Travelling by rail in Egypt may not be everyone’s first choice due to the train carriages not being of a similar standard when compared to western countries. Generally, it is true to say that the trains are comparably quite old and not that well maintained with regards to cleanliness and amenities.
If you can understand this from the very start, then you are likely to have a more enjoyable time than if you just spend your time thinking about how this experience does not compare to elsewhere. You just need to remember that Egyptian rail does not promise to provide a standard similar to other services in other countries. Once you properly accept this, you are far more likely to enjoy the trip for what it is – a unique experience in a fascinating land.
I make the above comments simply because I couldn’t help notice the number of tourists on this journey that spent time focussed on things they chose to pick at. It’s as though their priority was the mode of transport itself, rather than the much bigger picture of where they were and what they were there to experience. Unfortunately, this attitude undoubtedly resulted in guaranteeing these complainers would always have a much less enjoyable time than if they accepted the reality of the situation and instead focussed on the uniqueness of this experience.
Needless to say, I was not there to focus on the negatives of a carriage(s), passenger amenities or how sparklingly clean it could be.
Instead, I saw this as a rare opportunity to enjoy seeing some of the southern Egyptian countryside while enjoying the warm culture and hospitality of the service provided. For me, the Cairo to Aswan trip was to be a different adventure to be savored.
In having this outlook, I found I was not disappointed at all.
Arriving at our Cairo station
To say that this place was busy would be regarded as a bit of an understatement. This wasn’t just about the Cairo to Aswan Rail journey but it was peak commute time in Cairo.
James and I arrived in a group on a bus and were quickly ushered through the station with our bags. Members of our group then stood on the platform together close to the building, waiting patiently next to our luggage and watching crowds catching various suburban trains home.
The sun was starting to set as we stood by to catch the overnight train that was scheduled to deliver us to Aswan the following morning. It would be dark before our train would arrive and, in the meanwhile, it was interesting just to watch locals going about their daily commutes.
As the Cairo to Aswan rail service was arriving, we were told to ‘stand by’ with our bags at various points where our assigned train carriages were going to stop. It was then a bit of a scramble to get on board as some believed that the train was leaving at any moment as it was already slightly behind schedule.
This proved to be a false alarm as they was plenty of time to get on board and get settled. It was clear that everyone was accounted for prior to the train setting off.
Our overnight train
As part of the group we had booked with, James and I had been allocated a first-class sleeper cabin for two. Whilst not overly spacious by any means, it nevertheless had enough room for us to sit on a couch within the cabin. There was also enough space to have dinner which was delivered hot, soon after our departure. Shortly after dinner, the cabin was then converted into sleeping quarters by folding down 2 single beds contained within the wall. One of these beds was folded out at the level of the couch and the other was above this, being connected by a ladder.
As it was already dark outside when we left, you couldn’t see anything at all outside the windows until dawn the next morning. So, after dinner, we went for a quick walk to explore the train where we located the toilets and the lounge/bar carriage to meet and chat with other tourists.
The main event – the Cairo to Aswan Rail experience
We were both up fairly early the following morning keen to see what rural southern Egypt looked like from the train.
The train tracks and our journey essentially ran fairly parallel to the Nile as it made its southward path from Cairo to Aswan. By the same token, while the Nile was not far away, neither was the Sahara being the world’s largest hot desert and surrounding the entire region.
This meant you could see lovely green vegetation native to the area, interspersed with large areas of barren dry desert.
It made for extremely interesting viewing as we sped past scene after different scene, showing the variety of nature within this region.
Check out some of the many photos taken by James below as we headed south to Aswan.
Arriving in Aswan
Nowhere near as crowded as in Cairo, arriving at this station was on time despite leaving a little late. We obviously had made up time during the night and our guide said it was, in fact, unusual for the train to arrive on schedule.
While I was a little sad our trip and the views we were enjoying were now over, I was also excited about what lay ahead on our Egyptian adventure. Experiencing the Nile, Lake Nasser, the Sahara, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were all still ahead and I couldn’t wait.
Cairo to Aswan: Things to do at either end
At the point of departure or arrival of Cairo to Aswan (or even vice-versa), there are a couple of things you can enjoy doing before and/or after taking this trip.
Bearing in mind that this site focusses on escaping cities to immerse yourself in nature, you might be wondering what I could recommend in a city like Cairo with 23+ million inhabitants. Well I think I definitely found something most people would love to see.
The Egyptian Museum
Located in downtown Cairo on the north side of Midan Tahrir, the Egyptian Museum houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient exhibits. This famous museum opened here in 1902. Containing over 120,000 artefacts, many believe that no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to this museum.
The museum has different sections exhibiting different periods of history from ancient Egypt through the various significant periods. There is so much here to see. A few photos to illustrate:
In addition to the tons of artefacts on display, there are also two separate areas requiring additional tickets to enter. The first was the treasures of Tutankhamun containing priceless gold and artefacts retrieved from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The second was the Royal Mummies Room, containing the mummified remains of a number of Egyptian Pharaohs including the famous King Ramses II. Both are really worth seeing although we were not allowed to take any photos within these two special exhibitions.
At the time we visited in June 2019, there was major construction we saw occurring at the outskirts of Cairo while we were visiting the pyramids at the Giza Plateau. This was the site of the new Grand Egyptian Museum which will be a much bigger building than the current museum. It is planned to open in 2020, when many of the artefacts will be moved there on Alexandria Desert Road, Kafr Nassar, Al Haram, Giza Governorate.
Gateway to Egypt’s many southern attractions including Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel, the temples at Luxor and the wonderful Nile, there is also another thing Aswan is famous for.
The Aswan Dam
What is the story behind this dam and its significance? Well, this is how Wikipedia describes it:
“The Aswan Dam, or more specifically since the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam, is an embankment dam built across the Nile in Aswan, Egypt, between 1960 and 1970. Its significance largely eclipsed the previous Aswan Low Dam initially completed in 1902 downstream. Based on the success of the Low Dam, then at its maximum utilization, construction of the High Dam became a key objective of the government following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952; with its ability to better control flooding, provide increased water storage for irrigation and generate hydroelectricity the dam was seen as pivotal to Egypt’s planned industrialization. Like the earlier implementation, the High Dam has had a significant effect on the economy and culture of Egypt.”
It was indeed an interesting sight. Aside from seeing it, we also drove over the dam itself seeing the view from both sides. Below are some photos we took of the dam and what we could see from it.
As someone who enjoys seeing nature in all its forms and appreciating how different it presents across various locations, this was a rail journey I did enjoy.
The Cairo to Aswan rail journey is something I would recommend being done if you plan on visiting Egypt.
No doubt it might even be better if you manage to make the trip in its entirety during the day, rather than an overnight one in order to see more of the sights on route. Whether this would be possible of course will come down to the itinerary you are following and the time you have there.
Irrespective, if you embrace the local culture and focus on the uniqueness of nature and the overall experience, I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I did.