Tour 6: The great west-east route

This route is our longest, and takes us into remote regions, in the east almost up to the Oman border. We will encounter familiar and unfamiliar aspects of the country, and our trip will take in all the characteristic landscapes of Yemen, except the north. Experience of the natural landscape will alternate pleasantly with cultural sightseeing.

We drive from Sana'a over the Haraz mountains to the Red Sea, follow the coast south through the Tihama, then take the road to Taiz in the hills. We reach Aden on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and follow this coast eastwards for three days, to Al-Ghaydah, in Mahra State, which has not been developed for tourism. With breaks for bathing, we return to Al-Mukalla, and on over the stony desert of the Djol plateau north into the Hadramaut, and via Marib back to Sana'a. In the 15 days of the trip we will cover several thousand kilometres, mostly on recently well-surfaced roads.

1. Day | Arrival Sana’a

Accommodation in a hotel in the old quarter, in a traditional house. If time allows, visit to the recently re-opened National Museum, which houses treasures from all epochs of the cultural history of Arabia.

2. Day | Sana’a – Manakha - Al-Hudaydah

From Sana'a we drive west of the Jabal Nabi Shuayb, at 3,660 metres the highest mountain in Yemen, through the mountain region of Haraz, to the town of Manakha, which lies in a cultivated terraced landscape at an altitude of 2,250 metres in a particularly impressive region of the Haraz mountains.

The road passes the villages of Hajjarah and Al-Hotaib, an Ishmaelite place of pilgrimage. We drive south of the Wadi Surdud into the Tihama, the hot coastal plain, where not only the climate but also the style of building (round huts) is reminiscent of North Africa. The coastal regions on the Red Sea are fairly hot all year round, and the landscape consists mostly of holly-overgrown dunes. We continue south along the coast to Al-Hudaydah, the largest Yemeni town on the Red Sea. As in many other towns, recent years have seen a building boom. Over night stay in Al-Hudaydah.

3. Day | Al-Hudaydah - Beit Al-Faqih - Al-Chocha

In the morning, we visit the famous fish market of Al-Hudaydah, where freshly-caught crustaceans and all kinds of Red Sea fish, including many varieties of shark, are on sale. The harbour is filled with colourful fishing-boats. Later we drive on southwards to the town of Beit-al-Faqih, where the old quarter  with its many mosques and a large palace is gradually falling apart and being smothered in refuse.

Beit-al-Faqih is famous for its weekly market with products from the Tihama, including the typical woven loft beds. We drive for a bathe and overnight stay to the holiday village of Al-Chocha, on the Red Sea, where we sleep in bungalows.

4. Day | Al-Chocha– Taiz

After bathing in the Red Sea,  we take a three-hour drive to Taiz, the third-largest town, at the foot of the 3,000m Jabel Saber mountain. The town has several mosques dating from the 13th and 14th centuries.

We visit the Al-Ashrafiah mosque, which stands on ancient, recently discovered foundations and has a sophisticated ablution fountain for ritual washing. We visit the souq in Taiz and look around the curious museum, which has an incredible collection taken from a wealthy colonial house of the 1930s. Excursion to half-way up Jabel Saber, with a view over the town where we spend the night in a central hotel.

5. Day | Taiz – Aden

We leave in the morning for a three-hour drive to Aden, from the mountains down to the more sparse vegetation of the coastal plain. We drive round the ancient quarters of Krater, Mualla and Al-Tawilah, on an extinct volcano off the coast, and make a brief stop at Steamers Point, where the passengers from the big steamships used to check in during the British colonial period. Overnight stay in Aden.

6. Day | Aden – Bir Ali

Drive to the south coast, along the Gulf of Aden, with a detour into the interior via Habban to Bir Ali. We bathe and camp in a fantastic sandy bay at the foot of the Husn-al-Ghurab (crow's nest), a promontory with a stone-age settlement overlooking the ruins of the ancient harbour of Qana, now sunk under the sea.

This is the end of the Incense Road, which for centuries was the basis of Arabia's trading wealth. Crabs make funnel-shaped tunnels in the sand here, making the beach look like a mini-crater landscape. If we are lucky while bathing in the morning, we may see a swarm of dolphins playing in the water.

7. Day | Bir Ali – Sharmah

We continue along the Arabian Sea for several hundred kilometres, through a variety of lava rock formations. Short climb to an extinct crater with a green freshwater lake high above the blue sea. Along the sparsely populated coast, black lava rock and white sand alternate in the landscape of dunes and craters.

Only the rapidly growing trade metropolis of Al-Mukalla throngs with people; otherwise we see only the occasional fishing village. We end the day as we began it, in Bir Ali, swimming in the shallow bay  of Sharmah, the beach where at certain times of year giant turtles lay their eggs in the sand. Overnight camp.

8. Day | Sharmah – Al-Ghaydah

After a morning swim, we continue to Seyhut, with its two imposing burial mounds at the entrance. We visit the fine old quarter, unfortunately now dilapidated, with palaces that show the former wealth of the harbour town with its incense trade. On to Al-Ghaydah, through a hilly coastal region with many fine bathing beaches.

This road has recently been developed, allowing us to reach our easternmost point, Al-Ghaydah, in a comfortable day's journey. This is the centre of the incense (bkhur) trade, which for centuries shaped Yemeni commerce and myth. The small town of Al-Ghaydah, with its harbour and airport, is an outpost for journeys into Mahra State and for oil prospecting in the area.

It is hardly developed for tourism, thus allowing a true insight into the authentic life of an eastern Yemeni town. From Al-Ghaydah, a bus goes three times a week to the holiday resort of Salalah in Oman (visa required). Overnight stay in a hotel in Al-Ghaydah.

9. Day | Al-Ghaydah - Al-Mukalla

We drive west along the coast, in the opposite direction, stopping a few times on the way for a swim, and arrive towards evening in Mukalla, where we visit the old quarter and the souq. The old town of Mukalla, harbour and capital of the Hadramaut, lies at the foot of a volcanic cliff. In recent years, it has experienced an enormous building boom, and is extending along the coast to the east and west.

Wide boulevards and palatial villas tell of newly-acquired wealth. Like the whole of the south, since 1994, after the end of the anti-clerical Marxist period, Al-Mukalla was subjected to Wahabite (a strongly puritanical interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia) missionary efforts. Religious strictness is perceptible particularly on Fridays and in the month of fasting.
Overnight stay in Al-Mukalla.

10. Day | Al-Mukalla – Wadi Dawan – Sif

In the morning, we leave the coast and take, not the busy main route, but the road through the Wadi Dawan via Al-Qatn into the Hadramaut, more interesting for both the landscape and the sites of cultural history. We drive north-west from the coast through a land of table mountains, across the desert plateau of Djol, inhabited only by Bedouins herding their animals.

The countryside here is strange and harsh, and the descent into the sub-tropical Wadi Dawan is like a path into paradise. The Wadi Dawan is the best-known side valley of the Hadramaut. It stretches 60 km from north to south, beautiful with its almost pink sandstone cliffs, wider apart in the lower reaches.

The valley floor is densely covered with tropical vegetation, and intensive farming is carried on. In order to save valuable arable land, the towns and villages consist of multi-storey buildings close to the rock. The two ancient clay-built towns of Khoreibah and Al-Hajjarein are the most impressive in the whole wadi.  We spend the night in the town of Sif, in the middle of the valley.

11. Day | Sif - Shibam/Hadramaut – Sayun

We drive down the valley, visit Al-Hajjarein and emerge from the Wadi Dawan on to the main road into the Hadramaut, the largest wadi in Yemen and always an important and wealthy place for traffic, commerce and culture. Many Hadranis emigrated centuries ago to the Indian sub-continent, and brought back customs, building styles and often families.

The "Indian" element is present everywhere in the Hadramaut, particularly in the splendid maharajah-style palaces. We look round Shibam, with its tall clay-built houses the least Indian and most Yemeni town in the Hadramaut. These "skyscrapers", surrounded by a city wall, are crammed  into the smallest possible space with narrow labyrinthine alleys between. Through the windows and openings in the façades, one can see the sophisticated cooling and ventilation system that circulates the air through a central shaft in the interior of the house.

After Shabwah, Shibam was the capital of the old kingdom of Hadramaut. The finely crafted wooden doors and windows are worthy of note.
On to Sayun, where we spend the night.

12. Day | Sayun – Tarim – Sayun

We spend the day in the two main towns of the Hadramaut, the largest valley in Yemen, stretching across the middle of the country from west to east and ends in the Wadi Massilah, which after a 400km detour flows south into the Arabian Sea. In ancient times, the Hadramaut was called the "holy land".

Today the wadi is a fertile river oasis, surrounded by miles of date-palm plantations and bounded by imposing table-mountains. Since ancient times it has been a busy trade centre, the main towns being Shibam, Sayun and Tarim. Sayun, in the centre of the Wadi Hadramaut, is the former residence of the Kathiri sultans. The palace on the main square now houses a museum of cultural history. Note the carved windows of the palace, which provide ventilation, cooling and protection from the sun, all at the same time. The typical maharajah style of the palaces in Sayun und Tarim is evidence of the Hadramaut's former strong ties with the Indian sub-continent.

Tarim has been a centre of Islamic scholarship since the 10th century, and is still considered conservative. In the middle of the town are the highest minarets (50 m) in Arabia and many palaces, including that of the Sultan Kaf, the rooms of which are impressive even without the museum collection.

In the Ahgaf library there is a collection of rare and valuable manuscripts. Overnight stay in Sayun.

13. Day | Sayun – desert – Marib

We drive west via Shibam to the junction Al-Qatn, which marks the end of the Hadramaut. The valley is now wider and flatter, gradually giving way to a great desert zone. An eastward drive of six hours takes us through the "Ramlat al Sabatayn" desert, a branch of the great Arabian desert Rub Al-Khali (the Empty Quarter).

The desert landscape is full of variety, with interesting stone, sand, dune and mountain formations. We come to Safir, a gigantic metal complex on oil-wells, rising out of the desert sands like a fata morgana at the end of the world. We arrive in Marib from the west, and find ourselves in a quite different world from the Hadramaut, strongly influenced on the one hand by the desert life of the Bedouin tribes and their penchant for carrying weapons, on the other a boom town, through the new wealth brought by oil. Overnight stay in hotel in Marib.

14. Day | Marib – Sana’a

As the former capital of the Sabaean kingdom, Marib offers a great many sights worth visiting, especially the dam which, since it was built in the first millennium BC, irrigated several hundred hectares until it broke in the 5th century AD, and thanks to which Marib was such a flourishing town.

The north and south sluice-gates are well preserved. One can also visit the moon (sun?) temple of Bilqis, the Almaqa temple with 8m-high monoliths, and Old Marib, the capital city of the legendary Bilqis, Queen of Sheba, which lies outside the town and is now almost deserted; of the former splendour, only a few vaults remain. On to Sana'a via the northern route, over passes at an altitude of 2,800 m, through the vast qat plantations. Overnight stay in Sana'a.

15. Day | Sana’a - Wadi Dhahr – departure

Visit to the recently re-opened National Museum in Sana'a, which shows treasures from all epochs of Arabian cultural history. After lunch, we drive to the Wadi Dhahr, a popular day-trip destination with the residents of Sana'a.

Every Friday, on a plateau above the valley, wedding ceremonies are held, in which the men dance the bara, a traditional dance with the djambia (curved dagger). Drive down to through fertile orchards to the valley, and visit to the "Dar Imam Yahya" or "Dar-al-Hajjar", the most popular photo motif in Yemen.

This fantastic rock palace, built for the Imam Yahya, is of special interest for its sophisticated cooling and ventilation system, and all storeys are open for viewing. Return to Sana'a, walk through the old quarter. Transfer to airport.