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Leaving so Sudan?

“I’m excited to talk about Sudan,” says Londoner Jaymini Patel who last year backpacked on her own around the northeast African country that has more pyramids than Egypt.

It’s a place that Lonely Planet describes as a “fantastic surprise” and its 42 million inhabitants as “among the friendliest and most hospitable people on earth.”

How much time did you spend in Sudan? Was that about right or you could have stayed there longer?

I was planning to spend seven days there but ending up spending three weeks. If I’d just been sightseeing and doing touristy things I think I’d probably have stayed there around ten days. But I was lucky enough to meet local people which meant I ended up at several weddings as well as birthday parties and university lectures. So, I did get stuck in!

Did you have any expectations and stereotypes in mind before you went and what was the reality once you got there?

I hadn’t really had Sudan in mind when I was first planning my travels in East Africa, and really the only thing I knew about it was that the country had sanctions imposed on it because I work for a bank combating financial crime.

I knew it wasn’t very well travelled but I read some information online about it and there are a few travel blogs that mention it.

I was in Ethiopia, working in a hostel and I met some people who were getting visas for Sudan, which piqued my interest. They also talked about it being really hospitable and its beautiful culture, so I thought, why not, I’m relatively close. So, I ended up getting a visa and just heading off.

What I’d heard about the Sudanese being friendly absolutely turned out to be true, they really exceeded my expectations. They’re very genuine and welcoming and love to chat.

I felt it was a very safe country for tourists, especially after spending time in Addis Ababa where I felt I often had to keep an eye on my belongings <nb: FCO advice is not to travel to certain areas of the country, such as Darfur and areas bordering South Sudan>

How easy was it to get a visa?

The only issue I had with getting my visa in Addis was that you have to have accommodation pre-booked, which is something I don’t like doing, I like to just turn up and find somewhere. Most cheaper accommodation you can’t book online and I aim to spend around £10 a night. Eventually, I did find one place that I could book, put it down on my visa form, get the right paperwork and then cancel, so it was a bit of a hassle but I got there in the end.

Is it a challenging place to travel independently as a tourist? (And as a woman?) What practical tips can you give for anyone going there, especially when it comes to getting around?

If you don’t speak Arabic, it can be a bit challenging outside of Khartoum but people do try and help you when they can. If people speak English and see you struggling they’re quite willing to come over and help translate.

As a woman, it was fine travelling there. I wore a headscarf and loose clothing. In Khartoum, it’s a lot less strict than outside the capital – I didn’t wear a headscarf in Khartoum because a lot of other women weren’t, it was a bit more relaxed.

Take US dollars. Your home credit and debit cards don’t work there because of sanctions. And don’t change cash in the banks because the exchange rate is terrible. When I was there you’d get approximately 40 Sudanese Pounds to a dollar, but on the black market, I got double that.

Download a good VPN before you arrive otherwise a lot of your home apps and internet banking won’t work there. Even with a local SIM card, your favourite apps won’t work.

I got a local SIM which was very cheap, as is data, but don’t get one at the border crossing with Ethiopia or you’ll probably get ripped off.

Wifi is poor everywhere; you can’t connect in most places even when there appears to be a signal. It’s easy to top your SIM card up, you can do it in shops everywhere.

How is Khartoum as a city to visit – worth spending time in or not?

I don’t think there’s much to do there, other than a few museums and the Nile, which was interesting. I had an amazing time because of the people I met and I’d really encourage anyone visiting to make an effort to get to know local people. It’s through them I got to do lots of great things like go to parties and weddings.

Tell us more about the food and drink?

I loved the coffee there. Ethiopian coffee is pretty great but Sudanese coffee beats it. They don’t do the whole ceremony like they do in Ethiopia but it’s brewed freshly on the streets and very strong, served with ginger and a ton of sugar. They’ll often give you popcorn or a snack with it too.

I found Sudanese food quite starchy and meat-heavy. I definitely felt like I was missing out on vegetables. I had a lot of falafel in pitta bread with spicy sauce, and sometimes in the morning, I had egg and falafel.

I had quite a lot of fūl with bread too, as well as kisra, which is a flatbread somewhat similar to injera in Ethiopia. My favourite things were zalabia, small sugary doughnuts that they’d fry freshly on the street in the evenings, which they serve with burnt milk. Personally, I didn’t get my taste buds around the burnt milk part, but they say it pairs up really well with the doughnuts.

There are a lot of fresh juices that they’d blitz up there and then, but ask for no sugar otherwise they add a lot.

It’s difficult to recommend restaurants because either they didn’t seem to have a name or they were in Arabic, which I don’t read. I ate in markets a lot.

In Khartoum, there’s a lot of fast food because they tend to eat more traditional foods at home. So, when I was with the friends I made, they’d want to eat burgers or pizza or fried chicken.

Outside of Khartoum a lot of the meals I had were like in Ethiopia, served on a big plate and communal style so everyone just dived in, with meats, bread and sauces.

How did you get around?

Generally, by minibus, which they don’t overpack like in Ethiopia. Between larger towns, they have very good buses. In Khartoum, they have tuk-tuks and I’d recommend downloading an app called Tirhal, which was great, especially when you can’t otherwise explain the destination in Arabic.

Hitchhiking is common there too – I didn’t do it on my own, only when I was with other people, but a lot of people do it, young and old.

In general, what were costs like?

So cheap! I’ve got an app where I track my spending and in Sudan, I was averaging under £10 a day, with £6 of that on being hotels.

What was your favourite parts of Sudan?

I’d say Jebel Aulia, which is on the White Nile south of Khartoum. It’s got a beachy area and it’s just a really nice place to go and escape the heat of the city for a while. You can chill out on a boat and someone will catch and prepare fresh fish for you for lunch.

The Meroë pyramids were awesome too…I had no idea Sudan even had pyramids to be honest. We had the whole place to ourselves for the day.

And there are more pyramids in Karima, where you can climb up small hills for a great view of them.

There’s a town in the east I’d recommend, near the border with Eritrea, called Kassala that has really great markets and it’s surrounded by beautiful mountains. You can catch a local bus up into the hills for sunset.

I didn’t go to Port Sudan, but I wish I had because I heard the diving there is spectacular.

I went with a friend to Kassinger Island in the north of the country, which is a tiny little resort that’s popular with locals. It’s on the Nile, you can swim there, there are waterfalls and you can walk from one end to the other in about 5 minutes.

You mentioned sanctions against Sudan. What was your perception of how the Sudanese you met felt about how westerners perceive the country?

I think what’s happening politically isn’t a direct reflection of the people there. They are very welcoming and want to show a different side to Sudan. They feel like they’re paying the price for the mistakes and bad decisions that the government has made and now they’re suffering in terms of healthcare and education. They can’t get credit cards, and they feel like they’re stuck in a bit of a time warp. The minority who are wealthy and connected to the government are unlikely to be affected. In general, though the people I met were optimistic.

Current FCO travel advice to Sudan can be found here.

All photos are c/o Jaymini Patel, except bottom picture of pyramids at Meroe, which is by Erik Hathaway ( Thanks to both.

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