Less than a year after our first trip to Yemen, we're here again. We do not repeat the visit to the mountain villages around Sana'a, but head East this time, towards the desert land of Hadramauth, bordering Oman. A totally different experience, by no means comparable to the mountainland setting of last year's trip.
Yemen is so very different from all the rest we know in the Gulf. It's third world, with its good and bad implications: genuine and very authentically Arabic, with a profound and unspoilt historical dimension - after all, Yemen is the source country of the Arabic language and society; but third world also means lesser infrastructure, less professionalism in the tourist industry, etc.
Does "qat" ring a bell? Well, it will after your trip. Qat is the soft drug that has infested Yemenite society since, say, thirty years. Qat is a leaf, of the size of mint, and it grows on small and slim trees. After lunch Yemenites 'get to work', to chew qat, that is. So, actually, they stop working, or at least stop working properly. For, qat is a light narcotic and the intake of leaf after leaf, accumulating the whole lot under the cheek, makes a person drowsy and somehow detached from what is happening around them: the brain swichted on 'Off' and the look focused on 'Infinite'. A driver consuming qat, while he is on duty, is therefore not a particularly good idea, and you should strongly object to your driver when/if he starts chewing qat behind the wheel. Ours tried to do so several times, and each time we objected. Each time he didn't like it, but each time he accepted it, which is what counts.
Qat is a nightmare for Yemen in general. The habit of chewing qat is a fairly recent phenomenon, certainly in the South where qat has only entered society habits after unification of the two Yemens. Qat has driven out the production of coffee as a historical and traditional cash crop in Yemen and now represents something like 30% of GNP. No small thing, hence. For you, as a visitor, it doesn't mean much: you may be invited to try it out, I did and found it horrible. Furthermore, it only offers you the chance to make some very weird snapshots of faces, because by late afternoon the men chewing qat have accumulated under their cheek a large ball of dissolved qat leafs, totally distorting the symmetry of their faces and making them actually look as if they urgently needed a very good dentist.
Yemen, however, is a wonderful and fascinating country to visit and explore. Without the security hazards the country is reputed for. Really, when did you last hear about a kidnapping in Yemen? And insurgents? Stay away from notoriously violent areas, mainly in the Saudi border areas, and you'll be just fine. Yemen is yours to discover, and chances are overwhelming that you'll meet nothing but very friendly people, and plenty of children who shout "sura sura sura', indicating they'd like you to be photographed. Give them a candy or -better- a 'kalem', a pen as a reward. In your country they are sold for something like 10 in a Euro, in Yemen the children are in need of them.
A practical tip of great importance. Whereas in and around Sana'a and in the mouintain lands around Sana'a roads are good and safe, it is absolutely unwise to go into the desert with a 4WD. with guide and driver, without being accompanied by more cars. This is not a matter of security, but a matter of not being on your own in the middle of nowhere when your car breaks down or when your car gets hopelessly stuck in the sand, due to bad luck or -more often- due to steering mistakes on the side of the driver. Do not try to be Mr Wiseguy by jolly driving on dunes and loose sand, unless you really know very well what you are doing. Accept that the Beduin guides who take you through the desert are likely to have developed more skill in this sand driving and dune bashing techniques than you. They will appreciate the honours, you will arrive safely. A win-win situation.
Arrival in Sana'a Airport
From Sana'a Airport we head straight East, with four 4WD cars. Last year my wife and me were alone, now we are a group of 14 Belgians and Italians, who decided on this trip together, knowing each other from before.
Baraqish and Marib
It is only 8:30 in the morning when we set off from the airport. Soon the lush mountain valleys around Sana'a give way to the dusty desert landscape of rock, then - abruptly - sand. A few military checkpoints down the road, we turn North and reach Baraqish. The desert ruins of this ancient settlement sit on top of a broadbased rock, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in reality right on the major, many centuries old caravan route of frankincense and myrrha between the Arabian Sea ports and the Arabian peninsula or even the Levant. It's actually not too difficult to revive the caravans in your fantasy, while standing on the ruins of Baraqish and overlooking the desolate infinity of the desert, interrupted only by the blu-ish, hazy contours of a distant mountain range.
From Baraqish it's a good hour's drive to Marib. We've been here last year as well, and, as last year, the place is mercilessly being lashed by a hot and powerful wind that fills your everything with sand particules. The temples, from the period of the legendary Queen of Shaba, are not really spectacular, but they are definitely worthwhile and speak to imagination. Nothing is left to your imagination, however, in Old Marib, the city's initial mudbrick village, or what was left of it after the Egyptian airforce bombed it by mistake during Yemen's civil war of the 1960s. By mistake, because Old Marib did not harbour any Royalists, not then, and, one can rest assured, not now either: only 3-4 impoverished families still live here in and among the bombed and unrepaired houses, no running water, no electricity. "Sura, sura, sura", exclaims the excited sharp voice of a tiny 5 year old in rags.
The desert crossing
On the road well before dawn, to avoid (some of) the baking sun. As the sun rises, we leave the tarmac, tyre pressure is reduced at a shack serving as a petrol station and minutes later our party of six 4WDs speeds over the flat sand surface of the desert. Cars spread out next, before and behind one another, there's no precise track to follow. Huge plumes of dust trace the speeding cars. Maintaining a certain speed is a necessity, unless you want to get stuck in the loose sand. Excitement, not only with the young ones in our group!
Excitement as well when the desert flatness gradually gives way to a breathtaking landscape of high dunes of golden, undulating sand. Our Beduin guides, specifically recruited to take us across the desert, are actually the only ones who know what they are doing with their cars. In fact, on several occasions they dislodge the 4WDs dug deeply into the sand by our normal Yemenite drivers.
The only signs of civilization we notice on our desert crossing is a tent camp, where we're offered sweet tea, and the ancient ruins of Shabwa. In Shabwa they don't serve sweet tea of any other drinks anymore since it was abandoned, countless centuries ago. But the place is no less fascinating for it, with its ruins of temple hills, early islamic buildings, houses of mudbrick and stone.
After consuming our packed lunch under the scorching heath, our drivers prepare for a qat chewing break. But we break up their break as soon as they open their plastic bags, and consequently, well before these guys have a chance of getting stoned, chewing qat. Reluctantly the drivers get back behind the wheel, and off we go. Even Muhti, usually our most 'talkative' (everything is relative if you do not speak Arabic and he does not speak English, apart from a handful of four-word sentences)driver, does not say much, somewhat angered or frustrated that we have prevented him from throwing a cozy litte qat party. Anyway, we reach the tarmac on the other side of the desert, three hours and two cases of fainting with heath exhaustion later. We've now reached the Hadramauth region.
Tarim, Seyun and Shibham
For several days we explore the narrow and long stretched valley of Hadramauth, surprisingly lush and green, and caught in between two abrupt and parallel mountain ranges. Hadramauth constitutes an ancient emirate with a recognised dynasty, ruling in sovereignty over a State which enjoyed independence, although under British protectiorate, and issued its own passports. All this is only decades ago and you can witness it in Seyun's museum, located in a wonderful old palace, reminescence of glory and power, once in the past considerable, today lost into the oblivion of this remote part of Yemen.
Shibham is undoubtedly the most impressing site in the entire Hadramauth, with its 11 and 12 stories tall skyscrapers, made, expanded and repaired countless times in past centuries, true to the traditional building style of mudbrick walls and wooden support structures. Shibham's skyscrapers stand tall and magestically next to each other, with little or no space in between, like trees in a dense wood, against the backdrop of the valley's mountain edge. Sunset from a hilltop overlooking Shibham, with the ever changing shades of yellow, brown and red evolving on the walls of the mudbrick skyscraper forrest, and wth the whisper of an evening breeze inducing all of us into a mood of serenity and silence. This is a wonderful way to wrap up a great day. Hadramauth at it's best.
Wadi Dawan to the coast
You could make it easy for yourself, take the motorway from Seyun to Mukkala, and reach the Arabian Sea coast in three hours. But you would miss Wadi Dawan.
The uneven and rocky bed of the dry river, the Wadi Dawan, makes a long half day of very, verry bumpy driving. But you don't want to miss it, because the mountain ranges and occasional oases along the route are simply spectacular. There are also the dozen or so villages, quite vividly inhabited, interesting for the colourful façades of their houses, with bright and large motives of flowers, animals, abstract drawings, etc. A small vegetable market carefully hidden in the shade of the tall houses along the major village street, women carrying a baby and a shiny water container, dressed in their long black abbaya (robe), and shyly managing the crooked narrow alleys in hasty pace.
At the end of the Wadi, a tarred road climbs sharply up onto a plateau and from there it is a straight and unadventurous trip to Mukkala, on the coast. But it's Friday, and before hitting that tar, our drivers first take out some time for their prayers at a mosque. The mosque actually looks more like a converted 40 ft container. Furthermore in the village, there is nothing to see, nothing to do. So, while waiting for the drivers, we just wander about the yards of the five or six houses, without purpose. And upon each approach we make, all flee into their shelters, women and children alike. The men? They're praying with our drivers in the container-mosque.
It is quite refreshing to be on the coast, after eating dust and sand for five days. The sea breeze, the smell of iodium, the sounds of seagulls and breaking waves. Mukkala has a lively seafront, the "corniche" as they use to call it in this part of the world. It reminds me of Muscat, in Oman, provided that in your imagination you block out the rubbish lying around, the numerous tiles come loose on the sidewalks, the rusty ship wrack stranded in front of the harbour since 1942, and the open pits probably started ten years ago by the telecom company in search of a defective cable that probably wasn't there. But, really, Mukkala has something attractive and interesting, both in its historical buildings and in it's general atmosphere. The palace on the far side of the corniche, housing a local history museum, is definitely worht a visit for its architecture.
A magnificent coastal road leads West from Mukkala to Bir Ali, the area of natural harbours, from where the trade routes of frankincense and myrrha set out all the way to Mecca, Cairo and beyond, a trail unchanged since a few thousand years.
Rough and rocky coastlines battered by violently foaming waves alternate with desolate volcanic landscapes of pitch dark and edgy lava masses, embedded in the blinding yellow and smoothly undulating sand expanses, offering a fascinating contrast of colours and shapes.
Volcanic cones are all around us as well, and just before reaching Bir Ali, between the road and the sea, we climb one of these cones. It take some effort, for sure, but once you reach the rim, the view is absolutely magnificent, with the large green lake filling the circular crater, and above it, on the horizon, the sea, deep blue and dotted with islands.
Bir Ali itself is a wonderful beach area, sitting under a large monolithical rock mass. A great place to chill out, even if there are hardly any amenities available. We should have brought whatever it takes to set up a BBQ and grill fish! Why did we not think of it?
Our return trip to Mukkala takes five hours, nearly double. Why? A monstruous traffic jam on the outskirts and the inner city of Mukkala. Some religious leader has just had a public rally in Mukkala, addressing a crowd of reportedly 7,000-8,000 women. I don't know about the enlightenment the audience has received, for us the result is that we are stuck for about two hours in a bumper to bumper traffic, to make downtown Athens jealous. Around us a chaos of taxis, minibusses, busses, trucks, all crowded with women and girls in black robes, not all but many of them veiled. My wife takes it all rather philosophically and on the bright side: windows and sliding doors are opened and a kind-of-English all-female conversation sets in, acquaintance is made, details on respective family composition are exchanged, friendship concluded and sealed with mutual offerings of candy and fruit. The traffic jams in Mukkala are not like in Athens, after all.
No, we do not always chose to do things the hard way! There is a road - a good but a very, very long one - from Mukkala to Sana'a, but we entrust ourselves into the care of Yemenia, the national airline. Apart from the fact that we make an unannounced (at least to us) detour via Aden to pick up some more passengers, the flight was just fine. Plenty of understanding also on the staff's side for my insistence on taking into the cabin a very old and also very large carved window frame in wood, which I had bought a few days ago in Shibham. Each time I see my wooden window frame from Yemen now gratiously hanging from my home's wall, I thank again this Yemenia stewardess for her indulgence.
So, we are now in Sana'a. Again. Indeed, my wife and me have visited this magnificent city extensively on our first trip, last year. But, the fascination of Sana'a is endless, and so is the charm of its stone buildings with chalk-painted motives, lined up along streets, alleys and squares. A time capsule five centuries back, that is how unbelievably authentic Sana'a is. A long stroll in Sana'a's inner city, some shopping of souvenirs, fortunately not all as bulky as my Shibham window frame. And that's it.
"Sura, Sura, sura", I hear behind me, while leaving the old town centre through Bab al Yemen, the city's main gate. I turn around, hand out my last provisions of candy to the children, and take a photograph of their tanned faces, lined by a head of uncombed, dust-filled hair, but lightened up a pair of sparkling, dark eyes and a large smile of white teeth. Thanks for the smile, an appropriate way to bid farewell to this wonderful and, yes indeed, very welcoming country.
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