Travelling North

Trip Start Oct 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 22, 2006

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ahlan wa sahlan,

Okay, so it's Sunday afternoon here in Old Sana'a and I've just about recovered from my three day trip north over the weekend (Thursday/Friday) and Saturday. I barely slept over the previous three nights so last night back in Sana'a and my own bed was a blissful relief. When we last spoke I told you I was heading to Shihara in the northern mountains for the weekend. Well, after the last email the trip was extended to three days to accomodate a trip to Sa'ada close to the Saudi border.

I have to confess this was quite a bold move as Sa'ada is the only place in Yemen with an FCO travel advisory against it (ie, if anything were to go wrong or happen to me there, my insurance would have been invalidated). But hey, I figured what the hell - the tourist police haven't been letting people go there for most of the past year as it is in a state of tribal war plus, being close to the Saudi border, is inherently not the safest place in the world. So the fact that they allowed us to go meant the security situation had improved enough to let tourists back in, and this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Accompanying me on the trip were Veronica and Sabina (two German bints [bint means girl in Arabic remember, so I'm not being rude] also studying at CALES), Sumiyo (a random Japanese tourist who conceived the idea of the trip when I bumped into her in the street one day), Luca and Ella (two Italian tourists staying in the same hotel as Sumiyo), plus our guide Abdul (who spoke excellent English, but whose accent was so thick with Yemeni, you could barely understand him anyway), and Hasan (our crazy driver in his battered old [but by Yemeni standards, new] 4x4 Land Cruiser).

We set off early Thursday morning with the hope of reaching Sa'ada by late afternoon. Along the way we took in some superb scenery, stopping every now and then when a not-to-be-missed photo opportunity arose. The scenery comprised mostly stunning mountains vaguely reminiscent of Grand Canyon, divided in places by surprisingly green and fertile 'wadis' (valleys/plateaus/plains). As we reached further north we discovered a whole series of long-dormant volcanoes, there ancient and intricate lava flows carving impressions into the landscape, making the mind wander to a bygone age. The road all the way to Sa'ada was surprisingly smooth - apparently for no other reason than to ensure the efficient supply of qat through the country day-to-day.

We reached Sa'ada by early afternoon, the journey taking only four of the predicted seven hours (probably thanks to Hasan's crazy notion of driving!). Upon arrival we took a couple of hours bed-rest then set about a tour of the Old City. Old Sa'ada, a mere 4000 years old (compared to Old Sana'a which is 7000 year old), had an entirely different look to it than Old Sana'a. It comprised mostly buildings made from a mixture of mud and straw, yet still managed to maintain that elegance that I've become accustomed to during my short time in Yemen.

Unlike any other Old City in Yemen, you can still walk along the Wall for the entire perimeter of the city. This was a wonderful walk as you had a prime view of the architecture and intricate street networks within the city. We each took plenty of pictures along the way but, fulfilling the national stereotype, Sumiyo really began to take the piss with how many pictures she took. It was quite annoying after a while as we had to stop and wait for her each time because we had to stick together for reasons of safety and security (ie, if you're on your own you might get kidnapped by local tribes people).

We then had a look around the souqs which was as chaotic as in Sana'a. I had a look for a 'janbia' (the sword worn as part of the traditional male dress), but I couldn't decide if what I was buying was decent quality or not, so I decided to delay my purchase until a later time back in Sana'a.

As we walked around the Old City, little kids would come up to us and say either 'qallam' (pen) or 'soura' (photo). Those with digital cameras took pictures of the kids who would make funny faces, then show them to the kids who derived immense pleasure at seeing themselves in photo. As we continued to walk, the line of kids would grow longer until eventually we must have literally had a procession of about 40 kids following us. This was all very cute and we all found it amusing and sweet while in Sa'ada on that first day. However, by the end of the three days and having been asked for 'qallam' or 'soura' a thousand times we were all about ready to punch the little brats (I know that sounds harsh, but there's only so much you can take).

At sunset we ate a fabulous meal of many different foods for 'iftar'. Hasan then headed into the souq to buy some qat for the night's consumption. One effect of qat is that it decreases your ability to sleep and this was to prove my downfall as I only managed about 30 minutes sleep that night. If it wasn't the qat though, it could quite easily have been Sumiyo who snored so loudly the room shook. I felt like I was sharing my bed with some kind of giant hog with sinus problems, not sleeping on the other side of a big room from a little Japanese girl. Luca (the Italian Stallion), as if not to be outdone by the bint, started to snore later on that night too, at which point our room could have been detected on the richter scale, and I lay still in my bed cursing silently.

The following morning we travelled up to a castle atop a hill overlooking Sa'ada. The views were once again staggering. However, this completed our short time in Sa'ada as, to my immense disappointment, the notorious weapons souq in Sa'ada which I'd hoped to visit (where in the past you could go along and purchase smuggled weapons from Saudi Arabia, including a bazooka for a reasonable price) had been cracked down upon by the government a couple of years back, so I was unable to go along and pretend I was some kind of warlord.

Anyway, my disappointment would not last long as we continued our journey back southward to Shihara in the mountains of the north. This email has got away from me and is once again painfully long without having said very much. Apologies for this, and stay tuned for a further email about Shihara.

Bye for now,

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