Notes from the Ancient North

* It is official: Sub-Saharan Africa is freaking booming. I mean, I know the numbers have been saying that for some time; Addis Ababa certainly feels like a boomtown, cranes and construction sites everywhere, and even so the people I talked to there lamented about how Kenya is leaving them behind; but here I am in faraway Axum, an ancient city of some 40,000 near the Eritrean border - and when all construction projects underway here have finished, they will have, at a conservative estimate, quintupled the number of multi-story buildings in town. Not to mention all the roadwork underway. Of course, who knows how long some of these projects may have languished half-complete? And yet even so their very existence says something, and I heard hammering coming from the couple that I passed...

* The boom definitely has something to do with massive Chinese investment. The blanket in my current hotel is a "Jin Quo Han" (sic?) blanket. My internet connection in Lalibela was established via a China Telecom client. There are Chinese officials, engineers - and tourists - everywhere; and instead of complaints about special treatment for whites in the local papers, there are complaints about special treatment for "whites and Chinese." Which is progress, I guess, of a sort.

* The most interesting thing about Axum, though, is not the recent boom, but the antiquity. 80-foot pre-Christian steles loom over a 17th century church... next to which is the small, inaccessible chapel that is claimed by Ethiopians to hold none other than the Ark of the Covenant. (Only one monk is allowed to enter; he lives there all his life. I saw him today, readying a ladder to repair the roof, and he sure had a hell of a beard for an Ethiopian. The deacon claimed he'd been there for 15 years. The beard made that sound plausible.)

* There are also tombs here. Many tombs. The accessible ones were raided by thieves over the years - but it's estimated that 98% of Axum's antiquities still lie buried. The museum here, full of ancient illuminated books and dozens of solid gold crowns and sceptres and the like, hints at the treasures that may lie within. It's all very Lara Croft / Indian Jones. This is some of the oldest gold country in the world, and there are dozen goldsmiths on the streets. Don't know if there's a mine nearby.

* Ethiopian Airlines rocks. I flew Addis-Lalibela, then Lalibela-Axum, and in a couple days will fly Axum - Addis, for the combined grand total of US $165, on shiny new-ish Bombardier Q400s.

* It's off season, meaning every tout in Axum and Lalibela has targeted me. They're pretty laid-back as touts go, though, and willing to (eventually) take no for an answer.

* Lalibela. Well. It's a major tourist attraction because of its vast and ancient churches carved from single slabs of rock, which are indeed kind of mindboggling. My favourite part, though, was my trip up to the (also hewn-from-stone) monastery perched on a mountain above the city. Locals and Lonely Planet agree that it's only a 90-minute walk, so when after 90 minutes I seemed nowhere near a monastery, I began to fear that in my haste and confusion I had climbed the wrong mountain. It's true, I had had to stop briefly every 100 or so (vertical) metres to catch my breath, which worried me considering the Himalaya await, but hopefully it was just altitude adjustment. (Lalibela is a more-than-respectable 2600m/8000ft above sea level.) After two hours, though, I had pretty much given up. And then: blue doors set into a solid stone wall. The monastery. Inside was a bit of a dog-and-pony show with relics and an ancient illuminated manuscript, but nice enough, and the views were breathtaking. I glanced at my phone as I left, and again as I arrived at Lalibela's central intersection; and it turns out that it took me exactly 90 minutes - moving nonstop at a good clip - to descend from the monastery. I retract all my claims that Lonely Planet has grown less hardcore.

* Lalibela society seemed to this outsider to be like the limestone on which it is built, rigid and many-layered. When I went to change money, I waited behind a woman with long, carefully braided hair, in brightly patterned skirt and blouse that looked brand new, tapping her manicured nails on her Nokia - as she waited for an old man in rags and a poncho-like shawl, in sandals so worn they looked bonded to his feet, carrying a shepherd's crook, who was opening a new bank account with five US dollars and two passport photos. (Foreign Exchange and Account Opening were the same window.)

* There were many, many very poor pasturalists in Lalibela, dressed like that old man, walking with both hands on the walking sticks held behind their necks; some had crooks, some were metal-tipped, some supported jute sacks full of unknown goods, some were just bare sticks. Many were there because Lalibela is also a US AID distribution center; every afternoon, hundreds of bags of rice and dozens of shining canisters of edible oil, all embossed with the American flag, were given away.

* Next up in the hierarchy, I think, were the poor locals. Did you think shoeshine boys had disappeared with Dickens? They abound in both Axum and Lalibela, and are popular among the members of the upper classes. Who would count as "middle class" elsewhere, I suppose. It's nice to see an emerging middle class anywhere south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo.

* Table football is very popular; there were half-a-dozen public-access tables by the road in various places in Lalibela. Ping-pong and a variant of pool are easy to find as well.

* Lalibela is very steep. It's probably 50 or maybe even 100 vertical metres just from the top to the bottom of the town itself. And as a result, the views, oh wow, oh wow, oh wow - expanding out over plains and rippling hills as far as the eye can see. (They're mostly to the not-so-touristy northwest of town, though; I'm very, very glad I wandered out there.)

* Ethiopia is cheap. I'm following my usual "sleep cheap, eat expensive," protocol, and travelling on easily less than US$50 a day. I guess when you have a population of 85 million people and not that much in the way of exports, hard currency is highly valued.


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