Travel: How not to get the hump in Egypt

The way to get around in Cairo is to toot your car horn, or failing that to hiss loudly. Alison Emmett offers a city survival guide
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The most important thing to remember when you're going to Egypt isn't to pack your sunscreen - although you'd be foolish not to - but to remember to leave behind the attitude that made you so stressed that you needed a holiday in the first place.

Chill by 10 degrees as soon as you check in your luggage. Chant a mantra of tolerance, no matter how slow the people in front of you are moving, or who got served their G&T before you did. This will ready your brain for dealing with the sensory onslaught of arriving in Cairo. It may also stop you from hyperventilating when your taxi driver from the airport uses either the hazard lights, the right indicator or the horn instead of the headlights, gives the wheel to another driver half-way to your hotel, and seems to take no notice of road markings, traffic lights, or any part whatsoever of the Highway Code.

The huge neon advertisements that loom out of the smog choking the Cairo night sky could make you think you've landed in the opening scenes of Blade Runner; that at any moment a geisha will appear advertising life in the Off-World Colonies. Below the lights a stream of traffic pours along expressways that hover two storeys or more above ground. Cars dodge around people who are sweeping the dust around with brooms, and children who are playing "tig"; traffic, pedestrians and donkeys have equal rights to Egyptian road space, sharing the Tarmac - or dirt - with a mutual respect that makes a pleasing contrast to the average British rush-hour commute.

Other traffic conventions are harder to get used to. The main rule seems to be that if you've got a horn, use it to warn anyone who may be interested in your presence. If you are on foot or travelling by donkey, make instead a loud hissing sound - this is also used to show appreciation of the human form. So if you get hissed at, either move before you get squished, or blush/scowl/grin. Probably best to move first.

Less easy to read are the signals you pick up from the people you meet. If someone tries to get you up on their camel, it's not hard to work out that they'll want some baksheesh in return. The tricky bit is distinguishing between the many people in the street who simply want to talk to you and practise their English, and those who want to talk to you and sell you something. Either way, stay relaxed; even if you don't buy anything, you'll be given mint tea and friendly banter.

Not that this should deter anyone from having a good mooch around Khan al Khalili - the so-called "tourist bazaar". Enter it at the wrong point and "tourist bazaar" seems a curious name as you squeeze past mountains of M&S seconds circa 1972, and enough enormous white Y-fronts to equip an army of giants. Keep on wandering and you'll find a glittering selection of sheesha pipes, glass lanterns, gold, papyrus... Just be prepared to leap out of the way when someone carrying half a bakery on his head hisses at you.

South of Khan al Khalili is the "Egyptian bazaar", a dark warren of narrow streets. There are several mosques in this area and, if you're suitably dressed and pluck up the courage to ask, it's possible to escape the crowds. Your reward is looking down straight into the market. Raise your gaze and on the southern horizon you'll find the Citadel enclosure. Look west and, if the smog hasn't settled, you'll be able to pick out the pyramids at Giza.

Another way to escape the press of Cairo's 18 million inhabitants is to visit the Egyptian Museum. It's contents are liable to bring on a series of curious physical jerks: thudding contact of jaw on collar bone at the sight of Tutankhamun's treasure, and a cringing, shoulders-up, chin-jutting grimace of embarrassment as the guides repeat that such-and-such an artefact "is now kept in the British Museum".

Wandering through these musty corridors, you can dramatically increase both what you understand about the monuments you see and what you'll remember about them when you come back: read the culture bit of your guide book, and fill in the family trees for the ancient Egyptian gods and royal families.

All of which will stand you in good stead when, having devoted a couple of hours to the contents of the tombs, you go to check out some ancient ideas on where to keep your sarcophagus. First up are the pyramids at Giza. These are about 4,700 years old, but forget learning about Egyptian history, as there's a more modern mission in store: the search for the Perfect Camera Angle. And it's easy. Close your eyes, point your camera and take a stunning photograph of either the pyramids or, just down the hill, the Sphinx.

What is impossible, however, for even the most sophisticated photographer to capture is the sheer visceral thrill of your first sight of the pyramids. Shut out of your mind the inevitable hawkers and lines of coaches, close your ears to the American tourists - and Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra will come to life in front of you. If you venture inside, don't be too disappointed by the dark simplicity of the crouched entrance. There are enough unexplained corridors leading off to right and left to conjure up stories of secret passages and stairways to Orion.

The tour that took me round all these places was run by a company called Imaginative Traveller - "for people without the imagination to travel by themselves" someone joked before I set off. In the end I'm very glad that I didn't have to think about booking rooms and organising transport: instead, my imagination was left free to roam across Egypt's extraordinary landscapes.

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