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Published: February 28th 2011
There were 2 westerners who got off a bus in a desert village of Sudan. One hopped back on the bus, the other set off on a great Sudanese day experience.
I crossed over to Sudan from Ethiopia. The border town of Gallabat is a small shitty transit point. A kid about 15 acted like he was helping me and wanted a tip. I paid 15 for the bus instead of 10 and he wanted a tip. I argued with him whilst he stayed in the bus as it drove off. I acted cool when he said, “I am not going anywhere.” I reacted “That is fine if that is what you want to do.”
When the bus was registered to leave the city we went back to the bus stop where the guy got two 5’s so he could keep one of them (about $2.) I say “That is $2! I’m not giving you that much for what you did. Are you trying to treat me like an idiot?” He later tried to use “Do you think that I’m stupid.” I pissed him off with this comeback. “I’m not thinking anything of you. It is up to you
to decide on that.” Eventually he left to the satisfaction of the mini bus.
Landscape dropped off to dull after Ethiopia and after 2 hours the bus arrived to another shitty town called Gederaf. It’s a farming town with housing dominated by mud. Buses generally leave early throughout Sudan and by lunchtime there were no buses heading to Khartoum the capital.
There was one going to Wad Medani the honeymoon capital of Sudan. It’s about 7pm when we arrived and I am busting to go to the toilet. I went to pick up my bags from under the bus and the driver decides they are going to Khartoum so I held on for another 2-3 hours. Holding on for abnormal amounts of time is what travel is all about and is such a great game to play – How long can I hold on for this time!!
Unwilling to fall asleep in case I pee myself I arrived in Khartoum at 10pm. The taxi ride to my hotel saw a bit of a happening suburban city. Where my hotel was, was quite dead but there was a lot of bright lights and plenty of shops. My room
was ordinary something that I would have to get use to for the next 2 weeks. Sudan had the most consistently poor pillows I have had in all my travels.
Although you can’t tell, the streets of modern Khartoum were laid out by the British as a series of Union Jacks. A lot of the footpaths have long mats that align the streets so multiple citizens can prey to Mecca. There are many taxis and minivans that are parked or driving around the streets. All are Asian models Hyundai, Daewoo etc.
The National museum is pretty good with Pharaoh stone carvings, even tombs and temples outside the main buildings. They are recovered temples from the risen Lake Nasser but are spoiled by tacky tin rooves. Surprisingly on the top level of the main museum there’s some really impressive Christian frescoes. The earlier work has greens and blues but the later stuff lacks these colours as funding and the faith dwindled from the area to its now Islamic state.
The museum is a good stopover before heading to the north of the country. Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt and the main site and most iconic in Sudan
are the Royal cemeteries of Begrawiya and Pyramids of Meroe.
The Pyramids can be seen as a day trip from Khartoum. My guide book indicated the site was 700m off the main road. But when the bus dropped us off in Begrawiya town we didn’t know where we were. It was lucky that I had seen photos of the pyramids before.
We were in the desert, a village made from mud, on a road made from the dust, surrounded by a barren looking desert - A main road looked a distant memory. However I did spot what appeared to be an acute angled pyramid. The pyramids seemed to have their tops bitten off and a more black colour than Egypt’s ones. And that is what confirmed it for me. Italian treasure hunters hacked the tops off in a fruitless attempt for riches years ago.
Frank the German was not feeling well and wasn’t much of a pyramid fan so when I found out that the next bus was leaving at 630pm to return to Khartoum he pulled the pin and went back on the bus. I tried to listen for a main road but with the bus
still running it was impossible to indicate. I took the gamble and walked along the hard desert, beginning what was definitely more than 700m probably 2-3km.
Some kids ran up to me from the huts and the parents looked suspicious of me so I kept walking. The walk was only 5 minutes old, the bus had gone when out of nowhere a massive tour truck comes along. The driver yells out “Hey! Are you going to the pyramids? We can give you a lift if you’d like?” What an amazing turn around in fortune. So they drop me off at the pyramids before driving off.
Because Sudan is not on the tourist map the pyramids are mostly to yourself and what that means is that it can give you a great opportunity to use the winds as camera angles for a pretend video clip. Ipod in ear, sitting down on the rock, elevated and looking down at the numerous pyramids. A slight breeze picked up and it was a great chance to go a little crazy after travelling by yourself for so long.
Africa is the second loneliest travel I have done, behind Central Asia. I have
hardly had any other travellers on transport with me and have only really had a handful of travelling friends for more than a day. You meet locals but it’s just not the same. This is why I think I had to make up some fun when I reflected that I’d always wanted to see this place and its pyramids. I think it was the black toblerone look with a bright orange/red sand that does it. I couldn’t help but celebrate. And there is no better way to celebrate than playing a song that has no relevance to the occasion and act it out as a video clip.
I often look at locations and go man this would be a good movie set or great location for a video clip and the Pyramids of Meroe is no different. On came a band called Rise Against and a song from a few years ago ‘Anywhere But Here.’ So naturally a change of wind direction would cause an imaginary change of camera angle and there’s half your video clip! About a minute into the song after the dramatic chorus of “Deee-stinaaaaation! Anywhere but here! Away from you!” I realised I actually don’t
know the words to the rest of the song?
I than contemplated the meaning to the song whilst Rise Against completed their set and I couldn’t connect it with the… well, “Destination” but than it clicked on the ride home “Yes! See the pyramids are a burial, a passage to the other world. So the song is about getting away from a place that doesn’t offer anymore. So he wants to go and get lifted to anywhere but where he is now. What a location for the video clip! Gosh Rise Against are deep!
A day trip to the pyramids are a full day and to get back to the capital you have to hope a bus comes and it’s not full from Atbara or Port Sudan and if it is you have to hitch hike.
Standing in the desert with the thumb out hoping someone will stop. Buses fly past so I move onto trucks. One stops and the driver takes me for free to the next major town where I was able to join a full bus and sit where the conductor sits.
The only thing with being in the conductors seat is you
miss out on the TV entertainment, which is showing behind you. There seemed to be a set structure with how they show the entertainment.
They’d start off with music followed by a movie and at about an hour before the end they’d have a bit of light relief with Sudanese comedians. It was always done in tandem with groups of 4 or so. They would do something like a knock knock joke or why did the chicken cross the road and when the joke is told some whacky music comes on. This would come on for every joke and the jokes would come thick and fast.
The music entertainment was like a big jam fest with the lead singer given as much camera time as the musicians. The video clips were very static in comparison to Southern and eastern Africa’s hip shaking efforts. They appear on like a talk show set up and it didn’t matter what artist it was they’d just sit there or stand and sing with little expression.
Movies would vary from Japanese, Indian, Arabic and American. The first two had no translation so the locals watched it like me, not knowing what was
going on. One of the American movies was Special Forces a war time blow em up movie. At the end, the main character after killing hundreds of people throughout the movie says after being asked, ‘Why do you keep putting yourself through this?’ “I know why I still keep doing this.” He looks at an American flag stuck on the wall to the left of him and dramatic music comes over the speakers. The final shot is of a large American flag flowing. This is reverse propaganda at its best!
That movie was on my way to Kassala in Sudan’s east. It borders Eritrea so the English spoken is the best in the country. Eritrea is an English speaking country but because of the situation there people have migrated over the border. Some asked me why not go there too? But I informed that VISA’s are very hard to get because of government. They asked what do I know of the President I replied that he is not good. They laughed and agreed. He has basically changed a prosperous country to one of the poorest.
As with Khartoum you need to register and I wasn’t able to check
into my hotel a thing called lokandas until I registered. The rooms are pretty ordinary with again terrible pillows. Even after registering (at 7pm) the police were not happy I was watching the Asian Cup on TV when I was asked to return. I say quite huffed “Can’t we do this after the game?” The reception guy walked off and cleared it up for me.
Take that away and Kassala is a nice place. The Taka mountains as its landmark, it seemed a friendlier place – minus the police. At night the full moon was out providing an outline of the mountains. At sunrise I walked the rubbish filled streets to the Khatmiyah Mosque. It’s a mud brick building at the foot of the mountain and the people that surround it are quite welcoming once they get over the confusion of why the hell are you here.
Buses leave early in the morning so I managed to get on a bus after registering that I was leaving and headed back to Khartoum. I got there for the weekend (Friday and Saturday) On Friday about 4pm they have Halgt Zikr dervishes dancing which is a great way to grab
an insight into Sudan society.
Turkey’s version has females dancing in a spiral way with long frill dresses. In Sudan it is strictly a male affair. The females apart from the tourist are at the most in the 2nd row. It was disappointing but still quite a different look into Islamic culture. It reminded me a bit like a Buddhist monks using debating sessions to let loose. Plenty of jumping, singing, drum beats. A lot of “Allah” calls. I wouldn’t say swirling like my guidebook said.
I headed north again to see some more temples and pyramids. It was during this bus ride I gave up trying to figure out whether the locals during stopovers for lunch were peeing or preying. At first I didn’t know if I should pee or not. I didn’t want to pee whilst they prey so the first few times I didn’t. I looked around for evidence when they walked off, like a wet patch but I just didn’t know. They’d always squat but the pants didn’t go down. I then thought am I offending by pee standing?
I was in Karima and Dongola, in the north, but it was here that
I started to really feel sick from the bug I caught in Ethiopia. My glands swelled up, throat started to get sore again. Add to that the terrible unadventurous food where its either chicken or falafel (which sometimes was difficult to find.) I gave Sudan up and headed back to Khartoum to try and recover and have a fresh look with a professional shave that hurt with the swelled glands.
When I got back to the hotel for a 3rd visit the guy asked me to pay for a night’s accommodation that I already paid for a week before. I’m not well and amped up after a toilet stop. “Look you have two options. I go now to a different hotel and don’t pay anything. Or I stay here for two nights and you get 80 pounds (equivalent of 2 nights stay.) I am trying to be a loyal customer coming back here 3 times now and I have to put up with this shit!” He said, “Okay okay”.
Yeah I don’t really think Sudan will be my favourite place in Africa. I think the capital in 20 years might be something with all the new buildings popping
up where the blue and white Nile merge. The temples and pyramids don’t compare to Egypt’s scale and artwork. The people didn’t capture me either, some were nice some were not. The time (during referendum in the south) my have changed the communication with tourists. I don’t know, I was offered food a few times by locals. A doctor whilst eating with me saw the state of my nose that had overuse in blowing which caused a scab under my nose so he gave me ointment. Couldn’t speak a word of English. It helped it go away. But still even with some nice people moments when I left I was happy to leave.
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