#4 Ethiopia, Jan. 30, 2011

Dear Everybody,

Another bus ride, another leaving in the dark at 5:20 AM, another bunch of road construction, but then—lovely scenery going through some mountains, this time in a minibus. The roads weren’t great but the landscape is outstanding in Ethiopia. In the middle of the trip we did have a Very good road—not one bump! But there were hairpin turns galore, and the driver didn’t see fit to stay on his side of the road, but would make all the blind left turns in the other (oncoming) lane. Occasionally he would honk (!) We had a rest stop in Adigrat where I had breakfast of some scrambled eggs and a machiatto and I eventually arrived safely in Wukro.

Wukro is a small town near the Tigray churches, which are hewn out of the rock or made out of rock-caves. They date to about the 10th century, although some are older—maybe as old as the 4th century. There are 120 churches in this vicinity and many are almost inaccessible. Some require climbing steep mountains/hills; some have a ladder at the top to get to the church, and some are on rock faces and require one to scale the rock (with handholds!).  Needless to say I planned to only visit those that are walkable.

Wukro was an unsatisfactory town. The vibes were poor—people were not helpful or friendly, and all children had their palms outstretched. I visited one church that I could access just on the edge of Wukro, called Chirkos. The price to see it was 100 birr ($6)—the exact amount that I was paying for my newish, fairly nice hotel room. This church, too, had been hewn out of the living rock, but in the ‘30s, my LP guide said that Haile Selassie had supervised the adding of cement to square off the corners. Still it was fun to see it, and so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I was unable to locate a Tourist Information Center, which I understood from the one at Aksum to be here, but maybe I misunderstood. Anyway, I asked and asked (almost no English) and was unable to make any arrangements to see other churches.

So I had lunch. (When the going gets tough, the tough go to lunch!) I had some mediocre Ethiopian food at the hotel and when I was finishing (napkins are rarely provided) the waiter offered a roll of toilet paper from which I could tear off a few squares to wipe my (right) hand!

The next morning a minibus got me to Mekele in an hour. I did some internet and then had lunch. The restaurant didn’t have Axumit wine (the best Ethiopian wine, acceptably drinkable) so I settled for the other one—Gouder, which is barely drinkable. Both wines come in recycled beer bottles. The small bottle is 11 oz/ and the large one is a liter. I stopped for a coffee on the way back to my hotel. I see in Mekele, the ‘taxis’ are tuk-tuks, but also horse carriages.

Wednesday morning I did some interneting, although another young woman and I had to wait for awhile as there was a power cut.




I notice that a small percentage of young women dress very modern with tight-fitting jeans; this one had white nail polish on her toes. When the power came back on, I finally succeeded in getting my #3 pdf file sent; I had tried the day before but after uploading for 45 minutes, I gave up. The man said it goes faster in the morning. That morning it only took about 9 minutes for the uploading. Then, as I was answering emails, the power cut out again, so I went to the 1873 Yohannas IV Museum.






It’s a castle on a hill and has a collection of religious paintings and other artifacts inside, as well as an-over-the-top throne room.

A lovely statue on display was from the 5th century BC.

The next morning I met Grace while having breakfast in the hotel dining room. Grace is from LA and suggested that we team up to visit more of the Tigray churches. She had already been in Hawsien and suggested that we take the bus back there, hopefully staying in a wonderful lodge where she had stayed before. I agreed and at 11:00 we got the bus to Hawsien.





We saw more beautiful scenery, especially pretty mountains and more harvesting of grain. We had a late lunch at the lodge, but there was no room for us to stay. So we went into the town of Hawsien where there are three hotels, which were all full! It really looked bleak for awhile, but a young man who worked there gave us his room. So Grace and I shared a room with two beds, but no bathroom. Any port in a storm!

Friday morning we set out with a car and driver to see two additional churches and be brought back to Mekele at 2:00. This was one of those times when traveling with another just didn’t march. I found Grace to be demanding, never satisfied, changing her mind constantly, and I was glad when we arrived back in Mekele. In the meantime, as we visited the two additional churches, she refused to pay the highish entrance fee, which was $6.00. I agreed it was kind of high, but we had already invested lots of time and money to see the churches. So she would send her camera in with me so I could take some pictures for her.

The first church was Dugem Selassie, which was apparently made originally out of a cave. It was quite small and not terribly interesting, although just the concept of these churches being hewn out of rock of a whole piece is amazing.

The second church was much more interesting, called Abraha Atsbeha. It was large, had many well-preserved 17th and 18th century murals, and was cruciform in shape. Seeing all the carved pillars with capitals, and the carved ceiling is kind of mind-blowing—what planning would have had to have gone into this endeavor, back in the 10th century.

In any case, I enjoyed the day as the scenery, as always, was stunning; I saw lots of farm work in progress including plowing with oxen and a wooden plow, and I managed to have the driver stop so I could photograph some fairly exotic birds! At least they seemed exotic to me.

I had one more destination before going back to Addis, which was Lalibela, which is where I set out to on Saturday. Another early bus, more beautiful mountain scenery but I thought we’d never get there! We made good progress until 11:00 when we had a long rest stop. On our way again, we soon stopped, this time for the men in the bus to drink tej (honey wine) in a little café, apparently known for its tej. Many of the men eventually returned to the bus carrying big 2 liter plastic bottles of tej! Off we went but then a checkpoint—we finally arrived Woldia at 1:00. They said that the minibuses for Lalibela had all gone but a man would find me some transport by 3:00. In the meantime I used an internet service and met 2 other travelers, an Argentine and a Japanese, going to Lalibela, too. We three decided to ‘contract’ a minibus. The Argentine was bargaining with a young man in a red tee shirt, but they were 100 birr apart. Just then I spotted Grace from LA, who was taking another minibus to Gashena, which is near Lalibela. We decided to go that route too, and tried to board, but the red-tee-shirt man wouldn’t (physically) let us board! He actually barred the way, along with a friend, and we couldn’t board. It began to look a little ugly, but no fights broke out and we finally were allowed to board after about a half hour.

We arrived Gashena and ran into a similar situation where a bully wouldn’t let us board a minibus unless we paid 100 birr each, which was about 2 ½ times the normal amount. Neither the Argentine nor Grace would do this on principle! Another standoff! Three locals were also waiting for a minibus so we thought maybe one would come although it was getting dark. Just then a minibus came—it was the red-tee-shirt man who pretended that he was going to run over our luggage and then said he wouldn’t take us. A couple of minutes later another minibus did come and we could take that to Lalibela, which we did! Two hours over a dirt road in the dark got us to Lalibela. I got a very nice guest room with lovely people who offered a welcome beer, which I gladly consumed. Since it was now 10:00 and I hadn’t eaten since 11:00 AM, I asked about some food.

The proprietor asked the waitress to prepare some shiro and injera, although the guest house doesn’t have a restaurant. Then he didn’t charge me for the food! How nice after such a trying day.







Sunday morning in Lalibela was spectacular! As I walked up to the churches, which are concentrated in a small area, I met a wedding parade. This was at 8:15 AM—their weddings are really early in the morning! There was drumming, clapping, singing, and dancing as they paraded down the hill.

As I continued up the

hill to the ticket office I passed a place where two goats were being butchered. Fresh meat!

Having bought my ticket, I passed into the compound where an outdoor church service was in progress. A man offered to show me the way to the first church. He told me he was not an official guide but he was most helpful the rest of the morning, including taking my hand to assist my climbing over rough terrain and high steps.

The first church was Bet Medhane Alam, the largest rock-hewn church on earth. It measures 100’ X 75’ and is 38’ tall. Imagine how much labor it took to carve all this with 34 rectangular columns outside and 38 inside that support the roof. Since the task of building or carving all of these churches in the 12th or 13th centuries was so monumental, legend has it that angels did it. My guidebook says that they must have been Ethiopian angels as the style is definitely Aksumite. There were little services going on in some of the churches.

Many local people were visiting, too.





I visited five more churches, all quite amazing, but then we saw St. George’s church, the granddaddy of them all, and the one you see on National Geographic or Discovery programs. It really was spectacular. It’s in the shape of a Greek Cross, the top being level with the surrounding ground. The church, then, was carved out of the rock, going down. One has to decend a good bit to get on the ground floor of the church.

Now why on earth do you suppose people went to all this work? It must have been infinitely harder than just quarrying stones and building a spectacular church.








By this time after visiting seven churches, I was

‘churched out’ with eyes glazed over and elected to do the remaining ‘southern group’ of four churches tomorrow. In spite of all the hassle in getting to Lalibela, it certainly was worth it and tremendously satisfying. I will spend one more day in Lalibela, and then fly back to Addis Ababa—the bus takes two days! That’s even a bit much for me!


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