Sunday, May 13, 2012

Desert Riding in Egypt with KTM Saitama

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Say what?!?

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So this is how it went down. I've been teaching the fine folks at KTM Saitama basic travel English for almost 2 years now. Unfortunately, we don't have lessons very often lately, what with the Duke 125 being released (an aggressively styled, super fun 125 is candy for rich people in Japan). One of their main reasons for learning more English is an annual trip to the Egyptian desert, in December, to tour for a week. They have about 10 bikes in storage out there, way off in the Bahariya Oasis, about 400km from Cairo.

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Furutaku-san, the owner of KTM Saitama, often takes newbies on the December trip. Since Japan has no deserts, and the only bit of sand you can ride is a 5km stretch in Noto Hanto, most people on these tours are beginners in this sense. It should go without saying that these beginners sometime fuck up the bikes something awful. Hence a necessary return to the desert for the staff to do some repair work.

"How about coming on the maintenance trip?"

I booked the ticket the next day.

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The damn Go Pro helmet cam has some design flaws, and I didn't get any of the sand dune riding. Here is a short video with some actual riding through the black desert.


I have a couple more videos on my YouTube channel, check em out if you want to, though they are mostly riding around in the villages, as opposed to offroad.

Sand dunes are insanely fun and insanely dangerous. The view from a distance shows flowing sand mountains, like lapping waves in an ocean. Up close, there are 20 meter drops, hidden pits of soft sand that can swallow your front wheel, and a midday sun that turns everything into a sea of featureless white.

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Also, the relatively featureless horizon would spell certain doom for anyone but a local Egyptian. Or someone with GPS.

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This is our local Egyptian, Amin. He runs a repair shop out of Cairo, as well as running logistics for rally riders. He can be seen almost annually giving support on the Pharaons Rally, a cross-Egypt, 6 day event.

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The December trip has some overnight touring, but with work to be done, we were limited to 200km loops out into the wild and back.

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The KTM 660 Rally bike is a beast. Designed to cruise across terrain at 200kmph, all with a 50 liter tank for 400+ kilometer days. Very sick - very expensive. Not available my enjoyment.

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Instead, I rode a KTM 525 EXC, an ill bike for desert thumping.

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I wouldn't mind staring at one of these someday. Should I set my sights on Dakar? After I found out how much these rallies cost, maybe I need to focus on another line of work first.

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This is the black desert. Like nothing I have ever seen. Pyramid shaped mountains line the horizon, and wind-shaped stones are easily ridden over at high speeds.

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After my first 2 attempts at off-road riding in Japan (mud, mud, mud), the riding here was no problem.

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Almost no problem. Actually, there was some trouble. With my ass. You see, these bikes do not come built for a 192cm dude. From the above picture, you can see that my standing position is less than ideal. My Japanese friends, coming in at a much more average height, can stand up fully straight-legged, which makes for a much more comfortable ride on uneven surfaces. I was forced to sit when I should have stood. Sit on my ass. Which was pounded into submission for hours at a time. After the 1st day, my cheeks looked like a couple of red apples. After the 2nd day, purple prunes. After the 3rd day, the skin was chaffed raw. Two weeks later, and I have some nice leathery ass-calluses. Want to hear more?

They make things called risers that raise the handlebar for tall people. You should use them if you are tall.

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Dune riding is epic.

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The technique is to be at pretty much 100% throttle anytime you are going up or down. If you try and cruise along at a low rpm, you'll soon be going zero. The bike can take it, and as long as you stay hydrated, so can you.

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I took advantage of the trip to visit Cairo for 5 days on my own. Let's check into the hotel.

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Yeah, so Cairo is kind of in a situation now. It sucked. It didn't suck because of the recent revolution, it sucked for other reasons, which I'll get into. Five days was waaaaay too long in this city. Give it one. All the tourist stuff can be seen in that time. From the top of Cairo Tower we have:

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The pyramids. You should go there, I guess.

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Islamic Cairo. Don't be scared. You might be American, or Jewish, or both, but the generic hate for your kind is rather subdued here. Rather being a relative term. I'll rant later, but suffice to say I never felt physically threatened.

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Part of my travel dreams is to eat the local food. Not just a little, but fully get into it.

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While Japanese cuisine can take a lifetime to try, Egyptian can be done in the aforementioned day. Roasted kebabs with the standard sides of tahini, pickles, and flatbread. Egyptian home cooking.

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Koshary is rice, lentils, chickpeas, and pasta all mixed up together and topped with tomato sauce, garlic, and fried onions. It's super cheap, like a dollar, and pretty good. The most famous shop is Abou Tarek, go there if you can.

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Another local thing is pigeon. Stuffed, fried, and eaten as is, bones and all. Decent, I guess. One and done.

Street food is plentiful, though a bit one dimensional. Flatbread stuffed with cheese, or beans, or falafel can be had for about 10 cents. So can a glass of fresh juice.

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Hells yeah I rode a camel around the pyramids at night.

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The day after I saw the infamous golden mask of Tutankhamun, it left to tour overseas . . . first stop Japan.

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The pyramids are what they are. You WILL be hounded by dudes selling cheap souvenirs and offering camel rides non-stop. The advice from my Egyptian friend, "Don't even say one word to them." I'll rant at the end.

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Bucket list stuff I suppose.

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The Nile boats are neat. Blasting Egyptian pop (E-Pop?), they will take you out for an hour for a buck.

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So in one or two days, you can see the sights, eat some food, and check off the must sees. If you are on a tour, this is what you will do. I wasn't on a tour.

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I grabbed my camera and went into Tahir Square, despite strong suggestions to the contrary from both locals and the American government.

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It's chaotic, with thousands occupying the square. Support for differing political parties is chanted from every direction. The national pride is strong, as is the hatred for the leaders of the past. Effigies are in various states of destruction. I kept my distance from the Muslim Brotherhood, answered truthfully when people asked my country, and avoided any conversation about religion. Atheism is not a valid answer, and the burning Israeli flag was enough motivation to not go there.

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Two days after I was in the square, a riot broke out, a few people were killed, and they cleared the place out. Two days after that, it was full again.

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Rant:

The dudes selling shit, holy fuck. They have a system that is downright lame. Instead of just hounding you, people will come up and talk, all good-intentions and what not. Just chatting friendly like, then after like 20 minutes of interesting conversation about art or life in Japan, they will invite you for tea. It's the bait and switch. If you refuse, they say that it is Egyptian hospitality and make you feel bad. You end up having to run out the door of their shop. All-in-all, this isn't so much of a problem, but then you realize that this fucker was lying during the whole nice conversation. We just talked about Japanese tattoo art for 15 minutes, and he didn't care one bit. So now you are on guard, and anyone who speaks to you, well you think they are a dirty liar before they even open their mouth. Then you soften up and it happens again.

Stop complaining, they are just trying to make a living, and the country is starved for tourism! Just politely refuse to buy the stuff and get on with it. Juice is only a dime, what are you complaining about?

That's what I tried thinking, until I met this Japanese kid. Twenty four, this was his first trip out of Japan. He, as expected, went to see the pyramids. The taxi from the metro station overcharged him, and didn't bring him to the general entrance (this happened to me too). So now he was convinced to pay for a camel ride to get in. He assumed the price was normal. The camel dude took him out to a vantage point, and charged him again to go back. The charges kept coming, and this poor kid just thought it was normal. Why would they try to rip him off? The local who offered to take his picture, then asked him to pay, he couldn't refuse. He was young and inexperienced. How much do you think he paid for his trip to the pyramids? To put it in perspective, I spent, including transportation, entrance fee, and a souvenir, $20 for the day. He got taken for over $500. Despicable.

By the way, Egyptian people who are not trying to sell you something are very cool, so head to the corner cafe, light up some shisha, and meet some locals.

3 comments:

Ἀντισθένης said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ἀντισθένης said...

Japanese people are not adequately 'street proofed' even for their own country, much less Egypt. The poor kid should not have gone to Egypt so naive, not that I think he deserved any of it.

I had some similar BS in the Philippines and SE China, and I decided I don't have the patience for it, even if I have some of the smarts. I go to 'first world' countries alone. I have never had a bad experience with a Filipino in Canada, but my friends and I had so much BS we bought tickets to fly back to Tokyo a week early. Did not have to do this for Singapore, HK, Malaysia or Thailand.

I would love to go to India, and some similar places, but just won't do it unless I am with a friend from the place, or am on a tour: I don't expect to do a tour until I am a codger. Even 'adventure tourism' is not something I am going to do in such countries because the risk of road or other accident is so much higher, and the efficiency of rescue so much lower, no matter how much insurance you buy. Now that I have a pregnant wife and a 2y old that BS is not an option

Brian said...

But on the other hand, $500 isn't so bad for a serious life lesson like this. It could save him from something crazy down the line.