The hidden pearl of Orient


One old Yemeni joke says: Adam and Archangel Gabriel are revisiting the world. They are flying over various countries and Gabriel takes over the role of the guide. "This is France and this is Italy", describes Gabriel. "Over there, you can see Greece and Jordan is right here".Adam looks really confused all the time when suddenly he admits: "You know what Gabriel, I do not recognise anything at all". In the end, they get to South Arabia and Adam's face lights up. "Finally, Yemen is over there" he screams. Gabriel's questioning look forces Adam to add: "Nothing has changed in this country."

No McDonald's

This is reality, my dear readers. If you look for a country without any signs of globalism, without any McDonald's restaurants neither a big supermarkets, where people wear traditional costumes, you should visit Yemen. I personally didn't expect this part of the world would impress me so much. I thought there was nothing that would surprise me, especially after visiting "precarious" places in the world like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. However, Yemen got me literally. I was never more convinced that travelling and myself equals to non-touristic places. I have a feeling Yemen could be a popular tourist spot, but it is not.

Why it is like this? Why is Yemen not attractive amongst tourists? Currently, all public and media attention is focused on the Ukraine conflict. Everyone with a common sense finds it a bit suspicious, thinking if there are no other issues in the world to pay attention to. Yemen is currently experiencing humanitarian crisis mainly due to the conflict between the northern and the souther part of the country supported by the powerful countries in order to settle their scores. The northern territories are controlled by Iran while the southern by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and obviously by the USA. The question is who suffers the most? Local people and the local economy, of course, which is by the way completely frozen.

The other planet

Let's take it step by step. I found Yemen once as an interesting country to travel to, but what convinced me to visit it, despite the ongoing war conflict, were the latest stories and pictures from daring explorers like Lenka Hrabalova or Martin Navratil. I thought it might be the right time to visit it now as you never know when the situation in Yemen gets worse. My co-traveller is again Martin Durikovic, a constant grouch. Since he is the right guy, you would forgive him even his persistent grumpy mood.

First of all, we need to get in touch with the local agency which arranges the safe stay of foreigners in the country during these hard times. Soon, we can set off on a journey to South Arabia, of course with the stack of papers and licences. We arrive to Oman, country which seems to have a defined heading and which is more developed than our country. The real shock comes when we cross the borders with Yemen, it looks like we enters the other planet.

The young guys with daggers, Kalasnikovs, wearing traditional costumes and flip-flops, are checking your travel documents. Their teeth are damaged by chewing Khat. However, always fascinated by the western cultural differences.

Our guides take us immediately to local restaurant where we very quickly understand that this five day trip to Yemen will be overfilled with tasty food. Yemeni cuisine is fantastic. Traditional dishes include chicken meat, veal, camel meat or chevon. I have no idea what is their secret ingredient, but each meal we tried was super delicious. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, all the time it was pure heaven in my mouth.

Close to the doors of Eden

After 600kms long journey from Salalah in Oman we arrive to Tarim (first town in Yemen) where we remain amazed by the local architecture. Mosques are beautifully decorated and they look like from a fairy tale. When you wander around the town, you feel like traveling 100 years ago back in time. You are literally surrounded by the old, ancient town everywhere you go. Tarim is considered as the academical centre of the country. A library with ancient manuscripts is located there. It is estimated that Tarim contains up to 354 mosques, this number reflects the exact number of days in the Islamic calendar. So, as a Muslim you can visit different mosque every single day of the year. The question is why is this town full of mosques? The answer is simple. In the past people from Tarim used to travel to Egypt to earn money. If they were successful and became wealthy, they came back to the town and had a mosque built as a sign of gratitude to Allah. Three big cemeteries can be found in the town. One legend says that in one of them you can find the doors of Eden. If you have some spare time, you can try to find it. You may get lucky. It is also believed that in this town you can find the majority of Mohammeds' prophets in the world.

Umbrella or weapon?

The city of Seiyun is located close to Tarim with its prominent landmark - the Kathiri Palace: in the past it used to serve as a fortress. After some reconstruction it became the residence of the Sultan. Recently, part of the palace has been designated as an archeological museum while the other part as a library.

Imagine the most luxurious hotel you ever stayed at or dreamed about staying at, so this is it, we are accommodated in a fancy hotel with a pool. You arrive to hotel with a weapon? Not a problem at all! The umbrella stands at the reception serve as the place for storing weapons.

Due to the war, our movement around the country is limited to the area of the valley of Hadhramaut. The total size of this valley is larger than Slovakia. Anyone is allowed to wear a weapon, no-one cares. You can even buy one just right on the street. Just one thing, you cannot take it with you on the plane when you travel home. The airlines are not big fans of the weapon transport.

Other thing, rather shocking, is the absolute poverty in the country. When we finish our meal at the restaurant and are about to get in our car, we can see group of Somalians finishing our leftovers.

Or seeing a little girl pouring coffee leftovers to one cup and drinking it. If I hadn't been to Somalia, I would never say there can be bigger poverty in the world than in Somalia. The average salary is 60 - 100 Dollars, while price of daily dose of khat (the local drug) is 30 Dollars. This chewing drug is so popular, that before the war almost 80% of men, 40% of women and 15% of children were addicted to it. Now, during the war, the number could be even higher. In practise, the buds and leaves of the plant khat are chewed until a big ball is formed in one's month. While chewing, substances similar to amphetamine are released. According to our driver, who used to chew khat every day, you feel like a king when you chew it. You get a feeling you can do anything and all troubles can be solved. Rumours say that men get harder erections after taking this drug. However, women are not so sure about it.

Arabic Manhattan

Have you ever heard of ancient skyscrapers? Europe experienced the biggest building boom of housing estates just after the WWII. On the other hand, in Yemen, first housing estates similar to ours were built round the years 1500-1600 AD. One house next to the other, some of them eight floors high. Place like this can be seen in the town of Shibam, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982. With about 7000 inhabitants, it is a real pearl for the foreigners. Narrow streets, just like in Italy, but in the completely different part of the world. You just wonder around the town, watch the ordinary life, pass the cattle sleeping on the staircase, watch the locals resting in the shade talking to each other and moaning about the "Western world". If you want to get some souvenirs, this is the right place to do it. There is probably no other place in the country, where you can buy any. You may find here some postcards, tapes or CDs with Yemeni music. In one store we find a little boy making some souvenirs out of the wood. Souvenirs shops are open only when foreigners come to the town, which happens once or twice in three months. My co-traveller Maťo is obsessed by tourist magnets. He is dreaming about bringing some of them to Slovakia as a present for his family and friends. He keeps asking everyone for them, our guide, sellers at shops, but no-one can help. Since our first day in Yemen, I have known he will not get any, but I don't want to disappoint him. Do you think he bought any in the end?

We spend the evening on the hill over the town of Shibam, meditating by the sunset, while Abdul is chewing khat as usually.

In a typical tourist destination you can always find some places which are worth seeing, even despite the huge crowds of tourists visiting them. In Yemen, however, you can find real gems everywhere you look. If you imagine this place without mobiles and cars, you may feel like you traveled hundred years ago in the past. It is fascinating to watch reactions of people when I start speaking about this country. They literally know nothing about it, they often even think it is located in Africa.

Pepsi on the field

We are on the road again. The most beautiful place is just about to come. It is located in the valley of Wadi Doan. It is a rock town with mud brick buildings surrounded by little fields full of the noise of hard-working locals. As you watch it from the hill, it looks like a paradise, everything seems perfect down there in the town. Next day we decide to leave our hotel resort, where we are staying with the local elite, and climb down to the town to have a closer look at it. A local boy, who could be thirteen, explains that his job is to scare birds away, so they do not eat anything from the fields. We ask him how he scares them away. He answers that with a gun. When asking him where his gun was, he has no clue. In a while we meet a man who lives in the rock town and has a key from the main gate. Our guide has an idea to have a look inside the town. The man demands hundred Dollars to enter this place and we immediately understand that this place is used to tourists. When he sees we are about to leave, he lowers the price by half. I ask our guide to translate him what we think about it: we are visitors not a wallet with legs. He is not willing to understand it, so we leave the place.

As we are coming back to our hotel, we notice a man surrounded by a lot of women. They are farmers working on the fields. Women are covered completely by clothes, we can see their eyes only. The man is wearing a skirt a blue T-shirt with Pepsi logo. We have a chat with them and one women, we can see she is elderly, is willing to have her picture taken.

Happy Arabia

As we travel around the country we see a lot of nice places. We visit tombs, valleys, spectacular palaces, which are completely empty these days and local market places. We just watch local people, have a chat with them, take pictures with them, and I have a feeling I am at home. It is a place where people always smile, gather together and where a family plays crucial role in the society. However, what is the most important is the time, people find time for each other. They spend 4-6 hours a day chatting with the others. Later, when it gets hotter, they just relax after the lunch. Of course, often with the khat drug. Generally speaking, time passes slowly in this place and when I am in this area of the world, I am always thinking about the importance of time, not to hurry everywhere and try to find time to smell the roses like a poet would say. In the end, this place is called happy Arabia - Felix Arabia. Also because of its greener environment, relative rainy climate and better soil condition than in the surrounding countries.

Short speculation

What is the future of Yemen? No-one knows. During our visit (May this year) both fighting groups agreed on the truce. The military controls were not so common, however, very precise and we got the feeling that without necessary documents, permissions and local guides we would not be able to travel anywhere in the country. Soldiers in Yemen are usually very young. I would say, some of them were not older than 15 or 16. When our driver was missing khat drug, he would just stop by the nearest heristal and buy some there. Locals usually do not speak English. Everything had to be translated by our local guide, even though we know few Arabic phrases, like to greet someone, say thank you or wish all the best. I remember one young guy in the city of Seiyun. His English was perfect. He was pleased to see us - tourists and was happy to have a quick chat with us. Sometimes when we went to the store or at barber's, I had some spare time, so I just sat down on the stairs and was watching the hustle of the city. Despite the traditional Yemeni costume I was wearing, I still drew attention of the locals. What I like about Yemenis is their politeness, they are not annoying, they always greet you and leave you alone. I had never got the feeling that I would bother anyone during our journey. What I found funny was that, when we entered any building, such as a restaurant, everyone stopped talking and was staring at us. Regarding the sightseeing, I have never seen such amazing places in the Arabic world, not counting Iraq or Egypt, which is, however, extremely crowded by tourists. It obviously reflects on the behaviour of the locals. Iraq has a big advantage, the freedom of movement for tourists.

I wish I could come back to Yemen once again and I hope this country will become more open to tourism. At the moment, travelling to this country is one of the biggest travellers' challenges.

Practical information:

Visa and arrival: Visas are managed by the local agency, which ensures your security during the stay. It is not possible to travel around the country individually. The easiest and cheapest flight is from Vienna to Oman (Salalah) via Abu Dhabi. The borders of Yemen are 300kms far from Salalah.

Security: Moderate, but not satisfying. In the past there were cases of tourists kidnapping that not always ended up luckily. The Yemeni society is tribal. There are often conflicts between tribes and the government regarding the agricultural holding. In some areas, even a convoy is needed.

Accommodation: You can find a good hotel with European standards in every big city. In each hotel there is usually a restaurant and at the reception you are allowed to deposit your weapon, either in your personal possession or borrowed one.

Food and drinks: Yemeni cuisine has developed over the decades. Each trade caravan brought specific food to Yemen and some of them became part of their traditional cuisine. While the other recipes have purely Yemeni origin and are passed on through generations. Fresh ingredients and spices are the main part of Yemeni cuisine. Typical ingredients include chickpeas, couscous, parsley, mint, coriander, lamb meat, corn flat bread and spicy sauces.

Each meal is accompanied by coffee. Moka coffee has its origin in Yemen and has quickly spread worldwide. Spicy coffee Qishr is made of coffee husks. Alcohol is forbidden in the country. Strawberry non-alcoholic wine could be considered as a replacement for it.

Date of trip: may 2023

Written by: Peter Gregor

Photos by: Martin Durikovic

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