Yemen - Part 2


 

9/2 I get my wakeup call again before dawn from the village over the hill. Just as well I didn't proceed any further last night in the hope that the road would descend into a valley again, as it climbs a little further and then continues for a long distance over an undulating high plateau. The GPS is again indispensible for navigation, for I wouldn't have been able to find the next turnoff without it.

Shortly after the road descends into a gorge. Road works are under way and the surface is rough and steep. I can see the old road, built from stone on the opposite side. Then there is a bulldozer parked across the road. I manage to sneak through between its blade and the pile of gravel on the edge of the road. Behind it the surface is really soft and rough and I loose control. The bike ends up pointing downhill with the front wheel against the rocks. No way I can reverse it out of here, it's far too heavy and the ground too rough. I manage to park it and get off to take a picture, but then it falls over. Duh! After removing part of the luggage I manage to get it back onto its wheels and turn it by bouncing the suspension. Now I'm hot.

A few metres further and another track joins from the left: the detour that I missed. Now I descend into the valley. It turns out that this is Wadi Daw'an, the most spectacular side valley of Wadi Hadramawt. This is what I came here for.

 

These cartoon figures are not scarecrows, but farming women, usually herding goats or sheep, sometimes working in the fields. They wear a tall hat atop their full chador.

So far the air has been clear, but as the wadi widens I can see haze in the distance. Just before Hawra I encounter the only checkpoint. When I stop the soldiers look at me as if to say "why are you stopping". After "salam aleykum", shaking hands etc. they wave me on. What did I get 20 copies of this stupid permit for? I reach the famous town of Shibam. It's Friday 13h and absolutely everything is shut. I check out the Shibam Motel, but there is nothing to eat, either. The place is mentioned in LP and by Ralf and Eva, but it's 25$ for a single, half price for Yemenis. I don't like paying double because of my passport. Nothing open for lunch in Shilas, the town opposite Shibam, either. A new motorway-like road takes me to Sayun. I end up in the Al-Burj Hotel, where for 10 EUR I get a nice, shady garden with a clean pool. This should be a good base and place to wait for Lars to arrive. He writes that his parcel should arrive Sat. morning and he intends to leave straight away. I meet a friendly tour guide, people from Slovenia and a big group from Italy. A Chinese lady from Oz with her daughter befriends me. Turns out the daughter has studied Arabic in Syria and her father is a Kiwi. After dark a large number of large bats fly round and round around the pool, taking dips in the water with a splash. I manage to take some photos and it seems that they are actually bathing in mid-flight. The evening is disturbed by what sounds like continuing cries of agony, as if a woman or young man in the neighbourhood is being tortured. When I get up to investigate it turns out the noise is made by cats. The beds turn out to be a little on the uncomfortable side...

In Shibam people still live a bit like in the middle ages

10/2 I ride back to Shibam for a look. The palace isn't open as a tourist attraction, but houses the offices of a joint Yemeni/German building preservation society and I'm welcome to wander around and onto the roof. The town is certainly very interesting and people here much live like in the olden days, except for cars and air con: the streets are dusty and inhabited by sheep, goats and chickens, cats and dogs. Through doors on the ground floor I hear the bleating of sheep. Children are playing in the streets, demanding "Gollum, gollum" of passing tourists. For something different I have lunch at the Al-Hawta palace hotel. Always on the lookout for ways to get to different places I spot a rough track up to the plateau. For a few hundred metres it is one of the roughest tracks I've ever been on. In a steep section they have placed sharp stones vertically into the road. I'm worried they might cut my tyres, but it turns out OK. The views from the top are good, but there is a lot of haze today. There is a whole network of tracks on the top and I ride around a little, trying to get to the very top, but the last tracks are too steep and rutted for me to attempt on my own. As I walk back to the hotel in the evening I'm sure that this is not quite the right way, but I'm in the right area. A car pulls up on the other side and the driver calls out whether I'm from Alemania and if I have a bike? Tourist Police! Oh dear, am I under state surveillance in Yemen? He shows me his badge (I could make one of these in a copy shop), introduces himself as Jamal and explains in broken English that this is not the way to the hotel. He knows which hotel I'm staying in. That doesn't surprise me any more now. I'm wary when he offers me a ride to the hotel, but there is no need, he takes me directly there. Later I learn he is the chief police officer...

11/2 The day is wiped out by fever, no other symptoms. I have no idea what bug I caught. In the evening Lars turns up, but due to a misunderstanding he has already checked into another hotel. His room is nicer and almost half-price, but he has no court yard or pool, so there! Naananaananaaaana...

 

The hotel's courtyard is a hive of activity, day...

... and night                 

12/2 We head for the Tourist Police and get a permit to travel to Aden. No problem here, we can collect it the evening before we leave. Quick look at the palace, which houses a very interesting collection of photos taken by Freya Stark during her two trips to the area in 1934 and 39. Lars goes to have a look at Shibam while I ride to Tarim, which I find so-so. As I walk through the back streets the little kids would take fright, drop whatever they are doing and flee into their houses, slamming the door shut. Do I look that bad now? My GPS shows a road leading off and up onto the plateau. This turns out to be a very small track, built into the side of the cliff face and in places it has slid off the mountain, probably years ago. BUT, there is a new road, tar sealed at first. Where the tar ends there is a barrel in the middle of the road with a pole sticking out and a rag attached to the top that may have been a flag in a previous life. Three guys sit in the shelter of a microscopic shack, one of them with a gun. End of trip, I need a permit to proceed. I don't know what dangerous or strategically important stones and dust might be up there. In the evening Lars spends a very long time taking photos of splashing bats while I talk to a well-travelled elderly Canadian couple.

13/2 We go for a little ride to explore Wadi Daw'an. I badly misjudge the distance, so it becomes quite a long ride. Never mind, we are having fun and despite me already having been there I enjoy it again, as the air is clearer today. We also explore some sideroads, one in particular zigzags up the side of the cliff, affording great views of the villages below. On the return, as we get close to Sayun on the dual carriageway, a car in front of me in the right lane turns on his indicator and proceeds to do a U-turn across the left lane and the median, causing me to brake very hard. I don't know whether the driver has seen me or not, but I manage to get past the car on the right. Lars, riding behind me, sees my brakelight come on and also breaks hard, but his Taiwanese front tyre starts sliding and he has to back off to avoid falling off. He is now much faster than me and his choice is me or the car. Luckily he chooses the car, crashes into the rear door and falls. He is unhurt, but oil and petrol spill from his bike. Of course, the driver of the car has never heard of insurance and since he drives an old bomb there is less than zero chance to get any money off him, so Lars eventually just lets him go. At first sight it looks bad: the crashbar has been bent back and has pushed the rocker cover back. I can see one bolt has sheared off and when we start the engine there is no compression on the right cylinder. This is bad, but I'm hoping that it's only the rocker cover pushing onto the exhaust rocker, preventing the valve from closing. We confirm this after removing the cover. There is damage to both cover and cylinder head, but we think we can patch it up and so keep the bike mobile. I provisionally re-attach the cover, the engine runs normally now, and we ride back into town. Having a drink or three, we meet Helmut, a foreign aid worker with DED. He's only been here for a few months but already has many interesting stories to tell. We decide we have to stay another day in Sayun for the repairs and Lars goes to the Tourist Police to have our permit changed, but they say it doesn't matter. Helmut says that no matter what's written on the permits, most uniformed men can't read anyway. He usually hands them over upside down and they don't notice. My evening swim is also cancelled, as the pool is being refilled. The bats now have to dive deep into it for their bath and complain noisily.