Saudi Arabia - February 2024

From a touristic travel perspective Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries globally that was not really accessible - except for business and for pilgrims. This changed a lot with the announcement of the agenda 2030, the goal of which is to become more independent of oil and prepare Saudi Arabia for a time after the “petrodollars”. Major construction projects like NEOM, the LINE, and international events like the ASIAN WINTER GAMES and the application for the SOCCER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP, support one of the pillars of the agenda 2030: the TOURISTIC DEVELOPMENT of the country that has to go hand in hand with some liberalisation activities. As of 2019 it has been possible to get a touristic visa. Unfortunately COVID shut down a big part of the travel opportunities. Since mid 2022, after the COVID restrictions were lifted, the development of the agenda 2030 has been continued. Hence Saudi Arabia is a country which offers plenty of fascinating landscape, ancient cities, highly modern architecture among with various UNESCO heritage sites, but so far without the downside of mass tourism.
This travel blog will not only show photos of the fascinating landscape, culture and architecture, but also aims to provide our experiences and practical travel information for those who want to visit Saudi Arabia, too.

 

27/1/2024: City of Riyadh

First station after our trip from Munich via Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia is the capital city of Riyadh. After arriving and a surprisingly quick immigration process with the usual taking of finger prints, visa and passport check, screening of carry-on and general luggage, it took us nearly one hour to find the rental car section at the international airport. There was no indication sign where to go and even the airport staff did not know the rental car company "National". Finally after we found the National counter, a obviously bored representative did the enormous paperwork and handed us the car key without any user or safety information about the rental car. Maybe this is an indication that so far tourists, that would like to travel the country for several weeks with an own rental car are not the "standard". 
We used our first afternoon to visit the modern business district and some of the signature skyscrapers of the city along the King Fahd Road, the main north - south connection. The above pictures show that area with some of the signature high rise buildings, e.g. the Kingdom Tower with its famous visitor bridge in more than 300m of height. It is an amazing perspective overlooking this modern part of Riyadh from one of the visitor platforms.

 

28/1/2024 City of Riyadh:

Today our focus was the old town centre, that is only app. 3 km away from our hotel - so we decided to do this by walking on our own. Very soon we found out that walking is in general not the preferred option in Riyadh, as we were the only one doing this for such a distance. Cars so far are the preferred transpotation medium and the Metro so far is not completed.
There are only very few "left overs" of the historic residential clay buildings. Most of them are broken down and so far no restauration took place - some of the exceptions are the national monuments e.g. the Masmak Fort (unfortunately closed for the next 6 months due to restauration) or the Murabba palace. The focus over the last decades was for sure construcing new housing and infrastructure - at least in Riyadh. One example is the 22 B$ Riyadh Metro Project, that should be finished now in 2024 with in total 176 km of metro rail across the city. It will for sure be a big relief for the very dense traffic, but so far the remaining construction sites even cause more detours and traffic jams along the main roads.

 

29/1/2024 "Edge of the World":

I think these pictures do not need any comments regarding the fascinating landscape experience, that is located approximately two and a half hours north of Riyadh. This cliff in the desert is definetely worth to be visited. As you have to drive for one hour off-road through the stony desert you must have an off-road vehicle, if you want to do this on your own. In addition you will face the challenge, that there are no signposts that will give you the correct direction. For that reason we rented a driver guide who drove us there. This was especially necessary, as we started our return trip to the city after sunset, which means driving through the desert at night time.

 

30/1/2024 Diriyah:

The old residence city of the Saudi kings in the 18th century is a UNESCO heritage site, as it shows the clay architecture and the layout of a historical city. There is an ongoing reconstruction going on, that unfortunately leads to the fact that a lot of areas and buildings are not open to be visited. The whole area is a combination of an open air museum and a large (expensive) dining area - but due to "exaggerated restauration" work does not really look like an archeological site.
Huge areas in and around Riyadh are large construction sites with unimaginable dimensions. One of the above pictures shows the close neighborhood of Diriyah with numerous high crans for a new city development.

 

31/1/2024:
Today we have left Riyadh heading more than 600 km south to Wadi ad Dawasir. There is nothing but desert and some small villages along the road, but in Al Amar close to the small village Layla half the way to Wadi ad Dawasir, we discovered the ruins of an abandoned old clay village partially covered by the sand of the desert.
Layla was also the place where we encountered a surprising hospitality: As we stopped our car at an intersection to figure out which direction we had to go, a local Saudi stopped right besides us asking whether he can help us and immediately insisted that we have to be his guest at least for coffee or tea later the day. Unfortunately we still had 300 km left to our destination, so we unfortunately could not accept his invitation - it took a while to convince him of this (hopefully not impolite) rejection.
One important advice for all who would like to do the same drive: You have to stick to the speed limits, because there are dozens of speed cameras left and right along this highway!

 

1/2/2024 Wadi ad Dawasir to Najran:
Today we planned to visit two archeological sites on our way to the city of Najran, a distance of app. 300 km on a highway along the borderline to the Rub al-Khali, the largest sand desert globally.
The first destination were the ruins of Qaryat Al-Faw, the capital of the Kindah kingdom in Arabia – the acceptance for the UNESCO world heritage listing is currently pending. Unfortunately we found only a very large double fenced area with a clear indication that the archeological site is right there, but it was not accessible and nobody was there whom we could ask for a access permission.
The next highlight should be the UNESCO world heritage listed Bir Hima Rock Petroglyphs dating back to 7000 BC. The area was also fenced and abandoned, but at least we could find a (obviously very bored) guard who granted us access to a small part of the area.
Unexpectedly only some kilometers further on a plateau in a mountain range we discovered some ruins of stone tombs in the mountains, which are very similar to the tombs of Al-Ayn in Oman (which are already listed as an UNESCO heritage).

 

2/2/2024 Najran:
Najran is one of the oldest cities on the Arabien peninsula with a large archeological site Al Ukhdud with some excavations and a visitor center that explains the general history of this region. Other more obvious highlights in Najran are some old palaces, like the Amarah or the Al Aan palace, but also various old residential buildings – all constructed of clay bricks and spread out over different parts of the city.
As today is Friday we had to experience that really everything is closed until early afternoon, but there is no clear indication until when exactly so you have to try your luck. The Amarah palace unfortunately is generally closed because of renovation works for a longer period of time, but there is no indication how long exactly.

 

Brief recap after the first week:

Driving in Saudi Arabia is a very special experience. You can forget nearly about everything that you have learned in driving school and drive where it is possible or where you can find a spot in the traffic jam that suits your car size. If there are e.g. 4 lanes there are at least 5 lines of cars sqeezed narrowly and the drivers are using the horn to get attention, turning left and right from every lane and even going a one way street into the wrong direction ..... A nice driving experience from a german perspective is a stop at a gas station, where you can get one liter of gas for 50 cents and Diesel for 30 cents. (Remark from a "German beer drinker": For the same price you can either get 1 liter of non-alcoholic beer or 6 liters of gas - alcohol is not available anyway).
All streets are in a very well condition, even to remote sites and in very rural areas. Of course driving into the sand desert needs more than a standard rental car, but every location we wanted to go to was easily accesible by car. But be careful, because esp. outside the cities along the highways there are plenty of speed cameras in boxes left and right of the streets. Whereas the cameras mounted on horizontal poles above the roads are not checking the speed but detect whether the driver is using his cell phone.
We could experience a surprising hospitality. On the countryside (out of the megacity of Riyadh) we - as clearly recognisable foreigners - were already approached and invited several times for coffee or tea by Saudis who we met at various occasions. People are very interested from where you are and in a dialogue. Of course, this is supported by the fact that my wife has learned Arabic for some years and can understand and speak the language.

Access to historical sites and museums can be a matter of chance. Often sites and museums are closed or not accessible and formal opening hours do not exist or are at least not indicated. So we were sometimes really happy to find a specific location (not everything is clearly indicated by signs), but unfortunately we could not enter it and only "visit" it from outside. Forget about opening hours which you may find in Google! In addition in a lot of the more remote sites (despite the fact that they are officially considered a "historical site") the corresponding information on site is only provided in arabic language.

Food in a restaurants can be considered not expensive. You can easily have a dinner for two people for 15 Euros, even in hotels – of course without alcoholic drinks. The food quality is quite good, but as a vegetarian you might have to face some challenges.

 

3/2/2024 Najran – Abha:
The destination of our trip today was the city of Abha about 2200m above sea level in the coastal mountains of southern Saudi Arabia. Along the way we took various detours to visit some old clay villages e.g. Dharan Al Janub and Al-Jahamah. Some parts of them are old ruins, in some buildings people still live and for some clay construction the restauration work has already started. It is fascinating because there is no access limitation, so you can just enter all the buildings/ruins and explore the environment where people have lived for decades.
Our last stop before we arrived in Abha was a place called Al Habala, close to a steep cliff into a canyon of the coastal mountain range - more than 2300m above sea level with a phantastic view towards the Red Sea.

 

4/2/2024 Abha - Rijal Alma - Abha:
Today we planed a day trip to the UNESCO heritage site Rijal Alma. Going there means to cross the peaks of the mountain range toward the coastline of the Red Sea. This offers a gorgeous view from approximately 2600 m down into the various valleys from the Al Soudah viewing point which is also frequented by a lot of baboons.
After an extremely steep decline via a serpentine road we finally reached Rijal Alma. There was only one other tourist visiting this wonderful village besides us. Various already renovated complex clay buildings were built along a slope around a market place. The front line of them is in perfect shape, but if you enter some of the various alleys you can also find the former facades before the refurbishment.
Late afternoon back in Abha, we could experience the clouds and fog formed by the humidity of the Red Sea which raise up the steep mountain slope and cover the Abha plateau. You would expect that it starts to rain every second, but it did not rain one single drop of water.

 

5/2/2024 Abha – Thee Ain - Al Baha:
Our next highlight on the way to the city of Al Baha was the historic village of Thee Ain. To go there we had to cross the mountain range again and descent from 2600 m down to 700 m on a very small serpentine road and after our stop at Thee Ain again up to Al Baha at 2200 m. Thee Ain (which also has a visitor centre) is also called the Marble City. Despite the fact that it has been constructed of black stone, it was built on a white rock looking like marble.
Due to the weather conditions it was necessary to cross downwards and upwards the cloudy mist which origins from the warm Red Sea and very often covers the slope of the mountains. Sometimes this mist was so dense that the visibility was below 10 meters and besides the lights all drivers switched on the hazard warning lights while they were driving. Already in Al Baha the mist was so dense that in a roundabout it was not possible to see from one exit to the next one – my wife had to tell me by the help of Google Maps where in the roundabout I currently was - unbelievable, but true.
A positive aspect of the high humidity is that the landscape is relatively green esp. the mountain slopes facing the Red Sea.

 

6/2/2024 Al Baha – Taif:
There are again various historic villages along the road from Al Baha to Taif (e.g. Al Atawlah or Algehad) which winds down from 2200m to 1800m of sea level. In Taif the Shubra palace, which houses a (unfortunately temporarily closed) regional museum is of architectural interest.
But my highlight of the day were the ruins of the Jabra historic palace in Taif. This old rotten building would be an eldorado for al fans of lost place photography.

 

7/2/2024 Taif – Jeddah
To go to Jeddah means again descending a serpentine road from 1700m in the coastal mountains to sea level and changing the temperature from 15°C to 30°C. It is also necessary to bypass Makkah – emphasizing the word BYPASS, because for non muslim it is not allowed to access the city. For that reason I could only take a picture of the 600m high clock tower which is directly located near the square of the Kaba from long distance (sorry for the bad picture quality). A five lane highway finally leads from Makkah to Jeddah at the Red Sea, the allegedly most liberal city in Saudi Arabia – we will find out, so stay tuned!

 

8 and 9/2/2024 Jeddah:
Jeddah covers a huge area and stretches about 60 km along the shore of the Red Sea. Besides the fascinating UNESCO heritage area of the old town, the Corniche at the shore line leads for dozens of kilometers along luxury hotels, walking paths with coffee shops and restaurants. Plenty of additional beach areas and Marinas are still under construction and some have already opened recently. The construction site of the Jeddah or Kingdom tower which after its finalization will be with its height of more than 1000 m the highest building globally and is also located in this touristic (development) area. The goal is to transform Jeddah in a clean tourist location which should attract (well situated) tourists. For that reason even existing industry sites are removed and relocated/reconstructed far outside the city.
A annual highlight is the Jeddah Formula 1 event beginning of March. As this Grand Prix uses existing road segments of the Corniche as racing track (like in Monaco), the preparation and construction work for this event already starts 2-3 months before the actual racing event in March. Various kilometers of the Corniche are closed down and therefore the access to the sea side in that area is very restricted, the corresponding construction work is going on nearly 24/7 and can impact your stay heavily. Besides the Formula 1 Jeddah hosts various international concerts and events, e.g. a Vogue fashion show in the old town during our stay.
The most fascinating part of Jeddah for sure is the old town with is coral stone houses and the wooden balconies which were the reason for awarding the status of a UNESCO heritage site. Lots of narrow alleys sometimes like a maze with multi stories historic buildings left and right are forming the old city centre. Huge restauration works have already began, but a lot of houses are still waiting for the works to begin. Nevertheless, this gives the whole area a somehow "historic romantical" character.

 

Recap and practical information after the second week:
English is not the language “of choice”– definitely not in rural areas, but sometimes also in larger cities. Speaking Arabic, using Google translator or often using an Asian service employee as translator is absolutely necessary.
In hotels sometimes you need the number of your Saudi Arabian visa together with your passport to check in and you have to pay already at check in for your total stay. If you want/need to use an adapter for power sockets you need an adapter for sockets type G (like in the United Kingdom).
Going to a (non fast food) local restaurant as a couple, often means that you will be directed to the so called family section, which means that you are seated in a small cabin with a curtain at the entrance, so that the accompanying woman is out of sight and could remove the niqab. Open seating is only for men without female company.

Saudi Arabia is a country where you cannot buy alcohol, neither in supermarkets nor in high end hotels. Various non-alcoholic beverages are available including wine, champaign and of course beer. Various international beer brands like Heineken, Holsten, Budweiser … offer their non-alcoholic beer version – sometimes even with added fruit flavors (I do not comment on these "beer versions").

10/2/2024 Jeddah – Yanbu – Madinah:
Today we had to go for more than 600 km - one of our longest stages. Half the way along the shore line of the Red Sea to the city of Yanbu and the rest inland towards Madinah. Before we reached the old city of Yanbu, we had to pass the Yanbu industrial zone where lots of big oil refineries are lined up near the street over kilometers – making this city to the 3rd densest oil processing area globally. Yanbu offers various beach areas and “picnic spots” to watch the Red Sea. The decayed buildings of the old town centre look very similar to the ones in Jeddah with the coral stone and the wooden balconies. Most of them still have to be renovated, but some are already finalized. There is even a visitor centre that according to the information sign should be open the whole day, but it was not. After speaking to an official we were told that it is too hot in the afternoon for opening it. Again, opening hours and corresonding information are a matter of chance!
After we left Yanbu we went inland through an often surprisingly green rolling landscape, sometimes even with beehives
to finally reach Madinah at 600 m of sea level. As already often during our trip, we passed by the ruins of an abondend old village near the road.

 

11/2/2024 Madinah:
Since 2022 it has been allowed for non Muslims to enter the city of Madinah (other than Makkah which still is not open for non Muslim), the 2nd most holy city of the Islam. Today our main destination in Madinah was to the Grand Mosque in the city centre. Because of huge construction sites and detours which transform the city into a labyrinth, we were advised not to enter downtown with our own car. So we decided to walk the few kilometers from our hotel. The closer we came to the area of the mosque the denser the crowd of international pilgrims became. Finally at the square of the mosque I felt completely strange, because among thousands of Islamic pilgrims I was the only one looking european and being obviously a tourist. As I wanted to take some photos at that area, I was approached by police advising me that it is forbidden to take photos with a “professional camera”, but it is allowed to use the mobile phone to take pictures. After entering the gates to the mosque courtyard I could continue to take some photos with my mobile (even inside the mosque), but soon we were approached by a policeman asking for our passport and Saudi Arabian VISA documents, of which he took photos and called his supervisor to finally instruct us to leave the area inside the gates of the mosque courtyard. So I assume that non Muslim are allowed to visit Madinah but not the mosque and its courtyard !?
Afterwards we joined a "hop on - hop off" bus tour which is recommendable to get a closer impression of the city and the other various religious highlights for pilgrims. The national railway museum (one of the stops) is unfortunately closed for a longer period of time, so do not get off the bus there.
The Grand Mosque has a capacity of 1 Mio people and currently an extension project is under construction that raises the capacity up to 1.8 Mio people. As already mentioned this is not the only big construction site in Madinah, the whole centre will be transformed according to the Vision 2030 with new infrastructure, e.g. university, hospital, hotels, shopping arcades, public transport…..

 

12/2/2024 Madinah - Chaibar - Al Ula:
For the 400 km from Madinah to Al Ula we planned one stop at the Osais of Chaibar, which is worth a visit and also has an open visitor centre with information about the region. To enter the valley from the volcanic plateau for a visit,  you have to buy a ticket what you can do either at the car park or already upfront online. It is fascinating how springs in a desert valley can lead to a “blooming nature”. After we left the oasis we drove through a fascinating landscape which reminds to its partly volcanic origin but also offers the “classical” impression of a desert.

 

13/2/2024 Al Ula:

The city and Oasis of Al Ula is embedded in an amazing landscape of red sandstone rock formations surrounded by the desert. Being the home of various cultures for thousands of years, it offers various archeological sites that can be visited. Unfortunately this is not possible on an individual basis, but only in guided groups. Tickets can be ordered either online or bought directly at the entrance of the sites.
At the site of Dadan still excavations take place and meanwhile over 700 tombs were found, some of them decorated with stone carvings. Visitors are not allowed to come close to the tombs or the carvings, but there are binoculars provided.
Jabal Ikmah which is already listed as UNESCO heritage site, shows lots of ancient inscriptions on cliffs and rocks. Here you are allowed to come very close to the rock formations. Both tours are well organized and follow a stringent schedule, completely different to our individual experiences so far.

The old town of Al Ula is accessible individually without a ticket and you can stroll through narrow alleys between renovated stone and clay buildings. As traffic was banned out of the old town, you have to park either at north or south park and use one of the complementary shuttles. From my perspective this renovation was the best I have seen so far in Saudi Arabia, because on the one side it was not exaggerated and maintains a historic character, but on the other side the rebuilding gives you a very good impression of the city environment in which people lived there. All visitor centres at the mentioned places offer complimentary drinks/local snacks and have perfectly clean bathrooms.
An amazing place to be at sunset is the Harrat viewpoint (can be found in Google maps) which is located on a plateau 400m above the valley of Al Ula. You have to drive up a very steep tarred serpentine road, but the view will reward you for the effort. There is also a restaurant up there - but they know “what to charge” for the sunset dinner at this view point.

 

14/2/2024 Hegra:
Hegra - Saudi Arabias first UNESCO heritage site - was the necropolis of the Nabataeans and hundreds of tombs have been chiseled in sandstone rocks and decorated with carved ornaments more than two thousand years ago. This site is the most popular (non pilgrim) tourist destination of Saudi Arabia and not accessible on an individual basis, it is necessary to join a guided group. Unfortunately it is also not allowed to stroll along the various rock/tomb formations, you will be carried by bus or SUV in a bigger or smaller group from one location to the next one. During our stay in Hegra we even experienced rain and a thunderstorm (in the desert), but we were lucky because it disappeared as fast as it came up. Nevertheless it was an extraordinary experience.
Not antique at all, but an extremely modern concert/exhibition location is the Maraya palace in a valley in the desert outside of Al Ula. It is the biggest mirrored building globally and looks like a surrealistic monument. The rocks, the desert and the sky are mirrored in the facades of the building. To go there you usually have to show a reservation, either for an event or for one of the high end “desert hotels” further down the valley. We were lucky this time, because a guard at the barrier at the entrance to the valley let us pass.

 

15/2/2024 Al Ula–Wadi Disha –Tabuk:
For our 500 km trip to Tabuk we had to start early today, hence we could watch sunrise over the desert area around Al Ula when we left the city. About half the way we visited Wadi Disha, an amazing green “wonderworld” in a valley surrounded by step red rock formations. Driving to the Wadi is easy because all the streets are tarred - but literally at the end of the road you have to leave your car behind and get on a very robust off-road car. A service which is offered by some locals, but you cannot book it in advance. A realistic amount for the 2 hours off-road service deep into the green valley is 200 SAR, but you might have to negociate this tariff. On our way to Tabuk we again experienced rain and the moisture turns the usually bright color of the sand to a dark red one.
In Tabuk it is worthwhile to visit the old Fort and there is also a Railway museum which was alrady closed when we arrived (closes already at four o´clock).

16/2/2024 Daytrip from Tabuk to "NEOM" – Gulf of Aqaba - Madyan:
Today we went towards the Gulf of Aqaba with Madyan (a Nabataean necropolis) as our main destination. On our way from Tabuk towards the Red Sea we went through the huge area where the futuristic NEOM projects will be developed. NEOM consists of various sub projects, e.g. the Line (a linear city), a floating city in the Red Sea, luxury resorts at the Red Sea and a ski resort for the Asian winter games in the coastal mountains. The construction sites are spread out over an area larger than 100 km x 100 km, but so far there is mainly infrastructure and groundwork with hundreds of trucks and excavators, setting up all the logistics and the worker villages for the expected 50.000 workers. As far as we could judge from a February 2024 perspective, the NEOM project Sindalah island (future luxury island resort and marina) is the most advanced, as there were already a lot of cranes for the construction of buildings.
Reaching the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba is like entering a different colorful world. There is an endless shoreline without any touristic infrastructure – completely different to Egypt at the other side of the Gulf only a few kilometers away. A landmark at this coastline is the Catalina plane wreck, an American civil plane accidently shot down by the Saudi Arabian Army in the sixties. Other than that, there is really nothing - but an amazing coastline. Even Magna the only village along the whole coastline, which in Google maps shows a Corniche and some infrastructure is nearly abandoned, except a housing complex for the Saudi Coast Guard.
The highlight close to the village of Maydan is a Nabataean necropolis - similar to Hegra - but it can be entered during opening hours without a guided tour and you can come close to the tombs and even enter the caves. The attached small visitor centre unfortunately is closed for a longer period of time and opening hours of the site are not indicated, but we were lucky as it was accesible.

In the evening on our way back to Tabuk we experienced heavy rain in the coastal mountains which lead to the fact that locals stopped their cars, left them and took photos of the rain and themselves. For us, it was again surprising how rain changes the character and colors of a desert.

 

17/2/2024 Tabuk – Sakaka:
Going from Tabuk to Sakaka means to drive nearly 500 km along the edge of the Nefud desert without a special location to be highlighted. But in our case there wer two exceptions. First, we came along a camel racing track and at this morning there were also camel races. Remarkable is that there are no human jockeys riding the camels, but small robots handling small whips. Because of this lots of cars with the remote operators of the “riding robots” are heading on a road parallel to the camels and operate the jockeys. Second, we could experience a “green desert” because of the rain of the last days. It is remarkable how fast a dry area can turn into a blooming one.

 

Brief recap after the third week:

Shopping means whatever you buy will find its way into a plastic bag after you paid at the check out desk. Nobody uses a bag which he or she already brings along - except us. Unfortunately, thousands of these plastic bags are thrown away - in the best case into the garbage but extremely often only dumped somewhere. Plastic is also the main material which is used for bottles and as there is no deposit system they are also worthless when they are empty and are treated the same way as the plastic bags. Even in hotels very often you will face plastic cuttlery, like in the huge number of take-away restaurants which wrap and serve everything in one-way plastic. In the cities and main touristic spots are a lot of garbage bins and workers who pick up the garbage which was thrown away, but very often in the outskirts of the cities and in the countryside garbage is a real environmental problem (see picture).
It is very common that shops (not the big malls) and also some gas stations are closed during the various daily prayer times. As they happen to be also around noon and early evening, they might collide with your plans to have an snack or a dinner - you sometimes have to wait for 30 min until they open again.

VISA credit card is accepted in app. 80% of the cases (even in small shops), but it is necessary to have cash money, too. There is a local payment card (called "mada") which is accepted everywhere, but you need a local bank account for this.

A lot of historical sites that we have visited, have an info board with general basic information about it. Unfortunately all of them are only in Arabic language which is the same for all menus (if there even exists one) in the restaurants, off the few main touristic locations.

 

 

18/2/2024 Highlights around the city of Sakaka:
One of the archeological highlights is the Camel Rock some kilometers outside the city. As we went there in the morning security guards at the entrance of the fenced site told us that we need a special permit of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to enter. As we had time, we went back to the city to the local branch of the ministry and asked at the reception for such a permit explaining that we are German tourists and would like to visit the site of the Camel Rock. We were positively surprised as we were directed to an office and after some phone calls one of the officials told us to wait until a colleague arrives who would accompany us to the site. Of course, it helped a lot that my wife understands and speaks Arabic to a certain extent. During our waiting time we even were offered coffee, chocolate and water! After 30 min we left the Ministry together with a “guide” and headed on to the Camel Rock. As these camel carvings go back to the bronze age they are very deteriorated, but what you can see is rich in anatomic details.
Next stop was the Rajajil stone columns which are also called the Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia – a place that served 6000 years ago probably as a location for religious rituals. The site is fenced and so you have to hope that it is open for visitors, but we were lucky it was open. As already mentioned earlier in this blog, opening hours are nowhere indicated and what you can find in Google never matches the reality.
We headed on to the Marid Castle in Dumat al-Jandal (40 km away from Sakaka), an old fort built of stone and clay. A guard told us that we were only allowed to enter the courtyard but not the castle itself. But as there are 2 side entrances at the hillside (close to the future visitor centre) where no guard is positioned, we finally made it into the castle itself.
Back in Sakaka our last stop for the day was the Zabaal Castle and the Sisra Well which are located next to each other. Again, we were lucky to find them open – we were even offered coffee and dates in the corresponding small visitor centre at the well. The well dates back to the Nabataeans in the 2nd century A.C. and was connected to tunnels that served as an irrigation system for the area.

 

19/2/2024 Sakaka – Hail:
Most of the deserts are not sand deserts, but the 300 km from Sakaka to Hail lead us through the Nefud sand desert. Our main goal for today was to visit the UNESCO heritage site of Jubbah with rock carvings dating back from 4000 B.C. to 10000 B.C. In total the fenced heritage sites are stretching out for 6 km, but not all of them are accessible for visitors. As we arrived the main site was open (Gate 1)  and we could walk by ourselves without the need of buying a ticket through this area. As we could not find a specific carving that shows a carriage with horses, we asked in the small information centre where to find it and we were told that it is unfortunately in another location (Gate 3). We were surprised when one of the officials offered to accompany us to this specific site by car in order to open it for us and in addition show us various other carvings.
The historical highlight in the city of Hail is the Aarif Fort on a hill in the middle of the city which was built app. 200 years ago and is very nicely renovated. We were lucky because it was accessible and positively surprised as we were again offered complimentary coffee and water inside the fort as a "tourist welcome".

20/2/2024 Haìl - Burayda:
Today was the most surprising day so far. On our way to Burayda we planned our first stop at a volcano crater close to the village Taba. To get there you have to leave the road and go for 6 km off-road which due to the dry weather conditions was not a problem, even with our sedan car. After continuing our trip on the main road a car overtook us and drove with the same speed as I did parallel to us, lowered the side window and asked whether he could take a picture of us. After both of us stopped and took pictures (of each other) he even invited us for coffee at his home. As we had to go for a couple of more hours, we unfortunately had to decline.
In the city of Fayd we visited a renovated Fort which was built centuries ago on the pilgrim passage from Irak to Makkah. The corresponding visitor centre in Fayd is worthwhile to be mentioned, because it has indicated opening hours (SAT – THU 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and FRI 1:00 .p.m. to 6:00 p.m.) and a very well organised multi media presentation about the history and the culture of the region.
The biggest surprise today was the Klija Festival at our final destination in Burayda. It is a big exhibition (with more than thousand visitors) of local food and how it is prepared – and of course, you could buy all of these products.  As we were immediately identified as the only two people who are not locals, the festival director showed up and walked with us for two hours through the exhibition. We had to try lots of food and even received various bags of the offered products as a hospitality present. We even had to give an interview (my wife spoke) and the press photographer took pictures of us. Soon we were one of the main attractions of the festival. Lots of photos of us were taken by the festival visitors, sometimes together with their children and themselves - never in my life I was photographed so often. This hospitality we could experience and openness of the people were completely overwhelming.

21/2/2024 Burayda – Hofuf:
Today was a driving day as the distance from Burayda to Hofuf is about 660 km and we had to cross the megacity of Riyadh, hence no attractions except the desert and oil rigs at the horizont.