Monday, April 24, 2017

April 20th – Sun, but not much fun in Sharm El Sheik

The sign proclaiming "Sun and Fun in Sharm El Sheik" only got half the story right. In Sharm El Sheik's recent calamitous downturn, sunny weather has been about the only constant. How could it not be when the town sits on the edge of the barren Sinai desert?

But, what has been missing from the resort is a fairly vital ingredient – tourists. Because, since 2015, there have been no flights arriving from Sharm's three biggest markets – Russia, Germany and the UK. That meant that when we visited this time last year, this was a depressingly empty ghost town, with scarcely a paying customer in sight. We only had a quick morning visit here this year, so our mission was to see if things had got better.

Well, yes and no.

This year, there were at least a few people occupying the sun beds – we were told that they were mainly from Ukraine and Belorussia – hardly the biggest-spending crowd. But, the shops, cafes and restaurants all seemed to be pretty much empty, with at least half of them seemingly closed down for good. Admittedly, it was fairly early in the day, and things presumably get busier later on, but this utterly empty town still made for a pathetic sight.

We spoke to a shopkeeper who asked us why there weren't any other English tourists here. The answer was fairly obvious – without direct flights, it would take a real mission to get here. And, when you looked at the dead, depressingly tacky town that greeted us, there can't be many takers for that. Plus, with a deadly terrorist attack taking place on St Catherine's Monastery the day before (one of the Sinai's main attractions), it doesn't look like things are going to change much here.

The shopkeeper told us that he used to have 6 stores, but 5 had closed down, and he was assessing whether to continue with the final one open. How long can you keep going when you've had 18-months of virtually no trade? We felt desperately sorry for him, but we had no need of his tacky souvenirs and faded T-shirts.

With lines of unoccupied villas stretching into the desert, this could either be a great time to pick up some bargain property, or it could be the time for the few remaining foreigners left here to cut their losses before their purchases become utterly worthless. Of course, the poor businesspeople who've made their lives here don't have the luxury of that option.

A visit to Sharm leaves you wondering what the future holds for the resort. I have to admit that at the moment, it doesn't look very bright.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

April 19th – Aqaba and the Wadi Rum

Having experienced the chaos and litter of Egypt, the thing that strikes most visitors to Jordan, is just how organised and welcoming the country is. The streets are clean, the people are friendly, the vendors restrained, and the infrastructure is well maintained – attributes that Egypt struggles to rival.

Aqaba itself has a prosperous air to it, as a duty free port and increasingly as a beach resort. With Sharm El Sheik's decline, Aqaba has been on the rise. But, the place is mainly modern (apart from Aqaba's historic castle which is closed for restoration), so the reason for coming here, is to get out of town, either to visit Petra, or to explore the magnificent desert landscapes of the Wadi Rum.

I opted for the latter, and even though we were visiting at midday, the desert scenery was looking pretty spectacular. When you see its weathered sandstone mountains shimmering enigmatically in the hot desert sun, it almost feels like you're looking at a film set, rather than what nature's created. Actually, the desert has acted as a film set for lots of movies – obviously, for "Lawrence of Arabia", but also for plenty of films set in Mars. It's such a dead ringer for Mars, that it recently doubled as the red planet in Matt Damon's "The Martian".

These huge open landscapes had the effect of making you feel tiny, as we bounced around in our 4x4s, and visited Bedouin "encampments" (or at least places where the Bedouins could sell us some wares – probably made in China, rather than Jordan). But, the welcome we got was genuine, and the sense of wonder at the scenery was real enough.

Jordan is a place that doesn't have any significant oil or gas wealth – but it has amazing historical sites, breathtaking natural sights, and lovely people. Egypt has all these, but Jordan shows you the difference that good government can make.

April 18th – Luxor and The Valley of the Kings

Just as you start to think that the World Cruise is slowing down and drawing to a close, the excitement levels get ramped up as we get to Egypt to experience the wonders of the Pharaohs with a trip to Luxor and The Valley of the Kings. Admittedly this is a bit of a "no pain no gain" scenario, because the visit entails a long 3 and a half hour drive each way from the scruffy Red Sea port of Safaga.

As ever in Egypt, there's plenty of entertainment on offer just from looking out of the window at the amazing street life on show – however, as the driver slams on his brakes for the 50th police checkpoint, or we're virtually jolted out of our seats for the 200th vicious speed bump, then the gloss begins to wear off a little.

Having said that, people who hadn't been to Egypt before found this a little hard to believe, (given the pervading sense of chaos and poverty out there, and the striking lack of technology being used in the fields), but there do appear to be a few signs of progress since my last visit. Certainly there was less litter on show (although still quite a lot of it), and there appeared to be more people actually doing stuff rather than just sitting around resignedly.

But, all this lack of development was made more stark, when we got to Luxor and saw its magnificent ancient temples dominating the scruffy town around it. It's amazing to think that what was created 3,500 years ago, is so much better constructed, so much more magnificent, and so far in advance of what's around it now.

The wonderful thing about the Luxor Temple is that it traces the so much of Egypt's long history in just one complex. From the succession of pharaohs who each competed to leave behind ever more magnificent monuments to their own greatness (so many statues, obelisks, carvings, and colonnaded courtyards that it takes your breath away); then onto the Greeks with Alexander the Great, who left behind impressive bas reliefs styling himself as a new Pharaoh; to the Christians, whose saintly frescoes covered over some of the pharaonic carvings; onto the Muslims who built a mosque right on top of part of the complex (if they could ever get them to move, there must be some more treasures underneath).

By now, the temperature was getting super hot, so it was good to retreat to a hotel for lunch by the Nile. It was obvious that the tourist numbers were still way down (our guide told us that the place was running at about 30% of capacity, but it felt lower than that). We did see at least a few cruise boats sailing on the Nile (which we didn't see last year), but there were still hundreds tied up along the Nile, waiting for the tourists to return.

After lunch, we headed to The Valley of the Kings, which was absolutely roasting by now. It was a relief to get out of the sun to shelter inside these evocative tombs, but the amount of colourful ornamentation on its walls, and the amazing artistry of the paintings left you wondering what riches these huge tombs would have contained before the grave robbers stole their treasures. Unfortunately, you can't take photos in the Valley to remember it by, but magnificent sights like these linger in the memory for a long time.

It was a long journey to get here, but totally worth it. I hope that Egypt's long journey back to recovering its lost glories, isn't hit by as many speed bumps as ours was.