Sinai blog — A journey to the sacred land of Egypt
When I was younger and read about Egypt, I assumed it was some faraway area only mentioned in literature. I was captivated, and this country filled my thoughts, because of a famous narrative in the Bible about Egypt, as recounted in the film Moses – The Prince of Egypt. Let’s explore the enigmatic Sinai peninsula via my blog.
This country, the world’s most ancient civilization, displays more than just pyramids and pristine temples. Few people realize that it crosses two continents and has a magnificent landscape in Asia.
The northern section of Egypt is made up of more than 90% desert and 5% Nile river, where the majority of the people have lived. This country is well-known for its Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. This canal also divides Egypt into two distinct areas, one in Asia and one in Africa. The Asian portion is entirely in the Sinai peninsula.
The Sinai peninsula has strange geography divided into North Sinai and South Sinai. North Sinai is a mountainous and desert-filled area while South Sinai is surrounded by the Red Sea and is a well-known destination for sea lovers. I visited Egypt on a winter day and planned to go across the Suez Canal to the nation’s Asian part to dive in the Red Sea and touch the sacred mountain of Sinai.
Arrive in the military area
There are two different ways to travel from Cairo to this peninsula, by bus, and by airplane. Mohamed Gad, my new friend, and a tour guide recommended I travel by airplane for my safety and to save time as I was traveling alone. However, I choose to travel by night bus because I wanted to save money while experiencing and feeling the daily life of local people.
Gad took me to the bus station and showed me how to buy tickets as well as catch the bus. I was a little bit worried because all the words were written in Arabic, a language that I couldn’t understand. Gad advised me to show my ticket to local people, who would be willing to help me because Egyptian people are very calm and hospitable. Egypt is also one of the world’s safest countries for tourists.
“Safe?” I asked myself. The local men looked very big with bright eyes and mustaches that I feel a little scared of. At 9:00 pm, there were few people in the ticket room where only one counter out of four was open. Although the room was quite small and simple, the ticket selling system was so modern. In front of each counter, there was an LCD screen to show the seats for passengers to choose and then the seller just needs to confirm the information again before they print out the ticket.
The night bus was quite deserted. The bus was clean. It only offered chairs, not small beds as in Vietnam although it runs along route. I left my baggage in the cabin and got in the car where there were only men. In the first 30 minutes within Cairo, the bus driver played bibles in Arabic but when we moved to the highway, he turned on Arabic films which meant I was in for a sleepless night.
At midnight, when I started to sleep, the bus stopped and people talked loudly enough to wake me. Outside, other buses also stopped and passengers get in and off helter-skelter. I was surprised when other passengers stood in a circle, open their luggage, and then left it in front of them. Around them, policemen dressing in black costumes with their guns in hand went here and there. Following the signals of the driver, I got off the bus and queue as other passengers with my luggage opened in front of me.
Policemen carefully checked every piece of luggage. I realized that they were checking for security because our bus was going to cross the Suez Canal to Asia. We had to stop every 30 minutes after that for inspections, but these times we did not have to get off the bus and show them our luggage. We arrived at Sharm El Sheikh station at roughly 7 a.m, after nearly 9 hours on a route of more than 700km.
Sinai peninsula is a militarized area of Egypt. This area borders Israel and is separated from Saudi Arabia by the narrow Gulf of Aqaba. With its geography in a sensitive location, especially after the Six-day War in 1967 by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt (known at the time as the United Arab Republic), this peninsula is carefully regulated by the Egyptian military.
Greenline in the Red Sea
Although the island is a sensitive military area, Sinai is only second to Cairo in the number of tourists thanks to its beautiful landscape and the government’s effort in encouraging local tourism.
Sinai is proud of two “natural treasures”, which are Ras Mohamed National Park and Sinai Biblical Mount that have been attracting a large number of tourists. You will easily see many magnificent 4-6 star hotels and resorts along the beach in the south of this peninsula and few houses of local people. Residents on the island mainly gather at Na’ama Bay in Dahab, hundreds of kilometers from Sharm El Sheikh. Dahab is the second choice for sea activities after Sharm El Sheikh.
“Because the whole peninsula has a population of nearly 600,000 people, most labors come from other regions. Since Islam is the national religion, men often take part in most of the works while women spend their time at home”, shared Gad when I ask him why there were only men on the bus on my last journey.
I put my luggage in the hotel and drank a glass of hot coffee before getting in the car that Gad booked for me to the wharf for diving. Sharm El Sheikh provided many diving locations, in which Shark Reef in Ras Mohamed is the most favorite. This place is famous for barracuda fish and, if you are lucky, you will have a chance to see reef sharks.
The high-speed ferry service here is quite modern with spacious and clean ferries, featuring changing and bathrooms. There was also a living room and a small food counter. The sundeck was used for relaxation and viewing the sea.
Mahmoud, who guided us on the dive, recommended I dive in Tiran island, the second most popular diving place in this peninsula. Or one can go snorkeling in Blue Hole, Aqaba Bay. However, because Blue Hole is a large marine cavern divers are required to have diving experience and skills before registering for the driving tour.
Each diving place offers guests remarkable beauty with sights of different coral reefs and sea creatures. This is also the reason why famous magazines voted these destinations among the most beautiful diving places in the world.
After a day diving in the sea with various emotions in the scenery that was like a wonderland, I spend the whole afternoon witnessing the sunset at the cape of Ras Mohamed national park. The cape was a small landscape spreading to the sea with some geological cracks where visitors could view small fish and coral reefs deep in the clear seawater. I looked far away from the shore. In the sunset on the Red Sea, the water was remarkable, light and dark blue soft as a scarf on a beautiful lady’s neck.
Touching the land of the Old Testament
“Today God loves his people and calls them to Sion mount” (Sion is Sinai today. This name was written in the Old Testament. Sinai is also called Moses mountain by Egyptians). That’s a script written in a famous hymn of the 1950s that any Catholic person might have heard before. Written in the hymn for Exodus about Moses, a foreteller of the Old Testament who took 70 people to this sacred mountain to receive Sinai Obligation, which included the Ten Commandments.
To see the sunrise on Sinai mountain, visitors will have to depart from 11:00 pm from Sharm El Sheikh or Dahab, where it takes about three hours to travel to the gathering place at the foot of the mountain. I joined a group of tourists and we were introduced to a local tour guide named Mohamed, who would take us to climb up the mountain. After some greetings and introduction about himself, Mohamed shared with us some information about the trekking path, which was a rugged but safe and easy trail.
As we began, the only light in the black sky came from pilgrims’ flashlights. Mohamed leads the squad and occasionally comes back to check on us. We took breaks every 15-20 minutes and then began our ascent of the mountain. We arrived at the first section after an hour, where there was a wooden house with seats resting against the walls for guests. Tea, coffee, and cake were also supplied by the host. Because they are unable to climb up and do not want to delay the team, an Italian couple in our party chose to halt here. It was enough for them to place their feet on the mountain.
On the second trip, when Mohamed and I got closer, he asked if I wanted to ride the camel in front of us. It was the host’s animal here. Mohamed would bargain for a low-cost rental. Of course, we could only ride the camel to the third leg and then climb the almost 600 stone stairs to the top on foot. I agreed with him since I was exhausted and wanted to ride a camel to the summit.
Riding a camel up the mountain was a truly unforgettable experience. I was initially terrified since the road was really dark, with a steep precipice on one side and an abyss on the other. It was also a little slick at points. I can’t anticipate what will happen if the camel steps on a slick rock. “Don’t be concerned. Camels have an excellent memory. It vividly recalls the ascent. Its eyes can see in the dark. “There has never been an accident before,” Mohamed said. I can’t help but trust what he says. I quickly became accustomed to being on the camel and began to stare up the mountain. The sky was clear and full of stars.
We were the first group to reach the peak. Mohamed encouraged us to find a good place on the peak to view the sunrise. He chose a place by the flat rocky platform by the mountain with a large view. We all sat by the cliff to wait for the sun to rise.
Time moved slowly. It was 6 a.m., and a pink road emerged on the horizon, then grew larger and larger until it was a pale orange-red tint. The sun rose like a massive fireball in the center of the road, seemed so near we could almost touch it. It seemed as though the entire landscape of hills and mountains shed its black cloak and donned a fresh pink shirt that surprised every visitor.
On the way down, travelers may stop at Saint Catherine’s monastery, a UNESCO cultural heritage site located at the mountain’s base. This was one of the world’s oldest monasteries, with a chapel containing thousands of valuable artifacts and an ancient spring where Moses met his bride. You can see the bramble tree, where God appeared in the form of a fire pillar to summon Moses to lead the Jewish people across the Red Sea to the promised land, modern-day Israel and Palestine.
Even after I finished my journey, I still didn’t believe that I stepped onto the sacred landscape of Sinai. I understood that, in some ways, this planet always opens doors for those, who are dreaming of visiting secret lands.
+ Visa: You can prepare the necessary visa documents and apply for a visa at the Egyptian embassy in Hanoi. It’s easier to apply for a visa to Egypt than in other developing countries. It will cost you about $25 for a single entry and $35 for a multiple entry visa. If you book a tour through an Egyptian tourist agency or travel in a group of 10, you can apply for a visa on arrival at $65/visa/single entry for 30 days.
+ Transportation: How to get to Sinai from Cairo? The bus ticket from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh is quite cheap at $5-$10. You can also take a domestic flight offered by Nile Air or Egypt Air during the day at $120-$200/ticket which lasts an hour.
Taxi is the most convenient vehicle if you travel within the city. It’s easy to book a taxi even in the evening. With some taxi carriers, you should negotiate the price before you go.
+ Accommodation: There is a wide range of hotels and resorts at reasonable prices. Three to four-star hotels are priced at $25-$40/night/double room. Resorts on the beach are priced from $60/room/night. You are advised to book a room that is suitable for your budget one week before your departure. Remember to check the location of your hotel/resort on the map because some are situated far from the city center.
+ Best time to visit and travel: You can visit this destination all year round, but beware that from June to August it is very hot. The best time to visit is from October to February when the weather is cool and pleasant. Although the temperature can be at 20 degrees Celcius, the seawater is always warm at 25-27 degrees Celcius.
Things to do
+ Trekking by a camel on Sinai sacred mount: You can ride a camel to climb up the mountain in nearly 3 hours, from the foot of the mountain to the third leg before you walk up the 600 stone stairs to the peak to view the sunrise. Service charge: $10/person.
+ Experience a glass-bottom boat for a day: $50/person. You can take a glass-bottom boat and use it at your convenience while viewing the coral reefs in the sea in a day.
+ Snorkeling: You will be picked up at the hotel at 8 a.m and be taken to the wharf and brought back at 5 p.m. The boat will take you around the sea during the day. It will stop at 3 different diving places, an hour each. Visitors will have to pay $50/person, including equipment, lunch, and non-alcoholic drinks.
+ Scuba diving for guests owning PADI certificate: Visitors are offered the same services as snorkeling at diving places. Price: $15/turn.
+ Special service: renting a boat to take wedding photos for a day. This service is quite attractive because of its luxurious standards, programs, and extraordinary services, including a boat that can hold up to 20 people. It will make the bride and groom to one of the beautiful islands for the photoshoot. If you want to own an original wedding album underwater, you will have to pay an extra amount of $20 for a collection and DVD. It costs about $65 to rent a boat, diving equipment, lunch, and non-alcoholic drinks.
Costs and expenses
A return ticket is priced at $700 (offered by Etihad airlines with a stopover at Abu Dabi). The budget for a 10 day 9 night trip in Egypt is around $890, including experiences on the white and black deserts (camping in 2 days and one night), a five-star cruise between Cairo and Aswan (5 days and 4 nights on the Nile river), five-start train tickets between Luxor and Cairo and main sights (Iris temple, Abu Simbel temple, Edfu, Hatshepsut, pyramids and Cairo museum).
The budget for three days two nights on the Sinai peninsula is about $240, including a trekking tour to Sinai mount, Catherine monastery, snorkeling for a day, local transportation, food, and beverage.