On December 17, I flew into Muscat, Oman. Although I have already been to Oman, I had a new mission. This mission was to visit one of the most dangerous countries in the world- Yemen.
Yemen has quite the fascinating history.
To begin, Yemen is the starting point of one of the most significant biblical stories. Ever heard of the three Kings or Wisemen? Yeah, I thought so…
They traveled to visit Jesus in Bethlehem, upon his birth. The three Kings brought with them Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense. The Frankincense tree is abundant in Yemen and Oman and the only place in the world that it grows.
Yemen also used to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, due to the abundance of frankincense, natural gas, and oil. The location of Yemen also made it a prime trading stop.
But a combination of poor leadership, tribal competition, and the infiltration of terrorist groups contributed to the downfall of, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Today, the country is being torn apart by the Houthis, as well as Al Qaeda. There is outside influence from the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Russia. All of the outside players are supporting one group or another with their own interests in mind. Children are being forced to fight and those not fighting are dying from famine and lack of water.
So why do I want to go to this country?
I thrive off of experiencing new places and learning about the good, the bad, and the ugly every country.
So how does one go about entering such a dangerous country?
Entering through the back door and keeping a low profile.
I only recently discovered this loophole to entering Yemen. You cannot fly into the capital Sana’a, not only because it is too dangerous, but also because the airport is closed to commercial flights (although I did hear it was being reopened soon). To enter Yemen, I would have to fly into Salalah, Oman and drive across the east border. But first, you have to obtain a letter from your respective embassy, stating that they do not object to you traveling into Yemen- “A Non-Objection Letter.”
This is why I was in Muscat, Oman. I had an appointment scheduled the following day at the United States Embassy.
On December 18, I arrived for my appointment at the US Embassy. After going through security, I went to the consular services area, told the lady working the desk that I needed a “non-objection letter” to enter Yemen, received a number- 117, took a seat, and waited. There were six other people in the room. A family of three that were from America, but were working for BP in Oman. A man and his son that were trying to get visas to travel to America. The little boy was wearing a shirt that said “God Bless Amarica” with a little American flag pin. It was one of the cutest things I have ever seen. The father must have been pulling all the stops to try and get the visa to America. It is not easy coming from an Arab country even though Oman is one of the friendliest and safest countries in the world. There was also one more lady waiting in the room.
The family’s number was called, then the boy and his father, then the lady. My number kept being skipped. This was kind of frustrating because all they had to do was write a letter saying that they do not object to me entering Yemen and then sign it.
After about an hour of waiting, my number was finally called. I walked up to the window and the man informed me they do not issue such letters. So, I just waited all that time to be told they will not issue the letter? Awesome.
The consulate worker then gave me a lecture about how it is unsafe to travel to Yemen. He also asked me why I am planning to travel there, as well as questions regarding who I will be associating with in Yemen. He seems to think that I am being put up to this and I am in some sort of danger.
In one final attempt to change my mind; he whispers that they are currently looking for some Americans that have been lost for two months.
I explained to him my goal and after a few seconds of silence, he tells me to be safe.
I left the US Embassy sans letter and went back to my hotel, packed up, and headed to the airport. My flight to Salalah left later that night and I had decided I would just try to enter Yemen without the letter.
At 23:20 on December 18, I touched ground in Salalah, Oman (yes, it is a lot of fun to say). After grabbing my luggage, I headed to the Intercity Hotel, about a 15-minute drive from the Salalah Airport. I hopped right into bed to rest up for my stressful day to come.
The next morning, I awoke at 6:30am to prepare for my 7:30am pick-up. I would be driving to the Yemeni border from Salalah with an Omani local, named Adnan. Adnan is a tour guide in Salalah, but has recently capitalized on the opportunity to take extreme travelers, like myself, into Yemen. If you have any desire to travel to Yemen, you can reach out to me for his contact info.
Until recently, no one was allowed to enter Yemen, except some UN forces. Although I met a UN worker in Jordan in December 2017 and he told me that he tried to get into Yemen and he was denied. This loophole only recently emerged and I wanted to take advantage of it before the border was shut off again.
At 7:30am sharp, Adnan and I hit the road. Adnan provided me with some delicious tea called Karak Chai. The tea is spiced with turmeric and saffron and has bit of milk in it.
The drive to the Yemeni border takes about two and a half hours, depending on how smoothly the three security checks, on the way to the border, go. All three checkpoints went smoothly. At one checkpoint they recorded my passport information, but apparently that is routine.
The drive to the Yemeni border is beautiful. The drive starts along the coast with its crystal-clear blue waters and virgin beaches. To get to Yemen you have to cross a mountain range. The roads zig-zag up the mountains, which creates beautiful views of the Wadis below, as well as the abundant Frankincense trees. At one point, Adnan and I stopped to check out a Frankincense tree and smell the sap that is a commodity in the area. The sap smells amazing, kind of like a pine-y, natural perfume. In order to harvest this sap, you have to have a special permit and certification, to ensure that you do not kill the trees when harvesting the sap. I found that to be interesting.
After our quick stop, we continued our journey, only stopping one more time at a gas station, about five minutes from the border. We ran into the supermarket to grab several bottles of water to hand out to the locals. Unfortunately, famine and lack of water is rampant in Yemen, so we wanted to do our best to help those that we could.
Finally, we completed the final stretch to the Yemen-Oman border. To enter Yemen, first you must exit Oman. This is where most people run into issues.
If the Royal Omani Police allow you to enter Yemen and something happens to you, they are held responsible by the Omani government for allowing you to leave. Understandably, they take their job seriously when allowing people to cross the border.
Adnan and I walked into the Immigration Office and handed the officer our passports. I obviously did not look like anyone there, so I caused a bit of a scene. The thing I noticed about Omani people is that they say “Marhaba” to everyone, even if they do not know them. I found them to be very friendly people.
The officer asked Adnan several questions in Arabic, which I did not understand. Adnan then asked me if I had a letter from the US Embassy and I told him I did not. This seemed to cause the immigration officer a bit of heartburn. I told Adnan that I tried to get the letter, but the US Embassy told me they do not issue such letters. Adnan relayed the message to the officer. After some more exchange in Arabic, the immigration sent my passport to a back room and motioned for Adnan and me to sit down.
I asked Adnan what was happening and he told me that they were calling their supervisor to see what action to take.
After a solid twenty minutes, the immigration officer called Adnan and me up to the desk. He and Adnan engaged in another Arabic conversation and then Adnan turned to me and said, “Katelyn we are not going past the city Hauf, correct?” He had a look on his face that I should just agree with him, so I did. The immigration officer seemed to be happy with my answer, so he stamped my passport and out the door we went.
I finally had permission to leave Oman, now I just had to obtain the visa to enter Yemen.
As we made the short drive to the Yemeni entry point, I asked Adnan about the interaction with the immigration officer. The gist of the story is that our original plan to go all the way to Al Ghaydah was too risky because Al Qaeda has a hold of much of the southern part of Yemen. Also, there are forces stationed in Al Ghaydah that would know if we went there. As a Caucasian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, woman I would stand out obviously. The Omani police were just looking out for my safety.
After a short drive, we pulled up to a shabby gate, held together with a bungee cord. An equally rag-tag group of men were sitting on the ground in office chairs with the rolling legs broken off. They reluctantly rose from their seats as we exited the vehicle. They asked for our passports. It costs $100USD to obtain the Yemen visa. The cash has to be paid with bills newer than 2009. I came prepared, but Adnan told me to hide the money somewhere until we get into the immigration office. I complied. The country is so poor that they will do anything for a bit of cash. I honestly do not blame them.
He also instructed me to cover my head with my scarf, as to not draw more attention to myself.
The guards greeted us and seemed confused that I was entering their country. I had begun to wonder why I was entering the country, as well. They smiled at me and said “marhaba.” I smiled back and nodded. After a quick glance at our passports, they motioned for Adnan and me to get back in the vehicle, and they opened the gate for us. We drove about fifty feet and stopped in front of a crumbling building. Adnan and I got back out of the car and walked up to the crumbling building. The man working the booth asked for both of our passports. After a few seconds, he asked if I had my money, in clear English. I pulled it out of my sleeve and handed it to him. While the officer was stamping my passport and issuing my visa, a man crossing the border, as well, struck up a conversation with me. He asked where I was from in perfect English and after I told him, he revealed he used to live in Maryland. He was friendly. I wish I would have asked him why he was entering Yemen.
After the immigration officer handed us our passports back, Adnan and I returned to the car.
One more stop for a security inspection of the vehicle and we were free to go. We pulled up to a building with an aluminum awning. There was a group of about ten men standing around, as well as some more soldiers sitting in broken office chairs. It appears they break them on purpose.
Adnan took my passport and told me to stay in the car. Apparently, I had already drawn too much attention to us. Adnan then sat on a bench and we had to wait for about twenty minutes. Eventually, a heavy-set man meanders to the building and opens the window. All of the men crowd the window, waving their passports and this little slip of paper. After another ten minutes, Adnan returns. We are good to go. I will officially be entering Yemen!
I asked him what took so long and he told me that the worker left to take a shower. Since there is no clear authoritative governing body in Yemen, there is no accountability. We were lucky he even showed up to work today.
We continued our journey into the depths of Yemen. The landscape was equally as beautiful as Oman’s, but the infrastructure was terrible. Fortunately, we were driving in a Toyota 4x4 Land Cruiser, so we were able to endure the rough roads. The roads ran between the ocean and the mountain range. Sometimes there was a beach to the left, but sometimes there was a cliff. The country has no ability to maintain their roads, much less implementing some sort of system to control the giant boulders falling from the mountains. The beaches were littered with varying size boulders that would surely do a lot of damage to our car or, even worse, push us right off the cliff. That was what scared me most about Yemen. Not the Houthis. Not Al Qaeda. Not the civil war. The potential to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and be pushed off the side of the cliff or smashed by a rogue boulder.
We drove along the road, taking in all of the make-shift shacks. The shelters were made of tarps, sticks, aluminum siding, basically whatever materials they could find. At one point, we drove past a cave that appeared to be inhabited. The cave had a gate made of sticks and rope. I wish I could have gotten a closer look at it.
As we made it toward the village of Hauf, the houses began to take on a more structurally-sound appearance. I found the architecture to be very unique. The rock and brick work was beautiful.
The thing that baffled me is that there were barely any people in sight. I have been to other war-torn countries, such as Somalia, where the streets were crowded with people. I only saw a handful of people as we drove through Al Hauf. We passed through Al Hauf and continued along the coastal highway, but not too far past the city, as we had promised the Omani border police. I nervously enjoyed the ride, as we soaked in more coastal and mountainous views. The thought of colliding with a rogue boulder still lingered in my mind, but I pushed the thought away.
We continued to a view point between the villages of Al Hauf and Damghut. There was a little spot to pull off the road to enjoy the coastline from a higher point of view. Yemen truly did have one of the most amazing coastlines I had ever seen.
While we were enjoying the view, I noticed the hillside was littered with little red plastic bags with aluminum foil in them. I asked Adnan what the bags were and he informed me that Khat is sold in those bags. Khat is a leaf that locals chew and they get high off of it.
When we had enjoyed the view for long enough, Adnan and I returned to the car and started our journey back to the border. I noticed a lot more Khat bags on the way back.
The drive back was even more scary because, being in the passenger seat, I could see right over the edge of the cliffs. There were no guardrails and I was still thinking about the potential landslides from the mountains.
As we reentered Al Hauf, I noticed the town had begun to liven up. There were boys sitting outside a store trying to sell little snacks. We stopped and Adnan spoke to them in their native language, which is a variation of Arabic. I asked if I could take their picture and they obliged. They lit up with the brightest smiles. We thanked them and on we went.
I think the town was so quiet due to the mid-day prayer because now there were shops open and people bustling around. We stopped by a group of men sitting on a porch and Adnan talked to them again. We handed them water and they were grateful.
A little further down the road, Adnan and I pulled over to try and find some Yemeni trinkets for me to take home as a sort of a souvenir. I was not surprised when we did not find anything. Instead, Adnan bought me some Yemeni desserts. The first dessert was a strawberry flavored jelly-like substance, but I cannot remember the name of it. It was delicious. The second dessert was the consistency of fudge but it was bright pink, yellow, and blue and tasted like birthday cake. It was equally as delicious.
I also crossed the street from the dessert shop to check out the beach, lined with colorful fishing boats. I was pleasantly surprised to find a soccer field with goals made of fishing nets. There was also a small, dried stingray hanging from the top goal post. Target practice?
It was great to be able to get out of the car and interact with locals. I have said it many times, but it constantly amazes me how adaptable humans can be. These people are living in a country in the middle of a civil war and they still go about their lives smiling, playing soccer, and just living. It saddens me that their country is in the state that it is, but it makes me happy knowing that they have some sort of happiness in their lives.
I wish I could have met more locals, but it was time to head back to the border before the sun went down.
We returned to the border of Yemen and Oman. This time we had to go through the same process to enter Yemen, but in reverse. We pulled up to the aluminum awning and our car was searched. After we cleared that inspection, we moved on to the same deteriorating gate that we entered through. Adnan had asked a man to run our passports to the crumbling building to get our exit stamps. This made me nervous because I do not feel comfortable with other people handling my passport. My passport is full of irreplaceable memories and I really do not trust it in anyones’ hands, other than mine. Fortunately, the man returned a few minutes later with our exit stamps. The rag-tag group of guards opened the gate for us and we drove through. When we had entered Yemen, the guards had asked to take a picture with me, but Adnan did not allow it because of the scene it would cause.
When you let one person take a picture with a western woman, everyone wants one. As evidenced by some interactions with locals in Somalia and Iraq.
Since we had already made it through the gate out of Yemen, Adnan allowed me to take the picture this time. The guards were friendly and even shook my hand, which is unheard of in some primarily Muslim countries.
After our miniature photoshoot, we continued to the Omani checkpoint.
Reentering Oman scared me because I had heard a couple horror stories of people not being allowed back in the country. One man was detained for five days because he forgot to obtain a multi-entry visa for Oman. Luckily, I had the correct visa.
We were stopped by the Royal Omani Police. They asked us to exit the car, so they could search it. They did a thorough job of searching the vehicle, but eventually allowed us to continue up to the Omani immigration building. Adnan pulled the car up to the building and told me to stay in the car again. He took my passport into the immigration building and was gone for an hour. I just sat in the car as every single person, that was crossing the border, stared at me. It was a little uncomfortable. Finally, Adnan came back and told me to get out of the car and sit next to the guards on a curb.
He sat there too. The Omani police searched our car again and seemed to have an issue with a pair of binoculars that Adnan had in the car. After an exchange in Arabic, they decided to not raise any more concern about the binoculars.
Adnan got back in the car and pulled forward about 100 feet, directly in front of the immigration building. Adnan got out and told me to stay there again, but no more than two minutes later, he peaked out from the immigration building and motioned for me to come inside. I turned off the car, got out, and walked into the immigration office. Adnan handed me a piece of paper and helped me fill it out, as it was in Arabic. At one point, the paper asked me to write down EVERY country I have been to. For the sake of time, I only wrote down the last fifteen.
We handed the officer the paper and he stamped our passports and we were good to go.
When Adnan and I got back into the car, I asked him what took so long and he said he did not know. He said that he had asked the immigration officer the same question and the immigration officer told him that he was just doing his job and to please be patient.
Whatever the hold up was did not matter anymore because I was out of Yemen and on my way back to Salalah! What an amazing experience!
If you would like to travel to Yemen, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at Katelyn.firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pass the contact information on to you.