Travels to Al-Ula

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Well my friends, here it is. A worthy blog post about travels within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Not only would Jody and I be undertaking internal flights, but we were actually bound for Medina, which is one of the two holiest places for all Muslims. In fact, the city centre is completely forbidden to entry by any non-Muslims. Luckily, the airport is located outside the city, and our transport would be taking us all the way to our hotel without ever entering the city. Of course, the actual purpose of our traveling to this area was not to visit a holy Muslim site, as that is a very bad idea. We were bound for two very special places, one known as Al-Ula, and one known as Mada’in Saleh. These are areas of archeological and historical significance. Mada’in Saleh in fact has just recently been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, the first one of its kind in all of Saudi Arabia. We would be visiting these two sites together on the same day, but I would argue that each of them on its own is worth a blog post, so that’s how I’ll write them up and present them to you. For your pleasure, I have of course put up a whole boat-load of pictures to check out on flickr. So why don’t you do that, then read my story?

I wish I was a really good writer, so that I could convey to you in the least words possible the greatness of these sites, but I really am not, so there are only two ways that I can get the message across to you all. One involves me writing far too many details, which would bore you, and the other is to simply copy from another book which has a better way to describe things, so I’m opting to use the Lonely Planet text to convey certain things. Here are just a couple quick paragraphs that helps to give you a sense of the area:

“Al-Ula, the gateway to Madain Saleh, is a small town in the heart of some exceptionally beautiful country. Palm grove run down the centre of the wadi and forbidding red sandstone cliffs line two sides. Apart from the nearby tombs of the Nabataians, the delightful mud brick Old Al-Ula is one of the best preserved old towns in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding area has ample evidence of habitation dating back more than two millenia.”

“Although rapidly crumbling, Old Al-Ula is one of the most fascinating old towns in Arabia. The mud town stands on the site of the biblical city of Dedan which is mentioned Isaiah as the home base of Arab caravans and in Ezekiel as a trading partner of the Phoenician city of Tyre.? At one point, it was also the place where the start of Ramadan was announced.

Even the drive to the area of Al-Ula was a remarkable thing. In stark contrast to Riyadh, where everything is basically dust and dirt, this region actually sees a reasonable amount of rain, and displays a remarkable amount of vegetation, which is also green. The other very remarkable thing is the sheer quantity of mountains that surround this place. I hope my pictures are able to give a sense of what it was like, but I highly doubt they can completely make you feel as if you are there. At various points in the drive and the stay in the region, each of us commented on how it reminded of different places in certain ways. Places mentioned included Arizona, Colorado, New Zealand, Hawaii, you name impressive sights, and this place had similarities. There were tons of volcanoes, and beautiful red cliffs everywhere you would look.

Our travel party was augmented by the presence of the His Excellency, Ron Davidson, Canadian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Sultanate of Oman, and the Republic of Yemen, and his wife, which we simply referred to as Ron and Marcia for the purposes of this journey :-). Although this didn’t accord us any special treatment, it did sort of feel like it. How many of you can say you visited such special places with an Ambassador? No one? So there you have it, that’s why it felt special. However, there was another very clear reason why we might feel that way. From the moment we stepped outside the airport on arrival, to the time we crossed back into the airport at security, we had a police escort!

The escort was essentially 24/7 too. On the drive between Medina and Al-Ula, the detail switched back and forth between city police and highway police. The distance between these two sites is 397km, and takes about 4 hours. I think we had a total of 5 or 6 different ‘shift’ changes on the way, ranging from Toyota Camry’s to SUVs to trucks. However, once in Madina, the escort didn’t end. On both days while we were touring, we also had the local police, or tourist police with us to make sure we were safe and sound. My next post will also illuminate you on why we even picked up a 2nd detail, consisting of non-uniformed, possibly ‘secret’ police.

This was not because of the Ambassador either. This is something they will do for anyone who informs authorities in advance of their visit. There is also no cost for this service to us. Why the escort? Well, a couple years back, there was an incident where a French group (who arguably were doing something they probably shouldn’t have) were pulled out of their car and all the men were shot in the head while the women and children watched. Since then, the government has set up these security details for ‘tourists’ from the Western countries. The police were generally quite friendly and even chatty to a degree. I suspect that having this gig for a few hours in the day was a bit better than the usual postings which may consist of sitting in the hot sun at a checkpoint doing nothing all day.

Anyway, back to the reason we were out here Al Ula, old and new. Our hotel was one of only two in the area, but was quite nice all things considered. It was only partially walled, and had about 50 rooms spread out over the single story structure. There was also a nice courtyard in the middle with green grass and some other flowers. The room was well-enough appointed, with two double beds (no snuggling here, far too narrow for 2!), a small bathroom, TV, fridge, etc. Just what you’d expect in a road-side motel, even though it was a “5-star” according to a brochure in the lobby. Of course, I’ll gladly excuse the slight mis-representation based on the absolutely outstanding views that can be had from all around the property. I love mountains, and I think the red sandstone mountains have now made it pretty far up my list of best kind of mountains now. The restaurant was actually half decent as well, which is a good thing, as there were no other options available to us in the area. In fact, there was no where to really walk to from here either. We went out for just a little stroll after our first meal, but only to the edge of other nearby properties, as it was getting dark (and we had no Police with us!).

After the 4 hour drive, and the meal, we relaxed for a little while, but pretty much all decided to turn in early. We’d be getting up early the next morning to meet up with Ahmed our driver and tour guide for the next couple days. He was a very nice Eritirean gentlemen who had been living in the area for over 25 years. This was a good thing, as he would prove to be very knowledgeable when touring around with us. 6:30am came pretty early, but I managed to roll out of bed to grab a shower after Jody. YOWZA! It was freezing. Oops, turned out Jody turned off the wall-mounted hot water on demand heater during her shower, using up all the hot water. Oh well, icicles for me I guess. Not a brilliant start to my day, but not the end of the world either.

After eating some breakfast from the buffet, we all piled into our friend, the big 10 passenger Econoline van which would be our second home over the next day and a half. The early morning light proved to be magnificent in the mountains, highlighting many of the impressive features with alternating light and shadows. I could have just gazed around for hours. However, we drove straight to one of the main attractions, which was the old city of Al-Ula. This comprises of over 500 old mud brick houses which in their day were all interconnected, as the entire village lived as one family. Family is an important thing in the Arabian culture it would seem. However, men and women were segregated even back then. The interesting twist on that in this city is the fact that there were ground level ‘tunnels’ between all the dwellings for the women to move around, while all the men would move around between the houses via rooftop terrace walkways. Very cool.

Although the town remains largely preserved, there are many signs of decay everywhere you look. Many of the houses have fallen down completely, or are in various stages of falling down. For that reason, we were advised not to climb any of the stairs to the second story, as the risk of collapse was very high. Of course, I ventured up a few times anyway, but with great caution. They have started to restore some of the town, and the pinnacle of that restoration to this point is the rebuilding of the fortress-like palace, which was built onto a stone mountain in the middle of the city. We climbed to the top of this for some amazing views of the town. The most amazing part of this town? It only ceased to be inhabited about 45 years ago!

All in all, this was an amazing place to visit, and we felt very priveleged to have gotten the chance to be a part of this town. We also had a chance to check out the original sundial in the town, which at one time was used to tell when the start of Ramadan was. Very cool. I’m noticing this post has grown very long, so I think we’ll cut if off here, and pick up with the next part of this trip: Mada’in Saleh. Till then, enjoy the stories…

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