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.
|Friday, November 10, 2006 05:43:33|
Arabia 2006: 8 - Seiyun, Yemen to Abu Dhabi, UAE
Monday, November 6, 2006
The hotel wake up call and my alarm clock combined to drag me out of bed at 3:30 AM. The guide and driver were in the lobby to take me to the airport, where security was very heavy. I'll miss travelling with Abas & Naser, they have been a lot of fun as well as a wealth of information. What one didn't know the other did.
The Boeing 737-800 lifted off on time in the light of a full moon for the 55-minute flight to Seiyun. Announcements on board were in Arabic and English. As the sun came up the desert below looked like an ocean, with high waves of sand separated by low troughs running parallel to our course. These formations continued for about 100 kilometres, stretching to the far mountains. They gave way to trackless dunes of wind blown sand - not even a dirt track was to be seen. As we came closer to Saiyun there were steep sided mesas - flat topped mountains with twisting deep valleys that looked like giant jig saw puzzle pieces pressed together.
Nearer to Seiyun patches of green began to show, where irrigation turned the desert into fertile farmland. Closer to the airport green fields were side by side and the huge oasis that the Hadhramout area is came into view. On the ground I could see that high cliffs surrounded the whole area.
A driver was waiting to take me to the Al Hawta Palace Hotel, located several miles past Seiyun. It was a palace, built 150 years ago of mud and clay in the traditional Wadi Hadhramout architectural style. The hotel has narrow passageways leading to courtyards from which more passageways lead. My room is on the ground floor, so windows opening to passageways have been permanently closed for privacy. Natural light comes from small windows near the top of the 20-foot ceiling. The doors are five-feet high, so I'm walking around like my tie is caught in my fly.
Two massive square pillars in the middle of the room are used create cubicles - one for the bed, another for the TV area, another for a desk, and so on. There is a good swimming pool located in the 5-hectare gardens, which are filled with date palms, flowering plants and trees which give the air a perfume like fragrance. Service is great - I sent my laundry in at 10 AM and had it back by noon, washed and pressed.
I have no program laid on today, as originally my flight wasn't to arrive here until 4:30 PM. Initially I thought of taking a taxi to have a look around, and perhaps a walk through the souk, but it occurred to me that everything is included in the program tomorrow, and that my chance of encountering a taxi driver that could understand me would be very remote anyhow. My grasp of Arabic is expanding, but is still very rudimentary.
I caught up on some sleep, got some writing done, emails away and had an excellent lunch. The food here is very good. Lunch was a jumbo shrimp cocktail followed by the local version of lobster thermador served in the shell with mashed potatoes, salad and veggies. It was superb. As is traditional in Yemen, the bill included a 5% tip. A swim in the afternoon rounded off the day - it was relaxing and went by quickly.
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
The same driver picked me up at 9 AM with guide, Abdulqadr Mahdami. Abdul is in charge of the accounts department for the sports authority in Seiyun, and a freelance guide. He claims to need the extra income to make ends meet, so when he has a tour he takes a vacation day from the government. He spoke reasonable English, and had a notebook with facts on the various attractions we were to visit. He tells me he contributes to various guidebooks.
The Hadhramaut oasis is 165 km long and 12 km wide at its widest point. Most areas are narrower, walled in by towering mud cliffs that surround the area. The 700 meter high capital of Hadhramaut is Seiyun. The oasis is above a huge aquifier, or underground lake, which is easy to access with a well. Monsoon rains in July and August top up the aquifier annually. The population of Hadhramaut is 800,000, with 60,000 living in Seiyun.
Our first destination was the town of Tarim, which was the capital of the Kinda Kings. The Al-Muhdar Mosque is famous for its 41-meter tall tower, the highest in all of Arabia. The original mosque is ancient, but it was rebuilt in its present form in 1915.
We also explored the Al-Kaff Palace, built in 1516 as the residence of Sultan Badr Abu Tweireq, now a museum with explanations written in Arabic and English. It was a humble home, boasting 96 rooms, 14 storerooms, 23 bathrooms, 4 prayer rooms, 214 windows and 183 doors. The family dynasty eventually built 23 palaces around Tarim between the 19th century and 1930. They were a merchant family, whose money was made in the Dutch East Indies and Singapore, where they had hotels and other investments. The architectural style is a combination of SE Asia and Hadhramaut. They left Yemen during the 1967 revolution. Some returned after 1994 but most are now prominent businessmen in Saudi and the Gulf States.
The next stop was Seiyun, former capital of the Kathiri Sultanate, to visit the mud brick palace of Sultan Al-Kathiri. To make bricks mud is mixed with straw and pressed into wooden moulds to dry. Tall buildings use three sizes of bricks, larger ones at the bottom then smaller higher up. The bricks are broader and longer than our standard bricks, and only a couple of inches thick. Mud is used between the bricks for mortar, then a coat of mud is plastered on the outside and finally a coat of lime is plastered over that for protection against the rains. Mud bricks are still the preferred building material, but concrete block is gaining favour rapidly.
The small souk, about two blocks long, was interesting. It is in a narrow, twisting lane covered by tarps against the sun. We also took a walk through the rough, dirt streets of the old residential area. These lanes are wide enough for people, animals and motor bikes, but not cars.
Most tourists head back to the hotel for lunch, but I told the guide I would prefer a local restaurant, so bought them lunch at a place similar to those in which we ate in Sana'a. There were tables and chairs on a patio for tourists, but we chose the inside carpeted floor with the locals. I was issued a spoon, while the others preferred to use their hands. The only difference was that the food here was individually portioned, instead of in communal dishes.
After lunch they took me back to the hotel while they went to pray and then rest for the hottest part of the day. A swim & a bit of writing filled the time until 3 PM when we drove to Shibam, locally known as the "desert Manhattan" for its tall buildings. Old Shibam now has a population of 2,000, while across the highway and riverbed new Shibam has around 5,000 inhabitants.
Old Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is claimed to be the world's oldest high-rise city. The mud-brick buildings are between 5 and 7 stories high. Buildings built on low ground are higher so the roofs are the same height. The first floor is for large animals like cows and donkeys, the second floor for goats and sheep, and the floors above for living. Doors on top floors connect to adjacent buildings to allow women to visit back and forth without having to cover up. A pot on ropes strung across the street is used to swap goods or borrow from neighbours without climbing 7 stories. The unpaved dirt streets are narrow, opening into frequent open squares.
The city was founded some 2,500 years ago, on a high piece of ground that is an island in a river during the monsoon season. It was largely destroyed by floods, and then rebuilt as the walled city that exists today about 500 years ago. Most buildings are still occupied. We had the opportunity to explore one that is open to tourists, renewing my respect for people who live in 7 story buildings with flights upon flights of stairs. The buildings average 30 meters (100 ft) in height.
We drove across the dry riverbed to new Shibam, where the guide mentioned that part of the program was to climb the cliff towering over the town for the view. He was grateful when I declined, as he was suffering from a cold and laryngitis and although he was game to do the job, he really wasn't feeling up to it. From there it was back to the hotel.
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
After breakfast and a quick look at my email Hassam drove me to the airport. There was no security at the gate to either the hotel or the airport. Unfortunately he drove off before I realized that I'd left my new Tilley hat in his vehicle.
Officials were pleasant and efficient, greeting people with a smile. The flight was on time and comfortable. Most of the time we were flying over relatively flat desert, with alternating wide bands of light yellow and red sand stretching as far as the eye could see. As we came closer to Abu Dhabi there were oil fields with a web of dirt access roads connecting the well sites, then paved roads connecting small towns.
As has always been my experience in the Emirates, procedures were fast and friendly. I tried to find the rental car I had booked, but was told car rentals are in another terminal quite a distance away. A taxi ride got me to the right location, the paperwork done and I was on the 10-lane highway into Abu Dhabi.
Driving in UAE is great. The freeway system is excellent, and people here know how to use it. The speed is posted at 120 kph, but not many go that slow. I found that at 140 kph I could hold my own in the middle lane, but traffic was flashing past in the fast lane. Road signs are in English and Arabic, and the roads are well marked.
After an unexpected tour of the waterfront, I found the hotel and when I retrieved my suitcase the valet made off with the car. The Sheraton Khalidiya is a nice hotel, providing almost anything one could desire --- except a bar. A close friend, Gayle Foster, had suggested I call her friends Bill and Wendy Neelin at the Canadian Embassy, so I did and an arrangement was made to meet at the embassy at closing time.
A short taxi ride took me to the embassy in an office tower in the Abu Dhabi Mall. Bill came out to meet me, and soon his wife, Wendy - who also works in the embassy, joined us. We walked over to what is know as The Beach Club, where a decent pub had half a dozen brands of German beer on tap. After a few pints we ordered dinner - I decided to stay with the theme and have sauerkraut & sausages. It was great. They are super people, and we had a good night.
After we were well watered and fed, Wendy drove around the city a little to show me some of the sights, then dropped me back at the hotel where no rocking was required to get me to sleep. Tomorrow I head off to explore part of Yemen & the other Emirates.