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Aside from Khalid, my driver and my guide, I am travelling alone in Saudi Arabia. We had dinner in one of the best known fast-food establishments yesterday evening. There was an entrance and dining area for women, an entrance and dining area for families – no men are allowed access unless accompanied by a woman or girl older than about 12 years old – and an entrance for men. This is where I had to go, being the solitary man.
The stereotype of Saudi Arabia is of an arid sand desert in a cultural wilderness. Socially, one of the many stereotypes endured by Saudis is that they are austere and lacking in humour. In the mountains of the Abha, a range that separates the Arabian heartland from the coast, I saw colour and art that very much goes against these ideas. In Al Ula, I remember the light-hearted birdsong under the picturesque and refreshingly-cool roof of palm fronds. But above all, my overriding impression is one of hospitality and smiles.
I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Madain Saleh in Al Ula. I walked the site investigating the old mud-brick farm buildings with their deep stone-lined wells, looked inside the carved-fronted caves – many with tombs cut into the floors or walls – and climbed the huge rock mountains.
Al Ula means the ‘uprising’ and describes the gigantic sandstone towers and monoliths that turn the eye in every direction. Worn and weathered, and punctuated with pockmarks, they are a myriad of shapes and sizes. The earliest tombs we explored here were at Al Khuraiba (which means Lion Tomb) and dated from the fourth to the second century BC. They were the last remnants of a once-bustling society. All around me there would have been markets, there would have been signs of life. These are now most certainly buried under the palm groves, which no doubt hide remarkable treasures. It is believed that only 1% of Saudi archaeology is known or has been examined.
For the majority, the highlight of a visit here is Al Fareed, or ‘The Unique’. It is a towering carved-rock facade that cuts right through a gigantic, isolated chunk of ball-shaped sandstone. I had the place to myself. The only sound was the ringing in my own ears. A solitary place for a solitary man.
It was time to move onto my next stop: the bazaar in Tabuk. Not your usual shopping experience. There were many shops selling ground Arabic coffee beans and the spices that accompany it, mainly cardamom. Others selling everything that a local Bedouin or a casual desert jaunt out of town would require. How about a feather lure to catch a falcon? And, for when you have caught one, a hood to cover its head? There were curved sticks, rather like Western walking sticks, for cajoling camels or just to carry and look smart. A satellite TV in a box is a snip at 2,200 rials (around £440) and perfect for keeping up to speed with the latest soap opera. A glorified picnic basket with cutting knives, a large metal plate, a gas stove, coffee pot, plastic jars and metal dishes. Water containers of all shapes and sizes. There was even a pannier that fits over the ridge between the two front passenger seats with a hole for the gear stick. There’s a two-holed option, for if you have another stick in your 4×4.
All essential items, it appears.
Until recently, to travel in Saudi Arabia for anything other than a business trip has been a rarity. I saw no other Western tourists at any of the sites I went to. Yes, it was Ramadan; but even then, outside of this period, figures were in single numbers. Perfect for a pioneering man walking a solo path.
However, the age of the solitary man is about to come to an end, at least in the major centres where most visitors are likely to venture. But, the country is so vast that in a few hours you can be completely on your own again.
It is now possible to visit the Kingdom on a tourist visa and explore. For the truly intrepid, it is also possible to do it on your own, however, because it is such a new tourist destination, the local support infrastructure is likely to be a challenge for most.
Contrary to popular belief, single women can travel without an escort and do not have to cover their heads. And, unmarried couples are now permitted to share a hotel room.
Above all, the hotels are of high quality, the cuisine is delicious and the people are truly welcoming. Whether alone, like I was, with a partner or in a group, Steppes Travel has the contacts and knowledge to make a trip to the Kingdom a memorable experience.