Posted by: Tommy | November 26, 2010

What’s worse than a 20 hour busride?

Two days ago, I would have said “Nothing.”

But amazingly, the answer is “An 11 hour train ride.”  And it wasn’t even close.

There are basically two ways to get from Luxor to Cairo, our last stop in Egypt: the bus and the train.  They cost about the same, they take about the same amount of time (which is unusual, a train is generally much faster than a bus) and yet the train is recommended over the bus on every travel website we could find.  Add to that the fact that the bus arrives at 4am and the train leaves later and gets in at 10 and we decided to take the train.

Our frustrating train experience started when we arrived in Luxor.  Having read that tickets for the train need to be acquired several days in advance, one of the first things we tried to do was purchase a train ticket.  We decided what day we would leave and went to the ticket window, only to be told that tickets for the train can only be purchased on the day of travel.  Hmmm.

That night, we are again reading wikitravel (the not-as-good method of trip research) and it clearly says to buy train tickets ahead of time.  So back to the train station – where we are again told that we should show up the morning of travel to get tickets.  We also read (on wikitravel) that if we don’t get tickets, we can buy them on the train and its fine.

So the next morning, we (I – Anna slept) got up early to make sure we got a train ticket.  I was up at 8 and at the ticket window by 8:20, trying to buy an 11pm train ticket.  And this time I’m told it’s sold out.  What?  I explain to the guy that I’ve been told for 2 days that its impossible to buy them ahead of time and that if I came at 8:30 the morning of travel I’d definitely get a ticket.  No.  And his guy really doesn’t care what I’ve been told on 3 different occasions.

After further research, it seems that the Egyptian government has deemed it ok for tourists to only travel on 2 trains per day from Luxor to Cairo or vice versa.  One of them is the sleeper train – $60 (350 Egyptian pounds) for a ticket.  And one of them is the 11pm train that we were trying to take.  But on that train, there is only 1 car they will sell to tourists, the most expensive class of ticket, which puts you in a small 6-seat compartment instead of the general seats with the rest of the Egyptian travelers.  And this set of compartments (there were 5 sets, 30 seats on this train) was apparently sold out before 8:30 am. Hmmm.

I had met Tomas and Monica (Czech friends) at the train station and we were all rebuffed together.  And then they saw their hotel guy (interesting note – apparently all of the hotels have a “guy” – the guy who knows everyone, can get you whatever you need, for a price. Our “guy” arranged the way-overpriced feluca ride).  Their guy was at the train station, going through the common Luxor practice of grabbing a tourist fresh off the train and haranguing them into staying at your hotel.  Monica told him about our problem – sold-out train- and he insisted he had a “cousin” working at the train station and he could get tickets.  We asked for 4 and didn’t think much about it.

After sightseeing for the day, we went back to collect our tickets – only to find out their guy had gotten 2 for Tomas and Monica….and that was it.  Damn.

Muhammed, the “guy” at our hotel, said he could get them on the black market for 30 pounds more than regular price.  Unfortunately for him, the wikitravel had comments from several people saying that they had just gotten on the train without a ticket and were able to purchase tickets there.  They did mention the risk that, without a proper ticket, you just kind of take a seat and if someone shows up who bought that seat, you have to move.  But most people said it wasn’t an issue.  Paying the extra 3 pound fee for buying your ticket on the train seemed a lot better than paying an extra 30 pounds each to Muhammed for a ticket, so we declined his offer (we might have accepted, but he really screwed us on the feluca ride) and decided to chance it by buying a ticket on the train.

We got to the station early, hoping to find a way to buy a proper seat.  No luck.  So we waited around on the platform for the train to arrive.  Several trains came and went and, since they weren’t numbered in any sort of visual way, I had to search out an employee to find out if our train had arrived yet.  During these searches, one Egyptian guy, a little younger than us, “adopted” us as his special project for that ride.  And thank God he did.  This guy was just one step below Ruslan Kim in the “Tommy and Anna trip guardian angel” department.  He made sure to seek us out when our train arrived and insisted we follow him onto the train.  We explained that we didn’t have tickets and were going to buy them on the train.  He found us seats near his and put us in them and told us not to get up.  I can’t accurately describe the chaos going on around us as he was instructing us and getting us seated – but there was no way either of us was getting up.  There were a dozen people standing in the aisle – of an 11 hour train- as he was seating us.

All was going well.  Ahmed (the guardian angel) had boarded the 2nd class car – the cheapest on the train and one that the Egyptian government doesn’t allow tourists to buy tickets for.  But as wikitravel had promised, we had no problems buying a ticket from the conductor when he came to collect them.  Ahmed helped us and we got 2 tickets for 100 pounds. All was good.

For about an hour.  At 12:06 am, all hell broke loose – at least for us.  We stopped at a particularly crowded station and seemingly a million people got on the train.  And wouldn’t you know it, two of them had tickets for the seats we were in.  They yelled at us in Arabic and it took us a minute to figure out they were yelling at us – everyone was yelling in Arabic and since we can’t understand what is being said, we just kept reading our books.  It wasn’t until the old guy started hitting me in the head with his cane that either of us even looked up and saw the old couple holding up a giant line of people, trying to get us out of our seats.

Ahmed saw what was going on and tried to come to our rescue, but the older couple did indeed have tickets for the seats we were in…and they were really, really old so we would have given them our seats anyway.  So we were without seats, after midnight, 1 hour into an 11 hour journey.  Crap.

Ahmed insisted Anna take his seat.  She declined, but he refused to sit if she was standing.  We were ready to go look for seats on a different car, but he wouldn’t let us go alone.  First, he proposed that Anna take his seat and he, his friend and I would rotate with one of us sitting in his friends’ seat and the other 2 standing for the rest of the trip.  Uhh, that’s very sweet, but standing for 2/3 of a 10 hour trip was going to suck, especially all through the night.  I was already tired.

I said that I would go look for seats in another car and Ahmed insisted on coming with me.  So we set out.  This train was unbelievable.  It seems that a lot of people buy tickets on the train with no seats.  We saw scores of children sleeping on the floor under their parents knees, elderly people curled up in the baggage holds at the ends of each car, people that had brought torn-up cardboard and a small bundle of rags to use as a mat and pillow and bed down in the open areas between cars.  But no empty spaces for Anna and I.  The whole train was teeming with people.  You couldn’t open a door without hitting someone in the head and someone else in the feet.

Ahmed and I bumped and pushed our way through 5 train cars, before arriving in the much-quieter first-class car.  In first class, there were no people standing, no people sleeping under knees and no people curled up where people weren’t meant to be.  There were also no seats.  Well, there was one and Ahmed told me to sit in it while he went to retrieve Anna.  So I did.

Anna came back about 10 minutes later, alone.  Ahmed had been harassed by the travel police when he was leading her to my seat.  She’s not sure what happened, but he told her to go with the policeman and leave her bags behind.  She grabbed the small bag with the laptop in it and followed the cop.  He brought her to me and then handed us off to another guy.  Neither of these guys spoke English, but through grunts and gestures it became clear that we should follow the second guy.  He took us through another 3 cars, all of them full.  And then we got to the Nefertari class cars, the 6-seater compartments that were the most expensive on the train.  He flipped on the lights in them until he found one that had 2 seats left – and deposited us there.  We had just been upgraded from 2nd class train ticket to most expensive seat on the train – for no reason, other than we are clueless tourists.  Sometimes being a tourist is a real hindrance, sometimes a real benefit.

Our bags were still in the car with Ahmed, 9 or 10 train cars away, so as soon as the cop left us alone I set out to go get them.  Which was a giant pain.  I drew a lot of stares along the way, first bumping and pushing through everyone to get them, then a lot more bumping and pushing (I was a lot wider coming back with 2 giant backpacks) on the way back, 5 minutes later.  I was able to thank Ahmed when getting the bags and we never saw him again.

We were finally situated in a real seat that was ours and we could comfortable occupy for the next 9 hours at around 1 am.  Time for sleep.  Ha ha ha.

We still can’t figure out why the Nefertari car was the most expensive one, other than that being the one they sell to tourists.  It’s the only car where the seats don’t recline.  Yeah, you have a little bit of privacy, but you also have a little bit of pain.  For 8 hours, each of us tried desperately to find a position in which to comfortably sleep.  You always had either a rail, an armrest, a lightswitch or some other piece of the train poking you somewhere.  The only comfortable position we found all night was when I laid out full across our seats and Anna sat between my legs with her head on my chest, taking advantage of our height discrepancy.

But that didn’t last long – a train policeman wanted the extra seat we’d had so he made us move after 15 minutes.  At around 4 am, we hauled Anna’s backpack into the seat, sat it between us and each leaned against it and got 4 hours of fitful sleep.  At 8am, the policeman that was sitting by us decided it was time to get up.  He flipped on the light and, using his cellphone as a boombox, began playing Arabian music, followed by what we guessed was Islamic sermons at full volume.  Thanks.

We sat in silence, well, except for Arabic sermons, for 2 hours before arriving in Cairo, exhausted.  We didn’t realize how good we’d had it on the 20 hour busride.  We exited that ride awake, somewhat refreshed and ready to see stuff that day.  We exited the train today hungry and exhausted.  I’m sure it’s not going to be the worst travel leg we have on this trip (looking at you, India) but it was certainly the worst so far.

That said, as we approach Thanksgiving (writing this on Wednesday) the train ride reminded us just how much we have to be thankful for.  Obviously, Anna and I are extremely lucky to be able to take a trip like this and see so many amazing places.  But we, as Americans, are very lucky to have been born American.  Where a miserable 20 hour train ride is an anomaly that makes for a bad night, rather than the normal mode of transport.  And where we wouldn’t ever consider bringing a piece of cardboard and a rag to sleep on the floor of a train.  This trip has really reinforced how lucky and thankful we are.

Another thing we’d like to mention that we are thankful for – how easy it is for us to visit other countries, courtesy of our American citizenship.  Aside from Cuba (our rules) we can pretty much go anywhere that we’d want to go.  We’ve talked to a growing number of foreigners who have tried and failed to get a travel visa to visit the U.S.  We’ve talked to plenty of people who have successfully made the trip, but a lot of people who have a cousin or other relative living in America that they can’t see because they keep getting denied a tourist visa.

Anyway, we’ve found an American restaurant in Cairo that has a full blown turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, so we’ll write tomorrow about our Egyptian Thanksgiving experience.


  1. Even though you had a horrible experience on the train — how soon will you forget it? It’s the little set backs that will always remain in the back of your mind. As you continue your adventure, you probably will compare every train ride to this one, and perhpas you will say “this is awesome” no matter how bad it will be because you will compare it to this ride. Oh the joys of making memories (good and bad)!!!

    I’m thankful there are “guardian angels” out there to help you in your times of need. I’m sure you will never forget their kindness.

    Looking forward to your next post! Sending lots of love.

  2. How challenging! I sure part of the challenge is knowing that many of the people on the train didn’t like you because you are American but more seems like it was just because it is their way. I know it will be so good to get to Johnson’s and have good friends to relax with.

  3. Ten things I think that I’m thankful for, I think:

    a. Ruslan Kim. Classy man. Lofty man.

    b. Ahmed. Egypt’s Ruslan Kim.

    c. Dmitry Medvedev. Russia’s Barak Obama.

    d. Walking. Very underrated. Two years ago I had walking outside of the top ten in my power rankings. Look out, sitting, walking is making its way up the boards.

    e. Tomas and Monica. Good luck on your joint colonoscopy. Doing mine alone has been one of the biggest voids in my career.

    f. Sunscreen. You have to RESPECT THE SUN. It looks far away, but it can get hot.

    g. Jamaal Charles. I outbidded Donnie Brasco to enslave this workhorse on my fantasy team. I’m currently riding him into sixth place in the East coast league. He’s been tailing off lately and might need to be whipped back into shape.

    h. Nutmeg. PUT IT IN YOUR LASAGNA.

    i. Football. No, not American football. Soccer. That’s what people call it outside of America. That’s a very facty nugget for you!

    j. Nuggets. The best things in life come in nuggets: unthoughtful pieces of information and passed off as journalism, Chicken Mc, and airplane dumps.

  4. Tommy, it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were chatting away at Valentine Inn in Petra, Jordan. I remember you said it was a laundry day and all you had to wear was a horrid, burnt-orange shirt that you said also serves as emergency toilet paper–ha, ha 🙂 Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about your train adventure–very descriptive. I felt I was there with you (for some reason I am now exhausted and hungry.)
    I’m in Kiev, Ukraine trying to stay warm in a coffee shop….am going to L’viv (by train–heh, heh) tomorrow. I was here for two weeks and in the mornings I took Russian-speaking lessons. I can now read Cyrillic and just went bought train tickets in Russian. I felt as if I scored a goal.
    Best of luck to you and Anna as you continue your Journey.

  5. […] Anna threw up in the middle of the night because she got too hot.  That’s a bad night. Egyptian train – standing for hours, then getting hassled by the police, then finding a seat at 3am and falling […]

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