Friday, April 30, 2010

Climbing Mt. Sinai

The first thing one should know about climbing Mt. Sinai is that you will not be alone. Not that I thought I'd have the mountain to myself, but any notions of a "spiritual experience" were squashed along with our bodies into a van with 11 other people when we left Dahab at 11PM. There were numerous check-points where we had to show our passports on the way to the mountain and when we disembarked at St. Catherine's Monastery at 1AM we found a circus-like atmosphere of tour buses, taxis, cigarette-smoking Egyptians and camels. In Dahab, we bought a "package tour" that included a guide up the mountain (going on your own is difficult to arrange) and after getting our guide, he lit a cigarette and led our group to the path. It became clear from the onset that this guide was only there to make sure we didn't fall off the mountain, not befriend us or point out anything of interest.

We walked by light of a full-moon, on a rocky path crowded with what seemed more camels than people. Some found ignoring the offers of "camel, camel" every few steps impossible to resist; we saw one Japanese lady from our group bounding up the mountain on a camel, not to be seen again until 10AM when we boarded our bus back to Dahab. Riding a camel was never a temptation; if walking worked for Moses, I thought, it's good enough for me.

We stopped several times on the way up at one of the many little tea shacks. Tea or coffee is one thing, but Fanta, Coke and Snickers?
The top of the mountain was even more commercialized. Locals sold cushions to sit on and blankets to stay warm at 20 LE a pop (about $4.50). We came prepared for the chill, finally getting a chance to use our 25-degree sleeping bags we'd been uselessly carting around everywhere. We staked out a front-row spot on the top of the mountain and watched the beautiful sunrise.
The top of the mountain was like a mini-United Nations convention. There were people from everywhere, and people everywhere. Our van alone had people from the USA, Canada, Japan and Slovakia, and after the sun came up, wondering around you could hear many different languages.
Many people found the climb to be very spiritual. We saw groups of people praying, chanting, singing, meditating, which I found admirable, as all I could do was gawk at all the people. We took a different path down the mountain, following the "Steps of Repentance", a set of 3,700 steps carved by a monk instead of the more direct "Camel's Route" that we took on the way up.

If we thought the summit was crowded, St. Catherine's Monastery was even more packed. We got to the bottom around 8AM but had to wait until 9AM for the Monastery to open. There was a narrow door to get in to see the second-largest collection of religious manuscripts in the world (outside the Vatican) and to see the Burning Bush of Moses fame. We did see the bush, but passed on the museum as there was an extra fee and the crowds were overwhelming.
Overall, our experience of climbing Mt. Sinai was interesting, definitely not negative, but it'd be hard to call it an amazing experience. I think with a little more effort we could have figured out a way to make it a more personal trip. Maybe climbing it in the late afternoon for the sunset instead? Or staying out at the Monastery (it contains a small hotel) to visit it when the crowds are less, although I'm not sure if there is ever a time when it's a quiet spot. In any event, it is what it is. You can see all the pictures of our climb, as well as some pictures of the very chill town of Dahab here.

We're at somewhat of an impasse with our trip now. We called Egypt Air and extended our ticket to Istanbul by one week since we're enjoying Egypt a lot. We now don't leave Egypt until May 8, a week from tomorrow. For the time until then we have some choices to make. We could travel to Jordan for a few days and see Petra, but we're hesitant to do if the crowds will be like anything we experienced at Mt. Sinai. The other option is to take a ferry across the Red Sea to visit Luxor and "Upper Egypt" before heading back to Cairo for our flight.

We're having a fun in Dahab, a town built for just lounging around. There are many restaurants and cafes right on the water where you sit on the ground surrounded by pillows. Since we didn't have a hotel room for the night of our Sinai trip, we spent most of the afternoon hanging out at one cafe, playing Scrabble and drinking tea and coffee. On our trip to Sinai, we met a really nice Canadian women and last night we went out to dinner with her and two other Americans she'd met earlier who are also on an around-the-world trip. It was fun comparing stories with these two guys. Their trip closely mirrors ours and we could reminisce about many of the same places we'd been so far. You'd think it would energize us to see even more places, but honestly, hearing about their trip and thinking about all the places we've been has made us somewhat tired though (for those really interested, read this blog post that summarizes the "problem"). So, maybe we'll just hang out in Dahab for a few more days, enjoying the wonderful weather.

1 comment:

  1. We did not get a chance to climb Mt Sinai when we were in Dahab as I was diving and you cannot safely go to that high of altitude within 24 hours. Glad that overall it was an OK experience for you. Also since we went to both Petra and Luxor on our trip I will offer that Petra was not as crowded as it seems Mt. Sinai was for you. Although there are lots of people, it is a huge place and you can pretty much just hike where you want. And if you hike up at all, you leave most of the other tourists behind you. There are also camels and donkeys to ride there if you get tired. Our longest day in Petra was near 25,000 steps on the pedometer, so be prepared for lots of walking.

    As for Luxor it is also amazing, and we enjoyed it MUCH more than Cairo. It was much more relaxed and the sights were better presented and there was less hassle from touts.

    All in all I would say that since you are in Egypt, I would go to Luxor and get a good chunk on that country done. There is so much more to Jordan than Petra (we really loved Wadi Rum) and Amman. If you don’t have time for both save Jordan for another trip, it is a great destination on its own.

    If you want to see our pictures from Luxor and Petra Here they are. Let me know if you have any other questions and thanks for reading and commenting on our blog.



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