Exploring Egypt: Aswan, the great winter escape

Walt Curnow, Tuesday 10 Jan 2017

An exciting overnight train ride took us to the southern city where we enjoyed breathtaking views, a dip in the clear Nile water, and some unforgettable sightseeing

The sun setting over Aswan and the Nile. (Photo by:Hany Maher)

Once the overnight train rolls out of Cairo, it’s about another 13 hours until you reach Egypt’s stunning southern city of Aswan. As the sun rises you realise you’re almost in a different world as you pass through the verdant greenery of the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt and its countless and close-to-identical villages.

The train experience

A tea and snack cart passes through the carriage throughout the night--just enough to tide you over if you don’t bring your own food. Annoyingly, it doesn’t come through in the morning at all, but by then you know that some of the best and freshest food in Egypt is not far away.

We opted for first-class seats--though not the bunk beds of the sleeper carriage--which come in at approximately EGP 130, one way from Cairo. Pretty reasonable, and the ride was comfortable enough for a few hours’ sleep, even for those with long legs. The toilets are predictably a bit dirty, but useable for both genders, though the rest of the train is clean and smokers are permitted to light up in between the carriages.

Even for those of us who had been to Aswan before, the train trip is exciting--conversations revolve around the blue and swimmable Nile, the fresh air and the never-to-be-overstated hospitality of Nubian culture.

The souq

Once you make it to the station you are directly in front of the famous kilometres-long souq with its handicrafts, fresh fruit and vegetables, a few decent foul and taameyya restaurants, meat and fish. We would highly recommend the latter. One night we bought four big balty fish, easily enough to fill up the five of us, all for just 60 pounds.

There are a few hotels at the start of the souk--mostly budget places--and on previous trips we found that they were comfortable enough, very central, if not a bit dingy and unexciting. Hotel Yassin comes to mind with its hostel-style dormitories that are perfectly fine if you don’t book a hotel beforehand and can’t be bothered going far after the train trip.

Elephantine Island

Aswan is full of bird life, especially on the island which hosts the botanical gardens (Photo by: Hany Maher)

We actually found it more practical to rent an Airbnb apartment on Elephantine Island, just across the Nile from the corniche in downtown Aswan. We were directly overlooking the Nile, about thirty seconds from our own felucca, and could gaze directly out onto the Botanical Gardens on Kitchener’s Island -- named after the English lord of the same name who was given it when he served as the consular-general in the late 1800s.

None of us were bird experts but it was exquisite to watch all the different species flocking in the sky--all heading south for the winter like us--as the sun dipped behind the sand dunes on the west bank of the Nile in the evening, as we sipped on cold Stellas and celebrated our temporary release from Cairo.

Although our Airbnb flat, the oddly named Ibiza House, only had two bedrooms, there was plenty of room for the rest of us to sleep in various lounges.

It cost us $42 a night but there were between four and six of us throughout the week so it wasn’t overly expensive. The kitchen is well-supplied with a good fridge so most nights we cooked the produce we picked up on our daily trips to the souq, saving a lot of money.

Unlike Luxor, Aswan is the not the kind of place that demands a lot of activity. It is generally enough to sit around and enjoy the weather, chat, read, listen to music, and eat and drink.

In spite of this, we were reasonably adventurous. On one day we walked south from our apartment for about twenty minutes through the small Nubian villages of Siou and Koti and a few agricultural fields to the ancient archaeological site of Abu. The site is not massive nor particularly well-preserved, but you are in the middle of the Nile so the scenery is beautiful.

The High Dam and Nubia

The Nubian Beach (Photo by: Hany Maher)

The next day we got a boat a bit further down the Nile on the way to the High Dam to the aptly named Nubian Beach. The journey took about 45 minutes, passing various small, green islands and the imposing sand dunes on the west bank.

At the beach--which is more of an inlet with easy access to the water--there was a big group of people, so we asked our captain to find a quieter spot so the girls in the group could swim with more privacy and comfort.

The water was cold so we took just a quick dip, but with the sun shining we dried off pretty quickly.

On our way back we stopped off at a place called the Nubian Restaurant on the west bank, which is a slightly elevated above the banks of the river. We watched the sunset in between the trees, while sharing a pricey bottle of Obelisk and a delicious mixed grill with salad and dips.

A trip to Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel (Photo by: Hany Maher)

The next morning we left our apartment at 3am to get a boat to the corniche in downtown. We had a microbus waiting there to take the three-hour trip south, past the High Dam and through the desert to Abu Simbel. The trip cost us EGP 200 per person (there were four of us).

We all caught a few hours’ sleep on the bus and woke to see the sun rising, surrounded by the desert.

You hear a lot about the imposing Abu Simbel, the miracle of its transfer to safe ground--it would have been swallowed up by Lake Nasser during the High Dam project if it had not been moved. But to wake to see the temples that are surrounded by the lake’s vastness and pristine water is certainly a nice start to the day.

Both the small and large Abu Simbel Temples were built during the reign of Ramses II, somewhere between the years 1264 and 1224 BC. The temples are dedicated to the gods Ra-Horakty and Ptah, as well as to Ramses II himself (the large temple,) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (the small temple).

The size of the temples, but especially the details and preservation of the colours, is striking and leaves any visitor with a lasting impression. But for more historical detail, please check your travel guides and history books.

We got back to Aswan by mid-afternoon and because the eating and drinking options in Abu Simbel are limited (we opted out of having a morning Turkish coffee which would have cost us EGP 25 each) we had a very late lunch in the souq.

By nightfall we were exhausted and decided to sit back in our apartment and as we did on most nights, we played card games, listened to music and watched a movie. There’s not much nightlife so it’s better to be self-sufficient--bring some small speakers, a deck of cards or board games and a book.

The Botanical Gardens

A view of the Nile and Aswan from high up on the west bank (Photo by: Hany Maher)

The botanical gardens at night (Photo by: Hany Maher)

The following day was our last so we decided not to stray too far from our base. In the afternoon we rode another boat across to the Botanical Gardens and had a walk around to see the hundreds of varieties of plants and trees from around the world.

In fact, the gardens are actually more impressive to observe from afar. They turned out to be a popular venue for school trips, and when we visited we found hundreds of children playing loud music and running around.

After our stroll, we got back on our boat, went to the west bank, and walked most of the way up the mountain to see the Tombs of the Nobles, and then to the top for the beautiful sunset, the silence and the panoramic view of Aswan, the Nile and beyond into the desert abyss.


The Temple of Horus in Edfu (Photo by: Hany Maher)

The Temple of Horus in Edfu (Photo by: Hany Maher)

Because going straight back to Cairo would be too brutal, the next morning we got a microbus to take us up the Nile to Luxor. But in between we stopped off at Kom Ombo Temple, dedicated to the local crocodile god Sobek and Haroeris, and then the Temple of Horus in Edfu.

The Temple of Horus is incredible--it is the most well-preserved pharaonic temple in all of Egypt, and one of the biggest. Because we were basically the only tourists there we had it to ourselves and had one of the caretakers explain some of the finer details to us.

We then got back into the microbus for the rest of the way to Luxor. What makes this part of the trip is excellent is that you are on the Nile the whole time and pass through green Upper Egyptian villages for hours on end.

By nightfall we had made it to Luxor. Unfortunately for some of us our holiday time had run out so we bought GoBus tickets back to Cairo for 1am the next morning. We had a quick dinner and a couple of drinks, went to the bus terminal next to the train station and were back in freezing Cairo at 9am.

Our final word is simply to say: go to Aswan. Since 2011, no two places have suffered from the drop in tourism as much as Aswan and Luxor. Things are still cheap compared to Cairo, Aswan is fresh and clean and there are very few hassles for tourists as the locals are among the kindest in Egypt. It is perfect for relaxing, and at the same time there is plenty to see if you are feeling touristy.

A felucca on the Nile in Aswan (Photo by: Hany Maher)

Things to do

Abu Simbel - It’s a three-hour microbus drive but it’s well worth it to see the imposing temples and Lake Nasser at its best.

Nubian Museum - It hosts a massive array of Nubian as well as pharaonic antiquities and is much better organised than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It also has excellent documentation of the construction of the High Dam and the displacement of Nubians in the process.

Nubian Tombs on the west bank - A great place to get a view of the city, Nile and desert as well as the coloured detail within the tombs.

Aswan Souq - A great introduction to the city and the perfect place to pick up souvenirs.

Elephantine Island - Here you have the archaeological site Abu on the southern tip. The island also has a couple of Nubian villages if you are looking for an authentic experience. There are also some really nice guest houses on the Island that you can rent through Airbnb. The island is central but quiet and peaceful.

Kitchener’s Island/Botanical Gardens - Situated on the Nile just south of downtown Aswan, it has a huge variety of plants and trees from around the world, and is a great place for bird watching or just a nice stroll.

Take a felucca - There are few better ways to get a sense of Aswan and to get around than a felucca where you can take your own snacks and drinks. The prices are negotiable but expect to pay at least EGP 100 per hour.

How to get there

You can get the overnight train to Aswan from Cairo in a first-class carriage for a little over EGP 130, which take about 13 hours (without delays.) Bear in mind that foreigners are, in theory at least, only supposed to buy tickets for the more expensive sleeper carriage, which costs $110 one-way (and they prefer foreigners to pay in dollars, not in EGP). But once you are on the train, the guards don't mind what kind of ticket you're holding.

If you don’t have much time, there are five flights a day to Aswan from Cairo and they take about an hour and a half.

Buses from Cairo are also regular but take longer.

When to go

The weather in Aswan is sunny and dry all year round but with temperatures hitting well above 40 degrees in the summer, it is best to go in the winter months with sunny days in the mid-20s. The nights dip below 10 degrees so take a heavy jacket.

Watching the sun go down (Photo by: Hany Maher)


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