Saudi Arabia 2023

(This is the English version of our Saudi trip.  Click here for the Dutch version)

Some time ago, the Saudi’s opened up their country to tourism. Not just for foreign Muslims who come to perform Hajj or Umrah in Mecca, but also the unbelievers who are just curious about the country. Like us for instance. So on to our holiday destination: Arabia!

Visa, tour and tickets

A tour like this doesn’t just happen without preparation. Gepke enthusiastically throws herself into the online preparations. She eventually finds a tour that seems to suit us with the Madventures company.  Then you need to go through the visa bureaucracy, but that went relative easy online, with a Saudi eVisa.  The next challenge is finding affordable tickets to Riyadh and then waiting for the date of January 12, 2023 to roll around.

Departure

An Uber takes us to Greenville’s GSP airport, where we start the first leg of our journey on board a domestic flight to Chicago. This leg already started with a delay, which would make catching our connecting Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt even more exciting. It all worked out in the end and we were able to hang out at the Frankfurt airport for hours until our flight to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia left. I’ll keep it brief: this part of the trip was a long and boring, with flights and airport wait times that added up to almost 24 hours.

Arrival in Riyadh

Despite the last part of our trip taking place on Friday the thirteenth, everything seems to be going well. The formalities of immigration for Saudi Arabia are not too bad. We have put Apple AirTags in our suitcases so that we can track where they are. They followed us nicely, so shortly after arriving we can walk out the bagage claim doors. Outside there is a man with our names legibly written on a sign, amongst many other men with Saudi Arabic written names. Gepke has arranged everything nicely.

We drive to our hotel in the dark. The driving style of the Saudi Arabians is blood-curdling, but we reach our goal in one piece. The hotel is the
Intercity Hotel Riyadh and looks slick. For a moment they have trouble with our names, since they are not written in Arabic. They confuse us with another guest who later turns out to be in our group. It all works out in the end and we get our room key.

By now we are so tired that when we lay our head on the pillow, the curtain falls. We enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep until 7 am; at least for me. Gepke is always awake much earlier than me.

Hiking and group meeting

We have to meet the group at 2 pm at which time our tour will also start. We’ll visit to the Turaif historical district in Diriyah and the high Kingdom Tower for the view of the city in the evening.

Until then, we decide to go for a walk in the King Abdul Aziz Park. But that turns out to be more difficult than we thought. Every gate leading into the park turns out to be closed. It is a combination of prayer time and the fact that it is Saturday. A holy day for the Muslims, so everything is closed.

We walk around a bit more to get a feeling for the area, and then return to the hotel to meet the tour group. The tour is led by Harun, a young man who is really too shy to play tour leader, but opens up later on and became part of our family. The tour group is much smaller than we expected. There is another couple from London, a man from New Zealand and a woman from … Groningen in the Netherlands. This woman turns out to be the person with whom the hotel staff got us confused and thought that was our name.

Bus ride in the area

A total of 7 people get into the huge bus that has been reserved for us. Of course it’s much too big, as it can carry more than 50 people, with luggage. So we have more than enough room to spread out in the coming weeks. The driver’s name is Mohammed, a cheerful but also shy man who – as will become apparent later – will not run away from any challenge.

We drive to the Diriyah district where Al Turaif is located. This is a historic area where the old mud houses have been restored and opened to the public. This was once the capital of the Saudi dynasty. It is late afternoon and it is already getting dark. Al Turaif is beautifully lit and everything gets a mysterious glow.

We then hurry to the Kingdom Tower to see the lights across the dark city. At 180 km/h the elevator takes us to the 99th floor, where a sky bridge connects two towers of this building. The whole building resembles an elongated handbag, but the view is fantastic.

We end the day in the Najdi Village where we have dinner with the whole group. Tomorrow we’ll explore the remaining surroundings of Riyadh.

Masmak, shopping in the Souq and on to the Edge of the World.

Breakfast in “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” is something we have to get used to. Sometimes it’s an extensive buffet with many things you would not associate with breakfast. I have no problem with the many types of fruit, but I find the kidney beans with olive oil less appetizing in the morning. Hummus is also not my favorite breakfast dish, but I adapt.

After breakfast, we board the bus to visit Masmak Fortress. The first major battle to unite Saudi Arabia was fought here. The spearhead thrown at King Abdulaziz is still lodged in the door, and is enthusiastically shown by the tour guide near the entrance. Inside are more objects, photos and family trees that honor the Saudi family. The king seems to be well loved here, although some of tribes that were conquered in the early 20th century will disagree.

After Masmak we visit the nearby Souk (market) with an extensive collection of handmade cloths, shining swords and daggers, and mysterious perfumes. We search in vain for souvenirs. Gepke wants a little camel and I want a pillow. That search will remain in vain for the time being; we don’t find what we want. We enjoy a lunch that is just as extensive as breakfast. If we keep eating this way, we won’t fit in the plane seats on the way back.

The Edge of the World

After lunch we drive to the end of the world; literally. The area we are going is called “The Edge of the World” and is a vast plain that suddenly ends at a gorge comparable to the Grand Canyon. The journey here is done with 4x4s because the roads, if any, are not suitable for our bus.

When we stop at the rim to enjoy the view and take some pictures, we’re taken on a walk. At first it seems to only go to a viewpoint, but then one of the guides takes us on a rough path that leads down into the canyon. He wants to show us some nice view points.

At each point we take pictures and enjoy the view, but he keeps taking us deeper and deeper into the valley. I realize that we have to climb all the way back up again too, which is usually much more of a challenge. But luckily we can go up again before it starts to look like a descent to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Dinner

When we arrive at the top of the plateau, chairs are waiting for us and we can recover. Another (Chinese) group has now also been added. All drivers of the different 4×4’s pull barbeque and other cooking equipment from their cars and start preparing an evening meal for us.

It has become dark and because we are so far from the city, the sky is really full of stars. Although it is quite cold, we find the evening magical and we enjoy our exotic meal even more. We sit around a fire and talk, while our drivers sing and pray at a short distance from our camp.

Unfortunately it’s time to leave again. We clean up everything, with the Chinese group really not wanting to leave a single piece of paper behind. With garbage bags in their hands, they walk in the pitch dark looking for garbage to leave everything spotlessly clean. Can we Europeans/Americans learn something from this?

Jeraisy, Ushaiger and Buraidah

We leave Riyadh today and will visit Jeraisy Castle, built in the 12th century, on the way. The visit here is short as we can only visit the courtyard of the Jeraisy Castle. The spaces inside are just now being renovated. Occasionally we can peek inside, but we mainly have to make do with the spaces outside.

The bus continues towards Buraidah, our destination for today. On the way we stop at the Ushaiger Heritage Village, one of the Saudi Unesco stops during this holiday. Ushaiger is a village in the original Najdi style of mud dwellings that are still trying to be preserved. That is not easy, because with a heavy rain shower a little washes away every time.

In Ushaiger we also visit a small museum that is really filled to the ceiling with all kinds of knickknacks, which according to the owner are antiques. He welcomes us warmly with tea and dates, and explains in great detail about all the objects that can be seen here. When we leave the museum we are approached by a local who, like everyone else here, wants to know where we come from. He talks enthusiasticallY with everyone and then starts making a video of us on the street with his mobile phone. Maybe we’ll be on Saudi Arabian YouTube soon.

In the evening we enjoy a simple meal in a kind of Indian fast food restaurant for $6 /pp. We have to go to bed early, because tomorrow we ‘re going to the camel market, which starts at dawn.

Camel market and Hutaymah Crater

We get up extra early to go to the camel market. It is already very busy when we get there. The camels greet us with a lot of shouting and drooling. Especially when they are lifted from a truck with a crane. Apparently they don’t really like that.

Some camels fetch a good price, because they are good for the Saudi camel races, or for breeding. Others are only good for slaughter, and that is clear from the much lower price. What immediately strikes us is the “Dulla” that hangs from the mouths of some camels. It is an organ from the back of their throat that they throw out prominently when they see a female. The females seem to appreciate that and before you know it you have baby camels.

After the market, we go back to the hotel and then head out to Al Hutaymah Crater. It used to be thought that this was an impact crater, but according to experts it’s the remains of a now extinct volcano.

Stuck in the sand

When the driver tries to turn the bus around, he gets hopelessly stuck. We cannot contribute much, because pushing such a heavy bus does not do much. Our tour leader and driver can’t reach anyone on their cell phones, so they decide to walk back to the village we passed to find help.

The rest of us go for a walk at the crater or hang around the bus. Some even walk around the entire rim of the crater before the guide and driver return with help. One car proves insufficient to pull the bus out, but more and more people stop. One of them, with a real live falcon in his car, appears to have some organizational talent. Three 4x4s are tied together and to the bus, and after a number of failed attempts, the bus is released from the loose sand.

This activity has of course taken way more time than was foreseen and we arrive late at our overnight stay for the day in Hail. We were supposed to drive to a viewpoint here, but it is already dark and after the long day no one wants to do that anymore. We refrain from further activities and only eat a meal before we crash into our beds.

Jubbah and Al Ula

A long drive ahead today to Al Ula of no less than 6 hours. On the way we first look at all the ancient petroglyphs at Jubbah from thousands of years ago, some as old as 8000 years. Another Saudi Unesco site that we can tick off our list.

After many hours in the bus we finally arrive in Al Ula,  The hotel/guesthouse here is the worst so far. The shower only cleans the walls, not the person standing under it. In addition, it is a real Saudi Arabian bathroom, so the shower is almost on top of the toilet and everything gets wet. There is little else to offer here, so we will have to make do with it.

The food in the evening is good. We eat in the open air on the side of a hidden dirt road with palm trees. Cats walk around us and later even jump in our lap in a desperate attempt to get some of our food. After dinner we walk around the fully restored Al Ula Old Town, once an important settlement along the pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca.

Hegra

The bed turned out not to be of great quality, so we weren’t sad when we were finally allowed to get up. Breakfast is delivered to the room by Harun and we eat it on our laps. We are now used to the standard breakfast: pita bread, some tomato, cucumber and hummus, sometimes an egg (boiled or fried), a bowl of brown bean porridge with a dollop of olive oil on top. You really begin to crave a regular cheese sandwich.

When we are all gathered again, we drive to Hegra (Madain Saleh) where the Nabateans have carved tombs and other rooms in the rocks just like in Petra, Jordan. Although the comparison with Petra in Jordan is often made, this is clearly different. The rocky outcrops are far apart; there is no gorge or settlement. The people buried here were kings and other important persons of Dedan. It’s all much smaller, but no less impressive.

With a shuttle bus we are driven from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop. You get out, view and photograph everything, and get on the next bus to the next collection of tombs, drawings, and remnants of the Nabatean civilization. The main tombs have lions carved on either side that are meant to protect the tombs.

Incidentally, not only these Nabatean remains are worth a visit. The rugged landscape where the rocky outcrops are located are equally impressive and worth seeing.

Elephant Rock

At the end of the day we drive to Elephant Rock, a rock in the shape of, you guessed it, an Elephant. In the vicinity of the rock, a number of seats have been made in the form of a kind of sitting pit in the sand. There are cushions to make everything comfortable and just down the road you can buy something to drink or eat. We sit here for a while, talk and admire the landscape.

Unfortunately we have to go back to our “three star” overnight stay. I could have slept here too.

Lawrence of Arabia and Medina

If you’ve seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia, or know the history of this World War I Englishman, you know that he fought with the Saudi Arabians for their own state. One of the activities he engaged in was attacking a train on the Hejaz railway, which went from Damascus to Medina.

Coincidentally, this is on the way of our long drive today to Medina. Although most of it has been taken away by local residents and sold for scrap metal, there are still some remains for us to admire.

Officially the site is surrounded by a fence and inaccessible, but the fence ahead is broken, so we can just walk in. The rails have been gone for years, only the embankment on which they lay can still be seen and a number of overturned railway wagons and a locomotive. I need to watch the movie again when I get home…

Late in the afternoon we arrive in Medina. This is the second holiest city for Muslims after Mecca. In the center is a huge mosque that is said to fit a million people. I’ll have to take their word for it, because if you’re not a Muslim, you’re not allowed in. We can take pictures from a distance.

We board a hop-on-hop-off bus that will take us to the main points of interest in Medina. As expected, these are all mosques, but along the way we look at the rest of the city and its inhabitants.

The hotel for the night is back to it’s usual high standard, with a nice bed and a shower that is not hovering over the toilet.

Taif, the City of Roses

We depart from Medina and head to Taif, which is known in the world as “The City of Roses”. On the way there we stop at Al Wahbah Crater, where the bus driver stays on the paved road this time. He avoids repeating his experience with our last crater.

With a diameter of 4 km, this crater is the largest volcanic crater in Saudi Arabia. Walking all the way around is therefore too far for our short stop here. At the crater we also meet a few Germans who have rented a car and are driving through Saudi Arabia. We exchange some information about Medina where they will soon drive to. We then continue to Taif.

After arriving in Taif we go to the market in the town center. As usual this whole holiday we time the arrival exactly during prayer, so everything is still closed. But that usually doesn’t last too long and a little later the various shutters, doors and such open to show little shops. The main products sold here are rose water and honey.

Rose farm

In the morning we will take a closer look at a rose nursery. They explain that to make a few milliliters of rose oil, you need about 10,000 roses. A process of mixing water with roses, boiling and draining until you have a large bottle of rose water and a test tube of rose oil. So the stuff will cost you.

At the nursery there is a garden where we can walk through and take pictures. Unfortunately it’s the wrong time of year, so no blooming roses to be seen.

We are allowed to view the accompanying shop and buy rose oil or rose water. I’m not very good with those smells, so I just stand a little near the open door where I can breath fresh air.

In the afternoon we continue towards Jeddah. Mecca is also located between Taif and Jeddah, but as unbelievers we are not allowed to enter there at all. This is made clear on the way there with the signage above the road: non-Muslim route, in other words you will be led around the city.

Jeddah itself is a large modern city on the Red Sea. We arrive fairly early and after we have checked in we can take a look at the boulevard along the beach: the Corniche.

At the Corniche you can see the Al Rahma floating Mosque. Floating? It looks to me it’s just standing on stilts. The world’s tallest fountain can also be seen here. The water sprays no less than 300 meters into the air.

We end the day with a Saudi Arabian dinner at, according to Harun, one of the best restaurants in Jeddah.

Jeddah

Breakfast in the morning takes longer than agreed, so the day starts with a delay. In the morning we go to the Tayebat City Museum with its 60,000 objects from all compass directions. The museum is overwhelming and there is simply too much to see in a few hours. A guide in the museum talks in unintelligible English about the layout of the building.

Gepke and I start with the different rooms in good spirits, but every now and then we get overwhelmed by the enormous offering. We take the elevator to the upper floors where there is also a maze of small rooms with Islamic Art, Chinese objects, dowries for Bedouin women and plastic art. It’s a collected chaos from all over the world.

Perhaps odd, but I’m most impressed by the restrooms here. As with most restrooms in Saudi Arabia, a place to wash your feet is also prominently present here. This is the nicest, cleanest public toilets I’ve come across in Saudi Arabia so far, that I even took a picture of it.

In the afternoon we can explore the old center of Jeddah on our own: Al Balad. We walk through the small streets but see little, because it is prayer time again. A little later, the shopkeepers all reappear and I can finally find a Takaya (support cushion). It is not the green color I was looking for, but it is one with the coat of arms of the Saudi Family on it.

On to Farasan Island

We’re going to have breakfast downstairs today, because we don’t want a repeat of yesterday’s delay. If we have to wait so long for food again today, we will probably miss the plane. A van from the hotel takes us to the airport, because Mohammed already left Jeddah with the big bus to Jazan yesterday. The poor guy has to drive all the way while we fly with Saudia. We are privileged tourists.

At the airport we can check in immediately and don’t need to lug around our suitcases. We also say goodbye to Margaretha, who will not spend these last days with us, but will fly on to Qatar and Kuwait. We plant ourselves in the, as usual, uncomfortable seats and wait to board. Gepke lost us for a while after she went looking for the toilet. She couldn’t find where we were, and of course I didn’t read her desperate texts until after she found us again…

The flight to Jazan took 1:20 hours and after disembarking we could go and look for the luggage again. The Apple AirTags in the luggage counted down the number of meters until they were in front of us again. Fortunately, they hadn’t flown to Tokyo.

On to the ferry

Outside, Mohammed arrives with the bus again; we are getting spoiled by him in that regard. We load up everything we have and drive to the harbor area, where we first have lunch at “Kudo”. After more than an hour we continue on to the ferry.

Management of security here appears to be in the hands of the KSA soldiers and they do not take half measures. Passports are checked and boarding passes are studied. Then we can wait in the waiting hall until we board. For this, the men are separated from the women.

Apparently, the check for men is no different than at an airport: everything out of your pockets, belt off and shoes off. Then luggage through the X-ray machine and back to a waiting area.

The women have it a little more difficult. After being sent in the wrong line twice, they may also have everything checked, but must also undergo a body search. All this happens behind a wall and many curtains, so that the men present are not seduced by this scene.

Finally on board

Finally we are allowed on board and we can store the suitcases for the journey on a rack between parked cars while we go upstairs. We look for some chairs upstairs and then the ladies also arrive. We are a family again, and take our seats in the family section.

The crossing to Farasan takes about an hour and a half. On the island we are met by an Arab with a white van who takes us to the Farasan Park Hotel.

The reception hall looks impressive and modern, but unfortunately that does not apply to the rooms. Although the shower is not on top of the toilet, it is open to the rest of the bathroom. So any attempts at keeping things dry are fruitless. The carpet in the room has more waves than the Red Sea in a storm, and we keep tripping over it. The bed is quite comfortable, which is the most important thing.

After we have settled in, we take a look outside. The sun is just setting and we can take some pictures of the sunset at sea during the last minute. The hotel has a reasonable swimming pool where men and women are said to be allowed to swim at the same time. That is unheard of for Saudi Arabia.

We are going to eat with the group in Farasan at a Saudi fish restaurant. You point to the fish that you like, and 20 minutes later it is ready on your plate. Gepke and I both opt for the brown grouper. It’s tasty, but there wasn’t much fish on this animal. I think it was a skinny little beast.

We do some shopping before going back to the hotel to sleep.

Tour on Farasan

After breakfast we take the van for a tour of the Saudi island of Farasan. We visit a historic village that has been cleared of inhabitants to show off to tourists. As often with these types of historic villages, the original character is completely lost due to the tasteless modern additions. Old houses are not really that well restored and too much attention is paid to things such as concrete umbrellas under which tourists can have a bite to eat.

As we drive further we come to a beautiful old compound containing the house of a pearl merchant. Here too, the compound has been expanded with a modern apartment/house, but we’ll just have ignore that. We can briefly see the interior of the pearl merchant’s living room. It does look nice considering how long ago someone lived in it.

Further down the road is the very old Al-Najdi mosque where we can also take a look inside this time. It’s an active mosque, but it’s not prayer time, so we’re the only ones inside. It is also a very old mosque more than 500 years old.

This afternoon I stay at the hotel to update this travel log while Gepke and others go on a boat trip around the island for swimming and snorkeling. As it turned out in the end, the snorkeling was canceled due to the rough sea.

In the evening we all eat a pizza together and go to bed early. We have to get up before 5 o’clock tomorrow to take the ferry back to the mainland.

Back to Jazan

A group of 5 half-asleep tourists and one equally awake guide wait in the dark for the van that will take them to port. We had to get up very early in the morning to get to the ferry in time. In the dark we wait for the van that will take us to the port with our luggage. The return to the mainland is the mirror image of the outward journey. The men are separated from the women, then both are sent through security.  For the men this is fairly quick, while the women are more thoroughly searched behind a wall. Separated, we sit in the waiting room for a while. On board of the ship we meet again for the one and a half hour return trip.

Most of us are dozing and half asleep in the chairs on the ship. The passenger area is divided into 3 sections: one for men, one for women and one for families. Our group belongs to the latter. After 2 weeks of being together you can call us a family: we know each other’s good and bad habits and still stay together.

Back in the bus

Mohammed is already waiting for us in Jazan to take us via Asir National Park towards Abha. In Jazan we have some time for breakfast before we hit the road again towards Muhayil. Along the way we also regularly see Hamadryas baboons who look hopefully at the passing cars. They hope that there will be some breakfast left for them to eat from the many tourists who stop here along the way.

On the way we stop for a walk through the historic village of Rijal Almaa with its tapered houses made of rocks and stone inlaid with quartz. The settlement is located on a fairly steep mountainside, so we have to go up all kinds of stairs to see everything. The way there leads over a road with oncoming traffic over high mountains with steep mountain walls and a deep abyss right next to the bus. In the distance we see the highest mountain peak here: Mount Soudah.

Objects from different eras of the village’s existence can be seen in the various rooms in the houses in the village. It ranges from household items such as pans and baskets to weapons such as spears and guns.

The famous Flower Men can also be present in the village: men with colorful robes who wear a kind of flower crown on their heads. I suspect they were on holiday, because we didn’t see any.

Baboons

When we walk down we see a group of baboons walking on the square we have crossed. The people below rightly keep some distance from them, because they can be quite aggressive. Attacks on humans by baboons in this area are not uncommon.

The bus ride continues and most of us fall asleep because of the unchanging view along the way. After the huge strong coffee I drank earlier on the road, sleep is not high on my agenda. I just watch a movie on my iPad.

Finally we arrive in Muhayil at our hotel, which turns out to be another Boudl. This one looks better than the last time, so we are hopeful. However, outside, workers are busy in a well in front of the hotel. They seem to be working on the water supply, and later when we get to the room, there appears to be no water. We are assured that it will be fixed when we return from dinner.

We can choose a dining venue on our own. In the restaurant we chose, none of the staff speak English (or Dutch for that matter). Fortunately, one of the customers present is a Saudi man who has lived in America for 4 years and is more than willing to translate for us.

In the end, the food that is put on the table is still a surprise, not what we expected. Some have a lot or too much, others very little. We gather it all and ration it among the group. That way each of us individually have a reasonable amount of food.

Al Yanfa

The following day, we continue our trip to Abha. Along the way we make two stops. Our first stop is in Al Yanfa. This village is known for its tunnels that used to connect the individual houses. Like many of these Saudi historic villages, most of it has decayed, and only one of the tunnels can still be found. You have to be very small to walk upright through this bit of tunnel. I have to bend deeply so as not to keep bumping my head.

The last stop we make is at the Hanging Village of Al Habala. Unfortunately, we cannot visit the hanging village, because the cable car going there is out of order. We have to settle for the view from the various picnic structures on the edge of the gorge. This place is, incidentally, the epitome of poorly maintained tourist stops. There is garbage everywhere and every viewpoint is covered with graffiti.

Finally we arrive in Abha at our last hotel of this holiday. Although the Hotel Aber does not carry the name Boudl, it is part of the chain. The rooms are good and there is a normal bathroom with a closed shower area. We freshen up before our farewell dinner in the expensive Narange restaurant in Abha. It was expensive for Saudi Arabia, but more normally priced for what we Westerners are used to.

After dinner we also say goodbye to Mohammed, who drove us everywhere for two weeks.

Return home

It’s going to be a long day today. We have to get up very early to catch a flight from Abha to Riyadh. After all that early effort, we then have to wait for 14 hours before our international flight leaves to Frankfurt. Going into town seems the best solution, but we have nowhere to put our luggage. They can only be checked in 2 hours before departure.

There is a place where we can store them temporarily, but if we look at it from a distance, we decide against it. A chaos of suitcases that are dispersed on the floor everywhere.  More concerning: just about everyone can just reach them. No thanks. If the luggage doesn’t get lost, you can count yourself lucky that it ends up on the right flight. So we just hang around at Riyadh airport until we can check in. We brought reading material with us, and downloaded iPads with TV and movies on them. So we’ll simmer through the day.

We’re pretty well done by the time we can finally board the flight to Frankfurt, and both fall asleep in no time. The 6+ hours literally fly by. At Frankfurt we have enough time to transfer to the United flight to Chicago without having to hang around for hours. The same goes for the flight from Chicago to Greenville. In the end, with all flights, waiting times and transfers, we are on the road for 42 hours this day. But I’m sure Marco Polo, Columbus and Magellan took longer, so we can’t complain.

Conclusion

We had a great trip. We saw a lot and met a lot of friendly people.  It was an eye opening experience, and we had to let go of some prejudices we had going into this vacation.  Saudi Arabia is an amazing country.

Greetings from us!

(More photo’s here)

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