Gonder, Aksum and Mekele

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May 20th 2010
Published: June 5th 2010
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Our trip from Gedaref in Sudan to the border town of Gallabat was interesting. Our minibus was falling apart, it had to be pushed started twice and the door came off the rails! Rather than following the sealed road the whole way, we took a detour through some villages. It was fascinating to see Sudanese village life, the markets, tea stalls, clothing stalls and children at an outdoor school. As we had come to expect of Sudan everyone was extremely friendly.

Once we got to Gallabat we were approached by a self-appointed guide who took us through the border procedure. There were four separate customs procedures on the Sudanese side, all of them in small mud shacks scattered throughout the main street. The first was purely to write down our names as was the second place, then it was passport control where we received our exit stamp and the last was to check our bags but we were waived through. Matt was taken to a shack to change our Sudanese pounds for Ethiopian birr. It was all very dodgy, I was worried that we were about to be mugged but this was not the case and no-one seemed to mind. We then went to the Ethiopian immigration which was a mud hut surrounded by barbed wire. Less bureaucracy on this side, just a stamp but this did take a while, the officer looked for our names in a book before he stamped our passport, not sure if it was a book of blacklisted names or not. We were waived through the bag checking section and walked across the border.

Immediately we were surrounded by touts but we did find a minibus waiting to take us to our destination without too much effort, although the guide book is correct when it describes “faranji frenzy” or foreigner frenzy. They yell out “you, you, you, you” to get your attention, ask for money and find out where you are going.

The scenery in Ethiopia is simply stunning.

Gonder was our first stop on what is known as the historical circuit. Surprisingly the road was sealed the whole way, despite what the latest guide book says, cutting the journey time by half. It is already more greener than Sudan and thankfully the temperature has dropped by about 20 degrees as we drove up into the highlands. A couple of times on the way we were stopped by police where the people were asked to get out, patted down and the minibus checked.

After a hot and dusty Sudan, staying at a decent hotel, having a proper shower, fresh change of clothes and a cold beer was like heaven. Coffee here is strong and ridiculously cheap - only 20p and there is plenty of fresh juice around for less than 50p.
There are a few Ethiopian quirks which are quite strange. Time is one of them. At sunrise its 12 o'clock (6am our time), after one hour of sunshine its 1 o'clock and so on. The sun sets at 12 o'clock (6pm our time). To make sure we get the right time for the bus we need to check whether the departure time is Ethiopian or faranji time. The calendar is also different, the Ethiopian calendar is 7 and a half years behind the Gregorian calendar. Our receipt for the laundry had the date as being 14 September 2002!

We dropped off laundry which was so funny because the first place said they would not wash our underwear because it could be dangerous! It could have something to do with the fact that their shop was in between two bars frequented by prostitutes! Prostitution here is common and does not have the stigma attached to it as you would expect at home. Others did not seem to mind.

Getting a sim card was a real process. First of all to get into the telecommunication centre, we had to be searched and no cameras were allowed so I had to sit outside while Matt went inside. At night, armed policemen stand out the front, they come loaded in the back of the truck and throw the guns down to each other quite carelessly, like they were just sacks of potatoes. We needed two passport photos and a copy of our passport and visa. Matt had to wait in a hall with a hundred other people and wait, where he was then interviewed and required to fill out a form, including signing a declaration accepting that mobile phones are dangerous!

Gonder is famous for its historical sites including the Royal Enclosure. The 70,000 sq-metre compound contains numerous castles and palaces dating from the 17th century when Emperor Fasiladas found the new capital of Gonder, which was known as the Camelot of Africa. The enclosure has been restored and is absolutely amazing. The area is beautiful with huge grounds and a great view of the city and the surrounding eucalyptus trees.

Fasiladas' Bath is another famous site, a huge rectangular sunken swimming pool which is reputedly larger than an Olympic swimming pool. In the middle of the pool is a charming building which is thought to have been Fasiladas' second residence. Its a beautiful peaceful spot with snake like tree roots growing through sections of the stone walls. Unfortunately the area was being restored when we were there. During the Timkat Festival, the pool is filled, with water from 500km away (and it takes a month to fill). Huge crowds jump into the pool and the ceremony that is held here replicates Christ's baptism in the Jordan River and is seen as a renewal of faith.

Debre Berhan Selassie Church was our last sight that we visited in Gonder. The church was saved from the marauding armies of the Sudanese Dervishes in the 1880s by a swarm of bees that chased the invaders away. When we arrived, the church was closed despite the opening times and the ticket officer absent for the day apparently. We managed to find a priest to open the church for us. The church is very colourful, with more than 100 painted cherubs on the ceiling. A large stone wall with 12 rounded towers surrounds the compound representing the 12 Apostles. The larger 13th tower represents Christ.

The poverty here is almost overwhelming, we are confronted by beggars, homeless people and street children everyday asking for food and money. The government does not seem to take any responsibility for these people. There seem to be a high number of blind and disabled people, well at least more that you would expect to see, which I assume is due to malnutrition.

A highlight of our stay in Gonder was visiting the street children as part of Yenege Tesfa, a local NGO that works with the street children of Gonder. There are thousands of street children and orphans here, but no-one is sure of the exact number. This organisation provides shelter for 17 girls and 34 boys aged up to 18, feeds and clothes them and makes sure they go to school and provides vocational training, such as shoe shinning, selling tissues and gum or hairdressing. Each shelter has a mother and father figurehead for the children. It is particularly hard for organisations to reach female street children who maybe sold as servants (and often abused) or because they enter into prostitution.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the girls' shelter. When we arrived the older girls were removing stones from bags of lentils while the mother cooked lunch. The exercise books were interesting, the sentences and stories that they had to learn related to hygiene, HIV/AIDS and needing food and clean clothes. The children were very shy and while they were happy to have their photo taken they would not look at the camera but they did enjoy seeing themselves in the photos.

Yenege Tesfa also provides medical and pharmacy vouchers that can be distributed to street people for them to receive medical attention as well as bread vouchers allowing the children to get a loaf of bread from a local bakery. Most of their funding comes from Holland and Belgium. They receive no help from the government despite promises that aid would be provided. Interestingly, and perhaps as part of an election ploy, there is a lot of construction going on here at the moment. Like Sudan, the Chinese are here sealing roads and constructing drainage systems. These are things that should have been completed years ago and will make life easier here for people, many of home live in remote rural areas who rely on a daily or weekly bus to get them to where they need to go to sell their produce.

Ethiopia is not famous for its food! The national dish is injera wat. Injera is like a pancake in its size and consistency but grey in colour (like an old dishcloth!) and a little sour. Wat is like a stew with a spicy sauce (an Ethiopian curry) and it dumped on top of the injera, which acts as a plate. Instead of cutlery the injera is used to scoop up the food and sauce. Unfortunately it is not really to our taste at all although the sauce was nice so looks like we will be drinking plenty of fresh juice and eating lots of pasta and bread (a good thing to come from the Italian invasion).

We ended up in Gonder longer than expected. We got up at 4.15am to catch our bus to Aksum and hung around until 5.30am when we were then told that the bus had been cancelled and we would not be able to leave until the next day. Apparently some buses were not running because of the elections and they were worried about trouble. Patience here is going to be a test and getting used to Africa time!

Up again at 4.15am the following morning and this time the bus (although it was more of a truck) was ready to go at 6am which was only half an hour behind schedule which was very unlike Africa time. While there is not allowed to be anyone standing they still manage to cram people in the bus by having them sit everywhere possible, with their bags of rice, pots and suitcases, even a television set.

The highland scenery was breathtaking as the bus weaved through the mountains with dramatic drops to the valley below. We passed baboons, donkeys and camels along the way and refugee camps (people fleeing Eritrea) with people walking for miles with their water container strapped to their backs. We averaged about 25-30km per hour. Despite being only 350km to Aksum, it took 15 hours on an unsealed road.

Aksum is a very important place in Ethiopia, legend has it that the Queen of Sheba called Aksum her home and it is believed the town houses the Arc of the Covenant.

The first site we visited was the northern steale. A steale is like an obelisk which is like a tombstone or monument to local rulers. This is Ethiopia's largest and most important field. They believe that the granite was cut and moved to the site with the help of 3500 elephants where it was then polished, decorated and erected by slaves.

According to Ethiopian folklore the structure at Dungur is the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, although this is doubted by archeologists. We then stopped at the Queen of Sheba's bath. Despite the legend this has most certainly been used as a water source for over 1000 years. It is quite a remarkable feat of engineering, its large size is even more impressive when you consider that it was originally hewed out of solid rock. People were collecting water which I hope was not used for drinking water as it was very dirty.

The next stop was the tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskes with glorious views over the valley. King Kaleb was a interesting character. He was the most richest and powerful ruler Aksumite had ever seen. He would appear in front of his subjects dripping in gold and precious jewels. Despite having everything money could buy he let it all go, after a vicious campaign in Arabia, he abdicated his throne and retired to a monastery to live out the rest of his life in prayer.

Dutch archeologists were still excavating the area, but we were able to go down into the tombs. The block work is extraordinary, some of the blocks are over 4m long. There was a terrible smell coming from the resident bat population which got a fright (although we probably got more of a fright) when we turned the torches on. Legend has it that one of the many tunnels leading off this tomb go all the way to Eritrea, across the Red Sea to Yemen. They recently discovered a tunnel system that go off to the north, south, east and west but no-one knows where they go. At the bottom of the hill we stopped to look at King Enza's inscription. This dates from between AD 330 and AD 350 and records the King's Christian military campaigns in Ethiopia. The pillar is inscribed in Sabaean, Ge'ez and Greek.

The highlight of the day was visiting the St Mary of Zion churches, which is the centre of the universe for Christian Ethiopians. It was a holy day today, so there were many people around and apparently we were lucky because today was the only day when the holy book was open to the public. It is claimed that this book, the Miracle of Mary, is 1400 years old (it is made of goatskin and the colour in the pictures was incredible) but we are not sure how accurate this is.

This was also the site of Africa's first church and the ruins were visible between the old and the new church. It is said that the original church was covered head to toe in gold and when it was destroyed and burnt the gold melted and ran like water in a river.

The museum contained a breathtaking haul of treasure including former Ethiopian rulers' crowns, clothing and books. A carefully guarded chapel, legend says, holds the Ark of the Covenant. Only a special guardian has access to the Ark and no-one else is allowed to see it. If you do, the legend says you will catch fire. The guardian remains in the chapel forever and is not allowed to leave and the only visitors he can receive are fellow monks, the current guardian has been there for 51 years. As if by coincidence, it must have been our lucky day, the guardian walked around the compound while we were there, apparently he never usually comes out when foreigners are around.

We had quite an adventure trying to find bread. We had to ask around where the local bakery was and had two “touts” take us all around town to a tiny shed at the back of the house, where delicious bread was being baked. We got a whole bag of bread, fresh out of the oven for 50p!

Mekele, Tigray's capital was our next stop. This involved another rough 5am start and some unsealed roads for 8 hours, although it could have been worse as most of the roads were sealed. Unfortunately our driver was crazy and we only just avoided a number of head-on crashes due to his erratic driving.

Mekele was a breath of fresh air, a large friendly university town with some good restaurants and coffee shops. There is not much to see in Mekele but there are two interesting museums. The Yohannes IV Museum, a former palace, now exhibits Ethiopian manuscripts, crosses and icons which had found their way into a private collection in France but had subsequently been returned in 2001. There was an interesting collection of clothing, including cloaks made of lion skin.

The Martyrs Memorial Monument and Museum is a memorial to the Ethiopian struggle against the fascist Derg regime. The museum exhibts a fascinating photographic collection from the 1970s and 1980s of the TPLF who were responsible for overthrowing the regime. It was at this time that Ethiopia made world headlines for the famine in 1984-85 which killed one million people and some haunting photos from this period formed part of the exhibit.

Our next stop is the historical town of Lalibela where we are going to visit the famous rock-hewn churches and head off on a five day trek to the Mesket Escarpment.

Unfortunately it takes two days to get to Lalibela and we had to stay in Woldia for a night. The bus from Mekele to Woldia was quite an entertaining journey. Our first stop was due to a puncture. The tyre was completely flat but it was changed within a few minutes. The next stop was a checkpoint. We had taken three too many passengers and for that offence, the number plates were removed. Clearly a bribe did not work as the driver was then given a ticket despite pleading with the officer. Luckily the number plates were returned and we were allowed to continue with our journey and the three extra passengers jumped back in the bus (clearly the issue does not relate to safety). We are not sure why the drivers risk carrying extra people. There are check points all along the roads and this is the second minibus that we have been on where the driver has received a ticket and is threatened off the road. The extra people that we were carrying were not going far and the cost of the ticket would have far exceeded the amount that these passengers were paying.

At a tea stop, while Matt ordered us a tea the minibus disappeared, with our bags on top. It happened in a split second when he ordered the drinks and he ran out after the minibus but it was nowhere to be seen. Another guy on the bus who was having a tea assured us that the bus would return and it did thank goodness but not before we had a slight panic.

Driving along, we then hit a cow, just a light tap, it survived and so did we with only minimal damage to the vehicle. Herds of cows and goats meander along the road and those minding them do nothing to keep them out of the traffic causing more chaos on the roads. Then just before Woldia we grind to a halt as the streets were blocked with people marching and chanting, with sticks in the air (and a few guns). This was a holiday to celebrate the donwfall of the Derg, it was very lively and friendly, they could see us taking photos as the bus passed and were happy to pose for the camera.

Woldia is a small dirty town, not the most appealing place to have to spend the night and we have been bitten by what I think are fleas. Ah … the joys of travel.

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30th May 2011

a thousand thanks
Loved reading your blog. I'm working on a culinary textbook and your views helped me to tweak my piece on Ethiopia. Despite your dislike of Ethiopian food in Ethiopia, there are many fine restaurants abroad. Hope you try one!

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