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

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Security – Egyptian Style

1 06 2009

Hatshepsut

The town was deserted.

We wound our way through the silent pre-dawn streets, the only movement coming from the occasional stray dog and the swirl of sand on asphalt. The streets were softly illuminated by yellow lights, but the businesses, offices, homes, sidestreets and alleyways were pitchblack and as abandoned as the set of an “End of the World” movie.

We turned a corner and found a police roadblock beyond which sat a long line of motorcoaches parked three deep on a flood-lit street. A heavily-armed officer waved us forward, pulled back a spiked barrier and ushered us beside the other vehicles. A shortwhile later, with an armoured car at the front, a truck filled with paramilitary police at the back, and a few outriders racing up and down the side, our convoy headed off into the dark desert beyond the city limits.

No, it wasn’t Baghdad, it was Hurghada, Egypt…a country that takes its tourism security very seriously.

The first sign of Egypt’s intense security came on arrival at our budget hotel when we navigated a metal detector just to enter the hot and fetid foyer. As we presented our bags, the genial guard waved us through without so much as a glance. Clearly, foreign tourists weren’t of much concern. Over the coming weeks, such measures – and more guns than you would find at an NRA garage sale – became the norm.

In November 1997, a group of terrorists attacked tourists gathered at the Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings. By the time the assault had ended, 63 people had died. Although Egypt had tight security before, the attack catapulted their security to some of the tightest in the world.

Large hotels are surrounded by tank traps and armoured cars topped with heavy machine-guns. Police sit in concrete pill boxes and cautiously wave vehicles towards their checkpoints. All hotels – even budget properties that lack computers or televisions – have their own guards and airport-style metal detectors. Tourist sites have police in abundance as well as less conspicuous plain clothes guards.

But it is when travelling away from the cities that the security measures become particularly evident.

We were heading from Hurghada into the Sinai and onto Dahab on the Red Sea. Although a considerable distance, our 3am start was due to the convoy’s timetable not any desire to beat rush hour! All tourist travel between major centres is made in heavily guarded convoys, whether from Hurghada to Cairo, Aswan to Abu Simbel or elsewhere.

With lights flashing, our convoy set off into Hurghada’s desolate streets before venturing into the Sahara. At each town we passed, the local police were out in force with their cars and heavy weaponry – or in some smaller instances, their donkeys and old carbine rifles – and blocked off all intersections as our parade raced through. In remote areas, isolated police stations resembled Beau Geste forts with gun towers, sand-bags and machine gun nests. Although the security was impressive, it was hard to know whether these efforts did a better job of protecting us…or simply drawing more attention.

After several hours, the main convoy turned for Cairo while we headed for the Suez Canal and Sinai beyond. We watched them race away along the desert highway while we continued alone into the neighbouring hills of the supposedly secure peninsula.

As is usually the case, our visit ended without incident and the only indication of any potential trouble was the intense security itself. Given its location and history, Egypt will likely never be as safe as Bermuda, but for those with even a hint of adventure-lust coursing through their veins, there’s no denying that the odd convoy or occasional tank trap adds a certain Indiana Jones spice.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Last King of Scotland

14 04 2009

 uganda-10-mw

        “Och, I’m looking for the Idi Amin tartan, please.”  (Market day, western Uganda)

 

 

It is said that lazy foreign correspondents gauge a country’s mood by chatting with taxi drivers. Given that taxi drivers spend almost as much time chatting with locals as bartenders and barbers, their feelings probably are somewhat of a barometer of a nation’s opinions and it’s an easy trap in which to fall.

 

I must confess that I’ve probably learned more about world affairs from taxi drivers than from CNN Bureau Chiefs. An Eritrean driver in Toronto taught me all about that country’s brutal independence struggle against Ethiopia, while an Iranian in Melbourne related what it was like to be a westernised bank manager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. But as fascinating as those conversations were, probably the single most memorable of all came in Uganda.

 

Kampala’s international airport is located on the shores of Lake Victoria in nearby Entebbe. To any student of history, Entebbe is synonymous with a 1976 act of terrorism when a hijacked Air France Airbus was directed there after sympathetic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada promised safety to its Palestinian and German hijackers. After several days during which all non-Jewish hostages were released, Israel launched a daring commando raid and safely rescued almost all the hostages.

 

It was early morning when my aircraft swept in over the impossibly blue lake. I strolled into a new terminal building but as my taxi drove away, we passed the old building now overgrown, falling apart and still pockmarked by the raid’s bullets. When my head swivelled to get a better look, the cabbie noticed my interest.

 

“Over there is the plane,” he said, his eyes making contact with mine in the rear-view mirror. The Air France livery was sun-bleached to nothing, and the aircraft had been picked-apart to remove anything of use or value. The area around it was overgrown with weeds and grass but it seemingly sat as an unintended monument to one of the world’s most famous acts of terrorism…and to an infamous Ugandan dictator.

 

Even before Giles Foden’s novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin’s name was synonymous with a blood-thirsty – if slightly buffoonish – dictator. Amin rose to power in a coup in 1971 and soon reaped a reign of terror that included human rights abuses, political repression, murder and war. Amnesty International estimated he was responsible for as many as 500,000 Ugandan deaths while former colleagues claimed he indulged in cannibalism. By the time of his death in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, Amin’s place in history as one of the world’s most feared tyrants was complete.

 

My driver tutted as we drove past.

 

“I wish we had him now,” he muttered quietly.

 

“Amin?” I asked, trying not to let my incredulity show at his confessed support for a man that most of the world still considers a monster.

 

“Yes, Amin” he said. “We wouldn’t have the problems that we’ve got now. There was law and order here. People had jobs. We were powerful. Now we have terrorists in the north and AIDS everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened under Amin.”

 

For once I was at a loss for words and quietly stared at the passing scenery. Perhaps a tabloid journalist would have reported that Uganda “longs for return of strong man”, but during the following weeks I spent in the East African country, his was the lone voice of support I heard.

 

Most likely, he was not alone but just like the London taxi driver who believed that Milli Vanilli were musical geniuses who were framed, he was certainly in the minority.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009