A Travellerspoint blog

Jeddah - London - Bristol

Our last day in Saudi Arabia


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

After a delicious breakfast of labneh and bread, we meet George (the local agent who arranged the trip here in Saudi, who has flown in from Riyadh), and the Jeddah guide Abir. We discuss how the trip so far has gone, any challenges we have faced, and all the good points of the journey. By mutual agreement, we decide to cancel this morning’s tour of Jeddah, as my stomach is still not very good after yesterday’s messy incident.

While I return to bed, David goes off on foot to the local mini-market, to use up some of the cash we have left – only to find they do not accept cash, it is a strictly card-only business.

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The view of Jeddah from our bedroom window

Mid-afternoon Abir returns with Bacha, our driver, to start the guided tour of the city.

Jeddah is a modern city, and has a much more relaxed and friendly feel to it than Riyadh did. We take an instant liking to the place. Everything is grand and supersized, as is fitting for such a rich nation.

The Globe Roundabout
This sculpture by the Spanish artist Julio La Fente, was created in 1971, and is placed in the middle of a road junction.

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Jeddah Corniche
For 62 kilometres along the seafront, the seagull-themed promenade swirls around the bays and rocky shores, providing an area for walking, meeting friends, and taking selfies.

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Artistically shaped seagulls adorn all the street furniture on the corniche

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Mobile phone charging station

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Outdoor Sculpture Museum
Like the globe, these works of art used to be displayed on a roundabout, but when the city was expanded, they were moved to a park on the corniche.

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Al Ballad Old Town
This UNESCO-inscribed district of Jeddah is undergoing major restoration work.

The old city gate dates from 1507

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Abir organises a golf buggy to take us around the streets of the old town.

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Safi, our handsome buggy driver

Most of the inhabitants left in the 1950s and 60s, now the buildings are mostly rented out to immigrants from Yemen and India.

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The restoration work is carried out using the original coral stone.

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The higgledy-piggledy buildings are affectionately known as ‘dancing houses’. The titling is a result of shallow foundations – mostly just around a metre deep.

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Each house is different.

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The blue is a result of the mayor travelling to Tunisia and falling in love with the town of Sidi Bou Said

The balconies are constructed of teak from India.

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650 houses have been restored so far.

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Shafee Mosque
The mosque is said to be 1422 years old, but was renovated some 500 years ago.

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Whereas the minaret is a mere 820 years old.

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It is the only mosque in Saudi Arabia where we, as non-Muslims, have been allowed to enter. Abir contacts the Imam who opens it up, especially for us.

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In front of the Mihrab, there is a vacuum cleaner left, but Abir managed to magically summon a janitor, who removes it for my photos. This woman has contacts in all the right places.

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We struggle to open the door to get out onto the road on the opposite side of the courtyard from where we entered. Again Abir knows just who to call for assistance.

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QR codes get everywhere!

Electric scooters are available for hire, and for some reason, it amuses me to see an Arab lady in full abaya, hejab and niqab, wearing a bright yellow jerkin as she zips along the streets on one of the machines.

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Many of the old buildings have been converted into shops, selling leather goods, jewellery and spices.

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The top of the sandals is made from goat leather, whereas the sole comes from the skin of a camel

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The cannon was left by the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, when they failed to capture the city.

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As the lights fade, we enter one of the old buildings that used to be a private home, but is now open to the public.

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In the living room, we are offered dates and coffee, while Abir shows off some of the items left behind from the old days.

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We also enter a second house (mainly to use their facilities), which is now occupied by a lovely art gallery.

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The home had three entrances at that time: one for men, one for women and the last was the entrance to the office. This is the one we use.

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Abir on the steps of the ladies' entrance.

As we say our goodbyes to Al Balad (the whole old city is closing to visitors this evening, we are not quite sure why), the sky is painted in a gorgeous orange colour by the sunset.

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On our way to the restaurant, we stop at the corniche again, in a different place this time, to see what is claimed to be the world’s highest fountain, at 320 metres.

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Jeddah also boasts the world’s highest flag pole and the biggest LED billboard.

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Tofareva Restaurant
As with so many places in this country, the menu is accessed via a QR code, which is useless when you don’t have a mobile signal and the restaurant doesn’t offer free wifi. We let Abir order for us.

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This is said to be one of the most popular restaurants in the city, well known for its excellent traditional local food. The setting is unusual to say the least, with chairs and tables made of plastic wood, bare concrete floors, benches and a long bar in the centre (presumably for standing-only customers.

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Jareesh: slowed cooked wheat with vegetables and tomato sauce, a speciality of the house. This is my favourite!

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Stuffed vegetables - not keen on this

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Hummous

The trio of desserts is known as “A Must”, as it is so well known, and so delicious, that you MUST try it!

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Left = Lutus biscuit cheesecake, middle = pomegranate pudding, right is angel hair pasta with rose water

It is all washed down with this delightful, if rather vibrant, freshly made mint drink.

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At the airport Bacha finds us a porter for the luggage and a wheelchair for me, which I am very grateful for, as it is a long walk through to the check in. We say our tearful goodbyes to Bacha, who has become a good friend during our journey through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia together.

After depositing our luggage and getting our boarding cards, there is a second check-in where all the passengers in front of us have their carry-on weighed and measured, whereas they just wave us straight through. Immigration checks do not throw up any problems, neither does the second passport check. Security, on the other hand, is a real pain. My camera bag is taken aside and everything has to be taken out of it before it is scanned through again. The same thing happens with my rucksack.

From there, the porter takes us in a tiny lift, down long corridors, on a train, more lifts, and along a travellator to reach the gate, where we wait for some time for staff to get the boarding organised. Again, we are just ushered straight through security, while others have themselves and their luggage X-rayed.

The plane is full, cramped and very uncomfortable, but it is only a six hour flight, and I manage to sleep for a while, and we make it home in one piece.

Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable trip to a little-visited nation. Tourism is in its infancy here, so if you enjoy visiting unusual places, Saudi should definitely be on your list!

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Posted by Grete Howard 21:59 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged mosque sunset fountain flight airport security billboard old_town scooter cannon departure immigration wheelchair restoration saudi jeddah corniche middle_east hummus saudi_arabia abaya hijab ksa undiscovered_destinations mirhab check_in jareesh the_globe_roundabout jeddah_corniche sculture sculpture_park outdoor_sculpture_park al_ballad city_gate golf_buggy shafee_mosque qr_code vacuum_cleaner electric_scooter hiqab water_fountain led_billboard worlds_largest worlds_tallest_water_fountain world-stallest_fountain worlds_largest_led_billboard tofareva tofareva_restaurant passport_control jeddah_airport saudia_airways Comments (0)

Taif - Jeddah

Not my best day


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

I slept well last night, it was a nice soft bed. Despite the restaurant “only having croissants” last night, there was the usual breakfast spread of cheese, meats, yogurt, vegetables, eggs etc this morning.

Bacha picks us up as arranged at 09:00 to drive to Shubra Palace, which is literally just around the corner from the hotel (we could see the back of it from our bedroom) where we are to meet our guide.

There is no sign of the guide, so we just hang around taking pictures while we wait.

Shubra Palace
The building dates back to 1905 and was a royal residence until 1995, when it was turned into a museum. As with so many places of interest in Saudi Arabia, it is closed for restoration.

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At 09:30 the guide phones Bacha to say he has just woken up, and suggests a place to meet. Meanwhile, Bacha goes off to a shopping area to get some breakfast, while we stay in the car watching the traffic. We notice that nearly a third of all cars have damage to their rear wheel arch, and we discuss why that could be, suggesting that it is not really surprising as lane control seems to be sadly lacking on roads here in KSA.

While we wait, the muezzin call to prayer goes off on Bacha’s phone, prompting David to state that he prefers that to rap ‘music’.

Al Shiokh Rose Plantation
Taif is famous for its roses, and we continue to a rose garden, where we finally meet up with our guide, Abdul Aziz.

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In each of these vats, 10kg of rose petals and 25l of water is placed, and a fire is lit underneath with the steam helping to create the resulting rosewater. The whole process takes 2.5 hours.

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The factory here is run as a collaboration between 25 local families, each owning a small plot of land. They have 32 big vats between them.

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Rosewater is used mainly in skin care products but is also used in cooking (I have a half-used bottle in my cupboard at home), and as a health benefit to aid digestion, as eye drops, it has antibacterial properties to help heal wounds or to soothe sore throats.

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Cheesy, but it has to be done!

Al Hada Upper Viewpoint
The view has the potential to be great on a clear day; however, today is not that day, with too much mist hanging around in the valley.

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There are some amazing properties on the cliff edge opposite, mostly used as summer houses to get away from the stifling heat in the lowlands (it is considerably cooler up here than anywhere else we have been in Saudi). The price for those homes, however, is outrageous, around 10,000 SAR per m² (ca £2,200) against a mere 500 SAR in the town.

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Hamadryas Baboons
Today, the main attraction here is not so much the view, but the baboons that hang around waiting to be fed.

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The tourists love them, the locals consider them a nuisance.

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The Explore tourist bus arrives not long after us, and they have come prepared with food for the animals, including whole trays of dates.

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The baboons squabble over the food, and the tray goes flying, with dates everywhere.

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I love the way this cheeky one is holding his hand over one date, while trying to grab another.

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Al Shareef Museum
We reluctantly tear ourselves away from photographing the baboons and continue to the excellent and well-laid-out museum showing traditional life in the Middle East.

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Water is kept cool in vessels made from mud

Mock-ups of bedouin tents show how men used to make the coffee, while women made butter.

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Traditional sitting room - many people still live like this today

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The dentist not only did extraction work in the mouth, he was also responsible for circumcisions.

There is a small selection of vintage cars, all of which still work. Once a year, on their national day, the owner takes them out to take part in a parade.

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Back in the car (our usual car, not the one in the picture above), and despite the climate here in Taif being much cooler than we have experienced so far (it’s a mere 30° C outside), I am sweltering. The air conditioning is blasting out hot air, and Bacha is unable to switch it off. I start to freak out a little as I have never liked saunas.

Bacha goes off to see if he can find a garage willing and able to repair the A/C on the spot, while we go with Abdul Aziz in his car to the restaurant. Which is closed for prayers. We sit and wait in his car for them to open, when we see the Explore group arrive and walk straight in.

Lunch
With such a group, they are around 20 people plus a guide and driver, it takes forever for them to order, while we are left in a family room to play ‘I spy with my little eye…’ for nearly half an hour before a waiter pops his head in to see what we would like. Abdul Aziz has gone off to eat with his mate, the Explore guide, and the waiter speaks absolutely no English (which is about the same as my Arabic), so we are grateful when he brings a tablet with pretty pictures.

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We order two different dishes that look like kebabs (something that sounded like ‘izmer’ and ‘mattawa’), a fetoush salad, some mango juice, and a sandwich to take out for Bacha.

The food takes another half an hour to arrive, but it is worth the wait. We think the kebabs are beef and aubergine and are both very enjoyable. The salad, however, is a little disappointing, it is not as citrusy as I like it, but I eat some anyway.

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Abdul Aziz returns, having spoken to Bacha who has managed to locate a garage willing to take the work on, but they need one more hour to finish it. Using his own private car, Abdul Aziz gives us a guided tour of Taif, first through the posh parts of town, with huge shopping malls, luxury housing, and their very own scale model of the Eiffel Tower.

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We can’t believe our eyes when it starts to rain. Rain? In Saudi Arabia? At this time of year? It’s unheard of!

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We continue to the older parts of town, where there are several beautiful abandoned mansions from the late 1800s.

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Finally, Bacha contacts us to say the car is ready, sporting a new compressor and radiator.

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All we have to do now, is for George to transfer the money to Bacha, who then goes off to the ATM to pay the bill for the repair work. It has all worked out very well.

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The road leading out of Taif is full of the most amazing hairpin bends, with stunning views of the mountains beyond.

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As we near the bottom, I start feeling nauseous. Very nauseous. I ask David for a plastic bag, just in case, and boy do I need it. Thankfully I manage to get everything into the bag, and the bag appears to be waterproof. I can’t remember last time I was quite so violently sick. Several times. It must have been the salad at lunchtime, as David feels fine and he didn’t eat any of that.

I sleep most of the way as we drive past the holy city of Mecca. I briefly wake up to see huge areas filled with covered walkways, and new hotels, all waiting for the influx of pilgrims during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage).

Ibis Jeddah Malik Road
As seems to be all too familiar now, the hotel has no record of our booking. Bacha tries to contact George, but he is in the air on a flight from Riyadh to Jeddah, and is unable to be contacted to confirm our reservation.

Eventually, some 45 minutes after we arrived, we are shown to our room, where I collapse in a heap in bed.

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Waiting in the lobby

This private tour was arranged for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 20:57 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged rain views palace museum farm sick mist roses eiffel_tower baboons saudi jeddah sickness dentist ac middle_east garage saudi_arabia viewpoint vomit nausea mecca vintage_cars taif ksa undiscovered_destinations ibis_hotel air_conditioning makkah shubra roseplantation rosefarm rosewater alshiokhroseplantation alhadaupperviewpoint hamadryas_baboons al_shareef_museum broken_ac sick_bag no_reservation Comments (0)

Medina - Al Wahba Crater - Ta'if

Mostly travelling today


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Finding the hotel restaurant proves a little difficult this morning. We are assuming they do have one (unlike a couple of the hotels we have stayed in so far), so when we bump into one of the Explore group members in the lobby, we ask if he knows. Once we realise that the R on the lift buttons means restaurant, we at least find ourselves on the correct floor, although it is still far from obvious where we go to have breakfast. Again we are saved by another traveller who appears from around a corner. There, well hidden in a side room, is the ‘restaurant’.

While I much prefer to travel independently rather than with a group such as the one we meet here, arranged by the well-known adventure holiday company Explore, it is enjoyable to have a little interlude with other westerners, chatting about travel and sharing stories. Although their itinerary is slightly different to ours, their tour is arranged through the same local agent as ours is. Today, however, they are following the same route as us, but leaving half an hour earlier – at least that means we shouldn’t be at the same place at the same time.

The journey from Medina to Ta’if is scheduled to take five hours, with just one stop along the way.

Still suffering from diarrhea, I soon need the toilet. For miles and miles, all we see is road, road, and more road. No settlements, no service stations. Eventually, Bacha, our ever-thoughtful driver, sees a truck stop and pulls in.

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I gingerly open the door to the cubicle, and to my delight, there is a western-style toilet inside. Such a relief! There is no water to flush the toilet with, but that’s another story….

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After yesterday’s debacle, you will be pleased to know that I made it in time.

Felling rather washed out as a result of the diarrhea, and from not eating much over the last couple of days, I sleep most of the time during the drive.

Al Wahba Crater
I wake up as we pull off the main road on another well-surfaced road leading to a small building. There is nothing around but flat desert, so I am at a loss as to what we are heading for.

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Blurry picture of the flat desert, taken out of the car window while I am still half asleep

At the end of the track is the aforementioned modern building, a small car park, and a footpath leading up a very slight incline to a small shelter. As we make our way along the path, it suddenly all becomes obvious - there is a great big hole in the otherwise flat surroundings: Al Wahba Crater.

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At 3,000 meters in diameter, and 380m deep, Al Wahba Crater is the largest in the country. The bottom of the crater is covered in a layer of salt. It is a popular place for hiking, but the two young chaps who turn up are refused permission to enter the crater, being told that the weather is “too hot”. They walk along the rim instead.

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As with so many other places, there is a legend attached to how this crater was formed. One dark night, a lightning bolt illuminated the Oitn Mountain, revealing its magic beauty to the nearby mountain of Tamya. Promising eternal love, Tamya pledged to move herself to be nearer Qitn. As often happens in such love stories, a jealous mountain, Chliman, intercepted the move by shooting Tamya with an arrow. All that was left of the poor, unfortunate lover, was this big hole in the ground.

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Bacha is amazed to find that the caretaker of the site is from the same small village in Pakistan as he is. Although they have never met before, his house and Bacha’s family home are a mere 3km apart. What a small world.

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There is a modern visitors centre with all the facilities here, but guess what? It is closed. We have a picnic in the shade on the porch instead, the guide managing to find a foldable chair for David, while I sit in the car.

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There are rolls, samosas, kibbe, and dates

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Fearing retaliation from my stomach, I brave just one Kibbe - a deep-fried lamb and bulghur wheat ball

While we are enjoying our picnic, the Explore group turns up. I find it most odd that they arrive here nearly an hour after us, yet they left half an hour before us. We get chatting with one of their members (who incidentally is Norwegian and works less than a kilometre away from where I lived - it seems to be a day of coincidences) who explains that they, like us, stopped at a service station to use the facilities, when one of their party was bitten by a dog. Although not seriously injured, he was taken to the hospital for a precautionary rabies shot. While he was waiting to be seen by a nurse, another group member went in search of the toilets. Once the injection had been administered, the party went on their way, and it wasn't until they'd driven a couple of kms down the road that they realised there was one person missing. The lady who'd gone to the toilet. Thankfully they found her fairly easily when they returned to the hospital, but this is what delayed them and why they turned up so much later than us.

I soon regret eating anything at all, as my tummy goes into cramps. I am, however, assured by the guide that there is a good toilet just two kilometres away in a service station on the main road to Ta’if.

Bacha stops at every service station, mosque, and truck stop we see along the way, but they are either closed or so basic that Bacha doesn’t want me to use them. Finally, we find a huge service station with a reasonably clean toilet. Success!

Back on the road again and we see a mirage of camels being herded by a 4x4 vehicle in the distance, across the flat, featureless desert.

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It is not a mirage.

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Petrol
The car is running low on fuel, so Bacha calls in a petrol station to fill up. He comes back and explains that there is “no balance left” on the company card. He takes a photo of the message on the pump and sends to his boss, and we just wait until the boss has added some funds to the account before he can fill up with diesel.

Ta’if
For some reason I imagined Ta’if to be a small provincial town – instead, it is a big, modern city. I didn’t expect that!

Iris Boutique Hotel
Tonight’s accommodation has changed from the original itinerary, and Bacha asks us for the name of the hotel. He proceeds to drive out of town, through some dodgy-looking areas and building sites, down dirt tracks in what looks like some poorer areas. No sign of the hotel.

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David looks it up on his phone, and using Google maps, guides Bacha back into the centre of the town, some 25 minutes away, where we finally find the hotel.

It is not a luxurious hotel, but the room is nice, and it is clean. The shower is good, but we find the entire bathroom floor is soaked afterwards.

There is a coffee shop in the lobby, so we go down to see if we can get something to eat. The coffee shop is closed, but the manager explains: “Room service. You can order anything you like”.

We return to the room to peruse the glossy menu and decide on a chicken burger, fajita, a couple of mango juices, and a tiramisu.

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We call 807 for the restaurant as suggested, asking if we are able to order some room service. “Ring 0 for reception” is their short answer.

We do.

“You need to ring 807 for the restaurant”

“We just did. They told us to ring 0”. The receptionist reluctantly takes our order.

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

“I am sorry, the restaurant only has croissants”.

“Erm… we’ll have croissants then. Two each please.”

“Would you like anything else?”

“Like what? You said there is only croissants?”

“Coffee? Water?”

As there are a couple of complimentary bottles of water in the room, as well as a coffee maker, we stick with just the croissants.

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They are very nice croissants, but...

By 21:00 we still have not heard from Bacha regarding the start time tomorrow, so I message him. He almost immediately replies: “I shall ask Mr George (the local agent)” I then promptly lose the internet, so am not able to receive any further replies. Finally, after using David’s phone – which strangely enough is still connected to the internet, we hear back from Bacha just after 22:00, to say that we will be leaving at 09:00 tomorrow morning.

My tummy is rumbling noisily and ominously as I climb into bed this evening, warning me of a disturbed night with many trips to the bathroom.

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

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:01 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged toilet camels picnic crater mirage medina saudi legend middle_east diarrhea saudi_arabia croissants taif undiscovered_destinations room_service service_station 'ksa breakfast_restaurant ta'if wahba wahbah wahba_crater kibbe iris_boutique_hotel Comments (0)

Bird Watching - Maraya - Al Ula Old Town - Medina

A fascinating day, but not feeling my best


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

Birding
Yesterday morning as we walked to the restaurant for breakfast, I noticed a few birds hanging around the hotel gardens. I wished I’d had my long lens with me at the time, so this morning I get up early to do some birding before breakfast.

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White Spectacled Bulbul

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Tristram's Starling

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Red Backed Shrike

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Spotted Flycatcher

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Arabian Green Bee Eater

A couple of nice little lifers there (birds we have not previously seen).

After yesterday’s frustration and disappointment at having to explore the sites on a group tour, we decide to give the Al Ula Old Town excursion this morning a miss. Instead, we ask Bacha, our lovely driver, to take us to see some ultra-modern architecture that I have read about, as an alternative.

Maraya
We encounter the first problem before we even get near the building – there is no entry to the site unless you are on a group tour organised by the tourist office. Groan.

Bacha, having previously spent some time in Al Ula, knows another way. That road too, is blocked off so we cannot enter. Looking at google maps, Bacha explores yet another possible way in, and it turns out to be third time lucky. This is the route taken by the construction vehicles, and Bacha sweet-talks the supervisor by talking to him in Urdu, the official’s native language (and one of several that Bacha can speak). The guard agrees to let us pass, but gives us only eight minutes inside, just about enough time to be able to drive around the building without stopping.

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Trucks travelling to and from Maraya on the dirt road cutting through the mountainous desert scenery

So what exactly is Maraya? This is the world’s largest mirrored building (Mataya means mirror or reflection in Arabic) with 9740 mirrored panels, and is designed to blend into the desert landscape and rise from it like a mirage.

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As part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan of greatness on the world tourism scale, Maraya has been coined the centrepiece of Al Ula’s growing cultural scene. The building features a restaurant (we were even told that foreigners are permitted to drink alcohol there, but whether that is true or not I have no idea), a concert auditorium, a wedding venue, a conference centre, and a place for art exhibitions to name a few.

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This award-winning architectural masterpiece was completed in just 2½ months in 2019, and is constructed so that it can “move and adjust itself” to the wide range of temperatures in the desert.

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Like a mirage, Maraya plays tricks with my mind – I struggle to make out what is the background and what are reflections as the building seemingly appears and disappears while we are driving around it. It really is quite extraordinary.

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Much as I love history, seeing this unique reflective cube that has ostensibly been plonked amongst stunning rocky outcrops, adding to the beauty of the desert scenery, is of more interest to me this morning. I am so glad we had the opportunity to work around the rules and get a quick glimpse.

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Spotting our car on the mirrored surface

By the time we get back into town, I am desperate for the loo and am grateful for the recent expansion of Al Ula to attract world tourists as I enter the modern toilet with a ‘proper’ western seat in the new bus station. I have never enjoyed having the ‘squits of the squats’, but with my bad knee, it could be pretty disastrous. I take some Ciprofloaxin (antibiotics that 'should' help clear up any diarrhea), just in case, for the long journey ahead.

Old Al Ula Town
This is where our itinerary was supposed to be taking us this morning, but when I see the large groups of people getting off the buses at the edge of the town and walking to the ruins of the old city, I am even more glad we opted out of the old and into the new this morning.

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It’s an extensive site and not much is left of the once-important city.

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It is said that Mohammed came through here on his way from Mecca and stayed for three days, which attracts a number of Muslims who come here to pray.

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I sleep for a while as we make our way towards our last destination of the day: Medina. When I wake up, I am in dire need of a toilet. This. Very. Minute. Explaining my urgency to Bacha, he looks out for service stations, which are few and far between on these long-distance roads. He spots one and pops in to check it out for me. Closed. The second one is also closed. It is now becoming so desperate that I no longer care whether there is a seat or a hole in the ground, I just need to go!

Bacha pulls up at a mosque and finds the attached ablutions building open, with a communal toilet block. Hurrying as carefully as I can to avoid any sudden jerky movements, I rush in. As I open the door, my bowels scream “can I let go now?” with me pleasing “no, no, no, not yet!” I will spare you the gory details but suffice to say that for the first time ever on all our many travels, I don’t make it to the cubicle in time.

After changing all my clothes and cleaning up the mess (this was not the day to wear white trousers), I collapse with embarrassment in the car and immediately go back to sleep.

Al Anbariah Restaurant
On the outskirts of Medina we stop at a traditional restaurant where we meet up with our local guide, another Ali. As a traditional hospitality greeting, the manager brings out an incense burner – thankfully it is only symbolic, as both David and I can feel our eyes stinging and noses running as soon as the smoke hits us.

Ali orders a selection of dishes for our lunch. What a spread! The plates just keep arriving, there must be enough food to feed around 20 people.

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I really shouldn’t eat much, if anything, but I don’t want to offend, either, so I take just a very small helping.

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Fattoush - a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, mint, parsley, and toasted pitta bread

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Hummus

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Shorba - a complimentary soup offered by the management as part of the hospitality

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Selik - rice with milk served with chicken in a spicy sauce

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Another different type of rice with chicken

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Molichia - a green vegetable sauce to go with the chicken and rice, which is made from a vegetable known in English as jute mallow

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Bamya - a chicken and okra stew

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Camel kebabs with bread and a yogurt sauce

After all that food, a dessert is brought out.

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Echestraya - a pudding made from bread, milk, rosewater, sugar, and date honey. It is similar to a crumble and absolutely delicious!

And there is Arabian coffee to finish, of course.

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Medina
Medina is the second holiest city for Muslims after Mecca, and I am requested to wear an abaya and hejab as we tour the holy sites this afternoon.

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Ali, our local guide here in Medina

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi AKA The Prophet's Mosque or the Grand Mosque
Along with thousands of other people, we head to the Grand Mosque in time for the afternoon prayers. As non-Muslims, we are not permitted to enter the mosque compound, but Ali finds us the perfect viewpoint where we can observe the many different nationalities who have made their way here to pray, some of whom have come from afar.

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We see people from Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, other Arab nations, and more, all heading for the Tomb of Mohammed to pay their respects. Muslims believe that the rewards of praying in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi are better than 1,000 prayers in any other mosque.

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The large courtyard in front of the mosque is covered in the most amazing and ornate umbrellas that are being lowered automatically as we arrive. I would love to see the courtyard from the inside with all the umbrellas up.

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Umbrellas being lowered

According to the internet, this is what it looks like:

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Photo: King Eliot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, that is never going to happen, so I make the most of soaking in the incredible ambiance that surrounds this place. Despite still feeling pretty rough, I am totally mesmerised by this place, with its peaceful and reverent atmosphere.

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The umbrellas are completely folded up now, and blend seamlessly into the rest of the architecture.

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The surrounding area is one huge hotel complex, with more springing up by the minute.

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Still, they are struggling to meet demand. When I see the number of people here today, just an ordinary day, not even a Friday, I cannot begin to imagine what this place is like during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage).

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These images from the internet show the sheer scale of the haram of the mosque (the sanctuary area inaccessible to non-Muslims).

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Hejaz Railway Museum
The former railway station has been turned into a museum with artifacts from the age of the railways and earlier.

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By now I am suffering from some bad stomach cramps, so I stay in the car with Bacha while David and Ali go in. The museum is very crowded, so they don’t stay long. The following images are screen grabs taken from David’s video.

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The foyer

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Model of the museum

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Museum exhibits

While we are waiting, a man knocks on the window of the car, holding up a bunch of grapes. “Medina grapes,” he says as he hands Bacha the fruits and walks off. The last thing I would want to eat right now, is unwashed grapes. Bacha tries one, screws his face up, and states: “No good”. As I say to Bacha, perhaps that is why the chap is giving them away.

Not long afterwards another man comes along offering grapes – this time Bacha just waves him on.

Quba Mosque
Built in 622AD as the Prophet Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina where he made his home, this was the very first mosque to be constructed anywhere in the world. At the time, it had palm trees for pillars and leaves for the roof, and it was built by the Prophet himself and his companions. Over time, various caliphs have renovated and extended the mosque to the super-mosque we see today, with four minarets, 56 domes, and a capacity of 15,000 devotees.

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Bacha explains that to Muslims, this is a very special place to pray, and he excitedly asks if he and Ali can go and make their sundown prayers here as he has never had the opportunity before. Right at the start of this tour, we told Bacha that we are very happy for him to stop at any time to make prayers during the trip, and he has briefly done so on a couple of previous occasions. Meanwhile, David and I are left babysitting the car, which is double parked in the overfull car park.

Alia Al Madina Farm
No trip to Saudi Arabia is complete without a visit to a date farm. This place, the oldest farm in Medina, is reached via a long fenced alley; and once inside there is a touristy open-air space that is a peculiar mixture of workshops, a café, shops, and a museum.

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The Explore group (a small group tour operator) that we saw yesterday is already here, it seems.

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First, we are shown how these seats are made from rope and palm leaves. While the place is touristy in appearance, there is no sales pressure.

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The main item produced here is dates. There are so many different dates, and we are shown the best ones in the area. Neither of us is particularly fond of dates, but after being given a taster, we buy some date syrup, at great cost.

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In the ‘museum’ part of the complex, we are shown how the farm may have looked in the early days.

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Archer’s Hill
There is a lot of Islamic history tied to this hill, mostly because of the Battle of Uhud that took place here in the 7th century between the non-believers of Makkah, and the Muslims. In the battle, 50 archers were posted on Archers' Hill to protect the Muslim army from attack, under strict instructions from Mohammed to stay there. Some members of the army, however, mistakingly believed the battle was over and deserted their post, which led to the Makkah army gaining an advantage resulting in a great loss of lives for the Muslims.

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Ali manages to obtain special permission for us to drive around the site rather than walk, because of my knee injury.

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Martyr’s Cemetery
Many pilgrims come here to visit the sacred hill, as well as the cemetery next to it, where the bodies of 70 martyrs from the battle are buried. It serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of disobeying the Prophet Muhammed.

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Bacha goes to pay his respect at the cemetery.

Sayyid al-Shudada Mosque
The mosque is named after Mohammed’s uncle, Hamzah (full name Sayed al-Shohada Hamzah ibn Abdul Muttalib), who was killed in the aforementioned battle. The mosque is a recent structure, completed in 2017, but replaces another mosque structure that was originally attached to Hamzah’s tomb.

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Delights Inn
When we get to the hotel, the Explore group is already there, checking in. One lady has a problem, and it takes the single receptionist ages to get through them all.

By the time it is finally our turn, we get the usual dreaded question: “Have you booked?” Yet again they struggle to find our reservation, but eventually, some 20 minutes after we first arrived, we do have somewhere to retire to.

The room is small, but the bed is enormous. I do not feel like eating anything this evening after my mishap earlier, and as there is no restaurant in the hotel itself, we just retire to bed. David ate a lot at our late lunch, anyway.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fascinating trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 22:33 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged hotels desert mosque cemetery museum grapes farm toilet birding mirage arabia medina parasols flycatcher saudi shrike dates muslims runs bulbul middle_east mohammed starting hummus bird_watching saudi_arabia birdlife ksa undiscovered_destinations ciprofloxacin diarrhoea bee_eater grand_mosque bird_photography arabic_coffee al_ula sahary_resort maraya al_anbarian_restauarnt camel_meat incense_burner tomb_of_mohammed fattoush shorba selik molichia bamya camel_kebabs echestraya al_masjid_an_nawwabi the_prophets_mosque quba_mosque unbrellas haram hejaz hejaz_railway_museum railway_museum alia_al_madina_farm date_farm archers-hill battle_of_uhud uhud martyrs_cemetery sayyid_al_shudada_mosque hamzah sayed_al_shohada_hamzah_ibn_abd delights_inn Comments (0)

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 (2)

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 (3)

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 (3)

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 (2)

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


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

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)

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