A Holiday in Post-Uprising Egypt: Part 8

Hod Hod Ballooning, A final trip to the Bazaar, and the Winter Palace Gardens

We woke to the sound of our alarm call.  The sun was just barely breaking over the hills in the distance as I pulled back the curtains.  All was deafly calm outside, the Nile had the stillness of a pond and not a boat or fish or person stirred.  I dressed and went outside to experience the calm of a new Egyptian day one last time, and shared it with an inquisitive Magpie looking among the deckchairs for discarded treats.
Our final trip started early in the morning - very early.  We had a brief breakfast in before leaving the ship in the cool morning air.  The tour bus took us a short way to one of the piers, where a boat was waiting to take us across to the far bank of the Nile.  We descended the dew-covered steps gingerly and down a slippery steel gangplank to the ferry below.  One of our number at least measured their length.

It was early in the morning, so our skipper skipped the mandatory wearing of lifejackets, presumably because our lifeless corpses would have floated downstream and be someone else's problem should we all perish at this ungodly hour.
Tea and coffee sat on the tables in front of us, but as my hand reached out to grab the pot, the missus decided that food poisoning would not be so good where we were going.  We stayed thirsty, just to be safe.

When we reached the other side, the weathered little pleasure boat bumped and scraped it's way into a gap between several others, just a few inches too narrow to be comfortable. We got off, but we weren't there yet.  Some decidedly shabby-looking low-loading estate cars were on hand to take us the rest of the way.  The skies in the distance began to fill up with little balloons.

We bumped through the back roads of the west bank, the drivers explaining through the medium of cornering how these cars managed to get as worn out as they were, until we rejoined the main highway. A faintly familiar sight made stronger in our minds when we passed the Collossi of Memnon statues from the first day.  A few minutes later, the cars pulled off the road and made their way uncomfortably into a bumpy field where they eventually came to rest.
The most beautiful and majestic view greeted us.  Dawn was just breaking and the glow of the imminent sun made silhouettes of the palm trees in the distance, as the sky became populated with hovering, glowing dots. 
Milling out into the field randomly, our group of twenty or so sleepy-eyed tourists caught the fresh morning air - tinged with the smell of burning gas from the many giant balloons either being inflated or were disappearing into the sky.  As one balloon took off a group of helpers made up of young and old dragged the next one off a nearby truck and attached it to an overturned basket.  It was clear that today was Balloon Day and everyone was going up in them.

With little direction, our group stood and took pictures waiting for their turn.  Eventually part of our group containing us both were beckoned over to a newly righted basket, into which the apparent big boss of the group, an aging but spirited man with a mischievous smile and enough English under his belt to supply a range of anecdotes climbed in.  Then we were beckoned to follow.

The basket was split into eight containers, and people continued to get in long after we thought it would be comfortable (or safe) to fit in any more.  Trying to stay as a pair failed miserably as we ended up at opposite ends of the basket, but at least we were in the same one and would be able to compare views when we landed.

It seemed to take an age for the balloon to get enough hot air inside to lift our weight, an experience made slightly scarier as the top of my head began to feel very singed, something I had little opportunity to minimise as I was squashed up against a small Japanese lady who may have taken offence at us crossing knees.

Eventually we lifted off the ground.  The assigned workers below us scrambled to pull us left and right so our path didn't get too close to the other balloons, and we ascended.

It was perfect, and beautiful.  We rose over the Valley of the Queens in the fresh morning air, the sunrise just beginning and the path ahead near cloudless and perfectly clear, though frustratingly the camera-shy sights of the Kings forever remained just over the hill. 
From above we could also see several other ruined sites not open to the public, and small children seemed constantly charmed as yet another balloon full of gawping idiots flew above their heads.  We rose higher and could see further; the banks of the Nile in the distance and the thousands of homes and buildings that made up Luxor city. 
Our view of the city until now was of a tired and run-down ruin, but in the bathing light of a new day Egypt was gorgeous.

As our host made light of his loose interpretations of health and safety, and our little group did their best to laugh through his well-rehearsed smalltalk, we rode the wind with a small convoy of cars and vans following us as best they could through the dusty back-roads.  The tundra below was surprisingly varied, ranging from barren sand and rock one minute, to neat, cultivated fields of green the next, and both interspersed with box-like houses seemingly forever in a state of construction, providing a modern progression from the exclusive kingdoms of the ancients just over the road.

The sun rose still further, but we began to sink.  Our pilot, [for want of a better word since our journey was largely at the mercy of the winds], was looking to bring us down in an open area just beyond the outer perimeter of the village we had just passed over.  A trio of vans bumped over the dusty tyre tracks towards our intended landing spot as we were told to brace for impact.  Arms could be broken and worse if the wind caught us wrong and dragged the basket over on landing, so we assumed the position, knees bent and twisting our arms around whatever anchor we could reach.  In the end the landing was a bit of an anti-climax and even though we breathed a sigh of relief I felt a little disappointed we didn't have a moment of peril.

In a range of undignified exits, we all disembarked and waited for the cars to return, some way off down the track due to their lack of 4x4-ness compared to the pickups here to take the balloon away. The assembled workers got to work deflating and collapsing the balloon ready for the next trip, and as they did our pilot had a surprise for us in the form of personalised certificates made for the journey, of completing the 'Hod Hod Balloon trip' successfully (i.e. without dying horribly).

We bid goodbye to the ballooners and the small assemblage of children who had made their way over on pushbike and donkey, and waited expectantly for someone to point a camera at them, (at which point out came the hand for tips).  The return journey back to the bank took us through some lesser-seen back-streets of several interconnecting villages, winding between houses and down the sides of fields, the occasional local working through the dust raised by our vehicles and getting on with their morning duties.
And when we got back to the Nile crossing, we spotted a sight we were expecting to see all over the place - camels! - waiting patiently for their masters to return, tied to railings like we would do with dogs when nipping into the shops.

Once returned to the boat and pleasantly filled with our final main meal, we had a few hours to kill before setting off for home.  After the previous nights' fiasco with the photo album, and my Ibis statue hunt still unfulfilled, we decided to spend a little time braving the vendors for a second time in the bazaar.

Since we had been once already, we took the opportunity to head out in another direction and try a few alternate shops to the main hub, according to our map.  However, due to the massive overhaul Luxor was getting (and the dip in tourists), many of these were now run-down and boarded up, leaving only a few tired examples containing nothing much at all and a smattering of political graffiti.

So the Bazaar it was.  Having the measure of the salesmen, we avoided eye contact and attempted some faux conversation which kept many of them at bay, whilst keeping half an eye on the stalls for potential bargains.  Our noses took us to one of many spice shops; a young man squeezed into a tiny shop, the shelves with many bottles and jars of spices of all colours and types.  He sat us down with some sweet tea brought by a youngster from across the way and we chatted about everything we had done the past week or so, as he shovelled quantities of all the spices we could name into little plastic bags.  The other half is a seasoned barterer, and her skills helped us get a lot of spice for our remaining Egyptian buck (we still have a lot of it).

Similar skills came into effect as she deftly brought the price of a leather pouffe down to less than half the asking price in another shop, and I was duly helped to get a small obelisk statue with a few remaining quid from a stall full of dusty relics (my favourite haunt).
With rucksack stuffed full and the missus lauding her superior bartering skills over me, we walked back past the entrance to Luxor temple and to the boat once more, stopping briefly at the Winter Palace Hotel, which just happened to be across from our jetty.

The insides were palatial and the Christmas decor was just starting to go up; the entrance hall dominated by a large tree currently being hung with tasteful ornaments.  Coming in from the hot sun and blue skies this felt pretty weird, especially as we had just been given a clean pass through some pretty big security at the start as if we were visiting dignitaries.

Through the air conditioned interior and out the other side, we found ourselves in a beautiful garden, and still unsure how we hadn't been charged some sort of admission we made the most of it and relaxed in the shade of the palm trees. 
A cage of cockatiels held my attention for a while (as did a passing Hod Hod bird that briefly swooped down from the trees) but it was eventually time to leave and ready ourselves for the trip back, noted for the scariest, bumpiest landing into Manchester airport I had ever experienced.

Egypt, for all it's run-down dustiness and it's still smouldering politics had a real depth and beauty to it; I wish I could have stayed longer, and I hope for one to see the eventual rebirth of Luxor as a prosperous city making tons of moolah out of western travellers.  The arab uprising seems to have come to a standstill, and for most people out there, life was going on as ever it did, for better or worse, only with less tourists around to help scrape a living.  I can only hope that the sea of change will not be set back again once the dust settles.

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