There is no chaos in the world like Cairo’s train station.
There is one teller window open of a possible 19, and the queue in front of it stretches to half the local postcode. Families are yelling and luggage, great galumphing cubic metres of luggage that resemble small shipping containers, is everywhere, swathed in recycled cardboard and great whiskery fronds of string. Tea sellers do a brisk platform trade, their huge urns slung diagonally over their backs and cups dangling from their belts, human tableware. Children and leathery old women sit on the platforms, forcing other travellers to traverse their lengths in a series of brief arcs.
Steam and smoke rise from… Everything. The bittersweet clouds of sugared Liptons, the grit crunched to dust on the sleepers. The tobacco that pumps skywards in strange synchronicity with the murmurs and yelps of the travellers. Everything is wrapped in fug.
When crossing between platforms, Egyptians cut to the chase: not bothering with tunnels, they simply jump nonchalantly down onto the tracks and stroll over, pulling themselves and their vast crates of belongings up. The few platform markings are in Arabic of course – even numbers aren’t decipherable – and more than one train can stand on the same platform. Tickets (non-steerage, anyway) quote train, carriage, compartment and seat number, and while I’m getting okay at numerals; the handwritten ticket just looks squiggly. But as always in Egypt, there’s no shortage of people with a little English and a lot of heart. I don’t just pointed to the right platform: I get led there by the hand, and it’s the same when I board, people directing me all the way to my appointed place.
And once there, the chaos subsides. First class reminds me of BBC costume dramas; like much of Cairo, it’s shabbily elegant, proper compartments with curtains, and I’m sharing with a doctor from Asyut and a smocked tribesman who looks like he knows eight ways to kill with a rolled-up papyrus. I settle into the journey, smilling once again at the kindness of strangers.