Published: April 28th 2009March 25th 2009
I have difficulty determining whether the bus to Aksum will be departing at 5AM or 5:30AM so decide to get to the bus station for 4:15AM to be on the safe side. Even at this time in the morning, there are plenty of tuk tuk drivers whizzing around, who all shout at me from distance to offer their services. I see many people asleep at the roadside, wrapped in sheets. The very faintest of silver linings for the homeless here is that it's not cold even at night.
I find that the bus station doesn't open until 4:30AM, at which point I am let through the gate and locate my bus. There is no-one else there. Shortly after, the conductor arrives and points me to one of the better seats inside. This is the same model of vehicle as my previous Ethiopian bus journey, meaning little legroom, but I will have the seat to myself and the possible benefit of some space between the seat and the engine housing.
At 5AM, there is a sudden influx of people to the bus area, many running. It would appear that my admittance at 4:30AM was a foreigner privilege. The bus rapidly
Northern Stelae Field
fills up, and the fact that we leave bang on 6AM suggests that that was the intended departure time all along.
The road is paved until the outskirts of town, a distance of maybe 1km, however this is the last tarmac I will see for another couple of hundred km. Much of the journey is through the Simien Mountains, a breathtaking volcanic landscape popular for trekking. Even from the bus I can see monkeys cavorting by the roadside. Pyramidal peaks and jutting outcrops create an impressive skyline.
The road surface itself isn't bad so we are spared much bucking and jerking but it's a gruelling ride nonetheless. The engine housing turns out to have been sold as three seats, so my leg room is non-existent. We ascend and descend switchbacks that have about one metre to spare as the bus turns on full lock, giving thrilling barrier-free views of sheer drops down the scrubby hillsides. We make a food stop after three hours however the only sustenance for sale appears to be bundles of garlic, which have rarely featured in my favourite breakfasts.
As the day progresses, the temperature in the bus rises to extremely uncomfortable levels.
Aka the Queen of Sheba's bath
Some law seems to dictate that only three windows on the bus are allowed to be open at any one time, as I see passengers further back with sweat pouring down their faces yet stolidly refusing to open their windows. I'm stuck to my T-shirt and trousers, and at the next break I find to my despair that it's stiflingly hot outside too. So much for mountain air. I meet five young kids with only three pairs of underwear between them. One of the children solemnly declares that he is the father of the others. The youngest one has a bubbling pool of snot under his nostrils - I shake hands with him and find there is similar gunk on his palm.
We pass the rusting shells of a few tanks, a sight that seems to strike no-one else as incongruous - they are apparently from the civil war during the '70s and '80s, when the Soviet-backed Derg government fought against ill-equipped rebels (so ill-equipped that, when the collapse of the USSR finally allowed them to prevail, they navigated their way into Addis Ababa supposedly using a map from the WLP). We also rattle through a couple of villages
that seem to have been created from scratch by various aid organisations, the houses identical and regularly spaced.
Shortly before we reach our destination, we are stopped by the police. The driver looks worried, and there is a tangible sense of unease among the other passengers. A policeman boards the bus and barks something in Amharic, apparently ordering everyone off. The driver motions me to stay on board, with the old women and mothers with babies. The policeman checks my passport and smiles as he pats me on the shoulder. Unfortunately no-one else seems to get the friendly treatment. Another policeman up on the roof throws all the luggage down on the ground. One girl's suitcase is broken in the fall, and she complains angrily. The other passengers have to open up all their luggage before they are allowed back on board. One man tells me that the police are dangerous and that there has been much trouble in the area.
Soon we are given leave to proceed, and almost 12 hours after leaving Gonder we arrive in Shire, disappointingly pronounced more like Shearer and hence ruining another good Tolkienesque name. I am expecting that the last transport
to Aksum will be long gone, but the driver - who has been helpful throughout the trip - locates a minibus that will take me there. The WLP indicates my destination is a mere 1.5 hours away but it turns out that I have unwittingly boarded a service that takes all the back roads and hence will have a journey time nearly twice as long. The minibus is even more cramped than the bus was, and both the road and driver are abysmal - we seem to lurch through every hole and rut possible, leaving me sometimes airborne and my knees continually whacking against the seat in front. Even now, with the sun down, it's roasting inside, and I again marvel frustratedly at the sight of sweating Ethiopians sitting next to firmly closed windows.
I am surrounded by pharmacy students from the University of Gonder, coming to Aksum for a short break. They speak decent English and we pass the journey on the usual topics. It seems as though the global economic crisis has hit here too, with virtually all goods except petrol rising in price by 75% in the last year. They tell me that they were planning
on staying the night in Shire until they discovered that it has no electricity in the evenings, and are looking forward to watching some Premiership football in a bar in Aksum.
Aksum accommodation is even cheaper than in Gonder and I am pleased to find a clean en suite room in which I can immediately strip off and shower. I try the hotel buffet for dinner, with some insipid Western-style dishes all perked up by an unwelcome dose of chillis, then watch some football on TV in the bar. Arsenal again seem to be everyone's favourite, and when they score there is much shouting and air-punching.
After a good night's sleep, I see that my knees are bruised from the punishment they took in the minibus.
Aksum is most definitely hotter than Gonder (Ethiopians seem to share an aversion to the sun with the Japanese, as I see more parasols being wielded than I've seen since I visited Kyoto) but it is also a more pleasant place to walk around. There are few touts, and even they will take no for an answer at the first time of asking. Orientation is easy as there is essentially just
one street containing anything of interest. Internet access is blistering compared with Gonder, and the Tourist Information booth is as helpful as Gonder's had been.
The infrastructure is also patchy. Each half of the town has a day per week when there is no electricity. There are other unscheduled water and electricity outages too. I am amused at places that describe themselves as cafes yet only sell oversized doughnuts for food.
Aksum is the old capital of a once-mighty empire that reached its peak in the 3rd-6th centuries AD, stretching from Sudan to Saudi Arabia and trading as far afield as China. The early part of this period was when the Gospel came to Ethiopia, leading to Aksum becoming the centre of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The two cathedrals in Aksum are the core buildings of that faith. Within the cathedral complex, there is also a chapel supposedly containing the Ark of the Covenant, which suggests that Steven Spielberg's script researchers weren't very thorough. One of Ethiopia's most enduring legends concerns how the Ark was apparently brought to Aksum in the first millenium BC by Menelik, the offspring of a dalliance between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. No-one
is allowed to see the Ark, making its presence there an article of faith for believers.
However most of the tourist sites in and around Aksum are more to do with when it was a power in the ancient world, rather than necessarily any religious connection. One of the more obvious of these is the Northern Stelae Field, close to the centre of town and containing a number of stelae from the empire's glory days. It's suspected that they were built for imperial burials. The largest stele lies broken on the ground but would have measured over 33m when upright. The second largest one was stolen by the Italians and stood in Rome for many years before being returned in 2005 - it is still supported by a sling. The largest free-standing one is about 24m tall. These stelae are shaped more like Egyptian obelisks, however the detail on them is limited - they bear a "window" pattern rather than hieroglyphics.
In the centre of town is King Ezana's park, containing a Rosetta Stone-like stele bearing writing in Sabaean, Greek, and Ge'ez (the predecessor of Amharic). There is a similar stele on a road near the Northern Stelae
Field but its hut is locked when I visit and no keymaster is to be seen nearby.
Another locked site is the monastery of Abba Panteleon at the top of Mai Qoho, however this is more than compensated for by the panoramic views of Aksum and the jagged mountains off in the distance. It is interesting that most of the kids I encounter out here in the countryside demand money or pens whereas those in the town itself are happy to simply spout some English.
I encounter again a phenomenon I'd noticed in Gonder, namely that the few Ethiopian tourists I've seen like to hire a photographer to accompany them on their sightseeing. This seems to agree with a photo obsession that I've seen in the Ethiopians that I've had any sort of long conversation with - at some point, they'll whip out a whole sheaf of photos from over the years, many taken in a studio, of them, friends, and family.
Tourist sites aside, Aksum has colour courtesy of the many bushes and plants showing their spring blossoms. These bright tones seem to have been the inspiration for, and are reflected in, the uniforms of the
various schools in the town.
My next destination is Lalibela, which is a good 2-3 days of bus travel away. Buses seem to be forbidden to travel at night so you only have about twelve hours of travel time per day which, given the state of the roads and the terrain here, means it's impossible to get through trips of just a few hundred kilometres in one go. Also, because long-distance buses all seem to leave at 6AM, if you need to change bus anywhere then it's almost guaranteed that you'll have to stay the night in order to catch your next leg's departure at 6AM the following day.
This poses a dilemma for me. Much as I would prefer to travel overland, there are other factors to be taken into consideration. One is that I can only average about three weeks per country if I am to make it to South Africa in time to fly home for Christmas. Once I have seen Lalibela, then I will already have spent more than two weeks in Ethiopia - with Addis and the south yet to be seen, this will mean I will break my three week time budget.
Though I have the luxury of flexibility, Ethiopia has not struck me as a place I'm so enamoured of that I would want to blow the time budget here. Secondly, travelling by bus here is so uncomfortable and time-consuming that it precludes doing anything else constructive while in transit. Thirdly, and one of the main reasons that led me to quit my job, time is more important to me than money.
The upshot is that I book a flight on Ethiopian Airlines that will get me to Lalibela in 40 minutes for B1,421 (~$130). This is more than ten times the cost of the bus journey but also perhaps a fiftieth of the travel time.
Sadly, Aksum also marks the place in which I hear news of a death from home. Rest in peace, Uncle G. Dull but possibly useful info
i. The bus from Gonder to Shire left at 6AM. It cost B57 and took just under 12 hours.
ii. There are many minibuses from Shire to Aksum but I'm not sure when the last one is. Mine left at about 6:20PM (i.e. when it was full), cost B20, and took 2 hrs 40 minutes.
I stayed at the Africa Hotel a little bit along the main road from the centre of town, paying B70 for a room with double bed and en suite bathroom with oodles of hot water. There was no fan or AC, which I would think would be a little uncomfortable in the summer.
iv. Entrance to most of the sites is via an all-encompassing ticket costing B50 and valid for the duration of your stay in Aksum. Not included in the ticket are the churches of St Mary of Zion, for which the entrance is (I think) B60 per church.
v. You can buy a map of everything from the Tourist Information booth for B15.
There are more photos below