Friday, May 21, 2010

Pyramids and Mandarins

A bowl of piping hot and sour tomato soup really perked me up that morning, instantly washing down the exhaustion from the 10 hours flight. Refreshed, I was ready to enjoy my first day in Egypt. I left my buddy's apartment and got into Khaleed’s black and white, dusty taxi. It must have been an ancient Lada 1200 or Fiat 124 or something similar. Be nice to Khaleed ‘cos your life depends on him today, said my buddy, Toni.

Khaleed is a driver frequently hired by Toni’s humanitarian organization and apparently, the best English-speaking driver around. We didn’t talk much though, not because he was unpleasant but I was busily observing and mostly amazed by the new world that surrounded me. This burly middle-aged man was cheerful and would often sing along to the Arabic songs played on the radio. It was only at certain times that he would appear more serious while muttering silent prayers.

Where you want to go? asked Khaleed.

Let’s start with the Giza plateau…and if time permits, we’ll head to Saqqara as well.

He must have thought that I was mad.

The Giza Plateau

I have no doubt that Khaleed is a good man. Too good, sometimes. As I queued to get an entrance ticket, touts started talking to him, perhaps trying to book me. The innocent Khaleed must have believed or sympathized this dude proclaiming to be an authorized tour guide appointed by the government and was offering his service for FREE. I had faith in Khaleed, who appeared convinced, and went with the flow. After a while, he left me with the dude and went back to the parking lot. The dude’s insistence that I should ride a horse or camel was annoying to say the least. A walk around the Pyramid of Khufu later, I gave him a tip (for he did, afterall, introduce me to things not mentioned in my tour guide) and walked away. Although the dude was smart enough to demand for American dollars, he wasn't aware of the value of the Malaysian Ringgit and reluctantly accepted my RM5. Well, it's still green, isn't it?

The first sight of the Great Pyramid of Khufu was already overwhelming, as we drove nearer to the plateau via the sandy Sharia al-Haram. Measuring above 130 metres in height, it was much larger that I’d imagined. How the Egyptians constructed the massive tomb remains unanswered. I’m sure it’s not as dramatic as told in Transformers - Revenge Of The Fallen. Perhaps it involved a bit of magic but I believe it’s mostly science. Take the stacking of limestone blocks to form the outer walls of the pyramids, for example. It must have been intended for a refrigeration system to maintain a low temperature condition inside the pyramids. I discovered this when I placed my hands on a limestone block for support while taking a picture of the Sphinx. It was cold, despite the heat from the roaring sun. The Egyptians were brilliant.

3 hours on and I was still circling the plateau, staring at the capped Pyramid of Khafre, observing the camel/horse rental business that wasn't very brisk, contemplating on the gender of the Sphinx and be entertained by the thousands of tourists from all over the world that joined me in celebrating one of the ancient wonders of the world that late morning.

Saqqara, Memphis

Khaleed offered me some fresh mandarins (with stems still attached!) as we made our way to the desert of Saqqara (not to be be confused with the Sahara). The cold and juicy fruit was the perfect nourishment for the Egyptian climate. I must have had 3 or 4 along the journey.

Although the ancient burial site of Saqqara is only about 30 kilometres from Cairo, the journey took more than an hour as we had to pass through villages connected by muddy, bumpy and narrow roads. That and the fact that Khaleed got sort of lost and had to ask for directions. It's not his fault because not many people would want to come here after being captivated by the Great Pyramid. But this was where it all began - where the first ever Egyptian pyramid was built. It's called the Pyramid of Djoser or more commonly known as the Step Pyramid. It only reached about a fifth of the height of the Pyramid of Khufu/Khafre but these six mastabas were believed to have ignited the drive for a perfect pyramid. Perhaps.

It's warmer here at Saqqara. Passing through the countless cooling limestone pillars to get to the pyramid was comforting. It's like the relief one gets when entering an air-conditioned shopping mall. Saqqara was a more intimate affair. Less tourists meant less touts and more quiet moments to appreciate the science and beauty of these ancient structures set against the vast, humbling desert of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt.

I had this crazy idea of venturing even further to the desert of Dahsur. That's where the Bent Pyramid is located. It's only another 10 kilometres from here but Khaleed wouldn't have agreed for sure as it was already 3 pm and Khaleed's only request for the day was to be back at Cairo before 4 pm.

It had already passed Khaleed's bedtime when we reached the city of Cairo, given the horrendous evening traffic. As Khaleed left for home, I got into a cafe at Mohandiseen and ordered myself some juice while waiting for an unforgettable dinner later that night. I was scanning through the photographs I took that day when the mandarins from my bag called out for me. And I knew I had to take in just one more!


J said...

Wow. *jelez*
That's one wonder of the world that you can mark off on your list as "been there!". :)

(More photos please - gorgeous!)

Kenny Mah said...

"Be nice to Khaleed ‘cos your life depends on him today."

Wow. Can't wait for THAT sorta experience... :P

Jokes aside, I do hate overbearing heat and dust and sand (when it's not attached to a laguna or idyllic bay, haha) but your words and your pictures are making me reconsider my stand.

Cairo. Egypt. The pyramids. I shall visit all of you some day, retracing the footsteps of my friend - He of the Berries that are Hairy - some day, some day.

Selba said...


One word.... STUNNING!!!

Love the way you tell your story :)

UnkaLeong said...

Jaw droppingly gorgeous pictures and prose bro!

PureGlutton said...

Brilliant piece - both story & pics! Can't wait for the next chapter - cepat cepat!

mimid3vils said...

What I saw is yellow, yellow, yellow (I mean ur photo, not ur mind, hehe)

The last photo was awesome!!!

Unknown said...
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fatboybakes said...

egypt really is one of those MUST VISIT places in your life i reckon. i enjoyed it thoroughly. did you do the usual nile cruise from luxor to aswan? abu simbel?

Sihan said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us. I must say that the photos are gorgeous! More please!

HairyBerry said...

j, ticked already! hehehehe. glad you liked the pics. more to come. hopefully i have enough time in hand! ;D
kenny, you will visit Egypt one day, my friend. and you'll tell us all about the fantastic experiences along the way. reading your J-posts, i'm sure you'll do a much better job than me! ;D woah, i got a new name...but so long one. hehehe. thanks, bro! ;D
selba, thank you! ;D and glad you enjoyed the story. hopefully i wont take another 6 months to come up with the next few parts! hehehe.
unkaleong, woah, thank you very much for the compliment, bro! will work harder! ;D
pureglutton, thank you so much! yes, sir! will definitely work harder to get the posts out soon. more food for energy now! hehehehe.
mimi, yellow2 dirty fellow...errr, that's not me..haha! glad you liked the pic! i like it very much too. ;D
williamsblack, thanks for stopping by! ;D you are right, Egypt is definitely rich in history and culture. it's a great place to be and ohhh, i so need to blog about the delicious food i had there as well! ;D
fatboybakes, i agree! that's why i told myself die-die also must go. ;D i did see the nile river every day but didn't cruise it lah. i stopped at luxor (by train) and didn't venture further to aswan and abu simbel as i only had 7 days. but i went to alexandria lah. ;D
sihan, glad you liked the story! hopefully i'll be able to post more often. been rather busy lately. ;(  and thanks so much for the compliment! will work harder to get the pics up soon. ;D

qwazymonkey said...

I love this whole photojournalism thing about the entire post. Felt like I was there traveling with you. I can't say this enough, but your shots are truly amazing. Not just the quality, but love the way you see things and capture them. If only I could have your eyes for a day. I'd look at the world differently.

HairyBerry said...

qwazymonkey, thanks so much for the compliment, bro! i guess a good trip really inspires one to capture the moments better. ;D and aiyo, your shots are brilliant too, yo! plus, you have a good sense of style and the incredible, that is something that i can never do.

rokh said...

love love love the last picture!

and you are really good storyteller :)

HairyBerry said...

rokh, glad you like 'em pic and story! ;D more parts coming up. ;D

willamsblack said...

I love to see Pyramids and to know regarding its history so mostly i love to select Egypt for my holiday destination. Certainly it is a prime location to see our great heritage from the ancient world, including Pyramids and wonderful temples, but it is also part of the Holy Land, and tours to Christian and other religious monuments are popular.