Yemen

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Introduction to Yemen

After more upsets than a first-time traveller to India, Yemen is developing a calm and collected air. Although the country is rapidly modernising, you'll find plenty of old-style Arabia - from spicy souqs to sumptuous palaces - wherever you travel.

The country is covered in ancient skyscrapers - eight-storey buildings made from stone and mud - where people live on top of their animals and the views are spectacular. You'll also see mind-blowing mosques, sultans' palaces and villages perched on top of remote mountains.

Caution

Though the government is reported to be gaining the upper hand against the rebels, fighting in northern Yemen is described as intense. Travellers are being advised against all non-essential travel to Yemen.

Those who do go are advised to avoid places known to be frequented by Westerners, including shops and restaurants in the Haddah district of Sanaa. Yemeni tourist police discourage travel outside the Sanaa city limits; travellers are required to seek permission either through a tour agency or, if travelling alone, at least 24 hours before travel. The port city of Aden is also considered unsafe. The warnings urge foreigners in Yemen to be vigilant and to keep an ear to the ground. If foreigners feel that they are being threatened or followed they should tell the local police. Emergency assistance is available from American and British Embassies in Sanaa, and travellers are also reminded to register there.

In recent years, kidnapping of foreigners has been a regular event - more than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped and traded for money, jobs and cars, usually with unqualified success to the kidnappers. While most of those taken were subsequently released unharmed, not all were so lucky.

Full country name: Republic of Yemen

Area: 527,970 sq km

Population: 19.3 million

Capital City: Sana'a

People: Arab, Afro-Arab, South Asian

Language: Arabic

Religion: Muslim

Government: republic

GDP: US$12.1 billion

GDP per capita: US$740

Annual Growth: 1.8%

Inflation: 12.3%

Major Industries: Oil, cotton, leather, food processing

Major Trading Partners: China, South Korea, UAE, Saudi Arabia

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Everybody needs a visa to enter Yemen. If your passport carries evidence of a visit to Israel you will not be granted a visa. Tourist visas generally last one to three months.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 967

Electricity: 220/230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Religious holidays are tied to the Islamic Hijra calendar, so dates vary from year to year. Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (Pilgrimage), Lailat al-Mi'raj (the Ascension of the Prophet), the Prophet's Birthday and the Islamic New Year are the main celebrations. Secular holidays include the Day of National Unity (22 May), Revolution Day (26 September), National Day (14 October) and Independence Day (30 November).

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Best time to Visit

When you go depends on where you're going. If you're going to the Tihama, Aden or Hadhramawt, don't go in July - the heat will be unbearable. If you're heading for the highlands, December nights can be very, very cold. From October to February most of the country is dry and dusty, and in March, April and August the temperature is pleasant but you'll get very wet. April-May and September-October are probably the best bets wherever you're heading.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Yemeni Riyal

Meals

Budget: YRIs180-400

Mid-range: YRIs400-900

High: YRIs900-2800

Deluxe: YRIs2800+

Lodging

Budget: YRIs750-1500

Mid-range: YRIs1500-2000

High: YRIs2000-10,000

Deluxe: YRIs10,000+

Yemen is one of the world's poorer countries, so wherever you're from, basics here are going to seem pretty cheap. You can get yourself a loaf of bread and a glass of tea for about US$0.10, or a simple meal for around $3. If you're keeping to basics - making some of your own meals, staying in the cheapest of hotels and keeping travel to a minimum - you could get by on around $12 a day. If you want to stay somewhere a bit more comfortable, eat out a few times a day and catch taxis, budget around $50 a day. Yemen also imports a lot of luxury goods, so if you're feeling really flash, you could spend about $300 a day to stay in a five-star hotel and hire a car.

If you want a decent rate, your best bet is to change your money in commercial banks or with private moneychangers in the souqs of large cities - airports and flash hotels offer dreadful rates. You'll have most luck changing money in San'a - in smaller towns you might not be able to change money at all. US dollars and major European currencies (both in cash) are the most widely accepted forms of lucre. Travellers cheques may be difficult to change, and credit cards are almost useless.

Tipping is unknown in Yemen, as a service charge is included in restaurant and hotel bills. Bargaining isn't a staple of Yemeni commerce, but you should negotiate with taxi drivers before you get in.

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Attractions

San'a

If you believe the Yemenis, San'a is one of the first sites of human settlement, founded by Noah's son, Shem. Other sources suggest the city has been around since at least the 2nd century AD, and up until 1962 the city still nestled within its ancient walls, surrounded by green fields.

These days, San'a is a sprawls outside the walls and many houses in the Old City are over 400 years old. The area within the walls is the largest preserved medina in the Arab world. Mosque minarets rise above the tower houses, and the city is sprinkled with Ottoman bathhouses.

Ma'rib

Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba, Ma'rib is the most stunning archaeological site in Yemen. In the 8th century BC a 16m (52ft) high dam was built here, and for over 1000 years the lake it created irrigated fields which sustained around 50,000 people.

In the 2nd century AD the empire fell, and over the next few hundred years the dam collapsed and Ma'rib became an inconsequential village. When oil was discoverd here in 1986 the town was revitalised, and it's now a bustling place.

Time has not been particularly charitable to the ruins of Ma'rib, but there's still plenty to see. Although most of the old village has been destroyed, you can still see some impressive small-windowed mud buildings, and occasionally you'll find one with ancient Sabaean inscriptions in its stone cellar. Nearby are the remnants of some remarkable temples, including the Temple of Bilqis, built around 400BC. There's not a lot left, but you can still see the remnants of the Great Dam of Ma'rib, and if you walk a few miles upstream you'll reach the imaginatively titled New Dam of Ma'rib, more than twice as high as the old one.

There are very few places to stay or eat in Ma'rib.

Shihara

Yemenis love to build their houses in difficult places. Shihara is such a place, built atop a 2600m (8528ft) mountain, almost inaccessible from below. Previously a base for resistance to the Ottomans during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the Royalist headquarters during the 1960s civil war.

Although its location is stunning, Shihara's architecture is simple. The town's stone houses rise up to five storeys, but are decorated only with dented friezes and white plastering - they are good examples of a very traditional, archaic form of Yemeni mountain architecture.

Wadi Hadhramawt

Running for 160km (99mi) through stony desert, along a deep valley, Hadhramawt is the biggest wadi (seasonal river) in the Arabian Peninsula. One of the most fertile areas of Yemen, it's brilliantly green against the starkness of the desert. The area has been settled from around the 3rd century AD.

Shibam, known as the Manhattan of the desert, is a highlight of the valley. Its 500 traditional-style skyscrapers are crammed into half a sqare km, and rise abrubtly from the flat plane of the desert. The city has been around for about 1800 years but most of the houses date from the 16th century.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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