Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mountains and Heart in Saudi Arabia

While packing up to move here to Saudi Arabia I had been doing a bit of research and chatting with people on some forums.  During this time I heard about snow that fell in the north of the country, where there are mountains.  Yes, mountains, and snow, in the desert.  You can bet your blog reading tuckus that I had been aiming to get there ever since.  Luckily for me I am a patient person and also luckily for me I'm aware of the "thoughts become things" way of living life.  So, eventually, my thought became a thing and here I am writing about my trek to the mountains in this crazy desert that is my temporary home.

The mountains are not close to Riyadh.  They're about 600 kilometres away near a small city called Ha'il.  Traveling 600 kilometres through the desert may seem boring to some, daunting to others.  For me, it's an adventure.  Better yet, I LOVE roadtrips.  Also, being a woman in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to drive myself wherever I want to go, when I'm offered the chance to go on a roadtrip, I go.  Anything for a sense of freedom and the chance to sit in the front seat of a car.  It didn't hurt that the company in said car afforded a guaranteed infinite number of laughs and pleasantries as well.   

On the trip north there was nothing overly exciting to note considering that we started our drive after work in the dark.  I may not have been able to see anything, but I could certainly feel a shift in energy as we left the city.  The tension of the city slipped away as we moved farther and farther from it.  I'm not sure if many of you are sensitive to the way a city can make a "country-girl" like myself feel.  It's like being slightly squeezed or contained within some strange confines.  Yet, I'm not quite realizing that it's happening because I'm within it for so long that I get used to it even though something always feels off.  Then, as I leave the city the pressure releases and I feel a quiet sense of peace and freedom that I forgot I was capable of feeling.  It felt so good to be leaving the city.  It felt familiar and it made me feel at home in the desert.

When we arrived in Ha'il I continued to feel a sense of familiarity.  Ha'il is like a small metropolis and it reminded me of a city not far from my home in BC called Prince George.  There is nothing there to attract those who like big fancy cities, but it has everything you need along with a taste of country-life-back-woods attitude.  We arrived at about midnight and finding a place to camp in an unfamiliar area in the dark is hard enough in Canada; try doing it in Saudi Arabia (not recommended).  So, we stayed in a hotel the first night.  Keep in mind that being a single woman and traveling within a small, very conservative, Muslim city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a pretty big no-no religious-law-wise.  The safest way to do it is to travel with a married couple (or two) which is what I did.  If I was to show up at the hotel on my own I am not quite sure what would have happened.  Being a Westerner, even though I am a woman, would have given me some lee-way, but I'm still not sure if I would have been allowed to stay there alone, without a legal male companion (i.e. father, brother, or husband).  I am pretty sure authorities would have been called to question me, regardless, and it's likely that my employer would have been contacted since, technically, he's sponsoring me and is responsible for my whereabouts and activities in this country.

Things managed to be kosher with me staying at the hotel but, upon leaving the hotel, our group was still greeted by the police.  When you think of it, though, it makes sense; it is odd for Westerners to be traipsing around rural KSA.  So, it's actually not uncommon for hotel managers to call police.  The great thing is that it has nothing to do with us being suspicious.  It has everything to do, however, with keeping us safe.  Apparently they are a little paranoid about the well-being of tourists since, a little under a decade ago, there was an unfortunate "wrong-place-wrong-time" incident with some Europeans coming across some locals that were involved in activities they would prefer to not have repeated to the authorities.  I'll leave it at that, but ever since then the Saudi police keep an eye on traveling "outsiders" as a "safety outreach program" so to speak.

Our group arrived at the mountains safe and sound and the police parked nearby while we had fun exploring and playing with ropes on the rock face.  While there we met with some friendly expats that are living in Ha'il.  They extended their friendliness into an invitation for us all to join them back at their compound for some food and continued fun.  We had hoped for an outdoor barbecue but, as odd as this sounds for the desert in November, the weather didn't cooperate.  It rained.  A lot.  With lightening and thunder and all the goodness that rain provides.  Ha'il was really feeling like home; back-country city, mountains, outdoor fun, friendly and welcoming people, and rain.  The rain definitely did not dampen our evening festivities.  It simply brought us inside to good food, great conversation, a lot of laughs, and some friendships that I hope will continue long after our departure from Ha'il.

The next day entailed our group traveling together with our new friends to the sand dunes for some sand-boarding.  Some of the group were a tad speedier at getting up in the morning than others (*cough* including me *cough*) and so they headed off to the dunes first while my group lagged behind.  Unfortunately, using coordinates and gps in KSA doesn't always turn out to be the best thing for navigation.  Somewhere along the way we missed a side road not indicated on the gps device.  So, we missed the opportunity to see some of the largest dunes in the Kingdom.  I'm not concerned.  I have a pretty good feeling I'll be getting back to Ha'il sooner than later.

Since there was no sand-boarding to be had, we headed off back to Riyadh earlier than intended, giving me the chance to see the desert route back to Riyadh in daylight.  It was fantastic!  The desert may be dry, but it certainly isn't dull.  There are beautiful, smooth dunes shaped into domes, some with edges and lips carved into them by the wind creating curving lines and swirls in a never-ending mass of beige.  We saw people parked on the side of the road every few kilometres to have a picnic or with their beautiful rugs laid out to pray upon.  We saw camel herds lumbering across the expanse heading towards a rare patch of desert bushes.  We saw oases, some man-made others natural, along with random patches of grass on irrigated land, Wadis (small valleys) with skinny running rivers, and roads that were cut right through dunes and rock.  It was beautiful, and sometimes haunting, how a land mass that is so dry and seemingly inhabitable could contain so much possibility for life and energy.

The drive was interesting and made even more so by the fact that we almost ran out of gas.  It didn't occur to anyone in the group that there wouldn't be a gas station outside of Ha'il for hundreds of kilometres, so why would there be a need to fill up while in the city?  Again, being a single female in Saudi Arabia had me a little concerned about being stranded on the side of a desert highway.  I was, however, assured that there would not be an issue and, instead, managed to give my companions a good giggle about my "stress-factor" concerning the lack of gas issue.  I did believe that being without gas would be only an issue of inconvenience once I recalled a story that one of our new Ha'il friends had told me.  He explained in the story that Saudis bestow immense hospitality upon people who are in need.  Some foreigners feel it is a requirement of their religion, most believe that Saudis really are just genuinely friendly people.  I like to believe that the latter is the truth.  Regardless, it was comforting to know that, if we had have run out of gas, there was much certainty that we would have been completely fine.

Instead of running out of gas we came across a town just off of the highway where vehicle sustenance would be found, as well as a super sketchy bathroom (I'll let the picture do the explaining).  I loved stopping in at this small town, even if it was just for a few minutes.  It gave me another opportunity to see Saudi Arabia in a different light.  It made this country feel like a humble place with a true sense of simplicity that you cannot find in the hustle and bustle and tension of the city.  It showed me that the Kingdom has a quiet, peaceful, down-home side to it.  It caused me to realize that I hadn't given Saudi Arabia a chance to be a regular country, in my mind, that has a heart with a beat all of it's own; a heart that lies in the rural desert.  Or, maybe I just feel this way because that is where my heart is most drawn to.  Either way, being deep in the desert and feeling this heart, I found that I can feel even more at ease living here in Arabia.

In Joy,


  1. Okay Missy ~ the time has finally come for this question ~ Are you working AT ALL? Looks like you are having a blast. Well done. See you soon.

  2. Blogging about work would just bore everyone (plus it's a huge professional no-no). Much more fun to tell you about my weekend adventures!

  3. WOW!

    ''Bonnie of Saudi Arabia" in the making now.



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