Turkey & Sudan (2/2)
This post is part 2 of the "turkey-sudan" series:
Jebus, what a year its been. This trip was literally a year in the making, and nearly didn't happen. Back in November 2019, I put down a deposit to go to Sudan. At the time, I was hoping to take advantage of Saudi Arabia's recently announced tourist visa program, and combine Sudan with the gulf states. Of course, COVID19 put an end to Saudi and all the others, and for quite a while it was unclear whether Sudan would reopen either. Then Sudan announced that they would reopen their borders in early October, and there was a glimmer of hope. However, without the gulf states portion of the trip, it was a very long distance to travel just for a week or so in Sudan. Turkey was one of the few places (and airlines) that were still viable, so at the last minute, I bolted Turkey onto the beginning of the trip. Not exactly ideal, as Turkey was honestly never high on my list of countries, but it was making the best out of a not great situation.
Due to the vagaries of fate, 2020 ended up being the year that I hit both my 50th US state, and 50th country. There was a chunk of 2020 when neither of those milestones seemed likely.
I was hoping to sleep late this morning, but random noises had me awake by 9. I've got a long day ahead of me. My flight to Sudan is not until 8:45pm, and arrives at 00:05 in Khartoum. Then I have to deal with getting my visa (which i've been warned can take as much as 2 hours), and get to the hotel (which, thankfully, is 10 minutes drive).
I got my shower, and packed. It was once again raining. I killed time for a while before heading out to find lunch. I stopped by the front desk to see if they would push back my checkout time further, and they agreed to give me 3pm. I was surprised to find the sun coming out when I stepped outside. Lunch was a frustrating mess, as just about no where was open. I ended up getting a burger.
I headed to the airport just after 3pm, and got there without any issues. This time, entering the terminal was not issue. Although, ahead of me in the security line was a deployment of UN peacekeepers going to DRC. I picked up my COVID test result, & exchanged my remaining Turkish Lira to USD. Boarding pass was a circus. A guy with a terrible stutter was assigned to verify visas & COVID19 tests before anyone could go to the counter. Imagine every possible thing that can go wrong, and it happened. Some dude with a Tunsian passport that looked older than me didn't have a visa, and couldn't speak english or turkish. A lady going to Jordan didn't get tested. A russian guy going to Tehran had no visa & no test. The guy initially insisted that i needed a visa. I showed him my entry permit, and eventually he relented. After that, passport control & security were easy, although they had long lines.
I wandered around a bit to get the lay of the land, then got some dinner. After that i found a random gate that wasn't too crowded (mine wasn't announced yet, booo) to charge my phone. They were doing last call for Addis Ababa, and this woman is frantically running to the gate. She has this look of relief, and then the gate agent comments that her passport is expired. She completely melts down, and starts pleading to let her board. The agent asks how she will enter Ethiopia with an expires passport, and she has no answer and is sobbing. He locked the doors, and walked away, leaving her there.
They finally announced my gate, A7B (yes, its a gate with A & B doors for maximum confusion). I still have 75 minutes til departure and the gate agents are demanding to see everyone's COVID19 test results. Queue the hillarity of how to interpret "96 hours before departure". Is it the test date? The result date? Its sheer chaos, as some people assumed wrong. Of course the flight has the usual cast of characters going to a developing African country. Creepy looking military guys, huge families, packs of single men, the tiny white girl who is likely a Christian missionary.
Flight was ok, and landed about 20 minutes early. The plane was more tham half empty. Once we landed it was a ridiculous bus gate where i could have walked to the terminal in 10 seconds time. Instead we sat and waited on the plane for another 15 minutes as the ground crew fumbled the process of setting up the stairs.
Once i got off the plane it was the mad dash to the bus, then 6 seconds of driving to the terminal. First was a comically silly COVID19 test check by a guy in a dirty lab coat. After that the dude from the hotel was somehow past passport control, and decided to help procure my visa. It seems like he helped as i got my visa before a bunch of Russians who were in line before me. Amusingly, they never asked for the stupid photos.
Somehow the wait for my bag took longer than the visa. The drive to the hotel (Acropole) took maybe 5 minutes, through some dark & deserted streets. At one point we slowly drove through a red light. Once at the hotel everything was calm & organized. This is the longest continually operating hotel in the country, since 1952. They even have a wikipedia page. Today its run by the (elderly) two sons of the original Greek founders. One of them met me to get me checked in at 1:30am. The room was a bit spartan, but everything worked fine (AC, wifi, hot water).
I was awakened around 7am, not by the call to prayer, but by the bustle of people on the street. I catnapped for a bit, but was up for the day at 8am. Breakfast was ok, but nothing special (mostly mid-eastern stuff, plus eggs & toast). After breakfast I settled my bill, and purchased & setup a SIM card.
Around noon, i headed out to explore a bit. There's really not a whole lot to see in Khartoum though. But a lot of people everywhere just doing their thing. I stopped at two mosques just to see what they looked like inside. The first was kinda dull on the exterior, but had a ton of elaborate brickwork inside. Not a huge number of worshipers and no one paid any attention to me (although i definitely stood out). The second was really pretty outside, with ornate carvings. I arrived just after the call to prayer and it was absolutely packed. I got a lot of weird looks, but no one was hostile or unwelcoming. The interior was kinda dull though. I wandered past a ton of shops selling everything from dates to cell phones to water pumps. Plus people selling snacks & tea on the street. eventually i made it to the Nile. It was kinda disappointing. I mean, its a huge river but i expected more of something.
After a week in cold, damp weather, its nice to be in 35C heat. No more foggy eye glasses or dampness. Plus i am wearing sandals!
Its become apparent that changing money in a country cut off from the global financial system is a huge pain. There's the official rate of 55 Sudanese pounds to the USD, and then an alternative black market rate. Of course the black market rate is way better, but finding people is the challenge. Eventually some shady guys sitting in the shade on a bustling sidewalk called out to me, saying dollar a few times. I didn't want to change too much at once as their denominations are not large. i ended up agreeing to 200 pounds per USD, for \$20, which meant they handed me this insane stack of 50SDP notes.
Around 2pm i returned to the hotel, had lunch and picked up my bags. I walked 7 long-ish blocks to the tour hotel. When i attempted to checkin, they had no clue who i was and didn't know who Lupine was either. After a few minutes, they escorted me to a comically large, filthy room with 3 beds spread across 3 rooms. There were 3 AC units, yet none would turn on. It took 4 people 20 minutes to figure out how to power them on, and only one unit actually blew cold air. The water is a cloudy, brownish hue. There are stains on everything. I get Lupine is budget tours, but this is awful. I tried texting Sascha (tour leader), but no response yet. Dinner with the group is supposed to happen at 7:30pm.
I didn't sleep well. The bed was rock hard, and the AC stopped working an hour after I went to bed. I was up for the day at 5am, when the call to prayer happened. Breakfast was not appealing, so i had a banana and called it done.
We have 6 vehicles, limited to 3 passengers each. I ended up in a vehicle with a Polish guy and Sascha. The drive out of Khartoum took a while as traffic was awful. Eventually traffic thinned out, and the desert scenery improved. About 3 hours after starting we reached the first stop, a set of 1st century ruins that were really beautiful. Lots of egyyptian reliefs. After that we drove another hour to see another set of ruins, but they were not in great condition. We had lunch immediately afterwards. It was ok, but nothing special. Potato salad, pasta salad (no mayo), hummus, tomato/cucumber/cheese salad.
We had another 90 minute drive to Meroe after that, which was hot & long. The pyramids were really wonderful. Two clusters of 6-9 pyramids, and no other tourists there. Technically, they can be seen from the road, but they are still a bit off in the distance. We got to hike out to all of them, but none were open. The sun was setting by the time we finished. We hiked back to the campsite where tents were already setup. There was water & hot tea while dinner was cooked. It was ok, but kinda bland. Salty yellow lentil soup, salad, white rice, flat bread, and a lamb stew.
It was windy much of the night, and my feet were cold. I woke up for the day around 5am. Breakfast was the classic laughing cow, nescafe, boiled eggs, and bananas. There was a hotel option for those who did not want to camp. One of the americans apparently had a meltdown at the hotel when the generator was not working.
We left at 8am. We attempted to stop for fuel, but apparently the station had run out a week earlier. The vehicle that i was in had a third of a tank left. Just after 9, one of the vehicles blew out a tire. These guys were like a machine, and had it changed in 10 minutes. A bit later we pulled into a black market fuel station to refuel. Apparently the govt rate is 50 cents per liter and its nearly a dollar per liter on the black market. But it turned out that there wasn't enough, so we continued drivIng north. about an hour later we came to a town, and saw a massive line of vehicles along the side of the road, stretching on. There were hundreds of vehicles. It was insane. Our driver guessed that the current line would take 4 days to get fuel. We kept going. We pulled into another station without a line, and of course they had no fuel. A bit further we found a station with fuel, and a relatively short line (just 5 vehicles). by the time we left, the line had grown to 30 vehicles.
We crossed west over the Nile for the first time at 11:30am. It looked nicer (greener) than further south in Khartoum. The drive after that was a broad flat rocky plain, almost entirely devoid of plants. We stopped for lunch in a small village. The food was really good. There was a spectacular eggplant salad, flat bread, fuul, and another bean stew with tons of onions & garlic.
The afternoon was kinda a mess. A different vehicle kept breaking down. They kept fixing it, and then it would break again. After the 3rd time, they decided to move the 2 passengers into other vehicles while they worked on the broken one. At 15:20 we were still sitting at the side of the road in 38C heat.
We finally made it into Karina at 16:30. We went to this huge mesa (Jebel Barkal). Everyone hiked to the summit which was kinda tricky towards the top. After enjoying the views (the Nile runs through time) there was an insane sand dune against one side, that everyone slid down.
After that we finally went to the guesthouse. Its super primitive, with a bunch of large rooms that have beds and communal bathrooms without hot water.
The bed last night was just a frame with metal wire strung across, and the world's thinnest foam pad on top. The entire night it felt as if I was being pressed through a wire strainer. Karima has a gajillion mosques and they managed to slightly stagger the sunrise call to prayer just enough that someone was singing for a solid 30 minutes starting at 4:50am. I never fell back to sleep.
I finally got around to chatting with Martin, and as soon as mentioned you, his entire demeanor changed, and suddenly we were best friends. He ranked you 7 of 10 on the Americans scale. Btw, he is going on the west africa tour in july.
We spent the morning visiting a number of ancient Nubian historic sites from the 9th century BC, including Kurru Necropolis. The highlights were an underground tomb whose walls were covered in pristine art & hieroglyphs, and a cluster of 9 huge pyramids near the Nile. They were both stunning, and a surprise.
At 12:45 we had to play the fuel game. Somehow we arranged some agreement to let our 6 vehicles cut the line of 40 others. It still took 35 minutes.
At 13:30 we stopped for lunch. There was an amazing eggplant in peanut sauce, plus a goat stew, some beans that looked like olives and bread.
At 14:45 we came to a police checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. The officer (wearing flip flops) warned us not to travel together in a caravan, as it may attract
the attention of bandits who live in the region. Apparently the infamous Darfur region is a few hours to the west, and people loyal to the ousted president Bashir have occassionally stopped high value targets to hold them for ransom.
The next 2 hours were mostly sand & camels. Also blazing hot sun. At 17:30 all the drivers insisted on stopping for a tea break with 65km left. The sun was already down. We finally rolled into Khartoum at 7pm, meaning that we averaged 30mph.
I had a decent breakfast, and everyone split into groups of three to take taxis to the camel market. I ended up in a taxi with Kris (UK) & Martin. It was supposed to take about 40 minutes to get to the market, as its on the western edge of the city. We were making good time, until the last mile or so when everything went badly. The driver routed through the 'Libya souq', which was a (long) block mostly taken over by people selling cheap junk from China. It was absolutely packed with people which made driving bad. On top of that, the traffic light at the next intersection wasn't working, which created utter chaos. Everyone wanted to drive into the intersection simultaneously. Cars, buses, tuktuks, donkey carts, motorbikes, pedestrians. It took another 35 minutes to do a quarter mile.
The market itself was super disappointing. It had maybe a dozen sad camels, and a lot of goats & sheep. we did see a large truck unloading hundreds of sheep. Every time they found a dead one, they tossed it into a litter filled ditch. We wandered about for maybe 30 minutes, and then gave up. Thankfully, we took a different route back, and got to the hotel just after 11am.
We left the hotel at noon. First stop was lunch at a place on the nile. It was scenic. I got bissap juice and a bbq half chicken, which were tasty. Service was super slow though.
After that we went to the souq and wandered about while some people bought trinkets. Then we drove out to a Sufi cemetary to watch a bizarre religious ceremony with guys chanting while other guys were wandering about in a trance, drooling.
We went to a fancy restaurant, Assaha, for dinner. I had grapefruit juice, labneh, and mixed grill. It was good. On the walk back to the hotel, there was a massive car accident just as we passed a large intersection. A truck t-boned a car, and the car went flying.
I woke at 6:30am for no reason. I had breakfast and then everyone piled into two vans. First stop was the Sudan National Museum. They had several relocated Nubian temples, with a decent amount of hieroglyphs.
After that we drove to the Corinthian Hotel, an egg shaped luxury hotel built by Qaddafi, to look at the views of the city from the 16th floor. Then to the Blue Nile Yacht Club to look at the rivier. Next was lunch where i had a vegetable pizza which was not awful, and reminded me of a frozen pizza.
Afterwards we did a Nile cruise up to the confluence of the Blue & White Nile. Half way back we ran out of fuel, and they had to dock to get more.
I got to Khartoum airport just after 10pm, to find a large crowd gathered outside the entrance. They were doing ID checks of everyone, then forcing everyone through a mini security screening, just to enter the terminal.
After that, it was boarding pass time. There were 6 lines, without any indication how they differed. I got in the shortest line, and a random lady berated me for being in the unmarked biz class line. I moved to another line, which moved slowly. Everyone seemed to have tons of huge bags. Finally it was my turn. They printed my boarding pass, and started questioning me about my bags. I assumed they would compel me to check the black bag, but i commented "it has no wheels" and they agreed and granted me permission to take it with me.
Next was two lines of immigration, after which we were dumped into a holding pen that prevented every one from reaching the gate area. Everyone sat outside there for over an hour, suddenly a guy showed up yelling 'istanbul' repeatedly. There was a mad dash to the security line, at which point the same guy yelled 'wait', and sent everyone back to their seats. Finally an hour before departure, they opened the line. As soon as i cleared that security line, for some insane reason, there was yet another. Again, cleared security, where I was subjected to passport control again. Finally i entered the gate area where there were no toilets.
Thirty minutes before departure they opened the door, and let people board the bus. The plane boarded from front & back, but they had some row number cutoff for each end that they never communicated to passengers. As a result, people would hike up the steps to the plane and be sent back down to the other door.
My middle seat was empty, and the flight departed on time. When i reached Istanbul, a few people from the tour had lounge access for a free guest, and invited me along. There wasn't much food, but it was still nice to have a fairly peaceful, comfortable place to spend the 7 hour layover.
All of the trip photos are posted HERE.
This post is part 2 of the "turkey-sudan" series: