It’s quite interesting the difference a bridge makes. Granted, the King Fahd Causeway stretches across 25km of the Arabian Gulf and granted, you could see marked differences between two countries by just crossing a land boarder a little further down the coast but let’s just forget about these minor discrepancies for the purpose of a mildly decent story.
I had no real desire to go to Bahrain other than the fact I fancied a wettie or two aka a beer. Since moving to Saudi Arabia my liver and I have taken to prohibition extremely well but I would be lying if I didn’t think that it would be a good experience to drive four hours down the road and cross into another country just to be able to get my lips on some alcohol. Of course that side of things was never going to be as good as hoped and there’s only so many international beers at Sheik’clusive prices a man can take before craving a delicious pint of Dorset Knob. The weird thing about drinking in Bahrain, especially coming from Saudi Arabia, is that drinking a beer feels really naughty. It’s kind of like that feeling I used to get when I started drinking in my early teens. As soon as I turned eighteen going out for a beer down town didn’t carry quite the same buzz. A night out in Bahrain’s capital city Manama is a strange one indeed. The countries population is half Arab and half South East Asian. Restaurants are full of Arabs and Westerners, the clubs are full of Asians and Westerners. Shiny high rise buildings reach for the sky, not anything like the scale of Dubai, but enough to give this country boy something to be anxious about. Neon lights, roads full of traffic, TGI Friday, Heineken, groups of young men and women, it’s all here. The Las Vegas of the Arabian peninsula I imagine. All so familiar, all so uninteresting. However that isn’t to say Bahrain wasn’t worth the visit.
Although Manama is a modern, lively city, the stand out building for me by far was the Al Fetah Grand Mosque which dominated its place in the city. Around thirty years old it is one of the largest mosques in the world with a capacity for seven thousand worshippers. Unfortunately I ran out of time to be able to take a peak inside but my guess is it would be quite stunning if it is anything like the outside. In contrast, as is so often the case in the Middle East, it was pressed on me that we really should go down to the local race track for a spot of go-karting. A short thirty minute drive takes you half way down the island to a small area of desert which is home to Formula 1 for a weekend every year. Unfortunately I was also unable to get a peak inside here but, there was a baby track alongside the main circuit where novices like myself could jump into a go-kart and let rip with other like minded guests for thirty minutes. I’m always apprehensive of such activities as I’m concerned of making an arse of myself in front of a group of complete strangers. I worry about things such as going the wrong way around the track or ignoring a red flag by mistake and the likes. After all these years I still never come to the conclusion that I may not be the least able person there and sure enough I managed to finish sixth. Two seconds slower than fifth, three seconds faster than seventh and twenty-three seconds faster than fifteenth in last place. The track was great fun and all in all I didn’t think I had done too badly considering I had had a couple of pints earlier beforehand.
The old souk back in the city is also worth a visit. Especially if you are visiting alongside a regular customer as I was. There were two main places we visited. The first was the sweet shop where it would seem my guide Ali is well known through his multitude of day visits hopping over the border from Saudi. The shop was tiny with boxes of sweets stacked on the counter and on shelves on the walls. Behind the counter sat a local chap who served up a hot gooey mess of halva to anyone who wanted it. I think halva comes in many shapes and forms but essentially it is molten sugar and sure to rot through steel. As it happens the people were queueing out the door to buy the stuff and as they waited for it be freshly packed, a young man behind the counter served up small complimentary cups of coffee. It was certainly one of the more social sweet shops that I have visited. Exiting the sweet shop we hoped across the narrow street and landed in another small shop which was stacked up with spices and nuts. Again a local chap, no doubt a shop-keeper by trade, was sat behind a counter and up on his feet was the assistant who happily gifted us with small bottles of mineral water and a sample of nuts. I bloody hate nuts but not one for being rude I gratefully received a few nuts and chowed them down. Ali then proceeded to buy half the worlds supply of saffron which probably explains the complimentary goodies. I can’t remember how much he paid but it was large amount for a small return. Apparently it makes a wonderful gift for your Mum.
Our last day in Bahrain began with a traditional breakfast of fried chicken, crinkle cut chips and lemonade from one of the fast food joints at the shopping mall. A meal that would keep me fuelled up for the rest of the day proceeded a trip to the local fort. Qal’at al-Bahrain as it currently stands is an old stone fort which sits on a sight that has been occupied for around 5,000 years. Although well worth a look around, I had been spoilt by the ‘access all areas’ and tourist free experiences at old sites in Saudi only a few days before. As soon as we walked in, we were confronted by some western tourists trying to get a photo of themselves doing something wacky under a stone archway. We decided to try and make our way up to a high point so we could get a scale of the place but everywhere good was closed off. This is undoubtedly good for the preservation of the site although ironically Ali damage more of the wall at this fort than any of the others that we freely roamed around in Saudi. Anyhow a wonderful hour was spent exploring and after trying to get a good shot of the old fort with the new city in the background we hopped in the car and headed for the border.
It was Friday and the border appeared to be full with an entire country trying to get into Bahrain. When we came through on the Wednesday night everything was fairly smooth but I dread to think how long people had been waiting on the Friday. Not that it bothered us as we cruised on past and parked up in the customs area. When I flew into Saudi a few weeks before, British Airways got on the blower and gave out their usual advice about not bringing anything naughty into the Kingdom such as alcohol. They even take the bottle tops off the vodka and whisky so you can’t take them off the plane. Technically they can’t serve alcohol until you leave Saudi airspace and, for some reason on this occasion they warned us about explicit pictures on our smart phones and tablets which was new. Every time I fly into the kingdom I have a heap of Dvd’s with me and they have never been searched, never mind my smart phone or laptop. Most of the time the guy looking at the scanner is looking at his own phone or having a cup of coffee and a chat with his colleague. The best is when they are having an argument with a passenger as everyones else’s luggage passes through the scanner completely unchecked. Coming back through a land border I thought may be a tad different but apparently not. We parked up, got out the car, opened up the boot and stood there patiently until a border officer walked by, stamped our ticket and continued on without so much as glancing towards the car. I could have smuggled enough alcohol and porn across the border that would have made old Heff proud. I have to admit though, driving back over the Arabic Gulf to Saudi felt strangely comforting.