Yemen - Part 4

 


14/3 We go for a last excursion together to Manakhah and Al Hajjara. This takes us back some distance on the road to Al Hudaidah. Al Hajjara is a hilltop village that has, unfortunately, already seen too many tourists. There are touts, guides and lots of shops. When we stop, we are immediately surrounded by people, as usual. A boy takes us back to Manakhah to a tourist hotel, where we have one of the best meals in Yemen. He then becomes our guide around the village and, of course, we have to visit his shop. He is an unusaually switched-on guy, speaks English quite well and explains that most cultivation used to be coffee, but now most of the crops grown are qat. His family doesn't use it and he thinks it's not a good thing. We have an excellent day out and the riding is a lot of fun, despite a few drivers overtaking towards me again. On our return Lars' starter motor is making a grinding noise. He removes the starter himself, but causes a major short circuit, which in turn fries something in his electrics.

15/3 I spend all morning trying to find the fault in the wiring, but to no avail. I'm not prepared to undo all the wiring loom. To make matters worse, the two wiring diagrams Lars has with him are not for his model bike. The starter itself has a few broken off teeth in the reduction gears. A mechanic takes it away, but we have not a lot of hope that it can be fixed. Lars finally has to give up and decides to ship his bike home.

 

 

 

 

16/3 I visit the tourist police, but it's Friday, so only the qat chewers are present and they won't give me a permit. They tell me to come back the next morning. An excursion on my own to Wadi Dhar with its hilltop palace. At a point overlooking the wadi I am accosted by a young chap with a falcon on his wrist who wants me to take photos of himself. I'm sure he normally takes money of tourists, but as I make clear that none will be forthcoming it's not a problem and he is as friendly as all other Yemenis, even takes a couple of pictures of me holding the bird. I feel sorry for the falcon, which has an iron ring around one leg to which is attached a line weighted down by a couple of old spark plugs. The man assures me the bird is never allowed to fly. Desite this, it shows affection towards his captor. I've never seen so many tourists in one place in Yemen, but the palace is quite nice. Next, I want to do a loop towards Shibam, but the road I take leads to Amran, off-limits to tourists at present. At the first checkpoint I get turned back. So, I go for a tiki tour over some dirt roads in the hills and end up on the other side of the checkpoint! Some distance further along there is another one, but the soldiers are too busy with a truck and don't see me. The traffic on this road is heavy and diabolical. I look with concern at the GPS as I get ever closer to Amran, but then I find a nice new road through the hills that takes me to the Shibam road. No checkponts here and this is crazy, because it means you can get around the checkpoints on proper roads, which makes a mockery of the whole thing. I've been in Shibam before, so don't hang around for long, but find another back road right over the mountains towards the main Sana'a - Al Hudeida road. There are many hilltop villages built from dark stone, looking deserted and forbidding. I decide to investigate one of them. My arrival is probably the major event of the year and half the male population turns out to guide me around the old fortified village. Communication is difficult, but it's all smiles and gestures. I understand that there are two concentric walls and that nobody lives in the old part any more. Some people point out the houses belonging to them. It's sad to see the buildings crumbling away into history. But I can understand that people prefer to live in "normal" buildings that are accessible by car. On leaving I get a passenger who wants to go to Sana'a to work. I'm a bit worried he might be too cold at over 2800m altitude, but the elderly man is clearly enjoying the ride. As I drop him off in front of his workplace, something to do with police or army, he wants to tell me something, like invite me for dinner, but I can't really understand, so I leave my new-found friend with a hearty goodbye.

 

 

17/3 Lars is told that his starter is as good as fixed and the mechanic wants to take a look at the electrics. I visit the tourist police to get my permit, but the boss isn't there. One of the qat chewers is upset, as he told me to come in the morning and I didn't turn up till the afternoon. No permit. I have another go at Lars' electrics and seem to find a solution. The mechanic turns up with another starter. As soon as this is installed the electrical problem goes away! I don't understand this, but it's excellent news for Lars, who can now fly with his bike to Amman and continue to Germany.

 

 

 

 

 

18/3 I get my permit, bid farewell to Lars and for the first time in 3 months I'm travelling on my own again. The terrain is a little less mountainous than the road to Al Hudeidah, but at around 2400m it is surprisingly chilly. The driving is diabolical until Dharan, where I turn off the main highway. Here, the checkpoints are a pain for a while. But everybody is friendly, as usual. I'm amazed at how far I can ride on a tank full now. I certainly didn't expect the small carburettor modification to have such a dramatic effect. Seeing how grey the exhaust looks I'm a litle worried that it might run too lean now and burn a hole in the piston. I resolve to check this once I get closer to sea level. Although it is still early in the afternoon, I decide to stop in Al Bayda, as there are several hotels there and I suspect there might me none further along the road. I hope to get to Bir 'Ali tomorrow and perhaps spend a day on the beach. 

  

Camel-powered olive oil mills. The owner was as interested in my bike as I was in his medieval mill. 

19/3 It's chilly again in the morning. I turn off to Lawdar and after 2 km find myself on a rough dirt track. The GPS says this is the right way, but soon after I loose my way completely and when, after erring around villages and fields I get back onto the track the road is sealed. Then comes a dramatic descent of 1000m, something you'd expect to find in the alps, except it isn't very green here. Down below it is hot. I'm now back on the road I have travelled before and I soon have police or army escorts again. At one point there is a Landcruiser with heavy MG in the front and a pickup behind me, about ten people in total. Am I a VIP now? Eventually I get passed to a normal cop car, which I hardly ever see behind me. I suspect they stopped somewhere to buy supplies. Just before Bir 'Ali they catch up with me, presumably to be seen doing their job. They even take me to the "hotel", which is a nice beach camp with thatched huts. A whole bunch of Austrians and Germans arrives at the same time and most of them pitch tents right on the beach. After they leave for their dinner in town I enjoy a quiet moment on the beach, when I notice water streaming down into the sea to the left of my seat. The tide has come in a long way and I discover that two of their tents are almost in the surf. One of the Germans' drivers and I move them, but then we discover that one of the huts is also in the water. This can't be normal? We remove wet bedding and somebody's belongings from this hut. It seems that a combination of strong onshore wind all day and a spring tide have made the water come up a lot higher than usual. I sleep in one of the open huts. It is so hot and muggy that I can only sleep on top of my sheet, but it's still too hot. Just as well there are no mozzies here.

 

20/3 The Germans disappear early, but I take my time packing up. It gets darker all the time and finally it rains for about half an hour. These huts are built against the sun, but not the rain. Apparently it only rains here once every 6 years! Dirty water gets onto my sleeping bag and other gear. This, and me deciding to repack to use my topcase as washing machine delays me even longer. I leave about lunch time, but after 30 km I have to cross a flooded ford, where lots of children are amusing themselves in the water. Unlike Bir 'Ali, which is desert, this place is very green, an amazing change in such a short distance. Shortly after it starts to rain heavily and I stop in a shop for shelter and lunch. When the rain eases and I prepare to leave I'm told I can't go North, there are three more flooded fords, impossible to cross. I soon stop at the first one and seeing that the raging torrent is half a metre deep and watching a truck almost get swept away I decide to turn back. Even the first ford now carries more water, which tries to push me towards the edge, but I manage it OK, to much cheering from the kids. Two buses are stopped at the other side, obviously not going anywhere this afternoon. Back to the camp, where a couple of Italian guys and Spanish girls invite me for dinner, which they get their driver to fetch, so we can have it right here. The Spanish girls meet a couple of veiled women who live in the main building of the camp. Apparently, they have been here for 2 weeks and 2 months respectively. As they and their husbands are uncomfortable with them being around other Yemeni men they have left their rooms only twice since being here and are effectively imprisoned in their bare rooms. There is no furniture to speak of, but one of them has a TV. (But the generator only runs from sunset to 22h). I wonder about this strange culture.

 

 
The blue truck ended up right on the edge.

This one didn't make it.

21/3 This time I leave early and the ford that was impossible for me to cross yesterday is high and dry again. The sky is still dark and threatening and after Al Mukalla there are intermittent showers, some of them quite heavy. This means more flooded roads and fords to cross. This one I did actually manage:

 

 

But I don't feel too good about it afterwards. It feels like I'm getting swept away. There are plenty more fords, with sand, mud, dirty water and rocks. I can watch the chain wearing away and wonder whether it will last to Sharjah. The clouds move away and there is less and less evidence of flooding, but I can see that it has rained everywhere. So, imagine my surprise when I get to Al Ghaydah and this:

 

 

The people struggle for several minutes to get the fallen one back on his feet. I see only one old Russian army truck cross successfully. When I return after lunch the water level has actually risen and one pickup goes in to the top of the bonnet, then starts to get swept away. The driver quickly reverses all the way to the other side. Suddenly, shots ring out. A group of people is trying to wade towards us and an old man fires his Kalashnikov into the air to turn them back. Nobody can make it across the last, fast-flowing and deep stretch of water. When they ignore this and the waving of the people on my side he actually fires several shots in their general direction. They get the message and turn back. A group of Pakistani truckers in their rig from Dubai wave me over and say that I can put my bike on their truck, but not today. They are afraid their empty trailer will get swept away. I ride up the wadi to see wether I can take the inland road, but it crosses the wadi at a narrower place and the current is much stronger. I'm stuck for the third time and check into a hotel. This is the consolation prize: it's the best hotel I've had in Yemen and cheap to boot.

23/3 It's raining again and the water level in the wadi is up significantly. I'm stuck here for at least another day. Apart from the nice hotel Al Ghaydah is a really dirty dump, but the people are as friendly as ever. The almost total absence of women in the streets is noticeable. In the afternoon I sit with the locals overlooking the ford and watch people risking their lives in vain attempts to cross the water. The Russian truck from yesterday arrives and people are rushing towards it, but the driver just parks it up. Shortly after there is a great commotion and people rush towards the river. A fool has been swept away. He manages to grab hold of some vegetation in the current, but now he is stuck and nobody can help him. I'm wondering whether I'm going to have to watch him die. In the end he has to release his grip and he splashes his way back to the far bank, where he crawls ashore and collapses in a heap. A few more people make the long trek through the current from the far side, but they don't even get close to the fastest flowing part before they have to turn back. The antics are almost comical to watch, if it wasn't so deadly serious. I notice that a small sand bank slowly disappears: the water is still rising. The sky clears, so I'm hopeful for tomorrow. 

24/4 Alas, the water level is down, but not far enough. Cars can pass, but it is still too high and swiftly flowing for me to pass safely. I wait for over an hour for a lift, watching fools driving too fast through the water, or blocking the road by parking in the middle of it. Finally, a suitable pickup is found and the driver persuaded to take my bike across, but I have to give him all my remaining Yemeni Rials, all of about 4 Euro worth. Once the bike is loaded and I stand next to it, lots of boxes with drinks and bags with chips and such things are then piled around it and me. Unfortunately, he drives like most other Yemenis, i.e. too fast, and when another vehicle comes the other way, also too fast, his engine gets flooded and dies. We get pushed back out, the electrics dried out and he has another go. This time we make it, but only just, some cylinders are not working, but once back on the dry the engine comes right again and I'm offloaded a short distance later. In the next big ford there is a lot of water, but the current is weak now. Kids are splashing in the water and warn me not to cross, pointing at a truck lying on its side in the wadi, but it's no big deal here. There are many more flooded fords to cross, as well as mud. The chain has taken a hammering with all of this water and muck and now wears away so quickly I can watch it and I'm concerned it won't last until Sharjah. At the border the Yemenis break all records: the carnet is processed in 20 mins.