A Travellerspoint blog

March 2010

Week 53, 27.Feb.10 - 5.Mar.10

Axum, Ethiopia to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

View Week 53 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Axum, Ethiopia
Today Svenja and I joined another couple, John & Lidya, for a tour of sites outside Axum. We hired a minibus & guide Lion (?), and our first stop to visit was the Battlefield of Adwa, an important site where seriously under-armed Ethiopians thwarted an Italian attack in 1896.

We next headed to ruins of Yeha, birthplace of Ethiopian's earliest civilizations and first capital 3,000 years ago.

In the museum we were shown old crosses and bibles (once again, handled without gloves!).

Next stop was Debre Damo, ancient (10th c. AD) and still functioning monastery on top of a mountain that was built by the 9 Saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia.

To go visit, John and I (no women allowed) simply had to pay 50 Birr each for the monk to throw down a slightly-too-weathered-looking leather rope for us to climb up some 18 meters - eek!

Safely up on the mountain top our guide Lion woke up the monastery guardian, and while we waited for him to get up and get dressed (which was taking quite a while), were shown around. Went into the old bell tower,

then wandered to the water reservoirs (not looking very refreshing),

homes of the monks,

and cemetery (essentially a cave with exposed bones).

Back at the church the guardian showed us paintings and an ancient bible (no gloves), along with an incredible wooden ceiling carved with animals.

The climb back down was a bit more tense - had to climb out about 1 meter from the edge to grab the rope! Back down (safely) on the ground we joined the ladies and headed back on the road to Axum, passing bulls & donkeys being led to the markets in Enticcio. The restroom stop along the way was not the cleanest Svenja's ever used....

Shire, Ethiopia
And so, 365 days older and - I'd like to think - a bit wiser, from the day I left New York and the creature-comforts of stability, routine, HYGIENE, and, among many other things, income! I've covered 56 different countries spanning 5 continents; traveled over 101,000 kms by air, train, bus, car, truck, 3-wheeled carts, bicycle, boat, camel, horse, donkey and yes, my own 2 feet. I've definitely seen some amazing places, met loads of interesting people, been exposed sometimes (well, oftentimes) to unfriendly and harsh conditions - but totally rewarding and unforgettable. And since I've enjoyed this experience so much and felt that there are many other places I still want to see, I realized a while back that my initial plan of traveling for 1 year was going to be something more like 1 + years, and so here I am still traveling, looking forward to what tomorrow brings! Today Svenja and I checked out a few more sites in Axum - Queen of Sheeba's bath, where the local boys were having their daily(?) bath,

the twin tombs of Kings Haleb & Gebre Meskel,

and the very cool King Ezana's Pillar (stored in a shack with a padlocked door that some old man came to open for us). 4th c. Christian campaign inscriptions on each side in a different language (Sabaen, Ge'ez and Greek).

We took a bus from Axum here to Shire and checked into one of the dumpier hotels I've stayed in the past 365 days - dirty sheets, dirty room, no running water for shower, toilet or sink: I had to pour our bottled water for Svenja while she washed her feet after using the squatter toilet! I went to complain to the hotel manager who was trying to tell me (in Amharic) that there was jugs of water we could use for bathing - yeah, right. I was heading back to grab Svenja and move to a different hotel when the manager finally, reluctantly, said we could use the private shower behind the office. Good enough for us to stay, although after I returned from accompanying the boy who had to show passports to the police station for registering guests (random?), the office was locked so I had to step on chairs to climb over the gate in order to shower. Ahh, yes - the joys of traveling... no wonder I want to keep going!

Debark, Ethiopia
This morning in Shire Svenja and I were up before the dawn, got to the bus station and joined a hoard of people standing outside the locked gates in the dark. When it opened, the scene was total chaos - people running in every direction toward shouting ticket handlers yelling their destinations, standing by some 15-20 different parked busses with the headlights beaming out. We finally found our bus and got the uncomfortable back seat for the bumpy 9 hour ride,

but seeing some incredible views along the way,

here to Debark. Upon arrival, we were greeted repeatedly by seemingly every child in the village who ran up to stare at us (them: "Hello". us: "Hello". them: "Hello". us: "Hello" etc....). We went to the park office and organized a trek for tomorrow to the Simien mountains, now back in our hotel - pretty nice digs (well, at least compared to yesterday's gem...).

Simien Mountains (Sankaber camp site), Ethiopia
Early this morning Svenja and I headed out of Debark with our guide, armed scout, mule and mule handler into the Simien mountains - totally amazing views along the 23 km (fairly strenuous) trek to Sankaber camp site.

We saw plenty of birds - Svenja's call to one kind with the white head got a response,

huge eagles, and the funny looking black ones who float around with their legs down as if about to land, but never do....

After pitching the tent at the campsite, our guide took us another 5 km to the waterfall, which unfortunately was dry! Back the 5 km to the camp we met a Dutch couple who let us use their stove to heat up our gourmet dinner - canned corn and beans, leftover pasta and can of tuna for me. The temp is dropping - rapidly - so I'm getting set to build a fire, crack open a beer and relax!

Gondar, Ethiopia
Getting ready to crash here in Gondar - after the combined 56 km hike over the past 2 days, both Svenja and I are completely exhausted! We got up this morning at 05:30 after very few hours sleep last night in the cold tent, rounded up the guide, armed scout, mule and handler and headed back toward Debark.

More spectacular views along the way, particularly the sun rising over the mountains.

Then came upon a large pack of gelda baboons searching in the dirt for breakfast.

So cool! From the chief with large mane to the babies clinging to their moms running across the plain, all had personalities.

Made it back to Debark and grabbed a bus few hour bumpy ride here to Gondar. After getting thoroughly harassed by the beggars at the bus station, set out to find a hotel. The first hotel we went to, the receptionist motioned us into the office from outside, only to tell us the hotel was full. Same thing with the second hotel - very strange that they feel the need to invite us into their office just to tell us that they're full. After finally getting a room at our 3rd choice, dinner turned out to be quite interesting. Only 1 restaurant we found open past 9 pm. Not knowing the options (the menu was in Ahmeric), Svenja ordered the vegetarian national dish injera, while I ordered the fairly standard international option in Ethiopia - spaghetti, which I've come to rely on quite a bit. When I ordered it, the waiter nods and says the Ethiopian "Yeah. Yeah". So Svenja's injera comes out, and after around 10 minutes, still no spaghetti. Finally I think because the restaurant was going to close the waiter himself starts eating dinner, so I asked again about spaghetti. He again nods', "Yeah.", goes to the kitchen and brings out.... more cooked cabbage for the injera. Cookies for dinner!

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
This morning back in Gondar Svenja and I wandered around the 17th c. castles of the Royal enclosure. Very surprising that Ethiopia has medieval-era castles, and what's more, very well-preserved!

Emperor Fasilada's palace dominated the enclosure with its many rooms and towers.

We took a minibus taxi over to Fasilada's bath a couple kms away, where the sunken pool is now dry, but many awesome looking trees in the complex growing right through the walls.

After the sites of Gondar, grabbed a minibus down here to Bahir Dar - which took twice as long as expected thanks to the overturned truck on the side of the road that everyone stopped to look at. Now, heading over to Friendship restaurant to order some pizza (hoping it is pizza, not injera).

I'm getting set to watch a movie in the hotel here in Bahir Dar, haven't had TV in quite a while! Today Svenja and I joined a couple other folks on a boat tour to visit the island monasteries in Lake Tana. After breakfast (with some visitors),

hopped in the boat and first stop was Eutos Eyesisi island monastery - separate entrances for men and women (although the interior is circular, and everyone meets in the middle anyway), led to beautiful paintings on the "maqdas" (inner sanctuary) of different biblical scenes.

Next stop was to the little island of Debre Maryam,

for another tour of a monastery that turned out to be closed, then on to Zege peninsula to visit Ura Kidane Meret monastery, probably some of the nicest maqdas yet.

Stopped off at a pretty cool little museum showing traditional house and everyday items used by the local (got to strum a bit on the musical instruments). For lunch we bought some mangos and other fruit (not sure what!) from the locals, to round off the tour of the lake.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:01 Comments (0)

Week 52, 20.Feb.10 - 26.Feb.10

Bamako, Mali to Axum, Ethiopia

View Week 52 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Arrived here in Addis this evening, flight over from Bamako was uneventful (but somewhat entertaining with the crazy Ethiopian guy sitting next to me who kept laughing at everything). Going through security in Bamako airport was certainly interesting - no metal detector or xray machine, just good ol' fashioned pat-down and manual bag search. Got checked into the not-so-spectacular Wanza hotel, but at 120 Birr (about US $9 and change) for private room en suite bathroom, good enough! Just returned from walking around a bit (had to dig into the bottom of my pack for the jacket - haven't seen that since Marrakech), and at first glance Addis seems to be a pretty lively place, loads and loads of bars all over (unfortunately the only women at the bars are prostitutes).

Its kind of weird to think I'm actually here in Ethiopia... the images from UNICEF aid commercials of the 80's (with kids with toothpick-thin arms & legs and balloon bellies, sitting in the dirt with flies all over their faces too weak to brush them off) doesn't resinate, at least here in Addis - this place is surprisingly modern with shopping malls, cafes, bars, restaurants - and paved streets/sidewalks! Definitely seems more modern than Bamako, Banjul.. maybe even Dakar. I wandered around a bit in the area trying to find a wifi hotspot or even traditional internet cafe - the latter of which are closed Sundays, the former - despite the apparent modernity of the city - seems to be a concept no one has heard of ("Why fly?"). Visited the not-so-impressive Holy Trinity Cathedral while a service was being conducted -

what the structure lacked, the atmosphere made up for it - folks packed inside as well as outside attending the service... very cool.

Ugh.. I'm officially taking a sick day - definitely caught something over the past few days traveling non-stop on busses. No sites/tours today, just rest and hope to recover!

Just returned from dinner at a "traditional" (meaning, full of tourists) restaurant with music and dancing performances - I must say, impressive moves they do with their bodies and heads!

This morning I went to the airport to pick up Svenja who arrived on her overnight flight from Frankfurt - we had been keeping in touch since Israel, and decided we wanted to meet up and travel together during her next break from school. After her understandable need to rest a bit (and needing a bit of rest myself for my still aching sore throat), we went out to see a couple sites near the Piazza: communist-era Derg monument,

and St. George cathedral

with its small museum. Wandering around the Piazza area after, we were thoroughly harassed by homeless mothers encouraging their kids to beg; some went so far as to try and hand their babies to Svenja - definitely not the nicest area! But I think the most interesting site for us both today might have been the Ethiopian bamboo scaffolding at construction sites scattered around the city!

Today Svenja and I went to visit a couple pretty good museums - first one was the Ethnological, set in really nice surrounding gardens at Addis Ababa University.

At the museum entrance was an interesting monument: spiral staircase, erected by the Italians, as a symbol of their occupation in the 1930's.

Inside the museum, we saw (once the power came back on!) really great displays. Some of the more memorable for me: Konso Waka grave markers,

and Suri/Mursi tribal lip plates, where women fit plates into the bottom lip, progressively enlarging the plates over time as the lip becomes stretched out... the larger the plate, the more beautiful the woman (uh... not sure it does it for me).

Next stop was the National museum, for a glimpse of the 3.2 million year old hominid "Lucy". Standing next to the cast, can't help but wonder... have we really evolved that much?!?

Axum, Ethiopia
Getting to historical Axum from Addis is 1.5 hours by flight, vs. 2 days by bus. So, after checking flight prices at a travel agent yesterday and finding a good deal, seemed the obvious choice to book the 6 AM flight this morning. Well, getting up at 4 AM was pretty painful, but not as bad as the NINE HOUR delay due to "mechanical problems", we were told. The ancient prop plane bouncing around while in flight did hold up, so I guess the 9 hours was a worthwhile investment of time. Another "highlight" of the day, the attendants told the passengers that due to some weather condition (too hot?), the plane couldn't take extra cargo, so our checked luggage would be arriving on the first flight tomorrow. Oh, yeah... and they told us this after we finally boarded, so there was no way anyone could change their flight if they needed to get to their luggage (i.e. medicine). Understandably, Svenja and I and a couple other backpackers were throughly annoyed. Well, when we landed and deplaned, strangely, there was luggage being pulled out of the plane... and apparently everyone's luggage, for that matter. So the mood quickly changed to a sense of relief - I don't know if it was Ethiopian Airline's horrible communication, but I suspect more likely a clever diversion to make passengers quickly forget about the 9 hour delay so as to not pursue compensation. Now just returned from dinner at the only restaurant in town functioning during the power outage here in Axum... judging by the cleanliness of the place, maybe better that we're not seeing what we're eating...

Today was spent covering the ancient sites of Axum - the Northern stelae field with obliesks both erect and toppled dating back from 200 - 500 AD,

when the Kingdom of Axumite and Queen of Sheba dominated the region as a major crossroad between Egypt, Sudan and Arabia. In the field were a few uncovered tombs that we were able to explore like the Mausoleum and "Tomb of the False Door",

but apparently didn't even scratch the surface, as it is believed 98% of all the tombs in the area are still buried and unopened! Stopped by the museum for a look at some of the artifacts that were found in the tombs and surrounding areas, then over to the outskirts of town to visit the Gudit stelae field - maybe not as impressive as the Northern, but definitely interesting and seemingly more authentic (that is, unrestored and not roped off) with dozens of obliesks set among modern farms and animals and supposedly Sheba's final resting place.

Across the road we checked out Dungur, well-preserved Queen of Sheba's Palace (although archaeologists suggest it was a nobleman's mansion).

Back in central Axum we next visited the St. Mary of Zion churches, site of the beginning of Ethiopian Christianity. We entered the New Church (kind of gaudy), and were shown a several-hundred year old bible (that was handled by the caretaker without gloves...).

Next I was shown (but no women allowed, so Svenja had to stay back) the Old Church (1665 AD) with impressive murals, like the 9 Saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia, hidden under cloaks that were lifted up by the caretaker for photo ops.

In between the churches, was a small chapel that supposedly contains the Ark of the Covenant -

of course I'll have to take their word for it, as no entry was permitted and surrounding gate patrolled by an armed guard! After the St. Mary of Zion tour, we negotiated a 3-wheeled "garis" taxi ride a few bumpy km ride out of town, accompanied by a self-appointed guide (reeking of alcohol) to the rock-carved Lioness of Gobedra. During the ride toward the mountain, the local kids appearing from nowhere started running toward, then alongside, the (very slow) garis, staring into the side plastic windows - no expression, not saying anything, just running alongside and staring at us in the garis... so bizarre! Arriving at the mountain, and having even more local kids come and walk alongside us (and asking for Birr, pens, etc.) for the climb up, approached the rock. Interesting story/legend about the source: Archangel Mikael battling some lioness and throwing it so hard into a rock that it left an imprint.

The climb back down was again accompanied by the local kids, and now I can say that the 80's images I had of Ethiopia - barefoot, dirty faced children in the sand - is pretty much spot on.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:05 Comments (0)

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