Ethiopia 22-28 November, 2009
Sunday 22 Nov: Early in the morning (4.30 am) a free shuttle from the Ghion Hotel (they should provide it, so claim it with no doubts) brought me and my friend to the Bole Airport to get our flight to Lalibela. 40 minutes by air, light snacks and we landed in the small airport among mountains. There we met lots of hotel representatives, but we have already agreed to try newly established Tukul Village, so headed to their sign, where we met our future guide Abebe. He organized a shuttle for us (45 birr per person), guided to the hotel. We got a room on the first floor of one of these modern tukuls. Very bright, spacious and clean en-suit, a boiler, shower, double-bed, two arm-chairs, small table. There was a nice balcony, which looked at mountains where St.George Church is hidden (though you cannot see it, but the scenery is fantastic). They also provide bottles of water. Room for two per night + breakfast costs 45 dollars, but you should pay in birr. The hotel has its tiny restaurant, where you can order simple European and local food. There is dial-up Internet as well, though very slow. But we could not find any broadband in Lalibela at all. They charge you 0.5 birr per minute.
Till the lunch-time we just were wondering along the main street, where you can find a number of souvenir shops.
I do recommend you to take sun-protecting cream with you, since it is hard to find it in Lalibela and that one they have is of a very suspicious origin.
The second part of the day we were guided by Abebe to the northern cluster of Lalibela churches. Entrance is 300 birr per person. + you are recommended to take a local guide. I have no doubts to recommend our guide Abebe Kassie (tel. 0911532650, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). He charges 450 birr for two days (both church clusters + tour to the mountain monastery). He is extremely helpful, knowledgeable, decent and intelligent.
The second day we visited mountain monastery, which took us around 4-5 hours. This trip was on mules, which were organized by Abebe (100 birr per mule + tips (appr. 30 birr, though we paid much more, because these people were very nice and helpful)).
After the lunch we visited the second cluster and St.George Church (ticket from the previous day was still valid). And then paid a visit to a local very famous artist, whose newly built office is 3 min. walk from Tukul Village Hotel on the main road. It is worth at least pop into and see his works and have a chat. He is a self-educated artist, but we found him very talented. So there you can buy a draw of his, if you’d like. He asks around 250-300 birr per a picture, and the price is fixed. He is also permantly in lack of high-quality paper, so if you can bring him some, he will appreciate this.
The night we spent in Tukul Village and early in the morning left for the airport to come back to Addis Ababa.
To resume: Lalibela is an extremely beautiful place, having both tremendous architectural heritage and fantastic scenery. You need at least two full days to spend there to visit churches, mountain monastery and just wander around the so-called city center.
One more point to mention is that people there live in extreme poverty, but are very friendly and nice. We found it is worth bringing there some clothes to leave for local people.
On Tuesday (24 Nov) we landed in the Bole Airport around 11 am and found a mini-bus with a driver, which we had ordered before from Ethiopian Quadrants (091 122 8887, EthiopianQuadrants@ethionet.et). It cost us 100 dollars for the mini-bus for the whole day (NTO asked 230 dollars). We visited Debre Lebanos monastery and Durham water-fall. Actually though car was fine and a driver was more or less reasonable and experienced, we did not enjoy the day, mostly, because there is nothing to see in Debre Lebanos. It is just a cave with barrels of water in it, very dirty path towards it and a modern cathedral nearby. They charge you 50 birr for entrance + expect tips for an armed guard, though you really do not need him. The only peculiarity of the place is the abundance of gelada baboons along the road, so you can easily make 10 meters photo-shots of them.
Durham Waterfall, though described as a second largest in Ethiopia, is nothing more than 3-4 meters width and 100 meters height stream. As you can look at it from a long distance, you won’t get much impression. But you will definitely be exhausted after 23 km one-way awful dusty non-asphalt road, which will take you up to 40-50 min each way.
So if you have got a day in Addis Ababa between your flights, as it was in our case, then you are highly recommended to spend it in another way (may be, visit Shiro Meda market, National Museum, IES museum and Entoto Mountain).
At 6 pm we were back in the airport to catch our evening 1.5 hour flight to Bahir Dar.
Wednesday (25 Nov)
In Bahir Dar we were met by Tegistu Adane (0918 762 307, 0913 183 556, e-mail: email@example.com). He provided us with a free shuttle to the EthioStar hotel near Summerland hotel, which, unfortunately, was fully booked that day.
They charge you 300 birr for a double en-suit and 250 birr for a single. Actually, if you have the possibility to stay not in this hotel, but go to Summerland, please, don’t hesitate to do so. Hot water there was only in the evening, it was not that clean, the breakfast is quite moderate and takes long time. They provide you with anti-mosquito net, though still we used our fumigator. There is a nice souvenir shop to the left of the hotel entrance.
Next morning we went for a boat trip to three monasteries on Lake Tana and to the source of the Nile river to see the hypos (to see them you should come there early in the morning, to the midday they usually tend to hide). Tegistu was our guide. He charged us 600 birr for a motor-boat and 175 for his guide service. Ura Kidane Maryam is the monastery you should visit there. It is fantastic and gives you an absolutely different impression comparing to what you could see in Lalibela. There is a nice tiny private ethnological museum (0918010959, firstname.lastname@example.org) near the entrance to the monastery. The entrance is 10 birr. And inside you can find lots of peculiar items from musical instruments to clothes and cutlery. You can touch everything and have nice pictures. The museum may be closed, so I would suggest you to call the owner Tiruneh before your visit to the monastery for him to come and show you around the museum.
The second half of the day we were wandering around the city, took tuktuk (local three-wheel taxi) to the place where are lots of pelicans, eagles and other birds (bargain to 50-60 birr for a return travel). We went to the swimming pool in Papyrus Hotel, but did not dare use it, since it was dirty and they had no hot water in the showers. For the sunset we took tuktuk (60 birr for return) to go up to the Haile Selassie Palace. Palace itself is closed, though they are planning to open a museum there. But you can have a nice view from above the city, though it is not that much spectacular as in Lalibela for instance.
I spent a night in the hotel. My friend left for Addis Ababa.
Thursday (26 Nov)
I asked at the hotel reception to call to the bus station and the route scheduled mini-bus came to the hotel to pick me up for Gonder. I paid 60 birr for the trip, though normal price is 45-50 birr, so don’t hesitate to bargain. On this occasion I was just too exhausted to get the local price.
It is worth mentioning that if you want to hire a car for your own (i.e. the same mini-bus, but solely for you) you will be asked to pay 1,000 birr (Tegistu first asked 1,500 birr, but Summerland or any other hotel can make it cheaper, so does he as well finally). So it is up to you what means of travel to choose. I really enjoyed my travel in a normal mini-bus since I got at least some understanding how local people travel there. It was easier for me since I speak Amharic a bit, so I enjoyed talks with my travel-mates, who do not speak a word of English. There was a Swiss girl in a car, who seemed to be not that happy as me in the end of the trip.
It takes you around 4 hours to reach Gonder. They asked me if I want to be brought to the hotel, but since I had no hotel booking yet, I left it near the entrance to the Royal Enclosure. I headed inside where I met a local guide Alemayehu (or Alexander Kemal, as he writes on his business card, 0918776585, email@example.com).
He offered me to lead me to a hotel, which was Queen Taitu hotel just 10 minutes walk from the Enclosure. It cost 120 for a single en-suite, which is reasonably clean, but badly furnished. On my way to this hotel I popped into one newly built hotel, which looked very attractive, but cost 300-350 birr per night. Next time I shall go there, I must admit. There is no breakfast provided in Queen Taitu, but you can walk 5 minutes to Quara hotel, where they have a very good restaurant with delicious European and Ethiopian food.
Then Alemayehu showed me around the Royal Enclosure, Fasilidas Pool and Debre Birhan Selassie Church. I can recommend him as a good guide and a nice person, though you should not expect much passion or motivation from him. Be careful with tuktuks there. They will charge you a lot in Gonder if you do not bargain hard. Alemayehu offered me to hire one for 150 birr for all three places. I would not say you really need one. It is 15 minutes walk to Debre Birhan Selassie Church, half an hour walk to Fasilidas Pool. Even if you don’t walk, this can give you understanding how much to pay for a tuktuk. If I don’t make a mistake, I paid 50 birr for entrance to both Royal Enclosure and Fasilidas Pool and 25 birr for the church. You pay for the guide service inside the Enclosure to the local Guide Association cashier.
In the evening I visited a local cinema to watch a first-night of some local Gonder blockbuster, but could not get much, since in 30 minutes the LG DVD-player stopped working and I decided to leave the place soon after that.
Friday (27 Nov)
I woke up at 6.30 to have my breakfast in Quara hotel restaurant and then leave the hotel at 8 am to go to Kuskuam (I booked a taxi for 110 birr for Kuskuam and from there directly to the airport, the entrance fee is 35 birr). You are highly recommended to go there and spend at least an hour, though unless my flight in 2 hours, I would have spent there much longer. It is a quiet, really holy place, where you can find yourself eager to meditate and think over your life. You can either sit on some ruin or just wander around. There are not many people around in this time, except praying girls and students of the church school, who live in small tukuls under the Kuskuam walls. Actually their appearance even adds you a will to think over the life essence.
From Kuskuam I left for the airport and was there in 30 minutes. Right in time, since Ethiopian Airlines decided to change the flight time and scheduled it two hours earlier that day. I was lucky not to have luggage and be there early enough, so after a short discussion with the staff I got my check-in.
I spent in Addis Ababa next two days mostly having business meetings, but also enjoying my visit to the National Museum (I doubt if you need more than two hours there), Shero Meda market (nice place to buy souvenirs, clothes from local cotton etc. and they usually do not charge you ferengi price there), went to Entoto Mountain. I also took a massage session in the Axum hotel on Haile Gebre Selassie Road. I do recommend it. They charge you 90 birr for an hour full-body massage + finnish sauna + Turkish bath. It is clean, they provide you with a towel, slippers, soap, they have hot shower there as well. I was said that if you stay in the hotel you get free access to the sauna.
I myself stayed in Yonnas hotel on Haile Gebre Selassie Road. They charged me 200 birr for a spacious single en-suit with double-bed, hot water, TV set, breakfast not included (20 or so birr extra). It was not that bad place, but you should be ready to share your room with numerous cockroaches. But next time I shall try Axum hotel, I believe.
And the last general advice: try to book your domestic flights from abroad and beforehands. And if you use Ethiopian Airlines to get to the country, don’t forget to mention this, since then you can expect to get a lovely discount for the domestic flights.