It’s been quite some time since I (Jeremy) made a quick 3 week trip to Yemen with one of the very cool people we met along the road in the past year. If you have been following this blog closely you will probably remember Richo from our escapades in Ghana – he was the Aussie doc who we met along with his pals in Burkina Faso and then randomly bumped into them again in the Green Turtle Lodge in Ghana, when we all arrived on the same day – what a great co-incidence!
Here is a pic of Richo from our time in Ghana.
So somehow it ended up that Richo and I linked up to do a quick “mission” (as Richo calls his trips) to Yemen! I’ve been pretty lazy/busy to write much about it, but Richo kept a good account of things during the trip and ended up sending out a version of the report below by email to all his mates.
Here is a slightly edited version that Richo said we could post up on our blog.
Having been back at work for a coupla months since the last mission [Richo travelled around South America and West Africa – Ed], I suddenly felt the urge to bugger off again, so what better country to suss out than bloody Yemen?! Famous for terrorist attacks, the Queen of Sheba, qat chewing, frankincense and myrrh, huge curved daggers, the worldâ€™s first â€˜skyscrapersâ€™ (constructed from mud), coffee (mocha originates in Yemen) and the stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights, rocking up in Yemen feels like stepping straight back into Biblical times â€“ in fact the locals reckon that â€˜Godâ€™ himself says Yemen hasnâ€™t changed since the day he created it! With shades of Afghanistan, reflections of Morocco, flavours of Africa, and reminders of Arabia, Yemen really is a unique country and is well worth a visit despite its dodgy reputation. If you can put up without drinking alcohol for a while then itâ€™s a really cool place to hang out, and during my three week sojourn I: visited a little town called â€˜Al Qaedaâ€™; dodged crazy looking Arabs with huge daggers and ducked for cover every Thursday as they fired machine guns into the air; attempted unsuccessfully to perve on hot Yemeni chicks covered from head to toe in jet-black burkas; trekked in the rugged Haraz mountains; dined on delicious Yemeni tucker called â€˜foolâ€™; learnt to speak some half-arsed Arabic and decipher their scribbly script; got â€˜highâ€™ on the local herb â€˜qatâ€™; became so desperate that I bought and drank non-alcoholic beer; and â€˜did a Mosesâ€™ by parting the waters of the Red Sea with a massive Red Sea poo! Read onâ€¦.
So why Yemen? Well I dunno really, but I once met a couple of hardcore travellers who raved about the place, plus Iâ€™d never been to a country that starts with â€˜Yâ€™ before! But geez Yemen rocks, and is now one of my favourite countries. Located in the Middle East at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as having Red Sea coastline (a stoneâ€™s throw from Djibouti in East Africa) and the Arabian Sea to the south. The countryside is spectacular, ranging from rugged dry mountains with deep fertile wadis (canyons) to classical Arabian desert with towering sand dunes dotted with oases. Yemeni tucker is bloody delicious too, with â€˜saltaâ€™ and â€˜foolâ€™ being served bubbling and spitting in piping hot stone bowls with crisp fresh bread straight from the tandoor, all washed down with sickly sweet tea or fresh mocha coffee laced with cardamom. The local blokes have big bushy beards and walk around wearing those Yassa Arafat head scarves and a huge curved dagger called a â€˜jambiyaâ€™ in their belt, but as soon as you hit rural areas they all carry bloody AK-47 machine guns and other huge fricken rifles! Despite that I always felt pretty safe, except for the time a fight broke out in a local restaurant â€“ daggers were quickly drawn (thankfully not AK-47â€™s!) before the fight was broken up by some gutsy local blokesâ€¦ Despite looking scary in that â€˜Crazy Arabâ€™ way, the local blokes love to hold hands, kiss each other, and hang out with their mates all the time, including dancing with each other with daggers drawn. The women are still widely oppressed and are locked away behind closed doors; whilst in the public eye they must be completely covered from head to toe in jet-black burkas (â€˜hejabâ€™) with just a tiny slit for their eyes â€“ that made perving bloody hard, but geez Yemeni chicks have hot eyes!
Home to 21 million, Yemen is Arabiaâ€™s poorest country â€“ despite oil accounting for 70% of the economy, it has only modest reserves compared to other peninsula countries. Just 50.2% of the population are literate, 45% live below the poverty line (US$2 per day), half are under 15 years of age, and women average 6.5 babies each! The state religion is Sunni Islam, and most of the original Jews have pissed off to Israel since being told by Islamic fundamentalists that they were to bugger off immediately or be killedâ€¦ Yemen still has a real â€˜Biblicalâ€™ vibe, with white robed locals living in stone villages surrounded by city walls with huge gates, using donkeys for transport, practising traditional agricultural techniques, remaining devoutly religious and God-fearing, being a warrior race, and maintaining a simple lifestyle that hasnâ€™t changed for millennia â€“ I didnâ€™t know anywhere like this still existed in our awesome worldâ€¦
Yemen first came to light in the first millennium BC when a sweet smelling substance called frankincense hit the worldâ€™s markets, the lucrative trade being controlled by the Sabaeans. Over the centuries Yemen was invaded by the Ptolemaic dynasties (Egyptians), the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) and Persians (Iranians) but the entire country was never completely conquered until the early 7th century AD when a more significant invasion than ever before occurred â€“ Islam swept through Arabia and has been the dominant religion ever since. The Ottomans (Turks) hung around for a few centuries til the end of WWI and the Poms occupied the port of Aden in southern Yemen (to facilitate control over the Suez Canal) from the mid-1800â€™s until withdrawing in the 1960â€™s after relentless attacks by Yemeni guerrillas. Then came a period of civil war until the 1990â€™s, Yemenâ€™s support for Iraq during the first Gulf War, the suicide bombing of the US warship the USS Cole in 2000, and following the September 11 attacks Yemen was viewed with suspicion by the US because its remote and little-policed interior unwittingly provided a refuge for Al Qaeda and militant Islamists. Despite international fears that it could become a new Afghanistan, Yemen signed up with George Wâ€™s â€œWar on Terrorâ€ (unpopular with most locals) but continues to oppose the war in Iraqâ€¦
One of the biggest drawbacks about Yemen is that because itâ€™s a strictly Islamic state all alcohol is banned â€“ boo! But every culture needs its fix, and in Yemen they compensate by chewing qat (pronounced â€˜chatâ€™) â€“ the leaves of the shrub Catha edulis, a coca leaf-like substance which induces a mild â€˜highâ€™, hones attention, increases talkativeness, suppresses hunger, reduces the need for sleep and allegedly improves sexual performance! Classed as a drug of abuse by the WHO, qat has been banned by most Arab and Western countries but chewing it remains an important national pastime and social activity for Yemeni men â€“ after a big lunch they buy a couple of bags from their qat dealer and the chewing begins in earnest; massive bulges soon appear in their cheeks as the green cud accumulates. Each chewer spends an average of four hours chewing every afternoon, meaning Yemen loses over 14 million working hours every bloody day! Itâ€™s a massive social problem too, consuming 30% of household income, being a leading cause of marital break up, and causing â€˜highâ€™ locals to pass out in the streets with green spit dribbling from their mouth! Also, qat crops consume vast quantities of water (55% of Yemenâ€™s supply) in a country where itâ€™s already scarce, and because itâ€™s so lucrative the farmers chose to grow qat rather than food! Iâ€™d tried it before in Ethiopia and had another good crack at it in Yemen, but to be honest it isnâ€™t all that stimulating â€“ itâ€™s like chewing on gum leaves, roughs up the inside of your cheek and tongue, leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, and I reckon four hours of chewing qat is about equivalent to drinking half a stubbie of Aussie beerâ€¦!
The Aussie government currently issues their second highest travel warning against Yemen â€“ â€œwe advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Yemen because of the very high threat of terrorist attackâ€ and â€œif you are already in Yemen, you should consider leavingâ€! Itâ€™s probably fair enough I sâ€™pose, given the shit thatâ€™s been happening here â€“ a month before I arrived they blew up the US Embassy in Sanaâ€™a after having killed a couple more people in a mortar attack on the embassy in March. In April they blew up a Canadian oil company office and a housing compound for foreigners in Sana’a, whilst in January four gunmen attacked a convoy of foreign tourists in Wadi Dawan, killing three. In August 2007 seven Spanish tourists were killed when a suicide bomber drove a car into a convoy of tourist vehicles, whilst earlier that month terrorists armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a power station… Oh yeah, youâ€™d also probably remember the Al Qaeda suicide bombing attack on the USS Cole whilst docked at the port of Aden in southern Yemen, killing 17 American sailors in 2000. Thus the travel warningsâ€¦ but despite all that shit Yemen really is a cool country, and the locals are amongst the most friendly and hospitable Iâ€™ve ever met.
Anyway, I tried to rope in my usual travel buddies from back home to join me on the Yemen mission but no bastard was mad enough to come with me, so I hooked up with my awesome motorbiking Irish mate, Jeremy, whom Iâ€™d met in West Africa earlier this year â€“ he was the one who stacked his motorbike badly whilst dinking my mate Kru in Ghana, and he still has the scars to prove it! That mad bugger had just spent a few weeks hanging out in Afghanistan (where his parents now live!), and he personally knew that Pommy chick who was shot dead in Kabul â€“ boo.
Righto! After a massive weekend of beer drinking, nude floating and open jamming at the inaugural Murray River Music Festival, I jumped on a plane via Singapore where I found out that Yemen had just been hit by massive floods which killed hundreds of people, trashed some famous sites, stuffed up their already underdeveloped infrastructure and lead to the government to declaring a state of emergency â€“ howâ€™s the bloody timing? And I thought Yemen was a fricken desert! Anyway, I jumped on a Qatar airlines flight via Doha and eventually touched down in Sanaâ€™a, the fabled Yemeni capital which dates back to the era of the Arabian Nights. Famous for its 14,000 stunning mud brick â€˜tower housesâ€™ (the worldâ€™s first â€˜skyscrapersâ€™) reaching up to six or eight storeys high, whitewashed with lime and topped with colourful moon-shaped stained-glass windows, Old Sanaâ€™a is so perfectly preserved that you can walk a kilometre in any direction without encountering a single new building. The dark cobbled laneways between the huge stone and mud brick towers are so narrow that even the smallest of vehicles scrape the walls, packs of barking dogs roam the streets, and the bustling souqs (marketplaces) are packed with medieval traders and haggling locals as life goes on as it has for millennia. Surrounded by huge city walls giving way to the majestic Bab Al Yaman gate, the Old City is packed with caravanserais for wandering traders and myriad mosques which spring to life five times a day (including at bloody 4am!) with an ear-splitting azan, the Muslim call to prayer. We spent a couple of days recovering from jetlag just wandering through the meandering alleys, haggling at the qat and spice souqs, checking out the abandoned Jewish quarter, and kicking back in a rooftop â€˜mafrajâ€™ (like a sunroom, decked out with colourful mats and cushions) chewing qat and watching the sun set over the Old Cityâ€¦
Needing to detox from the qat and hankering to suss out the rest of Yemen, we bailed up a local bloke with a big Landcruiser to drive us up into the Haraz Mountains for the next eight days, climbing high into the spectacular rugged range via myriad police check posts â€“ you need a special police permit to travel around Yemen due to security concerns, and all Yanks are given an armed escort because theyâ€™re considered a target! As we left the smog of Sanaâ€™a behind and climbed into the rugged surrounding valleys our first stop was at the rock palace of Dar al-Hajar, an impressive mud brick palace perched precariously on top of a boulder and decked out in stained-glass windows and flash furniture for the imam. The trippiest thing however was the random machine gun firing â€“ being a Thursday it was the traditional Yemeni wedding day, and to celebrate the mad fucken locals fire their bloody machine guns into the air in short burstsâ€¦! We spent the next few days sussing out amazing mud-brick citadels scattered all over the rugged Haraz mountains in the most improbable cliff-top locations, seemingly straight out of Biblical times with majestic city walls and gates, tiny muddy alleyways reeking of donkey shit, and old Jewish quarters abandoned since Islamic extremists told them to fuck off to Israel. The locals still live in and amongst these citadels, and in order to farm the surrounding mountains theyâ€™ve constructed amazing terraces over the centuries to provide just enough flat ground to eek out a living and, of course, grow some qat… We did a couple of short treks, including one in the incredibly spectacular Bura Protected Area which reminded me more of Himalayan foothills of Nepal than bloody Yemen.
After a few days in the highlands we dropped down to the steamy Red Sea coastal plains where the locals were notably more African in appearance, with darker skin, curly hair, plus theyâ€™re a lot more relaxed and liberal toward their chicks. Zabid is a formerly famous centre of Islamic learning surrounded by huge city walls and chockers with whitewashed mosques (86 of them!), medressas (Quranic schools), souqs and mafrajs, but despite its UNESCO World Heritage listing is falling to bits and poorly maintained. Being so bloody hot there it was a major relief to finally make it to the Red Sea, the first time Iâ€™d laid eyes on it since Bakes, Leeroy and I sussed out the Suez Canal back in 2000. Kicking back at Al Khawkha on the beautiful palm-fringed coastline, we couldnâ€™t quite see Africa but the sunset burned a brilliant red due to the Saharan dust, and whilst swimming in the balmy water I seized the opportunity to â€˜do a Mosesâ€™ and part the waters of the Red Sea with a massive Red Sea Pooâ€¦! After smashing some of the most delicious fish Iâ€™ve ever tasted, we followed the Red Sea coast south via a salt mine to a melancholic little village called Mocha, formerly a thriving port town famous for exporting one of the worldâ€™s favourite â€˜spicesâ€™ â€“ coffee! Peaking in the 17th century as the original coffee port, itâ€™s buggered now and absolutely trashed after years of neglect â€“ in fact itâ€™s hardly worth the effort to visit, unless you like scorching heat and swarms of fliesâ€¦
Next stop was the south western city of Taâ€™iz, where tragedy struck â€“ after only a week on the road I bowed out of Iron Guts following a couple of spews (no diarrhoea, though)! Boo. I think my couple of months in Australia softened me up a bitâ€¦ Known for itâ€™s massive â€˜Lord of the Ringsâ€™-like castle â€œQalat al-Qahiraâ€ looming high over the chaotic city, it was here that we found out that Barack Obama will become the next president of the USA! Geez I was stoked to hear the news, as were most people around the world â€“ you should have seen the Yemenis going nuts, and as we walked through the streets theyâ€™d randomly yell out â€˜Obama! Obama!â€™â€¦ On the way back to Sanaâ€™a we passed through a little town called â€˜Al Qaedaâ€™, but rather than cash in on its quirky tourist potential the poor locals were actually very embarrassed, had taken down their town sign and were considering changing its name!
After another qat chewing session back in Sanaâ€™a we jumped aboard an internal flight (we were forced to fly coz of the extremely dodgy security situation on the ground, and the cops refused to issue us a permit to travel overland) to an amazing place called Wadi Hadramawt, a huge Grand Canyon-like dry river valley between shear rocky cliffs, chockers with fertile green oases and completely surrounded by barren, sterile, sun-blasted desert. The highlight is a wicked old village called Shibam, a UNESCO-listed 2500 year old walled city of seven and eight-storey tower houses built out of mud, surrounded by a lush oasis of date palms and massive dry rocky cliffs â€“ known as the â€˜Manhattan of the Desertâ€™, this joint should be way more famous. It was here that those floods hit hardest, trashing lots of the old mud houses, leaving massive piles of palms trees that had been swept downriver by the torrent, and burying the roads under several feet of silt and mud â€“ we saw heaps of Red Cross and Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent) workers as part of the international relief effort and United Nations emergency tents for those who lost their homes. It was also in Shibam where the friendly local kids called us â€˜infidelsâ€™â€¦! After checking out some cool old Arabic manuscripts at the mosque in Tarim we paid a dodgy bloke with a beat up old Peugot to drive us through the beautiful Wadi Dawan (where three tourists were murdered earlier this year), another amazing palm-filled gorge cut into the surrounding rocky desert and packed with camouflaged mud villages â€“ its main claim to fame is being the ancestral home of the Bin Laden familyâ€¦ Oh yeah, it was also here that we finally became so desperate that we bought and drank non-alcoholic beer â€“ the shameâ€¦!
Finally, we cruised south in a share taxi to the Arabian Sea coast (geez the road was trashed from those floods, completely washed away in some places) to kick back in a village called Al Mukalla, a hangout for rich Saudi Arabians in a bloody spectacular location with huge rocky mountains dropping down to the sea and river outlet. However, the beach was pretty ordinary by Aussie standards, and the complete lack of beer and bikinis meant there really wasnâ€™t much to do at all â€“ geez Saudi Arabia must be a boring and repressed place to live! After a couple of days we cruised back to Sanaâ€™a for another qat session before starting the homeward journey, but the bastards at airport immigration wouldnâ€™t let me leave their bloody country until I paid a fine of US$25 because I didnâ€™t register my visa with the cops â€“ no prick told me I had to do thatâ€¦ Oh yeah, at the airport we killed some time in the duty free shop where they had the Muslim equivalent of the barbie doll â€“ covered from head to toe in a jet-black burka!
So thatâ€™s another mission done and dusted. Yemen was really cool except for the lack of beer with alcohol in it, but Iâ€™ll definitely be back to finish it off â€“ thereâ€™s a wicked Yemeni island called Socotra in the Arabian Sea near the horn of Africa which I want to check out, and also an ancient city called Marib (where the Queen of Sheba used to hang out) which was off limits due to the security situation. I am thoroughly ashamed to admit, however, that I only nuded up for a photo once for the whole mission, but I did add two â€˜Major Bodies of Waterâ€™ to the listâ€¦ For such an amazing country Yemen isnâ€™t realising its tourist potential, mainly because of the dodgy security situation but also because of the poor work ethic, excessive qat chewing (such a rubbish â€˜drugâ€™, a bloody waste of time) and lack of business acumen amongst the lethargic locals â€“ in that way itâ€™s reminiscent of Africaâ€¦ In fact Yemeni blokes in general are pretty stupid, I reckon â€“ theyâ€™ve banned beer (and all other alcohol), they cover all their chicks from head to toe in black burkas so they canâ€™t perve on them, and then perform female circumcision (where they cut off their wifeâ€™s clitoris) and wonder why she doesnâ€™t want to shag them at allâ€¦ dickheads!
Despite that, Yemeni blokes are pretty cool and very mellow, and theyâ€™re always laughing and joking around â€“ at one stage a friendly local bailed us up to tell us this Arabic joke: A bloke was walking home to his wife one day when he heard the sounds of hundreds of wailing women crying in the streets. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ he enquired. â€œAli Hussein has diedâ€ sobbed the distraught women. Curious to know why Ali Hussein was so popular amongst the ladies, he went into the house to view his body and suddenly realised why â€“ Ali Hussein had a massive dick! Keen to become popular with the ladies himself, he discreetly approached the corpse, cut the dick off, and took it home with him, leaving it on the kitchen table before retiring to chew qat. Suddenly he heard his wife yelling, screaming, sobbing and wailing from the kitchen where sheâ€™d just found the dick. â€œWhatâ€™s wrong?â€ he yelled. His wife replied, â€œAli Hussein has died!â€â€¦!
On that note Iâ€™d better bugger off! If you ever have the chance, I thoroughly recommend you cruise over to Yemen to have a squiz â€“ it really is a fascinating and unique country, but once again Iâ€™ve arrived at the same conclusion: Australia is without doubt the best country in the world!
Go nuts. Richotallica!
There are tons more pictures in our Yemen gallery.