As the hours begin to lead up to it all, my mind starts to race. Traveling to Yemen is something I’ve always wanted to do, but because of Yemen’s war and political strife, it seemed an impossible task. Now, as I sit in a haze of hookah smoke in a Salalah cafe with a shady permission form from one of the governments in Yemen, I am finally going. After all the months of research and bureaucracy that I had to fight through to plan this adventure, the time to cross from Oman to Yemen has finally arrived. Just then, a beat-up van pulls up and a dodgy looking Yemeni driver peers out the window and says with a crazy look in his eyes “ready to go to Yemen!?”
Getting to Hadhramaut from Oman
The far eastern corner of Yemen bordering with Oman is called Al-Mahara. In order to get to Hadhramaut, you must cross this barren desert on a long, pothole filled road. I came to Al-Mahara from Salalah, Oman. My driver, who hails from this region picked me up and drove me across the fringes of Arabia’s Empty Quarter to the northern border of Yemen/Oman.
Crossing the border was sketchy. I have backpacked across Afghanistan and lived in Libya during the war, and this border had me feeling more uncomfortable than either of those. My driver brought all the necessary documents for me and my travel companions to the dilapidated shed that they referred to as immigration. Waiting in the car, plenty of armed men wearing traditional Yemeni attire passed by us giving as sharp looks. After two hours of waiting, we were on our way.
The road through Al-Mahara to Hadhramaut is very long. The journey takes upwards of nine hours, contrary to what we were told. You cross by beautiful empty deserts and the odd Bedouin camps. The closer you get to Hadhramaut you pass by more Saudi and Emirati checkpoints that are needless to say, not friendly.
We arrived very late into Seiyun. At this point, the checkpoints no longer stopped us as they could not see who we were. We stayed in what resembled a hotel, but which was now left to decay and turned into multiple apartments.
Hadhramauts Biggest City, Seiyun
Waking up in Seiyun and looking out the window to see magnificent gorges and whitewashed mudbrick buildings was spectacular. Contrary to Oman, Yemen is much less developed, it seems as if it was frozen in time from old Arabia.
Leaving our makeshift hotel, we wandered the downtown of Seiyun’s Souq. Here, vendors yell out selling various old electronics, rustic kitchen equipment, and exotic spices. People were very surprised to see us, but friendly none the less.
Khat – Khat is a mild amphetamine that over 80 percent of Yemeni men indulge in every day. The statistics for Yemeni women are lower than their male counterparts but still considerably high. Traveling to Yemen you will, of course, be offered to chew Khat. I gave it a try and the best way to describe it is that it’s like having a strong cup of coffee that lasts.
My favorite part of Seiyun was the Khat Market. Here, Yemeni’s with bulging cheeks full of Khat barter the leaf from small wooden shacks. The scene is quite unique, there’s a mix of local farmers, completely covered women pushing their goats, and armed soldiers fresh from the front line of war all buying up the large bundles of Khat.
The Manhattan of Arabia, Shibam Yemen
Further down the highway from Seiyun the mud skyscrapers of ancient Shibam break through the desert mirage. This 2000-year-old city is home to over 7000 people. It’s dubbed the Manhattan of Arabia as these massive mud structures soar well over seven stories high.
Shibam is what I refer to as a living museum. Nothing has changed within the fortified walls for centuries and life goes on just as it did before. Cars can only squeeze into the main gates, but from there you must traverse the city on foot.
Wandering the narrow alleyways, I got lost within minutes. Every so often the walls would open up to a beautiful minaret or a courtyard surrounded by more stunning architecture. On the streets below, kids play soccer and shepherds disappear into maze-like corridors with their flocks of sheep and goats.
I am naturally an optimistic person, but Shibam truly is one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. After several hours of exploring, taking photos, and chatting with the Shibam locals we visited a tea house that is said to have served tea at the very same location for over 500 years.
From here, we ventured across the valley to a hilltop viewpoint overlooking this amazing place. As the sun began to set in an orange fiery glow and the call to prayer beckoned from every direction, I sat there thinking of how amazing it was to be here in Yemen!
Clifftop City of Al-Hajarayn
The next day we decided to drive to the remote valleys nearby. Passing by legendary Shibam once again before the valley begins to narrow and become more dramatic. The lush farmed valley below adds stunning contrast to the red cliffs of the Hadhramaut Valleys. Looking up into these cliffs you will notice small communities which seem to defy gravity by clinging to the sides of these mountains.
As we drove through the megalith of these cliff towns, Al-Hajarayn appeared in the distance. Al-Hajarayn is much larger and many of the buildings are up to five stories high clinging impossibly to sketchy looking cliffs. There is even a mosque clinging not just to the cliff, but what looks like a 90-degree drop off the mountain.
Climbing up to Al-Hajarayn we passed by structures that resembled the same ancient buildings in Shibam, only these ones are situated in a much more impressive spot. Nearing the main town gates we were rewarded with fine views overlooking the valley below.
Wadi Dawan and Buqshan Khaila Palace
After the climactic views from Al-Hajarayn, we continued on into the valleys. The further you go, the smaller and more remote feeling the small communities become. The river here also allows for many trees and lush fields to flourish, giving it that feeling of being an oasis.
We stopped in a few of the small communities we passed by to get photos and explore the traditional way of life here in Hadhramaut. Entering Wadi Dawan, you see more of the incredible cliffside towns, but these ones stand high above the green brush and are backdropped by the stark gorge cliffs. The towns here are also much wealthier looking as the structures are freshly painted white, and the farms are well kept.
Sitting higher than all of the other structures in Wadi Dawan is the multicolored Buqshan Khaila Palace. This former royal palace opens briefly for the odd domestic tourist, but for the most part is closed year round. We were able to explore a few of the main halls after convincing the guard, but could not see the entire thing.
After lunch in the palace garden, we drove high above the valley to a plateau at the clifftops. The view here looks to be something from a fairy tale.
The Mosques of Tarim
Our last stop in Hadhramaut was the historic city of Tarim. Tarim is more modern feeling than Shibam or the remote communities of Wadi Dawan but is filled with historic sights. It is estimated that Tarim contains up to 365 mosques.
Our first stop was the Al-Muhdhar Mosque. The minaret of the Al-Muhdhar Mosque is 53 meters (175 ft) high, making it easy to see from anywhere in the town. The inner halls are plastered bright white and lined with hand-woven carpets. Here, students of Islam murmur qur’anic verses filling the hall with song.
Nearby to the Al-Muhdar Mosque is the cemetery of Aynat. This is one of the most photogenic parts of Tarim. Women in black shrouds wander past the ancient tombstones of Islamic heroes who are said to be buried here.
Tarim was our last stop before we ventured further into Yemen. Ahead of us were the sands of Marib and Yemen’s frontline of the war.
Yemen Travel Advisory
Since I returned from Yemen a few months ago many have been asking me for travel advice to get here. It might seem ignorant for me to say, but I DO NOT recommend traveling to Yemen. Currently, Yemen is in a state of civil war, there are many risks such as kidnapping, airstrikes, and other obvious issues that come with war. Simply put, it is not a place for tourists at the moment. However, Yemen will eventually recover from this war. My posts on Yemen are to show that the future of tourism will come and the war has not affected the many sights and hearts of the Yemeni people.
If you do decide to travel to Yemen please do not ask me for help with your visa, apply to your nearest embassy, and do not trust those who say they can get you a visa without permission from the embassy. When you arrive in Yemen keep a low profile and always keep up to date with the current situation.
Yemen Travel Information
Location: Hadhramaut, Yemen
How I Learned To Travel Yemen: Yemen Bradt Guide Book
Tour Company I used: Camaleer Tours