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Five Thousand Years in 19 days - Pyramids, Tombs, Camels and a River

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Mar 19th, 2015, 12:51 AM
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Five Thousand Years in 19 days - Pyramids, Tombs, Camels and a River

As usual, I’m behind on my trip reports and trying desperately to finish them before the next trip commences. So it’s time to start talking about our December 2014 trip to Egypt. What can I say? We had a magnificent time, in every way the trip exceeded expectations, the monuments were extraordinary, there was a diversity to what we saw, the guides were great and we stayed in some fabulous hotels, including both historic and boutique options. The history, architecture, museums, decoration and the physical beauty (of both the Nile and the sites) was almost overwhelming. Five thousand years of history is hard to comprehend in 18 nights! I've been blogging about the trip too so you can see pictures at
http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/search/label/Egypt

Logistics:
Generally I plan trips myself but occasionally we use a local agency where it seems either advantageous, prudent or cost effective. In Egypt (given the kind of trip we wanted) it seemed to be the best way to go. Several different people and agencies were recommended and in all honesty I can say only two offered any sort of individualized response. We opted to go for Djed an Egyptian company with good reviews. Our decision was based on the response we received, cost,the fact that they own and operate their own dahabiyas and that they offer guaranteed departures, a significant point when tourism is down. Their website has lots more info, a great reading list and lots of vintage picture! http://www.djedegypt.com
I was dealing with the owner Mr. SImman and I was very impressed. Right from the beginning he sought to understand the experience we were looking for. His staff proved to be companionable, pleasant, intelligent and most importantly he seemed to have invested them with a degree of decision making which showed confidence and appreciation on both sides. All in all it was a win for us and we thought the trip was an outstanding value.

Flights. We flew from Dublin into Cairo on Lufthansa, well we would have if they hadn’t been on strike! Lots of drama and a flight we almost missed via Heathrow on Egyptair but probably not too interesting here. I hate trip reports that document "and then we dropped off our bags…” - so enough said! Coming back we used 25,000 United miles (per person in economy) to fly from Aswan to London, a great use of United miles for anyone who is interested.

Itinerary:
Here’s what we had planned. There were some compromises, I would have preferred an extra day in Alexandria and another day or two in Luxor- so we could have included Dendera Temple- but you can’t have everything. There are lots of wonderful museums and mosques in Cairo and I could certainly see spending more time there too, but it depends on your particular interest and your tolerance for the ghastly pollution. It worked well to stay two nights in Giza (at Mena House) and then to move into Islamic Cairo which we loved and would highly recommend. It’s a good way to minimize your exposure to the Cairo traffic which will certainly be a player in what ever drama Cairo throws at you! We wanted to see Pharaonic monuments but we also hoped to see the medieval Islamic monuments and to get a sense for the Coptic community too.

2 Cairo (Mena House)
1 Alexandria (Cecil Hotel)
3 Islamic Cairo (Le Riad)http://www.leriadhotel.com
1 Luxor (Pavillion Winter)
3 Luxor -West Bank (Al Mouidra) http://www.moudira.com
4 Dahabiya on the Nile (Louila) http://nile-dahabiya.com
1 Abu Simbel (Eskaleh Nubian Lodge)
3 Aswan (Old Cataract Hotel)

Preparation Before We Went:
We usually do some reading before we go on a trip like this and certainly it helped in this case. The history is so long and so significant that it helped enormously to arrive in Egypt with a lets a broad sense of the dynastic periods. Together we took an online class The History of Ancient Egypt from the Great Courses, my husband read a history of Egypt and on the trip I picked up an anthropological study on Nubian Women of West Aswan. The dvd lectures from the Great Course was interesting and informative though fairly straightforward and undemanding. Without this background we would have had difficulty absorbing all the history that was about to be coming our way!

Safety:
We felt safe, though I realize this is a very subjective thing. I’m not a nervous person and having read the British Foreign Office Advisory it seemed the only advice was to avoid the Sinai and to use some some basic/obvious smarts if you encountered a demonstration. Lots of friends remarked on us going to Egypt but having read the reports on TripAdvisor I could see people were going and having a great time. Ironically, nobody asked or worried about our subsequent trip to France and we were there during the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Because of people’s concerns and the subsequent drop in tourism, the sites were quiet and we experienced Egypt with no crowds, lines or inconvenience. We felt so badly for the Egyptian people, many of whom are suffering and/or unemployed because of the dramatic drop in tourism.
I hate crowds and the monuments in Egypt have attracted large numbers of tourists for over a century. This is where mass tourism was invented and we knew that for us this was the best time to go. We also tried to combine our trip with learning about contemporary Egyptian society, by meeting a friend of my brother-in law’s in Cairo, reading about the revolution and subsequent political tribulations, as well as seeing the fascinating documentary "The Square" which you can view on Netflix.

OK so lets get to the trip!

Cairo:
Pyramids in lots of different forms! We’d read about the development of the pyramids and so we wanted to head out to Saqqara to see the Bent Pyramid, the Step Pyramid and the Red Pyramid before we headed to the famous site at Giza. This gives you an idea of the historical and architectural development of pyramid building. The drive to Saqqara took some time but it was fascinating stuff, markets, daily life, donkeys, people, chaos. But what was great was starting in the desert entirely on our own, the guide, a armed guard and the site (the bent pyramid) all to ourselves. This was an indication of what was to come later in our trip when we had the great site of Abu Simbel all to ourselves, but that is getting ahead of myself.
I’ve blogged about our pyramid day, photos, history, recommendations etc. All I can add is that while the solar boat museum is fascinating, and highly recommended, the building itself is a monstrosity and I cannot believe it was allowed to be built right up against the Great Pyramid. The museum housed the reassembled solar ( or funerary) barge but for the pharaoh to make his symbolic journey across the river. The scale, condition and beauty of the boat is extraordinary.

http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/2015/...ne-sphinx.html

Alexandria a Nostalgia Trip:
I guess this is the place where I tell you my parents lived in Egypt when I was a child….I’ll continue this later but for now here’ a blog post on our Alexandria excursion…

http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/2015/...lexandria.html
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Mar 19th, 2015, 05:44 AM
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Thanks for this. I had been thinking about visiting Tunisia, but after yesterday's disaster might consider going back to Egypt instead. I missed Alexandria and the Valley of the Kings (got sick) last time.
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Mar 19th, 2015, 07:41 AM
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I'm reading along with great interest. I've visited, but Cheryl has not.

Thursdays, I've been brainstorming next please to visit and had thought of Tunisia, but... maybe not now.
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Mar 19th, 2015, 07:59 AM
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Kathie - this is the third time I've thought seriously about visiting Tunisia. The first time, early 2011, I even had plane tickets. On the one hand, worrying incident, on the other, terrorism can happen anywhere, and is very unlikely to happen to me.

Am still planning this year's trip, although arrival in Berlin in mid-July and Hurtigruten cruise with my sister in mid-August plus some UK time are set.
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Mar 19th, 2015, 10:23 AM
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Thanks for the responses, it's an Asia board reunion over here! Incidentally, Thursdaysd I'll be in Berlin in mid July too! Kathie, do tell Cheryl that Egypt was one of the best trips we've taken in ages.

Tunisia has been on our list too though we've never got as far as buying tickets, what a tragedy for everyone involved, I'm sure the consequences to the tourist economy will be enormous and will probably go beyond Tunisia.
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Mar 19th, 2015, 10:48 AM
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I would gladly return to Egypt! I've sometimes thought that right after such an incident might be the safest time to travel. My earlier trip to Egypt was soon after the attack on tourists at Hatshepsut's mortuary temple, and just the week before we left that was a shooting in the hotel where we would be staying in Cairo. There were relatively few tourists, which we appreciated, but we felt badly for the locals who were out of work because of the drop in tourism.

You wer able to stay at some wonderful old hotels!
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Mar 19th, 2015, 12:04 PM
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welltraveledbrit - How about a mini-GTG in Berlin? I arrive July 14, not sure for how long, but probably at least five nights.

Getting back to Egypt... Definitely moved Alexandria up the list! That house museum sounds just my style. I chose not to go inside the pyramids, and I'm not sorry. They were intended for dead people, after all.

Love, love, love the idea of the dahabiya instead of the cruise ship I did last time. Want to share one, Kathie?
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Mar 19th, 2015, 06:44 PM
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Coming along for the party too. I thought about Egypt back in 2008 when we visited Jordan but opted for a Turkey combo instead.
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Mar 20th, 2015, 09:50 AM
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Thanks for the encouragement and I'm glad you're following along.

thursdaysd - We head home from Berlin on July 14th so it looks like we are ships passing at the airport!

OK, back to the trip report!


This part of the trip was pure nostalgia. My parents lived in Cairo and Alexandria for a few years around 1980 and while I was at school in the UK my brother and I spent four months a year in Egypt. Revisiting the Mena House was the beginning of the trip down memory lane as my parents had lived here for six months! While they've relocated the swimming pool (....why I wondered it was much nicer below the hotel where they now have a reflecting poo?l) much of the interior of the historic section was EXACTLY as I remembered, the wonderful breakfast room over looking the pyramids and the Indian restaurant, though they no longer have the small stage with a sitar player.

Anyway, we headed out to Alex on the desert road which worked well from Giza. The "desert road" is no longer desert with housing developments, US style business parks, agriculture including vineyards, a prison complex and lots and lots of building. Cairo is an enormous city and it's eating up the surrounding desert region.

We had a great trip and loved the driver a very companionable man called Mr. Ala. Along with us too was Tariq who the agency sent to make sure everything went well. I think they could do this because things were so quiet and they have extra people in the office. They really pulled out all the stops for us and I kept looking around at the minibus, the driver, Tariq and (when we got to Alex)the local guide thinking I don't think we've paid enough for all of this service. Egypt really is an amazing value. Tariq and Mr Ala were a comedy duo and we had a GREAT time, we learnt so much about contemporary Egypt from Tariq and he was a great addition. WE found out he is is a guide for the desert areas and we certainly hope to return and do that trip with them too.

To make the most of the three plus hour drive we stopped at Wadi Natron where there is a very interesting complex of early Coptic monasteries. I recommend this stop (we went to and liked the Syrian monastery) as it gives you a sense for the religious and cultural diversity in Egypt. The monks are friendly and were happy to give us a tour.

Alexandria is a fascinating city, it has always had an outward orientation and when I was a child it was common to meet people who spoke a variety of the languages of commerce, Italian, French, Greek, and Arabic. Today , like Cairo, it has expanded enormously and the traffic is horrendous but it still has a faded charm. I was sorry we hadn't planned on a couple of additional days.

We had a long list of things on our program but we decided to throw that out straight away, we were quite happy not to see the citadel etc. my main focus was seeing my childhood home. Our first stop was the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa which we loved, I highly recommend this site.

Here is some of what I put on my blog...

It's fascinating to find places that embody the intersection, overlaps and disruptions of our cultural and religious histories. Here, it's well worth the journey to see a single familial tomb combining classical Greco-Roman and Pharaonic imagery, here the pharaonic ritual of mummification combines with the Roman burial practice of the catacombs. More than any other place in Alexandria this tomb points to the role that the city has played in incorporating, absorbing and re-shaping foreign influences in Egypt. It was moment when, as E. M. Forster said his (1922) Alexandria: A History and Guide, " the old faiths began to merge and melt". I love how lyrically he puts it, though I'm not sure if it's the Roman's melting into the Egyptians or vice versa? Perhaps the point is that once it melts it doesn't matter.

If you are interested you can go to the blog to read more and/or see our photos -
http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/2015/...-when-old.html

The area around the Catacombs is typically old Alexandria, narrow roads, lots of street life, men playing dominos on the pavement and talking in the coffee shops, it all seemed very familiar. WE passed a beautiful fish and seafood stall where they fry and grill up fish for local residents and women we waiting to take their orders home for lunch. I really wanted a meal of fresh fish which I remembered so vividly so I asked the local guide and said I'd be happy to sit on the street and eat the fish." No", he tried to explain to me, "this is just for taking to go". But without understanding a word or each others language the owner and I had communicated, if we returned after the catacombs he would have a lunch ready. What serendipity!

It's hard to explain how magical this experience was. The young owner used to work in a tourist restaurant kitchen but they fired everyone when the cruise ships stopped coming to Alexandria. So now he is selling fish on the street. When we arrived back he had set up a table in the back, behind the stall and there was a feast. grilled butterflied fish with peppers, small fried fish, rice with shrimp, baba ganoush and Tahini as well as a salad and vegetables. We were stunned, the local guide and Tariq couldn't believe it. In addition they brought cokes from the shop across the street, mint tea and a wonderful pomegranate juice served over crushed ice. It was one of the most memorable lunches we've eaten

In one moment I found all of the magic, hospitality and generosity I knew from my childhood. Here was the Egypt I remembered, filled with warmth, curiosity and welcome.
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Mar 20th, 2015, 09:56 AM
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What a lovely experience with the fish seller!

Pity about Berlin, but we won't even pass in the airport - I forgot that the 14th is the day I leave the US...
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Mar 20th, 2015, 12:52 PM
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Sorry we'll miss you. It's my first trip to Berlin and we are excited about seeing the city.

I meant to add ...What was nice about seeing the catacombs right after the pyramids was that we'd skipped from the Old Kingdom into the very end of the period of Pharaonic influence.
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Mar 20th, 2015, 12:55 PM
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Can I join in here?

Had a fantastic trip to Egypt in 2012. Likewise, no tourists, empty sites and I too felt bad for the people working in the travel industry. Goodness knows how they are managing. We went through Sinai then across the gulf to Jordan too.

Wanted to go to Alexandria last year but found it impossible to travel along the Med from Israel-Alex-Sicily-Tunisia in any efficient way. So although I got to the others, I still haven't been to Alex. I'm a big fan of the Alexandria Quartet and although I know it is long gone, still want to go and see if there are any ghosts left. Thanks for the details welltravelledbrit.

The other thing I was looking at a few years ago was Carthage to Cairo. Now impossible too. Isn't it terrible when you realise you have missed the moment?

I was in Tunisia last November. Good time of year. We went to the Bardo Museum which was brilliant. I am so sad to read about what happened a couple of days ago. There was almost no-one there when we went and I'm sure it is even worse now. Tunisia is well set-up for tourists, there is a lot to see, and it will be a tragedy if their tourist industry falls apart.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 05:55 AM
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Loving your report, your blog, and your images. It is sad that tourism has fallen so precipitously, but for a photographer, it is a bit of heaven. My images from 2010 were a challenge to say the least--massive crowds of both local and foreign tourists. You were alone at Hatshepsut's mortuary temple! My pictures show at least 800 people on the ramp--the parking lot was packed with tour busses.

Therein lies the jin and jang of travel during difficult times. Looks like you had a fabulous and safe time.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 10:18 AM
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So glad you're joining in, the encouragement should spur me to writ some more!

MORE ON ALEXANDRIA

We also saw Pompey's pillar and the ruins of the Serapeum but it wasn't a particularly compelling site and the guide didn't add much to the experience.

We stayed overnight at the wonderful Cecil Hotel. This place is a classic, when we moved to Alex, my grandfather came to visit and he remembered the Cecil because it's where they came to have a bath after fighting in the Western Desert! This was long before the monstrous new Four Seasons went in. Back in 1980 it was big news when a new Sheraton opened!

Anyway do check out the Cecil, it's in the center of town right on the corniche so you can walk around.Incidentally their breakfast was excellent. In the evening we took a stroll and ate at one of the small food carts nearby. Alexandria is famous for offal, and the stall owner and his clients were so friendly and wanted us to try small bits of everything including the famous Alexandrian liver. It was just great and we had to stop one young chap from trying to pay for our sandwiches!

The next day we were heading out to look for my old house (obviously this isn't going to be on most tourist itineraries!). We didn't live in the standard expatriate neighborhood and there was a question of whether the house had survived the massive expansion of the city.

I was a woman on a mission. Neither my mother or brother could remember the address but we knew it was behind the prestigious Victoria College and my brother located what he though was the house on Google Map's satellite view. Tariq was skeptical, "Angela, the city has change a lot in more than thirty years," he admonished, " I don't think your house will still be there." My husband looked equally dubious, afraid perhaps of my disappointment, but I was undeterred.

As I turned the corner I caught sight of the street sign, "Rue Chiitty Bey" and I remembered it all. I laughed out loud to think we all had all forgotten such a memorable name! The street looked the same. The villa was still there though the surrounding apartment buildings were much higher than I remembered. The house remains an oasis of calm in the middle of a regular neighborhood of apartment dwellers. The surrounding wall had been built up and some additions made, but it was instantly recognizable. Unfortunately there were now four armed guards and despite Tariq's pleas nobody wanted to bother the owners to ask if we could look at the property from the garden. Apparently the people who live there now are very much more important than me!

I was so elated just to see the outside of the place that I didn't care what else we saw.


But of course there was more to see. The local guide let us know that the nearby Royal Jewelry Museum had recently reopened and we headed over there. I had read about it a while ago on a design blog but hadn't expected it to be open as it was closed during the revolution. What an incredible place, if you like house museums this place should be on your list and it was a wonderful contrast to all the pharaonic and islamic monuments we were to see. The house itself id spectacular with incredible woodwork and painted tile. Because of security concerns they do not allow any photographs which is a pity. The jewelry is exquisite, everything from snuff boxes to tiaras, but even without the collection it would be worth it to see the house which is a stately mansion reflecting wealth, taste and the influence of European design and culture on the Egyptian royal family in the early Twentieth Century.

After this stop we went to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina or new Alexandrian Library. This is a good stop for architectural enthusiasts and the building is very impressive with a wonderful facade inscribed with a incredible variety of known alphabets. It's a very well used facility with many local teenagers studying here. There are also a variety of museums, anyone for a Sadat Museum? We went to the Antiquities museum downstairs, which requires a separate ticket and found lots of great stuff from the Pltolemiac era. Overall Alexandria is a great place to see the decline of Pharaonic power and the rise of the Greco-Roman culture in the Mediterranean.

After all this we headed back to Cairo. It was a crazy itinerary and I'd certainly recommend an extra day in Alexandria.

RETURNING TO CAIRO

We'd divided up our hotels in Cairo and were now heading into the Islamic Quarter where we were staying(for three nights) in the lovely Le Riad. I'd looked at this place ages ago when it first opened and it was quite expensive but things have changed. IT's a small hotel and all the rooms are suites done in an individual"Arabian fantasy" style. The best thing about the hotel is the location, you are right in the middle of a pedestrian quarter in the heart of the medieval islamic city.

I cannot emphasis enough how great this location is. it means you are seeing fabulous mosques, madrassahs and historic houses from the moment you get up every morning. Even better, many of them are lit up at night. We had thought about staying in Zamalak which has a leafy, bourgeois charm but I was so glad we opted for this part of the city which reminded us both of Damascus which we loved so much on our 2011 visit. There just so much energy and life on the street. The only drawback we could see was that the hotel doesn't have a restaurant and there are limited options in the area. Others had commented on this but we didn't find it a problem.

Medieval Cairo was one of the highlights of our trip....
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Mar 21st, 2015, 10:47 AM
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Here's the link to some Alexandria pictures including the house!

http://www.somuchmoretosee.com/2015/...lexandria.html

Thursdaysd -
I highly recommend the dahabiya experience as you can see from the raves on blog. I have no interest in cruises but this was an individual experience. What is crazy is that they guarantee the departure. They told be they've even run the boat with one passenger, unbelievable.

Boston Harbour -
There were people at the temple when we were there, including a large group of Egyptian schoolchildren who were running down the ramp at a pace - followed by their teachers screaming at them to slow down. But once they left we had the place mostly to ourselves with a few other small groups. I just waited until it was a quiet as possible for the picture.

It seems we are always going places during "difficult times", but we do have a few rules and I don't think we are reckless. Last year we cancelled our trip to Bangladesh (at the last minute and at great expense) because of violence surrounding the election.

I think it's a good idea to have a relationship with a trustworthy local agent or driver and to take their advice. I pay attention to the British Foreign Office Advisories but I'm not ruled by them. We don't travel in large groups and we generally avoid staying in large American identified hotels , for example I'd avoid any Marriots or Sheratons, and perhaps even the Four Seasons in places like the Middle East or Central Asia .

Nothing is foolproof, but I'm always struck by the fact that our friends worry about us when we go to places like the Middle East but aren't concerned when we go to New York or European capitals - which are in every way a target too. Perhaps it's having grown up in England/ireland in the 1970s when we lived through the IRA bombings/security concerns, but I think the nature of terrorism is to frighten you and all we can do is resist in an informed manner.

We've spent a lot of time in the Islamic world and the Middle East over the last fifteen years, Mali and Senegal in 2000, Iran and Armenia in 2003, Indonesia in 2006, Morocco in 2007, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Maldives in 2008, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in 2011, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Egypt in 2014. We've had a fantastic time in all of these places. Seeing, and appreicating, the diversity of the Islamic world is a great way to inoculate yourself against hate and fear mongering.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 11:36 AM
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Enjoyed your blog and your pictures! What a life you had!! Alexandria has shot to the top of my list again but I see that just as of the last few days Egypt requires a visa in advance rather than at the airport. More hassle.
I feel the same way as you about 'safety' and 'tourism'. Avoid groups, large American-styled hotels, tour buses, cruises.
I too was in England during the IRA bombings and it became a way of life. Now I am based in the US and the scaremongering is of quite a different magnitude. I too read the FCO advisories more as a matter of interest than as warnings.
I am fascinated by the culture of the Islamic world and regret it is too late to get to Syria and Iraq, Iran is complicated by visa requirements, though I have hopes for Central Asia soon.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 11:51 AM
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I read the FCO as a corrective to the US State Dept, lol. Iran and Central Asia have been on my must see list since 2001 (when my small Intrepid group entered Pakistan from China the day of 9-11!) Am seriously thinking of finally going next year, but the visa situation is off-putting.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 12:26 PM
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Lol Thursday. We should co-ordinate!
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Mar 21st, 2015, 12:58 PM
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Yep! Email me in Nov-Dec.... Should be home from upcoming trip and in planning mode.
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Mar 21st, 2015, 03:12 PM
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I saw that the Egyptians are requiring a visa, I presume it's a security thing but what a way to discourage people. We are heading to London for three months at the beginning of April and are thinking of heading to ST Petersburg for five days in July and I must admit the expense and hassle of the visa regime is putting me off.

Gertie3751 The Iranian visa wasn't too bad it's just a matter of the travel agency (Americans have to use one) getting the right paper work from the Foreign ministry. The Iranian Interest section of the Pakistani Embassy in DC issues the visa.

I don't remember too about the Uzbek visa but the Turkmen one was a bit of a chore, though I think the hassle was something the travel agent dealt with, I can recommend Stan Tours who did a great job for us booking small hotels and providing a car and driver.

Thursdaysd, I would love to go to Pakistan but we've taken it off the plate for right now.
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