Monday, February 6, 2012

Saudi Road Trip Part One: Riyadh-Abha

My mother recently visited us in Saudi and we wanted to show her as much as we could of the country so we decided to go on a road trip around Southern Saudi-Arabia. What an awesome way to explore the Kingdom! I love the fact that you can stop wherever and whenever you like to check out the surroundings. The highways are mostly in excellent condition and well, gasoline is basically free. Or at least it's cheaper than water.

There are affordable car rentals everywhere and we had our eye on a nice GMC Suburban but the agency screwed it up last minute. So we ended up having to take whatever was left so last minute: a crappy Land Cruiser. Sitting in the back seat of this so called vehicle reminded me of the times I road on the buses in the Ecuador mountains. Fun times!

Lucky for me I was assigned the back seat and got to experience the constant rocking, bouncing, grinding and swirling motions of the car full on. We left two hours late from schedule because we had to clean the car after the previous users. Apparently that's not included in the service here. That is Saudi customer service as its best for you!

It was Eid Al-Adha time and my husband got almost two whole weeks off work. We planned to have the following itinerary: Riyadh-Kharj-Layla-Wadi Al Dawasir-Khamis Mushayt-Abha-Jizan-Farasan...and back. But we ended up improvising and changed plans on the way, which makes road trips all the more fun!
My little girl was only 7 months old at the time and she is just such a little trooper. Sat in her car seat for hours without any complaints. We read books, played, watched the scenery and slept in the back seat while my mom was the head navigator in the front.

Our journey was so long and I took literally over a thousand pictures so I decided to divide it into three posts.

All in all it was an amazing, surprising and enjoyable experience. The occasional setbacks and all the hours spent in the car were well worth it! Special mention goes to my husband the designated driver who always stayed up those long hours while the rest of us slept just to get us there on time :)
On our way out of Riyadh we saw many trucks carrying full loads of sheep on their way to Saudi dinner tables. During Eid it's custom that Saudi families slaughter sheep for the special occasion .
In Kharj we stopped to meet my husband's great grandmother, my daughter's great great grandmother! Her eyesight and hearing is a bit impaired and she didn't expect us but nevertheless welcomed us into her house with such warmth and hospitality.
Births were not registered in Saudi back in the day so she did not now her age but estimated it to be near 90. She had 14 children that lived to adulthood and over 100 grandchildren. Imagine how many great great grandchildren that means!
While we were served tea and fruits by this sweet old lady, she told my husband how she had scolded some family members for not accepting his choice of wife because I was not Saudi. She said the most important thing is who she is and told him that she liked me and my mother. It felt so good to hear this. As the eldest family member her opinion will have powerful influence in the extended family.
We were shown all around her house and she would not let us leave, insisting we stay for lunch. She was amazed to hear we were intending to drive all the way to Abha that day. So we thanked her profusely and continued on our journey. This was one of the highlights of our trip.
The area around Kharj is dotted with green farmlands and date palm trees. My husband's family has a farm in the town of Hotah and we stopped by to take a look. It was like a small oasis! Huge palm trees, obese lemons and pomegranates. Nearby were some ruins of an old mud village.
In case you wondered, this is what an obese (raw) lemon looks like:
The road between Hotah and Wadi Al Dawasir was (according to the map) supposed to pass by a town called Layla. But we never found it! It remains a mystery. There was supposed to be some amazing caves near Layla, a town named after the tragic love story of Layla and Majnoon, the Arab equivalent to Romeo and Juliet.
This ^ is camel herding for the modern day (or very lazy) Bedouin.
Not much to see for about the next 500km. Read our near death experience from the trip here:
We reached Wadi Al-Dawasir and it seemed to be such a charming hillbilly town. The atmosphere was pretty laid back, men were sitting on couches at the gas station. Strangely there were no women in sight on the streets. Then we spotted a child driving a car, which is really not such an uncommon sight in the Kingdom. Women are not allowed to drive so the boy was most likely taking his mother around town for some shopping.
Finally we reached Khamis Mushayt, a small city next to Abha. It was very late so we only stopped at McDonald's for a quick fix of ice cream. I was standing in line at the family section when a Bedouin man cut me in line(what line?). He started asking for a menu and didn't understand the stuff was all up on the board. I cracked up when he started asking for "gambaari" He wasn't asking for a drink but SHRIMPS! He kept repeating gambaari, gambaari, jib gambaari!
Dude haven't you been to McDonald's before? Mafi gambaari.
We reached Abha in the middle of the night. I recall it being almost 2 am. My husband went to the reception of the hotel we had booked. We wanted a family room with two bedrooms. They had an issue with this. They questioned him about my mother! Who is this lady and would not believe it's his MIL despite the same surname. The staff told us to go to the police station and get a clearance that we were related! The nerve!
I was pretty pissed off at this point because a) It's 2 am for God's sake! We are checking into a family room with an infant, just let us go to sleep. b) if this isn't my mother than who the heck is it? c) if she's an unrelated random female why would she be travelling with us? c) if it were our Indonesian maid you would have no issues with her staying with us and d) are you implying that we are up to something haram in your hotel?
Yet another example of customer "service" or should I say disservice in the Kingdom.
This was the only hotel that asked for proof during our whole trip.
Needless to say, we changed hotels. But not to this "I'm Hotel"! Duh we can see that you're a hotel!
Abha turned out to be a very green and colorful city surrounded by lush mountains. Unfortunately very few traditional houses are left in the city. Most had been torn down. We headed out to the Asir National park, such a beautiful place! Check out more images here:
Asir National park is famous for its baboons. Some of them were behaving aggressively toward the baby, showing their teeth and making weird noises. Unfortunately they seemed to be accustomed to tourists giving them food. I saw one man feeding them popcorn in order to get better pics!
We bought some delicious honey from this man. The honey was from Yemen and the man from Tahamah.
Unfortunately it was considered off season because Saudis find it too cold beyond October to visit the mountainous areas of Saudi and many of the tourist destinations were closed. As we wandered around the national park my mother and I surprisingly encountered some odd and even hostile behavior from Saudi men and women. I found this strange because I had heard people of Abha are friendly and welcoming. They shouted at us insults in Arabic, thinking we were Americans. I hate it when some people think you don't understand when they say right next to you "hadi amriki". You don't have to be Einstein to figure that one out.
The three men in this picture were pretty rude and aggressive toward us. Still don't understand why. My husband was walking further away from us with the baby so he couldn't do anything. Later a group of young women followed us pointing and giggling. I guess we just look so amusing!
We found a perfect picnic spot! Or so we thought. Funny how Saudis are usually really private and don't like people intruding on their privacy. Our picnic spot had lots of traffic and many "invaders" walked and talked loudly in their mobiles right next to us. Some Saudi women took their sweet time and the one in this above pic was stumbling around in high heels, peeking from underneath her scarf which she had thrown over her whole face. It was so weird I could only watch in amazement.
Look at this mess! Clean up after yourselves people! Would you throw this garbage on your mother? No? Then why do you throw it on your motherland!?
Mom and the little bear watching the sunset.

What is this? A stranded cruise ship?
Nope. It's the Green Mountain. On top a restaurant and viewing platforms with magnificent views of the city.
On the green mountain we found what I would call the best souvenir shop in Saudi-Arabia! Loved these miniatures of the traditional houses of the region. They make pretty lanterns too. I bought similar ones from Sana'a a few years back.
When we were leaving Abha we managed to get lost a few times. Actually it was kind of my fault. I was acting as the navigator in the front seat and was reading the map. I opened the window in high speed and whooosh! The map was sucked out of the window before I could even say oops. That is what happens when you're born blonde people. But hey we accidentally found this village of traditional houses so it didn't really matter much. Or at least that's how I like to see it.
Our journey continued to Jizan. The road from Abha to Jizan is very scenic and we stopped many times to take in the scenery or to get some snacks. Here a man selling corn on the cob.
Like I mentioned before in this post pink houses are very popular in this region! This one's pretty lonely out there.
The baboons are a menace! They roam in large packs and jump around the roads all the time. Many had ended up as roadkill.
The winding roads in the mountains had occasionally only "suggested" speeds. Actually it doesn't really matter what they tell you the speed limit is. Speed limit by Saudi terms means the limit is how fast you are physically able to drive under the specific circumstances. In these roads that would be about 140km/h. The only time you will see a Saudi man driving 40km/h is when he is checking women out. So much for the suggestion.
Stay tuned for the next part of the road trip: Abha-Farasan Islands!


bigstick1 said...

Looks like you had a good time. You take some great pictures. Looking forward to the next post.

bigstick1 said...

I did not notice before but you mentioned some hostility as people thought your were American. So is there an open hostility toward Americans?

Layla said...

bigstick-thanks! we had a great time! I wouldn't say there is open hostility toward Americans. Some people are just so ignorant and rude..Mostly the really conservative ones. But as you can see from the pic the young men were dressed in western clothes, I think they just had the mentality that "all western women are w****s" and thus fair game for them to harass! That happens sometimes. I don't understand why they would be hostile toward my 60 yr old mother though.

The other incident was a middle aged man with his family (including small kids!) he starting shouting insults as we walked pass them. I was was in such shock I could not say anything! What an example he was giving to his kids..sigh.

Geoff said...

Laylah you rock, great pictures. I wish I had the opportunity to see some of these places, but have so far been confined to Riyadh and Dammam and (Khobar). Funny thing is, when I first got here I told my boss I wanted to see the baboons, he laughed and said "their are no monkeys here!, this is not Africa!".
And if I may be so bold for poster above bigstick1: Laylah has a lot more experience here than me, but as an American I can tell you that its...Yes, no, maybe so. All seems to be luck of the draw. I'll walk into a gas station in jeans and a t shirt to buy cigarettes and a Pepsi and end up having to shake hands with everybody before I can leave, they'll try their English, I'll try my Arabic and we have a good old time. Other days I'll be in a suit on my way home from work and be openly stared at and hear the same comments. I've met some of the nicest people and some of the not so nicest, I can't see any rhyme or reason to it. I doubt it would be any different for a Saudi in a thobe in the states.

Anonymous said...

Better than National Geographic ))) thanks for sharing

Stylish Muslimah said...

I love all ur pictures =)) I wish i could visit these places in the kingdom ! Unfortunately I m not allowed to enter this area with an umrah visa :( ..Urgh
Anyways thanks for this post !

Tifyffe said...

Hello Layla,what a lovely blog you have here.Please, i will like to know if i can use some pictures from this trip on my blog(i use it to communicate with my family back in Nigeria)I recently took a trip from Jizan to Abha-Khamis Mushayt(not recreational,so i could not take pictures)
Looking forward to a favorable response from you.Thanks

Layla said...

Tifyffe-Sure you can use them but please mention source and link back to this post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Layla

when will we get the rest. We are planning a similar trip from the 16 Aug- 23 Aug so your imput will help a great deal

Layla said...

Hi there!
I have been working on the second part (of three) every now and then, problem is I'm on holiday and with very limited time and the post will be long with many pics :) So hopefully I would get it ready before your trip!
It looks like you're going on Eid? If you plan on going to Farasan book EARLY and be prepared for a crowd.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your informative blog. I spent a good part of the afternoon today, reading and learning interesting tidbits about life in Saudi. I moved here in February this year, and I like it very much. I like the pace of life, the variety of Arab cuisine available in Riyadh and have enjoyed a few trips around the country. The people and the land fascinate me because it is the first time I'm experiencing desert living. Sometimes it can be frustrating having to rely on someone else to get from A to B, and the majority of expats I have met have been rather disturbed, frightening creatures, so generally I prefer not to engage other expats too intimately, and I have started to make friends with people who have lived here most of their lives. Thank you again for blogging such interesting pieces. All the best, and ignore the haters - cast them into oblivion, which is the sweetest revenge

Anonymous said...

hi layla,can u plz tell me is there any appropriate place/hotel to stay in between riyadh to abha route?

Layla said...

The only place in between those two cities worth staying is Wadi Al Dawasir and it's a small town, not too many hotels for sure. We didn't stay there. I remember driving through it and seeing some of those small apartment hotels on the main street but there are no large hotel chains.The next city is Khamis Mushayt and that is practically right next door to Abha so you might as well drive all the way there..

Khurram said...

@Laylah, I really like the way you described your trip. Would like to read the next part of it.
I am planning to drive this weekend from Riyadh to Abha with my family. Need some tips from you on:

1. We would be leaving at aroun 9 am. do you think we will reach by 5pm to Abha City?
2. Is it safe to drive to Abha after sunset?
3. What is the best way to reach farasan islands from Abha city and the best time to start with?
4. Are there any good resorts in the mountains in Abha?


Layla said...

Khuram-No you can't reach Abha that fast unless you speed like crazy and don't make any stops on the way. If you don't want to leave earlier then you might reach Abha more like around 7-8pm. It really depends so much on how fast you drive and how many stops you make. The road is really good and you can drive fast if you want to. It's safe to drive there after sunset the roads are well lit especially after Khamis Mushayt.
From Abha you need to drive to Jizan first. If you want to take your car to Farasan, you need to book the ferry beforehand. It being Eid, I would recommend doing that a few days in advance because with all likelihood the ferry and hotels on Farasan will be fully booked for the holidays!
The drive from Abha to Jizan does not take long, I remember us making the trip in less than 2 hours.Keep in mind the ferry leaves at 7am from Jizan to Farasan!

Layla said...

Forgot to say I can't recommend any specific resorts in the mountains because we stayed in a hotel inside the city, sorry!

Taher Kagalwala said...

Interesting entry! I am really amused that the hotel in question actually asked you all to prove your own mother's relationship to your husband! Some people will always be morons.