Saturday, 18 August 2007

Sudanese exit strategy

We had always planned to take the train which connects with the Wadi Halfa ferry as our way from Khartoum to Egypt. We had managed to buy ferry tickets earlier in the week, but were told to come back Saturday at 8am to buy the train tickets. So we did. Yassir Yaseen, the station master, was in his office busy with...well not sure what. We ascertained that Khartoum has around one train a day, mostly freight trains, but he assured us that his job was very important. He also advised that we couldn't buy the train ticket till after 1pm, as they hadn't yet sorted out the wagon numbers. But then he bought us coffee and read our Sudanese guidebook with interest, pointing out other train lines and destinations to us, so what could we do? He had shown us to the ticket office though, and assured us that our names were on a reservations list. Nothing for it but to take a minibus back over the Nile to town, and return in a few hours...

So we did, and sure enough got tickets on our third visit without any problem at all. We even managed to elicit a departure time from the ticket seller - something we'd had trouble with with Yaseen, as he routinely got his am's and pm's mixed up. We need to be at the station at 7am on Monday morning. The train trip is 36 hours, and it connects with the ferry, which is fortunate as apparently the train's frequently late. We have a sleeping compartment, and are anticipating a pleasant journey.

While it's nice to have the logistics organised, it's also a little sad. Our extended trip is definitely coming to an end, and we have lost the feeling of open-endedness and freedom that we once had. I'm also a little bit sad to be leaving Sudan without having seen more of it - though we have had the chance to get to know our Khartoum neighbourhood well. There are so many things I like about Sudanese society - like the communal water idea. I've mentioned how hot it is. Everyone needs to drink. The locals drink the local water. Everywhere are large earthenware containers, usually kept in the shade, filled with water with a tin mug on the side. The water slowly evaporates, keeping the contents cool, and also hydrating the atmosphere. It's a lovely classic answer to the perennial problem of thirst. There's also the more modern option of blokes on the side of the street with large plastic containers of water and a couple of mugs. But I guess that's "progress". Kids also walk around carrying water and clanking mugs together to attract attention, but I have noticed lots of people, specially drivers, have their own mugs in their vehicles, and nip out for a cup of water whenever they see a communal source.

Water sellers down the street from the Al Nakheel (our hotel)...

and the more authentic, and equally common, source.

Souq-el-Arabe is brimful of markets, mostly shoes and perfume it seems, but lots of other stuff too. Max easily managed to replace his dodgy Ethiopian sunglasses with what I suspect is a dodgy Sudanese pair. I have been tempted to buy some furry slippers for somebody, I'm just not sure who. The street sellers make the neighbourhood alive, and it's interesting to see them arrange their fez-like hats, cellphones, books, etc, with real care and attention - and then a little sad to see them sit in the hot sun all day waiting for customers to show interest.

Beads and hats for sale, and cellphones being sold from the back of a truck

The men of Sudan are much more visible than the women, though we do see plenty of them around the streets of the city, and I've noticed a lot in the grounds of the University. Still, it's the men who have grabbed my attention by praying publicly in the streets - sometimes alone and sometimes in large groups. Every now and then we'll come across someone, on a small carpet or mat, quietly murmuring to themselves and facing Mecca. One day we came back to the hotel, and the entire street frontage was filled with a few dozen praying and chanting men, but we haven't seen it again. And, to my amazement, the men here squat to pee. It might be because they haven't traditionally worn trousers, but even those that do wear them still squat. Fascinating!

Being a capital city, there are lots of banks and foreign exchange facilities, but we have been very loyal to our local grocer, who unfailingly has cash at hand for our transactions, is speedy and gives us the standard rate of two Sudanese pounds for a US dollar. And he's open on Fridays.

There aren't too many English bookshops in town, but we eventually found the New Bookshop, run by a Greek-Sudanese family. The owners' parents had emigrated from Greece in the 1930s. We were looking for a North Africa Michelin map to replace one we'd lost, and asked him if he had them. Yes, he did, but they were kept behind the counter. Apparently the Sudanese government doesn't like the Egypt-Sudan boundary on this map, and he's been raided before by the police for selling publications the government doesn't approve of, and is now a bit more circumspect. Interesting to hear - also interesting to wonder about the Greek-Sudan connection - the Greek Embassy is huge, and the oldest hotel in town is called the Acropole.

** ** *** ** **

But all this is now behind us. As advised, we were dutifully at Khartoum North railway station at 7am. The train arrived around 8 and left at 8.45, so no surprises there. Embarkation was surprisingly straightforward. Our compartment was easily found, and while simple, was perfectly OK. We made ourselves comfortable for the 36 hour journey, much more comfortable than the poor sods on the roof anyway!

Khartoum North railway station, 8.30 on Monday mornings, before the weekly departure of the train to Wadi Halfa, connecting with the weekly ferry to Aswan, Egypt.

It's a nice train, really it is.

Until Atbara, the train line pretty much followed the Nile - still partially flooded after all the rain.

We stopped at Shendi station where we bought felafel sandwiches and a large bag of dates for the trip. While the train was pretty slow, it was steady, and we got to Atbara (about 300km away) about 7.30pm. We had expected to meet up with Sara here. We first met Sara at the Sudanese Embassy in Addis, getting her visa, and then again in Khartoum. She had been out to Port Sudan, and expected to connect with the train at Atbara, for the leg to Wadi Halfa. Her 14 day visa, like ours, only had a few days left. We found Sara in the dining car, and brought her back to our compartment, where she spent the night on the floor. Better than it sounds, we have our camping mats with us still, and sleeping bags too, so I'm sure she was really quite comfy - better than a wooden bench, or the floor, in third class anyway.

The next day the train went mostly through desert. Really bleak, harsh and very, very hot. The hot sandy wind blew all day and our floor and benches were covered in fine dust, as were we. Our expensive compartment didn't run to air conditioning - though we did meet a fellow passenger who told us wistfully he'd last travelled on this train in 1966 when it did have A/C, and he was able to drink a cold beer too. It was a bit of a torment to hear this. Sharia law was introduced into Sudan in 1983, and that's when alcohol was banned, and Islamic dress and behaviour codes were introduced. We'd seen a picture book that had been published in 1978. Khartoum had very few cars, nice tidy roads, and women in Western dress, walking about without their heads covered. Not every woman in the city wears a headscarf, but probably about 95% do. We had heard about some horror journeys on this train, but I have to say our experience was better than expected. We arrived before time in the re-housed town of Wadi Halfa (an early victim of the flooding required to build the Aswan dam), found our way via an overloaded tuk-tuk to the El Nile Hotel, and then to a bed - not a room, just a bed. But a bed outdoors in this climate is just fine.

The hotel had more Westerners staying than we'd seen in a while. All a bit of a shock to the three of us after our weeks in north Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. An overland truck and four 4WDs were heading north, and a few travellers had got off the ferry from Egypt and were heading south. Nice to hang out with some new people and hear some new stories.

The final phase was almost upon us. The ferry trip to Aswan. We had our ticket, but still had to negotiate the maze of Sudanese bureaucracy one more time to arrange exit visas and pay departure tax. And then an agent appeared at the hotel, organised by the overland truck guys who had the additional task of paperwork for their vehicle. He offered to take our passports and ferry tickets and $20US each and do it for us. We thought about this for at least a moment, before accepting. OK, so we don't know the intricacies of exiting Sudan personally, but after Khartoum we were all a bit gun shy. Far better to have a leisurely breakfast and then relax, than run about in the hot sun not knowing where and what to do, nor what anything should cost

All was sorted early in the afternoon, and a bus even provided to get us all to the port, two or three km away. The ship was in and so were we, really quite quickly. Again our little cabin was perfectly fine, though without frills and the first class bathrooms were a bit marginal - I could only wonder what life was like on the second and third class decks. There was room for Sara to bunk in with us again, but we spent most of the voyage in the dining room or on deck. Dinner was included in our ticket and about 8.30 we motored past the wonderful temples at Abu Simbel, removed at great cost by UNESCO from the Aswan floodwaters and lit up specially for us (or perhaps the nightly sound and light show??). Anyway, they looked great from the water.

Embarkation may have been straightforward, but disembarkation was anything but. The Egyptian immigration guys took over the dining room, and got men and women to queue separately (Europeans were treated as a third group, we had to wait). We retreated to our cabin, propped open the door and provided a chair for old ladies to sit on, and water for those feeling faint. It was a long hot wait in the narrow corridors for everyone else, and we felt pretty sorry for them. Soon though we were to feel pretty sorry for ourselves - told to get our passports stamped, and take our luggage downstairs where we would be let through. But no, not till Mohammed arrived. So we sat downstairs near the exit door, which was guarded by the immigration police, and waited in the stuffy heat for half an hour. The process for the locals seemed to be the official with the loudest voice would should out a name, and a passenger would push himself through the crowd, luggage and all, and get stamped out. Not sure how many people were on board, but several hundred, and I couldn't bear to think that each passenger would be called by name and individually released to Aswan port. Thankfully Mohammed turned up before too long and saved us from having to watch it any longer.

Entering Aswan, as seen from our ferry cabin porthole.
Sara, Max and I were hanging out for a beer and a swim. The Cleopatra Hotel had been recommended by Bruno who we'd all met in Khartoum. We eventually got a cab there, and booked in. A tad less than twenty US dollars each got us a three star room (which felt at least like a five star one after the last few days), and use of a swimming pool. We raced up there, it was baking hot, and jumped in. As we arrived, the guy working in the bar left. And never came back. Ah well, that beer could wait an hour or so. We checked downstairs, no beer. We had a bite to eat at a small local place round the corner, no beer. We walked along the Nile and put our heads into the fancy looking Isis Hotel. Beer. We ordered three local Stellas, and downed some fresh mango juice while we waited. It should have been a beautiful moment, the sun dropping down over the Nile, a balmy evening, good company, cold beer - but no the beer was pretty much room temperature. And I didn't even like it. Perhaps I've lost the taste for it after all this time! A bit of a low key welcome to Egypt...

The whirling Dervishes

I had read about the whirling Dervishes, but wasn't really sure what we would be in for when we went to view the weekly ritual at the old city of Omdurman. The event takes place around the cemetery and tomb of Ahmed-al-Nil, and is watched by locals, by fellow, non-performing Sufis, and by tourists (not that there are that many of us). Sufism is a branch of Islam that uses chanting, ritual, rhythm, and "whirling" to bring its adherents closer to God. There are numerous Sufi sects, differentiated at Omdurman's Friday afternoon sessions by their costumes. I'm no expert, but the overall effect of this event seemed to be general good humour, a bit of vigorous exercise and a strong sense of camaraderie.

We, rather painfully, got the hotel to write in Arabic the name of the tomb for us so we could show the bus drivers and find the right bus. They seemed to have no idea what we were talking about, in spite of our very best Arabic, but eventually, after a bit of twirling in the hotel foyer, they seemed to twig. Anyway, we did manage to get a bus - always a good thing in this town as they're about 10 percent of the price of a taxi. We left around 4.30, expecting things to start happening around 6, but were so efficient that we were at the cemetery before 5. Still, a few people were about, and there were tea ladies everywhere so we sat down, accompanied by a local with the rather unlikely name of Maurice, who told us a little bit about the ceremony, what we would see and where we should go. I was soon snaffled by a couple of young girls, who took me to the back of the tomb where the women were preparing food, so I could meet their grandmother. She wasn't that pleased to see me really, so I left and headed back to the main outdoor area in front of the tomb where the warm up was happening. Three older guys in white robes were banging rhythmically on drums, and moving round in a circle. Other men would jump into the circle and pretend to threaten them with sticks and they would mock fight. It all looked rather pantomine-like, but the crowd was really into it, clapping and laughing. There was a lot of laughter actually, which I hadn't expected. I had thought this would be a serious, if slightly cosmic, religious ceremony.

Some of the crowd, and the warm-up act for the Dervishes.

There were quite a few local people watching who took the opportunity to speak to the inevitable tourists. Max chatted with a guy who'd written a Master's thesis on Sufism, and I spoke to a couple of younger guys who were basically tour touts, but knew their stuff. The crowd was probably round a thousand when the main event started, as we'd been told, an hour before sunset. It went for round 90 minutes, with waves of frenzied chanting, clapping and drumming. Some of the Sufis who were allowed inside the large circle merely walked around, nodding and swaying, but some really did twirl and whirl, seemingly oblivious to all else around them. There were a couple of "administrators" who kept the crowd motivated to chant and clap. The crowd played a big part in generating the atmosphere that allowed the devout in the centre to abandon themselves. It was at times a strange phenomenon to witness, and also at times familiar - I could have been at a rock concert. There were some modern accessories - loudspeakers, microphones and more than a few cell phones - along with the more traditional sticks, braziers with incense, whips and instruments (and maybe some magic, I was quietly told), to help things along. The event was colourful and exotic, and it finished with a nice touch when we were invited to join others to eat freshly cooked lentils (courtesy of the ladies out the back). No women were overtly involved in the ritual, either as adherents or in the crowd generally, so I think their role was supportive shall we say!

The crowd surrounding the whirling ones kick off their shoes, clap and chant Allah's name faster and faster in unison, providing an hypnotic effect.
Among the adherents were many who looked and dressed unlike most Sudanese men, who are generally short haired, clean shaven, and tidy in white robes and turbans. They stood apart with dreadlocks, beards and a range of colourful clothing. Breathing in the smoke from the brazier is supposed to mean you will come back to Omdurman - and so I guess I shall!

Friday, 17 August 2007

The pyramids of Meroe

Meroe is not so far from Khartoum, and we didn't need a travel permit to get there. These were good enough reasons for us to make an overnight visit. We are getting better with the minibuses and successfully managed to get one over the river (the Nile that is) to Mogoff Shendi, departure point for buses to Shendi and Atbara (Meroe is pretty much halfway between these two towns). We arrived at 12.30 and the bus left only about an hour later. Somehow or other we had stumbled upon a superior bus line, and we were served water, soft drinks and cake along the way, and there was air conditioning. We mentioned to the guy that stowed our bag, to the driver and to the bus conductor and to anyone else who would listen, that we were only going as far as Bajarawiya, the village where the pyramids are, and made lots of pyramid shapes with our hands. This seemed to have absolutely no effect as I happened to see them out the window and got the bus to stop and let us off. Luckily they are only a few hundred metres from the road, an easy walk which was a shame for the donkey cart and the two camels that came bursting out of nowhere as we got off the bus, offering us rides.

We hadn't known what to expect, but the site was really nice, and it was good to arrive late in the day. We forked out our $10US each (fortunately we were able to pay this at the site, till recently it was a requirement to buy an archeological permit in Khartoum - which would have meant yet another visit to yet another office), and wandered around taking photos in the late afternoon light. There were apparently around 100 pyramids in total, all part of the Royal Cemetery of Meroe, built smaller and steeper than those in Egypt, and in their heydey they were plastered and painted. There has been some restoration, after an Italian gravedigger decapitated most of them in the 1800s, but many are still as they were then.

Sarah left to hitch a ride to Atbara, and we prepared to spend the night. It was really hot, and we sat in the porch of the vistor centre eating our oranges and biscuits wondering whether we could stand to be in the tent. In the end we decided not to put it up, and instead slept in the porch. Somewhat amazingly it rained briefly at one point, but the wind was much more of a problem and we ended up sleeping in a bed of sand. We were quite a sight in the morning.

The trip back to Khartoum was remarkably straightforward - we were on the side of the road before 7.30 and had got a lift with a truck to Shendi within a few minutes. The truck driver dropped us at the crossroads, and within a few minutes more an empty Khartoum-bound bus arrived and on we hopped. It couldn't have been easier. We were back in Khartoum by about 11.30, and then things went a bit wrong. One of our fellow bus passengers motioned us to share his taxi. We're going to Souq-el-Arabe we said in our best Arabic. Not sure what his response was, but we ended up going miles out of our way to drop him off, and then getting the taxi to take us back to where we wanted to go. We were prepared for a bit of a discussion about the fare, but five pounds seemed to cover it, luckily.

Getting to grips with Khartoum

Khartoum - a city of three cities; Omdurman, the capital of the Mahdi and home to nearly 3 million; Khartoum Central (over 1 million residents) where our hotel is and Khartoum North (almost a million). Our area is a network of alleys and laneways between wide, busy streets. There's a lot of dust, and our main landmark is a large digital clock / date / temperature reader - which is why we know it's nearly always over 40 degrees at 3pm, and seldom under 34 anytime of the day or night. We seem to have ended up living in the shoe souk, though the entire neighbourhood is known as Souq-el-Arabe, which is handy as a minibus call.

After the grim registration process, we were anxious about the dramas that might await purchasing train and ferry tickets. The first bit of fun was finding a bus going that way, and in the end we succumbed to the relative ease of taking a taxi. They are really expensive here, but Mohammed our driver advised us not to use the yellow Toyotas like his, but the mini vans instead as they used diesel. What a guy. The railway station was huge and empty...because they don't sell train tickets, we discovered! Yasser Yassim, the trusty booking clerk, enjoyed chatting to us but wouldn't sell us a ticket till Saturday because "we don't know when the train will arrive". I guess it makes some weird kind of sense. But we could and did buy the ferry ticket (this is the ferry from Wadi Halfa at the base of Lake Nasser, and the way we'll enter Egypt). Luckily the ferry office had big pictures of boats all over the place, making it easy to find.

We have also made a visit to the National Museum, which was fantastic. The Nubian, Kushite and Meroitic civilisations, are all represented and three temples removed from the flood area of Lake Nasser have been reconstructed and are in the museum garden. I am still trying to get my head around all the history, but it seems that for a time anyway Egypt was ruled by a dynasty from Nubia (ie Sudan) - not sure if this is how it will be reported in Egypt though.

Some heiroglyphics from the temples reconstructed in the garden of the Sudanese National Museum, Khartoum.

I love the way exhibits have fallen in the glass case; the statue on the right is known as the Nubian Venus. A Nubian king (Thanakal) is represented as a larger than life stone carved statue.

The schoolgirls who practised English with us - love those uniforms! Boys wear identical fabric, but their background colour is teal green instead of blue.

Markets are a big part of Sudanese life, and we visited the souq at Omdurman, though it was late in the day and many of the stores were closing up. This meant though that everyone was pretty relaxed, and it was good to see the night market in all its glory. Lots of spices, the air was thick with them, butchers (in gory glory), tea sellers - all very exotic and colourful.

A few pics from the Omdurman souq: tailor, butcher, miller and tea lady.

The other thing that's dear to a Sudanese heart is his livestock, and so we travelled out to the daily market. We'd hoped to see camels, but there weren't really that many there, the main business was in sheep and goats, with a few cows thrown in. The trip out was complicated - there were six of us to begin with, so we charted a mini van, which quite far into the journey stopped because it was running out of petrol. "We'll pay the fare and you can buy some more," we said. No good - the petrol was back in Omdurman. That was that. Bruno saw a donkey cart, and negotiated with the driver. Soon we were all on the carpet-lined wooden cart, jogging along for the last 3km or so. There were groups of white robed men, gathering protectively round their small herds of animals, keen as anything to get their photos taken. Deals were going down, and the amounts of money seemed quite large. The area outside the yards was full of Toyota 4WDs, just like at home I'd say, except these ones were all pretty ancient. There were also a few huge old workhorse trucks that had obviously brought stock in from the countryside.

A pretty camel, the goat delivery system at the Omdurman livestock markets, and a proud sheep owner.

Sudan - the best of times and the worst of times...

It's just as well the people of Sudan are genuinely lovely, because the hoops that the government puts tourists through is genuinely frustrating, distressing and disheartening.
Imagine this: We've entered the country and been given three days to "register" - a costly bureaucratic process all "aliens" are required to do, in addition to getting a visa; it's about 40 degrees; we've spent the night in an expensive, bug-infested hotel and have had too little sleep. The alien registration process begins at our hotel as we are required to present evidence of our place of residence. This was slightly complicated as we shifted hotels after one unsatisfactory night at The Central, to the nearby Badr Tourist Hotel, only a marginal improvement, but a big reduction in cost from 95 Sudanese pounds to 65. Luckily the Badr had the forms, and dug a set out for us. Even more luckily, Sarah, a Swedish woman we'd last met at the Sudanese Embassy in Addis, returned to the Badr, told us that the Alien Registration Office had recently moved to near the American Embassy, and advised that we get the hotel to stamp and sign all three forms. She has returned to do just that.
Gathering ourselves for the unknown, we stepped out into the bright sunlight and followed our map to the American Embassy, and then asked directions to the registration office, which was down a nameless alley, and unsignposted until we were almost upon it. Once inside the shadeless compound, notable for its complete lack of any information about the process, documentation required, or costs, in any language, we eventually figured out by attrition which window to go to. The first step was to get all our paperwork in order, and signed and stamped. This meant going over the road to get a photocopy of our Sudanese visa and entry stamp, and putting it together with the hotel forms and a passport photo. This step was accomplished by lunchtime. At this stage we were being bounced from window to window - we can't take your money till you have a sticker (a small postage stamp-like sticker placed on our bundle of signed forms); we can't give you a sticker till you've paid. It's hard to convey how dispiriting this was, given the heat and the complete mystery of the process we were trying to complete. We all gave up and went to lunch - they said come back at 2pm (actually, they said come back tomorrow, but our reaction to that made them revise this!). At 2pm promptly we were back in the sunny courtyard, and there we stayed till 3.30pm when the staff came back from lunch!!! Still, in their favour, now that the cashiers had had a break they were in a much better mood, and the need for the postage stamp somehow disappeared. Our passports and forms were submitted, along with great piles of others for various NGOs and Chinese workers (who sensibly use professional registration-getters who know the system). Max had no hesitation in pulling ours out of a pile and placing them in front of the cashier for relatively immediate attention. We paid our money, got our receipt, queued up at another window and by 4.30 had our registration stickers in our passports. Whew!
We finished the day by meeting up with Max (a young German student) at the Badr, who was trying to get a room and failing to do so, and wandering round the neighbourhood with him looking for another hotel. It was enough to make us realise that the Badr wasn't the worst place in town by any means. But, eventually we ended up at the Al Nakheel, a lovely place and only 50 pounds. Max found his German mate Yannick there, and we headed out to dinner that night together with Bruno, a French-Canadian and Andrew from York (no, not the prince!).
Everyone has similar stories to tell about the registration process, and for everyone else who planned to go to Port Sudan, they have the joy of facing a similar process to get travel permits (required for travel in much of the country). We are only planning to go to the railway station and buy a train and ferry ticket. Should be a breeze!

It's a funny thing, but I didn't expect Sudan to be better off than Ethiopia, but it seems to be. Comparing Khartoum to Addis, the power doesn't go off unexpectedly every day, it appears there are more cars, more people smoke and wear spectacles, the small stalls aren't run by children but by adults, there are far fewer beggars, the roads are in better repair, and it's certainly more expensive. The internet services are the fastest and the best we've come across on the entire continent.

People are always keen to try out their English, and in Ethiopia they were often quite a pain, tagging along for ages and generally bugging us. Here, so far anyway, people have been content to almost mumble to themselves "welcome to Sudan" as we pass by, or they shout out "hello" and grin when you say "hello" back to them. We have been bought cups of tea, the water stall owner raced out and gave me change from the day before, the juice stand gave us an orange and a free juice top up today and took our photo. People are always keen to help us with the buses and directions. They are friendly without being obsequious, kindly and good natured. They are also very aware that Sudan doesn't have a good international reputation, and anxious that our experience here is positive. Apart from the bureaucracy, it has been.

Our favourite juice guy - he sells half pints of fresh mango juice for the equivalent of US50 cents.

Monday, 13 August 2007

The trip to Sudan

After the joys of Lalibela, it was back to a few days of dedicated travel. First we flew (yes, flew) from Lalibela to Gondor. I was overjoyed to find we could do this. Because of the rain, and a roading issue down the line, no buses had got into Lalibela for two or three days. We were offered a 4WD to Gondor for 2500 bir, a seriously large sum in this country. When we told the boys who'd offered us this that we'd got flights for less than half that sum, they nodded sagely and said that flying was very cheap!

Ethiopian Air fly a large network of internal flights, as well as quite a lot of flights to African and some European destinations and have a pretty good reputation. I can only recommend them. The flight left early, and arrived pretty much on time in spite of having to circle Gondor airport for 15 minutes or so due to lightning. The landing was a bit skiddy, but nothing compared to the taxi ride into town from the airport. It was funny being back somewhere familiar, and being welcomed back to the Circle Hotel like old friends.
We wandered down to the bus station after lunch, and ascertained that buses to Metemma, the Ethiopia/Sudan border town, left at the surprising hour of 5.30am. Sigh.

Up early the next morning, and down to the bus. Off on our last ride in Ethiopia at 6.30. We had around 300km to cover, and after about three hours ground to a stop. A rock had gone through the bus radiator. Everyone piled out and sat in the pleasant sunshine while the bus boy turned into a mechanic, donned overalls and did stuff under the engine. When we saw the radiator wrested out of the engine cavity and put on a bus, we knew we could be in for a long wait. Our driver though had flagged down a bus going the other way, and soon enough was back with a replacement vehicle. This was feeling quite organised for Ethiopia, even the business of reissuing tickets was completed without too much drama. On the first bus we had got premier seats, in the front next to the driver - but it was too much to hope that this would continue on the new bus. Max got an OK seat, and I perched on the padded area often used for luggage, next to the driver. Fortunately, this drive, which had sounded like it had once been tough, was now tar sealed all the way.

In case you're wondering what a broken down Ethiopian bus looks like, here's a picture. The radiator is on the road.
We had read that there was no accommodation in Metemma and that the buses terminated in Shihedi, about 90 minutes from the border, but since the bus destination was Metemma, we decided to go there and see what we could find. The town was larger than we'd thought it would be, busy and bustling and lots of hotels. No worries there. Across from the bus depot the Millennium Beadroom sounded appealing, and soon we were securely lodged for the grand sum of 20 bir. The room was small and simple, but had a mosquito net (we have dropped a lot in altitude), and the loos and showers weren't too bad at all, considering.

Time for some food, and we strolled up the main street, eating and relaxing at the Love and Peace Restaurant, which also offered rooms, just like ours. We kept on walking, and stopped for tea a bit further down the road. They were making injera and I was inducted into the art, much to the amusement of the entire cafe, and half the street. It's probably a good thing that I hadn't seen the large plastic buckets of fermenting batter before now, nor how the wooden pan on which the pancakes are cooked was cleaned with dirt between batches! Walking a bit further to the end of the main street we came across immigration (who insisted on seeing our passports, even though we weren't going anywhere), and customs who also insisted upon a chat. We could see loads of buses and trucks over on the Sudan side - all looking straightforward for the morning.
Considering we were leaving the land of a dozen beer brands, for a land with none, we popped into the Havana Bar. It was full of brightly dressed ladies, and visitors from over the border, and also offered rooms. Hmm. The manager was one of our fellow bus passengers and he greeted us like old friends. He described his business as import-export and we didn't ask too many questions.

On the way back to our "beadroom" we were collared by Emmanuel, who we'd spoken to briefly over lunch, and invited into his house for coffee. He got his sisters to whip up a brew, which involved washing and cooking the beans, pounding them, and then brewing them in an old aluminium pot on a brazier, complete with rubber and incense. They plied us with water and Pepsi, and then injera and popcorn appeared. It started to rain and we retreated to a small bedroom (again, just like ours), and sat around with them for a while. A group of young people sharing their meal and their evening with us, just for the sake of showing us their culture, and practising their English. They would take no money - a nice memory with which to leave Ethiopia.

And so to Sudan. In the morning we retraced our steps to immigration, a relatively pain free process, and then walked across the border. We had heard about the love of bureaucracy that the Sudanese have, and it started here. There were four offices to visit - customs, immigration, registration and security, where we submitted a photo and our thumbprints, which got chucked into a drawer with a load of other similar forms. The bus was easily organised, and then it was time to eat. The food had been OK in Ethiopia, but not great, but I sense Sudan could be an improvement. Breakfast was coffee, warm bread, felafel, hard boiled egg and a garlic and mint sauce. It was great. We found a money changer to change enough US dollars to get us through to Gedaref, the town where we planned to spend the night, and then settled in under a tree near the bus office to wait for the bus departure - around 12.30.

Gedaref was around 150km away, and even in spite of the frequent stops so that all the foreigners on board (about six of us, the other foreigners seemed to be Ethiopians) could be noted in various ledgers, it only took four hours. Our names were now formally entered, in a variety of phoentic Arabic translations, on many pieces of paper between Khartoum and the border. Some of the offices were nothing more than thatched huts containing numerous mosquito-netted beds, where we sat next to the official reading out our names, nationalities, and passport numbers for him to copy into his ledger. Wonder whatever happens to all this information.

I said we'd planned to spend the night in Gedaref, but our fellow passengers all looked horrified when we went to get off there. "This car goes to Khartoum," we were assured by one, while another indicated that we should stay on board. We go with the flow, and ended up at the bus depot, registering yet again with another branch of the extensive immigration service (once he got back from prayers at the nearby mosque) while a Khartoum-bound bus was rustled up. We were told the trip would be four or five hours, we'll be there by 8 or 9. It was now 5.30, and I saw from a road sign that Khartoum was 411km away. Still, the bus seemed reliable and the road was supposed to be good. There are no mountains anyway, and it's bitumen all the way. Maybe they're right. And maybe they're not!

We arrived in Khartoum after midnight, after numerous more immigration / security / registration checks, including one where we were taken aside while a man in uniform shouted at us, "What is my name?". Resisting the urge to mutter, "Mohammed", we responded by shouting our names back at him. I don't think the middle of the night on the outskirts of Khartoum is the place to take the mickey out of a guy in uniform with a gun! The bus depot was ablaze with lights, full of men in long robes sleeping on the plastic benches, and full of taxis. So far so good. We were snaffled by a driver who spoke enough English to make things easy, and put into his van. The shock of Sudanese prices was about to hit home - he quoted 20 pounds to take us to town - $10US - about three times what any self-respecting Addis driver would charge, and this was just the beginning. We had selected the Central Hotel - and while we knew it was relatively pricey, thought that it would be nice. It was not. A dump, for which we paid $US45. Our funds were running low already, and we'd been in the country for just over 12 hours.

The wondrous Lalibela

We set off to explore the 11 rock hewn churches and associated tunnels, moats, channels and the carved "River Jordan" in bright sunshine and in the company of a Kidane, our guide. This place was stupendous, and should be as well known as the pyramids of Egypt.

King Lalibela came back to Roha (the town was subsequently renamed in his honour) from a 25 year exile in Jerusalem in 1185 and claimed the throne from his half brother. He then set about fulfilling his destiny of building a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. It had become dangerous for Ethiopian Christians to make the pilgrimage there as the city had been wrested from the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187. Apparently the entire site of Lalibela was conceived and executed within 24 years, itself a minor miracle - though there was divine assistance in the form of angels at times, and theories abound about the involvement of the architecturally-minded Knights Templar also.

Whatever, today Lalibela is centred around these thousand-year-old churches, hewn from the volanic tuff. They are largely in two clusters, with a single stand-alone church dedicated to St George. The bed of the River Jordan is carved into the hillside, with a cluster each side of it. All the drainage systems from each complex are designed to run into the river, which tumbles down the hillside. There is a large carved rock cross on the riverbank to mark the point where Jesus was baptised by John. Water plays a major part of the Orthodox baptisimal ceremonies, specially at Timkat (Epiphany, usually early to mid-January), and in Lalibela the River is used. At other sites we have seen special baptisimal pools have been built for this purpose.

But, back to the churches - these were not stale archeological sites, but living treasures used by the local people everyday. UNESCO are working on site to build a museum and visitor centre, which seems a good idea, and have also built alternative accommodation in an attempt to encourage villagers who live on the site in traditional round mud and thatch huts to move away. I hope they don't intend reducing these vibrant places of worship to mere archeological wonders, preventing the locals from using them as churches, in the interests of "preservation" for the likes of us.

If you can, imagine a large rock hillside with trenches carved to release a huge mound of rock. This mound has then been carved into a series of buildings - each one was different, but all were aligned east/west, and served the function of an Orthodox church; they had the requisite three chambers, three doors and their individual collections of treasures, both ephemeral and as part of the structure itself. There were bas relief crosses (Maltese, Greek and Axumite mostly), Stars of David, and the seal of King Lalibela on walls and pillars; paintings of saints, martyrs and events in the life of Jesus; and no church was complete without its own ancient-looking priest, who ceremoniously showed us the hand and processional crosses and the old books. The churches were sometimes linked by long tunnels, or carved pathways and treacherous steps. There was a lot of mould here, the place is crying out for a waterblaster!

All the churches were being used as we were in a two-week fasting period, when churchgoing is more regular. Because it was fasting, mass was held in the afternoons, so we had a couple of hours in the morning, before things closed up for lunch, to see the first cluster - which included Beta Maryam (St Mary's) - beautifully carved inside and out, painted walls, incredibly designed and executed. There were obvious influences from Axum in the shape of the windows and some of the decorations, and also from Byzantine architecture. Kidane said that some of the masons may have come from India - some Hindu and Buddhist influences were also apparent.

We returned from lunch to visit the second cluster, but had to wait in a cave-like structure for mass to finish, and the crowds of white-clad faithful to reclaim their shoes and walk across the narrow bridge. They gathered to share cooked and sprouted beans, which I was also offered. This second cluster was possibly built for more secular purposes, and included a fortress-like building across the bridge, which may have combined living quarters for the King, with a separate cell for him to worship in alone. Or not. Who knows? Such mysteries and uncertainties were part of the charm of Ethiopia. We went from this church (even if they were conceived as secular buildings, the entire site is now consecrated and every building is used for worship) to the next via a several hundred metre long and very dark tunnel. "Just keep your right hand on the wall and you'll be OK," instructed Kidane. I had my torch, but was told the experience would be more memorable without it. Probably right!

The highlight of the afternoon though was visiting St George's - the only stand-alone church in Lalibela, the other 10 being part of one or other of the clusters. This church was really beautiful, especially when seen from "street level" - it was built down into the rock, but the roof carvings and perfect cross-shape were best appreciated from above. Access was via a long sloping pathway, past holes in the walls which housed the occasional hermit, and also a bunch of decaying bodies of monks from 300 years ago - skin and bones still easily seen. From the ground looking up, St George's swayed at odd angles, there didn't seem to be any right angles and the walls angled inwards from the ground up. Maybe an illusion, maybe not?? Inside, it was surprisingly small, and we were told that there wasn't room for chanting inside, and this took place in the open courtyard outside. It was lovely to spend sometime late in the afternoon sitting and looking at the church as the sun softened, wondering about it all. Apart from the physical work involved in carving out these structures, I was really amazed by the intricate design and interrelationships of all these buildings. It must have taken quite some foresight and skill to imagine it all, let alone articulate it.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Getting to Lalibela

The main northern loop road takes around three days from Axum to Lalibela by bus. We saw on our map that there was a shortcut road, that ought to take a day less to travel. The only thing was that transport links were less certain as it was much less used, sparsely populated and the road wasn't sealed which could be a problem in the rainy season. Still, the scenery was meant to be superb, and we were confident we'd be able to sort something out. We had got the car to drop us at the head of this road, the town of Adwa, on the way back from Debre Damo.

We were up at the usual 5am or so, and quickly to the bus station next door to the Tefari Hotel. There was a minibus to Abi Aday 90km away, but it took so long to get going we had time to go back to the Tefari for coffee. We were in the small and rather miserable looking town of Abi Aday in time for lunch. The Debre Selam Pension seemed nice, and for 30 bir felt like a bargain. We strolled around the town a little bit, half looking for a place to eat and eventually saw a sign saying merely "restaurant". The menu was all in Amharic, so not much use, and the waiter/cook spoke no English. In the end I ventured into the kitchen, saw one of the braziers used for serving yummy grilled meat and pointed at it. Done! Soon a brazier full of grilled meat, topped with chilli, onion, tomato, peppers and hard boiled egg arrived and I had even successfully negotiated bread instead of injera.
There didn't seem to be any other faranji in town, meaning we had the entire population of children all to ourselves. Super! Time for a break in a small cafe near the pension, no children allowed. We saw a tele shop over the road and asked about internet access. "Sure," said the manager, "I'll take you to my office where I have 13 networked computers and a leased line." Really? It seemed incredible, but he was insistent. We raced back to our room to pick up our notes, and while we were there noticed that a bag had been opened, our phone and sunglasses stolen. Not a nice feeling. We went downstairs and spoke to the hotel boy who'd shown us to our room and told him and the manager what had happened. He seemed the obvious suspect, and the manager insisted that he accompany us to the police station. Luckily one of the policemen spoke some English, but the language problem didn't stop all three getting out their bits of paper and making notes. Two policemen came back to the room with us, and we re-enacted the scene and checked our packs in front of them. They interrogated the boy about keys, but really there was nothing else much they could do. They left with our contact details, and we heard as we left the next morning that they had arrested the boy. But there was no sign of our belongings.
We finished the day drinking beer, eating key wat (a sort of fiery stew) and watching an old 80s spy spoof on satellite TV, once the power came back on.
The next section of the journey to Lalibela is, according to our guide book, a bus ride to Sekota. Yeah right! The bus boys were all shouting "Yechillay" and "Tembien" - they looked a bit blank when we asked for Sekota and muttered something about contract, but put us on the Yechillay bus. We shrugged, and went along with it. I checked out Yechillay on our map, and it was reassuringly in the right direction. Maybe it will be more than one hop we conjectured. We nipped across the road for breakfast while they mucked around filling the bus, and somewhat amazingly watched an old episode of Colombo, starring Johnny Cash as the baddie. It made the time go, and about 8.30 off we set. Yechillay is a small farming outpost, in the middle of what was the famine area in the mid-1980s. Not the kind of place you want to be stranded. But stranded we were about to be. The meaning of "contract" became clear. If we wanted to go onto Sekota we would have to pay. Eventually we agreed on the sum of 500 bir for the next 70km leg - this didn't compare well with the 12 bir we had just paid to come 35km! The driver arranged for a couple of "supporters" to accompany us because the road is "very desert". Since we were paying such a premium for the ride, I pulled rank and sat in the front. It was a fantastic drive and I figured I may as well enjoy it. The mountain roads were spectacular and we wound down into deep river valleys, and then up the steep sides to cross saddles into yet another valley, over and over again. There were very few people, which was a bit of a shame as we had agreed that we would keep the fares of anyone we picked up. We saw a large fox-like animal, and almost ran over a tortoise. I was feeling relaxed and happy, until I noticed a flash of red in Max's hand. He had got his Swiss Army knife out, and then I realised that we were in a van with a driver we neither liked nor trusted, the bus boy, and two locals recruited by the driver, going through empty country. Hmm, potentially an interesting situation. But as we approached Sekota we saw people looking for a ride, and soon the van was full again. I couldn't see the financial transactions from my seat, but somehow I doubted that our costs would be greatly offset.
We got into Sekota round 1pm, and pulled into the filling station. The Caltex guys were keen to help us on our way to Lalibela, and said they'd ask for rides for us. Max spotted a couple of 4WDs in town, and went to track down the drivers. They were eating lunch, so we decided to join them. It turned out to be market day in Sekota, which made us feel confident about getting a ride through to Lalibela. We met an Italian guy working for an NGO, and his Ethiopian colleagues sent a boy off to enquire about rides. We ate pasta, learned that the Orthodox church had just entered a two week fasting period - no meat, eggs or dairy products for the devout.

It seemed that there was a ride going through - we hopped in and spoke to the driver. He wanted to charge us 400 bir to take us 42km to a nothing town where we would stay with his family. The next morning we might go to Lalibela, or we might not. We really didn't like the sound of this, and let it go. Somewhat dispirited we wandered down to the COOPI office (the Italian NGO) to see what they were doing. Food security was their mission - helping local authorities with agricultural practices, water supply and gender equality. Good stuff. But chatting with them we also realised what a fix we were in. Frederico said he'd paid 1000 bir to get to Lalibela - it's the going rate he said. Crikey. We arranged to meet them all for dinner at 6, if we were still in town, and headed back to the filling station to see what they'd found out. It seemed that we could get to Lalibela tonight, for 1000 bir. We took it. It was lots more expensive than we'd ever imagined, but it was hard to see what else to do. The driver was rustled up, the car filled with gas, we paid the deposit and various tips to our local "assistants", and set off on the 130km journey about 4.30. Our packs were slung in the back of the 4WD ute, protected from the elements by a hessian sack. More incredible mountain scenery - it really has to be the world's best kept secret - and then, predictably rain. The road was pretty dodgy in parts, but then it got dark and I couldn't really see it. Then it started to rain so hard we had to stop to let it pass. It was bad enough for us, but I felt really sorry for the people I saw huddled under umbrellas on the side of the road, or walking miserably with their stock. The lightning was amazing, and really lit up the mountainside for us. The driver was grim faced and silent. So were we. The drive took over 3 1/2 hours and we arrived in Lalibela in the pitch black and pouring rain. Our packs were drenched, but the Aleif Paradise hotel was nice - satin bedspreads and all. By the time we trudged round the road for dinner we felt like we had had a day and a half. Luckily we still had enough money to pay for dinner, but the bank will be on tomorrow's agenda, along with the wonders we have travelled so far to see.

Yeha and Debre Damo

Today was an organised one-day tour. We have, together with Jo & Stephen, brother and sister from Melbourne (but now living in London and Darwin respectively), rented a car and a driver for the day. The drive to Yeha was, as we have come to expect, spectacular. It was Sunday and the village of Yeha was at an open air mass, held in front of the pagan temple which dated back to round 500BC. The ruins of the temple were remarkable for their antiquity, their masonry and their function as a place of worship, of sacrifice and of rest - if our pricey private guide was to be believed. We were not able to enter the church (apparently they are generally closed after a mass has been held, to give the priest a break I think) but were taken to a small building alongside and shown the collection of books, crosses, crowns and pre-Christian artefacts, discovered mostly by local farmers. As we left, we had to pick our way through crowds of white-clad churchgoers, sitting on the steps supping tella (local home brew) from large green plastic cups.
Next stop was the small village of Enticcio (sounded Italian to me, but looked just like any nondescript, muddy and shambolic Ethiopian hamlet) and somewhat remarkably we ordered 11 macchiatos, before tackling the at times plain scary road to Debre Damo. The 11km stretch of rough road from the highway to the monastery was hair raising. I have seen too many vehicles overturned on the side of the road to feel at all comfortable about the way we bumped and bounced our way up the side of the mountain. The road was deeply rutted, narrow and the drop off was immense. We arrived, of course, intact. Max and Stephen had been rather silent, and I think more concerned about the prospect of scaling the 15 metre wall with only the help of a plaited leather rope, than the nerve wracking road, along which we have yet to return. We could see parts of the monastery complex from the approach - it's a mystery as to how it was built on the top of a flat topped mountain with sheer cliffs all around.
Jo and I watched as first Max and then Stephen were pulled up the side of the rock. I hope it's worth it! We were meanwhile amused by the usual crowd of kids who all wanted lessons in how to use a digital camera - hours of fun for all!!

Deb's photo taken by one of the local kids; and a not specially good shot of a donkey, but that's Eritrea in the background.

Max skilfully making his way up to the monastery, watched anxiously by Stephen.

And at the top.

After an hour or so, they were back. Max scampered down the rock face, which was quite something for someone who's not always so good with heights. Stephen took a bit longer, and was helped down by one of the locals. It sounded like another world up there - around 80 monks living in small huts in complete isolation - except for occasional visitors. Apparently there are no female animals up there, except chickens - I can only imagine why. The only women up there are dead - yep, you can go up if you're female and in a coffin!
All this took a bit of time, and our driver was concerned about getting back to Axum before it rained. The return trip to the highway was equally nerve wracking, specially as there were now two rivers to cross - it's amazing how quickly the streams turn into torrents, and how quickly they become benign streams again. The dirt road of the highway had turned to mud in the rain that fell while we were at the monastery, and the return trip was much slower. Still, we were back in Adwa, our drop off point, round 5.30, booked into the Tefari Hotel, and in time to see the second half of the Charity Cup between Chelsea and Manchester United. Not all bad.

The ancient kingdom of Axum

A travelling day that started predictably at 5am, with a quick wash and a 15 minute walk to Gondor's muddy bus station. It was not going to be an easy day anyway, and it started with a bun fight outside the gates of the depot as a bus had got itself stuck there and couldn't seem to move forwards or backwards. We were torn between risking life and limb and darting between it and the gates, or staying where we were and getting increasingly jostled by the growing crowd. After about 10 minutes, the bus lurched backwards, miraculously avoiding everyone, and in we all surged. The next wee drama (all a bit much while it's still dark, and I haven't had a cup of tea yet) was that our bus had apparently changed, which necessitated every passenger who had a ticket (including us) getting a new one written by the increasingly tense ticket guy. They usually open the doors of the bus and get everyone on board, and then sell the tickets, but we've now been standing around the cobbled yard for about half an hour and the bus doors were still firmly closed. Eventually the tickets were all reissued, and the bus boy got on, gave us the nod and let us have first pick of the seats. It was a bit embarrassing, but we've done our fair share of riding at the back of the bus, so took advantage.

The trip is written up as spectacular, and they're not wrong - we crossed numerous passes alongside the Simien Mountains (home to one of Ethiopia's very few national parks). From Debark (about halfway) the road was a series of startling switchbacks, clinging to the mountainside. The Italian engineer was buried on a particularly scenic corner. There was very little other traffic, and in spite of the cloud/fog the views were stunning, reminiscent of the peaks of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.

This first leg of 300km or so took round 9 hours, not too bad considering the road. The next leg, 60km from Shire to Axum, was on a minibus, which we found quickly enough, but which then in classic African fashion, waited the next 90 minutes or so for who knew what. First there was the usual drive round town looking for more passengers, and then the return to the depot. It transpired that our driver was looking for three more fares before he would leave; this provoked a mini-riot among the passengers, about two-thirds of whom stormed off and surrounded the poor bus boy, demanding their money back. A policewoman intervened, calmed things down, the driver saw sense, and off we went. We were close to Axum when the driver stopped, and got our bags off the roof and put them inside the van. He knew his weather and soon the skies absolutely opened and there was a fantastic late afternoon thunderstorm. We were dropped off across the road from the Africa Hotel, and got drenched just running into the reception area. We arrived as the power went off, a slightly disorienting feeling. Good news awaited though: the room is only 50 bir, there's hot water and a bar and restaurant on site. The only downside is that we have to go back outside to get to our motel-like room, but a large St George umbrella helps.

One story has it that Ethiopia was named after Ethiopic, the great grandson of Noah, and that Askum was founded by Ethiopic's son Aksumai. The Aksumai dynasty ruled till it was replaced by the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, beginning the Solomonic dynasty in round 900BC, the last ruler of which was Haile Selassie. Aksum's time was between the first and tenth centuries AD, and during this time it was comparable to Rome and Constantinople in power and importance. Ge'ez, the still-used liturgical language, was developed in Axum. It's the root of contemporary spoken and written Amharic and Tigraic. Axum is in Tigrai, dubbed an "open-air museum", a highland province known for its fiercely independent stance, which came to the fore in 1896 when the Italians were routed at nearby Adwa, and again in 1991 when the Tigrain People's Liberation Front led the overthrow of the Derg. Today Tigrains still dominate Ethiopian politics.

We spent two days trekking around the muddy hills and fields of Axum (the spelling used for the modern-day town), resurrecting its fabulous past. The archeological remains ranged from elaborately carved stelae, one broken one 33m high, one recently returned from Italy in three pieces, one still standing at 27m high; to a huge complex known as the Queen of Sheba's palace which has 50 or so rooms and boasted a very effective stone and bamboo drainage system; to a number of underground tombs notable for their Inca-like interlocking stones and the huge slabs of granite used in their construction. It's all very evocative and mysterious. We were told that 600 elephants once lived and worked in Aksum, and were used to bring the granite from the quarry about 4km away. Who knows?

Alongside these ruins are the very much alive monasteries, churches and other holy places. We visited, of course, the most holy of these - St Mary of Zion church complex. This is where the genuine, real deal, original Ark of the Covenant is, according to Ethiopia anyway. The compound was quite large, with a new 1960s church built by Haile Selassie so that his wife could worship at St Mary's, alongside the pools used for baptisimals and Epiphany rituals. The original St Mary's, built by King Fasil of Gondor fame, and in a similar style, was out of bounds to me (and Mrs Haile Selassie, hence the new church) being female, but Max informed me that it was pretty cool. We were shown the church treasures which were kept in a couple of steel crates under an awning (they called this the "museum"). Still, the treasures were impressive - a range of crowns and crosses donated by various kings, all loving wrapped in brocade, securely locked and watched over by a deacon. The small domed building that houses the Ark sat alone, and the picturesque monk, the only person allowed to see the Ark, and solely responsible for guarding it (one story has it that he tried to run away when he was nominated by his predecessor) played possum with us and the camera - but we did manage to get his picture by pretending to leave and then coming back. I reckon this is probably the most fun he ever has! However, all in all, after reading so much about this place in the end I was a bit disappointed - possibly because I didn't get to see the really atmospheric parts of the complex, and possibly because these days it is so overwhelmed by the modern church.

We walked the hills at the back of town, past Mai Shun (aka Queen of Sheba's bathing pool) which resembled nothing so much as the Te Marua lakes to me. We continued past the pool, up a muddy rocky track to the twin tombs of Kings Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. Both tombs were built beneath now vanished palaces, during the sixth century. The guard (a sprightly octogenarian) nipped down the stairs, putting on the fluorescent light (for atmosphere you understand), and lighting candles to show us the raised crosses carved on the walls, and the great slabs of granite used in the construction. Still, it seemed that neither tomb was used by its namesake as King Kaleb was buried at the nearby monastery of St Pantaleon, and Gebre Meskel may be there too, or then again he may be at Debre Damo.
We bade farewell to the Kings, and continued our muddy walk through pretty country scenery to the hillside church of Debre Liquanos. We were accompanied by various children up the hill, and then entranced by a boy's chanting (presumably the Bible in Ge'ez), who, when he eventually appeared, seemed to be suffering from leprosy. Debre Liquanos is hard to describe - sited at the top of a hill, on a small flat piece of land, was a church (which we were not allowed to see), and a couple of other small mud and corrugated iron huts and some shelters of sticks. It seemed that the priest and his family lived there. The priest seemed pleased to see us, and very pleased to see our money. He brought out an old book from a battered leather satchel, and proceeded to read to us. Kind of a surreal experience, surrounded by children, being read to in Ge'ez by an old priest, in the late afternoon sunshine looking across the hills to the monastery of St Panteleon, and the surrounding country villages. Lovely though it was, after 20 minutes or so, we felt the need to bring the reading to an end and take our leave. We still hoped to get to St Pantaleon, and back to town before the inevitable afternoon storm.
St Pantaleon was an advisor to King Kaleb, and apparently stood on one leg and prayed for 45 years without food or water, till told to stop by the Archangel David (according to a young boy from the monastery, told to us with complete and utter belief). The same young boy proved our saviour when we discovered we were out of change and unable to pay 40 bir to see the monastery. "I'll pay for you, take you the short way back to town and you can pay me back, plus some extra." Astonishing. We haven't seen a kid this age with anything more than pennies to their name, but he fished out the 40 bir and the deal was struck. We then had the funny sight of the priest sitting in the doorway of the storage hut busily writing out the receipt while the boys got out the treasures, put them on a chair, and told us all about them. It seems that during the holidays it's quite common for the village boys to spend time at the monasteries, learning Ge'ez, helping the monks and making a bit of money from tourists on the side. The church on the site was one of the oldest in Ethiopia, and predictably I was not allowed inside. Still, the whole place is atmospheric, and I did get to see the treasures, the graves of five saints and kings (the identities of which were difficult to ascertain with any certainty) and the new church that's been built on the site. As agreed, we were taken down the dry riverbed shortcut and were in Axum before the rain. It was a really good day, and was topped off when we discussed a trip to Debre Damo (a hilltop monastery that has to be reached via a leather rope - men only of course) with the hotel, and they pointed us towards Stephen and Jo, an Australian brother and sister. We all agreed to go the day after tomorrow, sharing the costs of a car and driver, and spent a nice evening having dinner together at the nearby Remhai Hotel.

It's the rainy season in the north and I can safely say that there'll be no drought this year. The afternoon thunderstorms have been regular and torrential. The rain that falls on the highlands eventually flows into the Blue Nile, and thence through Sudan and into the Nile proper, providing 90% of the water responsible for flooding the Egyptian banks. The highland farmers have used stone terracing on both the hills and flat cultivated ground to stem the loss of water and of topsoil. I guess it helps, but the rivers and streams still run red.
It's ploughing time in Tigrai, but nowhere have we seen a piece of mechanised farm equipment. We have read that the plough was perfected in Axum, and it seems that the BC prototype has stood the test of time. Land here is measured in timats - the amount of land two oxen can plough in a day. Ploughing seems to be the dominion of males, and it's good to see them doing some hard work! The number of times we have seen dignified men strolling in spotless white carrying nothing more onerous than an umbrella or an AK47, accompanied by a woman struggling under the weight of a hessian sack across her shoulders, and usually a baby on her back. The hessian sacks, many of which carry US AID branding and once held wheat, are put to good use once emptied. We have seen them used as shelters, donkey blankets and remade into smart holdalls.
The animals most commonly seen - sheep, goats, cows and donkeys (plus the occasional dog, or perhaps Simien wolf) have been joined by camels - a sign that it's not always as damp as it is right now. We were in Axum on a Saturday - market day - and the camel trains were in town. They parked under the large trees at the town's main intersection, along with the donkeys and the groups of women selling brighly coloured injera baskets and wall hangings, in between gossiping. The main market was a few blocks away and was typically colourful and eclectic - piles of spices and salt, the usual fruit and vegies, together with raw and spun cotton, second hand plastic sandals and bottles, live chickens (I was quoted an outrageous 22 bir for one), cured hides and bits of metal pipe. Saturday's also wedding day and we saw a series of injera (the flannel-like pancakes that are a staple) processions from the outskirts of town - the injera is prepared and placed in large cane baskets that are carried ceremoniously on the heads of bearers.

Camels parked while their owners are at the market in Axum.

We have loved our couple of days here, enjoyed the sights, the weather and the atmosphere. The Africa Hotel has been an oasis of calm and comfort, with cold beer and good food too.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Bahir Dar & Gondor

It's time to get serious with sightseeing in Ethiopia. Everything we've heard and read raves about the "historical circuit", a loop that links Bahir Dar (on the edge of Lake Tana), Gondor (famous for 16th and 17th century castles and churches), Axum (centre of the ancient civilisation of Aksum, and most powerful city/state in Ethiopia for round a thousand years) and Lalibela (where King Lalibela had built a series of unique churches hewn directly from rock in the 1100s). We decide to tackle it clockwise, starting at the lake and finishing with the wonders of Lalibela.

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After the nightmare bus trip from Harar to Addis, we were suckers when a boy tried to sell us a 4WD trip from Addis up to Bahir Dar. It is a two day bus trip, compared to 9 hours in the car. No contest we say. We negotiated the price in the street, but to complete the transaction (ie, fork over some dosh) we needed to find the owner of the vehicle. Our boy took us on a route we hadn't yet walked, and wonderfully we found the elusive St George's cathedral on the way. It was a good km or so up a slight hill to meet Asafa, who seemed like a good bloke. We paid him for one fare, promising to pay the rest the next morning when we are collected - at between 4 and 4.30am!! Our boy seemed to have become our semi-permanent companion, but he was useful to assist in the purchase of a skirt for me (thinking ahead to the conservative nature and heat of Sudan), and then we bought him lunch. We spent sometime in the (now rainy) afternoon back at the cathedral, which was being renovated prior to the millennium celebrations - they had better get cracking, there's a lot to do and it's only a few weeks - but we got to walk all round the inside, including into the usually sacrosanct Holy of Holies in the centre of the octagon. It was obviously not specially holy at this point. There was a museum alongside which was very interesting, and we were guided round in the company of Matt and James, who had just got off the plane from London. We all went for a drink and dinner together at the very posh Serenade, where the beers were 16 bir instead of 4! Still, this really was our last night in Addis.

It absolutely tipped with rain overnight, and was still pouring at 4am as we sheltered in the verandah (last night's bedroom) waiting for our ride. We chucked our packs in the back and leapt into the front of a vehicle without much conversation at all, and it did occur to us to wonder if we were in the right car. Soon enough though we met up with Asafa again, for the money of course, and then were on our way. It was pitch black, pouring with rain, and also foggy and cloudy as we climbed out of Addis and headed north. The drive was spectacular, and one of the reasons we left so early, apart from habit I assume, is that there were road works on the Blue Nile Gorge, and the traffic is reduced to one-way from 8am. We were through this incredible gorge just before then, and I was doubly glad we were in a 4WD, given both the weather and the road conditions. But it got worse. Just before Debre Markos, the road was washed away. Locals waded the route in front of the traffic to show where the road now lay, but in spite of this two trucks had fallen over. We took it slowly and got through fine, but were pleased to take a break at Debre Markos for coffee and eggs.

It was a Sunday, and from mid-morning on we saw many, many people, white sharmas wrapped around their shoulders, walking to or from church. It was a lovely sight. The other strong visual impression was the many abandoned and rusted tanks on the side of the road. We were approaching Tigrai, the centre of the rebellion against the Derg, that culminated in its overthrow in 1991.

We made Bahir Dar by 2pm and checked into the Ghion Hotel on the lakeside. Bahir Dar is Ethiopia's largest lake, and famous because of the large number of Orthodox monasteries on the lake's many islands, and as the source of the Blue Nile. Apparently most of the water in the Nile proper comes from the Blue Nile (Abay in Amharic), and I would say that the Egyptians are in for a fine old flood in due course, if the amount of water we've seen recently is anything to go by.

The hotel organised a boat trip for us for the next morning, and we headed off in the company of Sheila and Thomas. Luckily it wasn't raining, and the lake was smooth and calm. There were fishermen in local papyrus reed boats called tankwa, which while they looked very picturesqe and eco-friendly, seemed to leave a bit to be desired in the watertightness department.

A less than waterproof papyrus tankwa, near the outlet of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana. One of the lovely old monasteries we visited on Zege Peninsular.

We visited four monasteries in total, two on islands and two on the Zege peninsular. All quite similar, and all including small, round and very atmospheric churches, and photogenic monks. The classic Orthodox church in this part of the world is pretty much circular, with an overhanging roof, beneath which the faithful perambulate. The inside of the churches are divided into three circular chambers, with the outer one used for prayers and chanting, the middle one for communion, and the central one houses the Tabot - the replica of the Ark of the Covenant that every Ethiopian Orthodox church has. The walls are made of mud and straw, about 2 feet thick sometimes, and covered in cotton cloths which are painted. The paintings in one were virtually brand new, bright and sparkling, and in others were hundreds of years old, but still identical in style and substance - lots of saints, martyrs, legends and fables. We did learn that the baddies are always represented with one eye only (this included some sinful camels we noticed), which was useful to know when trying to interpret the stories. There were a couple of museums as well, containing a range of the fascinating and eclectic, and the plain humdrum. I must say that there are a lot of old books in this country, all beautifully written, illustrated and bound. We were then taken to view the outlet of the Abay, in spite of the fact that it was now pouring with rain again. Nice to see it though, and to realise that the next time we lay eyes on it, it will be where it meets the White Nile in Khartoum.

A sample of the beautiful paintings we were to see in churches and monasteries all over Ethiopia. Often the paintings are not as old as the church - when they fade or are damaged the monks simply paint a new one - but the style and subjects really add ambience to the buildings. Here is Mary, and alongside her the ubiquitous St George, also the patron saint of Ethiopia, we discovered.

One of the many beautifully illustrated old Bibles, all in Ge'ez, we were shown. They are often kept in battered leather satchels, or carefully wrapped in brocade cloths.

Next stop on our itinerary is the old capital of Gondor (or Gonder or Gondar). It's only 185km north of Bahir Dar, and the local mini bus got us there in about three hours and was good enough to deliver us to the door of the Circle Hotel - which really is a circular high rise. Our room is a gem - sports on the TV, hot water and a balcony, and half the price of the Ghion. And it was sunny too. Today's outing was to the church of Debre Birhan Selassie - a 20 minute or so walk out of town. This church dated back to the mid 1600s, and was originally designed and built to house the Ark of the Covenant, which was to be moved from Axum. This never happened, but the church is based on Axumite architecture, and is the more conventional rectangular shape. It still has three chambers though, and the wide roof overhang as with the round churches. The paintings in this church were fantastic; 80 angels on the roof looking every which way, and some no holds barred images of the devil, and of Mohammed (one eyed) being led away on a camel. St George and the dragon are also very big in this part of the world, and he gleamed on a white horse in the gloomy light.

After an abortive attempt at dinner at the Circle (there's no veal or chicken, or spaghetti or salad!!), we eventually got pizza and mentally prepared ourselves for Gondor's highlight - the Royal Compound, a series of palaces and public buildings, mostly now in "ruins", except for Fasilidis's Palace which has been restored with UNESCO support.

The site was fantastically situated, on the crest of a hill, looking out in most directions. Easy to defend I think. The ruins were very beautiful, and in the morning sun looked fantastic. The work is mostly credited to King Fasil, and his palace has been done up a treat by the UN. It was heartening to see lots of local tourists here (it's school holidays, which accounts for the large number of irritating schoolboys that follow us about wherever we go). We spent an enjoyable few hours clambering around the ruins, and imagining life here a few hundred years back. The compound was enclosed by a large stone wall, so I guess, as always, real life happened much as always outside, probably not so differently to today.

Our hotel is advertising a football match between Manchester United and AC Milan at 4, and we decided to watch it, as an antidote to all this culture. Unfortunately for us, they meant 4 local time, which is 10pm. We are on a bus to Shire tomorrow morning (en route to Axum) at 5.30, so will not be watching.