A change of scenery

Al Bahah to Abha – Saudi Arabia

It’s been almost twelve months to the day since my last trip away and before you shout ‘boo hoo, get over it’, I would like to point out that I wasn’t one of the people trying to get a summer holiday abroad in 2020. Nope, I was stuck at work in Saudi Arabia patiently waiting for the borders to open for eight months before getting the chance to go home to the UK, see the Mrs and get a beer down the pub. Only by the time I got out of quarantine, the second lockdown was in force. At least I made it back to work which has always essentially been a well paid lockdown! With my flight home for Christmas cancelled, the world locking down like never before and my patience exhausted, I took advantage exploring my own backyard. Winter is the time to travel around Saudi and closed borders provide relative calm although, by the time I hit the road the country was bringing in restrictions once again, putting a slight dampener on our plans. Nonetheless, as ever, the country provided an awesome few days of sights down in the south west corner, famed for its green mountains and tropical Red Sea waters.

My life for the past five years has been concentrated in one part of Saudi Arabia, more or less in the middle of the country, outside of a town called Al Kharj with the capital Riyadh a few hours up the road. The road between the two is quite simply a dump and does nothing to initiate a state of wonder beyond the highway, so much so that few people who work here have actually seen anything beyond work and the airport. Dare to drive for three or four hours in any direction however, and the country immediately begins to showcase its sheer scale and beauty. The last time I was out and about I had headed north west to be treated to incredible volcanic landscapes and gorgeous wadis. This time as we headed to the south west where hundreds of kilometres of flat desert road turned into a maze of winding mountain passes ranging from relatively safe to borderline suicidal. Our ascent into the mountains took us to our first stop for the night in Al Bahah but it wouldn’t be until the following morning when the sun rose that we could see how beautiful this country can be.

It was a 1000km drive from Al Kharj to Al Bahah and after a well rested night in a typical Saudi holiday apartment we were keen to get out and explore on foot. Two points to note here include Saudi’s do very little on foot and, holiday apartments tend to outnumber hotels. Saudi Arabia has an incredibly family orientated culture. Earn a dowry, get married, have kids, job done. This is one aspect of Saudi culture that is to be admired when compared to the west with literally everywhere kitted out with a huge children’s park and plenty of space to have picnics; the all time number one Saudi past time. Ironically I have never stayed in a family apartment in Saudi Arabia that hasn’t tried to remove a limb or electrocute me. Extraction fans are everywhere, unguarded and begging for some young muppet to put something into the spinning blades. Light switches sit on the walls of bathrooms where you can sit on the toilet, have a shower, brush your teeth and get electrocuted all at the same time. For good measure naked electrical wires will sometimes hang from the boiler. Now I freely admit that paying Β£60 a night for a two bedroom apartment is inviting a bit of danger but I would be relatively confident to say this style of apartment is in the majority. Luckily – after many previous incidents – I have learnt not to stick objects into spinning blades and so these apartments serve their job supremely well as a comfy place to rest for the night.

In Al Bahah we visited a random old building that was obviously under renovation yet was completely deserted and open to anyone who wanted to have a nose around. This is the beauty of this country, there are so many beautiful places to visit in various states of repair where one can just rock up and explore with no-one else around. This building appeared to be an old stone complex resembling something out of Winterfell. How old it was and what it was I have no idea but it was kitted out with beautifully carved doors and windows as well as a sublime set of stone stairs leading up to the roof. The country is undergoing a bit of a tourist renaissance right now and ancient sites are being fenced up and turned into flashy tourist hotspots; the top two examples being Al Ula and Al Diriyah. I have failed to get into both of these sites yet boxers, racing cars, DJ’s, politicians and Instagram influencers are all welcome. What they are getting tragically wrong in my humble opinion is that instead of simply restoring and preserving these epic sites of interest, they go full-on renovation and modernisation. Air conditioners, trendy lighting and perfectly plastered walls prevail. Cafes and gift shops will follow and then the hordes will arrive turning what was once a beautiful and peaceful early morning of exploration into a loud and crowded generic mass of ‘meh’.

Upon leaving Al Bahah we were treated to our first spectacular mountain views which, alongside the masses of baboons was incredibly exciting. Little did we realise that this road and its views were child’s play compared to what we would encounter later on. Nonetheless, baboons, mountains littered with greenery and signs of rivers is not so common in Saudi Arabia and made a welcome change to the empty flat plains and thousands of cows that I’m used to. It’s worth noting that alongside the baboons there were numerous donkeys and camels grazing alongside the road and every now and then a herd of goats or flock of sheep, all a refreshing change from the madness of the cities. Descending the valley we soon arrived to our next stop, The Ain Ancient village which is actually somewhere I can tell you a little about. Visually speaking, it is incredible. Numerous stone buildings sat on a hill, surrounded by banana and palm trees, nestled in a valley with the mountains raising up behind the village. There is no sound except for that of running water which, in a country with no permanent rivers is a magical sound in itself. The visitor’s centre is huge, new, and shiny. The children’s park is even bigger and shinier yet, our car was one of only three in the car park. What could be better than a crowd free tourist attraction? One that is free. Right now – I’m sure it won’t last – most tourist sites are free to enter. The village itself was immaculate and we wondered around trying to work out how old it was and how much of it was genuine. There were no information boards, no information leaflets or fancy pre recorded tour guide head set things. I have since found out that the village is around six hundred years old and was restored to the tune of four million US dollars and I have to admit that here they have done a fine job. Although the buildings look relatively new, they have been reconstructed to their original specification with the only electrical lighting being used to light the village up at night which in itself would be spectacular. It was a stunning place to visit, walking down in the cool air of the trees, watching a gardener lounging under a tree, a tiny stream of water flowing through the tiny fields, the narrow stone alleyways of the village, tiny stone rooms and stairs that led to nowhere. Just a random thought but Ain Ancient village would make a fantastic place for ghost walks at night!

Our next stop would be Abha sat at over two thousand meters up in the mountains and to get there was an adventure in itself. From Ain Ancient village we followed the valley’s dry river bed before turning off the main road and passing through a tiny run down, deserted village. I’m sure people were living there but all we saw were goats and, a wall of rock up ahead of us which we were about to scale. This mountain road went up fifteen hundred meters in a matter of minutes. Every time we turned a corner we would be met with a black wall of tarmac which then had to be climbed with the car. The road was narrow and a car coming down the other way usually had to swing to the other side of the road which was bad news if you were coming up the hill on the same bend. I can usually cope with these kind of events but there was something about this road that made my ass cling to the car seat like never before. The road just kept going up and up and at times we were simply driving along the top of a ridge with nothing but a sheer drop on either side. It just didn’t feel natural being up there in a car and I couldn’t shake the inconvenience that brake failure would bring to my day; there was nothing to stop the car jumping off the edge if it so chose to do so. Even so, we took the opportunity to get out at a random picnic stop on one of the peaks and headed off for a brief climb and take some photos. It was quite clear to me then that mountains are made for hiking and not driving.

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