A Day in Sana'a

A Day in Sana'a

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 15.35500°N / 44.19951°E
Additional Information GPX File: Download GPX » View Route on Map
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Apr 30, 2014
Activities Activities: Hiking


Most of the following is a story of a single day and not one of climbing. However, so much of the joy and adventure of traveling to exotic realms and peaks in the world involve the moments before and after arrival. They include peoples and cultures that are met along the way.

A day in Sana'a

The Mideast… War. Arab Spring. ISIS. Violence. Yet so much there is holy and revered. Mecca, Jerusalem, St. Catherine’s Monastery, The Temple on the Mount… The dichotomies are profound yet the Mideast is where civilization began.

For me, the story began after the Andes, Himalaya, and so many other places of wonder. Perhaps it was that I’d tired of freezing my feet and facing death in the depths of distant glaciers. It began as so many adventures do, gently flipping the pages of a National Geographic. It began when I saw photographs of magical mountains piercing the sky and of trees flowing with the blood of dragons on the distant isle of Socotra. Needing to travel half way around the world, I planned go to other places as well such as the pyramids, Petra, Mt. Sinai, and the Dead Sea where the Earth reaches its lowest point but the trip would start with Socotra which I hoped to see before the coming of the summer monsoon.  


With a bit of research, I learned that flights to it left from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unfortunately, most stories I’d heard of that country involved drone strikes, kidnappings, and a public who was generally unfavorable to the United States. There were, of course, two exceptions that gave me hope. “Friends” did an episode where Chandler fled there to escape his on again off again girlfriend Janice, and an enjoyable movie called “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” which was based on true events about a sheik who wanted to establish a salmon fishery in the country.

As is too often the case, I left my wife and two children behind, although by then my son was nearly an adult. In twenty-six hours, I flew from Denver, to Frankfurt, to Cairo, to Sana’a. Four continents in a single day but of course there were a few wrinkles. Somewhere in the flight to Cairo, my water bottle leaked all over both copies of the visa that I’d printed which was absolutely mandatory for entry into Yemen. Then at the Cairo security checkpoint, I tried to casually slip my money belt with two thousand US dollars through the x-ray machine and was met with suddenly intrigued glances from the man scanning the imagery. He left the belt alone though, and I was soon on my way, flying through the night the final leg to one of the world’s most ancient cities.

I’d gotten a seat on the left side of the plane in the hope of glancing down at Mecca but was treated to little beyond a few glimmers of light on the coast of the Red Sea and nothing back behind the mountains where this most sacred city in all of Islam lay. Soon afterwards, the plane turned off all of its lights and made its descent into the city. I guess that it’s harder to shoot planes when they’re hidden in darkness.

DSCN8825A view of the old city.

The Alley:

It turns out that my soggy visa was good enough to get through customs, and I was soon talking to the driver that had been sent to take me to a hotel in the old part of town with its markets and multi storied mud skyscrapers that were a significant factor in the city being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“While you’re in Sana’a, tell people that you are from Turkey,” the man greeted me. “On Socotra it’s fine to say you’re American, but here in Sana’a, you are from Turkey. People in Yemen don’t know Turkish, so if you say you’re from Turkey they’ll have no way of being sure that you’re not…”

The airport was small and being somewhere around midnight, was largely deserted. Soon, we left in his car and ventured onto first a large street, and then quickly, increasingly darker, more obscure alleys.

A large pile of dirt and debris blocked our path.

He turned the car around as a couple of police stepped up to the window. “Where are you from?”

“Turkey,” either I or the driver lied. I can’t remember, I’d been awake for far too long. To me, truth and integrity is important. Is it worth getting kidnapped and killed for not doing, though? Am I just a hypocrite to profess things and then break my honor when my life is on the line?

“Passport.” It was a command.

Great. I’d been outside the airport for all of five minutes, and was already getting kidnapped. That didn’t take long. I handed the official the document with its big “United States of America” clearly showing. He stared at it for some time without comment then flipped through the pages for a bit. Finally, with a grunt, he handed it back and waved us away.

“They were the police. They’re not of concern…” the driver said or something to that effect. Apparently, as we were allied with Yemen in the War on Terror or whatever it was at the time, the police were our friends.

Reaching the hotel, the driver made some statement about meeting my guide for my day in Sana’a the next morning. I really can’t say. I don’t remember much at all as it had probably been 36 hours since I’d slept. Ushered to my room, I quickly spread all of my sodden documents across the top of a dresser and went to sleep.

Dar al-Hajar

Palace on the Rock near Sana a

Sometime long before dawn, as the first hint of light brushed the eastern horizon, I was awakened by the amplified prayers from a nearby mosque. Within minutes, the calls multiplied until the entire city rang; sounds reverberating from all directions. It was surreal. What else can I say as an entire city came together as one to pray.

Later, as the sun swept across the valley, lighting the mud skyscrapers, I opened the blinds and watched several women walk past on the sidewalk below, covered head to toe in their black Balto robes. There was another there as well; a tiny girl in a bright yellow shirt. What would her life be like as she grew to adulthood and donned clothing that obscured all as she slipped quietly through the streets? What a strange dichotomy: the plain robes of adults and vibrant colors of youth. For a time, I watched the quiet scene before descending to the street to meet my guide. Although Sana’a is among the world’s most ancient of cities, our first destination was a small castle, built less than a hundred years ago on a rock tower just outside of town.

My guide said that I shouldn’t be worried about kidnappings even in this isolated spot. “They don’t know you’re here. They’re watching for routines.” The thought was comforting as we made our way outside of the walled city to streets that were far more destitute.

When I first travelled to Nepal, I’d been struck by the differences between American cities and Kathmandu. Yet, this place made the distant back streets of Kathmandu far from the tourist centers such as Thamel seem awash in wealth. I don’t know how else to describe it.  

In time, we slid down the rough, unpaved road to Dar al-Hajar which had been built by the ruler of Yemen, Yahya Mubammad Jamid ed-Din, in the 1920’s and lived in until his assassination in 1948. I was visiting on a day that the inside rooms were closed, but the scenes outside seemed more telling anyway. The husk of an old car parked forever next to a gutted tower from some long-ago fortification... Dramatic cliffs and a smattering of trees with sprigs of green… Two women, bantering away as a daughter of one clung closely by her mother’s side. The sons ventured further away, holding hands yet embarking out towards the street beyond as other boys circled about nonchalantly on their bikes as for them the day was nothing special... The scene was calm and relaxing although a slight glimmer of fear gnawed deep within me wondering if I’d be trapped with nowhere to run upon the arrival of unspecified insurgents.

They never came, though, so instead, I studied the cliffs beyond for possible climbs, wondering if anyone in more tranquil times had ever tried such ascents.


Al Saleh Mosque


The Al Seleh Mosque is the largest in all Yemen and towers above the southern outskirts of Sana’a. Once again, my guide brought me to a modern structure in this ancient city. Built barely ten years ago, it is breathless, nevertheless.

I’ve heard that elaborate buildings represent the most important aspects of a society. In medieval Europe, they were the cathedrals, in the United States, they’ve been glossy shrines to banking and wealth. Here though, deep in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam reigns supreme. Some 98 percent of the people here are Islamic, and the mosque is truly magnificent. Here, a number of men prayed as a few others milled about. Women were absent. I’ve heard there’s another part of the complex for them. I don’t remember any children in their colorful garments. Perhaps it was just the moment or maybe they preferred prayer closer to home.

On leaving the grounds, I was called over by a couple of soldiers who invite me to share a meal with them. It is normal in Islam to treat strangers, even enemies, as family and to welcome them in with abundant hospitality and so I was privileged to share a pleasant meal with these two men.

“How is life in the United States, er, Turkey?” one of them asked. I don’t remember much else of the conversation only that it was pleasant and the two were abundantly kind and friendly. Now, six years of war and heartache later, I wonder how they are, if they’re even still alive after so much trauma and malaise as the endless proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia drags on in this poorest of Asian countries.


The Old Market


Finally, we pass through the ancient city walls into Sana’a's famed market. It’s a place where people have come for millennia to buy and sell good along its fabled streets. There were no trinkets, tee shirts, or souvenirs, here, as unlike Cairo, there really weren’t any tourists to speak of, other than me. But you could procure a traditional jambiya dagger, hookahs, food, spices, and any variety of other products. So, for a couple of hours, I just wandered the narrow alleys and at times chatted with the shop owners. I ate a second lunch at the invitation of strangers, wandered up to the top of one of those mud skyscrapers for a panoramic view of the city. Possibly foolishly, any thoughts of harm, kidnappings, or theft evaporated with the overwhelming kindness of the people.


Apparently as a lark, my wife had gotten me a guidebook for Yemen, which I read seriously being a place I had a strong desire to travel to. Within it, the author noted that any true visit to Sana’a should include chewing a bit of qat as it represents a fundamental aspect of the culture. The plant is a stimulant that can lead to a euphoric feeling but uses over thirty percent of the country’s water to grow. My guide explained that there were many variants of quality and insisted that any I tried must be of the highest quality, so for at least an hour, we wandered through various alleys as he summarily dismissed options until finally settling upon the perfect clump of leaves. I also picked up a few mangos for an afternoon snack, given that in all seriousness, there’s little on Earth that tastes better that a fresh, ripe mango…

Traditionally, men in Sana’a retreat to chew qat together, but I simply returned to my hotel room for a couple of hours of relaxation before dinner. I’m a rule follower and even being a resident of Colorado, haven’t ever used pot, while my college experiences with drinking quickly convinced me that freezing on some mountain slope was far preferable to losing control of my body and senses… What is there to say? The mangos were awesome! As for the qat, I chewed a little tentatively then a bit more as first a mild then stronger sense of goodness came over me. Then the nature of it changed and I started to feel a buzz like having a couple of drinks and sensed a loss of control so quickly went down to the front desk and gave the man tending it the remaining clump of leaves.  

Flatbread in an ancient oven.

As a final act for the day, my guide drove me to what was supposedly one of the best traditional restaurants used by expats and others where I had yet another amazing meal with flatbread cooked on the side of the oven and other wonderous foods. Still, thoughts nagged at me of kidnappings and death and the dangers of Al Qaeda. It was dark now and I was once again alone with my guide and if there were lookouts somewhere, perhaps they could see how exposed I was but once again everyone around me was open and friendly and far less reserved than people in the United States. Perhaps that’s a problem with media and news and sensationalism and the way the American economy works. It’s far more gripping to write stories about how there are horrible nasty people living in a place and of drone strikes, and death, and scenes like one would see in “Mission Impossible” than say that people Sana’a are amazing and friendly and readily open up their hearts to strangers.



Street Scene, Sana'a

Sadly, within months, the place was ensconced in a civil war that has dragged on for more than half a decade. When I was there, the guide told me that traditionally, there was very little friction between the Sunni and Shia people, yet with the infusion of weapons and aides from Saudi Arabia and Iran, this dynamic no longer seems valid. The war has led to starvation, disease, and death. Recent floods swept through the old market, destroying scores of ancient buildings. Slightly further afield, an abandoned oil tanker in the Red Sea languishes in a perpetual state of possible fire, explosion, and ecological tragedy.

With that, I’m not sure what to say about my own brief time in the city. Nothing momentous occurred other than it being perhaps the most exotic, memorable day of travel that I’ve ever experienced; other than realizing how skewed our portrayal of such places truly is. The moments are disparate and don’t really hold together well as they are multiple snapshots of mundane life prior to the war.

Although the drone strikes, terrorists, kidnappings and such are very real, they should not be what defines a place with such magical history as Sana’a and Yemen, just like recent civil unrest in the United States should not define the nature of our own country. When I think of the city, I remember the little girl in the purple dress peaking out from the doorway beside her father. I think of the kindness of the strangers and vendors in its ancient market. For the future, I guess that all I can ask is that Saudi Arabia and Iran wage their disagreements in a manner that doesn’t leave millions in one of the world’s poorest countries in such desperation.


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Viewing: 1-6 of 6
T. White

T. White - Feb 13, 2021 6:25 pm - Voted 10/10

Fantastic album.

Not only for its poignance in the face of the still-ongoing war, but the breadth of your subjects, experiences, and reflection.

BTW - I bought the new Bradt guide to Socotra and found it lacking. Virtually no hiking or mountaineering information. It was basically a long blog post about the authors' guided tour, albeit with some local insight (mostly re: the built-up areas, which you've indicated are the least attractive places for tourists).


RobSC - Feb 13, 2021 6:48 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fantastic album.

Thanks so much for your kind words! Socotra (and Sana'a) are among the world's most amazing places. The mountains in the center of the island are spectacular. I think that you need to be accompanied by locals or at least have their permission to be on the land. I know that people have climbed some of the spectacular towers there (reported a while back in the American Alpine Journal). I think they found evidence of the locals having been there previously even on top of a 5.10 or something tower. When I was on some of the limestone, coastal mountains I was by myself and wandered alone among an amazing quantity of arches and bizarre vegetation! Last I heard there were flights there from Cairo...

T. White

T. White - Feb 13, 2021 8:56 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Fantastic album.

Will have to check out that edition of the AAJ! Yes, Cairo flights were ongoing as recently as last year. Military/spy base development on Socotra by foreign powers is also in the works, including in the sensitive Momi plateau.


RobSC - Feb 13, 2021 10:57 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fantastic album.

I'll have to look into that more, The quick search that I did said it was with Israel and the UAE. Maybe they're getting money from Israel or something? Most tourists who were on Socotra when I was there were from the UAE so there could be a financial incentive there. Thanks for letting me know about that. I'll update the Socotra page.

T. White

T. White - Feb 25, 2021 9:19 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Fantastic album.

Those AAJ articles were very interesting! I'm sure the Israel/UAE base development is part of the recognition deal between the two countries, not least because news broke about both developments almost simultaneously.


RobSC - Feb 27, 2021 5:25 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fantastic album.

I'd assume that you are correct about Israel. I'll try to get the Socotra page updated, maybe during spring break... I hope that you're able to make it there soon. It is certainly a memorable place!

Viewing: 1-6 of 6



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