Our evening flight from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh rounds the Qatar peninsula and shortly afterwards gives us a wonderful view of the sea of lights marking clearly the contours of the island of Bahrain and the causeway connecting it with the Saudi coast. Soon we enter Saudi airspace and descend into Riyadh. In Riyadh, immigration procedures are remarkably smooth and in no time we are heading to the hotel for the night.
Having been told at the hotel reception desk that the Kingdom Tower opens at 9am, we're there on time to start our day. In fact, the building, a skyscraper landmark in the form of two tall spines connected by a sky bridge, opens only at 11am. So, we decide to come back later. Through chaotic traffic a taxi gets us to the old downtown area, dusty, busy and overall as chaotic as the city's traffic. We wander by the restored Bab Thumairi, a souq close by and Dira square, nastily reputed as the scene of Riyadh's beheadings and therefore also known as "chop chop square". Adjacent to it stands a modern and elegant mosque. Also in the immediate surroundings, we visit the Masmak Fort, nicely restored and housing a very interesting display of Riyadh's history. The taxi driver we hire never finds the Murabba Fort, apparently 2km to the North. Tired of driving around and around, in heavy traffic made even worse by a rain shower, we finally return to the Kingdom Tower. It is now 2pm, but apparently it’s closed down for the day again in the meantime. We'll give it another try next week, when we're back in Riyadh. For now, it's back to the airport for our flight to Jeddah.
Jeddah is cosmopolitan, open to the sea and the world, visibly exposed since ever to outside influence. Jeddah deals with the outside world with a flair and ease, that Riyadh obviously does not master. You feel this immediately in the street atmosphere and in the way local people are accessible for a chat or a mutual greeting. It’s day and night with Riyadh, which we frankly did not really like that much anyway.
A walk through Balad, Jeddah's old city centre, is an absolute treat with its multitude of merchant houses adorned with the delicate wooden maze of balconies, hanging from their tall, whitewashed façades. Balad convincingly betrays Jeddah’s historical grandeur as the main trading centre on the Red Sea coast.
The air is hot and full of humidity. A lunch and, more importantly, airco stop in the Intercontinental Hotel at the Corniche help us recover from the long walk through the Balad area. Afterwards we go off again for a stroll along the line of modern statues that are dotted over the entire length of Jeddah's seafront. Definitely not all, but at least some of the statues are quite tasteful and nice. The sea breeze does little to cool down the shadowless corniche, so once we reach the elegant white mosque by the sea, we quit and call it a day. A shower, a set of fresh clothes and an icecream at our hotel ready us for our 8pm flight to Medina.
From Medina to Mada'in Saleh
I suppose Medina must be quite interesting to visit, but we're Christians and are not allowed into town. So be it. The plan for today is thus to ignore Medina and to hit the road immediately, Northbound, to Mada'in Saleh.
Underway we were supposed to visit the Hejaz Railway station of Buwayr, where an entire train with engine and ten wagons still stand on the rails, now rusted, but a century back constructed by the Ottoman Turks to connect Damascus to Medina. The railway was inaugurated in 1908, but was never properly in operation: on account of British strategic interests T.E. Lawrence and his beduin rebels saw to that during the Great War, sabotaging, attacking, destroying the Turkish military convoys that used the Hejaz railway. Just like the Hejaz Railway did not work out for the Turks, neither does the visit to Buwayr station for us. At the origin of this are security reasons of modern days, the fear for random terror attacks prompting authorities to make us cancel the Buwayr detour. Too bad, but we have to take it as it comes.
So, from Medina we travel more or less straight to Mada'in Saleh, apart from two brief stops at minor Hejaz railway stations along our road. We check into our hotel in Al Ula, near Mada’in Saleh around 1pm. It is really “our” hotel, as we seem to be the only guests.
After lunch and some rest in the hotel, our Saudi guide takes us through a bit of a sandstorm to the impressing sandstone rock formations surrounding Al Ula: Elephant Rock, steep pinnacles scattered over the sand and lava desert, sharply edged ridges that remind us of the American South West, and finally some early age Nabataean tombs and inscriptions. We are merely gearing up for tomorrow's highlight, says the guide, but we are frankly quite impressed already by the beauty of the scenery.
The guide was right: we were just gearing up yesterday, and compared to what we get to see today, the sights of yesterday become nearly futile. About 30 km due North of Al Ula lies the ancient city of Mada'in Saleh, centre of Nabataean civilization, less known than Petra in Jordan, but still awfully impressive. Mada’in Saleh is actually quite different from Petra, although both sites visibly belong to the same Nabataean civilization. Whereas Petra is composed of a series of tombs squeezed together in a narrow valley of steep rock walls, Mada'in Saleh is spread out over an extensive desert plain dotted with rock formations of reddish sandstone. About 140 Nabataean tombs, some of them more than 20 m tall, are carved out from these huge rocks. For a day and a half we explore the area, on foot and by car, as the most impressive tombs are quite far apart from one another. A highlight is definitely the Qasr al Fareed, its façade covering the entire height of the solitary rock into which it is carved. Unforgettable is the warm red glow the tomb takes under the last rays of a setting sun. But it's nearly unfair to single out the beauty of this one tomb, because so many tomb façades are to be remembered for the delicate balance of their features and for the detail of craftsmanship, displayed in flower elements, columns in basrelief, symbolic V-shaped 5-step decorations above the fronton, eagles and human faces sculpted above the entrance, etc, etc. Mada'in Saleh is not nicer nor less attractive than Petra. It's simply different and deserves to be appreciated for its own value, without being subject to unfair and unnecessary comparisons.
We travel from antiquity to the late 19th century in minutes: only a few hundred meters away from the Nabataean tombs lie the important remnants of one of the main stations of the CHF, short for "Chemin de Fer du Hejaz", built by the Ottomans between 1900 and 1908 from Damascus to Medina. The railway has been dismantled again since a long time, but the track bed is still very visible as it runs straight through the Mada'in Saleh antiquities area, leading to one of the major stations on the line. German built houses, ticketing offices, a hotel, a workshop with German and Belgian carriages and a locomotive, it's all lying around the place, in various states of preservation. The entire area eerily expresses the melancholy of a grand project fallen apart: once as World War One provoked the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and a second time, more recently, as the events of 9/11 put an abrupt end to the Saudi government's efforts to restore the station area as an original tourist hotel located in the vicinity of the ancient ruins.
The Islamic fort near the railway workshop is much older, but fits very nicely into the extensive complex of buildings. After all, it too was constructed by the Turks, in a time that people traveled the pilgrimage road to Medina and Mecca in camel caravans.
The city doesn't offer much to its visitors, apart from decent accommodation close to Mada'in Saleh. Still, it's rewarding to make a brief detour to the museum, a stroll through the old mudbrick village and a 650 meter climb by car to the volcanic plateau of the Hara mountain, where a magnificent sunset view over the Al Ula valley is the reward. Our late afternoon pictures from the top could easily be mixed with those taken on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Talking about canyons.
Just outside Al Ula we drive through thick sand, by 4WD to the edge of the magnificent Jabal Abu Aud Canyon. In the shadow of a steep wall of rock, we leave the car behind and work our way along a rather strenuous hiking path through the narrow canyon bed. Magnificent rock paintings, some of them in Nabataean script, and breathtaking vistas over the rocks and walls of red sandstone make this visit somehow off the beaten track more than worthwhile.
The Railway to the North
North of Mada'in Saleh the Hejaz Railway track continues towards Tabuk and the Jordanian border. By 4WD we follow the parallel sand tracks, which are -unfortunately- being replaced by a tar road that will soon scar the splendid scenery. Rarely have I seen a more diverse and beautiful desert, the sand in constantly alternating color tones and swept up as glaciers against the mountain walls, red, purple and blue-ish, according to the reflection of the intense sunlight. Along the straight line of stones and ballast, on which the rail track once lay, we encounter several substations, some of them in an excellent state of preservation, others falling apart because of flash floods, wind erosion, or simply the hand of man. In none of the stations any of the rolling stock is left, although reported in publications of less than ten years old: in the current years of high metal prices, recovery of old steel is a lucrative business, so it seems.
To Hail and on to Riyadh
The five hour drive from Al Ula to Hail is only of interest for the first hundred km, as the tar road winds between and around the mountain ranges, equally spectacular as the ones at Mada'in Saleh. Soon, however, the scenery fades away, the open spaces become wider and with this gradual change of landscape, we realize that we have to bite a 300 km bullet of monotonous and flat desert, all the way to Hail.
Before we catch our flight to Riyadh, we squeeze in a short visit to Hail's two mudbrick castles, Qasr al Arif on a hill above the city and Qashallah. Both are nicely restored but solidly locked for visitors. A walk around the mud walls is what we have to settle for. Interesting are the whitewashed triangular motives at the wall tops, the skillfully carved wooden windows and gates, and the protruding blind balconies from where attacking enemies could be taken under fire without risk for the defender.
Opposite the Qashallah castle rise the two square minarets of Hail's main mosque.
It's time now to proceed to the airport for our Saudia flight to Riyadh, where we close the circle of our Arabian wanderings.
A second passage in Riyadh
Last week we had taken “a rain check” on a visit to the sky bridge of the Kingdom Tower, but even it is not raining at all, there will be no sky bridge visit this time around either: in the hotel we’re now told that you need to arrange in advance a permit to visit the place. Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know, I guess. Information is volatile and unreliable, so we have experienced a few times in the course of the past week. Anyway. We settle for an elevator ride to the top of the Al Faisaliah Tower, not quite as high, but to my taste definitely a more elegant structure than the Kingdom Tower. A matter of personal taste, I suppose. The vistas from the viewing platform of the Al Faisaliah Tower are nice, but not really spectacular. Above all, they confirm that Riyadh is a large but not particularly beautiful city. I tend to believe that the views must be more impressing at night, when the panorama over the ugly four-five story buildings of the city’s road grid is substituted by a view over the sea of city lights reaching as far as the eye goes.
We also pay a short visit to the Pakistani souq, where second class carpets and even poorer souvenirs “made in IROP” (Islamic Republic of Pakistan) are sold at first class prices. To be forgotten asap.
From here we drive to the old village of Al Diraiyah, the original stronghold of the Saud family, and hence the place from where the Sauds extended their power over other tribes and leading families, and in the process established the Kingdom as it is known today. It all goes back to the 1920s. The village itself is about two centuries old, although most of the palaces of Saud family members were constructed only 70-80 years ago. Many of the village buildings are in a sorry state of preservation, but it is more than just worthwhile to wander about the mudbrick ruins spread over a plateau above the wadi. Among the most remarkable buildings, nicely restored, are the palace of Saad bin Saud, with an impressive set of square towers, and the guest house with a white dome covering public baths. Unexpectedly, the visit to Al Diraiyah is a highlight, and we just regret we have not more time available to walk about the place at a more leisurely pace. On the other hand, we consider ourselves lucky that we could visit the place at all thanks to a comfortable transport arrangement by a friend in Riyadh. For, reaching Al Diraiyah from downtown Riyadh is neither an easy nor a cheap undertaking.
A long half day of visits in and around Riyadh is wound up with our transfer back to the airport, for our return flight to Abu Dhabi. A week in Saudi Arabia has come to an end and soon we are airborne towards the Gulf, flying over a desert landscape that looks even more desolate and barren when viewed through a plane window instead of a car’s windscreen. The tombs of Mada’in Saleh, the rusty trains of the Hejaz railway and the merchant houses of Jeddah already seem so far away, there, beyond the endless sands and their hazy horizon that trembles in the heath of the afternoon sun.
Obtaining a visa for Saudi Arabia may not be as easy as in other countries, but apart from that, the trip we made is fairly straightforward to organize. We have experienced Saudi Arabian Airlines to be a very reliable and punctual airline, hotels offer a very reasonable to excellent price-quality level, the roads are good and not overly busy, the Saudis are quite welcoming and friendly.
Security is of course a bit of a concern, not in the sense of theft and robbery, but in the sense of potential terror attacks, obviously a danger which is very much on the mind of the authorities. From Medina to Mada’in Saleh, for the visits there and for the trip on to Hail, we have been constantly followed by a police car. This may sound a bit awkward and scary, but it did actually create a feeling of protection and safety. Wandering about the cities of Riyadh and Jeddah is not a problem at all, as things are fairly relaxed and we did not sense any insecurity whatsoever while visiting.
Things are also reasonably relaxed in terms of dressing code. We’ve seen quite frequently Western women walking around town and in airports with a black abaya dress, but without their heads covered, and we’ve seen Western men in short sleeves. Still, we have opted to dress rather conventionally and not draw more attention than necessary. In retrospect, I think this was a wise option to take.
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