Taif – Riyadh – al Khobar

Boulders. That is my main memory of Taif. I was pretty tired by the time I got there so spent no time exploring the city. But the boulders will stick in my mind for a long time. Great piles of them, some huge, the size of houses, most smaller. Where they haven’t already been destroyed to straighten the road or make way for building houses, they are quite beautiful. 

Building straight roads seems to be an obsession here in Saudi. Maybe it is an American influence; are people affected by a fear of curves or roundabouts? On my drive from Taif along Route 50, what is now a minor road, just two lanes connecting small towns in the middle of nowhere, the road builders went to great efforts to keep things die straight for tens of miles. There was little in the way, but any rocky outcrop or small hill was cut through to avoid any unnecessary turning of the wheel or change in gear. Personally, I find the long straight, flat roads the most difficult to ride. The mind tends to wander. By the number of car wrecks rusting away in the sands, it is obviously a problem that others have too. Strangely I find it easier on a motorcycle than in a car. If I’d been in my FJ I would have had to keep stopping for a nap.  

The Boudl group of apartment hotels in Saudi are very nice for the price, with the exception of the restaurant. They don’t have one, just a coffee shop with a limited and unspectacular menu. I asked for a recommendation and was sent off to the Indian restaurant just round the corner. It was popular but one of those places where you are sealed off from human contact by screens and curtains. That, along with the painfully bright fluorescent lights and miserable waiters, left me cold. I stayed for a good 45 seconds before deciding to explore the rest of the street. 

Crossing the road in Taif was perhaps the most dangerous thing I’d done all day. It required waiting patiently for a small gap in the traffic followed by a sprint to the central reservation, crossing being a two stage operation. The restaurant selection was pretty grim – various Saudi burger or pizza joints, or their American kin – Hardee’s, KFC or Hungry Bunny. Then I saw a man in a short thobe carrying a stack of huge flatbreads. Five minutes later I was sitting happily in a Yemeni restaurant waiting for bread and foul for the second time in a day. It was delicious and cost all of SR7. It was a very popular place, with most men taking away stacks of bread served on a paper plate half the size, and plastic containers of foul, dahl and other substances I could’t identify. Why are places like Hardies and KFC so easy to franchise successfully, but these are not?

Safely back across the road I ordered an Americano in the Boudle coffee shop, spending twice the amount I had on dinner, and chatted to a plump Filipino waiter about Christmas. He’d been in Taif for two weeks, having recently moved down from Kuwait. He was in shell shock; Taif isn’t as exciting as Kuwait apparently and there are no Filipino cycling groups.

I was woken at ten by a huge amount of noise in the corridor. It sounded like someone was dragging a coffin out of the room. I tried to ignore it, with eyebrows raised, shaking my head. When the racket continued i decided to take a look. Wrapped in a bath towel I opened the door to find a grinning maintenance man manhandling a huge carpet into the room opposite. Hotel maintenance was working night shift. I don’t think there was anybody else in the corridor and the man looked surprised to see me, “Sleeping already sir?” being his only response to my indignation. I’ve had a suspicion for sometime that you get the worst rooms when you go through and wondered if this was the case here.  

Route to Riyadh 

Remembering how busy the traffic is between Mecca and Riyadh, I didn’t want to ride Route 40, which is both direct and very fast, at least between speed cameras. The cameras have been a mixed success. They certainly slow down the traffic but people learned quickly how to spot them. Until this trip I had seen four different types. The first ones were mounted in the back of a parked car left at the side of the road. These have the advantage of being easily moved to keep people guessing, but they seem to get vandalised frequently. Permanently mounted cameras on poles came next, but people quickly learn where they are and how to spot them and use hazard flashers to warn other drivers to slow down. More sophisticated overhead gantry mounted cameras that monitor average speed, or the smart shiny posts that can detect all sorts of traffic offences, if the Arab News is to be believed, are more effective but rare. On this trip I came across a new type – the sand coloured box. They look like a kid has cut a couple of peep holes in a refrigerator sized cardboard box and casually dumped it at the side of the road. They don’t work well. People still spot them well in advance, slam on their brakes and hazard flashers, disturb the general traffic flow and then speed off again. Education is what is needed. 

By not following Route 40 I knew I would be adding to my already long day, so I was indecisive as I left the hotel at 5:30am. The traffic out of town was already busy and a little crazy. Why is it considered acceptable here to pull out of junctions without stopping or looking for oncoming vehicles? Why is it OK to check your messages or drive along at half the speed limit talking into your phone with your mind elsewhere? A driver swerving slowly between three lanes whilst he talked to this phone in the way you would do a microphone made my decision easy. I thought I would see if the longer road was quieter. 

Once out of Taif the road was somewhat less busy but there was fog on the road. As I fixated on the lights I front of me and kept my eyes on the speed of the cars behind me, I wondered how the vegetation was adapted to this weather. Better than the drivers. There were a lot of trees and bushes around, all evenly spaced and looking in good order. As the fog started to lift, the landscape became quite magical. The quality of driving remained the same, with tailgating the norm. Eventually though I left the “inhabited area” and was left with a beautifully empty road in the desert. 

I first visited Wa’bah Crater about six years ago. They had just finished building a small road to the crater rim and it ended so suddenly you could imagine people driving up, failing to stop and ending up hundreds of meters further down. There has been progress of sorts. There is now a wall around the crater rim and extensive car parks. A visitor center has been built, although it is still empty. There are locked toilets and the posts to mount an information board. Viewing galleries and a mosque bare being built. The inevitable plastic umbrellas are in place to help picnicking families feel welcome, whilst failing to provide any shade. Altogether, it is not an improvement. Rubbish bins have not been provided of course, but it is likely that a number of Bangladeshi men have been employed to clean up after the visitors. After all, there must be very low youth unemployment in rural areas like this, and garbage collection isn’t even on the first rung of the managerial career ladder. I was finding myself somewhat irritable when a Pakistani builder called me across to wish me Happy Christmas and give me water. He’d worked in Saudi Arabia for 26 years. 

It was easy to see why the road was quiet. With just two lanes and far longer than Route 40 it wouldn’t be the fastest or easiest option, but for riding it was superb. There was hardly any traffic and although the road was largely straight, there was enough of interest in the landscape to make me want to explore. Volcanoes, strange patches of dense vegetation, farms and camel herds, then long stretches of nothing before mountains that rose out of the distant haze. I stopped several times to take photographs, labeling them with the gps coordinates so hat I could find the locations again. Normally I am too lazy to do this, thinking that I will remember where the places in the photographs were. I’m wrong; often I can’t be sure I get the country right. In Saudi the distances are so huge, the chances of been able to find a location again by chance are small, for me at least. 

Although there were few people around, if I stopped for more that a few minutes someone would pass by, but not without slowing or stopping to see that I was ok. One elderly Bedouin parked his old Landcrusier and walked across the road to meet me. Shaking my hand he didn’t want to let go, so we stood their talking and holding hands, struggling with a mixture of Arabic and English to establish what we were both doing and that all was well. Finally, after really making sure that I wasn’t in any trouble and that I didn’t have time to folllow him to his camp for food, we parted ways and he wished me merry Christmas. 

I’d decided to try and get to Riyadh before dark and to stay on the outskirts in the Diplomatic Quarter to avoid the worst of the traffic. Despite going the lowly round, I did manage this, although I took a wrong turning at one point and ended up joining route 40 for the last hundred miles or so. Next time I think it would try and cut Riyadh out all together and drive instead to Ushaiqer and stay al Majmaah. Even better if there is accommodation in Ushaiqer?

For the final leg of my journey I decided to leave the Courtyard Marriott Hotel at 5:30 and head back on the Kurais Road. I was across Riyadh in twenty minutes without ever having to drop below 100km/h and having breakfast in al Khobar by 10:00.

This was a brilliant trip. Saudi is such a rich and varied place in which to travel. I’ve met such kind people on route, indeed, if I had accepted all the invitations to eat or drink coffee, I could have easily spent a month on the journey. I can’t wait for the next trip. Lots of places still to explore.

In all I covered 5773 kilometers or 3608 miles.


Muhayil to Taif

I was awake early and didn’t feel like lying around so set off before it got light again. I was rather thankful for this as it turned out. I’d been trying to decide whether to take road 209 (easy, safe option) or 2452 across the mountains to join route 15 heading north from Abha to Taif. 2452 looked the best option but the satellite imagery looked rather insane: 

Without knowledge of the road conditions I decided that those bends could be a little challenging, so I took the main road. 

OMG, that could have been a mistake and a half. 209 is magnificent, a series of endless, beautiful bends that lead down a mountain valley and the climb up the escarpment via a series of sweeping curves, tunnels and insane bridges.  The light was terrible, hence the lack of photos. Worse though was the traffic. I now understand why Saudi has so many dual carriage ways where they don’t appear to be necessary. It is because the drivers are absolutely stupid; driving at maximum speed, passing on blind bends, including in tunnels, and playing chicken with the cars coming in the opposite direction. Building dual carriage ways and placing concrete barriers between the trafix must be easier, or cheaper, than educating drivers or enforcing some sort of road trafic law. By the time I reached the plateau and 98% of the cars veered off on their suicisal journey to Abha I had had a major adrenaline fix. I likened it to soloing right at the limit of ones climbing ability and then discovering that the rock is unpredictably loose. The rest of the journey on Route 15 was deliciously calm and fascinating. A superb ride and one as good as I’ve done anywhere so far. 

I had to venture a little off road to get to see these views off the edge of the plateau. For most of the day I was riding along the ridge, but without making a special effort to get to the edge, you might not know it was there. 

The grey ‘rock’ in the foreground is actually dried mud. 

A few traditional houses remain in the villages and towns on Route 15, but most are in ruin. 
Today was all about Yemeni food. I ate at two restaurants, delicious food and nice people, and spent a total of SR10. It would have been cheaper if I hadn’t been extravagant and bought a diet 7UP. 

So the spectacular part of this journey finished in Taif. Over the next two days I’m returning to al Khobar. Tomorrow is Christmas Day and I’m going to ride to Riyadh. I love this part of Saudi and don’t want to leave. There is so much to explore here; I’ve only scratched the surface, as you can see in the map below which traces my route over the last three days. 

Baljurashi to Muhayil

Figuring that today’s ride would be fairly easy and short,  I started with a pre-dawn run around the outskirts of Baljurashi. The light at this time of year is wonderful and the landscape lends itself to the glancing rays of the morning sun. Being Friday morning  the town was very quiet. I met nobody for thirty minutes until I took a back road trying to find a way to one of the old stone towers. A group of Egyptian builders were having a breakfast of foul and bread, squatting at the side of their foundations. They invited me to join them,  which I did for a few mouthfuls. I love this Afghani food but know that it doesn’t make running any easier and I had a long way to go back.  

I spent a good part of the previous evening studying google maps and trying to plan the best route. Pulling out of Baljurashi I found myself on a small winding road through farmland. It is remarkable how different the feeling of this area is compared to the Eastern Provinnce. There is so much more vegetation and the landscape is rich with features, variety and texture. As the climb started, I wondered where the mountain was I had spotted on the map. The road that wound its way up was so sinuous that it suggested it should be huge and steep, yet what was before me was really quite insignificant. Suddenly  a large car park appeared, with baboons everywhere. They were pulling litter out of a skip and searching through discarded polythene bags. I’d just found a local picnic spot. Carefully parking the bike away from the baboon activity I took the time to look around. The missing mountain became obvious. I was on top it. My winding road went down, not up. I was pleased that I hadn’t been describing the route to anyone.

There were warnings about steep and dangerous curves ahead, with advice on using a low gear. These signs are huge, red and bilingual. It’s good advice, but as the road is very obviously steep and twisty, I don’t see the point. By contrast there are no warning signs that suggest you don’t overtake on blind bends, or cut people off at junctions, or generally drive like a twit. The road was magnificent and I badly wanted pictures, but stopping was somewhat challenging. It would have made good video footage perhaps. I was thankful that I didn’t have to share the road with a lot of other cars. Down in the valley a diversion landed me outside a Yemeni restaurant making foul and huge flatbreads, like the ones I had shared with the builders a couple of hours earlier. It was too good to miss. This time I was riding so …

Feeling very content after my second breakfast, justified because of my run, I thought I would go and explore al Makhwah and the jebel that Ray Timm had recommended. Studying the map I hadn’t been able to work out of there was a road up the jebel or just a track, so time for a little exploring. The scenery just got better and better, and remarkably a road appeared going in the right direction, narrow but generally in good condition. I pressed on until I got to a point where I was thinking that I shouldn’t be doing this, but by that time I was committed. It’s difficult to change your mind when on a slope steeper than 1 in 4 and going round a tight bend with a changing camber. The road soared upwards and so did I, slipping the clutch and cursing.  By the time I reached a small plateau my heart was in my mouth and the thought that I was probably going to have to go back the same way was making me sweat. I need to do some off road training!

I went as far up the mountain as I could, before returning rather cautiously. An excellent experience. There is so much rock climbing and hiking potential in this area, it could become a haven for outdoor pursuits enthusiasts. There is good money to be made here. If only Saudi would open its doors a little.

Back on safe tarmac in Makhwah, I decided to head straight for Muhayil and my hotel, which was about three hours away. Straight? Hardly. I don’t think that there was more than a couple of kilometres of straight road in the rest of the journey. Fabulous riding. 

Muhayil left me somewhat unimpressed. It’s surrounded by beautiful scenery and yet the city itself is rather grim. This notwithstanding the fact that the local government has spent considerable amounts of money on carefully constructed plastic play grounds, colourful concrete landscaping and sculptures, and the inevitable bright park with its umbrellas and shades. 

Jeddah to Baljurashi

This was only yesterday and yet it already seems a distant memory. So much seems to happen on trips like this that it easy to let everything blur into one experience. Or maybe I just have a bad short term memory.

So, in the dim and distant past, or at lest before dawn yesterday, I left Jeddah to head south. The traffic in the city is some of the worst I’ve seen, partly caused by bad road design, but mainly due to having far too many drivers with a bad attitude and poor skills. Even leaving before 6am I feared for my life at times. I can see why Nick said that he had had five accidents in the year or so he has been here.  If I’m back in Jeddah in the future, I think I would aim for a 5am departure.

I decided the safest way to travel was to spot a safe driver that obviously knew the roads and stay with him.  This worked well; I survived. As I approached the outskirts of Jeddah, the traffic gradually thinned and became slightly more sane and predictable, then I entered another world. Nick had mentioned that there was a new road to Ash Shafa and I’d managed to spot it on the satellite imagery. It was actually still being built and I wondered how wise I was to tackle it, especially when the tarmac finished. The mountains and sweeping views were a major draw though and I pushed on. I was glad I did as the views were just magnificent. 

As I began the steep descent I did wonder how gnarly the road was going to become, but the surface had been recently graded ready for completion so the riding was easy to Ash Shafa.  From there I picked up the well established route through the mountains to Al Baha. This is an excellent road, with hundreds of beautiful curves that link together elegantly, on a generally perfect tarmac surface. One of my Facebook friends commented to the effect that it was a wonderful road until I you met an idiot overtaking on a bad bend and that was one of the reasons Saudi has a road fatality rate of 44/100,000 people. A sobering thought. Thankfully, though, I didn’t meet a single crazy driver all day once out of Jeddah.

Going south stone towers and the remains of fortified villages started to appear. Most have been left fall into ruin, no longer needed in these peaceful times. Good jobs and government money have meant that people can build much larger, modern houses too, which are probably far more comfortable to live in. In the remote villages and towns I did pass though I wondered what most of the Saudi men actually do to earn a living. Almost everybody I meet who is working is a foreigner. If you had been dropped into the area between Ash Shafa and Baljurashi, without being told which county you were in, I think you would guess north India, or maybe Yemen. I don’t think you would guess it was Saudi at all. 

I followed a side road near al Baha and discovered the escarpment by chance. Having risen all day in the mountains it came as a shock to find that the mountains just dropped away for a couple of thousand metres just to one side of my route.  As I was taking photographs, Sultan, a Saudi accountant from Jeddah pulled up and came out to chat. He had quite good English and told me that he was going to the UK next month to study for a year, as he wanted a good job. Talking about the view and our travels, he said it was the first time he had been anywhere other than Jeddah, Mecca or Medina.  

By the time I arrived in Baljurashi I was pretty tired, so I showered made coffee and laid on the bed. Somehow at this point I then managed to clip my cup with my hand and catapult it against the wall. If I had been trying I couldn’t have managed to cover such a large area with black coffee. Fortunately the paint was waterproof and it cleaned off well. I can’t say the same for the carpet though.  Later in the evening the mirror fell off the bathroom wall and I found out that the Tirol Kliniken are threatening me with legal action if I don’t pay my hospital bill by December 30. Nevertheless, a splendid day.


I needed a rest day so thought I would take the easy coast road to Jeddah, rather that the mountain road. By leaving at 6:00 I thought I could arrive in time for the shops opening, get some lunch and then check in to my hotel. 

The coast road is very straight and remarkably boring. Two things bare remarking on. In several hundred kilometers there are no gas stations, just signs telling you that there is one in a coastal town several kilometers away. I found this strange. There are, however, small mosques every few miles. They are simple structures, little more than covered shelters or shacks, but each is provided with a large tank of water for ablutions and there is plenty of space at the side of the road (the desert) on which to park. By each mosque grows a tree, either planted or an the product of a discarded seed I don’t know, but watered by the regular ablutions of the faithful. In the harsh environment they seem like a sign of hope.

In Jeddah I asked what I should see, what is the most important thing to visit. Several times I was told the Red Sea Mall. I had lunch there. It’s nice. It could be anywhere. I ate at Starbucks. 

I paid a visit to the BMW motorrad showroom and met up with Donnovan, Nick and Amr. The showroom looks good. 

Jeddah traffic is truly awfull. There are far too many cars and the road system is not able to cope. 

It’s hot here 32.5°C today. How different to Tabuk. 

The screw fell out of the arm of my glasses. It must be the vibrations from the bike. I called in at Magrabi and they fixed them in two minutes and wouldn’t take any payment. They thought it was funny that I was lookin at new frames at point blank range whilst my own glasses were being repaired. 

I had a superb dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. 

In the last few days I’ve covered 3000 kilometers on my motorcycle in Saudi Arabia. It has given me a better understanding of driving here. These are my observations:

The minimum age for driving depends on the size of the town you live in. If it’s a small, remote town, then 12 is OK, as long as you can see out of the windscreen when operating the accelerator and brake. 

You should stop at traffic lights when they are red, however it is OK to ignore the signal if:

A) you are in a hurry and think you can make it through safely. 

B) you don’t notice the signal because you are checking your text messages, whatsapp or twitter feed. 

C) you know there are no working traffic light cameras in operation

D) you know the traffic policeman sitting at the intersection will not take any notice

E) you have painted over your number plate or wrapped your headdress around it to avoid being photographed. 

The speed limit on the highway is advisory. If the highway is particularly busy it is better to travel at least 20 to 50 km/h faster than this to avoid bad drivers. You can used the hard shoulder to make this easier. 

Talking in the telephone whilst driving is dangerous. Everybody knows this. You can minimize the danger by slowing drown from 120 to 80 km/h and staying in the middle lane. This stops drivers entering the highway at junctions going unnoticed as you concentrate on your call. It also allows other drivers to pass you on both sides. 

In remote areas, traffic safety is of paramount importance. Warning signs saying “Inhabbited Area”, “Dangerous Bends”, “Roundabout”, “Curve”, or “Traffic signal ahead, be prepared to stop at red” are placed one kilometer before the hazard for guidance.  
To be behind another vehicle in a queue is emasculating and a sign of weakness. Avoid it where possible. If necessary pass on the hard shoulder. Take care not to hit the concrete road divider. 

Traffic policemen say that they want to see your licence, residence permit and bike registration, but really they want to check that you are OK and take a look at your BMW R1200GS Adventure. 

In remote areas there is no guarantee that petrol stations will have any gasoline, but their attendants will share their lunch with you. 

Again, in remote areas almost all shops, filling stations, workshops and farms are staffed by Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Filipino or Yemeni workers. Saudis are seldom seen. They take management roles, which usually involves driving around in large Toyota, Lexus, BMW or Mercedes vehicles. 

The distance between petrol stations varies. It can be two hundred meters or three hundred kilometers. Don’t tour on a bike with a small tank. 

Road surfaces, particularly in remote areas, are superb. Dangerous road surfaces appear out of nowhere in the city, generally surrounded by perfect tarmac. 

Camels have no sense of danger and wonder across the road, looking surprised that there are large metal things hurtling towards them. 

On dual carriage way that are perfectly straight for over 100 miles, with no population or intersections, you see completely wrecked cars lying in the sand. The camel rotted away long ago. 

When approaching a junction, decide which direction to turn in once you have pulled to a halt. It is OK to change lanes, people don’t mind if you pull infront of them from the right lane to turn left. 

There are often roadsweepers by intersections in the city. Give them money. 

There are sometimes women begging at intersections in the city. Don’t give them money. 

The obvious place for spectacular spending on municipal sculpture is the central reservation and town roundabouts. This will help calm traffic

Speed bumps are more effective than sleeping policemen in calming the traffic. They are carefully designed to be unpredictable. Some can be tackled at speed but others will launch you. The presence of a motor mechanic’s repair shop nearby is a clue to which type you are about to hit. A good general guideline is to look for the number of gouges in the tarmac at the far side of the hump; if there are many, break, but not too hard or the man behind you might run into you. 
If you have an accident, do not move the car. Call the police or Najm to get a police report otherwise your insurance won’t pay any claim. Actually, they might not either way, so choose – stay where you are and risk death, or move and be resigned to having to pay for your own repairs. 

The road system was designed in America for an earlier age, where there were a lot fewer cars and people took drivers ed seriously. Roads are now much busier and drivers come from all over the world. Take comfort in the fact that all have had to do their Saudi driving test. Armed with the knowledge that everybody has, at least once, successfully driven around a figure of eight of cones, done an emergency stop, a three point turn (I think, can’t remember that one) and reverse parked, you know that you should be OK. 

Traffic queues take up too much time. Never give way if you can avoid it, it shows weakness. Push in where possible, ignoring eye contact with those that you might run into or that might have to stop suddenly to let you pass; this shows masculinity. 

Never show road rage. It is immature and shows weakness. 
You know you are a safe driver so it is OK to use your mobile phone, read the Koran on your steering wheel and allow your kids to bounce around the car, hang out of the windows or sunroof. 

The use of indicators is optional but recommended for purely aesthetic reasons. If yours are red, that is even better. 

Buy a really huge car. It suggests that you are rich and have the money and ability to sire a huge family. Very masculine. Don’t buy a small car; if you do people will think you are poor and not a businessman or manager. 

If you are a real man, farm for a living and know the desert, buy a old style Toyota pickup and let it go rusty. They are indestructible. On the rare occasions you use tarmac, enjoy it, don’t worry about the rules. Others will get out of your way and they are a lot more predictable and easily scared than camels. 

Most importantly of all, if you see someone parked at the side of the road, stop and offer them every assistance possible. It restores faith in humanity. 

Tabuk to Yanbu

I decided to explore Tabuk on the run, getting some exercise and covering lots of ground. It’s quite a nice place, in the bland way that word suggests. Maybe I didn’t find the best bits. I certainly caused a stir running down the streets and avoiding traffic. There is generally no way you can run on the pavement in Saudi cities; the idea of a sidewalk, to use an Americanism has been lost in translation. The space is generally used for trees, square concrete containers designed to hold trees, but actually full of garbage, or parking slots. Occasionally, when a shop is closed down, the pavement is a store for garbage, builders rubble and old furniture. As I ran I was on the lookout for batteries. I needed two, a CR2032 to make my motorcycle key work, and some lithium AAAs to operate the SPOT GEN3 tracker I’m using. Shouldn’t be too hard to find, I thought. I was wrong. Even Extra didn’t have them. Keyless ride is OK, but … when the battery goes flat …

Back at the hotel, I was starving and not best pleased when I found out that the restaurant didn’t open until 7:00. It was 5:30. “No problem sir, we have a le carte”. Three quarters of an hour later, I was served a mildy aired Arabic mixed grill that looked a little like it had been involved in a car crash. I was hangry by this stage, sent it back, declined the kind offer to reheat it and marche out of the hotel. I would have been well advised to put on some more clothes first, but I was only mild.y hypothermic by the time I arrived at the shawarma restaurant down the road. Running acrosss ten lanes of traffic helped.

I need to learn Arabic. A combination of a few Arabic and English words, together with extravagant gestures got me two huge shwarmas and a fruit salad large enough to overfeed a family of four. It was an interesting concoction; fresh orange, apple, banana, mango, kiwi, pineapple, pomegramite seeds, topped off with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, liquidised fresh strawberries mixed with a little cream, pistachio and crushed almond flakes. Oh, and a few chocolate chips and a stick of KitKat, albeit a Chinese copy.  

Leaving Tabuk early in the morning was a good thing. The roads were still quiet, making it easier to cope with the navigation. They are currently restructuring the road system to allow for the huge increase in traffic since the original town was planned. The effect may be interesting. At the moment I am not sure. Huge flyovers are being built through the centre of town. They might get the traffic moving, but somehow I suspect that they will just damage the many local businesses and somebody will build a new mall out of town. At the moment they are just causing general chaos and traffic accidents, especially near the roundabouts.  

Appropriate roundabout behaviour obviously needs to be taught; you can’t just drop them in a town centre and hope for the best. I’ve noticed several behaviours in this part of Saudi. The confident way is to charge across the roundabout, taking the centre at a tangent and making use of all lanes with confidence. At the other extreme is the cautious driver who gives way to people wanting to enter the roundabout, coming to a stop each time a car approaches. Neither are particularly effective or safe. 

Once I was out of town I joined a busy highway heading south. As the temperature dropped from 5° to 1°C, the ice warning displayed on the GPS, I cranked the heat up on my jacket and thought to buy a wind proof scarf. The sun rose and mountains appeared, the landscape reminding me of the Western Hajar in Oman. Between the rocky jebels, fine sand dunes burned orange, or frosted white. I’ve seen ice so rarely in Saudi that I had to stop and check. There had been a heavy dew in the night and ice crystals etched each wind blown ripple or track in the sands. I drove on, especially careful, but fascinated with the way the light and shadows played on the landscape.

Entering one particularly bleak valley, I stopped and watched the sun rise over the horizon, its rays casting long shadows. As the sun warmed the landscape a sudden wind appeared with tremendous strength. My bike, propped on its centre stand wobbled and the alarm went off. I turned it off and walked away to take a photograph. Another gust of wind, then another. Then the bike went over. I raised my eyebrows, thought bugger and should have taken a photograph, but I didn’t. I put my camera down and wondered about how to pick the bike up. Without luggage I can do it, with luggage, not a hope. Within a minute though a Toyota pickup screeched to a halt, reversed back up the hill. Struggling to stand on their feet in the wind, a Saudi man and his son came to check I was OK. It did look as though I had crashed, especially as my knuckle was bleeding – I’d caught it on something trying to pick up the bike. I explained, feeling rather stupid. Together we picked up the bike. I thanked them, we took photos and I got ready to go. With the bike off the side stand it was quite a struggle to keep it upright against the wind. Bloody cold now, I waved to the men as they got in their car and adjusted the heating level of my jacket before starting the bike. Everything sorted, the wind suddenly dropped. As I had been leaning against the wind to keep the bike upright this was unfortunate. I spent a desperate three seconds trying to stop downward progress and then fell over, laughing. The men saw it happen in their rear view mirror and jumped back out to pick me up again. Most embarrassing. I’m sure they thought I was just incompetent for once on the move they followed me for ten miles before deciding I was safe enough to leave to my own devices. 

About half an hour after that incident, I spotted an isolated sandstorm issuing from a side valley. The road ahead completely disappeared. Riding into it was strange. The particle were larger than usual and high off the ground. They sparkled like the finest quartz crystals. It was only once I had driven though it that I realised they were ice crystals, released from the sand by the morning sun and blown down the valley by the same gales that had knocked my bike over. Twice.  

Before heading off towards Wadi Deesa I stopped at a small village petrol station for fuel. They had run out, but did ask me to share their breakfast of foul and bread. Thankfully, the GSA has a thirty litre tank, or I would have to carry extra fuel.

Wadi Deesa is a hidden valley of quite spectacular proportions, a magical landscape that were it in Europe would be famous. I followed the road until a sign said “Road End” and then sat on the bike looking at the track that I knew continued up though the valley to connect with the road about 45 km away. I need to do some off road training and bring someone with me next time. Reluctantly, I turned around and began the journey south towards Yanbu. It was already heading towards noon, so I had to change my plans a little, rerouting to the coast so that I could make Yanbu before dark. Still, I managed to get a good three hundred miles of twisty mountain roads before joining the inevitably straight, if very fast, coastal highway.  

I soppped for lunch at an Afghan restaurant at Al Wagh – Badaa, a small village in a farming area. I love places like this. Your travel though the harshest, bleakest of deserts and then, almost out of nowhere appears a village, all thanks to a natural spring, or the presence of a wadi feeding water and bringing life. We sat and ate together, laughing and exchanging a few words, without a common language. They didn’t want me to pay, bought me plasters for my still bleeding finger and wanted to know why I hadn’t ridden in Afghanistan if I was riding in Saudi. Al Wagh is like so many of the small villages I’ve been to, truly multicultural. In the hour I spent there I met Afghans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Yemeni, Bangladeshi. Oh, and one Saudi youth.

The municipal sculpture changed once I hit the coast road. A ship, made out of concrete of course, graced the first intersection. 

Sakaka to Tabuk

Sakaka has a long history, having been inhabited for at least four thousand years. You wouldn’t really know it now, as there is little evidence of anything more than a few decades old to see. The city has been expanding and modernising quickly. A friend suggested that I check out a location noted for flint arrowheads and axes, so I waited for first light before braving the cold morning air. The bike ice warning was flashing and displaying a temperature of just 2°C. It gets cold up north apparently. The record is -7°C. Hard to imagine in Saudi. 

In Thaj, the other ancient settlement I visit from time to time, the department of antiquities have fenced off the site to prevent treasure hunters from pillaging the area. Here in Sakaka, they have found another way to protect the archeology. I guess that it will make for some other interesting finds in another four thousand years. 

I suspect they don’t get many English motorcyclists in Sakaka, because I drew a crowd at the petrol station. Muad was just one of the people who invited me to drink tea with him today. 

Leaving Sakaka, and the thousands of olive trees, I was surprised how quickly the landscape changed. I climbed onto a high, arid plateau, almost completely without features or vegetation. At one point I stopped to pee; the horizon was miles away in all directions, the land barren and bleak, nothing.  In a hundred miles I came across but three small villages, each preceded by a sign warning that I was about to enter an inhabited area. Only one of them boasted a restaurant. 

Eventually the land developed more character as I neared Tabuk. The odd municipal sculpture, like this giant basket of fruit appeared, and jebels began to rise from the gravel plains. 

It looks like I have an oil spill. Actually it is a melted tar snake. 

Seriously? An artificial basket of fruit? I also saw giant coffee pots, artificial trees, rainbow grass and many other things so odd they left me scratching my head. 

Tabuk is a big city in comparison to the villages I’ve been travelling through. After a quite delicious nap, I ran around the town causing drivers to swerve alarmingly as they were distracted from their mobile phones. Not many foreigners with white hair running around the streets in Tabuk it would seem. 

I thought Tabuk’s newly finished mosque to be rather spectacular. Below are photos of the view from my bedroom window and my journey so far. Today’s track is green. Tomorrow I’m heading for Yanbu. I’d planned on dropping by Madain Saleh, but the hotel says I need a permit. I’m sure I’ll find something else interesting instead.