At last, after five days of waiting in Djibouti City, there was a boat to Yemen. A small wooden one, loaded with sesame seeds, two Japanese travelers, a few Djiboutians and Somalians and a bunch of Yemeni crew. A drunken Ethiopian joined in too, loudly proclaiming “Fuck the Arabs!” as he stepped on-board, whilst unzipping his jacket to display the three bottles of St George beer that he’d stuffed in its inner pockets. A fourth bottle was already clinched in his hand, half-empty. Like the other passengers, I tried my best to ignore him – better befriend the Yemeni cook, I thought.
The journey across to Aden was less dramatic, although with quite heavy sea. After one night at sea and one in Aden harbor, we were finally let ashore. Yemen though has unfortunately been battered by kidnappings and bombings targeting tourists in recent years, and the threat results in several roads being regularly closed to individual travelers. A travel permit from the police is required for any journey, and in my case it reads police escort (in car) for about 700 kilometers, and only some 400 kilometers permitted to cycle. I leave the well-known sights in the interior of Yemen for a future visit – the fuss of getting permits and escorts doesn’t attract me. But despite the few kilometers cycled; the short time spent, it is precisely that – a return to Yemen once safe – that I leave the country wishing for. Wonderful people, a more or less completely untouched coastline with mile after mile of white sandy beaches, and between them small picturesque fishing villages – what more can you ask for?
As I close in on Oman, mountains rise from the coast, and the border itself is situated halfway up one of the high passes. Visa is easily obtained on the spot for a country that puts a lot of effort in increasing its tourism, although focusing on the wealthier ones rather than backpackers and cyclists. Fortunately, the country is also home to a large number of work immigrants – mainly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They take care of all the hard work – restaurants, constructions, shops etc. – and is in the end paid for with Oman’s oil revenue. For a cyclist, these people are however saviors – providing cheap, tasty food at their restaurants and proving kind brothers who don’t hesitate to invite one for sleep inside. After having passed the mountains between the border and Salalah, I faced 800 kilometers of desert-road along which the working immigrants are often the only residents, with lonely situated restaurants and hotels separated by 50-150 kilometers of gravel, flat desert. For me, after hours of cycling through the desolate, monotonous landscape, they became small oases with their spicy food, water and satellite TV.
A relief size larger though is the arrival to town Nizwa and the mountains of northern Oman, the latter rising up to 3,000 meters with wonderful small villages both in the mountains and next to the many river beds that (this time of the year often dry) wind forth through the valleys. Adjacent to the villages are almost always one or several springs, which water is led using sophisticated canal systems first to collection of drinking water, then past the mosque for washing and last to the village’s green fields. Shadow is given by the many high date palms, which fruit is also the that is offered a guest, together with coffee. Taking a break in a village more or less always ends up in an opportunity to meet the locals and learn about their traditional life.
Many well restored forts and castles also scatter the country, and with them as destinations but the route in-between past the villages at least as interesting, I make up for lost cycling in Yemen by taking numerous detours through Oman. The country ends up becoming an unexpected favorite so far, not the least thanks to the freedom given by a comforting security (leave your bike unlocked outside the supermarket and find it still there an hour later) and the possibility to camp almost everywhere (petrol station, village, football pitch, hot spring, parking lot outside hotel etc.). The Omanis and the guest workers all show a wonderful hospitality and flexibility – great!
The border to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is as simple to cross as the to Oman – the visa is even free. Two to four lane highways then take me through the 150 kilometers of scenic desert to Dubai by the coast. The town lives up to all that it’s said to be – construction site, playground for architects and engineers, playground for everyone else too and a town literally flooded with working immigrants, mainly from Asia (although 200 nationals are said to be represented all-together). Besides that, it now also hosts the world’s tallest man-made structure – skyscraper Burj Dubai (818 meters/2,684 feet/160 floors).
I will stay here for about ten days to arrange visas for Iran and Uzbekistan and a ticket to the ferry across to Bandar-e-Abbas in southern Iran, as well as to let my bike get a well-deserved service. Next time you’ll hear from me, I’ll hopefully be in northern Iran.