Monday, 22 August 2011

Day 181: Petra by Night (28/07/2011)

The hot tarmac said it all.

The desert wind blew in from the edge of town and lifted the dust into a small vortex that weaved drunkenly around the car park. The taxi drivers tried half-heartedly to coax a fare from Aqaba to Petra but at ten times the price of the bus it was never going to happen.

The price of the bus included a complimentary hour broiling in the heat, waiting for the seats to fill up. Clare sat sweltering on the back seat, fiddling with the workshy air vents and I kicked a piece of card board around the waiting buses, searching for the breeze that periodically funnelled between the passenger shed and the adjoining police headquarters.

Eventually, the bus pulled out, driven by a Jordanian Asterix gone to seed. The air-conditioning did not function despite the 2010 number plate, but the stereo did and bass heavy Arabic music punctuated the featureless desert as we left the coast and headed inland. Desert gave way to mountains before we entered Wadi Rum.

Lawrence of Arabia fought the encroaching Germans amongst the wind formed stone stacks that rise somewhat artificially from the sand. The 55 degree day time temperatures dissuaded us from the desert experience where the slightest exertion darkens the shirt. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom passed us by and as we began the final climb to Petra, the road started to wind and the signs ceased to promise camels and instead warned of rock falls; and it was no empty promise. The reinforced steel fences erected to contain the frequent cascades were battered and torn. In places, boulders the size of cars had smashed through the defences and their remnants lay strewn across the highway. Asterix spotted these from afar and plotted wide arcs across the lanes to bypass them without losing speed.

I have used the word too many times but the approach to Petra is breath-taking. The road rises and rises. The windswept uplands are arid and rocky but still, Bedouin tents dot the moonscape and herds of goats roam amongst the undulations. The only change here since the time of Moses, is the arrival of the Mitsubishi. The goats have taken to the flatbed truck and rock happily in the traffic, heads lolling curiously over the side panels at passing cars.

Petra could be an elaborate theme park. The plateau gives way suddenly to a steep sided bowl, at the bottom of which the geological fault from which Petra was constructed, sits squat and menacing. Like an Indiana Jones inspired thrill ride, it appears rugged but perfectly proportioned; wild but somehow contained. It is only in need of a hero and a villain to complete the montage. New Petra town tumbles down the scree slopes and old Petra collects at the bottom like some long forgotten landslide of antiquities. Asterix negotiated the steeply descending switch backs and our ears popped with the reducing altitude. We exchanged sweets and crisps with the hijabbed lady in the seat in front and I clutched ‘The Pot’ as it tried to slide to its doom down the central aisle.

Deposited at the Petra Gate hotel, the panoramic view over the town was immediate as was the infectious air of enthusiasm that Lea, the manageress exuded. Whoops emanated from the lounge as Phillipines equalised against Kuwait in the country’s first outing in World Cup pre-qualifiers.

‘Last year’ she cried breathlessly ‘we didn’t even have a football team’. It probably wasn’t true but somehow I believed that she believed it.

As we were to discover, Lea’s irrepressible joy was almost single-handedly responsible for Petra Gate’s pre-eminence as Jordan’s favourite hostel since 2008. It wasn’t that nothing was too much trouble; it wasn’t that she smiled even when complaining. It was that she perpetually fizzed with an excitement that was impossible to dislike and, thinking about her, I smile broadly as I am writing this.

Dumping the bags in the customary fashion, we headed out for Lea’s recommended lunch of the unpromisingly sounding Foul (pronounced fool and consisting of stewed favar beans), goat of some description and flat bread, at Cleopatra’s behind the mosque. After a brief snooze we headed to the roof top for the sunset of all sunsets when the rocky silhouette of the Petra gorge genuinely appears to be concealing an inferno to make Dante proud.

Lea only hit one bum note during our stay and that was the shrug of indifference she offered when we asked about the ‘Petra by Night’ experience. Wrong, wrong, wrong Lea – but we forgive you! Against her advice we ventured further downhill to the unprepossessing gate to Petra. For a place endowed with the status of one of the seven modern wonders of the world in 2006, and a ticket price hiked by 500% six months ago, the football terrace entrance was poor. The ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ gift shop did little to redeem the situation and combined with Lea’s lukewarm response, I was fully prepared to be disappointed.

But they do say low expectations rarely lead to disappointment.

One thousand five hundred and sixty seven candles are said to light the 2km way through the Siq and into the Treasury, each housed in a small brown paper bag which diffuses the low light perfectly. The stone walls of the canyon glowed with an aching beauty. The highly polished lozenges of stone that have paved the way for twenty three centuries, reflected the light. Alone in the half darkness, the sounds of dripping water and the calls of wild cats roaming the canyon echoed in the void that threw an envelope of darkness just a few feet beyond each candle.

With barely enough light to see the floor, we were quickly left behind by the small crowd, rushing ahead, eager to reach the Treasury first. Left alone in the canyon with only a thin slice of stars visible above our heads, the weight of the ages pressed in on us from all sides. The darkness heightened our senses as the voices ahead receded into the distance.

We started as an unseen horse whinnied close by but the magnificence of the sensory deprivation in the Siq was matched by the majesty of the Treasury. Lit with two hundred candles, the soft glow was just enough to show the outline of the columns, pediment and crowning diadem. A flute and safaa played hauntingly in the half-light. An Omar Sharif stand in intoned portentously of the Nabataean forebears who carved the city of Petra from the living rock three hundred years before the birth of Christ, only to flee after a sixth century earthquake ruptured the water supply.

Perhaps to call it a 'modern' wonder is just a little misleading; but either way - how could you shrug your shoulders at this ?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Day 180: Aqaba (27/07/2011)

Reluctantly leaving Dahab, we caught a minibus up the west coast of the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Red Sea is deep scar in the land that just happens to be filled with sea water, but it is only part of the Rift Valley that stretches two thousand miles or more across the Middle East. This, in turn is a continuation of the Great Rift Valley that scores the entire length of Africa. Its enormity is only concealed by the distances it covers and the confusion of local names that are attributed to it, somehow disguising its planet encompassing scale. Created by movement of the tectonic plates, a minor rupture could tear Africa and the Middle East apart and send any number of nations onto a different continent.

All the more disappointing then, when you reach Aqaba.

Groomed as Jordan’s second city of the south, it sits precisely on the northern tip of the gulf. But despite the superb geographical location it has little to recommend it apart from the Middle East’s tallest flag pole and a sorry reconstruction of a crusader castle using block work from a bargain pallet at B&Q.

The ferry from Nueba to Aqaba was $70 well spent when considering the 15 hour bus journey around the shoreline of the gulf as the alternative. Hurtling 3,000 tonnes of steel across the surface of the water at 40 knots, the engines of the Nefertiti fired a powerful wall of water from the stern, bettered only by the opening of the release valves on a respectably sized dam. The wind on the stern deck was almost strong enough to lean into and more than one hat made the break for freedom over the rail and into the blue. The ship left a white trail in the water and a black one in the sky as the twin smoke stacks belched into the salty air.

Docking in Aqaba, we bested the taxi mafia with a little research after passing through customs. How far was the journey? The temptation to justify an inflated fare by exaggerating the distance, was too strong to resist. Fifteen km came the reply, for only 12 Jordanian Dinar. It was actually six and he knew it. More to the point he knew we knew it and so the price came down in proportion to the distance.

The Alabaster pot raised a few eyebrows but thankfully no one asked me to open it as to do so would have taken some industrial wire cutters and an angle grinder, such was the effective packing that it had accumulated since we relieved Alabaster Ali of the prize in Luxor.

The sweet faced customs officer took us into his office to stamp our visas. The Jordanians seem, on the whole, a calmer lot than the Egyptians. They smile more readily and argue less freely. No surprise then that they were the last to inadvisably make war with Israel and the first to seal the peace. King Hussein has been dead for ten years now but his son Abdullah steers the same careful path his father did and Jordan prospers as a result. No other nation could double its population in a month as Jordan did with the influx of Palestinian refugees after the war in 1967, and maintain any semblance of order, particularly without the might of oil to throw at the problem.

After a circuitous 15km journey around downtown Aqaba we were eventually deposited at the Moon Beach hotel.

The foyer was the picture of sophistication, but beyond this, the walls were lined with corrugated plastic, recently prised from the roof of a garden shed, and the rooms were poor. It was only one night but it reinforced a probably undeserved impression that Aqaba is in a period of forced growth. As we arrived in the darkness, the flashing neon cried progress but in the morning the dusty streets whispered something different.

I didn't quite catch it but it might have been that appeararance is more important than substance.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Day 179: Gallop! (26/07/2011)

As we sat in the evening warmth, sipping drinks and watching the Dahab sunset, the familiar clip-clop of hooves gradually approached on the beachside path.

Two chestnut mares trotted into view and their job was done.

Anyone with the vaguest interest in riding them was standing, craning their neck for a better view of the improbably picturesque sight of horses on a beach with the backdrop of the Red Sea. All that Arab, the owner of the riding school, had to do was ask. The business was as good as his.

At the appointed time the next evening, Arab appeared with Aleese, and gingerly Clare mounted the fourth unfamiliar pony in the Odyssey so far. I followed on foot to catch the moment in celluloid and for the first couple of miles I was at every photogenic vantage point to capture the beach ride experience. Then Arab suggested a canter, which quickly lengthened into a gallop and Clare disappeared in a cloud of dust thrown up by the Aleese’s pounding hooves.

Inland from the beach they charged, and across a lagoon. The mountains reflected perfectly in the twilight and as they shrunk into the distance I had to content myself with a conversation with Arab’s assistant Yousef and his lovely white donkey, William. Yousef said little but William, in his pretty red wool saddle chatted incessantly for the whole time Clare and Arab were away.

Finally, having snapped William with his ears up, ears down, his over the shoulder look for the camera and from every other conceivable angle, the wanderers returned. Aleese was sweating like a horse that has just galloped for the last half hour. Clare’s hair was a tangle and she was beaming from ear to ear.

Turning for home we all walked in the failing light.

Arab said Mubarak had tried to sell this lagoon to rich Emiratees but the Bedouin who have roamed the vast area since before history, resisted. Now, Mubarak is on trial from his hospital bed and the lagoon remains as it always has.

With the exception of a large concrete ice cream cone plonked incongruously in the middle of it.

Day 179: Chill or be Chilled (26/07/2011)

Dahab perches on the edge of the Gulf of Aqaba like a cliff top retreat, but the cliffs are entirely submerged by the waters of the Red Sea.

They lap innocently against the beach side bars but just a few yards from the dry land, the sea bed plummets. In the space of three metres, we went from wading in water barely over our calves to floating over a vault of perfectly clear water, sixteen metres deep and teeming with life. The wall is heavily populated with coral and fish and has to rate as one of the greatest dive sites in the world.

Divers explore the SS Thistlegorm, sunk by the Germans in 1943 just off the shore, which rests in 25m of water, its cargo of trucks and aircraft spilled across the seabed.

For three hours we swam amongst the Dorys and Nemos, the Parrot and Angel fish. I finned down, time and again to be surrounded schools of flashing silver and blue small fry as they turned and circled as one, enveloping me close to the face of the coral. Deeper down, smaller shoals of larger fish cruised aimlessly along the wall, barely quickening their pace as I fell in behind them. Periodically a larger predator would surge into the reef and the resident population would scatter in a flash of colour and an explosion of reflected light.

Forty feet above me Clare hung in the vault with shafts of sunlight silhouetting her floating form as, lungs aching and mask pressed tightly against my face by the pressure, I raced to the surface for air after what seemed an eternity at the bottom, but in fact was barely more than a minute.

Eventually, exhausted and reluctant, we dragged ourselves from the water with hours of underwater footage to remind us of the unforgettable experience.

Day 178: Black Death (25/07/2011)

After months of healthy travel, the pestilence was increasingly close at hand.

I felt the first tickle a few hours after we climbed off the flight from Sharm El Sheikh. By bed-time I was stricken. Through the long hours of the night Clare mopped my fevered brow and nursed me through my delirium.

Miraculously, by morning I felt much better.

Day 176: Bun Fight (24/07/2011)

Ashraf saw us away from the Luxor Hotel with customary charm and a sincere wish that we would return sometime soon; or at least that we would send someone in our stead to fill his empty rooms. Clasping his card and brochure tightly, we took the taxi to Hurghada airport for the shortest flight it is possible to take, with the possible exception of the stairs - and then only just.

The airport check in run was brightened significantly by the divisive availability of only one economy seat meaning that Clare was to spend the flight in Business Class while I was destined to languish at the rear with my ankles around my ears. One of the benefits of Egypt Air’s Business Class is the token entitling the bearer to a free cake at Segfredo which is not to be sniffed at.

It was at the counter I discovered that the sweetener, that Segfredo had offered to Egypt Air to secure sole concession rights in the airport, had long since been soured by the comfort of incumbent exclusivity. There was no free cake to be had and pointing repeatedly at the card that said there was produced nothing more than a shrug of indifference. I took it calmly but felt a certain degree of satisfaction when the confluence of Egyptian male machismo and outrage at the similar denial of cake rights sparked a major security incident.

A young corn fed Egyptian, accompanied by a deeply tanned fifty-something sugar mummy, vented his impotent decibels at Segfredo like a peacock flashing his tail feathers. As the volume increased, the security guards approached and then the dispute became less about the cake and more about airport security. The Revolution was only part baked and anyone with a gun was still a bit jumpy. As the red mist dissipated, the plucky peacock gradually saw sense and, honour restored, he wandered off cakeless but rewarded by attentions of his satisfied mate.

For non-Arabic speakers, it is hard to distinguish between polite discourse and threats of a blood curdling nature. Men speak fast and loud. The guttural sounds of Arabic lend themselves easily to that species of conversation which precedes murder and the tenor of exchanges can boil over in seconds; but just as easily they can subside and apparent enemies are as likely to hug and kiss their goodbyes as come to blows.

Egypt Air have long since realised that it is not necessary to fly from Hurghada to Sharm El Sheikh. The stretch of water is so narrow that with a good run up you can bound over the straight without getting your feet wet. But with due deference to the sensibilities of the passengers who have paid $50 for the privilege of a 25 minute flight on a route with no competitors, they at least maintain the semblance of a domestic carrier. The engines whir and the ground recedes as it should but the charade can never be entirely concealed, not least because the aircraft never exceeds the height of a self-respecting palm tree.

And then there is the poorly disguised elastic band.

From Sharm El Sheikh, we intended to catch the bus to Dahab, a sleepier but infinitely more satisfying version of Sharm, 90km up the coast of the Red Sea. The bus was either late, on time or cancelled, depending on who we asked. Adopting a consensus, we concluded that it was safe to come back later and get some lunch in the meantime. The ignominy of being fleeced by the taxi from the airport to the bus station was more than off-set by the falafel and peppers we ate at the local den between the joinery and the exhaust shop. The language barrier presented no obstacles as there was no menu, only what was offered and Barack confounded us by asking for one fifth of the cost of the short taxi ride, with a short Arabic lesson thrown in for free.

The bus trip was a roller coaster ride through majestic, mountainous desert. A touch of pre-revolutionary heavy handed policing surfaced at the last check point before we arrived in Dahab. On climbed a Tourist Police officer backed up by a soldier with an AK-47. Each passenger had to show their papers and one lad who couldn’t comply was escorted off the bus, only to appear later, thankfully with a cheeky grin. All the while AK stood with the barrel of his 47 at the temple of the bus driver. Not deliberately, you understand; just in the casual manner of a conscript for whom the words ‘accidental’ and ‘discharge’ are usually accompanied by the words ‘shotgun’ and ‘wedding’. The driver reacted to the situation with aplomb, unfolding and shaking out his newspaper, lighting a cigarette and never once betraying any hint of annoyance at the prospect of having to scrub his own brains from the upholstery.

Once past the security shenanigans, Clare bargained hard at the taxi rank and demonstrated admirably why I should never be allowed to handle money or purchase goods and services. We processed through the small town of Dahab to our lodgings at Penguin Island, in a beaten up pick-up taxi, for a sum so small that even your calculator would refuse it on principle. Fortunately, everyone was a winner as his fare was supplemented handsomely by the twenty-nine other Egyptians he picked up en route and the selection of office furniture that they brought with them.

Penguin Island is next door to the Alaska Hotel.

As the mercury held a steady 39 degrees, I think they were being ironic.

Day 176: Hurghada (23/07/2011)

We left Luxor, which by any measure, is a repository of some of the most amazing things you will ever see.

From there we caught the bus to Hurghada on the eastern side of the Gulf of Suez which, perhaps being a little harsh, is horrid.

The road across the desert from the Nile to the Red Sea, wound through bleached desert and down mountainous ravines and kept us mesmerized for four hours. We passed periodic check points but despite the simmering revolution, the worst we experienced, was hitting the fiercely efficient speed humps at speed.

As we checked in at the Luxor Hotel we resumed our ‘Sole Resident’ status and with it the exclusive attention of Ashraf, the lovely, extremely helpful and multi-lingual hotel manager. Dropping our possessions at reception, we were blithely unaware that our passports were not amongst them. Furiously disembowelling the bags drew a blank and before the recriminations started, Ashraf was on the telephone to St Josef’s Hotel in Luxor where, depending on your perspective, the stupid tourists had left their passports at reception, or the stupid receptionist had forgotten to hand them back.

He arranged for them to follow on the midnight bus and by morning they were waiting at reception. The hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach is enough to ensure that it will not happen again.

Hurghada was growing very quickly. Since the tourist industry in the Middle East has tanked, construction has stopped and every street is lined with half-finished buildings. The remaining indigenous population is tiny, swollen in good times by a huge influx of seasonal workers from Aswan and Luxor and by the conspicuously absent tourists, both down by at least 90%.

Feeling that we should at least give it a chance, we booked on a snorkelling trip to the local reef. The high light of the trip was meeting Milosh and his Serbian friends. After an 8am pick-up, we were still sitting in the baking heat at the quay-side at 10.30am, with a turf war unfolding between rival boats about whose customers were waiting to embark and who had right of way leaving the harbour.

The Italian contingent was the first to decamp to the shore, noisily demanding refunds with much shaking of the fists. The captain tried to placate them but the rot had set in. Then there was some close quarter manoeuvring with boats shaving past each other at wood splintering speeds. The Italians re-boarded and then the Finns got off. There was lots of shouting in Arabic and it all looked about to kick off when suddenly we were heading out of the harbour. Some of the Scandinavians were left behind but it was probably for the best; there’s nothing you want less on a snorkelling trip, than to be swimming amongst a crowd of circling Finns.

When we finally got to the reef, a sad realisation dawned. Boats from all along the coast were converging and a small flotilla formed around us. We rounded a headland to the sight of an assembled fibreglass fleet at anchor. The water was undeniably azure and the sands beneath where dazzlingly white but the coral was dead in vast stretches. I asked the captain how long snorkelling had been popular here. Ten years was the reply.

It will all be gone in ten more and in a bitter harvest, the sea will then be as devoid of life as the land is now.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Day 174: Swordfish Kebabs (21/07/2011)

Luxor squats on the east bank of the Nile like a Bedouin Benidorm, full of hotels and tours and hard selling touts.

The west bank, by contrast, is almost entirely undeveloped apart from the dusty township of Quan into which the new bridge - that crosses the river 5km north of Luxor – now feeds. It is quiet and for the first 3km from the river, very green.

We hired a ramshackle pair of bicycles the night before and, eschewing the bridge, rode the ferry across the mighty river. The current is strong and everything crabs at alarming angles to make landfall on the other side.  An old man, well past any sensible retirement age, snatched the bikes from us as we disembarked, and hauled them up the steep quayside steps with practised ease of a wiry frame.

Only when it came to the issue of baksheesh did his strength evaporate. He indicated his dissatisfaction with what was offered, by a series of groans and an increasing crescendo of coughs.

The brief spin around the darkened alley outside the hire place, disguised the truly appalling shape our bikes were in. In the cold – sorry, make that the blisteringly hot light of day – the failings soon made their presence felt. The back wheels were undeniably oval and slung the rear end out into the traffic with each turn of the wheel. The seat was crudely repaired with a piece of carpet and the brakes – well, the brakes were fine. It was just the absence of brake pads that caused the problem. At the first junction, I skittered through the traffic, my feet dragging desperately on the tarmac to slow me down on the slope.

In the 50 degree heat, we stopped at every patch of shade to pour water down our throats; our miles per gallon were something akin to a Sherman tank but eventually we reached our destination

The Funerary temple of Ramses II sits incongruously amongst a small collection of houses. Ramses must be very happy spending his afterlife next to a kebab shop.

The temple is the usual collection of pylons and pillars, hieroglyphs and statues and is all very magnificent. The problem was that we had seen it all before and frankly, on a more epic scale. It was only over lunch at – you guessed it – The Ramses II Kebab House next door,that the Habu Temple, as it is properly called, came to life.

Over lunch, the restaurant owner described how he had grown up next to the temple which had been a wreck until his childhood in the 1950’s. American Archaeologists had excavated the site and rebuilt it and he and the male members of his family had helped. Perhaps inappropriately, they had supplemented their meagre wages with whatever they could pocket from the dig. Most had been sold on the black market, which he assured me, remains surprisingly healthy.

His Aloe Vera plant rested on a clearly ancient column in the corner. He showed me a collection that was not really on display, but neither was it hidden from prying eyes. There was a fossilised spike from a prehistoric sword-fish; a smooth, spherical stone that he swore was a dinosaur egg; a collection of stone hand tools and some small statues and coins. The fact that he didn’t offer to sell any of them tended to suggest that he at least thought they were genuine, even if they weren’t.

By the toilets was a giant caged bird of prey that screeched from time to time. Several years ago he has rescued it as an abandoned chick but after its recovery, it had refused to leave when he released it. Now he and his new friend went hunting in the desert together at sunset.

After lunch we said farewell to our new friend and cycled back in the afternoon sun. It was no cooler than the morning version.

Collapsing onto chairs on the balcony, we were just in time to see one of the amazing fiery sunsets that Luxor is famous for. A pair of Feluccas, with their distinctive Arabic sail plan, completed the scene as we cooled off. Being closer to the equator, the sun here falls like a stone.

Blink and you miss it.

Day 173: Valley of the Kings (20/07/2011)

The Nile rises somewhere deep in Sudan and picks up tributaries all the way until it reaches the sea in Cairo.

It doesn’t matter whether it is the longest or largest. What is impressive is to see it in full speight, roaring through the desert in a life giving ribbon of blue water that defies the searing heat and barren sands.

Watching the Nilie from the 6th floor balcony of St Josef’s is so beautiful. The river is clean and clear as there is little to pollute it upstream from Luxor which is a tourist town and possesses no heavy industry to harm the clarity of the water. Beyond the river is a strip of lush greenery that stretches 3km on either side, supported by a network of canals and irrigation projects. Millions of gallons are taken from the river every day at thousands of points along its flow and the mighty current doesn’t even seem to flinch.

Beyond the growth comes the harsh golden desert. The greenery doesn’t peter out as you might imagine. It stops suddenly. On one side of a small track there is thick alluvial soil supporting rich and varied crops. On the other is the empty-quarter where nothing grows. The line is a demarcation of territory. On one side is life, on the other is death.

And it was to the side of death that we were taken by Hussein in his old but smartly maintained Fiat when we visited the Valley of the Kings. The desert quickly rises from a sandy, rocky plain to towering cliffs of sandstone in which cracks and mighty fissures have grown over millennia. In a valley, hidden from view lies the final resting place of several hundred Pharaohs, consorts and senior administrators of the thirty-one dynasties to rule ancient Egypt. More are being discovered; the valley conceals them perfectly and their presence is not advertised.

Down a tunnel we walked into each. Two hundred metres and more they penetrate into the solid rock, at an angle of 20 degrees. The air is cool and dusty. The walls are delicately lit and festooned with hieroglyphs, cartouches and depictions of Pharaohs walking hand in hand with Anubis the jackal headed god and Horus with the head of a falcon. In some places the colours are faded and the plaster on which the work is cast, has fallen away. In others the carving is directly into the stone and the images are as vibrant as the day they were created. Pause for just a moment and the Pharaoh has just been interred and the portal has been sealed behind you.

Cameras are strictly prohibited but it is hard to be cynical when the ‘No Flash Photography’ sign at the entrance has been altered with a biro and some of the tomb attendants actively seek baksheesh in return for illicit photos. But some do not and in the confusion, two burly Egyptian men conducted a stand up row in Menotpah’s tomb as the attendant tried to confiscate their camera.

The strict line is evidently a recent policy change.

In 1799 Alexander left his name in perfect copperplate on a small patch of unadorned stone. Twelve inches away Zeonixy did the same a mere 36 years later. They are dead and gone but their names will live on for eternity.

In the 45 degree heat we forsook the kitsch toy train and hiked to the temple of Hapshetsut. From all but the closest inspection, its three pillared layers are too precise and too well preserved to be anything other than the latest footstep in the relentless march of the Hilton Empire. Close up the crow’s feet begin to appear and the old girl starts to show her age. A bitter rival vandalised the temple as soon as it was consecrated but the pillars and statutes have largely survived the 4,000 year interval. The stunning rampart gives a clear view of Karnak, several kilometres across the river.

On the way back we stopped at the massive twins statues of the Colossi of Memnon, so named by the arriving Greeks in 300BC, when the statues were already older than time, as they thought they depicted Agamemnon, having successfully escaped Achilles at Troy.

Finally, Hussein dropped us, somewhat unwillingly at the Alabaster Museum. We demurred and protested but the pincer movement of fine wares and Egyptian hospitality seduced me and left Clare helpless to resist as I mooned like a teenager at the white Alabaster pots that lined the shelf.

The coup de grace, however was at the hands of that seasoned pro, Alabaster Ali, who lowered a light into the translucent vase and seeing the effect, I was sold. We haggled, even to the point that Ali started to show signs of fatigue. Through the night we wrestled like Jacob and the Angel and when the sun’s first rays topped the mountains behind us, an unmentionable price, marginally lower than the asking, was agreed. The fragile pot was wrapped in a Heath-Robinson assortment of paper and broken polystyrene and I left the shop in the sure knowledge that I would reach England the proud owner of several shards of Alabaster that used to be a handsomely over-priced holiday souvenir.

Before dinner, Clare succumbed to her own love affair and found herself at the reins of a carriage drawn by Rambo, the chestnut Arab. Ali, the driver had spotted her unique affinity with his horse and trusted the reins to her in a way that he had never done before and would never do again.

Until we saw a fat six year old reprising the role an hour later.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Day 172: Sofra So Good (19/07/2011)

Beaten by the heat, Clare retired to bed.

Meanwhile I braved the afternoon temperatures to see the Luxor Temple that shares a heritage with the Karnak site, as a result of a sacred sphinx lined way that joins the two temples, nearly 2 ½ miles apart. Most has been lost to development but ½ a mile remains in a beautiful boulevard heading toward Karnak.

The temple is Karnak’s poor relation but is still a gigantic three compartment structure complete with pylons and towering pillars, all be it in slightly fewer numbers.

What is interesting is that while Karnak remained relatively untouched by succeeding regimes, if not from the predations of time, Luxor has been revisited numerous times by each successive warlord.

Through passing dynasties, additions have been made and the likeness of predecessors has been expunged, sometimes partially by the removal of a nose here or a ceremonial beard there, but often by the systematic chiselling away of whole sections of depiction so as to deny a place in history and, as some academics believe, to put a retrospective spoiler on a past Pharaoh’s entrance into the afterlife.

After the great dynasties passed, there came conquest by Alexander the Great in 331BC, and sure enough, he is depicted in Pharaohnic form on a later extension. Later followed Caesar and Diocletian to mention but a few, each adding their likeness in a telling representation that reveals their ambition for absolute power over the Roman empire. The Ptolemies came and went with the saga of Anthony and Cleopatra and in their wake a church was added in whose remains Roman murals of the congregation of the Saints are still clear and vibrant to this day despite the collapse of the roof and the ingress of the elements.

During the Ptolemaic rebellion in 287AD, Diocletian fortified the temple shortly before splitting the empire into east and west. It served as fortress until the Romans departed.

Exhausted from the sun, I crawled back to the hotel before dinner at Sofra.

It is a perfect place.

Discretely lit by colourful brass and stained glass lamps, the floor is tiled with green and white, lending a Moroccan feel. The furniture is inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl and the lamb tagine was the most flavourful dish so far, anywhere.

The experience was marred only slightly by the process of getting there. Determined to walk, we wound down ever darker and more threatening back streets, where dogs barked and men shuffled in the gloom around us, visible only by the light of their cigarettes. Hopelessly lost, we asked for directions and after lame protest were bundled into a taxi with a fast talking ‘guide’ and an argumentative driver. Seven times I asked for a price and seven times came an ambiguous reply. Seven times I asked whether he knew where we were going and seven times came the assurance. Round and round we went. Tenser and tenser became the atmosphere as we asked to be set down but to no avail.

Eventually, 300 yards from where we were picked up, we were set down outside Sofra with a demand for more than the meal eventually cost us.

Feeling angry and threatened, voices were raised in that characteristically Egyptian way, like milk boiling over and we were intimidated into paying up despite the patent rip off that was taking place.

A cold drink and a few deep breaths later, we put matters into perspective by recognizing that we had lost three English pounds.

But we learnt a lesson worth ten times that amount.

Day 172: The Temple At Karnak (19/07/2011)

Well slept and better fed, we bounced off the sleeper train from Cairo, not entirely sure whether we were in Luxor or Aswan, there being only a brief snooze between them.

Establishing from a friendly commuter that we were indeed in the right place, we hopped into a cab and dumped our possessions at the St Josef hotel, last renovated in 1976 but conspicuously maintained since that date so that the brown polyester bed spreads and orange vinyl headboards were in the same condition as when they came out of their wrapping nearly 40 years before.

Straight out into another cab we hurtled, destination Karnak.

It is a word laden with meaning, heavy with the dust of passing eons. A temple constructed 4,500 years ago on an epic scale that belittles anything like it, anywhere. The very structures have found their way into our language, all be it in the grossest form of inverted hyperbole that you are likely to find this side of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The three Pylons are mammoth sandstone erections that tower above the causeway lined with Sphinx and divide the temple into its compartments. The kiosk is the sole surviving pillar that looms over the second sector, the balance having fallen in various episodes over the millennia, the last as recent as on  3rd October 1899.

Most famous is the Hippostyle Hall, an enclosure of 134 columns, modelled on the priapic qualities of the papyrus stem and flower, from the top of which Michael York was nearly crushed by a falling block in ‘Death on the Nile’. The size and number of the pillars is staggering. As you walk through the hall, avenues between them open and close to your passing, both at right angles and diagonals. You circle again and again, mesmerized at their monolithic silence and run your fingers over the elegant cartouches carved deeply into their surfaces. Nothing can prepare you for the timeless sense of amazement at the advanced construction they required at a time when the Western world was rolling in its own filth.

Dozens of life-like goats line each side of the temple enclosure. Massive statues of Ramses tower of the gateways, dwarfed only by the larger versions at Abu Simbel.

Paradoxically, what gives the greatest sense of perspective are the excellent photos taken over the last 150 years, displayed in what would otherwise be an airport terminal, masquerading as a visitor centre. In the 1890’s the pylons were a pile of blocks strewn chaotically about the site. The Avenue of Sphinx was all but submerged by the sands. The Hippostyle Hall was a confusion of collapsed pillars. The sacred water cistern was dried up and full of sand. Even the delightful Scarab Beetle, standing on a pedestal at the rear of the temple was lost in a copse of mature trees.

Painstakingly, for over a century, archaeologists have catalogued, studied and reconstructed the most complex jigsaw of all time.

Without knowing the disastrous condition they were in 200 years ago, we would have no idea of their magnificence, 4,500 years ago.

Day 171: A Tale Of Two Cities (18/07/2011)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

The streets of downtown Cairo are like canyons that soar a dozen stories above the wide boulevards in a uniform phalanx of faded art deco splendour.

We wandered three sides of the block from Talaat Haab Street, to find the Nasser metro station and paid one Egyptian pound each to ride the rails to the end of the line. Today we only needed five stops to Margiris and the Christian Quarter.

Over breakfast, Peter and Jessie from Washington DC expounded their World Bank portfolio with typically easy-going east coast charm. They had the joy ahead of them of the ride around the pyramids but we didn’t have the heart to warn them of Khaled’s plans for their libido. Being straight guys, there was every chance that Mr K was going to leave them all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The metro has a reputation for being Cairo’s cleanest place and while you might not want to eat your dinner off the spotless marble, the chaotic litterbug mentality that dominates the surface is thankfully left there. Mubarak’s personality cult, like that of any long in the tooth dictator, saw to the blanket posting of his likeness in every conceivable place. In turn, the Arab Spring saw to it that while he resides in Sharm El Sheikh, apparently unable to afford his own legal fees in the state action to recover the fortunes that he allegedly lifted from the Exchequer, his pictures have been torn down or defaced, causing the only untidiness that the metro will permit.

After refreshingly cold five stops, during which we piqued the curiosity of most of the Egyptian commuters in our carriage, we disembarked next to St George’s Greek Orthodox Church and monastery. As St Sergius to the Greeks, the church is built on the site of a former religious building that provided shelter to Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus during their flight from Herod. The circular building is a welter of gold and silver with an enormous and elaborate crystal chandelier hanging pendulously from the huge dome on which Jesus is adorned on an enormous golden sphere. The air is thick with incense and only a little light filters in through the deep reds and blues of the stained glass windows. The walls are heavy with the iconography of St George slaying the dragon but Clare disapproved of the depiction of her patron, George’s lance protruding uncomfortably from its mouth.

All but next door is the Hanging Church. Curiously named, it is the home of the Coptic Christianity. Built as a replica of the upturned Ark of Noah, the roof is supported by eight pillars, one for each human occupant of the vessel. The walls are hung with priceless works of art. They depict the Coptic saints, from the mainstream St Mark the Evangelist - whose remains were stolen from the Turks in Alexandria by the Venetians in 828 – to the obscure such as St James The Swan Leader, pictured with his bloody sword astride a horribly dismembered body, rendered in visceral detail. All date from 10 to 20AD, guarded only by the elderly and heavily bearded parish priest.

Taking the eco-tourist mantra to heart, we had spent six months taking nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints. Happening into an Aladdin’s cave of late 18th century photos, we didn’t break the strict letter of the  law, when we left with sepia prints of the Sphinx when it was half buried in sand and images of the Nile when its floods ran within 100m of the pyramids.

Through the exceptionally friendly veg-market market we tripped, stopping for a moment to coo at the children with a cardboard box full of ducklings, before taking a lunch of cheese filled bread directly from the oven at the street side bakery, the price rising suspiciously between order and payment, when the father whispered conspiratorially in his son’s ear at the cash box.

Having prospered under the protection of Krishna and Vishnu in India, it seemed the natural choice to climb into Ramadan’s taxi for the journey across town to Saladin’s 12th century Citadel and the magnificent Mosque within its imposing walls. Sadly, while we arrived safely, courtesy of his death or glory dash into the 8 lane highway that lay between us and the citadel, Ramadan’s car did not. A Turkish made Tallah, it overheated on the steep climb and refused to start despite a liberal dousing of the engine block from his water bottle.

No sooner than we had arrived than Ali fell upon our necks with promises of secret passages and private viewings. Scam bells were ringing but he was so charming that we fell under his spell in the mistaken belief that he truly loved us. To be fair, he was good to his word and we entered the mosque with a greater sense of appreciation than we might otherwise have done. Sadly, having parted with the baksheesh that is suggested with the slightest of gestures, he spoiled the deal by returning for more, later in the day.

Returning down the hill with a more taciturn driver, we climbed out at the Al Hussein mosque and dived into the maelstrom of the bazaar. Except that it was silent. Vendors outnumbered tourists by ten to one and the chaotic melee we had been expecting was replaced by a clean and orderly procession though the warren of side streets. Cairo has been temporarily abandoned by the tourists as a result of the unjustified fears that the Arab Spring has produced.

We listened to his call echo through the bazaar and watched the coffee seller dispense a thick, black, unctuous fluid from his twenty litre glass kettle, slung over one shoulder with a colourful strap before retreating into the cool refinement of the Khan Al Khali restaurant, a current haunt of Cairo literati including the winner of one Nobel prize for literature and one Booker.

After lunch we ventured into the extraordinarily different but equally stunning world of Islamic Cairo. Bordered by the intact city wall, it is a Dickensian maze of back streets and we meandered in and out of the gates and past dozens of stunningly beautiful mosques. Cairo is known as the city of a thousand minarets and while this sounds like an exaggeration, the view from the citadel confirms it beyond debate. From a distance, they merge into the city skyline but in the quarter they tower over the streets in an inescapable statement of Islamic dominance. When prayer time arrives, the streets boom with the competing ululations that emit from a hundred mosques within earshot.

As we wound down the final street to the last gate in the city wall, we came across a pair of mischievous junior police officers who were throwing fire crackers into the street. We laughed and pointed and suddenly one went off at our feet, blackening my shins and sending me diving for cover from what my senses screamed must be sniper fire. When I regained my composure, I had a momentary sense of humour failure and marched indignantly toward the two. In twenty yards I reconsidered the tenor of my approach in light of the tense security position and feigned heart problems, to which the blood drained from their faces and they pleaded for forgiveness. We shook hands and parted for the taxi, past the city mausoleum and home to Miami Cairo hostel.

The mausoleum stretches 5km across town and is as much a grave yard as the Red Sea is a fish tank. It is packed with elaborate tombs in which people live amongst the dead. A mosque, a school and basic amenities have sprung up and a thriving community exists in the giant necropolis that stretches block after block, alongside the Cairo overpass.

Finally, we fell back into the hands of Mr K, who drove us gratis to the Ramses railway station in time for the 7pm Sleeper train to Luxor. At 8.30, the train arrived and clutching our possessions we climbed aboard for the finest railway experience Egypt has to offer.

Day 170: A Fight At The Museum (17/07/2011)

We spent the day wandering the labyrinthine displays of the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo.

The text book introduction to the museum is being way-laid by a friendly Egyptian sort, called George, and his brother Yusef, who together invite you into their ‘home’ for tea on the pretext of selling whatever tour or souvenir is their business. Any attempt to demur is theatrically taken as a rejection of famous Egyptian hospitality and the hurt looks alone are enough to weaken the strongest resolve. The coins are genuine Roman. The statuettes came from a tomb undiscovered by the grasping government.

The only defence is a clear and early statement of intent.

To the initial invitation, you must respond that there is to be no shopping today, so as to disarm the obligation to purchase that will inevitably descend upon you with the offer of complimentary refreshment.

To the enticement of tea must come the reply that you have only momentarily finished breakfast and so must sadly decline.

Despite the clear condition of entry set out at the initial engagement, the hard sell will come and when it does, obligation or no, you must be prepared with cast iron rebuttals.

The offers will entail a tour to which you must already be booked; some perfume or oil – an allergy is best; a souvenir for you or friends back home – be wary as attempts to fend this off with complaints of carrying weight or lack of bag space will be met with offers of free home delivery anywhere in the world. You must have shopped and acquired one of each of everything tendered.

Even then, be prepared for the emotional blackmail, the perceived insult at the rejection of his offering, the head in hands, the mouths to feed, the ridiculous bargains offered to open the negotiations. The token purchase is the thin end of the wedge. Buy if you want to buy. Otherwise, be strong and walk away. The sad eyes are the last line of resistance. Overcome these and you are home-free to continue with your day, unladen by the kitsch churned out by the Chinese economic mega-miracle.

And we did.

The museum is a curious confusion. I visited as a child in 1982 and to the best of my recollections, not a thing has changed in the intervening period. The displays labour under the same dust and the octogenarian cabinets remain unmoved. The mummies have spent almost as long in their airless boxes as they did in their tombs. The labelling is non-existent and the curation is more in keeping with a village hall display than the world’s foremost collection.

But there is light on the horizon. As Athens has built a state of the art Acropolis Museum to lobby hard for the return of its stolen treasures from British Museum, so Egypt has plans afoot. The need has become more pressing as of late because the 15 storey government building next door was gutted by fire in the Revolution and the west wing of the museum was damaged in the process.

In the meantime, the corridors remain stuffed with treasures older than antiquity, from exquisite stone mega-statues to sensitive and incredibly preserved wooden manquettes, complete with inlaid eyes and delicately painted complexions. Some were allegedly rifled by highly placed officials during the chaos that followed the uprising and have disappeared onto the black market.

But wonder overload is inevitable and as we staggered out of the museum, having gazed, speechless at the death mask and associated golden bric-a-brac from the tomb of Tutankhamen, a beautiful symmetry played itself out.

Dr Rasul, apparent museum conservator and expert in the mummification of Pharonic pets, fell into conversation with us. After a long and colourfully embroidered pitch, the fabric of his story began to fray and the cash-call came. By now we were ready and his resolve was clearly not up to the job.

I told him George was in the market.

Off he wandered, to find easier prey.

Day 169: Giza Geezer (16/07/2011)

After an epic journey from Amritsar, via Doha, we arrived in Cairo 18 hours later, dog tired and once again disoriented by our new surroundings.

The Miami Cairo hostel on Talaat Haab Street was, it transpired, a more significant destination than we had realised both in terms of its position and its history.

The revolution was threatening to rekindle itself in Tahrir Square, one block away.

The Yacoubian building of which the Miami occupied the second floor, was the doyen of Egyptian society in the 1930’s. Between 1930 and 1964 the nation’s film industry blazed a trail that is now looked back at with fondness and nostalgia. Egypt immortalised its own Bogarts and Hepburns in celluloid and down town street sellers still offer the home grown greats alongside the more recent Hollywood imports.

After sleeping off the journey courtesy of Mustapha’s gratuitous Miami upgrade, we surfaced to breakfast to the accompaniment of Steven Segal going in hard at the local strip joint in his unique style that blends a dash of modern dance with a pinch of mullet.

And then the fateful and oft quoted words were uttered as we piled into the back of the Mitsubishi and headed for the Pyramids.

“Don’t worry. You’re with Khaled now!” said K, as he flicked some ash and casually set the controls for the heart of the sun.

K was, if it is possible, simultaneously an enigma and anathema; Charming and offensive, languid and animated. He was a 47 year old chain-smoking, patriot with more tips for aphrodisiacs than Benny Hill after a weekend break in the Valley of the Super-Vixen.

There were dates soaked in milk for twelve hours for which he promised a veritable Vesuvius in the trouser department. Then came the milk of the papyrus plant. Good for men or women, he guaranteed explosions in the bedroom. Finally, Oil of the Lotus Flower - the daddy of priapic promises. Add a sprinkle to your food and nail a warning to the church doors. “Lock up your daughters. You’re with Khaled now!”.

Sadly, it was all a warm up for the day ahead. There was the date market, the oil shop and finally the Papyrus emporium. We batted away the small fry but did not emerge from the melee entirely unscathed. After a prolonged soft sell at the papyrus shop, another one made it into the collection.

But the best was yet to come.

Through a complex web of agents and commission bearing referrals, we ended up in the hands of Abdul-Ali and his horses, with a three hour ride around the pyramids beckoning on these unknown quantities. Alessi was thin and bony mare. Moses was yet another stallion in full possession of his faculties. We wobbled and wavered. Were the pyramids stony? Did the horses throw people often? If we died, would the ponies still love us?

It was all too much to bear and after a desultory effort at haggling, Ali led us towards the desert with expressions half way between terror and delight. If the horses took off, there really was nothing between us and Libya. But Ali laughed and snapped his whip behind Moses and off we trotted.

We needn’t have worried as they were good as gold. They knew every rock and for the next three hours proceeded as sure footedly as we could have hoped. The greatest injury either of us sustained was caused by a nail protruding illicitly from the underside of the saddle strap that left my hand bleeding profusely and poor Moses mopping up the crimson tide as I tried to staunch the flow with my handkerchief. Pressing the flapping skin back into place and laughing through the pain, we circumnavigated the greatest constructions on earth in an other-worldly trance.

The statistics alone are mind boggling, even with today’s modern construction techniques; 2,300,000 blocks weighing an average of 60 tonnes erected at a religiously significant 43.5 degrees elevation. Joints so tight that even 4,300 years after the blocks were first laid, there is not even a needle’s breadth between them. And the list goes on. To stand in their presence is to be drawn backwards through time. Your imagination doesn’t even have to work at it as nothing has changed here – apart from the encroachment of Giza, which you can easily turn your back to – for 2,000 lifetimes.

Later haggling over baksheesh for unauthorised photos of the internal artwork, we visited the lesser known of the 7 great pyramids, all of which form a geometrically perfect line over 25km long. The Dashur and Saqqara complexes enclose the Bent Pyramid – which is the only one to inauspiciously depart from the sacred angles - and the massive Red Pyramid, open to the public but completely forsaken. Entirely alone, we descended a 250m, 30 degree tunnel into the heart of the tomb. Salt water rising through the foundations, has filled the lower levels with a strong smell of ammonia but it is just tolerable. Alone and deep within the tunnels, the strange isolation can become suddenly and distressingly overpowering. Even the deep breaths required to still your racing heart are impossible because of the stifling atmosphere.

Emerging, tight-chested, into the blinding light and thrusting more baksheesh into the expectant hands of the waiting attendant, the hot desert air never smelled so sweet.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Day 165: Hide and Sikh (12/07/2011)

Chandigragh is the capital of the northern Indian state of Punjab but Amritsar it is the spiritual home of the dominant Sikh faith.

The further north you travel in India, the greater both the size and preponderance of turbans. Muslim and Sikh alike wear different colours and sizes to denote everything from social position and marital status to mourning.

After a succession of increasing grand forts, palaces and temples, we were exhausted and over-stimulated. It was going to take something very special indeed to rouse us from our fatigue. There are plenty of things to see and do in Amritsar but by the time we arrived we were ready for a rest. We hid away in the City Heart hotel, 100m from the Golden Temple and watched bad TV and survived on room service.

It helped.

After 24 hours, we emerged, a little refreshed and limited ourselves to just a few of the recommended sights.

The Mata Hindu Temple was built to house the relics of a local Sri or saint who, in the severely redacted version of her life, did a lot of good and ate only milk and fruit. Access is in the style of an urban Indiana Jones, through a concrete cave mouth and along a tiled stream to the inner sanctum where henna and coconut is distributed to devotees. Tourists are made most welcome as were we. The poignant part of the temple is the fence to which red and golden rags are tied by women seeking saintly assistance with fertility issues.

After a hair raising journey on a cyclo – better described as long wheel base tricycle with an armless bench strapped to it, on which we remained only by leaning aggressively into the corners – we were decanted unceremoniously onto the road for the agreed fare, but miles away from where we paid to be. The realisation dawned as the cyclo disappeared into a crowd of a hundred others on a chaotic roundabout. On one hand, we were tempted to give chase; on the other, the madness of the roundabout suggested that the unscrupulous man had done us a favour.

Tuk-tuking to the budget Varise restaurant, a stone’s throw from the hotel, we ate thali and relaxed in the cool, brick lined interior before wandering next door to the Jalian Whala Bargh. In 1922, Brigadier General Dyer, commanding a corps of 90 soldiers perpetrated debatably the worst atrocity in the history of the British Army. During a period of civil unrest, Dyer took it upon himself to engage a peaceful protest in an enclosed square with only one means of  access. Unable to gain entry with his armoured cars due to the narrow lane, instead he ordered his troops to open fire on the protestors. When the volleys ceased, upwards of 1,500 Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were dead or dying, representing a kill rate of nearly twenty men, women and children per rifle.

Dyer was unrepentant.

Churchill’s masterful understatement to the House of Commons at the time, expresses both the humanitarian tragedy and the political folly of the disaster. The event hastened the end of the British Raj and was regarded as Ghandi’s inspiration for the campaign of non-violent resistance. A museum and shrine mark the spot and it is a place of pilgrimage for thousands each day.

Sadly, the Golden Temple has its own history of tragedy. It was stormed in 1984 on the express instructions of the then Prime Minister, Indhira Ghandi, during a peaceful Sikh separatist protest. Six hundred died in the temple and 3,000 more in the crack-down on the ensuing riots. As a demonstration of political, religious and cultural vandalism, there can be fewer more extreme examples. On a personal level, the Prime Minister paid for the misjudgement with her life when she was assassinated by a Sikh member of her body guard shortly afterwards.

The spiritual centre of the Sikh faith, the temple resides in the middle of large water tank, accessible only by the short Guru's Causeway. Enclosed within a giant wall of white, crenelated marble, it is overlooked majestically by two giant minarets and less impressively by two grotesquely inappropriate water towers that can only have been built as a conscious insult to the faith.

The walkway that runs clockwise around the tank is lined with gruesome tales of the heroics of the ten Guru’s who founded and formed the tenets of the faith. Baba is said to have fought to raise a siege of Amristar in his old age. After being beheaded by his opponent, all seemed lost until Baba took up his severed head in his left hand and his sword in his right, before predictably putting the besiegers to flight.

The Temple itself is magnificent. It is gold, from the tip of its crown to the foot of its foundations. A staggering 956kg of gold are said to have been used in the construction of its canopy alone. Only the doors are silver and the whole structure is intricately engraved with extracts from the Sikh Holy book, the original of which resides in the surprisingly small interior of the Temple.

Inside, the golden walls are inset with a mosaic of red and blue while the book is attended by three priests. Music is played constantly by a five piece ensemble of sitar, drums, percussion and a squeeze-box keyboard. The holy of holies resides under a pink cloth awning, embroidered with golden lettering. Devotees shuffle through and men and women sit in neatly segregated rows around the book. Above them, a special few peep over the balconies of the first floor onto the proceedings below.

Amritsar is truly a place of extremes.

The devotion is sublime but the streets are ridiculous.