Monday, December 10, 2012

Mount Sinai

I set my alarm for 9:30 o'clock.

Not 9:30 o'clock am.  I set it for 9:30 o'clock pm.

I glanced at my watch.  It was only 5:00 pm.  It was time to go to sleep.  I switched off CNN and tried to get as much sleep as I could.

After a disturbed sleep (was it really sleep?) I was woken by the drone of the alarm.  Woken makes it seem so definitive.  What actually happened was that I moved from my state of semi-consciousness into one of waking grouchiness.  All my attempts to adjust to the new time zone were being destroyed by these bizarre and self imposed sleeping patterns.

I put on my thermals, grabbed my beanie and my bag and slowly walked to the hotel lobby.  Waiting for me was an overly cheerful Egyptian man named Yasser who claimed to be Bedouin (he was clearly not Bedouin) who would be taking me to a mountain.  I got into the back of the van and promptly fell back asleep.

When I woke up, I was being bundled out of the van by Yasser, not at our destination, but at a gift shop as you would expect.  Even by tourist shop standards, there was a particularly high level of tackiness in this store that was compounded by the fact that they were trying to hawk "genuine" religious icons.  I decided against buying anything and walked back to the van.

Within half an hour, we were dropped off at our destination, the base of Mount Sinai, or "Moses Mountain" as Yasser kept calling it (I would grow to despise Yasser before the end of this trip).
Many (including Yasser) had told me that it wouldn't be cold and that all I would need would be a shirt and long pants.  These people were all either lying or completely ignorant of their professional as disseminators of information about the tourist destinations of their region.  It was cold.  It was cold enough for me to need my thermals and other warm weather gear.  Our small group was led up a path and past a monastery at which point we were given inadequate torches between groups of three and told to follow an actual Bedouin man to the top of the mountain.  Ignoring Yasser's insistence that the barely visible glow from the half charged torches would be enough, I took out my own 9 LED torch and cast a usable beam of light in front of the group.

Following in the footsteps of our Bedouin guide, we were all soon walking up the rocky path towards the numerous small lights in the distance.  As the lights became brighter, it was became clear that they were actually little kiosks that had been set up by the Bedouins in the area to act as rest stops for all the traveling hoards of tourists tramping up this mountain.  These were the aim of our guide as he dashed immediately inside seeking out the warmth of a warm cup of tea.
Inspired by my guide, I also decided that these rest stops were the perfect time to rest my feet and drink some tea.  There was a definite charm to each of these kiosks and after the entire walk was done, I came to the conclusion that it was actually the opportunity of sitting inside these simple rock made buildings decorated with Bedouin carpets and mats that had been the experience I enjoyed the most.
The walk up the mountain wasn't overly strenuous or difficult.  However, the combination of the pitch black, the cold and the lack of sleep turned it into something more complicated than it should have been.  This still wasn't something that could only be done by the fittest and the strongest though as I saw (and overtook) dozens of groups that included both children and the elderly.  Apparently, it should take between 2.5 and 3 hours to ascend to the top of Mount Sinai, but this is not taking into account the cold, the sleepiness, the inability to see or the stops at the kiosks (which had become a requirement for me).  One by one, people around me in my group gave up and paid the camel driver touts to take them the rest of the way.  I stubbornly refused and continued to push on by foot.
Eventually, after a few more stops at a few more Bedouin kiosks, we began to reach the top of the mountain.  The ascent began to steepen and incredibly the track became even more narrow.  The tourists walking up the mountain side by side were forced into single file to carefully negotiate the steps.
Finally, after hours of walking I was at the top of the mountain.

Gathered around the old buildings were dozens of tourists all waiting for the sunrise.  Talking to my brother and other friends who had done the trip in the past, I had been told that there were hundreds of tourists who used to make this trek to gather for sunrise.  Tourism was clearly not what it had once been in Egypt.  I couldn't complain too much though as it meant I had a spot front and centre for the sunrise.
As is always the case, standing still made me feel progressively more cold after the exertion.  I looked around at the gathered groups who were clearly excited about the prospect of the sunrise but I shared little of their enthusiasm.  Instead, all I could think about was where my next cup of tea would be coming from.
Finally, after what felt like an age, the lights in the sky began to change and there appeared that surreal period between night and day as the glow of yellow began to consume the darkened blue.

It was undeniably beautiful and I found it quite quite amazing to see the light revealing the path that I had taken during the night to get to that peak.  I started thinking back to the days when I had climbed to the top of the fortress in Palmyra with Guy all those years ago.  In that situation, we had also fought off the cold and sleepiness in order to reach the top of the fortress to see the sun rise.  It was a nostalgic feeling to be once again in the Middle East watching the sun rise, but like our experience in Syria, I was definitely thinking that I would have preferred the sleep to seeing the sunrise.  The experience just isn't worth the tiring exertions that accompany it.
After the sun was up, people began their slow ascent down.

I headed towards the first kiosk I could see to get my much needed cup of scaldingly hot tea.
Walking down the mountain, now in the brightness of day, I was able to appreciate the magnitude of my surroundings.

I think I would have preferred seeing this all in the light of day the first time.

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