The media shows the civil war raging on in several regions of Yemen, but what it fails to show is the absolute blissful peace high up in the mountain top settlements of Haraz. Miles of terraced fields cut their way up the mountain side all the way to the gates of the gravity-defying, medieval Yemeni villages. The trails twist and turn through the farmlands and descend into Arabia’s wilderness, while the fresh mountain air makes for clear, scenic views over the Arabian plateau. The war is nowhere in sight and the residents of Haraz go about life as they have for centuries. Hiking from one village to another, traversing the mountain valleys along the way, gives you a deep understanding of one of Yemen’s oldest and most traditional cultures. Most exciting of all, it takes you to a remote corner of the world once thought to be lost.
Getting to the Haraz Mountains, Yemen
After spending a week in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a, we left for the Haraz. Getting permits is difficult now as the region is under Houthi control and they are very suspicious of any travelers here. All my permits were arranged through Cameleers Tours with Mohamed Baza.
Leaving Sana’a was slow going as every single checkpoint wanted to see passports and permit forms. Before even entering the mountains, we crossed five checkpoints!
The paved road slowly works its way up the mountain sides, but now with the war raging in Yemen all the bridges have been bombed. The resilient Yemeni’s have constructed detour routes despite of all this. What usually is a 2-3-hour journey now takes upwards of 6 hours from Sana’a to Manakha.
We arrived to Manakha in the afternoon and stayed at a family run guesthouse. Currently it is the only guesthouse still operating. The host family who runs it are amazing people and cook some of the best traditional Yemeni food ibn the country. Ill never forget chewing Khat with them for hours in the late evenings!
Hiking in Manakha, Yemen
With tourism now non-existent, the mountain trails have been left to decay, but this did not stop our host family from taking us high up into the mountains for some of Haraz’s classic hikes. On our first day of hiking, we started from one of the nearby mountain summits. After some target practise with our guide’s AK-47, we followed the trail past stunning terraced fields, ancient looking forests and through medieval stone villages that miraculously cling to the sides of cliffs, seemingly defying gravity.
In the last village before the trail begins to descend, one of the women working the fields rushed over to us and invited us into her home for tea and bread. Her family welcomed us in to show us their lives and the children showed off traditional Yemeni outfits. This kind of hospitality is extremely common here in Haraz.
Back in Manakha we walked through the souq and into the old Jewish quarter. Many of the houses still have the original Jewish doors which display intricate carvings.
The Shrine of Al-Hutaib
Situated on the summit of a mountain near Manakha is the Shrine of Al-Hutaib. Pilgrims from Pakistan and India came here before the war, but numbers have greatly dropped due to the war. The Shrine is dedicated to the Ismaeli sect.
From the main gates we were lead by the local Imam up the crumbly stairs which spiraled to the summit of the mountain. On the mountain top is the white shrine of Al-Hutaib. You can see across all the Haraz Mountains from here! Well worth the detour.
Medieval Village of Al Hajjarah
From Manakha the road goes north to the village of Al Hajjarah. Al Hajjarah is easily one of the best preserved and most beautiful of Haraz’s medieval fortified towns. From the road it’s a short walk to the gates of Al Hajjarah, the city walls soar high above making a very dramatic scene. No cars can make it into the town because of where it is situated, only flocks of goats and the odd cow will pass you on the cramped stone streets.
At the edge of the city, the walls lead to a complete drop down the mountainside, but stone houses still seemingly cling to any outcrop of stone edging from the cliff side. As we made our way around the village, remnants of the tourist trail emerged, locals brought out trinkets and antiques that used to be sold to tourists before the war.
Driving to Al-Mahweet
After four days of hiking and enjoying mountain scenery in the Haraz, we followed the road towards Al Hudaydah before turning off into the lush valley of Wadi Sara. The road through the valley turns into a river at a few points as the bridges here have been destroyed by airstrikes. 4×4 was essential!
At the end of the valley we drove back up into the mountains again. This region is call Al-Mahweet. The towns are similar to Haraz, but are much more developed. In Al-Mahweet town we stayed in an actual hotel that has managed to stay open despite the ongoing conflict.
The mountain scenery from Al-Mahweet to Kawkaban is some of the most jaw dropping scenery in the whole of Yemen. From here you can see small villages plopped on all the nearby mountain tops. The bright green terraces edged into the cliffs really are amazing.
Near Al-Mahweet we stopped at the summit of a mountain peak that locals use for a great picnic area. Here you can almost see all the way to the Yemen coast.
Historic Kawkaban, Yemen
The last stop on any route through the Yemeni mountains is the historic hilltop city of Kawkaban. This is unfortunately where the devastation of war has had its effect. Once reminiscent of Al Hajjarah in the Haraz, Kawkaban was hit by multiple airstrikes, which destroyed much of its historic mosques and houses. The historic Hotel Kawkaban has also closed its doors to tourists.
Upon arriving in town, locals were still very happy to show some travelers around. They brought us to a few old houses that were not affected. We were also shown a stunning view point where we shot a giant rifle that was made in 1900. Truly it was heartbreaking seeing the people of Kawkaban try to show us what was left of a once stunning community.
As like other places in Yemen that have been affected by the war, the people of Kawkaban are already beginning to rebuild. They will restore Kawkaban to its former glory.