Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Inland to Shibam

After some group decision making paralysis we let our helpful agent Maher organise a minibus and act as our guide on the trip to Shibam. As promised he arrived directly after morning prayers and we were off soon after 6.30am. Once we'd picked up our armed guard from the tourist police we were soon climbing the valley northwards and onto the arid highlands. There's little vegetation or population here, with the occasional sight of women (it seemed to be exclusively women) goat herders covered in black and wearing tall conical hats with the occasional camel roaming the plains.After a good few hours drive the road began to descend into a deep, sheer, Grand Canyon like valley. At the foot of the valley was our first stop. Khaylata Bagshan - a pastel coloured fort from 1798 strongly built with impressively thick timber doors and windows.We continued along the semi-fertile valley, past towns built into the steep valley sides with houses blending in with the surrounding hills constructed from bricks made from clay and straw.
In many places recent floods had washed the road away but the slow pace over the unrepaired sections gave us more of a chance to spy scenes of daily life such as camels used to grind grains into flour and oil, with the camels walking around the mill in tight circles.Our stops included Al-Khriba - once home to the Bin-Laden family; Raboyn - a walled city built into the side of the valley; Seiyun the town where we stayed over night which included a museum in its fort. One of the exhibitions featured photos from 1930. From the photos it seemed little had changed; Toyotas have partially replaced camels and donkeys, children's clothing has adapted and sadly plastic rubbish now blows around streets, but it seemed little else has changed.

Our final destination was Shibam, known as the Manhattan of the desert. A walled city in the valley striking for its ancient high-rise buildings.Apart from meeting a group of Saudi tourists in dazzlingly bright white robes in Shibam we were the only tourists we saw over the two days. Incredible when you consider the amazing sights we've witnessed. It was a long drive home, speeding along the foot of the valley, just above the river bed with the latest Lebanese hits blaring from the stereo and the driver and guard chewing the small green leaves of Qat - the Yemeni national narcotic of choice. Allegedly Qat produces a mild stimulant effect - chewing a few leaves had no effect for me, but apparently I needed more persistence; by late afternoon most men have a ball of mulch filling their cheeks which they've been working on all afternoon. Fortunately our driver delivered us safely home just before sunset.

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