As pretty as Sanaa had been, my daily routine out there had been very restricting and I had pestered Mohammed till he had agreed to take me to the nearby villages. Technically, special permits are required to visit any place in Yemen and it is mandatory to mention these places at the time of visa application. Due to my unexpected change in travel plans, owing to a cancelled flight, I had no such permit with me and it had taken Mohammed a lot of unraveling of bureaucracy and bribe to take me on those day trips. In Yemen, most things had functioned on bribes and it had not come as a surprise to me when the tourism ministry officer, after his initial pretense had permitted me to travel to the outlying villages.
Thula, Shibam, Hababa, Kawkaban and the iconic Rock Palace had been featured on my Yemeni itinerary for the next few days and they had provided an incredible insight into the stunningly beautiful country. It had been a beautiful morning, when we had started from Sanaa and the city outskirts had already been humming with activity. Beggars, street vendors, motorcycle taxis, morning souks and crazy amount of cars had made Sanaa city limits dusty, noisy and pollution had choked the life out of me. Thankfully we had managed to get out there before a quintessentially Sanaa traffic gridlock had materialized and the incredible country had unfolded magically in front of our eyes.
Yemen had been experiencing spring at that time and the ancient land had slowly started awakening from a long winter slumber. Rural Yemeni hinterland had stretched endlessly till the horizon and the road had been delightfully smooth and empty. It had been a most unique landscape. Flat brown plain had been bordered by massive mountains and our road had weaved in and out of ancient wadis. Sudden rocky outcrops had held little ancient pockets of human habitats and apart from apricot orchards and golden terraces, only shepherds had added colour to the endless stretch of brown. The sky had been huge and billowing and big fluffy clouds had dappled the land with soft, fleeting shadows. The incredible beauty had been sadly marred with endless Houthi checkposts and it had been a slightly uncomfortable feeling to hand over my passport to non official gun totting rebel groups for inspection.
Apart from the niggling security issue, the drive had been gorgeous and being a Sunday, local tribesmen councils had dotted the country. They had been an unimaginable sight and never before had I seen so many assault weapon bearing common people gathering at one place for some meeting. Partly awe inspiring and mostly thrilling in a scary way, I had stared open mouthed as AK 47 bearing men had gossiped, chewed qat and waved at me, from carpets spread under scrawny bushes. Thula had arrived soon enough and it had been a beautiful ancient stone town. One of the 5 historic towns on pending Unesco World Heritage Site list of Yemen, Thula had dated back to pre Islamic times. Located in the Amran Governorate, just 54 kilometers northwest of Sanaa, the beautifully preserved city had stood at the foot of the ancient Muttahar Gin Sharaf Uddin Fort and had been surrounded by a stone wall. Thula had been popular for it’s amazing stone houses, narrow lanes, rock cut fortress and fame of being the most unconquerable town in Yemeni history. The compact fortified city had stone houses which had been built into the mountain and they had been embellished with one of the finest Qamariyas (arch shaped stained glass decorated windows) in whole of Yemen.
The cobbled ancient streets had gone winding up to the beautiful stone staircase leading to the citadel and the heart had held a Great Mosque, bath, souks, steam rooms, several stone reservoirs, minarets, granaries etc. The intact city walls had many gates and because of it’s self sustainability, Thula had been unconquered even when held under siege. Beautiful blooming orchards and gently cascading terraces had surrounded the historic town and and with so much of beauty and heritage, I had easily fallen in love with it. It had been a blinding afternoon by the time, Thula had opened it’s intricacies to us and we had happily spent the rest of the amidst it’s cool dark rocky alleys. We had walked all across the stone paved town, underneath natural curving rock arches, stared in wonder at rainbow like stained glass windows and gaped at the timelessness of the ancient site. Time indeed had stopped at Thula and in comparison, Sanaa had seemed excitingly metropolitan. The old rocks had glowed deep gold in the afternoon sun, as donkeys had trotted past carrying firewood and animal skin water bags and I had sat in wonder, under pink shade of massive flowering apricot trees to watch time work in reverse.
It had been a beautiful day, spent in the heart of ancient Yemen and I had found myself numb in disbelief as we had driven back to Sanaa around sunset. Yemeni hinterland had remained unchanged for centuries and it had been amazing how even in 2015, in several parts of the world, life had comfortably moved at ancient pace. Donkeys, evening gossip, pregnancies and mischievous shepherd boys had been hot topics of discussion and children had played in the sun, as little ones should. There had been no smart phones, hi tech gadgets, fast life and it had been easy to give into the pace at which I could allow myself the relaxed pleasure of appreciating an orange sunset turning pink apricot blossoms nearly red.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE