Travelling KSA: A rare glimpse of the Kingdom

Al Nafl is small and quite different from the main areas of Riyadh as it is very quiet and boasts only a few basic necessities within walking distance. A laundry and two small grocery stores, a couple of mosques, a football field, a school, a bookstore, Carrefour and a China Mart are really the only amenities nearby. It is, however, a nice place to call home for a time, as it offers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of this growing city. As Riyadh is in the middle of the desert, it’s not surprising that Al Nafl like the rest of the place is home to plenty of yellow sand. Contrary to what many people think about deserts, however, it has hot summers but also cold winters. As we were about to leave for our road trip in early December, the temperature had dropped to as low as 6 or 7 degrees Celsius. On the road trip, I and ten others from all over the world headed to a city in the southwest of the country that I’d never heard of called Al Baha, where we’d planned to stay for a couple of months. The city was a good 13-hour drive away, up into the mountains near the border of Yemen. In fact, until very recently, Al Baha was part of Yemen and we knew very little about it apart the many travel warnings against going there – particularly for foreigners like us. Nonetheless, we threw caution into the desert wind and started on our way.

It was not long before the straight but wide roads of Riyadh had taken us out of the city, where we got our first glimpse of the beautiful mountains, which had horizontal lines etched across their orange faces. We were also welcomed with the large expanse of beautiful desert landscape, blanketed throughout by warm-looking yellow sand. Just outside of the city we were greeted with a view of Masmak Fort, which was the home of the future King Abdulazziz al Saud for the better part of four decades from the very early 1900s onwards, after he returned form exile in Kuwait and recaptured the city, before he moved within the boundaries of present-day Riyadh.

As on many highways in many countries around the world, there are plenty of petrol/gas stations along the way from Riyadh to Al Baha. These offer great places to stop to eat and use the restroom, as well as wash and pray as there is always a mosque nearby. A great part of the experience of stopping at these stations was seeing who else was making their modern day journey through this ancient land; once we saw a large group of travellers from far-away Oman, wearing their national clothes and happy to share their news. As night comes in the desert, the roads quickly get very dark, so our journey became slow and quiet. We eventually arrived in a remote locale just on the outside of Al Baha late in the evening. As it had the basics, we unpacked and stayed the night. The morning views were amazing as we could see the mountains and landscapes much more clearly than in the evening, and few tourists meant we could enjoy it quietly, without interruption from crowds.

Travellers should note that in remote places in the Kingdom don’t always have everything needed to accommodate visitors. Things you want or need might not always be available when you want or need them, so a little patience and perseverance – as well as a willingness to live daily life as the locals do – will go a long way. Our group was hoping to grab a taxi to the main part of the Al Baha, but we couldn’t get one no matter how hard we tried. The size of our group coupled with a general lack of taxis going in our direction, made it almost impossible to get a ride. Almost. Finally we met a local driver of a pickup truck who was heading into town and who – after some friendly haggling – agreed on a price to take us in. All 10 of us hunkered down into the back of is open pickup and hung on tightly for the 20 minute ride. It was only remotely dangerous as the traffic was light and the driver drove safely, but it was an amazing and unique experience.

Saudi Arabia, like many desert cultures, boasts food that is flavourful and somewhat nutritious, always sourced from local ingredients due to the not-too-distant past when imports of foreign food were practically non-existent. We hit the first local restaurant we could find and it didn’t disappoint. It offered up a traditional Arabic food called Kabsa, which essentially is beef, camel or chicken cooked with rice. There are a variety of ways this dish is cooked including mathbi (grilled), mandi (buried), madghut (squashed in a pressure cooker – our favourite) and more. Normally Kabsa is served with slices of onion and lemon on top. This restaurant was very traditional in that we sat on cushions on the floor and although spoons are available on request, most patrons eat using their right hands. It was not something I was used to but I gave it a go and it certainly added to the experience. We were surrounded by locals who wore traditional Arab clothing, including the long, white thobe and the red checked shemagh heald on their heads by the black aqal. Places such as Al Baha rarely if ever see visitors, so the people we met in the restaurant and around town were welcoming, friendly and hospitable, and were eager to know where we were from. Slightly less friendly are the wild baboons that roam throughout areas of the Saudi desert towns; travellers are advised to be wary of these sometimes-dangerous and unpredictable desert dwellers.

Visiting far-away desert locales in Saudi Arabia can be a unique and amazing experience. Al Baha, like even the smallest places, has a city centre with a main road that boasts shops, restaurants and blocks of flats. Visitors will clearly see, though, that it – and places like it – are very different from Riyadh despite being in the same country. Though it is most definitely off the beaten track and a bit intimidating if you’ve never roamed far outside major city centres, Al Baha was a great opportunity to explore more of the culture of the country that is not always seen by outsiders. With no western foreigners in sight, we found ourselves experiencing genuine Saudi Arabia and it was definitely worth the visit.

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