Greetings from the top bunk of the sleeper train from Cairo, en route to
Luxor. Andrew is in the bunk below me, and I fear odours tend to rise.
(But snoring expands in all directions, so take that!) We have just
finished watching the Dr Who xmas special on my laptop and have retired to
what I am sure will be a restless, difficult sleep, as the train trundles
noisily along the banks of the Nile.
It occurs to me that my most vivid travelling memories involve train
travel. Seventeen years ago, I was nearly shot by a border official (long
story) while crossing from Thailand into Malaysia by rail. The sweet
pastoral smells of the fields and tranquil images of schoolchildren, while
en route from Penang to Kuala Lumpur via train, will always linger with me.
And the sounds of wild animals howling at night, as the open-window
sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai crept along nearly 2 decades ago,
remains one of my most treasured recollections.
Adding to those priceless memories is today's supreme adventure. After
once more braving the wilds of baksheesh ("tipping") country, we managed to
secure entrance into the Great Pyramid of Cheops itself, the largest and
most impressive of the plateau's wonders.
We had every expectation of a crowded tourist experience. But imagine our
surprise –and delight– at finding ourselves the only living humans within
this ancient tomb!
The trek involved what seemed like a 200m long claustrophobic climb up a
thin shaft, carved about sixty degrees up into the pyramid's interior. I
had seen this climb in documentaries 30 years ago, and always knew I would
one day do it… But never realized how happy and unafraid I would be doing
The shaft ended at a brief tunnel, through which one must crouch in order
to progress. As I was a few minutes in front of Andrew, I rushed ahead so
that I could savour the unique experience of being absolutely alone within
the inner sanctum of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
The sanctum is an antechamber at the heart of the stone mountain, pitch
black but for a tiny artificial light erected in one corner. I needed my
little penlight to fully perceive the room. I was shocked –and briefly
terrified– to find myself alone in the dark with the altar that once
supported the mummy of pharaoh Cheops.
I paced out the room: about 8m by 4m and maybe 6m in height. And I did one
more thing: I lay on the floor and imagined Egyptian slaves stocking the
room with gold to accompany Cheops into the afterlife, some of the slaves
compelled to lay down their lives in that very room, so that Cheops would
have servants in the underworld.
Andrew quickly joined me and we took (non-damaging) videos and photos as
best we could in the darkness. As usual, mine wont be uploaded till I get
home. But one of Andrew's is available on his blog (acurrie.wordpress.com).
This has been without a doubt one of –if not the– most profound travel
experiences I have yet tasted. It was tainted by one thing: the discovery
of litter on Cheops' altar, and of modern graffiti on the walls of the
tomb, much of it dated this year.
It is sickening and saddening that so many cannot appreciate the wonder of
this ancient accomplishment, and that so many who have been so privileged
to have visited it have nonetheless been idiotic, destructive and
uninformed, while thousands more would give all they own to see and touch
what Andrew and I saw and touched today.
Onward to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings!