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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Egypt's Riches Sparkle at Penny-Pincher Price

A large inky-purple fish swam close to my face in water that was intensely blue and transparent. Its fins, like two bright orange bows, swayed gently as the fish led me to the edge of a coral reef. Suddenly, I was caught in the silvery rain of a whole school of fish moving along the reef. Below, pink, eggplant and brilliant green fish bumped their noses into the white sand.

We were snorkeling in the Red Sea in Egypt, only a four-hour flight from Moscow, at the start of a two-week clockwise trip around a country where traveling is still probably cheaper than sticking around Moscow.

We flew to Hurghada, a tourist city on the Red Sea at the edge of the Eastern Desert. The sharp reddish peaks of the Red Sea mountains serve as a backdrop to the dozens of hotels, many still under construction, that are scattered for about 20 kilometers along the coast.

Our two-week package for $435 per person promised the flight, hotel in Hurghada, insurance, pickup at the airport and even two meals a day. But we were looking for more than fun in the sun, so with a map of Egypt stretched across our laps, we traced the route we wanted to take: Hurghada-Aswan-Luxor-Cairo and back to Hurghada for the flight home.

Armed with a guidebook, a stockpile of sun lotion and long-sleeved shirts and long skirts to help us (two European women) blend in with the landscape of the Moslem country, we arrived in Egypt set for adventure.

The high season runs from late November to February, and if you go a little before or after it, you can escape the crowds and catch the best off-season prices.

The food in Egypt is flavorful and can be insanely cheap - a falafel sandwich costs about 2 Egyptian pounds (60 cents) at a street cafe. (The exchange rate is about 3.4 pounds to the dollar.)

Juice stands are on almost every corner, easily spotted because of the nets filled with oranges, bananas, pomegranates and pineapples hanging over the counters.

By staying away from tourist-oriented cafes, you can save a lot of money and plunge into the bustling, warm and intense street life.

The main trick to pleasant traveling in Egypt - after you nail down the drink-only-bottled-water rule - is to get used to constant hustling on the street, catcalling and never-ending sales pitches in tourist areas as soon as possible. Every street is basically a bazaar and every tourist is a potential catch.

Teasing and joking with tourists, haunting them until they give up and walk into a hole-in-the-wall store (each seller seems to have at least two hustlers on hand and even more brothers, uncles and cousins ready to join in when a tourist seems to need a little push), is a sort of national sport. So relax, laugh in response, tease the hustlers back or simply ignore them when you are too tired or rushed to play.

The main attraction in Hurghada is the beach - and you should make sure your hotel has a private beach because those are the only places women can wander around in skimpy swimsuits without being oggled.

The Red Sea also is great for snorkeling, diving and windsurfing. A day-long snorkeling trip usually includes three stops near corral reefs and lunch. With gear rental, expect to pay about 40 Egyptian pounds ($12). Most hotels, like the Hor Palace where we stayed, have their own aqua center, but if they don't they can help you arrange a trip.

For a more cultural experience, take an excursion to the nearby early Christian monasteries, dating back to about 300, or go into the city of Hurghada itself, where tight streets serve as a market by day and at night turn into cafes where men in long blue and green djellabas sip tea, puff on shishas, or water pipes, and stare at blue television screens mounted on the cafe walls.

Try sitting down with them and you most likely will be warmly greeted, asked where you are from and treated to an evening-long conversation with some off-duty tour guide who likes practicing his English.

Ask for the price of your drink or food beforehand, or else watch carefully what the locals pay. Usually tea costs about 1 Egyptian pound, but a tiny piece of cake could drive the bill up to 17 times that. You may be charged a "tourist price" and its best to learn to read Arabic numerals and beat the trend. Most of the fancier cafes have menus in English with prices listed.

In about three days we exhausted Hurghada's attractions. Luckily, moving on to another city was easy. Hurghada has two bus terminals and in the evening numerous buses leave for Cairo, Luxor and other destinations.

We boarded a regular night bus for Aswan, a city to the southwest on the upper Nile. A ticket for the eight-hour ride in an air-conditioned bus with a toilet and tea service cost 45 Egyptian pounds.

We were dropped off in the morning in Aswan in the middle of a narrow, dusty street filled with women carrying baskets on their heads, donkey carts and flocks of children in blue-and-tan uniforms hurrying to school.

Two blocks away stretched the Nile.

Aswan is home to the marvelous Temple of Isis, which in the 1970s was moved stone by stone to its new location from the island of Philae before the island was submerged by the new high dam. Best of all, Aswan, with its great market, stunning Nubian Museum and beautiful botanical garden covering Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile, is the place to launch a two-day felucca trip down the river to Luxor.

Feluccas, traditional sailing boats, are docked along the corniche. Some zigzag along the Nile, taking tourists to and from Elephantine Island. Their sails shaped like medieval Moslem swords turn peach and fuchsia with the first inkling of sunset.

The key is selecting a good captain. Most are English-speaking Nubians, the primary people of the Nile south of Aswan, and the tourist office outside the train station can recommend some and even help you hook up with other travelers to share the cost. The two of us joined up with a man from Micronesia traveling on his own.

In addition to sailing, the captains cook up rice and lentil meals, and some entertain their passengers on board by singing, or in our case braiding their hair. Expect to pay 60 to 80 Egyptian pounds for a two-day ride.

Slowly following the wind, moving north on the Nile, we soon realized why the ancients called it the mother of all. Lush date palm trees line the water, and thick, intensely green sage grows higher than a man. Water buffaloes immerse themselves in the Nile's cool waters at the height of the afternoon heat.

The slight wind floating over the river is refreshing even when the sun burns. But just a few steps away from the river, the barren, grilling, reddish desert takes over.

There are two temples you can see on your way, Kom Ombo and Edfu. Both still have traces of the bright paintings that once covered their walls.

Once in Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes, the city's two gigantic temples, Karnak and Luxor, show the real grandeur of Egyptian architecture. Come to the temples at night, with plenty of water and a flashlight, and listen to the winds that have polished the stones of these temples for ages.

A donkey ride to the Valley of the Kings, where the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs lie deep in the mountains, is an unforgettable experience. Especially if you have a donkey like mine, an ambitious creature named Whiskey who preferred to climb up the ragged hills right on the very edge of the cliffs. But the sight of green fields and tangerine mountains in the morning haze made the power struggle with my donkey well worth the trouble.

You can find a German donkey guide named Enric at the Venus, a hotel filled with backpackers where a double room with a bath costs 10 Egyptian pounds per night. Tel. (095) 372-625. From Luxor, we traveled on to Cairo on the night train. A second-class ticket in an air-conditioned car set us back only 31 Egyptian pounds, and the armchairs were comfortable enough for sleeping.

Cairo will knock you off your feet with its noise, its traffic, its crowds. Even if you don't have much time, make sure that even after visiting the Giza pyramids and the Egyptian Antiques Museum you have hours and hours to spent in the winding narrow streets of Islamic Cairo.

Cairo has a wide range of hotels and we were pleased with the Pensione Roma, a centrally located fourth-floor hotel with stylish 1940s ambience. For 22.50 Egyptian pounds a night we had an immaculate room, a shared bathroom and breakfast. Tel. (202) 391-1088 or 1340.

On our last night in Cairo, we wandered into the Khan el-Khalili bazaar as the muezzins were calling people for evening prayers at mosques and settled in at Fishavi's cafe, a jumble of chairs and sofas squeezed between the stores. As I puffed on an apple shisha and sipped pomegranate juice, the red crystals of the fruit floating in the glass, I could feel the rhythm of the Nile's waves humming in my memory.

How to Get There

Numerous travel agencies offer packages to Hurghada. We found the best deal with Temco Group, an Egyptian tour operator that has numerous offices in Moscow, including one on Lesnaya Ulitsa. Tel. 251-6844.