Sunday, January 02, 2005

Egypt: Mt Sinai

I heard that climbing up Mt Sinai to watch sunrise was pretty good. But then I heard the bad parts: walking up a mountain in the dark, really cold at the top, and super-religious Nigerian pilgrims screaming crazily at dawn. I came to Egypt to escape cold, so I went up in the daytime to watch sunset instead.

The trip started like all good Egyptian travel stories - with the tourists getting fleeced. The day before I had booked a seat on a bus to Mt Sinai, to leave at 8am sharp, I was told. "Sharp" in Egypt usually means within a couple of hours, but I took the command at face value, and at 8am I was sitting on the mini-bus with 3 other Australians waiting to go. At 8:30am the driver came back and announced that there was a "little problem". That problem was that he wouldn't take us unless we paid double what we had agreed on. With a bit of haggling we barely made a dent in his demands, but we all wanted to go and had planned to leave the general region the next morning so we went ahead. I fumed on the hour-long bus ride as we passed through numerous military checkpoints, including a dreary United Nations peacekeeping outpost in the desert.

At Mt Sinai we had two choices for climbing: up the easy low-gradient path used by camels and most tourists, or up the 3750 Steps of Repentance, carved out by a monk as a life-long obsession. I didn't want to go this way, it seemed unnecessarily hard but the other three Aussies were gung-ho and so I bowed in to the peer pressure to go up that way. The steps were like the mountain crossing in Lord of the Rings, minus the blizzard, and were a tough climb.

Mt Sinai is where Moses is supposed to have received the 10 commandments. Halfway up one of the guys told us that actually no-one knows where THE Mt Sinai is, and that a monk decided that this was the right mountain, some 2000 years after the days of Moses. So as a tourist and religious destination it is a total fraud, but the scenery still made the climb worthwhile.

We arrived at the top two hours before sunset and so had to wait in ice-cold winds. We were joined at various times by some Dutch guys, a French family, and a retired Canadian couple heading to Namibia where they were going to spend six months huntin' and fishin'. Eventually all gave up waiting because of the cold, and only another Aussie and myself waited long enough to get the sunset photos.

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