After leaving Coptic Cairo, I took the Metro and got down at the Ramses station, now called the Mubarak station (after the current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) . One of the incentives of being an Egyptian President (…….I soon came to realize), is that you get a station named after you in Cairo ! Apparently, the three Presidents to rule Egypt – Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak; have Metro stations named after them !
The Mubarak metro station was just adjacent to the famous Mubarak (..yeah, u guessed right ! erstwhile ‘Ramses’) Railway station. This is the largest and the most important railway station of Egypt; with trains connecting to other major cities like Alexandria, Karnak, Aswan etc, from here. I went into the station to have a look around. The place was huge and crowded, and didn’t look much different from any big Indian station.
The cabbie who had driven me from the airport on my arrival here had told me then, that this station was built by the Britishers back in the 19th Century. Apparently, the trains too looked as if they had been left behind by the Brits over a 100 years ago !
There was a Tourist Information desk at the station. The elderly official explained to me in his broken English on how to reach the Khan-Khalili Bazaar in Islamic Cairo. I had to take the metro and get down at Attaba, and from there possibly take a bus or walk down to Khan-Khalili. He even wrote the names of the roads and landmarks for me in Arabic, on a piece of paper…….so that I could just show it around to people on the streets to ask directions !
I thanked him and took the metro to Attaba as instructed. At Attaba, the scene was extremely chaotic. I found myself in the middle of a very crowded market place and commercial area…..it was dusty, dirty, busy and polluted ! There was a bus-station too nearby……..This had to be Cairo’s answer to ShivajiNagar ! I walked by the Attaba Square, cut across the market-places and onto the main road. The traffic was chaotic ….smoke and dust filled the air ! Western tourists term Cairo’s roads as being alarmingly polluted . But to me ……..coming from Bangalore, it felt like walking into an Oxygen Bar !
I set out to find my way to the reknowned Khan-Khalili Bazaar. I asked a couple of old men at the bus stop on which bus I could take. They told me some bus numbers in Arabic . I was stuck 😦 ……… though I knew the Arabic numbers to an extent, I did not know bigger numbers, particularly those greater than 100 ! I tried applying all the logic I could think of, to come up with a rational conclusion on what the numbers could have been, but in vain. All I wanted was them to say the numbers in a way I could understand ! I attempted to ask this in sign-language. But ………. “Please break the number into its individual digits so that I can understand what you are saying” – was by no means an easy sentence to say by mere gestures !
I even took out my cell phone and showed the key-pad to the old man, demonstrating that I wanted him to press the appropriate keys corresponding to the numbers ! However remarkable and ground-breaking that idea was, he still didn’t get it ! Damn !
Before he could possibly get the wrong impression that I was asking him to make a phone call to his grand-uncle’s third wife’s step-brother’s father-in-law in Aswan, I grabbed the phone back and aborted the plan ! Instead, decided to walk all the way to my destination.
As if things weren’t tough enough till then, I soon came to realize the grave fact that none of the people I met on the streets seemed to know a word of English ……I showed the note in Arabic that the official at the Tourist Info desk had written for me, but got mixed reactions from the people who read it. Some of them just looked at me suspicously, while others pointed towards conflicting directions. I seriously began to wonder what exactly the guy had written on the piece of paper …..I could think of a million nasty possibilities, but only hoped that the guy wouldn’t have been so creative !
Finally, a cop pointed towards the right direction……this was further substantiated by the fact that I came across 2 Chinky tourists, armed with maps, heading that way…….Confident, I set out behind them.
The areas I passed enroute, seemed to be the epi-centre of Cairo’s commercial activity ! The place was buzzing …… As I approached deeper and deeper in to the heart of Islamic Cairo, I could sense the real exotic flavour of Egypt – a far cry from the Modern Sky-Scrapers of Downtown Cairo where I lived, or the enigmatic Pyramids of Giza ……… or the Biblical settings of Coptic Cairo ! This place was absolutely medieval ……..truely Authentic and purely Arab ! I was amazed at extent of diversity and stark contrasts a single city could offer !
Here, there were ancient mosques all around, open street bazaars and narrow lanes going around in all directions. It seemed straight out of an ‘Arabian Nights’ tale !
As I walked by, along a street where there were a number of peddlers (selling just about everything from clothes to wooden chairs) on the footpath, something unexpected happened ! All of a sudden, a guy came running, frantically shouting out something in Arabic ! Instantly, there was a flurry of activity ……the hawkers – men and women, quickly folded up their mats, packed up their merchandise, and in a matter of a few seconds, had vanished into the crowd, clearing out the entire pavement !
I stood there watching the whole scene, not knowing what was going on. Just then, a Police truck came speeding by ……. and I saw that at its back, were stuff that they had possibly confiscated from other street-peddlers………There was even a guy at the back of the truck who constantly seemed to plead with the cops to return his goods !
In a little over half an hour, I had reached the Khan-Khalili bazaar ! Khan-Khalili is an ancient 14th century bazaar, that is functional even to this day ! This is an important landmark in the tourist map, and needless to say, the place was thronging with 1000’s of tourists from across the world …… who were here to either shop for exotic goods, or just feel and witness the exciting ambience ! The bazaar was massive …….with typical Arab style arches and narrow lanes stretching endlessly in every direction….. forming a very intricate maze ! There were droves of Western tourists around, and one could see all sorts of merchandise being sold – spices, jewels, hookahs, souvenirs, vessels, silk ……..you name it – and it would be there !
Haggling was the order of the day …….and one had to be a master of the art in order to survive ! Since I was nowhere close to being one, I didn’t even try !
One thing I noticed about the sellers in general, was that they were extremely multi-lingual (not to mention, street-smart as well) ……and more interestingly, could make out the nationality of a person just by seeing him ! If a Spanish tourist passed by, they would instantly call out to the ‘amigo’ in Spanish, or to French guys in French ! And they would converse to them in perfect fluency in all these tongues ! To me, they would just say “Namaste” !!! One guy even asked me “Kaise ho?” When I replied, “Bas …. badiya” , he frowned……. and explained to me that the correct answer was “Teek hoon”!
There were a couple of big mosques within the Khan-Khalili bazaar itself.
I went into one of them (yeah, the one depicted in the picture above), to see what it was like ! I left my shoes at the counter by the door and walked into the huge praying hall . There were lots of people inside – resting, praying, even sleeping ……I sat there for a while on the soft carpets ….taking a respite from the hot sun outside !
By about 5 pm, I was on my way back to Downtown Cairo, back to the luxurious comfort of my hotel ! I had survived one week here in Cairo, and now had one more to go ! And I was enjoying every minute of it !