Some decisions are made in our minds, some though are made in our hearts. The wish and desire to see the beauty of Yemen has been deep inside my heart for a long, long time and no safety alerts could stop me dreaming about that place. After careful research and hours of planning together with A. we landed in Sana’a in November 2013.
Late evening we arrived in our hotel room (stayed in Arab Felix) and the first thing we noticed on the bedside table were two outdated magazines full of terrorism news. It is scary enough to be in Yemen, really no need to be reminded about Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and all these friendly topics. Well, we were a bit surprised by the choice of literature by the hotel management, but it didn’t put us off for too long. We were super curious and our feet were really itchy, so we left the hotel quickly to look around and grab something to eat.
First impression of local men is rather frightening — the mouth full of qat (local, chewy drug, which makes them feel ‘high’), sharp curved daggers tucked into the belts and a bit angry face expression. Dark outside, no women around. Nice. We kept walking. After couple of minutes we found street food stalls, full of people. Many people = tasty food, so we decided to stop and then the magic happened. We immediately became a part of a big group, eating all together with Yemeni, being treated with the highest respect and stuffed with lots of delicious flavours. We were not allowed to pay a penny and really felt as a member of their family. Incredible feeling. The best beginning to our adventure in Yemen.
A. has this amazing ability to talk to anyone, anytime about anything. Most times I love it about him but this time I wanted to cut his head. This is how it started: in the middle of the night, walking alone a bit illegally (with no officially required tour guide) suddenly he starts talking — don’t ask me how — in his non-existent Arabic to locals about their knifes, qat, life in general. Men are very enthusiastic about the whole conversation showing off by giving him their daggers, their qat, their scotch tapes and their…guns! So here we are, our first night in Yemen: A. playing happy with the gun, me not that happy trying to escape scary thoughts about the obvious (for me) connection between drugs, scotch tape, gun, knife and all that ‘go on: kidnap me’ equipment. Fortunately, no guns were used against us, I relaxed quickly and was very thankful in general how gracious our fate was. First night was memorable, that’s for sure.
The next afternoon was all about Sana’a. As one of the most ancient cities in the Arab world, it is easily recognisable by the unique, incomparable architecture, which cannot be found anywhere else. The windows of the external walls are decorated with a white gypsum, which contrasts impressively with the dark stones of bricks and mud. Old city of Sana’a is full of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites and once you cross Bab Al-Yemen (the grand gate to the central market) you enter into a fairy tale, full of picturesque houses, friendly locals and shopping paradise. Just after crossing the gate we were invited spontaneously by few sellers to join them for lunch. Then I realised how advantageous it was to explore Sana’a alone, with no guide, no schedule, no rush. Plenty of photo opportunities, everyone greeting us with salaam alaykum and with a big, friendly smile.
After an amazing guide-free walk around old Sana’a we decided to do a day tour outside the capital. We were quickly informed that for safety reasons it was compulsory to receive a police approval to exit the city. After a bit problematic visit to the police station, arguing a lot about money (they wanted a ridiculous amount for few hours of sightseeing — we learnt quickly that safety doesn’t come cheap in Yemen) we managed to reach a compromise and left to explore outskirts of the district.
Yemeni landscape is full of spectacular mountaintop villages, where the time has stopped long time ago. We visited Thula, Shibam and Kawkaban region rich in breath-taking views and picturesque landscapes. The most famous attraction was the Rock Palace (Dar Al Hajar), built in 1930s, which was indeed very attractive. However, what we enjoyed most, was a chance to see local villages life: women gossiping, children playing, men doing daily chores. A true Yemeni daily life.
There are very few places in the world that bring so many mixed feelings when it comes to theirs citizens. Yemeni people – you love them when you get to know them, but you’re scared of them too (terrorism). Luckily we experienced just the best of the best in hospitality both in mainland Yemen like in Socotra Island. The poorest of the poor offered us their own meals, paid for our snacks, invited us for home-made dishes. Yemeni we came across in Sana’a were the world’s most inviting, open-minded, generous and friendliest hosts. I hope the situation in Yemen will get more stable and tourist-friendly, so everyone can get a chance to experience Yemeni hospitality.
Visiting Yemen – practical information:
Visa. To get visa to Yemen you need to contact a tour agency in Yemen (best in Socotra) which will help you with formalities and provide you with a paper. With no paper you won’t be able to board any flight to Yemen. The visa fee of 50 USD is paid on arrival. There is no way to receive visa as an independent traveler neither in any embassy of Yemen overseas nor on arrival in the country.
Safety. Is it safe in Yemen? Obviously, it is not. Did we feel safe? Somehow yes. Since the revolution in 2011 travellers tend to avoid Yemeni mainland due to an unstable political conditions and it’s totally understandable. But as Sana’a is a gamble and you do risk a lot, Socotra on the other hand is a peaceful paradise far away from bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
Getting there and around. The safest connection to get to Socotra is via UAE airport in Sharjah (next to Dubai) with Felix Airways. Currently (April 2015) many Gulf carriers don’t fly over Yemeni airspace so going via Sana’a is impossible. However, when the situation in mainland gets better (I strongly hope that it will get better soon!) journey via Sana’a to Socotra is also possible with Yemenia or Felix Airways. Traveling around mainland is highly restricted and only possible with nan official local escort along with a permission from local authorities to exit Sana’a. In Socotra you can try hitchhiking and traveling alone but it’s highly inefficient and not recommended as you will miss out on many hidden, beautiful spots. Best to explore with the local guides who truly know where to take you.
Tour companies. No independent travellers are allowed in Yemen, therefore choose wisely. Go for a tour company with a good reputation to avoid scams. We travelled with Socotra Eco Tours and it was a very good choice. For reasonable amount of money (600 USD pp, all-inclusive — local standards of course) they helped us to arrange visa, organised our 7-day stay in Socotra the best they could. They went an extra mile to make our visit memorable and enjoyable one. On request they even prepared a proper birthday party for A., full of home-made cakes, local music and flavours, delicious atmosphere! Socotra Eco tours — highly recommended!
Nationalities (more as a funny fact). Already in the first taxi, taken from the airport, we were briefed that for safety reasons we should introduce ourselves to others as Turkish, because being Polish and British (especially British, about Polish they didn’t care much) was not really recommended. We were puzzled but well, we followed the advise and switched our nationalities immediately. Not that I know any word in Turkish 😉 .
It’s been already more than a year ago, when we visited Yemen. Things have changed — as we read in the news — for worse unfortunately. Have you been to Yemen recently? I would love to hear from you. Please share! Any questions about Yemen? I will be happy to answer. Bon chic, bon voyage!