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Holy City of Lalibela

Lalibela is a must-have-seen city in Ethiopia. The major reason is its special rock-hewn churches which I haven’t seen in the whole world before. What makes them special is that they are hewn that deep into the ground/rock that the roof is even with the earth’s surface. We planned a full day of church visits for tomorrow and you will find some pictures under that day’s blog entry.

After driving all morning we arrived in Lalibela around 2pm. Right opposite the hotel is a small restaurant called “Unique”. It looked very unimpressive from the outside but since it was recommended by the Lonely Planet some of us gave it a try. The restaurant is basically a one women show. She’s a lovely little lady with a big smile who is taking the orders, preparing and serving all the food. Therefore, you need to bring some patience and two hours of time. As soon as we sat down the lady brought the menu and a recommendation book which included recommendations of other western traveller who were eating here before. The menu had only a few items including local and Western style of food such as vegetable pizza. We ordered different type of food and all was very good and the best we’ve eaten since weeks.

In the afternoon some of us went for a walk around in town. Lalibela is quite hilly which gives you a good exercise when walking. The town was about as touristy as Axum featuring several restaurants and handicraft shops. We ended our walk in a local Tej house. Tej is the local honey wine served in a glass which looks like a flask you know from the chemistry class at school. There were three different types of Tej available: soft, medium and strong. The soft and medium one costs 5 Birr (0.29 USD) and the strong one 3 Birr (0.18 USD). Since I don’t drink much alcohol a flask of the strong Tej for 0.18 USD would be fully sufficient to make me completely drunken. This is the cheapest booze I seen so far. Speaking about the taste of the Tej, it actually doesn’t taste like honey or wine but more like dirty water with lots of alcohol.

In the evening I went with Michelle for dinner to the “Unique” restaurant and we ate a very delicious chicken dish. It’s also Michelle’s twenty-first birthday tomorrow and since she cannot be in Las Vegas as many North Americans do for their twenty-first birthday we at least watched the movie “Hangover” playing in Vegas for our evening entertainment.

Discussion on African Mentality and Kelly’s Birthday

Today was a pure driving day from Mekele into the direction of Weldiya. Before starting to drive at 9:30am Andrew and I did our job of filling the trucks jerry cans with water. We especially need to make sure that we have enough water before bush camping since there isn’t any water at the “campsite” in the wilderness.

For lunch we stopped just beside the road and todays cooking group had purchased some local food from a restaurant in Axum which was a welcomed change to the bread rolls we usually have for lunch.

The remaining day was just driving and I spent the time with listening to my iPod and having conversations with some of my fellow travellers. One of them was complaining about the service level he has received in our hotel in Mekele. Basically, when he was complaining about the electric shock shower in his room and other broken items the staff didn’t really care. He also needed to wait an hour for his breakfast and only received half of the food he ordered. On the other side he was requested to pay for services and food he hasn’t received which gave him the feeling that most of the African people think that we easily give away our money without requiring good services or products for it. He calls this the African mentality which needs to be changed in his eyes. On the other side I personally don’t care that much. I simply appreciate what I receive and when I don’t receive what I expected I call it bad luck. In my eyes this is part of the adventure and I don’t expect the people to be as efficient as home but appreciate the cultural differences. I travel to experience these differences, appreciate the diversity of the world and be surprised if something finally works out which looked extremely chaotic before. There are simply different ways of approaching things and we in the Western civilization shouldn’t claim that our approach is always the best one and everybody else should adapt to it.

After driving the whole day we set up our bush camp at a scenic spot right next to a dried out river. After setting up the tent I killed time by playing Frisbee with a few others. It was also Kelly’s birthday and since Kelly, who is from New Zealand now living in London, has Irish roots we celebrated his birthday with Irish folk songs around the campfire which were performed by our fellow Irish travellers Chris and Tom.

Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray

We left Axum in the early morning at 6am. Since there was no time for breakfast before departure todays cooking group had purchased cinnamon rolls in the “International Restaurant” which we ate in the truck.

The highlights of the day were the rock-hewn churches of Tigray of which approx. 120 are in the region. Some of the churches aren’t easy to access since they lay in the mountains and only small dirt roads lead to them. Therefore, we only visited two of the churches on our way to Mekele.

The entry fee to each of the churches is 100 Birr (5.90 USD) which is quite pricy. Andrew, one of my fellow travellers, tried to negotiate a group discount for us but had no success. Therefore, some of us decided not to visit the first church but only the second one which is supposed to be the most beautiful one in the region. Many of the churches are hewn into the rock or build within existing caves which is really interesting to see. The inside of the churches are covered with colourful paintings from the bible and you can watch the locals in their prayers.

Despite the relatively high entry fee the churches were not too well preserved so that we assume that the money goes straight away into the pockets of selected individuals instead to the churches itself. The locals were also very keen on getting as much money out of us as possible which led to some confusion since they didn’t charge us before entering the church but while being inside or when already leaving. This created a little bit of chaos since they forgot who had already paid and tried to charge people twice. There was even some random little kid walking up to Michelle asking her to pay 100 Birr to him when she would like to take a picture of the church.

During our lunch break we were observed by locals as usual. Basically whenever we stop to prepare lunch or dinner out of the truck a bunch of locals are coming to watch us. They are also hoping to receive some food, money, clothes, pens, etc. from us but we never give something away since this will not fundamentally change their situation. We only give away food from time to time but only when we have leftovers which we would through away otherwise. I also used the lunch break to get our ball and play soccer with the local kids.

We arrived in Mekele at 4pm. The hotel was quite nice and even featured a hot shower which was my first one since days. Since the water was heated up by some kind of electrical device some of my fellow travellers got an electric shock while having a shower but my shower was perfect.

In the evening we had arranged for a group dinner in a local restaurant were you could eat with the locals from a buffet of local specialties. I really enjoyed the food which only cost me 40 Birr (2.40 USD). After dinner we went to a bar which after a while turned out to be a brothel. We figured out that Ethiopian women actually don’t go to a bar to have a drink or to enjoy the music but all women hanging around in a bar are prostitutes in one way or the other.

Since some people didn’t like the red light district atmosphere we went back to the hotel which was featuring a night club as well. Unfortunately we were told that the nightclub only opens during daytime and is now closed. So we ended the day with a few drinks at the hotel bar.

Sightseeing in Axum

In the morning we went for a 4.5 hour city tour leading us to the historic sites of the Kingdom of Axum. In summary, I found the sites not really impressive and had the feeling that much of the things we saw were declared an important site just to attract visitors and to bring money into the town.

Axum is considered the religious centre of Ethiopia and the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which is considered the country’s most important church, can be found here. Every year in November a large number of pilgrims are visiting this site.

Our city tour started in the Northern Stelae Park featuring the Great Stele which is said to be fallen during construction and so you can only see the broken pieces lying around on the ground. A Stele is basically a tall stone which was erected during funerals. The Stelae Park also features an archaeological museum which was entertaining to visit since some of the descriptions were obviously wrong, e.g. that the town Aswan is situated in Sudan but actually it’s situated in Egypt.

Continuing the city tour we visited two tombs. They were also not too impressive since in comparison to the tombs we visited in Egypt and Sudan they didn’t have any paintings or anything special to see.

The next site was the Ezana Stone on which a trilingual conversation is engraved. It’s comparable to the Egyptian Rosetta Stone which can be found in the British Museum in London.

There is also a legend saying that Axum was home to the Queen of Sheba. Probably this queen never really existed but we were shown around places which were claimed to be her bath (looking like a mud hole) and the ruins of her palace (a bunch of unimpressive stones).

For lunch Michelle, Pierre and I went to the “International Restaurant” owned by an Ethiopian women and her American husband having some spicy spaghetti. In the afternoon we were not really in the mood for more sightseeing and decided to hang around the hotel and play some computer games.

It also happened that our fellow traveller Chris didn’t joined any sightseeing in Axum since his camera was stolen the night before. Chris spent the whole day to walk around in town speaking to the police and to all school classes in town hoping to get some hints who has stolen his camera. He also offered a reward of 500 Birr (30 USD) to the person returning at least the card with all his pictures on. However, his day was not successful and he was asked by the police to stay behind for a couple of days which he luckily didn’t do but continued with us the next morning.

City Walk in Axum

The drive from our bush camp to Axum was surprisingly short. The dirt road turned into tarmac allowing us to drive the remaining 100 km in just two hours. When we checked into the room at 10am we found out that Michelle’s and my room was a single room featuring only one bed. After discussion with the hotel management a second bed was brought into the room. However, now there was barely space to open the door of the bathroom. The bed was also very instable so whenever I moved it made lots of noise and gave me the feeling of breaking down every second. However, this will do for the two nights here.

Due to the rearrangement of our room there were five strange people hanging around in our room. One of them was at the balcony having an endless conversation on his mobile phone. Since I wanted to have a shower I literally needed to kick them out of the room. Once everyone has left there were still some flip-flops in the room which I simply through out of the window into the courtyard of the hotel. Later on it turned out that these were complementary flip-flops which were provided by the hotel and upon check-out they wanted us to pay for them.

The water in the shower was freezing and as the people above our room started to have a shower as well there was water dripping down from the ceiling flooding our room. We spoke to the hotel management again and then a cleaning lady came to mop the floor.

After the adventures in our hotel room we were up for an adventure in the city. The first one was lunch in a very small local restaurant where we had a dish consisting of bread, beans and oil which was not very delicious but eatable. We also had some freshly prepared Mango juice which was very tasty. In total we only paid 20 Birr (1.20 USD) each.

In the afternoon Michelle, Kelly and I went around in town. We walked along the main street and visited a small market. The town is somewhat touristy since it used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Axum and today it’s still a religious centre visited by pilgrims. The main street features some handicraft and antiques shops. Our fellow traveller Marek is really into that stuff and bought lots of artefacts here. We are wondering how he will bring them through customs since some the pieces are not allowed for export.

We ended our city walk in a small park where a number of locals were hanging out. There was some nice African music and people were playing pool and having some soft drinks as we did.

In the late afternoon Michelle and I entertained us by watching a few episodes of “Little Britain” before we went out with a couple of people for dinner. The restaurant was nicely decorated but it took ages to get the food. My spaghetti dish was tasty but cold when served. This is Africa, no hurry at all :-)

Drive towards Inda Selassie

Today was a pure driving day from Debarq into the direction of Inda Selassie in the north or Ethiopia. It took us all day from 8am to 6pm to travel 150km. One reason was the mountains zigzag road, others the limited power of our trucks engine and bad road conditions.

Speaking about road conditions it is to mention that most parts of the roads in this area are dirt roads meaning they are not covered with tarmac. In addition there were lots of road constructions going on and we once had to stop because the whole road was covered with stones. While waiting our driver Daniel enjoyed himself throwing stones downhill basically in the same direction the stones from the road construction were rolling down. There were also some German tourists at an advanced age waiting with us. After a while they started to complain to each other about Daniels stone throwing in specific and the craziness of our whole group in general. However, they were not aware of me speaking their language as well and following their conversation. As I translated parts of it back into English Daniel got even more mad about throwing stones to make them even more upset.

Whenever we driving slow on dirt roads we are allowed to use the four roof seats of our truck. Up there you have an excellent view of the surrounding nature and in fresh breeze in your face. The only disadvantage is that you quickly get sunburned. So I spent only the early morning and late afternoon on the roof listening to my iPod.

For lunch we stopped on a river were some of us used the opportunity to jump into the water. Since nobody of us had their swimsuit out us either went in full cloth or underwear. In the evening we had some difficulties to find a bush camp since there was not enough space to the right or left side of the road in an area which looked somewhere remote and save to camp in. Finally, we ended up in a road construction site and put up our tents next to piles of dirt. The camp was not very scenic but once it is dark and you are in your tent you do not actually care where you are sleeping.

What I also like about bush camping is that you really put up your tent in the middle of nowhere. There are no surrounding lights and the sky is pitch-black with millions of stars. You also need only to look up for a few minutes and for sure you will be able to see a falling star.

Today’s cooking group prepared a very spicy dinner. There were also some local kids watching us cooking and eating. We also offered them the leftovers of our food but they found it too spicy to eat.

Back in Debarq

It was freezing when I woke up in the morning. Therefore, it wasn’t easy to convince myself to leave my cosy sleeping bag and get up. Today’s cooking team had prepared scrambled eggs which were really delicious and a welcomed change to our typical cereal or bread breakfast.

Some of us went for a short one hour hike in the morning during which we were able to observe the Gelada Baboon and Walia Ibex living in the Semien Mountains. At the same time my fellow traveller Chris went on a horse to the next village hoping that we and the truck catch up on him at later point in time. However, when we were driving towards the exit gate of the Semien Mountain National Park we could not see him and were worried that he went into the direction of another village then we did. So we asked some locals walking on the road if they have seen a guy on a horse. Luckily they had seen him and a short while later we ran into him.

When arriving in the little village we had a short look around but there was nothing special to see. So we continued our drive towards Debarq were we arrived at 2pm. We stayed in the same hotel as a few days ago. When coming from a bush camp the first thing I do is having a shower to wash of the dirt and sweat of the past days. Unfortunately there was only cold water so that I had to use the technique of shortly jumping under the shower to get wet and then wash next to it. Even this procedure made me freezing after a while.

In the afternoon my fellow traveller Ellen had arranged a little poker tournament in which five of us participated. The buy in was 20 Birr (1.20 USD) and the winner would be able to pay for his dinner with the money he earns. Unfortunately, I did not manage to win. I was sitting in the dealer position and all players before me checked on the flop, turn and river. I raised the pot in every round since I was on a straight and flush draw and everybody just called. After I did not manage to get my straight or flush completed I decided to go all-in to steal a massive pot and put pressure on the other players which seem to have weak hands as well and see the straight and flush options on the board. Unfortunately, the player on the big blind was brave enough to call me with a pair of eights and I was out of the game.

In the evening the hotel prepared a buffet type of dinner for us since there were no restaurants in town which would have been able to prepare food for twenty people. After dinner our fellow Irish travellers Chris and Tom performed some Irish folk and drinking songs for us and we had some drinks with it.


Hike to 4,430m Altitude at Mount Bwahit

On our second day in the Semien Mountains we drove two hours to another campsite. Upon arrival Andrew and I did our truck duty of filling up jerry cans with water which we use for hand washing, dish washing, etc. Since there was no water tap at the campsite we filled them up in a small river. Some more guys helped us to carry the jerry cans back to the truck since they are quite heavy when full with water.

After an early lunch we went on another hike to the peak of Mount Bwahit the second highest mountain in Ethiopia. On the hike we went up by 800m to an altitude of 4,430m. It took us four hours to reach the peak and return to the campsite.

In comparison to my negative experience with altitude sickness in die South American Andes I was absolutely fine this time which made me optimistic for my hike on Mount Kilimanjaro planned for end of December. I only felt the thin air which makes it harder to breathe when exercising in altitude but no headache, vomiting and such. While I was not suffering from the altitude this time a number of my fellow travellers did. Therefore, only some people went on the hike and others stayed back at the truck or went on smaller hikes. Two people also gave up during the hike because it was too hard for them.

Although I’m much more into beaches and water sports I started two year ago to enjoy trekking in high altitude as well. Probably I like the challenge to reach the peak of a high mountain. I’m also considering changing my itinerary to also include a journey from Xi’an to Kathmandu leading to the Mount Everest base camp but I’m not yet sure.

The night was even colder than the night before since we have gained additional altitude. I heated myself up on the campfire before crawling into the tent. However, I woke up in the middle of the night because I was cold and put a fleece jumper on top of my thermals. When I woke up the following morning around 7am it was +5 degree Celsius in my tent and there was also some frost outside.

Hiking in the Semien Mountains

It was a three hour drive from Debarq to our campsite in the Semien Mountains. We arrived at 11am and my cooking group prepared an early lunch using the food we shopped yesterday.

After lunch we went for a three hour hike leading us to a waterfall with an impressive height of 500m. The Semien Mountains are also home to thousands of Gelada Baboons which can only be found in the Ethiopian Highlands. During our hike we were able to observe lots of them which especially my Canadian tent / roommate Michelle enjoyed very much.

After arrival at the waterfall we were split into two groups of people. While one group went back to the campsite the other group including myself climbed another mountain. I really enjoyed the hike since we were mainly sitting in the truck during the last weeks and got only little physical exercise.

On the way back to the campsite we ran into the Dutch couple we have previously met on the ferryboat from Aswan (Egypt) to Wadi Halfa (Sudan). It’s funny how travellers meet each other again on the main routes several hundreds of kilometres away from where they originally met.

Fulfilling our cooking duty was a pain for my cooking group. It was quite cold outside and peeling three kilos of carrots which are as small as one of my fingers simply take ages. We also suffered from the altitude since it takes much longer to boil water and our gas stoves are not very powerful. It literally took us more than one hour to get a pot of water boiling and another two hours to cook the potatoes… So it took us a total of four hours to cook dinner which usually only takes one to two hours. Some people were already starving and so our cooking group got quite some attention. At some stage we figured out that the campfire is somewhat hotter than our stove and so we decided to cook the rice on the campfire which speeded up the cooking process.

The night in the tent was somewhat cold and it was the first time I had to put my Icebreaker thermals on and appreciated my warm winter sleeping bag.

Food Shopping in Debarq

The drive from Gondar to Debarq was quite short. We started at 8am and arrived at lunch time. While driving we gained some more altitude and ended up at 2,850m in Debarq. The town is considered the gate to the Semien Mountains and will be the starting point of our trekking activities. Despite from that Debarq has not much to offer.

Soon after arrival we went into one of the tiny local restaurants and had Injera for lunch. Injera is the local bread with a spongy texture. As a dish it comes with a stew (e.g. lamb) or as a fasting version with vegetables. Since it was a fasting day today only the veggie option was available.

After lunch my cooking group, consisting of me and two other people, went shopping on the local market. The options on the market were very limited. There were only some half green / half red tomatoes, onions, chillies, garlic, cabbage and potatoes available. No meat, no fruit and no other vegetables such as carrots or eggplant. So we decided to buy whatever is available, mix it all up, cook it and serve it with rice for dinner. For breakfast we will serve cereals we carry as bulk food in the truck and for lunch we managed to get some bread rolls which we will serve together with the tomatoes and some tined tuna and spam from the bulk food. Shopping for the tomorrows cooking duty done :-)

Actually, I do not aim to win a competition in serving the best food but I’m already happy when I have cooked enough food for everybody which is considered eatable. At home I usually do not cook for more than 1-2 people, so cooking for twenty people with camping equipment in a reasonable time can be a challenge.

On the way back to the hotel we found some bananas in a little shop and we also met a guy who offered us to get carrots from a nearby farmer for a little service charge. We used this guy and got 3kg of carrots delivered to our hotel at 7pm. In total we spent 550 Birr which is 32 USD for breakfast, lunch and dinner for twenty people. Not bad.

Since there was no other entertainment available in the afternoon I taught a handful of people travelling with me how to play Texas Hold’em Poker. We had no poker chips and so we used sweets instead. It was fun and we spent a few hours playing.