builds as we continued westward. Coming up the ridge to Al-Burg we marveled at the view of Cairo and debarked the cab feeling already more enamored with our exploration.
The Citadel was magnificent. It was a clear(ish) calm day and we sat at a cafe with a terrace commanding Coptic Cairo, Giza, and the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. In the distance, the hazy view of the stepped pyramid was an awe-inspiring addition to the context and layers of history.
We then made our way north. Just when you feel that you’ve gotten enough of haggling, behold the Khan el-Kahlili. The granddaddy of markets since 1322. (We had to skip the Military Museum due to time: each cab ride took an hour, regardless of destination, it seemed.)
Getting down to the Blue Mosque dumped us into a thousand-year old warren of streets time forgot. We weren’t ready for it. After getting turned off by the prospect of haggling for a charity donation “for the children” (I’ll donate to UNICEF instead), we caravan/convoy marched out way out... a “grueling” 600 meters to be sure, but through uncertain neighborhoods, it was anxiety-inducing. We were confronted by sights, smells, sounds... and our own fears and prejudices. We were fine. It was just a true old neighborhood with life’s shoe repairmen, butchers, spice shops, scooters, puddles of dubious provenance, the acrobatics of balancing boards of bread on one’s head, wood-fired ovens roasting sweet potatoes, ladies selling corn by the ear, kittens, and the Khan.
The architecture is breathtaking. The twists and turns reminded me both of Venice (from our cosmopolitan travels), and the video game rendition of Damascus in Assassins Creed (from my more banal adventures, couchside). Arches, screens, mosques in striped bricks, cornices, towers, tunnels and stalls: I must’ve really fallen in love then.
And we must have hit the streets on a quiet day, if anything we had less hassle than in Aswan or Luxor, but maybe that’s just because we’re more seasoned. The bazaar was just hitting nightfall and seemed sparkling and mysterious and unending.
The cab back was supposed to be a pit-stop before heading out to an evening of belly dancing (seemed the thing to do, right?), but after another hour of congested traffic and CONSTANT HONKING and the impression of too much carbon monoxide intake, we were ready to cash our chips in early. A chance run in with Scott & James meant we could enjoy our last evening together of fuul, kebab and mango juice so pulpy you’d have to floss. Saying goodbye was hard, but if we tour like this again... maybe India.
There always be more opportunities, but I was also jealous that we weren’t joining the 5am departure to Sinai and Jordan for the next leg. When they proposed a late night of clubbing at Buddha Bar... we were happy to be in bed by 9:30. Old married folks.

View of Cairo from the Citadel

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