I am going to post several pictures of this trip because the photos speak much better than any of my words…
For those who are interested in seeing more pictures of my trip to Yemen, later this week I will post our trip photos on my facebook and in the photo section of this blog.
People who are close to me know that I am big into battling “misinformation” or “exaggeration” in the media, especially when it comes to the Middle East and the Arab world. This post on my trip to Yemen is another example. Yes, some areas in the north of Yemen are dangerous for foreigners, but these sites are in the north and the tourist sites have all been closed.
However, Sana’a, the capital of Yemen and the UNESCO protected old town in Sana’a can be argued is as safe or safer than some areas of LA, Chicago, DC, London, Paris, etc.
The purpose of this post is not to try and fight the misinformation, or try and convince you Yemen is safe to visit– but importantly, keep reminding everyone about the amazing world out there….try and not let fear prevent you from experiencing it, especially the Middle East.
Romain, my brother-in-law, and I go on a trip each year with the focus of the trip on adventure.
We started this ritual in 2008 when we toured Lebanon. On that trip we drove all the way from Beirut to south Lebanon upto 400 meters from the border of Israel (I made a post on that trip) … I wanted to go to Rwanda this year, but Romain said “Yemen would be a cooler story” …
The flight to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen was an easy 2 hour Emirates airline flight from Dubai. Because of the 1 hour time difference, we left Saturday morning at 6:00am and arrived to Sana’a at 7:00 am.
On the flight, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to see at least 10 other westerners….
We sat at the exit row and the stewardess, a talkative Australian sat facing us on the takeoff and landing … she asked me “why are you going to Yemen?” And I replied, “for sightseeing.”
She said, “yea right…” and obviously, did not understand our interest in visiting Yemen.
It was quick and easy to get our visas upon arrival and within 20 minutes of landing, we were out of the airport and in the car with our driver, a big burly, efficient man named Ibrahim.
The drive to our hotel, the Movenpick lasted maybe 15 minutes — We quickly, checked in and left straight away to start our tour without even going to our room….we had just two full days in Yemen and we did not want to waste even one minute.
Throughout the day, everyone was warm and friendly; we never once felt any anger from anyone and soon forgot we were in a country which CNN and most of the western media considers dangerous and hostile.
The afternoon we drove an hour outside Sana’a to Wadi Dhar and one of the most spectacular sites I have ever visited, a palace built on a rock called the “Dar Al Hajar.” I should point out, although I would rate this experience up there with my visit to the great wall, Petra, even the pyramids …. we saw no other tourists the entire day.
The Dar Al Hajar is a palace built on and inside a massive rock. With the risk of sounding melodramatic, “remarkable” … “incredible” does not adequately describe this place. We walked all over Wadi Dhar, I even went for my 45 minute run which I had to do for my IM training … we took many photos and talked with the local people. Everyone was warm and friendly, and several of them thanked us for visiting Yemen.
We then drove to Bait Baws, the old Jewish settlement which stood for centuries (pictured below) This massive village was completely deserted and we walked freely, through this incredible maze like site and did not see any other tourists.
Most of the men chew something called “ghat” … they call it “Yemen whiskey.”
We reluctantly tried some, but only to please a group of men who invited us into the guard tower they sat. Both of us did not like the taste.
Around 6pm, our driver dropped us off at the gate entrance to the old city of Sana’a, a walled in city protected by UNESCO. This gate and walled in city dates back 700+ years. Two young men came up and started to speak in English to us and became our guides through the old town.
Absolutely, incredible … walking around tiny back alley streets at night without street lights in Yemen…
We went through “Suq al-Milh” the Souk (the market) and saw everything on sale, from Donkeys, chickens, lamb, spices, fruit, silver, tobacco, honey, blacksmith goods, just to name a few.
We even stopped in an area of the old town with several small hole in the wall restaurants and ate dinner (pictured below). We did not see any other westerners and nearly no women.
Around 10pm, the two young guides, Saleem and Maher took us to what is considered the nicest hotel in the old town of Sana’a, (Burj al salam). When we entered the gorgeous hotel, Romain and I looked at each other with regret because we had not stayed at this hotel.
Romain smoked shi-sha on the roof balcony, I enjoyed a great cigar … and we sat quietly, both thinking about how gorgeous everything was…
The next day was the most exciting.
Sunday – we woke up at 4 am and flew to the Hadramaut region of Yemen (I dont know the name of the city we flew to) We wanted to visit “Shibam” which is called “the Manhattan of the desert” and has been a UNESCO protected site since 1983
To visit the Hadramaut region, one of Yemen’s most famous historical sites we had to have approval from the government which our travel agent in Yemen got for us.
The flight was easy and safe. Upon arrival, we did not have to go through customs and we were out of the airport within minutes of landing.
We were met at the airport by our driver as well as a truck of 6 soldiers all carrying AK-47s, our body guards for the day. We had three sets of guards for the day who changed at each check point. We had a truck of 9 guards plus a guard sitting in our truck on the long drive through the desert.
I will not go into all the various sites we visited … but I want to point out our body guards really took great care of us, always ensuring they went into sites before us, and one stood guard behind us and in front …. they really went out of their way to ensure our visit was safe and enjoyable.
We had to drive 5 hours through Hadramaut and Wadi Dhan … driving through oasis like valleys, mountains and flat desert plans. Gorgeous.
Writing about “body guards” protecting us and driving with us, in my opinion distorts the reality of our experience because we never felt in danger; we were never scared and I am confident had we been on our own, we would have been ok.
We stopped at a road side cafe where Romain ate fresh chicken. I stuck to my vegan diet and only ate a small portion of cooked rice.
We flew back to Sana’a from a different airport which was near the Indian Ocean… stunning.
The low cost airline (Felix Air, like easyjet inexpensive open seating, similar to a bus) was great – both the planes were brand new and very efficient.
We arrived back to our hotel around 9pm, went for a swim in the massive swimming pool at the movenpick and then went to sleep … our flight back to Dubai was at 10am the following day, and we organized to have Ibrahim pick us up at 6:15 and drive us to the old town of Sana’a so we could walk around for a couple hours before we went to the airport.
Monday morning, we arrived to the old town by 6:30am, met our two guides and walked around the town which was slowly waking up … we went to the hotel, burj al salam to have breakfast and coffee.
The open terrace on the roof of this hotel overlooks the old town as well as Sana’a, and the view is exceptional. After quietly enjoying strong coffee and a cigar, we walked through the souk back to the entrance of the gate where our driver was waiting to take us to the airport.
I think Yemen was the 85th country I have visited, and I sincerely consider this trip to be one of the most exciting, memorable experiences of my life.
What made this trip so fantastic and memorable was the Yemeni people. Very few people asked us for money, many turned my money away when I tried to “tip” them for a service. More people than I can remember came up and thanked us for coming to visit their country.
I was told by someone that Prophet Mohamed referred to the Yemeni people as “the most gentle of all.”
For anyone planning a trip to Sana’a … I highly recommend the Burj Al Salam. (the Movenpick is a 5 star western style hotel and very nice, but the Burj al Salam is in the middle of the old town with extraordinary views over the old town and Sana’a)
Our travel agent “Al Mamoom International Tours” was exceptional (+967712593688) they went out of their way to ensure we had a safe and enjoyable trip. A special thanks to Beatrice, the Italian woman who heads up this company who took great care of us. Beatrice has lived in Yemen for more than 5 years.