A Travellerspoint blog

December 2007

Seyun - Tarim and Aynat

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


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Today is Christmas Day and we turn up for breakfast in our red Santa Hats, which the drivers willingly wear for us to take photographs.

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Heading east towards Tarim, we pass by many typical everyday scenes in Yemen. It is often these snapshots of daily life that remain the best memories from my travels. Much as Mohammed is not the best local guide we’ve ever had, his redeeming feature is that he does stop at various places he thinks might be of interest to us, such as these people carrying out building work during the dry season.

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The bricks are made nearby, and stacked up for drying in the sun, so at least the materials don’t have far to travel.

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The Hadramawt area is well known for women with large straw hats, either this type with a flat top or the conical shape. We don’t see many women out and about, mostly working the field or herding the goats, and all are covered from head to foot in black. Some with a small slit for the eyes, some with the full veil.

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Camels are a common sight throughout Yemen and are used for transport as well as food.

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Everywhere we go in Yemen; there are remains such as this, a rich man’s palace abandoned some 200 years ago. These are signs of the affluence which once reigned in this area.

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There is always surface water in the Wadi Hadramawt, even during the dry season. I can only imagine what this place looks like after the rains. The scenery everywhere is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

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Tarim

Tarim is best known for its mosques – 365 of them, one for each day of the year - and the skyline is dotted with minarets. The city is in a beautiful setting, on the valley floor of the Wadi Hadramawt, flanked by vast rock cliffs on one side and surrounded by palm groves on the other.

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Another of Tarim’s claim to fame is its collection of 19th century palaces in the Al-Kaff area. Mostly built by Javanese immigrants, they are now what you might call ‘ripe for restoration’.

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Many of the mansions here were built by Sir Sayyid Bu Bakr Ibn Shaikh al-Kaf, who used some of the fortune his family has amassed in Singapore to build roads, palaces and mosques in Tarim. This palace is also known as Ishsha Palace.

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This is the only palace we are able to enter, and it is partly made into a museum. Apparently, Freya Stark was entertained here on her visit to Tarim, by the owner himself.

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Many of the rooms are empty, but still offer some insight into what life must have been like in those days.

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There is a small but interesting museum within the building, mostly displaying firearms. I just couldn’t resist playing with the exhibits!

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One of the more interesting items is a passport issued by the British in 1963. It seems so recent, yet still a totally different world.

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The building itself is really quite elaborate; it is hard to accept that this is a mud-brick creation.

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Some of the rooms have decorated walls and ceilings, like this one with mirrors on the ceiling. It’s a shame there is no furniture in here, it must have been very grand in its time.

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One of the many things I love in Yemen is the beautifully decorated doors. Whether they are made of metal, such as this one, or carved wood, there seems to be such love and pride put into the creation of the entrances here.

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The most famous mosque in Tarim is the al-Muhdar Mosque, named after the religious leader Omar al-Muhdar who lived in the town in the 15th century. The minaret, the most prominent feature of Tarim, has been repeatedly renewed since the period of the Islamic middle ages. The current minaret, 50 metres tall and built of mud and brick, was added in the beginning of the 20th century.

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Walking around the town, we come across a stall selling artifacts and souvenirs. I am really taken with a niqab made from black velvet and beautifully coloured beads. I try it on and get encouraging comments from my fellow travellers. I try to bargain with the stall-holder, but he won’t drop below $40. I really want it, but walk away. Halfway down the street, I change my mind, and David goes back to buy it for me.

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I wonder what I would look like as a ‘real’ Bedouin woman, with brown eyes and dark skin?

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Isn't Photoshop fun?

We pass through a market selling fish, grains and fresh produce.

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Some fish looks better than others, although most of the produce I see in Yemen is fresh and looks appetising.

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Tarim has always been a very important scientific centre in the Islamic world, and the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islamic teaching, spreading the word in and around the Hadramawt area. The Al-Ahqaf Library was founded in 1972 to preserve the spiritual heritage of the region’s Islamic teachers, and the books were gathered from all over Hadramawt.

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In the library are 14,000 volumes, amongst which some 3,000 manuscripts could be classed as ancient.

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Many of the books are adorned with beautiful gold and colours in their pages.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch in Tarim at a small restaurant obviously aimed at tourists, as there is another group there. We are all shocked at how disrespectful these other tourists are to the local customs here in Yemen – women wearing close-fitting tops with short or no sleeves and not covering their hair. They quickly leave and we have the restaurant to ourselves. We order from the non-existent menu: fried fish, chicken, goat or camel.

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Fish

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Goat

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Camel

The chef is outside the restaurant cooking the meat on a large barbecue.

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While we’ve been eating, the drivers have been off to get their daily fix of qat, and Musad looks very happy.

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Lime Production

We stop to see how limestone is collected from the valley, placed in the large kiln and fired with wood for 3-4 days.

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It is then further soaked in water for another 2-3 days to soften the stone.

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Once it is soft enough to manage, the stones are beaten with a stick to break them up. Once they are the desired size, the lime powder is dried, bagged up and sold at markets.

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Bee Keeping

There was a time when Yemeni honey was almost as expensive as gold, and although the value of the honey has come down, it is still prized all over the world. Beekeeping methods have barely changed in Yemen over the centuries. Box-shaped hives are made of sukan wood, stacked and covered from the fierce heat of the sun.

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During extraction, beekeepers will use smoke to get the insects to move away, then draw out the honeycomb through the rear of the hive, which is sealed with mud and thus easily opened, causing minimum disturbance to the brood inside.

The honey is then strained to remove excess bee larvae and pollen. The first extraction is called balade and is sold directly to a traditional clientele. It is the most prized honey of all as it is considered pure.

Good Yemeni honey is so highly prized that its possession is considered a status symbol in Yemen. Being offered honey when welcomed into a Yemeni home means you are an honoured guest.

Yemeni folk medicine prescribes the use of honey for a wide range of ailments. For example, when mixed with myrrh it is said to provide efficient relief from constipation, with carrot seeds it is an aphrodisiac, with various plants it can be used against epilepsy.

Husn Dhiban Masilah

Everywhere we go in Yemen, there are relics of fortifications from a bygone era, such as this fortress called Husn Dhiban Masilah from where the name Wadi Masilah has come to identify the remainder of the route to the sea.

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Aynat

Aynat was once one of the largest and most famous towns in the Wadi, but recurrent floods have gradually washed away crops, houses and small dams. Still left is the white qubbas of the cemetery. Being on the pilgrimage route, this has become a site of worship.

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The main tomb is that of Sheikh Abu Bakr bin Salim, and there are other tombs of important sada close by, with hundreds of ‘lesser’ graves scattered around.

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Women all in black with the conical hats so typical to Wadi Hadramawt tend to their goats along the road. The women object to being photographed, and will throw stones at the car if they spot us. The secret is to slow down as we approach, take a couple of shots with a long zoom lens and then speed up again before they realise what we are doing.

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Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhjair

The Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhajir (‘the immigrant’) is a place of pilgrimage and is especially popular with women pilgrims, as it is also the burial place of a sheikha – a holy woman. Ahmad Ibn Isa was the sayyid who re-established orthodox Islam in Wadi Hadramawt about 1200 years ago. Originally from Basra in Iraq, he made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and continued south to spread the Sunni orthodox branch of Islam. He was the seventh generation descendant of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.

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At ground level is a mosque and ablutions room, alongside which is the domed tomb. Steps lead up the lower slopes to another collection of tombs and graves, those of members of his family. Stuck to the inside of the tomb walls and ceiling are hundreds of little balls of thread, placed by pilgrims hoping to be blessed with good luck.

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Christmas Party!

We return to the hotel in Seyun for a Christmas Party (it is after all Christmas Day). This morning we were given gifts by Emad – the gents all had futas, the Yemeni dress of choice for most men. They all sport their new fashion items and pose willingly by the swimming pool.

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Emad has a special surprise for us for dinner – the chef has killed a goat for us and cooked it whole. Some people feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that it still very much looks like a goat, complete with legs, neck and tail. I think it’s delicious.

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Emad carves the goat for us, we have plenty of other food, and a bottle of Duty Free Vodka does the rounds at dinner. Although Yemen is a ‘dry country’ per se, it is not illegal to bring in alcohol for non-Muslims, a fact that we’d taken advantage of.

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Somehow Emad has managed to arrange for a few jugs of cocktails to be delivered from the tea shop in the centre of town. A very special surprise indeed.

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David learns how to sit cross-legged on the ground with the help of the band that is so often worn by the local men. Now we know what that is for! For someone who has never been able to sit like this before, not even in assembly at school, it is quite a revelation.

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Also arranged for us, is some local entertainment, some music and dancers.

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Knowing how conservative the Yemeni women normally are, not wishing to be seen in public and certainly not photographed, we conclude that this must be the Yemeni equivalent of a strip club. This is the first woman in Yemen we have seen with her face exposed, all others have been wearing the niqab or the full veil.

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As with any dance display in any country, there is audience participation.

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It has certainly been a Christmas Day to remember!

Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged travel palace cemetery party christmas yemen library hadramawt christmas_day middle_east hejab seyun tarim niqab Comments (0)

Cairo - Sana'a - Seyun

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007


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Emad is true to his promise and is waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall at Sana’a airport, whisking us off to the hotel for a quick shower and change before rushing us back to the airport for our short flight to Seyun. Despite being rather bewildered and disorientated from the long flight, I am delighted to see the UNESCO Heritage site of Shibam - a place I have dreamt of visiting for forty years - through the window as we pass by. I pinch myself: “as we pass by? Is this really us, just ‘passing by’ Shibam?”

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Seyun airport is absolute chaos. The conveyor belt is one small linear strip ending in an awkward corner. As everyone crowds around the belt waiting for the bags to arrive, pandemonium ensues. Trying to leave the airport is like an obstacle course, and a few toes get damaged in the process. Outside, three of the four Landcruisers are waiting for us. The fourth one is still making his way to Seyun, as Emad sent the driver back to Sana’a to wait for us with the car in case we missed the flight. There is not enough room for all of us in the three cars, so Emad rides on the running board.

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The hotel in Seyun is much more luxurious than I expected. From the outside it has a traditional look, but inside it is modern, with large rooms including a sitting area, and there is a central courtyard with a swimming pool. We collapse straight into bed after a 51 hour journey from Bristol, and sleep until lunch.

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Despite being classed as a four-star hotel, the services at the Samah Hotel are rather sketchy. They don’t actually keep any food in the restaurant, if you want to eat; you need to order a few hours in beforehand so that they can get the stuff in. Having requested a camel stew when we arrived in the morning, it duly appears at lunchtime. It is the first proper meal we have had since leaving Bristol, but I am not hungry and leave most of it.

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This afternoon is billed as ‘Free Time’, but Emad has arranged an excursion in the Landcruisers for us. I don’t think there is much of interest around this area other than what’s in the itinerary, and I get the impression they are scratching around to find attractions for us. We start off at a cemetery to Mr Alnabi Handala Asofiri. Between 1204 and 1323 this was the capital of Wadi Hadramawt, controlling all this area pre-Seyun. Now it is just the cemetery for the village.

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This is where we get our first introduction to Qat, the drug of choice in Yemen. The drivers have to have their fix every afternoon, and we stop most days to get some. It is said that most Yemeni spend at least 50% of their meagre salaries on Qat.

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Popping a few green leaves in my mouth and starting to chew, it is hard to understand why. The first impression is that of chewing a privet hedge. It tastes like, well, leaves. I spit it out in frustration. My second attempt some days later is more successful and I experience the slight euphoria associated with the Qat chewing. I can’t say I think it looks good or that it gives me enough of a high to spend 50% of my income on it.

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There is an ancient well on the site too and we drop a stone into it to see how deep it is. It’s deep. We wander about the ruins for a while before heading back to the cars.

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The drivers have turned up the Yemeni music on their car stereos to full blast and three of them are dancing around by the cars, waving their Jambiyas (ceremonial daggers) in the air. This is the Yemeni equivalent of male bonding, and something we would see a lot of during our journey through Yemen.

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Jo is a good sport and joins in, borrowing a Jambiya for authenticity. She certainly looks the part.

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Yemen is still very much a tribal culture, and nearly every man and young lad we see, carries a Jambiya in his belt. The sheath is usually made from either silver or copper, or as here, in a colourful material, and the handle can be crafted from a variety of sources, including ivory, Rhino horn, leather, wood or animal bone. They come in different sizes and colour and are a man’s pride and joy.

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All around us the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The wadi (seasonal riverbed) is huge, with a flat fertile area surrounded by towering cliffs reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The view is exactly how I imagined it and hoped for. Wadi Hadramawt is the largest wadi in the Arabian Peninsula and runs for 160kms west to east. Over 200,000 people eke a living from this fertile land, whose wheat is said to be the best!

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Even today, the vast majority of the buildings in the area are made from mud bricks in a style unchanged for centuries. The tower houses are the invention of the Hadhramis, and all over the area you can find similar constructions.

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Winter is their dry season and the local builders take advantage of this and everywhere you can see the making of mud bricks. Wet mud is mixed with some straw for added strength and then spread out on the ground to harden.

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A wooden frame with a long handle is used to shape the bricks. The bricks will dry fairly quickly in the sun and different thickness of bricks are used for the different storeys of the building – thicker ones on the ground floor and thinner ones near the top.

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We visit a local project where they are hoping to turn an old building into a museum for tourists. Many men are working on the development, but our photos are spoilt by a truck in front of the building. Emad asks the builders to move the vehicle, and they oblige.

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Who needs Photoshop!

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Al Hawta Palace Hotel is the only first class hotel in the world to be built entirely of mud and clay, and its origins date back 150 years. As Yemen’s only Heritage Hotel, it is the best in the area and very expensive.

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The grounds are superb, like a little oasis in the desert, with the only lawns we saw in Yemen, trees, palms, beautiful flowering bougainvillea and a swimming pool. Oh to stay here.

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Back in Seyun we discover the delights of Yemen’s alcohol-free cocktail. Made from Mango juice, milk and a thick, red syrup called Vimto, it is substantial and smoothie-like.

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Photographing the Vimto bottle

One is not enough!

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As dusk falls, we take a walk around Seyun. Our walk coincides with the call to prayer, and we watch the people stream into the mosque after having performed their ablutions.

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I love this time of day when the light begins to fade and the artificial lights start to appear. I am particularly taken with the colours of this mausoleum, the Tomb of Habshi. This respected holy man died at the beginning of the 20th century, and his death is still celebrated by pilgrimages lasting ten days every year.

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Attached to the mausoleum is a Muslim graveyard, where non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

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The imposing Sultan’s Palace dominates the skyline of Seyun day and night, but is most impressive at dusk. The present shape of the buildings dates from the 1920s, with the outer wall added in the late 1980s.

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Many of the stores are open way into the evening, including this jeweller’s shop, barber and store selling Vimto! Yemen is a lot more touristy than I expected it to be; don’t get me wrong, it is by no means overrun with tourists, but I have seen more foreigners than I anticipated. Being the height of the season, we are likely to see more than at any other time of year I suppose, but I was not prepared for the number of touts selling souvenirs and other trinkets. Honey is very popular here in Yemen, but not something either of us like. Some of our party visit a shop where they are able to taste the different types of honey.

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Whilst the rest of the group goes off for a meal, we make our way back to the hotel to try and catch up on some much needed sleep. I notice the moon is very big and bright on the horizon, almost eerie. I take in the scene for a while before collapsing into a deep, peaceful sleep, to be woken up by Emad who has brought us back some takeaway fuul. What a kind man. We devour the bread and beans, having regained our appetite.

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While we were asleep earlier this evening, staff have decorated the central courtyard of the hotel for Christmas.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:09 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged mosque travel cemetery tourists yemen souvenirs wadi hadramawt barber seyun shibam camel_stew qat call-to-prayer fuul samah_hotel Comments (0)

Istanbul - Cairo

Arabia Felix - Yemen 1997


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At least today should be less eventful than yesterday. A nice mini-bus turns up as arranged to take us back to the now very familiar Istanbul airport. After some confusion about where we check in, we finally have our boarding cards in hand and are now on our way to Sana’a yet again. It looks like it paid off that I remained calm and friendly to the girl on the Transfer Desk yesterday, as she’s upgraded us to Business Class. The special lounge with complimentary food and drink is very welcome prior to our flight.

In Cairo the Transfer Desk is unmanned, so we hang around loitering for a while, until we are taken by bus to another terminal building. After the X-ray and security check, our passports and tickets are taken from us and we are told to sit and wait. We do as we’re told. Some two hours later, I inquire about our tickets, and they are produced from under the counter.

Once we have our boarding cards, I send a text message to Emad to confirm our arrival time, and he replies with the good news that he has changed the group flight to 06:00 so that we can all travel together.

We use our unplanned – and unwanted – time here in Cairo to visit a cafeteria called Cinnabon, where buns filled with cinnamon (funny that!) are heated up and iced. Total deliciousness. (postscript: these have become quite an addiction for me since then, and an absolute must when we travel as thankfully they do not have an outlet near us in Bristol.)

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Things are looking much brighter now, at least until we get to the gate in Cairo for our flight to Sana’a and read the sign: ‘No liquids to be taken on board’. There goes the three litres of Duty Free from London! This is particularly annoying as Yemen is a dry country, although as a non-Muslin we can bring in a 'reasonable amount' of alcohol for our own consumption, but we will be unable to buy any over there. We were hoping to have a little something to help us celebrate Christmas and New Year.

Feigning total ignorance, David sends his bag first through the X-Ray scanner. They discover his water and can of Coke and ask him to remove it. This is where I know our luck has turned and David seizes the moment to makes a bit of a fuss. As they turn to explain where he can dispose of his liquids, the officials temporarily take their eyes off the screen and miss my bag going through with all the alcohol in it. We are through and so is the Duty Free!

The catalogue of errors is to continue though, with the transfer bus taking us to the wrong plane. After waiting in the bus for some ten minutes for instructions from the authorities, we are finally delivered safely to the correct aircraft. The rest of the journey is uneventful and we are finally on our way to Sana'a.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:53 Archived in Egypt Tagged travel flight airport istanbul christmas security cairo yemen alcohol new_year airline turkish_airlines duty_free airport_security Comments (1)

London - Istanbul

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 1997


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Yemen has attracted me for a number of years, and I was excited about finally going. Although I knew about the dangers of kidnapping, and had spoken to people who’d been kidnapped there and released unharmed, I was not prepared for the devastating news that blazed out across my TV screen. A group of tourists (travelling on the same tour as we have booked on, with the same company) had been kidnapped and in the mêlée that followed (otherwise known as a botched release attempt by the army) six of the tourists were killed. Our trip was cancelled and Yemen was once again closed to tourism. The year was 1999.

Fast forward to the year 2007, and I am yet again excited about going to Yemen. The tour I have picked looks perfect, almost the same as the ill-fated journey back in 1999 (not the same company though). The flights are not ideal, however, flying out of Stanstead and back into Heathrow, so I am delighted when Turkish Airlines inform us that they have changed their flight schedule and are now flying out of Heathrow too. We are told to arrive a little early at Heathrow airport to re-validate the tickets at the Turkish Airlines ticket counter. When we get there, however, they are less than helpful, insisting that we pay £80 to change airports. Our insistent protests that it was in fact them, not us, who changed the departure point, finally pay off as the official checks and re-checks his computer and liaises with a colleague. The first hurdle is over and we are one step nearer Yemen.

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One small step. As we queue to check in, we hear rumours that the flight is delayed, and some passengers are taken out of the line to have their itineraries rearranged as they are likely to miss their connection in Istanbul. We are reassured that it will not affect us, however. The delay is said to be less than an hour, and we have a generous three hours in transit at Istanbul.

We finally board the plane nearly two hours late, but still hopeful for the connection at Istanbul. The hope slowly peters away as we sit on the runway for another hour before taking off. There is still a glimmer of hope, as we have known flights to wait for connecting passengers, and anyway, I am a glass-half-full sort of girl.

The glimmer of hope stays lit as we exit the plane in Istanbul and there are officials waiting to take passengers to connecting flights. I ask hopefully about Sana’a. “Transfer Desk”, is the answer. We do as we're told. The glimmer fades, but it reignited as we spot the Departures Board: ‘Last Call’ against the Sana’a flight. I jump the queue at the Transfer Desk and wave my boarding card at the girl, “Can we go straight to the gate?” All hope dies as she tells me the flight has departed and we have missed it.

We are not alone, there is a lone chap also wanting to go to Sana’a, as well as a large group of people who missed their connecting flight to Northern Cyprus. A smattering of other lost souls joins the party. A number of people are getting very irate and a lot of shouting and swearing is taking place. I remain calm; taking it out on the girl at the Transfer Desk will not help anyone and is grossly unfair. Anyway, I can’t be bothered to waste energy on being angry.

The next flight to Sana’a is on Monday – two days' time. We explain that we have a domestic flight within Yemen that day, and really need to get there before then. She takes our tickets and asks us to sit down. We do as we’re told. After some time, she returns with a possible flight for us. It would mean flying to Jeddah later that evening; with a twelve hour layover at Jeddah (at least there will be no chance of missing that connection!), arriving in Sana’a Sunday afternoon at 16:00. Not ideal, but the best we can hope for. I ring Emad, the tour leader in Yemen, and explain. He promises to be at Sana'a airport to pick us up.

Turkish Airlines arrange for our luggage to be transferred to the Jeddah flight, and armed with new boarding cards, we head for the gate. As she checks our passports against the boarding cards, the official asks: “Where’s your visa?” We explain the situation and she then follows up: “How long is your transfer time in Jeddah?” That’s when the devastating blow comes: the maximum layover time allowed in KSA is eight hours. The official refers to her supervisor, who goes off with our passports and boarding cards to telephone the immigration office in Jeddah to plead our case, but to no avail. Our luggage has to be offloaded from the plane, and we are back to square one.

“Remember us?” I ask at the Transfer Desk. The girl smiles as she recognises us, then her face falls as she realises the implications of us being there again. We know the drill now: hand over our tickets and go and sit down. We do as we’re told. We pass the time chatting to another couple in a similar same situation, but with an added complication – they have been offered a flight the next day, but they cannot leave the airport as she is travelling on a South African passport and is not permitted to buy a visa for Turkey at the airport.

Another solution has been found for us, and while the now-familiar girl goes off to arrange the necessary paperwork, we again phone Emad. This time we’ll be flying via Cairo, arriving in Sana’a at 02:00 on Monday morning. Emad is a little concerned, as our flight to Seyun leaves Sana’a at 04:00. In his own reassuring way he tells us not to worry, he’ll sort something out. We do as we're told.

Armed with Turkish visas, we follow another official to another office on another floor. This airport is becoming increasingly familiar. They take our onward and return tickets, as well as our passports, and tell us to sit down and wait. We do as we’re told. All we have now is a piece of paper with a handwritten note to say what flight we’re on the next day and where our tickets will be collected from. No name, no signature, no receipt for our tickets or passports.

After spending six hours at Istanbul airport, we are finally in possession of our onward tickets (and passports) – reissued along with the return tickets, and we find ourselves in a comfortable mini-bus on the way to a hotel in Istanbul for overnight. The airline is paying for full board at the five-star hotel, but the restaurant is now closed for the night. They send us some unappetising dry sandwiches, so we order room service at our own cost: Spanish Omelette and a Kebab with some water and Coke. The bill is $74. Yikes. No credit card, only cash on delivery.

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We break into the Duty Free alcohol and sleep well, hoping to wake afresh and ready to face the world tomorrow.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:01 Archived in Turkey Tagged flight turkey istanbul heathrow layover delays transfer turkish_airways stanstead diasters Comments (0)