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Another Ethiopia: trekking the Bale Mountains

I knew it wouldn’t be comfortable but how can it be impossible even to find out where to get on the right bus? The man I called at Bale Mountain Trekking to ask how to get to their base in Dodola told me to take a bus from Legar. Or Legahar, Laghar, Lagher… I asked him to repeat it several times and each time it sounded different. He also told us not to take the direct bus to Dodola, on the grounds that “it doesn’t always get there.” We need to get a bus to Shashemene, and then change.

Pic: Tobias Zollenkopf

Our kind hosts in Addis Ababa could only roll their eyes. The travel world has discovered the cultural treasures of Ethiopia and they can all be seen in comfort these days. There are reliable internal flights and stylish hotels. So why would we insist on preceding the classic historical circuit in the north of the country with a pony trek through the Bale Mountains in the south? Where accommodation will be basic, nights cold, showers non-existent. And why on earth must I and my husband, not young, not broke, travel there by public bus?

Because we want to meet people, I answered. Because we want to understand something more about this land known for its rich history, for the extremes of its poverty, and for nothing between the two.

After some hopeless gazing at a near-useless city map – most streets have no name, and when one does, nobody knows it – we notice that the city’s main railway station is known as La Gare. Ethiopia was never a French colony, or a colony at all despite Italian efforts, but the tracks lead to French-influenced Djibouti and the nearest accessible coast. The map shows a big square in front of La Gare and a drawing of a bus nearby. It’s worth a try.

Pic: Tobias Zollenkopf

There are indeed buses leaving from La Gare, loads of them. Three levels of bus, apparently. Every bus has Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3 painted on it in a decisive blue, but I can’t see any difference. They all look small, old and horribly rickety. None of them is going to Dodola or Shashemene but some enthusiastic boys try to get us onto buses going other places. No bus will leave until it’s full and getting it full is the first task of the teenagers who work as conductors. Eventually a boy grabs our bags and throws them and us onto his bus. Yes, Awassa, Shashemene, the right bus. He insists.

But for us, the bus is empty. We start driving up and down the street, conductor-boy leaning out the window screaming “Awassa, Awassa” and lots of words I don’t recognize. Nothing about Shashemene but I think it’s on the road to Awassa. People get on. We keep driving back and forth. People get off. People argue with the driver and conductor. After almost an hour, the bus finally fills and we’re away.

The music goes on: Ethiopian music, of course. You’ll seldom hear anything else here. It’s cool, funky, but with unexpected melodies that sound like nothing else. It’s loud and suits the atmosphere in the bus. Nearly everyone is cheerful, and beautiful. Pretty girls are given the best seats. They play shy for a while, then chat easily to the men who make space for them. We hear the word faranji – foreigner – pop up again and again. People are making comments about us but it seems good-natured enough. A little boy wants to explore and is passed from person to person down the crowded aisle. His excited babble makes everyone laugh.

Pic: Tobias Zollenkopf

Outside the window, Addis Ababa seems to end, then start again, then end again. Even in the city centre, there are open spaces where herds of goats graze. We see colourful cafes, then huts, a posh hotel, huts and wasteland, a shopping centre under construction, office buildings in blue glass, more goats. More construction, everywhere.

When we finally get out of town, the road is good. It’s new, built by Chinese contractors, like the many other new roads in the country. On all of them there are trucks adorned with Chinese characters, and we pass several factories with Chinese names.

We arrive in Shashemene earlier than expected and are immediately pulled onto a connecting bus to Dodola. I’m a bit disappointed at missing what the Bradt Guide calls “the fuck-you capital of Ethiopia”. Apparently, people here love to call “fuck you” when they see a faranji. I want this to happen to me once because it’s hard to imagine an Ethiopian behaving offensively towards me. I’m not sure in what spirit exactly it’s done. In fact, in all my time in the country, I’m never to have the “fuck-you” experience. The closest I get is later, by Lake Tana in warm, easy-going Bahar Dar. A tiny girl with beads in her hair smiles up at me, whispers “motherfuck, welcome,” and nearly bursts with wide-eyed delight when I whisper back, “thank you!”

Dodola is not picturesque, and the whole main street is under construction. There are rocks and slabs of concrete lying everywhere and lots of big holes to fall into at night when the power is cut – there’s never enough power for all of Ethiopia’s growth and progress. But the dusty grey town doesn’t matter to us. We are only in Dodola to start our trek – three days in the Bale Mountains on horseback.

We set off with Omar, our guide, a horse each to ride, a pack horse and two horse handlers. It seems like a lot of people to look after just two tourists but this is a community-tourism project, and the income is to be spread as widely as possible. The horses and horse handlers will change daily. We pay 40 Birr per horse and 40 for the handlers, so they each go home with 80 plus a tip. That’s a little over three pounds, and what it means here is evidenced by their undisguised delight at getting it.

pic: Tobias Zollenkopf

On the sturdy little horses, we trek up the mountains to heights of around 3,400 metres. It’s cold, and when I get off my horse to walk for a while I immediately feel dizzy and queasy, and have to get straight back on. I have a slight headache all the time.

The landscapes we pass through make up for everything. In the valleys, farmers grow teff. This is the grain used to make injeera, the nutritious, sour pancake which is the staple of Ethiopian cooking. Above the golden teff fields there is a dense forest of trees covered in with silvery lichen, and a disorientating mix of both familiar and wildly exotic bushes. Above the forest we pass through an area of land cleared for grazing, with a few small barley fields and some settlements. Farther up still, there’s a ghostly, rocky landscape that makes me think of old paintings of the west of Ireland. Mist hangs in silent valleys. Children are wrapped in blankets against the cold but have nothing on their feet. Unlike the cheeky children in the towns, they don’t run after us here shouting “you! you!”

Omar tells us all about everything: the crops, the birds, the many one-room schools we pass. He proudly tells us education is free and all the children of the illiterate farmers will grow up able to read and write. I’m not sure I quite believe him – there are a lot of children out herding animals nowhere near a school – but when I read up on it later I discover this may well be because the schools offer realistic lesson times that allow children to do the farm work with which their families still need their help. School attendance has indeed improved dramatically in recent years.

On the second day of our trek, we are invited into a two-room home and given “real” coffee. Our hosts tell us it’s not like the bad coffee you get in the hotels and restaurants in towns. I love the bad hotel coffee. For the equivalent of about twenty pence you can have a small glass of what Ethiopians call “makiato”: thick, strong coffee mixed with heavy milk and plenty of sugar. “Real” coffee, as it turns out, is served black, with salt in it. I drink it all, but as slowly as possible to avoid a refill. We sit on a plank in the outer room of the house, which will at night be inhabited by the cows.

By the light of a fire in the middle of the windowless inner room, I can make out a home-made wooden bed and some storage jars. There’s very little else in there. The smoke seeps through the thatched roof. The man of the house – an imposing figure clothed in an ancient but elegant green suit and a blanket – explains that this is good for keeping out unwanted animals. It’s hard on the eyes. Nobody seems worried about their lungs. Ethiopians these days have an average, and hugely improved, life expectancy of 55. Dire sanitation conditions, lack of accessible facilities to deal with basic health problems, childbirth much too young: these will endanger them more than a little smoke.

Pic: Tobias Zollenkopf

At the trekkers’ camps our huts are more comfortable than our hosts’ homes but still not very comfortable. I can’t sleep much, and feel cold all the time, even in all my smelly clothes under a mountain of blankets. After three days’ trekking, I come back to Dodola exhausted and filthy. And exhilarated. I’ve seen another world.

We break the journey back to Addis by staying the night in Shashemene. Nobody says “fuck you”. We see a little more of the place this time but it’s not very attractive. Here, too, there are building sites everywhere. Apparently, work on the sites is regularly interrupted by cement crises. There’s never quite enough cement for all this improvement.

Because I urgently want a hot shower, we check into the pricey Rift Valley Hotel. Pricey means a double en-suite for 350 Birr – about 12 pounds. The hot shower is cold but otherwise it’s luxury. The patio restaurant is good and the waiter switches on the TV to show us some of the extraordinary head-shaking, shoulder-popping dancing they do here. We’ve already seen it live at the “cultural restaurants” frequented by both well-off locals and tourists who know a thrilling cultural heritage when they see one. “Ethiopian music,” the waiter says happily, and we feel happy.

The next day’s bus trip back to Addis Ababa takes us straight out of our protected little hotel-compound world and into reality, when two conductors actually beat each other up trying to get us onto their respective buses. We pick the bus where we can still get seats, even though it’s doomed to leave later than the crowded one. At first we can’t sit together but people start talking about us and then to us. They move around so that we get to share a good seat. I don’t have that uncomfortable feeling I’ve had in some other developing countries; I don’t believe they think we need more comfort than them. But we are guests, and Ethiopians are hospitable. The man who organizes the seats for us tells us proudly, “this is our culture.” The bus pulls away, the music goes on, and I forget about the fight and mean it when I tell the man that I think it’s a fantastic culture.

It’s the same road we came down on but I see more now. Now I know what some of it means. A rusty tin can on a stick outside a house means the people in the house will sell you home-brewed beer. A beautiful white cotton dress means a trip to church. A little girl with a huge canister of water strapped onto her back means a family can’t even afford a donkey. It doesn’t mean the girl is admirably strong. It means her body is already half-broken, and there’s worse to come.

I see men wrapped in blankets on galloping horses; hordes of optimistic schoolchildren walking home with their books in their hands; goats, donkeys, cows on the street; round mud huts with reed roofs; round churches with tin roofs; a Chinese flower factory; a Chinese tyre factory; a Chinese factory making, ah, cement! The cement factory is spewing a cloud of yellow dust over the village it dominates. Later I learn that the dust is toxic, certainly damaging the villagers’ health, maybe killing them. There is very little protest about such things. Ethiopians don’t protest against progress.

When the suburbs of Addis Ababa begin, I know it’s Addis. I can’t imagine why I thought it was so chaotic when I first saw it. It has its own logic. And it’s a place to draw breath, drink that wonderful coffee, and plan the rest of the trip: for us, the famous sights of the north, which will mean that bit more now that we’ve encountered something of the living culture that so cheerfully welcomes those who travel between the extremes in Ethiopia.

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