Ambling the Arctic circle trail in Greenland

Greenland – the largest island on earth and the most sparsely populated place in the planet. 85% of the land is covered in the ice cap, the population is c 55,000 (largely Inuits), in summer there is no night, and in winter there are no days. Technically it is part of the North American continent, but it is a self ruled territory of Denmark (yes I am ticking off another territory).

The main purpose of the trip is to hike the Arctic Circle trail from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut – c. 165km of epic trail through remote wilderness with a few ramshackle free huts available for hikers use and not much else. Apparently there are ferocious mosquitos and pretty challenging weather at the best of times, but this year there have been wildfires blazing for about four weeks, and while the fires aren’t dangerous (peat fires burn low and slow) the smoke can kill you. On top of this, I broke my wrist four weeks ago, and am not 100% sure I can put my tent up without the solid use of my left hand – this is going to be fun!

At the beginning of the trail – clearly the hunters were not impressed with the sign

Day 1 – Half day Kangerlussuaq Airport to 3km past Limnaeso Lake (c.25km)

I landed from Copenhagen at lunch time to a lovely clear sunny day. The airport was tiny and not super efficient, so I had time to pop across the road and buy gas, as well as sort out a locker in terminal before my bag arrived on the belt. I loaded up my gear, and hit the road, walking the 13km from the airport to Kellyville along the tarmac, as it is technically part of the trail. I suspect I was one of the few hikers who took the road, as I was overtaken by numerous hikers in taxis in the 2 hours it took to get there. Never mind, I overtook 20 of them pretty swiftly once I hit the trail proper. Once off the road, the landscape was stunning. No trees, but endless lakes and lovely wildflowers…. it was like a sunny Scotland.

The view back down the valley to Kangerlussuaq

One of the first lakes on the trail

I passed the ramshackle collection of caravans and sheds and Hundeso and pushed on to a lovely unnamed lake where I stopped for dinner and a chat with and Aussie hiker, and then given it was still light, I kept strolling until about 8pm where I pitched my tent (pretty wonkily given the wrist disadvantage) in blissful solitude and passed out (once I realised it was actually midnight Denmark time and I had been up since 6am in Denmark)

Dinner break on day 1
Campsite night 1 – with wonky tent

Day 2 Hiked to 10km past the canoe centre and camped above the beach on lake Kangerluatsiarsuaq (c.45k walking)

I woke up a bit cold as had gone to bed in shorts, not realising that the temperature would drop so much overnight. I was too cold to sleep and too tired and lazy to put more clothes on. It is also pretty awkward sleeping in a sleeping bag with a broken wrist. By 5am I gave in, made breakfast, broke camp and was walking by 5.40am. I passed numerous stunning white Arctic Hares – they obviously think they are camouflaged as they stand stock still when they notice you, thinking you can’t see them (which you couldn’t if it was snowing), but they stand out in the green and red scrub.

It was a stunning morning walk – I passed one tent near the ford at the stunning lake Qarlissuit, but apart from that it was totally still and quiet. After about three hours and 15km I arrived at Katiffik Hut at the head of lake Amitsorsuaq – its a typical Greenlandic hut and I was going to go and take a look but I could see about 20m down the path that one of the occupants had decided to do their morning ablutions 2metres off the trail, and that was more bare butt than I had planned on seeing in the morning, so I kept walking past down to the lake shore where I made myself a coffee and had a second breakfast.

Second breakfast spot on Day 2 on the shore of Amitsorsuaq

The day heated up as I ambled the 20km down the side of the lake to the canoe centre only passing three people on the way (still packing up their tents at 10am). My feet were getting a bit sore, and I was getting a bit grumpy so I stopped for an hour at 2pm, ate some salami, and soaked my feet in the ice-cold lake. I motivated myself back to action by promising myself an early stop at the lake head in 7km. Unfortunately the lake head wasn’t particularly lovely, it was boggy and windy, so I loaded up with 3 litres of water and planned to dry camp the first nice sheltered place I saw. Unfortunately that nice sheltered place didn’t arrive until about 10km further on at 7.30pm when I had been on my feet for 14 hours and had a sunburnt nose. I tried to pitch my tent around 6.30 at the lake side but it almost blew away. At. 7.30 in the first sheltered spot, I literally pitched my tent one metre from the trail on top of some scrub on a hillside, albeit with a lovely view of Lake Kangerluatsiarsuaq …. with no more mojo to continue, and then started shovelling food in my face for 45 minutes until I konked out.

View from my tent on day 2
Day 2 – stunning morning views
Day 2
Excellent ACT cairns

Day 3 hiked to Innajuattoq and stayed in the lovely hut (c.40km walking)

My sense of humour was somewhat restored after 10 hours sleep, and I woke up at 7am to a lovely view. It was a stunning cool day, just as well as there was a nice 500m climb up from the valley to start the day. The first 2.5 hours to Ikkattooq hut were idyllic, lovely alpine lakes, tonnes of ambling reindeer, impressive views from the plateau, and some rugged cliffs, and then eventually the incongruous hut came into view. A couple of danish doctors were in residence and they shared their hot water with me for my morning coffee and we debated the route. All hikers had been advised to take a southern diversion from the main trail as there was a risk of smoke in the northern valleys. None of us really wanted to do the diversion as there was no trail, limited cairns, and I personally am terrible at navigation. I took some confidence from the fact that they, like me, were planning to go north and see what it was like, and potentially use an escape route if required that someone on the arctic circle Facebook group had mooted.

Qarlissuit

The next three hours was a bit of a mountain scramble and then a steep descent down to a wide river valley with a ford. Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t turned on, as while I forded the river like a kiwi expert, I forgot that my phone and camera were in the pockets of my shorts, so both were drenched, and neither have worked since – hence the paucity of photos from here on in. oh well! I eventually reached Eqalugaarniarfik Hut around 2pm feeling pretty hot and knackered. The hut was full and surrounded by tents. I met some local girls inside who advised me to go south but told me everyone else had gone north. They were from a children’s home in sisimiut, and were out in the wilderness learning how to hunt reindeer, and they were very proud to show me their gun. They invited me for lunch, but I decided to keep going….., I probably would have stopped for lunch if I had realised there was another big arsed hill to climb straight up from the hut….., it was slow going. I am pretty unfit at the moment, so did have to have a talking to myself half way up ;-).

Once up the hill, the views were stunning and the rest of the path for the afternoon was a pure delight, going around the lakeshore of three beautiful lakes and then following a river valley to Innajuattoq hut. I past three Czech students heading in the other direction to me who assured me the trail was smoke free, and then I passed a trio of guys with enormous 25kg bags (a greenlander, a Parisian and a dane) but more on them later.

I arrived at the Innajuattoq hut at about 6.00, and decided to stay inside for the night. This was widely touted as the best hut on the trail, and the three occupants already in residence were delightful – Theo and Linea from Austria/Netherlands, and Jens from Denmark. I promptly started devouring a four course meal of soup, fish and potatoes and two desserts, a cup of tea and a cup of cocoa, and then started feeling normal, as the trio of guys I had passed earlier arrived. Bo, Brian and Goran…. they were like a comedic trio, with amusing riffs and they entertained us all until 10pm, well past my bed time when I finally called it a night. I slept wonderfully – sleeping inside on a mattress is a heck of a lot easier with a broken wrist even if you do have to put up with gentle danish snoring.

Day 4 hiked to Kangerluarsuk Tullek Hut (short day, 34km walking, finished at 3pm)

I woke up at 6.30 and headed out by 7.00, packing up quietly so as not to wake up my fellow hikers. Most people on this trail take 9-10 days to walk the trail, so don’t start early. They also carry huge bags – with the average weight being c. 20-25kg, compared to my 10-11kg (including all my food).

It was an easy morning 17k hike to Nerumaq hut along a river valley with steep cliffs on either side and a few lovely lakes. I have realised the walking here for me is always easy in the morning when it is cool and the sun is at your back.

Alongside Amitsorsuaq

I arrived at Nerumak around 10am and make some pasta for an early lunch, had a coffee and then headed further up the valley. This was crunch time as this was the smoke zone. I covered the first 10km without any worries, but then did start seeing the smoke billowing up from a neighbouring valley. Fortunately very little of it was coming my way and I knew I was walking into the wind, so if I made it a few more kms, then I would be fine. I pressed on, but couldn’t help stopping to check out the aftermath of the fire on the far side of the river.

Alongside Amitsorsuaq where I took a foot bath

By about 2pm I was through the worst of it and at the lake just before the ford at Kangerluarsuk Tulleq. The worst hiking hours here are in the afternoon with the sun in your face and sweat in your eyes and tired feet. I knew the hut was uphill and it is quite dry at the moment so I couldn’t guarantee there would be water, so I loaded up with 3kg of water and slogged (very slowly) up hill to the hut. I took two wrong turns, as there were very few cairns, had one sense of humour failure, and finally made it to the hut at 3.30pm having done 34km. I could have kept going, but I really couldn’t motivate myself, and I only had 20km to get to sisimiut the day after anyway.

Canoes at the head of the lake

I entertained myself in the hut with Anders the German backpacker, eating more food, while he made do with soup and instant potato (I was nice and gave him some tuna and boiled his water for him), and we watched the smoke billowing from the other side of the ford. Two German ladies arrived a little later, Irena kept me entertained with the weight of the gear in her pack – she had a mattress made of down that weighed 1kg and required a special apparatus to blow it up – it was quite something. It was a tiny hut so we squished in together. I am not normally a fan of huts over my tent, but with the arm busted, it is definitely easier. I was in my sleeping bag by 8pm, and we were all asleep by 8.30pm – a big night in the bush

Day 5 last 22km to Sisimuit (arrived at 11am)

I woke up at 6 thinking the hut was surrounded by fog, but it was actually smoke, so I roused the others, packed up and headed out by 7am (after taking a wrong route for 20 minutes).

Sisimuit

The trail sidles along the mountain side next to a fjord and there were stunning views, and then the trail veers sharply up to do a nice steep climb up to Qerrortusup Majoriaa. These high sections are beautiful, lots of little lakes and stunning views. There were a few tents dotted along the route. I met a Belgian guy about half way to Sisimiut who was making breakfast outside his tent at 10am accompanied by a very adorable local husky dog. Apparently she adopts hikers and walks them up and down the trail. Lucky for me, Snowy (as I named her), guided me most of the rest of the route to Sisimiut. Well perhaps not so lucky, as not far from the last descent (perhaps an hour from town), I forded a river, slipped on a boulder and fell hard on my broken wrist, and managed to get a great graze on my knee and as I would find out later, chip off a bit of bone in my little finger. Oh well!!!

Russell Glacier

I made it to Sisimiut just before 11, happy that I completed the trail in less than four days walking time. Less happy that I didn’t have a phone (and therefore didn’t know where my Airbnb was as didn’t have the address and there is no Internet cafe in town) :-). The universe always manages to sort me out, and I stopped in the first hotel I saw, got a map, and directions to the phone shop and the hospital. Sorted myself out an excellent 40 euro smart phone, got some X-rays on my broken finger, ate some pastries, and had a shower. I also had the good luck to meet Bo, Brian and Goran again. They had arrived at Nerumak hut in the evening on the same day I passed and there was a lot of smoke, so they pushed the sos button did the rest of the trail in a helicopter :-), which was nice for me as they were excellent dinner companions in Sisimiut.

Postscript – the Ice cap

I overnighted in Sisimuit, and then flew back to Kangerlussuaq. My plan had been to take a tour to the icecap and then walk the 40km back to the airport in time to catch my flight out. However, the weather had turned, my little finger was blue and difficult, and I decided to just be lazy and go on the tour and come back in the nice warm bus and stay in the excellent airport hotel. I highly recommend heading out to the icecap – its amazing and the Russell glacier is also lovely

This really was an amazing trail, and we were blessed with fantastic sunny clear weather all day, and unusually no mosquitos. Apart from the fire worries, the weather couldn’t have been better. I loved this trail and would be very happy to do it again!!!

Additional notes

  • Trail resources – I would highly recommend Paddy Dillons cicerone guide, the Greenland gps app (free), and the invaluable Facebook group hosted by Jesper and Huw
  • Food – take all your food with you, everything will be cheaper in your home country, and it also means you can get walking straight away. Gas and fuel are available in multiple places in Kanger, including the Isusishut which is 15m from the airport door
  • Gear – I took more or less what I took on the kungsleden (list here) except I took a poncho instead of waterproof pants and a jacket; and I now have a lighter mini in reach (highly recommended). I also took an extra fleece for the evenings and my heavier sleeping back (an extra 1kg in total max)
  • Tour – I booked with https://aac.gl to go to the icecap

Kangerlussuaq, August 16, 2019

Wandering the West Highland Way

Now I am finished with the 197 countries, I am quite keen to get a lot more hiking in…. so decided to sneak in a cheeky few nights in my tent and try and cover 70% of the West Highland Way over three days…. cheeky as I snuck what feels like a week of hiking in between leaving the office Friday night and arriving back Tuesday morning like nothing happened.

Day 0 – Ben Lomond. 15km 1100m of climbing

I finished a board meeting in Glasgow, changed into my hiking gear, offloaded my work gear on a colleague and hurriedly made last minute purchases of a lighter and some midge spray.  I headed north in an Uber ( more expensive but three hours faster than the bus alternative) 

My entertaining Uber ride to Rowardennan on the shores of Loch Lomond took an hour.  My driver was a retired restauranteur who was born in Islamabad and raised in Glasgow. He had only seen the Loch once in his 38 years there so he was quite happy for the ride.  We had a broad ranging discussion about the woes of the world covering everything from how the impact of the British partition of the subcontinent continues today to the Chinese expansion in Africa

It was a gloriously sunny day so I shouldered my enormous pack, with 10kg of gear and headed up to Ben Lomond.  I am out of shape and the going is slow, though I did manage to overtake a few day hikers on the way up.   I did a lovely loop route coming back along a ridge line with some lovely tarns and there were spectacular views down the loch.   

Ben Lomond summit

Back down to the lakeshore and I strolled a few kilometres past Rowardennan to pitch my tent on an idyllic spot by the shore with a stunning view, and amazing phone signal.   A luxury dinner of packet asparagus soup, pasta and decaf cappuccino with a slice of millionaires shortbread I had taken off the buffet lunch in the office, and to bed.  Fortunately the midges weren’t too horrendous

The rain started around 10pm and continued all night!  It didn’t bode well for the next day 

Day 1 – Rowardennan to Inveroran 52km

I roused myself at 5.30 am and eventually got going after a coffee and a muesli bar around 6.15.   The first 7k were a pretty relaxed stroll along the lake shore which ended with an excellent bacon bap and a latte at the Inversnaid hotel.

I left the hotel at the same time as some mountain bikers who zipped off at pace.  I was amused to overtake them less than 2km later carrying their bikes over the rocks.

After that it was more lovely lakeside strolling past some abandoned farm buildings and a bothy until the top of the lake at Beinglas where I stopped for some toffee crunch and a Diet Coke, but was swiftly chased off by the midges.

Bothy

Then – gentle steady uphill stroll following the river, overtaking lots of hikers through Crianlarich forest.  The forest was lovely but the last 5km to Tyndrum was interminable, flat and boring, made worse by the rain pissing down.  

My mood was restored by soup and excellent orange sponge at the real food cafe in Tyndrum.  I used their power, sat out two rainstorms and finally summoned the courage to leave at 4pm

It was a long flat 11 k to bridge of orchy on a hard roman road, at least the sun was out for the first hour.  I hadn’t meant to go that far but in the 10k from Tyndrum there was nowhere to camp as you can’t camp near livestock.  

I stopped for pint of cider at the bridge or Orchy hotel and watched all the posh hikers who were staying in the hotel.  Oddly I much prefer pitching my tent in splendid isolation on the hill with the midges and no facilities than being in a hotel – maybe I am a wee bit feral.

It was hard work going up hill after a pint (I never drink and had been quite dehydrated so it was an odd choice but I felt like one at the time).  I mildly regretted it as I swayed up the hill.  There were scant camping options, After dismissing the first two sites for being too boggy and windy, I found a perfect location on Mam Carraigh with a little bit of shelter and pitched the tent in the evening sun.  By this time it was 8pm and I had been on the move for almost 14 hours.  I had soup and pasta and some chocolate – all cooked in my tent to avoid the midges. I put all my clothes on and bedded down for the night.  The sunset was spectacular through the tent doors, reflecting bright red in the lake below but the midges discouraged me from getting out of the tent to take a photo

Just near Mam Carraigh

Day 2 – to just after Kinlochleven – 32km

I woke up late at 7 and decided to make a coffee and then opportunistically hit up the Inveroran hotel down the hill for breakfast.   I broke camp, the worst part is always putting on your wet clothes and socks from the day before, and was rewarded with a bacon buttie and a latte at the hotel. 

The sun was shining as I set off for the 15k to kingshouse, but it was hailing when I arrived.   The trail was awful on the feet, like a lot of the WHW its an old roman road so it is both hard underfoot and rocky.    The landscape was bleak but striking.  The hills are black, fierce and gloomy and look imposing even when the sun was shining on them.  

I rolled into kingshouse hotel soaking wet and with no feeling in my fingers.   I didn’t really warm up while I was there, but the welcome was tremendous.  They weren’t bothered that I was soaking wet and also charging my devices.  I had two pots of tea, an excellent fish finger sandwich and a scone with jam and cream and watched the torrential rain through the windows.   All of the people I passed on my way to Kingshouse from Inveroran eventually rolled in, and all of them were staying there for the night.  I couldn’t!  A 15 hiking day would be an embarrassment.  So, I geared up and headed out shivering into the rain….. Scotland must of been smiling at me as the rain stopped about ten minutes later and I eventually dried off.   

Buchaille Etive Mor
Buchaille Etive Mor

This section to Kinlochleven started off badly with 5km following adjacent to the main road, but with stunning views of Buchaille Etive Mor (which I had planned to climb today but the weather was too iffy).  The trail then left the road and climbed up the ‘devils staircase’ over to a more remote trail to Kinlochleven.   We had half an hour of torrential rain, but the sun came out as I rolled into town. 

Given I skipped my side trip today and my feet are a sodden mess I decided to stop early and camp near Kinlochleven….. but it would have been rude not to stop in town, so I spent two wonderful hours at the excellent Bothy bar in Kinlochleven eating cheesy fries, goujons and a brownie!   That bar was amazing!  It was warm and my shirt even dried for the first time in three days!  I had to tear myself away, but I slogged uphill with three litres of water until I found a sheltered spot about 1km from town to pitch my tent with a view of Lochleven peaking through the trees.   

Day 3 – 22km to Fort William 

I woke up at 5am and it was raining, again at 6am, still raining…. and so on until 7.30 when it was still raining but I decided to make coffee.  I eventually headed out in a break in the rain at around 8.30.

It was lovely landscape, grey and broody in the rain, which came and went for the 20km to Glen Nevis.  Ben Nevis finally peaking through as I can down the final stretch towards town.  I stopped at the foot of Ben Nevis for a burger.  I had planned to hike up but the weather was foul and I had been up before.  So instead I wandered the final 3km into town for cake 🙂

Ben Nevis in the clouds

The verdict on the WHW 

  • Pros – quite a few good pubs with excellent food, plenty of cake stops, lots of good wild camping, some stunning views and landscape, impossible to get lost as the trail is a highway
  • Cons – too flat, as you walk past the mountains rather than go up them, too many people for my liking, and the trails are mostly 4wd type trails which are hard on your feet 
  • Best cake – Real Food Inn
  • Best cider – Bridge of Orchy hotel
  • Best welcome and fish finger sandwich – Kingshouse hotel
  • Best bacon bap and walkers charging station – Inversnaid hotel 
  • Best sausage bap – Inveroran hotel 

No need to buy a guide but the OS maps app is helpful

Definitely take midge spray and a net and make sure you understand the Scottish access code for wild camping and heed the relevant bans eg the south part of Loch Lomond. Easy access to Glasgow on the flights and back from Fort William on the Caledonian sleeper

Fort William 17 July 2019

Abandoned towers and villages in Ingushetia and Dagestan (Breakaway Russian Republics part 3)

The stunning towers of Ingushetia and the Georgian Military Highway

After an astounding breakfast buffet – astounding both in its profusion of choices, but also in the uniformity of taste of the food (like the detergent the plates were washed in), we headed out for a long back track to Vladikavkaz to visit the Georgian military highway and the famous towers of Ingushetia.   The Caucasus are like the alps and the road was cut in a river valley for much of the way with steep peaks on either side.   Turning off the road to Georgia to run along the side of the mountains we were held for an hour while the FSB quadruple checked our permits.  I understand why people rebel here, it’s suffocating to live under constant intervention.  

In pictures of the region you tend to see the same two groups of towers at egikal, but what I didn’t know in advance is that there were hundreds of towers in various states of repair along the road.  We stopped at all the big ones and they were quite lovely.  A couple, our guide had never seen up close as none of his tourists had wanted to climb up the hill to get to them.   The best was probably Egikal and the two towers at Bashenny near the army base. 

The landscape and towers were really wonderful and I spent a lot of the day dreaming about hiking from tower to tower along the route of the Caucasus mountains, but I suspect that won’t be feasible while putin and the FSB have a hold on the territory.  

A long drive to Kezenoy Am – the highest lake in the Caucas

It was a long drive back through the mountains to get to the border of Dagestan where we spent the night at Kezenoyam- the highest lake in the Caucasus – it used to be where the Russian rowing team trained   A late dinner of shashlik and salad and to bed.  

Waking up to a stunning day, I managed a half hearted 20 minute jog along the lakeside…. stunning.   And then we had a very ottoman breakfast of tomatoes cheese and cucumber before heading to republic no. 5 – Dagestan

Dagestan – the wild west

A quick trip to neighbouring Makazhoy – an abandoned village perched on a river gorge.  The village was emptied when Stalin deported the Chechens in 1944.   15 years later the returnees where not allowed to resettle here.   Now people are allowed to live here but few want to as they worry that the Russians are more likely to commit war crimes in remote places with no witnesses. 

Entering Dagestan the roads became gravel and were winding up and down sheer mountains.  We stopped often, partly because of the FSB checkpoints, but also because of the frequent cow roadblocks.  The whole family would be out herding the cows.  Mums and grandmas in skirts and headscarfs, the men in baseball caps and rip-off Armani t shirts.   The drive was stunning – sheer dusty red cliffs on either side of narrow river valleys which are lush green with fruit trees.  It isn’t all lovely though, environmental issues don’t appear to be front of mind here – the outdoor toilets in riverside villages are effectively long drops perched above the river with human waste going straight into the river.   Rubbish is burnt, but plastic is chucked off the side of the mountain.  The rivers were frequently damned, no doubt for electricity, creating some quite lovely lakes – like at Irganay.  The mountains were phenomenal – a mix of Utah, Arizona, NZ and Morocco – with thick slabs of rock thrust out of the ground with the lines running vertically.   The roads were winding and mad men in ladas would come hurtling around the corner on the wrong side of the road.  Cows used the road for perambulation and more than once we almost hit a mad kid riding a horse on the median strip.  It was a bit like being in the Russian wild west.

The abandoned village and towers of Kakhib

Our goal for the day was Kakhib – an abandoned village about 2 hours from Gunib.    It is a stunning abandoned village that appears to be utterly disguised in the cliffside.  The rock houses and watch towers are well camouflaged and my photos don’t do it justice.  Our guide had never actually walked through the ruins as none of his tourists to this point were willing to do the walk – it was only 15 minutes strolling.  Tourists do make me laugh.  To fly to a country, drive for hours off road to get somewhere and then not be willing to actually walk a few minutes to see it properly.  We saw lower Kakhib, and then the neighbouring higher Kakhib – which was stunning in the afternoon light, though you did have to watch your feet to avoid all the cow poop.

Kakhib lower
Kakhib upper

After weaving our way back down the mountain on a track made for 4wd Ladas, we also stopped by the Karadakhskaya Tesnina – a nice hour round trip walk to see the narrow gorge.   And then to Gunib.  We were invited to Iftar half way to Gunib, but decided to keep going.  We made it 20 minutes after Iftar and went to a restaurant with world class crap service.  We asked for a menu and were told we didn’t need one.  We eventually got one, and we asked for a few dishes, and then the waiters told us we could have pizza or nothing.  Hilarious!  The pizza wasn’t bad, but it did take 40 minutes.  Stephane and I were fine, but poor Abdylla had been fasting since 3am

Karadakhskaya Tesnina

Gamsutl – the Macchu Picchu of Dagestan

Another day, another abandoned village at the top of a mountain.  Gamsutl is probably the most famous of the abandoned vilalges in the region and is a gentle stroll up through the forest.  It was actually pretty popular and we met quite a few Russian tourists hiking up.   I had assumed Russians were not that welcome in this part of the country, but as Abdylla rightly pointed out, he was much happier to see Russian tourists than Russian soldiers.   It was a lovely hike, and I got my morning jog in on the way back down. 

Gamsutl

Local sports competition

When we reached the bottom there were crowds of locals and it turns out they were having a sports competition between local schools.  Things are pretty basic here, so there wasn’t much in the way of equipment!  The long jump was actually a standing jump – the longest about 2.5 metres.  There was no shotput, so they threw a 16kg kettle bell instead, swinging from the legs.  The girls could do the jump but not the weighted throw, so instead they did dancing. And this was all done on a patch of field covered with rocks and cowpats.  We were like local celebraties, and a few of the ladies took photos with us, and the local English teacher came and had a long chat to practice her English – which was remarkably good.

Sports day at Gamsutl
Sports day at Gamsutl

We had a restful afternoon and another huge dinner.  Some locals were eating cake at the next table and I mentioned it looked good, so they gave me some (weirdly they had bought the cake from elsewhere). The next morning, we farewelled the lovely old lady who owned the rest house and headed to Derbent.

Dodgy Derbent – Derbent is an interesting town. On the edge of the Caspian Sea its an absolute no go on the FCO list, avoid visits at all costs, but we had a lovely time. The fortress is amazing and with the old town formed a narrow wedge between the sea and the Caucasus range.

We wandered around the edge of the Fortress, avoiding most of the Russian tourists as none of them were willing to walk around the steep walls. After a stonkingly good lunch we then wandered around the old town and the Shia Mosque. It is the oldest mosque in the country. It was interesting with our guide who was a Sunni, who told us all the differences between Sunni and Shia….., but stopped when I asked if they were sufficient reasons for them wanting to kill each other.

Fortress
Fortress
Lunch
Gateway to the old town
Old town Friday mosque
Headrests for praying

We then went down to the Armenian church, which has bullet holes and shrapnel in the walls. It is no longer a consecrated church, it is now a carpet museum, as the christians were run out of town years ago.

Armenian church

After checking out the Lenin statue, we found the public gym….. and amused the local girls by practising our pull ups and leg lifts. I don’t think most old ladies swing around on the playground equipment.

Next up, the synagogue, which was closed for shabbat. But the cafe next door was a thriving hub of jews and muslims drinking tea (those not fasting) and playing aggressive dominos. We were like local celebrities so were forced to stop for tea!!!  

Friendly chaps who bought us tea
Synagogue

We went to check out the town cemeteries – they were quite extraordinary. We then had a wander to the beach, which ended the journey from sea to sea (black to the Caspian)

Iftar was an amazing half a side of lamb cooked in a tandoor, with exceptional seabuckthorn tea, The food has been surprisingly good. We are heading home from Makhachkala tomorrow, but we are already planning our next trip back

Makhachkhala, May 12, 2019

Additional notes

Books recommended to me on the region – Let our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough; Caucasus – Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin; Cry Wolf by Vanora Bennett; The shoemaker and his daughter by Conor o’Clery

We booked through a UK agent, who outsourced to Caucasus Explorer, who outsourced to Caucasus Odyssey for the non Abkhazia portion. I am sure this meant there was a lot of extra margin in there. You can book direct with Abdylla through his Instagram, or with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer


Men visiting the tombs of those who had completed the Haj
the Caspian Sea


Onwards to Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya (Russian breakaway republics part 2)

Leaving Sochi we took an amazing overnight train to Mineralnye Voda.  £55 for first class, comfy bed, nice duvet, free chocolate, free tea, and a well dressed lady who was in charge of the carriage.  Amazingly they also had excellent onboard WiFi with free movies and an amazing app.  I am contemplating travelling across Russia now by train as I enjoyed it so much.  

Deporting an entire population 

Abdylla, our Chechen guide was there to meet us, and we headed off to Nalchik – the capital of Kabardino Balkar.  It was an unremarkable but lovely town with lots of trees.  We visited a  monument commemorating the deportation of the local Balkar population.  It was to be a theme for the next few days.  At the tail end of WW2, the Russians deported the whole Balkar population of 40000, ostensibly for supporting the Germans.  

 At the same time they ‘cleansed’ the entire populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia in operation lentil. (C.500,000 people).  This was to clear the region of Muslims so Russia could attack Muslim Turkey if they wished.  Most of the deportees were women and children whose husbands were conscripts fighting in the Russian army.   60% of the deportees didn’t survive the transit and the first year.  When they were eventually allowed to return 15 years later they had to buy their land back from the Russians and Ossetians  Sobering!

We went for an excellent sour cream laden lunch, though felt somewhat guilty eating in front of Abdylla who was on his  first day of Ramadan fasting.  (We did tell him he could ditch us and come back but he wouldn’t).   Then we strolled around town, saw a few monuments to Lenin and then hit the road. 

Drunk russians, a swift escape and a lot of check points

As we were driving to Ossetia, we made Abdylla stop to take a photo of a mt Rushmore-esque monument.  There was a coach tour of Russian military retirees drinking vodka who forcibly invited us for some shots.  We chatted for a while and then had to scarper as we made the mistake of answering one of the Russians who spoke to us in Pashto.  Purely because we knew the words ‘thank you’ and ‘how are you’, meant we must of been spies.   

Escape made, we still had to endure regular check points, as the FSB have a strong presence in these ethnic republics.   We also had to endure endless billboards of Putin in various glamorous poses.  

Horrifying Beslan – 400 deaths in a high school hostage siege

We stopped at Beslan to see the memorial of the school siege in 2004.   More than 1000 people were held hostage by Chechen terrorists for three days in a high school gymnasium, Russian ended the siege by firing rocket launchers into the building.  400 people were killed.

The memorial was beautiful but harrowing with all the faces of those killed.  We went after to the town cemetery which had a section for the graves, the saddest was a block of six graves of children all from the same family.   I always find it shameful to think about these conflicts happening in our lifetime….., and it reminded me that even today there are 1.5 million Uighur Muslims being forceably detained and ‘cleansed’ in China right now.   

Vladikavkaz – capital of Ossetia today but once the capital of Ingushetia

We rolled into Vladikavkaz, a peaceful soviet town watched over by Fatima and the mountains in the distance, with a lovely mosque.  We had iftar with Abdylla, waiting until 7.03 to eat – excellent khinkhali, chebusara, and fish and then headed to bed.

After a wonderful breakfast of cottage cheese pie, sausages, beetroot, cottage cheese pancakes and cherries (they like cheese here), we left the pretty town of Vladikavkaz and drove from Ossetia to Ingushetia.  

Visiting Magas – the artificial capital of Ingushetia, and waiting for the FSB

The border shifted 50 years ago.  When the entire Ingushetian population was deported in 1944, the ossetians extended their territory.  When the Ingushetians came back the Russians reset the historical borders.  Its not a dumb idea from Moscow, as the more the regions infight amongst each other, the less they fight with the Russian government.   Today Ingushetia is an autonomous region with its own government.  The border shift though, left Ingushetia without a capital, so the new town of Magas was created.  It’s a bit like Milton Keynes or Canberra.    

We visited the Magas museum which is a faithful reconstruction of an Ingushetia tower.   Abdylla said it would take 40 minutes to climb to the top so we decided to jog the sloping ramps around the castle walls to see how long it would take.  Abdylla stopped half way, wisely recognising that trying to race while fasting probably wasn’t that sensible….. it took me 8 minutes.  Hubby did a creditable effort only walking and made it in 13.  At the top is a glass balcony with a glass floor showing the 100m drop which was a bit vomit inducing.  

We then had to go see the FSB (formerly named the KGB).  We needed permission to visit the famous ingushetian towers on the Georgian military highway.  After a frustrating hour for Abdylla, permits were secured but only for tomorrow so we would have to make an extra four hour round trip – oh well, at the mercy of the FSB. 

Monument to deportation, whitewashed by the Russian government

Before leaving Magas, we visited a monument to the Ingushetian deportations.   First built by the locals, the Russians intervened with a re-characterisation of the monument, by making it also about when the ingushetians ‘ceded’ their territory, and a monument to the wars in Germany and Afghanistan.   The Ingushetians haven’t fully accepted the whitewash and there is a harrowing museum under part of the memorial showing the Russian deportations.  

The most shocking thing were gravestones that were purposefully pillaged from Ingushetian cemeteries and used to build roads and farm sheds, a collection of these had been recovered and installed in the museum.  It’s amazing to me that I hadn’t ever heard of this before, but I guess I hadn’t studied Russian history and the victor normally writes the history in any case.  (Again, my normal caveats apply, I don’t profess to have an actual clue on the history and who was right or wrong).  We also managed to find some food, not always straightforward during Ramadan. Lunch was an excellent Chechen pasta (like spätzle) with broth, onions, and chicken.  

We meandered our way to Grozny in the secondary roads.  Abdylla was playing Crowded house in the car and with the endless flat fertile fields it felt like being home in the Waikato. Well, except for the women in their traditional clothing and the streams of tanks going by.  We were not sure if they are mobilising troops or preparing for victory day on the 9th of May, either was possible. My favourite stop was the Achkhoy Martan mosque, which was incredible.

Grozny – capital of Chechnya, about which I had only heard bad things….

We arrived in Grozny, with its obligatory ‘I love Grozny’ sign (every Russian town has one).   Grozny can feel like a monument to Kadyrov – the Russian appointed leader who is wildly unpopular with Chechens.  His house, visible from the observation deck of the tallest building in town is ridiculous!   We couldn’t take photos though, as you are banned – apparently too many people were posting photos and the comments were vicious about how hopeless he is.

Wandering around was lovely, checking out the archangel Michael church, the flower park with the AstroTurf animals and of course ‘the heart of Chechnya mosque’.  Strolling for an hour before dinner, the locals here are extremely traditional – most of the women have their heads covered and are in long dresses.  Beards and hats are de riguer for men.   We bumped into lots of Abdylla’s friends in the street and of course none of the men would shake my hand. Its an interesting town, and a thriving recruitment ground for ISIS after years of Muslims being mistreated by the Russian government .   

Iftar was at a very traditional Chechen restaurant – haggis, dumplings, broth, pumpkin pancakes and sea buckthorn tea.  The pumpkin pancakes were amazing…. I was less thrilled by the haggis.    

Strolling home we popped into the mosque.  Clearly my long skirt and headscarf weren’t sufficiently Islamic, so I was loaned a stunning tablecloth ensemble and directed to the women’s prayer area.  The mosque was lovely by night, and amusingly set against the ‘high rises’ of Grozny with their neon signs.  Off to bed, tomorrow to Ingushetia 

Grozny, May 8, 2019

Bus stops and abandoned stations in Abkhazia (Breakaway Russian Republics part 1)

A complicated history, and now a breakaway state

Abkhazia (population 240,000) is wedged between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains, and neighboured by Georgia and Russia.  Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in a bloody war between 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart. In 2008, after a five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow officially recognised the republic as independent.  It is a complicated conflict, and I won’t profess to have a clue about who is right or wrong (in all of these situations there tends to be right and wrong on both sides in any case). Georgians represented more than 50% of the population prior to independence and abkhazians less than 30%.  The population is now 40% of what it was. Today the UN still consider Abkhazia to be part of Georgia. Abhkazia is only officially recognised by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela.   The economy is largely held up by the million or so Russian tourists who come every summer for a cheap Black Sea experience (it feels like the British equivalent of going to Benidorm).   

Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre
Gagra Theatre


The lottery of life 

Many Abkhazians only have Abkhazian passports (unless they are lucky enough to have a Russian parent). Technically they can get a Georgian passport, but apparently that isn’t really allowed as ‘the security services will come after you’.  I had never really contemplated what life was like as a ‘citizen’ of a largely unrecognised state.  Officially this means that they can only go to the countries that recognise them.  Practically this means they can only go to Russia, as there are no direct flights from Russia to any of the other places that recognise them, and it isn’t obvious that airlines would even recognise an Abkhazian passport as an official ID.    I have always felt grateful for having passport(s) that allow me relative freedom of movement, but even with passports from less popular countries it is still feasible to get a visa to go to many places.  I can’t imagine not being free to travel – such is the lottery of birth!  I am grateful every time I travel that I was born when and where I was. 


Sochi,Gagra and Russian tourists 

We arrived in Abkhazia via Sochi – a Black Sea resort for working class Russians, now famous for the Winter Olympics.   It took an hour to get through Russian passport control, we were apparently the fifth (non Russian) tourists the border chief had seen that year, so he had to ask us a few questions.   On the Abkhazian side, they waved us through but I made our guide stop so I could get a passport stamp.  They tried to talk me out of it, as they were worried I would have problems in Georgia, but we eventually persuaded them. 

Abandoned house
Abandoned house


Our first stop was Gagra, a soviet beach resort, starting with a visit to the Tsereteli playground.   Zurab Tsereteli is a famous Georgian artist, still alive today and with a whole museum in Tbilisi dedicated to his work.  He is famous for his use of mosaics and curves and as well as the playground he was responsible for some of the finest bus stops in Abkhazia.  We had a stroll along the beach, stopping for an excellent Turkish coffee.  We visited the abandoned cinema and an excellent abandoned villa (formerly home to the princes masseuse).

Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground
Tsereteli playground


Ritsa national park

We headed up the gagra valley to the Ritsa national park.  The valley becomes a stunning gorge carved out over centuries by a fast flowing snow fed river.   The road culminates at Stalin’s dacha, a place he only visited five times, on the banks of crystal blue lake Ritsa.  It was nice but was somewhat marred by the presence of a road (I am a kiwi and prefer to walk in the mountains than go by road), and somewhat marred by the presence of a lot of Russian tourists, but probably mostly marred by the animals tied up on the side of the road for tourists to take photos with.  Eagles, peacocks and monkeys on leashes less than 20cm long.   It was awful, and the practice would die out pretty quickly if the Russian tourists weren’t paying 100 rubles to have a photo taken with the peacock.

Ritsa
Ritsa
Ritsa

 
Dinner and finding a husband

On the way back we stopped at the abandoned train station in Gagra – the architecture is amazing.   And we checked out the old abandoned soviet market and the beach.  

Gagra train station
Gagra train station

Black Sea in Gagra

Dinner was shashlik and kachapuri (excellent Georgian cheese bread), followed by strudel.   Service wasn’t brilliant, but was typically Russian, with the food taking an hour to arrive and it was delivered by a grumpy looking waitress.  They drove us out of the restaurant eventually by pumping up the volume on bad Russian pop. 
Dinner conversation was amusing.  Our guide, Diana, is fiercely proud of being Abkhazian, with every sight being introduced with ‘isn’t it amazing?  Isn’t it the best thing you have ever seen?’.   The sights weren’t normally that amazing, but her enthusiasm was commendable.    Somewhat incongruently, she wasn’t a great cultural fit with the locals.  By her account, abkhazians are still very conservative, especially in villages.    Women are apparently not allowed to work outside the home, date any man they aren’t going to marry, speak too much to their husbands in public, divorce or generally bring shame to their husbands or fathers.   And as a thank you, the men do nothing to contribute to the house.  It sounds fantastic.   But Diana is stuck here and can’t travel as she doesn’t have a Russian passport.  We did spend some of our time figuring out how she could get one, marrying one of her more trustworthy cousins who already has a Russian passport is apparently the best idea. 


Donuts and bus stops

The next morning, we had an excellent Russian breakfast, eggs, bread, and cottage cheese donut things which were amazing and a few Turkish coffees each and then headed out for a meandering journey to Sukhumi. Sergei our driver had gone home last night and had bought his lovely daughter Katia back with him, she was trying to improve her English, but was as shy as you would expect a 12 year old to be.
The morning started with some incredible bus stops by Tsereveli – the Whale/dolphin, the Spaceship, the Fish, the Cock, and the Creature of the sea.

For more bus stop photos see here and here

Pitsunda and soviet beach resorts 

We then strolled along the coast at Pitsunda, it was like being transported back to how I imagine 70s Russia might have been.  Incredible architecture!  

Pitsunda architecture
Black Sea in Pitsunda
Pitsunda playground
Pitsunda playground


We also visited an incredibly cool cathedral with a mildly interesting exterior but a very groovy interior with an incredible Art Deco organ and seats that looked like they were stolen from a 1950s cinema. 

Pitsunda cathedral
Pitsunda cathedral


We passed by the ruined church in Miusera, which was a bustling picnic spot.  The church was surrounded by platforms of Georgian houses that had been destroyed during the war, it was eerie.  The area has now been turned into a national park.

Miusera church
Miusera church


Lunch cooked over the fire with the hunters 

Our lunch stop was with a family in the village of Achandara.  We couldn’t find their house so the matriarch despatched her son in a battered Lada to come and find us.   We ate in a wooden cabin adorned with bear and wolf skins shot by her sons, and she cooked us a kind of polenta above a wood fire which we ate with spicy beans, pork knuckle and homemade cheese.   We finished it off with feijoa jam and bread (she made everything herself).

Homecooked lunch


Stuffed to the gills, Sergei took us to the cosmopolitan Sukhumi.  We visited two abandoned railway station (Sukhumi and Baratashvali) and the botanical gardens.  

Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Sukhumi station
Baratashvali station
Baratashvali station

We also saw the main square which is famous for the abandoned Georgian government building which the Abkhazians burnt from the inside and have vowed to leave as a monument.  It was been covered with hoardings commemorating 25 years of independence.

Georgian government building (hoarding celebrating 25 years of independence)
Georgian government building

Glitterati in Sukhumi

Dinner was a surreal experience in the ‘top’ hotel in Abkhazia.  We had borscht, kebab and local honey cake.  Everyone around us was ordering off the extensive sushi menu.  I have never quite seen sushi like it – oversized, elaborately decorated with mayonnaise and lurid sprinkles…. I am not sure what the Japanese would have made of it.  Our fellow diners were clearly the glitterati of Abkhazia with Chanel bags and very high heels!  


Morning run along the seafront

I woke up early enough for a run and headed out along the seafront.  In the distance I spied what looked like several men in black shell suits loitering around a kids playground…. it all looked quite dodgy and I was contemplating turning back.   As I got closer I realised it was an outdoor gym area and the blokes were all doing press ups!  The promenade was busy with (mostly) men strolling and a few more doing squats and push ups.  A great way to start the day.  

Black Sea cafe in Sukhumi
Sukhumi market


The benefit of the run was quickly destroyed by breakfast, a ridiculously large spread with porridge, sausages, eggs, vegetables and more of the incredible cottage cheese pancakes with a couple of cups of coffee.   Fortified we headed to the bazaar for a wander around.  Apparently the opening of a big supermarket nearby is ruining trade, and the bazaar is largely run by Armenians.  There was a spectacular array of merchandise, my favourites being the camouflage gumboot shoe and the nut sugar strings. 


Setting an FKT on Anakopia

The tourist highlight of Abkhazia (for those who are less obsessed with soviet bus stops) is the Anakopia fortress and the new Athos monastery.  Diana, our 25 year old guide assured me it was a 40 minute hike to the fortress, I took the challenge and made it in 12 (somewhat miffed as I had taken one wrong turn and lost a minute or so, I was even more miffed on the way down as I found all the shortcuts so reckon I could do it in 8 now).   The view over the Black Sea is stunning, and I lay in the sun like a lizard on a rock for 20 minutes waiting for Diana :-).  

Anakopia fortress
Anakopia chapel

We climbed the tower, took a photo with the Abkhazian flag that Diana had carried up for the purpose – it is the hand of peace, seven stars for seven districts and green and white stripes to demonstrate Christian and Muslim harmony.   We also visited the tiny and mostly ruined Orthodox Church along with a few smartly dressed elderly local ladies who had made the climb.  The downhill took 7 minutes (and I still missed a few shortcuts).

Anakopia chapel

Soviet tourism in the cave of New Athos


After that we went to see the ‘famous amazing cave of new athos’.  It was large!  Sadly, it was a tourist production where the tourists are put on a train, and then we had to walk very slowly for an hour and a half through the caves, in a big crowd.  I put a podcast on and stayed at the back…. waiting until the lady who was responsible for turning out the lights came behind me to move to the next spot.  On the bright side it was an anthropological exercise in Russian tourist watching.

We also had the pleasure of visiting another abandoned station – Psirtskha – beautifully located on the river.

Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station
Psirtskha abandoned station

Lunch followed with more kachapuri, stew, grilled pork and a nut and cabbage dish and more Turkish coffee.   From there we wandered to perhaps my favourite abandoned train station –  Psirtskha station – it was more like a posh gazebo, and was beautifully located on the river.   
Then we headed up to the old Monastery.   It was more stunning  from a distance when you could see all the gold cupolas reflecting the sunlight.   There was an old man painting icons for the tourists.  We had a chat, and he asked where I was from.  I said NZ, and he asked if I was Maori.   I asked him if he knew New Zealander’s, he said I was the first one he had met but was curious about polynesians as he was a fan of Gauguin.   Is a stunning monastery, with incredible paintings inside.

New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery
New Athos monastery


Back to Russia

After that we meandered back to Russia by way of a bonus palace and church on the way and one final bus stop.   Exiting was slightly tricky as I had to rustle up the guard to get my exit stamp, he was very impressed with my greeting and thanks in Abkhazian. Entering russian took a bit longer, as my passport seem to raise a few red flags!   
I would recommend Abkhazia for 3-4 days purely for the bus stops and the train stations.  The monastery was lovely also.   We didn’t see everything and next time I would quite like to do a lot of hiking in the high mountains.  

Stephs’ photos are here


Gagra, 5 May, 2019

Other notes

  • For the kiwis they have feijoas here – it’s amazing, feijoa juice, jam, it was amazing…. that’s a reason to visit 
  • It’s very cheap here.  Abkhazia is deceptively poor.  The average teachers salary $250 per month, a flat in Sukhumi cost $65k to buy, which means property is very unaffordable.  For foreigners, everything seems cheap.  
  • We booked this as part of a bigger holiday through native eye in the UK, but you could probably book direct with Dimitri at Caucasus explorer.  If you wanted to go off-roading, you could also contact Sergei at off-roading Abkhazia.
  • We stayed at Hotel Abaat in Gagra and Hotel Leon in Sukhum and both were good 
  • I would suggest learning a few words in Abkhazian, the locals were always thrilled when I said thank you very much (itabob idootsana) and very good (dar ibzyo) 

Hanging with hyenas in Harar

Harar is considered by Ethiopian Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), and the old city has 88 mosques within its walls (a mere few square kilometres).   Apparently, there are almost as many bars as mosques in the old city, and one of the busiest chat markets in Africa.    I was looking forward to wandering around the old city alleys and seeing the famous hyenas be fed in the evening.    Our flight was markedly different to earlier flights this week, with many fewer tourists and a marked shift from Christians to Muslims.


Landing in Dire Dawa was quaint- a tiny terminal almost overgrown with trees.  We couldn’t find our driver and were grateful for Ethiopian airlines awesome investment in WiFi in every airport, as I was able to contact the agent and track down the driver through WhatsApp.  The friendly guard at the airport did offer to lend us his phone though.


Endale (the driver) located, we hopped in his 4wd adorned with a painting of Che Guevara and headed off into the night to Harar.  Halfway we passed through the town of Awaday – home of the all night chat market.  Traffic was bonkers, headlights on high beam, crazy tuktuks and lots of evening shoppers.   It was like Oxford Circus at rush hour.  We eventually made it to Harar after a bumpy and swervy 90 minutes and checked into the Hotel Winta – it didn’t have great reviews but it was apparently better than the other hotels in town.  The hotel would win an award for the most hilarious bathroom in town – there is a tile painting of a huge tiger in the shower.   The bedroom is fit for a princess – with sparkly pink curtains and a matching bed cover.   We went downstairs for dinner – a choice of omelet or shiro, and a bucketload is cinnamon tea.  We then headed up to try and sleep through the noise of the mosquitos buzzing energetically around the room and the light shining in from the hallway.


Monkeys and marvels
The muezzin kindly woke us up at 5am, and we snoozed until 7.30.  We had an excellent chilli omelette for breakfast and some excellent local coffee.    The plan for today was to visit the largest livestock market in Ethiopia in the town of Babile (cutely pronounced ‘bubbily’).  We drove for an hour, located the town, walked to a walled market where there were a few goats, oxen and cows, but a distinct lack of camels.  Our hapless guide Hamdi seemed quite confused, and said ‘no camels’.  Hmmmmm.  Oh well.  We drove further to the misnamed ‘valley of the marvels’ which apparently has stunning rock formations.   Hmmmmmmm, not so stunning.   However, the road in the marvels was somewhat redeemed by the presence of hundreds of monkeys.  Apparently the locals feed them here, and every truck that went by seemed to throw a load of peanuts out the window.  It was kind of amusing. 


Finally some camels….
While we were there, Hamdi made a few calls and figured out that the camel market had moved to near the Somali refugee camp at Qoloji which is further into the Ethiopian region of Somalia (not to be confused with the country).  I must confess, I was entirely unaware that there was a large scale humanitarian crisis in this region with around 1 million displaced Oromian or Somalian people who have been feuding for many years.   Qoloji is one of many camps in the region.    We found the camel market!  The owners lounge around in makeshift shelters chewing chat while the brokers do the selling.  Male brokers sell camels, women sell goats.   


A maze of pastel alleys
Back in Harar, we strolled around town.  There isn’t much to do except get lost in the pastel maze of alleyways.  We wandered down Machina Girgir -the famous street with old Singer sewing machines were the tailors could whip you up a hijab in a few minutes.  The camel meat market in town was amusing, if smelly, and there were eagles circling overhead waiting for camel scraps.  We dropped by the tomb of Sheikh Abadir – founder of Harar, and had a chat to the local ladies about their kids who are now all living in London or Canada.   After sufficient strolling we went for lunch at the ‘best restaurant in town’ – the fresh touch.  Ordering was fun ‘no ambo, no bread, no eggs, no pizza, no pancakes’.  Steph ordered injera, and I went across the road to find some bread rolls.


Hyenas and the Quran 
After a relaxing siesta, we headed off in the dark to see the Hyenas being fed.  This is apparently the highlight of any visit to Harar, though there is something incongruous about driving down a dirt road to join a line up of tourist vans pointing their headlights at a man feeding semi rottten camel meat to 30 or so hyenas.   The tourists took it in turn to feed the hyenas, who were surprisingly docile and afraid of humans.  I know hyenas are supposed to be ‘evil’ but I find them quite adorable.    After that Hamdi took us back to Sheikh abadir’s tomb to see the Thursday celebrations.  We spent a blissfully relaxing hour listening to 20-30 people chanting melodically from the Quran while chewing methodically through their bags of chat.  I was most amused by the haughty cat who strolled around the mosque like she owned it.   The worshippers were all pretty zen and didn’t seem at all offended by the presence of three random faranjis who didn’t know any of the chants.  Apparently they chant well into the night, using drums from about midnight to keep them awake.   It was quite a treat to sit there and enjoy the locals.


Museums, my favourite!
I have managed to avoid visiting museums in most cities, but we had kind of run out of things to see.  First up, the Haile selassie museum.  Haile selassie was born near Harar and he was the last emporer of Ethiopia.  The museum was full of pretty random artefacts but it killed an hour while Isiah the enthusiastic guide explained every item. Then we wandered to the Rimbaud centre – not actually where the famous poet lived and as far as we can tell it was built after he died.  But it was a beautiful house and we whiled away some time sitting on steps watching the eagles soar above us… the locals feed them leftover camel meat from the meat market.    

House of Haile Selassie
Rimbaud centre


The best coffee in the world?
We then went to the coffee factory and bought 2 kg of coffee, which made us thirsty so we wandered up to the Mermaid cafe and had two cups of the best coffee I drank in Ethiopia – zebras, as they are black and white.  Outstanding! It’s busy in town today, its ethiopian good Friday for the Christian minority and Friday for prayers for the Muslim majority.    The beggars are out in force, lining the streets in the shade chewing chat and hoping for alms from those en route to the mosque.  We stopped by the local pool hall and cinema – a dank large room with broken plastic chairs.  The enthusiastic audience were watching Bollywood on the tele while they waited for the 1pm screening time.  A group of competitive old men where on the terrace playing rapid games of dominos.  We had a chat – the whole group are Man United fans, which made Jess very happy, and there was a lot of debate about who was going to win next week.  Football definitely is the universal religion for most of the world.   


Chat, Kyat, Kat….
We retreated from the heat to the Res Hannan hotel for an average lunch in the shade, and then made our way back to Diredawa via Awaday – where the chat market was still very much in full swing.  Locals were buying and selling, men were chewing, and the goats were eating the leftovers.  Side note – I was shocked to learn that it takes 500 litres of water to irrigate enough chat for one persons daily consumption.  Apparently 40% of the water usage in Yemen is for chat irrigation – it’s an ecological nightmare.   https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat

Additional notes

It was my first visit to Harar and it was fascinating but honestly wouldn’t put it on the top of my travel list. We stayed at the Winta hotel which was away from the old town but good and clean and friendly – though read the trip advisor reviews, some people have had issues with their bills. We rented a car and driver for the time we were there, honestly that wasn’t necessary. just get a cab from dire dawa and sort arrangements when you arrive.

Dire Dawa, 26 April 2019

Facing old demons in Tigray

The Tigray was one of my favourite regions in Ethiopia.   Rock hewn monasteries perched on top of steep mountains, to be closer to god and protect from invaders.  I was looking forward to revisiting the lovely monastery of Maryam Korkor and also managing to visit Abune Yemata – I didn’t make it last time, but more on that later ..


We were met at Mekele airport by Zaray our guide, and our driver Fish.  As coincidences would have it, Fish had been my driver last time I was here (he was brilliant then, and has aged well though his English hasn’t improved one bit).   We popped by to see Dawit, the owner of covenant travel, who had organised my last trip here as well, several years ago, and had treated Tamara and I to his house for lunch with his family).  And then we headed a couple of hours north to the Gheralta escarpment, passing through towns that were quite unrecognisable.  The area is growing, half built hotels and office blocks were sprouting in Wikro Agula and there appears to have been an explosion in tuktuks- apparently several hundred thousand have been imported from India in the last five years – you can tell.   


Fortunately the landscape hadn’t changed, and it had retained its spaghetti western qualities, made more moody by the storm clouds and the humidity.  We had arrived early evening, and driving at nighttime is always a bit dicey anywhere in Africa.   No one really understands (or follows) road rules here, passing is at will, and headlights are largely optional, though if you are going to use them, you must remember to high beam all oncoming cars.  On the bright side, the Chinese work crew I saw on my last visit had clearly done their job and the road from mekele to hawzien was now entirely asphalted.  On the downside I saw at two dead goats and one dead dog who obviously didn’t understand the road rules. 


We would be spending three nights at the Gheralta Lodge – the first ‘boutique’ hotel in Ethiopia, I had stayed here years ago and it was lovely. Set up by an eccentric Italian, they grow their own veg and make excellent pasta.  The rooms are lovely but the organisation was and still is chaotic (an interesting blend of Italian and Ethiopian organisation).   Dinner was hearty and delicious and I got mildly drunk on the honey wine (the upside of barely drinking is that I can get drunk on half a glass of anything).   


Conquering old demons at Abune Yemata
After a leisurely lie in until 7.15, and one of the best showers I have had in Africa, we had a healthy breakfast of eggs, homemade bread, apple cake, and homemade guava jam.   Zaray, Fish and Dawit picked us up and we bumped along the gravel track to the entrance to Abune Yemata (see a great BBC video about it here and another sweet video here


Abune Yemata is a high monastery carved into the top of a rock pillar.  I have terrible vertigo and last time I was in Ethiopia i weighed significantly more than I do now, and I was too frightened to climb up the cliff face with toeholds.  This time I am fitter and stronger, but if anything my vertigo has gotten worse with age.   But they do now have a harness and a rope on the hairiest part of the climb so that was something.   Well I made it.  I tried to turn back once half way up the rock face but the scouts blocked my way.   And then I had a moment when I climbed onto an exposed flat rock with steep drop offs on all sides and I lay on the stomach and the poor scout had to say ‘stand up’ four times before I could get up.  And then I bottled it on the ledge inching along to the entrance.  But I made it.    

The priest was adorable and is clearly used to freaked out faranjis (foreigners) arriving at the door.  The paintings are stunning and ancient and worth the trip.   And Dawit (our local Tigray guide) assures me no one has died here (though people have fallen).   


Hiking up to Maryam Korkor
Feeling triumphant, we decided to head straight over to the climb to Maryam Korkor.   We acquired another volunteer scout as we headed off and just as well as I was in the mood to go fast.  Dawit told me it would take fit people an hour and 20 minutes to get to the top so I decided to try for 30 minutes.   We started off too slowly, but I got my new friend Gabriel Giorgis the scout to jog the flat bits, so we made it up in just under 31 minutes (Strava here).   Steph wasn’t too far behind in 54 minutes, but in fairness he was handicapped by stomach pains from last nights chilli.  Gabriel was most amused and asked Dawit the guide when he arrived if I worked in sport.   The view out across to Abune Yemata was fabulous.


The church of Maryam Korkor is lovely but the highlight for me is the tiny monastery of Daniel Korkor which is carved out of the cliff face and accessed by a narrow ledge.  It has stunning paintings, and an outstanding view.
For entertainment (and to the annoyance of the tourists coming up hill), Gabriel and I decided to try and beat our time down the hill and so we ran down in just under 21 minutes pretending we were airplanes.   He was fun and apparently I was the first tourist who had jogged down with him.   
After that we retired for a lazy afternoon in the lodge, hubby drinking lots of mirinda to deal with his ailments (it is his miracle cure).    And yet another substantial Italian dinner and a good night sleep 


Visiting the Danakil depression
I had wanted to visit the Danakil for years, but last time it was off limits due to safety concerns.   Several groups of tourists have been shot or kidnapped over the years (always blames on the Eritreans).  Things have settled down some (the last incident was in December 2017), and the local afar tribe have now made an industry out of tourist security.   Everyone is obliged to have an afar escort in the territory and it isn’t cheap.   The Afar are the local people who have carved a living out of the desert hacking out salt and transporting it on camel trains to Mekele. It’s a tough region, temperatures average 35 degrees and the ‘depression’ is 100m below sea level (the lowest spot in Africa).  This is one of the poorer areas in ethiopia.  The roadside huts are built of plastic and branches, and are far from any obvious water or sources of food.  The afar have a challenging relationship with the Amhara and it feels more like Djibouti here than Ethiopia. 


One advantage of visiting now is that there is now an asphalt road most of the way to Dallol (thanks to the Chinese) so what once would have taken 5-7 hours now took 3.5.  The drive was stunning, leaving the yellow rock of the Gheralta, descending down through the lush green gorges around Agula, arriving in the black moonscape of Berhile and then finally the stunning white salt plain of the Danakil.    


We stopped in Berhile to do some paperwork, and then again closer to Dallol to pick up our ‘guards’.   One of them was young, with a serious face and a battered Kalashnikov.  The other was much older and only had the use of one eye.  I was assuming that the ‘toughness’ of our guards correlated with the potential of any actual danger, and wasn’t expecting anything much to happen.


A large group of camels and men were hard at work on the side of the road, hacking salt from the earth in the same way that the locals had done for centuries.  Big blocks of salt which they took on long camel train to Mekele, each camel would have 30 slabs of salt (c.200kg) and in total each camels load would be sold for c. 500 birr (under $20)


Not far away from the camels were the main reason people visit the Danakil, a spectacular geothermal area with incredible pools of sulphur in amazing colours.   The guard matter of factly informed us a German tourist had died on the site a few days ago, falling behind the group, fainting and slipping into the sulphur.   We were pretty careful with our foot placement after that.   


The area is stunning, we stopped by some incredible, if phallic rock formations and also the large shallow salt water lake.  The landscape is very similar to the Bolivian altiplano, but much hotter with the temperatures reaching 36 degrees before lunch.   


We retreated back to the car, blasted the air con and still sweated buckets (apart from Fish who was as cool as ice and was still wearing his sweater)….. it was an hour or more before we started climbing out of the depression and we finally opened the windows.  It was a long day, almost 8 hours of solid driving but totally worth it.    It’s our last night at Gheralta – more pasta for dinner and a big nights sleep before heading to Harar tomorrow 


Hawzien, April 23,2019 
Additional notes

Hallas, Alhamdulillah, 197/197

So, I can’t quite believe I have finished, and have visited 197/197 countries (193 UN members, 2 UN observers, and two countries who I think should be UN members – Taiwan and Kosovo).  

Miriam the Saudi store manager at the Kingdom store in Riyadh

Earlier this week, I had a fascinating 24 hours in Riyadh on a work trip visiting my colleagues in Saudi stores, and that was country 196 (and yes I need to go back at some point to see Mada’in Saleh when it reopens).  

Visiting Hawf in Yemen

And then, given I was in the region, I spent today in Yemen with Azam.  It is almost impossible to get into mainland Yemen as a tourist, so the cunning day trip was the best option.  I am hoping to go and visit Socotra island soon (a safer part of Yemen), when can work out the logistics.

 

 A few thoughts….,,

Every country in the world is worth visiting.  I learnt something amazing, or saw something incredible everywhere I went. I wish I had had more time in most places, and will go back to lots of them. If you have the time, tenacity and the resources, I would definitely encourage you to give visiting every country in the world a try.  

Me and the kids in a Liberian village

Most places are safer than you think – I always joke that I am much more likely to die being knocked off my bicycle in London, than when wandering around war zones in Africa. Even in war zones, people are living their lives – mothers and children, brothers and sisters, normal people going about their business. Wherever I see kids, I feel safe….. people don’t normally take their kids to unsafe places. I got held up at gun point once, and had a few sketchy cab drivers. Thats not bad for 25 years of travelling.

Students at the fort in Lahore

There are great people everywhere you go (and a few dickheads also).  This is not dictated by religion, ethnicity, wealth, age or gender. Some of the friendliest people I have met, I have found in unexpected circumstances.  The generosity of people I met in the poorest countries often floored me, those with the least to give would often offer the most.

I placed full confidence in the goodness of humankind everywhere I went, and having faith in others didn’t let me down anywhere. Assume most people are good, treat them accordingly, and you will get the same treatment back.

Hubby and I in Salar de Uyuni

And a few thank yous

  • Of course, a huge thank you to my incredible husband who has been supportive (if occasionally perplexed) by my desire to achieve this goal.   I also empathise with him for the ridiculous number of conversations he has had with other people who ask him how he can ‘let’ me travel to dangerous places.   As if I need permission or he would ever think it is his to give!  He is a remarkable human being, and it has been fun to have him along on many of my adventures (even when he told me off for driving the van in the dark in Afghanistan!).
Ali and Zaf at Mug Tepa in Tajikistan
  • My eternal gratitude to the legion of African and Arab men who have safely driven, guided and sorted me out in some of the worlds slightly sketchy locales.   There is nothing more important than having a good driver and fixer – from Peter in Juba, Youssef in Libya, Kausar in Afghanistan, Mamadou in Bandiagara, Tekeste in Asmara, Fish and Zeray in Ethiopia, and so many more.  These men all treated me with the respect due to an aunty or a sister or a daughter and kept me safe.  I will always be grateful
Schoolkids in bangladesh
  • To my fellow nutters on Every Passport Stamp and Nomadmania – thank you for the tips and suggestions for the remote corners of the earth….. where else can you go to get a recommendation for a hotel in Bangui?   Keep travelling!
Salem, Youssef and Evelthon in Tripoli

So, because everyone always asks, I have updated my list of favourite countries in the world now that I am done.  See it here   Feel free to come up with your own list……  

And what’s next?

Well, next week I am visiting a bunch of breakaway Russian republics (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Abkhazia, and Chechnya).  And there are still lots of territories or non sovereign state countries I have planned to visit (like Greenland, Faroes, Svalbard, Tibet etc) so I am unlikely to stop travelling. I have a lot of hiking trips planned (Israel and Jordan National trails, the Haute Route in the Pyrenees and eventually the Continental Divide Trail).  I also have a few places I want to spend more time in, including Yemen (Socotra and Sana), Albania and Kosovo (the Peaks of the Balkans trail), and Mali (I never made it to Timbuktu).  I don’t think I will be hanging up my backpack anytime soon. (Oh, and I have a full time job and that takes up quite a bit of time also).

Happy travels all!

Students in Kabul

Salaleh, May 1, 2019

Celebrating Palm Sunday in Lalibela

I am back in Ethiopia for the fourth time. I love it here!  I am not sure why but (apart from when in Addis) I feel utterly chilled whenever I am here.  Ethiopia has stunning landscapes, friendly people, pretty decent food, and some amazing heritage sites.   I have company this time, hubby and Jess have been persuaded to come along.
Landing in Addis it was the usual chaos.  The terminal upgrade, due to complete last year, is late, and hubby and Jess looked pretty sceptical when I made them cross a muddy construction site to transfer to the domestic terminal rather than wait for the shuttle.   Hubby blagged us an invite to the business lounge so we had coffee and then hopped on the flight to lalibela.


Loving Lalibela….
Lalibela is one of my favourite places in the world.  A quiet village perched high in the hillls with some spectacular churches hewn our of the rock 900 years ago.   Tourism has come to the region, but if you time your visit well, and also get up early you can largely see the main sites without any tourists, just the locals
We arrived around 11 and headed straight out to see the first cluster of churches.  It’s lent, with Ethiopian Easter a week away (although it was good Friday on our calendar).  As luck would have it, all the tour groups had already passed through, and we were treated to groups of smiley men praying melodically in every church, leaning on their sticks).   I am not religious but I find services here both joyful and soothing, it is something in the tone of the sung prayers that chills me out instantly. 


Rock hewn churches
We saw all the spectacular churches in the first cluster and wandered up the hill for an excellent injera biyenot and shiro wat lunch at the seven olives hotel in the shade of a tree.  Fortified by a couple of cups of the excellent local buna (coffee), we headed back out to view the rest of the churches.    By this time it was 3pm and it was hot and the tourists had all come back, so it was a slightly sticky and overcrowded afternoon.  The highlight was scaring the pants of Jess as we walked through a 75m pitch black tunnel (said locally to be the literal hell).  


 I was delighted to see Bet Giorgis again – the most stunning of all of lalibela’s churches and the last one king lalibela built.  However, it is less lovely with large groups of German tourists, which we were blessed with that day….so definitely worth visiting more than once if you can.    We hiked back to hotel (it is good exercise at 2500m and up a steep hill – we had told our guide Melese that we weren’t tuktuk people everytime he suggested us getting one :-)).  

Top of Bet Giorgis


I allowed everyone a luxurious hour break for a shower and a rest, and then we went to Ben abeba for dinner.  It’s the most famous restaurant in lalibela given its weird architecture and nice view but the food was rubbish and the service was worse.   So retired to our lovely hotel (the top 12) and had ginger tea on the terrace before passing out at 10pm

Dawn services
We got up at 5.30 and headed down to Bet Giorgis, wandering through town by the light of the moon watching the town wake up.   We were the first tourists at the church (and only a couple arrived in the next half hour) so we had a blissfully quiet time enjoying the sounds of the men praying.    

Wandering back to the hotel, we passed Golgotha church which was hosting a very well attended mass, with a few hundred devotees standing on the surrounding rocks. It was extraordinarily peaceful being surrounded by people listening to the prayers through the speakers.  We hiked back up to our hotel for breakfast- marmalade and sweet Kita (homemade local bread kinda like a crumpet), eggs and coffee and enjoyed the astounding view out over the mountains.  


Yemrehenna Kristos 
Our plan for the day was to head 40km our of Lalibela to go to the Bilbilla market and also see some of the more ancient churches that predated Lalibela. Heading out past the town of Bilbilla, we passed hundreds of locals walking tens of kilometres to market, with chickens and goats and mules.  It is the last big market day before Ethiopian Easter, so important to get all the shopping done. First stop, Yemrehenna kristos, a lovely chocolate box cave church about 1100 years old predating the churches at Lalibela.   There are the eerie remains of pilgrims bones in the back of the cave.  The priest and I have both aged since I saw him last but he is still smiling.

Yemrehenna Kristos

Returning to Bilbilla, we deviated for steep hike up the hill to a more ancient 5th century cave church Bilbilla Giorgis, famous for its holy honey.  Locals come from miles around to be healed by the honey (made by bees in the walls of the monasteries) when modern medicine has failed them, and they apparently stay for months.  

The monk and his honey pot


Saturday market at Bilbilla 
Strolling down the hill into Bilbilla town, it was ram packed.   The chicken market was hilarious, loads of people sitting under a tree holding my on to their chickens with no space to get through, let alone view the merchandise.  We picked our way through trying not to stand on the heads of the chickens for sale.   The spice, fruit, sugar and goat sections were equally hectic.  The usual hierarchy applied, women and kids do chickens, younger men do goats and the old wizened ones sell the cows.  The odd man was wandering around with an ancient Kalashnikov.  The trend of the region is to adorn your jacket with buttons – it’s quite fetching.


We stopped for buna and injera biyenenot in a dirt hut in Bilbilla, the cups were washed in the corner in a bucket of river water, much to jess’s horror.  I got bored of the Ethiopian reggae on the satellite tv so went and  played outside with the friendly village kids who were pretending to be Messi and Ronaldo (football is the universal religion)

Lalibela market
Lalibela was a bustling metropolis after Bilbilla, so we went to check out that market – more cows, goats and an impressive array of plastic Chinese shoes.   


Climbing to Asheton Maryam
After a relaxing hour in the shade, we rattled out of lalibela in our aged minibus and picked our way through the potholes up to Asheton Maryam. At 3000m it has impressive views of the surrounding hills.  We had to hike the last 800m of path and made it just before the rain started torrenting down.  The priest had twinkly eyes and an impressive array of icons.   We ran the path back down to the amusement of some local girls who chased me back to the van….
The return journey was somewhat perilous, the rain has turned the dirt to slippery mud and there were steep drop offs on both sides.  We spent over an hour stuck behind a huge truck…..inching down the mountain side.  In hindsight it would have been faster to run down


More dawn services
Another early morning start to head down to mass at Bet Medhane Alem and Bet Maryam, the last mass before Ethiopian easter Friday so it was very crowded but lovely.  The atmosphere was somewhat ruined by a group of shouty Chinese tourists who were shoving their cameras in peoples faces and ignoring requests of the locals to stop taking pictures. I told a particularly shouty man to shhhhhh, and his guide sidled up to me afterwards to thank me for telling him off.    


We resisted the urge to annoy the locals with our cameras and sat down at Bet Maryam and enjoyed the atmosphere, taking the odd picture but mostly playing with the local kids and watching the worshippers make rings out of woven palm.   The ladies around us were lovely and we ended up amusing their daughters by taking photos of them and showing them to them…. at one point hubby looked like a kindergarten teacher surrounded by kids.  Bliss! 


Monastery of Nakuta Laab
After breakfast, more excellent kita and coffee, we made our way to the monastery of Nakuta Laab – the last king of lalibela.   What the monastery lacked in architectural splendour it more than made up for with views out over the valleys.   Mass was still underway, with the deacons translating the morning mass into Amharic.  Lots of beautiful locals in white headscarf’s peacefully sitting in the sun, greeting us and their neighbours and enjoying the service.  Quite lovely.   It was a bit of a wrench to leave, but we are off to the Tigray so we said goodbye to Melese our guide and left for Mekele.
Lalibela, April 21, 2019

  • Additional notes
  • there are lots of nice basic hotels in lalibela – we stayed at toptwelve this time.  About usd 50 per night
  • Food is fine in lalibela but nothing amazing.  Best to stick to local food.   I like the view from Ben abeba but not enough to tolerate the shoddy service, below average food and highest prices in town.  Seven olives and unique are better bets.  
  • Guides are easy to get – like last time we used the guy who picked us at the airport, we negotiated us 40-60 per day depending on the day length.   Drivers and cars are extra, for a full full day rental it is about usd 100 (from 7.30-7.30).  Our guide Melese was very good

Loving Libya

Planning a business trip

Getting into Libya isn’t easy, the government stopped issuing tourist visas many years ago, so the only way in is on official business. If you know who to ask, you can sort yourselves out an official business invitation, and if you pay an extra fee or two (what might be referred to in common parlance as a bribe), you can eventually procure a business visa from the Libyan embassy in London. At €650, including invitation letter, it was the most expensive visa of the 197.

The visa sorted, I then had to arrange flights. I managed to get to Tunis via Paris without too much drama. There are multiple flights a day from Tunis to Tripoli, but you are only allowed to book a flight to Libya if you have a resident’s permit. Hmmmmmm. It turns out there is a way around this also, which involved meeting a man at Tunis airport and handing him a wodge of cold hard euros. After that furtive cash exchange in the corner of the airport, I waited for my friend Evelthon to arrive. Side note: Evelthon and I have known each other for many years, and a few years ago we realised we were both trying to visit every country, and have been trying to visit a country together ever since. He is at 184 and I am at 195 (from 197), and we finally got our act together to come to Libya together

An amusing detour to Sidi Bou Said

We had a few hours to kill before our flight to Tripoli, so we tossed a coin to decide between the souq and the lovely Sidi Bou Said (its like the Aegean in Tunisia). Sidi won, so we went for a stroll and a cup of ultra sweet mint tea and almonds, and admired the views of the sea and the blue doors and windows.

Safety first on the wings of Libya

Back to the airport, Evelthon helpfully reminded me that I had forgotten to declare my currency coming into the country, so I had to stash the cash down my bra to avoid it being confiscated…..happily I managed to pass through immigration without any questions and with my cash intact.

At this point in my travel career, having been to many of the worlds ‘dodgiest’ countries, I can tell a lot about the state of a destination by the passengers waiting in the boarding lounge. It is bad news when it is only men, worse news when they are all in military fatigues. Fellow passengers on todays flight gave off surprisingly good vibes – while still mostly men, there were lots of families and smiling faces. A few people asked us why we were going to Libya (business of course), our neighbours tried to make us board before them, and everyone seemed delightful.

The plane looked fine, though Evelthon had also reminded me that morning that Libyan Wings were banned from flying in the EU. I consoled him by pointing out the natty hats on the stewardesses – style has to be worth something as a trade off for safety.

Time to look like a business person

I put on a headscarf before leaving the plane, and all the women in the bus to the terminal pointed at me and told me in broken English that Libya was modern, and they were not like the Saudis, and I didn’t need to wear the headscarf if I didn’t want – I do love finding feminists wherever I go.

We queued behind four people in the foreigners line for about 30 minutes while the entire Libyan contingent from the plane cleared immigration. We eventually got to the front, he took our passports, eyebrows were raised, managers were called, and eventually they stamped us in. But 10 metres later an angry man took our passports again and we had another 30 minute wait – not helped by the fact that our driver was late – if you are foreign, your local contact has to come and collect you from immigration. Assas eventually made it, but we had been struggling to come up with sensible answers to ‘who are you meeting?’ We were still mostly zen, the worse that can happen is they send you home…. and Assas eventually sorted it out with vehement assurances of our authenticity and we finally got out of the airport.

Dinner and bed

We drove into town to the Victoria hotel, which was better than expected. Our guides Salem and Youssef were there to meet us and they took us out for an astoundingly good Turkish dinner. We rolled home after the kebabs and passed out after our early start.

A sad wake up

As I was eating breakfast and listening to the prayers from Mecca at max volume on the tele, the news popped up on my phone that a terrorist fanatic had killed 49 people in two mosques in Nz. We pride ourselves on being a multicultural diverse nation. As a Maori, our commitment to manuhiritanga is at the foundation of who we are, noone on our soil should ever not be safe. Sitting in Libya this morning, one of many Islamic nations I have visited where I have pretty much always been made to feel welcome (in line with the very strict Islamic code of hospitality) I am ashamed that such a thing could happen on our soil. Our guides arrived to pick us up and I found myself with tears in my eyes and my voice breaking as I explained that we hadn’t done a good job of looking after their fellow Muslims in Nz. Moe mai ra. Heartbreaking! I hope this moves us to rise above and be better human beings.

Feminism and Islam

We headed out of Tripoli to Leptis Magna. The road was lined with bombed out buildings, or half constructed buildings from the gadaffi era. The police were out in force with check points eyeballing us as we drove by (youssef calls them staring points as they stare more than check). It’s Friday so things are pretty quiet.

We had a lively debate in the car about religion and feminism, and Islamic factions in Libya. My favourite comment from Youssef (of the many amusing and unrepeatable comments from the car) was that women do all the work and men just show up, get paid and are actually disguised unemployment. The rest of our lively debate I am not going to publish, but suffice to say our guides are probably not typical Libyans. Salem’s nickname for Youssef is ‘many talk’, which is apt, he was hilarious!

Leptis Magna

First up Leptis Magna, once the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa – dating from 7th century BC. I won’t bore you with the history, as I wasn’t really paying attention to the detail, but the ruins are amazingly well preserved. The site is pretty big and was populated with Libyan families picnicking.

The locals are super friendly, and lots of people said hi and welcome to Libya! It reminds me a bit of Iran where people were surprised and happy to see foreigners. It was an amazing few hours. The theatre was my favourite and I couldn’t resist doing my ‘rocky impression’ running up the stairs (‘we’re the best around’) much to the amusement of some of the kids watching.

We then drove over to my favourite part of Leptis – the amphitheater – both Evelthon and I went to the bottom separately and roared like lions eating infidels. The acoustics were unbelievable. Salem and Youssef has bought a thermos of Arabic coffee so we had a coffee in the sun, enjoying the view and had the entire place to ourselves.

More food

We stopped for a ‘light lunch’ of soup, salad, bread, Lamp chops, Fries, Sauté vegetables, Tagine couscous, chickpeas and onions, and tea and fruit and Halva to finish. It was amazing but we could barely move afterwards. The young waiter was desperately looking for a way out of the country, our guide suggested I could take him as a second husband – am sure husband no. 1 would be delighted.

Villa sileen

After that we went to see Villa Sileen – the remains of a complex of villas for the elite from 1st century AD. It is quite stunning and on the sea, but the restoration activities are probably a good example of what not to do with mosaics.

We then popped into gaddafi’s old rest house for a cup of tea before heading back to tripoli.

More food and some negotiation

Apparently there aren’t many restaurant choices in Tripoli. We weren’t excited by trying the Indian so we went back to the Turkish for more excellent kebabs. We ended up having an advanced negotiation over dinner about our itinerary – Salem was very reluctant to take us to Sabratha (we found out later he doesn’t like the hassle he gets from the people who work there). Youssef won an award for being the UN negotiator, and we agreed the solution as I was finishing my baklava….. we were going to Sabratha in the morning.

It was a lively night in tripoli with horns honking all night, and then the muezzin woke me up around 5…. and I eventually managed to get motivated to eat breakfast at 8 and we were off to Sabratha by 9

Sabratha – the largest Roman theatre in Africa

It took just over an hour to get to the town around sabratha … most of the buildings still show significant scars from the tribal wars in 2014. The site, however, was remarkable! Sabratha is home to the largest Roman temple in Africa, and while some of the renovations are clumsy it is still stunningly beautiful with the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean in the background. If you squint a bit you can also block out all the trash the locals leave behind when they come for picnics.

The Punic temple was also quite lovely with incredible lions. The most amusing part of the visit was watching Salem and Youssef argue like an old married couple…., Salem likes to go fisa fisa (quickly), and Youssef likes to take his time and take a lot of photos. The more Salem tried to hurry him, the slower Youssef went – to the extent of stopping us to give us riddles about the location, including a particularly long interlude about the testicles of Hercules. It was worth the negotiation to get to visit!

Janzour museum – 2000 year old painted tomb

On our way back to Tripoli, we stopped by an unassuming house with no sign, which was the janzour museum, where a farmer found a series of tombs in the 50s. The highlight was a beautifully painted tomb. It was worth the stop

Shop till you drop

I couldn’t resist a visit to the high end shopping street. I work for a leading UK retailer and we have a number of international franchise operations. We have two stores in Libya, which no one has visited since 2011 at the earliest. I couldn’t resist swinging by to check it out. The stock in our store I imagine hasn’t been on sale in the UK for a while. The prices were 2-3 times higher for the same product assuming you had bought cash on the black market – at the official rate the product was ten times uk pricing. Apparently people still buy stuff, but it must be cheaper to fly to London to go shopping (assuming you can get a visa)! There was even a BHS shop on the street – but BHS went out of business many years ago.

More food

We had lunch at a fried chicken restaurant with an extensive menu – but they didn’t have any items on the menu available. After an extensive exchange in Arabic, we were given the choice of chicken or lamb, rice or couscous! Somehow we managed to over order again and got way too much food, I will likely need to be rolled onto the plane.

The old town

After rushing us around this morning, Salem let us have a pause for coffee…. and then we went for a wander around the old city. First up the Marcus Aurelius arch and then down a few alleys. Youssef was careful about which ones we went down as some quarters are controlled by militia. We saw the Massjed Gurgi, the Greek Orthodox prison and the Anglican Church of Christ the king. And then we wandered the alleys chatting to a lot of friendly locals, but most of them were not keen to have their photos taken (it’s haram). We ended up in moneychanging alley which was full of scary looking dudes with wodges of cash in their hands, and young runners with blue wheelbarrows full of bags of cash.

Staring in the souk

We wandered the souk, making friends with people, the stalls were hilarious and some of them were legitimately like Ali babas cave, and they were not souvenir shops as there are no tourists here. I was causing quite a stir as I kept smiling at people, and I started feeling sorry for Evelthon as we were pretty sure all the local men were wondering why he couldn’t control his wife and stop her smiling and laughing. (I asked Youssef about this and he said in Berber wisdom ‘A loose woman is not all bad!!!!’. He also reckoned that I could have definitely picked up a couple of extra husbands in the souk, as the gossip that day was about how foreign women were quite something – charming!!!)

We made it to martyrs square and then weren’t really allowed to take any more photos as there were too many police – it’s a recipe for trouble to point a camera in public (at best it leads to a lot of questions about why you are taking photographs and whether you have permission, and at worst you get to enjoy the police hospitality for an extended length of time). After that, a brief wander around the new town and then an awkward wait in a large outdoor shisha cafe for Salem where I was the only woman, and men were legit standing up to stare at me. In spite of the assurances of my feminist sisters on the plane, I would have felt quite out of place not wearing a headscarf here…. I didn’t see one woman with an uncovered head outside of the hotel in four days.

And more food….

We went to a fresh fish restaurant for dinner and ate too much again! Restaurants here are pretty utilitarian! Bright flicking fluorescent lights! Food comes out haphazardly and of course there is no alcohol so everyone is drinking Miranda. We had fun listening to Salem and Youssef in full riff moaning about Salem’s wife who is like Nato (and spies on him), about Youssef’s four wives who are exhausting him (as far as I can tell he has one wife), and them generally teasing each other. Honestly Youssef should have been a stand up comic!

airport bureaucrats and the lack of Id

Up early for the flight, and I hadn’t slept much as there were fireworks going off quite a lot of the evening. Exiting the airport was eventually ok, though I did have a 15 minute interrogation and a persistent demand to see company ID from a fairly aggressive young man. He shouted, I smiled. I was disappointed that the special effort I had made to be fully ‘abbayed’ and ‘hijabed’ hadn’t paid off. In most countries this type of interrogation is just an extended warm up for a bribe demand, but I had been warned here that the fundamentalists weren’t interested in bribes and genuinely thought most foreigners were spies. Eventually I got my driver on the phone (who had actually escorted me right through immigration, I got stopped just after he left). After a five minute heated phone conversation between the driver and the angry bearded man, I was sent on my way. I didn’t actually relax though until I got on the plane, as had read stories of other travellers being hauled back from the boarding gate for further questioning! I did my usual dramatic rip off of the headscarf and abbaya when I got on the plane, much to the amusement of the two women behind me 🙂 – and exhale! Adorably, I was seated in the middle of a group of Libyan red crescent workers (the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross), and a couple of them had never been on a plane before – so cute watching them work out how the tray table worked!

I had a great time in Libya and would highly recommend it. I am looking forward to coming back to visit Ghedames and the sights around Benghazi, inshallah, when things calm down some more. Hada mumtaz!

2 more to go….

Additional notes

  • Given the security concerns and our creative entry plan to Libya, feel free to send me a message on the contact page if you want to any details of how to visit
  • A headscarf is recommended but not required
  • I would advise against bringing a big camera if you don’t want extra hassle at the airport on the way out

Tripoli, March 17, 2019