Published: April 6th 2010April 5th 2010
Prepare yourselves for a continuation of the picture-imagine-exercise first introduced in the last blog as I write about all the fun I had in Sudan.
Sudan is the biggest country in Africa. Ruled by Pharoahs throughout much of its ancient history it was plundered for its assets before being brutally colonised by the British in 1898. Since independence in 1956 it has faced relntless revolts against power and (if you're up to date on your news you should know this) is currently limping through a general election a year before te Christian south will vote on the issue of independence from the Muslim north.
Anyway, travelling with Istvan and Radek proved to be a strange but rewarding experience. Radek is gung-ho in every way and thinks nothing through. He charges around a predominantly Muslim country where sharia law is still (technically) in place wearing just a vest and boxers. He is the closest I have ever met to Borat. Istvan, on the other hand, does and says very little despite being fluent in Arabic. The contrast is visible even when we all walk together to the shop. Radek charges off and is soon 50 metres in front of me whilst Istvan ambles a long some 50 metres behind. It was with these contrasting characters my exploration of this awesome country began.
Still exhausted from our almighty journey southwards from Aswan, our first task was to obtain a permit to travel and to take photographs from the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. This required a copy of my passport, a copy of my visa, a passport photo and an application form. The permit itself prohibits taking photos of military areas, bridges, train stations, broadcasting and public utilities, slum areas, beggars and other defaming subjects. So, with this in mind, would you take a photo of a crippled man in a wheel-chair struggling to cross a train track at a level crossing? This is exactly the sort of photo Radek (Borat) wants in his album and so this is what he'll take. I cringed at so much of what he pointed his camera at but, thankfully, it never landed us in any hot water, and if it did then we were quick enough to run away.
Khartoum is kind of three cities in one: Khartoum, Khartoum North (Bahri) and Omdurman. These areas are built around the confluence of the Nile where Blue meets White (White is darker). We first visited Omdurman, where there is a massive market. A stall-owner told me that they only see about ten tourists a week there so, as you imagine, we were the centre of attention. The market was everything I expected: incredible colours, sounds and sweet smells. It was hear that I tried my first sweet date which tastes like toffee. I don't know how they do it. Do all dates taste like toffee? We saw some traditional singing and dancing outside the tomb of the Mahdi, the Sudaness leader removed prior to British colonisation, and I then joined in a nearby football match. My first act was to do a few cheeky keepy-uppies before launching the ball as high as possible into the air, breaking my four-year-old flip-flops in the process. Devastated, I hobbled to the bus station and bought some more for S£5 (£1.50).
The next day Khartoum was enveloped in a cloud of sand as a sand storm blew in all directions. It did not deter us from our first task, however, of attending the Aliens Registration Office to register our arrival in Sudan. This required a copy of my passport, a copy of my visa, one passport photo, an application form and a letter from the hostel confirming that I was staying there...and S£100 (£30). In addition to the cost of the visa it makes travel to Sudan expensive for the budget traveller.
Later in the day Radek and I headed to the pyramids at Begrawiya, 200km north of Khartoum. They constitute about 40 pyramids, the tombs of the Merotic Pharoahs who ruled Sudan from 592BC to 350AD. On the way there the bus neglected to let us off (to be fair, visibility was down to about 50m at times so I don't think anybody knew where we were) and we went 40km further than we needed to. We hitch-hiked back and were dropped off at the sign for the pyramids and informed that they were 'somewhere over there'. Is Radek charged blindly through the sand strom into the desert I was carefully noting every landmark we passed. It was a relief to see the pyramids emerging through the desert and the guards at the entrance gate, who were just about to head home, said we could pay the entrance fee there and then and spend the night camping amongst the pyramids. This is what we did.
We had the entire site to ourselves. Radek and I, 40 pyramids, a hellish sand storm and Radek's tiny one-man tent. It wa truly exhiliarating and, after pitching the test, we set about exploring and climbing the pyramids (you can't do that in Egypt). The sand storm broke my camera and, unfortunately, it would remain that way for the next two weeks until I could get it fixed in Ethiopia. appy-snapping Radek, however, took hundred of photos and has promised to send me the best ones.
As Radek was off being gung-ho I managed to create fire using a broken lighter, limited deadwood, a couple of shrubs and a hacked-up thorn bush (courtesy of Borat). Nothing makes a man feel more like a man than creating fire from such limited resources, I concluded. Radek returned and we tucked into a feast of biscuits and water for dinner before settling down to the sweet sound of wind battering tent.
The next day was hot, sunny and, thankfully, still. I explored the remaining pyramids on camelback before Radek and I headed to the main road with the intention of hitching back to Khartoum. We got a lift with Bal Ahmed and his sons Ali (20) and Mohammad (9). They were pulling two trailer loads of iron-gurders from Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, to south Khartoum. Throughout the journey we stopped for soft drinks, tea, coffee, biscuits and dates but were not allowed to pay for anything. The journey was very, very slow and quite cramped but we enjoyed chatting to one another and listening to music. As lorries are not allowed in Khartoum until 11pm we stopped at a cafe and feasted on fuul (baked cassava beans), bread and salad, before depositing the load south of Khartoum. We then parked up in a service station. The guys insisted that Radek and I enjoyed the comfort of the bunks in the cab whilst the other slept on the open trailer. In the morning, when we we bid the guys farewell, they continued to feruse our offer of money for their services. They had done us a great favour by driving us from Begrawiya to Khartoum, dropping us on the road to the Ethiopia border, feeding us, watering us and giving us a place to sleep for the night.
Radek and I then spent from 10am until 11pm travelling to Gallabat, the border-town. The journey consisted of two buses, one minibus and and inexplicable three-hour African-style delay in Wadi Medani to 'register with the police' (I didn't see a single police officer but I did see a ticket officer eating our tickets...I have no explanation for this). We camped outside customs on Gallabat and were up early the next morning to change our money on the black market (as advised by bank and immigration officials) before heading into Ethiopia.
Sudan had been a wonderful experience. It was not perfect. The diet is limited to kebabs and fuul, there is not a great deal to see and so much time is wasted obtaining pointless permits/registration papers which only serve to add to the cost of an already expensive visa. Somebody also attempted to pick-pocket Radek (but failed) and taxi-drivers are inclined to attempt to grossly over-charge. On the whole, however, the experience of Sudan lies with the hospitality, generosity and friendliness of it's people who will invite you to drink tea with them and subsequently insist on paying for you. This rarely happens in either of the neighbouring countries I had and would visit. My time is Sudan can be summed up as fantastic, exhausting and sandy.
PICTURE-IMAGINE-EXERCISE (Part 2):
1. The Grand Mosque in Khartoum
2. On the bus to Omdurman with a Sudanese elder dressed in traditional white robes, fez...and sunglasses
3. Sand-storm at Begrawiya. Radek next to the tent with the faint outline of a pyramid in the background
4. A pasty-white English guy on top of one of the pyramids, arms and legs outstretched