Saudi Arabia

Part 1
Blog - February/March 2020

Previous Blog: Egypt

Wednesday February 5th - Duba

I got the ferry across the Red Sea from Safaga in Egypt to Duba in Saudi Arabia. The ferry only resumed service a few years ago after the tragedy in 2004 where a ferry on this route sank. There were a little over 1000 passengers on board. Only 12 survived. The boat was due to leave at 11pm and I found a quiet corner to get some sleep. When I went up on deck in the morning we were ashore. In my half sleep I had trouble working out if we had arrived or were yet to leave. It was the latter. We eventually got going. Not having slept a lot I sat in the cafe below deck to chain drink chai. If you don't specify that you don't want sugar you get the default which is at least 3 spoons. I do not know the Arabic for no sugar please so I was wired when we finally arrived in Saudi in the late afternoon. I came crashing down off my sugar high in the long immigration queue. I was then made to wait for 2 hours as the fingerprint scanner was broken. The immigration guys felt bad so they plied me with Arabic coffee and I was soon off my face again. When I finally got through immigration it was dark. I pedalled off into the Saudi night. A few kilometres down the line I dragged my bike off into the desert looking for a camping spot but I couldn't see jack so I ended up pitching way too close to the busy highway unable to sleep because of all the chai/coffee I had consumed.

Thursday February 6th - Al Shawaq

So what am I doing in Saudi Arabia? I had no intention of coming here a month ago. Primarily because I thought it wasn't an option. 6 months ago it was nigh on impossible to get a tourist visa for Saudi. Back in the 1930's King Abdul Aziz proclaimed 'My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.' This attitude has prevailed until September last year when the Saudi government surprisingly decided to welcome tourists into the country. Not only that but the visa is incredibly easy to obtain online. So whilst I'm in this part of the world I thought I would explore more of the Middle East. Plus access to Saudi means I can get across to Oman. A place I have always wanted to cycle but before Saudi's visa u-turn it would have been impossible to get to without flying in. It's not as if Saudi Arabia is unused to foreigners. Roughly 4 million foreign workers play an important role in the Saudi economy most notably in the oil and service sectors. Millions of Muslims come from all over the world to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. You won't see a lot of these out on a bicycle in the desert however so I got some curious glances as I headed off up into the mountains east of Duba. A number of times people wound down their windows to give me water and oranges and welcome me to their country.

Friday February 7th - Jabel Salih

Excellent day cycling through the Sarawat mountains. I had a preconceived notion that Saudi was one big hot desert. A lot of it is but thankfully there is a mountain range that runs down through the west of the country close to the Red Sea. This is where I plan on cycling. There is very little traffic up here. Almost empty roads meandering through sandstone mountains and volcanic rock. When you stop and there is no wind you can here absolute silence. A rare thing in this world. The cycling reminded me of being in Arizona and the more interesting sections of Ruta 40 in northern Argentina. The climbs were gradual, no hairpin bends, but I eventually made it up to above 1000m before the afternoon sun took hold. I am getting a lot of love from the locals. They regularly pull over in front of me, wave me down and a photo session ensues. This is great but this is 2020 and photos no longer cut it. I often have phones held a yard from my face and am then told to speak. The camera is rolling. I am on video. I stutter a monologue about who I am and what I'm doing. I'm getting better at it but it's a little disconcerting. Where do these videos go? I'd rather not know. Every conversation ends with my new Saudi friend going Snapchat? and me shaking my head. Facebook? Head shake. Instagram? Head shake. Whatsapp? Head shake. Well what the hell are you on then? Email. They must think the English are a backward bunch.

Saturday February 8th - Masadr

Saudi continues to surprise. More excellent cycling up in the sparse desert mountains. There are no rivers, lakes or streams. It is a dry inhospitable place but strangely beautiful to pedal through. I was worried about finding water in such a landscape. Fear not the Saudi's have it covered. The first time I saw it I thought it was a mirage. I could see a well off in the desert. I assumed it would be dry or at best there would be a sandy puddle at the bottom I'd need to abseil to get to. Next to the well I could swear there was what looked like an office style water dispenser. It seemed a little too good to be true. I put my bike down and walked towards it parched from a few hours cycling under a glaring sun. I expected the water dispenser to fade and dissolve as I approached. Sure enough though it was an office water dispenser hooked up to the well. I leaned my water bottle into the lever and out came surprisingly cold potable water. Hard to believe out here in the middle of nowhere. Turns out there are similar water dispensers every 30km or so. Temperatures can hit 50 degrees out here in the summer so the Saudi's have used their not inconsiderable resources to make sure that water is available everywhere in the country no matter how remote you might be. At the end of each day I would fill up at one of these water dispensers and had all my camping needs for the night (which incidentally is 4l; 1l for shower, 1l for evening/breakfast cooking, 1l for drinking and 1l to set off with in the morning). Wild camping is as easy as it gets out here. You just pick your spot with plenty of boulders to shelter from the wind. The wind really picked up in the afternoon and the air filled with sand. Thin layers of sand floated along the road. Fine when the wind is behind but there was a headwind and I found myself eating the stuff. Naturally I clamped my mouth shut but this had me snorting sand instead. I don't recommend it. Spent half the evening picking sand out of my ears.

Sunday February 9th - Almthath

170km today. A new PB for this trip but the distance never tells the story. If anything it is the inverse. If I cycle over 150km I know that conditions have been good. The road would have been paved all the way. There would of been a nice tailwind and limited climbing. This was the case today. These are the easy days. It's the days when I only manage 70km that I fear. On such days the road would be a mess, I'd get battered by headwinds and there would have been some steep climbing and descending. These are the days when I suffer. All the hardest days I've ever had on a bike I've managed less than 70km. The toughest day I've ever had on a bike I managed 45km in 8 hours cycling into a kamikaze headwind in Patagonia. Made rapid progress through the mountains taking full advantage of the wind at my back. Hit a main road for the first time but fortunately they come with a wide shoulder. This is handy as the Saudi's really feel the need for speed. They give me a honk as they go past. I think it's a friendly honk but by the time I've turned to wave they are miles up the road rapidly fading into the distance.

Monday February 10th - Bader

168km today. I'm probably overdoing it but in a country as big as Saudi you can't turn down a tailwind. Took back roads up and around sandstone peaks before finally dropping down out of the mountains to the town of Bader close to the Red Sea. Got chatting to a local guy in the grocery shop and he invited me into his home for lunch. His name was Asosy which means Jesus in English. A Muslim named Jesus. It was blisteringly hot so I gladly accepted. Nice bloke. Teaches Maths at the local school. Goes to Austria every summer with his family to escape the heat. We communicated via Google Translate. It is interesting to watch them read from right to left. As Arabic is the mother of all languages maybe it us who read the wrong way. The Saudi home was a surprise. The lounge was minimalistic in the extreme. It consisted of a carpet, curtains and an AC unit. Nothing else. No tables, chairs, couch, TV, music system, books, shelves, mirrors, clocks, toys or any of the clutter that we fill up our homes with. Lunch was served on clingfilm on the carpet. We sat cross legged on the floor to eat which had me concerned I would suddenly cramp up having already cycled 140km today. I was also plied with coffee, tea and biscuits. I would like to have thanked his wife who cooked up the meal of chicken and rice but this would not have been the done thing. Saudi has a seriously backward attitude to women. It seems they are not to be seen or heard. Often a family will pull over in front of me when out on the road. The man and children hop out and we have a chat and take photos. The woman always stays in the car. It is remarkable, and worrying, how few women I see out and about in the towns. Where are they all? Most areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of "mingling". It is a punishable crime. I thanked Asosy profusely for his kind hospitality and got going late in the day. The wind whipped up and a sandstorm was threatening. No chance of camping out in the open but I managed to find shelter in a derelict building by the side of the road. Found a corner to pitch my tent amongst the garbage. You get some amazing camp spots in this life. Tonight was not one.

Tuesday February 11th - Thuwal

The cycling so far in Saudi has been superb but today was turgid. One of those annoying coastal roads that is actually a kilometre from the coast, full of trucks, lined with rubbish with a backdrop of enormous apocalyptic oil factories pumping black smoke out into a blistering hot sky. The ugly side of Saudi Arabia. Down at sea level the sun is brutal. It's so fierce it actually makes an impact on my solar panel battery pack. This is unheard of. The Saudi's think it is cold. It's all relative I suppose. This is winter. The mornings are nice and cool but it's pushing 30 degrees in the afternoon. That's more than enough for me. I've been diving into culverts beneath the road to get some afternoon relief. Thankfully the wind was behind me once more and I made fine progress towards Jeddah. Tried to camp by the sea but it was too windy. Did manage a shower in a public toilet though using the hose you are meant to wash your bottom with. Another improvised camp behind the stand of a 5-a-side football pitch. I wasn't particularly conspicuous but the Saudi's are cool. They are happy for you to pitch wherever.

Wednesday 12th to Friday 14th February - Jeddah

Finished the job into Jeddah. This is the first city I've come across in Saudi. Going through the mountains I pass through a town a day which generally consist of a shop and a mosque. Now in the sprawling city of Jeddah there is a McDonalds, Starbucks and KFC every 100 yards as well as every chain you've ever heard of and a whole load more besides. Shiny hotels - Hilton, Marriott, Crowne Plaza - line the 3 lane highway running through the heart of the city. Jeddah is a little more progressive than the rest of the country. Here you will see women out and about. In most of the country coffee shops and restaurants are men only but here there is a family section where women are allowed. I even saw a few limbering up for a jog. Saudi are making progress in this respect. Women are now allowed to drive and attend football matches. I'm not going to applaud the granting of such basic rights but at least it's a mini step in the right direction. As for LGBT rights well forget about it. Saudi is still very much in the dark ages when it comes to homosexuality. It is the most conservative country I've ever been to. I've only been on the road a week from Duba but I'd covered 1000km and was feeling a little shot so I dived into a cheapish hotel for some rest. It is always a sweet moment when you come in off a week of cycling and camping tired, dirty and dishevelled and have an actual shower and lie down on an actual bed. It feels so good to lie on a mattress I don't want to fall asleep. I just want to revel in the comfort of it all but the comfort has the opposite effect and within a minute I am out for the count.

Saturday 15th February - nr Mecca

I made a late start getting out of Jeddah as I needed to pick up my laundry. Surprisingly painless to get out of the city. A man from Yemen flagged me down and gave me a ring. Like the kind you put on a finger. Not sure what I was meant do with that but I thanked him kindly. It didn’t fit. Headed towards Mecca. About 20km away there is a sign directing non-Muslims away from the city. This is as close as I will get. Mecca is the number one holy site in the world for Muslims. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter or travel through the city and it is strictly enforced. Fair enough. More annoyingly the detour around the city sent me into a fierce headwind which had me eating sand once more. Pitching my tent was problematic. My first attempt had me desperately sprinting after my tent. Happily I caught up with it. I decided to abort that camping spot and look for some better protection which is never easy in the desert. Eventually found a random wall that served absolutely no purpose and camped behind it listening to the wind howl.

Sunday 16th February - Ash Shafa

I only managed 90km today but the toughest day I’ve had in a while. A lot of climbing in searing heat. The climb was excellent as the road wound from sea level to well above 2000m with a few small descents thrown in. Incredible views out over the mountains and down to the Red Sea. Climbing in 30 degrees soon began to take its toll though and I was getting through my water way too quickly. Spotted a couple of goat herders sheltering from the midday sun in their makeshift shack. Normally I wait to be invited in but frankly I invited myself in. Good guys they plied me with chai and water until I felt ready to resume. I was soon running out of water again. I began mine-sweeping. Never a good sign. Unfortunately in this part of the world a lot of drivers fling water bottles out of the window. They are invariably empty but occasionally there is a still a little bit of water left in them. I found one that had about 200ml in it and as a bonus had landed in the shade. Quick check that it was actually water and down the hatch. Finishing the dregs of discarded water bottles got me up the mountain. Desperate measures but when your mouth feels like Death Valley you will drink anything. Pure relief to hit the top but good to get up where the air is a little cooler. Camped in a dried up river bed.

Monday 17th February - Beni Said

Excellent cycling through the Hejaz mountain range. A quiet road with lots of dips and rises but one that thankfully stayed high up in the cool air away from the heat down below. Saw a surprising amount of monkeys. The exertions of the day before took their toll. A headwind swooping down had me struggling on the climbs. A bit disappointed in my legs to be honest. They’ve just had a rest. They’ve been here a million times before. They should know better than to weep and moan like they did today. I think it’s a case of as I get older my recovery times get longer. One sleep just doesn't cut it. So when I have a big day it’s always the next day it hits me. A reminder to keep my efforts on an even keel and not to over-do it. Still I managed to cover enough distance so that on the final climb I could go into full tootle mode. Where I see how slowly it is possible to ascend a mountain. I’m good at it. Eventually called it a day and found some good protection from the wind behind some kind of abandoned fortress. In fact the protection was so good I camped out under the stars for the night. No wind, warm weather and no chance of rain I just slept in my mesh tent without the rain fly. First time I’ve done it this trip. Going through Europe it was too cold. Too much possibility of rain. Recently it has been too windy, but today conditions were perfect. I must remember to do it more often.

Tuesday 18th February - Musaylah

Awoke as usual to the Call to Prayer (Adhan). The first of the day is half an hour before the sun comes up so it is the perfect alarm for me. In the old times a man would stand at the top of the mosque and bellow it out but obviously these days loudspeakers are used. I’m uncertain whether it is a recording or not. There is such a thing as a Mu’azzin. The person whose job it is to recite the daily calls to prayer. He is chosen for his ability in reciting the Adhan clearly, beautifully, melodiously and loudly for all Muslims to hear. Either way it's a fine way to wake up. There’s so many mosques about that you often get the sounds coming in from both sides. The melodies mingling, overlapping and drifting in and out of the other. You'd think it would sound like 2 stations at the same time but they seem to strangely compliment each other. It is an eerie yet beautiful way to be brought out of your own half sleep. It’s also the closest thing to music you will hear in Saudi Arabia. Music is banned in public places. You don’t come to Saudi Arabia for the nightlife. It feels strange, and a little sad, to not hear music anywhere. Even your Starbucks in the cities are notably silent. Another enjoyable day cycling south through the mountains. Felt something funny in my shoe a couple of times but thought nothing of it. When I set up camp I took my shoe off to find a slug sitting in there. Must have got in overnight when I leave my shoes out to air. Poor slug. What an awful day it must have had. It got worse as I freaked a little when I saw it and sent the slug hurtling through the air and into a tree.

Wednesday 19th February - Jarab

Cycled through the mountains to the hill town of Al-Baha. Had lunch with a couple of guys from Yemen. This is as far south as I will go in Saudi Arabia. I would like to carry on through the mountains to Yemen and go round to Oman along the Gulf of Aden. Sadly Yemen is not a safe place to visit right now. Foreign office advice is DO NOT TRAVEL. I tend to take such advice with a pinch of salt. If there’s the slightest hint of trouble your government will advise against all but essential travel. This is fair enough. They are only concerned for your safety and it is not in their interest to be anything other than uber cautious. I prefer to take the advice of fellow travelers who have recently been in Yemen. Even better would be to meet a cyclist out on the road who had just come from Yemen. I haven’t met a single cycle tourer in the Middle East. The best I could find online was one guy who said ‘Yemen is perfectly safe as long as you can blend in and speak Arabic'. Pretty certain I won’t blend in. Fairly sure I don’t speak Arabic. So there is nothing for it but to hang a left out of the mountains and into the desert towards UAE and then across to Oman. It is not necessarily the long way round but it does promise to be the dull way round. Huge swathes of empty desert await me. Wind behind and lots of descending I made rapid progress towards Jarab and then called it a day when the road turned into the wind. Found a derelict stone shack to camp in but the entrance faced into the wind so my tent still billowed about all night.

Thursday 20th - Friday 21st February - Bisha

Big luck overnight with the wind. If it had kept up I was facing a miserable 93km trudge into Bisha. I awoke at 5am and my heart sank as my tent was still having a fit from the wind. I went back to sleep and when I awoke an hour later it had pretty much died down. I had to forgo my morning coffee for lack of water but I had enough for my oatmeal breakfast and got going as quickly as I could in case the wind decided to pick up again. It didn’t and I made decent progress to Bisha into only a slight headwind. Bisha is the last town before Riyadh over 700km of desert away. I decided to take a hotel whilst I could. I checked the wind forecast and was actually quite happy to see that tomorrow it would be against me. This forced me to take the day off. Wind forecast is slightly better after that so will then head off into the desert and see what happens.

Continue: Saudi Arabia Part 2: Desert