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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Monday, November 06, 2006 04:44:35

Arabia 2006: 7 - Yemen

Friday, November 3, 2006

The guide, Abas and driver, Naser were waiting well before the 10 AM pick up time. We headed across the city of Sana'a in light traffic, today being Friday, the holy day of the week, and headed northwest into mountainous countryside in a comfortable 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser. A nice touch was a cooler with a dozen or so bottles of water in it, something most tour operators don't think of. There is a large army/police presence and papers had to be presented at various checkpoints.

The hotel is great. Rooms are large and comfortable with all amenities including wireless internet, and the breakfast buffet is the best of the trip to date. Movenpick is located on a hill just outside Sana'a with a view over the city.

Our first stop was a popular Friday destination at the top of a high cliff overlooking the relatively lush valley of Wadi-Dhar, where the Imam had his winter palace. The Imams, or hereditary rulers, were overthrown in 1994 and fled the country. A lot of people were there; men performing traditional dances to the beat of drums (only men may dance in public), food and drink sellers, horse rentals and guns were available for target shooting. It was a festive atmosphere. There are no guardrails at the cliff edge, but no one seemed to think twice about sitting or walking alongside the drop of about 1,000 feet.

We drove down into the valley to climb the ex-Imam's very vertical palace, built on an outcropping of rock with sheer cliffs on all sides. Construction continues vertically from the cliff faces upwards. The palace inside has meeting rooms furnished as they were, so it is possible to get an idea of what it was like living in the five story high structure. The occupants would have been in good physical condition with all the stairways!

The drive further into the countryside was across a broad valley strewn with rocks and boulders. Life on the small farms is very hard - to clear a bit of ground for grazing or agriculture first requires the removal of tons of rocks, which are piled into fences. Anything planted would then have a struggle to grow in the arid soil. Women were tending flocks of goats or working in the fields.

A walk through the town of Thula was well worthwhile. It is one of many fortified towns surrounded by high walls. The 400-year-old stone 4 story buildings seem to be in as good a condition as when they were built. The main floor is for the animals, the top floor is the kitchen and the living area is in between. Streets are wide enough only for pedestrians and their animals.

The town had a large Jewish population living peacefully with their Muslim neighbours for centuries. They were noted for their ability in construction, and for finely decorated silverwork. Although most moved to Israel in 1948, their silver craftsmanship still brings high prices in the markets today. Most Jews who remain have shops selling local handicrafts - mostly silverwork, including sheaths for the large Jumbia knives carried by Yemeni men. Abas says there are no racial or religious problems.

Another walled city, Hababah, has ancient houses towering over its narrow street. A large rainwater catchment provides a great reflecting pool in the centre of town. We stopped in Shibam, which was the former capital of the Yaffouride Dynasty from 861-956 AD, for lunch. As with most buildings in the area, the restaurant was four floors high, each floor housing busy eating rooms. We hiked to the top floor before finding a place to sit.

The room was long, and about 4 meters (13 feet) wide, with 6 inch thick padding around the walls for sitting. We had to wait a long time to be served, but watching other clientele was interesting. Only Yemeni men were present, each with the Jumbia, or large, curved knife, stuck in their ornamental, wide belts. Important people would have a bodyguard, with a pistol on the belt along with the knife, and an automatic rifle in his hands. Weapons are normal for Yemenis. What provides a bit of culture shock is the cell phone on the belt with the rest of the hardware!

When the food came there was nothing I recognized, but it was good. The bread soaked in yoghurt brought back vivid memories of delicious yoghurt eaten in a farmhouse in Afghanistan last year, that made Marilynn and I sick for a long time afterwards, but I tucked in gamely and had no ill effects. There were 7 large bowls of various dishes of vegetables, potatoes, eggs, meat and so on, all with entirely new flavours to me. The food is served on a plastic sheet on the floor, each person is issued a spoon, then each spoonful goes directly from dish to mouth - no plates. The entire meal for the three of us, including a bottle of water each, cost $US 5.00.

After lunch we drove up a series of switchbacks on the cliff-hanging road to Kawkaban, an ancient walled city perched on the edge of high cliffs 3,000 meters (9,840 ft) above sea level. The main fortress door is closed and barred at night, so coming home late would be a serious problem. The locals think nothing of walking up and down a trail to Shibam, almost 1,000 meters below, to do some shopping.

Yemen, full name Al Jumhuriyah al Yamaniyah, is unlike anywhere I've been. The architecture, dress, traditions, food, driving, customs, countryside, manner of speaking and even the goats are unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. Women, even young girls, are fully covered, leaving only a small slit for the eyes. The ones I saw yesterday were nearly all in black, but different parts of the country or towns my have different colours. This is apparently by choice - it is not legally necessary and tourists are free to dress normally, although revealing cloths would be frowned upon. It is interesting to see women on the farms with full covering, and a large straw hat on top!

Men, and even boys, generally wear white robes with a wide, ornate (often silver) belt with the curved jumbia knife in an ornate sheath struck in it. The style of the jumbia sheath indicates the area the wearer is from. Men with rifles or automatic weapons are not an uncommon sight, and moustaches or beards are customary.

The country is a republic, with a presidential election every five years. One was held Oct 20, where Abas says the President was re-elected with 74% of the vote. He is popular as during his time there has been peace in Yemen due to his good rapport with the various tribes. Some 44 different parties complicate the political scene.

Men work in the mornings. After lunch it is time to chew qat. (Pronounced "cat" - a great scrabble word!) This tradition sends the male population off to dreamland for the afternoon, but women continue to work. I joined Abas and Naser in the ritual as we drove back to the hotel, and indeed a sensation of contentment and well being does result, followed by a calm sleep as soon as I was in the room.

The initial sensation is a numbing of the tongue and mouth - it would be a big help for a toothache. The leaves are chewed, then are tucked in the cheek where the liquid seeps into the mouth maintaining the sensation. Water is consumed during the process. A positive side effect of qat, which is perfectly legal, is that there are no problems with hard drugs and the resulting crime that goes with them. Qat is cheap, affordable for everyone.

Soldiers and police at roadblocks all had a bulging cheek, giving everyone the appearance of a squirrel with a mouth full of nuts, or someone with an abscessed tooth. The road checks were much more casual on the way back. Abas commented that the time to take over the country would be in the afternoon, as no one would mind! I did wonder about driving under the influence, but the way people drive here it really doesn't make a lot of difference.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Our first stop this morning was the cliff perching village of Haddah, a short distance from Sana'a, from where there is a great view of the city. Buildings were of 2 or 3 stories. The original inhabitants abandoned the town and poor people who cannot afford to pay rent now inhabit it as squatters. We climbed through some of the abandoned structures to get an idea of the layout of the houses. A woman was entering her house with two round, thin sheets of flatbread. She promptly invited us in for tea, showing that hospitality in Yemen is common among all people, even the poorest. Abas politely declined, but there was no leaving without taking some of her bread with us.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Sana'a, a city of two million in a country of 21 million. The museum was a good source for the history of the country, with explanations in Arabic, German and English. There is a modern, large university in the city. Education is free until the end of high school, but does not include university. Sana'a gets cold in winter, due to its altitude of 2,300 meters (7,544 ft). There were a lot of signs in English throughout the city. Many traffic lights that were working yesterday were turned off, replaced by policemen directing traffic from enclosures in the centre of intersections.

We walked through the residential area of the old city, where streets are just wide enough for one vehicle. There are no one way streets, so when two cars meet face-to-face one must back up to let the other proceed. That can take some negotiating! Large portions of the original 1,000-year-old walls still surround the area. There are some garden areas inside with walls, but Abas says many have been sold for building construction due to high real estate values.

It was possible to see into the Grand Mosque, built in 632, from the street, but only Muslims may enter. Yemen was quick to adopt Islam after the fall of Mecca at the hands of Mohammed's army in 630. Yemen accepted Islam in 631, a year before Mohammed's death.

When we returned to the car Naser had just got back from getting a shot. He has been suffering from a nasty case of the flu. We drove to a downtown restaurant for lunch, where once again we sat on the floor and food was placed on a mat in front of us. This time there were no spoons, portions were taken with the fingers directly from each dish to the mouth. Liquid dishes and sauces are eaten by scooping them up with bread. The flat bread we had today had to be two feet across, and was dumped into a pile on the mat from where we tore off a piece as desired. I had delicious goat as my meat course, while the others had fish.

There was a very dignified looking older man with bushy white beard and full traditional dress including jumbia sitting against the wall to my right. He fascinated me, as he looked like he must be a tribal leader or ruler. When he noticed me looking at him, he say, "Hi! How'r ya doin'?" If I'd been on a chair I'd have fallen off! He had lived in New York City until a couple of years after 911, when he said it became pretty uncomfortable to be an Arab Muslim. He invited us to visit his village for a tour and a meal, but unfortunately we were not headed that way.

After lunch we walked through the market part of the old city, where due to my lack of interest in shopping we had seen most things by 2:30. I suggested that instead of looking for more things to do that we call it a day to let Naser go home and sleep to try to beat his flu bug.

At the hotel I tried to get the wireless internet going, without success. The manager in charge of the system gave it a try, and said I had the only room in the hotel with a weak signal, so quickly arranged another, superior room for me. This room has a furnished balcony overlooking the city, a perfect sunset view and internet worked great. The only downside became evident at 4 AM when the mosque on the adjacent hill did the call to prayer using a high-powered amplifier and low cost speakers. That was it for sleeping!

Sunday, November 5, 2006

It was great to see Naser feeling better this morning, as we had a long drive to the southwest on the road that goes to the Red Sea Ports and on to Mecca. The Chinese had originally improved and paved the road, and were now working on making the part near Sana'a four lanes. With paint it would be four lanes, without paint it was good for 6 or 8 lanes! The Italian and German government have also built roads for Yemen.

We stopped to make a purchase in a busy market village noted for high quality qat. Soon we passed the highest mountain on the Arabian Peninsula at 3,700 meters (12,136 ft.), before heading into steep mountainous country. The road twisted and turned, with oncoming traffic taking the curves at death defying speeds. Leaving the road is not a pleasant thought, as the drop to the valley floor can be thousands of feet. Side hills were decorated with rearing horses outlined in white painted rocks, the emblem of the President's party, and of a sun with rays for the opposition party.

On the top of many of the high mountains were perched villages, all consisting of four or five story stone houses. Sometimes we could see several villages at one time - each hill seemed to have one. This is the Haraz region where coffee and qat are grown on terraced hillsides. In the capital city, Manakha, it was market day.

We were going to drive through to a mountaintop village further on, but it was impossible to get through the market area. Vehicles are not parked here; they are abandoned wherever the driver wants to bargain for something. We had to reverse up the congested one vehicle wide street through swarms of pedestrians until we could turn around and take another road to different village. Poor Naser was furious.

The alternate was the village of Al-Hoteib, where a sect of Shi'ite Muslims live. There are members of the sect in various countries, and different high buildings in the town are designated for pilgrims from India, Turkey and so on. An elderly local guide showed me around, and then suggested I climb to a monument at the top of a pinnacle above the village. He sat down to wait for me, but about a third of the way up my knee gave out so I turned back. This sect is against qat, and will pay farmers to switch their crop to coffee. They are a wealthy, hard working group.

Back in Manakha the market crowds had thinned so with a lot of horn honking and hollering on the part of Naser we were able to get through and continue to the town of Al-Hajjarah, an old fortified village surrounded by cliffs dropping thousands of feet to the valley below. The five story stone houses were constructed by Jewish builders around 400 years ago and are still as good as new. The builders were so respected that the government required them to train others in the art before they left for Israel in 1948.

Abas had a friend in the village that invited us to his house for tea. His family have lived here for many generations. People in the area are in incredible physical condition - just the walk up to the village gate and then five stories up inside the house had me gasping! Most people know Costa Rica because of the world cup, and it was here that I found out from Abas that Costa Rica football star Wanchope had been signed by an Argentinean team!

We turned down an invitation for lunch, and at the car found Naser had to decline two invitations from the villagers. The hospitality is amazing. Our lunch was at a small hotel in Manakha, where the eating room was similar to where we ate the first day, the food delicious and spoons were available. After lunch and tea the qat was broken out and we began to chew as a musical group played for two male dancers. I was invited to participate in the dancing, which I did, then returned to my qat chewing to watch as the drums were brought out to accompany the next dances. We were the only ones in the place - tourism won't get going until next month.

On our return trip to Sana'a I noticed that the driving on the mountain roads was much calmer than when we were travelling the other way, no doubt an effect of the qat drivers would now be chewing.

Tomorrow the flight to Seyun, Yemen, is at 5:40 AM, so we'll depart the hotel at 4 AM. Something other than the call to prayer will have to wake me up!