Khartoum is the capital of Sudan and compared to the north, it feels a world away. Firstly, it’s got some skyscrapers. There’s money here, but that only seems to make the poverty seem even worse. Pretty much everyone is poor in the north, but they nearly all have a house and the community seems to support those at the very bottom. In Khartoum, as is common in most cities, there are a lot of beggars and people struggling to survive. Gone are the shacks selling full. Instead they are replaced by shiny restaurants (also selling full). It’s a complete mishmash of rich and poor. Although many of the roads are well paved, it is not uncommon to find dirty streets full of litter and children playing with tires, right next to a country’s embassy.
On my first day, I visited the Ethiopian embassy and within two or so hours had secured a three month visa. I then met up with Benny again, who arrived later in the day. The following day, we went on a long walk in the heat of the day to visit the confluence of the Nile. The blue Nile and the while Nile meet at a bridge leading out of Khartoum. With a bit of imagination, you can kind of see that they are slightly different shades of murky brown. As a sight it is underwhelming, but it does illustrate how much farm land is contained within the city. We then went back via the National Museum, which was pretty desperate. But, for only two Sudanese pounds, it was definitely worth the money to have air con for a while.
I was awake at 5:45am on the next day and walked to Shendi bus station. It’s a mess of a station, with dozens of people selling tickets for each bus. Turning many people down, I finally found one that was a decent price. It was a three hour journey, before I was dropped off in the desert, with nothing to be seen other than a handful of pyramids. I had arrived at Meroe – Sudan’s premier sight.
The pyramids are interesting and like at Karima and Nuri, there is a joy seeing them with pretty much no one else around. There were a couple of other tourists there, but due to the relative size of the sight, they were a long way away. The wind blew strong, whisking up the sand. It was not particularly camera friendly, but it was nice that you could enter into some of the pyramids and seek a little bit of shelter.
The problem with Meroe is that it is a battle of endurance to get there and if I had known what I know now, I would have overnighted in a truckers stop one kilometres way. Instead, I had planned on getting back to Khartoum and with every minute I spent at Meroe, I could hear the sounds of busses in the distance and knew that I would have to leave soon so as to catch the last ones back to Khartoum.
I walked back to the main road and set about trying to hitchhike either to Khartoum or Shendi, a village about thirty kilometers away. No busses would stop as they were bombing it down the road. Most people put an apologetic hand up in the air or beeped their horn. I realised at this point that I have no patience for hitchhiking. After about thirty minutes a car stopped, but couldn’t really take me anywhere of note. I carried on waiting and got more bored and frustrated. Then my saviour arrived. A man, who was heading to Khartoum in an air conditioned car, drove me the four hours back to the city. Included in that was a brief stop for tea. I felt pretty bad about this one, as I had tried to signal to him that I could catch a bus from here, but instead he interpreted it as – i want tea. We also had a prayer stop, where he got his mat out of the car and prayed in the desert, next to the main road. He spoke no English, which made the journey more one of helping out the stranded tourist on his part than a fun journey. Upon reaching Khartoum, he stopped a minibus and told it, I think, to take me to the center. Of course, the driver spoke no English and I had no idea of the cost and he couldn’t understand what I was asking, so I gave him a small tip and got out. I then proceeded to walk six miles to my hostel. I was almost dead by the time I arrived as night was falling.
In a few years time, some entrepreneurial sort will run a tourist minibus to this sight and back again and it will be worth every penny, because the day was utterly exhausting doing it by public transport!
The next day, Benny and I went to visit the Omdurman souk. Markets are a great way to understand a country and it was a pleasant hour strolling through the busy streets and taking in the vibrant colours. The meat section was particularly interesting as we watched a man skin a cows head and remove its cheek, all whilst smoking a cigarette.
Friday brought Christmas day. It was a fairly low key start up until lunchtime when we ventured out to get some food. Of course, as happened on the previous Friday, I forgot that everything is shut until mid-afternoon due to prayers. So we reworked plans, headed to Arabi bus station, and caught a local minibus to the Hamad Al-Nil Mosque. We arrived at 2pm and sat drinking tea, whilst talking to various people who wanted to practice their English. Over the next two hours the place got increasingly busy and then at 4:30pm drums could be heard and a crowd began to form a circle.
It was time for the wirling dervishes. It started slowly. A couple of men sang songs and banged a drum, whilst others danced around. After an hour or so, as the sun disappeared behind the mosque, louder drumming could be heard and a truck pulled in containing a dozen or so people making a right old racket.
The circle got bigger and for the next hour, the crowd chanted continuously to an infectious drum beat as the people in green and various other costumes started to get themselves into a trance like state.
Apparently they do this every Friday in memory of a member who died over hundred years ago. They take it incredibly serious and whilst they are very patient with tourists, female onlookers found it quite difficult as they were moved to the back of the crowd as they cannot be in front of men. Hundreds of locals turn out each Friday. It is their version of going to the pub. A number are students and English teachers who come along to talk to tourists as they know it provides a place where there are bound to be people to practice with. That was a very nice touch and I met many interesting people who helped me to understand more about Sudan.
We arrived back in the early evening and treated ourselves to a mixed grill, omelette and falafel as our Christmas dinner. The following day we would journey towards the Ethiopian border. Little did we know the torture that we would have to endure.