Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Morning in Aksum. Palace and Market.


Ruins of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba.

Today's travel destination was Aksum. Aksum is both Ethiopia's ancient and religious heart. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site because  its contribution to global cultural heritage.  A good description of the city can be found on UNESCO's website.

I had set the alarm on my Blackberry to go off at 4:30a but the combination of jet lag and excitement had me up well before then. I rustled myself out of bed, washed up and finished packing up everything.

At about 4:40a, I got the wake up call from the front desk and a few minutes later, one of the porters came to retrieve my suitcase. Although we were told that breakfast was only going to be available at 5a, I decided to head down to the restaurant a few minutes early. A few of my tour group members were already there and munching away! This is not a group that likes to be late and I'm happy about that. With just nine of us, we're very quickly bonding and I'm really enjoying everyone's company.

Breakfast was the typical western style buffet with eggs, potatoes (oddly served with bits of tuna fish), a nice selection of breads and cake, cold cuts, cheese, cereal, juice and fruits. I was hungry and greedily stuffed my face - don't know when the next meal will come :-)

Marianne and I sat at a table together and she took care of ordering coffee for us. My first taste of Ethiopian coffee. Full bodied, strong and slightly bitter. With sugar, it was delicious but next time, I will use a bit of milk to tame the bitterness.

Today, we're flying to Aksum (also commonly spelled, *Axum*). We were scheduled to depart for the airport at 5:30 and around that time, all of us wrapped up eating and headed for the lobby. We turned in our keys and walked outside along with our luggage. Suitcases and people were piled into the two vans for the short drive to Bole Airport. The guide and driver dropped us off and we made our own way into the airport. There was a security check at the entrance and a short line to the ticket counter. After that, it was to the departure lounge where we had to get into another line to pass through a second security check before making our way to the departure gate.

Originally, our flight was scheduled to take off at 7:15a but the information screen showed departure at 7:45a so we had plenty of time to kill. We sat and chatted to pass the time - more bonding. The group may be of older folks but they are truly inspiring me to continue to travel and to not be fearful to travel to places that many would consider to be *rough*. This is a group of travelers who are not daunted by mention of a trip to Mongolia or Tibet or even Central Asia. They are exactly my kind of folks and I feel right at home interacting with them!

Around the time it was ready for us to board the plane, the Ethiopian Airlines agent instructed all who were on the Aksum flight to follow him down the hall. We were exiting out of another departure gate. We headed down a flight of steps and walked towards the tarmac - the plane had been parked just a short walking distance away from the terminal.

We were going to be flying on a small, propeller driven plane. Gale and I were seated together and we had a nice chat - it was wonderful to have one on one time with her. She is a die hard traveler (leaves her husband behind) and very adventurous!! She's also a quiet spitfire - has an independent, wild side to her that's not overtly obvious but it's there. Something compelled me to ask how old she is and she told me that she turns 66 tomorrow. She's not keen to have everyone know about it so I agreed not to mention anything but she and I will go out and celebrate!

As we flew over Ethiopia, Gale would point out the landscape below - arid land punctuated by craggy mountains and narrow canyons.

We landed in Aksum about an hour and half after we took off. Stepping on the tarmac, I was pleasantly surprised at how warm it was compared to Addis Ababa. The temperature difference is due to altitude as Addis is located at 2356 meters (7,730 feet) in elevation compared to Aksum at 2,131 meters (6,991 feet)

From the tarmac, we entered straight into baggage claim. We waited and waited and waited for almost 30 minutes for our luggage to come out. I think they only had one guy unloading the plane!

By the time I got my bag and joined the others, they had already met up with our guide. He introduced himself as Solomon. Finally. A name that I could easily remember!

We followed Solomon to our van where our luggage was loaded. This time, they got a van big enough to fit all 10 of us including Solomon.

The landscape around Aksum is definitely very different from that of Addis - much more hilly and arid.

Not unusual to see a shepherd herding his small flock across the street or a donkey pulling a cart.

Aksum is a small town compared to Addis but like Addis, there are lot of people walking everywhere!

As I had expected, Aksum also had its share of unpaved roads and very rundown, ramshackled buildings.

Oddly, we passed a section of town where there were quite a few unfinished buildings - no signs of any ongoing construction.

Many of the city's roads are unpaved.  Lots of bumpy rides!

The main street was comparatively pretty with its median planted up with trees.  Only bit of greenery in town.

On our way to the Yeha Hotel, we drove by the cluster of stelae that Aksum is identified with and which contributed to the city receiving its UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1980.

The hotel is located on a lovely spot high up on a bluff overlooking the city. We arrived around 11a, checked in and had about 1/2 hour to freshen up before heading out to sight see for the day.

My room at the Yeha Hotel.  Simple but comfortable enough.

Sink and bathroom.

View from my window.  I wonder what that blue shed is for?

I was ready to roll in a matter of minutes and decided to use the spare time to go to the lobby, connect to the internet and catch up on email. So far, I'm only getting GSM access on by Blackberry and that's not enough strength for me to fire up the browser and read/send email. Damn. Sucks.

I also had a few minutes to eat the small sandwich that I had made at breakfast this morning - took a small roll, some ham, cheese and cucumbers and slapped it all together. I had no idea when we would be eating lunch so good to have a small bite to tie me over.

Just as I took my last bite, everyone was ready to board the van. Our first sightseeing destination of the day was to the ruins of one of the former palaces of the famed Queen of Sheba whom Ethiopians claim as being Ethiopian though I think her nationality is still being debated today.  Some claim her kingdom occupied what is now Yemen while others believe she is of Saudi descent.

Our drive to Sheba's palace ruins took us back into Aksum's arid landscape.

It's dry season so the ground is parched and there's little greenery around.

Looks and feels like we're in the desert.

Our driver pulled the van over to the side of the road and we crossed over. Immediately, I could see the rock walls that define the complex of ruins. We walked around the exterior walls of the complex towards a viewing platform.

Walking towards the ruins.

Meet the ruins.

We all stopped to take photos of this tree.  From Wikipedia, "Euphorbia candelabrum is a succulent species of plant in the Euphorbiaceae family. Its Latin name derives from its growth habit, often considered to resemble the branching of a candelabrum. E. candelabrum is endemic to the Horn of Africa and eastern Africa along the East African Rift system. It is known in Ethiopia by its Amharic name, qwolqwal, or its Oromo name, adaamii."

Another view of the ruins.

And one more view.  Can't have enough views :-)

From high above, we could see the various sections/rooms that made up the palace. Unfortunately, there was no plaque or description of any sort explaining the sections/rooms so you really had no idea what you were looking at beyond rock walls laid out in sections. The extended area around the palace ruins are not cordoned off in any manner.


As Solomon told us about the walls, several of us got distracted by the sight of shepherds leading their herds which were often mixed - goats, sheep, cows and donkeys all in the same group. Perhaps it was just my imagination but it always seemed like a donkey was in the lead :-)


Shepherd passing by us with his herd of of goats, cows, and donkeys.  Not too many places in the world can you visit a historic cultural landmark and watch a shepherd at work!

We descended the platform and entered the complex of ruins. There, we got a better look at the various sections as well as the architecture of the rock walls.



 
Ruins in the foreground, viewing platform in the background.

According to Solomon, the lower sections of the wall are the original and the upper sections are recreations - done by historians to better depict what the palace would have looked like back in Queen Sheba's day. Even with the recreations, it's hard to imagine what the place was like.


Solomon also pointed out the tiered manner in which the walls had been constructed - this is typical of Axumite architecture. To some degree, it reminds me of the architecture of the walls at the ruins of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico.


One room was identified by the archeologists as the kitchen - the arched opening gave the structure away as an oven. Another room was thought to perhaps have been the bath complete with a place to heat rocks which would in turn heat water and drainage pipes to allow water to flow out of the room.


Lucky for us we had Solomon to explain things to us otherwise we would not have had a single clue about what we were seeing at the ruins.

Back across the street to the van. Before we piled in, we took a brief look at the stelae which according to Solomon were tomb markers. Archeologists surmise that this would have been the cemetery for *ordinary people* as Solomon described it.


The next thing on our itinerary was lunch but before we headed to the restaurant, Solomon asked if we would be interested in taking a quick walk through the local market. Thankfully, everyone responded with a resounding, *Yes*. It was fascinating to see a slice of local life.

Donkeys and camels carrying wood to the market.

As I've seen in so many places, the market is sectioned according to items being sold and it's often the women who do the selling. Here, the women sat on the ground in rows holding up umbrellas to shelter them from the blazing sun. We entered the market in the section where the women were selling dried beans, rice, tef (for making injera) and other grains most of which I could not identify. According to Solomon, there are no price differences from one seller to the next - there is no competition based on price alone. I guess you find the woman you like to buy from and you just deal with her til either she no longer sells the item or you decide to switch to another vendor.




There were literally dozens of women selling the same dried goods and I don't recall seeing a single buyer. Maybe the women have better luck at a different time of day because if what I saw was indicative of the day, then I can't imagine how any of them can sell enough to make a living.


The one thing photos can't capture is sound so I decided to do a quick video of the market so I could remember what the place truly was like - noise and all.  The only thing missing is the smell of the place which might be just as well in this case :-)


To one side of the women was a small group of donkeys. Solomon referred to that as the donkey parking lot where the reliable beasts of burden stand/sit and wait for their owners to return.


It was a short walk through the market and often, the locals were as curious about us as we were about them. Looking around, there were no other tourists other than us. If I had been travelling on my own, I would have definitely explored the market some more but with the group, it was time to move on.

Camels laden with wood for sale, chickens feeding nearby.  What a great market scene!

Women greeting each other.  A peck on both cheeks is the way to go!

Pieces of green leaves of some sort.  According to Solomon, they're used for medicinal teas.

Pot covers for sale.

Cookware.  Flat metal disks are used for cooking injera.

Buildings house the produce sellers.

Veggies, mainly root vegetables, for sale.

Very fascinating place.  I just wished we had had more time to explore it.

Next stop. The AB Restaurant for lunch. This place definitely caters to tourists. The menu had its fair share of non-Ethiopian food choices and to keep tourists entertained, a woman making Ethiopian coffee the traditional way.  The process begins with roasting the beans which are then finely ground using a mortar and pestle.  After being brewed, the rich and bitter tasting coffee is served in small cups - like espresso.  For me, it takes a whole lot of sugar to counter the bitterness but in the end, I do enjoy the coffee!




Sam and Judy, the only couple in our group.   A very lovely twosome!

I ordered another beef wot dish which came with boiled veggies and a huge roll of injera which I must say was better than the injera I had for lunch yesterday in Addis. Otherwise, the meal was nothing memorable. With each bite I was reminded about how back traditional food cooked for tourists can be. I need to find a dish that will make my taste buds sing and make me want to look up a recipe on how to recreate it.


Bellies full, we were ready to continue with the rest of our sightseeing.  It's been an activity filled morning but no one is ready to slow down!