Independence in Iraqi Kurdistan

I have felt for the Kurdish people for a long time – one of the largest groups of people in the world without their own homeland. The Kurds in Iraq have managed to carve out a relatively autonomous ‘country’ with clear borders with Iraq and Turkey. However, none of their neighbours want them to be independent – the Iraqis want the Kurd’s oil reserves, and the Turks and Iranians don’t want the numerous Kurds within their borders seeking independence. It felt like an interesting time to visit – a week before a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Independence the Kurds believe they are entitled to, not least for their recent efforts in battling IS, and for providing shelter to 850,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing IS (a huge number of refugees for a country of 4 million people). I wasn’t sure what to expect!

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I flew via Vienna, and was unsurprised to find the plane filled with aid workers and military personnel. My plane neighbour (Lars from Norway) has lived in Erbil on and off for over a decade. At the beginning he says he was more hopeful and he worked in humanitarian work with living humans. Over recent years, he has found it more challenging to be hopeful and has shifted his emphasis to working with the deceased – specifically identifying the DNA of bones in mass graves. Horrible work, but one that gives family members relief as they can finally know if their loved ones are dead or alive, even if it isn’t the outcome they hoped for.

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Central Bank

Erbil airport was a surprise. Aircon, plentiful cash machines, and a nice cafe. Only the VIPs 4WDs were allowed to approach the main terminal, the rest of us were herded on to an old bus to the pick up area about half a km away – I am assuming for security reasons.

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Muzzafariya Minaret

I stayed at a great hotel in town – the Erbil View. They picked me up from the airport, and I dropped my stuff off and headed out for a long walk around town. It is fair to say there aren’t many jaw dropping sites in Erbil. In the 40 degree heat, I strolled slowly through the streets (not much in the way of paths) and tried not to melt, and visited the Citadel and the Muzzafariya Minaret and the Hot air balloon in Minaret park.

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Hot air balloon in Minaret park

I noticed hordes of people with Kurdish flags heading in one direction and an overwhelming number of soldiers with guns. This is normally a good signal to high tail it in the opposite direction. Today I decided to trust my instincts and follow them – there were plenty of women in the crowd, every body was drinking sprite or Fanta, and I felt really safe when someone gave me a flag and the next person gave me a hat with the Kurdish flag on it. It turns out I had accidentally happened upon the big Independence rally in Shanidar park. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I like political crowds even less. But these were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.

People kept inviting me to dance with them and offering me food! It was like going to a super friendly wedding. I stayed for a couple of hours until the music stopped and the speeches started, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.

The next morning, I got up early to try and see a bit more before the heat got overwhelmingly oppressive. A long walk out to Sami Abdul Rahman Park to see the park and the monument to the the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack. It is aptly inscribed with the phrase ‘freedom is not free’.

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Freedom is not free

From there I strolled back to town, and wandered around Shar Garden Square and the Qayssarria Bazaars, endeavouring to resist the huge array of fluorescent coloured sweets. It was hot as all hell, and I retreated into a shady tea shop full of old men (you never see women in these places, they are too busy working), where I had tea so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.

From there I wandered up to the Kurdish Textile Museum – probably not a global museum highlight – and then strolled around the citadel. And then I kept walking until I ran out of steam. If I had more time I would have gone to Lalesh, which was recommended to me on the plane. Next time! And then, after an all too brief visit, it was back to work. I would happily recommend a visit to Erbil for an offbeat weekend – it really isn’t that far away. People are extremely friendly , democratic, non secular and they deserve their own democratic leadership just like the rest of us.

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View from the citadel

Erbil, 17 September 2017

Note a week later – the referendum was held. Nine out of ten people voted for independence. Turkey threatened to cut the pipeline that allows Iraqi Kurdistan to export oil to the world. Iran and Iraq banned flights to Erbil, and most Western airlines have ceased flights (a challenge for the western military troops who are deployed against IS, as their base is near Erbil). The ban continues two weeks later when I am writing this, and rumours continue that Baghdad will try and retake Kirkuk

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View of the citadel

From the Observer – While all this may sound rather complicated, in truth, the current problem is straightforward. The Kurds of northern Iraq have proved loyal allies of the western powers since the era of Saddam Hussein. Unusually in a region riven by bigotry and hate, they share the secular, democratic, gender-inclusive and humanitarian values espoused by western society. Whatever the view of Britain and its partners on the wisdom of holding the independence vote, they now have an urgent duty, moral and practical, to robustly support and defend the Kurds as the dark forces of regression and reaction gather.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/30/observer-view-on-kurdish-referendum-independence

My thoughts are with the Kurds and I hope we in the west support them to their rightful independence!

Mali – Advice for trekking in the Dogon

I would rate trekking in the Dogon as the very best thing I did in West Africa, and probably in the top five things I did in the whole of Africa. I cannot recommend it highly enough.  The sights were amazing and the people were wonderfully friendly and welcoming…… my top tips!

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Yougadougourou

My favourite places to visit

 

  • Yougoudougourou – best up close tellum houses and a fabulous gorge to traverse
  • Youga Piri – lovely setting and view with great tellum houses
  • Kani Bonzon – historically interesting and little visited, the first village settled in the Dogon
  • Ende, Ireli, Kani Kombole – nice well kept valley villages with good hillside ruins and nice mosques
  • Begnimato – plateau village set in spectacular rock scenery
  • Koro, Youga Na, Soninghe and Tiogou – little visited by tourists, these offer an entirely authentic village experience (no cokes to be found)

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Favourite hiking sections

  • Natural tunnel path from Soninghe to Ende,
  • Ascent from Djindalou to Aindelou through a hidden chasm in the rock
  • Climb from Youga Na to Yougadougourou through the narrow canyons and round to Youga Piri jumping over the insanely deep crevasses

In my view the plateau in general is better hiking terrain than the valley, and I really like going up and down the cliff rather than just walking along the valley, it is much more interesting (albeit more strenuous)

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Getting organised/guides/transport etc

Mali is one of the few places I have been where I prebooked everything. As far as I could tell it would be easy and safe (if time consuming and uncomfortable) to get round the country with bush taxis. I didn’t have a lot of time and had overly heeded the warnings of the foreign office and so arranged private transport everywhere (which was expensive but worth it).
I cannot recommend more highly the services of Monique Teggelove at Papillon Reizen. She was amazing, crafted a great itinerary for me, made sure it all flowed seamlessly, and paired me up with the perfect Dogon guide for my fitness and interest levels (Mamadou Traore from Bandiagara who was hands down the best guide I have ever had in my life!!!! – thoughtful, lovely, kind, fit, wise, delightful and he knew everybody). I even got to have a divine lunch with her and her partner Ibrahim on the river whilst I was passing through Segou! I found Monique through friends who had also worked with her and were equally complimentary. If you want to go to Mali, definitely give her a call.

6174638336_img_0544.jpgWhen to go

I think you would need to be a masochist, a desert nomad, or in training for the marathon des sables to come in May when I did (temperatures in the 40s). I loved it, but suspect it would have been easier in November/December when the days are sunny and warm and the nights are cool. I didn’t see a single tourist in five days as it was the hot season, but given current politics I don’t think you risk being overrun with tourists even in December.

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A couple of suggestions

  • Dogon villages have been hit hard by the lack of tourists in the past five years, some more so than others. As a result I spent more money than I normally would buying drinks and souvenirs, and I honestly didn’t even negotiate unless the price was insane (I was once asked for €140 for something which I had already been told was €10). Ask your guide which villages would benefit most from your custom – Yougapiri and Yougadougourou stood out to me as places where living was difficult – and buy your souvenirs there
  • Villages which have seen frequent tourists are evident from the kids asking for bonbons and bidons (lollies and bottles). The locals hate the tourists for creating this dynamic. Remember that in Europe a stranger coming into town giving away sweets to kids would be arrested for being a paedophile. If you want to do something nice for the village, go give some money or supplies to the chief or the school teacher
  • Your guide will likely be a devout Muslim. I only mention this as I think it is good manners to bear in mind that he (and it will be a he) will need to pray during the day. I let my guide know I was always happy to stop whenever for the 5-10 minutes that takes. I had a drink and he would pray. If your guide suggests a five minute pause, he probably wants to pray and doesn’t want to say so, so take the five minute breaks when offered
  • Facilities are basic, obviously don’t expect running water or electricity or much in the way of sanitation. You can wash, but remember that a women or girl has carried the water up to a kilometre for you to do so, and that the wells aren’t always reliable in the desert, so use water sparingly.

6241675440_img_0154.jpgItems I would definitely pack again

  • Sawyer water filter and platypus…. pump water was high quality and mineral water is rarely available, definitely not available in remoter villages and most people porter it in. It’s faster, cheaper and better for the environment to filter your own
  • Nuun zero electrolyte tablets – a must given how much salt and minerals I was sweating out
  • Lightweight trekking Umbrella – without question the thing that saved me from heat stroke. Hats only shade your face and I also find they make my head to hot. I would have not made it without the umbrella
  • Blow up sea to summit pillow – I can’t sleep without a good pillow and this is the business
  • Silk sleeping bag liner – helpful for a few cold nights and when the mattress wasn’t super clean. In December you would want a summer weight sleeping bag. Note I considered taking a thermarest and am glad I didn’t as never needed it
  • Robust battery pack – it might be possible to charge devices occasionally off the solar panels at the camps but I found it easier to carry my heavy but robust battery which can charge my iPhone nine times
  • Apart from that I took just two changes of clothes, basic toiletries, toilet paper (not available) and a few snacks. I rinsed and dried my clothes each night (using less than a cup of water). Snacks are not necessary to bring as there were places to buy peanuts and fruit in most villages, but do try and take lots of small money with you otherwise you might need to wait an hour when you buy something for them to find change.

Bandiagara, Mali, May 21, 2017

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Mali – in the ancient town of Djenne

Djenne a home of the world’s largest mud mosque, a famous Monday market and protected from the surrounding flood plains by a virgin sacrifice! What’s not to like!
Djenne is famous for having the worlds largest mud mosque! It’s a lovely small town set in the middle of flood plains so depending on what time of the year you visit, you might drive in or you might take the ferry, as Djenne becomes an island in the rainy season. The locals say Djenne has never flooded though as a younger girl was sacrificed to ensure this would never happen (‘of course it had to be a girl I said to my guide’). You can visit her tomb on the edge of the village.


The town is lovely to walk around, with life very much conducted in the open. Doors aren’t closed and everyone knows everyone’s business. Kids run from house to house, dodging the gunk and water in the open drainage system which runs in the middle of every alleyway. Given its the height of the summer it doesn’t always smell great but at least the sewerage systems are all self contained in each house (effectively they just dig the deepest hole possible for the toilet and use a pump to empty it out every ten years).


People here are incredibly friendly and we’re helpful with directions every time I got lost! And kids ran after me saying ‘toubab, photo’ most of the day. None of them wanted money they just wanted to check out what they looked like on screen. And, thankfully, no one asked for bonbons.

 

Fully loaded truck arriving at Djenne market
Djenne also has one of the liveliest markets in Mali every Monday, and luckily I was there to see it. I was up early and started wandering around town around 7am. Spaces were filling quickly and enormous overladen trucks were arriving bursting with sacks of goods, with passengers packed on top, and various carts and stall fixtures hanging off the side. It took a good hour to unload each truck (and there were many coming from all directions).

 

 

Wholesaling mangoes
Young local boys were marshalled with their hand carts to take goods into the centre of the market for the stall holders. Often in the rainy season this process takes even longer as the trucks must stop at the outskirts of town, unload onto donkey driven carts, which are then transferred onto handcarts. It’s an opportunity for everyone to make a little money.
At the same time the bush taxis arrived disgorging their passengers, mostly women buying and selling. Bush taxi conductors are good business men who are geniuses at space optimisation. Everything and everyone fits in. More importantly he always remembers who has paid and who hasn’t. It is typical for people to pay for the transport at the end of the day, after their sales have been made. If they have had a bad day, they can normally pay the following week – the conductor won’t forget.

 

 

Kids practicing their Quranic verses
Against this frenzied back drop, local life goes on and I watched the young boys and girls in their separate groups at their pre breakfast Quran lessons, memorising passages from their tablets (the stone version not the electronic kind).

 

 

Market stall
The goods are typical of a west African market and each category has its section – live sheep (typically run by men), chickens, abundant displays of fruit melons, mango and cucumbers, staples like rice, beans and millet, spices, herbs, fresh fish, smoked fish.

 

 

Smoked fish
Then of course you have the obligatory clothing section which is probably half football gear – everyone wears football shirts here, from the 2 year old to the 60 year old lady, and they all love Messi and Barca. Then the second hand European clothing stands – if you ever wondered where your charity shop donation of the Zara tshirt went, you can rest assured it is probably getting a useful second life in west Africa somewhere.  

 


Finally the Chinese tat section – plastic sandals, mobile phone chargers, cheap electricals etc…. the locals say that the Chinese perfectly understand the African mentality to buy cheap, even though they know the products don’t last. Adjacent to the market are the services… skinny men under a tarp with ancient foot operated singer sewing machines, the bike repair men and the ever present mobile phone vendors. Dotted throughout the market are women selling water, drinks and deep fried donuts (the perfect sustenance for a hot day).

The highlight of town is the grand mosque, which they ‘re-mud’ every year before the rainy season. It is a spectacular building which changes colour during the day with the light. Historically non muslims are not allowed to enter. However, I was approached by the son of town chief who told me they need money for ongoing repairs, and if I was willing to make a donation he could show me around. I passed.

 

The Grande Mosque is the backdrop for the market
It got hotter and hotter as the morning wore on, and even observing the action from a shady bench was a sweaty endeavour. I had a wee break in the blessed AC in my hotel, and then joined the lovely Ibrahim, his wife and daughter for lunch in their house. Local river fish and rice, followed by more mango….. it was delicious. The highlight of lunch was their 10 month old daughter who was gorgeous, however whenever she looked at me she started crying….. she hadn’t seen a toubab before.

 

 

View of Grande Mosque from neighbouring building 
Later in the afternoon I wandered back to the market. ‘La pluie est le poussiere menace’ I was told…. ie there was a storm coming. The dust started blowing and people started packing up earlier than usual. I bought a few supplies – some local biscuits, more mangoes, a melon and some water bags. The long winded process of the early morning happened in reverse with everything being stuffed back into trucks and buses.

 


The poorer kids in town were crowded around the fruit stalls gorging themselves on the rotten mangoes which wouldn’t sell another day….. apparently they often get quite sick doing this but still can’t help themselves. The pile of rotten discarded mango skins was almost obscured by the flies. By late evening there was little evidence apart from discarded plastic that anything had happened at all in town that day, and Djenne would stay her sleepy habitual self until the next Monday.

 

Dried onions
Additional notes
I stayed at campement Houber which is located in town and very close to the mosque. It is basic but clean and had AC. Don’t expect water all day as there are regular shortages.

 

I had a local guide when I was there, arranged through Papillon Reizen. You don’t really need a guide, but it isn’t a terrible idea as I would have gotten pretty lost in the windy alleys without him, plus he took me to the great viewpoints and fed me s delicious lunch

May 22, Djenne, Mali

Mali – Day 4 in the Dogon, Neni, Ibi, Koundou, Youga Na, Youga Dogorou, Youga Piri, Yendouma (28k, 38 degrees)/ Day 5 to Tiogou, Sanga (13k, 40 degrees)

I got up early with the rain plopping gently on my face at five am. I hoped it would pour but it didn’t! The sky was dark and grey, the air heavy with humidity and not a breath of wind. I was so ready for the rain to come but it just wasn’t happening.

Sign proclaiming that the village no longer practices female circumcision

We set off for Youga Na after breakfast (which I found out later our host had gone off on his bike at 4am to get bread for as there wasn’t any in the village – such is Dogon hospitality). The grey clouds providing some respite from the sun but the humidity more than making up for it on the sweat factor. It was an easy two hours to do the 10k to Koundou, stopping to chat to various locals on the way through the small villages.

Chief of Koundou outside the talking house

We passed several signs exclaiming proudly that the villages had ceased conducting female circumcision. I asked if this was true. Man said no, but you get money for putting the sign up ! And then we started talking about aid in Africa, which we both agreed was largely useless. Some good things happen, particularly building wells and practical infrastructure.  But largely aid is perceived by the locals to be white people driving round in nice 4WDs, giving money to a select few, and nothing actually changes for the lives of most people.

Koundou talking house

We stopped for five minutes (aka half an hour) in Koundou. It has the loveliest hotel/camping along the valley and they haven’t had more than a handful of toubab clients for years. It is really heartbreaking to see these villages having invested in building tourist infrastructure that they can no longer use. It is not as if tourism was making locals rich, but in most cases it was elevating these villages slightly above subsistence level. I hope the war sorts itself out soon, or people come back in any case as the war is a long way north from here. Dogon country is honestly fantastic, though perhaps I would like it less if it was inundated with French tourists :-).

A lady I chatted to while waiting for change at Koundou

Another five km stroll along the valley and we arrived at lower Youga Na, our lunch spot. We dropped our bags and climbed up the hill to upper Youga Na, a lovely animist village which hasn’t seen a tourist for a few years they told me. After that, it was 11am i.e. time to lie down and sweat quietly until lunch.

the kids of upper Youga Na photo bombing my shot of the talking house

Lunch was more couscous with onions and chilli powder, followed by more heart stoppingly strong tea! And back to lying down…. no shaded rooftop today, but there is a patch of shade under the porch, sadly in view of most of the town…. nonetheless somewhere to wait out the heat. There is not much of a breeze here, so I lay as still as possible trying to stay cool, with the village orchestra in the background – goats bleating, women pounding millet, kids laughing and the old men gossiping in the Toguna, and I could see the heat shimmering up from the plain.

Youga Na ladies pounding millet

At three it was still baking but the itinerary said we had 15k to go, so I roused Man and off we went with a local guide. It was a steep climb up to Yougadougourou, fine in normal circumstances but a sweat fest in the heat. Most of the climb I spent worrying about a dodgy Dogon ladder that I was going to have to pass to get to the top of the cliff – more on that later. I have figured out now when Man needs a break on the way up a hill, as he always stops and says nice view 🙂 and sits down. It is always a nice view 🙂

Spectacular Tellem houses of Yougadougourou set high in the cliff

Yougadougourou is one of the most famous of the Dogon villages as it is here that the Dogon discovered the Dog Star – Sirius B which appears every sixty years, and all of their rituals run on a sixty year cycle. Western astronomers are at a loss to explain how the Dogon knew of the star hundreds of years before westerners could verify it on a telescope – they deduced it was there in the 50s because of the irregular behaviour of Sirius, but only verified it on a telescope in 1970.
For me, Yougadougourou was fascinating as it was a chance to get up close to some eleventh century tellum houses without having to climb down a rope. The village is poorer than most around here and doesn’t have easy access to clean water which makes things challenging.

Yougoudougourou Eleventh century Tellem Houses

Climbing up from Yougadougourou to reach the clifftop required navigating some narrow canyons, steep rocky bits and a dodgy Dogon ladder (basically a tree stump with a few steps for tiny feet cut into it). After all the fear it was actually fine as some kind soul had constructed a barrier to stop anyone who fell off the ladder falling down the canyon. When the worst that can happen is that I break my leg, I tend not to worry that much. It was such a non event after all the worry that I even forgot to take a photo.

Climbing from Yougadougourou to the plateau
View down to the Gondo plain from the plateau

We hopped along the clifftop and then navigated the steep descent to Youga Piri. Like the previous village they hadn’t seen a toubab for two years, so I was quickly surrounded by kids shouting ‘jiggy bara’ – white man in the the local dialect – oh, yes there are 10 languages and 600 dialects in the Dogon so I seem to be learning lots of ways of saying white person. The village of animists was also built right below the historical Tellum village, and it was wonderful to walk under the 11th century ruins.

Ancient houses of Youga Piri

The going was steep and rocky to descend, but as I hopped from rock to rock I reminded myself of the women who have to climb up and down every day with 30kg of water on their heads.

Kids at Youga Piri calling me a jiggybara

From the cliff base we waded through the sand across the valley to Yendouma, our stop for the night. As always, I am the only guest (the first toubab in three years) so was quickly installed with a Coke and a seat on the roof. Within five minutes I was being stared at by kids on every surrounding rooftop…. all excitedly yelling down to their friends that there was a toubab in town. I like these kids though, none of them have asked me for anything so far.

Youga Piri viewed from the cliff base (its pretty well camouflaged)

We are staying at chiefs youssefs house. He has 14 kids (two wives), but found it hard to have them all under the same roof so wife number one lives in a different town with the first seven children. He did laugh when I asked if he could remember all their names. He has a booming voice and commands things from his roof top…. the Coke arrived after he yelled down at one of his kids to go get one. Long and loud conversations happen with his neighbours around me…..sound carries easily here.
It was another wonderful day, I love this landscape even if the heat is sweltering, I can only imagine how lovely it is in the cool season. Yougadougourou is stunning and worth making the trip for even if that was the only thing you came to see.

Tiougou lady who asked for a photo

After an excellent dinner of spaghetti and chicken, and more mangoes, I was in bed by 9 listening to the village slowly quietening down around me. I decided Man needs a break so we are sleeping in tomorrow until 7.

Tioguo ladies who got me to help them do some pounding

I woke up baking at midnight, the clouds had rolled in and there was no breeze! I went to the loo, passing a bunch of guys marshalling their donkeys with torches (not sure why given the hour) and found they had locked the loo for the night (it was adjacent to the village square). Hmmmmm. Oh well, I found a quiet alley and peed as fast as I could before the guys with the torches came back. I couldn’t get back to sleep so found our left-over hand wash water from last night, dunked my tshirt in it and put it back on. It helped. I finally fell asleep around three and then woke up again at five to find most of the village staring at me from the surrounding rooftops. Good thing they don’t have cameras.

Tioguo ladies who got me to help them do some pounding

We set off at 7am to Sanga, our final destination, just a few hours walk! It was baking hot, and the fried donuts I had eaten for breakfast were rolling around in my stomach threatening to make a reappearance. We had a brief pause in Tiogou as we climbed back up to the plateau, were some ladies invited me to pound some millet with them. With the sun pounding down and not a lick of a breeze, I was grateful when we made it to the outskirts of Sanga to meet Amadou and his air conditioned 4wd 🙂 at 9.30am.  Onward to Djenne
May 20-21 2017, Sanga, Mali

Mali – Day 3 in the Dogon, Konshugo, Dourou, Nombori, Idyeli Na, Komokani, Tereli, Amani, Ireli (31k, 44 Celsius)

I woke up at three a little bit chilly, and I didn’t have a blanket so I grabbed another mattress and chucked it on top of me and went back to sleep until five. After breakfast of mango jam, laughing cow and bread we wandered along the stunning rocky escarpment to Konshugo.

Dourou well

This is a bit the conundrum of the Dogon – the landscape on the top of the escarpment is incredible, wonderful rocky formations and mini canyons everywhere with hidden features, but the downside of taking the literal high road is that you don’t get to see the cliff itself with the wonderful tellum houses clinging to the side. Walking in the valley gives you that and it is flat, but the path is sandy and hot and without the endless views over the plain. We are doing a good job of mixing up the two….

Near Dourou

After an hour and a half along the clifftop we reached Dourou – a large and not particularly lovely village, but we stopped to chat to a few locals and then walked some more through the surreal rocks. We eventually started the descent to Nombori. It was hot and I was struggling to concentrate. Unbelievably it was hotter than yesterday. As I was navigating my way down two ladders hanging on the hillside thinking ‘shit this is a bit steep’, Man put things into perspective by telling me this is the route the village women take to come up to the market carrying at least one child and with a 30kg load on their heads. Yup – time for me to harden up.

Descent to Nombori
Descent to Nombori

We reached the bottom and I had to have a shade break. I’d had the umbrella up since 6.45am, but I needed both hands on the way down the hill and by the time I reached the bottom I thought I was going to melt. Even the locals aren’t moving much today! Most of the men we are passing are horizontal in the shade even at 9.30am (of course the women are still working). Ten minutes of sitting, and my core temperature had dropped below 100 and I was ready to go again. We took it ‘deggy deggy’ (Dogon for slowly slowly) and ambled along the side of a dried up river bed with beautiful red dunes on one side and the red Dogon cliffs on the other. Beautiful.

Along the dried up river bed

We made a couple of my friends along the way who treated us to some baby mangoes. We ate as we walked with juice dripping down our faces! Honestly the mangos at home don’t taste anything like this. It is almost enough to stop me dreaming about ice or cold drinks (not quite).

Lunchtime nap spot

We made it to Komokani around 10.45 and decided to stop as the next village is an hour away and it is already baking. I had two warm cokes with salt mixed in and a litre of electrolytes and lay down in the shade. They are experts here at figuring out the coolest place to rest, so I am on the roof under an awning with a mattress. Luxury, although I am still sweating buckets lying completely still.

Heading to the Tereli market

Lunch was more mutton, but this time with couscous. It tasted great but like most meals here was pretty gritty, and there were lots of bone hunks! After a bit more lying about sweating, we managed to rouse ourselves out of the heat stupor at 3.15 to head 4K to the market in Tereli.

Tereli market

The market was lovely, but I must confess that the most exiting thing about Tereli was that it had a fridge and so I had my first cold drink in three days. A coke and a sprite in quick succession. I hate coke, I never drink it, occasionally having a Coke Zero if I am super thirsty, but here it works magic to keep me hydrated and not thirsty if I throw some salt in. The chief of Tereli spent a good 20 minutes trying to persuade me to have kids…. his logic being that we all need someone to leave stuff to. I told him I wouldn’t care when I was dead, which he found extremely perplexing :-).

Ireli – the conical cliffside houses are just visible midway up

After chatting with the locals at the market in Tereli, we headed off to Ireli. It was a long 7k on the sandy track which made it feel like every step took twice as much effort as normal. Ireli is also an exceptionally long village, and it was 2k from the beginning of the village to where we are staying – it felt like a long way at the end of the day :-).

Sand dunes across the river bed

Ireli is perched on a hillside, with the new huts cascading down the hillside under the ancient cliffside houses that the Tellum used to live in. The houses are carved out of the side of the cliffs in ridiculous places and they used to climb down ropes from the cliff tops to get to their front doors. It is really stunning. The only downside is that as we are at the bottom of the hill, as I wrote this I had a large group of kids standing up the hill, on a rooftop looking down on me, chanting ‘ca va, la bonbon’ (basically asking for lollies) for a full ten minutes. There are upsides and downsides of being the lone tourist…. sometimes the attention is lovely, sometimes (especially when I am hot and tired) it can be a bit overwhelming.

Clouds threatening at Ireli

We stayed with the Chiefs son in a lovely large compound which actually had a tap with hot water to wash in – amazing. A couple more salty cokes, some delicious couscous and even more mangoes later and I was ready for bed.
However it was a bit of a challenge deciding where to sleep. The sahel winds had whipped up a sand storm off the Gondo plain and it was impossible to be outside with all the dust, we were also possibly expecting some rain, but I just couldn’t bear to sleep in the room as it was a baking hot sauna. So, we waited it out in the chiefs living room which at least had a breeze until 8.30 when I really wanted to sleep. The room was still a furnace so I took my chances on the roof with the dust, but left all my stuff in the room as the chief was pretty sure it was going to rain. I had to stop writing on the roof as couldn’t see anything with the dust howling in my face and getting in my eyes.

May 19, 2017 Ireli, Mali

Mali – day 2 in the Dogon – Soninghe, Ende, Yabatalou, Doundjouro, Aindelou, Begnimato (30k, 42 Celsius)

The donkeys started braying at 4am and the cocks joined them soon after. I hadn’t slept brilliantly but at least I was cool and had no mozzie bites. It was blissfully cool this morning. I started packing up at 5 as breakfast was scheduled for 5.30, and we were supposed to hit the road by 6 west African time. So, we did pretty well heading out at 6.30.

 

Chief in the Togu na (talking house) Soninghe
While it had felt blissfully cool, the moment we started walking I started sweating, and didn’t stop all day. After an hour or so we arrived in lovely Soninghe, a tiny village with no road access. I went to visit the chief, and the various talking houses (togu na) where the locals resolve disputes….all manned by old men with pipes and wonderful wrinkled faces. We also visited a lovely Animist temple. I love how the muslims, christians and animists can all get along peacefully.

 

 

Animist priest in front of temple at Soninghe
We strolled along the escarpment saying good morning to the women pounding the sorghum, one got me to have a go – it’s a decent arm work out.

 

 

Pounding sorghum in the early morning- Soninghe
After an hour we descended down a steep canyon and through a natural tunnel to get to the valley. It was stunning, like Utah but with a few more trees. I was lucky, most tourists aren’t agile enough to come this way apparently, it was steep, rocky and baking hot but worth it.

 

 

Men in front of the Toguna in Soninghe
We stopped for an hour in Ende. Man caught up with his relatives and I climbed up the hill with a young guide to check out the amazing village wedged in the side of the cliff. The views were stunning and it was worth the baking heat to get up the big hill. Ende is a big village with road access, and you can see they are still hopefully awaiting the return of the tourists, they still have souvenirs shops.

 

 

Beautiful dogon gate – Ende
A few women tried nicely to sell me some things but I politely declined…. given I am carrying everything myself I don’t want to add to the load. From Ende we set off up the valley in the baking heat along the cliff base.

 

 

Traditional house paintings – Ende
Animal teeth embedded in the walls of the cliff houses – Ende
By the time we had arrived in Yabatalou (20k from Djiguibombo) at 11.30 I had drunk 6.5 litres of water and electrolytes and was still thirsty…. not surprising given it was over 40 degrees. I poured a cup of water over my head, blew up my pillow and lay down in the shade to cool down and wait for lunch. Lunch is a long affair as they have to make a fire, and we aren’t in any hurry as Man doesn’t want to leave until 3 at the earliest as neither of us want to bake in the heat of the day!

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Lunch was preceded by the wonderful local tea. It’s so strong I am pretty sure it is thoroughly cleaning out all my pipes, and so sweet it sets my teeth on edge. I find it amusing to share the same glass with everyone in the courtyard, and it is obligatory to drink three cups, I hope I am not giving them any germs!
Lunch was another good greasy salty pasta, just what I needed. Followed by another astoundingly good mango. Then Man sorted out a mattress on the roof in the shade and sent me off to lie down and do nothing for a few hours. Doing nothing still made me sweat :-).

 

Doundjouro Market
We summoned up the courage to leave the shade at 3pm. Man had tempted me by talk of a colourful village market at Doundjouro, 2.5 k further on. It was fantastic. I got mildly freaked out by the stares at the beginning, and then realised it was my shorts that were causing the problem (even though they went past my knees) so I whipped out my head scarf and tied it round my waist to cover any inkling of my lady bits and the locals became much more friendly. After a couple of just ok meals, Man used this as a good opportunity to make sure we had a good dinner tonight. Fresh mutton! So fresh they offered to throw in the head too. Hmmmmmm. And some more mangoes.

 

 

Aindelou village from above- with the animist temple to the left
Man gave me the option of a steep uphill climb to the top of the cliff to the next village, or an easier route to our eventual destination. Up the steep hill we went. It was a stunning well hidden path from the valley to the top of the escarpment through a narrow cleft! And Aindelou was worth the climb, a lovely red village!

 

Benigmato village camouflage in between the rocks – the one on the left represents the catholics
From there we wandered through the surreal rocky landscape to the village of Begnimato. The village has three sections – christians, muslims and animists. And there are three towering rocks in front of the village to represent each religion. We stayed with Daniel the village chief in the Christian section. By the time I arrived I had already drunk 11 litres of water and was still thirsty. I had sweated so much that my tshirt was white with salt, and I hadn’t peed for four hours. Luckily Daniel sells coke, so I had two with salt thrown in which seems to have helped.

 

 

Monkey skulls on the animist house at Benigmato
I had a chat to a few local women. Like much of the world the women here work harder than the men! They dont stop from when they wake up to when they sleep – carrying water, gathering wood to cook, managing the garden, cooking, cleaning, going to market. These women are as strong as oxen and I saw many of them breastfeeding on the go, while carrying substantial loads. The men here work quite hard too, and most men were busy a lot of the day, but the definitely had time to lie around drinking beer and smoking their pipes in the village talking houses.

 

 

Men walking home from the market
Dinner arrived eventually around 8.30. The stew was delicious, the mangoes even better. By nine pm I was on a mattress on the roof ready to snore! I lay there watching the stars and the lightning far in the east and tried to ignore the donkeys. What an amazing day!
Begnimato, May 18, 2017

 

Benigmato at dawn with the ladies carrying the first water of the day

Mali – day 1 in the Dogon, Kani Kombole, Kani Bonjon, Koro and Djiguibombo (20k, 38 Celsius)

After just one afternoon I was in love with Dogon country….where I was the first tourist in six years to visit one of the more remote villages! I can’t recommend a visit more highly!

 

Classic Dogon door Kani Kombole

The Dogon is a world apart from Mali, even more traditional, and I suspect many customs haven’t changed in hundreds of years. I am lucky, as I will get to see all of the tourist highlights of the Dogon during my trip…. four days, 125 km of hiking. Not much by my standards but the average temperatures at the moment are in the 40s so I expect it might be a bit more challenging. It is a huge shame that tourism has all but stopped here since the war broke out in 2012, and the foreign office still advises against all travel here. I was lucky I had had some friends who had visited earlier in the year and assured me it was extremely safe and one of their highlights of west Africa! They weren’t wrong!

 

 

Cows and carvings – Kani Kombole

I came into Mali over land from Burkina Faso, a border very few tourists cross. It was weird entry, they didn’t believe the visa stamp I showed them was actually from Mali and they kept trying to point to the Turkmenistan stamp. After several people scrutinised it, including the station chief, then decided it was ok. Oddly, they then didn’t give me an entry stamp.

 

 

Mud Mosque – Kani Kombole

We were the only car on the road between Koro and Kani Kombole, the start of the hike. There was a smattering of motorbikes but most people were in wagons drawn by donkeys or emaciated horses. It set the right scene for arriving in the Pays Dogon.
I met my charming guide, Mamadou (‘Man’) in Kani Kombole, a decent sized village with 4wd access to the highway. Man has an enormous friendly grin and legs as long as a giraffe. By all accounts he is the strongest walker in the Dogon, and seems happy to do some decent distances (significantly more than most tourists do).

 

 

Cliffside houses – Kani Kombole

We had a quick look around the village – my first sight of the houses built into the cliff side. As the dangers from animals and people have receded the villagers have started moving down to the base of the cliff.

 

 

Cheeky kids – Kani Kombole

In Kani Kombole the village in the valley was lovely with a lovely mud mosque, some wonderful carvings and beautiful baobabs.
We headed off on our hike. Luckily it was not too hot i.e. It was only 37 degrees. When there was a breeze and I had my umbrella up it was bearable on the flat, but climbing up the cliff in the full sun without a breeze was a killer. On the way I learnt the Dogon way of saying hello. It’s basically hello, how are you, how is your father, your mother, your children, your goats, your cows etc etc, with a full set of responses, finished with a ‘everyone is good’. It’s long winded, but sounds very musical, and they have made it efficient as you don’t have to stop when you talk, you just keep walking.

 

 

Sacred baobab – Kani Bonzon

We hiked up the cliff to Kani Bonzon – the very first village built in the Dogon in 1100. It is not on the tourist circuit and they hadnt seen a tourist for six years. The kids were terrified of me, but eventually warmed up. The village folk are principally animists but the three Muslim families had joined together to build a mosque. Sadly there was no well or pump, so I had to eke out my 1 litre of water for the next 7k.
I was extremely happy to arrive in Koro as was out of water and my lips were dry. I am not at all acclimatised to the heat!

 

 

Traditional weaving – Kani Bonzon

Apparently most tourists use porters to carry their mineral water, but it has created a problem where every village has kids asking for the ‘bidons’ – the bottles, literally the greeting is ‘ca va, bidon?’. I am carrying all my own stuff and so am drinking treated well water. But unfortunately my water treatment bottle cracked and I have no chemicals left, just as well I bought a back up sawyer filter. Fingers crossed for no giardia! The village kids watched in awe as I sucked down 2 litres in ten minutes.

 

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View of the Gondo plain from the plateau

They were not expecting us in Koro – there is no phone signal here. Man gracefully let me know lunch might take a long time and will be very simple. I assured him that I was happy that we would get food, whatever it might be, whenever it might come, and would not be surprised if it took 2 hours. Apparently he has had a few tourists who were surprised to show up in a remote village and not be able to order from a menu. I have been in west Africa before and am just grateful that there might be some food.

Male barns – Koro

I was given a seat of honour outside the village chiefs house and was surrounded by kids and and eventually by most of the adults in the village….., We sat in the shade and were entertained by the kids until a pretty decent pasta lunch arrived. We shared from one bowl and ate Muslim style with our right hands after having a quick wash in the bucket. And then we waited 40 minutes for the kettle to boil to make tea :-), and good tea it was, though in African style it had a bucket of sugar in it and we shared one cup between is (although being the guest of honour at least I get to go first :-))

the cool boys of Koro

From Koro it was a short stroll to Djiguibombo, 5k took us an hour and it was blissfully cool (about 32 degrees). Djiguibombo is lovely but has definitely seen a few tourists as within about five minutes I was surrounded by every kid in the village asking for bonbons. I had some fun chasing them up the street, and then played the usual game of taking their photos and showing them to them. This is genuinely the easiest way to entertain west African kids who never get to see photos of themselves.

Koro girl

I stayed at the chiefs house, as that appears to be the custom. I had the luxury of an African shower (half a bucket of water and a cup – which is all you really need). The chief is a lovely dude with two wives, twelve kids and too many grandkids to count. He is also the local healer and while waiting for dinner he treated a variety of local kids to some traditional healing (to an outsider it looked like he was stroking them and then spitting on their chests). Man had a go too, but I wasn’t in need of any healing.

Koro church

After a dinner of rice and fish sauce, and the best mango I have ever eaten, I climbed up the precarious Dogon ladder to sleep on the roof. There are a few mozzies about so Man had marshalled a small army of kids to use all of the available furniture to configure a mozzie net for me on the roof. I am being totally spoilt! It is only 8pm but we are leaving at six tomorrow and besides there is no electricity here so not much else to do once the sun goes down. I went to bed hoping I wouldn’t need to pee too much as the ladder looks dodgy enough while awake!

Nap time in Djigibombo

May 17, 2017 Djiguibombo

Burkina Faso – Visa optimisation in Ouagadougou

Ouagadougou (pronounced ‘waaggaadoogoo’), affectionately known as Ouaga, is the capital of Burkina Faso which ranks 181 out of 187 on the UNs development index. It wasn’t really my intended destination for this trip, but bizarrely it was cheaper, faster and easier to add in a stop in Burkina Faso to get a visa for Mali rather than apply in London. The Mali visa in Burkina Faso was €50, and the Burkina Faso visa set me back another €150, BUT just to get a Mali visa in London would have cost €220 and here i can get the Mali visa in one day versus two weeks in London (time I didn’t have). What sealed the deal is that I was headed to the famous Dogon country, which was half way between Ouaga and Bamako (the capital of Mali,) so just as easy to get there from Ouaga.

Burkina Lottery – there were stalls everywhere

It didn’t start off well. Arriving late in the evening, the immigration guys had a unique system where they will give you a visa on arrival, but as they don’t want to work late, you pay for it and then you have to come back at 3pm the next day to pick up your passport. Not super helpful for someone like me who was supposed to be lodging their passport at the Mali embassy the next day at 8am. Just as well I had a back up passport with me.

Main cathedral

Next morning I woke up starving at 5am. Breakfast was apparently from 7. At 7 am when I woke up the receptionist he didn’t know where the cook was. At 7.30 the receptionist made me a coffee…. but sadly no breakfast. I found a moto taxi to take me to the embassy and it seemed to go off without a hitch, and my new friend Sila at the embassy said I could come back at 2 to pick it up my visa.

 

So off to check out the sites.  Ouaga is steaming hot. By 9.30 am I was soaked through with sweat, it was already 38 degrees and I wisely choosing my path to optimise shade. There are no real sights to see here, but I made an effort and went to the mosque and the cathedral.

Famous Ouaga cinema

Bemusingly and somewhat depressingly I was referred to as a ‘jeune homme’ (young man) by numerous passers by, and a chinois (Chinese) by a few more. I am happy to take the ‘young’ but I am not sure how I got the ‘man’. Is it my short hair? the lack of boobage? the enormous calves? Who knows? Oh well, it probably isn’t something I want to be conducting a street poll on.
I beat a retreat after two hours and went for coffee (well Nescafé) in a busy cafe stuffed to the gills with male Burkinabes solving the problems of the world (or more likely discussing the arsenal game) at high volume, with continual arm waving, and an air of importance, interrupted only by answering (obviously urgent) incoming calls on their old Nokia mobiles. It was an amusing and much needed respite from the heat. At this point I am questioning the wisdom of signing up for hiking 30k per day in the Dogon….. with no breeze and in full sun it is hard to walk let alone hike.

Grande Mosque

I summoned up the courage to walk some more, and wandered around the central market. I was way too hot, so I put my umbrella up for shade much to the amusement of many of the locals, quite a few of whom stopped and stared as I strolled by. The market was the usual frenetic west African market, pungent with the smells of animals being gutted, rotting fish and mangos. It is nice being back in a steaming vibrant west African city. The women here are loud, vivacious and demanding. In many ways they are more challenging than the men when they have their hearts set on selling you something.
After an hour I scarpered to a lovely French restaurant for lunch, and enjoyed the shade, fans and wifi. One of the few good things that has come out of French colonisation is that there is always good bread and a steak with Roquefort sauce to be found!. The day was definitely improving!

Ouahigouya cathedral

I went to the airport, hoping to pick up my passport before the 3pm pick up time, and managed to persuade the 4th policeman I asked to give it to me, and then headed to the Mali embassy to get my visa! Yay, all sorted. The lovely Amadou Traore had come to get me from Dogon country, and after an hour navigating the dusty streets and traffic, we finally exited Ouaga and hit the highway to Ouagigouya!
Amadou entertained me on the voyage with two themes which appear frequently in west Africa. 1) a long and caring lecture on why I needed to have children. I have heard this from almost every African man I have ever met….one even said I was like a sad fruit tree who bore no fruit. I showed him pictures of the cats, but he didn’t think they were sufficiently child like, and then 2) a detailed discussion on how and where he might find his second wife. He is looking for a ‘femme blanche’ (a European) and reckons he is in with a shot as in his mind the European women think African men are more powerful. He wondered if I might know anyone who was interested…. if you are feel free, do let me know and I can pass on his details.

Luxurious $50 hotel room

Three and a half hours and several goat road blocks later we arrived in ouahigouya, which has 12 banks! Bizarre (I know this because I counted all the welcome signs from the banks on the way into town). For the princely sum of $50, I secured a room at the luxury hotel l’amitie – no hot water, pretty filthy and no loo seat, but at least the AC worked intermittently albeit noisily.

I went to the restaurant for dinner, after giving me the eight page menu and saying they didn’t have my first two requests, the waiter confessed he only had spaghetti or chicken. Hmmmm, perhaps a blackboard menu would work better. I actually felt sorry for the chicken I ate, as I was pretty sure even though it was free range it hadn’t eaten much in its life.
I passed the evening watching the storms last down the street. Torrential rain and sideways trees, it was a lovely respite from the heat. The next day an early departure to Mali. The border post was amusing as they had never seen a NZ passport, and had only had 30 or so tourists cross the border this year! Goodbye Burkina Faso and thanks for the visa!

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, May 16, 2017

Eritrea – Art Deco in Asmara

In the case of Eritrea immigration, the whole is more than the sum of its parts…. Italian efficiency combined with African bureaucracy….. amazing new levels of ineptitude :-)! I was first in the queue to passport control and 45 minutes later I was the last out, and my kiwi passport had been scrutinised by everyone in the building. Oh well, I still beat most people out as I didn’t have any bags.

The Irga building – one of the earliest art deco buildings

Eritrea is a former Italian colony, famous for having the best collection of modernist buildings anywhere in the world. The entire town of Asmara is a modernist experiment. Historically (and fortunately) they haven’t had the funds to build skyscrapers, and now they are applying for world heritage status to protect and restore the buildings.

Civilised queueing for the bus outside of the main mosque

I was extremely jet lagged from my 1am wake up to get on the flight, but the light was fabulous when I got into town at 7.30am, so I headed out for a stroll. First up, the most famous building in Asmara – the Fiat garage – shaped like an airplane. Gorgeous!

The Fiat Tagliero Building

Then I wandered along to the cinema Roma, I couldn’t resist a macchiato from the ancient coffee machine, and I was even invited into the theatre to see a kids play. The theatre gets put to good use with screenings of the UK premier league matches most days.

The antique projector at the Cinema Roma

Asmara is at 2200 m, and it has a delightful climate, a blessed relief after ten days of sweating, so it was the perfect day for a long wander. The buildings are remarkable. Hartnet ave – the main drag is a bit like Las Vegas back in the day – pastels, Art Deco and palm trees.

Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral

I meandered around the religious quarter where the mosque, cathedral, synagogue and two types of orthodox churches live in peaceful harmony. My favourite was the Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral.

Main Post Office

And then I just wandered around the old quarter looking for a postcard for a friend who has a daughter named Asmara. The post office was stunning but sadly only had six abysmal postcard options – oh well, beggars and choosers. Then I checked out Mah Jai jai and the market. I punctuated the days wanderings with excellent macchiatos in the many cafes in town.


Eritreans are beautiful and stylish! Fine cheekbones and chiselled features. They are definitely modern, and this is the first place in two weeks I have seen women, lots of them, wearing jeans! The old men are nattily attired in hats and jackets and make a full time job out of walking down the street chatting to people and drinking coffee.

The bowling alley

The city vibe is laid back and friendly, totally unlike all other capitals that I have experienced in Africa. Cars stop traffic to say hi to friends coming in the other direction – it’s like small town New Zealand. I had zero hassle day or night, and the locals took pride in telling me I could walk around at midnight with no problems. Too bad I am too old and boring to consider being out at midnight.

Cinema Roma

Eritreans are also extremely polite!  The best example is watching the queues for the bus.   Rather than stand in line, you leave a bag or a rock in the queue and then you can wander off for a coffee or sit in the shade.   Unimaginable in most African countries, where queuing feels like being in a mosh pit at a concert and you certainly wouldn’t leave your bags unattended in the street.

Cinema Odeon

I was up at 5 my second day and wandered up to Kidus Michael Church to watch the sun come up over the city and see the dawn church service. It is a lovely sight watching very devout old ladies perform their morning prostrations – no doubt it keeps them flexible. And then I went for a wander around the Italian cemetery, which is extremely ornate, though I couldn’t figure out why there were cow horns and hooves strewn around in one corner – either a bizarre ritual sacrifice ceremony or perhaps just a lazy garbage man.

Kidus Michael at dawn

 

Italian Cemetery

After breakfast I wandered up and down lots of random streets with no real plan. Every street had wonderful architecture, honestly this place is a modernist dream. For lunch, I met up with the delightful Tekeste…- the worlds friendliest guide (see more on him here). He has developed quite a following from the worlds travellers as is one of the few Eritreans with the connections to easily sort out a visa for you.

Local Injera Lunch with Tekeste

He treated me, and a French writer who was on one of his tours, to a fabulous local lunch with wonderful injera and spicy meat. And then I treated them to the best gelato in Eritrea at the Fortuna gelateria! Outstanding!

Fortuna Gelato – the best in Eritrea

More wandering in the afternoon, honestly the streets are endlessly lovely and I happily strolled for hours.  Then I rounded out the day with Arabic tea and a custard slice at the sweet Asmara cafe.

Asmara is delightful – easily my favourite capital of all African cities. If you like modernist architecture come quickly while the buildings are still standing.  The hospitality is amazing, and I had one final act of kindness from the lovely Tekeste who got up at 4 to drive me to the airport. I will be coming back!

Sweet Asmara – for the best cakes in Eritrea

Travel notes

– I can’t recommend Tekeste highly enough. He was amazing, hospitable, and can sort everything out. I only used him for visa support but next time would book everything through him. His agency is asmara grande, or contact him directly on tekeste.tekeste.azere@gmail.com

– I stayed at the crystal hotel. It was clean, and the staff were lovely. The downside was that the restaurant was not great and with the marble floors it was very noisy in my room

Italian Cemetery

– My favourite coffee spots were the Impero, the Roma and the Asmara Sweet. Best pastries were at the Sweet. Best gelato at the fortuna which isn’t on google maps, but it is across the road from the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz mosque (which is on google maps)

– It is mandatory to exchange with authorised dealers, however they no longer control this at customs. The official rate is 15 nakfas to $1, but you should be able to find someone willing to exchange for 23 (not on the street).  Note there are no ATMs in Eritrea, bring plenty of USD with you, and only change to Nafkas as you need

Antique post boxes still in use

– You can easily fly you to Asmara from Cairo and Dubai. I flew flydubai which departed at an uncivilised 3.40am. Note You can tell a lot about a country by what those coming home bring on a plane. The Eritreans set new records on the amount of duty free bags I have ever seen, with a ratio of 5 bags per person, principally composed of bulk boxes of kit Kats. Get in early if the flight is busy and you want your bag in the overhead locker

– The government here is extremely oppressive and apparently their freedom of press scores are worse than North Korea. Best not to discuss politics with the locals in public.

– Heading out of Asmara is possible but requires permits which you can get (eventually) from the tourist office. Next time I will visit Massawa

Italian Cemetery

Bangladesh – Gossiping in Dhaka

I love being on the subcontinent…. , everything smells pungently of incense, curry spices and sweat!  Traffic lanes don’t exist in Bangladesh and every journey is a crazy game of chicken between gutsy rickshaw wallahs, dented buses, aggressive tuktuks and the pristine cars of the wealthy.  It’s a constant cacophony of horns. Crossing the street on foot here takes nerve. It’s a team sport, best undertaken with an expert between you and the oncoming homicidal traffic.   But its fun!

National Assembly building

I met up with a local guide and for our first few stops much of the discussion was on the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and the 3 million Bangladeshis murdered during that war.  There is still ongoing anger towards Pakistan for their historical oppression of the Bengali language.  Yet another sharp reminder that my history knowledge is dire. I had made the naive assumption that being Muslim, Bangladesh would be friends with Pakistan. As it turns out they prefer their Indian neighbours, though they reckon the Indians are unfriendlier and cheaper than Bangladeshis.

Paintings near Shaheed Minar, the monument to commemorate those killed in the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations

After seeing Dhakaswari, the National Assembly, Shaheed Minaar, and the Sculptures Terrace (none of which were remarkable apart from the history) we headed out to Sonargaon to see the the lost city of Panam. Fortuitously we were half an hour early so we took a wander around a local village to kill some time. That ended up being my favourite part of the day –

Lovely local ladies in Sonargaon

Every house we walked by, we were invited in by the stunningly beautiful women who lived in them.  We stopped at a few places for a drink  and then some fruit as it seemed rude not to when everyone was trying to force us to sit down and visit

Friendly lady in Sonargaon

Most of these ladies’ husbands are off working in Saudi, according to these ladies it is good money but a horrendous lifestyle…..which doesn’t surprise me having seen how many immigrant workers are treated in the Arab states. It was a lovely way to pass some time, sitting having a gossip with the gorgeous local ladies.   We also wandered by a local school.  We wandered in to say hi – it was a Saturday so there were no formal lessons going on.   The headmistress came to say hello and had the students practice their English on me.

School kids who were practicing their English on me

Eventually Badal the guide got me moving and we went to see Panam. It is quite lovely, and we enjoyed a peaceful twenty minutes before five bus loads of schoolboys arrived. Panam City  is part of the 15th century city of Isa Khan’s Sonaragaon.  The buildings that remain are lovely but falling down at a rapid pace and it was disappointing to see the schoolboys rampaging all over the site, climbing up the walls and dumping rubbish everywhere.

Panam
Panam

One the bright side, unlike India, the hassle factor is manageable. The locals are delighted to see you, western tourists are rare, and I had many new ‘friends’ ask for photos of me with their offspring.

Rickshaws

From Sonargaon, we headed back into town to check out the madness at Sadarghat – Dhaka’s river port.   Getting to river port requires navigating the seething mass of humanity and road traffic in the old market to find another seething mass of humanity down at the port.  The river is a major form of transport and there are about 50 large ferries docked at Sadarghat with all forms of accommodation available from lying on the floor of the open air decks, paying for a japanese style coffin box with a fan, all the way up to an aircon room with tv.

Sadarghat river port

We were there early afternoon before the ferries started to fill up properly but families were already there staking out their claims to the upper deck.  There were only 2 toilets for the open decks, which apparently can fit several hundred, I can imagine that class of travel may not be for the fainthearted or those with a good sense of smell.   I loved the noise, the colours and the friendly people, and the sulphurous smell rising from the pitch black Buriganga river definitely left an impression on my nostrils!

Sadarghat River Port

I also visited the other main sites in town – the Lalbag Fort, the Star Mosque, and the Armenian church.  Honestly, none of these is remarkable.  More interesting is enjoying navigating around the old town getting stuck in the traffic and watching the passers by.

Nap time

I had a wonderful time in Dhaka, probably because I had no expectations having read all the reviews.   The very best thing about Dhaka is the people, who were all incredibly friendly, even when I was wandering down the street.   I felt very safe everywhere, though I have no doubt there were a few pickpockets about.

Folk art

The food was pretty  fabulous also, and I would recommend eating as much Dal as you can!   It is the best Dal I have ever eaten.  I am looking forward to visiting again

My new friends

Note that getting a visa on arrival is pretty straightforward at the airport.  Also Uber works well in Dhaka and is much cheaper and easier as a foreigner negotiating with a taxi!

May 8, 2017 Dhaka, Bangladesh