Yemen is listed as the planet’s least-visited country for good reason: There’s been an awful war happening there for the past five years that’s caused one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the world. Getting a visa has been almost impossible in recent years, and most flights in have been suspended. Up until recently it’s been one of the most challenging countries to visit safely and legally and only a small handful of super bold travelers have made it in, including one who hitched a ride to Socotra Island on a cement boat, and another who managed to get in on a journalist visa. A few have resorted to bribing border guards at land crossings; many of these attempts unsuccessful. Because of its difficulty and danger, understandingly, many people trying visit every country have purposely left Yemen until last. That was actually my plan too, until a last minute pivot during my December 2019 Asia trip.
Usually I plan out visits to the riskier countries many months, even years, in advance. Iraq, Libya, Venezuela, South Sudan, etc., all had been detailed out so far in advance; so far in fact, that I had my guides and fixers booked before airline tickets were even available (you cannot book most flights more than six to nine months out). This gave me so much time to plan, research and just overall “prepare” myself for visiting places that a normal person would never choose to go on their own free will. I usually have so much time to process everything. This would not be the case with Yemen.
It all unfolded SO quickly, in less than 36 hours actually, and all because I didn’t like Kathmandu. I’d landed there on a Thursday morning, and before I even returned from my initial walk around the neighborhood, I’d given up on the city (and country) completely and decided to wave the white flag. I wasn’t sure where I’d go, but I knew damn well I wasn’t going to be staying in Kathmandu for three nights. Three days is valuable real estate when you’re trying to see every country in the world while working full-time.
So where would I go? I’d already be in Oman on Sunday, for a ten-hour layover on my way to Karachi. The fact I’d be so close to Yemen (Oman is Yemen’s neighbor) but not be able to check it off had already been nagging at me. So heading to Oman two days early to give me enough time to see Yemen just seemed like the best option. Luckily for me, the flights worked out perfectly, and by 7AM the next morning I was ducking out of Kathmandu like I owed someone money.
I arrived in Muscat to connect to Salalah, home of the country’s southernmost airport and the jumping-off point for those wishing to cross into Yemen from Oman. Despite the challenges of visiting Yemen, over the past year it seemed that a group of travelers had found a loophole in the system; a way in. In fact, even a handful of people I knew—fellow travelers on Facebook—had made this very trip. Using their references, I’d been able to secure a fixer at the very last minute, and would depart the next morning with a guide named Wafi. Holy cow, this was happening!
Security (or a False Sense of?)
This particular trip was a time for true reflection, as I realized how different of a traveler I had become over the last few years, and just how much more relaxed I was, gallivanting into a dangerous place like Yemen with little worries. I wasn’t sure if this was a blessing or a curse. I used to get really worked up before visiting the more “riskier” places, second guessing my decision to visit. In fact, I used to have nightmares leading up to these trips; vivid dreams about being kidnapped etc. Not anymore. I was totally chill about it. I just hoped that my calmness wasn’t a false sense of security. I was a little concerned that all these trips of “nothing bad” happening to me might be allowing me to put my guard down. Nonetheless, I wasn’t stressed about Yemn, and I felt I should be…at least a little.
Wafi was right on time at 8AM and soon we were speeding out of the city in his white Hyundai Sonata. My guide was 23–young enough to be my son–dressed in the traditional thoob and alqaweq. He was one of three guides that had become popular among the extreme traveling community. Along with his brother, Azam, and third guide, Adnan, the three had quickly stacked up experience shuttling curious country-counters like me across the line to Yemen and back. One reason for my general calm, was that I’d read trip reports and even talked to friends who’d made this trip with Wafi and his brethren. None had an issue, all came back in one peace; these guys were trusted.
Life is a Highway
The drive itself was an adventure. The road from Salalah to the border was in really good condition (Oman is a rich country), but painstakingly curvy. Wafi winded through steep switchbacks cut deep into rock, with dozens of hairpin turns. I didn’t get as dizzy as my recent trip through the mountains of Bhutan (Dochul Pass was brutal), but two hours of sharp turns is never pleasant. The sky was gray and the air was misty. We listened to traditional Yemeni music and got to know each other on the drive south. I liked this guy.
Line in the Sand
Just under two hours later we arrived at the border, which was surprisingly quiet. After driving on short stretch of dirt road through some very thick fog, we arrived at the Oman exit gate. I was surprised there was no one else there. No line of cars, no vendors selling snacks, no horns, no markets. Just a couple little buildings and a gate. Of course, like most international borders, photography is strictly prohibited, so I didn’t even think about snapping even one picture, even though I was dying to document the actual “crossing” part. I’d read reports while on the edge of my seat, detailing this exact crossing from previous explorers: The first brave souls of recent years getting turned down and turned back by the Omanis; then later, some making it through with bribes. It was only recently that this crossing became legal and legitimate for tourists, but I still wouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief until I was actually “in.” I traded places relaxing in the car and pacing around outside until about 35 minutes later when Wafi arrived from the building with paperwork in hand.
“Let’s go,” he said. We were going in!
In Like Flynn
Gates were opened by guys with guns as we cruised over a 900-foot stretch of dirt road, soon arriving at another gate. This was the Yemen gate. Technically we were “in” Yemen at this moment, but it wouldn’t have counted if we were turned away here. Luckily within a half-hour, my visa was granted (USD $100), passport stamped and the two remaining sets of metal gates were being opened by soldiers, as Wafi and I waved thanks and drove right into Yemen. No tense moments, no bribes, no questioning, no drama. Just a couple guys waving us in and we were here. Country number 140…Welcome to Yemen! Is this real???
I’m So Excited and I Just Can’t Hide It
What has become of me? Since when did I start becoming most excited and alive when arriving into countries like Somalia, Iraq and Yemen? I’ve got to get a new travel agent! As we drove through the desert, down the empty, windy road and past burnt out cars, I couldn’t help but express my joy to Wafi.
“I can’t believe I’m here…I’m so happy to be here…I’ve always wanted to come here,” I stammered on and on, while recording the drive with my iPhone. We soon stopped for a camel. I jumped out and took a selfie with him. I fully realize the weirdo I am.
We soon rolled into the small, seaside town of Hawf, our first stop including a walk up a small hill to take photos of the Yemen flag. That was fun and certainly ceremonious, but I instantly became more interested in the downed radio tower a few hundred feet away. Wafi called me back to him as I got close to the tower, warning me that the locals might get suspicious if they see an outsider wandering too far into the hills. Point taken. We headed back to the car.
Rollin’ Down the Street in my Six-Four
We cruised through the town of Hawf–we’d soon circle back to it–and over to a beautiful, scenic lookout. The dirt lot boasted views of the Arabian Sea and included three other onlookers who we’d take selfies with and a handful of scattered, spent ammunition on the ground. The cove below with its aquamarine water sure looked inviting. Maybe we’d take a swim next time. It was time for lunch.
I absolulely loved riding around Hawf and was completely mesmerized by just about everything I saw. The buildings were beyond interesting: From the crazy colors and designs, to the houses missing complete walls, each building had its own story. The people watching was even more fascinating. I could’ve spent the day wandering around on foot. Whether that would’ve been a good idea or not, I’ll never know, although Wafi assured me we were in a calm area, relatively speaking.
I never expected lunch in an old beat-up, bombed out concrete shack in Yemen would taste so good, but it did. Wafi and I both dove head first into one of the tastiest plates of chicken and rice I’d ever enjoyed; very well seasoned and cooked just perfectly. Wafi used his hands (as locals do), while I opted for the fork. And I don’t think a Mountain Dew had ever hit the spot more than it did today. I could have stayed here for hours: enjoying the food and drink, saying hi to curious kids passing by and enjoying the sea breeze off the ocean that was just across the street. And of course, as expected, I was the only tourist in sight that entire day; a complete 180 from just 48 hours ago when I was murmuring my disdain for Kathmandu. Yup, for me, a place like this is paradise; raw and real. And the people watching was out of this world. I got a kick out of seeing a man in a truck pull up to pick up his bag of “take out;” exiting his vehicle to grab the food with an AK-47 casually slung around his shoulder. Wow!
Short But Sweet
Oh how I wanted to stay longer and travel deeper into Yemen so badly. Some of the more daring travelers (and those with a little more time than just one day) have been known to push further down, overnighting in Al-Ghaydah. A friend of mine recently travelled all the way to Al Mukalla. When you travel further in, there are a lot more checkpoints, waiting around and overall red-tape to deal with. Even my simple lunch crossing required the Omani border agents to call Muscat and basically “get permission” to let me in. Wafi explained to me that the Omani government strictly oversees the movement of foreigners (especially Americans) into Yemen, and that he is held accountable for my safe return back into Oman. I think I’m missing many details, but the general idea is, Oman doesn’t want to be held responsible for silly country-counters like me getting hurt and/or going missing, so they regulate and keep track of foreigners crossing into Yemen. I think they used to completely forbid it, so I was very thankful I was given the opportunity to cross. Only recently have I understood the concept that travel truly is a privilege.
The crossing back into Oman was another highlight: Local soldiers on the Yemen side greeted me with smiles and asked to pose for selfies. I even got to hold one of their guns…total postcard moment! I think I’m gonna have that image printed on a coffee mug or something…maybe a billboard. I’ve never felt so cool in my life.
I did need a new visa to get back into Oman, since I arrived there on a single-entry visa. I was worried it would be a problem–I’d read Omani visas are only issued in advance–but Wafi ensured me it was no problem; and it wasn’t! I simply filled out a form and paid 20 Omani rials (about USD $50), and I was welcomed back in!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If you’re able to, always try for the multi-entry visa. You never know when you’ll need to pivot, my Yemen trip was the perfect example. Luckily, I was able to score a new Omani visa at the border, but there are plenty of countries where getting a new visa isn’t easy or quick; so if you only have a single-entry visa, you’re stuck!
Sights and Stops in Oman
Wafi stopped at a couple cool places in Oman on the way back into Salalah: first, Al Mughsail Beach in Dhofar, to see a famous blowhole. The hole wasn’t “blowing” when we visited, but nonetheless, an interesting area to get out and stretch our legs. We walked under giant masses of rock and took in views of the beaches below us and Arabian Sea straight ahead.
Our last stop was the Port of Salalah, the largest port in Oman. We took photos standing on rocks while local fisherman with rudimentary tackle scavenged for fish below.
Safe and Sound
Wafi dropped me back at the Al Dyafa Hotel around five. I paid him, thanked him, and we went our separate ways. As I’m sure you can already tell, I enjoyed that small slice of Yemen immensely. Usually, a trip like this is enough to satisfy my craving, but Yemen is definitely calling me back; the short tease only fanned the flames of my desire to experience the country. I’m looking forward to the day I can return and travel deeper and longer, eat more food and meet more people. Aside from my own selfish travel desires, I pray the war and suffering in Yemen ends soon; it’s a beautiful country!
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
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