I took a 12-hour overnight first-class sleeper train through the heart of Egypt, and it's an experience I won't forget anytime soon

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderThe trip was at once a romantic experience and one I likely won’t repeat again.
  • While visiting Egypt in December 2018, I found that the most cost-efficient way to travel from Cairo to Aswan and Luxor, two of Egypt’s top archeological destinations, was a 12-hour overnight sleeper train.
  • I booked a two-person compartment for about $US110 a person.
  • Ever since I was a child, I read books and watched movies where the setting was an overnight sleeper train. It has forever fuelled a fascination with long-distance train travel and I have always wanted to try one out.
  • The experience both did and didn’t live up to my romantic ideal of train travel. The compartment was clean, the beds were comfortable, and the service was friendly and attentive, but the I hardly slept on the shaky train. The train was dated and didn’t have the hallmarks one associates with the golden age of rail – dining cars, bar cars, and fancy meals.
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There are few things that evince a stronger nostalgia for a traveller than an overnight sleeper train.

Even in our age of fast, cheap air travel, if you asked most travellers if they would stuff themselves in a train compartment for days and watch the landscape whiz by, I guarantee most would say yes.

I mean, have you read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express?” Seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest?” Watched James Bond stalk compartments in “From Russia With Love?” Or – to use a more current film – imagined yourself rolling through the India like Wes Anderson’s sad-sack brothers in “The Darjeeling Limited.”

Like most nostalgia-inflected things, sleeper trains are something whose imagined charm does not stack up to its grubby reality. Gone are the golden days of rail when wealthy snowy-bearded travellers in three-piece suits dined on starched tablecloths while nervously flicking the brass clasp of their pocket watches.

Not that reality was going to stop me from taking a sleeper train the first chance I got.

In December 2018, while visiting Egypt, I found out an overnight sleeper train managed by rail company Ernst Watania seemed to be the most cost-efficient – if not time-efficient – way to get from Cairo to Egypt’s southern border where many of its greatest archeological sites reside.

Game on.

I booked two first-class tickets for a double compartment and began to train – cue locomotive-themed Rocky montage – for the 12-hour, nearly 600-mile rail journey.

The trip was at once a romantic experience and one I likely won’t repeat again. Here’s what it was like.

To catch the train, I headed to the train station in Giza, about a half-hour drive from downtown Cairo. While many trains leave from Cairo’s Victorian-era Ramses Station, Giza’s station is far smaller and easier to navigate.

I was scheduled to take the 7:45 p.m. sleeper train so I made sure to arrive a little after 7 p.m. The station was packed when I got there. But most people weren’t waiting for the sleeper train.

The majority of the Egyptians on the platform were waiting for the second or third-class trains that travel the same route south.

The second and third-class trains cost only a few bucks per ticket, but they are packed, reserved for local Egyptians, don’t have air-conditioning, and often have only standing room. The trains didn’t look to be in good shape.

A few trains arrived while I waited for the sleeper. Each time, a madhouse routine ensued. Would-be passengers ran up and down the platform searching for a few inches of space to push themselves into the teeming cars. Fights broke out, curses were shouted, and both men and women attempted to carry absurd and unwieldy items onboard. The trains left with doors open and passengers hanging from the handrails, the hands of brothers, friends, or husbands the only thing keeping them from falling onto the tracks.

The sleeper train, distinguished by a green stripe, arrived late. By then, the station had emptied out and only German and Chinese tour groups were vying to get on.

A dapper attendant checked our tickets and guided us onboard.The carriage was simple with thin wood paneling and red carpet. It smelled faintly of Nescafe and Cleopatra cigarettes.

My five-day Nile River tour, arranged by Dahab Hostel, left from Aswan, a town 12 hours and nearly 600 miles south of Cairo. A double-compartment for me and my partner on the sleeper train cost $US80 each. A single compartment costs $US110.

Source: Dahab Hostel

The tour originally called for tickets on Egypt’s regular trains. I had heard these were a nightmare — packed, noisy, all-night trains where sleep was prevented by bright carriage lights and stiff seats. I was already glad to have booked the sleeper.

The compartment was — in the parlance of New York City real estate agents — “cosy.” With our two carry-on suitcases and backpacks stowed near the door, moving around turned into a game of Tetris.

There were a few hooks from which to hang jackets and bags.

At first, I was confused at what this grey contraption was. I thought it perhaps a tray table or some kind of secret compartment. I was right in a way …

It was a sink! While I had no designs to try my luck brushing my teeth with the suspect water that came from the spout, it was nice to be able to wash my hands without seeking out the bathroom.

The bar of soap in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror was, as we say in the biz, a “nice touch.”

… as were the two hand towels.

The compartment has an electrical outlet with both 220V and 110V sockets. But, as I soon discovered, getting any kind of charger or plug to stay in while the train rumbled about required McGyvering a contraption to hold it in place.

The tray table was far from the small, flimsy plastic versions you find on aeroplanes. I had to stand up to lift the thick metal tray from its resting place. It spanned half the compartment.

About 20 minutes into the journey, the elderly train attendant came by for drink orders and to inform us that dinner would be served in our compartment. There was no dining or lounge car.

Dinner was a spiced, surprisingly tender beef stew, rice, steamed and fresh veggies, and an orange. Served on a lunch tray and warmed in aeroplane-style containers, dinner was far from the haughty train meals in the movies. As recently as the 1980s, the trains had chefs on board, but not anymore.

After dinner, the attendant, who was exceptionally friendly and personable, came by to turn our compartment into sleeping mode. As Aswan is the last stop on the train, we’d be arriving around 7:55 a.m., a full 12 hours of clanking, rickety train time.

The attendant fitted the beds with pillows and tightly tucked starchy cotton sheets and a thick sand-coloured plush blanket. I wanted to hop on the top bunk — I assume everyone’s favourite since childhood — but my partner called dibs first.

For a travel junkie like me, there’s nothing better than getting settled in a snug compartment like this one, knowing I’m passing through a country, and reading a book. It’s enough to make one travel back a hundred years. And look at that ladder!

The bathroom was about as pleasant an experience as you might imagine. Turning on the lights woke up the dozen flies that had taken up residence on the mirror.

When I first saw this sign in the middle of the night, I didn’t understand why one might be obliged not to use the bathroom while the train was stopped.

When I came back the following morning, all was made clear. There was no “flushing” the toilet. The toilet simply opened onto the track. It probably seems weird, but discovering these nuances ignites my imagination. Was this how plumbing in most old sleeper trains worked?

I tucked into bed. The blanket was thick, the bed firm, and the soft pillow proved to be more comfortable than most hostel pillows I’ve encountered. Every so often a lamp along the rail would shine a light into the compartment. Or I’d hear a bit of commotion as we’d reach one station or another in the middle of the night.

I had to take a selfie while laid up in the sleeper train. It’s not every day you sleep in a train.

The train lacks its own entertainment system, but I downloaded the recent Coen Brothers’ film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” for the ride. There’s no sleeper train in the movie, but the 1800s West always makes me think of rail travel.

Around midnight, it was time to drift off to sleep. The train rocked back and forth and clanked against the track every few minutes. To be honest, I was probably too excited about the train to sleep.

As dawn light began to pour through blinds, the attendant rapped on the door to signal that he would be bringing breakfast. I was groggy from several hours of drifting in half sleep. I should mention my partner slept like a baby.

Breakfast was a simple package of a croissant, a pain au chocolat, a roll, and jam.

I had saved my orange from dinner.

And I had brought on leftovers from a restaurant in Cairo that I hadn’t eaten thanks to the hot dinner provided the night before.

Coffee and tea was extra at about $US1. The coffee was Nescafe — standard in Egypt — but it was nice to have a hot cup to wake up to.

Despite waking us up around 5 a.m., we still had a few hours before reaching Aswan. That left a couple of hours to watch the countryside roll by …

… stretch my legs in the carriage …

… see the outer suburbs and Nubian villages around Luxor, the former ancient capital of Thebes and where my Nile tour ended several days later …

… and watch more of the countryside and the Nile go by.

The train rumbled into the station about a half-hour late, not bad considering I had read reviews from travellers saying their train got in hours late. We gathered our suitcases.

We said goodbye to the friendly train attendant and gave him a tip of about 100 Egyptian pounds, or around $US5.50.

What did I think of the sleeper train? As British novelist Andrew Martin wrote in a recent book, today’s ageing sleeper trains lack the grandeur of the old days, but, for those that like travelling, it’s still a unique experience not to be missed — particularly when you consider how few sleeper trains are still in operation.

Source: The Economist

Budget airlines are faster and generally cheaper than the trains. But there is an inescapable romance to the experience as you watch the world gradually go by from your cosy compartment.

I was glad to have taken the sleeper train, but it’s not something I need to do more than once, unless I take a special route. I’m still dreaming about the weeklong journey the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia takes. One day, I’ll get to that one.

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