One thing to note when booking tickets in Ethiopia is that the Ethiopian calendar is seven to eight years behind the standard Gregorian calendar in use throughout most of the western world. To make things more confusing, the Ethiopian clock is based on two 12 hours cycles commencing at dawn and finishing at dusk. This actually makes sense once you get used to it…one hour after sunrise is 1 o’clock, 6 hours after sunrise is 6 o’clock and so forth until sunset at 12 o’clock. So make sure you check if your tickets are in local or European time or you might just miss the bus.
A 5am start with Selam Bus saw Sarah relaxing in relative comfort while Matt struggled with the lack of leg room, as we delved deeper into Ethiopia’s green highlands. Stopping at a small local restaurant we experienced more local hospitality when after being almost the first people to sit and order, we were basically the last to be served. Half the restaurant jumped to our defence, demanding the waiter bring our food next. A little further along we stop for a roadside toilet break in the bush where local kids appear from nowhere asking for your empty water bottles. Arriving uneventfully in Bahir Dah eight hours after leaving Addis Ababa, we check out a few hostels before settling on Hostel Wude (200 birr, double w/ private bath, limited hot water). The attached cafe does great macchiatos with a wrap around balcony affording street views. Just don’t expect the Wi-Fi to actually work.
Our reason for visiting Bahir Dar was it’s location on the banks of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile, and the nearby Zege Penninsula monasteries, some of the oldest in the world. Heading down to the lake we pay the 2 birr entry fee and join a young local crowd enjoying the afternoon on the lakeside floating barge. Taking a moment to soak it all in, it’s hard to believe we’re sitting above water that will one day be flowing past ancient Egyptian cities all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. With the sun begging to dip, we head to nearby Sky Cafe for a quick feed and a couple more beers on the verandah, with it’s great views of the streets below. The sounds of the English language from the table behind us has us excited and we spend the evening chatting with two lovely Scottish hospital workers here on a volunteer trip.
Unique among Sub-Saharan countries, Christianity came to Ethiopia as far back at the 1st century AD, with 60% of the country still identifying as Christian. The other highlight of a trip to Bahir Dah is visiting the old monasteries of the Zege Penninsular. Our choice to avoid an overpriced package tours saw us joining a 5:30am queue at the Marine Authority ferry gate to ensure we scored tickets for the local ferry when the gates opened at 6am (59 birr each). Being near the front of the queue we managed to get seats for what became a standing room only trip.
Arriving just over an hour later, we walk a short way from the landing where you can enjoy a coffee with a lakeside view. Traditionally Ethiopian coffee is accompanied by sweet smokey incense brought to your table, and as a tourist boat arrived and were shuffled straight past we were glad we’d taken the cheaper, slower and more adventurous option. From the dock you take a right towards the thatch roofed Azuwa Maryam monastery (watch for the red painted trees), passing a few nice lakeside areas where you can sit on a rock and eat some lunch (or a very late breakfast!).
Heading back towards the dock, you can either follow the main path or head into the jungle and try your luck on the crisscross tracks. Led astray by a local youth who first claimed to be a guide, then a deacon of the monastery and finally a student, we ended up wandering the bush before finally shaking him and making our way easily back to the main path and less than 20 minutes later at our next destination.
Ura Kidane Mehret Monastery (entry 100 birr) isn’t much to look at from the outside, but here it’s what’s inside that counts, and this place stacks up as one of the best in the area. The rich colourful paintings of Ethiopian religious history are brilliant and the ticket price also includes entrance to a newly built small, dark, but interesting museum (make sure you check out the old books).
Waving goodbye to the guard with the rifle, we head out behind the monastery and follow the dirt road to the left towards the town of Afar, 2.7km away. Butterflies, dragonflies and kids begging for money before repeatedly yelling ‘Fuck you!’ keep us entertained. As we catch our first glimpse of Afar’s mosque in the distance, a large tree on our right comes alive with vervet monkeys, before we eventually reach the small muddy village itself. With a local bus waiting to fill up we jumped on board and were immediately offered the front seats right beside the driver. DON’T take them, they’re too cramped and you’ll end up with locals piling on top of you. However the stunning one hour bus ride was an adventure though beautiful green countryside filled with yellow, red and blue birds.
Arriving back in town we enjoyed another cheap local lunch of vegetarian beyaynetu at nondescript Saremdem Bar & Restaurant located on Giorgis Road. Every Wednesday and Friday in Ethiopia is fasting day and most local restaurants don’t serve meat. We also happened to be in the country for the two week holiday dedicated to Saint Mary, a two week fasting/vegetarian holiday. This means most restaurants were serving fantastic vegetarian dishes, and this was no exception. A huge serving of injera came accompanied by a mixture of potato, beetroot, chickpea and split pea curries topped with fresh chilli, and the owner even topped up the serving for us as we ate.
With the afternoon at our disposal we headed to the local market, noted as one of the most colourful in Ethiopia. Heading into the covered narrow stalls looking for a scarf for Matt we’re approached by young local guy named Yeshambel. Striking up a conversation with us, he follows us through more stalls before finally helping Matt negotiate/translate the price he wanted on a scarf he like. Looking for a kickback you may think…but no, Yeshambel simply asked for thanks and when we tried to give him a small tip for his help he didn’t want it.
In fact all he wanted was to take us on a tour of the market, pointing out traditional clothing and textiles, spices, white and red teff grain used to make injera, fresh honey with honeycomb and bees in plastic bucket (where we were given a free taste), traditional pottery (which he almost dropped), garlic row where bulbs where piled high before winding our way into an narrow strip where car tyres are turned into shoes and a father and son whipped out a stash of silver jewellery hoping they’d make a quick sale.
With our impromptu market tour over, Yeshambel leads us to the top floor of a central market building for some cheap strong coffee and a little bit of Ethiopian religious history. Afterwards he wished us well and didn’t ask anything of us. He even offered to pay for the coffees which of course we didn’t let him. If you find yourself in Bahir Dar, get in touch with him at Yeshambel_asmar@yahoo.com and see if he’s free to show you around. But you better be quick before the new market building is finished and the place loses a lot of that dirt floor rustic old soul.
For more Ethiopian photos check out our Flickr page! Next up we head to the Blue Nile Falls.
Tips for Bahir Dar and Zege Penninsula
- Selam Bus is more expensive than the local bus however you have allocated seats and are provided with a couple of (sweet) snacks and bottles of water throughout the trip.
- When taking a large backpack on most buses in Ethiopia, the porter will ask for a tip. Take a cue from the locals or just ask somebody else with a bag how much you should pay, most of the time we found them honest.
- Organised tours to Zege Penninsula are not necessary, though you’ll have no end of ‘guides’ vying for your money over there if you go independently. The two monasteries we visited were easy enough to find on our own.
- Don’t be afraid, hit up the old market before they move it to the new soulless building, but like anywhere just watch your pockets.