Surrounding Kassala are lush gardens and farmland, the ideal place for a picnic if you happen to know any of the landowners...I do, as many of my students live there! OK, so there isn't much to do, but the people there will be very pleased to show you guava and mango trees, and to roast coffee beans on makeshift fires for you...at least that's what usually happens to us. There are three spearate garden areas...al-Janubiyya in the south, ash-shamaliyya in the north, and Khatmiya near the area of the same name under the mountains.
If you're feeling active and it isn't too hot, there is a fairly nice walk taking in Sawagi Janubiyya and Khatmiya. As you cross over the Gash Bridge heading west, get off the bus at the first junction, and take the road on your left. This tarmac road takes you through several of the Sawagi villages, some quite picturesque. There are a couple of shops on the road, but bring water in case they are shut. When you reach a sizeable village, there is a small bridge over a stream...turn left down a sandy track until you hit the Gash River. If the river is flowing, there will be many people along the river banks here...if not, you can cross the dry river bed to Aweitila and Khatmiya. The walk should take a few hours.
Khatmiya, in the shadows of Taqa, Totil and Aweitila mountains, is the oldest area of Kassala. The main sight for tourists is the Khatmiya mosque, which is one of the few in Sudan that allows non-Muslims to enter. It might be best to go with a local guide though, not least because they can inform you of the story behind the damaged mosque. Inside the roofless dome, there is a shrine to a local holy man, Sayyid Hassan, and it is said that when it rains in Kassala, the shrine never gets wet. The prayer hall is also roofless, and is no longer a mosque, although you should remove your shoes before you walk on the sandy floor. Rumour has it that it was the British who destroyed the roof, but it seems they did not stop miracle powers, as when it rains, it is said that water never enters the tomb...I'm not really sure if I believe that though. Show respect by covering up, and if anyone objects to your presence, then leave straight away. But most people seemed happy that we took an interest in their mosque...it is certainly the most interesting of Kassala's so-called tourist attractions.
As you arrive in Kassala, you can't fail to see the weird shaped mountains sticking up out of nowhere. From left to right, you have Taka, Totil and Aweitila, as well as a smaller but still impressive one in the north called Mukram. One of the favourite things to do in Kassala is to head to Totil late afternoon and watch the sun set while sipping jebbana and munching on popcorn. On the lower slopes of Totil are several cafes, some quite large and permanent, others makeshift shelters with a chair or two. The best coffee is made on Totil, served with popcorn, bakhour and some sweets smuggled in from Eritrea. The place is action-packed on thursdays and fridays, with locals and honeymooners taking advantage of the huge boulders for mixing (the Sudanese term for girls and boys socializing!). With smooth boulders, cafes built into the rocks, and round "African-style" huts, you could almost imagine being one of the Flintstones strolling through Bedrock. Beware though, the "khawaja" factor is high here!
Kassala is renowned for its souq which attracts villagers from all over the state as well as the odd tourist or two. You'll find almost anything here, but usually not the very thing you're looking for! Kassala's souq is different from other markets in the country, as you can see the mix of tribes as you wander round the many alleys of stalls. As I mentioned below, many of the tribes have different clothes, different tribal scars, etc., so Kassala is one place where everyone doesn't look the same.
If you would like to see what the British did for Kassala, then hop on a bus to Banat and get off at Souq Gharb al-Gash. Look left and you'll see train tracks, a few rusting tains, and an impessive brick-built station. Sadly, the railway no longer connects Kassala to the world, but you can wander round the buildings freely. Near the station is a residential area where the railway workers used to live. The square brick houses were for officials and important people, while the brick round huts in rows were where the workers were housed. Nowadays, they have been converted into quite nice dwellings, some of them huge inside. However, due to the shared toilets, it does have an atmosphere similar to a caavan park! Many of my students rent huts in this area, and it is always interesting to visit.
On the west bank of the Gash, past the university, is souq Gharb al-Gash, or the Wstern Gash Maket. Primarily for locals, this is where I do food shopping. It is quite a lively place, with fruit and vegetables everywhere, fresh from as-Sawagi. Many of the traders are Hausa, originally from Nigeria. As the story goes, a group of Hausa pilgrims made the journey to Mecca, but ran out of money on their way home so settled down right there...that is why there are many Hausa speakers in Kassala and Western Eritrea. Don't say you don't learn anything from my pages!
Behind the cafes on Totil is the famous well, where you can drink clean water from a dirty bucket. The locals are very fond of telling me that if you drink from Totil, it means you will come back again...or, as in my case, you'll never leave!!!! If you don't fancy a sip from the appealing bucket, you can buy Totil Spring water in bottles from a few shops in Kassala (however, it is probably poured directly from the bucket!!!).
Before August 2003, Kassala had a zoo right next to the Gash River. It was the standard Sudanese affair of dejected animals waiting for death in minute cages. The monkeys were tormented by local kids allowed in free, the hyena ran constantly back and forth, reminding me of pictures of Romanian orphans banging their heads on their cots, and the lion slept all day in a cage barely big enough to turn round in. Finally the day they'd all been waiting for arrived, and theGash flooded...as sad as it is to know that they never stood a chance, I can't help thinking that they must be much happier in death than they ever were alive.
As you take the bus from Souq Ash-Sha'abi (the bus station) to the centre of town, you will cross a bridge over a wide expanse of sand, flanked by trees on either side. This, believe it or not, is the bane of Kassala, as it is the river that causes all the flooding. If you come in the dry season (September to June), then this will be hard to believe, as the river is full of football matches, camels and women collecting wood. But when it rains in Eritrea, it fills remarkably quickly, and soon becomes Kassala's prime mixing ground (mixing is the Sudanese term for a girl and a boy talking together). At sunset, the banks of the river are seething with couples and single-sex groups, with nut and seed sellers everywhere. You can walk from the bridges along the banks of the river heading north, which is quite a pleasant walk, but if there is water in the river, then be prepared for a lot of bugs and buzzy things. If the rains are heavy, then flash floods occur...this year, the river reached an all-time high, flooding the entire city and destroying many quarters, leaving 300,000 people homeless. It can be beautiful at times, but the Gash is a killer.