Travel writers usually avoid traveling by air. The entire flying experience, from airports to airline customer service and customs procedures to in-flight meals, is descending into a great undifferentiated mass. These days, there is precious little local flavor to be found anywhere. With the completion of Cairo’s new Terminal 3, and the glass exterior shell that seems to be the new global trend among airport architects, the experience of flying out of Cairo will be little different than leaving from Copenhagen or Cape Town.
Flying erodes a sense of distance. Spend a couple of hours on a plane and you will have traveled a distance it used to take months to cover by overland routes. Spend half a day on a plane and you’ve covered a distance that only the most intrepid of our ancestors would have ever attempted. There is much to be said for getting to and from a place quickly and painlessly. But this misses out on another wonderful aspect of travel: moving overland the entire way, connected physically to the route, registering every bump of every meter traveled, for better or worse, on your senses and on your frame. Maybe jet lag is our punishment for skipping too lightly over the world’s great expanse.
To be sure, some overland routes are tortuous. However, overland travel by no means necessitates having to “rough it.” For example, here in Egypt, the overnight journey from Cairo to Luxor, and from there onto Aswan, is an entirely practical, and mostly comfortable, alternative to the plane. Booking is easy. There’s a dedicated office at Cairo’s Ramsis train station that deals exclusively with the overnight train. The office is air-conditioned, lines are rare, and the entire process is fairly straightforward. Some trains leave from Ramsis. Others, especially those that are passing Cairo after departing from Alexandria, leave from the Giza train station, which is accessible by metro. The ticket includes a dedicated berth in a specified carriage, including a seat, two meals, and, by night, a bed.
There are several nightly options for the journey south. Most unfortunately leave Cairo in the evening, thus ensuring that most of the journey takes place in darkness. Unless you’re continuing on to Aswan, where the tracks dramatically hug the river bank for parts of the way, you’re not traveling for the scenic views the trip will afford, in spite of the spectacular Nile valley scenery you’ll be passing through. However, before arriving in Luxor in the early morning, after the conductor has rather briskly roused you out of your sleep, there are delightful views over the fertile Nile valley. A potential advantage of darkness is that it masks just how built up the entire Nile valley is becoming. Agricultural land is waging a fierce, and seemingly losing, battle at the moment with ugly urban infrastructure, and unobstructed scenic views during the journey are rare.
All of which means that the trip down to Luxor on the rather grandly titled Abela Sleeping Train, is, as the names suggests, about sleeping. And in this department, the experience is surprisingly pleasant. We left Giza punctually at 8:20pm, and after a decent meal consisting of fish and buttery rice, the conductor briskly strode in and transformed our two-person sitting compartment into a pair of bunk beds. There’s not much else to do on the train, and so bedtime approached surprisingly quickly. The beds are comfortable and clean, the bathrooms decent, and sleeping to the rat-a-tat-tat of the wheels over the rails was pleasantly relaxing. For those of you unwilling to surrender quite so early to your slumbers, the train serves a range of drinks, including rather expensive beer, and averagely priced wine. Each cabin is equipped with a sound system spouting out bizarrely retro disco music to help you in your revelries. Ours rather shockingly, unbidden by us, began sounding off its impressive disco collection at full volume sometime in the middle of the night.
This was only part of the reason why I didn’t sleep much that night. Rather, I found myself dreamily watching the nightscape fly past. Just when sleep did approach, I was jolted out of my slumber by the urgent snores of my otherwise charming Somalian berth-mate. The train makes several stops, Assiut and Qena among them, the rest I can’t tell you for sure as they competed for attention with my rather vivid dreams.
Morning rolls around, and an impressively unimaginative selection of week-old breads and packaged jams was brought out, washed down by a Nescafe. The final hours of the trip were my favorite: approaching Luxor, looking out over the scenic landscape, as rural communities go about their morning routines, under the hazy misty half-light of early morning along the river.
It’s a shock, therefore, to roll into Luxor, imperfectly slept, still groggy from the melodious rock of the train, to confront the barrage of touts that greet you. If you’re fiercely determined, or have a pre-set destination in mind, you may escape from their approaches unharmed. If you hesitate or make just that much eye contact, you’re doomed. Once you’re past them, of course, the glories of Luxor or Aswan await, from the East Bank temples and museums and West Bank funerary complexes and grand statuary in the former to the river islands (and one of the most beautiful hotel balconies in the world at the Old Cataract), the High Aswan Dam, and potential day-trips to Abu Simbel in the latter.
The train is a comfortable and pleasant alternative to flying. It’s not the best of places to get local flavor, most Egyptians are ushered towards other trains. But flavor of a different variety is amply on display. My train was full mostly of foreigners, many of whom bring with them the rugged stories of life on the road. If you’re eager for the experience, but not too much of the experience, you always have the option of taking the train one way, and resorting to the ease of flying on the way back.
One way Cairo-Luxor, $60, including meals.
Three nightly departures from Cairo or Giza, and from Aswan and Luxor to Cairo (from Cairo to Luxor around nine hours, another three to Aswan.)
Booking office inside the Ramsis train station in Cairo is open daily from 9am-9pm.
Tel: 02-2574 9474
Egypt Air operates frequent daily flights between Cairo and Aswan and Luxor, prices range depending on availability and time of booking.