About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:
Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car.
The older ones are calm as Zen:
… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:
Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:
We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:
Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):
Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.
During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:
Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:
And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.
The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:
We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:
Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:
We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:
After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.
And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:
And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .
This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.
The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.
Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”
Me: “Are you joking? No!”
Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”
Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)
Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”
Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”
(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)
15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):
Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.
For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.
Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.
Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.
Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?
Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”
Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)
Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)
Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.
Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”
Me: “…(what is going on)”
As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:
Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:
Who were we to stop him?
We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.
Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:
We then crossed a long tunnel:
And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.
Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .
. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:
And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.
This photo is from Wikipedia:
And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:
And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:
I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:
With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:
We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:
…as well as an all-girls university:
We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:
…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.
And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.
The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:
- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C -
Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Despite a successful border crossing attempt via the Ledra Pedestrian Street UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia from the southern side to the northern side of Cyprus without any of the required materials 3 days ago, it seems that the border guards at northern side of the vehicular crossing at Deryneia had done their homework.
When we attempted to drive through (instead of walking) Deryneia’s checkpoint from south to north this morning to visit Varosha, we were politely turned away at the northern side as they required the following:
That we had stayed in the part of Cyprus south of the this border crossing for at least the past 14 days (which we have not done)
OR that we’d be fully vaccinated WITH a negative PCR test within the past 72 hours (the latter of which we did not have)
I think this was my first time ever turned away at a border crossing. But such are the hiccups that would be expected in post/current pandemic travel. I think we took it well.
And yet still undeterred and at the recommendation of the Cypriot border guards on the southern side, we drove down to a private clinic 10 minutes south to get a rapid PCR, only to be told that the turnaround would be 24 hours and the closest appointments would be next week. Too late. Then I determined perhaps the 6-8 turnaround rapid PCRs at Larnaca’s airport 30 minutes away could be another option, but they closed early at 4:30pm (we’d barely make it) and also required appointments.
But then I realized: if we had been successful at crossing 3 days ago via the pedestrian street crossing at Nicosia with the city’s rapid antigen tests (let alone the PCR tests we took back home 5 days prior), why not repeat our success again the next day at that same crossing and then have local taxis pick us up on the other side of the border and take us to Varosha and back? After getting wifi, I started up a random chat with Savas of Cyprus Taxi via Google Maps. And within an hour and an initial down payment online, we confirmed the plan for the next day!
With Varosha moved to tomorrow and having a few extra hours, we leisurely drove for some sightseeing at the easternmost point of Cape Greco and its famous natural bridge Kamara Tou Koraka:
Although on a better day we’d be cliff diving, we watched the precarious waves crash against the Sea Caves a few minutes away:
A bit west of Cape Greco is the town of Ayia Napa known for its Love Bridge and Miami style nightlife.
There’s also a Sculpture Park opposite the Love Bridge:
After driving back and forth Cape Greco and Ayia Napa, we then kicked back at Kaliva On The Beach to celebrate Jeanette’s birthday as if we booked the whole place to ourselves (we literally did):
If you want to complete with your autonomous region checklist, the British-owned overseas territory of Dhkelia is sitiuated between the drive from Ayia Napa and Lanarca or Nicosia:
After returning to Nicosia from Ayia Napa, we rallied and continued Jeanette’s birthday rager at the outdoor club/lounge/bars Zonkey, D’avilla, Seven Monkeys, and Locker all in that order and all unplanned until we finally collapsed in our beds at 5am.
Despite waking up a bit hungover at 11am this morning, we slowly crawled our way to the free rapid antigen COVID-19 tests at Eleftheria Square so we could be cleared for our return flights home. Then with a quick breakfast and coffee at the atmospheric Pieto, we then made up for yesterday’s failed attempt in visiting Varosha.
I felt like we were legally exploiting a loophole by returning to Nicosia’s Ledra Street UN Buffer Zone and successfully crossing over with our rapid antigen tests (they don’t require PCR tests at this particular crossing). And there waiting for us on the northern side of the checkpoint as agreed, Savas’ 2 vehicles from Cyprus Taxi picked us up on and took us on a one hour drive to Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha. Easy peasy.
As we approached Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha, we felt like we were stepping into an alternate dimension:
No registration, no admission fees, no drama, and no issues. We simply walked right in.
In the early 1970s, Famagusta was one of the top tourist destinations in Cyprus if not the world, where movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton flocked here as their preferred destination away from Hollywood. Then just as what had happened in Pripyat and Chernobyl, its entire population quickly abandoned the city as the Turkish army advanced from the north, after which the army seized and walled off the entire city.
Associated Press Photo:
Our photo today:
Associated Press Photo:
Our photo today:
Since then and until only recently October of last year, no entry has been allowed other than Turkish military and United Nations personnel. That makes us one of the first casual visitors to enter the area:
This is what we travel for: to cross into unknowns and see it for ourselves once instead of reading about it a thousand times.
We walked as far as we could along the recently paved roads for pedestrians and rented electric bicycles. You’ll know that you should turn back when you reach military fences such as these:
But don’t be intimidated; all of the military personnel were quite friendly when they told us to delete certain photos or not go certain places. They even set up little ice cream trucks to soften the blow.
Ghost towns. There’s something about witnessing a world without us.
After about an hour and half exploring Varosha, we turned back and drove 20 minutes north to the ancient city of Salamis:
A Byzantine-era city that was built on top of Roman ruins, it’s a fascinating wonderland of past ghosts to explore in the same vein as it was with Varosha.
Try to find the extremely well preserved Byzantine mosaics:
At this point I think the girls have been getting along on this trip (that’s an understatement — LWCSD is now an official club):
Before returning back to Nicosia, Savas added in a complementary detour to visit the lesser known Saint Barnabas Monastery, which was built in the 1700s featuring a museum of icons, archaeological finds and the tomb of Cyprus’s patron saint.
Then after an hour’s drive back to Nicosia and saying our goodbyes to Savas and Ali, we crossed back over into southern Nicosia for an impromptu dinner at Fanous and a last run at our lodging’s hot tub:
This is going to be a tough monsoon to say goodbye to. This one was special. And yet it becomes another one in the books.
RETURNING TO THE USA: At check in airlines hand out the following attestation forms and require you to fill them out before returning to the USA regardless of your vaccination status.
And if you’re returning to NY (like me), you also need to fill out this:
And for what it’s worth now that I’m back home safe and sound — nobody checked for these forms when I arrived from the airport to the taxi ride home. -_- Stop killing trees!
- At time of posting in Varosha, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
After our 2 days in Larnaca, we embarked for the world’s last divided capital city (since the fall of the Berlin Wall) of Nicosia:
The most southeastern reach of any of the European Union’s capital cities, Nicosia has been continuously inhabited for over 4,500 years and has remained the capital of the island since the 10th century.
In early 1964, following the Cyprus crisis of 1963–64, the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of Nicosia split the city (and island) into South Nicosia and North Nicosia respectively. This segregation then exacerbated into becoming a militarized “Berlin Wall” between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus after Turkey occupied north Cyprus in 1974.
The Turkish army will remind everyone of this piece of history on the northern hills:
Officially today North Nicosia is the capital of Northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Turkey and otherwise considered as occupied Cyprus by the international community.
So today we went to explore. After a 45 minute morning drive from Larnaca, we reached our lodgings at Central Park Residences about a 10 minute walk south from the city center.
Don’t say I don’t treat my monsooners well:
We freshened up for 20 minutes and treated ourselves to brunch at the memorable Elysian Plant Blased Kitchen Bar:
We then entered into central Nicosia with 10 minute walk north past Eleftheria Square, which was designed by the late Zaha Hadid:
To explore the atmospheric walled city of central Nicosia is a must. So we immediately hopped onto the main Ledra Street, a major shopping thoroughfare that links both sides of Nicosia.
From 1955–1959 this street was nicknamed “The Murder Mile” in reference to the frequent targeting of the British military by nationalists along its course
Then after much time and negotiation, the world’s last “Berlin Wall” eventually loosened up to (with a quick passport check) most tourists up until the pandemic, after which this border crossing was essentially entirely shut again to the world. It seemed all hope was lost for our group for a visit to the northern side of Cyprus until the respective authorities that be had made a sudden announcement 5 days ago (last Friday!) that they were reopening the border again. Although set rules exist regarding who can cross regarding COVID-19 precautions, it seems that our group of 11 arrived so soon after the reopening last Friday that the border guards of both respective sides weren’t entire sure how or who to let through.
And at the time of posting, the border guards on both sides essentially let all 11 of us USA passport holders through back and forth multiple times on both sides today, as long as we provided a paper copy proof of a negative PCR result for COVID-19 within the past 7 days (we used copies of our PCR tests we obtained back in the USA prior to the trip). The only issue was quickly explaining how the the month and day is switched in the USA (so that a test performed 5 days ago on June 4th is not April 6th) by showing the date of the email that contained my PCR result.
The crossing was so much easier than expected that when 4 of us were forced to walk back to our apartments to retrieve their paper copies (as the guards did not accept digital copies on our mobile phones), I did a double U-turn by crossing the border 3 times back and forth to give part of my group the apartments keys without so much a nod and an eye roll from the guards on both sides of the border.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: when one of us was given a really hard time on the final return back to the southern side of town — even though everyone else in our group was allowed back through to the south by that point — we found out later what they really needed was a paper copy proof of a negative rapid antigen test with an official “stamp” (see below). None of the guards we had — except the one at the end who definitely did his homework — seemed to have been aware of this. However, by the time we found that out, the damage had been done and we already had explored nearly all of the northern side of Nicosia hours after the fact.
We hope this accidental honest oversight on their part didn’t get anyone in trouble!
After this border kerfuffle we even promptly headed back to the lower part of Eleftheria Square for this specific rapid antigen COVID-19 test and get that stamp that the border guards’ had unknowingly needed.
The rapid antigen test at the square is free and takes 15 minutes to process on site. Just bring your passport as an ID to match. It’s open from 7:30am-7:30pm.
Anyways, let’s roll it back to our pre-border shenanigans: if you’re sticking to the southern side of town before heading to the border, don’t miss the Greek Orthodox houses of worship Panayia Phaneromenis:
and the adjacent, smaller, Arablar Mosque:
But no matter how long you stay on the south side, the border will draw you near as it literally is the elephant in the city.
Other than with the aforementioned appropriate proof of negative COVID-19 test to get to the northern side of Nicosia, make sure your passports also work: For a visit less than a month, visas are not required for any nationality except for citizens of Armenia and Nigeria. Visas are otherwise acquired at international representative offices in London, Washington D.C., or NYC before travel.
It’s simply a walk across no man’s land for a few feet:
You’ll know it when you see the pin on the Google map:
And surprisingly at the time, nobody cared about us taking photos or video:
You’ll know you’re in the northern side of town when you see ads everywhere for Efes beer . . .
. . .and a photogenic pentagonal convergence of multiple pedestrian streets.
Büyük Hamam lies immediately past the border, which is still running and open to the public to this day:
…and Büyük Han will be to your right: a place to shop for eclectic crafts, dine, people watch, or take in live music under the incredible architecture of a building constructed back in 1572.
A few more paces north will lead you to Ataturk Square (Sarayönü), a landmark square marked by a Venetian Column placed in 1915 and the Judicial Building.
Directly north of the square are the Samanbahçe Houses that exemplify photogenic Turkish Cypriot architecture.
If you’re lucky, the 13th century fortress/mosque hybrid Selimiye Mosque — the centerpiece of Nicosia’s landmarks — will be done with its renovations and finally reopened to the public:
We also headed off to the deserted side streets . . .
. . . just to peek at Lusignan House, a mansion built in the 15th century as a residential building for Latin nobles during the Lusignan period. They were so caught off guard by our presence they turned on the power and opened the small museum inside for 5 minutes just for us.
You’ll reach the northern limits of the walled city when you see Girne Kapisi, a Venetian built 16th century gate and Ottoman watchtower:
After about a few hours exploring northern side of the border, we walked back across the UN Buffer Zone:
…and then totally vegged out pretending we were back in Miami in our own private sauna/spa at our residences.
Formerly known as “Portuguese Congo” and no larger than the state of Delaware, Cabinda is a curious little region sandwiched between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having endured a 30 year long struggle to claim independence from the rest of Angola, it likely may become one of the next world’s “newest” countries give or take a few years (decades?). We’re arriving here early before that happens.
The reason why Angola wants to keep Cabinda is because the region is rich in natural resources and one of its wealthiest: it supplies 65% of Angola’s oil! Nevertheless, it remains one of the least visited places on Earth and where things can get a little rough during our 2 weeks in Angola.
Arriving from Luanda to Cabinda
Barely getting much sleep after arriving last night from Lubango (especially since the guy next door to my motel room was having an epic fight with his wife), we rushed to board our 5:50am TAAG flight from Luanda to Cabinda.
Class C on TAAG means business class! It just meant I got a bigger chair and a quick meal of cheese, dried meats and fruits all saran wrapped onto a tray.
After an otherwise uneventful 45 minute flight, we landed an hour later at 6:50am at Cabinda’s sole airport.
Amusingly, someone checked in their shoes as luggage. Must’ve been over the baggage minimum.
Once we hit arrivals, there were no signs of the massive police and military presence they had warned us about.
Exploring Cabinda City (There’s Not Much)
Our local guide’s uncle Jovanny promptly picked us up outside arrivals and we began our quick city tour of Cabinda. There’s not much in terms of “tourism” so you have to do your best with the following 3 “sites”:
1 May Park:
The Church of the Immaculate Conception:
And Central/Municipal Market:
At the market we got a glimpse of the famed Cabinda wood, aka their Viagra.
Exploring Outside Cabinda City
After driving an hour around the city, we decided to venture outside Cabinda, which we had been warned not to do earlier in the trip due to safety reasons. So many kidnappings and clashes occur on the road between the towns of Cabinda and Malongo that there is now a highly profitable helicopter service that takes oil workers and businessmen from the airport directly to Malongo!
Nevertheless, our local guides from Cabinda insisted that we still leave the city, citing a significant improvement in the security situation and that there was nothing to worry about. We went on their word.
After all, they said, “there’s nothing else much to do here in Cabinda.”
The only thing that “happened” was when a soldier stopped our car to make us delete a photo we took of a random river. They’re bored. Power trips.
We then passed through the towns of Cacongo and Malongo in an unsuccessful attempt to see the “bacama” (Angola’s version of voodoo).
Then we made a random unannounced lunch stop in a random soulless banquet hall in Buco Zau, where we ate with the soldiers stationed there (they made us turn our cameras away).
And then after 3 long dreary hours on the road, we finally reached Maiombe Forest Reserve, the biggest rainforest in Angola. Not many tourists have ventured here: It took 20 minutes of intense discussions between our local guides and the military stationed there to let us get out of the car.
They wanted us to drive the 3 hours back to Cabinda, get special written permission, make a reservation, and then return to visit the Forest Reserve.
And yet saner minds prevailed. After checking our passports and taking our names down letter by letter, they sent off a senior officer to guide us to the river. They told us the only thing we could not do was to take photos of any chimpanzees we saw (they inhumanely locked them away in squalid cages).
We hiked about 20 minutes towards the river.
After 10 minutes here, we turned around and headed back for our jeeps. That’s it! As our local Angolan guide shrugged his shoulders and said: “We are definitely not ready for tourism.”
Luckily (or unluckily?), however, this all happened next to a lake/marsh not even marked on the map.
So we decided to take advantage of this sign from the universe and pay a few boatmen 4000 kwanzas to ferry us around the lake for a few minutes. Although these boats are meant for 2, we barely made 4 work before threatening to sink our boat completely.
In the meantime our driver Jovanny also successfully flagged down a Good Samaritan to spare a tire.
After an hour, the tire was quickly replaced and we drove another hour and reached the Monument to the Treaty of Simulambuco.
It somehow still exists despite etching in Portuguese that Cabinda should be an independent country from Angola!
Then we checked into our lodgings and had dinner at the swanky Apolónia. Despite the upscale ambience, the dinner is buffet style where they even weigh your plates as if we were at a bodega.
Afterwards we officially finished our trip, enjoying one final round of drinks with Rik and Ingrid back out hotel bar. We also did our best to politely ignore all the sex workers aggressively interrupting us to get them a drink.
They also sport a very unique shower head. I never seen something like it before.
Crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Cabinda
The next day we enjoyed a lazy morning by the hotel pool before having a late lunch back at Apolónia among an international mix of soldiers from Brazil, USA, Portugal, Namibia, and Angola who seemed to be there socializing and inspecting a construction site by the restaurant.
With nothing much else to do, we decided to peek at the Cabinda/DRC border about a 20 minute drive south from the city.
The security staff in the pink structure that issues exit stamps may appear strict here!
However, they seemed to not care when I asked to walk across no man’s land and across the border into the DRC without needing an Angolan exit stamp or DRC visa.
They replied as long as I didn’t take any photos and walked back into Angola within their eyesight, it would be fine.
They also didn’t chose not to stamp me out as “we don’t want you to be kidnapped when you reach the other side.”
“By not officially getting an exit stamp, you’re still under our protection.” I guess that makes sense?
So I did just that as I crossed through no man’s land.
And then I reached into DRC territory.
Except for the photos part since they also didn’t seem to really care about that and looked the other way.
And Google maps even proves that I made it. I’m actually in the DRC!
Although I didn’t wander any further than here, I spent enough time across this border in the DRC to have a drink, take a dump, and say hi to the guards there, to the point I didn’t really feel it was a big deal at all.
Whether or not it counts is entirely up to me (or you as my humble reader), but I know I’ll visit the DRC properly when I swing by Burundi next year. Count this as much as you can count my visit to Paraguay?
Returning back to the city, we then kicked back at a smaller Apolónia café for an hour before heading back to the airport to check in early.
We then returned again to Apolónia proper for a 3rd meal there!
Afterwards we quickly stopped to say hi to our guide’s aunt as he needed to drop something off.
We then headed back to the airport one last time for our return 8:50pm flight back to Luanda.
Keep in mind like in Comoros if you have checked luggage, you’ll need to claim it a second time on the tarmac so they know to load them into your flight.
Once we returned to Luanda, we got to stay at the best hotel in town, the HCTA Talatona Convention Center Hotel (they have a full working gym!).
Now waiting for our 11pm flight out of the country, where I’m now catching up on all the COVID-19 stuff I need to be prepared for when I return to work tomorrow back in NYC.
It’s ironic that even though I just spent the last 48 hours traveling through an active conflict zone and region notorious for a brutal civil war, I still my life would still be more in danger back home. Hopefully this won’t be my last trip in a while.
On the bright side, since nobody’s traveling these days (let alone to Angola), I got “business class” again on an economy fare.
See ya back home!
- At time of posting in Cabinda, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
We began in Nouadhibou where we picked up some supplies for the epic train journey ahead.
If you’re serious about this experience, you should definitely pack goggles, warm blankets, scarves, some sort of breathing mask, plenty of water, food, and warm clothes (I recommend thermal undershirt and underwear, light down, windbreaker, a beanie, and a scarf) for the journey.
No tickets, no bookings, no cash, no reservations – you’re supposed to just hitchhike and hop on top when it arrives!
The only “thing” we had “to do” was to show our passports to the security guard at the train station as they want to make sure you’ll get off in Choum and not continue onwards into Western Sahara territory (or Morocco, depending whom you ask) without a formal exit and entry stamp.
Some statistics: The train is 3km in length (way over a mile!) with 200 carriages, 3-4 locomotives, weighing up to 84 tons, capable of carrying 17,000 tons of iron ore, and operating all 365 days of the year since 1963.
There are at least 4 of these trains running on 2 tracks covering 437 miles (704 kilometers) on its journey across the Sahara Desert from Nouadhibou, on the coast, to Zouérat, an iron mine in the center of Mauritania.
It is one of the longest and heaviest trains in the world and with its 3km length, the train took at least 10 minutes to whiz by us before stopping.
And keep in mind there is NO HORN so you have no idea when the train will immediately start again after stopping, whether it’s a minute or twenty.
So once it completely stops, GO GO GO!!!
At the moment the train was still, we quickly inspected a few wagons to make sure they had good wheels, picked one to call home, climbed its ladders, half hanging on while being passed all our bags.
And if there’s ore, you can simply chuck your bags on top before jumping on yourself.
Passenger carriages also can be attached to the train, but people are uncomfortably packed in like sardines and you’ll miss the true experience as a passenger sitting inside the wagons meant to carry the ore, or on top of the ore itself.
And while the train can carry your car as well, you have to make arrangements way ahead of time with the government for your vehicle. But once your car is on the train, you can decide to stay inside your car, sit on top of the ore, or both.
No car? No worries: let it be known that our group has proven that pitching a tent inside a wagon is totally possible and may be a great idea:
With a few minutes to spare after settling in, a huge SONIC BOOM jolted us back before the train began moving.
There was no ore in our car when we boarded, which allowed us to get the best views when climbing up the ladder while still having room to move and use the walls of the car to protect us from the wind.
The train is all yours as nobody cares that you’re here, but if you must explore, be mindful there are no barriers, brakes, or safety measures of any kind. You fall, you die, and the train keeps going.
And those of you who are lighter sleepers, good luck as carriages slam into one another constantly and unexpectedly throughout the journey in a way where we called it the “sonic boom.” (And yet through all of it I was still able to sneak in 2 hours of sleep).
A video example of the sonic boom (this was one of the lighter ones):
Hitchhiking this train will be anyone’s ride of his or her lifetime: Running through one of the harshest environments on earth from the scorching desert heat of daytime and the bitter cold at night, the train offers no shelter, no bathrooms, and no food.
So either pack ahead or buy some disposable secondhand clothing beforehand!
Since we sat in open top cars, we brought tons of blankets and were all wrapped up warm with good scarves to protect our faces from the sand and dust blowing in our direction by the train.
Sometimes the train slows down enough for some breakdancing:
Another upside? The sunset.
Even after the sun had long disappeared, the sky above us just got more purple, especially in the haze of the desert sands blowing past the train:
And while it gets really really cold here (subzero temperatures; I recommend putting on all your layers while it’s still warm around sunset), the true show comes out once it gets completely dark — if the moon isn’t full you can usually see the Milky Way stretching across the night sky.
I had a moment here. This is almost exactly what I saw (with more stars) through my naked eye whenever I looked up and took off my goggles:
While we had expected the train would make its usual delays and arrive to Choum about either 13 or 18 hours after our departure at 3:30pm from Nouadhibou, we lucked out with very efficient train conductors who got us into Choum only 9 hours later at 12:30am!
So after a 2 hour nap by midnight and 15km away from our destination, we packed up everything in our wagon and tried to leave no trace behind.
This is the time where we’d recommend that you plan out an exit strategy and order of who leaves first (using your trash bags as a booster) and who can leave last simply by using upper body strength to swing their legs over.
And by 12:35am we quickly disembarked, leaving with an experience we’ll have a hard time forgetting for the rest of our lives.
We then turned away the taxi drivers by the tracks and instead waited for our pre-arranged jeeps to take us to our campsites 5 minutes away.
And if you love stars, you’re going to love them here.
For those of you wondering “where do I sleep? how do I clean up?” Read onwards!
Not even until 12 hours later the next day and kismet: The main group were all arranging sim cards in the town of Atar where at that very moment I debated whether to stick around, or split off from the group with the non-sim contigent and walk with them around the town for an hour. I then consciously convinced myself to go even a step further, walk off alone, and give myself some much needed me-time.
However, I got uncomfortable splitting off alone, after which I actually thought out loud to myself: “C’mon man, do what makes you uncomfortable. Good things always happen when you do. You always tell others to do the same so you might as well own up to your words and practice what you preach!” (yes I really thought this to myself as I tore myself away from the group who was walking the other direction)
As I turned around from the group and walked away I immediately saw a small café that looked inviting and where I could grab my usual afternoon espresso. And just so happened to have 2 Western-looking backpacker types and a local guide sitting in front outside. I sat down in a table across from them when the guide called out about how he liked my camera. He was a local guide — Yaya of Sidi Tours — and was leading the couple (of Rutas Salvajes) around Mauritania. It just so happens that the 3 were discussing whether to take the train, so when I mentioned that I had just gotten off the train earlier this morning and that it was one of the most life affirming experiences I ever had on my travels, that sealed the deal for them: They were going to get on the train. For once *I* was the happenstance and serendipity with impeccable timing.
Then to further add to this tale of maktoub, I mentioned how my 2 friends who had rode the train in the other direction a few weeks prior had given me advice about it and how it was meant to be that I could quickly pay it forward. Yaya asked who those friends were, and before I could answer, Yaya also mentioned that I reminded him of someone that he had met 2 weeks prior in Dakar, Senegal named David Yang.
HOLY SHIT. I KNOW THIS GUY. AND THAT IS THE FRIEND WHO GAVE ME ADVICE ABOUT IT. This same David Yang (whom I first met in the Marshall Islands last year!) also had just messaged me on Facebook yesterday morning with that last minute advice about the train!
How do I even reply to David now? A photo of me and Yaya? “Oh hey David. Thanks for the message and advice! The train worked out great. BTW Yaya says hi!”
10 minutes ago I was debating whether to go off on my own, even forcibly convincing myself to get over my fears to explore the town alone instead of the group. And 10 minutes later I’m sitting with 3 strangers both finding and becoming serendipity. This is why we travel and another lesson learned that courage cannot exist without fear. So here’s to fear, and the courage that follows.
Anyways if you plan on taking the train in the other direction sitting on TOP of the iron ore . . .
. . . here is David’s formal message about his experience, written by his fellow travelers from the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp, namely Ania Budzinski of Travel Bred (who traveled with David as well as Jenna, whom I met in Iraq 2 Mays ago), of their experience heading from Choum to Nouadhibou:
MAURITANIA – JANUARY 2020 – SOMETHING TO NOTE ABOUT RIDING THE IRON ORE TRAIN
Four other EPSers and I used Hademine from Time For Mauritania (http://timeformauritania.com) for a quick 3-day tour in Mauritania, which included riding the iron ore train from Choum to Nouadhibou. Hademine was excellent—highly recommend.
Day 1: Nouakchott to Terjit (approximately 5 hours) with a night in Terjit— a lovely desert oasis (much better than spending the night in Atar). [Note: There are two camps. Both basic. One is located at the oasis, and the other (Chez Jamal) is just a quick walk away.
Hademine suggested that we stay at Chez Jamal, since the tents at the oasis are situated next to the water, attracting hordes of mosquitoes.]
Day 2: Terjit to Choum with a stop in Atar (approximately 2 hours). Overnight: iron ore train (approximately 13 to 15 hours).
Day 3: Arrive in Nouadhibou.
If you leave early enough, you could technically just drive directly from Nouakchott to Choum. Easy drive. The road is paved. But, do plan to arrive in Choum early. The train does not operate on a fixed schedule. We were told that it does not usually arrive before 19:00, but that it can really come whenever. And when it does, you only have minutes to pick out a “good” wagon and hop on—we were advised to inspect the wheels and levels of iron ore. Also, we were advised to pick a wagon towards the very back of the train (to avoid having to walk 1+ km after arriving in Nouadhibou).
We arrived in Choum just before noon and spent the day hanging out by the tracks. Initially, our tour with Hademine was supposed to end there. However, he offered to join us on the journey to Nouadhibou last minute. Little did we know, this would change everything. After spending the day waiting, we were gutted when the iron ore train just passed us by and did not stop. Shortly after, we learned that no trains were expected to stop in Choum that evening. Hademine mentioned this has been happening a lot in recent weeks/months—something to keep in mind!
We were not prepared for this; we ignorantly just figured the train always stops in Choum. Nope. Apparently, if no passenger car is attached in Zouerat, the train will not stop. [Note: There is an actual train station in Choum. I suggest walking over and asking if the trains are expected to stop (just in case you need to make alternative plans). But, unless you speak French or Arabic, you will need to find someone to translate.]
With Hademine’s help, we hunted down the chief of the train station, and paid him a visit at his home. We basically begged (and incentivized) him to call the conductor of the next train (that was expected to arrive after 04:00) to have it stop—a first for him! Although he could not make any guarantees, he agreed to make some calls. Fortunately for us, he pulled through.
Boarding the train, we were hit with another curveball. The wagons were filled with water—something none of us were expecting. Per Hademine, for whatever reason, they have been adding water to the wagons in recent weeks—something else to keep in mind! Initially, we tried kicking the mounds of iron piled in the center of the wagon into the surrounding water, but quickly realized the iron was obviously not absorbing any of it (just turned to slush). We cut open three water bottles and used them to scoop out as much water as possible before we leveled off the mounds. I suggest bringing empty water bottles in case you need to do the same.
Normally, the journey from Choum to Nouadhibou is overnight (but, since we did not leave Choum until 04:45, we spent almost the entire ride under the sun). Depending on the time of year, it can get quite cold at night (today’s low was 6C or 43F, plus windchill from the moving train). Come prepared! You can buy blankets in some of the towns along the way (and in Choum for twice the price). On the way to Choum, we each bought one in Atar. There are two types of blankets for sale (they are identical from town to town)—one cheaper in quality, and the other better in quality. The blankets are relatively expensive. We shopped around, and the lowest we were able to negotiate anywhere was €30 for the “better quality” one (and €15 for the “cheaper quality”). If you are traveling with someone else, and do not mind sharing, one “better quality” blanket for two people is enough (the blankets are huge).
Make sure you have enough water and food to last you a day. Do not wait until Choum to go shopping—not much there. We bought cases of water and snacks in Nouakchott (also widely available in Atar). Other than that, bring the obvious: some type of goggles, a face mask or two, and something to cover your hair with (you can buy turbans in Atar for cheap). I also suggest bringing “contractor-type” trash bags (one for your bag(s), and one for you to fit into or sit on top of), as well as smaller bags for your phone/camera. And, have a back-up plan! I can assure you that public transportation is limited in Choum ; )
Edit here: Ania’s account of their experience all are big reasons why our group chose to go in the other direction from Nouadhibou: With no iron ore we could use the empty wagons as a cover from the sun and wind if needed, we don’t have to scoop out floods of water off the iron ore when boarding, and that the train would be guaranteed to stop for our group at the terminal station in Nouadhibou.
- At time of posting in Choum, it was 15 °C -
Humidity: 47% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After an eventful 2 days here, we made a mad dash for the Luxor Train Station across the river.
Getting there 45 minutes early, I took this time to give everyone a memento silver bracelet of “monsoon” written in Egyptian hieroglyphics that Ahmed was able to arrange for us at the last minute.
After all, when am I ever going to come back where it all began with such an awesome group of people?
We then hopped on the daily overnight 8:10pm Watania sleeper train from Luxor to Cairo.
And like last time, we began our train bender with another cool ass wagon master. Can’t get enough of this.
Saves so much time and money!
We turned in early at 11pm after drinks and a short dance party, waking up to sunrise at 5:30am:
We arrived into Cairo Train Station about an expected 3.5 hours late at 9:00am.
While I struggled with the issue of buying the maximum 4 tickets per order at the ticket office for our train to Alexandria (leading me to go from counter to counter buying 4 tickets at a time, much to the chagrin of everyone watching me), a small strike team set out to get breakfast for us outside the train station.
We then chilled for a bit in the food court at the train station before boarding one of the half-an-hourly trains to Alexandria.
We then boarded the 10:00am Train #911 to Alexandria.
Getting into Alexandria around 3 hours later at around 1:30pm, I stopped for a second to consider how much I’ve changed 10 years ago since I was here. I mean, look at my hair back then.
From the station we strolled north to Kom el Dikka, literally translating to “pile of rubble.” It’s famous for being home to a relatively well preserved Roman amphitheater, baths, and mosaics:
From there we turned left up towards the corniche. Unlike the rest of Egypt, nobody batted us an eye except for a “secret” policeman following us to see what this massive group was up to.
We then dropped off our bags at Triomphe Hotel & Hostel, where we were supposed to stay for the night if it weren’t for a change of plans to return to Cairo tonight (BIG SURPRISE TOMORROW!!!). At this point the secret policeman, who followed us all the way to the hotel, felt satisfied that we weren’t terrorists and then let us be.
If you need any bit of sightseeing here, then I recommend Kom el-ShouqafaCatacombs, amusingly discovered in 1900 when the ground gave way under a donkey.
5 minutes nearby stands Pompey’s Pillar, an ancient 25-meter-high granite column constructed in honor of the Emperor Diocletian in AD 297.
But reading group vibes, we wanted to experience Alexandria in all its known chillness. So we went directly towards the seaside Corniche and began our walk at Alexandria Bibliotheca.
Don’t expect anything historic looking of the so-called legendary “Alexandria Library.” While it stands on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, those of you expecting a building besotted by time and conjures up memories of a foregone era of Greco-Roman classical architecture, will be disappointed. This is as modern of a library as you can get.
From the library Angelica peeled off with Ji Won and Alexandra to see some of the houses that her great grandmother and father used to live in, and the high school her father attended. They even were invited inside a random local’s home to see inside with the help of Angelica’s father on the phone!
The rest of us otherwise began a leisurely 45 minute stroll along the famous corniche.
About 20 minutes in we passed by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, honoring the Egyptian military.
10 minutes later we walked by El-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque, built in 1775 by Algerians over the tomb of the famous 13th century sufi saint, Ahmed Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi.
We then took a brief stop at famous Azza Ice Cream . . .
. . . and finished our stroll at Citadel of Qaitbay.
Built in 1480 by Sultan Qaitbay to protect the city from the crusaders who used to attack the city by sea, and of course, it stands on the exact site of one of the original 7 wonders of the Ancient World: the Alexandria Lighthouse.
They even recycled the stone of the ruined lighthouse for its construction. It saw defense of the city against invaders, from crusaders to Napoleon, and remained in military use as late as 1882 when the British bombarded it.
Satisfied with our primer of Alexandria, we turned in for dinner at the scenic Sidra By The Citadel at the recommendation of my local friend Perry (whom I met years ago in NYC as one of the waitresses at my favorite hookah bar in the East Village).
This place checks off every single box I look for in living the travel dream: an outdoor balcony serving fresh food overlooking the sea, while smoking hookah and listening to the adhan at sunset…and as much as I hate to admit it, with great WiFi.
We plan to head back to Cairo on the evening train, but with these vibes, I kind of worry we’ll stay here all night and miss the last big part of our trip — which happens tomorrow!
— UPDATED —
Alas, this trip obviously was going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.
I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.
Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.
1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.
Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket offce outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm
After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.
The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.
We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.
Peak monsooning the way I missed it.
And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.
Faith in humanity restored!
- At time of posting in Alexandria, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 67% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy