Saturday, August 11

Ethiopiagain: North

Ethiopia is unique among sub-Saharan African countries in offering the kind of good wholesome tourism I was raised on in my family vacations in Europe: old stone churches and castles. The typical tourist circuit takes you around the Northern historical sites of Axum, Lalibela, Gonder, and Bahir Dar. I didn't have time to make it to Axum, but I took some consolation from the fact that I'd already seen its famous obelisk when it was in captivity in Rome.

My trip started in Bahir Dar, a town that started booming fairly recently and is now Ethiopia's fifth biggest city. It's right on the shores of Lake Tana, which provides a nice setting in this landlocked country. I stayed at the charming Ghion hotel, with a nice outdoor restaurant overlooking the lake and serving all the Ethiopian beers - perhaps the subject of a future post. Here's a view from my table:

The town itself is pleasant enough, with lots of good pastry shops and restaurants and a good market. Some of the more interesting vendors include the guy chopping up old tires to make shoes and other items, and the guys carrying around big poles with a string of live chickens tied up. At least they're cage-free. One of my favorite ways to spend time in African markets is looking at all the random American clothes for sale - it's better than any thrift store in the US, though the items are often even dirtier. My favorite this time was one of those t-shirts from a school in America where everyone in the class had signed their name in marker. And here are some guys playing the popular game of bottle cap checkers:

The main tourist attraction around Bahir Dar is a series of island monasteries in Lake Tana, many founded in the 14th century. My first morning I took a boat with an Australian who just left a job on a cruise ship and had been traveling down through Sudan, and a couple from Spain. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been around since the early days of Christianity, and is still going strong. Its isolation has made it pretty distinct from other Christian traditions - I'm sure there's a Wikipedia article that can tell you more about it. The monasteries are still active, and many don't allow women. The priests don't want to be tempted. Here's a typical church:

Inside are old crosses, illustrated books, and lots of paintings. Here's a typical priest with a cross:

Here's a typical church painting of a devil or something:
Here's a less typical painting of what appears to be a dude taking a dump in front of the king:
We also got to try some of the priests' bread. It's pretty hard, though it does have a bit of a spiced kick to it. Here's our captain with a hunk of it:

The other major site in the area is the Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia's largest waterfall. A few years ago they built a dam upstream and apparently the waterfall is effectively turned off much of the time these days. It was in operation while I was there, though:

The short hike up to the falls is pretty scenic too. I have a thing for old stone bridges:

The vivid green mountainous terrain is pretty impressive. I'm not sure I've been anywhere with a similar landscape, though I'm told it's reminiscent of New Zealand.

After Bahir Dar, I took a four-hour bus ride up to Gonder, one of the old capitals and home to some old castles. We arrived on graduation day for the University of Gonder, and all the decent-looking hotels were booked up. Luckily, the Australian fellow I was traveling with had passed through previously and been shown a little hotel/truck stop on the edge of town by a local. Very shabby, but friendly and safe and - like everywhere in the country - serves great espresso-style coffee. For $2 a night, you can't argue.

The next day, I checked out the castles. It was kind of nice seeing old stone castles again - you don't get many in Africa - or America, for that matter. Though I've seen more impressive castles.

Gonder is also notable for the large number of tourists you see from the Ethiopian diaspora. Apparently, this area was hit particularly hard by the feudal system under Emperor Haile Selassie, and lots of people emigrated. Many of the Ethiopians living in DC, it turns out, are from the Gonder area.

Bahir Dar and Gonder are about equidistant from my next stop, Lalibela. But after asking around, I gathered that, for whatever reason, buses leaving from Bahir Dar are more likely to complete the trip in one day. So I headed back and spent another night at the pleasant Ghion hotel, sitting in the covered outside area, sipping good beer under the torrential rain. I talked to the manager about the boat he was trying to buy in Baltimore and ship to Bahir Dar. He offered to let me stay another night for free, but alas, Lalibela called.

The bus ride was fairly pleasant, despite the 5:30 am arrival at the pandemonium of the opening of the bus station. We got delayed for about half an hour behind another bus that got stuck in the mud - this stretch of road isn't paved. At one point a young guy across the aisle from me had his bottle of coke explode all over him when he opened it. I, of course, chuckled at this along with my neighbors. Which provided great amusement for the other passengers, who burst out laughing and exclaiming something to the effect of "the faranji thought that was funny!".

Lalibela is the "must-see" tourist destination in Ethiopia. The draw is a series of 11 rock-hewn churches, built around 800 years ago. They are pretty impressive, though the scaffolding surrounding some of the bigger ones doesn't add much to the effect. Here's St. George's church, probably the most attractive:

This is a shot from down in the alleys connecting the churches:

Lalibela is also set against a mountainous backdrop that is magnificent even by the high standards of the region:

I also took a walk to another church an hour or so out of town, whose cliff-face setting at least, is in some ways more impressive than those in Lalibela:

Besides the churches, there's not a whole lot to do in Lalibela. It's overpriced compared to the other towns. They charge, like, over $2 for a nice Western meal. And it's pretty touristy, and difficult to take a walk more than 100 feet without being pestered by a kid offering a shoe-shine or a tour. I did stop in to look at the fancy hotel in town, and caught a whirlwind visit by a Czech delegation - someone it was the Prime Minister, though I didn't confirm that.

I'll try to write something tomorrow on Addis.

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