A visit to the Tigray region, in the northern part of Ethiopia is a must for any visitor on the historic circuit through this country. This region is bordering Eritrea and Sudan.
Although the travel advisory of the Swiss government did warn about visits to this area, Evgeny and I found it to be very safe here. Maybe we were just ignorant and lucky, since we spotted numerous abandoned, rusty tanks next to the streets and a number of locals were carrying rifles.
The reason to see to this province are the amazing rock-hewn churches, which are scattered in several clusters over an area of 50’000 square kilometers. Each cluster has a name, such as Gheralta, Tkatisfi, Atsbi, Tembien and Wukro. Dating back to the 8th century, these churches sometimes feature Aksumite relics that were incorporated in the Christian structure. Looking much the same as the design of the obelisks in Aksum, the architecture of these churches is very unique.
Since the Tigray region features over 200 known churches, some of them on mountain tops and only accessible by climbing up ropes or chains, we had to focus on a small, scenic sample of sites. Actually, the exact number of churches in the Tigray region is unknown.
Against all advice of the Lonely Planet guidebook, we established our base in the center of the region – in the town of Wukro. Most tourists choose instead the towns of Adigrat or Mekele, which involve a two hour drive to most of the rock-hewn churches.
Our choice of staying in Wukro meant that we did not plan to encounter a lot of infra
structure and that we would need to cope with what was on offer in town. This was good enough for us, since we liked local food and had no problems sleeping in very basic hostels. As it later turned out, the hostel in Wukro would become the cheapest one during our entire trip (at less than a US dollar a night) – featuring a spotless shared bathroom and a beautiful, small little courtyard.
We had dinner in another brand-new tourist hotel. In fact, it was so new, that the kitchen wasn’t fully equipped and therefore not operating. We were offered local food which the waiter would get for us from a stall across the street. Since the bar was well equipped and the terrace quite inviting, we accepted the offer and spent a great evening in this small town.
Next morning, we visited the churches, which involves handing out a small sum of Birr, the local currency, to a kid who will guard the parked car, handing out a small sum of Birr to the guard with the key to the church – and handing over a small donation to the priest sitting next to the entrance.
Moreover, Evgeny and Tatjana were busy taking pictures with some kids, which involved yet more “de-Birring”. Throw in a few random kids here and there, who do casually jump around in front of tourists by asking for pens (and money) and you’ll get the picture how strenuous a day at the churches can be.
Our road trip through the Tigray region was quite smooth, mainly due to the extensive road work in this part of Ethiopia. In some places, expanding the narrow roads meant to tear down parts of buildings, exposing rooms to the public.
Leaving to our next destination, we made a quick stopover in Mekele – which is the capital of Tigray. Oddly enough, the impressive Derg monument, which monopolizes the scenic view of the city, was off-limits to us tourists at the time we visited. In recent history, Mekele is associated closely with the catastrophic famine in Ethiopia during the mid-1980’s. There were hunger camps around the city, sheltering more than 70’000 refugees and tens of thousands waiting to be allowed in the area. During that time, around 50 people died each day in these camps.
Today, Mekele shows little sign of this part of its difficult past, however – there are monuments as a reminder of the other dark past of the town: The war with Eritrea.
A particularly gripping story we were told, was the one about a bomb which was dropped by the Eritrean Air Force during a 1998 air raid. It did hit the Ayder elementary school, killing eleven children, one teacher and a woman with a baby on her back. We left Mekele, after hearing similar gripping stories, with a bit of emotional feelings. Planning to fly next to Rwanda in a couple of days from now, we better had to get used to the gruesome reality of recent history.
Luckily, we got distracted by the beautiful scenery and landscape while we drove along the road to visit the highlight of our Ethiopian trip: The awesome and historic village of Lalibela.