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Chris's Ethiopia Trip Report (long)

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My wife and I did a one-week tour of Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Circuit at the end of December 2006, and here I will try to give some general observations about travel to Ethiopia, as well as some of our specific experiences in the locations we visited – Bahir Dar, Gondar, Axum, Lalibela and Addis Ababa. Overall, we found Ethiopia to be a very worthwhile destination with fascinating history, culture and people. Our tour operator was professional and made the trip as easy and smooth as I believe to be possible, but Ethiopia’s uniqueness and charm as a tourist destination come at the cost of having to endure less-than-optimal accommodations and a relatively high “hassle factor”, as tourism is still a small-scale endeavor that runs less than smoothly.

Our trip to Ethiopia was planned as a “pre-extension” to the main focus of our trip, which was gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda. I will write a separate trip report on that portion of the trip, but the fact that Ethiopia was an “add on” created a tight time limitation and prevented us from seeing anything outside the northern historical loop. So, we did not have time to go to the Simien Mountains, the Omo River Valley, Harar, or even to do a thorough tour of Addis Ababa. So, this trip report is by no means a complete account of all of Ethiopia’s tourist attractions, but it is probably safe to say that the Northern Historical Loop is the most popular set of things to see in Ethiopia.

And with good reason. The Northern Historical Loop covers the central Ethiopian plateau, the region that gave Ethiopia its language and its particular brand of Orthodox Christianity. But for all it has to offer, Ethiopia has relatively few tourists. On many occasions, we visited spectacular monuments and saw either no other tourists or only a handful. We would repeatedly encounter the same tourists at various northern Ethiopian sites. One of the Ethiopia’s charms is that it carries the sense of discovering a closely-held secret. There aren’t many places left in the world that will give you that feeling as a tourist.

With that introduction, here is an overview of our travel experience in Ethiopia. I would suggest reading this narrative alongside the photo galleries at www.pbase.com/cwillis/ethiopia. The photos are grouped by each of the cities we visited in Ethiopia, and are in the order we took the pictures, so you can see the sites we visited as you read about them in this report. I think it will add to your understanding to see what you are reading about, and hopefully it will not be too difficult to connect the pictures to what I’ve written here.

Day 1: USA to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines

Our trip started from Washington, DC, because Ethiopian Airlines has a flight from Dulles to Addis Ababa. We had purchased our tickets nine months in advance, since we were planning way ahead to make sure that we got our gorilla trekking permits for Uganda and Rwanda. Ethiopian Airlines uses a 767-300ER for this route, and we had requested (and been assigned) our seats about four months before the flight. When we showed up at Dulles about three hours before our flight’s departure, we were greeted with a check-in scene that was one step removed from pandemonium. Even three hours before the flight, there was a massive line of people waiting to check in for the flight, most of whom appeared to be Ethiopians returning home for the Christmas holidays. They were traveling “heavy,” with giant suitcases and other baggage. The check-in process was a tedious, paper-based one, which is why we waited in line for nearly an hour just to check in for the flight. When we arrived at the desk, we were informed that our seat assignments made well in advance had been deleted because of a change in Ethiopian’s computer system, and we were treated to seats in the very back of the plane in the middle section for our 16-hour flight to Addis.

Now, if you read Ethiopian Airlines’ PR material, you might get the impression that Ethiopian is the equal of any major US carrier, or South African Airways. Certainly they have an extensive route network and a fleet of modern aircraft. But to compare Ethiopian Airlines to a major domestic carrier would be a mistake. Our flights were generally on time, and we experienced no major problems with Ethiopian Airlines, but its ticketing and check-in processes are about as efficient as your typical DMV office. If you know how the system works (or have a tour operator to babysit you through the process as we did), it works reasonably well, but it is nowhere close to flying on an American airline.

Our flight to Addis left about an hour late, but we didn’t care because we weren’t making a connection. The flight itself was uneventful, with satisfactory but not outstanding service. We arrived in Addis around 9:30 at night. We had already been issued visas to enter Ethiopia by the embassy in Washington, figuring that having the visas would speed our passage through immigration, and in fact it did. Our luggage arrived with us, although it came out on a baggage claim with a screen showing that it was from a different flight. After collecting it, we exited and found our guide from Dinknesh Ethiopia Tours waiting to pick us up. He was friendly and courteous, and took us to the Sheraton Addis for the briefest of stays, as we were leaving early the next morning for Bahir Dar.

The Sheraton Addis is an opulent hotel that looks like it would fit in quite naturally on the strip in Las Vegas. The rooms are very nice, the service is friendly and responsive, and the whole operation looks and feels pretty much like a really nice hotel in the United States, except that they don’t accept traveler’s checks. In fact, pretty much no place in Ethiopia does, so don’t even bother bringing them. The Sheraton’s only real drawback is that it seems out of place, an island of ostentatious wealth surrounded by corrugated tin shacks and streets frequented by beggars. Some of the rooms even have balconies that overlook the nearby hovels. It makes enjoying the hotel a bit difficult, but I would still recommend staying there, because compared to the accommodations in the smaller northern Ethiopian towns, the Sheraton is a treat.

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    Day 2: Bahir Dar

    Ethiopian Airlines has a daily “historical route” flight service that connects the tourist destination of northern Ethiopia, and that was how we got around. It is certainly possible to travel to these destinations overland, but from what I have heard, the roads are pretty poor and travel times are consequently long. If you want to cover the historical route quickly, flying on Ethiopian Airlines is the only way to go.

    Our guide picked us up from the Sheraton at 4:45 to catch our 7:30 flight from Addis to Bahir Dar. Why so early? The answer lies in Ethiopian Airlines’ inefficient and cumbersome check-in and reservations process. Here in the USA, you buy an airline ticket, and then you check in for the flight about an hour in advance and get on the plane. In Ethiopia, it doesn’t work that way. First you have to buy the tickets, but doing so apparently isn’t sufficient for Ethiopian Airlines to actually save you a seat on the plane. So, the day before any of these domestic flights, you have to go to the ticket office (which of course is NOT located at the airport) and reconfirm your flight. Fail to do this and you may find your seat given to someone else. But even if you do reconfirm the day before, you still have to show up for the airport at “check in time,” which is 2 or 2-1/2 hours before the flight leaves. The practical upshot of all of this is that you end up sitting for a long time at the airport every time you take one of these flights, which for us was almost every day of our tour of Ethiopia. Our guide took care of the reconfirmations and he flew everywhere with us, so we did not have to navigate any of this process by ourselves, but it still seemed a little silly to check in for a 40-passenger turboprop leaving from an empty airport 2 hours in advance and then sit at the gate waiting for the flight to leave.

    On the plus side, all of our intra-Ethiopia flights were on time, or at most a few minutes late, and we did not experience any lost reservations, canceled flights, lost baggage, or other serious problems. Our flight to Bahir Dar left right on time and we arrived there without incident.

    Upon arrival, a driver was waiting for us and our guide. We went to check in at the Tana Hotel, one of the Ghion chain of hotels owned and operated by the Ethiopian government. These hotels are the “best available” in the northern circuit towns, and all follow a similar room layout, with twin beds, rustic decoration, and central areas with restaurants and bars. The Tana Hotel is situated on the shore of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, with nice landscaping and trees. The hotel does not appear to have aged particularly gracefully, and has a bit of a run-down feel to it. The service in the restaurant is lethargic, and the food satisfactory but not much more than that. The rooms are small and marginally clean, but didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in terms of wanting to take a shower.

    After depositing our luggage at the Tana, we set off to visit the Blue Nile Falls. To get there, we drove through Bahir Dar and then about an hour outside of town on a very dusty, teeth-rattling gravel road. The immediate impression that this part of Ethiopia gives is of a harsh, arid landscape with a lot of people working very hard to live there. The roads are full of people walking and carrying loads of crops, water, or other items. Herds of donkeys laden with similar cargo were also very common. A few people had makeshift carts being pulled by donkeys or mules, but for the most part people were walking. Tourists must still be a relative novelty here, because everywhere you go, people are staring intently at the faranjis (foreigners). The landscape is predominantly brown, with relatively little green vegetation anywhere.

    Upon arrival in the vicinity of the falls, our guide jumped out to purchase whatever ticket we were required to have, and we stayed in the car. It didn’t really do us much good, though, because we were immediately mobbed by people either begging, trying to sell us something, or wanting to be our “local guide.” After dealing with these persistent overtures, we drove a short distance to begin the hike to the falls. The trail was similarly full of people begging, selling things and volunteering to be an additional “guide” for us. Our guide surprised us by actually enlisting one of the “local guides,” who then walked with us, imparted a bit of useful information, and naturally expected to be paid at the end of the visit. Perhaps this was to ward off the other would-be “local guides,” I’m not sure.

    The hike to the falls is an easy one, and takes about 30-45 minutes. It includes a brief boat ride across the river (which also requires a tip, naturally), and there was a person playing a traditional Ethiopian instrument and singing to us in Amharic on the boat (another tipping opportunity). In addition to our guide and “local guide,” we were followed by various people throughout the walk, some of whom appeared to want to beg, others to sell merchandise, and others who didn’t say or do anything other than just walk behind us.

    The falls themselves are interesting enough, and certainly worth seeing. They were formerly much more substantial, but a hydroelectric plant now diverts 70% of the water for power generation, leaving only 30% to flow over the falls. I guess if you had seen the falls in their former glory they would now be disappointing, but having never seen it before, it still seemed pretty nice to us.

    After seeing the falls and walking back, we bid farewell to our “local guide” and paid him the tip that our guide had advised, only to be rebuked for not paying him enough (he demanded double what we gave him, which wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was still irritating and uncomfortable). We then made the dusty, bumpy drive back to the Tana Hotel for lunch.

    Now is as good a time as any to comment on the food at the Tana and other government hotels on the Northern Historical Circuit. They do not serve traditional Ethiopian food except by special request, so you won’t get any injera here. Rather, they serve western food like fish or spaghetti prepared in such a way that it lacks any real flavor. The good news is that we didn’t get sick from eating anything at any of the hotels, but the meal was more something to be endured than anything else. Our meals were supposed to be included in our tour cost, but the enterprising staff at the Tana waited until our guide had left the room and then demanded that we pay for his lunch, which we did, and then found out later that his company had also paid for it. We never got a refund of this small amount of money, despite asking for it.

    This irritation was compounded when our driver (who was not a Dinknesh employee) failed to show up to take us to our afternoon destination, which was a boat dock from which we would take a boat tour of the lake and visit a church on the Zege Peninsula. We ended up walking most of the way before our guide finally reached him on his cell phone and he came to pick us up. So we finally reached the boat and took a pleasant ride north on Lake Tana. Due to time constraints, we only visited one church (Ura Kidane Meret). This church is about an hour by boat, and then 20-30 minutes’ walk from the boat dock. Just as with the Blue Nile Falls, we had an entourage behind us for the entire duration of the walk, although they were considerate enough to leave us alone when we actually reached the church. An added bonus to the walk was that we saw a troop of monkeys in the trees along the trail to the church.

    The church itself is renowned for its ancient paintings, which depict various scenes from the Bible, or other religious stories, such as St. George slaying the dragon, or Ethiopian saints. There are also depictions of battles with unidentified enemies, lots of scenes of Mary with Jesus, and some representations of hell thrown in for good measure. The style of the art is undeniably unique, and the paintings are colorful and quite fascinating. Our guide expressed the opinion that this is the best church to visit on Lake Tana, and the Bradt guide seems to be in agreement with this general proposition.

    After our church visit concluded, we rode the boat back to Bahir Dar and went back to the hotel for dinner and to get some rest in anticipation of our trip to Gondar the following day.

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    Day 3: Gondar

    After Bahir Dar, Gondar was a breath of fresh air in so many ways. Even though it is only a 30-minute flight north of Bahir Dar, Gondar is far greener and more scenic than Bahir Dar. It also had the extreme virtue of being almost completely free of beggars and aggressive street merchants. Even better, the government hotel in Gondar, the Goha, is situated on top of a mountain with a stunning view of the city, and features a far more courteous and responsive staff than we encountered anywhere else in the Northern Circuit. The city has a large population of birds of prey, which circle overhead in very large numbers. There were a few vultures, but most of the birds appeared to be yellow-billed kites.

    The main attractions in Gondar are the castles built by Emperor Fasilidas and his successors in the 17th and 18th centuries, all of which are in a complex in the middle of the town. The castles are in various states of repair, with some of them completely intact and others crumbling into ruins. All, however, are spectacular, and made even more so by the fact that there were probably a grand total of 5 tourists there at the same time we were. We spent several hours looking at all of the castles and taking pictures. Gondar is sometimes referred to as the “Camelot of Africa” because the architecture of the castles is similar to those built in medieval Europe. But they certainly have a unique Ethiopian flair to them, especially the towers with dome-shaped roofs. These castles were among our favorite sites in Ethiopia.

    We also visited Fasilidas’ Bath, a castle-like structure with a large area that is sometimes filled with water for religious festivals. Stylistically, it looks very much like the other castles in Gondar, and has walls surrounding it that are interlaced with roots from trees that have grown up attached to the walls. Again, we had this site virtually to ourselves with only 2 other tourists being present. The Bath is located near a local school, so there were children nearby playing.

    Next was Debre Berhan Selassie Church, another spectacular site with castle-like walls around it. The church itself is decorated with brightly-colored paintings similar to those we had seen in Bahir Dar, and was notable for its depiction of cherubs covering the ceiling. Dim lighting and a prohibition against using camera flashes made photography quite a challenge, but we did our best to capture some pictures of the paintings. The church is surrounded with not only the wall and outbuildings, but also some large trees, which give it a great atmosphere and serve as a nesting place for a group of large vultures, which posed eagerly for pictures. This church was an excellent addition to a very nice day of sightseeing in Gondar.

    Finally, we visited the Kuskuam Church Complex, built in the 18th century by Empress Mentewab. This lovely complex contains both the ruins of a number of buildings, overgrown with flowers and trees, and an intact modern church containing artifacts and remains of the Empress. The church complex is accessed by a very rough dirt and gravel road, and our minibus couldn’t make it all the way up, so we had to hike up the rest of the way, a bit of a challenge since the altitude is over 7,000 feet. Like Debre Birhan Selassie, Kuskuam hosted a large group of vultures in the trees overhead. Outside the wall of the complex were a number of thatched-roof huts that our guide explained were housing for pupils who come to study religion at the church complex.

    When we returned to the Goha for the afternoon, we had the pleasant surprise of seeing a large number of kites both flying around the mountaintop and resting in a tree next to the hotel. We enjoyed a picturesque sunset and met several fellow Northern Circuit travelers, whom we would end up seeing again throughout the rest of our tour.

    Day 4: Axum

    Axum lies in the northernmost part of Ethiopia, only a few miles from the border with Eritrea. The UN peacekeeping force that minds the border is very much in evidence here, and security at the airport is tighter than what we experienced elsewhere on the Northern Historical Loop. Axum is also distinctive because it is in the Tigray state, and its people are therefore ethnically distinct from other Ethiopians. They appear to be intent on maintaining their cultural separation, too, because you see Tigray flags displayed everywhere; there are pictures of Tigray military heroes displayed around the town, and people here speak Tigraina instead of (or in addition to) Amharic.

    As a tourist attraction, Axum’s draw is that it is the most ancient of any of the Northern Historical Loop cities. Archaeological excavations suggest that the city may date back to 600 BC, and it was at one time the capital of a large and flourishing empire called the Axumite Empire.

    We began our tour by visiting the small but informative Axum Archaeological Museum, which has about four rooms of artifacts recovered from sites in and around Axum. It also has helpful descriptions of the Axumite Empire and its history. Our guide felt that seeing the museum was a useful introduction to help us understand the remaining sites in the area, which I think I agree with.

    We then saw King Basen’s tomb, which is right in town between a couple of buildings. It has an unmarked stela behind it, and it is believed to date back to the time of Christ. The tomb itself was relatively unremarkable – just an area carved out into the ground with chambers and some burial nooks inside.

    We then headed out of town to the tombs of the 6th-century tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. These two tombs are right next to each other overlooking a beautiful, panoramic view to the north toward the Eritrean border. The tombs are much like that of King Basen – relatively nondescript, but interesting because of their antiquity.

    On the road back into town we stopped to see the Trilingual Tablet – the Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia. This tablet contains the same text written in Ge’z (the ancient language from which modern Ethiopian Amharic developed), Saebean, and Greek. It is housed in a tiny stone building by the side of the road, and is difficult to photograph because the building in which it sits is so small.

    Also on the way back into town is the Mai Shum, frequently referred to as the “Bath of Sheba” because Ethiopian folklore regards Axum as the home of the Queen of Sheba of Biblical fame. Historians doubt this claim, but Ethiopians fervently believe it. Whatever the truth is, the “Bath of Sheba” is now a muddy, algae-covered reservoir of water that is used by local people as a source of “clean” water.

    Axum’s most famous tourist attraction must surely be the main stelae field. Right in the middle of town, it contains numerous stelae. Many of these are standing, and the tallest is roughly 75 feet tall and intricately carved on three sides. It is associated with King Ezana (4th Century AD), and its architectural motifs are very important to Ethiopian history, as they are repeated in other monuments that were constructed centuries later. In particular, the bottom of the Ezana Stela has a “door” shape with four “beams” carved from the stone. Moreover, the top of the stela has a shape that is said to be a symbol of fertility. These motifs were seen in numerous of the rock-hewn chuches we later saw in Lalibela.

    The stelae are now believed to be grave markers, and there are several graves in various states of excavation in Axum, one of which is open for visitors. Many of the stelae are collapsed, including the largest one in the field, which is associated with King Remhai (3rd Century AD). This collapsed giant is the only one carved on all four sides, and has many of the same design motifs as the Ezana Stela.

    After taking in the Stelae Field, we visited “Queen Sheba’s Palace” outside of Axum near the village of Dongar. This palace now exists as a ruin of the wall foundations, but you can stil easily see the size and layout of what must have been a spectacular building. Whether it belonged to the Queen of Sheba or not, it is an interesting monument.

    Just across the road from the palace is a large field full of uncarved stelae. This field is locally thought to be the burial place of the Queen of Sheba. Further excavation may be able to validate that claim, but for now it just looks like a big grassy field with small stelae in various states of disrepair.

    From there we headed to the collection of Churches of St. Mary (Tsion Maryam) in the town of Axum. This site contains the ruins of what is said to be Ethiopia’s oldest Christian church, as well as three other, newer churches all dedicated to St. Mary. The newest of these was built by Haile Selassie in the 20th Century, and contains various paintings and a 500-year old book written in Ge’z and containing text and pictures of various religious stories. There is also a Church that was built by Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th Century, which is architecturally very similar to the Gondar castles and which is closed to women. It also has a host of interesting paintings inside. The final church in the complex is not open to anyone, as it is said to house the actual Ark of the Covenant, brought to Axum by the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The church complex also has an outdoor cabinet (!) which contains the crowns of various Ethiopian Kings, and the attendants will open them up for viewing for tourists.

    This concluded a very full day of sightseeing in Axum, and we returned to the Remhai Hotel to rest. This hotel is reputedly the best one in Axum, and is not part of the Ghion government chain. However, it is no treat. The rooms are Spartan and poorly sound-insulated, and our room had several conspicuous holes in the walls and similar lack of upkeep. The food and service at the restaurant were equivalent to what we had experienced in Bahir Dar. It’s unlikely the Ghion-chain hotel in Axum would have been any worse, and it overlooks the man stelae field, so I would have been interested to stay there. One interesting thing about the Remhai was that there was a contingent of UN peacekeepers staying there, from the Paraguayan Air Force. It was a little weird hearing a group of people speaking Spanish in Axum!

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    Days 5-6: Lalibela

    We spent a half day today in transit, as the only flight from Axum to Lalibela does not leave until 11am, so we arrived in Lalibela around noon. The wait was worth it, though, as Lalibela is spectacular from the moment you leave the airport. It takes at least 30 minutes to drive to the town, and during that time, we saw local homes built of stone, farmland and dried-up riverbeds, all set against a stunning background of mountains. We checked into the Roha Hotel (another Ghion-chain hotel), which was a pleasant relief after our experience at the Remhai.

    After lunch, we spent the afternoon at the Northwestern Cluster of rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. These churches are the source of Lalibela’s attraction, and each one is unique and intriguing. Built during the 12th Century during the reign of King Lalibela, each of the churches is carved from rock, and many are actually carved from a single piece of stone, with the roof at ground level, a trench around the church, and the church itself sometimes three stories tall, with intricately carved windows and designs. There are a total of 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, arranged into two clusters, and then the most famous church (Bet Giorgis) is by itself not too far from the Southeastern Cluster.

    The Northwestern Cluster, which we spent this afternoon touring, features some really spectacular monuments, which are all the more interesting because to visit them, you traverse a series of stone trenches, steps, and tunnels that connect them. The trench walls are lined with nooks where hermits stay during religious festivals, and the shadows and light all around the churches give them a mystical and unique atmosphere. Bet Medhane Alem is the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, and has 36 columns outside, with another 36 inside to match. The windows of the church contain architectural cues similar to the Ezana Stela in Axum – the top windows on one side duplicate the shape of the top of the Stela, and the lower windows have a “four beam” feature around them that duplicates the bottom of the Stela. It is interesting to see a Christian Church that incorporates these pre-Christian elements and symbols in its design. This cluster also features Bet Maryam, notable because of its vivid painted celings. And Bet Golgotha has life-sized carved saints on its interior walls, although women aren’t allowed inside.

    All of the churches have artifacts inside, typically paintings that are at least several hundred years old as well as ceremonial crosses of similar vintage. Lighting is poor, so flash is necessary and, fortunately, is allowed in most of the churches. Priests dressed in traditional attire are everywhere, and they will show you the artifacts and pose for pictures if you give them a few birr. PHOTO TIP: the priests will put on sunglasses for their portraits because the don’t like camera flashes. But you can ask them to come closer to the doorways to get better light, assure them you won’t use the flash, and then get a picture where the traditional costume isn’t ruined by the rock-star sunglasses.

    Since the churches are still used for religious ceremonies, there are hermits, priests, worshippers, children, and beggars all around them, and seeing the people around the churches is part of the charm of visiting them.

    After spending the night at the Roha Hotel, we began the next morning early, as the plan was to climb the highest mountain in the area to see Asheton Maryam, a church carved into a cave near the top of the mountain. Our guide had hired mules and muleteers to carry us up the mountain, but a third of the way up the steep, rocky trail, my wife started to lose confidence in her mule’s footing, so we dismounted and walked up most of the way. The climb is a relatively difficult one, as it begins in Lalibela at 8,200 feet and ends at Asheton Maryam (10,135 feet). The trail itself is composed of loose, sandy dirt and rocks, so footing is sometimes unreliable. But with the “pain” of the ascent comes the gain of incredible views of the entire surrounding area. Halfway up the climb is a plateau with a small village and farmlands, which provides endless photo opportunities (and, likewise opportunities for the locals to hassle you for money).

    Equally stunning as the views is the parade of local residents making the climb to visit the church to pray or receive a blessing. There’s nothing more humbling that seeing a 70-year-old women with no shoes on climb a mountain faster than you can! Asheton Maryam itself is an interesting church with several books said to date back to the creation of the church itself, and ceremonial crosses that are believed to have healing powers.

    After visiting Asheton Maryam and making the descent back down to Lalibela, we ate lunch at the Roha and then spent the afternoon at the remaining rock-hewn churches, starting with Bet Giorgis. This is the most famous of Lalibela’s churches, as it is carved in the shape of a cross when viewed from above. It is also the only church in Lalibela which does not have a protective awning covering it. Incredibly, we spent an hour at Bet Giorgis with absolutely no other tourists there! The priest inside did the usual routine of showing us artifacts and posing for pictures, but when we showed him his pictures on the back of our camera, he made us laugh by commenting about how handsome he was! Like the other rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Bet Giorgis has windows that incorporate the stelae-head design and the four-beam design we had seen in Axum.

    After Bet Giorgis, we went to the southeastern cluster of churches. These churches include several that may not have originally been churches: our guide explained that the design of them is not consistent with traditional Ethiopian churches, leading some researchers to believe that they were originally royal residences that were later converted into churches. These churches are spectacular because of the very deep trenches around them – you have to cross a small bridge to get into Bet Gebriel-Rafael, and to get around the others you have to traverse stairs, ramps, and a long, completely dark tunnel. Local legend has it that if you traverse the tunnel (which is probably 100 feet long) without any light, you are considering exceptionally blessed. We didn’t make the attempt, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else do it either, because the ceiling in the tunnel has some low spots where it would be easy to conk your head.

    The other highlight of this cluster of churches is Bet Emanuel, which is the most finely and precisely carved of all of the churches. It is a stunning monument, even though several of its exterior walls are riddled with holes – our guide told us that a battle had occurred there during the revolution that overthrew Mengistu.

    This concluded our tour of Lalibela, and it is quite easy to say that Lalibela was our favorite of the Northern Historical Loop cities. The combination of the majestic mountain scenery and the ancient rock-hewn churches is simply astounding. It is no wonder that Lalibela continues to be known as the biggest tourist highlight of Ethiopia.

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    Day 7: Back to Addis

    This was another day where we lost a substantial portion of the day to transit, as our flight to Addis did not arrive until about 1:30pm. We had to leave for Entebbe the next morning, so we just had the afternoon and night in Addis, and we stayed at the same Sheraton – by now, a very welcome oasis of comfort after a week of less-than-ideal accommodations. We wanted to visit the National Museum and the Ethnographic Museum, but both were closed due to a public holiday. So, instead we visited Kiddist Selassie, a remarkable cathedral in Addis built by Haile Selassie and where he in entombed. The church is notable because of its beautiful architecture and its dramatic stained glass depictions of various scenes from the Bible. But what really surprised me was that some of the murals on the inside of the church’s main dome depict modern historical events, like Haile Selassie’s famous speech to the League of Nations and the surrender of the Italians when they were driven out of Ethiopia. A tour of the cathedral includes viewing of the intricately-carved seats where Emperor Selassie and his wife sat during services, as well as the granite sarcophagi where they were eventually laid to rest. These stone coffins are carved into the shape of the top of the Axum Stelae, and in that way really bring together the whole of Ethiopian history.

    That evening, we went to dinner at the Villa Verde restaurant, which features traditional Ethiopian food, as well as dancing from the various regions of Ethiopia. Fortunately, it was not a tourist trap, and a significant number of the patrons were Ethiopians. In addition to our guide and driver, the deputy general manager of Dinkesh Tours joined us, and was eager to hear our feedback about the tour we had just concluded. We thought this was a really nice touch.

    After dinner, we had to re-pack and get ready for our morning flight to Entebbe to begin the next portion of our trip, which I will post a separate trip report about.

    Concluding Thoughts

    We are very glad we visited Ethiopia. Our tour took us to places that are unique, and we learned about a history and culture that is far different from the rest of Africa. Ethiopia’s people are extremely interesting as well. And the lack of mass tourism, which could b a drawback for some travelers, was a definite plus for us.

    Logistically, everything in our tour went according to plan, with all of our flights being reasonably on time, no lost luggage or missed pickups, and our guide was courteous and pleasant. I would have no hesitation recommending Dinknesh Tours if you want a guided tour of Ethiopia. It certainly costs a lot more than doing it independently, but we think it would be much more difficult to try to deal with all of the logistical details, so we thought it was worth it.

    I would recommend Ethiopia as a travel destination, but only to a certain type of traveler. The relatively high hassle factor, together with the lack of nice accommodations and food, makes Ethiopia a challenge, and it is probably unsuited to someone who needs luxury and comfort. But for the traveler who has a strong tolerance for such things and a desire to see unique and fascinating sites, Ethiopia is well worth visiting.

    Feel free to post questions – I’d be happy to answer them.

    Contact Information for Our Tour Operators (both of whom we recommend):
    Overall travel agent: Marie at African Horizons (www.africanhorizons.com)
    Ground operator in Ethiopia: Dinknesh Ethiopia Tours (www.ethiopiatravel.com).

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    Great report Chris - really enjoyed it.
    I had to laugh about your impression of Gondar b/c it was so different than mine...I felt like I was gagging from the pollution or something...but this may have been my over-active imagination at work. also good to hear neither you nor your wife got sick from anything while there - I ended up making a visit to a hospital in Egypt right after I left Ethiopia, and other people I met later in my trip that had been in Ethiopia also got very sick during or right after their time in the country.
    Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    Chris
    great report I visited Ethiopia years ago as a guest of Ethiopian Airlines
    we visited lalibela and to this day I think that is one
    I am completly irreligious BUT after visiting those churches you are left in awe at least of the history
    What about the Carmine bee eaters
    I saw them all around Lake Tana
    Did you get any pictures?

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    Linda -- thanks for your comments. What was the general nature of the illness that you and the other people you talked to came down with? Was it food-related?

    Geelong -- we did not see any bee-eaters around Lake Tana, although certainly we were not looking for them. I was actually surprised by how few birds we saw on the lake -- I was expecting to see lots of them, but there were relatively few.

    You are right about the churches in Lalibela -- to think of those being carved by hand in the 12th century is just incredible.

    Chris

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    Linda -- regarding pollution in Gondar, I can see how that could be a problem. The city sits in a valley, and pretty much everyone is burning wood for cooking, heating, or whatever. If a situation happened where there was no wind to take the smoke away, I can imagine that the air in the city could get very smoky and irritating. We did not have any breathing problems there, and even had to exert ourselves a little to walk up the road to Kuskuam Church. Perhaps we got lucky that a breeze had blown the smoke away. Staying at the Goha may also have helped -- since it is on a mountain well above the town, it probably has cleaner air that someplace down in Gondar itself.

    I hope you recovered quickly and completely from whatever caused you to visit the hosptial in Egypt.

    Chris

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    Thank for your very vivid, and candid, report. I'm sure it will help me prepare my trip, tentatively scheduled for May 2008. I will also bookmark your Ethiopian agent.

    Michael

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    Chris, I've been transported to Ethiopia with your wonderful trip report and photos! Thanks for the detailed account and tips. I think we will probably get there in the next few years.

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    Chris,
    Yes, I was staying smack in the middle of Gondar, so I would imagine that staying higher, above the city would help. I think everyone got sick from the food (or at least that is what we all concluded). My Egyptian doctor said I had intestinal amoebas...It did come in handy when I was trying to get rid of the constant stream of men harassing me in Egypt though - at least a few were put off by the diagnosis. :D

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    Linda, thanks for that information. We ate all our meals in Ethiopia at our hotels. The food at the government hotels has the virtue of not making you sick, but I can assure you that is its only virtue!

    Chris

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    just one comment on the food etc
    you have to be unbelieveable careful of the water anywhere in Africa
    dont clean your teeth with tap water this can cause amoebas as does lettuces and other salads that arent washed correctly
    bitings and snacks from the side of the road as well arn't a good idea
    BUT I guess most of you know this anyway

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