It’s the end of the world as we know it; the MacDonald’s across the street has been closed for four days and this is not because the Arches have fallen into a sudden bankruptcy. We find ourselves in Cairo. In our ultimate wisdom, we decide around New Year to take a break and to leave wintery Khorog behind (-15 C as we speak) for a well deserved vacation and to look for California-like conditions within reach. One of the options is Egypt, easily reachable via Istanbul, the destination of choice for Tajikistan volunteers who need to get out (for whatever reason).
|Beginning of a long road|
The plan is to do Cairo for a couple of days and then swing down to Luxor and Aswan, which are both advertising 30 + temperatures around this time of year. Recharging the batteries didn’t sound like a bad idea back then.
Getting out of Khorog around this time of year (end of January) is an effort, to say the least. Flights between Khorog and Dushanbe are not operating when there are clouds in the skies and there are many this time around, so we are forced to take a car. The good news is that the security situation has improved and that we are allowed to drive, but the bad news is that we can only drive during day-light which makes this a two-day trip.
|Restaurant Fatima in Darwaz, which means "Door" in Hindi (to Heaven or Hell, you decide). Thanks Hazel.|
Halfway, we have to sleep over in Darwaz in the only guest-house in town. We have been here before and we don’t look forward to it, but there are no other choices. At least there are no unexpected surprises the second time around; food is bad again, shower cold and dirty and the electricity shuts down at 10 PM.
|Close(r) to Dushanbe|
It’s the first time we have driven between Khorog and Dushanbe; 500 km, 16 hours. Some parts of the road are OK but much of it is very bad and with the recent snow and ice, the pace is slow. Often, we are driving on a single dirt track, full of potholes. And this is the road frequently used by the Chinese juggernauts bringing in the worst of the worst Chinese goods for Tajik consumption. Many checkpoints too on the road for vague reasons but in the end, we arrive safe and sound in Dushanbe where we spend the next three days in meetings, stocking up on supplies and visiting our favorite restaurants.
Our VSO colleagues are concerned about our safety, when we tell them we will venture off to Egypt but since the Foreign Office (UK) has not issued any official travel warnings yet, we are free to travel. So off we go.
|Just as a proof, we were there...|
Dushanbe-Istanbul-Cairo is uneventful and when we arrive in our charming hotel (The Talisman Hotel, Thursday January 27) there are no signs of major issues. Some smaller protests have been heard of but nothing to worry about the staff says. Do whatever you want (Inshallah of course) so we plan to visit the Camel market of Birqash and the Pyramids of Giza the next day.
|A nice one|
It’s now Friday January 28 and in spite of the earlier assurances of the staff, we are urged to be back in the hotel before noon since a big anti-Mubarak rally has been planned after the mid-day prayers so we leave early at day-break and visit the Camel market and the Pyramids.
|Uncertain future awaits them|
|Note the marks; signify ownership|
Both impress; the Pyramids for all the known reasons and the Camel market for all its rawness and grime (not for the faint of heart, our National Geographic Guide said and that’s an understatement). The road out is via Giza and all along we see the result of a city of over 20 million people and an inadequate sanitation system. The road leading to the market meanders through a huge rubbish dump, amongst which we see piles of dead camels, scattered along the road (we suppose those that did not survive the journey from wherever they were transported - probably ready to be eaten by stray dogs). The noise, the smells and the atmosphere is indescribable. Camels of every size are everywhere, many hobbled but just as many ‘corralled’ by handlers, either boys or men.
|Back to the desert (or the slaughterhouse)|
As a small woman, I am incredibly intimidated. Even hobbled, the animals move extremely fast and, almost with prescience of their pending fate, are clamouring to get away; and it’s immaterial where. Everywhere you look there is chaos and camels on the move, with their herders controlling them with deafening yells and the thwack of bamboo canes. Amazingly, no-one gets trampled or injured in the melee. Camels must be among the most passive animals to walk this earth. Regardless of the treatment handed out to them, they appeared almost fatalistic in their acceptance of their lot. If I were a camel, I’d be chomping huge hunks of meat out of any human within range! Trading is fierce and once bought, the new owners pack their huge acquisitions into lorries or even small pick-ups and drive them off in to the sandy horizon.
|Well alligned (with the) Pyramids|
Our driver is in a hurry to get back to the city because he will march this afternoon (for the first time in his life); he is hopeful about the outcome of the protests and announces, we will see him on state television tonight. Back in the hotel, around 2 PM in the afternoon, we hear the first chants in the streets. Our hotel is close to Tahrir Square and droves of people are trying to make their way towards this now famous place.
|Riot police, not very popular|
They are held up by riot police who, accompanied by secret plain-clothed police armed with clubs and bottles (filched from the nearby liquor store, we think), are trying to hold them back. Street battles erupt and the smell of tear gas is everywhere, smarting our eyes and catching in our throats; our hotel is on the fifth floor of an apartment building and we can see the crowds throwing stones at the much-hated police who respond with charges and more tear gas although they, eventually, seem to be outnumbered by the protesters. At a certain point, a fire breaks out underneath our hotel and we are urged to pack up and leave but (fortunately for us) it is just an air-conditioning system in flames and is put out quickly. When night falls though, we hear windows breaking and shots fired in the street below. Shops just below the hotel, specifically an Adidas and the ‘Drinkies’ liquor stores are being looted and systematically destroyed.
|Curfew in a Cairo hotel; exciting|
Later in the evening, the police seem to have disappeared off the streets and since there is no curfew yet, we try to get some food from one of the few open restaurants but we are urged by demonstrators to get off the street. When we say we need some dinner, they hand us two date-bars and hustle us back into our building.
The staff of the hotel is as kind as these protesters are and come up with a dinner of eggs, bread, salad, tea and everything else they can lay their hands on (the hotel only serves breakfast). One of the English guests compares this to the old blitz days and we share our (very modest) war time travel experiences. Jelte remembers with some fondness how he, with his good friend Ivan, was lost for several days in an earlier Tunisian revolution in Tozeur about thirty years ago (aah, the good old revolutionary days when we were young). During the night, we continue hearing shots and looting; the first soldiers have arrived on the streets but either they seem to have a hard time maintaining order or have no interest in doing so. Three hours of disturbed sleep is our quota tonight.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 29 – FEBRUARY 2
Much of Cairo is still a cash economy. Since our arrival just a short few days ago, we have not encountered one place that accepts credit cards. The hotel, too, expects payment in cash. The streets are littered with make-shift barriers, broken bottles, and people hanging around in small huddles. We are given a ‘body-guard’ to take with us to the ATM. No luck; nothing working, or no money left. Talking to locals, finally we work out which ATMs still work or have not been smashed and cash in on our maximum. We refrain from taking pictures, it doesn't feel right to put burned out cars on camera ( or we are bad war correspondents).
|Mosque in Islamic Cairo, at Al-Moiz|
The British Embassy has warned all British Nationals to avoid travel to Egypt (too late, we’re already here) and to stay put. So, Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel will have to wait another year or two for our greatly anticipated visit.
Interestingly, since the start of the Revolution – and there is no doubt that this is what we are witnessing – never have we felt unsafe, threatened or intimidated. Often, we stop at a local coffee-shop, sit with the residents, and slurp the strong, grainy Egyptian coffee. Everywhere, people are kind, welcoming and eager to demonstrate their hospitality. Groups of ‘vigilantes’ wave us in to neighbourhoods, welcoming us to Egypt and apologizing for the demise of our vacation.
|Coffee anyone ....|
The last three days of street battles have taken their toll on the City. The place looks like a war-zone, with Police cars having been trashed and torched. And in amongst this mayhem, local shopkeepers and residents work hard at cleaning the streets of debris and directing traffic to maintain the flow and some semblance of normalcy. A few restaurants are open; some street markets continue to operate to provide food and produce, ignoring the curfew.
|Not fazed by some skirmishes|
Finally, land-lines are restored and we manage to put a call through to Turkish Airlines in Istanbul and secure a couple of seats to Istanbul for Wednesday, 2nd February. Still, we are unable to call our families, send emails or access the internet. In the meantime, the curfew is extended, all banks are closed and of course, the vibrant tourism industry grinds to a halt. Have you ever been to Egypt and if so, have you ever had a moment of peace, without being hassled by a tout trying to coax you on to a camel; lure you into a souvenir store; sell you a carpet or antiquity? The Egypt we experienced for 6 days was devoid of all these things. Sadly, along with the absence of the irritating vendors, the sites, restaurants and everything else was well and truly shut down. So we wandered around, sampling the local food from those establishments that remained open, drank gallons of Egyptian coffee, strolled through Islamic Cairo, got shooed away from Coptic Cairo and took a ‘motor felucca’ (the touts finally caught up with us) all by ourselves on the Nile. It is the 1st of February and 12 noon, just before the start of the ‘big demonstration’; there is not one other vessel on this huge, historic waterway; just us, in our 50-seater motor launch. Jelte’s Calvinist genes get the better of him and he is consumed by huge pangs of guilt and feels this is the last place he should be, whilst the rest of Cairo is making its way to Liberation Square.
|And he could be throwing rocks at the regime|
The day of our departure looms and the hotel is eerily empty, save for a Czech Middle East reporter and camera crew, a couple of French businessmen (Pierre et Jean) and us. Everyone else has high-tailed it out over the preceding days. We hear horror stories of overcrowded airport terminals having run out of space, food and water. We missed the crowds; our flight to Istanbul is boringly uneventful and surprisingly just over 50% full. We talk about how we feel about our departure from Egypt. Overwhelmingly, we feel sad. We are so sorry for the plight of the wonderful Egyptians, who have been so welcoming and concerned for the welfare of these strangers over the past week. What will be the result of this Revolution? The other emotion we are struggling with is a total absence and loss of any spirit of ‘vacationing’. It’s gone and unlikely to return before we arrive back in Tajikistan. But we have another 12 days to go and Istanbul beckons.
|Istanbul, very peaceful....|
So here we are, having swapped Cairo for Istanbul and gone are our dreams of thumbing our noses at our frigid winter. Khorog may be -18C today; Istanbul is +1C and windy. For us, there is little difference. But the city seduces us; we find ourselves a wonderful little hotel (the Ibrahim Pasha) with a view of the Blue Mosque from our room, a quick walk to the Topkapi Palace and Bosporus and tons of eateries in between. As we write (Saturday, 5 February) we’ve been walking ourselves to a standstill every day, enjoying this wonderful City that has changed beyond recognition over the past 10 years. We feel like we are in Southern Europe, rather than the gateway to the Orient. Many options for the next seven days (when we return to Dushanbe). Ephesus and Izmir maybe, we'll keep you posted ...