Jazan to Najran – Saudi Arabia
A few winding kilometres outside of Abha is another famous, old village nestled in the Arabian mountains. Rijal Alma’a once again decieves the visitor with its age boasting a history dating back nine hundred years. As with Thee Ain village, a large part of Rijal Alma’a has been restored in recent years to make for a fascinating spectacle. Very little is off limits and one can explore the whole area with not just the restored parts of the village accessible but also the the remains of the original buildings crumbling out the back. This village was important for its location on the main trade route from Yemen to the Levant although now it lays almost empty like so many other rural villages around the world. The day we visited we passed approximately six other tourists but there is no doubt that this is scheduled to be a major selling point for the Saudi tourism board and there is no doubt that it is worth a visit. Dare I say, some small, locally owned hotels and a street full of local restaurants and cafes would make the village a wonderful place to spend a couple of nights, even more so if some hiking in the local mountains is made available. As ever the potential is enormous but making something special happen without ruining the main attraction is the major hurdle.
A three hour journey through the magnificent mountains to our next destination was broken up with lunch at a gas station. No trip out in Saudi is complete without a sit-down on the floor with some cushions in a big hot room with a kitchen to it’s side which appears unnecessarily large for the size of the menu on offer. Once you have taken off the shoes and made yourself comfortable, a plate full of rice with a chunk of chicken on top, roughly the size of a large pizza arrives. This is for one person. Then a side of fried vegetables each arrive, followed up by enough flat bread to soak up an Englishman’s weekend alcohol consumption. All is eaten by hand which is a challenge to begin with as it’s piping hot however, I have finally mastered eating rice with my fingers; collect with fingers and allow it to full into the palm of your hand, cup and throw into mouth. Much easier to eat rice from the palm of your hand than your finger tips. Of course you could just be a tourist and ask for a spoon! However you chose to eat I doubt you will finish it as one portion is enough to feed full three grown men and I am yet to leave such a meal with anything other than disappointment after leaving so much food which, on the whole is always tasty. Our destination after lunch was unknown to me and as with many unknowns it turned out to be a delight.
As with every destination in Saudi Arabia, this one started by turning off the main road when indicted by a rusting sign post that gave no clear indication of which way to go. Usually a bit of driving through what appears to be someones backyard, a dusty track will open up and lead you for miles into the unknown. On this occasion we were lead right into the side of a mountain, down a single track, flanked by towering red cliff faces with absolutely no idea what was at the end. After about ten minutes we were met with an area rammed full of cars and locals sprawled out having picnics. There was even a toilet block and a playground. We were deep inside Wadi Lajab, a place where anywhere else on earth would be accessed by only walkers who would leave their cars in a huge carpark by the gift shop and cafe. But not here. This was a place for locals and people in the know and a Saudi will drive literally anywhere their car will go, never mind if they’re driving a Toyota Vitz on a rocky river bed. It was relative chaos but we parked the car and headed on foot up stream into the wadi and as with all Saudi wadi’s that I’ve seen, it was most beautiful. The clearest of streams was running over perfectly rounded pebbles, under huge boulders and fallen trees, all the while shaded by the sun overhead thanks to the high rise canyon walls. The only downside was the rubbish. When roads and cars can get somewhere, litter tends to follow and this was no exception with plastic bottles, flip flops and clothing scattered here there and everywhere. It was a scene repeated far too often everywhere we went. Ironically in a country internationally criticised for its lack of freedoms, restricting access to Wadi Lajab, making the majority of people walk and having wardens present to enforce the rules is exactly what’s needed at such a place. But then one of the most important rights for a Saudi is the right to have a picnic where anyone pleases! All the same, for a passing tourist like myself, it was a gem.
Abha and it’s surroundings were like nowhere else in Saudi. The cities streets resembled an Arabic San Francisco whilst the countryside was covered in terraces growing numerous crops and can be best described as drier Bali. We were now pulling into Jazan for the evening, a Saudi city I was much more used to. Flat, bright and hectic on the roads. One thing I have learnt is that a Saudi city or town and it’s road safety can be determined by the number of motorbikes on the road. In Riyadh and Al Kharj motorbikes are rare yet down in the south west they were much more common and I can only assume that’s because the roads appeared slightly less mental and the chances of a successful two wheeled journey are much higher in this area of the country. Jazan is only around thirty kilometres from the border with Yemen and if anyone is familiar with the catastrophe that is happening over in the border you will understand how weird it feels when pulling into a Saudi city full of brightly lit shopping malls and a huge, beautifully kept sea front. A war zone across the border, Jazan continues as though nothing is happening. The reason for our visit was to spend a day on the Farasan islands, a tropical chain of undeveloped Red Sea islands off the coast. I wanted to see them before they no doubt get developed plus I was in desperate need for some time by the sea for the first time in over a year. It turned out that luck was against us for our planned day was a Friday and the ferry was fully booked. The backup plan of a boat tour around the islands was also foiled by new pandemic restrictions and as such we stayed the night in Jazan before spending a day driving up to Najran, yet another city that sits on the boarder with Yemen, clearly defined by a range of mountains.
Apparently Najran has sprung up in the last decade at a rapid pace driven by the war in Yemen which on the face of it is slightly odd considering it is within easy range of shelling. We rocked up at nightfall and headed straight for Pizza Hut and waited for our order while observing an impressive new mosque across the road. We then stayed in a hotel apartment boasting 5G with daylight revealing nothing more conspicuous than a Mr Bean Mini parked in the street. My point being, this could be a city anywhere in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East for that matter. There is quite a bit to see in Najran but it appeared everywhere was using the new pandemic restrictions as an excuse not to bother opening up. One outdoor museum was supposed to be open and our determined guide Ali was told by every person he called to call another person to allow us access. This continued for some time until we decided it was a dead end and instead we headed to a pleasant surprise a few kilometres down the road. Just outside the city is a valley in the mountains with a huge dry river bed running through it and a small village green with fields and palm trees, a beautiful little oasis with old mud guard towers interspersed between the fields and houses. One of the peaks is home to a small fort which looks down on the surrounding area and so we found the old, rusting sign post, parked up in the non existent carpark, read the little sign welcoming us and headed on up the rocky track. It required a bit of effort but twenty five minutes later we were at the top, surrounded by plastic bottles and graffiti but lets focus on the good. There was no one else there, we were free to explore every nook and cranny of the fort and the views were incredible. I believe the site is called Raum mountain and the fort sits one thousand meters above the surrounding area. As we sat taking in the 360 degree view we heard a large explosion in the mountains with the distinctive sound of a jet in the distance which could have been absolutely nothing although it could have easily been a reminder of what is happening just over the border as after all, Sana’a, the capital of Yemen was only 430km away as the jet flies.
As we turned north for home our final point of interest lay off the highway in the desert. A random heap of rocks in an otherwise flat landscape, fenced off with a simple sign claiming the carvings on the rocks were over four thousand years old, known as Jabal Sim’r Rock Art. As ever, a random site in the middle of nowhere but I wouldn’t have it any other way. As frustrating as travelling can be in Saudi Arabia, I can’t help but love the country and everything it has to offer. It’s selfish, but it really will be a sad day when it opens its doors to mass tourism.