Friday, October 7, 2011

Ethiopia Part !!! - Aksum and The Semien Mountains

It is difficult to have to distill all of these landscapes and experiences into a few pictures and paragraphs!
Ethiopia is grossly underrated as a tourist destination. There are no real issues of safety and security (until we get to the Danakil, a post or two in the future), the people are friendly, the scenery is breathtaking, and the history is unexpectedly rich. If anyone is interested, I do have some contacts and suggestions so please do not hesitate to let me know.

On the road to the Semien Mountains - more volcanic plugs!
The view on the high plateaus

For the city of Aksum, I will quote directly from my parents' blog :

"Axum is the holiest city and the most ancient capital of Ethiopia! And yet, very little research or excavation has been done up until now. From around 400 B.C. to the 10th century, Axum was a major trade center. Under the influence of two Syrian missionaries, King Ezana embraced christianity in 340 AD and that was the start of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. According to the Orthodox religion, the original Ark of the Covenant was taken from Israel to where it has been kept ever since in the Holy of Holies in a chapel in the center of Axum. Another attraction here are the stellae fields, the northern one being the most famous. Stelae are believed to be funeral monuments to kings and markers of underground tombs and treasury chambers that form an intricate well-preserved network of catacombs often going back as far as 1700 years. Excavations are underway but the areas are huge. Finally, tourists usually visit the ruins of Queen of Sheba’s palace and her swimming pool but keep in mind that it is difficult to differentiate between fact and legend concerning the Queen of Sheba. For more information, check the wiki link at and judge for yourself."

An ancient manuscript inside the largest church

Coffee ceremony (the roasting of the beans part) outside of the Aksum archeological museum

The Semien mountains were formed between 40 and 25 million years ago and are essentially the remains of a massive volcano. The highest peak, Ras Dejen, towers at 4,543 meters (14,905 ft) and is the 4th highest mountain in Africa. The biodiversity is very strong here and many species of both plants and animals are endemic and not found anywhere else. Of particular interest is the Ibex and the Ethiopian Wolf, although we did not have any luck spotting any - they are extremely endangered.
For most of our small trek we were above 3,000 meters and the altitude can felt a bit - shortness of breath, but also the very cool air and fog. Seeing te Bleeding Heart baboons through the mist, just a few meters away, was a real treat!

Our little trek :

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Bleeding heart baboons in the wild

Local kids singing songs and selling wares.

Wild mountain goats doing their thing

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ethiopia Part II - the Blue Nile Falls and pool in Gondar...

Smoking Water - the translation of the Ethiopian name of the Blue Nile falls - and you can see why. We were there towards the end of the rainy season, hence the large flow rate and the brown color showing off the rich sediment coming from the highlands.

The Blue Nile Falls

The first stone brisge in Ethiopia, built by Indian engineers supervised by Portuguese missionaries

What my Dad calls a "fake fig tree"

As one of the foremost tourist attractions in Ethiopia, the path to the falls is full of children trying to sell you stuff. They are quite talented with languages and high-pressure sales techniques, but still cute, somehow.
The scenery is very green indeed, because this is the rainy season. During the dry season, the countryside will become brown and dusty.

The road to Gondar was peppered with interesting geological oddities.... The following are volcanic plugs (according to my own amateurish geological opinion). These form when a column of magma hardens, and then the sedimentary rock around it erodes.

Credit :

Gondar itself is quite a large town, and is the capital of medieval Ethiopia, where King Fasiledes established himnself over the country in the 16th century - pictures of his palace :

The royal kitchens, alas now empty :(

 This is the royal pool - one day a year, the basin that surrounds the building is filled with water and pilgrims from all over Ethiopia come to bathe in the blessed water.

The pool
And finally, a different kind of pool - the kind that is played throughout Ethiopia, which they simply call "straight" - after our tour of the Gondar architecture, I asked my guide to take me to one of the many "pool houses" in Gondar where I had my first experience shooting pool in Ethiopia. These pics are from my cellphone, please excuse the quality...

The Dagem Modern Pool House

In front of the pool house is a major "line taxi" stop - a bit hectic, but it is he main mode of urban transportation in Ethiopia.

The "pool houses" in Ethiopia usually only have one table. It works by challenge - you say you want to play, and the person in charge calls you when it's your turn. After the match, if you win, you stay on, if not, you pay for the loss. You do not pay for wins :)
I lost my first rack - my opponent asked me to play again, and the lady took note that I had lost a game. I won the second game. My opponent then proposed a "bist" match - thanks to the help of a railbird who spoke good English, this meant that the third game would be played for the entire bill - meaning the loser of the third match would pay for all three racks. I won! Nothing to pay this time!

The lady sitting down is in charge of racking the balls and counting how many games you lose....

I had never played this game called "straight" before. A basic run down of the rules...
The balls are racked like this, with the three ball up top and the cue in the kitchen :

The official way to rack a game of "straight"
This is a rotation game, meaning the first contact has to be with the lowest numbered ball on the table (the 3 on the break). The balls are worth their numeric value in points.
If you fail to make contact with any ball, your opponent scores two points. If you make contact with the wrong ball, that ball's numeric value counts as points for your opponent. The game is quite interesting as there are definitely tactical approaches to it - one of the problem is that the balls so often sit in their starting positions that divots form under them, making them sometimes near impossible to "walk" down the rail, and significantly affecting the banking behavior.
Pool is doing very well in Ethiopia - in the center of all the towns we visited their were several pool houses. Even inthe middle of nowhere you would often find them. The other major game, locally called carambola, is everywhere as well. For another post!

In part III, the Simien mountains and Lalibela! Stay tuned, there will be baboons!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ethiopia Part I

Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. I landed in the morning after an overnight flight from Cairo. First of what would turn out to be many stereotype-shattering experiences, it was actually COLD in Addis. As in sweatshirt required...
After getting through a simple visa-on-arrival process, I was greeted by my parents who are volunteering in Ethiopia, accompanied by my sister who had landed earlier that morning from Korea. The next day we were set to embark on a week-long tour of the major religious, architectural and natural sites of Ethiopia - but the first order of the day was lunch!

The "Special Foul"
 You can see here normal bread, which they tend to serve to "ferenji" (the term for foreigners) as well as the traditional injera bread (top right).
Edit : thanks to my sister who looked into it, the normal bread is actually served with the "foul" dish to everyone, not just to ferenji!

Basically everyone eats from the same dish by tearing off pieces of injera and using them to scoop from the main dish. Awesome.
I was amused by the name of the restaurant.

Addis was a lot more developed than I had expected. Tall buildings, asphalt roads, cars in good condition, signs and menus in English... However there were definitely signs that this was still a developing country. Particularly striking to me was the scaffolding used for construction. All made of eucalyptus wood, hand assembled! Incredible...

We set off early the next day for Bahir Dar, city on lake Tana, one of the largest lakes in Africa. This is a vacation resort of sorts, as relatively wealthy families from Addis come here to enjoy the lake shore. There are also many monasteries around the lake and on small islands, of which we visited three. It may be a surprise to you to learn that Ethiopia is 63% christian with the main persuasion being Ethiopian Orthodox. In fact, Ethiopia was the second officially christian country (4th century!) after Armenia! Muslims make up about 30% while the rest is mostly animist.

Inside one of the monasteries. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and explained each painting...

This is wild coffee! Coffee drinking originated in Ethiopia, and the tradition is quite strong as we will see later.

This monk is showing off a 13th century icon from the church.

A fisherman on lake Tana - he is holding the fishing line with bare hands.
After the monastery visits, of course lunch was in order. Again, I was completely amazed by the diversity, quality and quantity of food available. Ethiopia is by no means a starving country at the moment. I did see some evidence of malnutrition in some of the remote tribes (for another post) but for the vast majority of the country there are no food shortages. In fact their culinary tradition is rich and unspoiled, as Ethiopia is the only African country to never have been truly colonized by Europeans. Save for a 5 year period of Italian occupation in the 40s (with billiardly legacies I shall get to later) the country has had a continuous, homogenous history dating back over 3000 years.

Fish Dulet

Here you can see the injera bread very clearly

The coffee ceremony
After lunch, we treated ourselves to the obligatory coffee ceremony. Ethipians do not mess around with coffee. The beans are roasted right in front of you on a coal fire, it is unfiltered, and always served with burning frankincense. At first, the scent reminded me of the French catholic church we went to as kids which abused the stuff. Now, church will remind me of Ethiopian coffee :)
You would think the ceremony would be some traditional thing that is only done on special occasions, or worse yet just for tourists - not the case. Everyone we asked said they did the coffee ceremony at home at least once a day!

For the next post, we will travel to the Blue Nile falls and the Simien Mountains. Now I'm off to watch a Muay Thai boxing match!

Please comment and ask questions about Ethiopia!