A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Grete Howard

Al Ula: Dadan, Jabel Ikmah, Hegra

A step back in time


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a lovely breakfast buffet, we leave the hotel at 07:30 this morning, to drive the 20 minutes to the meeting place for today's excursion. The roadside is dotted with bizarre and fantastical rock formations.

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Here in Al Ula, all visits are highly systematic and fastidiously arranged through the tourist office. The only way to enter the archaeological site is on an organised visit, via e-tickets. We arrive at the location indicated on our e-ticket, which is basically just a bus stop.

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There is no-one else here, some ten minutes before the allocated meeting time. Bacha, our trusted driver, wanders around the area a little, chatting to various people. Suddenly he hurries back, urging “the bus leaves in 15 minutes”, and points to a parking area further away. Bacha heads for the buses, but the road is closed. We rush across on foot, panicking slightly that we might miss our slot. An official points to one of two buses, and we get on, breathless from the haste and the heat. There is no-one else on board, not even a driver.

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As we wait, a number of other tourists turn up in cars and minibuses (with their drivers dropping them off right by the bus, not 'miles' away like we were) and get on the other bus. “Are we on the correct bus?” I have to admit that I am feeling a little edgy and irritated at this stage, as I would like to know what the arrangements are. I am so not into these sorts of organised tours.

A minibus arrives with an Explore group (a small group British adventure tour company, that we have travelled with on a number of occasions in the past), and their leader comes onboard our bus with them, explaining to his group what is going to happen. I am glad someone knows what is going on, as we are completely confused.

45 minutes after the allocated time, we leave, with the first stop some 15 minutes away.

Dadan
We start the visit at the very new and modern visitors centre, devoid of any atmosphere, but quite clean and airy. A female guide starts explaining the history of the area, but she doesn't wait until everyone has got off the bus before doing so, so I miss the start of her commentary. Another reason to dislike group tours, and one of the main reasons we stopped doing them 10 or so years ago.

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Rock tombs
From afar, these look like simple dark rectangles near the base of the cliff. A closer look reveals skilfully crafted funerary monuments, including the seated lion sculptures that mark the famous Lion Tombs. Lions symbolised power and protection and may have marked the burial of an elite member of society, perhaps even a member of royalty. These tombs are up to 50 metres above ground level, spurring the imagination of how they were carved without modern construction equipment. It is said that the reason for constructing them so high above the ground, was to ensure an easy passage to heaven by being part way there already.

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This, a photograph in the museum, is the nearest we cat get to the tombs

When I feel a sudden urge (the Saudi version of Delhi Belly), I rush to the toilets back in the visitor's centre. Thankfully they are beautifully clean, with proper western seats, soap and water. When I get out, I find that everyone else is back on the bus and just waiting for me. Someone is in 'my' seat at the front of the bus (which I chose especially as it is easier to get in and out of with my poorly leg). I probably sound as grouchy as I feel when I 'apologise' as I lean over them and grab my water bottle that I left on the shelf in front of the seat. They hastily get up, mumbling “sorry, we didn't know anyone was sitting here”. Really? This is yet another reason why we don't travel on group tours!

Another short bus journey takes us to see one of the most important discoveries in the area – the city of Dadan, dating back to between the late 9th and early 8th century BC. Due to the proximity to frankincense trade routes, Dadan was one of the most developed 1st-millennium BC cities in northern Arabia.

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Dadan was first mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel (27:20) in the Hebrew Bible, where it was described as the “beating heart of the kingdom and a trading partner of the city of Tyre” (in modern-day Lebanon, which we visited in 1999).

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No one is allowed into the actual excavation site, and the guide explains that it is still very much a 'work in progress', and if we come back again in two years, it will be much more interesting.

Jabal Ikmah
We get back on the bus for another short ride to another visitors centre. Here we have a bit of time to lounge around in some funky furniture before continuing with our explorations. A hospitality desk offers dates, sweets, and very welcome drinks. I try beetroot juice, which I enjoy more than I expected to, as I don't generally care for the taste of beetroot.

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Tourists travel to the site in golf carts, while the guides walk.

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This whole area is described as an open library of inscriptions, with rock art and petroglyphs set in a stunning desert canyon.

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Messages and notes are left by those who lived here, as well as passing traders. Hundreds of inscriptions and carvings line the cliff faces and rocks, thought to date back as far as the 1st millennium BC, giving a glimpse into the daily lives of people in the Dadanite, Lihyanite and other civilisations of Al Ula.

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The main petroglyphs are associated with two different tribes that came through here around 900 BC and 600 BC

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This is the end of the morning tour, and the bus drops us back to visit the site on a group tour, and still suffering from the Saudi Surge, I rush to the toilet in the bus station, which thankfully is modern, clean, and fully equipped.

Viewpoint
Bacha spent some time working here in Al Ula a few months ago and knows of a viewpoint he wants to show us. We head for the hills, driving up a winding road that clings to the desert hillside, with great views of the flat plains below.

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At the top is a large plateau, with a road leading to the popular lookout point. Unfortunately, like so many tourist spots here in Saudi, it is closed, with barriers across the road and uniformed men standing guard. All we can do is turn around and head back down again.

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At least I manage to get a few photos while hanging out of the window as Bacha negotiates the hairpin bends.

Lunch
We pop back to the hotel for lunch – as we have full board here in Al Ula, with a midday meal included. Unfortunately, they don’t start serving food until 13:00 and it is now 11:50. Waiting until the restaurant opens is not an option, however, as it will not leave us enough time to eat and get down to the centre of town for our next organised excursion. Another reason to dislike organised tours, as if I needed any.

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David pops back to the hotel room for some snacks, and we drive down to the bus station car park where we share a packet of Doritos. The Howards sure know how to live!

On the huge 50-seater bus, there are only an Arab family, a French couple and us, as we make our way to the highly anticipated historical site of Hegra.

Visitors’ Centre
The open-air visitors’ centre looks more like a holiday resort than a museum, with plenty of seating, clever use of ropes for shade, and a bar.

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Hegra
Once a thriving international trade hub, the archaeological site of Hegra (also known as Mada'in Saleh) has been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. Between the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium AD, Hegra was an important trading place for the Nabataens and was considered the sister city to the much more famous Petra in nearby Jordan.

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Like Petra, Hegra is a metropolis that has turned into a necropolis: most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are tombs, with much of the architectural remains of the city waiting to be excavated or already lost, quite literally, to the sands of time. One theory is that the cities are buried under the desert surrounding these tombs.

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To some locals, however, the site has a more sinister reputation for being inhabited by jinns, or evil spirits. According to the Islamic text, the Thamudis who made their home here were punished by God for their idolatry, struck by an earthquake and lightning blasts. Thus, the site has earned a reputation as a cursed place.

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Carvings above the entrance to the tomb feature steps to guide the deceased to heaven

Visitors are shown around the site by guides known as Rawis – ancient storytellers and reciters.

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The site is extensive, with seven distinct areas of rocky outcrops, some with as many as forty tombs carved from it.

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The bus takes us from one important cluster to another, to see some of the more important of the 131 tombs discovered to date. Only 86 of them have monumental façades, however.

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There are a further 700 simple holes in the mountains.

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Natural water pipes were built around the tombs to protect their facades from erosion, which, along with the dry conditions in the desert, have kept them well-preserved thousands of years after their construction.

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It always saddens me when I see graffiti on ancient sites.

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This one looks like it has bullet holes in it!

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Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring ca 70 feet high, is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, sometimes called Qasr al-Farid. Its name means the “Lonely Castle” in English, because of its distant position in relation to the other tombs. It was left unfinished, with rough chisel marks showing in the lower parts of the tomb.

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At the end of this fascinating and educational tour, one of the highlights of the trip so far despite the overly-choreographed group visit, Bacha is waiting for us at the bus station. I ask him if we can go via the famous Elephant Rock before he takes us back to the hotel.

Elephant Rock
Before I left home, I spent a lot of time looking at Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris website to establish the best place to be for sunset photos of the rock. Not only is it a little too early in the afternoon for sunset, but more importantly, the site is closed. I have to make do with taking a quick photo from the car park before the security guard notices us.

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Alternatively, I could turn to my friend Photoshop to create the photo I was looking for.

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Alcohol
After ten days with no alcohol, David inspects the antiseptic hand wash with great interest.

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Desperate measures for desperate times.

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Disclaimer, no hand gel was consumed in the making of this image.

Sahary Resort
We return to the hotel for a shower, dinner and overnight.

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Arabian Oryx in an enclosure within the resort

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing trip to Saudi Arabia.


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Posted by Grete Howard 21:36 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged desert canyon rocks tombs necropolis petroglyphs petra alcohol archaeology rock_formations arabia archaeological_site ancient_history middle_east oryx saudi_arabia breakfast_buffet rock_carvings excavations inscriptions ksa undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy elephant_rock al_ula sahary_resort dadan nabataeans rock_tombs hebrew_bible jabal_ikmah golf_carts desert_canyon rocky_outcrop dadanite lihyanite alula hegra dadain_saleh jinns qasr_al_farid arabian_oryx Comments (1)

Tabuk - Tayma - Al Ula

Continuing south


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I wake at 05:00 to what sounds like an old-fashioned landline phone ringing in another room, or somewhere in the hotel. It does not get answered, and the ringing goes on for another forty minutes. By this time the hotel-neighbours-from-hell have woken up, and the dad is coughing, clearing his throat, and slamming doors. We escape by going to breakfast.

Breakfast

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Today David orders something called Gazmaz Eggs, which those of you who have read yesterday's blog entry, will know that they are exactly what I thought I was getting yesterday when I ordered Shakshuka.

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I, on the other hand, e joy a dish of Labneh with thyme, and ask for extra zaatar to go with that. It is served with zaatar bread too, and is incredibly yummy.

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Best labneh I have ever had!

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Zaatar overload this morning

Soon after breakfast, we are on our way south again. We stop at a service station for a desperate David, and although he claims the toilets were disgusting, he does come back to the car with an ice cream each. Result! I have been craving ice cream for a couple of days now.

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Tayma
We drive around and around this small city, with no sign of the local guide we are meeting up with. Bacha makes a phone call, then reverses around the corner, checks google maps, and phones again, but no guide to be seen. Finally, in frustration, he takes a picture of what he can see out of the window and sends it to the guide. Still no sign. Eventually, we do meet up with the guide on the main street. Abdullatif introduces himself and explains that our guide, who is a friend of his, had to go to Riyadh, and asked him to look after us instead.

Haddaj Well
The well is the main attraction in the city, and something I have been looking forward to seeing. Guess what? It is closed for restoration, so all we are permitted to do, is to take photos from the outside.

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Constructed in the 6th century BC, this enormous well has a diameter of 18 metres and is one of the largest water wells in the world. 75 camels were used to draw water from the well – you may be able to see some of the 40 pulley wheels in this picture.

Al Taqqa Palace

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While this place is also undergoing restoration work, we are permitted to enter. It is just one big building site, and is a bit of a health and safety nightmare, especially for someone with a knee injury.

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Abdullatif has a friend with him, who records our every move on his mobile phone. It is hot, I am still feeling disappointed that the well is not open, I am trying to negotiate my way around a dangerous ruin, and this idiot is filming me! I finally lose patience and snap at him to stop it!

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Post note: Some two months after returning to the UK, while researching Google Maps for this blog, I found this image of me – and the one below which was taken a little later after I calmed down.

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This palace is where Abdullatif's father and grandfather were born. This, the original door to the palace, is 500 years old.

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Abdullatif's ancestors, despite being of humble origin, were/are part of the local royal family, making him a sheikh.

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Sheikh Madi Altalaq Palace
We are invited to visit the family's current palace, which is accessed through an impressive-looking gate, into a walled compound. The building itself, while large and sporting a splendid entrance, is reasonably unassuming from the outside.

The reception room, however, is anything but. A huge room, with extravagant chairs along the walls. We are invited in to take a seat.

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An Irishman called Andrew, who we met outside the older palace, tags along. He is travelling independently, in his own car, having previously lived in the KSA.

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Bacha appears suitably impressed. This is the room where Abdullatif's grandfather would entertain visiting dignitaries.

Post Note # 2: Since arriving back in the UK, I have seen videos of such visits.

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We are offered Arabic Coffee, of course.

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Also individually-wrapped cookies, dates, and apple juice.

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In the small library, we are shown pictures hanging on the walls of famous people visiting this place. Abdullatif takes lots of pictures of us, promising to add them to the collection of VIPs. Should you be lucky enough to get an invitation to the palace, look out for our picture in the 'Rogue's Gallery', and let us know if you see us.

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The whole experience has been surreal as well as humbling – I never thought I would be invited to a sheikh's palace here in Saudi Arabia!

Lunch
Bacha has been given directions to a suitable lunch place for us, and we invite Andrew to join us. The restaurant is very traditionally Arabic, with floor seating in individual little cubicles only. Explaining about my knee injury, Bacha asks if they can find me a chair, but they have none. We decide to look for something to eat elsewhere, and after a bit of driving around, we end up in a fast food joint, where we all enjoy 'zinger sandwiches'.

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After lunch we say goodbye to Andrew, and head further south to continue our journey. We enjoy a post-lunch snooze for the first few miles, but then try our best to stay away as the scenery becomes increasingly more rugged, with some fascinating rock formations.

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I am disturbed to see the amount of graffiti that has been scrawled on the rocks.

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I am totally blown away by the outer-worldly scenery that has been sculpted over the millennia by wind and water.

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Just outside the town of Al Ula, we turn off the main highway onto a sandy track leading to our camp for the night. Bacha explains that previous customers have complained about the approach road to the hotel, and the management is now trying to improve the road. We see a number of road-work vehicles, but no workers. Bacha is concerned about getting stuck in the loose sand here, so drives very gingerly.

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The track may be a basic sandy lane, but the breathtaking approach to the resort takes us between staggeringly steep cliffs and golden sand dunes basking in the late sun.

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Sahary Resort

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Amusingly, the sandy track turns into an elegant cobbled road as we enter the resort compound.

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The reception area

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Bacha, our lovely driver

The resort is large, with different types of accommodation offered.

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It looks like we are staying in the Al Gazal Village part of the camp.

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David walks along with the porter transporting our luggage, while I hobble behind with my walking stick, taking photos.

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It seems we are right at the end of the path, the furthest away from reception, the restaurant and the car park. Oh well, I shall be giving this poorly knee a bit of a workout for the next couple of days.

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Well, almost at the far end.

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Our room is made to look like a traditional Arabic nomad tent, but the interior is anything but basic.

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After settling in, we wander down for an early dinner, as we want to try and photograph the stars later. The restaurant looks like a wedding set-up, with white cloth-covered chairs, and it is almost empty.

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Dinner
For a buffet, the food is surprisingly good. We both normally hate buffets with a passion, but this has some decent meat dishes - we choose stuffed chicken in a cream sauce with rice. They also have a good selection of vegetables, which to our surprise are not overcooked, but still offer a delightful al dente texture.

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As for the dessert buffet – wow! It all looks so delicious that I try one of each. Thankfully they are very small portions.

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Chocolate-filled eclair, baklava rolls, honey cake, cream-filled sponge (very light and surprisingly delicious), baklava, kanafeh (sweet cheese-filled pastry), kiwi custard tart.

After dinner, we return to the room and sit outside for a while, admiring the stars, and trying to photograph them. The local light pollution in the camp, while looking very pretty, makes it hard to get a clean image.

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In the end, I manage to create something by combining two images.

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I would like to offer a huge thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:10 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged breakfast sheikh graffiti library rock_formations stars ice_cream saudi dates astro fast_food saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations astro_photography labneh arabic_coffee tabuk banan_suites zaatar tayma haddaj haddaj_well taqqa_palace neighbour_from_hell gazmaz_eggs dignitaries zinger_sandwiches rocky_outcrops al_ula sahary_resort nomad_tents buffet_dinner sheikh_madi_atltalaq_palace Comments (2)

Al Shuwaq Canyon (?) and Wadi Disah

Wow!


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Thankfully, the Brat-from-Hell in the room next door finally went to sleep last night, and so did I. I slept surprisingly well, albeit with some very strange dreams.

Breakfast
When we arrive at the coffee house next to the restaurant on the rooftop of the rich-sister-hotel next door, we are asked for our room number. The manager then proceeds to tell us that as we are the paupers-in-the-annexe (not his words), we do not have breakfast included in the price of the room. Insisting that we do indeed have breakfast included as part of our package, he goes away and comes back some minutes later and agrees it is “OK”.

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We order a cheese omelette and a plate of shakshuka. Having eaten shakshuka in restaurants in the past, as well as made it at home, I am very surprised when something resembling red scrambled eggs arrives.

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As you can see from the google search below, this is what I expected to get: a pan of eggs poached in a mix of tomatoes and spinach {or other vegetables).

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Getting a whole set of proper metal eating utensils is a bonus, however, elsewhere we have been given a plastic spoon and fork wrapped in plastic, even in 'proper' restaurants. Rarely does the package include a knife.

Excursion to Al Shuwaq Canyon and Wadi Disah
As we were informed that today's day trip is in a four-wheel drive by a local person, not Bacha, our regular driver. I asked Bacha last night if he would come along, partly because we really enjoy his company, partly because he is a very good facilitator and go-between/translator, and partly because he has not been to this part of the country before. He is full of curiosity and enjoys seeing new sights and learning about the culture and history. He was, however, told that it was only really suitable for two passengers in the vehicle. What a shame.

Bahil, our local driver, arrives around 20 minutes early to pick us up, and we feel a little uneasy when we realise that his English is barely better than our Arabic (ie almost non-existent).

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Bahil, our driver for the day

As we head southwest out of Tabuk, the desert scenery starts to show some more interesting features.

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As he turns off the main road, using google translate, Bahil explains “desert road”, followed by a huge grin. “Surprise”.

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After around twenty minutes or so of driving around the rocky outcrops, Bahil finds a gap in the barriers and re-enters the main road. Is that it as far as the huge surprise?

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After a few minutes, we go back off road again, not far from where we were earlier.

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He keeps driving around in circles, as if he is looking for something in particular, chatting away to us in what I assume is Arabic. Whatever it is, neither of us understands a word he is saying.

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With google maps showing on the dashboard, he calls a friend and has an animated conversation. I occasionally hear the word “location” being uttered. Even after the call finishes, he plays around with google maps, before mumbling “sorry” and performing a U-turn.

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Another friend, another phone call, another apology, another U-turn follows.

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Yet again we drive around in circles, close to one rock formation, then the next.

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It's all very pretty, but hardly what I would enthusiastically call a 'surprise', as these kinds of rock formations are pretty common around here.

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The 'desert road' varies from smooth sand to pretty rough rocks in places.

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We see some camels in the distance and head in that direction.

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Bahil asks the herder directions, while I photograph the camels.

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Again I hear the word 'location' several times, and lots of gesticulations. The harsh guttural sounds of Arabic always make the speaker appear angry, even when the facial expressions show otherwise.

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Eventually, the camel herder half-heartedly points toward some rocks in the distance. I have no confidence that he has any knowledge of the place Bahil is trying to find, and it seems neither does Bahil, as he drives off that way, and having consulted google translate mutters hopefully “maybe...”

Nah, this isn't the place he is looking for either, and changing his mind, he returns to the main road.

This pattern continues for quite a while, as he goes back off the road again, around and around in circles, then back on the main road, before returning to the desert once more. I am beginning to recognise the rocks now, having been in this spot before. Several times.

Bahil once more returns to the main road before phoning another friend and consulting google maps.

This friend obviously does not know the direction either, and Bahil calls up another mate. Still no good. By this time he seems to have run out of friends to ask, as he scrolls through his list of contacts on the phone.

By this stage we have been driving around a very small patch of desert for the last hour, covering no more than a linear kilometre, something Bahil also is painfully aware of. Eventually, he somehow manages to convey that we don't have enough time to look for 'whatever' anymore, and will head directly to Wadi Disah.

Oh good.

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Back on the main road and heading for Wadi Disah

As we continue south, the scenery becomes more mountainous, with a new road cutting through the valley.

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Wadi Disah
As we turn off the main road towards Wadi Disah, there are hints of the grandiose scenery to come.

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Bahil stops the car at an area with lots of other vehicles and people milling around.

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He gestures towards one of the open safari vehicles, while chatting away in Arabic. We are not sure what he is trying to say, so the other driver comes over to attempt to explain. We ask if he wants us to transfer across to the other Jeep. He doesn't understand what we are asking any more than we understand him. If only Bacha would have been allowed to come with us, he could have translated.

This goes backwards and forwards for some time, until Bahil phones George (our local agent) and hands the phone to David. George explains that we should go into the canyon in the open truck as it is much better for photography.

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I sit in the front, partly as it is easier to get up into that seat with my poorly knee rather than trying to climb on the wheel and swing my leg over the bodywork at the back, and partly because it gives me a better viewpoint for photography.

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The Jeep goes off deeper into the canyon, with Bahil following behind in his car. The road becomes a track, and at times the track becomes a puddle. All around us, the ragged cliffs loom high and menacing, while the arid desert has now turned into a verdant oasis.

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In places the grasses are so high and lean across the track, meaning that they slap me in the face – or rather slap the camera, which is permanently glued to my face at this stage – as we drive through.

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At some intriguing steps cut into the rock face, we stop, and Bahil climbs up. It is a shame that we cannot understand the explanation he offers.

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Mostly the rock is a mid-brown, with a nobbled look, but in one place, there is an open-ended cave through much paler rock (sandstone maybe?). The shape reminds me of elephant feet.

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We continue through the breathtaking scenery – around each and every bend, there is a new and stunning vista.

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Picnic
At a bend in the track, with an elevated area, we stop, and Bahil gets out a cool box from his car, and spreads a carpet on the ground. Picnic time! There is so much food!

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There is a chicken Caesar salad, spicy pasta salad, kibbe, spring rolls, stuffed vine leaves and what I think is mashed potato with a sauce.

The drivers don't eat with us, but take theirs at a separate location.

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The temperature difference between the sun and the shade here in the canyon is the most noticeable I have ever experienced. I would say it is at least 10 degrees cooler in the shade. Even in the moving car, we can feel how the temperature drops considerably when entering a shaded area.

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After this late lunch, we make our way back through the canyon. The sun is now low on the horizon, giving a totally different ambience. Spectacular doesn't even begin to describe it. This surely has to be a highlight of our visit to Saudi Arabia.

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As we get nearer the original meeting point, we see a number of people and camels. It seems that visiting the canyon at sunset is a popular thing to do. There is a even a large bus full of locals wanting to transfer into the waiting safari vehicles.

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We transfer back into Bahil's car for the journey back to Tabuk. It's a fast road and we both sleep a little on the way.

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Camels on the side of the road

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Tabuk Castle
Once we are back inside the city, the driver stops by what I assume is Tabuk Castle. The castle is closed, however, so we make do with seeing it from the outside, all lit up.

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Dinner
After a quick shower and change, we head to the same restaurant as last night, with the same order as last night. It is just as good tonight.

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The most delicious lamb steaks, ever!

And so to bed.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing trip for us. Check out their website for details of this and many other fascinating trips.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:10 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged landscapes oasis desert canyon breakfast castle camels picnic off-road saudi middle_east saudi_arabia surprise ksa undiscovered_destinations shakshuka al_shwaq wadi_disah tabuk desert_road camel_herder safari_truck tabuk_castle lamb_steaks banan_suites Comments (2)

Sakaka - Rajajil - Marid - Tabuk

Zaabal Fortress, Sakaka Old Town, Sisra Well, Rajajil Standing Stones, Marid Castle


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At 08:00, we meet our new local guide, Abdul, at Ta'leel Coffee House as agreed last night.

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Abdul asks if we would like to sit inside or out for breakfast this morning. As the temperature is still relatively cool, we choose some seats in the shade in the walled courtyard with a view of Zaabak Castle.

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Traditional Arabic seating

The coffee house is apparently open 24 hours a day and is very popular with students who come here to work.

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This morning there is one student inside and a group of three ladies on the patio.

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Two of the ladies speak reasonable English and are quite insistent that they should show us around the town and we should visit their farm to see how they live. Unfortunately, we have to decline their kind hospitality as we are on a reasonably tight schedule today.

Seeing A/C units OUTSIDE is a complete surprise to me.

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The restaurant features an ancient well within its grounds.

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We are certainly not going to starve this morning, with an enormous breakfast spread containing khubooz flatbread, addas lentils, three different kinds of cheese including my favourite soft cheese: labneh (made from yogurt), hummous with meat, babaganoush (smokey aubergine dip), stuffed baby aubergines, plain omelette, plum jam, black and green olives, falafel and chips.

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On this trip, as meals have varies tremendously in availability and timing, I adapt my usual travel motto of “never pass a toilet without using it”, to “never pass up food without stuffing your face”.

Zaabal Castle
The name of this Nabatean castle is translated as “ribs”, and refers to the fortifications protecting the city like the ribs protect the heart of humans.

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Although the fort originated some 2000 years ago, the top has been added later.

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This was purely a military fort, used to defend the town below – it consists of only two rooms and offers no living quarters.

Sakaka Old Town

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As old as the castle, the town at its base was abandoned some 65 years ago, when the lure of modern houses with electricity and running water became too tempting for its inhabitants.

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Some of the houses have been restored, carried out by 'people from Riyadh', and the locals are said to be unhappy about how it is done, as they feel it is not in keeping with the authentic original local style.

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Museum
The bright and modern museum close to the castle has a few interesting artefacts.

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Fossilised tree branches, 250 million years old

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Quartz stone tools 1,300,000 years old

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Neolithic pottery shards, 8,000 years old

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Abbasi pottery, 750 years old

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Neolithic pottery, 6,500 years old

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This piece was only discovered around a year ago, and features Thamudic carved writing from around 2,500 years ago. The inscription has been translated as: “I, (name), sacrifice (it doesn't say what) for my friend who died. May his soul be blessed.”

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5,000-year-old petroglyphs

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Various palm weave items, used to collect dates, store dates to keep the flies off, mats to serve dates on, as well as a fan.

The two images below show ancient board games

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Sisra Well
The nearby well is believed to be older than the fort, dating from the Thamudic period, some 2,500 years ago. It is an unusual design, in that it is dug out of the rock rather than into the soil. Collecting water that ran off from the nearby rocky outcrop, the well features a 6km long underground tunnel to irrigate local agricultural areas that had no water of their own.

The well itself is deeper than the tunnel outlet, in order to collect any stones than were washed off from the hills. The steps provide access for removing those stones.

Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, with the construction of the foundations for the modern houses.

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Rajajil
Affectionately known as “The Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia”, these ancient stone pillars are part of a collection of around 50 groups of standing stones dating back some 6,000 years – that's a whopping 1,000 years older than its namesakes in the UK.

Admittedly, they are nowhere near as large or imposing as Stonehenge, but they are still incredibly impressive and intriguing. Being close to these ancient monuments, just the four of us (David, me, our driver Bacha, and Abdul, the local guide) is humbling, and knowing that ancient people stood right in this very spot, admiring these pillars long before Stonehenge was even a glint in an architect's eye, sends shivers down my spine.

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Historians are unsure about how or why these pillars were erected or what purpose they served. Numerous human remains have been found, leading to suggestions that this may have been a burial site. It is understood that they were all of a similar age when they died, indicating possible sacrifices or maybe battles similar to the Roman Gladiators. A landmark or 'road sign' on a popular caravan route, or maybe astronomical structures, have all been suggested. Inscriptions on the stones are in the Thamudic language, which has not been fully studied yet.

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Each of the groups is arranged in an East-West direction, and just like Stonehenge, the rocks are not local but have been brought from 160km away. This then triggers the question: how?

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This group is believed to form the entrance to the site and may have had a roof at one time.

Museum
There is a small visitors' centre and museum on the site. Which also provides a clean and modern toilet (with a seat, paper, water to flush, soap, and towels, no less!). We sign the visitors' book, which indicates that the last tourist here was three days ago.

I am asked if I will record a short video of my impressions of the site for the curator of the museum. You can see the video below.


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Marid Castle

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Excavations have revealed that the castle dates back to the Nabataean Period, around the 1st century AD.

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The whole area was fortified with stone walls to repel attacks by invaders, while the fort itself was built on a strategic rocky outcrop overlooking the city.

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Restoration and excavation work is currently being carried out, which means that parts of the site if off-limits to visitors.

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We part ways with Abdul after the visit to Marid Castle, he will return to Sakaka, while we are continuing to Tabuk.

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Abdul's fabulous car!

We stop for Bacha to get some breakfast (he didn't join us at the restaurant this morning), and while David goes into the store with him to buy some water, I do some street photography from the comfort of the car.

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Initially, the uniformly straight road is surrounded by flat, uninteresting scenery consisting of sand, sand, and more sand. I take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

When I wake up, some pretty sand dunes have appeared and I enjoy doing some drive-by-shooting (taking photos from a moving car, nothing to do with guns).

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It feels like we have been driving forever, and I become quite despondent when I see a sign telling me that there is still another 143 km to Tabuk.

Banan Suites
Unlike yesterday, tonight's accommodation actually looks like a hotel, and a posh one at that. We do, however, go through the same rigmarole as we have several times so far:

The receptionist has no record of our booking.

“Do you have a reservation number?”

While we do not have a reservation number as such, I show them the confirmation email from the local agent.

A lot of toing and froing, and animated discussions on the phone and with other colleagues takes place. After about 20 minutes the receptionist suggests that we may be booked into the annexe.

While I am relieved that we have finally been located on the system, I do feel a little like the poor cousin when we go to the building next door. The main hotel lobby has a plush reception area, with a desk, a bell boy, and comfy seats, whereas the 'Pauper's Palace', as I have affectionately named it, shows none of these luxuries. A bored-looking security guard barely looks up when we arrive, and the corridors leading to the rooms smell strongly of garlic.

The room itself is large, clean, bright, and airy, but sadly lacking in furniture, with not a single chair to sit on (just a small stool on wheels by the desk).

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The bathroom is small, but at least we do have a toilet roll!

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Getting into the shower means squeezing between the toilet bowl, basin, and shower screen, and in order to elicit any water from the top shower rose rather than the low tap, I eventually work out that I have to hold down the diverter lever while turning on the tap.

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We are unfortunately not the only people staying in this hotel. The kid in the next room is throwing the mother of all tantrums: crying, screaming, shouting, stamping her feet, screeching, throwing things, and banging furniture against our interconnecting door to the point I can see the door shaking in utter horror and fear that it might collapse and cave in.

Whenever I notice a connecting door in a hotel room, I immediately check it to ensure it is locked after an incident many years ago where the door leading from the other room was suddenly flung open as I was sitting naked on the side of the bed, with a laughing toddler running in throwing her arms in the air, followed by her very shocked dad! I don't know who was most embarrassed, him or me. Anyway, I digress.

Dinner
It is a relief to be leaving the room to go to dinner at the posh end of the hotel, where we are warmly greeted by the charming Egyptian manager. The restaurant is located on the 5th floor of the building, with good views over the road below and the lights beyond.

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I put a headscarf on this evening, and a black abaya over my normal clothes, but as soon as we sit down in the restaurant the manager confirms that it is OK to remove them.

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We order three dishes to share:

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Chicken kebabs

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Lamb chops

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Fattoush salad

The fattoush salad is delicious – I don't normally like cucumber, but I find the Middle Eastern ones quite palatable. There is a tangy and fresh dressing, and the bread is wafer thin, rolled up, and toasted until crisp. A fabulous combination.

The chicken kebabs are, well, like good chicken kebabs found in other establishments, but the lamb chops absolutely steal the show. These are simply the best lamb chops I have ever eaten. They are tender, cooked just right, fall off the bone, melt in my mouth, and have a delectable flavour that tantalises my tongue. I am in sevenths foodie heaven.

The desserts, while very, very nice, do not live up to the same standard as the lamb chops – but then again, it would be an extremely hard act to follow.

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Mini pancakes with chocolate sauce

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Cheesecake

After dinner, the manager brings over a pot of complimentary Arabic coffee laced with cardamom (which I do find a little strong).

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A little later he returns with a couple of beautifully wrapped single roses, explaining how they have their own farm where they grow them, and a fridge here to keep them fresh. He holds two roses towards me and asks which one I prefer. I don't really want a rose, as we are only staying in Tabuk for two nights, and the rose probably won't travel well to our next destination. On the other hand, I don't want to offend him by seeming ungrateful and declining the gift. While red is my favourite colour, that one looks a little sad, so I tell him a like the pink one best. He hands me the rose with a theatrical bow and walks away.

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As we come to pay for the meal, we query an item on the bill market 'coffee shop', and it turns out to be the rose. As it is such a small charge, it seems petty, as well as a little embarrassing that we assumed it was a gift, so we just pay it and leave.

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The room is wonderfully quiet as we get back to our Paupers' Palace, but not for long. The brat is soon back, but thankfully not making as much noise as before.

Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fascinating trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:30 Archived in Saudi Arabia Comments (1)

Ha'il - Jubbah - Sakaka

Ancient petroglyphs and modern trains


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast
Having established with the reception staff last night that we would like breakfast at 08:30 this morning, I am a little surprised to get a phone call at 08:00 asking if we would like breakfast. Knowing that the staff here speak very little English, and feeling somewhat confused, I tentatively reply with a single word: “Now”?

The guy doesn't reply to my question, but counters with his own: “Buffet or room”?

Again I am confused... if the breakfast is a buffet, why would they even offer to bring it to the room? I decide to find out by simply replying: “Room”.

It all becomes clear, when five minutes later three massive bags of food are delivered – from an outside caterer.

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Obviously last night they needed to know what time to order the food to be delivered this morning and this morning it was probably easier for them to take it straight to the room rather than spreading it out on small tables in the lobby, as I doubt very much that they even have a dining area.

We later find out that it is quite the normal thing for Saudi hotels to operate in this way, with guests ordering food in for breakfast as well as dinner, rather than the hotel providing it.

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There is so much food: a large bowl of fuul medames each (a typical Arabian breakfast dish of mashed fava beans), six tubs of water, a massive bag of bread, some really tasty falafels, hummous, babaganoush (smoky aubergine dip) and another salad which I can't quite make out what is. Tomatoes, cucumber, and pickles on the side. Not sure what is in those small containers at the front, it tastes like oil. A dressing, maybe?

The only thing missing is cutlery, as most Saudis will eat with their fingers. While I am happy to use my hands to eat, I do find it easier to use a fork or spoon. Thankfully I always pack a couple of sporks.

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We drive out of town on straight, empty, smooth, and fast roads. I see a sign just outside town that reads: NEXT GASOLENE 250 KM. Road trips take a very different type of planning here. You can forget driving electric cars on these roads.

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Jubbah

While there is still a settlement here in Jubbah, this was once a thriving oasis filled with people and wildlife, as documented in carvings on the rocks dating back 10,000 years.

We meet Abduljamid in the car park of the largest archaeological site in the area, now protected by UNESCO. He has kindly arranged to borrow his mate's 4x4 vehicle, so that he can drive us around the most interesting petroglyphs.

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The site is huge, with a good path circling the two rocks, as you can see in the Google Maps image above.

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The carvings indicate that this area was once a savannah and home to numerous species of animals.

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David goes with Bacha and Abduljamid to take a closer look, as well as climb specially constructed steps that lead to strategically-placed viewing platforms. I stay behind in the car, fighting with the pesky flies that have made this ancient site their home.

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I am disappointed to see how many people have carelessly discarded empty water bottles from the top of the steps.

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The petroglyphs here cover three distinct time periods, dating from 10,000 years ago, 5,000 and 2,000. It is like an ancient open-air library with its images and writing. They were such prolific carvers. I wonder why they all came to this particular place over the millennia. What drew them to these specific rocks?

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The figure known as THE KING

The rock itself is made of sandstone, which I guess is reasonably easy to carve. It is thought that sharp pieces of basalt were used to make the inscriptions.

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We continue to a second site nearby, where, like the first place, we are the only visitors.

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Leaving Jubbah and Abduljamid behind, we continue on our journey north. The temperature has been slowly creeping up as the day has gone on, reaching a high of 39 °C. Thank goodness for the efficient A/C inside the car.

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Saudi Arabian Railways
For mile after mile, the road runs parallel with the railway line, which carries some amazingly long goods trains. At one stage we estimate there are about two hundred carriages, mostly filled with phosphoric acid.

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I set Bacha a challenge that I would like to get a decent photo of a train (rather than the drive-by-shooting through the window at 120 kph as in these pictures.

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After an hour or so, we strike lucky (he later admits to me that he was concerned about how he would fulfill this challenge). We are leaving the main road and turning right across a bridge over the railway, and seeing the train approaching in the distance, Bacha finds the perfect spot on the bridge for me to get my pictures.

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I have never before seen a train that requires not just a front and back engine, but also a double header in the middle!

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The train driver spots me and blows his horn three times in a friendly greeting.

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Or is it?

I suddenly panic that maybe I am not supposed to take pictures of trains in Saudi Arabia. I know some countries are very strict about what subjects are permitted to photograph, such as bridges, stations, and even banks (as I found out to my horror when I was chased down the road in Algiers and ordered at gunpoint to delete my photo!)

I spend the rest of the journey into the town of Sakaka, where we are spending the night, looking over my shoulders to scan the roads for police cars. We see more cop cars than I have ever seen in my life, every street corner seems to have at least one, or maybe I just don't normally notice them. They don't pay any attention to us, of course, and I slowly start to relax. It obviously was just a friendly greeting after all. How sweet.

Fakhamat al Orjoana Hotel
I am jolly glad that Bacha is able to read Arabic, as from the outside, there is no indication that this is even a hotel. (Bacha, incidentally, speaks/understands at least seven different languages)

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The porter arriving with a trolley confirms that this is, indeed, a hotel. Check-in is smooth, and unlike the last couple of hotels, the receptionist is able to locate our reservation without a problem. We soon find our way to the room – or rather the suite: in addition to the bedroom, we have a separate sitting room complete with a kitchen area. No crockery, cutlery, or glasses, but there is a working fridge.

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Like the last place we stayed in, this hotel has no restaurant and serves no food, not even breakfast. There are, however, a couple of take-away menus on the coffee table, and we decide to order in some kebabs.

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We go down to reception to ask for some help with the order. The receptionist speaks no English, so calls on another worker to help us. He, on the other hand, cannot read Arabic. Between them and us, we think we have ordered two chicken kebabs. This could be interesting.

Five minutes later there is a knock on the door:

Man: “Money”

David: “Huh?”

Man: “Money”

David: “Food?”

Man: “Yes”

David follows the man down into the car park where another chap in an unmarked car has a card machine to take payment, and David walks away with a bag of goodies.

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We have a different local guide in each destination, and our new guide here in Sakaka, Abdul Al Ali, WhatsApps me to confirm arrangements for tomorrow. I am rather pleased when I discover we are meeting in a restaurant for breakfast – at least that means we don't have to try and arrange delivery to the hotel.

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Not just any restaurant either, it is one that I had seen on the internet before we left home, and rather liked the look of. I am now thoroughly looking forward to breakfast in the morning.

We settle down to an early night, but sleep evades me. The building is creaking, and every few minutes I hear what sounds like a car or train horn (David thinks it might be the A/C), David is suffering from hypnic jerks which makes him unwittingly jump around in bed every couple of minutes, and when I finally manage to fall asleep, I almost immediately wake up from a nightmare. Time and time again. It is going to be a long night.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for another great day here in Saudi Arabia, Check out their website for this and other fascinating trips.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:40 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged train breakfast unesco hot railway ancient petroglyphs sandstone suite delivery saudi rock_art middle_east nightmare hummus saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations fuul sar kebabs basalt take_away ful_medames humous hummous babaganoush jubbah rock_carving littering saudi_arabian_railways phosphoric_acid phosphorous fakhamat_al_orjoana hypnic_jerks Comments (1)

Bureidah - Qasim Camel Market - Ha'il

Camels, Al 'Arif Fort, and Ha'il old souk


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Disclaimer: I accidentally deleted all the photos from this day from my camera, so what you see here are a few that I managed to salvage from my phone.

Ali, our guide who came down from Riyadh with us, spent the night with his brother, who lives here in Bureidah. He and Bacha, our driver, pick us up at 06:30 for the short journey to the camel market.

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We're not the only ones going to the market

Qassim Camel Market
Worried about my ability to walk, Bacha drives us around some of the various pens holding sheep. I never knew there were so many different varieties!

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Ardi goats

I have always found it difficult to differentiate between sheep and goats in some parts of the world, and here is no different.

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This is a sheep

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Goats on the left, sheep on the right, two friendly traders in the middle

We continue to the area selling camels.

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The large open area is full of hobbled camels, and the noise is deafening.


The odd loose camel tries to run away, but none get very far before they are captured.


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Prospective buyers mingle with their intended purchases, checking them out. There are three categories of camels, some of which are sold for breeding, judged by their looks, or destined for the cooking pot. Ali tells me that most of the camels in this area will become dinner at some point.

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Discussions then take place over a cup of Saudi Coffee, and a price is agreed upon. We too are given coffee and dates by the friendly traders.

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Once the business deal has been settled, the camel is secured with a rope and hoisted up into a waiting truck by a crane to be delivered to its new owner.

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I love the photobombing camel

Best Western Hotel, Bureidah
We return to the hotel for a shower and breakfast, dropping Ali off at the railway station on the way for his return trip to Riyadh. Before we check out, we go to the coffee shop to pay for the cakes we took last night (with permission). The girl behind the counter doesn't seem to understand English, so the receptionist translates for us. Before the assistant has had a chance to work out how much we owe, the hotel manager has stepped in, shaking his head: “It is on the house. You are our guests, it is the least we can do. We are so happy you are here”.

Somehow I cannot imagine that happening in a Best Western in the UK or most other places.

After freshening up and having something to eat, we continue our journey through the KSA, to Ha'il. I sleep all the way in the car.

Desert Rose Hotel
We arrive at the hotel around midday, and I am concerned that it will be too early to check-in. We go through the usual scenario:

“Do you have a reservation?”

“Who is paying for the room, you or the company?”

Once this confusion is all sorted, we are asked to show our visa, and are told the room is ready.

The bed is huge, but interestingly, the bathroom lacks toilet paper and anywhere to dispense it from. Thankfully every room seems to have plenty of facial tissues over here, and we always bring our own, so it is not a problem.

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As with many places in the world, traditionally Arabs do not use toilet paper, instead, they clean up using the hose next to the toilet, rather like a bidet.

Shougaf Grill
As suggested by the local guide (who we've not yet met), we go for lunch at this fast-food restaurant. We take a seat, Bacha joins us, and we sit and chat for a while. Confused as to why no-one has come to take our order by now, or at least give us a menu, we send Bacha up to the counter to find out. He comes back telling us that the menu is via QR code stickers on the table. I didn't even see those, and anyway, I am not prepared to use expensive mobile data on a lunch menu, so Bacha goes off again and comes back with a tablet with pretty pictures (albeit with a cracked screen).

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I order Arayes chicken and tabbouleh, which is way too much food. I expected the tabbouleh to come as a side salad, but it is a meal on its own. David chooses chicken tawock, which comes with some unusual puffed bread rolls.

A'Arif Fort
After lunch, we meet up with Abdulmajid, the local guide, at the fort. Dating from the 17th century, the fort is the oldest historical building in the town.

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Initially built for defense purposes, the fort was then used to signal the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan to the citizens of Ha'il.

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Following restoration, it has been opened to tourists as a museum.

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From its lofty position atop a hill overlooking Ha'il, the fort offers a view of the town below.

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Qashlah Palace
Once back down again, Bacha, Abdulmajid, and the museum curator take time out to pray, before we continue to Al Qashlah Palace, built as an artillery and weapons depot in 1941. The purpose of building it was to make it the central location for the army troops arriving there. Later it was used as a prison before being re-purposed as a historical building by the government and declared a heritage landmark in 1995.

Hidden behind huge hoardings and covered in scaffolding, the palace is currently undergoing restoration and is closed to tourists. This is becoming very familiar. Abdulmajid partially opens the gate to let us see the entrance, but we are not permitted to enter. He claims it is the largest mud-brick building in the world at 20,250 m², but I can find no confirmation of that online.

The Old Souq
While described as “old”, the market is surprisingly modern in my opinion, and I am sorry to say, not that exciting.

We are shown some very traditional cookies, called maamoul, which are made from a thousand-year-old recipe. They are delicious, and we buy a small bag of them just in case this hotel doesn't serve food.

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Butter mixed with date syrup is stored in animal skins – the smallest is that of a lizard, and the largest is from a camel. It tastes surprisingly good.

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The stalls in the inside part of the market are mostly clothes, shoes, handbags, and handicrafts. We are given some more complimentary Arabic coffee, which is mixed with cardamom and served in small cups. The cardamom flavour is a little too strong for me, which is surprising, as I frequently use the spice in my cooking, including my morning porridge.

We get to try the best dates of this season, which I must admit are absolutely amazing. I am not really a fan of dates, but these are delicious – the best I've ever tasted!

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We leave Abdulmajid chatting with a friend inside the covered market, and wander back out again. continuing to the open-air stalls, which are mostly fruit and vegetables.

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I try not to get people in my images, just in case they don't want to be photographed (taking pictures of people without their permission carries a hefty fine in the KSA), so I am a little concerned when one of the stallholders gets up, quickly followed by another. He grabs a punnet of grapes, and his colleague takes a couple of bunches from his stall and places on them on top. He runs towards my open window and hands the large punnet of fruit over. “Welcome to Saudi. We are so happy you're here”. Wow!

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Desert Rose, Ha'il
On return to the hotel at the end of the tour, we struggle to get into the room, as the card key is not working. It was temperamental earlier too, but finally worked after numerous attempts. This time it is most definitely on strike. A nearby cleaner uses his key to let us in, and kindly goes down to reception to get the key re-programmed for us. We have met such kindness from everyone we have encountered so far on this trip.

I was right to suspect that the hotel does not have a restaurant. There is a juice bar next door, however, so we have a dinner consisting of shortbread cookies with fresh raspberry and mango juice. Plus grapes, of course.

At 21:30 we receive a phone call from reception asking us what time we would like breakfast. I suggest 08:30. They seem happy with that. I expect we are the only ones staying here, and that they don't want to prepare unnecessary food, which makes perfect sense.

While getting ready for bed, David switches on what he thinks are the bedside lights, and creates a whole new atmosphere in the room. Oooh, la la!

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Goodnight from Ta'il and thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this exciting trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:51 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged fort market palace sheep grapes reservation camels best_western souq goats saudi dates butter cookies middle_east saudi_arabia red_light hail ksa delsey_dining bureidah camel_market qassim desert_rose toilet_paper shougaf_grill artillery_and_weapons_depot aarif_fort aarif arif_fort chicken_tawock arayes_chicken qashiah_palace qahiah closed_for_restoration maamoul camel_skin lizard_skin arabic_coffee key_card mango_juice Comments (3)

Riyadh - Ushayqer - Bureidah

Camels, salt production, and a Heritage Village


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Having picked us up at the hotel this morning, Bacha, our trusted driver, heads for Riyadh railway station to pick up Ali. The station is very modern, with a large car park where Ali will leave his car – although he is technically our Riyadh guide, he is with us today and tomorrow morning, spending the night with his family in Bureidah (our next overnight stop) before catching the train back.

Ali suggests taking a different route to Bureidah, with a little detour for a couple of interesting things on the way. I am all for that.

As we head out of Riyadh, the air is thick with desert dust, creating a muddy haze. I immediately think of a line in an old Smokey song: “Dust that hung from the desert sky, run though we run it still burned our eyes...” That is exactly how it is this morning: the sand in the air making our eyes sting.

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Dotted over a large area by the side of the road, are numerous large weekend camps, with Bedouin-style tents, BBQ pits, and quad-bikes for hire. Popular with families from Riyadh at the weekend, they are mostly deserted today.

Riyadh Camel Market
This market used to be near the centre of the town, but as Riyadh expanded, the officials decided to move it further out of the city, partly because of all the dust the camels and trucks generate.

On the approach road to the market, we follow trucks with sheep and camels on the back, confirming that we are definitely heading in the right direction. As we get out of the car, the assault on our nostrils reinforces that.

Most of the large pens are empty (the auction is not until this afternoon), but Ali points out this male camel who is being sold for breeding purposes. When looking for a camel stud, prospective buyers will assess the camels mainly on their physical appearance.

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This guy looks pretty handsome to me!

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Getting the camel ready for sale by cleaning it with a power washer!

These females are likely to be sold for around SAR 12,000, whereas a good-looking male can fetch anything between SAR 20,000 and SAR 50,000.

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These camels just laugh at Ali's derisory offer of SAR 500!

As well as being sold for breeding, there is the fiercely competitive camel beauty contests which are big business in Saudi Arabia. Some of the younger animals also end up in the cooking pot.

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Mummy camel will always try to position herself so that her baby is in the shade of the piercing sun. Her little darling is only a few days old and already seems to know exactly how cute he is!

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Another section of the market is reserved for accessories – no self-respecting camel would be seen without the right adornments.

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Cords for identifying your camels

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Ropes for hobbling your camel when you don't want it to run away

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These are feeding regulation devices, to make sure the camels only feed after sunset and that they share the milk between their human family as well as their babies.

We are also shown different types of saddles.

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Modern Nomadic Tents
My romantic notion of camel caravans roaming through the desolate desert with their train of trusty steeds carrying all their possessions, stopping at the end of a tiring day to erect their distinctive black and tan camel hair tents as the sun sets over the dunes, is instantly shattered when Ali points out that these days camels are herded using 4x4 cars and their 'nomadic tents' have been exchanged for enormous mobile homes.

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Huge trucks are usually used to transport the homes from one spot to the other, with the families staying in one place for several weeks. Most also have air-conditioned houses in town which they retire to during the blisteringly hot summer months.

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I am really surprised to learn that this 'small' car is capable of towing such a massive load!

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The route from here is mostly through huge open expanses of flat desert – I have to admit that I expected to see more sand dunes – with mountains appearing in the distance and a few palm trees and acacias dotted here and there. It is all so different from the clean and modern capital city. We pass by small communities as we make our way on smooth, wide, and almost empty roads.

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Qasab Salt Flats
These are said to be the largest salt flats in Saudi Arabia, producing 200,000 tons of salt annually.

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It is the primary source of salt in Saudi Arabia, and has been famous since ancient times for its high quality.

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Large holes are dug in the ground and filled with water. As the water evaporates in the fierce desert heat, a crusty layer of salt is left behind.

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There is no-one else here, no other visitors, nor workers, just machinery and heaps of salt, also known as White Gold.

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Nearby is the ancient city of Al-Qasab.

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Ushayqer Heritage Village
Initially settled by nomads 1500 years ago, the current buildings we see here are largely no more than 400 years old.

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I am really surprised to see all the electricity wires and advertising hoardings, especially at the entrance to the village.

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The village is built in a traditional design, with outer walls (now mostly demolished), and an inner courtyard where the market would have been held.

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The whole place is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, shaded pathways, and timber-framed walkways, crossing between hundreds of houses made from mud.

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Restoration is still very much in progress, and bricks are still made the traditional way by digging out the mud, adding straw, and drying the bricks in the sun.

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Fufalgiya Mosque

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As with most mosques, women pray separately from men, behind the curtain you see on the left of the image, to allow them privacy. As Ali explained, the women do not want the men looking at their posteriors when they bend over in prayer.

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Almassi Alref Restaurant
We take lunch just outside the old town in a modern restaurant accessed across a bridge over an artificial stream complete with some pretty large fish.

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The upstairs part of the restaurant is a little more westernised than downstairs, with some garish plastic flower decorations.

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There is a menu with pretty pictures, and we order chicken kebab, shish tawock, and iced mocha.

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The kebabs are served atop fanciful bowls on legs filled with hot coals to keep the food warm.

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It's all very tasty, and the iced mocha is delicious!

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From here we continue our journey along strait smooth roads, perfect for a post-lunch snooze.

Best Western Plus, Bureidah
The hotel is nice, clean, modern, and bright, and they do have a copy of our reservation.

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Our luggage on the porter's trolley. Did someone say "travel light?"

Our room is large, with a seating area in a cute little alcove.

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The hotel also has a restaurant on site, so we wander down to grab a bite to eat. Neither of us are particularly hungry, so when we find out that dinner is served as a buffet with no a la carte option available, we decide to get something from the coffee shop instead.

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There is no-one in the coffee shop, but we ask at reception which is right next to it, if we can have a brownie and a tiramisu. The receptionist explains that he is not permitted to sell any of their goods, but suggests we just take what we want and then come down tomorrow, tell them what we had and settle it then. Such trust!

And so another day in Saudi Arabia comes to an end, with an early night in a much softer bed than we had for the last three nights, and a strong smell of garlic in the room. I am pretty sure it did not come from the cakes.

Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this great trip to the KSA for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 16:56 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged desert mosque cake camels salt nomads coffee_shop salt_flats riyadh middle_east brick_making saudi_arabia ksa kebabs heritage_village bureidah camel_market saddles qasab salt_production al_qasab ushayqer best_western_plus almassi_alref Comments (3)

Riyadh

City exploration


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Bacha drives us to the fort this morning, where we meet up with Ali, our guide here in Riyadh. He has very kindly brought along a wheelchair for my use, although I actually find it more of a nuisance than a help a lot of the time.

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First, we make our way down an avenue full of various shops while Ali explains the history and culture behind the wearing of the dishdasha, the long white robe the men wear (mostly for the heat and to avoid sunburn), and the keffiyeh. This headscarf is again also traditionally used as protection from sunburn (including the neck), but also dust and sand.

Along this road is also a large souvenir shop, and Ali asks if we would like to go in and take a look. After decades of travel, we have run out of space for souvenirs, and as we are most definitely not shoppers, we kindly decline.

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Masmak Fort
This fort is not very old as forts go, dating back some 150 years. It does, however, hold a very special place in the history of Saudi Arabia, as it was here, in 1902, that King Abdulaziz captured the fortress and took control of Riyadh after having lived in exile in Kuwait. From here he conquered and united the different kingdoms and provinces that make up the Saudi nation as we know it today.

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Ali points out the remains of Abdulaziz's spearhead and shows us the door to the fortress, so large that camels can enter, with its smaller door inside to help keep the enemies out.

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The inner courtyard does not have a roof, but because of its high walls, and holes for ventilation allowing the wind to pass through, it keeps the sun out and is surprisingly cool, even in the middle of the day, as now.

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The fort has been turned into a museum, but the upper floors are off-limits.

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An image showing the reenactment of Abdulaziz's battle

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Detailed work on a window shutter

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Decoration within the fortress.

Close to the fort is the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, as is the case of most mosques in KSA.

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Najd Village Restaurant
As well as being on most tourist itineraries, Najd Village is also popular with locals. It is an authentic Arabian restaurant offering traditional cuisine from the Najd region of the country. We are the only western diners there, and see many curious locals exploring the building and taking photos.

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Most Arabic restaurants will offer little seating areas, known as majils, which are enclosed by waist level high walls, and scattered with cushions around the wall for you to sit on while eating, with the low walls acting as backrests. The food is usually served on a mat in the middle of the area, with everyone helping themselves from the same bowls, using their hands to eat. Correction: using the right hand to eat with, as the left hand is considered dirty (this is the one used during 'absolutions'). As foreigners, we do get our own bowls, however.

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We also get chairs and a little table – they probably felt sorry for these two old and decrepit tourists!

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Nearly all restaurants in Saudi also provide family rooms – small cubicles shut off from the rest of the restaurant with a curtain. This is to allow ladies to remove their veils while eating in privacy, surrounded by their family only. You can see those rooms on the right of the photo below.

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As with so many restaurants here in Saudi Arabia, the menu is accessed via a QR code. While I like the idea in principle, the reality is that as foreigners, we cannot use the internet without wifi or incurring huge roaming charges. Ali does provide us with a hotspot via his phone, but in the end, he just orders us a selection of typical regional dishes to try.

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Samboasa – similar to a samosa, one lot is filled with cheese, the other with vegetables

Marqouq – Lamb and vegetable stew, cooked with thin brown sheets of dough

Qurssuan – Lamb chunks and vegetable stew, served with bread

Muqalqal – Boneless lamb cubes cooked in tomato sauce with green pepper and onion

Jareesh - Crushed whole wheat cooked in milk garnished with onion and lime

Laban – yogurt drink

The food is tasty and enjoyable, I particularly like the Muqalqal.

They even have lovely, modern, clean, western-style sit-down toilets, with a very decorative door!

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After being revitalised by a thoroughly enjoyable lunch, we continue our exploration of Riyadh. Unfortunately, Murabba Palace, and the National Museum are both closed, due to something called Riyadh Season, an annual entertainment and sports festival. I am not entirely sure why that necessitates the closure of historical sites, but who am I to question why.

We head for the financial district instead, which is jam-packed with exciting, sexy and innovative architecture, in various stages of completeness. The security guards in charge of the area are not keen on photographers, so I take pictures covertly from inside the car.

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I love the attractive intricacy, the unconventional approaches, the imaginative aesthetics, the delicious curves, and delightful shapes. It is all so much more pleasing to the eye than the straight lines often found in older big cities. I guess with Riyadh being such a young city, the planners and architects had a blank canvas and were not limited by existing grids, narrow streets, and outdated concepts.

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Kingdom Tower
This large, up-market complex houses the Four Seasons Hotel, and surprisingly, it is the only place we have seen any luxurious cars here in Riyadh, with a gorgeous bright yellow Mercedes sports car drawing David's attention. Our reason for being here, is the view from the 99th floor of the building affectionately known as the Bottle Opener, for obvious reasons. It's an impressive building, covered with 85,000 square metres of glass.

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What looks like metal on the outer walls of this building, is in fact glass

Ali suggests I use the wheelchair here, as that entitles me to free entry. I am all for that. The lift is extraordinarily fast, taking a mere 50 seconds to travel 77 floors – which works out to the equivalent of 180 km/hour. We watch in awe as the display inside the lifts jumps two and three floors at a time, unable to keep pace with the lift itself. Equally impressive, and quite surreal, is the fact that we cannot feel this upward motion while inside the lift. The first lift takes us to the 77th floor, where we see the highest mosque in the world.

From here we have to transfer to another lift to continue our journey to the sky bridge on the 99th floor. The sky bridge was added to circumvent building regulations restricting the height of occupied skyscrapers in the city, to become the tallest tower in Saudi at that time. The large opening allowed the building to rise higher than the height limit—30 occupied floors—mandated by local laws. Kingdom Tower is now merely the 4th highest building in Riyadh, let alone the country.

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DSLR cameras are not permitted onto the Sky Bridge, only photos taken with a mobile phone are allowed.

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Because so many of the attractions we were due to visit today are closed, we return to the hotel early. There is a Starbucks in the lobby of the hotel, and as I am rather partial to their Caramel Frappuccino, we order one each. No Frappuccino, only Americano Coffee. Oh well.

After a nice shower and rest, we are ready to get room service. Consulting the menu, David orders a burger, while I choose the Pad Thai, followed by ice cream. They have no Pad Thai and no ice cream. Two burgers it is then.

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Goodnight from Riyadh, and thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip to Saudi Arabia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:24 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged museum lunch asia starbucks skybridge burgers riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia aerial_view national_museum laban ksa grand_mosque room_servce gloria_inn masmak_fort dishdasha keffiyeh souvenir_shop king_abdulaziz imam_turki_bib_abdullah_grand_m najd najd_restaurant najd_village majils samboasa marqouq qurssuan muqailqal jareesh murabba_palace financial_district kingdom_tower kingdom_centre sky_bridge 99th_floor frappuccino Comments (1)

Edge of the World

Stunning desert scenery


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After a morning at leisure, Ali, our guide here in Riyadh, picks us up at 13:00, with the words: “Have you had lunch?” When we confirm that we have not eaten anything since breakfast, he replies: “Oh good!”

Heading North West out of Riyadh, he stops in a small town to buy food from a restaurant for our picnic. Being very environmentally conscious, he carries his own insulated food containers, so that no packaging is wasted. I like him already!

Our first stop after we turn off the tarmac road is a small area of Huraymila National Park, where Arabian Sand Gazelle, locally known as Reem Deer (Gazella marica), have been reintroduced.

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Off Road Driving
There is a marked dirt track leading to the Edge of the World viewpoint, but Ali, like us, thinks it is much more fun to drive off-road. He is obviously a very experienced 4x4 driver, something that is confirmed when he tells us he is on the board of the organisation that rescues stranded motorists in this region.

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Picnic
We spend a little time looking for the best spot to enjoy our picnic lunch; somewhere that is free of scorpions and snakes and offers some shade from the fierce Arabian sun. We find the perfect place in a dried-up riverbed.

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Ali has come prepared, with blankets, mats, cushions, and pouffes to sit on, as well as bowls, cutlery, and paper towels.

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With my bad knee, I would be unable to get back off the floor if I was to sit that far down, so I have brought my own foldable stool. I love this stool, with its clever telescopic mechanism – it was invaluable during my trip to France, where I used it all the time while I was photographing the white horses of Camargue. It folds down really small, is surprisingly light, and is extremely strong, marketed as being able to hold 500 lbs, which is considerably more than my large frame weighs.

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As soon as I set the stool down on the ground and plonk my bottom on it, I hear some ominous creaking. I immediately start to get back up again, but too late: the whole thing has collapsed in a thousand pieces below me, leaving me on my back on the desert floor, flailing my arms and legs in the air like an upturned beetle, and rolling with laughter.

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The poor stool

Ali springs into action. Getting David to grab me under my left elbow, he places both his hands under my arms and effortlessly lifts me up again as if I am just an ordinary shopping bag in the grocery store. Wow!

You will be pleased to know that the only thing that was injured was the stool.

Post note: as soon as we got home, we wrote to the seller, explaining what happened, and had a very nice reply with apologies and full responsibility as well as a replacement stool.

For safety and comfort, I retire to the front seat of the car to eat my lunch.

Lamb Mandi
Originating in Yemen, mandi is a very popular dish in Saudi Arabia. Traditionally cooked in an underground oven, these days a tandoor is usually used. Initially, the meat is boiled with special spices, and the spiced stock is then used to cook the basmati rice at the bottom of the tandoor. The meat is suspended inside the tandoor above the rice and without touching the charcoal. After that, the whole tandoor is then closed with clay for up to eight hours.

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The tasty meat falls off the bone, and the rice is lovely and fluffy. There is so much food left over, however, I feel rather guilty for not eating more.

After finishing up our lunch and packing away up the leftovers to feed to the animals later, we make our way back to the main track. There used to be two choices of two tracks leading up to the Edge of the World, but following a fatal accident involving Italian tourists and their driver, the other route was closed for safety reasons.

We can see from a distance that we are most certainly not going to be alone at the viewpoint, so when Ali suggests going to another area he knows, which also has some spectacular views, we jump at the chance.

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Not only do I get some good images of this stunning scenery, but I also have a very willing model to 'photobomb' my images while dressed the part. Perfect!

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Edge of the World
The spectacular cliffs popularly known as The Edge of the World, are part of the 800-km long Tuwaiq Escarpment. The official name is Jebel Fihrayn.

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It is a very popular place for an afternoon excursion, taking around 1.5 hours from Riyadh, especially on a weekend (today is Saturday). I didn't expect it to be quite so touristy, there is even an official car park here!

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Not being a fan of heights and having a healthy respect for crumbling cliffs, there is no way you'd find me climbing to the top of this rock.

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Looking out over the edge of the precipice, you can see the ancient ocean floor some 300 metres below.

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As you can see, the view I had hoped to get for my photograph, is photobombed by a group of Americans having a picnic. With some clever composition and a little Photoshop magic, I manage to get a semi-decent shot without them.

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We hang around to see the sun set behind the rocks, then head back to the main road avoiding the official dirt track so as not to travel behind other vehicles and eat their dust!

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Ali heads for a spot in the national park where there is a small well/spring for animals to have access to water. He leaves the leftover food here for the wildlife to finish off.

Stopping just once more for Ali to partake in his evening prayers, we head back to the main road, Riyadh and our hotel, where we learn that poor Bacha was not informed that we were leaving at 13:00, not 16:00 as we first thought, and he turned up at 16:00 to much confusion.

Room Service
Back at the hotel, we struggle to get into the room as the key card, which has been quite temperamental, is now completely refusing to cooperate. After having it reprogrammed by reception, it works first time.

We order a couple of pepperoni pizzas from room service, of course, pepperoni is made from beef, not pork here in Saudi. When they arrive, we realise that we could probably have made do with just one between us, as they are quite large. There is lots of cheese, the base is crispy and the filling is tasty.

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We take an early night after a great day, as organised for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:04 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged sunset fall off_road 4x4 crowds photoshop weekend cliff picnic photography pizza national_park mandi 4wd gazelle riyadh lamb saudi_arabia viewpoint traditional_food undiscovered_destinations off_road_driving jebel touristy room_service huraymila huraymila_national_park arabian_sand_gazelle sand_gazelle edge_of_the_world collapsible_stool telescopic_stool foldable_stool falling_off lamb_mandi arabic_food photobombs precipice ancient_ocean_floor tuwaiq tuwaiq_escarpment escarpment jebel_fihrayn Comments (5)

Bristol - London - Riyadh

The start of another adventure


View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Foreword

As often happens with our trips, as soon as we mention where we are going – this time Saudi Arabia – we find the other person's eyes widening, their whole face turning into a huge question mark, and their mouth uttering “Really? Why? Is that safe?”

Sigh. Why should it not be safe?

Too many people seem to rely on the gutter press to form their opinions of a country, and confuse political headlines with everyday life for citizens and visitors.

As for why we want to go, it all started with an article in the travel magazine Wanderlust about the historical site Al Ula. I was captivated by the photographs and intrigued by the little-known historical sights. Two days later I phoned up Undiscovered Destinations to book a private trip for just the two of us to KSA, following the same itinerary as their group tour.

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Saudi Arabia only opened its doors to regular tourists in 2019 (up until then, visas were generally just issued to religious visitors and workers), with their long-term plan to be in the top ten tourist destinations in the world by 2030.

Obtaining a tourist visa was remarkably quick in a smooth and easy online process. David's visa landed in the email inbox before we had even finished applying for mine, which arrived a few minutes later. That has to be some sort of record! I have since been told that the approval system is mostly carried out via automated bots that look for certain 'correct' answers, and then a team of workers are available to give the final authorisation. It is not a cheap service, however, at £123 each.

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Are they ready for an influx of large numbers of foreign visitors? Do they have enough to offer curious travellers? Follow my blog to read about my experiences and opinions.

Thursday 13th October 2022

With an early start tomorrow morning, we figure we are better off staying in a hotel near the airport, rather than leaving home at some unearthly hour of the morning, so we travel up to Premier Inn this afternoon. We like Premier Inns, they are clean, reliable and reasonably priced. We have stayed at this particular one before, so we know what to expect.

After checking in, to what we discover is a large family room with one double and two single beds, we wander down to the restaurant for a drink before dinner, enjoying our last drop of alcohol for the next two weeks (KSA is a dry country).

One of the other things we like about Premier Inns is that they nearly always have a restaurant or pub attached, which – like the hotels – are usually very dependable. Premier Inns are part of the Whitbread Group and have a variety of different restaurant brands too. Here at Bath Road, there is an enormous atrium, part of which houses the Thyme restaurant. Their restaurants are usually as dependable as their hotels, and while it is not the sort of place I would go for a celebratory meal, it is certainly good enough for an overnight stay. Although indoors, the atrium gives the restaurant a nice open and airy feel to it. We are able to sit 'outside' in the atrium part, which is nice. The menu features classic British pub food, and I choose grilled salmon with chips, whereas David has grilled chicken with vegetables. We share the chips and vegetables.

Friday 14th October 2022

After an interrupted sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 5:30. We are too early to take advantage of the legendary Premier Inn breakfast, so drive directly to Terminal four at Heathrow. In the period between our flight tickets being issued and us travelling, Saudia Airlines moved their operations from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, something that the ticket agents omitted to inform us of. Thankfully we do check these things, although there was conflicting information available online too. In the end, I relied on the Heathrow phone app, and David got his information from the Saudia app.

Valet Parking
We nearly always book valet parking these days, where a driver from the parking company meets us at the short-term car park, collects our car and keys from us, and takes the car off-site for parking while we are away. They then deliver the car to the same place ready for us to get in and drive off on our return. It is so much nicer than having to take a shared bus from a long-term off-airport car park to the airport and the reverse when arriving back. To us it is worth the extra cost.

Special Assistance
Because of a knee injury which has plagued me all through the summer, I booked a wheelchair through Saudia Airlines and headed directly to the Special Assistance counter before check-in at the terminal, conveniently situated just inside the door. While I am capable of walking short distances, I am unable to stand for any period of time, and walking longer distances causes me a lot of pain.

The special assistance kiosk is full of wheelchairs, but no other waiting passengers. There are two members of staff there, and I approach the lady at the counter, explaining that I have booked a chair. She asks which airline we are travelling with and whether we have checked in yet (which we have not). “You need to check in first and come back here” she explains. I point out to her that if I had been able to walk all the way down to the other end of the concourse to the check-in desk and back again, I wouldn't have needed to book a wheelchair. She sighs and reluctantly asks her colleague to push me down to the Saudia desk.

Once she has brought me back to the Special Assistance holding area again, she suggests it would be better for David to push me from there on. This is unfortunately typical of the lack of service we have found at Heathrow for less-able customers.

Security
Unsurprisingly for such an early start, there is no queue at security, but they are really quite thorough this morning (fresh on shift, I am guessing), and ask me to take my camera out of the bag, something that I can't remember being asked at Heathrow before. David gets the full treatment, having to remove his shoes and walk through the scanner a couple of extra times, as well as being patted down by hand and with swabs.

Breakfast
Having left the hotel too early to take advantage of their excellent breakfast, we head to the Prince of Wales pub in the terminal. I'd checked out the options before leaving home and found that the pub had more options and better prices for breakfast than the other restaurant here.

One of the reasons I chose the Prince of Wales for this morning's meal, is that the menu features my favourite breakfast dish – Eggs Royale: toasted English muffin with smoked salmon, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. David, predictably, has the full English breakfast.

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Unfortunately, as is often the case, expectation and reality don't quite match this morning; and I am rather disappointed in the ridiculously meagre amount of salmon. With its lacklustre presentation, the dish does not warrant the £9.35 price tag.

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Saudia Airlines
One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair is that you do get to board the aircraft before the other passengers. We have aisle and middle seats in the centre section of their 3-3-3 configuration. Thankfully the plane is not full this morning, which means we are able to spread out and have the whole row of three seats to ourselves, making for a much more comfortable flight.

Soon after the crew start the meal service, we experience turbulence, and they have to stop serving and take the trolleys back to the galley for safety reasons. This happens several times in a row, and some passengers are getting impatient, aggressively pressing the call button and demanding their food NOW! The interrupted service also creates some confusion as to who has already been served their main meals; resulting in the ice cream dessert being separately distributed while some people are still eating their main meal, and for others (like David), it arrives before he has even received his other tray.

I have to say the ice cream is a very welcome addition to the menu, however, and it is one of my favourite brands, too.

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Once the meal service is over, I manage to grab some semi-decent sleep before we land in Riyadh after a 5.5-hour flight.

King Khalid International Airport
A wheelchair is waiting for me as we exit the plane, and I am taken through corridors and tunnels of the modern airport, which bears no resemblance to the scruffy underbelly of Heathrow that I was previously taken through on arrival there. Here the walls are covered in colourful tiles and everything is looking gleaming, clean and pretty.

Immigration
Our visas are obviously already on the system, as we are not asked for the paper copies we have printed out. We are, however, required to submit fingerprints, but the scanner for this is seriously unreliable. After several unsuccessful attempts, the official gives me some hand sanitiser to use and tells me to try again. Eventually, it accepts my fingerprint, and my passport is stamped. I'm in!

Immediately after passport control, our hand luggage goes through an X-ray before we get to the luggage carousel. I can see David's case on the belt, and the porter who has been pushing the wheelchair with me in it, runs off to retrieve it before David is even through passport control! Mine arrives very much later, as one of the very last pieces of luggage to come off the plane. I guess someone's bag has to be the last.

Arrival
As we exit through the very unobtrusive customs hall, I can see a smart young man in a dark suit and immaculate white shirt carrying a placard with our name on it. Such a reassuring sight when you arrive in a foreign country. He goes off to collect the car – a massive 6-seater SUV (GMC Yukon XL) - and pulls up right outside the exit door to pick us up. The car is so high that I struggle to get in, but is very comfortable. The driver, who introduces himself as Bacha, moves the front passenger seat forward so that I have plenty of legroom in the back. The car is spacious, clean, and very comfortable.

During our journey from the airport to the hotel, George, the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations use here in KSA, rings to welcome us to the country and to inform us that we will be picked up at 16:00 tomorrow for our booked excursion.

Riyadh
My first impressions of Riyadh are a city of bright lights, fabulous modern architecture, wide avenues, and definitely not a walking city! We see very few pedestrians about anywhere, just a few people milling around by the market.

Hotel Centro
As Bacha pulls up outside this posh-looking modern hotel with its inviting facade, I wonder if there has been a change of plan. Our original documents had us down to stay here, but the latest version of our itinerary suggests that we are booked into the Gloria Inn instead.

The friendly and chatty receptionist confirms my suspicions, as he can find no record of our booking. Bacha insists that this is where we are staying, and shows us the instructions he has received on his phone, which quite clearly state Hotel Centro. While he phones George, I look up the confirmation I received from Undiscovered Destinations. Bacha returns and explains that it was an 'office mistake', and that we are indeed staying at Gloria Inn. Oh good, we all agree now. Hopefully, Gloria Inn will be aware of us too. With a cheery “maybe next time” to the helpful receptionist, we leave Centro Hotel and get back in the car while Bacha googles how to get to Gloria Inn from here. “Just another 20 minutes” he informs us as we head off into the bright lights of Riyadh again.

Gloria Inn
After the more upmarket Centro Hotel, Gloria Inn looks a little shabby. Several of the bulbs in the name sign on the front of the hotel are missing, and the side entrance looks disappointingly uninviting.

The welcome more than makes up for it, though, with the receptionist greeting us from behind a huge smile, and our room key ready and waiting on the desk. Phew, that's a relief!

After the usual formalities including showing our passports and visas, we say goodbye to Bacha as the porter takes our luggage – and us – to our room. The initial anticlimax I felt when we arrived here, is soon replaced with delight: the room is huge, with a nice seating area and a large double bed.

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Room Service
When we checked in, the receptionist explained that the hotel restaurant is only open for breakfast, but we can order dinner from a room service menu to be delivered to the room, which is what we do.

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The porter arrives with a large tray of food, and a credit card machine for us to pay for it. We both have spicy chicken sandwiches with chips and a Diet Coke. While the chicken is anything but spicy, it has a crispy coating and the bread roll is fresh.

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Just after we've finished the meal, the room phone rings. The person the other end introduces himself as Ali, explaining that he will be our guide for the duration of our stay here in Riyadh. He suggests that 16:00 is way too late to leave from the city tomorrow, so he will pick us up at 13:00 instead. That sounds a much better plan to me.

After a long and tiring day, we sneak into bed early to get some rest for an exciting day tomorrow. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, and THANK YOU to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:51 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged airport breakfast security visa heathrow ice_cream immigration arrival wheelchair customs riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations visa_application premier_inn valet_parking tourist_visa saudia special_assistance room_service whitbread thyme_restaurant eggs_royale saudia_airlines king_khalid_international_airpo hotel_centro gloria_inn Comments (5)

São Paulo - London - Home

The long journey home


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

No alarm this morning as we are not leaving until lunchtime – Yay! The breakfast buffet has some very nice dishes, including a chocolate mousse! Yum.

After completing the packing, we wander down to reception, and sit in the bar, waiting for the restaurant to open, when our transfer driver turns up one hour and ten minutes early. The porter hasn't even had the time to bring our luggage down yet! It makes no difference to us, we can spend some extra time in the LATAM VIP Lounge instead of paying for lunch here in the hotel.

The driver goes well beyond his duty and rushes around trying to find us a wheelchair when we arrive at the airport. We tip him well. The porter, Gulmar, is very talkative, but neither of us speaks the other one's language. I can make out that his claim to fame is that he once pushed Pelé around in a wheelchair.

LATAM VIP Lounge
This lounge is considerably nicer than the BA lounge in Heathrow, so we make ourselves comfortable, grab a few snacks and a drink from the bar and wait.

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Is it ever OK to place your feet on the table where people might want to put their food and drinks? Not in my book, for sure!

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The toilets are like nothing I have ever seen before. They are not cubicles, they are proper rooms, with a floor-to-ceiling door. Each stall is sterilised between every use, with a paper ribbon across the toilet seat and the toilet paper folded to a point at the end to indicate it has been cleaned. One wall has a marble shelf with a basin set in it, and mirrors above. The opposite wall has floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It's like a “House of Mirrors” at a fairground, and I can see dozens of me at the same time. Should I want to, that is.

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British Airways Business Class

Gulmar returns and takes me straight to the gate, where I am first to board. Barry, the purser greets me by name and shows me to my seat without me having to show my ticket. As we are getting settled, Barry returns: “Mrs Howard, when we are airborne, would you like me to bring you an aperitif before dinner?” “Will you be dining with us this evening?” “What would you like for your main course?” “Would you like still or sparkling water with that?” “And how about some wine...”

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Cranberry Blush cocktail: vodka, orange, cranberry, and ginger ale

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The Quinoa Tabbouleh starter with feta cheese, roasted aubergine, and pesto sauce is surprisingly creamy and very good.

The fabulous Tenderloin of beef has a sundried tomato and herb crust and is served with a bacon demi-glace, potato au gratin, roasted tomato, sautéed mushrooms, and spinach.

There are three different types of bread that are baked together, although the butter is disappointingly hard.

The passion fruit and mango mousse with a chocolate brownie is delicious, and the cheese is lovely.

As a result of waiting for connecting passengers, we are 40 minutes late leaving.

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I struggle to sleep as my knee seems to hurt whichever position I am in, so I play “Who wants to be a Millionaire on the games console, over and over again until I finally win the $1,000,000. If only it was real money!

Breakfast is pretty awful – the bacon is so tough I can't cut it, the eggs are stewed, and the so-called sausage is totally tasteless. I eat the yogurt and pastries. When I mention it to 'my friend' Barry, he agrees that it does not look as good as it normally does.

Coming in to land at Heathrow, we fly over the centre of London – I always enjoy this approach route.

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Once we have landed, I am told to wait in my seat until everyone has got off. Oh, the difference between how they treat Special Assistance passengers in the UK to Brazil!

I am eventually pushed in a wheelchair to the end of the corridor, where we are squashed into a sardine-like vehicle at least two inches shorter than my legs. My knees are pushed right up against a glass partition, and we have to wait until the driver has collected three other passengers.

We travel in the underbelly of Heathrow, a part of the airport I have never seen before and have no wish to experience again. Long, bleak tunnels, devoid of life, like something out of a horror movie.

The vehicle takes us through passport control, where the mother and daughter behind in the truck are questioned at length about the fact that they have both Italian and Argentine passports.

When we arrive at the luggage carousels, I am unceremoniously dropped at the Special Assistance holding area with the words: “you might prefer to walk from here if you can as there are a dozen or more people in front of you waiting for a wheelchair”.

Welcome to Britain!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:33 Archived in Brazil Tagged vip south_america sao_paulo heathrow marriott ba wheelchair cocktail british_airways business_class undiscovered_destinations special_assistance latam vip_lounge posh_toilets Comments (0)

Itatiaia - São Paulo

The beginning of the end


View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I was finally warm enough in bed overnight last night, and wake up this morning feeling quite refreshed.

Brown Capuchin
After breakfast I hang around the feeders, watching the monkeys gather in increasing numbers.

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Drinking from the hummingbird feeder

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This is what they are all waiting for.

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They are trying to work out how to get from the roof to that feeder.

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Made it!

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I wonder how they are going to climb back onto the roof now?

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No problem!

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Waterfalls
I think Roberto can get the vibe that we are beginning to get a little birded-out, so he suggests we do something different and take a look at some nearby waterfalls, right at the very end of the road. There are three waterfalls here, one that basically goes under the bridge and two that are accessed by a series of steps.

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I am obviously not going to be climbing any steps, so stay on the road photographing the very underwhelming smaller cascades at the lower level.

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David, on the other hand, decides that he wants some exercise and climbs to the top, where the falls are much more impressive, even with the low water level at the moment.

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We go back to the lodge to finish packing - we are leaving Itatiaia today, going back to São Paulo for overnight before travelling home.

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The feeders beckon again, with their brightly coloured tanagers and those fast, fast hummingbirds.

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Female Blue Dacnis

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Male Blue Dacnis

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Golden Chevroned Tanager

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Green Headed Tanager

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Chestnut Bellied Euphonia

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Saffron Finch

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Female Brazilian Ruby

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Planalto Hermit

The sugar water spilled from the hummingbird feeders attracts wasps and ants.

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The lodge has a resident artist, Leonardo, who is gradually filling up a white wall on the terrace with murals of local birds and squirrels.

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Ricardo chilling on the terrace

Brazilian Squirrel
No local wildlife is forgotten here, and the squirrels have their own little feeding box in reception.

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David wants to try and hand feed him, but as he already has a nut, he is not the least bit interested.

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He has noticed the nut

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And now that he has finished his previous one, he is thinking about it.

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Going for it...

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And both of them are happy!

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As we are sitting around chatting with Leonardo and Ricardo, there is a flutter of excitement: one of the other guides has seen a rare bird. All his guests come running, and I want to get in on the action too, but being very slow to get up because of my bad knee, I end up right at the back of the crowd.

Frilled Coquette
The beautiful hummingbird makes a very brief appearance of just a few seconds, and everyone sighs as they don't even have time to raise their cameras to their eyes.

“Did you see him?” asks Ricardo. “I saw him, and I got him!” I reply.

Everyone is amazed and wants to see the results, as despite shooting with my long lens through the gaps between the crowd, I was the only one quick enough to capture him.

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In fact, I manage several shots, but this is the best one.

“You're incredible!” says a very impressed Ricardo, "such fast reactions".

São Paulo
The drive to São Paulo from here seems a lot longer than it did coming the other way, despite the fact that I sleep a lot in the car. We see an accident, which could account for the amount of traffic.

Marriott Hotel
Ricardo drops us off at the hotel – he is off to pick up another couple of tourists tonight.

I ask the lovely young chap on reception – Gustavo – if I can have a room with a walk-in shower rather than a bath, as I struggle to get out of a bath with my bad knee. He finds a suitable room for us, but as it is not ready yet, he offers us a free drink in the bar while we wait.

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After a lovely shower and change, we wander down to the reception, to find that dinner tonight is served buffet-style. Ugh. When we discover the large American group (with the irritating, loud, whiny woman) from the last three nights in Itatiaia are here too, we decide to eat in the bar instead. The menu is available via a QR code on the table, and we place our order.

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My king prawns with a caper mayo

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David orders a huge mixed grill

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I have chocolate mousse for dessert

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Whereas David chooses a trio of ice cream with chocolate sauce

Would you believe it, the Whiny American Woman comes to the bar and stops to talk to us. And there we were, thinking we'd managed to avoid her!

And so ends our holiday in Brazil.

Goodnight from São Paulo, and thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:06 Archived in Brazil Tagged waterfalls brazil birding brasil mural street_art squirrel south_america sao_paulo ants tanager ice_cream cocktail prawns hermit capuchin wasps hummingbirds bird_watching artis ruby shrimps itatiaia undiscovered_destinations euphonia dacnis brown_capuchin monkets brazilian_squirrel coquette chocolate_mousse mixed_grill Comments (0)

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