“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yemen trip March 2009

Day 1 Wednesday March 18th

Plane was full when we came over --didn't know so many people came here! Arrived at dinky wee Sana'a airport and got visas no problem. $55 on arrival. It was ironic to see the luggage x-rayed and chalked like it was in Burma, but for alcohol this time!

Noman and his brother Ali met us and drove us into town. There was a military convoy blocking the main road so we 'off-roaded' it into town. Never would have thought you'd need a 4WD downtown in a capital city out of Africa! We passed the ubiquitous yellow-striped van minibusses with their doors open and worn couch-like seats. Eventually we joined a main thoroughfare through the city that's actually a river bed in the wet season.

Our charming hotel in the old city has three buildings interspersed with courtyards. Most of the buildings in Sana'a have an icing-on-top look with castles and turrets underneath. An ancient, romantic city, the winding alleys are lived in and the children still peek from the shutters and play marbles in the cobbled lanes. On our wander about town, Noman's brother Ali whisked us around corners and past the gorgeous brown and white towers to the gate and souq, and then past the metal workers. As usual I found a place to spend a fortune on silver, but from a lovely seller, so I don't mind. It was tragic to see the amount of qat chewing that takes place in Yemen. The qat market was packed at lunchtime and all the men closed their stores and lazed around all afternoon in a stupor.

We ended the evening on a hotel terrace to catch the sunset just before the first rains of the season came down. The cacaphony of calls to prayer was the busiest and loudest I've heard anywhere. It seemed like at least 50 Imams were calling us to pray. Delightfully uplifting in the evening, but an annoyance at 5 in the morning mind you.

I'm amazed at Yemen: it is so poor yet so beautiful. It isn't derelict as you might expect, and it hasn't sold out like Oman with it's concrete restorations. There are far more old buildings than new ones. The Yemenis are not aggressive and in my face, although I was with a guide all day, so that might've prevented it.) I must admit it's much more expensive than I expected. I wonder how much is due to the foreign image.

Pics: children, icing cake Sana'a, sunset, qat chewers

Day 2 Thursday March 1
Sana'a-checkpoints-Amran-Khamir-Al Qabi-Shaharah

I have not seen a single car that is dent free, and most have rusted dents at least and usually look as if someone crumpled bus/truck/bus/van/jeep/car into a ball then threw it here from Japan or Korea! I've also seen more Kalashnikovs than I should be comfortable with. It's quite incongruous to see them carrying them casually slung over their shoulders as they run to jump on a jeep-bus, with their fat daggers slung off their loose belt. Which is the worse weapon to carry between your legs--ego, tradition or modern warfare?

Driving north from Sana'a, we went through at least 6 checkpoint where copious copies of permits were distributed. We eventually acquired an armed escort. I don't think I've ever been important enough to require a anti missile machine gun equipt truck and 6 armed army troopers, but that's what we got. We made a brief stop at the old city of Amran, to wander the streets and admire ancient doors and take 'sura' of darling little children. There was a wedding tent up with lights strewn between buildings.

A brief local lunch near Khamir, we eventually turned off the main road and went cross-country through river beds, villages, farms and surprisingly furtile dry wadi. Road had several places where bridges would have been appropriate, but each time we just came down off the elevated road area and around them. At the village of al-Qabi we dropped off the 4WD jeep and transferred to a truck, on which I rode on the back of. Surpassing the spectacular Omani road of December, we road straight up the mountainside on a new dirt road built by the Japanese. On every corner was a village, and in every space of non-vertical mountainside were terraces. At the very top, the road still had the giant rock cobblestones of old, which were very slow going. A perfect vista for hang-gliding, which our guide says is great from here.

Our hotel is an old mud-brick home, formerly of a Jewish family that have long since left. We have a gorgeous sunny room with floor mattresses overlooking the grand mosque and the road down the mountain. Tomorrow we will walk down via the tremendous 17th C stone bridge over a precarious overhang and winding around the hills and along the terraces down.

Pics: ancient stone cliff road and mountaintop village from above and below.

Day 3 Friday, March 20
Shaharah-Amran-Thulla-Hababah-Al Mahwit

An early start at 7 complete with honey, fooul, egg and bread breakfast had us wandering the village towards the 17th C bridge built joining Shaharah and the next village. Unfortunately, my camera decided not to turn on so I was on the mini one all day.

The bridge was amazing, of course. The hour walk down to the road over the terraces and through an ancient gate in a crevasse was also spectacular, looking out over the mist covered valleys far below our 2600 meters. Our two faithful army escort were in for a treat. Neither of them had ever been to the bridge or even knew of it's existence. We rode our faithful Toyota truck to our awaiting jeep, and continued back toward Amran over the pitted riverbed road.

Toilet stop in the army base, we skipped lunch and took a detour around the main road due to 'tribal difficulties', eventually picking up some sugar snacks in Amran. Was shocked to learn today that the day we flew into Sana'a our guide, Noman witnessed a suicide-bomber blow himself up 3 or 4 cars ahead. I knew we'd had to detour, but had no idea that was the reason why!

We eventually arrived in the ancient city of Thulla (Thilla), a UN heritage site (we think). Wandering the ancient paved lanes we quickly acquired an entourage of shopsellers who were keen to show us every building in the 7-gated city. Unfortunately, despite the work that clearly went in initially, it was quite shabby with rubbish everywhere. There are not many tourists that pass through this way!

Jumping back into the car, we bypassed Sham and Kawkaban because of how late in the day it was and continued on to have a brief look at Hababah with it's beautiful cistern pool reflection. Onward up the steep new road to an abandoned village at the top of the mesa. Spectacular views back down the wadi towards the central cities and Amran in the distance. What an amazingly busy place this was in ancient times to have left such a busy legacy! Oh, how beautiful it must be in the wet, green Khareef season.

Over a small plateau, we were astounded on the other side by the rolling clouds and mist above the dry desert terraces. We descended into it, with visibility barely beyond the car bonnet. Through the sharply perched but busy towns of At-Tawila and Ar-Rugum with their hill-top fortresses, we arrived at our destination for the day - Al-Mawlit. Our super huge hotel room is luxurious (especially in comparison to the simple but adequate mud-brick place of last night) and dinner down the street was delicious, especially the table-sized sesame bread.

We discovered our guide Noman personally knew and was qat chewing with last week the guide who was killed by the suicide bomber in Hydramout last week with the Korean tourists. Why am I in such a dangerous place again? Because it's gorgeous spectacular and there is nowhere in the world so untouched and quite like it.

Pics: cistern reflection at Hababah, bridge at Shaharah, terraces and view (with me), view from top of Mesa, mists, village of Thulla

Day 4 Saturday March 21
Al Mawlit-Al Mansuriya-Zabid-Midamman-Al Khawkha

After breakfast we went to see a view over the amazing terraces mountains to the wadi far below. It was next to the site of a big new hotel. I wonder how the hotel will survive? Then we had a walk through the old town of Al-Mawlit. It was very garbage filled and the streets were narrow and wound around the hill. There's only one gate into the city and it would be pretty impregnable if attacked.

From there we drove down a windy mountain road to the bottom, where we followed a wadi out to the coastal plains. The wadi often floods but only half of a new road is built. Along the wadi, there were green fields of corn, mango trees, etc, and thankfully, little qat. We ended up on the plains, had a yummy but expensive lamb lunch ($6 just for the lamb, each) at Al Mansuriya before going off the main road near Jebel Bura'. We stopped again to explore the ancient city of Zabid. We began at the fort, and went into the only mosque they allow heathens into. It had beautiful indigo and red inscriptions of the 99 names of allah on the walls. I climbed the fort walls and had views of a rather dismal dusty place. The winding old lanes and souq evoked a far stronger african feel to them than other parts of yemen. They say that the Tihama (this part of the coast) is like that. Dustier, more primitive, dirtier overall. We went into the beautifully decorated ottoman house Where the diwans are high up to allow for air and to keep away from the scorpions and snakes!!

As we were driving out towards the coast, I happened to see in my guidebook that there were some megaliths nearby at Midamman. I begged Noman to take me to them, and after several tries, we finally found a villager who knew about them and could take us to them there wasn't much to see. They were just a few fallen stones in the middle of a sandy date palm desert, but each was either octagonal, octagonal or similar, and a bit less than a foot wide. Still! Quite fascinating, and especially appropriate to see it on the equinox.

We ended up in a quaint little beach resort just north of Al Khawkha with some cute if slightly shabby cabanas. We rushed out for a sunset swim across the mud-flats (delicious after the humid sweatiness) and a nice seafood dinner. I relaxed in my new xmas hammock, and finished the book I need to read for my M3 class (October Sky).

Pics: Al-mahwit view, mtn-wadi road, Zabid, yemen henge, sunset

Day 5 Sunday March 22
Al Khawkha-Taiz

A lazy 8am breakfast, then we wandered down the beach in search of a boat to take us storytelling. We found an old fiberglass dingy and went out for a quick swim. The visibility was poor, the coral was not so spectacular, and I spied two portuguese man-o-wars that I did not fancy an up and close meeting with, but the water was a glorious turquoise, the sun was warm and the breeze refreshing. A shower and a lazy lie around the hotel the lunch filled up our morning, and then we left for Taiz.

Taiz, as the 3rd biggest city in Yemen, is just another smoggy metropolis. Other than being in a pretty valley at the foot of the mountain, it lacked and singular charm or character like Sana'a. We arrived in the late afternoon, and then went for a wander around the souq. We spent hours looking at silvery jewelry. After bargaining and a long selective process (big/small, silver/not silver, me/not me, nice/ugly, will I use/not use, do I like it/not like itit, etc., etc.) I ended up with only 4 pieces for around $50 which I think is too much, but then things are not ass cheap here as I expected them to be. They make Morocco look like Asia in comparison! I got two pairs of silver earrings, one of which is a form of custom design, and then I got two dangly koran strip pieces which I will still have to thread. I had a whole lot more, but it either wasn't silver or was too heavy (and they were charging by weight). It still seems like a lot, especially compared to burma and morocco, but I suppose I have to live with it. I'm coming to believe more and moore that bargaining is a very fair way of trading, even if I feel ripped off and suckered. Customers pay what they are willing to pay and the merchant sells it for the best possible price for maximizing profit. True, I hate finding out that someone paid less than I ddiid, but then it comes back to what you're willing to pay for it. Everybody's happy!

After the silver we found a cane shop. I just love the baskets here and there are so cheap. I bought three more mats to match the circular one I have hanging on the wall from sharjah. Then Carole suggested one for toilet paper so I bought one of those, and d of course a hat for my collection. Before long, I had a bag full, and had to buy one of those woven plastic bags! Ooops! I looked for a little muslim cap but didn't get one so will have to get another one later.

From spices to nuts to chills and dried fish -- what fun souqs are! This one had a unique cheese for sale--very white and salty but not quite goat's.

Pics: souq, beach

Day 6 Monday, March 23

An early 7am breakfast and off to see the mosques and fort towers of Taiz. Saw a great blue lizard half way up the hill. Quite smoggy but super vistas of city. Got too thinking about owning an appt block in Morocco. Apparently, a 4 floor block would cost around $200 000 here. Not bad.... Then got to thinking about money and worrying how little I saved this year. Where did the thousands go?

Drove south to Alden, stopping briefly for some cat calling and Helwa near the old soviet military base. Even crossed the border between North and South Yemen from before. Alden reminded me a lot of both Muscat and Salalah, latter because of open spaces near entry of town, and the former because of
all the hills separating the suburbs.

After refreshing at the hotel (a novelty for me) we drove to the famous Aden tanks. 13 of what we 52 enormous basins beside the hillside are left, and they are an amazing feat of archaeology. I scrambled up a steep pathwith steps to look at the last tank. We read about a Zoroastrianism Temple of Silence on top of the hill and decided to go up there. Ironically, despite being from the AZ, this was my first visit to such a place. It was spectacularly place with a stunning vista of 'crater'. Rushing down to get in a swim in time. Swimming at a mini resort and watching the sun set over the gulf of Alden was pretty magical.

Another souq wander, this time with the typical chinese and indian imported locals' goods, then dinner and bed.

Pics, sunset over Aden, z Temple, cisterns

Day 7 Tuesday March 24
Aden - Al Janad- Jibla- Ibb

After a brief tour of the immigration facilities at Aden port, we drove out across the bayou causeway. Checkpoint and maps were abruptly interrupted as we came upon the scene of an accident. An Emirati man had hit a young boy on a bicycle. The bike was broken in half by the force of the blow and the car looked like it was in quite a state. As we they hailed us and we pulled over, the young boy's bloody body was carried towards us. Instead of our jeep, however, a better mode of transport to the hospital (a truck) pulled up. Both Carole and Noman didn't think he would live looking at his mangled body and seeing what the force of the blow had done. I will remember the things strewn across the street (bread loaves) as well as his unconscious bloody face.

Subdued, we continued. I got a photo of the discarded blue plastic bags used for qat destroying a person's farm. Because thorns are used as fences, the bags all get stuck and litter the countryside. I even saw one tree full of it.

We stopped briefly at Al-Janad, which has a mosque of import for Ismaili shia's pilgrimages, and surprisingly, the remains of a church. A lovely Imam with missing teeth and a beautiful call to prayer voice showed us around.

After lunch the only stop was Jibla, home of the famed Queen Arwa. While her palace was in ruins, and we were only allowed a peek into her, mosque and tomb, the city was charming, but it began to rain so we hurried away.

We ended the afternoon in Ibb, with I have to say has been my favorite old city in Yemen. With meandering lanes over the hilltop, and active souq, efforts to paint and brighten the walls (and the graffiti to deface it). It seemed that every child wanted either their photos taken, to say hello and ask for pens. Carole loved the men listening to the game going on in the square which reminded her of Canadian Saturday hockey.

After getting lost and confusing our guide, we finally made it out alive. At through hotel I went on a mad goose chase search for internet, which I never found. A $10 phone call home where I no doubt frightened my mother silly with stories of terrorism in Yemen led me to dinner.

Pics: city views, old city of Ebb

Day 8 Wednesday March 25

It was a long drive today. Started early at 8am from Ibb and took a new road over hills and wadis to the path we were on on day 3. From there we went up a steep mountain road to Manakhah. Amazingly high and yet on the main road from Sana'a to the port of Al-hodeidah. It was built by the chinese around 1950 I think. As we reached the top, it began to rain and we were driving through the clouds. Our charming hotel room held a wasps sting for poor Carole! After a lull in the diwaniya room, we went floor a wet walk in the village and bought some skirts and silver (of course). The light was gorgeous and the people were lovely as always. The muddy soccer game was attended by every free male in town!

The Al Hajjarah Tourist Hotel in Manakhah has a live music performance every night (by the cleaners, cooks, maintenance staff, etc) with Yemeni dances. The men wielded their short blades and kicked their feet into the air in what was an exhausting traditional fitness exercise for war. What looked quite easy was very tiring when I was drawing up to dance. Many intricate turns and hops, and even one dance with guns, swords and another with extended dirvishlike sleeves.

Pics: road views, dancing Yemeni men

Day 9 Thursday March 26
Tracking in the Haraz Mountains

Beginning the day unwisely quite late after all the other trekkers, we left the hotel around 9am and drove with Noman's other brother (he's #2 of 11) Jalal, age 20, to first the market for lunch supplies, then to Al Hoteib a major pilgrimage center for Ismaili Muslims (many of whom come from India). Jalal and I climbed to see the panorama from the little mosque on top of the rock while Carole waited below. Then we all began our hike to Noman's home village of Al Hajjarah. It was supposed to be a 4 or 5 hour walk, but because we went so slowly and took so many pictures it ended up being a 6 or 7 hour hike.
As we went up the hill we were in blue lizard territory. I was in heaven. I have a million pictures of the gorgeous lizards, one of which I hope to frame. I was trying to get a pic of their head but they were running away too quickly. Fast is 'busua'a'. When we reached the first village of Kahil (after being interviewed by a Yemeni T.V. Crew) the mist had already rolled in and we couldn't see it. Regardless, we entered the single gate (designed and built by Jews) and climbed up through the village, past several photogenic men, to the rock on top. The mist cleared enough for us to be able to see the village and a few hills/terraces behind before closing back in and pushing us onward with it's cold embrace.

Walking through misted Mountains in Yemen is quite lovely actually. It has a mythical magical feeling, and on a more practical note, does wonders for keeping the harsh sun off my delicate (pasty) white skin. We walked like that for hours, passing several goat/donkey/sheep/cow herds tended by little children. Part of one goat herd wandered off and Jalal said the conversation between siblings was so much related to laziness that he went and got the errant goats himself! Stopping for lunch on one terrace overlooking the village of Al Ayan was lovely, as was the picnic itself. The last part of the hike was down a rocky area where no terraces had been built, and was quite charming and interesting in its uniqueness.

We ended the day in Al Hajjarah, where as promised, many darling children (and not only a few of Noman's relatives) regaled us with questions and requested we go to their shops. Another one gate village, it had beautiful old houses of dry stone wall, decorated with painted and whitewashed geometrics. Meeting Noman's outside his parents' house, we met his son and many other pen demanding children.

After a thankfully electric-shock-free shower, we had another dance concert. What fun!

Pics: view from mosque, lizard, Kahil in mist, Al Hajjarah

Day 10 Friday March 27
Manakhah-Wadi Dhahr/Dar Al Hajjar-Sana'a

After breakfast we drove out of Manakhah with Noman's oldest brother, Mohamed in tow, we headed towards Dar Al hajja and the Imam's palace. We passed by several fields being plowed, scandalous secret alcohol shops, as well as the tallest mountain in the Arabian Peninsula (3500m), which really didn'tat seem so high since we were on a neighboring plateau.

The Imam's palace, on a prehistoric cave site, rose several floors from the top of a high rock in the middle of Wadi dhahr. Overlooking it are several plateaus of parking lots and houses for day tripping Sana'anis . Because it was a friday we raced to see the wedding parties that gather there shooting their guns in the air, but there weren't any. We had a wander of the palace anyway, and it was super. The whitewashed stained glass window lit breezy rooms were delightful, and the 1940s photographs by a Dutchman were fascinating -- so little has changed!

After lunch, we visited the beautiful grand mosque that opened 6 months ago in Sana'a. We then spent our last afternoon wandering the Sana'a souq and spending an additional fortune on silver.

Pics: palace, grand mosque

Day 11 Saturday March 28

Lots of people ask me these questions, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to answer some of them:

Is it safe?
Yes and no. If you are cautious and sensible, you will be perfectly fine, although remember that I went in 2009, before the Arab Spring. Yes, we did have an armed guard for part of the trip, but I never felt unsafe. Perhaps it's me? There's a lot of hype in the media about Yemen, but many other more popular places can be more dangerous. If you don't do something foolish and seek out trouble, you will be fine. Or perhaps you could be unlucky.
Do women have to cover up?
Technically, no, but it's important to be respectful. Foreign women are not required to wear the hijab, but everyone does recommend wearing long sleeves and longer shirts. To be honest, for my own desire to be less conspicuous, I was more than happy to cover up, and a friend I know that worked there said there was a fantastic anonymity wearing the full black burqa. I will say that I don't think I saw a single women's hair while I was there and almost all women are completely covered in black.
What's the food like?
Delicious! Lots of interesting spices. We had lots of curry-type eggs, tomatoes, vegetables, lamb, etc. It is communally eaten and if you're a vegetarian, definitely let them know in advance so they can be ready for you because they may not have other options.
Do they have nice hotels?
There are amazing hotels in the bigger cities, but once you leave the main centers, hotels are basic but adequate. Lovely homestays!
Are the roads good?
They're really quite good, but a 4WD does help for the places that are not on main roads.