My Dear Readers,
Jan 29 I will go on my next trip. I plan to visit the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia, see attached map. Return date is on Apr 21. It will be my most challenging trip. But I do not have much choice. It is the last significant area on world map which I did not visit yet, see attachment.
Dubai (UAE) is not very popular destination with American tourists. My flight Washington - Dubai is half empty. This will give me a chance to sleep on four chairs in the middle row. You can fly like this for 24 hours, sleep, drink, read, eat, and watch TV. But my flight is only 13 hours. While Dubai is not popular in America, it is very popular in Russia. One million Russians visit Dubai every year. There is site, Russian Emirates: http://chatru.com/uae/
Situation in Yemen is uncertain. I monitor up-to-date situation with Russian travel site http://forum.awd.ru/ The Lonely Planet ThornTree used to be the best for information, but it is now castrated and it is almost useless.
It looks like the area available for the tourists in Yemen has shrunk to the capitol Sana and the island of Socotra. I had similar experience in my Darien Gap attempt http://www.foldabikes.com/CurrentEvents/Story/sanjose.html.
When you are foreigner and physically different from local people, you will not be able to penetrate through multiple police check points. No chance. Socotra Island is supposed to be last unspoiled paradise on Earth see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEEqHnuDaTo
Ethiopia is wild and crazy and absolutely inappropriate country for sensitive people. However it is a popular tourist destination with standardized set of tourist attractions and many travel agencies providing access to them. I plan to visit North and South Ethiopia on bike and public transportation.
Jan 27 2013
PS: More detailed view is available with Google map
Dubai is a wonderful city. It is a city of the future, like Hong Kong, but it is better. I was in many exotic places. They were mostly poor places. Dubai is exotic and rich. People in the streets are dressed in their national clothes. You feel like at a costume carnival. Dubai is a kind town. It is kind to its citizen, tourists and to guest workers. You will not see beggars or homeless people here. Taxi drivers do not overcharge passengers. People are nice and polite. Public transportation is excellent and cheap. Metro, is the best metro I have ever seen. While I carry folded bike in metro, somebody always offers to carry it for me. There is myth that Dubai is an extremely expensive town. Not at all. Food, as well as transportation is not expensive. I eat in Indian restaurant near my hostel. Food is excellent and cheap. It is very clean. People are dressed in colorful clothes and look very civilized. But they eat with bare hands, all of them. They pour sauce from the half dozen small dishes onto their rice with spoon. Then mix it with fingers of right hand (only right, left one is for different purpose), and eat it with right hand. Absolutely disgusting. Probably everything we were taught in school about hygiene was wrong!
Hotels are expensive, especially for a single person. I stayed in the only hostel in Dubai for $30. It was not usual type of hostel. They prepare you for Middle Eastern standards of life. They provide only one bed-sheet and not care much about toilet paper. There is no paper in public toilet, even no hanger for paper. People use the water jet. This is why toilet seats are always wet there. But it helps to reduce paper-waste. Instead of maps and schedule of trips to local attraction, there were religious books in my hostel. I read two: "The life of the prophet" and "Why Islam". I will write about them later.
Dubai hostel is located far from the center, so I moved to a centrally located Russian run rental room, which I share with 3 roommates from former Soviet "stans". The cost is $15 per night. Guys are not young, thirty something, educated and interesting people, nice company.
I already visited most of Dubai's "must-see" places:
Amazing how they built all of it during the lifetime of one generation, from poor fishing village, which stood here before. Well, all the world helped them with money we paid for gas. I also feel that I partially participated in this, I do not always ride bike, sometimes I drive a car and buy gasoline. I should admit that they spent our petro-dollars wisely, much wiser then Russian oligarchs spent them.
I promised to tell you about two religious books I read in Dubai Hostel. They are printed in Saudi Arabia and authors did not make any attempt to make them more digestible for Western readers. So it is probably quite accurate short description of Islam. Major "selling" point was this: Islam is not only religion, it is way of life. We will teach you how to live your life, including everything, even how to performing yours ordinary body functions. You will not need to struggle with difficult questions anymore. Islam will give you clear answers on all your questions. "Не надо думать с нами тот кто всё за нас решит".
During entire human history, people were fighting for freedom. However 1.5 billions people have chosen no-freedom! In Arab spring they fight against dictators for freedom of choice. Then they win and got that freedom of choice, they voted for Muslim Brothers and now have much less freedom, than they had previously. It happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. It is interesting analogy between Egyptian Mursi and Russian Putin. Both closed NGO and prohibit foreign donations, both limited freedom of demonstrations and meetings. I know that some Russians support Putin, not because they like him, but because they afraid of lawlessness which may happens if opposition will win. It is interesting how many supporters of Mursi have the same idea
1. Ski Dubai
2. Burj Khalifa
3. Non Microsoft Windows
4. Burj Al Arab
5. Leap of Faith
6. More Ski Dubai
7,8. Modern Dubai
In the end of December 3 hostages were taken from the central plaza of Yemen's capital, Sana. They were captured by tribal people and sold to Al-Qaeda. The Yemen army took a military action in attempt to rescue the hostages. The operation failed and was suspended. 65 people had been killed during the operation. In such situation I think it will be irresponsible for me to go to Yemen as it may potentially endanger lives of other people.
More on Dubai:
Before talking about Oman I would like to say a few words on Dubai:
Palm island is one of main attractions of Dubai. It is an artificially created archipelago in the form of a palm tree. The "branches" of that palm are covered with exclusive beach side villas. CEOs of major international companies, outstanding artists and other dignitaries live in these villas, according to the tourist brochures. I had a chance to find out who is one of these dignitaries. Fellow from the dorm for Russian guestworkers, where I stayed in Dubai, told at the our communal kitchen the story about one of these dignitaries, whom he just visited. It was his countryman from Cheboksary, Russia. He is a career criminal who spent 30 years in prison in Soviet Union. In 90-ties he exited prison and quickly made his money his familiar way. In 90-ties everything was possible in Russia. Then he moved to Palm Island. The guy who told us about him, felt sorry that he did not follow his countryman's example. If he would follow it, he would be living on Palm Island, Dubai now, instead of looking for a job in the city of Dubai.
As I already wrote before, Dubai's emir is a wise man. He built some things which bring fun to the people of his country as well as to tourists, like ski Dubai, 880 meters tall Burj Khalifa, water-parks and others. Emir of Abu Dhabi is not so wise. He built enormous 7 stars Abu Dhabi Palace Hotel, with a chandelier consisting from 1,000,000 pieces of Swarovski crystals. The hotel stays empty, visited only by a few tourists. I came to its enormous gate, but did not go to hotel itself because distance was too great for me. They did not allow bicycles. Another stupid thing which was just announced, is to build a tower 1001 meters tall in Abu Dhabi. The design is the same as Dubai's Burg Khalifa, but 121 meter taller. Such a wasteful way of spending our petro dollars!
Oman consists from two parts separated by UAE. Southern with capitol of Muscat and Northern one bordering strait of Hormuz. I did not know much about Oman, but name of Strait of Hormuz was very familiar and exciting. So I decided to go to Khasab on Munsandam peninsula, the capitol of this Northern part of Oman. The tour book told me that it was no public transportation and a few very expensive hotels are there. So I rented a car and slept in the car for 5 nights. I carry tent, but why to bother with pitching a tent as car is already there. I took obligatory dhow trip to the khors (boat trip to the fjords), which was nice. I did some snorkeling. The underwater life was good, but water was cold! Nobody snorkels. Oman is much more conservative then Dubai. I came in Friday and everything, absolutely everything was closed, according to Muslim tradition one should not work on Friday. Almost everybody wears national clothes there. After returning to Dubai I took 6 a hour bus to Muscat. It is so much better then driving. Driving in UAE is a nightmare. Signs are misleading and often only in Arabic. Muscat is nice. It looks like Arab spring fever did not catch in Oman. But, I guess, like it was in Tunisia, it may spark anywhere quite unexpectedly. By the way, you cannot buy ticket on long distance bus inside the Oman without passport. During all my travel I never encounter such limitation.
1. Visa commercial
2. Dhow trip
3. It is strictly prohibited to photograph women. So I bought mask, which some older women wear and photograph myself.
4. Khasab central plaza with Sultan picture.
5. Alex on the top of Nizwa Fort.
6. Fish market in Muscat.
8. View from my $25 hotel in Mitrah, Muscat city
March 2 2013
First let me finish with Oman.
I screwed up my Oman trip. Oman seemed to me not very interesting country before. I was WRONG. Oman is exotic and mysterious country. I did not do my home work and tackle my Oman trip wrong way. Upper portion of country adjacent to Strait of Hormuz, which I visited first, is not most interesting part of county. Best parts are around Muscat in a distance of two - three days by car. It is best not to rely on public transportation and hotels, but travel with car and tent. Camping is allowed everywhere and it is safe. When I realized my mistake, it was too late and I did not have energy to start everything from the beginning. I will come to Oman again someday. Indian ocean also was cold at this time of year! In spite of it I found some good places near Muscat and even did some spearfishing, see picture. But with cold water it was not fun.
More on Islam.
I spent one month is Muslim countries and understand more about Islam and Muslims. First, jihad is kind of self defense. It is a way to protect their ethno-confessional Islamic identity from disastrous Western influence. Due to globalization, the world is becoming very interconnected. Through Internet, TV, video and radio, Western pop culture has reached the most remote places on the planet. Girls start to wear revealing clothes, offensive to their fathers, boys cover themselves with stupid tattoos and piercing, wives are not obeying. Old way of life is under attack. How to protect it? The answer is to eliminate the main Shaitan, USA and Western Europe.
West should not provide more firewood for this fire. We should isolate ourselves from Muslim world as much as possible:
No aid programs,
No McDonald's and Burger Kings in Muslim countries,
NO promotion for democracy.
Islam and democracy are incompatible!
Democracy presumes that the party which loses the election should admit that they have lost and their opponents win. The subject of elections is usually an important one, having deep national and religious roots.
A good, devoted Muslim has higher authority, then election committees. He cannot admit that he lost to those who are against Allah and against Prophet Mohammad, even it is only in his imagination. He will fight till death with suicide bombs, car bombs and etc. We could watch it every day in the news from Middle East.
Reading local newspapers is very useful. Naive Western media believed that Arab Spring was against tyranny and for the freedom and democracy. Middle Eastern Sultans and Emirs arrested and continue to prosecute Muslim Brothers in their Sultanates and Emirates, as a main source of trouble. They know their people better then Western media.
Addis Ababa (AA) shocked me. It had feeling that I landed in the middle of a gigantic garbage dump. AA is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 6-th most dirty town on Earth. Part of roads where cars are running, are more or less OK, but pedestrian walks are in disasters. They are covered with tons of construction debris. It looks like every second home is half demolished. The unfinished road constructions add deep trenches and potholes across which pedestrians have to jump. Undisturbed part of sidewalks are covered with street peddlers and stuff they sell, see picture. In addition to this, streets are very poorly lit at night. It was scary for first time to walk the street at night as these people who walk there, they are also should be a monsters.
What does it remind me of, I started to think? It reminded me of my native town Leningrad, but not the central part of city, which is in a good shape. It reminded me of the suburbs where most of people whom I know live now. And these people are not monsters. Unlike Addia Ababa, in St Petersburg these trenches and potholes are covered with snow and ice in winter. After understanding this analogy I started to look on a passerbys in a different way. They are normal people not monsters. Many women are very good looking. Some remind me people whom I know. Ethiopians have European type of faces, only painted in black. AA is more safe then other African cities according to tour books. Ethiopians are not violent people.
There are a lot of beggars, homeless and bums here, like it used to be in Manhattan some years ago. At some points New Yorkers were at the choice: them or us. And they somehow push out most of these folks. In AA this problem is even more difficult, because unlike New York, most of those at the bottom of social ladder are put there by circumstances bout of their control. Also, the country is very poor and does not have money to help them.
Most heartbreaking are small 3-5 year old children beggars. As local newspaper states, the most of them are "employed as beggar" by their teachers. Bicycle allows me to escape from beggars, but foreigners without bicycle have a difficult time.
It was demonstration for women rights near my hotel, see pictures. It was so much energy and optimism in these demonstrators that in spite of all obstacles it made me to believe in the brighter future for Addis Ababa.
1. Fish I shoot near my hotel in Muscat
2. 79 year old Ethiopian men who knows Russian
3. Policemen who stopped me in Addis Abeba
4. Typical scene in Addis Abeba
5. Demonstration in support of women rights
6. One of demonstrators
March 15 2013
You probably never heart about Aksum. But it is famous town. The Queen of Sheba (tsaritsa Savskaya) used to reside here. Once upon a time she decided to take a trip to nearby countries. She went to Jerusalem. King Solomon, who was in charge at that time offered her to stay in his palace, but warned her to not touch anything. The Queen was insulted a little bit. "Whom do you think I am?" But in order to save on accommodation she accepted the offer. At the dinner all food was too salty. So at night she woke up and drank some water. Immediately secret watchers informed Solomon. He arrived and said "You broke the rule!". But it is only water, the Queen replied. The environmentally concerned Solomon replied that the water is the most valuable resource on the planet. So you broke the rule and you have to pay. The poor Queen paid, and 9 months later the boy was born. His name was Menelik. He was the founder of the Ethiopian nation. When he grew up he decided to visit his father. On his way back home to Aksum he had stolen the Ark of the Convenant. From that time the Ark is stored in Aksum in the Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The Chapel is heavily guarded, but inspired by Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I snick close to chapel and made some pictures, in attachment.
Also Aksum is the home of magnificent stelaes built before Christianity era. The biggest Stelae weighs 500 tons and it is largest piece of stone ever handled by humans. They were carved from granite in quarries 4 kilometers away, then transported and installed to where they stand now. For comparison, the heaviest moai from Easter Island weighs 86 tons and they were made from light volcanic stone. Stelaes are very well preserved and have surprisingly modern design, see pictures.
Before Aksum I was in Gonder, which was capitol of Ethiopia for more then a century from 1636. Quite impressive palaces were built inside the so called Royal Enclosure, but most of them were destroyed during subsequent wars. UNESCO restored some. Surprisingly Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the best Ethiopian churches, was saved by the bees who attacked approaching Sudanese Dervishes in 1880. The painting on the ceiling of this church contains pictures of 135 winged cherubs, see pictures
Before Gonder I was in Bahir Dar and visited some of the churches located on the islands of lake Tana. These early Ethiopian churches were round and were built from cow's poop mixed with straw. The icons there are remarkably like the icons in Russian Orthodox churches, especially Victorious George with dragon.
Tomorrow I will go for two days tour to see the lake of melted lava in Danakil Depression.
1. Home of Ark of the Covenant
2. Aksum Stelaes
3. Fasiladas Palace, Gonder
4 Debre Berhan Selassie Church, Gonder
5. Ceiling painting in Debre Berhan Selassie Church, Gonder
6. Kabran Gabriel Church at lake Tana
7. Victotious George and Dragon icon in Kabran Gabriel Church
8. Ethiopian Orthodox monk
9. Source of Blue Nile
March 22 2013
As soon as I learned about the lava lake, visiting it became my main goal in Ethiopia. But it had same obstacles. Trips to lava lake are combined with trips to salt lake and it take 4 days and it cost $600. Fortunately when I arrived at Mekele, where the trip starts, heavy rain destroyed the road from salt lake to lava lake. So tourists have to return to Mekele after trip to salt lake. It became possible to have a two days trip to lava lake for $300.>/p>
The way to and from the lake took 13 hours each way on very bad roads, often without road. On our way we crossed a river, water was covering wheels and we crossed the mud, where jeeps pull each other with winches. It was 4 jeeps with tourists and guides and one jeep with local Afar guards. We arrived at the base of the volcano after sunset and tourists started the 3 hours ascent to the volcano top. I rode a camel.
It is impossible to describe the lava lake. It is not like a nice waterfall or beautiful islands. It is like your chance to see the Hell before you will get there. The Itra Ale Volcano is located in Danakil Depression, which is 112 meters below sea level. Volcano itself 631 meters tall. The crater is perfectly round about 100 meters in diameter. Lava is at 30 meters below. Surface of lava is dark with striking stripes of red. Periodically bubbles of gases create spectacular fireworks. To watch it was hypnotizing.
See video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0MliVxmG4I
At 2 am we went to sleep in nearby primitive camp. At 5 am we went to watch the volcano at sunrise. And soon we started going down to our cars to avoid late morning heat. My camel refused to walk down even after I got off from his back. Camel driver and guide were unable to force him to walk. So I started walking down. I cannot walk much due to arthritis in my right ankle. Tourists with guides went to the place where our jeeps were parked. I was alone with one of guides. After a while the camel with his driver arrived. The camel eventually agreed to walk. Danakil Depression is the deadliest place on planet. Day temperatures reach 50C (122F). There are lava fields here with no trees and no shades. A person without coverage will be simply baked here. Temperature was rising, and my capabilities to walk were diminishing. It was no way I will be able to go 10 km to parked cars. When my capability to walk were exhausted guide and the other guy stopped the camel and I climbed on him. This time to our surprise he did not mind. It saved me from being baked.
One year ago 4 tourists and 2 policemen were killed at volcano crater. So now we had an escort of 7 Ethiopian policemen and 4 Afar guides. Afars are the local Muslim tribe, known for their ferocity. It is funny that Afar men wear skirts and woman type of shirts in addition to Kalashnikov, see picture.
After lava lake I visited Lalibela with its famous rock-hewn churches. I will sent TN on this later. Now I am in Addis Abeba. Tomorrow I will take a bus toward Djibouti
1. On a way to Volcano temperature outside of jeep 44C
2. To Volcano
5. Soldiers and tourists at Volcano crater rim
6. Afar guard with Kalashnikov
7. Camel who saved me from being baked
8. Afar women
March 29 2013
From Mekele I went to Lalibela. It was a 1.5 day torturing trip on 4 minibuses. On every bus stop all beggars, peddlers and hustlers jump on the only white person in bus station. I spent night at Gashena village in the only hotel for $2 per night.
But I was rewarded for my suffering the next morning. I went to Lalibela on bike and soon after Gashene, the descent to the famous Mesket Escarpment started. Hundreds of people were going in opposite direction on gravel road to the market at Gashena. These people were from the time of 2 millennium ago. They were dressed in rags and carry their stuff on their heads or on a back inside big clay jars. Some also had loaded donkeys. Many were barefoot. Some had green plastic sandals. These sandals were the only goods they got from 2 millennium of civilization. Watching them was like traveling in a time machine. After I reached the bottom of the escarpment, the difficult ascent started. When I was quite pooped, the first minibus arrived. I folded bike and squeeze in minibus, which was already full. But for foreigner paying triple price, a place will always be found.
Lalibela is the main Ethiopia attraction and it has largest amount of hustlers. A bike does not always help, on gravel road or uphill it did not. Lalibel's rock-hewn churches are wonders of human creativity. Imagine a rock 150x150x150 meters all carved like Swiss cheese by human worms. Churches are not in caves. Some are connected with mother rock only by bottom. Some are connected by bottom and roof. They connected with each other by the numbers of vertical and horizontal channels. Rock is not granite it is hard red sandstone. Anyhow, amount of stone carving work is unimaginable. And it was done in twelve century. Quality of carving is not as good as in Petra, Jordan. Only 3 churches approach Petra standards: Bet Giyorgis, Bet Abba Libanos and Bet Amanuel. Guides mostly repeat stuff written in Lonely Planet tour book, so I did not hire a guide. I found the most enjoyable thing to do at Lilabela is to climb through these numerous channels and tunnels and orient myself in this gigantic three dimensional puzzle. It took me 1.5 days to map that puzzle. Ticket to Lalibela costs $50 and valid for 4 days. From Lalibela I flew to Addis Ababa, $50. Internal flight on Ethiopian Airlines are cheap, but often not available to most needed destinations.
From AA I took a bus to Muslim town Harar, another place full of dirtiness, bad smell and poverty. I already got enough of them in Ethiopia. Train to Djibouti, which I expect to take, does not run for 2 years. So from nearby town Dire Dawa I took a bus to Djibouti. It was the worst bus ride I ever had. The same was written in Lonely Planet Thorn Tree by other travelers. The main rule on such trips is not eat or drink. Unfortunately I realized it too late.
Djibouti was Terra Incognito for me. The only thing all sources told, it was too expensive. I found hotel Assama at Bld du Generai de Gaulle not far from LP recommended Horseed Hotel, for $33 with TV, AC, frig, hot shower ... and everything works! In Ethiopia nothing works. People in the street are neatly dressed. In Ethiopia all dressed in rags. Streets are dusty, but not filled with garbage. People here speak French! It is very nice place to get unwind from Ethiopia. And the main thing it has a sea, to be precise Djibouti is in the shore of Bab-el-Mandeb strait. I took ferry to small town of Tajera across the bay from Djibouti and found there the perfect reef. It was very healthy, not damaged, not bleached. I newer seen so healthy reef before. I cannot leave so nice reef and I have to stay in one of only two hotels there, both charge $60. Most amazing were big umbrella like corals. They are very fragile. But big waves probably never happens here. Under these umbrellas a big fish were relaxing. One of them I killed for dinner.
Tomorrow I will take a shared taxi to the capitol of Somaliland, Hargeisa. These who may be concern about my safety, don't worry. I made detailed research Somaliland is not Somali. It is safe.
1. People from millennium ago.
2. In minibus
4. Plow with cows
5. Bet Abba Libanos
6. Bet Giorgis
8. On Ferry
Djibouti City, Djibouti
Apr 8 2013 7:16 pm
I did not go to Somaliland. In the morning on day of my departure I felt that I am getting sick. In the afternoon I learned that all front seats of two cars going to Somaliland are sold. Only rear benches were available. But even tough Afar people prefer not to ride on them as road is very bad and dusty. So, I gave up on the idea of going to Somaliland and got on a flight to Addis Ababa the next morning.
My flu went as it is supposed to be with running nose, sneezing and coughing. I spent most of my time in my Addia Ababa hotel room, as even going to dusty and polluted AA streets made my symptoms worse.
I flew out of Ethiopia on Apr 17.
I am at home in Washington now, and I am OK.
During my stopover in Munich, Germany I met Hans D. Hans criss-crossed Africa on folding bicycle. We met in Saint Louis, Senegal in a hostel in Apr 2007. Hans saw my folding bike and he likes the idea of traveling with folding bike. He found one in the garbage, a one speed Italian folding bike and he travels on it from that time. The bike turned out to be quite sturdy. Hans weight is 95 kg. Hans is a fearless traveler. He visited Cameroon after 4 French tourists were kidnapped there. He traveled through Sudan, Chad, Congo, Algeria, places rarely visited by the tourists. He traveled through Angola. It is very difficult to get a visa in this country, It also cost 300 euros.
Hans somehow reminded me of the famous German traveler Heinz Stucke http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_St%C3%BCcke
1. Hans and Alex Mar 2007
2. Hans mit Fahrrad
3. Ethiopian Madonna
4. 2 donkeys
5. 5 passers
6. Kids 1
7. Kids 2
Apr 26 2013