Sunday, March 6, 2016

[OUARZAZATE] Welcome to Yunkai

To be honest, I really haven’t seen Yunkai yet on Game of Thrones. My last marathon ended on that episode where Dragon Mama lovingly asked Drogon to barbecue the evil jerk in Astapor who tried to trick her during their negotiation for the army of the Unsullied. So yeah, they haven’t even reached Yunkai yet. If we decided to go to Essaouira, then I would have easily recognized Astapor, but Ait Ben Haddou seemed to be the more popular option, and getting there is not simple at all.

Or perhaps it is, if you're not driving. Both Essaouira and Ait Ben Haddou can be reached from Marrakesh, but it will involve four hours or more of driving from there. I imagine Essaouira to be an easier trip because it is located right along the Atlantic Coast. For Ait Ben Haddou, you will have to pass through the Atlas Mountains. No need to worry, though, for the roads are paved, but it doesn't come as a surprise that you will be driving uphill.

Don’t get me wrong, those ravines are awesome, and the snow-capped mountains turning dry and red in a span of less than an hour is truly a delightful mystery to witness. This means that your journey will be stretched to around five hours because you will be making a lot of stopovers for many photo opportunities. I suggest that you leave Marrakesh early in the morning so you can make it to Ait Ben Haddou before sundown. We left at around 1 PM and arrived past 6 PM, which was right after sundown.

Ait Ben Haddou is a really small town, which makes you marvel even more at its rather stellar filmography spanning more than five decades. A quick Wikipedia check will tell you that Sodom and Gomorrah was shot here in the 60’s and Son of God in 2014, as well as Gladiator and The Mummy if you are looking for more popular titles. In the small screen, of course, everyone will recognize it as Yunkai on Game of Thrones. But how small is small? Well, what you see from afar, that’s about it.

The sun was already going down when we reached the place and there was a mild sandstorm going on, or maybe I’m just exaggerating. Suffice it to say that you’ll need some form of protection for your eyes may it be sunglasses, goggles or a blindfold. I didn’t have any of those so I was half-blind all the way, not to mention I ate more sand than I ever did in this lifetime. You can’t drive to the site itself but you’ll find a parking space which ultimately leads to the river that you have to cross in order to get to the ksar.

There is also a bridge you can cross but I recommend traversing the river on foot for the sake of adventure. I mean, come on, you drove all the way here! You might as well get your feet wet while enjoying the scenery. No, you won’t drown or anything. That part of the river is shallow and looks more like a stream, to be honest. There are sand bags and large rocks that you can step on to make sure that you won’t slip, hit your head, die, be swallowed by the river, and be forgotten by the entire human race.

I’m not sure if the houses are made of clay, but they are definitely earthen which gives them that kind of unique look. It’s not difficult to see how films in need of an exotic setting are shot here. The ksar is on a hill protected by a defensive wall, which means you will have to do some uphill trekking. There are souvenir shops inside, although I doubt if any local actually lives there. We did not have a lot of time to explore the place because sunlight was half gone and our priority was the view from the top.

Be careful once you reach the top. The wind was really strong when we got there. There were times when I almost flew all the way down to my death, except that I’m a really lucky bastard who just won’t die. The harsh gust made documentation quite challenging, not to mention my phone died on me right after I reached the top. Thank you for your cooperation, phone. Your timing is so perfect. I think GoPro will be your best bet for taking photos and videos and not perishing during the attempt.

Was it worth it? Well, I might be coming back to this area later this year to go experience the desert in either Merzouga or Zagora, so I guess I will be dropping by again a second time. Why? I just think that the place would be spectacular if photographed under the bright sun. I was traveling in a group so it would've been a hassle to ask everyone to return the next morning just to take more photos. There are hotels in Ait Ben Haddou but Ouarzazate is just around half an hour away and there are more choices there.

Ouarzazate is a bit weird for my taste. It feels like a small town straight out of a western flick masquerading as a Moroccan village. But it was a convenient stop for the night and had everything that we needed in terms of creature comforts. I think this is also where you would prefer to stay if you plan to see the desert. As for the town itself, there are some attractions that will keep you busy for an hour or two but nothing that would really force you to make it your primary destination.

The medina is small and unassuming. The good thing is it’s not crowded and you can really observe the locals just doing their own thing instead of trying to scam you or anything. We also found a small orphanage which tugged some heartstrings among the members of the group. Other than that, we just took a photo or two and we were done. There is a small mosque with a simple minaret which serves as the main attraction there as far as photography is concerned.

There is also the Kasbah de Taourirt where we paid MAD20 (~PHP100) to get in. I don’t really have an idea what that place used to be. It was one small room leading to more small rooms with low ceilings. And then there were the occasional bigger ones with intricately painted ceilings worth a selfie. There were also two wings dedicated to paintings that you can purchase for MAD100 (~PHP500) and above. We went there before exploring the medina. We left for Ouzoud Falls after that.

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