Monday, July 28, 2008

Good bye Saudi Arabia

After spending busy and eventful 11 days in Saudi Arabia, now it is time to go back. The days here were well spent and enjoyed. I still plan to come back here to explore the remaining places in Saudi and to have another treat with the Arabian cuisine.

Since both of mine and my wife’s leaves were already exhausted, we returned back to Kochi through Mumbai instead of a direct flight to Kozhikode. The flight by Air India was okay, but the long waiting at Mumbai due to the delayed connection flight was really tiring.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Al-Kar and Al-Hada

Al-Kar is a place which is less than an hour drive from Makkah with a small tourist village. It has various rides, family parks, swimming pools and other water amusements. I really enjoyed the Alpine Coaster ride that took me from top of a mountain to the bottom on a trolley car whose speed can be controlled by a break handle.


Al-Hada is another tourist town located in the Taif Mountains at an altitude of 6000 feet (1800 meters). The 4200 meters-long cable car (rope way) ride took us from the low altitude area of Al-Kar, where the temperature was still hot, to the high altitude area of Al-Hada where it was very cold. We spent a lot of time there enjoying for the first time a comfortable weather (it must be around 20 degree Celsius) in Saudi Arabia, before returning back to Al-Kar by cable car.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jeddah Visit

I have some friends and relatives living and working at Jeddah, whom I wanted to visit during this trip. But we never got a relaxed schedule for that and kept this plan postponed. Today we had some time in the evening for a quick visit to Jeddah.


We visited the Jeddah Beach where the huge water fountain in the sea was the major attraction. After spending some time in shopping malls and meeting my school time friend Firoz, we returned back to Makkah after midnight.

Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah

We came back to Makkah from Madinah after the adventures at Madain Saleh. My sister and family, who are now settled in Khamees Mushait (Also spelled as Khamis Mushayt, is a beautiful oasis town in Saudi near Abha city) were there to spend a day with us.

We headed to Mina and Mount Arafat areas near Makkah where the major rituals during the Hajj pilgrimage are performed. The whole area was empty and thousands of white tents meant for the pilgrims stood out from the plains reminding us how crowded this place would become during Hajj.


However the Muzdalifah area was busy with facilities for camel and desert bike rides targeting the tourists. We did enjoy it though the rides were very short. The guys there also carried Polaroid cameras to give us instant photos of the rides.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Madain Saleh - The World Heritage Site

After Al-Ula sight seeing, it was now time for Madain Saleh. Entering Madain Saleh archeological site required a special permit from Department of Antiquities and Museums of the Ministry of Education. We went to their 'Museum of Archeology and Ethnography' in Al-Ula and requested the permission. The officer, who spoke good English, declined it demanding the permit letter from our Umrah agent as we were on Umrah visa. Getting that letter now was out of question and I pleaded to him asking to keep our passports in custody. The more I pleaded, the more stubborn he was and we dropped the idea of getting the permit and enjoyed artifacts displayed in the museum. It had a good collection of antiquities and a wealth of information on the history of this place.

Later, we decided to try our luck at the entrance gate of Madain Saleh and took another Keralite guy working in Al-Ula with us. The police officer at the gate insisted for the permit but finally after a lot of pleading by our new friend, allowed us to enter the site, off the records.

The site initially looked like just another group of rocky hills but as we reached nearer, small rectangular holes on them were visible. Further close, we could see the neatly etched facades around these holes. They were the monumental tombs of Nabataean civilization that lived here from first century BC to first century AD. Some of the inscriptions here dated back to the first millennium BC. We entered these tombs through those doors like openings and the feeling of being in a place where our ancestors lived thousands of years before was amazing. The awesomeness of this place is more explained through the photos than words. Look at the size of people near them to get an idea of the huge size of these rocks and tombs.

The site also had a not so old (1906 AD) railway station used by people from Turkey for coming to Makkah for pilgrimage. It is now getting renovated. We spent hours inside this area but covering more than hundred such tombs in that scorching heat was impossible. Most of the tomb decorations looked similar but the rock they were carved into were different in size and shape giving it a unique look.

We drove back to Madinah after sun set and had a police officer verified our passports only at one place, where he easily let us go after a few questions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Al Ula - The Ancient City

Al-Ula is an oasis town 400 kilometers away from Madinah on the road to Tabuk, known for its spectacular scenery and archaeological remnants. Madain Saleh (also known as Al-Hijr) archeological site is just 22 kilometers from Al-Ula and was in news recently as UNESCO proclaimed it as a World Heritage Site.

I had added this to my 'must to see places in Saudi' after reading a lot about it. But not many of my friends or relatives here were aware of this place and there was very less information available on reaching there. Saudi society considers it as a cursed place due to some verses in the Qur'an titled Al-Hijr that describes about God's curse on a society (Prophet Saleh's people) lived there, when they didn't obey orders from the God.

[Complete story from Quran: Saleh was a pre-Islamic prophet. Medain Saleh means the "City of Saleh". The people in Medain Saleh refused to believe in God. The prophet Saleh tried to convince them otherwise, and even asked what they needed in order to believe. They replied that wanted a miracle. So in those hard times, he brought in a giant white camel, and if the people allowed the camel undisturbed access to their well every second day, the camel would give them enough milk forever. Not wanting to believe, some of the inhabitants killed the camel, with the result that they were destroyed by a bolt from heaven in retribution.]

Another issue was my Umrah visa which didn't allow me to travel to any places other than Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. Due to this, no taxi people were ready to take me there.

Finally I got one private taxi guy named Yusuf, a very interesting Keralite chap, who was more than willing to take us there and guide us through the sites. He planned the whole trip and we started our much awaited voyage in his 5 year old Mazda 323 car on July 21 night from Madinah. The 5 hour long ride was interesting as Yusuf kept saying stories after stories, mostly from his eventful life. The passion he showed and his narration style were unique enough to keep us listening all the time without getting bored.

I wanted to drive a car in Saudi as I had never done it before and Yusuf was immediately ready to offer his car when I requested. In our whole trip I did the driving most of the time and Yusuf found himself happy in story telling.

We reached Al-Ula by midnight and I and my wife checked into a nice hotel room Yusuf had booked for us. Yusuf's friends had a shop near by and he rested there.

Next day morning, we started sight seeing in and around Al-Ula. This ancient town (known as Dedan earlier) is totally different from rest of the Saudi with its numerous red sandstone cliffs in spectacular shapes and patterns. It reminded me of the Red Rock regions in Nevada and Arizona, USA. But this place was more beautiful and the red cliffs, vast sand deserts, and the blue sky with pure white puffy cumulus clouds was a feast for my camera.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Madinah Experiences

Madinah is the second holy city in Saudi Arabia after Makkah and is 420 kilometers away from Makkah. We went to Madinah in a government operated bus (SAPTCO) and spent couple of days there staying in a hotel room. The temperaturte here was more scorching than in Makkah and we ended up spending more time in room than outside.

We visited all the important places here like Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, Shuhada of Uhud where the martyrs of Uhud Battle are buried, and few other historical sites and mosques.

Like most other cities in Saudi, Madinah also have lots of Keralites and some streets were having shop sign boards in Malayalam as well besides Arabic and English.