Late last night more of our group arrived in Lima. We met Leslie, Jih-Ho and Chris H. for breakfast , Siobhan and Katherine, two youngsters, are also part of the WHIP group. (Weird Humans In Peru our travel name : credit to Jih-Ho Donovan)
We are still missing Ricky, Sally and Harry but the rest of the crew has arrived!
After a noisy and chatty catch up breakfast we met Milton Hatun Runa’s main contact and man-for-everything in Lima. He’s a super nice guy and he organized the transportation to one of the most important activities before we set out on our trip: money exchange in a somewhat unconventional way. We’ll leave it at that.
Next on the list was grocery shopping as we won’t be able to get many of the things once we hit the countryside. Wine, favourite snacks, pumpernickel bread just to name a few.
Hungry from all the shopping we went for lunch at “La Bonbonniere” and no it wasn’t really a French restaurant, it was a medley of all sorts of cuisines. The view from the terrace would have been great if it hadn’t been so foggy ;o)
Hang gliders were gliding precariously close to sky scrapers and a tour group foto, Chris O. nearly gave Esther a heart attack, perched on a silver rail without safety rope balancing on top of the cliff with a sheer drop of 100 meters only feet away.
After lunch we split up into separate teams , each doing their own must do’s for the afternoon. Leslie told us that outside of Lima, where we are going, it’s all cash in local currency , no cards , and no ATM. So we needed to get more cash out of the ATM’s in Lima, and they only dispense 700 soles at one time. We literally emptied 3 ATM’s cash reserves and it took us ages to finally take out enough to last us for the entire trip.
Lessons learned for next time!
We wandered back towards our hotel through the ‘cat’ Parque Kennedy and Chris discovered his favourite cat with floppy ears again. Now that grumpy cat is gone, maybe floppy ear cat can take it’s place ???
There was a lot going on in the Parque Kennedy on a Saturday. Seems the locals love being out and about. Public viewing of the soccer game between Peru and Venezuela, singing and dancing by people of all ages complete with DJ set-up in the park. They all seemed to have a jolly good time and it was fun to watch.
After some rest in the hotel, we gathered for a very special evening event. We were invited to a grand old mansion on top of a hill on the outskirts of Lima. This old mansion was built and re-built a number of times, last in 1880. You could see that it was a grand old building.
It’s reception area, dining room and courtyard all still remembering it’s former glory. Ornate window grills on every window and beautifully painted ceilings remind the visitor of the old colonial times. Being served a scrumptious buffet dinner of local delicacies with lots of fresh food, we doug in as the only guests there for that evening. And to top dinner, we were treated to a private performance of an African Peruvian music and dance group.
The sounds were really a musical medley between Latin American elements and African elements, as was the dancing. Besides the two professional dancers who performed, it seems to be a tradition that whoever is new on the Hatun Runa Peru trip that year has to perform as well, to the great delight of the rest of the crew!
We got paper tails pinned to our backsides and were given candles to light each others butts on fire much to the delight of the onlookers! Needless to say that we all made fools of ourselves not trying to be roasted alive ;o)) We confiscated as much as possible the photographic evidence but I am afraid that some videos and pics might pop up on some social media account…
This was also our first intro to Peru’s national drink: the Pisco Sour. A potent 48% alcohol, the Pisco gets mixed with lime juice, bitter, and whipped egg whites and served ice cold. It tastes a bit like a Margherita. Everyone had at least two of those but Esther really should have had only one…. Lessons learned…
To close out a wonderful evening, we went to a look out in the Barranco district.
This area is known for their bohemian little shops, restaurants and lots of street art everywhere.
It has a wishing bridge, where one has to hold their breath from one end until reaching the other end, then supposedly the wish will come true. It is a very charming area by night and we will be back in a few weeks to explore it a bit more.
As you may have guessed, we were woken up again by dogs barking and early traffic on the road. One thing we are really looking forward to at home is our really quiet bedroom for an undisturbed sleep without dogs barking, priests chanting, early truck traffic and building noises.
We had a very pleasant morning bird watching (it helped to have two Swiss with a bird book on the table). We liked a small blue bird with red cheeks the most, called Cordon Bleu (no joke!)
Other lodge residents included half a dozen giant turtles, that were crawling around at their leisure.
We decided to take a kayak and to paddle around the lake. As if to cement the fact that Ethiopia is not a quiet country, the Air Force decided to have a few maneuvers with fighter jets above our heads and helicopters dropping divers over lake Babogaya.
After lunch we set out back to Addis with our driver and car.
As we still had some time to kill until our plane was leaving for Europe, Chris suggested that we visit Africa‘s largest market, the Mercato in the middle of town for some last minute shopping. When we say largest of Africa, that‘s exactly what it is. It is basically a whole quarter in a town that just consists of shops of all shapes and sizes.
Similar to guilds, different areas belong to different businesses. Some 50.000 small businesses are housed here from Monday to Saturday and sell their goods.
It was amazing, baffling, scary and exciting at the same time. Thousands of people running right and left through this maze of streets and small pathways. It’s one of those markets that weaves in all directions and you never know what you’re going to stumble into or what you’re going to find next.
Heavy goods get transported by donkey into the market. Runners with bulky loads on their heads are shouting ahead to clear their path. They are called ‘human trucks’.
We drove through some of it, the car repair corner and spare parts shops. The DIY and home improvement shops were right next to the building materials.
Our initial thought of just wandering through a picturesque local market evaporated when we saw the hustle and bustle as well as the maze of streets and walk ways we would have to navigate. We did not see a single Western or Asian looking person in the market.
We would never find our car again. ‘Chigger yellem’ = Hakuna Matata / no problem in Ethiopia, said our driver and stopped at two policemen (while we were thinking ‘En-dayyy!’ = Are you serious?!). After a short conversation, one of the policemen offered to accompany us through a portion of the Mercato and then deposit us safely in our drivers’ hands again in an hour. OK, with a curious feeling (specially Esther with her shiny blond hair) we left the safety of our minivan equipped only with a small camera and some money.
We were certainly the attraction of the market today as we felt like a fish out of water in the middle of the sea of dark-skinned people. Sometimes the policeman told some guys off, who wanted something (not sure what, as we don‘t speak Amharic) from us. We started in the household goods section and made our way carefully between all those stalls in pursuit of something interesting, always having to keep an eye out for cars, runners or donkeys that have right of way.
A fancy china shop caught our eye as we were ogling some of the small coffee cups, we had gotten so familiar with. Nobody spoke English, so price and quantity inquiries were difficult. Out of nowhere an older local guy popped up who spoke some English and decided to adopt us during our visit in the Mercato (‘You are welcomed guests in our country!’). He swiftly cleared it with our police officer, that he was one of the good guys and started to pull us along deep into the maze of small shops, where hardly a donkey can pass without toppling something over.
We found what we wanted and with this impromptu guide at our front and a police officer at our rear we really were able to enjoy whizzing in and out of various shops. We must have looked a strange sight passing like ducks in a row through this maze. Huge sacks with chili and spices were standing in the spice section, large injera baskets were woven on the spot for sale, and a drum maker was making drums out of the most unlikely materials.
Remember: Ethiopians are the kings of reusing and recycling what’s possible. Of course, there is an own department to do just that by going through some – what we would call – garbage.
The electro section looked like something out of an apocalypse movie, broken bits and pieces from a time long past everywhere.
The tailors section had rows of tables with old Singer sewing machines and busy tailors that altered any garment you just bought to your satisfaction.
In the plastic ‚lane‘ any bit of plastic scrap was separated, classified and segmented into their category and made ready for pick up by clients or a recycling company.
And so, we went from one area of the Mercato to another, fascinated at the sight that looked so foreign to us. Finally our two locals delivered us to our car again, safe and sound and richer by yet another new impression of Ethiopia. It was a memorable last activity and we were ready to go to the airport after that.
The streets that surround the market are just about always choked, but traffic seems difficult everywhere in Addis during any time of day.
A pillar reminded us of the socialistic past of Ethiopia when the country was part of the Eastern Block. With the help of the Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, North Korea and Cuba, the Ethiopian Army became in the late seventies one of the best equipped armies of Africa.
In 1974 the army seized power from Emperor Haile Selassi I (also known by his king name Rastafari – he inspired the Rastafarianism in Jamaica) with a military coup and installed a government that was socialist in name and military in style.
Civil war and the war with Eritrea as well as with Somalia led 1984 to the regime’s collapse. It was hastened by droughts and a famine which affected around eight million people and left one million dead – the pictures of starving kids (each month 20.000 died) from that time are imprinted in the collective European mind ever since. Even though Ethiopia still struggles with droughts, aid programs helped to prevent another catastrophe so far.
All in all Ethiopia to us is a very impressive, memorable, exciting and fascinating and friendly country with all its faults and room for improvement just like any country. It was definitively worth visiting.
‘Izosh ኢትዮጵያ!’ Stay strong Ethiopia!
Today it was time to say good bye to Lalibela and our great team at Simien Eco Tours. While we were scheduled to board a flight to Addis, they were to return by car to Gondar.
After a nice breakfast we drove 30 minutes to Lalibela Airport, the second largest in Ethiopia after Addis Ababa. On the way Esther finally got her pic of a donkey foal, which wandered with his mom along the road. They are soooo cute! Would fit so nicely to our horse collection…
The air strip looked well maintained and we expected the airport to be efficient and functioning well, after all there are only a few flights a day departing or landing here.
Well when we arrived none of the computers or wireless were working and the friendly staff was checking everyone in by handwritten boarding passes (just looking at our email flight confirmation) with free seat assignment and kept hand written passenger lists and baggage receipts. We’re wondering if we’ll get miles for it (Ethiopian is a very, very proud Star Alliance member).
Neither did they know how many exactly were to be on the plane, they did not weigh any bags either. Luckily Chris drone wasn’t an issue at all (specially Lalibela is known to confiscate drones and to send them to Addis Ababa for pickup once you leave the country). So, we just hoped that there were enough seats on the plane and we were not overloaded.
The flight was only about 50 minutes and they did serve a drink and a muffin.
Marco, the owner of Simien Eco Tours picked us up at the Addis airport and we had a nice lunch together. He showed us where to buy the best Ethiopian coffee beans. Early afternoon, a driver took us to our last lodge, at a nice lake outside Addis for a relaxing final day and a half.
Arriving at Debre Zeyit, also called Bishofftu, the first thing Chris noticed was that they seemed to just add random letters to words for the fun of it. Each word on any shop sign seemed to at least have three double letters, as if that was the latest fashion. Restaurant for example was often spelled Ressttoorant. Really funny.
As always, we saw plenty of action going on where Ethiopians favorite past time is concerned. In each village or town, there are at least several kicker / table football on the street and always a group of boys playing passionately as well as at least one billiard table in each village, often many more. Various covers and canopies try to keep the dust out.
After an hour and a half drive, we arrived at Viewpoint lodge, a small yet charming place overlooking the Babogaya lake.
It had a wonderful terrace overlooking the entire lake with its many birds flying back and forth between trees and reed grasses.
Our room was a round mud hut but it did have a small bathroom. Draw back was that it was close to the road.
Our other option would have been more quiet but neither with bathroom, nor toilet. We picked the first. We enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon and nice sunset there.
Normally we do a food blog as one of the entries, but frankly in Ethiopia the most amazing things we found were the menus themselves. We found amazing things on it: ‘Chees Berger with mined beef’, ‘Spaghetti with cheese dumping’, ‘Stake ala bis mark’, ‘fillet mignon café depari’… Of course, once you ask for a filet mignon you’ll learn that “we no have”. Today? Ever?
In short most food is medium spicy and Ethiopians honor Wednesdays and Fridays as fasting days, which means they don‘t eat meat on those days. Then only vegetarian dishes are on the menu.
Main ingredient of any Ethiopian dish is injera, the sour dough, pancake like bread that serves as a base for all dishes and it serves as cutlery at the same time. Ethiopian cuisine offers traditional vegetables such as beans, chick peas, cabbage, carrots, spinach or lentils and one always gets a good tomato and green pepper salad (green peppers as in green chilies…)
Ethiopians eat with their right hand and no cutlery, so we adjusted quickly. We love finger food anyway.
On fasting days, a very popular dish is Shiro, a spicy bean paste that gets served hot on top of injera bread. Aside from the vegetables, the meat served is mostly sheep or goat. We did have some chicken and beef, but that was mainly in the larger cities we drove through. We have to say that most meat was very tough. Animals seem to get slaughtered before they pop their clocks naturally, so our ox must have been at least 20 years old and even the chicken was tough in some places.
While Ethiopian cuisine knows some delicious soups, desserts seem to be absent in every menu, much to Chris’ chagrin. Whereas the fresh mango juices were delicious and common throughout.
After each meal or at breaks, often the traditional coffee ceremony was performed, which would delight Espresso drinkers, because that‘s basically what it tastes like. No milk and plenty of sugar. Burning frankincense is part of the ceremony, Chris’ guess was that it helps to attract more people. Which doesn’t work with Esther since she is not to keen on the smell of it.
Let us summarize our culinary experiences in Ethiopia as quite good (Esther) or as OK (Chris), but don‘t travel Ethiopia for the food. There are other countries with much more variety throughout. Nevertheless, we tried almost everything and never got sick, which is already a positive fact.
After having had Shiro for lunch we felt the need for something different so we had spaghetti for dinner (Pizza and Pasta are omnipresent here, a left overs from the short time of the Italian occupation) and had a pleasant conversation with some nice Swiss bird watchers which rounded out our last night in Ethiopia.
After a peaceful night and the best shower since having arrived in Ethiopia, we set out on a half day excursion trip to a remote monastery, known for its unique and stunning architecture.
The monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos is an hour drive away from Lalibela across bumpy roads. Only a few tourists make that trip as you have to have your own 4×4 car. The usual mini busses can‘t make that journey.
It is very different from the other holy buildings as it was built in the Axumite style of mixing wood and stone, rather than using pure stone/ rock to construct. One has to walk up to 2.700 meters above sea level, a walk of about 20 minutes and find oneself looking at a boring wall.
The monastery is built inside a large cave but protected on the outside by a three meter high wall with only one small entrance door. Again, shoes off on holy ground and in we went.
Right as soon as we entered the enclosure we were fascinated by the brown and white striped building. It‘s a real eye catcher.
It was built in the 11th century by one of the predecessors of King Lalibela. The Zegwe emperor, who supposedly imported the wood used from Egypt wanted to connect the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.
As stunning the building is on the outside, with its stripes and wood carved windows, the inside is remarkable as well.
The ceiling consists of ornately carved wooden shingles in various forms and paintings on the walls are quite well preserved. They never saw sunlight. The doors are original and beautiful in their massive construction with iron nails and old locks.
Towards the back of the cave, is the more macabre side to this place, as the skeletons/ mummified bodies of about 5.000 pilgrims are stacked up. It is not known whether they came here as far as from Egypt on their pilgrimage and died here or if an epidemic of some sort killed many of them and they were buried here. Not a pleasant sight, but impressive nevertheless.
Off we went again down for a nice buna (coffee) in the little village and even found a souvenir we liked.
Back at Lalibela we had a nice lunch and then set out to visit the second cluster of rock hewn churches, the Southern cluster.
Equally impressive than the Northern cluster.
Bet Gabriel Rafael is a very imposing monolithic church, where archaeologist are not sure if it was not the palace of King Lalibela with a chapel included. It can only be accessed by a small bridge as the only way into the building. It is surrounded by a big trench that fills up with water in the rainy season protecting it perfectly. As with many of the other rock hewn churches in Lalibela, the interior is much less impressive than the exterior. Fairly plain and simple with few ornaments or pictures.
We could see the restauration efforts as some of the churches had cracks and erosion over time. Through a small tunnel and a trench we reach a small building, that was supposedly the imitation of Jesus Christ‘s shelter in Bethlehem
Then through a pitch-black tunnel (no picture for evident reasons) of about 50 meters we slowly advance in complete darkness from the small shelter to a large, 12 meter high church called Bet Emmanuel.
This one reminded us of the Axumite style as well, like the monastery from this morning, as the exterior and interior mimics the Axumite style of mixing stone slabs with wooden beams. Just with this one it was all hewn out of rock. It is a beautiful church, very finely and precisely worked and supposedly the private church of the king and the royal family.
It really feels like this one has been crafted with special attention to all the details. The carvings of the window and columns are more exact and sharp, and the ornaments inside are cut with an exactness that is clearly above the others.
From there to Bet Mercurios, a half-collapsed church, that must have been impressive in its size as it contains 12 separate rooms. This one as well as the first Bet Gabriel Rafael are rumored to actually be the royal palace instead of churches. The layout and number of rooms of Bet Mercurios suggests as much.
Along the large trench and through several doorways and walkways we entered the last compound. Bet Abba Libanos not a monolithic church but a cave church.
An existing cave was extended to accommodate a square building. It is connected by the roof to the rock but one can walk around it completely inside a cave.
This building shows some serious cracks as well, as the rock face above it started to sag and is slowly squashing the church in the cave.
After so many churches, albeit very impressive, we felt we needed to see something different for our last days and so we finished off the day with a (near) perfect evening dinner at the only 360 degree panoramic restaurant in town.
While the view and sunset of Ben Abeba restaurant could not be any more perfect that evening, the strong winds ripped napkins from our hands, blew pepper mills and salt shakers off the tables and our food got cold in record time.
But Chris had the best burger in Ethiopia and it was the last evening with our lovely and funny crew from Simien Eco Tours.
Today was a long driving day for us. From Mekelle to Lalibela 300 kilometers drive that take a full nine hours!
You can imagine that the road conditions are very challenging at times. Most of the way is asphalt road, but that does not mean you can drive fast.
Our Toyota Land Cruiser and driver are perfectly equipped for those journeys but we obviously are not. Remember the ‘African massage’ from the other post? This was a mega massage that lasted for hours… About half of the nine hours spent in the car were on dirt roads in questionable conditions.
Even straight, asphalted roads here are not to be driven on fast at all. There is a number of sudden obstacles that can spring at you from any direction. Just to name a few:
Any kind of animal can suddenly walk into the road, from chickens and monkeys on the smaller side to camels on the larger. Sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys you name it, they will appear suddenly, prompting sharp breaks or avoidance maneuvers from our driver.
Then there are the hardly visible potholes. Mean half concealed holes in the surface that will break any suspension or blow a tire without warning. Blown tires are lined up at any village and city galore.
Then there would be the occasional traffic that we needed to overtake, or that was coming towards us. Mule carts that try to navigate steep downhill slopes using the entire width of the road in order not to slip down with their cargo or heavily overloaded trucks, leaning precariously to one side, crawling up or down the mountain roads like huffing and puffing snails. Often enough you see overturned trucks or lost cargo on the side of the road.
Then there are asphalt roads, that turn into gravel roads with no prior warning and then at some point back to asphalt roads. Great tire blowers are also the many improvised sleeping policemen (road bumps) some are just mounds of gravel on the road intended to slow the traffic down (usually in a village), some concrete humps, some are irrigation ditches. All have the same effect on cars: they have to crawl over those very carefully and at a snails pace.
And last but not least near invisible steel ropes straight across the road in about 1.50m height that are signaling a checkpoint where each car needed to slow down and get either inspected or waved through by a nearby guard or militia man. Often, we asked ourselves how our driver knew, as those steel ropes are hard to see. He just knew. We would have driven straight into more than one…
So, this explains why a 300 km drive can need nine hours.
Finally, we arrived at Lalibela, the most famous destination in all of Ethiopia. The Jerusalem for the Ethiopians and religious center. Former capital of the empire and the must-see tourist attraction of every Ethiopia traveler. More on this in the next blog entry.
As this day was mostly spent in the car, without many great picture opportunities, we decided to enrich this blog entry with some other fun facts and observations from our travels here.
Power: the relationship that Ethiopians have with electric power is rather sketchy. Frequent power outages lasting hours to days are not uncommon. Most important institutions and hotels have a generator. Wiring seems to be very haphazard too. Solar power is unfortunately hardly seen at all. Our little solar charger panel was in high demand in the mountains to charge everyone’s mobile phones. We would guess that half of Ethiopia`s houses are not connected to electricity.
Building boom: wherever we went, we saw new buildings spring up. Whether it is government supported housing for the people (looking like copy paste villages with their tin roofs and identical rectangular layout) to concrete office and factory buildings. This building boom is visible everywhere but the deep mountains. Scaffolding mostly looks like a wooden spider web attached to some other structure and large building machines are rarely seen. A lot is still manual, human labour.
Water in Ethiopia: as you may have guessed from some blog entries, warm or running water is good luck here in Ethiopia. While we were not at the top of the range hotels, the common theme was that while hot water is there with a boiler in each room, to find it in good working condition is not. Dribbling, luke warm showers are the norm and while not showering or washing hair properly is no big deal for a few days, after a while one craves a good shower and hair wash. Ethiopians in the countryside don‘t have running water for the most part. They fill up orange 10 liter canisters or water barrels at a pump that‘s more or less nearby and transport it with animals most of the time. We have seen some irrigation systems with the help of ditches, diverting water from higher up to the fields, but that‘s not the norm. Toilets are also mostly without flush. One has to pour water from a can into it and discard paper separately. We won‘t have a separate blog entry on the sanitary conditions as they vary greatly depending on location. Let it just be said that the bush toilet is a more preferred option than most here.
One thing we noticed straight away is that every man here is carrying a walking stick. We were wondering why and our guide told us that for a man a walking stick is like an extension of himself and always has to be carried. We compared it to a handbag for a woman in our world – without it, one feels naked. A stick is used to prod slow animals, chastise unruly kids, waved when dancing and leaned upon when one is tired – simply indispensable.
Recycling: it is big in Ethiopia, but not as one might think for environmental reasons, no – simply out of practicality and lack of resources. Just to name a few examples: we found plenty of old wheelchairs now functioning as rolling bases for small street shops and discarded water canisters were cut to make blinkers for the donkey and mule carts or fans for heating up the fire to make coffee. Broken pots were used to secure the tips of thatched roofs and plastic bottles are cut and painted green to simulate artificial plants.
Fashion: we noticed that while most men‘s fashions are western dress (with exception of the very old) , most women‘s fashion are local fabrics and gowns. Something that’s surprising but pleasant to look at with many bright colors. Shoes are mostly plastic sandals (for men) or plastic slippers (for women).
They are produced in Ethiopia. Gashow says, shoes from China have a poor quality here.
Today we had our first full day of Church-seeing in Lalibela. It‘s a small town of about 30,000 people now with small shops and the usual chaotic traffic and goings-on. Nothing out of the ordinary, other than that it is way off the beaten track and not visible at first glance.
Only reachable by plane or hours of bumpy dirt road it lies in the center of Northern Ethiopia as one of three former capitals. Lalibela was originally known as Roha, but was renamed Lalibela for King Lalibela who resided there for a long time and decided to build a series of amazing churches to honor various saints and the Christian faith. All within 24 years, he built 13 churches.
But not churches built from the ground up, he built them into the rock, downwards by excavating loads of pure rock. In huge excavated areas below ground level, some of the churches are 15 meters high and carved out of a single rock, pillars, doors, windows and all.
There are two main clusters of churches, the Southern and the Northern Cluster and one church that was built last and stands apart a bit. Today we visited that church and the Northern cluster of six churches. Some are covered by a protective roof nowadays, as erosion is taking its toll.
Bet Medane Alem is the world’s largest rock-hewn monolithic church with 11 meters in height and nearly 800 m² in ground area. It has an incredible amount of 36 rock-hewn pillars on the inside and 36 on the outside. Rather impressive on the outside, its main feature inside is a cathedral like feeling stemming from its sheer size and massiveness more so than any ornaments on the inside.
It is rather plain, with only a few holes for burial graves. Bet Medane Alem stands in its own excavated courtyard, the sheer outer walls only pebbled by some more rock graves or hermit‘s coves. A tunnel connects Bet Medane Alem to its neighboring courtyard, encompassing three churches.
Bet Maryam (Virgin Mary’s church) is smaller in size, about ten meters in height and about 260 m² in ground area. It was the first excavated church and is very popular with local folks.
As it happens the day we visited was St.Mary’s day and so the chanting we heard starting at four AM that morning was due to the celebrations in her honor.
One corner of the courtyard was roped off for ceremonial purposes and we saw the priests chanting, singing and dancing.
Inside St. Mary’s church we could see some older paintings, but they were not too well preserved.
On the northern side of the courtyard we visited a very small rock hewn church called Bet Meskel (House of the Cross) which is tiny with its 35 m² inside. While we were alone in it for a while, all of a sudden 50 Italians piled into the church all at once and we fled to the outside fast. A sea of shoes awaited us, as one needs to take of the shoes before entering any of the churches.
Bet Danagel chapel, is even smaller, dedicated to 50 (supposedly murdered) nuns but was not very remarkable. One thing to note in this courtyard is a deep pool of green algae covered water. History or legend has it that infertile women are lowered on a rope into the water and then are supposedly more likely to conceive afterwards. (…remark Esther: already back hundreds of years, why is it always the women‘s fault ???)
The last set of churches on the Northern compound, accessible through a series of trenches hewn into the rock, are combined together. Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha are fairly small but very atmospheric. One feels transported back in time.
Bet Mikael is a dark church without windows. The only light is coming from the entrance door. It has a dungeon like, dank smell and it does not get better the further you proceed to the back of the church.
In the back wall is the entrance to Bet Golgotha, names after the hill outside Jerusalem. It is only allowed for men to enter this one and it boasts a series of life size reliefs of various saints around the walls.
Last but not least we found a rarely visited chapel on our way out. This one was the most charming and serene of all the holy places we saw this morning.
It is the Selassie chapel with its own little mini courtyard in front. Carved in the 15th century it houses the tomb of King Lalibela. A friendly priest agreed to be photographed and proceeded right to ring the bell for prayer time after telling us that he saw the arc of the covenant as a kid and that it has been found right in this chapel.
Having had our fill of churches for the moment, we decided not to visit the Southern cluster that same day, but to relax a bit in the hotel and only do one more church in the late afternoon due to the nice evening light.
We set out to visit the touristic highlight of all the Lalibela churches only around four PM that afternoon ( it supposedly closes at five PM), right when we ran into the motorcade of our President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, who happens to visit Lalibela at exactly the same time as us. Luckily, he just left when we arrived and we were surprised how little security was. We could walk right by his SUV before he set off and look into the window. The army guards around the car did not stop us in any way to pass.
The most photographed and iconic church of all of Lalibelas churches is Bet Giyorgis (St. George`s church)
It is the youngest of all the 15th century churches and has a completely different shape of all the others, as it is a full monolith and shaped like a cross.
It sits deep into its own courtyard and can only be accessed by a trench from the outside and a tunnel in the wall.
There is no climbing down the 17-meter sheer rock walls that surround the church. As stunning as this iconic church is from the outside, as bare it is on the inside. Still it is very atmospheric inside.
Legend has it that St.George was offended when he heard that none of the churches King Lalibela built was dedicated to him and so he visited with the king and complained.
The king then promised to build him the finest of all churches and so it came to be. It is an awesome sight from above and the outside, thinking that it was hewn out of sheer rock in only six years. According to legend, it the Lalibela churches were all carved by day labour and not slave labour, but who knows… It’s a lot of carving in 24 years…
Despite supposedly closing at five PM, we were allowed to linger on the outside for much longer and profit from a beautiful setting sun and without any tourists on the premises anymore. A local photographer was impressed by Chris’ camera and we decided to let him take a picture of us, that he printed out on the spot.
To round up the day on a lighter note than seven churches, Chris bartered with a TukTuk (in Ethiopia it’s called Bajaj, spoken Badshash) driver to let him drive back to the hotel.
As always, money has persuading powers and so we took the Bajaj and the driver showed Chris how to drive it without crashing.
It was a lot of laughs from all sides until we were home again.
We had been so looking forward to have a long sleep in on a Sunday morning in our beautiful Gheralta Lodge when we were woken up at two AM by chanting monks again. Arrgh!
It was Sunday and while the next church was about two miles away, the sound of chanting in the silent night travels very far and clear. Needless to say that sleeping in was off the menu…
Nevertheless we had a very nice breakfast in the lodge, could update our blog with some better internet than usual and headed out on our first hike only at 9.30 AM in beautiful sunshine and about 24 degrees.
Our guide had never visited that particular rock church, and so we could only go by what the guide book told us. We found the start of the trail easy enough. According to the book it was supposed to be an hour walk up to a high plateau and did not say anything about the terrain itself.
So we started walking uphill, joined by two uninvited pseudo guides that were trying to negotiate their way into our small group and of course at the end of it get paid as well. The guide book said it was the most remote of the churches, and indeed we were the only ones there.
The hike started pleasantly enough, meandering through the shrubs and up the mountain, but dragged on and on in the sun. Up and up we went for nearly two hours, Chris was ready to throw in the towel after about one hour of rapid heart beat and out of breath state due to the high altitude.
The path could only be guessed as there were no markings whatsoever. Finally we arrived at the plateau and one of the guys following us had called the local priest who is in charge of the masses and baptism that are happening in the Church as well as opening the church to visitors (and charging them for it).
Through a small rock passage and with bare feet we entered this seemingly small church. It is carved entirely into the rock, complete with pillars, two entry doorways (one for women, one for men) and even a few window openings were hewn into the rock. It always amazes us how much work this must have been and who oversaw the static and architectural elements of it several hundreds of years ago.
The paintings were very similar to the ones we had already seen (Mary`s travels to Egypt with baby Jesus, St.George defeating the dragon, 12 apostles, and this one had the holy Johannes, as he helped Mary to escape and also escaped himself onto this hill top by magically flying up there with a winged snake.
Here he then built this church which was never destroyed or ransacked even during the time that the Jewish queen Judith who tried to eradicate the Christian orthodox church and install Judaism instead.
Again the views from the top were great and when asked if we wanted a different way down, faster than the way up we accepted and our adopted guide earned his money by showing us a more direct path down. So in the end both additions to our team proved to be very useful, one having gotten the priest to unlock the church and the other by leading the way up and then down the mountain. All in all it took us three hours, double the time we had planned.
Chris then flatly refused to do one more step up a hill even if the next church was only a flight of some 100 stairs. He stayed in the car napping while Esther and our guide went up to see Abraha we Atsbeha.
This church was founded and excavated by two brothers of the said name, supposedly around 335 AD, but a British archaeologist dated it more around the 10th century. The mummified bodies of the two brothers are still kept in the church in the section Holy of Holiest. The Church has 13 large pillars that support a high roof of stone. Each church has three areas: the singing / chanting / reception type area, like an entry chamber, then the praying section and then the Holy of Holiest. This section is always veiled with curtains and only the priest can go there. The Tabots are kept there too.
In the Abraha we Atsbeha church, the first welcoming chamber is made with regular bricks, but the second and third sections have been hewn into the rock completely. It measures 16 x13 meters and is at least 6\six meters high inside. A fire and some water dripping through the rock ceiling have unfortunately destroyed some of the art work. The remaining art work is much more elaborate than at most of the other churches we have seen so far. They were painted with much more detail and accuracy, which can be seen in the people’s faces and their horses.
Enough churches for a few days, back at the car we had to wake up Chris and drive to Wukro, our lunch destination over some dirt roads where serious road work was going on. It looked like Ethiopia wanted to build a next highway here and our road was a curious mix between four lane wide freshly graded dirt road sections and one lane wooden bridges in between. Luckily the traffic is still so light here that those one lane bottleneck bridges don‘t matter much.
After our very good lunch in Wukro, where Chris ate goat for the first time here in Ethiopia, we simply drove to our next overnight destination, the regions capital Mekelle, an industrial town which Chris refused to take a picture of due to it’s dinginess …
… but for documentational reasons he finally took a shot to show you how Mekelle looks like in the early morning hours.
Today we spent the day rock climbing and church viewing. And yes, those two are related as the rock hewn churches of Gheralta are only accessible by steep and cumbersome climbs. Some are downright scary and not for the folks with vertigo… like Esther.
We set out to our first destination and picked up our local guide and a climbing harness at Megab, a small village before the mountains. Our first destination was a sheer rock with a flat top that looked very difficult to climb without crampons, ropes and a harness. Over a very rough road, only accessible by 4×4, we started our trek. Right on our path were two Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, large ugly black birds, that obviously always travel in pairs.
Our hike took us up a narrow chasm between two rock faces. While the climb itself was not challenging so far, the altitude was. Being on 2.500 meters above sea level made us heave like we were the most untrained of hikers, which we, good old Bavarian mountain goats, certainly were not. The shortness of breath was really puzzling, but all `Ferendshi` (white foreigners), young or old, were grappling with the same issue.
The chasm ended on a saddle between two mountains and then the real ascent started. On hand and feet, we crawled up a steep rocky slope, not quite steep enough to afford a rope but very challenging nevertheless due to the altitude and steepness.
After about 45 minutes clambering up, we finally made it to the top of the rock. From here it was smooth sailing.
There is a small walled enclosure around both churches and the first thing we noticed was a group of women with small children and a baby eating some bread. They wore flip flops and we wondered how on earth they had made it up here with all those small children. They were up here to baptize the small baby and ate some food after the ceremony.
One priest and one nun are permanently living up here. First, we walked around the rock to Daniel Korkor, a small church hewn into the rockface.
It consisted of only one chamber carved out of sandstone and had only a window sized door as opening.
It has some faded religious paintings of the 14th century but nobody knows exactly, as not all of the paintings had been properly dated by experts.
The church had only a small stone ledge in front of it on where to stand and a 200-meter sheer drop going down.
It had grandiose views of the entire valley but the drop was heart stopping.
Maryam Korkor, the main church on to of this rock was a much larger church, 17 x 10 meters in ground space and fully hewn out of sandstone, including the columns, arches and windows. It must have been a back breaking work to get it finished.
It had some less preserved paintings on the walls, but was pleasantly cool in the inside.
The way down was faster albeit we often used hands, feet and butt to get past the very steep parts. A bit exhausted but happy we arrived at our car again. After a pleasant and refreshing lunch in our magnificent lodge, we tackled the second trip of the day. This time, we would told, we would be needing the harness.
Abuna Yemata Guh is a small church hewn into the sheer rock face of a vertical pinnacle of rock. The ascent is only for very brave people, with no vertigo whatsoever (which of course excluded Esther from the start). She made it to the base of the rock face but not further. While walking up a steep slope, wheezing like a steam train we saw cute rock badgers.
Arriving at the rock base, and after some wait to get the heart rate down again, Chris put the climbing harness on and his shoes off (no shoes on sacred ground!) and set out barefoot with two guides to climb up the last 50 meters to the church.
Once the first 15 meters were over and the harness put aside again, Chris heart rate went up again – this time not due to the thin air but in looking at the final scramble and precarious ledge walk over a 200-meter drop.
A trust in one’s own abilities or devotion wanting to see the church. Definitely not the right place for Esther up here. Having made the whole way up Chris was wondering how local families have brought their newborn babies up here to be baptised, and even carried corpses up to be buried on the mountain.
The church itself is spectacularly sited within a cliff face.
Inside are beautiful and well-preserved frescoes that adorn two cupolas. The church was hewn from the rock of the mountain around the 5th century by an Egyptian priest named Father Yemata.
According to the current priest nobody has fallen down yet on his way up. Immediately Chris was wondering: What about the way back down?! He donated 100 Birr to the priest, just to increase the odds of a safe return.
Luckily all went well, the only minor issue arose when the three additional (and unrequested) helping hands on the way back down didn’t seemed happy with their tip of another 200 Birr. That’s when Gashow made them clear that tip is not compulsory and that we were not the gloden goose.
Clambering down carefully we were soon at our car again. It was a great day hiking, climbing and looking over a fascinatingly dry landscape.
Back at our hotel we were looking forward to a most pleasant night at the beautiful Gheralta Lodge. The best (bath)room we have seen in Ethiopia so far and we were looking very much forward to a good dinner and quiet night…
Today we got up fairly early as we needed to visit the telecom office again to make our new SIM card work. Saying good bye to Axum was not difficult, as we did not see it as a very charming city. It was once the capital of the Axumite empire, but as so many buildings and churches had been destroyed or the building material used for other things, there is not much left of the olden times other than history and stories.
We drive from Axum towards Adwa and the impressive Adwa mountain range. Great trekking there but we had not planned on stopping. We bought some fresh chick peas on branches as a snack and approached out first sight-seeing target. The small town of Yeha, boasts not only a small university, it is also the host of the most important pre-Axumite Empire archeological site. Yeha was founded more than 2.800 years ago and was the regions capital before Axum took over.
Yeha is famous for its huge 12 meter high Almaqah Temple. Dated some 2.700 years ago. Only the walls stand today, the 12 impressive columns have been taken out and used elsewhere since. Only the large base stones are still visible on the temple floor. The huge sandstone blocks were hewn to perfection and fitted onto each other without mortar and it`s impossible to get a single sheet of paper in between. Quite a big feat of building mastery at that time.
The temple survived largely because it got adopted by Christians and converted into a Christian church in the early 6th century and was an important Christian church for a very long time.
Next to the old temple is now a monastery that sports interesting engravings of ibexes, supposedly the preferred animal for sacrifices. It was not possible to see the inside of it.
What we could visit was another excavation in its vicinity, the old palace ruins of one of the kings there, which at the time consisted of a lot of heavy sandstone interlinked with strong wooden beams and some bricks. Currently the site is being excavated by a team from Hamburg from the German Archeological Institute.
We went further on our way to see the oldest monastery of the Tigray region, Debre Damos.
Debre Damo is one of Ethiopia’s most important monasteries and is thought to date back to Axumite times and the 6th-century reign of King Gebre Meske. But what makes this monastery really stand out is its location: Almost inaccessible on the top of a high plateau, a so called ‘Amba’. And in fact, there’s only one way up:
To reach the monastery, you’ll need to scale a sheer 15-meter cliff. There’s a thick leather rope to help you climb and the monks will tie a second line that looks a bit like a fire hose around your torso and help pull you up.
This special experience takes some nerves and you have to be able to deal with heights. That and the fact that only men are allowed on the premises made Esther decide to stay with our driver at the car and munch the fresh chickpeas.
After using the rope to pull themselves up Chris and Gashow crawled through a little door to enter the women free world of the 150 monks and their 150 disciples. With them the indispensable local guide. In his unique version of English, he led us through the compound.
The first question: How did the first person reach this island in the sky? Well, good question! The answer is even better: a men named Abuna Aregawi had God on his side, and God, knowing this was a fine place for a saint to find peace, made a giant snake lower its tail down the mountain, allowing Aregawi to reach the summit.
The Abuna Aregawi church of Debre Damo is probably the oldest standing church in the country (10th or 11th century) and maybe even all of Africa.
Thanks to renovations some 50 years ago it is in an excellent condition and likely the most elegant church so far. Chris tried to take as many pictures as possible to document it for Esther.
The monastery’s location once allowed Axumite monarchs to keep excess male members of the royal family locked up here. Just in case they might have threatened the rule of the active king.
The monks here have to be completely self-sufficient. Water is collected during the rainy season in carved out cisterns, they grow their own food and have their own livestock up here.
Fun fact: the animals up here have to be males (except for chickens and cats). Young oxen and male sheep are lifted up there by rope and are fed on top until they are ready for slaughter.
There is a second church a bit further down, but for Chris it was impossible to decipher the local guides explanations any further. But a weird smell evaporating from one of the caves made him curious: Indeed, there were several coffins pilled up. Obviously, there were real bodies inside and they are left for 80 days and then buried in one of the caves. Fun fact two: That’s the only way you can get on the premises if you are a woman – in a coffin.
Now came the time to get back to the car and back to Esther. Unfortunately, there’s only one way back down, and that’s the way you came up. But looking down is worse then looking up… Chris was joking his nervousness away by telling the monk he would get 10 Birr now and the other 90 once he’ll reach safe ground again. But eventually he managed to make the 15 meters without an accident – since everyone is protected by the saints as the locals kept on repeating.
Right after Chris & Gashows descent, a monk showed them how to climb in the most elegant way – looking like spiderman in action, ready to save the world.
After the visit to the monastery Debre Damos, we continued with a late lunch at Adigrat in a remarkable restaurant called Geza Gerelase Cultural Restaurant, which clearly is a prime spot for carnivores. It even has a butchery inside the restaurant for all to see. Really weird, but the food was good.
We tried ox on a little charcoal stove but it was really a tough ox at the end of its life judging by the chewiness of the meat. As always accompanied by a very yummy tomato salad, which gets served here everywhere in variations.
We decided to drive onto our next hotel in Hawzen and arrived there by 6 PM. As we had eaten only at 3.30 PM that day, we decided to skip dinner and just had a glass of Ethiopian wine.
Today we were woken up at six AM by the newly started up generator in our Debark Hotel. It turns out that the power was off all night and still was not restored again. Our Guide told us it could be days before power was back. Imagine the consequences in Munich or another western city…
Thanks to the generator electricity was restored in the front part of the hotel where the restaurant and the reception is located, so breakfast was secured. We had flashlights yesterday to get around our room but we could imagine how other guests of the fully booked hotel might have struggled without any light for ten hrs.
After a basic but tasty scrambled egg breakfast, we set out for the long drive to Axum, some six hours down from the highland of the Simien Mountains to Axum, much lower. What we did not expect was the fantastic scenery and views we were getting. On winding mountain roads only partially covered by asphalt and sometimes only a single lane for the entire road.
It snaked along the mountainside and through charming villages. We mused that opening a panoramic cafe here on the road would be the prime tourist destination as it is so beautiful to just sit and overlook those breathtaking mountain ranges in the distance and those charming villages in the foreground.
Slowly as the landscape changed from mountainous to hilly to flatter land the vegetation and people changed too. The lower parts were much more fertile, we saw our first camels carrying large loads and much more road traffic than in the mountains.
The road quality got better and larger settlements and small cities started to appear.
We passed a refugee camp for Eritrea refugees which looked like a small city by itself, having been converted from a tent city to huts by now that gave a much more permanent appearance. According to our guide despite the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea those refugees did not want to go back home. They are not allowed to work in Ethiopia and don`t go to school, so it feels like they are forever in limbo in their current state, food and health wise supported by the UN. We saw several UNHCR compounds, vehicles and initiatives around that area, but it must be a bleak outlook for them.
One thing that strikes up nearly every day is the human potential that lives here, but is not tapped into. We realize every day that the place where you are born so much determines what chances you have in life to improve your position. It makes us humble and grateful to have been born in Germany at a time of peace. Some kids here are so curious when Chris flies his drone, They want to know exactly how things work and we are sure some of them would be great engineers given the chance, rather than spending their time herding goats in the mountains, missing school to help the family make ends meet.
We had a lovely lunch at the Africa Hotel in Shire Inda Selassie and had our first real Cappucino while being in Ethiopia. We felt decadent but for 18 Birr (35 Eurocents) it was very reasonably priced. Shire Inda Selassie is an up and coming town where we saw lots of construction and UN and other NGO organizations being very active. It has its own airport and seems to become the industrial town from all we could tell, while Axum remained the ancient capital of Ethiopia with its rich history.
Axum used to be the capital of the Axumite Empire many centuries ago, when the empire stretched until the Red Sea. They controlled the trade routes and were very rich indeed until the Arabs cut off the direct sea access, then Axum declined and the kings moved further South to Gondar. Many of the old palaces and churches were destroyed by the Italians when they occupied Ethiopia for four years.
The only significant remnant of those pre-christian times are the Stele. Large stone pillars.
Used as burial stones by influential pagan Kings and members of the society at that time. There are three very large stone Stele standing in the stele field in Axum. The largest one toppled down due to a weak base construction that could not hold the huge 40 meter long obelisk in place. The base caved and the solid granite block fell down and broke into several pieces.
Another one of the big ones was transported to Rome by Mussolini’s troups during their brief period of occupation. It was standing in Rome until 1972, when it was officially returned to Ethiopia and put back onto its original place.
The third large one always remained standing where it is now, but has to be supported by some stabilizing steel cables as some excavation work caused some shifts in soil and the obelisk threatened to fall down.
The largest ones representing the burial stones of ancient kings are carved, the others have a more or less smooth surface and may have a round top, but are far less impressive than the three large Stele. The age dates back to the area before Christianity, where paganism still reigned.
One other archaeological site close by is called the false door tomb. It has a mock door as a head stone on top of a staircase that leads several meters below the surface. It was excavated by some British archeologists and housed the burial chamber and a mysterious stone sarcophagus in a small chamber. Despite the stone sarcophagus not showing any signs of any opening it sounds hollow when tapped with a small stone. It most likely will keep its mystery for a while longer until scientist will X-ray it in the near future…
On our way back across the town of Axum, we stopped at Ethiopia Telecom and tried to get a SIM card so we could actually update our blog a bit better. This involved three steps: buy sim card from telecom office, next go to one shop to get it cut into a micro sim format and go into another shop to buy the prepaid codes for 100 Birr (3 EUR) . Nevertheless, when we tried using the card it failed. We have to go back to the telecom office in the morning…. And contend ourselves with the spotty internet and frequent power outages at our hotel.
Today we only had a half day trekking left before having to head back out of the National Park by four wheel drive.
For us it was really the baboon camp, that made camp Chennek so memorable. The day before at dusk our guide had led us already at a small high plateau where we saw a small herd of native Gelada monkeys grazing and digging up roots.
Gelada monkeys are native to Ethiopia only and are special as they are 100% herbivores. Most other baboon types eat meat as well and are much more aggressive. Esther can tell first hand from her experiences with baboons in Malaysia and elsewhere in Africa. They have huge fangs and are up to one meter tall sitting up. A force to be reconed with and be aware of.
As much as a bad rep baboons normally have, Gelada baboons are completely different. As herbivores they are not aggressive at all and as they are not being hunted are not shy to humans.
So that evening and the next morning we had the pleasure to wander amidst whole families of Gelada baboons and just sit down and study them.
It“s like a live theater and one is sitting in the middle of the play. The stage is all around. The papa baboons are the kings and get groomed by their hareem monkey ladies.
Some teenager monkeys try to overstep their boundaries and get put back into their place by the more senior ones.
The babies play catch in the rock face under the watchful eyes of some adult baboons. It looks like a rock climbing monkey kindergarden.
And the very little ones still cling to their mama`s and ride on their backs.
The monkeys talk to one another, whether it is to tell some monkey off, to communcate : groom me! Or to just say Hi I am here, I am OK. There was such a variety of sounds, we were both amazed. We could have sat there the entire morning just watching the show those baboons gave us.
It was as if we as the audience did not exist for them. They just carried on foraging, playing and grooming. Just as Chris got carried away taking hundreds of pictures of these cute creatures.
Besides the hours spent watching the monkeys we also saw a very large Lammergeier with a wingspan of about 1,5 meters and a crested eagle, who’s name escaped us.
One of the French guys was a bird expert and he told us that it was very rare and he was delighted at the number of birds of prey he saw here in the Simien Mountains.
After a delicious lunch, it was time to say good bye to the national park and our crew, consisting now of our excellent cook, assistant cook and the scout.
We offered them a tip as well as multi tools we had brought from Germany. The flip open multi tools were vey much appreciated and treasured by all. They kept looking and marvelling at them on the drive back to Debark. It was a long and very bumpy dirt road until we arrived grimey in Debark at our hotel. We both craved a hot shower and hair wash after four days of wilderness and very little personal grooming going on.
Showers are another topic besides toilets and internet connections that Ehtiopia really needs to work on. All rooms have hot water boilers, but someone forgot to put a valve in to make sure that the vaccum from the hot water leaving the tank gets equalized. As is is,, showers are dripping only and then the hot water suddenly stops after five minutes completely. No water and one is standing under the shower soapy wet and nothing comes out of the tap. Despite the hotel clerks assurances that the shower in our Debark Hotel works without issues, we again were proven wrong and Chris had to get the plumber (or whoever was handy with a wrench) while Esther was soapy from head to toe, waiting dripping wet and wrapped in towels until the shower was ìmproved to the point that the dribbling tap did not give up producing luke warm water after five minutes. Needless to say that a shower with hair wash and conditioner takes at least 15 minutes of dribbling water until all the soap is washed out, and that’s a pure guess.
Chris cared much more about the electricity to recharge all his batteries. Once everything was plugged in the power went down. First he felt a bit guilty, but then we realised that the power outage concerned the whole city.
Africa, we love you!
After a very cold night on the plateau of Camp Gich, we woke up to some strange sounds.
It was still dawn but already the animals were busy hunting.
Close to the camp side we saw foxes, jackals and the very rare Abessyinian wolf, that unfortunately is dying out. In this national park only about 50-60 animals remain. They get decimated by rabies and other illnesses introduced by local dogs.
After a warm, hearty breakfast we mounted our small horses again and set out for the longest trekking day.
Our first stop was the peak of Shayno Sefer some 3.962 meters above sea level. Wandering on the high plateau with a grandiose view of the surrounding, ragged mountainside, we saw a herd of Gelada monkeys, also called Gelada baboons, the only endemic moneky species in Ethopia. The largest population lives in the Simien Mountains. More about those in another blog day.
While we left our horses to climb to the peak of Mount Shayno Sefer, we were at awe again by the steep cliffs that drop hundreds of feet into the valleys. There are hardly any gentle slopes. Either you stay on the high plateau, or you are down below in the bottom of the valleys. Very rarely are slopes that are gentle enough for humans and domestic animals to change from highland to lowland.
After a nice break we continued on the highlands to our lunch destination and the highest point of our journey: Mount Inatye, some 4.070 meters above sea level.
Sheer drops on one side but a fantastic, breathtaking view from up top.
Cheeky thick billed ravens came and of course were trying to get at some of our food. After the experience with the stolen soap, we were careful not to leave any valuables unattended.
Then we started our big descent down to 3.620 meters, where our next camp was waiting. It was a steep up- and downhill path full with large rocks and dusty soil. Impossible to ride the horses on those slopes, so we all hiked by foot.
A few local children tried to sell some souvenirs they had made themselves and we found one that we thought Esthers parents liked. No point in haggling here, as those children were waiting for maybe 3-4 groups coming by a day, not more. Despite peak season here in Ethiopia and the Simiens, there were still no more than four groups we saw in each camp at one point in time. Ethiopia really has not been discovered by tourism (yet), let alone mass tourism.
In the middle of the afternoon, we arrived at Camp Chennek. Our two mules and their handlers as well as the cook and assistant cook had already set up our tent, unloaded our luggage, out linens on our matresses and made tea and coffee with biscuits or popcorn. They had organized a live chicken for our dinner, the other group had a live young sheep tethered to the cooking hut as well. Food can`t be any fresher.
This is really the African contrast at its finest. Getting served hot tea and coffee as well as an excellent freshly cooked three course meal with a chef in white cook’s garb including a bottle of wine and then having no running water or electricity, bathrooms and toilets where most people rather use the bush toilet than any of the buildings that don’t even deserve the name toilet.
Rather than complaining about the things you cannot change anyway, everyone just went with the flow and had a good time.
The landscape and views from the high plateaus and peaks today were simply breathtaking we enjoyed the multitude of languages in the cooking hut at dinner where everyone gathered as it was so cold outside.
A lively fire was lit in the middle and all te staff as well as the trekkers sat around the fire and babbled away in at least eight different languages. We counted German, French, Israeli, Amharic, Czech, English, Danish and Russian but there may have been more just the single people conversed in English with all others.
Today we thought we could sleep in. We did not make the calculation of Day three of Timkat. This was the day of St.Michael and the church with the same name was just next to our hotel. While Chris was blessed with his earplugs and slept through, Esther got woken up at 4 AM by some loud chanting by the monks and priests. And when we mean loud, it was really like next door loud. Like they were practising some strange Hogwarts Choir where everyone chanted a different tune at the same time.
We tried to find some melody in the chanting but really could find none. Needless to say that Esther did not fall asleep again. So two short nights in a row… We are looking forward to our Simien Mountain trek , expecting peace and quiet after these three crazy days of Timkat.
But first we had to sort our luggage we needed for the trek into one smaller bag that can easily be strapped onto a mule. Nevertheless even for the two of us we keep a small army of locals and mules busy.
Besides our regular driver (who will have the next days off) and guide we are going to pick up a cook, assistant cook, a scout with gun (for the leopards and wolves), two mule handlers and four mules. If we were a party of five, we would have had to take on another cook, assistant cook, scout and the number of mules and handlers that were needed. This is Ethiopia and at least it‘s not all just going to large travel agencies that are using one (possibly foreign) guide and driver and then the locals have not much of it. This way at least some of the money the tourists leave here are creating quite a number of jobs for the locals.
None of them though besides our usual guide Gashow can speak a speck of English. So Chris is busy practicing his Amhara. OK, Thank you, I don’t want, I do want, water, good and can I take a picture ? Are some of the words he learned quickly.
First we needed to drive from Gondar to Debark, a 2,5 hrs drive normally. If it was not for Timkat. We passed (or rather crawled) past several village celebrations, always blocking the main road of course.
As Gondar had no gas station with gas, (permanent shortages in Ethiopia) our driver was happy to find one that carried gas and we filled up. One liter is 17,80 Birr, approx. 50 Euro Cents)
On our way we went. And all of a sudden a group of chanting and dancing boys with sticks blocked the road. What might look scary in different circumstances was just some boys asking for contributions to their villages Timkat celebrations (or maybe to buy some drink for themselves), we gave 5 to 10 Birr (15 – 30 Cents) then they cleared out of the way and on we went…
… into the arms of the next group blocking the road, demanding their share… and so it went for a good 45 minutes and we were several hundred Birr lighter.
If we had had no guide with us, we would have probably worried what they were up to, wielding their sticks and mock threatening us.
Finally we arrived at Debark, where our guide’s family lives and we had a lovely lunch there in his house with his wife and his two adorable daughters.
In the early afternoon we went to the park office to get our permit and pick up our supplemented staff for the four day trip. Soon we left the asphalt road and on we went getting an „African Massage“, that‘ s what locals call it when you get rattled through by a dirt road. After one hour we arrived at the starting point of out trek and set out by foot with our scout and guide for about three hours until our fist campsite.
Cook and assistant cook drove with our driver ahead as it was possible to reach the first camp by car. Our mules and maybe a horse or two with their handlers will join us tomorrow morning. We hiked past some spectacular scenery.
Walking high up on a plateau we saw very cute antelopes and, well, not so cute lammergeiers.
We hiked up to 3.250 meters to the first campsite called Sankaber Camp. Here our tents and bags were already put up and inside of the kitchen/sleeping house for scouts we had a lovely cup of coffee and tea in the sun overlooking massive mountain ranges.
We are looking very much forward to this trek, as everyone we met has not stopped saying that Simien Mountians were the best part of their trip. After a delicious meal and a beautiful moon rise we went to bed early.
Today is the most spectacular day of Timkat at Gonder. The re-enactment of the baptism of Jesus. The whole night already the chanting and music continued so we did not get much sleep. We had to get up at 2.15 AM bundle into our warmest clothes, as Gonder is 2.400m above sea level and quite chilly at night. Together with a few other tourists we were driven to Fasilide’s pool to pick the best seats early.
Already ceremonies were going on and locals started to arrive with us at the same time, taking choice spots around the moat and on wooden bleachers built for the occasion. Of course Chris couldn’t stay put while the picture opportunities were happening all around, so he started to venture out.
It got bitterly cold after a while and Esther was glad to have brought a fleece blanket from the hotel. Many other wished they had too. There was nothing much to see yet.
While the sky was still pitch black, the castle and pool were illuminated by colorful light garlands and the candles of the believers. More and more people poured into the walled compound through three entry points. Thousands and thousands of people. It felt like a sea of people clothed fully in white.
From Chris perspective who was moving around, the place was coming alive. While some believers still slept snuggled in colorful blankets all over the enclosed premises of Fasilide’s pool, others were chanting prayers reading from their Amharic bibles only illuminated by candles.
At one corner of the pool some priests gathered to perform the baptism of three babies, obviously a special privilege for those involved in the ceremony.
Finally at the crack of dawn the priests had obviously all said their prayers and blessed the water of the pool. In rows three deep hundreds of believers in their ceremonial gowns were lining the sides of the pool chanting and moving in tune.
The crowd outside the walled pool got noticeably impatient and started to chant their own chants to be let in for the jump into the holy water. The police and orderlys had their hands full trying to contain the masses from storming the inner wall of the pool.
With batons and sticks they had to discourage over eager young men from entering the inner pool area. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation. So much that it became too much for some tourists who left early. Young men around the pool started to shed their clothes and got ready to jump into the water in their briefs. Waiting for the signal to be the first to jump in, others outside the wall sensed that the action was about to begin. The push and rush towards the pool got quite scary.
Several tourists had to be rescued from the outer side of the wall to the inner side otherwise they would have been squashed by the pushing people.
In the midst of that chaos, Chris even had to take a break from taking pictures to rescue a boy, who was very afraid of all that action around. He lifted him onto the wall so he could see and was no longer being pushed.
The stands, which were full of tourists to start with, were climbed from the outside by dozens of locals wanting to get a better view too.
More tourists left in a haste, especially as holy water was sprayed with hoses into the crowds. Collective yelping from all sides. Then all hell broke loose.
The first believers jumped shouting and yelling into the pool followed by hundreds and for sure over one thousand young men from all sides now. It looked like some line had snapped and walls were climbed as the entrances were too small to withstand the pressure of so many people.
It makes one realize what power and potential those single minded crowds can have. We were just glad that this was for a positive cause and did not turn negative in any way.
After we each independently finally managed to make our way outside the compound, we found each other through text messages on a street corner and shared a TukTuk, crowded with six people inside, back to the hotel for a bit of a rest.
In the early afternoon we were invited to watch the homecoming of the procession in reverse order back to it‘s starting point, a great open place called Meskel Square. The office of our local travel agency had a balcony overlooking the square and we had traditional coffee and bread there, watching the procession arrive slowly.
We decided to have a lazy rest of day as Chris needed to get on top of his hundreds of pictures he took that day and we were hoping that we could upload some to the blog as well.
Dinner was at one of the premier restaurants here called Three Sisters and it served all the local variety of meat and vegetables and local beers. Certainly a spot to recommend when in town.
Today we had another early start, around 8 AM to drive to Gorgora to yet another one of the very old monasteries of Ethiopia. Debre Sina Maryam was founded by a local priest who eventually succeeded in converting the Ethiopian king to Christianity.
Located on the Northern shore of Lake Tana with a beautiful view over the lake, this old church is way off the beaten track. Nevertheless, here as well, we had to hire a local guide. Circular on the outside and square on the inside, it follows many other churches of its age.
Apparently first founded in the 14th century, it grew to be of significant importance only for a few decades. Once the converted king died, all the action moved back to Gonder.
We watched an old lady make traditional Ethiopian sour dough bread called injera. It is made from a local grown seed named Teff. We haven‘t seen it in Europe but we are sure we will, as it’s gluten free and that‘s the new rage right now.
It is the base of many of the dishes here and varies in sourness. It is made of fermented , liquid dough and cooked on a hot metal plate the size of a very large Pizza. After about 5 minutes being covered with a lid, it takes on a spongey look and feel and gets taken off the hot plate. It also serves as a serving plate as dishes get piled up on top of it. Food is eaten with your fingers of your right hand. Most dishes are quite spicy but very savoury.
After visiting Debre Sina Maryam, we were supposed to take a boat to a small island with yet another monastery on it to visit. We were getting quite ‘churched out‘ by now so we were not too unhappy when the captain did not show up and so we decided to have tea and coffee at a most remote campground, called Tim & Kim. Tim and Kim are a Dutch couple who decided to build a campground with six huts and several camping spaces on top of a beautiful knoll overlooking Lake Tana. The road is not sign posted and it takes a rocky dirt road ride to get there. It’s a very serene spot and had the best amenities we have seen in Ethiopia by far yet.
We met a swedish couple, Emil and Fanny who were camping there and had a long trek behind them as well as in front of them. They made their way from Europe to Egypt where they picked up their car called ‘Wandelux’. From there they then drove through Sudan into Ethiopia. They will be on the road for a total of six months intending to travel through Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. Quite a feat. We parted with our last bag of German Haribo which made their eyes sparkle with delight. You can follow their Instagram account here: wandelux.overland
We headed back to Gonder, as the Timkat festival was supposed to start that afternoon. For that they closed off the roads and we had to walk back the last two miles to our hotel. After a quick lunch and leaving all our valuables and mobile phones there (since we have been warned that there are pickpockets in the crowd) and we walked towards the parade grounds where a big procession was gathering.
Timkat is the biggest religious celebration. It’s called Epiphany, the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and one of the three big religious festivities here in Ethiopia. The two others being Christmas and their new year (in September) Ethiopia follows a different calendar and is about eight years behind our calendar.
Timkat at Gonder is special. While other cities and their monasteries also have big Timkat celebrations, Gonder is the only one where the believers jump into a moat surrounding Fasilidas’ Castle to re-enact the baptism of Jesus in blessed water. But that was to be the day after.
Today the eight major monasteries of Gonder put together procession wagons, singers and dance groups and made their way slowly through town to Fasilidas’ Pool and castle, now used for ceremonial purposes only. Each group had in their midst a cloth wrapped ‚tabot‘, prayer tablets, (supposedly replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) that get taken out of each church only for special occasions. Each tabot is carried by a priest under a tabernacle. The dancing and music is quite unique and it’s impossible to even guess what words they are using. There is a lot of repetition and chanting going on.
Men usually wear walking sticks with either one bend at the end or a T-shaped end that represents the ram’s horns. They tap the stick onto the ground in rhythm with each other and their dance moves while chanting. Traditional dress is white with either Ethiopian flag colors (yellow, green and red) or Gonder colors (white and red). Long dresses for women and long shirts and trousers for men.
There was a throng of people accompanying the procession and waiting on the side of the road. Clapping and chanting. Everyone seemed to have a blast of a time.
The destination for the procession is Fasilidas’ Castle and pool, which is in fact a moat. 363 days the moat is empty, only the day of the procession and on Timkat itself it gets filled with water about 4 feet deep.
The entire procession and all the spectators piled into the sacred ground around the monastery and in no time the entire compound was filling up with people. It was near impossible to move anywhere. Chris of course being in his element and hunting with the camera found plenty of photo ops and while Esther was ‘parked’ at the moats wall with a good view, Chris zig zagged across the sea of people and took shots. The first he learned was ‘can I take a picture?’ in Amharic ‘foto mansat intschilalo?’ which mostly results in a nod and smile.
The procession arrived at Fasidilas castle and with much incense smell, ceremony and singing, the eight tabots were gathered under their tabernacles onto a small bridge leading to the castle and then carried to safety to spend the night enclosed by ancient walls and water.
Once the tabots had disappeared into their safe place, we went home by foot as it was impossible to drive through those roads full of thousands of people. We saw very few tourists and the ones we saw were always in groups. Safety in numbers… We feel the need to point out, that we didn’t have any safety issues whatsoever so far.
We had a very early night as we had to get up at 2.15 AM (yes that‘s correct AM) the next day for the re-enactement of the baptism.
Today we left Bahir Dar quite early to drive to Gondar further North. While the road was in fairly good condition, the going was slow sometimes as in the townships we passed often the market stalls crowded the sides of the road. Twice we saw cyclists from the Ethiopian national team driving in peloton, complete with race bikes, helmet and skin tight outfits. What a contrast to the hugely laden mule carts that are everywhere to be seen here. Ox carts instead of tractors, separating the grain from the straw with animal hooves pounding in circles instead of mecanical harversters that spit out readily baled straw in the back and collect the grain in their tanks.
Ethiopia is a country of two worlds: the old one where 85% of the population lives on agriculture and animal farming like centuries ago – many rural scenes remind you of descriptions in the bible. And a new one ruled by cell phones and payments without cash. There is better mobile phone coverage here than in Germany.
On we went through a nearly completely deforrested landscape and stopped at the so called ‘Devils Nose’ near Addis Zemen for Chris to fly the drone.
As to be expected in no time a horde of curious kids assembled around him and were fascinated by the camera and to watch their houses from above. Begging is forbidden here in Ethiopia but tell that to a kid of five years. We got asked for T-shirts, pens, soap but all we had handy were some local snacks. While Esther handed out three bags of snacks and tried to establish the concept of sharing (which failed miserably) the kids fought over them like warring tribes, everyone for themselves. It took our guide Gashow to take the snack bags away and to distribute them equally to each child . Then order was restored. We mentally tallied up that we probably never have a good number of small goodies to give as there are always more kids than treats. Last thing we want is a fight to break out.
About half way to Gondar we stopped at a local market and walked through. As always we were the only whites (nech’ochi) there and got stared at by everyone. Unlike India, Buthan or Myanmar, where we got asked for picture after picture, people here are friendly but mostly just stare. All sorts of vegetables and grain was sold. Little donkeys are tethered in groups together to wait until their grain bag got grounded by the miller. Live chickens just tethered together by their feet await a new owner. A chicken costs about 150 Birr (5 Euros) , a sheep or goat costs about 3.000 Birr ( 90 Euro) and a donkey /mule about 5.000 Birr ( 150 Euro). The most prized are cattle. A normal cow /ox costs about 12.000 Birr ( 400 Eur) but a fat box ox or bull can cost up to 35.000 Birr ( 1.150 Eur)
After arrival in Gondar, the capital of the Amhara region, and a pleasant lunch, we set out on foot to the old castles in the royal enclosure ( Fasil Ghebbi). As always here we have to register our small party and engage a local guide. That way Ethiopia is making sure that some of the benefit of tourism is staying with the local region that gets visited.
In the 17th and 18th centuries various kings and a queen have built a series of 12 castles on a 7 hectare hill top. Complete with adjacent additional amenities such as a sauna, steam bath and lion cages. Over the years the British bombed a lot of it, the Italians occupied it for four years and the local population took a lot of the stones to rebuild their houses. So the overall shape is not great. Many buildings are only ruins or walls, but the main palace, called Fasilides’ castle, is quite an impressive four storey building and was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979.
Emperor Fasilides broke with the tradition of Ethiopian rulers progressing through the territories, and founded the city of Gondar as his capital. Its relative permanence makes the city historically important.
It is a pleasant way to pass the afternoon strolling between buildings and listening to their history. Our local guide then offered to accompany us to one of the oldest and most famous churches in Gondar. Built in 1693 Debre Berhan Selassie is the best preserved of all the churches in Gondar. Miraculously it survived several city assaults and hostile take over attempts over the years. Many of the paintings inside are original from the time it was built. As all churches here there is a separate entrance for women and for men, albeit leading into the same prayer room. The wall facing the womens’ entry mostly show scenes from Mary.
Taking shoes off and putting a head scarf for women on is mandatory in every church here.
As we are writing our blog and sorting the pictures of the day back in the hotel, a lot of music and starting celebrational noise can be heard all around us. You can feel that the city is gearing up for a special celebration in the next two days. Tomorrow we will dive into the Timkat festival and celebrations, which cumulate a day later.
Early start today to the Blue Nile Falls. When we drove through town and out the other end, we noticed a gloomy looking area, smoke rising up with birds flying above. We stopped, climbed up a bank and saw what must have been the backdrop for Armageddon in front of us.
Mounds and mounds of trash with thousands of birds hovering on it or circling above. A Hitchcockesk doomsday end of world scenery… Most birds were Marabou storks or vultures. It was eerie looking. It was the city’s dumpster and the European mind can only shake its head…
On we went to the Blue Nile Falls. While it’s only 40 kilometers from Bahir Dar, 35 of those are on dirt road. Our diver “slalomed“ his way between mini busses, heavily loaded donkeys, mule drawn carts with sugar cane piled high or simply pedestrians walking to the market, carrying with them the goods to be sold.
No white folk anywhere to be seen. Kids running in school uniforms to their school buildings, farmers working on their fields the traditional way, ploughing with ox drawn ploughs and women cooking and sowing on the side of the road. Most houses were simple wood pole constructions with sheet metal doors and windows. Not all had electricity connected to their homes. We saw no begging going on and no one seemed to go hungry, with all the crops that are growing here. Onions, potatoes, sugar cane, khat, coffee and cotton. Ethiopia is a very fertile land around Lake Tana and the Blue Nile.
Leaving our car behind, we walked on a small foot path for about 30 minutes against an ongoing traffic of donkeys, peasants, goats and cattle, all going into the opposite direction to market. Some come from as far as two hours away. Sometimes narrow bridges force us to pass slowly. The oldest stone bridge dates back to the 16th century built by Europeans and is still very much in use today.
Climbing up again and circling another bend the view was great. The Blue Nile Falls span across from us along a length of several hundred meters. Unfortunately, only during the rainy season is the complete fall full with water. Now in the dry season, only two spouts of water are really visible. In addition several years ago a hydroelectric plant was built and that deviates most of the water away from the falls. Nevertheless, refreshed by the waters spray we hiked on to our waiting boat to take us across the river again and back to our car.
It was nearly lunch time and we ate at a wonderful restaurant overlooking Lake Tana, Ethiopia`s largest lake. Ordering from the menu is rather tricky here as the English translations (if there are any) are very far fetched and what you think you ordered and what you get are often two different things. Same here. Ordering an egg salad sandwich does not get you hard boiled eggs with mayonnaise on a thin toast. It gets you a thin, plain omlette on a large bun. You will also find Pizza and Spaghetti on many menus. We thought first it’s food for tourists who don’t dare to eat the local Injera, but it seems it’s due to the Italians who occupied the country for some years. We’ll have a food blog entry coming …
In the afternoon we took a small boat to one of the peninsulas with one of the oldest monasteries. Ura Kidhane Mihret, built in the 16th century. It`s a big wooden structure, round on the outside but square on the inside. Many of the paintings were `refreshed` in the 18th century so they all looked quite new and shiny. Our local guide (you have to pay a local guide in order to support the local community) had his own interpretation of Christian history – which was fine with us as our knowledge of the various biblical episodes was not too profound to start with.
Interestingly when you compare our travel book, our guide and the internet, one will never find exact matches. So one of the hanging stones that emit a hollow sound when you tap it with another stone was declared a signal to prayer in one source, a signal to dinner in another and an alarm in a third…. Pick which one you like best …
On our way down we had another coffee ceremony and it was really hard to escape the many little stalls that sold religious tourist artifacts. There were just no tourists to distract their attention away from us. So we learned our second word after ‘Thank You’: ‘Al Faligem’ which means ‘I don’t need’. Back we went by boat. After crossing path with some Hippopotamuses on our way back we decided to make it a lazy evening, dining in our lodge again.
#Day2 #Ethiopia #Bahir Dar #Blue Nile Falls #Ura Kidhane Mihret
Well there is good planning and preparation and there is normal fate. We had planned to board a plane from Munich to Rome and then fly onto Addis Abbaba that same night from Rome three hours later. We had expected to sleep in the plane on our miles award business class tickets and bathe in the Ethiopian sun early on the 14th of January.
Well as fate would have it, our delivery aircraft (Lufthansa) was missing a crew in Munich so despite 2 1/2 hrs to spare Lufthansa managed to land 5 minutes after the Ethiopian Airlines plane left the gate.
Try to find a hotel in Rome at 11 PM and making sure you have seats on the next days plane to Ethiopia. Not easy when LH has no dedicated office in Rome, your tickets are award tickets and you have to sleep some as well… Long story short, we got an hotel at the airport and spent the next day in Rome. Luckily it was a beautiful sunny day and we got to see the Colosseum with no lines or hordes of people. One off the bucket list for Esther, since she missed it on our last visit…
Then finally with a 24 hr delay we boarded our flight to Ethiopia, not without further issues at the airport until our ticket was changed properly (Ethopian doesn‘t like two different flights issued on the same ticket number #lufthansafail). It‘s only a 5 1/2 hrs flight to Addis Abbaba, so time passed quickly thanks to Chris sacrificing his miles for our business class tickets.
The delay in journey meant that we missed out on a full day of sight seeing in Addis , but luckily our flight to Bahir Dar was still reachable for us.
Ethiopia is spelled ዐጢኦፒኣ in Ethiopian and have a look at the Ethiopian Airlines logo – Esther calls Ethiopia now the land with the dancing letters. It‘s really a beautiful writing and a syllable language. It has some impossibly long words, that are really a challenge to remember, specially useful words like „Thank You“ – „Ameseginalehu“.
Once Marco, our travel agent, picked us up from the airport in Addis, we stil had some time to explore. After a hearty breakfast we explored the outskirts of the city. One thing that strikes you when driving through Addis: traffic as chaotic as in India or Sri Lanka. Donkey carts, cars, mini busses, riders on horseback and pedestrians all mix together in some form that leaves you to wonder how come that there are not accidents everywhere. One thing that is very apparent as well.: New constructions everywhere. Addis is one of the fastest growing city in Africa (5th to be exact). We visited the national museum to orientate ourselves.
Amazing to think that Lucy, one of the best preserved humonoid skeletons was found here in Ethiopia. Lucy is quite small, only about 120 cm high. Makes one think that for milions of years human kind managed to live in unison with our planet, whereas our kind tries to destroy it at the fastest rate possible.
As we did not have much time in Addis due to our delayed arrival, we headed back to the Airport for our flight to Bahir Dar. With Chris Star Alliance Gold Status we had to visit the Ethiopian Airlines lounge, just for fun and because it was quite different from any other lounge we had seen :o)
After a short, crowded and uneventful flight we landed in Bahir Dar in the Western part of Ethiopia. We were both pretty exhausted so we decided to juggle around our plans a bit and went for a lazy afternoon. Short nap, and then strolling on the shores of Lake Tana for a leisurely beer. We watched the sunset from a higher vantage point overlooking the city of Bahir Dar, some 300.000 people living here.
Obviously a popular spot with newlyweds and we saw several on our way. Simple, traditionally white wedding outfits but elaborate hair dos of the brides.
Returning for an early night, we were delighted to see a couple of monkeys playing at our lodge. Esther‘s favorit creatures…
Today is our last full day in Myanmar. With a heavy heart we ate once again a delicious breakfast. Fresh fruit, local specialties, fresh eggs – we will miss it! One thing we are looking forward at home is our coffee. Nothing beats freshly grounded beans! Definitively not the instant variety that the British have left in each of their former colonies! Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to try the Shan Highland coffee.
Today we are exploring one of the villages on the west banks of the lake, about 30 minutes by boat away. Our water taxi and guide were picking us up at our Paramount Inle Hotel and off we went, accompanied by a flock of seagulls. The locals feed them sometimes from the boats so they fly really close in hope to catch a cracker or bread.
Today we took an early boat to Indein village. Indein is fully accessible by boat through a long narrow river that is one of four feeding the lake.
We decided to do a separate blog entry of the people of Lake Inle because we were so overwhelmed by the many wonderful, incredible and amazing sights we encountered here in a mere day and a half. Lake Inle is in the eastern part of Myanmar, surrounded by small mountains. It is a lake that is only 2-3 meters deep at its deepest part and the most surprising sight is that it looks more like a vast area of farm fields and not like a lake at all. 60% of the lake’s surface are actually floating fields and 30% are water surface, like we expect a lake to look like and 10% are islands in the middle of the lake. A rare bit of solid land in a sea of water.
Today after 3 days of incessant rain we were rewarded with a most beautiful sunrise at Mount Popa. This mountain east of Bagan is densely forested with virgin rain forrest and looks untouched for the most part. Dense green vegetation covers every inch of the ground. Birds and little animals make for a very nice sound backdrop as did the drip of the water drops onto the roofs. No civilization noise for a change.
Mount Popa resort is a very pretty bungalow style resort on top of a hill opposite the much more known monastery on a sheer rock called Taung Kalat. From here we knew we could have spectacular views onto the monastery. We got up right at dawn, while it was quite chilly outside, and headed to the viewpoint. We should be richly rewarded for getting up so early. What was one grey wall of clouds yesterday with no hint whatsoever that there was a monastery on a rock in front of us, now revealed itself as a most breathtaking panoramic view of the rock and the monastery in the early morning sunlight. We just wanted to sit there for an hour and watch this grandiose sunrise from dawn to when the first sunrays lit up the golden pagoda of the monastery until it was in full light of the sun. Amazing to watch the transformation of light.
After a very nice breakfast we made our way back down and to Bagan Airport to catch our flight to Heho. We had one more stop planned that morning at a palm sugar plantation. Burmese cuisine and snacks use three kinds of sugar : made from sugar cane, made from palm trees and honey. The sap of the coco palms is collected regularly and cooked in five stages and kettles for as long as it takes to become a brown, caramel looking goo which is cooled down and rolled into small sugar dots and left to dry. It’s probably the Burmese equivalent to our Zuckerwürfel in Germany. It is extremely sweet and can hardly be eaten in its concentrated stage.
Better are the Burmese version of choco crossies. Coconut is being rasped into little pieces, mixed with some palm sugar and coked again. The small portions are lft out to dry and they then look like choco crossies and taste very nice.
A third product is produced from palm sugar is palm schnapps. All is produced by hand and slowly. No pressure cookers here…
On we went to the airport. The drive was only an hour long in total but what struck us a pretty sad were the people along the road begging for money. Young, old, men, women, children, many sat at a distance on the ride of the road and started waving once our car approached. When we asked our driver about it, he said that they are looking for easy money and that the hard field work paid less than the begging. Pretty sad to watch. So far in Myanmar we had not encountered any beggars in any other place.
After a really short flight, we landed in heho, the closest airport at Inle Lake, our final destination on our trip in Myanmar. Three days we have here at this very shallow lake ( 2-3 meters depth max).
We were picked up at the airport , perfectly organized as always, and driven to Nyaungshwe, a little town at the north end of lake Inle. On your way we passed a lot of locals dancing , playing a version of volleyball and eating. We decided to make an impromptu stop and explore the festival grounds. Needless to say that we were once again the only non-locals and got stared at quite a bit. But people are more reserved in the east is seems. In the South we would have had to pose for many pictures already by now. It turned out that January 4th is the Myanmar Independence day and for that reason there are quite a number of festivals all over the country. We just happen to discover one of them.
We also made a short stop at the old but active monastery Shwe Yan Pyay with stupa, completely built in teak wood ( except the corrugated iron roof, which has replaced so many organic roofing materials here).
Then we had to say good bye to our car. What we did not know is that most villages and hotels on lake Inle are not accessible by car, only by boat. So we hopped on a long boat with all our luggage and were driven 45 minutes to our hotel. It was a fun ride and it is a strange sight to check into a hotel from the waterside. No curbside check-in ;o)).
On our way we saw several fishermen balancing on small boats all day for a good catch. The evening we watched a beautiful sunset over the mountain ridge across from our small lodge. A perfect ending for a very nice day.
The third day of rain here in Bagan does not offer a ton of options what to do. We had to cancel our three hour horse ride as it was pouring down.
Once every travel adventure we post a food blog entry. Today is the day. We are wrestling with twondays rain in Bagan and what better way to spend it than to eat!
Well we can’t always have good luck with the weather, but being in Bagan with 2.200 old buildings and not have any view from above due to the pouring rain is hard. Rain all day today and tomorrow. No sunrise or sunset that would bask this beautiful landscape into magical light and make all those temples and pagodas emerge from the morning mist to transform the landscape into a fairy land.
Well this was a most memorable night. Not what some of you might think. The floating hotel on the river sounded so interesting when we booked it. The room was small but OK, overlooking the river, the food good on board BUT what nobody told us is that sleeping was impossible. The sounds that came with this location were quite extraordinary and never let up during the night.
Where to start? First the busy boat traffic honking boat horns all the time, then the karaoke bar on board backing our room. After those guys were done around 1 AM then the 6 girls in the next room listened to Burmese pop music and giggled into the night and after then it was finally quiet until nearby monastery was calling for early morning prayers or donations at 4 AM through their megaphones. We literally did not sleep that night more than an hour max. Good thing that we had a leisurely boat cruise planned for the next day.
After getting up at 5.30 AM for a 6 AM pick up to get us from the hotel to the jetty, we literally had a car pick us up and drive us just 200 meters further to the jetty. Nobody told us that we could have just walked over and when we asked the driver, then he said he had to come, otherwise his company would not be paid by our travel agency. Weird world.
Once on board the RV Panorama we settled into very comfortable leather seats and enjoyed the slow start in the dark and a great sun rise over the river banks. The scenery was fantastic and many golden topped pagodas were lining the river banks.
The trip was scheduled to last 10 hours and include breakfast and lunch. They served a breakfast and good coffee on board and it was nice to just let the world glide by.
Late that morning we actually docked on the river banks at a traditional fishing and farming village. We would call it a ‘Freilichtmuseum’ in Germany. Like a mix between authentic village and a museum. It was very interesting to see how people still live and work using much manual and animal labour whereas other parts of the world have mega farms or huge fishing nets with automation present everywhere.
Back on board and after an excellent lunch, the crew demonstrated two very Burmese things. Clothing and cosmetics. Traditional clothing in Myanmar is simple and still worn by most people here. The style is simple but the fabrics and colors are not.
They are wonderfully woven garments made of silk or cotton and come in many bright colors. Men and women alike wear the longhi, a long wrap around skirt and a blouse/ shirt top. For women very figure hugging (and most really do have a very fine figure) for men somewhat a bit looser.
As for the cosmetics the favorite and worn by everybody here is Thanaka. Thanaka is a tree that gets chopped into pieces. It looks like you are buying a piece of wood. The bark then gets ground on a stone block to a fine yellowish powder. The powder mixed with a bit of water then gets spread in patterns across the cheeks and forehead, sometimes also on the nose and chin. It looks like everybody is running around with yellowish face paint.
Apparently, this serves as sunblock as well as a skin cosmetic. It looks funny to us but to all here it’s perfectly normal. The crew showed us how it is being applied it was a nice break from the flats of the river banks.
Finally, the first temples of Bagan came into view. This is what we had been waiting for. Bagan is the most important site of the cultural triangle in Myanmar. The area consists of over 2.000 temples, pagodas and shrines that look like scattered around the countryside. We only got a glimpse of them until it got dark and made our way to our hotel. A very relaxing and quiet day.
And if anyone wondered what we did for New Years Eve … we were so tired we slept through ;o)) or tried to as we were woken by a few loud crackers (Böller) at midnight. But we went happily back to sleep.
Another very early start: 5.30 am to the airport of Yangon. Just as we thought that we had all sorted out, bam! Fate throws you another curveball. At the airport Chris had to hand over his drone to the Burmese authorities for safekeeping until we leave the country. Sad to know that there won’t be nice areal pictures of Bagan and Inle lake.
Today is our last day in the South. It’s sunny and after a great breakfast with yummy fruit plates we are off to do some kayaking. A friendly Indian gave us the tip and Ye willingly changed our itinerary to get to Kaw Ka Taung caves. The caves impress less by the knickknack statue parc than by the clean pool, the nice restaurants and the bustling local crowd (almost no tourist here).
The rice fields are so pretty to see and early morning is already a busy time for everyone. Farmers tending to their crops in a very traditional way and fishermen throw their nets from the waterside.
We were surprised to not see more ox carts or ploughs pulled by animals. Most seem to be manual human labor.
Driving along some unpaved roads with lots of pot holes, we arrived at Kwa Ka Thawng cave (there are many different spellings for the same locations) and decided not to look at another cave that had disco lights visible from the outside, instead we walked to a small village at the end of a path where supposedly kayaks were for rent. Tourism is still in it’s infancy here and so only a small hand painted sign led us to the farthest of all stilt houses on the little river. Without Ye asking several times on the way we would have never found it.
It was a deligtful morning paddling through the canals, between the rice paddies, with flocks of birds all around us. Little kingfishers, white herons, and grey stork like birds. It was very serene until the monks chants for more donations started. Those always can be heard from far away. It was a very picturesque and lovely spot. We were getting used to being the only tourists and after a cup of tea wandered back, being photographed again several times by locals.
One tradition here that can be seen each day is the monks collecting food for the poor and themselves. They go around the villages and everyone who can gives something. Monks eat only breakfast and lunch. No dinner.
To honor those monks Kwa Ka Thawng Cave and pagoda have a row of at least 150 stone monks that span from one pagoda all the way to the next. Each one looking identical until you get to the first one. Some have been freshly painted, some are very withered. depending on volunteer time and donations. The restaurations progress in small increments here. Each renovation task has it’s own donation box.
Now it was starting to get really hot and sticky. 30 degrees at least. Even the dog felt he needed to cool down.
Luckily our car has aircon, so it was a nice change from the outside. Slowly we made our way through some picturesques villages. As always in countries with majority Buddhist populations, dogs, cats and other animals are roaming free and wherever they want to lie and sleep, everyone is nicely driving around them. Very considerate. You want to make sure you don’t run over your relatives from a previous life.
Our next stop is a very bizarre place. Kyauk Kalap is a rock needle that someone built a pagoda on top. You can only reach the top by impossibly steep ladders. That part is closed to the public but you can go onto a platform about half way up. The upper part of the rock is perched in a way that makes you wonder if it falls down any time. Like the golden rock, this one has also a (magic) hair of buddha inside the top pagoda that holds the balance and keeps the rock from falling down.
Some smaller pagodas have been built around it and an artificial lake with huge carps in it surrounds the whole little island. It is both picturesque and surreal.
Back at the car we know we have a six hrs drive to Yangon in front of us and need some food to sustain us.
With Fish Noodle Soup yesterday, today we wandered through some local street stalls in search for the next unknown (but appetizing looking) treat. We tried sticky rice and really like it. Fried rice is pushed down bamboo sticks, mildly sugared water is added and the whole is left in there for a day. Then you peel away the hard bamboo outside and a roll of sticky white rice emerges, thinly wrapped in soft inner bamboo skin. There is a particular pleasant flavor to it and we ate it as a very nourishing snack.
After several hours drive in light traffic, we hit Yangon city, Myanmars laregest city, but not its official capital. First impression : what a huge traffic jam! What took us like 1 hr for a few kilometers was the evening commuter traffic. Busses everywhere, that seems to be the only form of meaningful public transport. Surprisingly very few motorcycles and no air polluting Tuk Tuks. The air quality was surprisingly good.
Finally at our hotel we just checked in and headed out to our evening adventure, The Shwedagon Pagoda. There are really no words that can adequately describe this pagoda complex.
First of all it is huge. The sheer size of it is mind boggling. Then all the different smaller pagodas around the main one. Each is dedicated to one story how Buddha found enlightenment. There are hundreds of such stories and one can’t keep track of them all. Some areas are for men only. Many of the buddhas, pagodas (also called payas) are gilded in dazzling, shiny gold leaf. The whole complex has four main entries, one on each side. Each entry itself is spectacular. Long covered steps with intricately carved wooden ceilings lead up to the main paya. The steps are lined with shops from medicine to clothes to souvenirs and food. Walking some 100 steps up barefoot makes you feel like a pilgrim as well.
Up on the pagoda complex the atmosphere is both serene and joyful. Some people are in deep prayers, others look more as if they are on a sunday family outing. Kids runing around laughing and fathers telling the individual buddha stories to their families.
A very memorable place. We wished we could have seen it by daylight too. Nevertheless should we come back we will spend more time in Yangon. Finally we were able to upload our first blog entries, as very slow internet made it impossible so far.