Tears poured uncontrollably down my cheeks.
Momentarily composing myself, I offered my passport to the Qatari official on the other side of the tall counter. The surface of his camera reflected my reddened, swollen face, almost throwing me into a hysterical state.
After flying from London overnight, I had already spent 9 hours at Doha airport desperately hoping for my connecting flight to Khartoum to depart. There had been a sandstorm: it was still continuing, painting the entire city orange and forcing visibility to critical levels.
Seeing the terrifying – if incredible in their savage beauty – photos of the sandstorm, I knew instantly that I was not going to reach Khartoum soon. But, against all logic, I hoped. I had spent months meticulously planning my visit to Sudan. At 4 days, the trip was so short that everything needed to go smoothly for the visit to be a success.
Spoiler alert: I did make it to Sudan in the end. I don’t think I am flying with Qatar Airways ever again though.
I had originally planned to fly on Ethiopian Airlines, but was swayed, last minute, by an offer on Qatar Airways. I was already deeply regretting my choice. No airline is in control of the weather, but it is every good airline’s responsibility to keep passengers informed of the developments regarding their flight. Defying these expectations, Qatar Airways continued to delay further instructions for a whopping 7 hours before, reluctantly, cancelling my flight and sending me to a hotel in Doha along with a few other transit passengers.
Therein lied another problem. If I could pick one country where I would least like to return, Qatar would be a runaway winner. I stopped over in Qatar for one day last year – on my way to the unforgettable, fabulous Iraqi Kurdistan – and rather disliked the small Gulf nation. It is a different story altogether; let’s just say that I was not in any hurry to return.
And yet there I was – sobbing in front of a Qatari immigration official as I was entering a country I had sworn off ever visiting again.
‘It is going to be fine,’ The Qatari offered sympathetically. ‘Have some rest in the hotel and relax.’
I cringed out a smile. Who needs a hotel in Doha when they would rather be in Khartoum.
Ah, Khartoum! The city is best known as the confluence point of White Nile and Blue Nile. Pictured here is Blue Nile on an early morning.
SUDAN: A DREAM TRAVEL DESTINATION
Decidedly off most people’s travel radar, Sudan had fascinated me for years. Sharing plenty of history with Egypt, its tourism giant of a neighbour, Sudan seemed dramatically different. Several travellers’ accounts I came across raved about Sudan’s infinitely welcoming locals, well-preserved historic sights and blissful lack of other tourists. Sudan sounded exactly like my kind of place.
So excited was I to set foot in Sudan that I squeezed a visit into what seemed an unrealistically short time: a 4-day Easter weekend. I reasoned that, should Sudan’s excellent reputation betray me, I would not regret spending, say, a week somewhere I disliked. Had I, however, ended up loving Sudan, I could easily – I always say easily – return for a longer trip.
Many fellow travellers would laugh at me here. The travel stories I had read on Sudan were all written by backpackers with the luxury of ample time on their hands. They all traipsed around Aswan for a week to receive their visas, entered Sudan overland and spent a minimum of two weeks in the country before continuing to someplace else. Sometimes I wonder how relaxed life would be if I could travel the world without worrying about holiday schedules.
But holiday time is something I constantly have in short supply. The rest of 2018 allocated to several complex trips, I had to work with the resources I had to make Sudan a reality. I ruled that having four nearly full days in the country would enable me to explore plenty of the same sights that the said backpackers saw over a longer period. I would be missing out on places some distance from Khartoum, as well as on my favourite pastime, simply chilling in a location rush-free – but I would be getting a glimpse of something memorable without having to cut time off another trip. This kind of first-world travel dilemmas are very much part of my everyday life.
ON, ON TO KHARTOUM
I stopped on Doha’s Corniche as crimson dusk spread across the sky. If there was one redeeming feature to Qatar – any of the Gulf, in fact – it would have to be the sunsets. Perhaps it is the overwhelming humidity of the climate, but I have rarely seen sunsets as intense and lasting as in Doha.
I briefly considered changing my destination. I had no idea when I was going to reach Khartoum at all. Assuming the flight would leave now, was it really worth going to Sudan for 3 days? Wouldn’t it be better to head to, say, Iraqi Kurdistan – a place easily reachable from Qatar which I knew and loved – and spend a relaxed few days there rather than squeeze my ambitious itinerary in Sudan into an even shorter time?
As my dream was slowly fading away, the phone rang: it was Qatar Airways. The sandstorm had subsided and they had been able to arrange an additional flight departing shortly.
I was going to Khartoum after all.
I should logically post a photo of a Doha sunset here. Or not: Qatar deserves its own post. Prepare, Qatar.
ACROPOLE HOTEL, A “HOME AWAY FROM HOME” IN KHARTOUM
The highlight of my short stay in Khartoum established itself within moments of my arrival: unexpectedly, it was the hotel where I stayed. Opened in 1952, Acropole Hotel is the oldest hotel in Khartoum and a popular choice of accommodation for journalists, NGO workers and tourists. Thanks to its lasting presence in Khartoum and family-like reputation, Acropole has become an institution of sorts among Khartoum’s (admittedly few) foreign visitors.
I was first drawn to the hotel thanks to its unusual ownership. Acropole Hotel was established by a Greek couple, Panagis and Flora Pagoulatos, who immigrated to Sudan from Greece to seek new opportunities after WWII. Greek community in Khartoum at that time was substantially larger than it is today. The hotel is now run by the couple’s three sons, George, Makis and Thanasis who were all born and raised in Sudan. It is not a secret that I am a major fan of all things Greek; the ownership in combination with the hotel’s stellar reputation with travellers meant that the choice was an easy one.
I discovered only later that the person pictured here sipping tea is the brother of Sheikh Musa Hilal, the tribal leader of Darfur’s Janjaweed. He runs the electronics shop next door to Acropole Hotel.
Some online posts on Sudan have described Acropole as “luxurious” – which, while not an impossible description for a backpacker, is far from the truth. Notably more expensive than dirt-cheap backpacker options in Khartoum, Acropole is actually a relatively simple 3-star hotel without spas or swimming pools, with rooms comfortable enough for a good night’s sleep but certainly without excesses.
So what made the hotel such an unforgettable experience? Personally, I felt like I was staying with family rather than in a hotel. One of the Pagoulatos brothers would always be around to answer my endless questions and amaze me, yet again, with his flawless Greek (trust me: I have met many second generation Greeks who didn’t speak the language). And they made even a complex trip arrangement appear almost effortless, helping me greatly with getting my bearings in Khartoum and venturing out to the Pyramids of Meroe.
SOUKS BUSTLING WITH LIFE
Sudan’s capital is not a regular tourist hotspot and does not offer many sights typically considered tourist-worthy. All of Sudan’s three UNESCO heritage sites are located outside Khartoum. Even an experienced traveller may be tempted to rush through the city to the better known – and admittedly spectacular – Pyramids of Meroe and Jebel Barkal.
Doing so would be a mistake. One of the highlights of my visit to Sudan was spending time observing street life in Khartoum – going with the city’s rhythm while not following any specific itinerary. I found that the best spots to witness everyday life in Khartoum were the markets – known as “souks” in Arabic – which offered ample opportunities to interact with locals. I enjoyed the relatively chilled Souk Al-Arabi in central Khartoum, an easy walk from most centrally based hotels. The sprawling Omdurman Souk in the namesake city of Omdurman is Sudan’s largest – and among Africa’s largest, too – and was a great place to get lost in on a Saturday afternoon. Finally, Souk Bahri in Khartoum North (Bahri) was by far the most chaotic and actually seemed nearly as big as Omdurman. It was also the only place in Sudan where I was apprehended by security services, but more on that later.
It is important to remember that Khartoum’s souks serve almost exclusively as places for locals to shop for daily necessities, not as tourist establishments. There are few souvenir stalls on offer: I, for one, did not come across one, though I hear that Omdurman Souk is best for memento shopping. What souks in Sudan excel at is people watching. It holds true for most countries I visit: markets provide an ideal backdrop to immerse in the educational experience that is watching locals go about their everyday business.
But Khartoum souks would be significantly less fun without one key ingredient: local hospitality. Sudanese people have been named among the world’s friendliest by some of my fellow travellers, and this reputation was confirmed numerous times during my short visit. I lost count of the number of times I was invited to sit down next to a local for yet another cup of sugary black tea and a chat. And, asking a stall owner where I could buy some water, I was very surprised to see him rush away – only to be presented with an ice-cold drink the next moment, another display of the unreserved Sudanese hospitality.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE IN KHARTOUM AND AROUND
A fascinating and unusual spectacle in Khartoum is the traditional Nuba wrestling, which takes place on Friday afternoons in a neighbourhood called El-Hajj Yousif east of Khartoum North. Originally started by Nuba tribes in South Kordofan, the tradition goes back thousands of years. Nuba wrestling can be loosely compared with sumo: fighting takes place in a circular sand-filled arena and the wrestler who forces the opponent to the ground wins. Very unlike in sumo, however, Nuba wrestlers tend to be slim, muscly and agile.
Arriving in the middle of the night on Friday, I missed the regular session of Nuba wrestling. This was most unfortunate, but worry not if you arrive late: the competition takes place on some Saturday afternoons, too. After a nightmarish delay in Doha, I definitely appreciated drawing the lucky straw, not just for the spectacle but also for a chance to partake in a weekend activity obviously loved by the locals.
Another place I found fascinating was the Mowailih Cattle Market southwest of Omdurman. I was less interested in cows, goats and sheep and focused on the camel section of the market, also best known among visitors to Khartoum. Camel traders from all over Sudan gather here to exchange their grumpy looking goods for cash. The main market day is Saturday but smaller-scale trading takes place on other days, too. Come prepared for plenty of dust and camel dung generously covering the ground: I would wear closed shoes! Photo opportunities are second to none though.
The jewel in the crown of Khartoum is the dancing ritual of the al-Qadiriya Sufi order, which takes place at dusk every Friday at Hamed al-Nil Mosque in Omdurman. I would love to show off my photos and share my experience here, but missed this performance courtesy of the sandstorm. I am convinced that this would top my every other experience in Sudan and will return; for now, see other travellers’ accounts and photos here and here.
For a glimpse of Khartoum’s wartime history, head to World War II Cemetery located near St Francis School. The grounds commemorate around 600 soldiers of the East African campaign of 1940-1941 who died in and near Sudan, and who have no known grave. Wandering around the beautifully maintained grounds makes for a moving experience. Khartoum’s New Christian Cemetery next door is also well worth a visit, if only to appreciate the massive proportions of the Christian communities once populating Khartoum. There are large Greek, Armenian and Ethiopian sections – sadly, most graves are visibly not looked after.
Finally, it has become almost a given that all visitors to Khartoum take a trip to the Pyramids of Meroe. Egypt may be the one famous for its pyramids, but Sudan certainly wins in numbers: incredibly, there are more pyramids in the small patch of the desert in Meroe than in the whole of Egypt. And, unlike at the Pyramids of Giza, there is a high chance that you will have Meroe – sitting some 230 km north of Khartoum – all to yourself when you visit.
A camel and his man at the Pyramids of Meroe. The three gentlemen there posed so patiently for me it was a pleasure to thank them with some SDG!
Like many visitors to Sudan, I travelled to Meroe on a day trip from Khartoum. This proved suboptimal: aside from spending an exhausting 10 hours in transit, I only got to explore Meroe on mid-afternoon, missing out on the best light for photography. I also felt rushed and struggled to find a moment to take in the incredible vastness of the site. I highly recommend all visitors to spend at least one night nearby – perhaps in the settlement of Shendi – and experience a sunset or a sunrise – or both! – in Meroe. I know I will be arranging the same for my next visit to Sudan.
And I know for a fact that I won’t be travelling through Qatar.
When to go: Most tourists visit Sudan in December and January. It is easy to see why: the temperatures are the lowest, dropping to almost comfortable levels at night. Precisely for this reason, December and January are considered “popular” and this is when you will meet the most tourists in the country – which, by any stretch, will not be many!
I visited Sudan in late March / early April and wasn’t affected much by the heat. Temperatures reached high +30s C during the day, but, with humidity blissfully low at 15-20%, I hardly noticed the inconvenience. Evenings were almost chilly with +20 C and strong winds. Regardless of when you visit, apply plenty of sunscreen and drink as much water as you can. Desert climate is no joke.
In full honesty, I cannot recommend visiting Sudan in the spring due to the high levels of dust in the air. April marks the beginning of the “haboob” (“sandstorm”) season in Sudan, which, if strong enough, can ground flights, shut attraction sites and generally cause horrendous inconvenience to travel. I was a day delayed coming into Khartoum due to a haboob, and, even after the weather had cleared, struggled to breathe outdoors. I also continued to cough for several days after I returned to London. Ideally, I would schedule my next visit to Sudan in February or November to enjoy “cooler” temperatures combined with the usual perks of the low season.
Arriving and departing by air: Khartoum airport is the primary gateway to Sudan. I flew with Qatar Airways and sadly cannot recommend it: substandard service aside, I completely failed to remember that the airline cannot currently fly over Saudi Arabia, adding 2 extra hours to the regular flight time. It took a whopping 6 hours to get from Doha to Khartoum, the same as my first London-Doha leg. Avoid! Ethiopian Airlines offer a much better connection from London.
Khartoum airport is one of the least organised airports I have come across. Acropole Hotel insisted on sending a “helper” to assist me with the departure, and I soon understood why. The airport seemed to work entirely on the “it’s-who-you-know” principle: important people jumped the many queues without delay, while ordinary people looked stuck. I spent 1.5 hours in a short priority queue as Qataris and green (official) Sudanese passport holders sneaked ahead every few minutes. Eventually my “helper” grabbed my passport, wheezed past the massive queue at passport control and, several painful moments later, signalled me triumphantly to walk through. I asked no questions.
Visas: Most visitors to Sudan whose accounts I have read received their visas at the reportedly hassle-free Consulate of Sudan in Aswan, Egypt. Not travelling overland, I arranged my entry permit to Sudan through Acropole Hotel who had it ready in two days from the moment I transferred the sponsor fee of USD 150 and emailed a copy of my passport. With a print-out, I was able to secure a visa on arrival at Khartoum airport in exchange for a further USD 100. It definitely wasn’t my cheapest visa!
I could have gone a much cheaper route through Sudan Embassy in London, but it was unclear how long that would take and whether additional documents would be requested. Visa procedures for Sudan vary from embassy to embassy; Swedish travellers I met in Khartoum waited for 6 weeks to receive their visas in Stockholm, coming dangerously close to their departure day. Time pressures aside, I generally prefer paying my way to avoid embassy hassle: I work full-time and very much detest taking time out of the working day to visit an embassy. If you have the cash, I highly recommend going with the easier on-arrival option.
No photo of my visa, but please appreciate this car’s very own visa: a Sudanese number plate bang on top of the original German one.
What to wear: I recommend packing loose cotton wear (preferably nothing heavy like jeans) long enough to cover your legs and shoulders. I arrived in Sudan with several sets of my favourite travel clothing: cotton salwar kameez, which I picked up in India and successfully wore across many parts of the Middle East and South Asia. The attire proved perfect for Sudan’s mercilessly hot and dry climate and conservative customs.
I was also surprised how relaxed locals in Sudan were about visitors’ clothes. Local customs seemed to apply only loosely to obvious camera-yielding foreigners. I saw a couple of foreign women dressed in knee-length dresses and even shorts in Khartoum, which apparently was not causing a riot. Several male tourists I bumped into wore shorts, to little reaction from locals. And, while I avoided packing short-sleeved tops out of caution, I saw even local women donning short sleeves in Khartoum. Out of respect, I would stay on the safe side and dress modestly wherever you are in Sudan. Remember also that areas outside the capital are likely to be more conservative.
You will certainly want to don some kind of headwear to shield from Sudan’s strong sun: I recommend a wide brim straw or cotton hat. Wearing a headscarf in non-religious places is not required or expected of female travellers. An overwhelming majority of women in Sudan cover their hair, but I spoke to at least one local woman in Khartoum who left hers uncovered and told me the same was true for her female friends. You will also see women of Eritrean origin who often go sans hijab.
Most women in Sudan dress conservatively. Check my social media for what I wore in Sudan! I do not have a single photo on a DSLR.
Local customs and photography: The Sudanese are not used to seeing tourists, so any obvious foreigner walking past – especially a solo female – will attract plenty of attention. Most of this attention will be of a well-wishing nature, and most long stares can be resolved with a smile and a simple greeting in Arabic. I found that many locals in Sudan willingly posed for photos and often asked for their photo taken. A female, I also found it very easy to strike conversations with local women and take their photos – something, I hear, is far trickier for male travellers.
However, for every few people wholeheartedly embracing my camera action, there was always a minority of locals looking disgruntled, announcing “soura mamnoua” (“photo forbidden”) and giving me rants about taking photos and not offering money in return (as my terrible Arabic conveyed to me). Staying friendly and respecting everyone’s right to have or not have their photo taken was my preferred strategy here.
An unpleasant incident springs to mind: I took plenty of photos at Souk Bahri in Khartoum North before being approached by two security officers in civilian clothes and asked to follow them. Scarily, they showed legit IDs and asked for my passport, which I had left at the hotel. Refusing to follow the officers, I insisted that they called Acropole Hotel. They made a few phone calls, looked grumpy for about 10 minutes and waved me on. Later, I found out that they never called the hotel and that such incidents were not uncommon in Khartoum, especially directed towards solo women. Staying friendly and playing a dumb tourist is your best bet here. Next time I will also have the passport on me at all times.
It is evident that not all people in the party are happy to have their photo taken. The man in the front asked for it though.
SUDAN: OTHER TRAVELLERS’ ACCOUNTS
Perhaps surprising for a relatively unexplored part of the world, there are a few good articles on Sudan in the blogosphere. In fact, I am not sure why you are reading mine! Take a look:
- A comprehensive guide to backpacking Sudan written by one of bloggers I appreciate most, Against the Compass. Joan mainly visits less popular destinations, so Sudan made perfect sense.
- Manouk of Bunch of Backpackers talks of her experience travelling in Sudan as a solo female, something I would like to do in Sudan for longer one day.
- Michael aka Bemused Backpacker has put together a short guide to Sudan, including practical aspects of a visit and recommendations of places to see. If you are looking for a quick reference, go no further.