Monday, January 15, 2007

Sandscrapers

The great Empty Quarter stretches across from Oman into eastern Yemen meaning that connections aren't particularly frequent. I had just missed the bus from Salalah on Friday and would have had to have waited until Monday for the next one into Yemen. No way was I waiting on my ass that long and so I found the road to the border and sat myself down to wait for a ride. I was surprised to see I wasn't the only one with the same idea. A Yemeni on his way back home from a 10-day spending binge in Dubai (as far as I could understand he had spent $3500 and had a flat-pack computer desk and a TV in tow - somehow I think most of his money had been spent on hookers) was already squatting by the turn-off. A lucky thing for me as there wasn't much traffic and my companion managed to sweet talk our passage to the border with a passing Omani, something I probably wouldn't have been able to do. Once on the other side of the border I had to stay 10 hours in the sleazy border town (it seems a universal trait of border towns that they are grimy, seedy, unwelcoming places) before the next bus would leave. Luckily I didn't have to wait that long before a friendly Pakistani truck driver gave me a lift out of that hellhole. But not only did he give me a lift, he bought me dinner, let me sleep in his cab, gave me breakfast the next morning and insisted on paying for my onward bus fare. And all I asked for was a lift...

So I got to Shibam, a place I had been dying to see for some time though I hadn't really expected getting here on this trip. Though not particularly well known the small town of Shibam is situated in Wadi Hadramawt, the largest wadi in Arabia (at over 200km long). It's a sort of "Land that Time Forgot" as the walls of the wadi are some 300m tall and very sheer with only 4 roads connecting it to the rest of the country and with a (relative) profusion of plant life and intensive agriculture, a stark contrast to the dry, lifeless landscape outside its protective walls. The town of Shibam is roughly in the middle of the wadi and with a population of less than 10,000 it would be rather forgettable; if it wasn't for its unique architecture. The adobe houses are tightly packed together to conserve precious agricultural ground and many date back some 500 years, oh yes, and they are usually 6-8 stories tall. Yep, they were building skyscrapers here in Yemen 400 years before the Yanks got in on the act. Sure you won't see sleek Cadillacs cruising the streets of Shibam, instead it's packs of goats that rule the roads, but I certainly felt the same way walking down the narrow alleys as when I first visited downtown Manhattan. And you certainly don't have to be a connoisseur of architecture to be blown away by the elegantly tapering buildings (slightly reminiscent of Tibetan houses I saw in western Yunnan and Sichuan) with their intricately carved wooden doors and windows. A true gem of a town and a delight to just contemplate from a nearby hilltop as the sun sets, giving the town a warm, reddish glow.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

What a great photo. Looks like a cartoon town. I hope you're going to put up a web site of all your photos when you finally end your travels, I'd love to browse through all the places you've visited. But I don't think your travels will ever end, you'll never be satisfied with a little house and 1.5 children and a dog and a cat after all this!! How many countries have you visited so far?