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Saudi Arabia – Part II

(this is a duplicate of the Saudi map from Part I – The post just got too big so we split it in two)

January 11th, 2024

We left Al Ula in the west, around 9am and wanted to visit Elephant Rock.  We found the road to it and upon arriving were told it didn’t open until 2pm?  WTH?  The rock is closed?!?!  The area is surrounded by a palm frond fence and we just drove to the other side and Fran managed to get a photo through a thin part of the fence:

Doug walked further down and found a spot where we could see over the fence and we got these shots:

The “Utah like” red rocks continued for quite a distance as we headed east to the city of Ha’il.

We had the city of Ha’il on our plan as there are famous rock art areas nearby in Jubbah but we never managed to get a response from the only travel company we could find for the past week to visit.  We looked at photos online and there didn’t seem to be a great many that were of things we’d never seen before so we gave up.   (We did later finally hear from that tour agency after we left that they no longer were in operation.)

The drive to Ha’il was 434 km / 270 m and it took us about 4.5 hours.  Doug found us a decent apart/hotel online and we checked in around 2pm.  It is a small apartment with a bedroom, bathroom (wet bath again) and a small sitting/kitchen area with a fridge, kettle and coffee maker as well as a love seat and large coffee table.   There is free parking and pretty good Wi-Fi (and towels!).

It’s cooler here than in Al Ula – around 20C / 72F and very windy.  Doug went for a walk, picked up a few items and Fran stayed behind catching up on blog stuff.   We’ve taken a lot of photos the past few days.  After a pretty good sleep, we were up on Friday morning around 7.  Doug went for a run, Fran did yoga and we left the apartment around 10.

Sidebar:  we find at many of the places we’ve been staying at, the windows are really covered up if not blocked completely.  This lets NO daylight and makes for dark mornings.  Also hardly any hotel (except one so far) has taken a Visa credit card; we even had an issue at a gas station so this means we have to keep going back to ATM’s for cash. 

Friday midday we made it to the city of Buraydah.  While the city itself is un-amazing (even the tour books say this), this is where the world’s largest date festival is held (unfortunately, that was in August) it is also home to the world’s largest camel market!  This we’ve never seen.

We couldn’t check into our accommodation till 4pm so again, we stopped at a McDonald’s for drink.  It was weird here to get online.  It was free Wi-Fi but you had to enter a phone number to get an SMS which never worked so we couldn’t use the Wi-Fi here.  We have plenty of data, so we just used our hotspots.

The hotel we have tonight didn’t even let us in till nearly 4:30. Check out is “between 2 and 3” so we’ll take advantage of that tomorrow as we will go early to the Camel Market and then come back here for a while as we can’t check into the next hotel until 4 again.  We do have a drive to get to Riyadh though.  We had booked two nights there but it turns out we need three but the hotel we’d booked couldn’t get us in for the third night so we’ll do one night in one place and two in the other.

The place we stayed in was an apart/hotel and it was quite big.  There was a full sized fridge, a microwave, a two burner stove, a few kitchen items, a dining table, a couch and two chairs.  The bathroom was quite large, but again a wet bath, and the bedroom was twin beds.  Again we were very close to a mosque so the calls to prayer were on the loud side.

The weather here in Buraydah is similar to Ha’il, not as warm as the coast but quite comfortable.  It should be warmer when we get to Riyadh.

Saturday morning we were awoken by the many calls to prayer – why they are not synchronized, we don’t know!  We wanted to be up early to get to the camel market.  We could never definitively ascertain when it actually starts (5, 6, 8 am) so we thought we’d just leave our hotel around 7 and hope for the best as the sun doesn’t come up till then anyway.

The camel is the national animal of the KSA and there are estimated to be over 1.4 million of them.  They are rarely used for transportation any longer, but the big draw is camel racing which apparently can be quite lucrative.  For example:  The Al Ula Camel Cup held last March 14 had a grand prize pool of SR80m ($21.3m)!

The camel races in Saudi Arabia dates back to seventh century. In the beginning, the races were conducted by the Bedouin tribe as a means of entertainment.  While we did not see any camel races, we did manage to download this photo of one:

The dromedary also known as the dromedary camel, Arabian camel, or one-humped camel, is a large even-toed ungulate, with one hump on its back.  It is the tallest of the three species of camel; adult males stand 1.8–2.4 m (5′ 11″ – 7 ‘ 10″) at the shoulder, while females are 1.7–1.9 m (5′ 7″ – 6’ 3″) tall. Males typically weigh between 400 and 690 kg (880 and 1,520 lb), and females weigh between 300 and 540 kg (660 and 1,190 lb).

The distinctive features are its long, curved neck, narrow chest and single hump (the Bactrian camel has two), thick, double-layered eyelashes and bushy eyebrows They have sharp vision and a good sense of smell. The male has a soft palate (called a dulaa in Arabic) nearly 18 cm (7.1 in) long, which he inflates to produce a deep pink sac. The palate, which is often mistaken for the tongue, dangles from one side of the mouth and is used to attract females during the mating season.

The coat is generally brown but can range from black to nearly white. The large eyes are protected by prominent supraorbital globes; the ears are small and rounded. The hump is at least 20 cm (7.9 in) high. The dromedary has long, powerful legs with two toes on each foot. The feet resemble flat, leathery pads. Like the giraffe, dromedaries move both legs on one side of the body at the same time.

During the reproductive season, males splash their urine on their tails and nether regions. To attract females they extrude their soft palate – a trait unique to the dromedary. As the male gurgles, copious quantities of saliva will turn to foam and cover the mouth.  They may also foam at the mouth when racing, protecting their harem or if they have rabies.

Dromedaries are mainly active during daylight hours. They form herds of about 20 individuals, which are led by a dominant male. They feed on foliage and desert vegetation; several adaptations, such as the ability to tolerate losing more than 30% of its total water content, allow it to thrive in its desert habitat. Mating occurs annually and peaks in the rainy season; females bear a single calf after a gestation of 15 months.

The dromedary has not occurred naturally in the wild for nearly 2,000 years. It was probably first domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula about 4,000 years ago, or in Somalia where there are paintings that figure it from 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. In the wild, the dromedary inhabited arid regions, including the Sahara Desert. The domesticated dromedary is generally found in the semi-arid to arid regions of the Old World, mainly in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and a significant feral population occurs in Australia. Products of the dromedary, including its meat and milk, support several North African tribes; it is also commonly used for riding and as a pack animal.

The dromedary’s diet consists mostly of foliage, dry grasses and desert vegetation – mostly thorny plants.[70] A study said the typical diet of the dromedary is dwarf shrubs (47.5%), trees (29.9%), grasses (11.2%), other herbs (0.2%) and vines (11%). The dromedary is primarily a browser; forbs and shrubs comprise 70% of its diet in summer and 90% of its diet in winter. The dromedary may also graze on tall, young, succulent grasses. In the Sahara, 332 plant species have been recorded as food plants of the dromedary. 

We arrived at what appeared to be the correct place around 7:20 and saw pens and pens of camels!  Then it was pens and pens of goats.  We got turned around and parked near the camel section and went for a walk around.

There had to be thousands of camels (Saturday is supposed to be the “big” day) and it was fascinating.  We do wish we had a local with us to translate though. There were adults and babies, all different colours (dark brown, light brown, beige and white) and they were all one hump camels.

We managed to see one being hoisted up by a crane into a truck too:

There were males in rut – they foam at the mouth – not very attractive looking though:

In the back was a huge hay and feed market as well:

We spent nearly an hour and saw only a small group of women tourists with a female guide; otherwise this was the genuine thing – no tourist traps, no vendors selling stuff (other than coffee) and no pushy people.  We did not seem to be bothering anyone and Fran noted other than the aforementioned female tourists, there were no women!

Click here  for many more camel market photos as well as a few more Elephant Rock area ones.

Note:  Fran has not felt any pressure to wear a head covering but also, we’ve not been to a mosque or even close by one.  We are not allowed, as non-Muslims, to visit either of the two holy cities: Mecca and Medina (where Mohammed is buried) and she has chatted with many men as well as fully covered women who speak English and not felt uncomfortable.  She does keeps her shoulders and knees (more or less) covered. 

Although today’s drive was about 100 km /60 mi shorter than yesterday, it seemed longer.  We were looking forward to a couple of no driving days, that’s for sure.  From our experience, there are few sights of interest to us and they are far between – thank goodness petrol is cheap!

We stopped twice on our way to Riyadh.  Once to make a quick lunch at a really filthy with garbage rest area with no facilities and once to grab a cold diet coke at a McDonald’s.  We had arranged with the hotel to let us check in at two instead of four and arrived shortly after 2.   Again we had an apart/hotel with a huge bedroom, a biggish bathroom that was not a wet bath, a kitchenette with fridge, stove and microwave and some kitchen items.  The living room had a couch and two coffee tables.  (There is always a flat screen tv in these rooms but because we don’t use them, we don’t mention them.)

Enroute we drove through a real desert sand dune area:

Dunes at our lunch stop:

and the sand continues along the route:

And a giant teapot!:

Riyadh seemed smoggy as we drove in.  We are on the north side of town in a hotel tonight and didn’t do much other than check in and go find some food.  As we had a stove, we decided to try pasta; found sauce, fresh mushrooms, buns and pasta.

The weather here is the warmest we’ve had since the west coast and it’s super dry.  It doesn’t cool off too much at night either.  Tomorrow’s forecast is sunny, 29C / 84F with a low of 15C / 60F.

Well, it started out well and then the electric stove died after Fran added the sauce to the cooked mushrooms and the pasta water had not quite boiled.  She finished the sauce in the microwave and to finish the pasta she boiled the water in a kettle and kept topping it up.  It eventually “cooked” but was quite starchy tasting.

Sunday morning we had a few hours before our booked tour so we drove into the city to the Kingdom Centre to go up to the Sky Bridge on the 99th floor for views of the city.

We weren’t sure where to park and the parking was non-existent around the area so we found the entrance to the underground parking and the lot seemed full till we found a spot along a wall that wasn’t really parking but two other cars were parked there with a space in between.  The plan was to get some brunch at the mall’s food court and even that was hard to find – people kept giving us different directions in the mall.  When we found it, we got some Chinese food so we’d get some veggies at least and then went to the “Sky Experience” area in the mall (also not signed at all and not easy to find).

We paid our 69SAR ($18.40) and again, no signage.  We walked right past the elevator to a dead end.  We walked back towards the ticket counter and Fran spotted an elevator behind a weird wall – no sign.  Turned out this was the correct first elevator.

You take it to the 77th floor and walk down a corridor (again no signs) to the second elevator which you catch to the 99th floor.

You can see for miles even in the haze and it was a cool place.  The city has little in the way of greenery but several interesting looking buildings and the sprawl is huge.

This is a shot of the Globe Restaurant atop the Al Faisaliah Tower:

Views from either side of the sky bridge:

We spent maybe ten minutes up there and that was enough.

We returned to the car and made our way to the meeting point for our afternoon sunset tour to the “Edge of the World” at 1:30pm.  We had little info about the tour, it was recommended on many blogs and websites and the site we booked on said very little other than it was an off road tour and no dinner was included.

We got to the meeting point outside a Carrefour mall and after finding bathrooms, we were approached by an Indian fellow – he scanned our tickets and took us to an SUV and told us to wait there.  There was a young British woman named Masie and an Indian fellow named George with us.  After waiting over 20 minutes in the car, the fellow returned with two others (Allison from Taiwan and Thomas from Italy) and told us all to get into another SUV with a driver.  Ahmed, the driver/guide,  was a former teacher and didn’t really speak much the entire way.

The Indian fellow had a few other people in his car and there was third vehicle which turned out to be the cook’s vehicle.

No information was given out about the day’s plan or anything.  We drove about an hour northwest of the city and stopped at the 300 year deteriorated city of Sudus for a five minute stroll through.

We then made a bathroom pit stop and shortly after we began driving on gravel/dirt roads for another hour.  At one point we came across a few camels and we stopped to pet them and take photos.

Views along the drive after the camel encounter:

It was shortly after four when we reached the end of the road and then we walked about one kilometre to the “edge”.   Here we met a few other travelers who joined us (a young man from Brazil who did not like heights and a couple, Sharon and Silvio from Australia who actually now reside in the Bahamas).

Here we took photos and walked further and further along the edge to more spectacular views.

Doug climbed to the top of this stack behind him in this photo, Fran took pics and then joined him.

Then Fran and everyone else joined us at the top:

We hung around till sunset (not great) and then walked back to the car (which had been moved even further down the road for some unknown reason).

We returned to the pavement (our driver was the slowest and got lost heading to the dinner location).  Turns out dinner was included.  When we finally met up with everyone else, we sat around two small campfires

And were fed a hot meal of rice, veggies, pasta and chicken on carpets on the ground with a small fire as well as water or juice.  This took about a half hour and then Amed took us back to the Carrefour which we arrived at just past 8:30 pm.  A long day made even longer but horrific traffic getting to our second Riyadh hotel.  It was bumper to bumper and took more than twice as long as it should have.  So we checked by 9:30, watched a couple of short shows and went to bed.

Click here  for lots more photos of this excursion.

According to the desk clerk, there are few times a day when traffic is not horrible.  Fran asked how long to get too the airport (we have to go on Tuesday) and he said “about an hour with traffic”.  That means we gotta get up earlier than we thought.

This hotel was south of the city centre and quite nice (everything on the north side is pricier) and we had a good sized apartment with a living room, a dining room, kitchen, large wet bathroom and a big bedroom – this was the only hotel we had in this country where the windows weren’t completely covered up – you could actually open the curtains!  Fran can’t imagine living in such darkness everyday!

We crashed easily and Monday morning we checked out the dismal breakfast, passed on it and drove into the city.  We wanted to see the Masmark Fort:

cool looking door locking mechanisms

It was okay; there is a museum inside that was all about the history of Riyadh.

Then we walked around the Souk hoping to find a souvenir but nada.  We’ve not seen ANY in this country.

We then drove through the city centre to pass by the Tower with the Globe Restaurant atop it.  We looked into going up but there is a minimum spend of nearly $100 pp so that was out of our comfort zone! Besides we’d seen the city views from the Sky Bridge .

We carried on north to the historic city of Dir’iyah (300 years before it was the home of royal family) which we had tickets for.  You can only book them a week out and Doug was surprised then they were free.  We got parked and walked over and discovered why they were free: the actually old town was closed today for what looked like some sort of function.  The only part that was open was the Bujairi Terrace and it was all shops and small restaurants with gardens and a carousel.  So although we got views of the old part, and the terrace is lovely and they’ve spent a ton of money on it, it was a bust.

Click here  for more photos of Riyadh.

It’s now late morning and we are hungry.  We have found finding a place to eat in this country is hard with the language barrier as we don’t know what kind of place any restaurant we see is and we are not foodies.  We got back to the hotel and walked a bit to find somewhere to eat; many places were closed but we found a place then Doug went to a grocery store to get some stuff for dinner.

We spent the afternoon in the hotel, repacking (Jordan will be cooler than here so we are rearranging our bags).  We have been used two bags for our day to day stuff and one for what we don’t need so we don’t have so much to bring up to hotels each night.  (We really detest this living out of a suitcase life but sometimes……)

Well, we have to admit, Saudi Arabia, is not really a tourist hot spot despite their mission to make it so since it opened to tourism in 2019.  The traffic in both Jeddah and Riyadh is horrible.  The people are friendly enough and often want to offer you coffee and are quick to say hello so that’s in their favour but you have to keep in mind, many of those people are not locals!  There are few worthy spots:  Al Ula, the camel market and we think Dir’iyah will be when it’s complete and IF it’s open but we wouldn’t recommend putting it on your “must see before you die” list.  They are not really set up for tourism – we couldn’t even find a souvenir!  In our opinion, you can skip this country.  It’s probably the only country we’ve ever said this about.

Mileage travelled in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in our rental car:  2128 km / 1323 mi.

Fun Facts about Saudi Arabia:

  1. The Kingdom possesses approximately 16 percent of all proven petroleum reserves on Earth.
  2. Saudi Arabia possesses no rivers.

3.     Saudi Arabia has the only national flag in the world to display an inscription as its principle design. The inclusion of the Shahada means that the flag requires a different design for each side, a characteristic that it shares with the flags of Paraguay and Moldova.

4.     There are more than 7,000 princes in the royal family, all of whom are guaranteed prestigious jobs, essentially blocking other qualified candidates from good positions.

5.     As part of one of the kingdom’s most unusual bans, women in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from entering cemeteries.

6.     Date production in the world is dominated by Saudi Arabia! Harvested annually are 1.5 million tons of dates.

7.     Women were granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

8.     Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oil field has enough reserves to fill 4,770,897 Olympic swimming pools.

9.     Over a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 14 years old, and almost half of the population is under 24 years old.

10.  The weekend is Friday and Saturday, not Saturday and Sunday.