Northern Ethiopia: Nothing Like Disneyworld

Market day is a busy time in villages throughout Ethiopia
Market day is a busy time in villages throughout Ethiopia

Northern Ethiopia: Traveling Back in Time

Page Two

By Kent E St John

Northern Ethiopia Practically

With endless things to see and do, this article could be hundreds of pages. The above are just suggestions.

Northern Ethiopia isn’t, thank God, like Disney World. It is a place unlike most others, so in that spirit I thought some practical advice would be most helpful and will let the pictures tell more of the story.

If ever you thought a good guidebook too heavy to pack, this isn’t the place; I brought two, Lonely Planet’s and Brandt. Both gave great insight to the culture, myths and religious lifestyle that tour guides alone cannot give you.

This is not meant to suggest that you shouldn’t use a guide; you should. They will pave the way and tell their own interpretations. They also need to survive and were endlessly helpful.

In Ethiopia you are a faranji, translate foreigner. Even if traveling on five dollars a day, you are thought to be well off. Relax. I’m not talking crime here, but expect that some things will cost you more than the guy on the street.

Poverty isn’t a game and Ethiopia has more than its share. That being said, you can count on endless smiles and greetings, and invitations to homes are not rare.

Begging is rampant in some places; hell, I’d beg also if I had a family of five to feed and little chance at steady income. Agriculture is fickle. It is best to ask at your hotel if there are any sort of chits that can be bought and used for food. Other than that, smile and push through. Pick your own battles.

Monk at Aseyan Maryam high above Lilibela.
Monk at Aseyan Maryam high above Lilibela.

Hotels also run on a very different system; this is simply due to the newness of travelers going to Northern Ethiopia and its far flung locations. In the capital Addis Ababa, Hilton and Sheraton have wonderful locations and amenities, as do several other hotel groups.

It is when you head out of the city that things change. One great example of a fantastic hotel I stayed in was the Hotel Kuriftu in Barhir Dar; it was amazing with its design and property. Development is happening at a slow but steady pace.

Further out in places like Gonder and Axum, the state-run choices are charming and very comfortable, but they are not the Ritz. Hot water can be sporadic, electrical problems can happen, but all in all they have charm and are well done.

In general the budget hotels encountered are clean if Spartan. Ask to see before you buy. Use those guidebooks I mentioned.

While I did travel via road from Barhir Dar to Gonder, and loved it, road travel in Northern Ethiopia is tough and time consuming. Ethiopian Airlines has planes that travel the route and is a great option. Make sure to book ahead and get to the airports early. In some places there is only one flight a day.

My trip started with them in Dulles and the trans-Atlantic flight was wonderful, the service friendly and plane fully equipped. It was also the first time I’ve ever flown out of Dulles, and I was quite pleased with the airport.

Mules for the climb to Ashetan Maryam
Mules for the climb to Ashetan Maryam

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity

The historical route of Northern Ethiopia is much immersed in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, though once connected with the Coptic Christianity, is its own branch of Christianity known for fasting, prolonged services and the use of the Ge’ez language. Much of its beliefs include elements from non-Christian faiths, Judaism being one. Believers often follow fasts for up to 250 days a year.

On many of the stops along the route you will be traveling within devout followings of the religion. Common sense and etiquette will be required for any type of trip through the area.

A Pew Research Center study done in 2010 came up with a claim that 74% of Ethiopian Christians have experienced or witnessed an exorcism. Here is the Wikipedia run down.

Bottom Line

Traveling through beauty and back in time is a powerful draw; to actively be in a place with a unique culture is a gift. The people are friendly and open, adding to the pleasure.

A child plays on a tank left over from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.
A child plays on a tank left over from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

The treasures start pre-dating biblical times and run into this very place 2010. History is only starting to unveil itself and you also will unveil a bit of yourself after a few days.

While plenty of Western style options are available to the traveler, more often a culture unknown to most will be a challenge for you to explore and learn.

One of the best points of all my travels happened when we stopped in an unknown village on trading day. The sites and smells still live within. The pungent red pepper ground and sold still cause tears to fall.

So too do the tears of seeing a place that has maintained customs that today do not fit elsewhere but somehow they do there. Chew some ghat and swallow some St. George beer and watch the sun sink in the valleys below. Put your faith into a mule and climb to holy heights. Northern Ethiopia is that of a kind place.

Further information:

My flight from Dulles to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines was flawless; it was a pleasure to fly from Dulles for my first time in years of globe trotting.

Traditional thatched hut in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia
Traditional thatched hut in the Rift Valley. Photo by Kent St. John.

I decided that since most of my traveling in Ethiopia was going to be on Ethiopian Airlines I would start with them. All of my flights between destinations in Ethiopia went smoothly, and this is critical when touring Northern Ethiopia.

My favorite hotel from the trip was in Bahir Dar and was the hotel Kuriftu’s. Its unique design and lakeside location was a great break before heading further on… Outside its gates is the beautiful city of Bahir Dar, Palm lined streets and lake views.

The sites located in Gonder, Axum and Lalibela are not wrapped up in easy-to-see packaging. Bring hiking footwear and rain gear. A lot of treasures are underground so a good flashlight is imperative. Yup, you will get to use them.

Most of all bring a sense of humor and good will. A bit of patience also works. Pack your smile because you will get plenty back. You’re going to love time travel.

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