Entering Yemen, the border post did not look much like a border post. A few ramshackle buildings and a generator buzzing at the rear, but no sign of either immigration or customs. It turned out, however, that these actually were both immigration and customs, so dodging some suspicious-looking guys hanging around and holding plastic bags with licence plates, I managed to push the documentation through and we were on our way.
From the very beginning it was clear to us that Yemen is unlike other countries we had visited on the Arabian peninsula. Not that it is the poorest of them (and compared to the splendour of Dubai it looks poor indeed), but it is also the different architecture and people's skin colour. Already in the coastal areas of Oman we had noticed great diversity in terms of people's origins, and it was the same here in Yemen, only that the skin colour seemed darker. As if a part of Africa had settled here.
It felt strange with so many black people around us, and quite frankly, it seemed the locals were not at ease with us as either - it must be a real rarity to see such a big bike passing through Al Mahra, the easternmost province of Yemen. But it is true what the psychologists say that it is more difficult to interpret feelings and emotions of a person if he/she belongs to a different race. The mimics are different, and in another cultural context the body language may be different too, so you do not really know that someone thinks and what is his/her attitude towards you. But the common Assalam Aleikum
breaks the ice in most situations, so you are rewarded with a smile even before you know it. Some things are universal.
Landscape in East Yemen.
Spotted a funky lizard in the wild.
Landscape, road and Indian ocean in Yemen.
Mosques are different in Yemen.
Panorama of Yemen's oceanside landscape (click to enlarge)
Yemeni fishers on the Indian Ocean.
Village boys in Yemen.
Architecture in Yemen.
Freshly cooked fish served in foil - tastes superb.
Policeman in Yemen.
Check out the available ammunition for his weaponry.
Man in Yemen posing proudly in front of his Land Rover, which is in very good condition compared to most of the cars in Yemen.
Girls peeking through a window - soon they'll be completely covered with burqas with only eyes visible and it'd be impossible to take a picture of them.
Yemeni people have a lot of African mix in them.
Guys checking us out.
Oceanside village in East Yemen.
Typical architecture in Yemen.
A complete fort built on a funny shaped rock.
We made Al Mukalla our first stop in Yemen. The biggest town in the eastern part of the country, it is truly the third world, but it does have atmosphere. A bit repulsive at the first glance, with all the rubbish and poverty, after a few days we really started to like it.
Panorama from Al Mukalla (click to enlarge)
Newer houses in Al Mukalla.
Al Mukalla seen from the canal.
A secret pic of a typical Yemeni woman in a burqa.
Mosque in old Al Mukalla.
We got one of the best kebabs we ever tasted in Al Mukalla.
Modern clothing trends have leaked even into Yemen these days.
Fresh fish at the fish market in Al Mukalla.
Want some fish?
Or a very big fish!
Youngsters enjoy the sunset on the oceanside in Al Mukalla.
Streets in the old Al Mukalla.
Some religious building.
Portrait of a Yemeni man.
Playing domino on the street.
Sunset over Al Mukalla.
Panorama of Al Mukalla at the nighttime (click to enlarge)
And here is a recording from the same spot at 4 AM - from a very sleepy sounding mullah
. One might think there is already too much of calls to prayer in our ride report, but here in Yemen it seems that the everyday life is more intertwined with religion than in any other Islamic country we have visited, so it would be unfair to exclude this early morning tune coming from the mosque across the road.
But just as important as religion, a plant called qat is a big part of Yemenis life. The mildly narcotic and illegal in most countries, the people start to tuck its leaves into their mouths somewhere in the afternoon, so by the evening most of the population (80% of men are considered regular chewers) walks around with a ridiculously bulging cheek, unable to speak properly. Some 40% of the water that Yemen consumes goes to watering the plant.
Chewing mildly narcotic qat
is somewhat a national obsession in Yemen.
Yemen is somewhat a land of wonders, as we found out while visiting the fertile valleys of the East.
It was not without hassles though, getting to Wadi Dawan and Wadi Hadramawt, because the area is considered one of the strongholds of Al Qaeda. So unless we were prepared to end our days like the two Belgians in 2008 who were shot and killed, or the four South-Koreans in 2009 who perished in an attack by a suicide bomber, we once again had to take an escort. The choice was actually not our to make - the escort is compulsory, whether you like it or not. Or whether you actually have trust in the gunman's ability to resolve a potentially dangerous situation, or not. Having dealt with escorts in both Iran and Pakistan we were not particularly confident of the latter.
From Al Mukalla it is some four to five hours' ride, so by the time we started to approach the valleys, the escorts were already showing signs of qat abuse. At one point the car in front of us just stopped, and the driver, with his cheek bulging, and green stuff falling out of his mouth as he tried to speak, asked in confusion where it was that we were going. His armed companions did not look any better. We explained that our plans had remained the same as before and that we wanted to stay the night in Shibam. Right! We got moving again, with sirens and flashing lights, although we were obviously the only vehicles on the road. I guess it must have been the stage when such things start to look amusing.
We got there allright, and it was clear that no qat or great imagination is required to understand what an unusual place it is. Shibam, or the Manhattan of the Desert as it is called, is an ancient town comprised of high rise buildings, five- to eleven-storey high mudbrick houses. Surely, the Americas had not even been discovered when here, in the bottom of the wide Wadi Hadramawt, civilizations flourished. Isolated from the rest of the world by dry, windswept plateaus, the people really had created something special, one-of-a-kind, that still does not cease to amaze. And the life goes on - the city now hosts some 7000 inhabitants who still look at the odd tourist with a mix of curiosity and hesitation - one of the top sights in Yemen, and a UNESCO world heritage site, fear is keeping the hordes away. It is just you, your guy with a gun, and the locals. As someone said, it definitely does feel a bit like walking on the bottom of a well with high houses so close to each other that very little light makes it down there.
Shibam in Yemen.
Panorama of Shibam (click to enlarge).
Click to enlarge.
Newer part of Shibam - a mosque and houses.
Typical newer house in Shibam.
Carved door on older more traditional Shibam house.
Window on older mud house in Shibam.
Goats on the streets of Shibam.
Typical house made out of mud.
Or a 9 story buildings made out of mud - completely built on faith!
On a street of Shibam.
Our armed escort that followed us everywhere.
Air-cooling (not air conditioning btw).
Typical mud house in Shibam.
But it is not only Shibam that amazes. All the Wadi Hadramawt as well as Wadi Dawan is not only naturally nice, but also full of interesting, if not extravagant examples of architecture that really make you appreciate the isolatedness of the region. They definitely have been thinking outside of the square the people here, creating something you cannot find anywhere else.
Al Hajjarayin panorama (click to enlarge)
Wadi Dawan panorama (click to enlarge).
Entire village built on a boulder in Wadi Dawan.
Villages in Wadi Dawan.
Portrait of Wadi Dawan's local.
Colourful Bugshan palace - a fruit of imagination from Saudi Arabian businessman.
Transport is still environmentally-friendly donkey powered in Wadi Dawan.
Mudhouse in Wadi Dawan.
Portraits of Wadi Dawan locals.
Women have strange hats in Wadi Dawan - good for the blazing sun.
Beautiful houses in Wadi Dawan.
Wadi Dawan - up arid cliffs, down more humid paradise with palms.
By the way, it was in Wadi Hadramawt that our GS celebrated its 200 000 kilometre anniversary.
Getting from Al Mukalla to Aden seems to be the trickiest part of any roadtrip in Yemen since the road passes through the province of Abyan - a hotspot of the violent secessionist movement. Something explodes there every week, so it goes without saying that once again we had to travel with an escort.
It is a long ride, more than 600 kilometers, so we were into hitting the road as early as possible to avoid arriving in the dark - as Yemen is close to the equator, night and day are of more or less the same length. So we had a window of roughly 12 hours. The sun rises at around 6AM, so we thought it would have been good to start at around 7AM. But the police suggested 8AM, and who are we to argue?
The next morning we had everything packed long before 8AM, but the escorts only arrived at 9AM. Soon it became clear to us that we were not the only ones being escorted as there a group of foreign tourists in four Land Cruisers joined us on the outskirts of Al Mukalla. Well, if such a convoy is not a good target then I do not know what is. We tried not to think too much about it.
Our escort's machinegun.
The best way to deliver iron in big amounts and in utterly rapid interval!
A little out of town, the convoy made a turn from the main road onto some smaller road, and soon stopped at some rock formation. The tourists got out of their air conditioned cars and what followed was some fifteen minutes of taking photos with the rocks and the armed guards before we could move again. We were trying to be patient and not to look at the clock too often.
Some twenty kilometers later, the same story. We stopped on the roadside so the package tourists can stretch their legs and take some more photos. How the hell were we going to get to Aden before the sun sets if it would keep on going like that?
Typical Southern Yemen landscape panorama (click to enlarge)
Before we had covered one third of the distance we had also managed to see (and take pictures of) some crater lake near Bir Ali. Nice, but nothing too fancy after having seen the Quilotoa lake in Ecuador, or the Kelimutu lakes in Indonesia. Or maybe we were just not in the mood.
Panorama of the Bir Ali crater - Indian Ocean on the background - see the water colour difference (click to enlarge)
In Bir Ali it became known to us why nobody was in a hurry but us - the rest (meaning the 4WD people) were staying the night right there. We still had some 400 km to go. We were given another escort and we continued - a bit relieved about having "lost" the tourists, but also worried as there was just about enough time to get to Aden before sunset, but riding with an escort can mean unexpected delays.
Sure enough, at one point the escorts had trouble starting their machine - the police are really ill equipped here when t comes to cars - broken lights and slick tyres are only the visible condition. So we had to wait, in the middle of nowhere, in the company of qat-chewing policemen, for another car to come and help to jump start our escorts' car. But the sun was falling and falling.
By the time we reached Abyan - checkpoints every few kilometers with tanks and cannons standing by - the light was already reddish. And although it was THE hotspot, there was no time to feel anxious. We had to push on.
At another checkpoint, some 50 km before Aden, we were told to stop and wait for an escort to come for us from Aden. It was going to take one hour. We watched in a half irritated, half brain dead state as the blood red sun set befind the horizon - all the crap with the photo stops, and all the pushing, and here we were, just an hour away from our destination, and the light was fading, and fast. Soon it was completely dark and as there were no lights at all at this checkpoint, we quietly wondered which could actually be more dangerous - ride the last stretch unescorted, or to stay put at a check point that was as dark as a night and wait for Al Qaeda to come and get us. After all, Al Qaeda has vowed to kill all infidels in Yemen, that includes us!
After an hour of waiting our escort arrived, and we begun the race towards Aden. It was a race indeed - with the escort going at 120 km/h in the complete darkness, and overtaking vehicles that were going without lights. It was terrifying, and possibly just as deadly as an encounter with Al Qaeda.
But the kilometers passed and we were soon let loose. We rode the last ten kilometers without escorts, and arrived in Aden. We congratulated ourselves. From here on it should be no more escorts.
Since Aden is not terribly interesting, the next morning we set off towards Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Without escorts we could stop where ever we wanted, and for how ever long we wanted, so we could take in the mountaneous scenery featuring terraced fields and the quaint architecture.
Panorama of the getting-greener-Yemen (click to enlarge)
Panorama of the fields (click to enlarge)
Policeman chewing qat.
Camels still going strong in transportation.
So, how much does the camel cost?
Portrait of a blue-eyed Yemeni man with African roots.
Portrait of a man close to Aden.
Getting greener all the time...
A cactus in Yemen.
Villages on the steep mountainsides.
Road through a village.
Honeybee enjoying blossoming cactii.
At one point the mountans were all green with villages placed in funky spots.
Above Haraz mountains.
Panorama from Haraz mountains in Yemen (click to enlarge)
Haraz mountains' panorama (click to enlarge)
Yemeni man with a jambiya dagger - traditional accessory in Yemen.
Funky pink house in Yemen.
One of the oldest cities in the world, the Yemeni capital Sana'a looks as if it was made of gingerbread and decorated with icing. They definitely know how to stand out of the crowd in terms of architecture here in Yemen!
It is a great city to wander and to get lost in. Maybe not quite like Yazd in Iran or Quito in Ecuador for there is plenty to distract you from truly falling for it. While you try to grasp the elegant patterns on the houses, some tatty cats fight in a pile of rubbish on a sidewalk. Countless MiG-29 and Su-22 ply the sky, flying so low you'd think they'll start dropping bombs. And the blindingly bright sunshine fighting the icy wind (Sana'a lies at the respectable altitude of 2300 meters or more than 7500 ft) mingling with both the aromas of leaded fuel and freshly ground spices. It is a living city after all, not a museum!
Panorama of Sana'a
Typical house in old Sana'a
On the street of Sana'a
A minaret hanging over the houses.
Ancient mosque in Sana'a
Panorama of Sana'a in sunset colours (click to enlarge)
Sana'a in HDR.
Sunset over Sana'a
But we received a warm reception. Walking the narrow streets and trying to find a better angle for taking a picture of one minaret we were invited to a courtyard where women were baking bread. Soon after we had been offered some tasty bread straight from the oven we were already invited into the home itself. We were sat on the floor, and before we knew we were already munching on delicious local food. If this isn't hospitality I do not know what is!
Women making fresh bread.
Like in tandoori oven in Pakistan, it's cooked on the vertical sidewalls of the open-fire oven.
The simple yet superbly tasty food the family gave us.
Apart from wandering around there is really not much to do in Sana'a, so we just took it easy and just wandered around, chatted with people in the markets, accompanied by the music from a random cassette shop:
..:: LISTEN ::..
A portrait of a cassette-shop seller, some CDs were as well - it's a new thing in Yemen.
Cats on the street.
A young boy in traditional clothing - minus jambiya - parents felt it's too dangerous to play in this age I guess.
The coolest photo camera we've seen is owned by a Yemeni guy who just bought film from the shop - all good cameras deserve to serve their owners for a very long time (not like today's consumer world with new model of latest digital camera every 2 years :lol3 )
Boy with jambiya
All things fresh and handmade - coffee on Sana'a market
Yemeni man in Sana'a
Girls on the streets of Sana'a
A young man in traditional clothing.
Most of the houses have stained glass windows from the inside (outside it's normal) - they create warm colours inside the houses indeed.
Raisins on the market.
Kariina and a local.
Stuff on the market in Sana'a
Spiceshop seller offering us tea.
Bread making tools on the market.
Colours of the windows.
Men of Sana'a in traditional clothing.
Men having fun with qat on the street.
Sunglasses for sale.
Knocker on the door in Sana'a
A doorway to the roof of a house.
A rare picture of a Muslim girl.
As you have noticed, many men (and very young ones too!) wear sort of a dagger on their belt. It is called jambiya and is a part of traditional clothing, being also a symbol of identity as people of different tribes and social status wear different kind of jambiyas. Interestingly it has nothing to do with belligerence - already pulling the blade from the sheath and threatening someone with it can entail a good fine and put you into jail. Since it is more an accessory than a weapon, not much work goes into the blade which is normally left blunt and not well polished.
On a Friday morning we stumbled upon a steaming hammam or a public bathhouse (men and women attend at different times of course!) - one has to cleanse himself or herself before praying, and Friday is the big day so the bathhhouses are really busy. This one really looked as if it were from out of space.
Yemeni hammam - architecture looks like from another planet.
Going to hammam.
Windows of hammam.
Fire to warm up the hammam.
Surely, prayers are not for Fridays only but one can hear the choir of mullah's roughly five times every day - once before sunrise, once when the sun is at its highest, once when the shadows of objects are the same length as the objects themselves, once at sunset and once when in is completely dark. Often there would be someone citing Koran also inbetween those times so it is never really quiet. But those five times a day - sometimes it feels that the end is near, with "sirens" going off:
Or religious teachings that lasted continously for over 24 hours:
Sana'a also offers a culinary experience, and quite a different one from the rest of the peninsula. Surely there is delicious fish.
Grilled fish in Yemeni way - a superbly tasting stuff.
But what makes it stand out is the local speciality called salta. It is basically a stew, sometimes containing meat and sometimes not, but when it is brought to table it is still boiling hot. You scoop it up with the fresh bread, accompanied also by rice (which, in fact, does taste like gingerbread as it is flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and god knows what else), some salad, spicy tomato sauce and some delicious broth. SImply delicious and costs very little.
Salta in the making on the open flames.
Still boiling salta with grilled chicken, noodles/rice mix, salad and sauce.
But of course, not all was fun in Sana'a. We did get our Djibouti visas allright, but the Ethiopian embassy only issues visas to residents, not tourists. And the same thing applies to the embassy in Djibouti, so the only option is to send our passports by DHL for processing to Sweden (the nearest country to Estonia which has an Ethiopian embassy). And of course, due to the recent events no cargo leaves Yemen for Europe so we have to do it via Djibouti and have a painfully expensive (yep, Djibouti must be one of the most expensice countries in Africa, so normally people just ride through) two-week wait in Djibouti City. Pure horror!
After Sana'a we passed some more Yemen-style villages, but somehow we felt we had had enough of extravagance combined with the feeling of the place being very down-to-earth, so we only made some small detours before heading to the once famous coffe port of Al Mokha through the pretty Haraz mountains.
Strange Dar Al-Hajar - one of the symbols of Yemen.
Panorama of our route through the Haraz mountains (click to enlarge each panorama)
Panorama of Haraz mountains.
Panorama of terraced fields in the heights.
Panorama from Kawkaban.
Village street in Kawkaban.
A minaret and a loudspeaker.
House in Kawkaban.
Looking down from Kawkaban (9500+ ft.)
Yemenis like to build their villages into interesting places.
A young shepherd in the Haraz mountains.
Hairdresser posing proudly in his saloon - in Yemeni terms, the saloon is extravagant - with TV, radio and other luxuries.
The Haraz mountains.
Or maybe it wasn't the intensity of Yemen that we'd grown tired of, but the uncertainty regarding what was going to happen next. Because the only way to get from Yemen to Africa is across the Red Sea, and there is no regular connection. So we were highly dependant on some cargo boat captain's will to take us onboard from Al Mokha and to unload us in Djibouti, and not charge the world for the privilege.
Once we arrived in Al Mokha, the first thing to do was to go and look up the port to get some information. As elsewhere in Yemen, nobody spoke any English, but we were able to understand so much that there were no boats to Djibouti that day. The next day, in sha'Allah. So we went and checked into the only hotel in Al Mokha which turned out to be nothing more than an overpriced rathole without safe parking. But there was no other choice.
Since stayingin the hotel the rest of the day would have been rather depressing, we set out to look for the shadows of Al Mokha's glorious past. Once home to some 20 000 inhabitants, today it is no more than a windblown village with one street, some ramshackle buildings and a couple of mosques, one of which dates back to the 15th century, even before the town became famous. But the locals (no more than a few hundred fishermen and smugglers today) left us a warm and friendly impression, so all in all we do not quite agree with Lonely Planet's description that Al Mokha is as close as one gets to the gates of hell.
Red Sea coast in Al Mokha
Fishermen's boat at the Red Sea.
Funky village boys, Al Mokha.
Ancient mosque in Al Mokha.
Local bikers have rather interesting aftermarket bits on their bikes...
Mosque from 15th century (before America was discovered)
Local man and a mosque (check the color harmonization of the minaret and his flip-flops)
The local grin vs our foreign GS.
All we have to do now, is find a right dhow (an Arabian wooden ship)...
The next day we were back at the port early morning. Once again there was a lot of confusion as to whether any boat would leave for Djibouti that day or not, so we just waited. An English speaking businessman-looking local, Rashad offered us his help, and although normally we just ingore all the helpers and would-be agents, this time we thought we had more to win rather than to loose with this guy. After all, Al Mokha was probably our best chance of getting off the Arabian Peninsula.
We were not too careful though, I must admit, as we let him slip away a couple of times with our passports so we almost thought we had lost them forever. But then he showed up again and all was good.
By 6 PM our bike had been stamped out of the country and was standing on the dock, and our passports were in hands of immigration officers who refused to give them back to us before we were on the boat with all the crowd. Oh yes, we were not the only ones boarding the wooden boat laden with fresh dung left over by the previous passengers, hundreds of goats. We were there with a couple of dozens of Africans waiting to board with their huge sacks of Tom&Jerry corn chips, canned drinks and God knows what ever else that they were supposedly hoping to sell at a good price in Africa.
We paid our helper the USD 260 the captain had requested for carrying us and our bike, and he disappeared, wishing us all the best. Of course we had our doubts as to whether Rashad had been an honest man and not just a scam, and actually paid the money to the captain. There was no way to be sure that once we got off in Africa nobody would ask us to pay for the passage, but that is the way it was. We were too tired anyway to linger too much on those paranoid thoughts so we just hoped for the best.
Our bike was lifted onto the boat, but it took a while with all those chips and candies as nearly one hour was spent on bargaining Arabian way over the price to be paid for taking them onboard before they could actually be loaded. People shouted and waved their hands, but they got it done, and we were finally ready to leave for our 14-hour journey.
Then the immigration officers came, got everyone once again off the ship, counted the heads and ushered us back onto the boat. Our passports were to stay with the captain till the end of the passage.
We sailed off. It must have been the closest our mode of transport ever was to an animal wagon, with shit everywhere - on the walls and floor we were supposed to sleep on, and the biggest cockroaches we'd ever seen.
As we got to the open waters the boat started swinging as hell, fighting the waves at relatively unimaginale angles. The wooden panels of the boat, with the bright blue paint peeling off, were screaching as if they were about to bend beyond their tolerance. If this isn't romance, what else is?!
Wooden dhows - one like this took us on.
Living on the floor with everybody else on the dhow.
Our neighbour woman had interesting henna drawings on her arms...
Some were chewing qat.
Captain's personal helper.
Captain came to check us out often and to ask if we needed anything.
Faces start to take African look...
Sailing on the Red Sea under Djibouti flag.
Being in such a small ship, we became good friends with loads of people of different ages.
Captain at the helm - Somali pirates, where are you?
Panorama from the ship (click to enlarge)
24 hours later we were still on the boat. Some were sleeping, some were chewing qat, and some were vomiting. But we were on Djibouti's doorstep! The coast guard came to check on the boat, and to interrogate all the Somalis on board. Weapon smuggling is a big thing here.
Nothing of interest was found on the ship so we were left alone, but since it was already late we had to endure one more night on the boat before we could land, with Djibouti port's lights blickering just a stone throw's away. It was a hot and sweaty night as we were not moving and there was no wind, but at least it was quiet as the engines had been switched off.
The next morning we finally got to the shore. The black ladies were so happy they sang "Allah Akbar" as their stuff was unloaded by eager helpers. Those that were not approved by the police got chased away with sticks. Very brutal indeed!
A wooden dhow docked in Djibouti port.
Our GS being unloaded from the ship onto African soil for the first time.
Finally it was our bike's turn to get lifted off the ship. No big hassle, and no more money asked. It turned out that Rashad had been an honest man after all, and the crew as well. Bless those people, and their country! Although our description might have left a slightly negative impression of our passage (well, no cruise ship it was!), we were treated well by the crew, and even tasty food was provided three times a day. What else could you wish for?
We got our passports back (stamped), imported the bike without problems with the Carnet, and off we were to explore the Black Continent. Or, we'll be, as soon as we'll be able to get our Ethiopian visas, that is.
Hope you enjoyed the report,
Margus & Kariina