Ethiopia


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Africa » Ethiopia
May 17th 2016
Published: May 17th 2016
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Starving children, distended bellies, flies, Bob Geldof swearing at people for money and some skeleton called Lucy; that was pretty much my knowledge of Ethiopia growing up. What I found was a country as idiosyncratic as any I have ever travelled: 100 million people crammed into the second most populous country in Africa-the only one that has never colonised, 70 different languages spoken, it's own calendar(take away 8 years) and time (take away 6 hours), one of the strangest staple foods I've eaten (think foam rubber), a GDP up 85%!s(MISSING)ince 2010 but no sign of this anywhere, some of the friendliest people to chat to but even more with their hands out and exaggerations of sites that need nothing of the sort. I loved it.

Gonder

I flew to the north of the country to join my with Intrepid/Dragoman Tour, starting here made sense geographically but not historically because for a country dripping in stories from millennia the area known as the 'Camelot of Africa' dates to only 1600. The main attraction is the Fessil Ghebbi royal enclosure, a UNESCO heritage site that is actually a series of 6 different castles built over time by successive emperors each keen to leave their mark. It may have been a bit more impressive had the Italians not used the area as their base during WWII and had those ever thoughtful Brits had not so delicately bombed them out of it. Most of the castles are now just ruins or outer walls but the first castle that you see upon entrance has had the benefit of some reconstructive surgery and Botox so is more pleasing on the eye. Built over 3 levels and decorated with numerous domes and balconies it looks nice enough, and certainly more so than the inside which is pretty bare and unrevealing, but overall it is worth a visit.

Next we visited the small Debre Birhan Selassie Church tucked away in a tiny, quiet part of town where only the noise of the withered old priest dozing in the corner could be heard. The main views were inside where the floor was strewn with palm leaves, it's walls covered in the story of Jesus' life and a ceiling showing multitudes of cherubic angels smiling down but no doubt silently passing judgement. Finally we visited the King Fasilades bathhouse which I'm sure would look more impressive with actual water inside but this only occurs at Easter, however you could still get a sense of its peacefulness with the Angkor Wat style trees hugging the walls and it was OK for a brief stop off but no more. Gonder itself was a gentle introduction to Ethiopia, the town wasn't overly hectic and you only got accosted by people every 2 minutes here which was a huge improvement on later places.

Simien Mountains National Park

Unbeknown to me most of Ethiopia sits at altitudes above 2000metres, and none more so than the Simien (meaning North) mountains. Merely travelling in and out of the national park was enough of a thrill as the hours ascending or descending the slow, narrow and twisty roads afforded superb views of the stunning scenery. Gullies, valleys, table top plateaus, sheer cliffs, mountains jutting out like a boxer offering his chin, villages clustered together as if clutching for warmth in the cold, wooden houses perched impossibly atop perpendicular slopes, overloaded trucks gasping up bumpy roads, baboons scavenging and child shepherds steering their cattle amongst the grass were all visible as we climbed higher into the mountains. We spent 3 nights up there trekking amongst the landscape in the warm sunny days, always making sure to never move too fast as the altitude left some short of breath, then huddling around a camp fire at night to stay warm as the temperate plummeted towards zero. The camping also meant no showers and only drop toilets but I was hardened after West Africa and so manfully battled on... We camped most nights at 3600 metres and the climax of the trek took us to Mt Bwahit which annoyingly is only the second highest in the park but still stands at 4430 metres. It wasn't a strenuous climb so I think most could achieve it and the views from the top were more than worthwhile as you looked out across the valleys as far as the eye could see-and this was just during the dry season when it was shades of grey and brown so to see it during the wet when it is suffused with green would be even more awe inspiring. Over the days we also saw lots of wildlife such as the Walia ibex, gelada baboons, klipspringer (rock climbing deer) and Ethiopian wolf(which incidentally was the first bit of Ethiopian exaggeration, it's literally a small red fox) but sadly failed to spot the leopards which allegedly hunt here (or so they say). Tesco was lacking up the mountains so we were invited to watch the locals slaughter 2 sheep for us to eat which is a rite of passage all meat eaters should go through, if you want to eat this stuff you should at least see how it's done although seeing them slit the throat, break legs, skin it and then chop up the recently bleating animal was met with a mix of incredulity and fascination, but I stepped in enough of their crap while trekking so I considered it revenge, plus it tasted good. The Simiens were definitely one of the highlights of this trip.

Axum

The route to Axum was only 150 miles yet would take 12 hours which gives some insight into the state of the roads and traffic, evidenced no more so than when we knocked a teenager off his bike when passing through a local town. It was totally his fault but the maddening rush of locals who surrounded us within seconds was certainly unsettling, thankfully he was fine and a few banknotes calmed the situation. Western diplomacy at it's finest. The winding scenery eventually led us to an altitude of 2300m and just 30miles from Eritrea where another UNESCO site awaited us. Axum was a once powerful kingdom in ancient times and rivalled Rome and Persia etc, from 400BC to the 7th Century it ruled an area comprising modern day Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and the Red Sea, it was also the first African country to convert to Christianity in the 3rd century but eventually the rise of Islam and other trade routes put an end to their reign. However being around for so long and being so prosperous meant they left behind a litany of sites and wonders, the most famous or which are probably the 120 Axumite Stelae. These are basically huge granite obelisks similar to those seen in Egypt and ranging in size, the largest was 33 metres although sadly that toppled over many years ago so the largest standing is 22 metres, their grey facades are intricately carved, packed with religious symbolism and lovely to stare at. They resolutely guard various vaults and tombs some of which you can enter but they are fairly bare thanks to grave robbers, however an estimated 96%!a(MISSING)re as yet undiscovered because the Ethiopian government can't afford the resources to dig them up. Nearby was the St Mary of Zion Church and here continued what I realised would become a recurring theme of Ethiopians dubious claims to historic artefacts. For here stands Ethiopians holiest shrine, a chapel that allegedly contains the Ark of the Covenant (the box said to hold the tablets that Moses used for the 10 commandments). But it's all a touch suspect because loads of other churches claim to also have it, nobody is allowed to enter the church to verify its contents and it hasn't been seen in centuries, I did consider doing an Indian Jones style swoop past the guards but annoyingly I'd left my whip at home. Next we visited the Queen of Sheba's Palace, she is mentioned in that great novel The Bible as having many riches although many historians now doubt she exists, undeterred Ethiopia claims to also have her palace but the remains are a few walls a few feet high that have blatantly been reconstructed in recent times. We also visited the tombs of King Caleb and King Gebre Maskel dating back to the 6th century but both were pretty ruined and lacking in aesthetics, however the tombs below were fairly interesting. Axum itself was a nice little town with fairly wide roads, a beautiful piazza with a huge tree as it's focal point and an interesting array of markets including one for animals that sold all types of cattle and camels etc, but sadly I had no wife to trade in for them. Being here during Easter was additionally very special as people celebrated breaking their 58 day meat fast with services, prayers and dancing. It did mean I had to be vegetarian until half way through my trip though which is as good a reason as any not to be religious.

Mekele

The rock hewn churches of Tigray were our next port of call and another big hitter of Ethiopia. These are 120 churches either physically carved out of rock or perched atop their sheer faces, although once again their claims leave you suspiciously scratching your chin as the locals claim they date back to the 4th century but the archaeologists state the 10th Century, but what's 600 years between friends eh? We visited Wurko Chrukos mainly because it is the most easily accessible, it is one of those carved into the mountain to make it less obvious to enemies during the rise of Islam. From the outside it appears fairly plain but once you look closely you notice it is a part of the mountain so once you step inside you are physically walking within the mountain side and makes for a surreal experience. It went fairly far back but the furthest section is reserved only for the holiest of holies and I don't think I count as that, in fact only yesterday I filled my pockets with bread from the restaurant to eat on the long truck drive. Sadly, humidity and water damage have ruined most of the internal aesthetics but the sturdy rock columns and carved crosses remain, as did a priest who's face had that many crevices he looked as though he had been around when the original walls were hollowed out. Overall the church didn't quite match the majesty of Lalibela later but was impressive on its own merit. In Mekele we also visited a museum showing artefacts the name of which I forget which probably tells you all you need to know about it, and saw stacks of salt blocks that have been transported across deserts from the nearby Danakil-the hottest place on Earth incidentally-or so the Ethiopians tell me...

Lalibela

Next up was pretty much the main reason I had come to Ethiopia in the first place since being transfixed by it many years previously on TV. Thankfully it was worth the wait and I will be unabashed in taking some time to describe them to you because Lalibela contains 11 rock hewn churches dating back to the 12th Century that are an unofficial 8th wonder of the world. All are carved out of free standing rock from the top down and lie below ground level so are therefore technically called subterranean monoliths but in lay persons talk are just bloody impressive. It took 40,000 people a total of 24 years to create with the largest standing 11 metres high and 22 metres wide although there was a range of sizes. Admittedly a few were fairly plain from the outside and from that perspective didn't rival Petra for example, but unlike there or at Axum where they are carved into mountain sides these all stood alone, immovable and impossible to ignore and so intricately done that no marks could be observed. Sadly some have been damaged by earthquakes and the UN has tried to help by enclosing them with roofs supported by massive metal beams which hugely ruin the aesthetics but the fact that they still impress says a lot. The undoubted highlight and postcard picture moment is the Church of St George which stands stubbornly alone and away almost as though it was too good to be obscured by others, it was the last built and it seems that all the previous attempts were merely practice to build up to this wonderful climax. It is 25 metres high and carved into the shape of a cross inside its own sunken courtyard and is almost invisible from eye level, but from above with the mountains in the background it strikes everyone as a magnificent feat of engineering, although I'm not so convinced by the locals claim it was completed with the help of angels...

Inside the churches every nook and cranny was packed with symbolism and meaning: religious figures carved into the walls, frescos, murals and tapestries detailing events, sturdy columns soaring up to decorated ceilings, windows carved in the shapes of a cross letting shafts of light enter, treasures hidden behind partitions reserved only for the holy of holies, floors worn smooth from hundreds of years worth of prostration while others were covered with colourful rugs, candles flickered and incense was burnt while priests sat solemnly at the front acknowledging locals cloaked in white robes offering prayers, it all made for a haunting atmosphere. Some were plainer than others and after 5 or 6 it was easy to become so immersed or blasé at what you were seeing that you had to remind yourself you were stood inside metres of sheer rock. The churches were all interlinked by a maze of series of tunnels and alleyways some of which literally popped up inside another church, one of these was 55 metres long and others were that darkest element of pitch black where you can't see your hand in front of your face, it was a rabbit warren of connections that even Alice would struggle to believe. The look and feel of the churches with their pure monolithic immensity, and the atmosphere of worship and history means I'd easily place it near the top of my list of man made wonders I've ever seen.

The following day I went on a trek to the Asheten Monastery which sits above Lalibela and is meant to give great views of the area and churches but sadly it was covered in cloud so I literally didn't see a thing, plus the monastery wanted an absurd amount to enter it so I can't really report on it either. The trek was interesting though as we passed through local villages where men earned money breaking down huge rocks into smaller squares like some form of prison labour and children as young as 4 or 5 shepherded cattle. The homes were extremely basic and Spartan, made from mud, wood and straw that quite frankly reminded me of the Celtic villages in Wales, except they date back 2000 years and these people live in them in 2016. Whether they will ever catch up remains to be seen but it does feel that Lalibela itself is on the cusp of change as the Chinese are building a highway towards it, hotels and cafés are springing up in the hope of attracting more tourists, I think it will be totally changed in 5 years or so but whether the money trickles down to everyone is a depressingly similar answer I suspect I know the answer to. Lalibela itself was interesting to walk around, lying 2600 metres up it gave lovely views around, it also had the best hotel we stayed in, good restaurants including a Scottish/Ethiopian hybrid that was as nice as it was random and a plethora of locals walking the streets with you in conversation in the hope of you buying them something, overall the town made for a good accompaniment to the wonders of the church.

Bahir Dar

After another full day drive passing through villages where we just about avoiding being bogged thanks to the rain we reached Lake Tana. It is Africa's 3rd largest at 90kms long, 60kms wide and is so large it more resembles a sea, it has wildlife such as pelicans and hippos and is also dotted with some 39 churches and 90 monasteries. We took a boat ride out to the main island to visit Gabriel Ure Kideth, a small monastery dating back to the 14th century built with traditional materials in a circular style meaning you can wander 360 degrees around it and enjoy the bright paintings depicting the story of the Bible. The walls are wonderfully bright and vivid which isn't surprising because those works of art are actually a cover up job and only date back to the 18th century, shrewdly done Ethiopia. The lake itself flows out to form the source of the Blue Nile (which itself meets up with the White Nile to form THE Nile later on) and along its journey forms the Blue Nile Falls where the Ethiopians again proved adept at twisting the truth. The falls are depicted as one of Africa's most spectacular and called the 'water that thunders', allegedly flowing 400 metres wide and being of the roaring, gushing, plunging kind. But a hydro electric dam has put paid to all that and instead they were only 10 metres wide and of the trickling, stumbling, apologetically falling kind, plus the water isn't blue it's a rather fetching shade of brown. Still the 2 hour round trip was conducted amid nice scenery and under a baking sun so made for a nice hike. The remaining time in Bahir Dar was spent wandering the fairly built up city and taking in all of the curiosities that Ethiopia provides, from cheap but amazing fresh juice bars to cosmopolitan coffee shops, eating in restaurants that failed to have most of the things advertised on menus, sheep being skinned down side streets, a multitude of wedding processions with all their noise and dancing through the streets, plus we even took in a football match from the Ethiopian premier league which was so bad even I'd get a game.

Addis Ababa

After a scenic drive we arrived at the capital which contains 3 million people, a lot of churches/monuments and people trying to pickpocket you. The city is pretty large and sprawling but the main sites are easily navigated on foot and as you walk the streets the full force of Ethiopia hits you in the face, mainly in the form of smells unknown to man, noisy streets that assault your ears, monuments to communism donated by countries like North Korea, and a teeming mass of people in all its forms; some smiling asking how you are, other simply shouting faranji(white person), some just ask for money, while the poorest sort of homeless people I've ever seen stare through you and the rest just try to mug you. On one day on 3 separate occasions I was lucky to escape being pick pocketed, twice these were of the worst kind where a guy would spit on you-which in itself is enough to make your blood boil-before then apologising and trying to wipe it off while actually going through your pockets, the other time a 10 year old child just snuck up behind and tried to go in my pockets. I suppose all of this could be attributed to any capital but it seemed a lot more pronounced here in a big city where white people are a rare phenomenon, however this was also the case all the way down the West coast and it didn't happen once there.

Thankfully the city had a few good sites to just about make it tolerable in the form of its many churches, mosques, mounments and mausoleums which brightened up pretty much every street. I particularity liked the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which is the second holiest site after the ark place in Axum and is very pretty both inside and out, the grounds themselves hold even further churches and tombs and the whole area is pleasant to wander around. St George's Cathedral was also meant to be a highlight but we couldn't get inside but we window shopped many others as you practically fall over them here. However in this city of a thousand places to pray where every day life revolves around worship there lie a set of bones in the National Museum that dispel most of that and show off evolution in all its glory. In what seems like a contradiction Ethiopia also prides itself on being the cradle of humanity and remains of our ancestors dating back to 7 million years have been found here, but the star of the show is a little lady named Lucy (named after the Beatles song that was played when they found her incidentally) who is a 3.2million year old relative and the oldest link found of a Homo who made her way around by walking on two legs so for a Darwinian like me it was as holy as the Turin shroud, only real. The rest of the bottom floor had many other skulls and alike of equal fascination detailing how all of us from Europe and beyond started out with an exodus from Ethiopia, but the remaining few floors were more recent and therefore more dull to me but the museum is well worth a visit and only costs 30 pence to enter. I also thoroughly enjoyed-if that term can really be used-the 'Red Terror' Martyrs Memorial Museum which filled in a lot of Ethiopian history for me. The short version is Emperor Halle Selassie was a bit of despot so was overthrown in the 70s by a regime which turned out to be communist and so as ever ended up killing half a million of their own through famine and repression, which ultimately led to the scenes that got Bob Geldof so rightly worked up. This moving museum explained this well and put it in your face in the form of a cabinet of skulls and other memorabilia, the museum is free to enter and explains a lot so is well worth a visit. Next I wandered Merkato market which is reputed to be the biggest in Africa, I'm not sure about that but it was definitely chaotic wandering the hectic labyrinth that was as much a cultural experience as it was a shopping trip, just don't take any valuables there.



Ethiopia is a country with undoubted highlights: I loved the churches in Lalibela, the Simien mountains, the history stretching back millenniums and the way of life, seeing the subsistence farming and Celtic housing, donkeys and camels used instead of cars, the unnerving sight of children at work-wearing the hand me down Western clothing bearing messages they clearly didn't have a clue about-while teenagers play pool or walking around holding hands. I liked the way the local food grew on me, the power cuts, rain storms, cold showers and the Fawlty Towers style hotels (even if one gave me horrendous bed bugs). But is it OK to say that I loved Ethiopia but not the people? I totally get the reasons why they do it and of course feel bad even moaning about it, but there's not denying that the endemic culture of hands out and begging has an effect, I've been to less well off countries and not had it as bad here where you were literally hassled for money at every turn and depressingly even those usual bastions of innocence, the children, knew only 2 phrases "Hello, money?" and "Hello, pen?", while every hotel or guide we used tried to change prices and effect more money than agreed. I worry that Ethiopia's already paper thin tourism industry will suffer if all tourists are subjected to it to this degree but I suppose it's just a vicious circle. However, there were undoubted gems of people we did encounter and true treasures of sites to visit, whilst I'm not convinced I'll personally be rushing back anytime soon it definitely leaves a lasting impression on you one way or the other, the only way for you to know for sure is to come and experience it for yourself.


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17th May 2016

I think it's ok to say that
I'm a huge cultural experience traveler but I have been places that have turned me off, so I get it. Great blog tho.
17th May 2016
Injera-staple food of Ethiopia

Wow! What an interesting presentation. I've never had Ethiopian. Is it delicious?
17th May 2016
Injera-staple food of Ethiopia

It is eventually!! The injera definitely grows on you and there are a wide range of things to dip it into, MOST of which are delicious! Glad you enjoyed thae blog, thanks for reading
18th May 2016

Ethiopia is likely to suffer
What a great story you tell, full of experiences and emotion. As we travel the world we can't be expected to love each place or people equally. Many things can impact the way we feel about a country and we have the right to feel what we feel. You have pointed out that they can and most likely will negatively impact the visitor experience and further decrease people wanting to be there. We appreciate your openness and honesty. That is what we long for here on TB. Great blog.
18th May 2016

Ethiopia's Historical Circuit
Very interesting to read of your experiences in Ethiopia Mike. While you went to many places in the north I have also visited, it was as if the vibe has changed since I was there in 2011. Maybe it was 'cause you were on an Intrepid tour that can be somewhat insular and hands out are attracted by the safari truck, or that the feeling of optimism we found from massive infrastructure building of roads, dams and buildings has subsided. Or maybe it is due to such things as the Chinese building a road to Lalibela that could well change the funky vibe of that mountain cobble-streeted wonderland with its rock hewn churches that also held you in thrall. But when we were there the Ethiopians truly believed they had changed the national thinking of not storing silos for harder times, and were developing farming practices to make Live Aid issues a thing long past. We found it the tidiest country we have visited in Africa, even in remote villages, which we put down to national pride. When one hears of massive famines recurring it has to affect national optimism and pride. To us Ethiopia is the jewel of Africa. After all you have said, I hope only good memories of the extraordinary culture and history live long in your soul.
19th May 2016

Very nice blog. Intresting to read the difference between the people and the country. Enjoyed reading it!

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