"I taught myself as a kid," explains our trekking guide Abdullah, when we prudently inquire about his credentials in the face of a steep mountain ahead of us. "I tried this stone, and that rock, and every time I ventured a little bit farther. By now, I know that mountain inside out." Abdullah’s self-taught approach exemplifies Yemen’s response to its slowly growing tourist industry.
We are in the Manakha area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Yemen's bewitching capital, Sana'a, with its beautifully decorated facades and windows; its narrow streets overflowing with the sounds of street vendors, produce sellers, honking cars, and mosques' calls to prayer; and not to forget, its colorful, always buzzing souks (markets) with their particular smells of spices and their numerous qat (leaves chewed for their stimulating effects) silver, and jambiya (traditional dagger) sellers who always have a welcoming "as-salaam alaikum" for those passing by.
Manakha, in the Haraz Mountains, is the antidote to Sana'a's hustle and bustle: extremely peaceful and serene, with crisp air, clear and spectacular vistas, and small, picture-perfect villages perching along a cliff, towering above a mountain summit, or glued against a giant rock. On our hikes, we now and then pass friendly villagers who undisturbed go about their daily chores, as has probably been done for centuries: veiled women washing their laundry and fetching water at a trickling mountain stream; white-robed men plowing their small, terraced pieces of land or traveling by donkey to the market to buy their indispensable qat; and children herding goats or caring for each other.
When villagers happen to be home, we are often treated to a pot of tea, or invited inside the guest room to share their food: salta, a tasty vegetable dip, or bint al sahin, a delicious mix of bread and honey. At night, we stay in a simple funduq (inn) where there is always room for the unexpected guest. If there are not enough beds available, the innkeeper simply throws some mattresses and blankets on the floor. And who cares anyway, when Arabic dance and song in the mafraj (reception room) keeps everybody on their feet until the wee hours?
Manakha lies on a southwestern loop that also includes the ancient cities of Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, and Thula. Often strategically built on top of a rock plateau or mountain range, they offer many dramatic views and points of historic and cultural interest, ranging from the Queen Arwa mosque in Jibla to the fascinating traditional markets in and around Taiz, where unveiled women proudly display their colorful dresses.