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Tigray reopens for tourism - and we have been there!

Posted by Marco on Thu May 4, 2023 in Get inspired.

Yes, we Ethiopians and Ethiopia-lovers are all victims of the Tigray conflict, it really affected the whole country and its people which all lost unconditionally. There is no beauty from war. The unconditional love, hospitality, and kindness of the Tigray people, the beautiful landscapes, the breath-taking views from every mountain, the spiritually rich churches and monasteries – it all planted roots deep in our hearts. Our absence from this region is just about three years, but it has a feeling of three centuries and more. What now matters most is the empowerment, courage and mental strength to reopen and restart – for us and more than all for the people in Tigray.

We, a selected group of 8 people, are members of an initiative called Ride the Rift. This has the aim to support the tourism sector and its professionals in the harsh time of Covid 19 and later during the conflict in North Ethiopia. We had an exciting team ready to reconnect with Tigray. A call was made by the Ride the Rift initiators, among them Marco of SimienEcoTours, and soon later we all booked domestic flights for the 8 adventurers for a trip Tigray planned less than six months after the peace agreement was signed by the Tigray regional and the central government in Addis Ababa.

Setting foot on Tigray soil for the first time after more than 3 yearsSetting foot on Tigray soil for the first time after more than 3 years

On Monday, April 24th, 2023 we flew to the Tigray capital city Mekele on the first flight of the day. We have been picked up from the airport by our local contacts and brought to the centre of the city. We paused for a breakfast with foul, tea and coffee, and had a meeting with newly formed Tigray regional tourism officers to talk about future plans. After having a fruitful discussion we drove to the city of Adigrat about two and a half hours north of the capital. A delicious lunch in Adigrat was served, and eating the well-known Telhelo was amazing but filled our bellies almost too much. Just like in Mekele our time in the city of Adigrat was not that long, we still had plans to proceed to the Agame Mountains for a hike in the afternoon.

Hiking in this chain of mountains which hosts charming, open-hearted and welcoming people brought immediately a positive vibe to the whole team. Today’s destination was one of Tesfa Tours' community guesthouses. Admiring the beauty of the first part of the Agame Mountains, which are not yet known to everyone of us, we arrived at Seheta guesthouse just before sunset. The over-joy tearful welcome of the community was priceless. We were all in the open arms and love of everyone for long intense moments. The blessed night followed a delicious dinner prepared by the community itself.

Stop in a local farmers' house for invitation to sip a coffeeStop in a local farmers' house for invitation to sip a coffee

The second day of our totally 6 days trip was dedicated to climbing the beautiful churches called Debre Giorgis and for Gohogot Eyesus. It was a spectacular full-day journey with lots of emotional ups and downs. We met several people on our way, and just like on our first day, their smile and happiness remained truly natural. Even if most of us do not speak fluent Tigrigna it was not tough to understand what they were saying. ”እንቋዕ ድሓን መፃኩም" and "እንቋዕ ሰላም ገበረልና” were their redundant phrases, which literary means “welcome back" and "glad that God made it peaceful”. We were delighted to hear them referring to “the dawn after the war” and “finally this is the end of the war”, and similar expressions we caught all along our hike. Finally, we were hosted in the Gohgot guesthouse hidden between the trees of a the slope just underneath the red glooming sandstone wall.

Hiking with view along the escarpments of the Agame MountainsHiking with view along the escarpments of the Agame Mountains

Shimbrety guesthouse was the next target to spend the night in the Agame Mountains. Early breakfast and packing had been done before 7am. On our way, we visited two unique Saint Mary churches, named Mariam Bahran and Mariam Buzuhan respectively. Even if it was the longest stage, we walked without any long breaks up to Sikurto tunnel, a tunnel believed to be made by the two brother kings Abraha and Atsebha in the 4th century. These two Axumite kings founded 44 churches all over Tigray. At the Shimbrety guesthouse we experienced the usual hospitality and welcoming. Having guests after three years meant everything to the community. Before sunset Marco, Mark and our local guide Berhe hopped up to the highest peak in the area, Amba Tsion, from where one can admire a 360 degrees panoramic view.

Shimbrety Guesthouse is well known for its amazing views at sunsetShimbrety Guesthouse is well known for its amazing views at sunset

Our fourth day morning in Tigray opened its account with a delicious breakfast. This was a day with a short walking schedule to arrive in a small town called Idega Arbi. The town name meaning refers to the market day, which is market day on Friday. But according to the people from the town, the market day just recently shifted to Thursday, the weekday we arrived there. This gave us an additional opportunity to witness the local market closely. When we reached Idega Arbi, most of us didn’t hesitate to jump into a local bar that sells a homemade beer called Talla. From Idega Arbi to Hawzien we drove on rough road for about 2 hours to Hawzien.

Hawzien and Megab are the most well-known spots for the iconic churches of Abuna Yemata Guh, Mariam Korkor, and Daniel Korkor. Our priority was Abuna Yemata Guh. We did a wonderful hike and exciting climb to the top of the rock face with the guidance of our local guide Gebre. It was an amazing experience that melted everyone’s heart. The challenging accessibility, the beautiful paintings and the view make this church exceptional and a visit there unforgettable.

Challenging climbing passage to reach the hidden Abuna Yemata churchChallenging climbing passage to reach the hidden Abuna Yemata church

Our friend Mulualem from Axum picked us up in Hawzien and drove us to his hometown Axum, where we spent the last 1-2 days of this trip. Visiting the obelisks of Axum and King Kaleb's tombs is always a treasure to take. Luckily we’ve been in Axum exactly on the monthly Tsion Mariam day, and some of us got up at 4am to attend the early morning prayers which are unique in this city.

Ride the Rift team visiting the famous stelae fiel in the centre of AxumRide the Rift team visiting the famous stelae fiel in the centre of Axum

Others went to see the Abba Pantelewon Monastery on the top of a hill with nice view over the city. A friendly priest welcomed us, but took almost 10 minutes to issue the entrance ticket and receipt for us. We were the first tourists since 3 years and the elderly priest forgot the procedure and needed some extra time. Finally, on day six, Saturday, April 29th, 2023 we took our flight back from the small Shire airport.

Priest of Abba Pantelewon trying to remember how to issue receiptsPriest of Abba Pantelewon trying to remember how to issue receipts

To conclude, Tigray and the people of this region are ready to host anybody and anytime. We are witness for this. Their charming smile, their unconditional love, their true hospitality, their motives for change, their strength for new challenges, their fitness to pass over the past, their efforts to change the pain, and their struggle to set a bright future are spot on. You are already most welcome in Tigray. So set your calendar.