This week’s dream
Touring Ethiopia on a state-of-the-art train
A new train has opened up central Ethiopia to visitors, and the opportunity shouldn’t be missed, said Henry Wismayer in The New York Times. “A concrete embodiment of progress,” the 470-mile state-of-the-art rail line that connects the landlocked country to Djibouti and the Red Sea is just the start of a Chinese-financed electric rail network that’s planned to be six times larger. The line moves freight, of course, but it also delivers “cheap, air-conditioned travel” from Ethiopia’s capital through a region that holds “some of the most remarkable sights in the African Horn.” With a photographer, I recently returned to Ethiopia to explore those sights, boarding the new train at Addis Ababa.
Though the train itself was “a sterile beast,” the passengers “brought the atmosphere with them.” We shared our row with a family as excited as I was, and we all enjoyed the view out the large windows as the tiled roofs of the capital gave way to “a moving pastoral of Ethiopian life.” Yellow domes of harvested teff, Ethiopia’s principal grain crop, stood just outside every village, and boys herding livestock paused to watch the train pass. In Awash National Park, which we passed through three hours later, antelopes were grazing on acacia trees. At Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second-largest city, we disembarked to catch a bus to Harar, one of the holiest sites in Islam and a town “designed to intoxicate the senses.” Inside its ancient walls, we walked a narrow street where tailors worked clattering sewing machines, to reach a spice market whose red peppers induced sneezes.
On our train to Djibouti City, a happy group of Djiboutians high on khat tea took over our train car and turned it into a daytime party. But we were well rested by the next morning, when a guide drove us to Lake Abbé—or what’s left of it. Because of an irrigation project, the water level has receded drastically, “marooning the otherworldly landscape of limestone towers for which Abbé is famed.” Where flamingos once splashed, we kicked up dust, but the fumaroles created by eons of mineral deposits were still astonishing. Where they were most densely clustered, their haunting silhouettes reminded me of 15th-century paintings of the Last Judgment. ■