New Orient accessible


It opened to regular tourism only recently, you will meet locals less often. Saudi Arabia.

After a long time, I am visiting a country that cannot be considered as a conflict country, but certainly it is interesting from a different perspective. A country that is riddled with various prejudices and myths, and together, with my good friend Martin Durikovic, we decided to examine them and maybe disprove some of them. And it goes best when you not only visit the country, but walk through it, as the locals do. You will always learn the most this way. Originally we planned to travel in Saudi Arabia by rental car, but finally we decided getting around by buses, trains and even hitchhiking. We also used local taxis, and since they are driven by foreigners – not Saudis, we learned how "immigrants" live here. Perhaps paradoxically, we met Saudi Arabians the least. They are mostly those who are highest in the society of Saudi Arabia. Then people from the developed world, e.g. Americans, Europeans and finally Pakistanis, Yemenis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Indians and Filipinos, all of whom you will find here a lot. They are here just for making good money. Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world.

And the women again...

For an introduction, I will be writing about the issue of women. They still walk around covered, but not so much, and you will meet a significant part of the female population here, which is not covered by any scarf and wears, perhaps, even jeans. We learned that a woman decides for herself whether she will be covered or not. Although, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that's the case. We saw women driving, we had fun with them even without the company of men, and some even flirted with us. Is it an ideal destination for finding a partner?

The Saudis themselves sometimes seem conceited and bored. A lot of them probably do nothing, they get money from the state just for being Saudis and trying to kill the time. We saw many just hanging out, going from one caffeteria to another and "staring" to nowhere. However, some are very helpful. One of the "higher-ups" helped us a lot when we were looking for accommodation in town of Hail. He drove us directly to the hotel, started a fruitful discussion and, on a potential next visit, invited us on a trip. In the car, we met his little daughter, who told us the names of the budgies in the cage right next to her. He was a teacher at one of the universities, a very intelligent person. The second Saudi stopped us in Al Ula while hitchhiking to the town and took us directly to the hotel.

Oil versus tourism

What about oil? Yes, Saudi Arabia is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. A liter of gasoline costs about 0.20 cents here and you will find the largest oil field in the world, Ghawar - 250 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. This oil field was discovered in 1957, until then it was the largest Baba Gurgur in Iraq. When I calculated the price of water and gasoline, gasoline was cheaper than water. On this occasion, I found a shop selling souvenirs at one of the rest stops. Guess what I bought? Key chains with a canister of gasoline. Immediately after returning from this country, people often asked me how to travel here. Well, if we consider that tourism in this country has only been operating since 2019 (until then there was only religious tourism), difficult. Everything is just in beginning, everywhere is being built, and it seems that Saudi Arabia is preparing for a richer clientele, not for "backpackers". Would you like to rent a helicopter and fly over the Nabatean monuments in Hegra? No problem, you pay 800 dollars per person, which cost me about the whole 8-day trip including everything. You can't change money in tourist places (you have to exchange everything for rials in big cities or pay by card - you can really do it everywhere). Another simple option, withdrawing money from an ATM, also comes for a good choice.

With a raised finger

From Jeddah to Medina, the train goes almost like the speed of light. The train is slower from Hail to Riyadh. Otherwise, you have to deal with not very comfortable buses here. It is definitely best to rent a car. But that's not how you get to know people. Hitchhiking is not very common here, but not impossible. We hitchhiked to Al Ula, from a certain place about 130 kilometers away. It was up to 40 degrees, we found a very soft shade and after about 45 minutes, when nothing passed and it didn't even stop, we were slowly preparing for death. Fortunately, a young Pakistani with a small truck saved us. Although we did not understand each other very well, we are glad that he helped us. We didn't find out what he was carrying in the truck, but according to his photos in Pakistan, he earns a decent amount here in Saudi to support his family. Like a proud father, he showed us photos of his little daughter. The second hitchhiking also worked. This time we were took by an Egyptian - an electrician, who drove us to the hotel in Al Ula. We managed to negotiate a great price and I was obviously nice to the receptionist, whose eyes could only be seen. Hidden beauty tempts the most. As for hitchhiking, you can try it, but definitely not in october, when it's still very warm. The best time to move in this country is from november to april. But you need to arm yourself with patience. It is not as easy here as in the ordinary Arab world.

Hegra - back in time

But let's take a look at the sights. I heard a really funny phrase from someone: In Saudi Arabia, there is one monument for every 1000 kilometers. Only after returning home did I notice that it is the 13th largest country in the world. We are located in the Middle East, where the oldest civilizations were born, so there is a lot of to see. Have you ever heard about the Nabateans who left beautiful temples in Jordan's Petra? Something very similar can be found in Hegra, where we go back 2000 years BC. Here you will find 141 rock-hewn tombs. The larger ones represented higher-ranking people and the smaller ones the poorer ones. You enter the area with a pre-purchased ticket and you will be guided by a very nice lady who almost left her eyes on Martin. In fact, only eyes from her we could see. We joined a group of domestic tourists and move between the tombs in jeeps. We are glad that we chose the morning date when it is not so hot. The whole tour took about two hours, and I didn't register much of it, because we were joined by a young Saudi woman in jeans and without a scarf, who had just started her first day of work at the area. I kept talking to her and she mesmerized me with her wonderful scent. Is it possible for me to fall in love in Saudi Arabia? She told me about how she hitchhiked Central America by herself and enjoyed it very much. Times are changing.

Slovaks everywhere

On the same day, we moved to a rock called Elephant rock. I certainly don't have to explain to you why it's called like that. It looks like an elephant and is one of the top attractions in this country. You enter the area again, which opens at four o'clock on these warm days, and you have the opportunity to have refreshments at the buffets located by the rock. You won't find alcohol here, it's strictly prohibited here, and we didn't even look for it, and nobody offered it to us either. You can relax on bean bags near the buffets. We had been on the road for several days and there was no rumor or hearing about tourists until... we met Karol. The first tourist and also a Slovak. We introduced ourselves and, full of enthusiasm, we agreed to meet with him for a hour on the bean bags. The sun was slowly fading, I was lounging around and taking pictures, and Martin sat down and started meditating, until... a few steps further, another tourist sat down on one of the bags. However, he sagged very quickly under the weight of the person, and Martin suddenly heard: "What the hell is that!?" We were dealing with another Slovak. Martin immediately introduced himself and the Slovak enthusiastically shouted into the distance at other Slovaks: "Hey, morons, come here, there are more Slovaks here!". So suddenly six of us from the same country were sitting and debating about travel. Well, isn't it beautiful?

A taste of the desert

Our time at Al Ula fulfilled. We moved to the town of Jubba, about 100 kilometers from Hail, where the 10,000-year-old petroglyphs are supposed to be found. There we rented a taxi for half a day. We were driven by a kind and helpful Sudanese man, who was thinking it will be a short distance, but in the end it turned out to be half a day of transportation. The language barrier is big in this country, and when you are already convinced that they understand you, you will eventually find out that this is not the case. As we headed towards the petroglyphs, I asked our new friend - Azar, to stop us. There was desert all around and I longed to walk through it barefoot. Of course, I wouldn't be me if I didn't decide to taste the desert as well. I took a few grains of sand in my mouth and found out what people have known for a long time. The desert doesn't taste very good. The petroglyphs in Juba showing various male and female figures, which shed light on various human activities at the time, such as hairstyles, clothing. Hunting engravings document the wide variety of animals found in Saudi Arabia at the time, as well as the weapons used in hunting. Hunters - pastoral nomads hunted with bows and arrows, spears and perhaps even throwing sticks. They also had packs of hunting dogs that surrounded quarry during the hunt. Aspects of the scenes show affinities with rock art, mostly painted rather than engraved, in a wide swath of North Africa that includes Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Although Azar "operates" near this place, he has never been here in his life and I enjoyed watching him enjoy it here. He was fascinated by every engraving. Very often, while watching, the word fell out of him: Mashalah! Translated, it means: Oh, God, Allah. At the end of our trip, Azar called us friends, and we stayed in touch with him even after returning from Arabia. This country is also mainly about meetings.

Old new city

The next part of the trip is just a quick transfer back to Dammam – the largest port in the Persian Gulf, where we arrived. However, one of our first stops in the country was to the city of Jeddah, where we took a domestic flight and transferred here from Dammam. Currently, you can fly directly to Jeddah for low cost prices. It is the gateway to Mecca and Medina, where as a non-Muslim you should not go, but many people with the desire to visit these places broke the rules. This rule can be ignored, and it seems that some people does not care about the local traditions. But back to Jeddah. In October 2022, we still had the opportunity to see many original buildings from the old city (Al Balad). Those with bad statics will be demolished and copies will be built instead of them. Some are already standing like this and compared to the original ones, they are not so nice. On each of these buildings you have the opportunity to see the characteristic windows, the so-called "Roshans", made entirely of wood, which provided privacy to the residents. They also used as natural air conditioning, and residents used to put mattresses and pillows inside to relax. Interestingly, in pre-Islamic times, many buildings did not have doors or curtains, so Islam placed more emphasis on privacy. One of the famous hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) reads: "If someone looks into your house without your permission and you throw a stone to him and destroy his eyes, there will be no blame on you." The people in the old town were very pleasant, they had no problem taking pictures with us, almost everyone greeted us and no one asked us anything. Of course, we didn't see any tourists.

The express train is an experience

As I mentioned at the beginning, the country is shrouded in various myths and prejudices. However, our impression of the country was good. We didn't see anything that would shock for an Europeans - people were extremely kind and helpful. We didn't even see anyone misbehaving with women, many women were walking around the cities and malls in western "fashion." If we had to deal with the police, it was absolutely no problem. They checked the passengers on the bus several times and when they saw us - tourists, and we already had our passports ready for control, they indicated that it was fine and we didn't have to show anything. While we were hitchhiking, a police car came up to us. Closer the policeman was to us, slower he moved, as if we were some inexplicable phenomenon for him. As soon as he was very close to us and we somehow managed to make it clear that we were hitchhiking, he just smiled and went on. We spent some time in Medina. If you are a non-Muslim and you does not enter the holy places, you can enter the city. The important thing is that you can only get here by train from Jeddah. If you are taking a bus, it is not possible, because the bus goes to holy places. The high-speed train from Jeddah to Medina travels at a speed of 300 kilometers per hour, and the roughly 400 kilometer distance takes less than two hours. It's a great experience.

Because of Saudi Arabia

Everything in the country already works on the basis of the Internet - hotels, transport, booking appointments for monuments. You're lost without a smart phone, but even that won't save you. It happened to us twice that we made a hotel reservation via the Internet and arrived at the designated place, where there was either another hotel or simply there was nothing there. We lost a lot of time looking for the right place. Why is it like that? Simple answer. Because of Saudi Arabia. In terms of money, it is not a cheap country - much like you would travel in Austria. Compared to Iraq, which is my favorite destination, it is 3 times more expensive here. Again, where you are buying a cheap fly ticket, it is usually expensive. In my opinion, there are better countries for travelling in the Middle East. For me, Saudi Arabia did not have the right "soul" like, for example, mentioned Iraq or Iran. You will find nice places and nice people here, but you don't have the feeling that you are in a country that is somewhat typical, if we leave aside the holiest places on earth for Muslim believers. Of course, I don't want to discourage readers, but this country is more suitable for people who like places, a planned itinerary and not an unpredictable adventure from which you could not stop your heart beating strongly.

Info block: Saudi Arabia is the sixth most populous Arab country. It is the only country that lies on the coast of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf at the same time. Only 4 years ago, it was opened to tourists, allowing access to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a unique coastline and the longest continuous sandy desert in the world (Ar-Rub´ al Khalí). The country's economy is based on oil, and up to 90% of export income comes from the oil industry. The Kingdom is the world's largest producer and exporter of oil.

Date of trip: october 2022

Author: Peter Gregor 

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