33 – Welcome to Ethiopia

Wed 30th Dec, Unknown Hotel, Shihedi, Ethiopia

Yes i have reached Ethiopia, and boy is it a culture shock from Sudan. I’m typing this from my unnamed hotel. I haven’t seen female clevage for the last month, the music is different, and i am started to get hassled.

I started the day at Kassala, took the bus from Souq As-shabi station to Gedaref (10 SDP, 3 hrs, regular buses leave when full from 7am to maybe 10am). This was a “normal” bus without the bells and whistles like lunch etc. I slept through it. Oh sat beside a Rashaida man with his wooden flat stake-like stick (or very big boomerang!). At Gederef, took a cab down to the station that goes to Gallabat. This was around 11am. Took the bus down to the border town of Gallabat (10 SDP, 2 hours). The roads must have been improved, since it was supposed to take 5 hrs.

Got off the bus and immediately got overwhelmed by “official people/border guides who work here” who directed me to somewhere. I met a japanese couple in the bus to Gallabat (first other tourists for a week, yay) and we stopped for lunch to fend off the unwanted touts. After which I did my random walk around the border town to bamboozle the touts before asking shopkeepers for directions. Found the immigration customs in the complete opposite direction from where those guys were pointing to me. Border procedures were pretty painless, cross over and did the same on the Ethiopian side.

Both towns set up along a linear road, i just walked to the end of the border town on the Ethiopia side, Metema. It is too late to get to Gonder, so I am going to try to get tho Shiendi, a larger town 1 hour down the road. Trailed by a bunch of kids, I was pointed to a long petrol truck. I hitched and had my first conversation with an Ethiopian. Also tried some of his qat. He dropped me in Shiendi, in the middle of some truckers parking area around the highway. Shihedi is just a small roadside town and the only tourists that end up here are the ones doing the Sudan-Ethiopia border crossing. Again i was beset by a ‘cultural guide’ until a fellow trucker, a Sudanese man, whisked me away. Coming from Sudan, i trust the guy completely and he brought me to this nearby nameless place, where no one speaks English (50 Birr). He tells me that Ethiopia isn’t the same as Sudan and i need to be careful.

Updated: I took a walk around Shihedi. In terms of languange, i am completely at square one. All the arabic i picked up isn’t useful here. Amharic sounds difficult, even thank you is a longish word. The other thing is that time expressed in Ethiopian terms is really weird. 6am our time is 0 o’clock in morning. So 7am is 1 o’clock all the way till 6pm, which is 0 o’clock in the night. I had to ask what time the bus departs for Gonder tomorrow, and you can imagine the confusion. The guy tells me to be at the bus station at quarter past 11 in the night….go figure. Lastly, i got the reason for the cleavage mentioned earlier. My hotel doubled as a love shack (ahhh, so that’s why there were xmas lights hanging off the balcony) and at 11pm (our time), i got a knock on my door asking me if i wanted some. Er, no but thank you. =) Tomorrow i head towards Gonder, and do the northern historical circuit in Ethiopia.

32 – Red, Conqueror of Toteel Mountain, Well Almost!

Tue 29th Dec, Hotel Al Nada, Kassala

I woke up early today, very sleepy, no thanks to cable movies that lasted late into the night. (I’m watching The Perfect Storm as type this). The plan today was to go to Toteel mountain, described in Wikipedia’s Kassala entry as an easy half hour climb halfway up before resting at the many cafes built into the rocks.
Set off on the Katmiya bus (0.5 SDP, ask to stop at Toteel) and got off at the houses near the base. It seems that Toteel is a local attraction as well, since there is a ticket booth (1 SDP) and at the base are all these cafes (everyone’s a bob marley reggae wannabe). Bypassed them, and turned my attention to the mountains beyond. Now back in Kadogli, the Nuba Mountains weren’t actually mountains; they were rolling hills covering really large expanses with flat plateaus alternating. The Kassala peaks on the other hand are large chunks of boulders and rocks stacked all the way to the top.

The climb was quite tough. If you have experienced trekking, think Malaysian mountain peaks’ last 30-50m or so to the summit, when all you have are rock escarpments. Take that kind of climb from the start and you have the Toteel. In addition, in my infinite wisdom, i brought two buns and a 500ml of 7UP (“yeah, so back at Nuba i brought 1 litre and had excess, this Toteel is a half hour climb, no problem”). So in the hot afternoon sun (damn these rocks are hot to the touch!), with barely a trail, I was scampering and half-scaling across rocks. It took well above half hour. The entire trek took 4 hours, my water ran out around 3 hours even after rationing. There was no one else on the mountain, and i kept comfort in seeing goat droppings. Wherever there are goat droppings, theres a decent trail and I won’t suddenly drop off a cliff. There were no goats, mind you, i was just following their shit.

So at 1pm, with my throat parched, lower part of my palms burnt, and my pants torn, i reached the prize. It wasn’t the peak. There was no way i would reach the peak without any equipment, unless I’m Spiderman. Instead i followed the ridgeline and now could see OVER the mountain. Into Eritrea. I may not have obtained the elusive visa, but dammit, i will get my glance at that country. And maybe someday, I will be back (through Yemen hopefully! 🙂 ) Lingered at the summit area, went back down. The downclimb really took its toll.With no water, and I kept following wrong trails that lead to drop offs, so had to retrace my steps or lower myself down tediously. It was tough, but really worth it. I should reconsider my itinerary though. I had ideas, time permitting, to trek the Simien mountains, Mount Kenya or maybe even Kilimanjaro, but i’m really not geared for it (yes, I’m still in my sandals, Chaco is great btw).

Reached the hotel, cleaned up and went out into the souqs again. There are really interesting looking tribal people around. Too bad I do not dare take out my camera here. Photography is sensitive here. Heck, even the women lift up the veils higher when they see me. From reading up LP’s info, the Nara or maybe Hedareb tribes are the ones I see where the men scarify their cheeks with 3 short lines. And the women with the large nose rings could be possibly Bilen (though LP says they are in Keren, Eritrea so i don’t know if they spread all the way up to the Sudan border. I know the colourful Rashaida tribe has a souq somewhere in town but was unable to find it.

I got invited to sit down with a shirt stall holder and had a shai. Talked lots, took some photos with them and went for dinner. Oh, I took a haircut (5 SDP) so I am now the proud owner of an authentic Sudanese close cropped hairstyle.

31 – Enter Kassala

Mon 28th Dec, Hotel Al Nada, Kassala

So close, but yet so far. Tonight I am in Kassala, 30km from the border to Eritrea. One guy tells me they travel over the border, drink themselves silly then go back into Sudan. The trip from Khartoum was another 7 hour bus ride, aboard another made in China bus, with me asleep most of the time. I’m quite amazed at the service on these buses. I had lunch in a styrofoam box, drinks from a cup, then later a packet of butter cake and a bottled soft drink. It’s a wonder why bus companies elsewhere don’t provide such things on their long distance journeys.

Approaching Kassala (50 SDP, 7 hours), the Taka, Toteel and Aweitila mountains loom above the city. I got off at the bus station (Souq As-Shabi) and take the minibus (0.5 SDP) with the locals into the main square bus terminal (Al mawkaf al-aan). The fella beside me from the bus makes a call to his friend to bring me to my hotel. Unfortunately the hotel was full and I went round and round the central area looking for a hotel. All were full. Kassala must really be a touristy place for the locals then… I must have checked out at least 10 hotels / lokandas. Finally settled on an expensive option (Al Nada, 50 SDP!, but it comes with lousy aircon, cable tv and privacy).

From what I found out walking around, Toteel, Bashar are probably the best bets. Beside them is the more expensive Hipton. El-Sharg is just as pricey and probably as top end here too. The rest are El-Safa hotel and Hotel Africa. In Arabic were Lokanda Riduan & hotel elnoor. Every single one was full. Never mind, as I am writing this, I am watching From Dusk Till Dawn, a welcome change from movies in Arabic and Sudanese variety shows on the buses. I don’t think it is worth the room price, but the alternative is sleeping on the street.

Kassala’s main square where the minibuses leave from are surrounded by souqs. Didn’t manage to see much today but here’s my first take on it. The city feels much less developed compared to Khartoum and has a mountain town feel about it. The souqs are colourful, due to all the tribes that come into the city to sell their wares. The women wear colourful robes. And the men wear sleeveless jackets over their white jabailiyas. And they are obviously different from elsewhere. Some have frizzy hair, uncommon when everyone ive seen so far have close cropped cuts.

Dinner was your typical bread with meat dish on the many roadside setups. I’ve got so used to eating bread off tables just wiped with dirty rags and drinking untreated water that it hardly bothers me any longer (when in Rome…)

30 – And guess what, STILL in Khartoum

Sun 27th Dec, Hotel Al Nadi, Khatoum

It’s not that I love the capital so much, it is because all the buses seem to leave in the morning. And i spent today morning going to the Eritrean embassy. So much for leaving today. To make my day worse, I did not manage to get the Eritrean visa. Wikipedia entry says that from Dec08, all foreigners are to get visas from their country of origin, or nearest embassy, which in Singapore’s case, is China (beijing isn’t so near…) The guy in my dorm (we talk in a mish-mash of broken Arabic and English) is from Kassala and he has a friend there working at the passports office. He reckons he can get insider help and a stamp on my passport into Eritrea. After some thinking, I decided not to take such a risky move. Even if i can get in, i will have trouble getting out, no help anywhere, and the situation there now isn’t too friendly (see Dec 24 news on newly imposed sanctions). So with that, there goes my hopes of doing the border crossing. No matter, I have rescheduled the itinerary and timed Leddat and Timkat in Ethiopia’s Gonder and Lalibela.

And again the Sudanese are really helpful. The guy in my dorm insists on taking me down to the Mina Bary terminal tomorrow and sending me off, waking up with me at 530am.

29 – Back to Khartoum

26th Boxing Day, Hotel Al Nadi, Khartoum

This will be a short one. The journey was 12 hours, with me seated in front. I can see the driver eat, drink, smoke, talk on the phone, repair the broken dvd player in the bus, all the while while driving. Multi-tasking, that and going really fast, overtaking the cars and horning away. Not that im complaining, we made Khartoum in quick time.

Found my favourite hotel, ah, it really feels like going home. Something familiar, even the hotel guy recognises me and i zoomed through all the admin registration stuff. Chucked my stuff aside, went out to look for dinner (more fuul!) and came here to the Internet place. Happy New Year everyone. I’m off to Kassala or elsewhere tomorrow. So might not be able to get online till next year =P.

I would love to check this blog’s site statistics, but that will be in the next country. Over here, I keep getting “you are trying to access from an IP from a country sanctioned by the US govt” etc etc, so there is no way to check how many people have been visiting the blog. But cheers everyone if you are reading this. =)

28 – Xmas in Kadogli

Fri 25th Dec, South Kodorfan Hotel, Kadogli
I spent my day just relaxing. I’m the only foreign guy at the lokanda. Everyone else seems to be a middle aged guy in white robes. Just how many of them there are i cannot tell, since they mill around the courtyard and go in and out of the surrounding areas. Below is the piece of granite on which i have my bucket shower.

Slept in. Enjoying the slow pace of life. I am an anomaly here, since there are no tourists. Abdellah from the hotel who speaks good English tells me there were more tourists back in 2007, but the number dried up. Any UN personnel still around are from the Arabic speaking countries, and anyway the UN people aren’t tourists. He also tells me about the upcoming elections in April, vote rigging by the ruling party and many other interesting stories.

I am actually picking up quite a bit of Arabic, the problem is that there are so many versions of the same word, depending on whether it is MSA (modern standard arabic) or the Egyptian or Sudanese (i am assuming both are the same). After a while i’ll pick up common words and speak the local lingo. I think I must sound pretty stupid conversing in MSA when everyone else does it in the local dialect/speech. It of course helps that I can actually read Arabic (albeit without understanding), so once in a while, i’ll indulge and impress the socks off the locals. =)

I went out in the afternoon to get tickets for tomorrow (two bus companies with tix to Khartoum, 11 hours, 70 SDP, Hafawa and El-Shihaab Express). Then went through the local souq, which was arranged in an organised grid. It looks like the handiwork of some NGO. This is really rural Sudan, where people come in from the nearby villages. Took some photos, it gets a bit sensitive here with the shots, since i can’t be bothered to get a photo permit back in Khartoum. Plus with all the military clothed guys (i’ve seen at least 4 different patterns/colours of uniform, what gives?), i only sneaked a shot here and there. Whereas up in the Nuba mountains and nearby villages yesterday i was just snapping away.

Food is cheap, in general a good meal sets you back 8 SDP max (about 4 SGD). Since I am blessed with a strong stomach, the untreated water I drink everyday does not really bother me, unlike one guy i met in Khartoum who told me he gets sick drinking the water. I probably should consider getting some multi-vitamins. It is very dry and the skin holding my nails are beginning to recede. =( I am starting to like fuul, which is the staple of stewed fava beans. With a little bit of salt added, it is quite tasty. And eat like the locals, tear off a chunk of bread, use it as a ladel and scoop a chunk of fuul. Yummy. And I’ve also taken to halib, warm milk served by the roadside shai ladies.

27 – Traipsing across the Nuba Mountains

Thu 24th Dec, South Kodorfan Hotel, Kadogli
It is 530pm, on xmas eve, with no Internet in rural Sudan. Firstly, the South Kodorfan Hotel has only bucket showers, with well water, so that’s a first for this trip. But the place is very comfortable, with mosquito nets. Here in Southerly Sudan the risk of malaria is substantially higher so I would take extra precaution.

The first thing to note here in Kadogli is that this town is like UN center. There was conflict in this region and now post-conflict, there are the UN and many other NGOs based here, though I suspect many went home for xmas. There’s a whole UN encampment ringed by barbed wire fence nearby. Even now, post-conflict, I see the military around town. There are the usual tamma’ams (which means “OK?”) with the thumbs up sign, except this time the greetings are by someone with a loaded M16. If I do see anyone from the UN later tonight, I’m going to joke that I’m here in Kadogli for a job interview with them. Hahahahah!

The second point is that Kadogli is in the middle of the handsome Nuba Mountains, which is home to the Nuba tribes, in the surrounding areas. These assortment of tribes are completely different from what Sudan has offered me, and I may yet visit these should I find the means to.

In the meantime, I will trek up the mountains, which are essentially rolling hills that cover the size of Scotland, according to LP. In typical fashion, I have been brought up to be unable to resist a trek up mountains, so off I go toward the peaks. Abdullah the hotel guy tells me the highlight are of course the mountains and dam somewhere around. He says to not go too far in the interior of the mountains, since there is a risk of unexploded landmines. And snakes. Er…. ok.

The terrain is completely different that that I have seen previously. The only other place that had invoke similar awe was Dahab’s craggy mountain meets ocean landscapes. This time it is green bushes, trees in a very savannah setting. I headed in a general south easterly direction up the first hill, caught a full view of Kadogli below me. I headed deeper in, met many local women villagers ferrying straw back to town. There were trails to follow, and as long as I followed these human / goat trails, I should be safe…Over the first hill were more valleys, grazing herd of goats and an isolated hut or two. It was after the 3rd valley or so that I realised hey, I am getting quite lost. I started taking bearings with my trusty field compass, as well as taking pictures of prominent trees and landmarks. I carried on into the interior. After about 4 hours of travel, the sun was high up, and i was getting tired. There was definitely more to see, but the trails were getting sparser, and i was getting more and more disoriented. There was of course the option of climbing one of the many peaks to get my bearings, but that’s probably the most obvious place to stick a landmine..

I headed back in a general north westerly route along a different trail and came out elsewhere from where I originated. It seems I’m near one of the outlying villages linked to Kadogli. I asked for directions, ended up having lunch with some youths, making conversation with them and a whole bunch of their friends over sheesha (i had shai). Yes, I know they look like they’re about to beat me up, but they are actually very nice.

Made the long way back towards town, but it was easy once i found the highway. I’m going to check later the transport times. I could stay longer, but I really want to be in Khartoum by Sat night so that I can check out the status of my Eritrean visa application and be off to Kassala by Sunday. I might leave for El-Obeid on Friday and spread out the travel back to Khartoum over two days (which also allows me time to explore El-Obeid properly). Or i might stay here in Kadogli another day, and do the painful long journey to Khartoum (provided there is a direct bus).

Some shots (since I have time)

26 – 900 kilometres across Sudan

Wed 23rd Dec, South Kodorfan Hotel, Kadogli
Here I am traveling alone again. Kang took a flight to Addis, maybe our paths will cross again in Ethiopia. Ben went off to Wad Medani, somewhere just southeast of Khartoum. Hany still back at the hotel. Oh yes, Hany… Every night, Hany the cheerful Egyptian from next door, who speaks good English will come over to our room and and the four of us (them mostly!) will talk stuff, from travel, our countries, politics.

I was up at 5am, took no chances and decided to flag a cab to Mina Bary (Khartoum’s Land Transport Terminal, 10 SDP). It was less chaotic in the morning, but nevertheless just as confusing. Fortunately I came here yesterday so I got my bearings easily.

The bus for El-Obeid (I took Al-Manakhil Express) finally left the terminal at 9am. I had really little leg room; the ‘helpful’ guy from the ticket counter chucked my bag in front of my seat, whether for security or because there were so much other big luggage. Two movies later, “bus service” which was just a packet of cake and a soft drink this time and 7 hours later, I reached El-Obeid. Oh, about the travel permit, I was not checked even once during the journey. There were a few police checkpoints, but the bus went through without a hitch. For town-to-town travel on public transport, as per previous buses / minibuses, my name was written down on a roster, presumably to be given at the police checkpoint. I think it could be because the fellow at the ticketing counter wrote my name down in arabic, so it “blends in” with the other names on the bus. =)

In El-Obeid, I inquired about onward travel to Kadogli on the same day, and a helpful local from back on the bus sent me packing in a cab to another bus station with buses bound for Kadogli (15 SDP). I don’t really understand Sudanese cabs, I think they overcharge the foreigners, but even when I ask hotel staff cab prices (to get a more accurate fare), the fares they quote are similar to what I have been paying. Unsual, because a 5km cab ride is 10-15 SDP, and a 300km bus ride is just double that.

On reaching the bus terminal, I asked for Kadogli buses and was ushered into a car. Yes, a car (30 SDP). It was only 15 minutes later that I found out there was some illegal vehicle sharing activity going on. This was when the driver kept driving around in circles. He tells me this is to avoid the police. At one point he even sped away to the highway before uturning back when a couple of cops were nearby. And there were a few cars hanging around the terminal with this “service”. A few posts back, I remarked on how expensive Sudan coach fares were. And now, out here, far from Khartoum, I now see how this can be exploited. When the car filled up (4 people, so thats 120 SDP), we departed. It was not even the driver who in the end made the journey. Another designated driver took the wheels. I didn’t get a chance to find out the cost of the bus, or even if there was a bus at 5pm to Kadolgi for that matter. But based on the distance, 30 SDP sounds about right. Anyway, it was much more comfortable traveling by car in the front passenger seat. Plus, going at 120 km/h, we reached Kadogli in 3+ hours instead of the 5 hours stipulated in LP.

By then it was around 9pm and I was hungry enough I could eat a cow. Sitting in a vehicle all day can be exahusting, but I was glad to make Kadogli in one day. Found the South Kodorfan Lokanda (10 SDP for dorm), and the owner kindly put me in an empty room with 4 beds to myself. The other  occupants in the lokanda were all Sudanese, and it feels i’m the only tourist far out here off-the beaten path.

Put my things down, went out nearby and had some fuul and berde. That’s stewed beans (you know, the foule medames off NTUC shelves, and scrambled eggs.) By 10 o’clock, my things still unpacked, I was asleep.

25 – The Wait (part 2)

Tue 22st Dec, Hotel Al Nadi
The amount of time I’m staying in Khartoum, I can probably start to pass off as a local, or at least a foreigner working here. It’s Tuesday afternoon 3.15pm and I’ve had no luck with my Eritrean visa. The guy at the consulate tells me that they would need a longer time to review my application since I do not have residency in Sudan. I explained I traveled from Egypt and they fella understood, but those guys doing the approval will only feedback in a few days, maybe a week, maybe two. SIGH.

So, what can i do next? Two choices, I can choose to wait till the weekend and return to the embassy. Or i can say screw it and head towards Ethiopia (this visa was done back in Sg). After much thought I decided on the former, and the opportunity cost would be a delay of about a week. But of course i’m not going to sit around in this hotel in Khartoum and wait like an idiot.

I took 3 minibuses from the Riyadh area to Mina Bary (Land Transport Center). I had no idea where this big bus station was, locals had to advise me to change minibuses here and there. After 5 buses today I kind of get how and where to flag these buses down. But you need to roughly know the routes of the buses, or get someone to direct you to the correct sidewalk to stand on, where the buses pick people up. And stand with the group that’s normally around waiting for these minibuses. Each bus is manned by a conductor-driver tag-team. The conductor leans out the door and calls out the destination. He carries coins (bus fares are 50 piastres max, i think), and you have to hand the fare to him (think pass the parcel). To get off the buses, you snap your fingers to alert the conductor. He will make the hissing sound (a bit like ‘tsktsk’, also a bit similar to the Egyptian hissing to tell you to get out of the way) and the driver will stop.

Mina Bary was the terminal where all buses going south of Sudan leave from. It was 1.5 SDP for entry into the compounds and there are likely 50 over bus companies here. A bit overwhelming, with all the shouting out for all the destinations. Actually it kind of resembles an enclosed Malaysian bus station (like Larkin), other than the fact that everything is in Arabic.

I got myself a bus to El-Obeid (39 SDP, 7 hours), leaving tomorrow at 7am in the morning. From there I will try to find a way south to either Dilling or Kadogli. Stay there for a day or two and get back to Khartoum hopefully by Saturday evening. On Sunday morning, i will head for the Eritrean embassy again and see if my application result is favourable. Whatever the outcome, I will be off to Kassala the same day (found a company at the station that sets off at 2pm on Sunday). From there I will head on to my next destination.

Bus to arabi, is central khartoum, where most likely you will stay
Bus to mamoora, is the Afra bus
Bus to mahali, mina bary, is the long distance bus terminal
Bus to al-morda, omdurman souq
Bus to riyadh, riyadh district

24 – The Wait

Mon `21st Dec, Hotel Al Nadi
Not too much too say here. Early in the morning, I took a walk to the Humanitarian Affairs Office and picked up my travel permit. Which was free! It was listed at 87 SDP in LP, so that must not have been updated. That or they liked me. Either way, I’m not going to question my good fortune. Nothing else to do but get on the Internet. I was at the netcafe for a full 6 hours (around 3 sgd) and it was good barring the dodgy connection which went off a couple of times. I even caught my favorite reality show Survivor’s final episode!

Dinner was spent near the bus station. I had a lamb’s head. We ended the day with shai and a chat with our local friend (the one who gave me the wrong address >< )

Kang didn’t get his visa, apparently cos he’s chinese or something, and he needed to fly to Addis Ababa. So he’s now at the travel agency. He tried the big chinese hotel nearby which couldn’t really help much.

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