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Pictures of our Yemen trip with our car from May 16th to June 15th, 1996
(During our circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula from Oman to Saudi Arabia)
 
the following without our vehicle in February 2011:
Part 1: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (East) Hadibo - Dihamri - Arher Beach
Part 2: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (South) Homhil - Aomak Beach - Wadi Daerhu - Dicksam Plateau
Part 3: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (West) Qalansiya - Shouab Beach - Qadama Beach - Momi Plateau - Wadi Ayhaft
Part 4: United Arab Emirates Sharjah - Dubai
 

 

 
Yemen Map

 

 

 
 
Map of the Arabian Peninsula

click a picture to see details

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the Rub' al Khali,
the largest sand desert of the
world on the Yemeni side
Desert spring near Thamud
Tire shop in Tarim, Hadramawt Valley
 
 
Yemen, splendor of 1001-nights  (May 16, 1996 – June 15, 1996)
 
The bearded young man with his shouldered Kalashnikov is examining us suspiciously when we reach his control post at the edge of the Rub al Khali desert with our adventurously equipped Toyota LandCruiser. Arriving through a labyrinth of desert tracks from Oman, it is our entry into the Hadramawt Valley, from the empty desert back into civilization. With his two saddled camels, he is the officer in charge that nobody undesirably is entering his beautiful country. And he really takes his mission very seriously and checks our paperwork carefully. After a few minutes however, he already waves us into the legendary Arabia Felix.

The first mosque is appearing between the white desert sand and the dry wadi. We are approaching the small village of Qasam. The brown color of the simple adobe dwellings is matching perfectly with the bare brown desert mountains. Their elaborate colorful doors lead into a secluded yard, where behind high protecting walls life is going on as it did for centuries. Farmers are watering their lush green fields nearby with an ingenious irrigation system. The wheel of time has been standing still in this remote part of the world.

 

 

 

Biblical scenes between Thamud and Tarim
 
 
On a dusty track, we penetrate further into the heart of this fascinating valley. Between long stretched villages at the foot of vertically towering mountain walls, the white domes of Marabouts – the tombs of holy men – are gleaming in the desert sun. Along the barren track, we pass red glowing fires of limestone ovens, fed with camel dung and old tires, pushing a black trail of smoke towards the sky. They are burning the lime that traditionally is used for the adornment of the house facades that give the Yemeni architecture its outstanding unique appearance. Producing lime powder in the murderous heat is not at all a bed of roses. Carried from the surrounding mountains, it has to be heated up to 14 hours at over 1800F degrees, and it takes the same time to cool it down again. This procedure softens the limestone, which is then crushed into powder – a very strenuous work!

 

 

 

Rub’-al-Khali desert from
Oman to Yemen
Al-Muhajir tomb near
Sayun, Hadramawt Valley
Sultan Al Kathiri Palace in Sayun,
Hadramawt Valley
 
 
The first major place Sayun is dominated by the impressive sultan’s palace and the shiny dome of the Al Habshi tomb. We urgently need Yemeni Rial currency and are looking around in the small main square. Immediately, we find ourselves surrounded by a lively, oriental scene. With fascination, we watch the bargaining of these bearded men. Suddenly, we are attracted by excited loud voices. We hardly can believe what we see: An elderly money changer is sitting in the midst of piles of Rial bundles on an old fashioned pushcart. First, we are a bit suspicious about the legality, but then we change some dollars without any problems and head straight to a small restaurant consisting of three long benches. We order freshly baked warm pita bread, smashed peas and liver and pay, including five soft drinks, not more than 3 US$! Eating out makes fun again!

 

 

 

Mosque in the desert / Hadramawt Valley
Shibam - ‘Manhattan of the Desert’,
Hadramawt Valley
Shibam - ‘Manhattan of the Desert’,
Hadramawt Valley
 
 
Already before sunrise, we have breakfast in the dry wadi with a splendid view to the legendary Shibam – called the “Manhattan of the Desert” and UNESCO world heritage site, where we camped the night. Here it is especially obvious that the architects of the past were tending to build skywards in order to protect themselves against possible attackers. The adobe strongholds were six to eight stories high and did adapt wonderfully into the landscape. They stand very close to one another, resembling a fortified island in the desert. Now and then, a deeply veiled woman scurries past us; goats rummage in the piles of garbage lying around as we wander through the narrow alleys in the early morning, where in ancient time’s camel caravans rested. From small wooden windows, curious children are watching us. At one of the already opened tourist shops, old doors, preciously carved, are for sale. In front of some of the doorways, there are shelters made of dry palm leaves and pieces of colorful tissues to protect the animals from the scorching sun. Next day, when we say good-bye to this unique city, we cannot resist the impression that probably not too many people are still living in these more and more crumbling “skyscrapers of the desert”.

 

 

 

Shibam - ‘Manhattan of the Desert’,
Hadramawt Valley
Skyscraper city of Shibam,
Hadramawt Valley
Yemeni children in Sana’a
 
 
By leaving behind the stunning Hadramawt Valley with its vertically eroded mountain walls and its beautiful scenery, we leave behind also its picture-book villages. As a special treat, on our way out we encounter veiled women in black long robes and cone-shaped straw huts, their outfit known to be typical for this region. They are sitting on an antique oxcart and are heading to their scattered cornfields.

When we reach the tropical climate of the Gulf of Aden’s coastal region, we are plunging into another fascinating world. Mukhalla, the harbor town that was badly hit by the war between North and South Yemen, is a picturesque place nestling at the foot of rugged desert mountains and a half-moon shaped bay with a white sandy beach. It shows a mixture of Yemeni, Indian and Asian architecture, and at its heyday it must have looked splendidly. Today, the ancient treasures are fading away, and at a closer look, negligence and garbage cannot be ignored. The next day we are on our way to the Southwest. Until Bir Ali, we drive along a coast with secluded beaches and a sea shining in all variations of blue and green on one side and pitch black volcano rocks with white sand collars on the other side, followed by perfectly shaped volcano cones and frozen lave fields stretching down to the sea. Now and then, we pass an armored war relict rusting away as a testimony of the bloody war fought two years ago. Starting from Ar Rawdah, the scenery is getting more and more mountainous and wilder. It is a region of rugged beauty that takes our breath away. The air is still and heavy when we look for a place to set up a camp amidst the black hot rocks. As soon as we park, crowds of biting flies give us a hard time. Luckily, we are taught only much later of another inconvenience: The forgotten mines still lying around in this region! We prepare our main meal of the day: Three minute-noodles and cheese. Then we crawl into our car and kill the time sweating awake until dawn.

 

 

 

Women in the black Abaya and with the
Nakhl (straw hat) leaving for the fields
Wadi Al-Ayn, Hadramawt Valley
Wadi Al-Ayn, Hadramawt Valley
 
 
After an almost sleepless night, we are not in the slightest mood to continue further South towards Aden, where the temperatures are even more disturbing. Is there any alternative road? We study our guide book carefully and read about a new road that is not yet marked on any map we carry with us. It begins after the village of Mukayras. Shortly afterwards, we find ourselves climbing on a sealed and well developed road in many spectacular hairpins to an elevation of over 6500ft. with awesome views to the huge dry valley below that is interrupted by small mountain ridges only. Finally, we are able to breathe some fresher air and recover from the unbearable heat of the plains. Driving further, at some point near Al Bayda, we leave the former South Yemen and are immediately swept away by the traditional outfit of the bearded men of the Northern tribes. It is especially their precious dagger strapped at their waist, their shouldered Kalashnikov and the broad ammunition belt that gives them their unique wild and adventurous appearance. We find it shows some similarities with Balochistan in Pakistan.

Branching off at Dhamar on another new road in South Eastern direction towards Hammam Damt - Qatabah - Marif, we reenter South Yemen once more – the differences between the North and the South are amazing: The population gets sparse, ancient draw wells replace the modern water tap system of the North, the villages become less attractive and unfinished. At a control post, local taxis and good transporters have to pay toll; they do not bother us though.

 

 

 

Bay of Al-Mukhalla,
300 miles East of Aden
Sand dunes along the sea at Bir Ali
Desert and the sea near Bir Ali
 
 
Then, we are approaching Tai’zz, the former, second Yemeni capital (after Zabid), nestled at the foot of the steep and 9860ft. high mountain Sabir, which has no vegetation at all. From the hillside at the Marib Hotel we enjoy a marvelous view down to the old city with its narrow alleys and the tall minarets of the big mosques. Dusk is approaching and we are anxiously looking for a spot to set up camp. We cannot yet judge the security situation in this wild country and therefore are glad to find a place on a plateau of a tiny mountain ridge, away from the populated area. In the refreshing evening breeze, suddenly huge black centipedes are crawling out of flowering cacti scrub. Only when we change to our sturdy walking shoes, we feel comfortable again.

But the surprising encounters are not yet over. Suddenly three young men step out of the dark, one of them carrying a Kalashnikov. The trio sits down to the ground besides our car despite of the everywhere crawling centipedes. Unfortunately, our late visitors speak only Arabic, the reason why we cannot communicate at all. When the armed guy never stops scanning our fully loaded LandCruiser with his torch, we get more nervous by the minute. Plenty of time passes and they do not make the slightest attempt to leave. With signs, we try to explain them that we are tired and want to go to sleep. Surprisingly, they seem to understand and disappear unexpectedly. As soon as we are alone again, we just have one urge: To get away from here. Who guarantees us that their current visit was merely a friendly one, but that during the night they might return on a less peaceful mission? We find for the rest of the night a place near a disturbingly noisy street – but at least without visitors.

 

 

 

Coastal scenery at Bir Ali,
West of Mukhalla
Sunset atmosphere over Ar-Rawdah
Mountains in the Ar-Rawdah region
 
 
We continue now towards the current capital: Sana’a. The terraced surrounding becomes lush green, with Qat being the main crop, whose delicate leaves generate a stimulating effect and are of great social importance to the people. On mountain ridges, the typically Yemeni “aerie” villages are becoming more frequent. On a good, well developed road, we are climbing up to 9186ft. altitude to the Sumahra Pass. Many times, we are forced to stop to let cool down the car’s water and oil temperatures – the radiator is causing us increasingly headaches. Each time we stop along this tourist route, we are immediately surrounded by begging children, asking for money in particular. They are very persistent and throw stones after us, if we do not comply with their request.

And then, at an elevation of 7220ft., we reach the climatically pleasant capital of Sana’a with its unique architecture, belonging also to the world heritage sites. As legend has it, this town was founded by Noah’s son. It is an exciting feeling wandering through the chaotic, exotic and lively old city where dilapidated LandCruisers, scrap taxis, overloaded pickups, rattling handcarts, antiquated donkey and oxcarts and a huge crowd of people in traditional dresses are pushing their way simultaneously through narrow alleys. The strange smells and the lively atmosphere occupy all our senses and the richly and beautifully adorned houses’ architecture attracts us like a magnet. We discover always new fascinating corners with views over minarets, tiny green vegetable gardens and palm groves. In ancient times, the old city was the residential quarter for the rich. They left in the meantime the narrow dusty alleys for better open land. The poorer moved in who do not have the financial means to maintain their homes. UNESCO is now caring for its conservation. We were told that the common Yemeni custom of carrying always a gun doesn’t apply to Sana’a.

 

 

 

Rada
Minaret in the old town
of Sana'a
Kettle shop in the
old town of Sana'a
 
 
From the 5th floor of the Golden Daar Hotel and from the 8th floor of the Old Sana’a Palace Hotel, we overlook the entire splendor from a bird’s view. But when our eyes catch the ground, we are also confronted with a less romantic part of this country: Garbage is piling up everywhere despite that a kind of garbage removal exists. We watch some women carrying their rubbish to a nearby truck where it is scanned once more by other people for things they might be able to use. The big poverty is shocking. According to statistics, the average life expectancy of a Yemeni in 1990 was only 52 years (2008 = 63). This doesn’t really surprise us considering the poor hygienic conditions of life. And without any doubt, the daily Qat consumption is also paying its toll. Nothing is functioning without this stimulating leaves, the afternoon hours being the main part of the day for chewing it. During this time, business is only progressing extremely slowly. We are told that the daily money spent in Qat is around US$40; US$3 by the poor and US$10 by the better off. B.t.w.: Recently, Qat leaves have been added to the drug list in Switzerland, despite that the Yemeni want to persuade us of its harmlessness: Qat is clearing the brain and help to overcome tiredness, we are told. Qat does neither help to forget nor to solve problems but to talk about them. During a Qat gathering many deals are sealed too.

While in earlier times a small fountain highlighted the entrance of the famous city gate – the 1000-year old Bab Al-Yemen – nowadays casual laborers with archaic tools are looking for an opportunity to earn some money. The adjoining market place is crammed, and the produce is diverse and sufficient. Mounds of carefully piled up ripe tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, zucchinis, onion, garlic and other vegetables – nothing is missing. The most eye-catching are the artistically arranged dates with burning incense sticks in between to keep away the omnipresent, bothersome flies.

 

 

 

Fascinating architecture
in Sana’a (pop. 2.5 mio.)
View of Sana’a, capital of Yemen,
at an altitude of 7'220 ft.
Traditional house facade
with oriel in Sana’a
 
 
One day, we are invited at the Ministry of Youth for a press conference. On our way to their offices, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a close shooting spray. Sirens of ambulances howl through the streets. At windows, some curious heads appear wondering what is happening. It is a tribal conflict fought with the government that is erupting from time to time, we are told. Apparently, the mountain people retry to seize some land that has been promised to them. They are positioned on a high mountain ridge and are shooting from there down into city ground. The counter part, armed police and military, rushed in with flak. In the shortest of time, order is reinstalled and the planned occupation is foiled. People do not really seem to be worried about this skirmish. They are used to this kind of dispute. As we learn, the Presidents Palace is built even underground for security reasons.

 

 

 

Traditional house facade
in Sana’a
Tradition and modern times in Sana’a
(foreign TV programs are tempting)
Wadi Dhahr with rock palace
10 miles North of Sana'a
 
 
Through lucky circumstances, we are invited by a Yemeni family – Emil to a Qat gathering, and me to a traditional women’s get-together. In the Arab world, men and women attend events strictly apart, unless it is a close family affair.

On my arrival, my host, dressed in a modern outfit, gives me a heartedly welcome. Her two little girls wear festive, king blue dresses with white laces. We enter a long, narrow room where the whole floor is covered with a red carpet. Comfortable, colorful cushions are the major ornament. The only “furniture” is a polished and intricately studded brass plate with three big water pipes on it. The room is on the first floor and has five spacious windows giving view to a busy souk lane of the old city.

Slowly the deeply veiled women arrive wearing their floor-length black Tchadors. From the moment they take off their “topcoat”, they turn out to look like princesses of 1001-night. They wear long dresses of heavy fabrics, richly decorated with golden embroideries, headbands of brocade, thin silk stockings and a decent make-up. Cups of fresh aromatic tea are constantly served on a huge tablet, followed by bowls loaded with selected sweet pastry, raisins, almonds, pistachio-nuts and candies. The young girls are happily sitting together, exchanging their little secrets with chatter and laughter. The older generation is busy with the latest gossip and talk animatedly through the whole afternoon while smoking the water pipe and chewing Qat that they take out of a personal paper bag. Leaf after leaf of this drug is stuffed into their mouth until their cheeks look like those of a hamster. Now and then they take a little sip of water or Cola to intensify the stimulating effect. I have the chance to try the Qat leaves too: They taste bitter like almonds.

To welcome a guest with a cloud of fragrance is a very old tradition. The host is holding a clay pot with burning extracts, beautifully smelling, close to the hair and the dresses, leaving behind a long lasting scent. Spraying the guests with an exquisite perfume is another of their traditions. Does a dance performance also belong to their hospitality? I watch with amazement, as two young girls start to dance to the music of a cassette recorder the traditional, threepart Sana’a dance. It consists of many different little steps, done mostly on the spot. For me it is the culmination of a special and unforgettable afternoon.

 

 

 

Rock palace Wadi Dhahr
Girl of Thula
(Kawkaban/Shibam region)
Yemeni with traditional
ceremonial dagger (Jambiya)
 
 
Power cuts are common in Sana’a. One evening, we are sitting under a canopy of glowing stars by candle light on the roof terrace of the Swiss Honorary Consul and get to learn more about this conservative Arab country. There is a huge water shortage in the capital. The water level sinks yearly 20ft. and the government talks about that Sana’a could become the first capital in the world, which is running dry. The costs of a desalination plant in the port city of Hodeidah would arise to US$10 for 1000 liters of water. We also talk about the regime: The many Yemeni tribes cannot identify themselves properly with their parliament, with the result that all decisions turn out to be just a compromise. And we talk also about car theft: A member of the German DED organization lost three cars within 18 months.

When at 4am the voices of the Muezzin echo from far and near calling for prayer, our feeling for this strange world is very intense and overwhelming. We love to have a base in this lively city and start to make some day trips into the surroundings, firstly to the beautiful rock palace Dar Al Hajjar, towering above the green Wadi Dhar framed by high walls of rocks. It is a piece of perfect beauty and one of the most breathtaking examples of the unique Yemeni architecture.

Another day, we drive into the mountains, where the mountain village life seems almost unchanged for centuries. Thula with its two still intact watch towers and its compact fortress wall at the foot of a huge mountain massive is especially interesting. A big water cistern is the centre of the village life, where people and animal get together and where overloaded thin donkeys are walking past.

 

 

 

View from Kawkaban towards
Shibam village, West of Sana'a
Terrace fields in the Hajjah
region after harvesting
Terrace fields in the Hajjah region,
Northwest of Sana'a
 
 
In many hair-pin bends, a good tarmac road, built by the Germans in 1993, leads us deeper into the mountains. Again and again we are captured by the incredibly beautiful views of the terraced fields below us that are cleaved to steep mountain slopes. Every single inch of land is cultivated. The small hamlets along the road are in such conformity with its environment, that it is hard to detect them. At noon, we reach the village of At Tawilah, sitting next to two huge boulders, its souk showing lovely stone arcades. It is such a pity that garbage is piling up everywhere. A funeral procession is just ploughing its way through a dirty alley. The busy market life is almost over. Only the Qat vendors are still present. Very soon even they will be gone and life comes to a complete stand still for the next hours – it is Qat time, time for us to head back to Sana’a.

To visit Marib, the former kingdom of the legendary Queen of Saba, with an armed guide, is not tempting us at all. And without protection it is simply too dangerous. Tourists are still attacked or kidnapped on this road. Therefore, we content ourselves with a visit to Hajjah, where once more beautiful panoramas open up to us: On each mountain ridge, on each outcrop, on each peak, bastions and fortified villages are rising into the sky – their accumulation being typical of the Yemeni highland and interior. View points are in abundance along this road. But we cannot really appreciate them, because whenever we stop to take in the scenery, we are besieged without exception by money asking youngsters. In earlier times, many mountain villages were only accessible by strenuous donkey paths. Today, the new road, built by the Chinese, reaches also Hajjah.

 

 

 

Mountain village in the Hajjah region
in the Washha Mountain Range
View of Ta'izz, the second biggest
town in Yemen (pop. 600'000)
Thunderstorm approaching
a tomb near Ta'izz
 
 
The Southeast monsoon is already approaching, when we leave Sana’a after 17 days and decide to push on to Aden despite to expect an infernal heat. A different world is opening up the more to the South we advance: The rugged mountain give way to a desert with sand dunes, the first palm trees and adobe houses emerge, and approaching Aden, the typical Soviet apartment buildings are taking over. Their desolate condition is demoralizing and, at a closer look, it is even more depressing. A lot is dilapidated, bombarded houses are not removed or restored yet, the decay is visible all around. Everything needs to be taken care of. But the setting could not be lovelier: Laying at the foot of an extinct volcano and surrounded by secluded sandy beaches amidst black lava and bizarre rock formations – it is an awesome sight. People of different races have settled down here. Many live in poverty und are sleeping on the soft sand on the beach, on cobble stone alleys, in wrecked cars, on rooftops or anywhere under the sky. But may be it is due to the unimaginable heat only?

When we leave Aden through the causeway, the whole surrounding is covered in a thick cloud of haze. After a terribly sticky night in the car we are more than happy to escape this hellish heat and are heading to the last sector of our Yemeni journey – towards Hodeidah in the Tihama plain. It is African life pure that is expecting us there: Round huts made of straw, goat kraals, dark-skinned people, unveiled women in colorful dresses, men without daggers and Kalashnikovs: It has nothing in common anymore with the traditional Highland-Yemen. As we are heading towards the Saudi Arabian border, we know with certitude that we will be dreaming for a very long time of this fascinating country – our 93rd – with its deep-rooted traditions.
Note: Today – beginning of 2009 and 69 countries later – we still believe that Yemen is one of the most interesting destination of the world.

 

 

 

Main road in Aden, the capital of the
former People's Democratic Republic of
Yemen, built according to the Soviet style
Facade in Aden from
the English colonial time
Roundhuts in the Tihamah
coastal region, near Zabid
 
More websites from Yemen, where we visited in February 2011 the Island of Socotra: (without our vehicle)
  • Part 1: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (East) Hadibo - Dihamri - Arher Beach
  • Part 2: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (South) Homhil - Aomak Beach - Wadi Daerhu - Dicksam Plateau
  • Part 3: Socotra Island trip in Yemen (West) Qalansiya - Shouab Beach - Qadama Beach - Momi Plateau - Wadi Ayhaft
  • Part 4: United Arab Emirates Sharjah - Dubai