Israel and the Golan Heights

IsraelPosted by Malin Wed, August 21, 2013 23:46:40
Arriving in Jerusalem on a Thursday, the hostel we had planned to stay in was fully booked. As we were sitting in the parking lot behind the hostel, the parking lot owner offered to help us searching the internet on his cell phone for another place to stay. While looking for other options two men in a Toyota Land Cruiser parked and asked us if we were looking for a place to stay. It turned out they were the owners of the hostel we wanted to stay in. When they heard they were fully booked that night, one of the men said that his family was out of town for the weekend, and if we wanted to, we could stay in his house. But we had to decide quickly because they were going to a beer festival in a few minutes. If we wanted to stay with him we had to join them first to the beer festival and then go to his place around 9 o’clock in the evening. This was a really good and hospital offer to two strangers, and we were really tempted to say yes. But we had had a long day; waking up early by the Dead Sea, we had been out sightseeing at Masada in 40+ degrees Celsius half of the day, and then done other stops on our way to Jerusalem. The thought of a shower, clean clothes, and laying on a bed for an hour or two before dinner was more tempting than going straight to a beer festival. As we declined the offer of beer festival and homestay, the owner of the hostel called another hostel for us and reserved their last double room. This new hostel was within walking distance, and we left the Patrol parked where it was. Next morning when we were back to get a few more things out of the car, another man commented on our Patrol as he was into 4x4 himself. He asked us about our route through Israel. We pulled out a map, and he recommended us a few places in northern Israel.

During our stay in Israel we meet a lot of friendly and helpful people, just like these people we meet in the parking lot in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a nice city to spend some days in. We spent three nights in a hostel in the city center so that we could walk around and enjoy the city.

On Friday we walked through the Mahane Yeruda Market. It must have been the busiest market I have ever been to, and it seemed like the whole of Jerusalem was there shopping before the Sabbath started. The fresh produce, cheese, bread, spices, tea, and whatever you can imagine on a marked was there, and it looked really good. In between all the stalls were small cafes and restaurants. Too busy for a relaxing meal, we continued our walk through town.

Old Jerusalem is a really fascinating area to walk through. There old city is divided into an Armenian, a Jewish, a Muslim, and a Christian Quarter. Each area has a different feel to it, and if you forget about the tourist people dress differently too.

Because of the long history and years of building and altering old buildings you can find streets and markets on different levels.

It is quite easy to get lost even with a map. Espen was cheating as he used the GPS on his mobile phone. But the best part about walking in the old city is to wander around without a specific plan and get lost every now and then.

Old Jerusalem is a holy city and contains several sites that are sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. You have the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of Rock was closed the day we were in that area of the city, and as it was the Jewish Shabbat it was not allowed to take photos in the Western Wall area. As I took some photos in Old Jerusalem on Saturday/Shabbat I was told off by some Jews, “It is not allowed to take photos on the Shabbat”. I have thought about this afterwards and do not really see how this applies to me as I am not Jewish and do not live by the Shabbat rules, and I only took photos of some buildings.

Taking this photo was probably also an offence, but I thought I was pretty far away and no Jews saw me. Except the ones that are watching on all the security cameras. I have never walked through a city with so many security cameras, they are really all over the place.

After looking at the holy Jewish and Muslim places we had a look at the holiest Christian places in Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The different Christian Fractions who share the ownership of the church does not agree, and therefor a Muslim family holds the keys to the church. There is only one entrance to the church, and the Muslim family unlocks and locks the church every day.

Pilgrims had their photo taken in the church and in front of the Edicule of the Tomb (where there is a fragment of the stone that covered Jesus tomb and the tomb itself), so I though it must be okay to take some photos in the church too.

It is fascinating to walk around a place with so much history, and that holds the holiest places for three religions and is still an important city. One man told us that Jerusalem is the middle point between Asia, Africa and Europe.

Faith and religion does not always make sense to a none-believer. I am sometimes puzzled about how one thing can be described as something, and then when you read the facts, it is not really what it is supposed to be. We visited “The room of the Last Supper” where Jesus and his disciples had their last meal together.

Outside the room is a plaque that reads: “The Room of the Last Supper was part of the “Holy Zion” Church built in 390 BC, and the Crusader church constructed on its ruins in the 12th Century. The room in its current shape was formed in the 14th Century and it preserves architectural and scriptural elements from the Crusader period.” How can you call a room “The room of the Last Supper” when it was built 1300 years after Jesus lived? It could be that it is the same location, but it is not the same room, is it?

In the hostel in Jerusalem we saw advertisement for trips in Israel and it said “Day trips to all over Israel”. You know you are in a small country when everything can be done as daytrips out of the center. We planned to spend a bit more time than a day when we drove north from Jerusalem.

First stop was the Caesarea roman ruins on the Mediterranean Cost and from there we headed to Sea of Galilee.

On our drive north, everything was nice and peaceful and families were out on holiday. This is a strange contrast when you think about the area you are in. As we drove over the Golan Heights we saw more and more military personnel, fenced of areas with warnings about mines, and a tank having driving exercise out on a field. We stopped in a rest area along the road with a view point where you can see the border between Israel and Syria. One man that also had a break there talked to us and told us that he had seen on the news that a couple of days before there had been fighting in the town we looked down on on the Syrian side. Still, it was so peaceful where we had the rest, beside the noise from a car now and then, all we heard was birds. How can there be a war going on a few thousand meters away from us?

This has been a troubled area for a long time, and it has been concurred by different groups over and over again. From the Nimrod Fortress built in the 13th century we had amazing views over the surrounding area, and over the hill in the distance, we could see to Lebanon.

We had been recommended to drive the road along the Lebanon border going south again, as it had nicer views than the road down in the valley. Again, all is so peaceful and you see families sightseeing, but then you are reminded about the reality when you see a UN watch tower on the border. Even if it is peaceful, it is probably one of the more risky areas we have driven in on this trip.

Besides some sightseeing and arranging for shipping to Europe, our last days in Israel was spent the same way as our first - beach camping.


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Leaving Egypt

EgyptPosted by Malin Fri, August 09, 2013 07:48:19

Warning: This blog post has a lot of details, might seem a bit confusing, going back and forth between things, but that it how the last two weeks in Egypt felt like for me. We followed the news closely, looked into many different shipping and border options, and one thing that looked good one day did not look so promising the next day. Then you had to look for even other possibilities.

There were quite a few things we had wanted to see in Egypt like the White and Black Desert, and of course the pyramids in Giza. The new revolution or military coup, depending on what you would like to call it, happened just after we got the Patrol through the custom in Aswan, and our focus was no longer on sightseeing but on getting out of Egypt.

After the first massive demonstrations happened in Cairowe thought it would be smart to register at the Norwegian Embassy. At the same time the Patrol had its first mechanical failure of the whole trip when we were in Hurghada on the Red Sea Coast. When we talked to the embassy, they said that the Norwegian Foreign Ministry still considered Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh (fly in tourist destinations) as safe. So the place we happened to be at, was a safe place to stay for some days to fix the Patrol and to see how the situation developed in Egypt.

While we were waiting in Hurghada we started to look into the different possibilities to get out of the country. Before we entered Egypt our first choice for departure was to drive across Sinai to Jordan and Israel, and the second choice was to take the ferry from Port Said to Iskenderun or Mersing in Turkey.

Sinai has had a lot of problems, and besides the charter tourist destinations there are travel warnings from all foreign ministries against travels on the Sinai peninsula. It has been a troublesome area, and since the 2011 revolution it has become even more lawless. The Bedouins that lives on Sinai feel that the Egyptian government does not do anything for them, and over the last year there have been three incidents where western civilians have been kidnapped and held hostage. Last incident was in April when a Norwegian women and an Israeli man was kidnaped after their taxi was forced off the road. The goal of the kidnappers has been to get Bedouin family members and friends out of Egyptian prisons. The hostages have been released within a few days, but it is still an experience I would prefer live without. We were unsure of how the new revolution would affect an area that already had a lot of problems, and feared it would become worse.

The only ferry service on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt that we found, is from Port Said to Turkey. We heard about nother ferry from Alexandria, but that they normally won’t accept tourist. The ferry services started after the problems in Syria developed into a civil war, to get all the commercial vehicles that used to drive through Syria, around it, and to its destinations in Egypt or further south. While we were in Hurghada, other overlanders we met along the way were in Port Said waiting for the ferry. The shipping company said they has a once a week schedule, but that is apparently quite flexible as everyone we have met that took the ferry south or north had delays. Our friends in Port Said waited 10 days before they finally got on the ferry, just to learn about even more delays. As they were allowed to board, all the trucks that came from Turkey had not disembarked yet. The truck drivers onboard the ferry did not want to disembark because they found the situation in Egypt to dangerous, they wanted to return to Turkey. Our friends told us that police and army came on board to try to solve the problem, but the ferry was stuck in port with everyone on board for two days. I am not really sure about the solution, but in the end the ferry sailed for Turkey on Tuesday the 2nd of July.

Other options we considered where to go back south to Sudan. Not a desired option because it would take us in the wrong direction, and it had taken us 14 days to cross this border on the way north. And from Sudan, our only option would be to ship the car from Port Sudan while we would have to fly to meet up with the Patrol. There is a ferry from Sudan to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, but visas are a major problem.

Espen spent hours googeling for possibilities to get visas for Libya. It would have been to transit Libya to Tunis where there is a ferry connection to Italy. But Libya does not issue tourist visas anymore, and the local tourist companies consider the risk for tourists to be too high.

Before the revolution on the 25th of January in 2011 there used to be a ferry from Hurghada to Sharm el-Sheikh. From Sharm it would be just a short drive on Sinai up to the border to Israel. But since the previous revolution this ferry service had been canceled.

About 60 kilometers south of Hurghada is the town of Port Safaga where there are a several times a week ferry service to Duba in Saudi Arabia. There were a few challenges with this option. First, since we are not married, I will not be allowed into the country because I am a “single” woman. Our solution would be for Espen to go to Saudi Arabia by himself and drive to Jordan where I would fly in to meet him. The second challenge would be that Saudi Arabia does not issue tourist visas, but we read that they have issued a 3 days transit visa to some travelers. To get a transit visa you first have to get the visa for the country you would like to transit to, for us Jordan. To get both of these visas we would have to go to the Jordanian and Saudi embassies in Cairo. By this time most foreign ministries had a travel warning for Cairo. Cairo is a huge city so we looked into where these embassies are located in Cairo, and of course they were close to the area with all the demonstrations. Before we would go to Cairo we wanted to see if Espen would actually qualify for a transit visa. We wrote emails to the Saudi embassies in Cairo and in Oslo, but they did not replay to any of our emails. We tried to call the embassy in Cairo, and after trying 8 different phone numbers that we found for the embassy online or in guide books, I finally got through one day just to be told by a person that did not speak much English, that the embassy were closed because it was a public holiday. When I asked if it would be open the next day, the answer I got was, “Insh Allah – If God wants”. I did not call back the next day to see if God wanted it to be open. Another way to try to get these two visas would be to fly back to Norway and sort it out there. We decided we would look more into the Saudi option only if we really, really had to.

After considering options after option, we got in touch with Eslam, the fixer in Port Said, and also directly with the shipping company in Turkey, and they both said the ferry where scheduled to leave again on Saturday the 6th of July or on Sunday the 7th. Espen had the clutch on the alternator welded as a temporary solution so we could get moving again. No spare parts in stock in Egypt. To get to Port Said we had to travel in the Suez Canal area, and for this area there was also a travel warning. As we followed the situation as good as we could in the media and looking a different countrie’s travel advice, we did not hear about any incidents in this area at the time. We figured that if we drove during the day the risk of anything happening would be low.

On Wednesday morning the 3rd of July we started the drive north from Hurghada to Port Said. Leaving Hurghada, all the gas stations were closed. There was no fuel. Further up along the cost we found a gas station that had diesel, and there was no line up! It felt good to have a full tank. The drive up the Red Sea coast was nice and quiet. The scariest thing we saw was all the deserted building sites for hotel and sea side apartments. Project after project with empty half built buildings were standing there, and we could see no activity in any of them. There must have been a building boom that collapsed after the 2011 revolutions when the situation in Egypt became more unstable. Foreigners perhaps got too scared to invest in Egypt, and Egyptians probably got concerned too. It was disturbing to see these “ghost towns” on the coast. What will become of them in the future?

As we approached Suez we saw the first police and military check points, and we drove through several on our way to Port Said. They were all very polite, did their job, and welcomed us to Egypt.

Droving close to the canal, it is strange to drive alongside huge boats that were going the same direction as us, to Port Said at the start/end of the Suez Canal.

In Port Said we booked into a hotel with secure parking, so we could be in the city and organize shipping. In the hotel we meet again up with Gavin. We shipped together from Wadi Halfa to Aswan. On Thursday we went to the agent to buy the ferry ticket, and there we were told that the ferry was not going to leave this first Saturday as scheduled, but the Saturday on the 13th of July, a week later. We thought we better wait, and then buy the tickets a bit closer to departure. We were still hoping for the ferry where we and the car could both go onboard the same ship. But now it was time to do more research into other options for getting out of Egypt. We started to look into container shipping from Port Said to Turkey. There is no airport in Port Said so we would have to take a bus into Cairo to get a flight to Turkey if we chose to do this.

During our last days in Hurghada, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, started. Staying in a tourist resort, we did not really notice the Ramadan. Three meals a day and alcohol was still being served. Port Said is not a tourist destination, and most eating places were closed during the day. Luckily there were a few that was still open, and we normally had the whole place to ourselves until after sunset, when the Muslims can eat. Our hotel did not serve alcohol, and neither did the restaurants we found. Fortunately we eventually found a hotel that did. The first afternoon we got there and asked if they had beer, Espen was taken behind the bar and to the fridge. There Espen were told to take out the beer we wanted, and he even had to serve us the beer at the bar. The waiters explained that they could serve us alcohol only after sunset because of Ramadan, but with this self-service arrangement we were all happy.

The first night in the hotel we did not sleep well because there was so much noise outside. Firecrackers went off all night, and kids were running around shouting and screaming. It did not seem like the hotel security or night guard did anything to keep things quiet at night. Because of lack of sleep I was quite annoyed and complained about the firecrackers when I was in the reception the next morning. I was hoping they would say that it would not happen again, but all the receptionists smiled and laughed, and said, “It is Ramadan”! I guess the fire crackers are a way of celebrating Ramadan for the children (and grown ups..). Since we had to wait to figure out about our shipping, and because there weren’t really that many other hotels in town with good parking, it was just to accept this as an Egyptian tradition.

Except Gavin and us, all the other guests in the hotel were Egyptians. After observing for a few days it seemed to us that people and families had taken days, or the whole Ramadan off, and had a holiday. Since they could not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset, many people slept the whole day (then it was so nice and quiet in the hotel) and stayed up all night eating and enjoying themselves. Children were out running around and playing with the other children, and of course lighting firecrackers, until at least 4 o’clock at night. Afterwards I realized we should have done the same, but then offices still worked like normal and we were looking for a way out of Egypt.

On Monday the 15th of July we received an email from SISA shipping in Turkey, telling us that the ferry between Port Said and Turkey had been cancelled. The shipping company had been told by the Turkish government that they were not allowed to sail to Egypt anymore. They decided to sail from Turkey through the Suez Canal, directly to Duba in Saudi Arabia.

What to do, what to do, what to do??? I do not know how many times we asked our self this question these days.

By now we had the company of a German overland couple too, and we were now three overland vehicles parked outside the hotel. On top of this, ours and Gavin’s visas and car papers would run out on the 18th of June. To extend our personal visa would not be a problem, but to extend the car papers is not so easy. It can be done, but takes two days and cost a bit of money. We were not really sure about the process, but it would involve getting a new Egyptian driving permit, new license plates for the car, and we did not know what they would do with the Carnet de Passage. We would probably need the help of a fixer to find all these places in Port Said. There would be bribes to be paid, and another round with the Egyptian bureaucracy was not really tempting.

We followed the news from Sinai closely, as we did with all news from Egypt, and there were a few incidents and attacks on Sinai in this period. But from what we could see and understand, they all happened in the north. There are four larger roads across/around Sinai. The one in the North to Gaza is where all the problems and attacks were, and this area is closed for foreigners. Next one down, the road from Suez to Taba, we also heard was closed to foreigners. We would be turned around at a checkpoint if we tried it. Third one down is going across just north of the St. Catharine Monastery. This is a tourist attraction, but the road is regarded safe only from the east and to the monastery. Coming on the road from the west, it would probably be closed to tourists. Last option is the road that goes south along the Red Sea Cost to Sharm el-Sheikh, and up to Taba and the border to Israel. We did not find out if this road were still open for tourists, and the only way to find out would be to drive there and see if we would be let through the checkpoints. We figured that three cars driving together would be good for safety, and we all decided that we would not drive at night or in the early morning on the Sinai.

With all tanks full of diesel (we filled up in Port Said), we started from Port Said at 6.30 in the morning. We drove the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge across the Suez Canal, and we were on Sinai. In the military checkpoints they looked at our papers, asked us where we were going, welcomed us to Egypt, and then let us though. At the checkpoint where you can turn east to the St. Catharine Monastery, or south the way we wanted, we all had to have our passports registered. This time we did not get them back. One policeman was holding on to them and got into a police truck. When we asked what was going on, he just told us to follow them. They did not speak much English and it was difficult to understand what they wanted us to do. But we guessed we needed a police escort for this part of the road. The escort was with us for about 60 km down to Al Tor, as this is the stretch of road that goes more inland on the road around Sinai. In El Tor we got our passports back, and we could continue on our own again. All the local cars, trucks, and busses, were driving without escorts, so they probably just had some extra safety precautions with tourists.

If the situation on Sinai would have been different, this would have been a great area to spend more time in. It has a beautiful coastline and the dessert mountain area we drove through looked amazing. Next time….

After 610 kilometers and a long day’s drive we stopped in Dahab for the night. Next morning, the last day with a valid visa and car papers, the three overland vehicles were back on the road again. It was an easy drive up to the border, and we were there in less than two hours. Now it was just to get all the paperwork done and get out of Egypt.

It felt really good to get to the border and to be able to leave Egypt, but it was kind of a mixed feeling. There were so many things we would have liked to see and do. We did not have any really bad experiences in Egypt, but nobody knew how the situation would develop. This combined with few good options for leaving the country overland, worried me. I knew that we would always get out of Egypt if we really had to, and if the situation had gone really bad it would have meant to get on a plane and leave the Patrol behind. Not really tempting, but we would get out and that would be most important.

Anyway this is now all history for us, but the Egyptians are still there trying to figure out their future. What we saw of Egypt was really nice and the people we meet were very friendly. I hope they can agree on their future, work things out, and get on with the process of getting their country going again.


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And then we arrived in Egypt

EgyptPosted by Malin Tue, July 30, 2013 22:29:57
Somehow we did not read or pick up on the announced demonstration on the 30th of June in Egypt before we arrived in Aswan. As we talked with people in town, we realized quickly that something was going on.
The whole process of crossing the border from Sudan to Egypt took us two weeks, but we will write more about that process in another blog. When we entered Egypt on the 19th of June we got a 30 days tourist visa, but by the time we got the Patrol through customs, on the 27th of June, we had already used up 9 of our visa days on waiting.

From overlanders that drove through Egypt two-three months ago we had heard about the fuel and diesel shortage. We tried to fill up before leaving Wadi Halfa in Sudan, but they had a shortage too and could only sell us 25 liters per day. In Aswan the owner of the hotel where we stayed said he had been in line from 03.00 at night and it had taken him 11 hours to get fuel. We had enough fuel to get us to Cairo, but our plan was to do a loop west and drive though the White Desert and Black Desert, and for that we needed more fuel. Leaving Aswan the gas stations we passed was out of fuel and closed. As we pulled of the road to check one of them out, a truck that we had just overtaken saw us and understood we were looking for fuel. He transported diesel and told us to follow him to the place he was going to fill up 15 km further up the road. It was not a gas station, but a transport / truck place. Some trucks had lined up outside waiting for diesel to arrive, and as we followed the diesel truck into the gated compound they all smiled, waved and gave us the thumbs up. We found this quite incredible as we were kind of passing them while they were waiting in line. We got 83 liters of diesel and had now a full tank and four jerry cans with a total of 220 liters. Before filling up, Espen had negotiated a price, but when we were going to pay, it was less than they had agreed on. I think we paid less than normal pump price. Espen tried to tip the truck driver, but he would not accept it. One of the other guys thought he deserved it too, and took it for him and put it in his pocket.

As we drove to Luxor we passed several petrol stations. If they were not totally closed, there were long lines of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, and trucks, depending on the kind of fuel being sold. I can just imagine the hours they have to wait to get fuel, and we were really thankful for meeting the fuel truck driver.

In Luxor we had a power cut one evening for about 1-2 hours. Not long compared to what we got used to in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, where there are power cuts every day for hours. But in Egypt they were apparently not used to this, and complained about the mismanagement of their country.

Half way between Aswan and Luxor we stopped in Edfu to visit Temple of Horus. We got there at 2 o’clock, and we were the only ones there. The temple was incredible, and it was even more amazing to have it all to ourselves. Just before leaving, a group of 10-12 other tourists arrived. In Luxor, we visited the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, and Karnak. A few other tourists were around, but the huge parking lots that must have been full before the revolution (the first one..), was now more or less empty.

On the Nile in Aswan and Luxor, we must have seen 100 -150 of the Nile cruise ships that must be able to take at least 200 tourists each, just being docked. Walking around in the streets in Aswan and Luxor we hardly saw any other Western or Asian tourists. As one other traveller described it, “Tourism has left Egypt”. On Wikipedia it says that “12.8 million tourists visited Egypt in 2008, providing revenues of nearly $ 11 billion. The tourism sector employs about 12 % of Egypt’s workforce”. We hope they can get this right or it will have a huge impact on the country.

Locals we meet and talk to are really quick to talk about politics. They say that Egypt has got a lot worse since the revolution on the 25th of January 2011. There are problems getting fuel, more power cuts, more garbage is left in the streets, tourists have left, and many people working in the tourist industry have lost their jobs. In Luxor we were also told that the police /government was not as powerful as it used to be, and people were building houses on government land without permits. People felt that the population in Egypt had been split, and some were worried that Egypt would end up as Syria (with their civil war). We also heard that some even missed the time during the Mubarak regime, because then at least they had jobs and fuel.

Most of the people we talked to were not happy with the job that President Mursi had done since he got to power one year ago. They tell us that he hasn’t fulfilled any of the promises from the election. Well, not sure if we know a democracy that does… It seems to us as that the people in Egypt are not used to democracy, and it has only been one year since their first election. They are not used to all the “lies” or half-truths that are being told by politicians during the elections. We in the west are used to this and know what to expect after growing up in a democracy. Intentions are established during the elections, and then we work towards it during the time in government. Some goals are reached, others not. At least, this is how I think we see it. Reaching half of the promises would be incredible, and it would definitely take more than a year. Maybe the Egyptians have too high expectations to democracy?? But it is good to hear that so many people are interested and concerned about what is happening to their country.

It has been incredible to see the amount of people out in the streets, even if we have mostly seen it on TV. We feel it is better for us to keep a distance to the demonstrations and avoid crowded places. On Sunday in Luxor, as we came back to our campsite after a day of sightseeing, we saw the start of a small crowd of children, women, and men gathering with flags on the west bank of Luxor. In the evening we could hear and see a crowd on the east bank of Luxor, across the Nile from where we stayed, when they marched through the streets. However, according to our camp host, the demonstrations in Luxor were peaceful.

The last few days we have been in Hurghada, a charter tourist destination, and here we have not seen anything like the demonstrations on TV from elsewhere in the country. Wednesday night after the army had taken over and Mursi was no longer president, we could hear a lot of honking horns from motorbikes and cars in the street. Beside that, life looks like normal in our tourist resort. More than half of the people staying here are Egyptians, and it is good to see them relaxing and enjoying life in times like this.
Originally, we had planned to stay one night in Hurghada, but as we were about to leave, we heard a noise form the engine. After Espen spent some time checking it out, he figured out what was wrong. The alternator is broken. Or, according to Espen, the clutch on the pulley on the alternator is broken. This is the first time that we have had a mechanical problem with the Patrol that has stopped us from keeping driving, and actually have had to wait for parts or repairs. Perfect timing with a revolution happening in the country we are visiting… Norwegian Foreign Ministry says that tourist destinations as Hurghada are relatively safe, so it is probably good to stay here a few days anyway and see what will happen next in Egypt.


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SudanPosted by Malin Mon, July 08, 2013 17:48:30

All the travelers we have met on this continent have told us Sudan has the friendliest people in Africa. We were looking forward to meet the people in Sudan, and we were curious about the country since most of what we read about Sudan in the media is bad news. The same can be said about media’s coverage for many of the countries we have visited on this trip, for example Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Ethiopia. From reading the news, none of these countries would be on the top of my list of counties to go to on a holiday. The good thing about traveling overland is that you are kind of forced to travel through countries that you would not have thought to visit otherwise.

Sudan is the second country on this trip where we had to apply for a visa before we got to the border. The first was Ethiopia. From what we heard from other travellers, the procedures on how to get the visa, how long the processing takes, and how many days you get on the visa, all depends on the embassy where you apply. In a combination of dealing with the embassies in Oslo and in Addis, we got a 60 days tourist visa, and were ready to enter Sudan.

One thing you should know before you enter is that Sudan does not have any international ATMs. Your Visa and MasterCard will be useless. The reason for this is U.S. sanctions against Sudan, and the consequence is that you have to bring in cash that you can change into Sudanese Pounds when you get there. American dollars are the most favorable currency, which I though was quite ironic. When we checked online, the official exchange rate is 1 USD = 4, 4 Sudanese Pounds, but on the black market, 1 USD can give you 6, 5 Sudanese Pounds. Luckily we had stocked up on enough USD in Nairobi. Other travelers we met, tried to get USD in a few cities in Ethiopia, but it is only the banks in Addis Ababa that are allowed to sell USD.

Crossing the border from Ethiopia was pretty straight forward, just a little bit time consuming as everything have to be written down in the right books. We thought we would wild camp somewhere along the road on our first day in Sudan, but roads were amazingly good. We drove the 580 km to Khartoum after crossing the border in the morning. After Ethiopia with all the people, cattle, and goats on the roads, this was quite a change.

After entering Sudan you have three days to register your visa. For us the easiest place to do the registration was at Khartoum Airport the day after we arrived. At the airport parking lot, a local car pulled up to us, and a man asked if he could take some photos of the Patrol. He had a friend who was rebuilding a Patrol and would like to show him ours. Later in the afternoon we were driving around Khartoum looking for the office where you get your photo-and-travel-permit. A car pulled up behind us and was really honking the horn. We hesitated, but stopped and a man walked up to us. It turned out he was “the friend with the Patrol”, and he even had a photo of Espen and the man from the airport in front of our Patrol on his phone. He and some local overland-friends would meet the next day for dinner, and he would like to invite us to join them.

Next day we meet in a garage owned by one of the men, and in the end ten people showed up. Espen and the other men discussed vehicles and different off road options. Some in this group wanted to drive to Tanzania, and they had some questions for us about roads and the countries they wanted to visit. From the garage we moved on to the “the best local fish restaurant in Khartoum” for dinner. The food was really good. It was a great group of interesting people, and we had a fantastic day. Thank you, Khartoum overlanders, for the hospitality!!!

Some locals we talked to in stores etc. asked us what kind of work we were doing in Sudan. We told them that we were tourists and just travelling around. They were apparently not used to tourists, only foreigners coming to Sudan on some kind of business. One boy did not think there was much to see for a tourist in his country. We tried to explain to him that for us the old temples, pyramids and the desert is exotic, and well worth a visit.

In Khartoum we also stopped by the National Museum. Outside, they had three temples that were moved from Wadi Halfa area to save them from the raising water in the Lake Nubia / Nasser after the High Dam was built. As we were looking around in the main Museum a school class entered the museum, and after a little while it seemed like we became a bigger attraction than what was on display in the museum. Many of the students came over and asked “What is your name?” and “Where do you some from?” and then other questions they could come up with. I think they were practicing their English. Then they wanted photos taken with me, and after a while the teachers also wanted their photos taken.

One of the teachers had not listened to my reply when the students asked me where I was from, and he asked me if I was from China? You just have to smile at this question, and reply no. In Ethiopia we were also asked if we were from China a few times. I guess that is a valid question if you do not meet many foreigners, and they have probably heard quite a bit about the Chinese as they do a lot of work in these countries.

After visiting all the good local restaurants in Khartoum like Subday, Star Box and Facefood it was time to leave the big city and get into the desert.


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Northern Ethiopia

EthiopiaPosted by Malin Mon, June 24, 2013 00:46:53
Before I start writing this blog I would like to write short about the Ethiopian salaries and also the cost level in Ethiopia. During our stay this is level of salaries we have been told about: a small scale farmer maybe make 500 birr (26 USD) a month, a security guard at a hotel makes 1000-1300 birr (55 – 72 USD) a month and a truck driver that drives all over Northern Ethiopia makes 2000 birr (110 USD) a month. In Debark area a sheep costs about 600 birr (33 USD) and a draft pint in a local bar costs 10 birr (50 cents USD), but of course everything that gets close to tourists costs a bit more. I think we tourists should have the local price level in mind when we travel and trade with locals, and especially when it comes to tipping. Even if we think a tip is small compared to the price level we are used to at home we have to remember that a tip of 50 birr (2,5 USD) is 8 % the cost of a sheep or 5 beers in a local bar. Norwegian price level is pretty high, but if someone gave me a tip of 5 beers in Norway it would be equal to a tip of more than 50 USD.

Ok, then it is time for the blog. After a beautiful drive north from Lalibela we reached the Tigray region of Ethiopia. On the drive north the landscape and building techniques changed.

Close to Lalibela most people lived in round mud huts, while up in Tigray most of the houses were square and built of rocks.

The landscape in Tigray is also amazing, and what makes this an even more fascinating area to visit, are the rock-hewn churches that are cut into the red rock in the area.
After reading about these churches, we found some that we wanted to visit. First stop was the 10th century Abraha Atsbeha church. It was carved out of a small cliff face and was only free from the rock on three sides, only attached to the rock on the back side. On the front of the church, the Italians (back in the days) had attached a newer section to the church to show the locals they were not Muslims. From the outside it looked really strange.

To enter the churches in Tigray costs 150 birr per person per church (so for the two of us it is equal to half a sheep in Debark) and this price was posted on the entrance of the Abraha Atsbeha church. When we arrived the priest was sleeping outside the church in the shade of a tree, and a local boy woke him up for us. As we were looking around in the church he fell asleep on a chair. After visiting the church we were going to pay for the ticket, and he seemed really upset that we would like a recipe. We do not know if that was because he could then not take the money himself or if it made him embarrassed because it turned out that he could not write. Fair enough. Espen wrote the recipe. After paying our fee the priest asked if he could have some money too. We replied “no”, as we had paid our fee to the church, and we assumed that he, as a priest, will be paid from the church. It could be that this assumption is wrong, of course, and maybe the Ethiopian church takes the whole entry fee and does not pay their priests at all?

In Hawsien we spent the night in a local hotel and eat dinner at Gheralta restaurant in town. The restaurant was owned by a young local man who used to work as a cook in a hotel in Lailibela until he started his own restaurant in his home town. It is a quiet town, and he hoped for some more tourists to come to visit this area of Ethiopia. Please do if you’re there. It’s the best restaurant in town. To get to the Abuna Yemata Guh church we had to drive through the small town of Megab where we stopped in the city center to buy some bread. While we were parked there, we were approached by some young men who said they worked for the local guide association, and they asked if we would like to hire them as guides for the day. We kindly declined the offer.

As we got to the end of the road close to the church we had to park somewhere, and a local old man said we could park on his property under a small tree. Together with the old man was another local farmer in worn out clothes and they told us he could be our scout. We did not really know where the path went up to the church and thought it would be nice to give this man a job for 2-3 hours and we agreed on a price of 50 birr witch is not too bad, but less than the 280 birr that the guide association would charge.

The path went through some plowed fields, over a dry river, and then it started to climb up the hill. We got to a tree where we could see there was an empty seat. Our “scout” got a bit stressed, and he started to call down to someone at one of the farms. The ticket man had left his seat and was not to be found. The “scout” knew a few English words, and we asked if it would be possible to pay on the way back down because we would like to do the walk up the hill before the sun got too high in the sky and the temperature too high for Norwegians. He agreed and we walked on, but every now and then he stopped and shouted something down to the small village where someone replied to him. Then we got to another tree where three men were resting in the shade, and our “scout” stopped for a chat. After a few minutes a young priest came up the path to the tree and he spoke better English and explained that the man with the tickets was on his way. Some minutes after the priest, the ticket man arrived and we could pay our two tickets, a total of 300 birr (or half a sheep).

As we continued the walk up the hill, the priest came along with us, and also two of the “scout’s” friends. We thought they might come along up to the church to pray. When we got to a section of the path that turned into rock climbing, the priest, our scout, and the two other men explained where we should put our feet and hands (which wasn’t very complicated). Then we should probably have realized that the two last members of the group where not going up to pray, but also wanted something from us. We should have told them to turn around, but we did not say anything.

After a bit of climbing we came up to a lower stage of the church were there was a small cave turned into a tomb for monks and priests that deserved to be buried in such a holy place. From just outside the cave you could see the remains of human bones, and on the skeletons on top there was still some dried and cracked skin. Really, really strange to see as the graves I am used to see are covered with grass, and in front of the burial stone, the family plant flowers. Here it was just a pile of skeletons where the “latest arrival” is piled on top of the others.

The Abuna Yemata Guh church is carved into the red sandstone rock pinnacles that stand out as huge towers, and when we got to the top of the crack you could see how far down it was on the other side. When I get too much “air” around me, like up by this church, with a free fall of 100 meters, and we are 300 meters over the valley floor, I kind of freeze. So I did not go the last meters up where you have to walk a few meters on a one meter wide ledge over this 100 meter free fall to get to the entrance door of the church.

Espen and the rest of our group of one priest and by now three “scout’s” walked up the last bit while I was sitting and enjoying the silence and the incredible view.

How anyone come up with the idea to build a church in a place like this I don’t know, and what did it take to carve it into the rock in such surroundings about a 1000 years ago? They could handle the height a lot better than me for sure.

Espen was fascinated about how they were able to build (or carve) this church, and when asking, the reply from the priest was that God made the church and put it in this location. From an Orthodox Christian point of view that is how this church is made, but to an engineer from Northern Europe this is not much of an explanation. Would explain the tolerance for heights, though...

On the walk back down our group stopped again at the second tree. The priest told us this is a holly olive tree and therefore we had to take a rest. That is what people do at holy trees. While obeying the local traditions and we had our rest, the priest took up the question about payment once more. We explained that we had agreed a price with our one “scout” at the parking before we started our hike. The priest said we had tree “scout’s”, and we should pay them all. We said we had never made a deal with the two last “scout’s”, they had just tagged along without even asking or making an agreement with us. And why would the two of us need three “scout’s” to walk up a hill? After all we are still able to walk on our two legs and use our eyes to look for places to put our feet and hands. Then the priest asked for a tip for himself since he had unlocked the church for us. Our reply was that we had already paid 300 birr to see the church, and we thought that he as a priest would get his salary from the church. He then continued to tell us about his family and how poor they were, and he had a wife and children to take care of. I know we have more money than this priest, and compared to us, he is poor. But compared to the local farmer we had hired as a “scout” in the first place, he had new sneakers, nice pants with no holes or patches on them, a nice shirt, a jacket, and a mobile phone. Since he had been a nice guy, explained things and translated for us, until he started asking for money, we thought we could give him 10 birr as that was the smallest change we had. He looked really disappointed and as he was holding up the 10 birr he said in English that other tourists would pay him 50-100 birr in tip. The questions about money continued and we tried to explain to the priest and made him translate to the “scout’s” that the way they were dealing with tourists is not the way to go. When we first got up to the church the priest said he hoped we would tell our friends about the churches in Tigray so more tourists would visit them. We now told him we would tell about all the hassle and greedy priests. And if the “scout’s” want to do business with tourist they have to agree on a price first, not just tag along and demand to be paid.

Our first “scout” followed us back to the car to get his payment for his 3 hours of work. As we were walking, he asked Espen if he could have Espen’s trousers, and when Espen said no he asked if he could have Espen’s shoes. You could see he really needed them, but Espen also needs his shoes. By now we had enough of questions about giving money and giving things. We paid him the money we had agreed on, said thanks for his help and left.

Back at the Gheralta Resturant we needed a cold drink and a coffee to digest all the hassle and appreciate a local running an honest business. In the restaurant we meet a German couple, and it turned out they had visited Abuna Yemata Guh the day before and they had also got in a discussion about money with the priest and the number of “scout’s” they had to pay for. He had also told them about his poor family. A week after leaving Tigray we meet another overlander that visited the church after us, and he had had the same discussion with the priest about the number of “scout’s” and giving tip when you already paid a pretty steep entry fee according to Ethiopian standards. When we meet other travelers and talked about these churches it is sad that what we remember most vividly is hassle and begging priests.

After visiting two churches in Tigray we had enough of the greedy priests and left this beautiful area and headed to Aksum. We would have liked to visited more sights in the area, but it was just too much hassle. We hope that one day the church and the priests realize that the way they behave is bad for their reputation. If they do not like to show their churches to tourists, it is better to say so, but if they want tourist’s money they should also have to behave in a better way. I do understand that people in Ethiopia beg for money from tourists because we have so much more than them. But I expect a different behavior from a priest, maybe that is my mistake. In my opinion they do not behave as a priest should. The priests in Tigray behave worse than the beggars on the street. Axum, considered the holiest city in Ethiopia, was our next stop. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is said to house the biblical Ark of the Covenant and is an important destination for pilgrimage. We, however, visited Axum because we were more interested in its earlier history. From about 400 BC to 10th century AD, Axum was a trading power and ruled the region.

The kings of Axum had some incredible obelisks made to put on top of their tombs. The Great Stelae is 33 meter tall and weighs 520 tons, but now it lay broken in pieces on the ground.

It is believed the stelae fell and broke under construction. Beside the stelaes, tombs, and some palace ruins, we also saw the Axum Rosetta stones. The Ezana stone is from around 350 AD inscribed in three languages; Sabaean, Ge’ez and Ancient Greek. Beside a few people that wanted to be our guides or sell us something, but respected our “no”. There was no hassle in Axum and that was great after visiting the churches in Tigray. After a couple of interesting days in Axum it was time to leave northern Ethiopia and drive south towards Simien Mountains.


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