People Of Mali Fight Back Against Fundamentalists Destroying Their Heritage

Mali, Timbuktu
We’ve been covering the turmoil in Mali for some time now. Three months ago, rebels in the north of the country took advantage of a coup in the capital to break away and set up the nation of Azawad. This new nation, as yet unrecognized by any other, was supposed to be a homeland for the Tuaregs, a people who complain of poor treatment from the central government.

All did not go as planned. The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took over part of the area and put it under harsh Sharia law. Their area of control includes Timbuktu, where they have been destroying the medieval shrines of Muslim saints they say are contrary to Islam. There are also fears they may burn the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts in Timbuktu. Fundamentalists tend not to like reading much.

Now moderate Muslims are fighting back. Sufi Muslims, who are the majority in Mali and who honor the shrines, have created an armed band to defend them. They’re guarding the holy tombs at Araouane and Gasser-Cheick, close to Timbuktu.

This is the latest step towards conflict between the supposedly allied Ansar Dine and the other rebel groups. Ansar Dine has overstepped its bounds and insulted local religious feeling. They may soon pay the price.

With the world community doing nothing but wringing their hands and making sympathetic noises, it appears the only hope to save the ancient treasures of Mali is in the hands of the locals.

[Photo courtesy Emilio Labrador]

Photo of the Day – Temple of Heaven

Today’s photo, taken by Flickr user toffiloff, transports us to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. The photographer’s perspective, gazing up from the bottom of the stairs at the magnificent Taoist structure, seems to reinforce the building’s spiritual force. A solitary bird in the upper right of the image, floating gently in the breeze, adds an additional layer of visual interest.

Have any great photos from your recent travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region

Somali, Somali region, camels, Ethiopia
It’s the dream of every adventure traveler–to explore a region that gets virtually no tourism, to see a culture with little contact with the outside world, to be among the first to visit the sights. It can be a thrill, an amazing rush that gives you valuable insights into a foreign culture and its history.

It can also be a major pain in the ass.

To the east of Harar lies Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a vast lowland spreading out east to Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia. Home to only 4.3 million, it’s Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated region, where many Somalis still live a traditional pastoral life.

To visit the Somali Region I hired a driver with a Landcruiser (the transport of choice in Africa) and Muhammed Jami Guleid (guleidhr @yahoo.com) a Harar tour guide who is Somali and lived for many years in the region. “Dake”, as everybody calls him, may be Somali, but he’s lived in Harar and speaks fluent Harari, so he’s accepted as Harari. Nebil Shamshu, who introduced me to a traditional African healer, came along too.

We set out in the early morning, climbing up and over several large hills to the east of Harar and passing through the Valley of Marvels, a beautiful geological wonder of strange rock formations and towering pinnacles that reminds me of some parts of the Arizona wilderness. I ask our driver, Azeze, to stop so I can take pictures but he refuses. “”A few weeks ago bandits stopped a minibus here,” he says. “They killed nine men and kidnapped and raped six women.” Suddenly I don’t feel like taking pictures anymore. While Ethiopia is generally safe (I haven’t had any problems in four months travel all over the country) there are bandits in some parts of the countryside.

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Now this section of the road is quiet. After the attack the army launched a huge manhunt but the bandits slipped away into the rough terrain or disappeared into the local population. Soldiers are everywhere now, so the bandits will have to find another road for their ambushes.

After climbing a last steep hill the road winds down to a dusty plain. I remember this road from my trip to Somaliland last year. Men lead strings of camels along the side of the highway. Low domed structures called aqal somali dot the landscape. Covered with mats and bits of cloth, they look like patchwork quilts. Muhammed Dake perks up, looking around eagerly and singing along to Somali songs on the radio. He also knows the words to every Johnny Cash song. Dake is a man of the world.

Our first stop is Jijiga, a rambling town of low concrete buildings that is the region’s capital. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is here, conspicuous by the large aqal somali in its front yard. Nearby are the foundations of the new regional museum, to be opened. . .sometime. We’ve come here looking for information about the castle of Ahmed Guray, the Somali conqueror who 500 years ago brought the great Abyssinian Empire to its knees. I’d heard his castle still stands at Chinaksen just north of Jijiga. Dake hadn’t heard of this, and the Ministry had little information about their own region, just one leaflet in nearly incomprehensible English and a promotional video in Amharic that included nothing about the castle. The officials believe it’s at Darbi, close to Chinaksen, so we head there.

The road from Jijiga to Darbi is what’s locally referred to as “improved.” That is, a steamroller has squashed a strip of ground flat and it’s used as a road. It’s not a smooth as asphalt, but it’s far better than some African roads I’ve been on. The only problem is the steady stream of dust blowing through the window and caking our hands and faces. It’s far too hot to close the window, so we just sit and deal with it.

We get to Darbi and find nothing but a village–no castle, no city walls, and nobody who knows what we’re talking about. We head to our original goal of Chinaksen and find the same thing. Confused and frustrated, we sit down to a lunch of spaghetti (eaten in traditional Somali fashion with our hands) while Dake makes a few calls to local officials. After a long wait we meet up with them only to learn that they’ve never heard of a castle here, but there’s a mosque from Guray’s time not far off. We decide to head there and one official insists on being our guide, his eyes lighting up with dollar signs.

I am not at all surprised when he gets us lost within the first fifteen minutes. He soon has us driving across farmers’ fields, insisting it’s the right way. Azeze is about to go on strike, I’m wishing I’d learned some swear words in Somali, and Dake finally gives up on the guy and grabs a local guy to give us directions.

The local, of course, knows exactly where to go and soon we make it to a strange rectangular stone building that doesn’t really look like a mosque at all. There’s no courtyard or minaret like you usually see. Another local farmer comes up to us and a long discussion in Amharic ensues. The farmer gives me a few angry looks and Nebil talks to him in soothing tones. I understand just enough to know that the guy doesn’t want me to go in and Nebil is explaining that since everyone else is Muslim, that there’s no harm in it.

Eventually the farmer relents. We take our shoes off at the nearby wall and hop across sizzling flagstones to enter the cool interior. In the narrow front hall stand long wooden boards used by religious students for memorizing verses of the Koran. They can be found all over the Muslim world. These look old, stained nearly black from generations of handling. Further on we come to the main room, a long rectangular room painted with blue crescent moons and abstract decorations. Everything emanates an air of antiquity, and I wonder if Ahmed Guray himself ever prayed here before going off to battle.

Nebil must be wondering the same thing, because he looks around with wonder and declared that he wants to pray here. The farmer is making more nasty comments and Dake is getting nervous. “No, we need to go now. Sean, stop taking pictures.” We head out and the farmer is almost shouting now. The official flashes his badge and that shuts him up. After a final poisonous look at me, he stalks off.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“He was saying that he smashes people’s cameras if they try to take pictures in there,” Dake replies.

“Nice.” I say. “I’ve taken pictures in mosques all around the world with no problem.”

Dake merely shrugs. On the way back the official asks me for a tip. I give him 20 birr ($1.20, a day’s wage for many working class jobs).

“Only 20 birr!” he freaks out.

“How many times did he get us lost?” Azeze asks me in English so he can’t understand.

“Exactly! But he helped out by waving his badge. I’ll give him 20 birr for waving a badge,” I reply.

As we head back to Harar I try to look at the trip philosophically. I didn’t find the castle of Ahmed Guray. Maybe it isn’t there. But maybe it is. It could have stood just a kilometer away from where we were, its battlements gleaming in the sun like some Somali Camelot, but the local tourism officials wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I did get some insights into life in the Somali region, however, and there does seem to be potential here that I’ll talk about in my next post. As I shrug off my day as a fairly expensive yet educational failure, a herd of camels passes by, their tan skin turned golden by the setting sun. A little further on we spot three families of baboons crossing the road.

There are things to see in the Somali region, just not what I set out to see.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

Photo of the day (9.23.10)


Some photos beg more questions than they answer. Flickr user Marisoleta snapped this statue in Nagasaki, Japan, and the caption notes that the figure is Kannon atop a turtle-shaped temple, surrounded by little children. Kannon is the Japanese Buddhist goddess of compassion, which may account for the children, but what about the turtle? She is also known as a protector of seamen, which could also extend to sea turtles. Fun fact: camera company Canon is named for the goddess as well. The temple also includes a Foucault’s pendulum, one of the largest in the world, to demonstate the rotation of the earth and a bell that chimes daily to commemorate the atomic bomb explosion.

Capture an interesting shrine on your travels, or any giant turtles? Submit to the Gadling Flickr Pool and it could be our next Photo of the Day.

South by Southeast: Who goes to Myanmar?

Who does visit Myanmar these days? For Southeast Asia travelers exposed to a daily diet of CNN, Myanmar is literal no-fly zone, a destination with an infamous reputation for unrest, opium and political repression. Even as other “notorious” Asia destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam emerge into adolescence on the global tourist stage, Myanmar remains largely hidden from view – a mysterious actor shrouded in myth and secrecy.

It’s been nearly two years since Gadling’s Leif Pettersen first visited Myanmar, lifting the curtain on a country of sacred Buddhist shrines, Betel chewing and nary a fast food chain in sight. Not surprisingly, in the years since Leif’s visit, not much has changed. As I soon discovered, everything moves more slowly in Myanmar, from the masochistic 15-hour bus rides to the condensed milk that slowly oozes into your cup of Burmese tea. This “slowness” is further exaggerated by Myanmar’s isolation from the international community and the devastating Cyclone Nargis which hammered the country in 2008. The country’s already-meager tourist industry is still reeling from the shock.

But while Myanmar is indeed a tough place to visit, it rewards persistence. For Southeast Asia travelers willing to move beyond the media reports, one of the most incredible destinations on earth awaits your discovery: deserted temple ruins, gorgeous beaches, awe-inspiring festivals and most importantly, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on earth. And despite what you’ve heard, Myanmar is actually one of the safest places to visit in Southeast Asia. Intrigued? Let’s start with a look at the details (and ethics) of visiting below…

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The Boycott
Let me dispense with the “elephant in the room” of Myanmar travel: the travel boycott. In short, the government of Myanmar has a long history of human rights abuses and political repression. This fact has long kept many travelers away, and many governments and organizations continue to urge travelers not to visit.

The pros and cons of visiting Myanmar could make up an article by itself, and there’s no simple answer to this question. Every traveler considering a trip should get the facts on the situation and answer this question for themselves. In writing about the country, my aim is to give potential visitors the information to help make that decision. A great place to start your investigation is over at Lonely Planet, which has a special section devoted to the debate surrounding travel to Myanmar.

Getting In

So what exactly is involved in entering Myanmar? Will you be strip-searched at airport? Taken hostage by balaclava-wearing rebels? Despite my initial misgivings, entering Myanmar was a relatively painless process. All that’s required is 30-day tourist visa available at most Myanmar embassies abroad for around U.S. $24. Any number of travel agencies, particularly those in Bangkok, can also guide you through the process if you’re willing to pay a little extra and/or don’t want to visit the embassy.

Getting Around

Traveling in Myanmar can be (literally) painful. Transportation options are slow, roads are poor and getting anywhere takes time. That said, the main transport options include:

  • Buses – Frequent buses connect the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. Buses are also the option most preferred by independent travelers, due to the fact they are privately (not government) owned.
  • Flights – if you’re not ready to tough it out for 15 hours on a stifling hot bus while your seat mate vomits out the window, flights are a good, if more expensive, alternative. Daily trips on Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways connect Myanmar’s major tourist sights. The state-run airline Myanmar Airways is to be avoided, both for safety and political reasons.
  • Taxis – another potential alternative to bus service hiring a private taxi, which can drive travelers between most destinations in Myanmar.
  • Trains – like much of the country’s infrastructure, Myanmar’s rail system is downright ancient. That said, daily trains are another (potentially) more comfortable alternative to the buses.
  • Boats – the most popular boat service runs between Bagan and Mandalay, with both a “fast” and “slow” boat service. Don’t let the world “fast” fool you: boat trips take anywhere from 9-15 hours.

For a complete rundown of options, refer to Lonely Planet’s excellent transportation overview.

What to See
The vast majority of Myanmar visitors spend their trip at “the big four” – a group that includes Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan. The majority of these attractions, despite their supposed popularity, were relatively empty at the time of our visit. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track however, there’s plenty of small towns beyond these four main sights, begging to be explored. Here’s a quick roundup:

  • Yangon – Myanmar’s capital city until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) remains the cultural and economic heart of Myanmar. Many visitors spend time getting lost in the city’s chaotic street culture and make a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist shrines.
  • Mandalay – the country’s second largest city, Mandalay is home to an intriguing patchwork of Chinese and Indian immigrants, royal palaces and plenty of good day trips, including the famous U Bein teak bridge in nearby Amarapura.
  • Bagan – if you think Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s most impressive temple complex, think again. The temple ruins of ancient Bagan are among the world’s most incredible archaeological sights. Spend your day biking among more than 2,000 deserted ruins, dating back over 800 years.
  • Inle Lake – arguably one of Myanmar’s most popular natural wonders, Inle Lake offers visitors an aquatic wonderland of floating vegetable gardens, jumping cats, and picturesque houses on stilts. A popular way to get around is by hiring your own boat for the day, visiting Buddhist temples and handicraft vendors.
  • Kalaw – the city of Kalaw is a popular starting point for treks, taking visitors past remote hill tribe villages and secluded Buddhist monasteries. Many travelers like to hike the short distance between Kalaw and nearby Inle Lake (around 2-3 days).

Hungry to learn more about Myanmar? Stay tuned…I’ll be sharing impressions and stories from my trip over the coming days.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.