I’m always torn between authenticity and modernization. When I travel to traditional, ancient locations (which I unequivocally prefer to glitzy and modern places) I hope to see life the way it was. I want donkeys, not motorcycles. I hope for community wells, not indoor plumbing. I look for kids playing in the streets, not in video game parlours. But, the expectation of people, towns or entire cultures to remain in the stone ages for my entertainment is selfish. Everyone has the right to a better life should they choose. The alpine village of Thulla, about 1 hour NW of Yemen’s capital Sana’a, has chosen this “better” life. Several years ago, a bustling tourist trade plus an influx of UNESCO money led to the renovation, reconstruction and refurbishment of the nearly 2,000 year old town. However, I can’t escape the feeling of knock-off Gucci handbag that these restorations inevitably portray.
As the ride I managed to pick up a few kilometers down the road dropped me off at one of the towns main gates, it looked like Thulla was something different. This seemed like the sort of place where I would not find locals in blue jeans. There would be no tin roofs or snazzy sports cars. Like most villages in the region, Thulla has a quasi-organic feel as it seems to have been given birth by the mountainside the village is anchored to. But entering through the gates, it became obvious this wasn’t the untouched gem I always hope for. Hotel signs in English and billboards for souvenir shops clutter the entrance. Distracting from what is otherwise a spectacular setting.
Sadly for locals, the tourism industry has all but dried up. The hotels are empty. The shops are closed. Once word spreads that a foreigner is actually in town (and word travels fast) there is a desperate dash to open things up and brush off the cobwebs to make the first sale in ages. I met up with a young university student whose school in Sana’a has been closed due to the recent political turmoil. He led me through the eerily quiet streets, to the countless mosques (which you can’t enter) and the numerous cisterns (which are generally unused). There’s even a fort on the tower hilltop. However, after my near heart-attack inducing climb of Jebal Kawkaban the day before, I opted to pass. The town is certainly photogenic, and the people are, as usual, nice. But the future seems bleak. The Disneyfication, which will certainly appeal to many, seems to have done little else but put a bit of make-up on the bruises from an abusive spouse.
The good news is, if looking for something with a little more of an authentic feel, the village of Hababah is only a couple kilometers away. Although much less spectacularly set, the village of Hababah retains much of it’s traditional air. The heavily Jewish-influenced architecture is virtually the same as Thulla. Just less fixed-up. The intermingling streets, alleyways and hidden paths remain unpaved. And there were no tourist facilities that I noticed. But the highlight of the village (and arguably the entire area) is the central cistern. While most of the nearby towns have similar reservoirs, they have fallen into disuse. That is, except, for the one in Hababah. The incredibly photogenic pool of water beautifully reflects the traditional buildings teetering along it’s edge. But the real treat comes as you sit quietly near the water awaiting the villagers who will enviably come to fill their buckets. A truly special experience.
Thulla is safe and easy to get to. Shared taxis leave San’a when full (there are no buses) for a mere 250 YR/seat or 1,500 for a “complete”. Transport to other villages is also by shared taxi, with no schedules, usually costing 50-100 YR/seat. Alternatively, hotels in Sana’a offer trips to the area, including Shibam and Kawkaban, as a rather pricey day-trip. $75, and up, will include an English speaking guide and transport in a comfy 4X4 for the day.
Without question the “modern” standards that Thulla is able to offer will appeal to many travelers. Cafes with English menus, hotels with en-suite bathrooms and a relatively high level of English. Even with my usual aversion to completely made over towns, I quite liked Thulla. If combined with Hababah, you can get comfort with tradition. Certainly a worthwhile excursion.