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Yemen - the last original Arab country



General info


All people I know that visited Yemen love it and many of them return there again. The main reason are it's friendly and hospitable people, I think. The other reason might be it's nature and culture, both unique in Arab world. I believe that Yemen is the last presevered 'true' Arab country, with 'true' Arab hospitality. If anyone was at least partly disappointed by mass tourism Arab speaking destinations like Tunis, Egypt, Morocco or UAE and Oman then Yemen should offer quite different experience. The global world is changing quicky, so I don't want to predict how long this uniqueness will last. But better to go there sooner that later.

Yemen does not have much oil, compared to other Arab neigbouring states and therefore it's people still need to live by their work as in the past. This probably helped to preserve the old customs and Arab hospitality. But it can't be only that. Yemen, especially the north, was in one Al Jazeera documentary (used to be on YouTube) called 'Republic of Tribes'. Thas it true especially in the north, that did not experience socialist regime as south did. Many people feel more loyalty to it's tribe than to the government and state of Yemen.

People of Yemen, although traditional in their customs, are very friendly and tolerant towards foreigners. But men and especially women should not wear shorts (we did wear them during first visit but not during second visit). Short sleeve is not a problem, but long sleeve is more appropriate for women of course. Headcloth is not necessary, compared to e.g. Afghanistan. People are very family oriented. If you are introduced to any women at all, they are mostly willing to talk about childern and family only. So if you want to be better preprared, take photos of your childern, family, house. That is good for conversation with men as well. They will show the photos to their women anyway.

Where to go

I can't say I know at all to know all areas of Yemen! During my first visit - 6 day stopover with Yemenia airlines, on the way to Ethiopia in 2006, I visited the capital Sanaa, unique Bura mountains and Red sea coast. I was impressed by Yemen, especially compared to my second visit of Ethiopia during the same trip later. That time, I visited Bura mountains for longer time, added eastern Yemen areas (Shibam, Sayun, Tarim, Mukkala towns) and fortunatelly Socotra island. To me, Bura mountains and Socotra island are the areas, there were the best. Noone should miss them while visiting Yemen. Due to not the best security situation in Yemen in last years, many areas e.g. the north near Saudi Arabia or the desert between Sanaa and east Yemen are often closed to tourists or at least independent tourists. But both Bura and expecially Socotra lie in completely safe areas, that have not been subject to restrictions so far, fortunatelly.

I travelled mostly by shared taxis in Yemen. They go frequently when they fill with people. They are cheap and have quite fixed prices per seat and destinations (drivers don't give you foreigners surcharge, that is quite unbelievable in many mass tourism Arab / North Africa destinations!). It is necessary to hire a jeep with driver on Socotra island, in order to go anywhere there. The price of jeep with driver should be about 70-80 USD per day in continental Yemen,  maybe a bit more on Socotra.

Yemen has very good food. But for trekking in Socotra, you need your own food. For trekking in Bura mountains - if you are with guide, you could probably eat evening and morning with people, where you stay (and pay something for that). If you are trek independetly as me, you have to take your own food, although you might be invited serveral times as well to local houses, especially if you speak Arabic (but you can't rely on that).

When to go

The hot and somewhat rainy season is approximately June-August. The best time to visit Yemen is after this - late September and all October, when all mountains are greener with streams with water there. Expect occasional rains even during this 'best' time. But Yemen can be visited quite anytime - even the rainy+hot season is not unbearable I think, it's just too hot in lower areas and some roads can be block by unpredictable heavy rains. But bear in mind, that rainy+hot season in continental Yemen corresponds to windy season in Socotra, when most of flights there are cancelled - so quite impossible for combination with Socotra. Unless you are in Yemen during or right after the rainy+hot season, you basically even don't need a tent for trekking in Bura mountains or Socotra island or elsewhere.

Lower areas of Yemen are very hot, but Sanaa itself lies in the altitude about 2000m !, so it's quite cold (it can freeze there in the night during winter time). You don't need mechanical water filter for trekking usually, the streams are not so muddy, but chemical treatment of water is very recommended. Yemen has good GSM signal coverage and roaming with major international operators, even in Bura mountains. Only Socotra had some limited CDMA coverage where local SIM card and CDMA phone was necessary - that was in 2007.

Note on Arabic language


Few people in Yemen speak English, especially in the more interesting north. Even in the south, that used to be British protectorate, you can't rely on English at all. So I studied Arabic and returned there for second time in one and half year. Arabic is a difficult language, so one a half year was just enough to be able to perform some conversation for me.

Yemen can be visited even if  you don't know Arabic at all. It was the same with me during my first visit and I was excited. But for deeper experience and expecially for repeated visits (that usually tend to be not so great that the first great experience for me), I would recomend a book called Formal Spoken Arabic - fast course. One needs at least 3 months to cover most of that book by studying in the evenings, I think. It does not deal with Arabic script too much. Script is very usefull of course, I studied that, but not necessary for conversation. It contains good audio, so it's good even for self studying. It contains usefull words (especially verbs) and teaches you something between school standard literary/news Arabic and too country specific spoken Arabic. It's name might be something like 'generalised spoken arabic'. Actually, it's spoken part is based on Lebanon-Palestine-Jordan-Syria area, but they will show you more or less only that spoken words, there are comonly understood across Arab world, I believe.

All people in Yemen, that went to primary school or watch TV understand standard school/news Arabic and are more or less able to reply in standard Arabic. This is especially true for men. Yemen has the lowest level of literacy among women in Arab world (about 30% ?). And Yemen is of course one of the best countries, if  not the best, where to study standard school/news Arabic. There are many language schools in Sanaa or Aden.

Bura mountains - maybe the greenest place in Yemen


When looking for information about trekking in Yemen, one usually finds something about Haraz mountais only, maybe about Socotra. Haraz is OK, just 2 hours from Sanaa and people are used to tourists there. But Bura is something different - vertical rock ridges, high houses standing right at the top of these ridgers, green forests from the west (Red sea) side, monkeys in the forest, almost no tourists, living villages (not abandoned as some in Haraz), friendly people still not so much used to tour groups (although this is already changing). Bura is changing as well, new roads are being constructed, electricity is coming to many places. Bura is not far from more famous Haraz mountains. It's just about 4 hours by shared taxi or bus to Bajil town an then about 2 hours by hired car to Bura mountains.

It's better to start from Sanaa in the morning, in order to reach the mountains by the evening and sleep there already. If you start around noon, you most probably end up sleeping in very hot town of Bajil. Hotels in Bajil are not good and the one airconditioned in overpriced compared to Sanaa given it's not very good quality.

Asphalt road goes all the way from Bajil to Bamii village (just under the highest mountain, in the middle of Bura mountains). Another road goes to the green wadi Raaba (access form the west, from Red sea side). Plus rough road forks from the asphalt road under Bamii village to Magraba village as well. And rough road goes to Kohl village - that is near Antara - this is the access from the north, good for trekking all of the main ridge from north to south. I don't know about any maps. The mountains are so small and vertical, that even these Russian maps do now show it well. Some correct hand drawn map would be better. Hopefully some locals will do it one day.


yemen bura detail

We originally asked driver from Bajil to go the village of Kohl, but ended up in some village under it, where the rough road ended anyway. There are definitely other roads that I did not mark here. If anyoned intends starting trekking the whole ridge from the north, as we did, try to say Kohl or Antara village in Jebel Bura mountains to drivers in Bajil. Some of them should know. I takes about 3-4 days to cover the green dotted path on foot, but we did not go the the highest moutain (spent time with our host instead). Although we had 4 days at disposal, we spent a lot of time with people on the way as their guests.

It's possible to go independently, without guide, but expect difficulties when communicating about where to go next (even if you know the village names marked here) and don't automatically expect to be invited to some home if you don't know Arabic (although this still may happen). Every bigger village should have school and teacher of Arabic there. As far as guide, it's better to get him from Sanaa using some travel agencies. I would not hope for someone in Bajil or even some English speaker in the first village of Bura, where car will drop you.

Wadi Raaba is quite known protected area with paid entrance (about 2.5 USD probably) nowadays. This would probably be the easiest destination to go from Bajil independently. Most drivers in Bajil should know it as a lot of Yemenis go there for picknic or just the see the green forests there nowadays. It's not a proble to get into some car from Wadi Raaba to Bajil or to Sukhna. From Sukhna, it's quite fast go over Tihama plains to Taiz and to Aden - going back over mountains to Sanaa would be much longer.


Socotra island


People come to Socotra for different reasons - trekking, sea life, diving, rare fauna, fishing, caves etc. I spent there three and half days only. It such short time, one can do the easy 2 day trek (and I did not know about something more difficult at that time anyway) plus some caves and swiming in sea on the third day. But 1 week or even more is better, either for lond trekking or more of  sea life, fishing etc. As can be seen in the map down, only righ-central part of Socotra is the part suitable for trekking. Fortunately, it lies just next to airport and main town of Hadibo. Full south to north travese would take around 3-4 days taking the easy route or more trying the difficult route - see detailed map below. I was told, that the highest mountains was normally climbed with a guide from Hadibo as daytrip. Crossing the the main ridge in the area of the hightest mountains might be quite challenging, but definitely not impossible. If I go back to Socotra some time, I'll try it.

Upper central Socotra from Google Earth sattelite maps. The 'Y' like fork/junction of wadi Dirhur (left) and Darho(right) was the start of our short 2 day trek. All the area around this junction is called Firmihin area. You need to tell this to the driver, if you need to go there independently, together with the wadi names. Asphalt road goes almost there from north-west (from airport). Jeep track continues further on at least half the way of wadi Darho (right, easy wadi). But it's difficult for any car to go even down the wadi if it was just a bit of rain. We walked it down the the wadi and all the way further. The path is very clear, there are no confusing side paths and orientation easy. It's not necessary to have a guide.

If you arrive to Socotra independently, there is some UNESCO or what sponsored friendly office in Hadibo. They speak English will tell you what to see, help you to arrange you itinerary, call the guide etc. There seemed to be only one good restaurant in Hadibo, where locals directed all foreigners. So this was the place to meet others, but they were usually with tour agencies there. There were a few hotels around as well.

If you are intrested in caves, try Hoq cavers on the northern coast, maybe 1 hour by car east of Hadibo. They should be better than the small cave we visited in the south. It should be possible with some effort and contacts to arrange an unforgettable trip with local fishermen, when they go to fish (we did not have time for this).



Detail of central Socotra from Russian military 1:200 000 map with our trek + more adventurous alternatives marked.



Other areas in Yemen


Where to stay in Sanaa cheaply

I used to stay in some hotel in the southern corner of the main Bab Al Yemen square. I can't remember the name. The advantage ot this location, apart from price, is shared taxi station to Haraz/Bura mountains etc. that is just 50 meters away. It was about 15 USD for a room for 4 people (smaller probably available as well). Electricity was OK, toilets + shower shared for a few other rooms as well, but usable. They spoke some basic English at the reception, which was on the first floor.  There was some other hotel next to it, which was even cheaper, with the entrance right from the main square, but this was awful.
One can stay in hotels focused on foreign tourist - e.g. Taj Talha and the one next to it, right in the center of the old town. They have beautiful location and cost about 30 USD for 2 people.

cheap hotel in sanaa map



Maps and guidebooks


After my second visit, in late 2007, Bradt published the first guide focused on Yemen only, after old LP in 1996. After browsing through it, I can't say it's better than old LP guide. It has some newer information of course, but LP guide e.g. wrote something about all provinces of Yemen (e.g. Mahra east of Mukkala etc.), not only chosen areas. And the best areas of Yemen - Jebel Bura mountains and Socotra are described very shortly again, without any usefull maps for trekking.

So my short text here should still be usefull as a complement to both guidebooks for trekking in Bura and Socotra. Plus Bradt 'new' guide does not even mention that tourist permit was necessary to travel quite anywhere outside Sanaa in autumn 2007 and according to my info this is still true in autumn 2008 !

The best road map for Yemen in 2008 was this by German Reise Know How.
Russian military 1:200 000 maps of Yemen are not much useful for current road situation, but there is nothing better to show topography - download here area of Haraz and Bura mountains and here Socotra.


Tourist travel permit - how it worked in 2007, this is not mentioned in 'new' Bradt guidebook

One needed a tourist permit (called somthing like 'tashrih' in Arabic) to go in fact anywhere outside Sanaa (in autumn 2007, still valid in autumn 2008). The pemit was issued 24hours a day at Minitstry of Tourism by Tourist Police, Hotoba area in northern Sanaa. I think one could get it in other big towns such as Aden as well. We went there by taxi, we did not know the exact location at that time either. The place is about half way between the airport and center of Sanna, so it might be good to stop there right when coming from the airport. They speak English and the permit is issued to independent travellers as well. They wanted us to list all destinations that we wanted to visit with exact dates when we wanted to be there. So it might be good the have this itinerary prepared in advance to speed up the process.

If you are independent, they may try to restict you more than groups with tour agencies (yes, they need this permit as well). E.g  they did not want to allow us independently to Bura mountains at first, they allowed us when I spoke Arabic and said we were having friends there. In the end, after you supplied them with your detailed itinerary in English, they will write you permit on preprinted paper in Arabic only. This permit states (if I remember it correctly) overall from - till date of your travel and even does not list all people who are travelling ! There was no detail route descriptoin on this, to be checked by local police there! So if they don't want to let you go somewhere, don't insist on it and say something on the main road close to it instead  (e.g. Sanna to Hudayda at Red sea for problem free access to Bura mountains) or leave that completely. Eventually, if it's not completely closed area or there are not police check points there, you may go there or at least try it. The most important is to leave the office with the permit in hand.

They told us, they we cannot start the journey the same day, only next day after the permit was issued. Probably because they want to report your group to all police check points on the way. I don't know if they do this in reality, but we started our journey just after leaving the office and had no problems. Make many copies of this permit immediately (e.g. 20). At any road check point, I just handed one copy out of car window to the police and in 5 seconds we continued. There was no check made whether we were reported there in advance or not and usually there was no passport check as well.