Egypt’s most wanted: An American cyclist in the Sinai

Thump.. thump.. thump… My heart beats so strong that I can feel my body flex with each beat. In the distance the silhouette of St. Catherine and Mount Moses defined the horizon and the wind carries the sound of Arabic shouts to my desert hiding place. “What have I gotten myself into”? I peak over the sandstone rocks protecting me from view and see that a road block has been established and each car passing is stopped and interrogated about my whereabouts. I have two options now, give up or go with Bedouin into the desert. (Inner Sinai Troubles, Happy Valentines day)

Bedouin girl makes me Farasee, thin tortilla like bread

Bedouin girl makes me Farasee, thin tortilla-like bread

Ancient Orthodox Church tucked away near in valley Mt. Moses, Inner Sinai

Ancient Orthodox Church tucked away, Inner Sinai

Three hours earlier I was drinking tea in a small Bedouin village, and upon departure was followed by an unmarked pickup truck filled with men in head scarves and Kalashnikov rifles. Is this normal? Define normal I thought, this is the middle east and I am in a country marked “Avoid at all costs” by the United States Travel Advisory website.  The truck crept up behind and followed at a slow pace. Sometimes I would look back and they would be gone, only to hear them creep up again a few minutes later. Eventually they sped up, yelled and pushed me off the road. A man in all black clothes and a green head scarf jumped off, and the truck sped off. He approached, said “hello” and then offered me a cigarette. I declined, and pretending to stretch. After a few awkward minutes the man turned his back to me and walked a few meters away, checking the contents of his pockets, and I took the opportunity to run. I jumped on Gaby and sped off, the man taken by surprise tried to stop me but was a few steps behind, as I pedaled away he got on his cellphone, and started shouting in Arabic into the receiver. What the fuck is going on!! My mind raced, I only had a few minutes before the truck would circle back. I needed to hide!!! I rode out of sight of the man behind me and turned onto a small dirt road, frantically pedaling to a small hill of sand stone rocks about 100 meters from the road. Behind the hill was a small crevice, big enough for me to lie down and hide from view, I  removed all my reflective clothing and listened.

Drinking tea with local Bedouin, hours before being chased by Egyptian authorities

Drinking tea with local Bedouin, hours before being chased by authorities

Who are/were these guys? What do they want with me? I peeked over the mound of rocks and saw the pickup truck return to pick up the man. I was just out of eyesight from the road, and between the small stack of rocks I could peek out at the road. The car pulled a quick 180 and sped off into the distance. Are they gone I thought? I looked at my camera for the time, it was only 4 pm! It wouldn’t get dark for another 2 hours!! I contemplated my next move, I needed a better hiding place. About 100 meters from me was a small ravine, but to get there I would have to expose myself and be in full view of the road. My thoughts were broken by the truck returning. I peaked out, they were back and were now driving slow. The men in back were standing up, and looking out into the desert. Shit, these guys are serious! At this rate there is no way I can move to a better hiding place and I can only hope that it will get dark before they decide to drive down the dirt road.

Riding and hiding on remote desert roads of the inner Sinai

Riding and hiding on remote desert roads, I carry a minimum of 6 liters of water.

I shivered in the wind and waited peeking out every fifteen minutes to check on the situation. Things were getting worse, 2 more unmarked trucks had arrived and they were now parked close to 100 meters from me. The men were stopping traffic. Fuck!!! “I am not going to give up” I thought, I had just listened to a podcast about a women who was held in captivity for 6 months and her story was fresh in my mind, “stay strong” I thought.  After about an hour an old Bedouin man came walking down the road, he pretended not to see me and then slowly walked over.

Roadside Bedouin hut

Roadside Bedouin hut

“These men are crazy” He said in a heavy accent. “What do they want”? I asked, “They look for trouble” his response. “Who are they”? I asked, “Egyptian, Egyptian go with me and we hide” he said. I thought for a few minutes… if these guys are Egyptians then they are probably some sort of authority. “Police” I asked. He didn’t understand. I decided to man up and confront the small militia looking for me on the road. They would eventually find me anyway, and if I went with the Bedouin man it would only cause him trouble.

Gaby gets loaded in police vehicle, it took 3 men to lift her! Over 80 kg with water and sugar!!

Gaby gets loaded in police vehicle, it took 3 men to lift her! Over 80 kg with water and sugar!!

“No cyclists since Arab Spring” an Egyptian voice screams at me through a mobile phone. “This is a very dangerous area for tourists” “Two Australians killed recently” you must come with us. The men wearing headscarves showed me their police badges then a marked police truck pulled up. Gaby was loaded into the back, and we sped off towards the coastal region of the Sinai. The truck was full of guns, ammunition, and body armor, and driver blasted exotic middle eastern music as we drove into the sunset. Ten minutes later the engine sputtered and the car came to a halt, “no petrol”!! the driver said. A minute later a second truck came up behind and Gaby was unloaded and load again into the next vehicle. The new driver sped off again into the desert, driving like were being chased, after about 10 minutes the car lurched and came to a halt, tire troubles!! The man in charge got on the CB radio and like before another truck came to the rescue. However, the third truck was different and unmarked, filled with men in full head scarves. We sped off again into the darkness, and they dropped me off at a random check point in the middle of the desert. “Don’t diss us again”! The driver shouted, then sped off.  I was alone and it was pitch black. This is how the government protects me? Leaving me in the middle of the desert after dark? I pedaled another 10 km and camped in a sandy ravine. Earlier that day I had slept in excrement filled cave on the top of Mt Moses and hiked close to 3,000 feet, before falling asleep I laughed from the comforts of my tent…What a day!!

Stone hut, Top of MT Moses

Stone hut, Top of MT Moses

Earlier this week

Leaving Dahab was not easy! and I must admit that I fell in love! I have never felt so much chemistry with someone, maybe it was all the spliffs or the opium tea, or maybe it was just meant to be, love in Dahab! The logical side of my brain completely shut down, and it took me a few days to decide what to do. After a long night of thinking I came to the conclusion “You have got to be one super, special person to hold me back from my journey, and this is not the case, I must keep going… there is still so much for me to do”. I said goodbye and left Dahab during a colorful sunset.

Its hard not to get pumped on Egyptian road signs!!

Its hard not to get pumped on Egyptian road signs!!

Food prices in Egypt are great for the touring cyclist! Most cheeses and perishable goods can be purchased in air tight, juice box form great for on the go snacks! A local meal at the restaurant costs about $2-3 US dollars, and it is easy to survive on $ 4-5 a day. The local favorite is bread dipped in a Tahini and Molasses mix, middle east peanut butter!

Salah, my Bedouin friend makes me tobania, fire bread with spices

Salah, my Bedouin friend makes me “tobania”, fire bread with spices

Police check points are everywhere and super intense! Like I mentioned in the earlier post the officers at each checkpoint are armed to the teeth and ready for an attack. Heading into St. Catherine (located in the inner Sinai) I was constantly searched for explosives, hashish and all other illegal substances. It is obvious that the authorities are looking for a way to get a bribe. I am also constantly warned about kidnappings and other dangers involving the local tribes in the area. The Bedouin say the Egyptians create the problems and the Egyptians say the opposite, who can I believe?

Head scarf lesson, Bedouin elder

Head scarf lesson, Bedouin elder

In Dahab I purchased local Bedouin clothes and started wearing a “shmock” (Bedouin head scarf). This is not only a great “ice breaker” with the locals but also a great way to bond with the elders by having them teach me the different styles of wearing the scarf. I have been taught over 4 ways to wear the “Shmock” and its practicality in the desert supersedes a western hat.  I also carry over ten pounds of sugar in my panniers to give to the remote Bedouin villagers when I pass. The Bedouin love sweets! Each village I pass, I stop and befriend the children and elders, then give them a kg of sugar. I am then usually invited into their home, served tea and offered either; “Tobania” (fire cooked bread) or “Farasee” thin bread cooked on an upside down wok. These breads are usually accompanied by feta cheese and yogurt.  Sometimes, though the Bedouin villagers are so kind that they offer fish and rice, which is eaten by hand while squatting! Today a group of Bedouin gave me lunch and then handmade me an anklet!

Fish and rice lunch

Fish and rice lunch

I need to work on my hand eating technique!! I am pretty terrible

I need to work on my hand eating technique!! It’s embarrassing

The road to St. Catherine was absolutely stunning! The scenery is a mix between Death Valley National Park in California and Canyon Lands National park in Utah.

Desert roads to St. Catherine

Desert roads to St. Catherine

I arrived in St. Catherine city in the late afternoon, and searched for a few locals to accompany me to the top of MT. Moses. Warned earlier by policemen and the US travel website, the St Catherine and Mt Moses area is a high risk kidnapping zone, and technically if I followed all the advisories I shouldn’t have even come here! Two Australians were kidnapped a few months ago, and security is really tight. I took the best precautions necessary, and found two local Bedouin guides to travel with me to the summit. These guys were super chill and carried my gear with a smile. We hiked through canyons, up steep mountain trails, and stopped for tea in the local villages.  These are the same steps that Moses took after seeing the burning bush! It took us close to three hours to make the summit.

Bedouin guides pack me sleeping bag, thermarest and stove for the trek to Mt. Moses

Bedouin guides pack my sleeping bag, therma-rest and stove for the trek to Mt. Moses

About 500 meters before the summit the trail got really steep, and I hopped from rock to rock slowly ascending in the cold mountain winds. Small stone huts rent blankets and serve coffee but my two guides carried my sleeping bag, thermarest, stove and Bosnian coffee with ease! The top of Mt Moses offers a bird’s eye view of the whole Sinai, and at night all the big cities are visible; Sharm, Dahab, Nuweiba and Medina all the way in Saudi Arabia. Other than a beautiful view there are two permanent structures; a small Mosque and a Greek Orthodox church. The Church was closed but the Mosque was open and my guides helped me gain entry and let me take a few photos.

Arabic text from the top of Mt. Moses

Arabic text in Mosque,  Mt. Moses

Stone huts near summit

Stone huts near summit

Mt. Moses Pre dawn sunrise, minutes after losing my cave to some "Egyptian Hot boxers"

Mt. Moses Pre dawn sunrise, minutes after losing my cave to some “Egyptian Hot boxers”

Cave shelter/ Rubbish bin/Toilet, definitely saved me in the early morning frost

Cave shelter/ Rubbish bin/Toilet, definitely a savior in the early morning frost

After a spectacular sunset I slept on a large rock overlooking the valley. I fell asleep early, and watched the moon move over head. Just around midnight the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. I was freezing! I tucked my head inside by bag (Bedouin style) but my teeth still chattered! I packed up and searched for a place to hide. About 100 meters away I found a small cave,,it seemed empty so I tossed in my gear and set up to sleep. Upon closer inspection the cave was filled with trash and several people had used it as a toilet! It stunk and I accidentally put my head on used toilet paper, I was too cold to care. I slept until 4 am, at which point I was awoken by a group of Egyptians who wanted to “hot box” the cave.

View of the valley below Mt. Moses

View of the valley

The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset, but I shivered in the fierce winds. My guides took me on “secret Bedouin” trail back to the city and we passed an old Orthodox church tucked away in a remote canyon. The Catherine Catholic church, which houses the “Burning Bush”, was closed but my guides pulled a few strings and got me inside. More interesting than the burning bush was the 5-6th century painted icons inside the chapel. It was interesting to be a Buddhist with two Muslims in a sacred Christian church.

Cave painting St. Catherine Catholic church

Cave painting St. Catherine Catholic church

Official "Burning Bush" St. Catherine Church

Official “Burning Bush” St. Catherine

Supplies are muled in to the summit

Supplies are “muled” up to the summit

Orthodox rock painting

Orthodox rock painting

I have now overstayed my Sinai visa by 3 days, and hope to be in Israel by tomorrow. I  am absolutely in love with the middle east and have already extended my stay till late March. Will post videos as soon as I find a better internet connection.

Rocks worn by the floods, climbing through a crevice on route to the summit

Rocks worn by floods, climbing through a crevice on route to the summit of Mt. Moses

9 thoughts on “Egypt’s most wanted: An American cyclist in the Sinai

  1. Julian,

    I’m still following your adventures from time to time, and becoming more inspired/restless myself. Some great stories you’ve shared. You are crazy. You know that right? Carry on brother, but may I suggest you leave some of those scary stories to tell folks years later when you are safer. Its hell on those who love you and are prone to worry, especially mom.

    blessings,
    walker

      • Seriously bro, he is right. I had also many stories when I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh and until today I am happy that I did not tell them on my blog, during my stay over there !

        You are smart, so be smart.

        You don´t have to proof anything to anybody and there is so much time to tell all the stories… Catch you on your way… I am preparing myself also to start a new trip… (in the next months)

        Alexandros

        PS: I can feel how you sit in front of your screen, typing that words – reflecting how amazing this trip is. The whole thing is changing your life and also the life of the others. And all that, thanks god – because of your father, who gave his life to the earth. And you see – other people waking up and living the life… a nice circle.

        Peace.

      • Thanks my friend! I hope our paths can cross in the future, the incident in Taba was a random occurrence, the city has not seen violence in over ten years! I am well into Jordan now and will be safe for the rest of my middle east adventure.

  2. I’m gonna agree with Walker here and say I hope Mom doesn’t hear this story until you are well in to China, where I assume she thinks you are safe.

    Try not to get kidnapped okay? We need to save up for Minxi’s annual teeth cleaning.

    Love you brother. Take care!
    Baba Lu

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