A to Z of Adventure Travel: Y is for Yemen

3 07 2009


Although one of the Middle East’s most spectacular countries and home to four World Heritage sites, in recent years Yemen has become better known for the kidnapping of tourists than it has for tourism itself.


Located on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen is an ancient land of rugged desert, magnificent coastline and historic architectural treasures. With a limited infrastructure, only hardy tourists have ventured to its capital Sana’a and the country’s striking interior, but those who have explored it  consistently rate it amongst their favourite destinations.yemen


Yemen is a magic land that has barely changed in appearance since biblical times. A country of fortified mountain villages and remote desert communities, untouched beaches and mud brick skyscrapers all with their own distinct and rich culture and heritage. While some of the country’s best sights are neglected and in need of preservation, all capture the imagination in a way that sights in more developed countries simply can’t.


In Wadi Hadramaut there sits Shibam, one of the most striking cities in the world. Dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the desert’, its skyline is comprised of more than 500 mud-brick skyscrapers of up to 8-floors in height surrounded by an earth wall. Not far away is the spectacular cliff-side village of Al Hajjarain while the country’s most important seaport, Aden, is purportedly where Noah built his ark. Algebra is said to have been invented in the 9th century in the city of Zabid, once one of the most important centres of learning in the entire Islamic and Arabic world and the region’s capital from the 13th to 15th century.  Just off the coast, the Socotra Archipelago was mentioned by Marco Polo and is home to an area of such rich biodiversity that it is often likened to the Galapagos.


Yemen’s capital, Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. Its architecture gives the city the impression of being frozen in time, and its old city is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A place of bustling markets, towering mosques and ornate houses, Sana’a is one of the world’s most unique capitals.


Although there have been problems in the capital, the majority of troubles faced by tourists have been experienced away from Sana’a. Anyone venturing away from the capital must register with the Yemen Tourist Police and it is highly recommended that travel be made with a recognised tour operator rather than independently. The first tourist kidnappings were made by tribesmen who used their hostages as bargaining chips in negotiations with authorities. The hostages were generally treated well and released peacefully. Many visitors later proclaimed the experience was the highlight of their visit, but several years ago a kidnapping ended in a shoot-out with police and a number of the hostages were killed or injured. More recently however, branches of al-Qaeda have become involved with much more brutal consequences.


Anyone contemplating Yemen should be aware that many western countries have issued travel advisories against all travel there. While there are many responsible national and international tour operators in Yemen who have perfect safety records and take no chances with their clients, such government warnings may render travel insurance invalid.


A photographer’s dream, an explorer’s delight, a visit to Yemen is well worth the lack of luxury, but no visit should be taken without proper consideration.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Yemen Tourism


Just Deserts

21 04 2008


Wadi Rum: The dead centre of the Sinai Desert

When I was little and we headed to the beach on holiday, nothing made me happier than a jam and sand sandwich. I can’t say that I actually liked the sand part of the sandwich as I’ve never been partial to the crunch of grit between my teeth, but sand in my food has always been synonymous with a holiday.


The sand, of course, was not part of the original culinary design, but had managed to work its way into the picnic basket, past the paper bag and through the plastic wrap, as sand tends to do. In fact, sand tends to work its way into anything and everything as any beach bunny can attest. So imagine living in a desert…a fancy name for a really big beach that’s devoid of water, ice creams, enormous inflatable bananas and magenta thongs.


Most people can understand someone with a passion for mountains, or rugged coastlines or even pretty Bambi-luring forests. But deserts are an acquired taste that can’t be truly appreciated until properly experienced.  


The Sinai desert stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in eastern Egypt. It is a magnificent desolation of mountains, wadis and much biblical significance and home to the nomadic Bedouin people. I was to spend a few days with the Bedouin, sleeping in their oasis camps and trekking the sands they have called home since time immemorial. 


Our 4WD turned off the isolated road that had wound its way through the mountains from the coastal town of Dahab. We stood in the blazing sun and were met by our Bedouin guide in his traditional dress. This was no costume for tourists: his loose wraps and flowing gown were the most sensible thing to wear in such a hostile environment. He checked our water bottles, footwear and headwear. We had been advised to wear a white cotton keffiyeh rather than a baseball cap, as the keffiyeh provided protection while allowing the circulation of air. Once satisfied that we were ready, we set off into the drifting sands. 


As we plowed through the fine powder, our calves and leg muscles burned from the effort of taking one step backwards for every two forward. We eventually reached more solid ground and picked up our pace. There are few places in the world that seem untouched by humans, but the Sinai is certainly one. For hour after hour, we found no trace of human presence. We passed the carcasses of camels bleached by the sun, and saw the side-winding trail of snakes. We eventually squeezed through an opening in the rocks and descended into a narrow canyon, sheltered from the sun and deliciously cool. The silence caused our ears to buzz.


In late afternoon we reached the Bedouin’s oasis camp. A simple awning had been raised over a sea of carpets and small cushions. Small glasses of tea were brought out for us and we sat and learned about Bedu life. After a traditional dinner we climbed into our sleeping bags and snuggled down against the bitter cold of the desert night, all the while trying not to think of scorpions, cobras and other company.


The night was eerily silent save the crackle of the dying campfire. The stars shined brightly enough to read a watch and there was the occasional feather-like caress of the wind on our exposed faces. We packed our small packs and after a light breakfast headed back into the canyons and desert. 


By the time we reached the end of our trek and emerged once again at the tarmacked road, we had all gained a great appreciation for the beauty of the stark surroundings, and the hardiness and hospitality of the Bedouin people. We arrived back at Dahab just as the lights began to twinkle across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.  

We all returned home with not only enough memories to last us forever, but enough sand hidden in every nook and cranny to build a small fortress.  

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

“Trust me, my name is in the Bible,” said Dr. Moses

16 01 2008

Whenever anyone says, “trust me,” or “honestly,” or “to tell you the truth,” they are lying. I know this now, but on a very hot June day in Cairo outside the National Egyptian Museum, Dr. Moses looked quite official with his white hair, laminated name tag, and clipboard in hand.

“I work at the American University of Cairo,” he continued, “and can be your guide inside the museum for sixty Egyptian pounds.”

This was much cheaper than the group tours of the museum, and as most of the exhibits were not explained in English, I figured that ten bucks was a decent rate for a two-hour lesson in the country’s foremost archaeological museum. Plus I was a guide in Paris at the time and knew you could learn a lot in a museum with the right person. I shook the hand of Moses, and my travel partner Joe and I proceeded into the giant building.

Dr. Moses led us through halls of alabaster jackals, past statues of scribes with crystalline eyes, around rooms full of stiff mummies, by the intricate throne of Tutankhamen, and around the mask of Akhenaten. I had seen exhibits of Egyptian artifacts before, but not in this abundance or array. What would be a highly touted roving exhibit in the U.S. was pushed into the corner of one room of one hall of one side of the enormous museum. Dr. Moses, true to his word and his namesake, told me the stories behind the silent stone sarcophagi, which important displays were often overlooked, how to discern the gods and pharaohs from one another, and how the whole collection came to be. I was soaking it all in, thrilled with my budget guide and all the awesome stories I was learning.

And then he took me to his brother’s perfume shop across the street.

Dr. Moses continued on with his lessons, as if the tiny store with two-way mirrors was merely an extension of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. “Lotus oil, worn by Cleopatra, is only produced in Egypt. Amber is the most sensual of all fragrances, and clove was used to anoint embalmed bodies.”

Things were getting a bit weird in the plush red velvet room and I started to imagine my embalmed body, smelling of the finest patchouli and sandalwood. I was growing ever more uncomfortable amidst the bottles of perfume oil on their glass shelves, sparkling like stolen diamonds. Was the tea we were continually being served drugged? Did Dr. Moses and his fraternal conspirator have evil aspirations beyond selling some kids a few vials of perfumed oil? I whisper my suspicions to Joe, who replies with a chuckle over my paranoia- so typical of a green traveler like myself. “Just finish your tea, buy some Lotus oil for your mom, and let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.

So I forked over what was probably way too much money for a small “unbreakable” vial of the purest perfume oil either side of the Nile River. Dr. Moses’ brother was quite crestfallen that I had not bought a whole liter of lotus essence, but after many a la shokran (no, thank you) we were finally granted leave and said our goodbyes to the brothers. Joe patted our new friends on the back and we left the jewel box store.

Dodging donkey carts and squealing taxis we made our way back to the hotel. Feeling a little bit stupid and a lot American, I apologized to my travel partner for imagining things.

“You weren’t,” he said. “When I said goodbye and patted the brother on the back, he had a gun strapped to it.”

In shock, I dropped my unbreakable vial of perfume oil. It broke.

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Shilo Urban

NOTE: I did not post this story to scare anyone away from travel to Egypt but rather to share something that might help other travelers- plus everyone loves a story about an “expert” getting snookered. I traveled all over Egypt in the summer of 2003, right after the start of the Iraq War, and I never felt one ounce of anti-American sentiment; in fact, when people with whom I came into contact found out I was from Texas, they fell over themselves to tell me how highly they thought of my homeland, how they wished more Americans would travel to Egypt, how much they wanted to go to Las Vegas and whether or not my father was a cowboy (and how many camels he would take for me). Egypt is the most amazing place I have ever been and I would go back tomorrow in the blink of an eye! The best part of Egypt is not wandering around in the giant temples, or sailing down the Nile at dawn, or even crawling in the tomb space inside the Great Pyramid. The best part of Egypt is getting to know the Egyptian people: the bartenders, translators, bakers, shop owners, guards, guides, bead sellers, waiters, carriage drivers, dog owners, cabbies, and yes, even Dr. Moses, whose name is in the Bible.

So what are you waiting for? You know you have always dreamed of traveling in Egypt. Start a real plan today!