Facebook and cigarettes; Sinai, Egypt

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I’m taking grainy high ISO photos of soldiers taking pictures of others soldiers standing with their arm around Lael.  The sun has set and we’re standing outside a major military checkpoint on the main highway in Sinai, at the junction with the road up to St. Catherine’s and Mt. Sinai.  They’ve taken pictures standing beside me, but they seem to prefer Lael.  I’ve been in this country long enough to expect that.  Technically, the soldiers are considerate of the way they handle her.  It still kind of disgusts me, but that’s my own projection on their otherwise polite behavior.  Maybe it is the comments in Arabic which are followed by laughs that concern me.  I smile in non-commmital non-agreement, so as not to be standing expressionless when they are laughing.  One of the three men in the group named Muhammad offers another Cleopatra cigarette.  Butane lighters rise from every pocket, each reaching to light another man’s cigarette.    

I’m told to show the photos I’ve just taken.  “You must delete, no military picture”.  They continue the cell phone photo shoot.  Another truck arrives, expected to be our last ride of the day, now past dark.  We sit in the back seat of this vehicle, the first extended cab and the first cushioned seat of the day.  The truck will depart at 7.  Meanwhile, four soldiers including the commanding officer, who compares himself to a tiger, are huddled around four cell phones.  They are focused on the larger Samsung phone with a proper screen.  What’s the chance they’re handling official business via the phones?  Within the hour we’re blowing up the pockets of Egyptian soldiers all over Sinai.  From the last six months in Albania and Lesotho, and now in Sinai, I’m convinced this is “the year of Facebook”.  I wasn’t alive when we set foot on the moon or color television arrived.  But I was in Sinai when Facebook landed.

We’ve been shuttled down the western coastline of the Sinai Peninsula in five different trucks, this our sixth.  Riding from Cairo under the Suez Canal– I surely thought we wouldn’t be allowed to ride through the tunnel– we are stopped at the first checkpoint leading south onto the peninsula.  There, the police confiscate our passports.  We wait in the shade.  A “convoy” will soon arrive.  We begin riding behind a police truck.  Within a kilometer, the commanding officer realizes we are not riding motorcycles and that we will not be able to keep pace at 90km/h.  A coach bus full of tourists is part of our convoy and the driver is yelling about something.  We are forced to load our bikes into the back of the truck, reluctantly, although I quickly relent.  The road is flat, surrounded by mostly flat desert and abandoned hotels and trash.  At each checkpoint, we unload our bicycles and wait for another truck to arrive to cart us across the following section of road.  By the time we reach the second checkpoint no one knows who we are or where we are going, except they ask for our passport and ask where we’ve come from and arrange another ride. I’ve taken the front wheel off our bicycles to pack them into the back of the second truck, leaving room for the two of us and two young recruits with two ancient AK-47s.  By the third checkpoint, it is assumed our bicycles are broken.  Surprisingly, nobody speaks more than a few words of English.  I don’t speak a word of Arabic, yet.  I am surprised, considering the hordes of young men with near-perfect English in Cairo selling services and counterfeit sunglasses and jeans.  Not until we arrive in the city of El Tor do we meet someone that can explain the situation, which doesn’t require much explaining.  They consider the road isn’t safe to cycle, although dozens of private vehicles and tour buses pass.  We’re told we cannot be riding after dark.  I try to explain that we weren’t; we were first stopped seven hours ago.  Another officer insists, scathingly, that we mustn’t ride after dark.  Okay.

After a night in Tor, we are allowed to ride to Sharm el Sheik, the package tourist resort town at the southern tip of the peninsula.  Arriving at dark we camp out in the desert on the way out of town.  In the morning, we are not allowed to pass the checkpoint, and are forced to pay for a seat on the next East Delta bus to pass.  Arriving in Dahab, I spot a dotted line on a tourist map connecting to Nuweiba via the coast.  I ask the attendant at the petrol station if such a road exists.  “Yes, behind the Blue Hole you must carry your bike over the hill.”  This is our only chance to explore Sinai off-pavement.  If we go back to the main road we surely will not be able to ride.

To anyone looking to ride through Sinai, until the situation changes, which it will, you should be allowed to travel from Eilat, Israel to Cairo, but almost certainly not via the road straight across the peninsula.  Rather, you will take the road to the south through Sharm el Sheik.   At the discretion of each checkpoint officer, you may be allowed to ride.  Otherwise, frequent bus services are offered between Taba and Sharm el Sheik, and from Sharm to Cairo, with stops in between.  You may be shuttled into the back of police trucks as we were.  It is not the right time to plan a visit to Sinai, but if you are hoping to continue a long-distance ride through the region (Syria would be a bigger problem), it is possible.  Sharm el Sheik and Dahab are still welcoming a small but steady flow of tourists from Russia, UK, EU, and USA, as well as many Egyptians on winter holiday.   

Leaving Cairo via the main road, decreasingly busy as we near Suez and the Sinai Peninsula.

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Our first night is spent adjacent a military checkpoint in an abandoned building.  Six 22 year old soldiers invite us in for tea at dusk, sit us in their bunkhouse, and prepare a dinner of flatbread, scrambled eggs, and soft feta.  They close the door and leave us to eat privately.  After another cup of tea and the offer of a cigarette, they show us the building across the road.  While protected from the wind, the sound of passing trucks commands our dreams for the night.

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Roadside stops are nicely appointed, offering hot drinks and shisha.  Cold drinks and packaged goods are available.  Amazing how a cooler full of cold cans and some dusty seating could be anywhere in the world.

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Sinai at the speed of a police escort.

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Both boys are named Muhammad.

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Another checkpoint, between mountains and the sea.

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El Tor to Sharm el Sheik.

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Sharm el Sheik is the kind of place to avoid unless you enjoy the spectacle.  A constant state of incomplete development and cheap tourist tricks mar the otherwise beautiful setting at the southern tip of Sinai.  Many signs are in Russian.  

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East Delta bus to Dahab.

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Dahab, a long-haired version of Sharm where divers and Russian beach bums spend the winter.  The Blue Hole is a popular diving attraction.  Not a bad place to kill a few months for cheap.  Reminds us of Baja.

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We’ll come back with fatbikes some day.  

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We push out of town just before dark, hiking over the hill behind the Blue Hole and camping on the beach for the night.  

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The trail continues for several kilometers to Ras Abu Galum, where a dirt road resumes all the way to Nuweiba.  

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Egyptians account for the few people enjoying the simple beach camp at Ras Abu Galum.  The Peace Land Cafe provides simple foods and some drinks, as well as accommodations in the form of simple shelters.

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Other than a few tourists and some Bedouins, there isn’t much out here.  There are two military checkpoints on the way to Nuweiba.  None of the young men at either checkpoint are in uniform, and none are armed.  There is a friendly Jordanian-Italian man who lives in Holland fishing for calamari with an old Bedouin man whom he calls his uncle.  

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Near Nuweiba, local Bedouins are fishing for the day, preparing foods over fires on the beach.

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“Come!  Tea!  Eat!”  Typical Egyptian hospitality.

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Old Testament.

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Home for the night in one of many abandoned buildings on the coast.

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Nuweiba.

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Just about a dime a dozen.  Beats the hell out of a baguette.

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Thankfully, we are allowed to ride from Nuweiba to Taba, and across the border to Israel.

At the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

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Welcoming Russian, Ukrainan, and EU tourists.  Who expects Ukrainian tourists?  You know you’ve found a budget travel destination when…

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Israel claims only several kilometers of Red Sea coastline, as does Jordan.  Both make the most of it. 

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We are not in Egypt any more.  Into Israel to check out the Israel National Bike Trail and the Holyland MTB Challenge race route!  Anyone living in Israel, Jordan, or Palestine?

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Walking to the pyramids; Cairo, Egypt

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Leave the bikes in storage for a few days.  Cairo is a walking city.  It is possible to cycle in the city, although best to avoid late afternoon and evening when Cairo reaches a climax.  Mornings are cool and quiet, as Cairenes sleep late and start slow.  Friday morning is especially quiet as the county is at prayer– also a good time to ride.  After enough sugar cane juice, shisha, and tea, Cairo gains steam by mid-afternoon and charges through the evening.  Fancy buying a watch or a car at 11PM?  It’s available, alongside counterfeit Levis and Adidas, many of which remarkably bear three solid stripes, at one-third the expected price.  Typical two stripe and four stripe models are also available.  Sidewalks flow steadily through the last half of the day, except for blockages near ice cream stands, which are en vogue.  Side streets reveal unremarkable shops selling mops and sponges and repair parts for Indian and Chinese made motorbikes.  The cheapest food in the city is found on these back streets.  Here the proprietor is also less likely to extort a few extra Egyptian pounds for the service, for lack of practice at such things.

In three consecutive days, today our fourth, we walk.  On our first day we walk to the pyramids, twenty miles round trip, with lots of dust and traffic but just as much fresh cane juice to wash it away.  Arriving just before the gates close, we spot the nearest two structures, embrace their presence, and turn around toward home.  There is a golf course just beneath the pyramids.  Some of the most aggressive touts in the city are found here, selling camel rides.  No thanks, we walked here.  Some have to be told twice.

We meet a helpful young man in an all white linen suit who claims to have business in Sharm el Sheik, a popular resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.  He indicates that it is safe to ride to Sharm; that he takes this trip by car weekly.  This is the hopeful answer to a question which we have been otherwise unable to answer.  Is it safe to cycle in Sinai?  Will we be able to reach Taba, at the border of Isael?  He thinks, and we hope. 

On the second day, we walk to the Coptic city, a walled area which encompasses ancient Coptic churches, a synagogue, and cemeteries with names written in French, Greek, and Arabic.  Copts are ancient Christian Egyptians– Oriental Orthodox– who predate the Muslim conquest of Egypt.  They persist as the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and the largest religious minority in the Arab Republic of Egypt.

On the third day we walk to the old Islamic city, in the shadows of the Saladin Citadel.  There are fruit vendors and tea cafes, and a vendor selling tongue, liver, and the skin of a cow’s head, skillfully removed from the animal.  We arrive late in the afternoon, as the mosques and attractions are closing.  No thanks, we don’t need a tour.  In most of the city people look at us with some curiosity, yet mostly leave us alone.  ‘Welcome to Egypt”, they say.  Near popular touristic attractions, it is different.  We’re happy to spend our time walking.

We meet a group of children riding bicycles in the gated lot in front of the Abdeen Palace.  The streets are too busy for children to be riding bikes, although as if by magic there are men delivering loads of bread by bicycle, riding against, across, and with traffic.  They balance long wooden racks of flatbread on their heads.  The boys in the lot are riding the typical fat-tire BMX bikes, the two oldest boys on typical British city bikes.  The boys heckle and holler in Arabic.  So as not to encourage them, I offer only a faint smile.  Three girls are riding bicycles.  Lael and I approach.  They accept our presence with shy smiles, questions and eventually, selfies.  We accept the offer to ride their bikes, wishing we had our bikes to show them,and to explain that we wish to ride across Egypt.  I try to explain, but without props it is hard to convince them of the inconceivable and impossible.  We feign normal levels of excitement to make their acquaintance, but Lael and I look at each other, our eyes screaming “these girls are riding bikes in Egypt!”.  For some context about women and cycling in Islamic countries, check out the inspiring trailer for the Afghan Cycles film, documenting the fledgling Women’s National Cycling Team in Afghanistan.

Check out Lael’s thoughts about Cairo in her post titled Running in Egypt.     

On the fourth day, we walk to the Nile and nowhere in particular.  We take a brief out-and-back trip on the metro.  In each car, men offer their seat to Lael.  We pack our things, downloads maps and tracks to the GPS for Sinai and Israel, including the Holyland MTB Challenge.  We will leave in the morning, after a cup of cane juice.

All images from Fujifilm X100T, purchased in Johannesburg to replace another broken Olympus body.

Check out the Blue Bird Hotel for a cheap place to stay in the center of Cairo.  In a city famous for disingenuous dealings, the young brothers that own this place are refreshing.  We paid less than $18 a night with breakfast.  Secure bike storage was made available.  Cairo is our favorite city anywhere.

To the pyramids:

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To the Coptic city:

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To the Citadel:

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The Nile and the Metro:

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