A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about tourist sites

One man (a host of Angels) and his chisel

Rachel - Lalibela

Today a bus driver probably saved us from a lynching. On the early bus between Gondar and Lalibela we were woken by the bus going up slightly on two wheels and veering off toward the edge of the road but the driver recovered in seconds. While we were still trying to find out what had happened everyone started to duck down in the aisle but slowly they got back into their seats and we turned to the man behind to explain, although his English wasn’t great and wouldn’t really give a straight answer. It seems that the driver had hit someone and was probably killed. Dave and I couldn’t understand if that were the case why we hadn’t stopped. Ten minutes later the drivers assistant was in the aisle phoning the Gondar office for advice and at the next town we stopped at the police station. There we found out that a girl had stepped in front of a parked minibus and the driver couldn’t do anything. The reason people had ducked was because villagers had been throwing stones at the windows and the driver hadn’t stopped because mob justice in the countryside means that they would probably have beaten the driver to death and the passengers would have been attacked as well. Everyone on the bus who saw what happened said there was nothing he could do and by driving on to the police station he did exactly the right thing to protect us. Poor girl, we didn’t hear whether she survived or not but people on the bus seemed to think it wasn’t possible she had.

I’ve been told since that this happens frequently because people in the countryside aren’t very road aware and in some places it is believed that an evil spirit can be riding on your back and that a fast car passing will knock it off and so people will jump out backwards into the road to get as close to the car as possible.

Everyone waited patiently for a replacement (which we had to pay again for, after much debate in the bus!) and we arrived in Lalibela quite late.

This area used to be completely inaccessible by road and would have taken 4 days to reach by Mule form the nearest large town. The journey in made us appreciate how spectacular that would have been for the town is hidden away in some Tolkein-esque mountains. But nowadays even has it’s own small airport probably only because it’s a must-see on the tourist trail. The area is famous for the result of a wild dream in which the ruler of the time was instructed by Angels to carve churches out of the rock. The result are a variety of some cavernous and some cosy churches carved out of one piece of rock – that includes pillars and decoration inside and out. Some are free standing from the surrounding rock trench and some are cut into the side of the mountain.

To look at, I have to be honest, we were a little underwhelmed by the decoration having been told time and time again how awesome they were. But with a little imagination you could appreciate the scale of human endeavor since each metre square of rock would have taken one man days of chipping with hand tools to excavate. As an engineering task they were pretty awesome. Although the legend goes that it was Angels who did most of the work by night - how's that for credit? The most decorative inside, which apparently has life sized figures of the disciples carved into the walls, barred entry for women with the tenuous reason that Jesus turned away Mary Magdelen upon his resurrection and asked for the disciples instead. Or so our guide says. *sigh*.

During the lunch break, when the priests of the church eat their sandwiches I suppose, we explored the medieval feeling village with unique round, thatched, two story huts. The paths between them were winding and narrow and we had to dodge livestock and streams of dirty water. At every turn greeted by calls of “farenji!” as usual. We were invited into one home for some coffee which we accepted and inside the walls have shelves moulded into the mud walls and pots hang from animal horns embedded into the fabric of the wall. Nice idea. After we politely left we headed down to the market which was also trading livestock and enquired after the cost of the goats, donkeys and oxen there. (5000 birr for a ox which is 200 pounds and a good couple of years wages here)

After lunch we resumed the tour of churches, weed filled baptism pools, dozing priests and mummified remains of pilgrims.

That morning we had been approached by some youths raising money for their circus group. It sounded interesting so we said we’d stop by after the churches closed to see their performance. When we got there we were the only people to come so we had a tour of their office and shown their personal progress reports and little stock cupboard of props. They take their show to the villages and use it to spread awareness about social issues and HIV. Their original teacher had unfortunately died and the group was taken over by an ex circus member now security guard at the bank, but now their training was taken from videos. I wasn’t therefore really expecting too much when they rolled out an old school gym mat on the flat dusty area outside their office and we sat down on a knackered wooden bench just in front of it. But wow, these kids have skills. They were performing routines of tumbles, three person high pyramids and somersaulting off the top, contortionism and juggling (although they’re not so good at juggling yet they say). We weren’t faking the oohs and ahs and gasps. I do hope they find a teacher because they’re all earnest and practice every day, they’re proud of what they’ve achieved and so were we.

Next day we took a break from churches to…climb up to a monastery…cut into the rock. For a change we thought we’d ride some donkeys up in the heat of the day. I decided to walk back cos mine was a bit rickety and the drops to the side were pretty steep. The drivers thought it was hilarious “giggle giggle farenji giggle”.

Our lack of camera confused the priest in charge of the church/monastery and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t proudly presenting the crosses for extended inspection but posing for a photo. I guess there aren’t many tourists who come without a camera.

The monestary wasn’t a big wow but it was a nice view up there and we had a chance to share some bread and tea with some men from the countryside who had just walked three hours to get to the market and were intrigued by us and laughing at our attempts to fend off the very persistent hat seller. None of us could speak each others language but it was a nice bonding moment in the shade.

Now we had to take a break from our road trip and head back to Addis by plane to extend our visas which irritatingly can only be done in the capital and caused a lot of scratching of our heads to figure out the logistics I can tell you. But we’d had enough of history for a while, it might be nice to be back in the big city.

Posted by rachndave 07:22 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged religion transportation tourist_sites Comments (0)

Bridges, blankets and brave young belles

Esfahan is probably the main tourist town in Iran in the sense that it has grand squares and beautiful buildings and the river to meander along with it's many bridges that are lit up by night and crowded with people meeting, sitting and strolling by day.

We arrived late, and tired but decided to grab something to eat in a recommended nearby hotel. The fanciest hotel garden/courtyard that I think i've ever seen with fountains and bridges and trees and piped music and gold trim and waiters in traditional dress. We sat eating our noodle soup (no kebab for a change!) trying not to stare at the group sitting at the next table: a young girl trying to look demure, her mother and what was clearly her young suiter trying to win over the mother (what started slightly frostily ended in some laughter from the mother...a good sign I hope). The atmosphere perked us up no end so we decided to check out the main square, detained briefly by a young self-depricating schoolgirl, with her father chaperone, who appeared to make a habit of stopping tourists every night to practice her conversation. I mention her because although we are often stopped by people wanting to practice their english she stood out as so determined and resourceful even though at the end of our conversation she was wringing her hands in shame at what she thought was her poor grasp of the language. I wish her well in life.

We walked to the square via an enormous beautiful park - the parks in Iran really come to life at night. During the day you spot many men dozing in some shade but at night they're full of families picnicking and boy do the Iranian's like to picnic. the waterfall where we stayed in the Zagros mountains was also full of picnickers until past midnight. Apparently it is always like this - picnicking in the cool of the night - but the atmosphere is especially convivial this month because it is Ramadan. As we walked through the park people would dash up to give us sweets to break our "fast" and everywhere there was a feeling of celebration. Immediately we left the park we also saw what is now a normal sight - people picnicking on the central reservation. There must be a car fanatic in the family is the only explanation we could think of, what with the park being 20meters away :)

The square was similarly full of families with picnics, men swooshing water-pipe coals around their heads in little wire baskets like fire-poi, young men riding around on motor bikes, couples courting, children playing in the fountain (of course we had to join them), kids kicking balls around. This perked us up even more so we went for some tea and a shisha (sorry...qaylan) in a curious tea shop crammed full of tea related paraphenalia and kitch curios and were sorry to have to go home to bed.

The next day was Friday - the Islamic weekend (they only get friday off here, and sometimes thursday afternoon) and it's like the Sunday of the good old days - everything is shut and the streets are empty. We tried to see the sights in the book but they were all shut so we decided to abandon and walk along the river instead where we hung out on the bridges for a couple of hours. Underneath the bridge different groups of men have impromptu singing competions - haunting minor-key melodies and the occasional hand-clap singalong which echo the length of the cool arches. Between bouts we would be surrounded by curious locals and invited back to dozens of homes.

We were just heading to wander round the supposedly chilled out armenian (christian) quarter of town when again we were stopped by a young girl and her male friend and asked if they could hang out with us for a bit and show us the sights. We shrugged and said why-not and it turned out to be the start of a wonderful weekend.

Posted by rachndave 04:41 Archived in Iran Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Abandoned Radar Station-ation-ation-ation


Just a quickie, I didnt blog about this at the time but if you go to berlin, PLEASE please please go here



Its absolutely stunning, and eerie, and the echoes in the radar towers caused me to revise the echo-quality scale, giving this a 10 and all other previously experienced awesome echos a score between 0.5 and 1.5

Its in a forest in West Berlin, they built this hill on top of a nazi bunker, using rubble from homes destroyed in WW2, and the US & Brits used it to spy on East Berlin. Now its a ruin, you have to sneak through the fence and past security, but the views over berlin, graffiti art and echoes (of sound and of the past, ah yeah) make it all worthwhile

Posted by rachndave 01:31 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Poetry emotion - Shiraz

After a bus journey to Shiraz ending at 3am we treated ourselves to a day of serious lie-in, rest, washing, journal writing and iPod listening. In the early evening we emerged to wander round the peaceful and laid back town.

Shiraz is a university and administrative town and everyone seems young and chilled out. We wandered around a mosque (of course...i think this would be our fifth mosque) and a super relaxed and atmospheric bazaar (our first!). Chatting to a few people who stopped us, standing listening to the nightingales in the decorative brick arches, examining the carved backgammon boards and antique trinkets without hassle - in part i think because many stall owners were dozing out back because of Ramadan :) Even still I have a feeling this would be very different to the bazaar in tehran.

That night we had dinner in a restaurant with a live band - more ducimer, ne, tombek, daff (a drum that kind of looks like a large tambourine with chains round the egde instead of bells) violin and a singer. Everywhere we go there is old music played on old instruments and this is not just for the tourists. Last night in Esfahan we were even played some "rock" music using the Daff and traditional instruments and using Hafez's lyrics (more about him later)

The next morning we left early on a tour to Persepolis. This is the site of an ancient king where he woud recieve gifts from the dignitaries of the surrounding nations (from the carvings it looked like he had a thing for camels). It was mostly destroyed by Alexander the Great but you can still see towering pillars, carved staircases, statues and carved doorframes. It was actually rather splendid. We were taken to the tombs of the dead kings in question whose bones were "buried" a few kilometers away in huuuuuge tombs cut into the rocks after being left out to the vultures (a zoroastrian custom). They were so enormous and towering it really felt like something from indiana jones.

We spent our last evening in Shiraz doing more touristy things like visiting the walled gardens with mountains in the background, paddling in pools, visiting some more mosques and finally ended up at the tomb of Hafez for sunset. Hafez is a long dead poet who would be like our Shakespeare i suppose but much more so. Everyone here still knows, loves and quotes his work. His words have influenced Iranian music, culture and even attitudes and philosophy - we have been quoted his lyrics by people our age and younger and it's hard to describe how it sounds - even being spoken it sounds like music. So being at the tomb was a moving experience. His tomb is in a garden in a raised pegoda with speakers dotted about playing music and speaking his lyrics. People would some and sit on the pegoda steps and recite or silently read poetry from a book or kneel down to kiss the green marble coffin. Some people bought rose petals. But most people would hang about and just contemplate in the atmosphere. We even saw a man dressed in religious robes stop to bow and pray. All this for an artist - not a martyr or a warrior. There was something about this appreciation of art and beauty that made this a touching experience. We stayed here for 2 hours.

And, of course, we were approached by a curious young girl who told us about being a student in Iran and her frustrations. Her brother arrived and we had a halting translated conversation about russian and japanese literature! Hafez's cultural inspiration in action ;)

Must dig out a translation of his work when I get back to the UK. I want to know what all the fuss is about. Oh and Hafez abandoned religion after many years of faithful study and was also big wine drinker - i think i'd like him.

Posted by rachndave 01:07 Archived in Iran Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Last of the Summer - Oh hang on, thats not wine...


sunny 34 °C

OK I've been dragged in to an internet cafe and I'm not allowed to leave until I write something.

Under the care of Javad, who is a lovely, quiet, tender guy - we arrived in Yazd in the middle of the night and got picked up by his friend Mir Hossein, whos house we were (supposed to) stay at during our time in this historic desert town, whose old quarter is built entirely of mud.

We had a whistlestop tour of the main sights in town, but Javad and Mir Hosein seemed more intent on getting down to the business of meeting another friend, Mir Shamsy, for lunch. Little did we know exactly what that would entail.

So we pick up Mir Shamsy, and in no time we're driving out of Yazd and through the spectacular but arid mountains, stopping off for fruit & bread on the way, until we reach a remote village with a huge round house in the middle and a massive fruit / veg garden. Turns out to be Mir Shamsy's summertime playboy mansion. He inherited a lot of property from his businessman father, property that had escaped the grasp of the Ayatollah Khomenei at the time of the Islamic Revolution due to it being so remote. The garden is beatiful, we picked nectarines, almonds, grapes, tomatoes and peaches, and scoffed the lot on a rug in front of the house, washed down with rosewater, whilst naughty mr Shamsy told us about the parties he organises for his son up here. ahem.

After drinking a fair bit of bootleg vodka, and making a quick pass at Rachel (dealt with very professionally), Mir Shamsy leads us into the summer house where we retire for a very relaxing afternoon-evening with the hookah etc (say-no-more). It's nice to see these old guys enjoying each others company, I think they only see each other every few years, and its clear that their friendship goes back a long way - I hope our group of friends gets to be like this when we get old

Time passes, Mir Hosein decides he's no longer capable of driving, so after watching the sunset and strolling round the village we bed down for the night in the middle of these peaceful mountains.

Following day, Rachel and I strike out alone (the Iranian hospitality and generosity is truly wonderful but can sometimes feel a little suffocating) and explore the old town in more detail. Well, the book told us to get lost in the maze of streets, so we did our best, and failed miserably. A very atmpospheric place it is, with narrow alleys snaking off, often with arched ceilings to create more shade from the hot sun, and badgers everywhere. Sorry, baghdeers, a 10th century solution to airconditioning involving catching the wind and funnelling it through the buildings.

We also visited a Zurkanah session which was uber cool, In a nutshell, a load of Iranian bodybuilders have an aerobics session in an ancient dome shaped building- they get in a sort of sunken round boxing ring, and do exercises (waving 35kg batons around, pressups if they are not tooo fat, and spinning around on the spot for as long as possible like I used to do in primary school) - this is all done to the very loud accompaniement of 2 singers / drummers using the amazing acoustics of the building to full effect while the zurkanah guys shout back responses, its an intense, heavily ritualistic, almost religious version of Mad Lizzies Shakeout.

Then it's early evening, we regroup with Javad and say a fairly emotional fairwell, and set off for Shiraz, city of the poets...

Posted by rachndave 00:23 Archived in Iran Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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