The Bumpkin train to Cairo

The trip to Siwa from Cairo can be done in about 11 hours if you catch a bus to Marsa Matruh and get lucky and transit directly to Siwa.

A more common route is to get the train to Alexandria (just over 2 and a half hours) and a bus (via Marsah Matruh) to Siwa, which takes about 9 hours.

With a 4 day weekend to play with last week, me and Ben decided on the latter option and headed to Alexandria at noon on Friday from Cairo Rameses station. Getting to Cairo, we found there was only one seat left in first class on the train, so we took second class, which cost 40 Egyptian pounds (about £4 sterling) and turned out to be surprisingly pleasant.

There was no one in the carriage, huge amounts of legroom because the seats were rotatable to face the direction of travel, and it was 20 pounds cheaper than the apparently full first class. I decided that second class was definitely the way to travel Egypt.

As Alexandria to Cairo is such a well travelled route, I did think it was a little strange that we had a three hour wait for the train and, not being able to read Arabic, I was unaware that in the time that we waited for our train, another train had departed for Alexandria too, which I was soon to find out about.

On the way back, Ben and I decided to travel separately, as I had work to do the next morning so, after sleeping in the desert, I boarded the 7am bus from Siwa to Alexandria, a 9 hour trip made more grueling by the fact that I had not had a chance to wash and the air conditioning wasn't working. Not a good thing when you are driving through the desert I can assure you.

At Alexandria Misr station I walked up to the booth where I saw all the Egyptians fighting for tickets for a train to Cairo at 5pm.

When I asked for a ticket in second class for the 5pm the guy looked at me like I had grown two heads or was pulling his leg and told me to go and see the Station Master, who was based on platform 1.

This I duly did and the station master told me that the next train was at 7pm and I had to buy a first class ticket.


Confused I insisted that I wanted to be on the 5pm and in second class, and again I got the look from the station master like he couldn't believe what he was hearing, but he walked me over to the ticket office, asked me if I was sure that I really wanted to travel second class and I was like, yeah of course second class was great.

When I handed over my 100 LE note, I had expected to get 60 LE change as before.

He gave me back 91 LE.

Oh shit.

As I went to platform 6 I realised that there are actually two tiers of train as well as two classes. On the way in I had travelled second class in the Espani train. On the way back I had booked the second class of the somewhat more dubious Faransawi train, which I was later reliably informed that no-one in their right mind gets on. Not English, not self-respecting Egyptian.

When I told the guys at the office their jaws dropped. Some have lived here for ages and told me that not a single tourist had ever had the (or been) nuts (enough) to travel on the Faransawi. Ever.

And I could see why.

As I boarded I couldn't help noticing that there were no lights and no glass in the windows. The whole carriage smelt like piss and BO. I tried to walk down to the next carriage but the situation was the same, humans piled on top of each other with vacant stares, human driftwood floating in a sea of luggage.

I found a seat and sat with my knees pretty much up my nose, while a bemused Egyptian bumpkin looked at me like I was made of yoghurt and tried to make conversation. Next to him sat a very pissed off middle class guy who buried himself in his paper, partly to deny to himself the reality of his situation and partly to try and hide the fact that he was there from the foreigner, who shouldn't have seen him in this light.

In the next bank of 4 seats there sat a guy with wild eyes. Every time anyone sat next to him he would punch them.

I think he was a bit 'special'.

In Egypt they don't really treat the special like we do in the UK and after punching all the people who tried to sit next to him, the train started to fill up. Finally 3 guys all sat down next him and after about 2 minutes of putting up with it, he got up and tried to punch all their lights out!

Not taking too kindly to this scrawny guy trying to attack them the three turned on him, and slapped his ass until he sat down and shut the hell up.

They then proceeded to rest their legs on him and sing loudly, clap and point, occasionally changing to one-handed clapping using his face for good measure.

That was the next four hours as, not only was this train dark, smelly and cramped it was also the slow train which stopped all over the fucking place. At one armpit of a stop in the middle of nowhere the train reached bursting point and people started climbing on the luggage rack so now I had my knees up my nose and someone else's feet in my head.

It couldn't get any worse could it?

Well of course it could, come on it's me!

I somehow managed, despite all this to activate my sleep-anywhere function, which allows me to fall asleep anywhere, (under a pool table, through a 6.5 earthquake the other day etc) no matter how absurd and found myself constantly getting woken up by the passing trains which would smack me in the face with a wall of air on entry and another one on exit.

About 3 and a half hours in, the crazy guy has had enough of getting slapped every 3 minutes and decides to try and make a dash for it. The big boys are having none of this and drag him back to sit down. He futilely tries to slap them back while everyone watches on helplessly. I figure that not being able to speak Arabic in a carriage of possible fundamentalists is not something I want to draw attention to.

Suddenly the mental dude gets up and makes a break for freedom, running across the carriage. Losing their slaptoy wasn't an option for these lads and like a couple of high-school jocks they got up and raced across the train to grab the guy around the waist and hauled him to the open door of the moving train where they threatened to throw him out.

They let him go but he was shitting himself and most the carriage seemed to be pretty indifferent to the whole thing. I had no idea what to do and a stinky foot in my ear and decided to just sit still and think about cheese. Probably not the most inspired thing to do but you'd be amazed at how many different types of cheese you can conjure up when the mentally afflicted are being assaulted nearby and you can't do shit all about it.
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