»The khat makes the time finish quick«
A cancelled cruise through the Gulf of Aden. A dead governor. A country at war. With no boat available I decide to try the road to the Yemeni mainland border. And try to bribe myself in.
“There can’t be many places left in the world that could make God smile, but Yemen is one of them”.
This is the opening sentence in my Lonely Planet Arabian Peninsula guidebook from 2007. To my knowledge this is the latest updated guidebook version covering Yemen. Today Yemen is a country at war. A country that no longer make many people smile.
Out of my 8 remaining countries Yemen is by far the most difficult. Flights are cancelled or near-impossible to get on when they randomly operate. And war is pretty much all over. Hence when the opportunity arose to get on a cruise from Salalah in Oman to the island of Socotra – ‘the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’ – I jumped at it right away.
Socotra – the supposedly ‘only peaceful place in Yemen’ – is situated 380 km south of the Arabic Peninsula and 240 km east of Africa’s Horn and Somalia. The cruise – catering for 70 wealthy western tourists a few of which are on the same mission as me – is supposed to cross the Gulf of Aden. Obviously, this is pirate seas and going on this cruise might not be deemed that smartest move in world history by either my travel insurance company or my mother. “That’s suicide” Petro Marais from Every Passport Stamp (who has worked for Australian Naval Intelligence) simply wrote to me.
However, pirate activity has been extremely scarce the last couple of years after an international navy force has started operating. So, I pay for my cruise and hope everything will turn out well.
“I have terrible news” Dylan from Lupine Travel – the tour and cruise operator – wrote a few weeks before scheduled arrival. That same morning the Governor responsible for Socotra – and the man guaranteeing our safety while on the island – had died ‘in a car crash on the way to the Friday prayer’.
“Do we know for a fact that it was an accident?” I wrote back. I had heard a rumor that United Arab Emirates (UAE) claimed that the former governor to Socotra had sold or leased part of the Socotra Island to the UAE. Something that the present – now deceased – governor Ahmed Abdullah very strongly denied and fought against. I feared a politically motivated assassination.
”His family are apparently claiming that UAE are the blame for it” Dylan wrote back.
The outcome was not hard to figure out. Three days later we all got an e-mail informing us that the cruise had been cancelled. Now both Yemen and the local administration of Socotra claimed UAE was involved and the governor’s office announced that they could no longer guarantee our safety on the island. They described the situation on the island as: ‘in anarchy and there is a very strong chance of military action developing between Yemen and UAE’. Sweet.
(How UAE could have killed a man who allegedly died of a heart attack when driving in his car on his way to Friday prayer I have no idea. In other words, the governor could have died from natural causes – resulting in an escalation of the tension between Yemen and UAE causing our trip to be cancelled).
I got the money back for the cruise. But my individually booked flight to Salalah in Oman, my multiple entry Oman e-Visa and my visa to Socotra, Yemen arranged through Lupine Travel were not refundable.
From Salalah there are two mainland borders between Oman and Yemen. One near the coast and one inland in the mountains. I had a flight ticket, I had my visas. I had two weeks’ vacation (the cruise was supposed to last 8 days). Why not rent a car and try to go to Yemen overland through one of the land borders? It was an almost free shot. Only problem: my visa specifically stated Socotra only – not mainland Yemen.
Fortunately, I had a friend who had succeeded doing the same. Eric Nguyen who as 24-year-old became the youngest person in the world to visit every country (though GWR has still not approved this record) stayed with me in Copenhagen for a couple of nights last summer. (Read my interview with Eric here: http://www.expedition-everywhere.com/travel-writing/#eric). He told me that in April 2017 he crossed the coastal border with just a Socotra visa and a 100 USD dollar for the immigration officer.
Unfortunately, I also knew of a few other travelers having been rejected. Cool Johnny Ward from onestep4ward and pretty Cassie De Pecol from expedition 196 (google them) had both been rejected at the same border.
Considerations and research
(jump to The road to Yemen if you want to skip the considerations)
In all honesty I was scared of going to Yemen. Presently hardly, any foreigners have access to the country. Even aid workers are banned. If something happens you are alone.
Valid information also was hard to find. Fortunately, my cool and beautiful girlfriend Charlotte showed me the site LiveUAmap (see pic in album). It first became famous during the Ukraine conflict and shows attacks in conflict zones both based on media reports and based on private social media postings (fact checked by a journalist working for the site). According to LiveUAmap there had not been a single incident in the western Al Mahrah province that I planned to visit.
I then wrote a western contact who sometimes arranges tourist trips with armed protection into mainland Yemen. Presently due to the situation in Yemen none of their trips operated though. I asked about a short solo visit near the border. ”I don’t recommend it – and we deem it to risky” he wrote.
Most people in the Al Mahrah province allegedly wants autonomy from Yemen – just like they do in Somaliland in Somalia and Kurdistan in Iraq. According to GeoCurrents people in Al Mahrah “do not like jihadists” and they ‘“have taken to patrolling their capital Al Ghaydah and its border with Hadramawt to prevent incursions”. Not so reassuringly GeoCurrents also stated that the region had ’deep poverty’ and ‘a lack of infrastructure’ and that “Their economy is largely illegal – it’s (based on) smuggling drugs, guns, weapons and people.” Sweet.
As I said there are two borders between Oman and Yemen. The in-land border has the advantage of being near a town that supposedly has a hotel. Travellers Club of Denmark requires (as opposed to many of the international clubs) a minimum 24-hours stay – so a hotel would be nice. However, the in-land border is closer to Saudi and closer to the fighting along the border to Saudi. And I had no information about any other westerner crossing – let alone trying to bribe their way across – this border during the ongoing war.
So I opted for the border near the coast and near the Omani town of Sarfayt. The problem here was that the nearest hotel on the Yemen side supposedly is in Al Ghaydah and that’s 125 kilometers from the border and I feared going in so far.
Of all the people I asked for advice only one was both well informed and optimistic about the project. Norwegian Gunnar Garfors – legend, multiple travel world record holder and cool guy – wrote: “Al Mahrah province is considered safe. I am almost 100% sure that you can bribe your way in. And if you find a local driver at the border he will know where it is safe to go.” I wrote back that the guy with the armed tours had deemed it unsafe. “It is also unsafe to cross the road” Gunnar Garfors wrote back. (He even offered to help me getting a press visa if my project failed – Gunnar himself is in Aden, Yemen right now on a press visa researching his next book)
I finally arrived in Salalah with my e-visa. E-visa is a new thing to Oman and no one had ever heard of a multiple entry Oman e-visa in the immigration. However, in the end they got it fixed. I bought a local sim-card with a lot of extra data since I had been told I would have reception at the border. I rented the cheapest and ugliest car I could find. A red Suzuki Celerio. It was perfect. Ugly and perfect. I was going to leave it at the Oman border and wanted something not too flashy (not that I could imagine any of the honest and hospitable people of Oman to steal it – but just to be on the safe side). I then spent a day in Salalah trying to gather local information, but people didn’t know much. “Don’t go in to far and stay far away from the mountains” was the general advice.
The road to Yemen
With a faster than usual beating heart I finally set off towards Yemen an early morning. Good roads lead me past beautiful beaches and up over winding mountain roads. The road maybe mainly coastal but here the mountains continue right out into the ocean and my little car must climb them. Sometimes camels cross the road. I pass Wadis (dried out riverbeds) with frankincense trees. In past times the frankincense made Oman one of the richest countries on the planet.
”STOP. Army Check Point” it says on the blocked road outside something looking like a modern dessert fort. I am still 60 kilometers from the border. Trouble. The soldier speaks less English than I speak Arabic. “Salam Aleikum”, I say. He wants to see the papers of the car. I hand him the copy of the vehicle registration card I was given by Budget car rental. As far as I can understand my young soldier friend would now like something from Denmark. I pretend not to understand. He lets me pass.
Twenty kilometers before the border the next check point materializes. This soldier speaks a bit of English. Where are you going? He asks. “To Yemen” I say, while pondering like a madman if he might check my visa and find out it only allows me to enter an island around 400 kilometers away. “Are your Yemen papers ok?” he asks. “yes – yes” I simply state. He then asks for the vehicle registration paper and my passport. “Park over there” he says and points. “Oh boy” I think. But five minutes later after having registered my details he lets me continue. Continue towards the Yemen border.
The last twenty kilometers are – again – on mountain roads. The road is now worn and potholed unlike every other Omani road. I stop in Sarfayt 4 kilometers before the border and try to eat though I am not hungry. I don’t know if I should leave my car here, but I end up driving it right up to the border. I park in front of the border police building – right next to 4 Oman state police 4WD’s.
I tell the immigration officer every single kind Arabic word I know. Fortunately, he also speaks English. I tell him I am just going for a quick trip to Yemen and plan to return “today or tomorrow”. To my great surprise he doesn’t ask for to see my Yemen visa. He just stamps me out and tells me to move my car away from the border. After a few more kind Arabic words thrown in the direction of first the chief of immigration and later the chief of border police (who they call for) I am fortunately finally allowed to park my little red car at the border behind the police headquarters.
I have crossed many land borders and seen huge contrasts between the two countries on each side. But I do not recall crossing anywhere as different as Oman and Yemen. On the Omani side there is top modern buildings and new camouflaged trucks with machine guns on top. Five hundred meters down the road there is a few scruffy barracks, a rusty and deranged pickup truck that possibly once long ago housed a machine gun and random guys milling about mainly in plainclothes. Even the poorest of countries normally has the means to pay for their borders. This does not apply to Yemen. I smell anarchy. Dilapidation and anarchy.
Maeen meets me at the border. He wants to be me driver. All he can say in English is: “speak English”. He leads me to the immigration ‘office’. Four to five men are running in and out of the barrack. None of them are wearing a uniform. A couple of them know only a few words in English. On the desk lies the box magazine of a Kalashnikov. Inside it I can see scratched old bullets.
I try to ask about safety in Al Ghaydah – the hotel town 125 kilometers from the border. One guy just says “no” two other guys have no clue what I am saying. “I am going to Hawf” I then say. A little village only ten kilometers from the border. “Ah Hawf” says the officer smiling like he has no care in the world. “One hundred dollars” he says. He never asks to see my visa. He does not care to see my visa. He just wants to see the two green 50-dollar notes that I with Olympic record speed produce from the inside of my money belt. He then rapidly stamps a full-page visa in my passport (unfortunately he doesn’t give me a cool visa sticker like the one Eric Ngueyen got) and then stamps me in. “30 days” a guy knowing a bit of English says pointing to my visa. I am in. Visas to mainland Yemen practically do not exist. And I just got one. By simply renting a car driving to the border and paying 100 USD. Almost too easy.
As expected I have mobile reception from the Ooredoo Omani network even at the Yemen side of the border. Happily I write on messenger to my girlfriend Charlotte that I have now ‘officially’ entered Yemen – my country #188.
I then ask everyone around the border if it is safe to go to Al Ghaydah. “No problem” a young guy says. “No” says someone else. “Al Qaeda?” say most. (hehe please dear reader try to pronounce Al Ghaydah for yourself without it sounding like the terrorist organization..). The young guy who speaks a little English says that there are no check points between the border and Al Ghaydah. That worries me a bit – I would like some military presence to protect me – but it seems Yemen has better things for which to use its scarce means. For once in my life I chicken out. No need taking it too far. I decide not to go to Al Ghaydah. I need to find somewhere else to sleep. Fortunately, I have a plan B.
Maeen drives me into Yemen. He keeps talking on his mobile phone. I don’t like that. I prefer staying under the radar and that he doesn’t tell anyone about my presence. On mountain roads we drive the 10 kilometers into Hawf village. All the houses are grey. Grey and seemingly abandoned. Between some of the houses lie wrecked cars. We are looking for somewhere to have a cup of tea. In the Middle East there is always somewhere to drink tea. Except in the ghost town of Hawf.
Instead we head on to the next village by the name of Jadib. This village has people. People living mostly in simple houses – others live under simple plastic covers. With my iPhone I shoot a few portraits of a local lady wearing a local niqab. I give her a dollar. After that the whole village would like their photo taken. Maeen and I take a walk on the beach. The crabs are running around on the sand. A couple of big cut off fish heads stares at us with their dead eyes.
The village ’cafe’ is just a room without furniture and partly without doors. The only feature is the floor. A floor where you can sit and drink tea or chew khat. I order tea but moments later I am served camel milk. It is a touching gesture. In one of the poorest and desperate countries on earth I am given a free cup of camel milk. Nowhere on earth will you find the hospitability you find in the Middle East. We drink tea with the shop owner. When we leave I pay him twenty times the price of the tea.
After a few hours inside Yemen I ask to return to the border. My plan is – protected by the guards – to try and sleep there. But Maeen just takes me deeper into Yemen. According to Google Maps there are no towns between here and Al Ghaydah. “Khat” he just says and points ahead. “Souq” he adds. I have a hard time imagining him finding a khat-market in the middle of nowhere but five minutes later we see around 15 cars parked along the coast. It is time for buying khat.
While Maeen is gone to buy khat – Dia gets in the car (see video). He thinks I should try some khat. “We will be on our way soon” I tell him. “Chew khat little” he says. And adds: ”For the street. The street is long. The khat makes the time finish quick”.
A customer is approaching the car next-door from which Dias friend is selling khat. ”You know this man – it is a doctor – and a chewing khat – it is not good” – says Dia. Khat is an integrated part of life in Yemen. I have read somewhere that 55% of the water used in Yemen is used for watering the khat plants.
It is late afternoon when we head back towards the border. On the way we give a few passengers a ride – and deliver khat to a few houses along the way. At the border the guards want me to cross rather than stay the night. I know for a fact it is possible to sleep there since Eric Nguyen stranded here for a few nights when Oman would not let him re-enter because he didn’t have a multiple entry Oman visa. In the end a few more rather big dollar bills do the trick and they show me to a mattress in the back of a barrack. The room is dirty, but it is private and thankfully I have brought my old silk sleeping bag (that I bought in Laos for 5 USD nineteen years ago). The toilet is a stinking dump in the next building. I am tired after a long day and go to sleep early. From my dirty mattress I am online and consider making a Yemen Facebook check-in but end up deciding against it. I wake up a few times but otherwise I sleep ok.
I eat with the border guards and their hang-arounds. Every meal is the same. Two big plates of rice with chunks of unappetizing grey fish. Everyone of course just digs in with their right hands. We can’t communicate much but everyone is really kind to me. They insist that I do not pay for the food.
Late morning the next day I easily cross back in to Oman. My little red car is waiting for me at the Omani side. I have two and a half hours of mountain driving ahead of me. I am happy as a clam (at high tide) – as a dane – as a lark. Previously I have visited Libya, Iraq, Somalia, CAR, Chad, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Syria and hopefully Yemen will be the last of the really hard countries (assuming no wars will break out or no visa changes will apply to my remaining 8 countries).
As I turn up the volume on my iPhone in my car I can’t believe how easy it was. Obviously, I only got a super small glimpse of Yemen that will do the country no real justice. And a small glimpse of the poverty and of the significance of khat in the society. One day I hope to go back to either ‘the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’ or to see the old town of Sana’a – both are high on my bucket list. For now I am just happy that my little project was successful.
I am back in Oman on good roads sometimes with camels on them. I pass some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. I smile. Life is good, and I am a lot closer to fulfilling my dream of visiting every country in the world.
(all photos shot by iPhone. Sorry for the bad English – I mainly write in Danish and this is just a quick translation)