Friday, 21 December 2007

Yemen 2 and 3: From the mountains to the (Red) Sea

Sana'a is reputed to be around 2,500 years old and according to legend, was built by Shem the son of Noah. Its been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The photos are here.

On Day 2 we went out for a walk to find the Military Museum. One of the first things I noticed was that all the women in Sana'a wore burqa (face covering). The only females with uncovered faces were young girls but even many of them wore head scarves. From my first day in San'a I got the feeling that this is a very conservative place and it would be advisable to wear hijab whenever I was outside the hotel which I have done. I had hijab wearing lessons from Rasha before coming down the Yemen so I was prepared. She's right though they've got to be 3 meters long,anything less and they fall off which is really annoying).
We walked from the hotel along As-Sailah the paved wadi and got lost several times on the way. After asking a couple of policemen in a parked car for directions we found the Museum. It was interesting though most of the exhibits were labelled in Arabic only which was a bit frustrating I would have liked to know more about some of the old archaeological pieces on display. The museum certainly had an eclectic collection; there were rifles, guns, a Mig aircraft, fairly graphic execution photos and other war type paraphernalia but also sports trophies and, for a reason I have yet to fathom, a display of dolls' house furniture. The political slant of the explanation was evident, nobody likes Iman Yahiya who was the last ruler of Yemen pre-revolution and was finally assassinated after several attempts.
After the museum visit, we wandered around the city area which reminds me so much of Kabul, Afghanistan in '78. We walked down to Bab al Yemen the last remaining city gate in the old city wall. The gates are huge they must be 15ft high and at least 6 inches thick. I noticed at the top of one of the gates a large hole right through the thickness of the gate caused by an artillery shell. We wandered back through the souq getting lost again in the process and eventually after asking for directions we were walked back to the hotel by a couple of local boys. We had a coffee (or two) and then shared a couple of bottles of Becks Non-Alcoholic Beer (all the taste without the kick) and then walked back to the souq. More shops in the souq are open now as people return to work after the Eid. We were both baffled by the sight of a half grown camel chewing on hay in a cellar down one of the side streets being watched by several kids. What it was doing down there I don't know.

Day 3 and today we left the hotel in San'a early for Wadi Dhahr to see the rock palace known as Dar al-Hajar. The palace is 5 storeys high and sits on top of a single rock having been built on pre historic burial caves. It was surprisingly extensive with lots of different rooms and had the advantage to the occupiers of an internal well. There was a separate majlis (meeting room) opening out onto fountains and what would have been a garden back in the day.

From Wadi Dhahar to Thula, where we were set upon by the local merchants and harassed in a way I haven't encountered since India. Thula contains some houses that were built by Jewish silver merchants and then abandoned in 1948 when the occupants moved to Israel.

At Hababah we took some photos of the large village pond and then drove on to Shibam where we had lunch. The restaurant was on a dusty street and customers first walk into a large room with two men working with incredibly hot open stoves on an elevated platform. After walking through that room we went into the restaurant which was set out over 5 floors of a traditional house. Many of the areas were separate rooms for use by families or groups of ladies and there was also a separate ladies majlis on the top floor. We sat in the large communal area on the top floor. In what was a highlight of the trip so far, we were invited to join a local family to eat with them. The food was laid out on the floor, we had a spoon each, a piece of flat bread to use as a plate and then it was every one for themselves. I tried a local dish called Fatta which is made of layers of thin pancakes with egg on top, spicy and really nice.

After lunch we headed up to Kawkoban a village clinging to the side of Jebel Kawkoban above Shibam. The residents of Shibam used to head up to Kawkoban for shelter when they were threatened by raiding parties from rival tribes.
As the fog started to roll down the mountains we entered al Tawila, a small and rather unexciting village. We wandered through the village and moved on to Mahweet where we stayed the night at the Mahweet Hotel which now holds the title of "Hotel with the Hardest Mattresses in the World".

Early the next day we headed off to Jebel Ariadi which gave us incredible views down into a deep rift valley. We stopped on the way at a one room factory on the roadside where two young guys were carving gypsum templates that are about 25mm thick, a stencil is laid over the top and the boys carve out the pattern. Later on stained glass is inserted into the gaps.

From there we had a 2 hour trip (seemed like 4 hours) which took us the length of Wadi Saraa over some very rough roads. We saw lots of small villages on the way, kids out herding goats and many donkeys working hard. The clothing being worn by the ladies changed a bit though one part of the wadi, the ladies were wearing bright clothing, a head scarf but without having their faces covered. Also they wore broad woven hats similar to those worn by the Indians in the Andes. We passed though Kamis bani Saad and arrived in Bajel for lunch at a "Brost Restaurant". We went upstairs to the "family area" which is used by family groups or groups of ladies so they have privacy from the men downstairs. In the family area we had our own screened off area. After lunch we got back into the car passing the people begging or trying to sell boxes of tissues.

Next we headed to our overnight stop of Al Hodaidah on the Red Sea. Al Hodaidah is Yemen's largest seaport, larger than Aden. Ali our guide took us down to the beach and we had a pleasant walk along the sand collecting shells and enjoying the sight of Yemeni families doing what families at the beach do all over the world. We wandered around the Hodaidah souq and I bought some music. Afterwards we went for dinner at a seafood joint which proved to be a great experience. There are restaurants, there are cafes and then there are places that can only be described as "joints" and this was definitely one of the latter, this place was a Joint with a capital "J". I can't tell you what the name of the place was it was all in Arabic. First we had to go across the road from the restaurant to haggle with the fishermen to buy the fish for our dinner. The men are all in traditional clothing including the dagger and the fish is displayed in large flax baskets. Colin chose three fish which were like breem and also bought 500g of prawns: total cost 40AED ($13) then back to the restaurant where they took the fish into the kitchen to cooked them. The waiter laid out the tablecloth which was actually fresh pages from the Khaleej Times (the English language newspaper from Dubai) and then handed us huge slabs of fresh bread to eat with the fish. The prawns were served with a bowl of lemony sauce and they also grilled the fish in a tasty peppery coating. The fish was bought out on a big plate and then the waiter put the fish directly onto the newspaper in front of us. All fingers, no cutlery here. Meanwhile semi organised chaos carried on around us with customers yelling at waiters, waiters yelling at the cooks and the cooks yelling abuse at everyone. All the while there were flames coming out of the gap in the wall where we could see into the kitchen, the box of Gladwrap next to the gap started melting and the food was so hot it must have been cooked with oxy-acetylene blow torches. It was the best seafood meal I’ve ever had in my life. It was a real local place full of fishermen and locals and as I was the only woman in the place I got some curious looks but after the initial surprise everyone was too interested in their food to pay any attention to me.

That's it for the moment. Off tomorrow to the fish market and then a round trip back to Sana'a

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