Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ten Days in an abaya: 11-23 Feb 12 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of three countries high on my list of places to go; also high on the list of countries difficult to access. And it looks like I will get to all three this year. But back to Saudi Arabia: Lonely Planet terms the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as “one of the hardest places in the world to visit” unless you are willing to sign onto “fixed itinerary, high end package tours”. Which I finally did though the itinerary was pretty flexible.

Even so, I had to write a short essay for the KSA embassy people, justifying my interest in visiting the country before I received my visa. So with eight others, including the tour leader, the Arabic speaking owner of the travel company, I took off. The trip managed to touch north and south and places in between. Did several internal flights and one long road trip. I saw desert and mountains, modern and old buildings, covered and uncovered woman’s heads --but all women in abayas. We touched on eight cities, staying overnight in six.

Riyadh, the capital, was the most conservative - head scarves were mandatory for the women with a number also wearing face veils with eyes only showing. Luckily, we ran into the Janadriyah celebration with its performances and exhibitions - and locals interested in taking photos with/of us. Then there was the usual sight seeing: the city’s tallest building with requisite observation deck,a beautifully designed museum, the Old Town, the souk, first of many, and an old fortress.

And traffic in Riyadh, and elsewhere, was fierce. Though our local guide said there was public transport, I didn’t see any. But taxis did good business. And the Toyota company did well, both in the cities and countryside. Toyotas abounded!

We flew to the south and Najran, near the Yemeni border. I felt I had returned to Yemen for the architecture was so much the same - mud bricks with white trim. It was here we met the security police that sporadically led/followed our bus about throughout the trip. The outstanding bit for me was seeing photos by St. John Philby at the Museum. And there ws a camel market plus sheep and goats. A Pakistani goat was a featured player - big and homely - never saw one quite like him before! A huge dam in progress, the local souk and the Historical Palace were before the the nearby ancient rock carvings, the first of a number scattered throughout the country. Per LP, there are some two thousand sites with concentrations about Najran, Al Ula and Hail, extending back some three thousand years.

The mountain city of Abha, adjacent to he Asir National Park with the deserted village of Habalah. was next. A cable car ride takes visitors to the “hanging” village where residents had gotten around via climbing ropes. There was a second cable car ride to another almost inaccessible village. Lovely mountainous countryside.

Next a flight to Jeddah followed by a long, rather tedious ride to Al Ula and the old Railway stations along the Hejaz and the Nabatean ruins (step child to Petra in Jordan) in Mada’in Saleh. This was what I was most interested in for I have been digging along the Hejaz Railway in Jordan for the past four years as part of the Great Arab Revolt Project, and been into Petra on various occasions.

Most of the Saudi track and ties had been “liberated” by locals to use for building projects - our bus gingerly drove atop the railway bed for several miles. Unfortunately, the train barn was locked and I couldn’t see the restored engine though I did wander about the numerous restored buildings at the Hejaz Station - plans are to add a hotel and make it more a tourist site.

Mada’in Salah ws much more spread out than Petra but with less spectacular tombs. A combination of Petra with Wadi Rum. There is a small siq near one site and many of the formations are quite unique and colorful. Time spent there was well worth while. - nothing like clambering about with abeya tied about the waist.

Though there was no overnight stay at Talma, we did spend time there. A very significant archaeological site with the well of all wells, at one time using up to sixty camels to bring up water. The night was spent at Hail, significant as a stopping point for the pilgrims to the Holy Cities and home to the Rashidis, early rivals to Ibn Saud. Then backtracking to the Jubbah area, where there were numerous petrogyph sites. The museum fascinated me with old photos of TE Lawrence, Glubb Pasha and Anne Blunt.

Hail to Jeddah via air for two days and a night: there was the routine sightseeing drive. A wander about the Old Town, still inhabited by refugees from Africa’s conflicted areas. Missed out on one museum but managed part of another with with rooms designed in Arabesque styles with filming of the entire collection. The Corniche was quite impressive and there were malls and souks enough to make any shopper’s heartbeat quicken. Did get to the fish market, where an old Arab,a former Texas resident, wanted his photo taken with me along with a kiss. Then out to a camel farm where camel milk was offered - tried it, still warm from the camel’s udder.

I did met an academic who had studied in the States, a woman who was a King’s Scholar, working in Artificial Intelligence affiliated with the universities at Jeddah and Hail. Bright, attractive and articulate.

I didn’t find the old British Legation nor the old French Embassy where T E Lawrence stayed at various intervals.

The tour leader asked about the difference between expectations and reality after our time in Saudi Arabia: I found it not as repressive as I expected; people were open and friendly. Also the tourist infrastructure was extensive, contrasted with the difficulty of getting visas and dearth of tourists. I didn’t expect English to be a common second language. Another was amazed at the extensive amount of rock art.

Observations: In contrast to the highrises, glass and steel, concrete modern buildings of Riyadh and Jeddah, there was the occasional black Bedu tent in the countryside - with pickup, and livestock, including a couple of camels. In the same vein, I was surprised that most of the toilets were Western rather than “squat. This is truly a country of wealth and progress, except in Human Rights as we Westerners understand them. But the English-language newspapers seemed free enough - Associated Press coverage. Television had BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

Food: uniformly good. Mostly hotel buffets though ate a couple of times in local cafes - rice and meat in central platter with a right hand grab. Two times at airports. Several times in upscale restaurants.

Accommodations: Four to five star. Radisson, Holiday Inn and Intercontinental. What more can I say. Best available but then, LP states women should not stay at lesser hotels.

Cost: Tour cost $6715, inclusive meals and domestic flights. Overseas airfare was $1374. Tips totaled about $250. Cat care was $520.

All in all, a good trip - a comfortable trek across the country, sort of a survey 101. Came home with a plethora of maps and literature plus a CD from KSA Tourist Authority.

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