With the visa in my passport, the crossing of the border was pretty easy. No money asked, except for a 4€ insurance (I gave the rest of my Omani rial change, 3€). No carnet asked, one less thing to take care of when I leave.
The road follows the coast, pretty easy, some nice beaches but I wanted to get to Hadramout pretty quickly. There's about 600 km from the border to Mukhalla, the turn off to Hadramout, but with the border crossing I stopped overnight in a hotel shabby little town. Everything was closed (Eid ?), no restaurant, I just found some bread and cheese and made myself a sandwich.
The next morning I left early and reached Mukhalla around noon, and went straight to the tourist police to find out about the security situation on the road inland to Wadi Hadramout. Rumors is that AQAP is active there, in fact the Bin Laden family comes from there. I waited an hour while they were making a few calls, and I was told (by a Kenyan who could translate in English) that I was free to go on my own, no escort needed. Cool, so off I was for 400 km to Seyoun.
The road goes up onto a very dry plateau, with the wind in my back so it was not too bad. There were military checkpoints every 50 km or so, where I showed my passport. The policeman there then called Mukhalla on his cell phone to find out what he should do with the funky biker. He was given the OK and I could ride on. After 200 km or so, the road dips into Wadi Hadramout, and as the sun was setting I drove through a breathtaking scenery, dotted with old villages made of mud and brick.
So beautiful that I spend quite some time snapping pictures after pictures.
But now it was getting pretty late, and even riding hard I still had 100 km to go when the night fell. I didn't feel like riding at night, but then there wasn't much of a hotel. But the big advantage about riding without an escort, is discretion. Yes even with a big bike. I found a nice spot behind a big rock, hidden from the road and the villages, rode there without lights and pitched my tent for an excellent night.
The next morning I rode out while it was still dark, before some nosy villager spotted me. I also wanted to watch the sun rise over Shibam and boy, was I not disappointed.
Shibam is beautiful, and currently totally void of any tourists so I had a blast wandering around and drinking chai with the locals. It is entirely preserved and all the tall buildings keep their original, centuries old style.
I enjoyed it enough that I spent 3 days there, riding around freely without escort, and without any problem. Actually, the only problem was trying to take a picture of the women working in the fields with their straw hats.
As soon as I was taking out my camera, it was like I was throwing a grenade, they all screamed and ducked behind the crop.. amazing, what do they fear, you can't even see their eyes ? But I didn't want to get in trouble with the husbands or brothers of course..
I also visited Wadi Do'an, which is a gem by itself.
Dozens of villages against the side of the wadi, all really amazingly well preserved.
and nice food
How much better can it get ?
The inland road to Sana'a is a definite no-no, so it was back to Mukhalla, which is pretty dull but I could find a hotel with safe parking. I went back to the tourist police, knowing that an escort is needed for the very dodgy road to Aden. There was just a guy there, he told me that there was no problem, I should just ride off on my own. Hmmmm.
There wasn't much I could do, so the next morning I rode out of town to the first checkpoint, 20 km away. There I was stopped and they told me to wait 10 minutes. All this happens entirely in Arabic and gestures, I couldn't find anybody who spoke any English at all. But after one hour of waiting, as expected a police pick-up arrived to escort me. Ok, let's go then, there are 600 km to go and I didn't want to ride at night.
We made good progress at a nice speed, and stopped mid-way for lunch in a shabby, dusty town where locals walk around with AK-47s. The cops (6 of them) tried to make me pay for lunch but I politely refused. Although I didn't want to piss off my guards, I also knew that they should be fed by the police, not by me.
In fact they handed me out to the next escort, a group of 4 guys armed with AK-47s in a Toyota. We left for the next half of the trip, with time enough to make it before sunset.
The advantage of having an escort is that they drive in front of me, and allow me to pass through the dozens of checkpoints without stopping. But then one of these checkpoints was a bit different: only 2 guys in civil. They passed through without stopping, but the guys were waving their AK-47s to me: usually in these cases you stop, but the police pick-up in front of me hadn't stopped, so I rode through. I slowed down a bit looking in the mirror how pissed the guys were, and the cops did the same because they suddenly stopped and went around, asking me to wait there.
So they started to discuss with the 2 guys, while I waited about 50m away. Soon joined by 5 or 6 more villagers. Then they motioned me to join them. Following was 15 minutes or so of arguing between the locals and the cops. Some of the locals showed me the way to the village, asking to follow them. I calmly but firmly resisted them, showing them that I would stick to my escort. Finally it was decided that we all would go to the village, with the agreement of the cops.
I explained them that I wouldn't leave my bike on the road, and that I wouldn't let someone else ride it. Reluctantly, an armed guy jumped on my baggage and lead me to a dry river bed and we all sat under a tree, joined by the police, still chewing their qat. They brought a mattress and offered me some tea, while the cops were placing dozens of calls on their cell phones. Which was good news to me, because I knew that the police HQ out there knew about the.. incident.
Two hours passed, wondering how long we would be help captive and what the police would do about it. I'm sure it would be pretty bad PR for them if there was another kidnapping so they had to do something, but would that take hours, days, weeks ?
Finally, after 2 hours they told me to get on the bike and to go. meanwhile the road back to the main road had been blocked by rocks and wooden branches, which we got around easily, and after loading some guy on the car we were back on the main road. We were not alone though, there were 2 more police cars and 3 military pick-ups with mounted machine guns, and scores of army people all over the road.
An officer came to me and gave me a nice "mafi moushkileh", no problem! Right.. he couldn't speak a word of English either, but I understood that we better get the hell out of there. So off we went with 2 cars in front and 2 behind, at 140 km/h and forcing our way through the next few check points for the last 100 km or so to the start of the highway to Aden. There I got a handshake from the top officer and I was off for the last 50 km or so as the sun was setting.
Looking back to it, it all went pretty well. The police didn't start a fight, which would have been pretty stupid in an area where obviously the police ain't got not control over. They talked their way out of it without anybody being hurt and in only 2 hours, so that's not too bad. I'm just surprised that they went through the local villager's checkpoint without stopping, and then went back to discuss.
A few days later in Sanaa, I was interviewed by the head of the tourist police. He wanted to know what I thought about the incident. Wtf ? He tried to play it down, apparently very concerned about any bad press the country could get. I asked him some details, but he was pretty hazy in his explanations, I didn't understand if the guys got something in return or not.
In any case, this has nothing to do with AQAP or any other terrorist cell. They were in conflict with the government over god knows what, and thought a tourist may get them something in return. For those who don't speak arabic, this
could be pretty boring:
Now I'm in Sana'a trying to get the visas for the rest of the trip, before heading for the red sea to load the bike on a boat for Djibouti. Keep you posted.