04 Yemen

YEMEN October 1998

Getting out of the port of Aden took half a day. (Flipping, Felipe, the agent, had made us pay double for some things too). Diesel cost only 8c (US), 48c(SA) per litre! Aden is beautifully situated and has tourist potential but no tourist development yet. We quickly headed out on a nice causeway. Soon we were leaving the heat and humidity and ascending the terraced mountains towards Sana’a, which lies at 2300m. Those mountain passes gave us the first foretaste of Yemeni driving: overtaking on a blind curve; overtaking an overtaking vehicle on a blind rise!

We had to wait 13 days in Sana’a for our Omani Road permit and visas. This was the case even though Des our kind pilot friend and fellow Landrover owner in Oman had started the paperwork battle 4 months before. Fortunately, Sana’a was very interesting. It has an ancient walled city with buildings in the style of a thousand years ago and a fascinating market, which has not changed.

The stalls have pyramids of dates, raisins, nuts, and bags of beans, grains and spices. There are scores of old looking Bedouin silver jewellery. In tiny cubicles of certain streets all the processes in the making of the traditional curved dagger takes place.

All men wear the “jambiya”. It is in a leather sheath and hangs on an embroidered belt. Yemeni men wear a hand-woven cotton cloth “skirt” and a dark Western style jacket. The turban or scarf is red and white.

Almost all women are completely veiled in black or have only the pupils of the eyes showing. They do not seem to work in public and we have not seen them drive. All weddings are arranged and take place when the girls are very young. Extended families live together and the houses have separate entrances and sets of stairs for men and women.

Homes always have a room with a view – either on the top floor or over a walled garden for the communal chewing of “qat”. This is an institutionalised mild stimulant drug. The leaves are of the Catha Edulis Forsskal. 95% of the population use it either on the job or in long afternoon sessions - men and women separately. Only fresh leaves are used to form a large ball in the cheek and only the juice is swallowed. (To us it looked and tasted like Privet leaves!) There is a special “qat soukh” (market). Good qat is expensive. The value of this industry is worth more than the rest of the total agricultural economy.

There are no camping sites in Yemen. We fortunately were able to park in the pleasant grounds of a new

Pizza Hut. There were friendly 24-hour guards. Our amusement was to watch the black veiled blobs entertain their brightly clad toddlers on the colourful playground equipment, next to the parking area.

Yemen: Sana’a: 13 days at Pizza Hut

The Manager of the Dodge Chrysler Jeep agency, Eric Leighton, invited us home for a family dinner. He also helped us to buy a new solar regulator and gave us references in Kuwait, Saudi and Turkey. He had worked there and shared of his experience and insight with us. Sheikh Al Rowaishan, who is the owner of Chrysler Yemen, also owns the Land Rover Agency. (Where we bought some spares) We met the two young sheikhs, sons of the influential man, who told us about a new road from Sana’a to Sayun. This saved us about 1000 km. (The two young men and three sisters are soon to be married off to 5 of their cousins)Toyota seems to hold the market. Land Cruisers abound. A further evidence of the atrocious reckless driving is the battered state of most of the vehicles in the capital city. Most of the taxis are small Subaru, which look like half size combis. .

After waiting in Sana’a for 13 days, our visas came. They still said “Arriving at Oman Airport”! We left the next day regardless. The route was to be: East to Marib and Sayun; then south to Al Mukalla and E along the coast via Al Ghaydah to the border with Oman.

Armed convoy

From Sana’a to Marib we had to take a convoy of tourist vehicles with armed escort. (There had been an isolated incident during tribal unrest). At Marib there are ruins of a dam built in 8BC. Thereafter we no longer needed the customary Bedouin guide through the 300km of desert because the new asphalt road was under construction. Four wheel drive was necessary on a sandy deviation. We were heading for Wadi Hahdramawt, the biggest valley on the Arabian Peninsula. It is fertile and contrasts with the stone mountainous desert. Two towns are interesting. Shibam, which dates from 3BC. It has a tight collection of 500 tower houses built from mud brick, 5 to 7 storeys high: the “Manhattan of the desert”. Sayun, “the town of a million palm trees” has a decorated Sultan’s palace and modern “palaces” painted pastel shades.

No road

To the coast there was a new road with fancy stone masoned shoulders and retaining walls. This soon ended. Then poor Little Diplodocus (Dipli) had to traverse 400km of steep up and down winding mountain track. After a great deal of effort we would reach the summit of a mountain from which we can see way in the distance, other mountains and other valleys, then more mountains lining the horizon. Each mountain pass we negotiate is a reproduction of the previous one. In between the blind corners while cliff hugging and cliff hanging over the turquoise sea, there were the beaches of pebble or sand. (Lovely camping).

Yemen: Edge of Rub al Khali

With tyre pressure down, and sand ladders only once, we even traveled over 50km of sand dunes (following tracks which we hoped were not made by someone who was lost.

The last town in Yemen was Whaf. Camels were strolling on the beach and friendly town elders gestured towards the mountains when we asked the way. They eventually gave us a young guide when we could not find the track. This corner of the Arabian Peninsula catches monsoon rain. Heavy trucks had made deep ruts in the steep path (which had set hard as concrete!). Leoné was hanging out of the window because suddenly there was vegetation again (the first since a month ago). We bounced around and could hardly keep direction. The left-hand steering arm snapped and track rod bent; both “again”. As Jan and the Yemeni lad toiled in the heat and dust, three Canadian backpackers stopped. These were the first travellers we had met in about two months. They looked clean and fresh and asked about the road to Sana’a….. Little did they know what lay ahead!.We reached the Yemen/Oman border. The last 32 kilometres had taken us 5¾ hours.

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