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Riyadh - Ushayqer - Bureidah

Camels, salt production, and a Heritage Village


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

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 (2)

Serdar - Kopetdag - Magtymguly - Mollakara - Balkanabad

Moon Mountains and the Salt Sea


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast this morning in the guest house here at Serdar consists of yogurt, cherry jam, cheese, tomatoes and the ever-present bread. There can't be many nations on earth who eat as much bread as the Turkmen do.

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Later we are asked if we want fried egg and salami. It's an unusual combination, but rather enjoyable.

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This morning's drive takes us south through barren and desolate scenery, with no trees or even falcons, which we saw many of on our journey yesterday. Nothing. The place appears eerily devoid of life.

We are now nearing the Iranian border and arrive at a restricted area that requires special permission to enter. We have been warned that the checks here may take a while, and that we are to avoid photography at all costs. We hand over our passports, which Artem (our cute driver) takes to the police post along with vehicle registration documents, his driving licence and the tourist authorisation certificate; and wait. And wait. Meanwhile we listen to music in the car; Artem plays a good mix of popular western and Russian songs. The procedure takes just over 25 minutes in all, and we are on our way again.

Moon Mountains

The Kopetdag Mountains is a 600 kilometre long mountain range stretching along the Turkmenistan-Iran border. The landscape is distinctly lunar in appearance, living up to its local nickname of 'Moon Mountains'. The name Kopetdag, in fact, means 'many mountains' in the Turkmen language.

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Once located at the bottom of the sea, the heavily furrowed sedimentary rock slopes look like soft gravel or even slag heaps, but are in fact more akin to solidified mud, and very firm underfoot. We see evidence of crustaceans on the ground, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

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Stretching as far as the eye can see, the forbidding desert-like landscape is as curious as it is beautiful – seeing the arid remains of low-level vegetation, I can but wonder what it would look like in spring, after the rains, when plants and flowers come to life.

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This area is rich with pomegranate and walnut trees, and we see a number of the former along the side of the road.

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It's the first time we have seen pomegranates in their natural habitat, and I am keen to see how they grow and photograph them. That is one of the numerous things I love about travel – exotic fruits that I have only ever seen in the supermarkets, are commonplace somewhere in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that however much we travel, we still manage to get 'firsts' on every single trip.

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Magtymguly Museum

We make a stop at a small museum dedicated to a local hero, Magtymguly Pyragy, who was an Iranian-Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet in the 18th century.

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Looking at the copies of some of the books Magtymguly has written, I am intrigued by the frames within each page containing diagonal writing. Neither the guide nor the museum curator are able to shed any light on this peculiar aspect.

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Magtymguly was much more than a renowned poet; he also worked as a silversmith for a while.

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He even made a wedding ring for Mengli, the girl he loved and wanted to marry. Unfortunately her family forbade the union, and the ring remained unworn.

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Magtymguly had a number of strong political views, and fought to keep the Turkmen-way sacred, as well as maintaining the harmony and integrity of the Turkmen nation. He became a symbol of Turkmen unity but also a common voice of Turkish and Islamic world and is revered not only in Turkmenistan but also in neighbouring countries. The museum is very proud of the artefacts associated with his life and career.

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17th century ewers found during excavations

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Meat cooler made from sheep skin

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Kitchen implements, including a pestle used to make the customary small holes found in the traditional Turkmen bread

David is suffering from a severe cold he picked up on the flight out here, with his eyes being extremely sore and sensitive to light, so stays behind in the car while I have the museum, guide, and curator to myself.

The journey back through the border control is way quicker, just a mere three minute passport check and we're on our way, continuing further west. For a while the road is intermittently bumpy, with a number of potholes, and a couple of times I find myself caught unawares and bouncing off the ceiling.

Lunch

Yet another private room with a huge flat-screen TV. This one is not playing Lara Croft, however, but a very funny Russian slap-stick comedy about an incompetent chef in a restaurant. There is no need to understand Russian to appreciate the humour, although Meylis translates any dialogue of importance. None of us want to leave when we have finished our meal, as we are desperate to find out what happens next in the soap opera. Alas, we will never know the fate of the live goose the hapless chef bought.

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After the huge lunches we've had the last couple of days, and as my tummy is still pretty fragile, I order just a plain lentil soup accompanied by the ubiquitous bread

The road from here is long and straight, cutting through a vast flat area with the Kopetdag Mountain Range behind, and in the distance a mirage appears on the horizon. It must be soul-destroying boring to drive, and although the speed limit is 90km / hour, we are travelling a 'little bit' faster than that.

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Sand from the Karakum Desert (which covers 80% of the country) blows across the road for a few miles, offering some reprieve - and interest - from the previous monotonous view.

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In this arid and barren region we are surprised to see a flood plain. Apparently the water is still here since some heavy rain they experienced in April. I am absolutely flabbergasted that surface water can survive the oppressive dry heat in this region for five months without evaporating. That must have been some rain storm! It's not just a small puddle either, but covers quite a substantial area. Meylis tells us that at the time the road was deep under water for a couple of weeks. I can well imagine that is must have been pretty bad for there still to be so much flood water left now.

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We stop at a filling station to put fuel in the car, and are impressed by the Eco 93 petrol sold here. Apparently it is the first 'clean petrol' in the world, made from gas (of which Turkmenistan has rather a lot). At 2 manat a litre (57c / 46p at the official rate of 3.5 manat per dollar) it is more expensive than regular petrol. I wish I could take some home!

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Mollakara Sanatorium and Salt Lake

Opened in 2012, the modern health spa was built in a famous therapeutic mud resort on the shores of Lake Mollakara. The lake is fed by underground sources, and its healing features include chlorides and sodium sulphate, magnesium, iron, bromine salts and other minerals.

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Artem is trying to find a way down to the lake, but it seems the sanatorium wants to monopolise the salty waters, and has closed all gates and entrances that lead down to the shore. After trying a number of options, which include ignoring signs, attempting to pick gate locks, and driving off road to get around fencing; we finally manage to get near the water's edge, only to find the lake is almost dry!

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How astonishing! We passed areas of flooding just a few miles back, yet here there is very little water left in the lake! The sanatorium websites talk about swimming and floating in the alkaline waters - here it is so shallow that you'd be lucky if your ankles get wet!

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After driving around a little bit more, Artem finds another part of the lake, where, although there is very little water left, the salt deposits are easily accessible close to the road.

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The salt has formed little ridges on the surface, creating an interesting texture.

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Like little kids, all four of us go and play on and with the crusty salt formations.

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The benefits of salty water and mud treatments have been know to people from old times, and as long ago as 1900 there was a sanatorium built here.

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Who needs an expensive health spa to reap the benefits?

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Cemetery

It seems that different regions of Turkmenistan have different traditions and cultures when it comes to burying their dead. The grave markers at this cemetery consist of leaning plants of wood.

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Balkanabat

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This area is well known for its strong winds (which we saw evidence of earlier, with the sand drifting across the road), something that is reflected in this sculpture depicting desert people leaning in to the wind and shielding their faces from the blowing sand as they walk.

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Balkanabat may be a modern city built on the proceeds of oil; but there are still unattended camels wandering around the streets.

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Nebichi Hotel

As with the hotel we stayed at in Ashgabat, Nebichi Hotel looks palatial from the outside and has a grand-looking lobby.

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What it doesn't have, however, is a lift. Nor does it provide more than one set of towels or spare roll(s) of toilet paper. This seems to be a common trend here in Turkmenistan, and we ring for Housekeeping to bring the missing items to the room. Thankfully Meylis helps carry our bags up the two flights of stairs. Having a strong young man for a guide, certainly has its advantages.

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Dinner

As he did last night, Meylis knocks on the door as he has been asked to come down to the restaurant to help us order as the waitress speaks no English.

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The restaurant is full of idiosyncrasies – lovely linen tablecloth, covered in tacky-looking plastic; and the beautifully folded cloth napkins are apparently just for decorative purposes. Once the waitress has taken our order, she removes David's napkin and places it on a storage cabinet next to us. As soon as she is out of sight, however, I recover the napkin and place it back onto David's plate. When she returns with our drinks, the server yet again removes the cloth napkin, and brings us cheap paper serviettes instead. By this stage I have already unfolded mine and put it on my lap, so the moment she disappears back into the kitchen again, I carefully re-fold it, thread it through the little serviette-ring and put in with David's on the side. I might as well comply with the unwritten napkin rule and enjoy a my beer.

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Too pretty to be used

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David's head cold is still making his eyes extremely sensitive to light, so he plays Mr Cool with his sunglasses on.

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Adana Kebab - meat in a wrap with vegetables and a tasty sauce.

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The beef stroganoff features the best meat we've had so far on the trip

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Russian salad. With ham. In a Muslim country. OK.....

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The food is good, and we go to bed feeling very satisfied after another fascinating day here in Turkmenistan. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 06:12 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged beer desert landscape cemetery scenery museum dinner tv flood camel salt gas petrol cold travel_photography mirage poetry fuel arid comedy poet turkmenistan salt_lake kebab central_asia undiscovered_destinations head_cold pomegranate karakum ex_ussr fried_salami border_checks moon_mountains kopetdag kopetdag_mountains lunar_scenery pomegranate_trees magtymguly magtymguly_museum private_dining lentil_soup karakum_desert mollakara sanatorium mollakara_sanatorium mollakara_salt_lake balkanabat petrol_station nebichi_hotel idiosyncrasy napkin napkin_saga serviette adana_kebab beef_stroganoff stroganoff russian_salad Comments (11)

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