Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gondar & the Simien Mountains

Fasilides Castle
After leaving Bahir Dar, we headed to Gondar via contract minivan. We spent three days in Gondar perched at the top of the hill at the Goha Hotel. The hotel is nice, but totally overpriced. We had to get two adjoining rooms for the four of us and we didn't have a drop of hot water during our entire stay. The shower wasn't cool; it was downright freezing and miserable. On a positive note, the food at the restaurant was decent, as was the free Wi-Fi and the view of the city from the back terrace. Plus we ended up meeting a really neat family from Australia with two kids adopted from Ethiopia. So we had good conversations and my kids had some playmates for a couple of days.

While in Gondar, we visited the Gondar Castle complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Gondar used to be the capital of Ethiopia and in the 1600's Emperor Fasilides built the original castle in the complex. Over the next hundred years, subsequent emperors built additional castles nearby creating this complex. As far as Ethiopian history goes, the relics in Gondar are fairly new (although old by U.S. standards). We also visited the Debre Birhan Selassie Church which was also built in the 17th century. The art work inside was outstanding especially the ceiling paintings. Both the castles and the church are really quite spectacular. It's quite enlightening to see these sites and to realize how rich Ethiopian culture has been for such a long period of time.

Perhaps the highlight for me was our day trip to the Simien Mountains. It was a long day bouncing around inside a Toyota Hiace. But the trip was worth it. I got to stand in a field of gelada baboons! Simien National Park is home to thousands of geladas. They move around the park in troops of hundreds (400-600 per troop is not uncommon). After seeing the baboons, we hiked for a few hours on a ridge trail enjoying the scenery. Hiking in the park requires a scout. People wanting to enter the park need to stop at the park offices in a town called Debark to make arrangements with a scout and obtain the necessary paperwork to enter the park. We had both a guide and scout. The scout is basically a guy in camouflage with a gun who happens to know all the trails inside out. We asked about the purpose of having said scout with us especially for a day hike (as opposed to a several night trek). The answer: security. To us, it was overkill. But the regulations kept plenty of the locals employed: our little family of four had a driver, a guide, and scout.

On our way back to Gondar, we stopped at the Falasha village outside of the city. Gondar and the surrounding areas to the north were home to the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) for centuries. It is estimated that as many as 120,000 Jews lived in Ethiopia. There is a long history of the Beta Israel that you can read about here if you are interested. Most Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s during or right after the Derg regime, which was openly hostile to Jews. Today, there are only a few Jews left in the Gondar region. I heard estimates from 2,000 to maybe 6,000. If the Falasha village was any indication, it is not many. Basically, the village is now a tourist stop with Star of David signs marking the spot. The locals do sell souvenirs with Judiac pictures and symbols on them. But they are not Jews. The are Christians. To be honest, it was a little sad. But on a positive note though, many of the locals in Gondar speak warmly of Jews, often remarking that they are their decendents.

The back of the Goha Hotel
Gondar as seen at the Goha Hotel
Dancing and singing at the Four Sisters Restaurant
Fascilides Castle (the Gondar Castle Complex)
Debre Birhan Selassie Church
The ceiling of the church...angels watching over you
Fasilides Bath. It is being refurbished. Once finished, it will be filled with water and used by thousands for religious ceremonies.
Amazing tree roots surrounding Fasilides Bath.
The Debark market

Simien National Park
Our scout keeping us safe. Steve is keeping the scout safe.
Gelada heaven!
More souvenir negotiations
Wolleka or Falasha Village
Falasha Village - Upfront about things.
Flying back to Addis

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