Heading to the Valley of the Kings? Pack Patience and Baksheesh.
The trip from Cairo to Luxor takes, in theory, 11 hours — if my husband and I can figure out how to buy train tickets.
As foreigners, the ticket booths lining Ramses Railway Station’s main entrance are off-limits and the self-serve ticket machines we read so much about before arriving in Egypt are nowhere to be seen.
Eventually, we're directed to the Foreigner’s Reservation Office on the crowded station’s upper level. There a friendly clerk books us two second class tickets — the only class left — telling us to come back at least a half an hour before departure.
My husband and I have been in Egypt for two weeks celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary. The country has been on our bucket list for decades, and the best way to get to the Valley of the Kings from Cairo is by train.
We heed her advice, but a train is already at the platform when we arrive. It can’t be ours, can it? It’s far too early. A man standing nearby urges us to get aboard and we jump on seconds before the doors close, hoping it’s the right train.
It is! And with some guidance from other passengers we find our way to our coach.
Puzzled, we take our seats. It’s only later, when I catch a glimpse of a steward’s watch, that I realize what happened. It’s an hour ahead of my phone, which has somehow switched to another time-zone. Seeing no functional public clocks in Cairo, I just assumed my time was correct.
Silently, we thank our lucky stars for the stranger on the platform who advised us to board. If we’d missed our chance, we’d have been stuck in the city without accommodation. The travel gods have smiled on us.
We relax and settle in for what’s supposed to be a ten-hour journey. Second class is comfortable, but not luxurious. Generations of mops have repositioned dirt rather than removed it. I meet an Egyptian woman on route to the toilet who accurately describes the situation as “bad, bad.”
But the scenery is stunning.
The train tracks and the Nile River snake through the desert together; a sliver of vegetation on the edge of the sand. We see mangos ,figs, oranges, and watermelon interspersed with corn, rice, sorghum and wheat fly by our windows.
Two elderly men sitting across the aisle from us remind us of the old television show The Odd Couple — one tall, thin and quiet trying to sleep, the other one portly and talkative. Knowing only a couple of dozen words in English the talkative man constantly engages with us, finding humour in many things.
Finally he moves on to other passengers and I check our online hotel reservations on my phone. There is a concerning notice — payment only accepted in cash with foreign currency — Euros or USD and we only have Egyptian pounds. Further investigation reveals the law has been in place for years, but somehow we missed it.
It’s a stressful moment. But then we consider the context — this is Egypt, where many people get by however they can, are they really going to turn us away and lose income?
We’ve chosen a hotel on the Nile’s West Bank in Luxor, more rural and quieter with more family led businesses than its eastern counterpart. Best of all, it has most of the archaeological sites.
We let our hotel know that our train is running late, pulling into the station 13 hours after departing Cairo, and long after sunset. We’re relieved our hotel has arranged transportation — it takes two taxis and a brief ferry ride to reach the hotel — and even more relieved that they accept our Egyptian pounds.
The hotel is newly built, with three large suites and a swimming pool — a perk in the intensifying heat. All for forty dollars a night including breakfast. And they even do our laundry!
After a light breakfast we enter the street, excited to explore. Enticing restaurants, cooled by breezes off the scenic Nile are only a few minutes walk away. Twenty metres from the water’s edge we pause to watch colourful ferries traverse the storied river.
A slow moving taxi approaches, windows down. The driver stops to deliver his well practiced pitch. “Where are you heading? Do you need tickets for the Tombs of the Kings? I’ll take you to the ticket office. I am an honest man! For you a small price!”
We take him up on his offer; we all know if he gives us a good price we’ll hire him again tomorrow. He does, and we do.
Valley of the Kings, site of royal burials from the 16th to 11th century BCE, is bathed in cool morning air when we arrive shortly after sunrise. It’s home to King Tutankhamen tomb, famously discovered with its remarkable treasures still intact by Henry Carter in 1922. All of the other tombs were emptied by grave robbers despite their hidden isolated location.
First in line, we’re greeted by an employee offering advice. Do we want his help choosing which tombs to see?
But this advice is not free. Staff at tourist sites expect to be tipped, a deeply ingrained cultural practice called baksheesh. It’s not exclusive to Egypt, it’s prevalent throughout North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Tips are expected for any service, no matter how small: opening a door, taking a photo, giving directions, pointing out a painting in a gallery or turning on a light in a museum display case. Sometimes it takes the form of granting favours. Want to see a great photo location? Want to see a special painting? Want to see a mummy? Guards put up barriers, then offer a special look beyond.
Having encountered baksheesh in many countries, we’re accustomed to it. For us it’s all part of the journey and a small price to pay to see some of the world’s most fascinating archaeological sites. Some tourists complain about the practice, but given the disparity of privilege between visitors and Egyptians — who’ve dealt with successive repressive governments, endemic poverty, 35 per cent inflation, and no social safety net — these small tips are a crucial part of their livelihoods.
Our greeter’s advice on which tombs to visit turns out to be crucial as well. Mass tourism and its consequences — high humidity caused by sweat, (2.8 g per visitor) and carbon dioxide from the breathing hoards have adversely affected the reliefs and paintings. To counteract the degradation of the tombs The Department of Antiquities has implemented a rotation system — only a limited number of tombs are open to the public at any given time.
Coulourful refiefs and paintings depicting ritual texts adorn the walls and ceilings of the lengthy tunnels leading to the burial chambers, some as long as 137 metres.
Long hallways are covered in intricate colourful artwork.
We exit the last tomb and dodge a busload of tourists seeking the perfect selfie as we search for our friendly cab driver. He’s waiting in the crowded parking lot and we ask him to take us to town so we can catch the ferry across the Nile to the Luxor train station. Tickets for tomorrow’s destination, Aswan, can only be purchased in person.
Travelling independently, at times, can be one step forward and two steps back. At the first wicket the attendant says he can’t sell us a ticket and gestures towards an office door. Knocking, we go in. When the man inside finally acknowledges us he looks annoyed. He waves us away, telling us to return at 7:30 tonight. It sounds ridiculous and we’re not convinced.
We leave the office and try another wicket. Success. We get our tickets with only a small amount of baksheesh added.
Tickets in hand we stock up on snacks for the train journey to our next destination, the historic city of Aswan. The starting point for many of Egypt’s granite monuments, this ancient city and its nearby quarries make for a logical next destination for those interested in the edifices that mark Egypt’s long and complicated history.
But before we can finalize our plans we have to survive our final night in the gateway to the Valley of the Kings.
Frightened horses pass us as we walk towards our lodgings, followed by wafting smoke and the distant sounds of fire engines. The smoke thickens as we reach the front door, but it’s not until we climb onto the building’s unfinished roof that we see the flames consuming trees and shrubs in the newly developed residential enclave.
Down by the pool two employees assess the situation. “Nothing to worry about” they tell me. I’m not convinced. Egypt lacks infrastructure and I wonder if they’ll be able to extinguish the wildfire. My husband, reassured by the hotel’s cement walls, goes to bed and sleeps soundly. I keep watch from the roof as hotel staff fight to keep the embers and ash at bay.
The firefighters, working under a cloudless sky, gain the upper hand by midnight and I finally head to bed. It’s a fitful night’s sleep, but we awake to a brilliant sunrise and the promise of another adventure.