The fissured limestone cliffs are a deep orange-yellow against a startling blue sky. Millennia of desert winds and scouring sand have blasted them, but still they tower in timeless majesty on either side of the track as the taxi comes to a halt. I clamber out. As the whine of the engine dies, all is silence but for the guardian calling out that he's turning on the generator. I'm probably the only tourist to have visited the Tomb of Ay all week. He returns, unlocks the tomb and switches on lights. I descend the steps and enter the cool interior.
The world of the ancients unfolds. Ducks fly out of papyrus swamps; royal barques sail across the afterlife; the king's sarcophagus rests in the centre of the burial chamber. On one wall, 12 baboons sit on their haunches. Because of them, the locals call this place the Valley of the Monkeys. It seems incredible, but we're a stone's throw from Luxor's Valley of the Kings, where hordes of tourists troop to and from their tour buses. Here, I gaze at the walls alone.
Back in the taxi we give a lift to the guardian, who talks animatedly in Arabic. Ahmed, my driver, translates: "He says there are jackals here. He sees them often, at night."
The guardian nods, and points out of the car window. I realise there must be tracks. "Can we stop?" I ask.
Ahmed obliges and I get out to inspect the ground. Sure enough, dog-like paw prints criss-cross the white limestone dust. I think of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, and his arresting black statue discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb. I shiver with pleasure. Moments like this bring Egypt's history uncannily close to the present.
A few days earlier, I was in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo facing that very statue with its aloof, 3,300-year-old stare: another spine-tingling moment. It's hard to exaggerate the splendours of this museum, of which the treasures of Tutankhamun are only one highlight. Given the museum's touring exhibition (currently at the O2 in London) I was expecting it to feel a little diminished – but no. Even the removal of 130 exquisite pieces cannot dent the collection, which is mind-boggling in its extent, diversity and richness. The amount to discover here – and in Egypt as a whole – is enough to last a lifetime.
I'd arrived in Cairo to research my next novel, to be set in the New Kingdom, when the ancient civilisation was at its height. It's five years since my last visit, but it only takes one ride in a battered Fiat taxi and some good-humoured banter to make me feel glad to be back. Even as a woman travelling alone, Cairo has always seemed safe. This vast, sprawling metropolis – its population more than twice that of London's – feels manageable, non-threatening, the sort of place that sweeps along on a tide of its own self-absorption.
On waking up to a hot, smog-filled day, I feel oddly liberated by my former visits. I don't have to go to the pyramids, brave the labyrinth of the Khan el-Khalili, gaze upon Cairo from the ramparts of the citadel – splendid though all these things are. Instead, I can simply wander, reminding myself of the detail and bustle of a great city. It's an option that's open to anyone, of course; all you need is time.
One of the first things I tackle is how to cross the road. My hotel is in Garden City, close to the swirling hub of traffic that is the Midan Talaat Harb, a focal point of downtown Cairo. I remember the first time I watched people crossing here; how they seemed to merge and blend with the stream of fume-belching, honking Fiats, Peugeots and buses in a kind of death-defying dance routine. It was an art I mastered once; it's time to do it again. A hand raised, Moses-like, to arrest the sea of cars, I'm soon ducking and diving with the best of them.
When hunger strikes, I conduct a quest for koshari in the downtown side-streets. Koshari joints are café-esque, no-nonsense establishments, and I'm served this tasty carb-fest in a stainless steel bowl with a matching beaker of heavily chlorinated tap water. It's a mound of pasta, rice and lentils topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce, all for just 20p.
Egypt is refreshingly cheap. It's also sweltering, so when my soles begin to swell I head for the air-conditioned cool of Groppi's. This tearoom is an institution, and I sip Lipton tea in an atmosphere of faded colonialism alongside gossiping middle-class couples and ageing bachelors reading Al-Ahram.
Taking a day to adjust makes me feel I can blend in. On the average street in Cairo, foreigners are rare. Yet despite the repeated terrorist attacks aimed at tourists, travellers are converging on Egypt in record numbers. Last year, the country received nearly ten million tourists, roughly a million of whom were British. But so far I've seen very few of them.
Underground, I remind myself of metro etiquette. The first carriage of every train is for women only. Sometimes I use it; sometimes I don't. But what's remarkable, in every carriage but particularly the first, is that a certain kind of woman has disappeared. There used to be plenty: women who looked like the newsreaders on Egyptian television, or the stars of the popular soaps – smart, with make-up and (the defining feature) carefully styled hair. But many Egyptians are returning to a more fundamental expression of Islam. Hairstyles are out; hijab is in.
If I'm struck by this evidence of a growing conservatism, the sights at the Egyptian Museum hit me all the more, but now I'm not talking about the exhibits. It's my fellow tourists who cause my jaw to drop. After only a day on the streets of Cairo, my eye has adapted to the culture's sensibilities; I enter the museum's precincts and am staggered at the sudden swathes of flesh.
I shouldn't be. It has probably been this way ever since Thomas Cook brought his first group of tourists to steam up the Nile in 1869. Few visitors bear in mind that this is a Muslim country, and anyway, Egypt always was a land of contradictions. The lush green of the Nile valley cuts through the searing desert; the powerful, polytheistic past contrasts with the relatively poor and Islamic present.
But to my eyes, the difference between the people who visit this land and the people who live in it has never been more apparent. And I can't help but wonder what would happen if the banned (but increasingly popular) Muslim Brotherhood were ever to come to power. What would become of the bare-all tourist industry then?
I take a train south to Luxor. When I arrive, I take the ferry to the west bank, settle in to a smallish hotel and set myself a routine. Skipping the hotel's white-bread-and-omelette breakfast, I opt for the local fuul, mashed fava beans swimming in melted butter; ta'amiyya, a superior version of the humble falafel; pitta bread, salad and sometimes cheese. Then I explore ancient sites before the heat kicks in.
My visits to the Valley of the Monkeys and the Tomb of Ay are a new experience: like all visitors to Egypt, I've always been spoilt for choice. There are so many sites on offer – and they're universally magnificent. In a series of tombs, I gaze at scenes of captive giraffes and hyenas, the collection of taxes, the making of wine, the wailing of paid mourners at funerals. I wander among the ruins of Deir el Medina, the ancient workmen's village that housed the pharaohs' tomb-builders. I ride a donkey up the golden limestone crags to survey the necropolis below – the mortuary temples on one side, the Valley of the Kings on the other.
In the afternoons, I enjoy life on the west bank. Despite the rate of development in the main town to the east, the west remains peaceful; the hotels and restaurants – mostly small and independent – are rarely full. And the villages, accessed by hired bicycle or horse, are sleepy. I creep up on hoopoes and egrets to take photos, or drift along the Nile in au ofelucca until the sun goes down. Later, I play pool, or smoke apple-flavoured sheesha and chat.
People are warm and hospitable. They're after business, of course; but once I've settled on a taxi driver, the negotiations calm down. I'm invited to drink sweet black tea, with the other taxi drivers, felucca captains or donkey owners. As I do so, I suspect that what I saw in Cairo applies all the more here. There seems to be a growing gulf between ordinary Egyptians and the millions of tourists who visit each year.
In Luxor, the issue comes into focus. While still a draw for the culturally curious, the Nile has a new label: cheap sun. And while Britons might still top the list of arrivals, Russia is next on the list; Egypt's tourism minister, Zoheir Garranah, has China and India in his sights, and hopes for an annual total of 14 million tourists by 2011. One presumes they will come mostly in groups. Garranah claims that for every million tourists, 200,000 jobs are created, but I'm amazed at the sheer size and uniformity of the hotels that have sprung up along the eastern riverside. The owner of a small boat or single taxi sees nothing of the package business flooding in. Unemployment officially runs at about 10 per cent; the real figure may well be much higher.
In Gurna, part of the west bank necropolis, I'm shocked to see what's happened to the colourful houses that used to nestle among the tombs. They've been reduced to rubble, their occupants moved out. The residents of Gurna have long been accused of tomb robbery, but there's little left to rob – more likely, this is an attempt to sanitise the area for mass tourism. The irony is that the majority of tourists rarely visit these tombs, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. There's no time. On crammed schedules, they're whisked straight past and on to the Valley of the Kings, the temples of Hatshepsut and the Ramesseum. But for those who do explore here, the mud-brick houses used to be part of the charm.
Ahmed takes me to see where the residents of Gurna live now. It's a vast housing estate – row upon row of identical dwellings in a barren, featureless setting. I wonder how they're supposed to survive out here. Tucked out of sight of tourists and the income they used to provide, it's a desert in more ways than one.
Perhaps package tourism, though, is the best way for Egypt to manage this industry, in terms of security at least. There have been no terrorist attacks in Luxor since the massacre at the temple of Hatshepsut in 1997 (since then, there have been two in Cairo, and five on Sinai), but it's an issue the government takes seriously. Egypt is a military state, with national service: there are many soldiers and police officers wandering around, looking bored.
Exactly how bored, I get the chance to find out. One afternoon, I get pulled in at a checkpoint because I've passed through it twice. The officer is slouching in a chair by the side of the road wearing large reflective shades. I watch as Ahmed gets out, shows his documentation, explains. The officer nods towards the car; he wants to speak to me.
I get out and smile. The officer doesn't smile back. "Where are you from?"
"Where are you going?"
I indicate the village just along the road. "Just down there."
"To visit a friend."
"What's his name?" demands the officer.
The question makes me flustered. I'm not doing anything wrong, but I'm suddenly beginning to feel guilty as hell. I hesitate, wishing it were anything but the name of half the men in Luxor.
"Mohammed," I say reluctantly.
I see the corner of his mouth twitch as if to say, Ah... Mohammed. He shifts in his chair.
"I don't know. Look, he's Ahmed's uncle. I've known him for seven years. I know Ahmed's father's name but not Mohammed's. I'm just going to help him write a let..."
"You've been to Egypt before?"
"Yes. Many times."
"How many times?"
Stupidly, I start counting in my head, and lose track. "Eight – no, wait – nine..."
But the officer's had his fun. He nods dismissively. "You can go," he says, before I've finished deciding on a number.
I stalk back to the car, humiliated, but aware that this nonsense has a point. Keeping close tabs on tourists' whereabouts is the Egyptian way of looking after them. Travellers who do their own thing are a nuisance; so, there are rules. For example, while a dozen or so trains run up and down the Nile valley every day, only three can be used by tourists. And if you want to drive between a wide range of destinations, you must do so under police escort.
These armed convoys are unpopular with tourists and locals alike. I find out why on a trip from Luxor to Edfu and Kom Ombo, both of which have impressive Ptolemaic temples. The vehicles set off with one police vehicle up front, another bringing up the rear. We're somewhere in the middle and are forced to drive at a cracking pace. Towns and villages flash by; ancient tombs, medieval mosques all pass in a blur. Stopping is not an option, and local traffic is forced out of the way. It's hard to believe this benefits anyone; but given the polarities I've witnessed, I imagine the convoys will stay.
Then again, while it might have been nice to do some exploration en route, I can't complain at the amount there is to see – so much of which is ignored by the majority. In a week, I've revisited all 17 tombs open near Gurna, and have seen only four other tourists. This situation is tough on many of the locals, but if you enjoy the option of a little breathing space, it has its attractions, too. And for those who've been, and seen only a fraction, there's a simple solution: go back.
Gill Harvey's novel 'Orphan of the Sun' (for ages 8 to 12) is published by Bloomsbury, £5.99
Fly to Cairo from Heathrow with BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) and Egyptair (020-7734 2343; www.egyptair. com). Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com) and Swiss (0845 601 0956; www. swiss. com) offer routes via hub cities. On the Go (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours. com) can tailor holidays. A nine-day Classical Egypt tour costs from £900.
Buy rail tickets for Luxor at Cairo's Ramses station (www. egyptrail.gov.eg). The journey takes nine to 10 hours and tickets cost between E£17 (£1.60) and E£78 (£7.30), one-way.
Talisman Hotel, 39 Talaat Harb Street, Cairo (00 20 10 125 6212; www.talisman-hotel. com). Double rooms start at €80 (£62), with breakfast.
Nile Valley Hotel, Luxor West Bank (00 20 95 231 1477; www.nilevalley.nl). Double rooms start at €€28 (£22), including breakfast.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Groppi's tearoom, Talaat Harb Square, Cairo (00 20 2 575 0822).
Egyptian Museum, Tahrir Square Cairo (00 20 2 579 6948; www.egyptianmuseum.gov.eg). Open daily 9am-7pm; admission E£20 (£1.90) and an additional E£40 (£3.80) for the mummies room.
Egypt State Tourist Office: 020-7493 5283; www.egypt.travel