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 booking.com and wondered if this was the case here.
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.