We took the Upper Egypt Company direct bus to St Catherine’s. It’s a 9 hour trip. It took us about 2 hours to get out of Cairo, owing in large part to a 1 hour stop at another bus station on the edge of the city. No one seemed to be in a hurry.
Heavily distorted Islamic prayers blasted down on us from the bus’ sound system for about half the trip. The bus was in pretty shoddy shape – very dirty and cramped. On another bus we took, the front door was busted so everyone had to go through the back door. However, the motor to open that door was busted too, so they’d rigged up some metal stick to hold it closed that they had to keep replacing every time someone got off. On the same trip, Ian’s seat was busted and he couldn’t lean back without reclining all the way and crushing the guy behind him.
The trip to St. Catherine’s is pretty, especially at the end when getting into the Sinai desert. We watched the sun set over the Suez River. (Unfortunately, crossing the Suez is rather boring, as it’s just an underground tunnel). When we finally got to St Katherine’s, the fight began with taxi drivers to get a reasonable price to be taken up to the Monastery, a couple of miles away. There were two other backpackers, and, fortunately, one of the employees of the monastery was also looking for a ride. With his help we managed to pay 50 cents apiece to take us up to the Monastery.The Monastery is the closest hotel to the trails up Mount Sinai, and is a comfortable good option. It cost us $60 US a night, but that included dinner and breakfast. Dinner was very good, although the meat (as everywhere in Egypt) wasn’t that great. The vegetarian option was the same meal minus the meat. The rooms at monastery were very clean, and come with a portable electric heater, and hot water that takes half an hour to warm up. Pretty good amenities considering the location! Even with our heater working all night, the room never got above 15 degrees C (about 60 F).
The popular option to see the mountain is to climb up at 3am/4am to watch the sunrise. Not for us – we’re on vacation! The crowds marching past our room woke us up, but we woke up at a leisurely 8am to meet them as they were coming down for breakfast.We visited the Monastery first, as it closes at 11am. We saw the descendant of the burning bush, and the Church of St. Catherine. It was the only tourist site we saw in all of Egypt which didn’t charge admission. There’s also a little museum on site, which is worth visiting, but there was a small admission fee for this.
Afterwards, we took all day to climb the mountain and back. There are two routes: the steps of redemption, and the camel path. The steps are a better option when going down. The camel route up can be a little confusing at times, but if you always follow the path of garbage cans and path-side vendor stalls (which are open all day, not just for the sunrise hikers) you’ll be in good shape. Don’t get confused by an early path off to the left up another mountain. Mount Sinai actually can’t be seen until almost the end of the hike.The path-side vendors sell water at a not too ridiculous price – $2US for a large bottle of water at the top actually seemed pretty reasonable. Camels ply the path almost all the way to the top, for those feeling lazy. The remaining 30-45 minute hike up to the top is what would have concerned us during a sunrise hike. It’s a pretty steep scramble up the trail, and we can only imagine it wouldn’t be too fun with a huge convoy of tourists jockeying for position to see the sunrise. At the top, there is a locked Greek Orthodox Chapel and a great panorama. During the day, we had the top to ourselves – very peaceful.
The steps down aren’t really steps in most places, more of a series of strategically placed rocks. It’s certainly not something that we would want to hike in the dark, or with small children. By the time we got back, we decided to stay another night instead of continuing to Sharm-el-Sheikh.