Thursday, September 03, 2015

The road to Tigray's rock-hewn churches

I awoke early, around 6am and began my long trek to the rock-hewn churches of Tigray.  I grabbed some special fata at the cafe next door as I began my trek.  It was seemingly taking forever, and I couldn't figure out why they couldn't just bring me out a bowl and some bread to break up, when they came out with it already fully prepared and my bread broken in-house.  I laughed and thanked them for the extra care.  The fata proved a hearty breakfast for a long day of travel.

I was walking down to the bus station, but realized it was easier to simply take a bajaji so I coughed up 5 birr (25 cents) and caught a tuk-tuk to the bus yard.  I needed to go to Adigrat and on to Wokro but knew that there were not many buses or minibuses in Aksum.  There was a minibus going to Wokro (semi-)directly, but it was completely empty.  I knew I would be waiting a long time for this minibus to depart so I caught a minibus departing to Adwa at the moment.  In Adwa, there would be more transport options.

We drove the 30 minutes to Adwa--home of the famous battle, and not much else these days.  I got to the more-bustling Adwa bus yard.  I had figured I would need to take a minibus to Adigrat and then another on to Wokro, but I got beckoned over for a public bus to Wokro.  There were already a few people on the bus, so I figured it was a good sign.  I bought my ticket for 70 birr ($3.50), and started waiting.  Then I scanned the bus more clearly and realized that there were really only 4 other people on the bus, and it would not depart till it was full, which would probably be at-least 2-3 hours.  Then the 4 other people also surveyed the empty bus landscape and got off, and it was just me.

I got off as well, and started looking for the bus ticket tout, when another ticket tout called me over for a bus to Wokro.  I showed him my ticket to Wokro and he beckoned me on and said it was fine.  The bus took off, and we were on our way.

After about 20 minutes, another bus ticket saleman on the bus asked me for 70 birr.  I showed him my ticket.  He said it wasn't good.  I pointed to the ticket tout behind him, and tried to explain that he saw my ticket and beckoned me on.  The chaos ensued.  We were fighting in broken English back-and-forth--I was trying to explain that this guy lured me on the bus after he saw my ticket and said it was fine.  I just held up my ticket, and pointed at the tout--saying get your money from him because he told me it was fine.

The English conversation wasn't working, but the ticket seller and the fellow next to me spoke Arabic, so we tried that.  It was probably not the best idea, because now they could communicate better than me.  But I held my ground, calling the tout a big liar in Arabic, and maintaining that I had a ticket already purchased.

This went on for a long while.  Finally I negotiated that I would simply pay 30 birr for the ride to Adigrat, and would get off and take a minibus in disgust.

Thankfully, the scenery got beautiful to sooth my road rage.

 And we finally reached Adigrat.  The fellow next to me, who I had been conversing with in Arabic felt badly about the whole incident and treated me to lunch.

I was planning on grabbing my stuff and grabbing a minibus, but the ticket salesman said it would be cheaper if I just gave him another 20 birr ($1) and he would let me ride to Wokro.  Since lunch had been covered, I was really only out an extra 30 birr for the ride to Adigrat, and it made more sense than having to fight the gauntlet and wait for a minibus to fill.  So I gave up, coughed up an extra buck and was off on the same bus.

We drove through the desiccated Tigrayan landscape, past rock huts and sloping valleys.  I made peace with the journey as I spied some windmills in the distance to let me know that my journey was just.

I finally reached the dusty one-horse town of Wokro.  I had chosen Wokro as my base to explore the rock-hewn churches of Tigray because the guide book said it was the best jump-off point for independent travelers to visit the sites.  Other spots required guides and 4wd vehicles, but in Wokro there was a rock-hewn church on the outskirts of town, and 3 more churches about 30 minutes away by minibus.  Also, in Gheralta, the bigger cluster of rock-hewn churches, there had been problems in the past with little kids hurling rocks at faranji who wouldn't give them money, pens or sweets.  I didn't feel like having to toss rocks back at kids, so Wokro would be it.

I found a cheap place called Hotel Zemenawi, and negotiated a 60 birr room  ($3) down to 100 birr for 2 nights ($5) with the nice owner.  The place was spartan but fine.  There was a cold shower in the room, and bathroom down the hall.

I dropped my stuff and started walking down to the local rock-hewn church but the skies started getting black.  I turned around and headed back to the hotel when I established there was no internet cafes in the city where I could camp out while the storm passed--this really was a one-horse town. Just as I was about to turn into my hotel, I horse standing in the middle of the road as bajaji tuk-tuks passed it.

I took a nap as the storm rained down, and woke up around 4pm with enough time to trek back to the close rock-hewn church in Wokro named Wokro Cherkos.  I followed the main road out to the edge of town, and found my way up a village road, past cacti, aloe, donkey and chickens until I reached the rock-hewn church.

 I paid my 150 birr ($7.50) fee to the office, and an old priest led me to the church.  It was rather amazing.  Inside this old sandstone boulder, a church had been carved out.  There were old murals on the barrel-vaulted sandstone ceiling.  The sandstone pillars had swirls of colors.  Alas, it was really too dark inside to show the real beauty of the church, but it was quite marvelous.

I left the church in awe, and started heading back to the hotel ahead of again-darkening skies.  The dark skies were closing in fast, so I ran back alongside some women who were also dodging the storm.  I made my way back to a bajaji and headed back to my hotel.  I got in just before the deluge.

I continued my Star Wars viewing, watching The Empire Strikes Back until I fell asleep at 7:30pm--it had been a long day.

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