17-18 Jan Gonder to Bahir Dar, Cycling Ethiopia

92km from Gonder to Addis Zemen (17 Jan)

95km from Addis Zemen to Bahir Dar (18 Jan)

12,963km so far

“Red, Gold and Green, colours like my dreams”* and Ethiopia really is like a dream. (with the odd minor nightmare to keep things real). It’s the 21st January and I am still in Bahir Dar with an upset stomach, but hopefully back on the road tomorrow.

We have enjoyed the Epiphany celebrations in both Gonder and Bahir Dar, which go on for days and involve a huge christian celebration of music, singing and dancing in the streets and clubs. While the history of Gonder dates back much further, Bahir Dar is a much larger city, but both are wonderful.  In Gonder, I walked around the castle of Fasilis, the ancient king, almost completely alone, breathing in the atmosphere and coming away with the clear picture that Ethiopia, like Egypt and Sudan, has had a much more glorious past than its recent history.

Fasilis Castle, Gondar
Fasilis Castle, Gondar

The people are very friendly, and have encouraged us to dance with them and I have started to pick up a few words of Amharic too.

There is poverty, particularly outside the cities, and obvious widespread prostitution in the cities, but it can mostly be avoided easily and you can just hang out and talk with the locals wherever you go. I have seen but nothing like the famine depicted on tv in the eighties and certainly far less begging with the exception of kids who also ask us for money or pens.

When we cycled out of Gonder we went downhill immediately and the day turned out to be so much easier than getting there. (why am I surprised? They build castles on top of hills, don’t they!) The road circles Lake Tana so the area is quite well irrigated farmland.  One highlight was when I  went through Koga on my Koga and stopped for a coca-cola 🙂

We had lovely gentle rolling hills until 48km when there was a big climb. (The rural landscape felt like riding in switzerland (but during a massive heatwave).  With green trees, sometimes even green grass, the very skinny cows and donkeys seem to have a much better deal here than in Sudan. As we climbed the first hill we even experienced our first black clouds, some distant thunder and felt a few drops of rain. After that the road (which is in very good condition) was mostly easy slopes and gradual descents until a big whopper of a mountain at 75km. The cars and trucks passing by were very amused to see us and we got thumbs ups, clapping and beeping of horns, although my favourite were the guys leaning out of buses with a puzzled face and a hand palms-up as if to say “what the hell are you doing that for?”.  A great view at the top made it well worth it, and then just an easy descent swooping down to the small town/village of Addis Zemen (good luck finding it on the map).

We slept again in an unmarked hotel, for just 40 birr and no bed bugs this time. There wasn’t anything happening in town so we enjoyed a beer and a decent sleep.

The road to Bahir Dar was if anything a little boring! Mostly flat, and easy for 90km (plus 5 to find the hotel). It was very exciting to be passed by a pack of Ethiopian cyclists going in the other direction and they were equally pleased to see us. The rest of the day was just more farms, villages, buna (coffee) and being swamped by kids every time we stopped. They literally stand and stare at you!

Picture 551

The celebrations in Bahir Dar have been great and everyone has been wearing white with the red, gold and green sashes. The women are beautiful and have the most amazing hairstyles. As they dance in the street, the men all carry sticks, mostly bamboo canes in the air and some being carried on shoulders, chanting and clapping. It has been infectious and we have joined in a few times.

Picture 560
Epiphany celebrations, Bahir Dar

A visit to the monastery on the lake was curious. We paid 150 birr (about 6 euros) each for a boat all to ourselves. The monastery itself cost another 100 birr but was just an uninteresting circular shed with a tin roof. If you go to the island, don’t bother with the monastery, save your money and just go and sit down and enjoy the peace and the sounds of the birds.  It amazes me that the natural beauty and peace of that island is taken for granted, while the ugly building is the part they think you want to see.

And sitting by Lake Tana at the very pleasant Lake Shore restaurant made for a very relaxing afternoon.

Blue steel by Lake Tana
Blue steel by Lake Tana

Also we have managed to find ATMs, and there are plenty of internet cafes, (but so far I have not found wifi or a computer which allows me to post photos).

If you want to meet wonderful people, amazing sights and an amazing culture, then you can just do the normal tourist holiday or even come with an organised cycling tour, or cycle but take flights and buses between the cities to avoid staying anywhere which doesn’t have modern facilities. If you want to do Ethiopia, with big hard hills, sights of poverty, dodgy hotels in villages with bed bugs, mosquitos, and very disgusting toilets, then come and cycle it our way. None of those minor nightmares stops Ethiopia feeling like a dream.

Tomorrow will be the start of the big push to Addis Ababa. We will not be going to see Lalibela (where the is a huge network of churches built in rocks) because it’s 300km off the route, but it will give me a great reason to come back one day with Paola 🙂

*Thankyou to Malcolm Crocker, for reminding me of the eighties classic Culture Club song  Karma Chameleon, which is unrelated to the colours of Ethiopia, with a video set in Mississippi, which was filmed in Weybridge. Random!