Friday, February 05, 2016

Day Trip to Taif

We started our modern-day caravan into the Saudi Arabian countryside at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. Our guide is driving a Bentley. This is going to be a fun day.

We drove east for a while to get out of the city, then we turned off on a ring road to take us around the holy city of Mecca. We saw a herd of camels on the road (just like in Turkmenistan), but there were several others roaming around like little mountains with legs. There were also herds of goats and sheep that looked like fluffy white clouds floating on the surrounding hills.
Camel pretending to be a mountain.
Free-range sheep.
Now, a bit of geography: Jeddah is on the west of Mecca, Taif is on the east of Mecca. You might think "hey, we can just take this road straight through Mecca" but you'd be wrong. To enter into Saudi Arabia, you have to identify your religion on the visa paperwork.  Pro Tip: They don't care what religion you are if it's not Muslim. They really should change it to ask "Muslim" or "Non-Muslim", but they give you a blank to fill in just in case you want to get into any religious arguments about the existence of a particular deity. Anyways, there are checkpoints outside of Mecca where the guards check your documents and won't let you through (at best) and might arrest/deport you (at worst) if you are not a Muslim and driving on a Muslim Only road. So we ended up on what expats nicknamed "The Christian Highway."
Turn Right...NOW!
Approaching the mountains.
If I asked you to tell me what you picture Saudi Arabia looking like, my guess is that you'd say "lots of sand and camels." And I guess you'd be right, but did you know that there are also mountains and monkeys? We wound our way up the mountain road, stopping frequently (like everyone else) to take pictures of the monkeys on the side of the road.
Trunk Monkeys looking for work
Maybe they are apes, like in Gibraltar where they tried to climb into our baby stroller...but I think the big difference between the two is the tail.
My friend wouldn't translate the graffiti for me,
so my guess is that it's pretty good.
Shortly after the monkeys, we arrived the farm of our guide/host. It was not what I was expecting.

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Remember, our guide was driving a Bentley, right? Well, it turns out that his grandfather used to be the region's governor and his family is still quite prominent. Case in point: we pulled into a driveway that was some 7 cars long and two cars wide. Then we walked around to the back of the house where there was a sprawling orchard of pomegranate, citrus, and other trees that I stopped looking at as soon as I saw that there were gazelles running around us. Since there were no fences, they were literally bounding between people in our group. They are also so fast that I only got one good still picture of them, and I only just barely caught them on video too. My kids also liked chasing the ducks across the irrigation system.
I can only hope this was a Dorcas gazelle, because:
"That was one Dork-ass gazelle we saw today"
Lunchtime was delayed for Dhuhr, which is basically the mid-day prayer time that occurs right when you're hungry and want to get food. So we had to wait for the cooks to come back from praying to start up the kitchen and then prepare our meal. But then we ate in a tent with a carpeted ceiling.
Rice, bread, kebabs: Yum. Baba Ghanoush: eh-gplant.
After lunch, we drove towards Ash Shafa to take in the views, but along the way we stopped to look at more monkeys.
Hey Buddy, my eyes are up here!
How many monkeys do you see?
I found 33. How about you?
Our little monkey is pointing at the other monkeys...
...but I have to wonder if they didn't bring their kids to see the humans.
Don't try feeding wild monkeys at home...
Go out into the middle of nowhere in case something goes wrong.

After looking at the monkeys, we drove on to the place we were headed before we stopped to take in the view.

Sun Top juice boxes are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, even here.
Kacey of Arabia
After "all" that "hiking" (it was maybe only 100 feet to cross the parking lot), we got back in the cars and drove over to where our guide's brother has a camel farm.

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Ok, maybe not a farm as such, but he raises and trains them to race. There are other camels that are raised for food. And then there are also the white ones, which apparently aren't good for anything but looking at.
Coming back from the track.
Hello from the herd!
Some of these are actually "pace camels" to train the young ones.
Yes, the sun really was this big and the road really was this dusty.
This is camel #4. I wonder if he's sponsored by NASCAMEL.
Yes, that's what they are. But did you know that the ropes are used
because camels box? Like rock'em, sock'em, put-up-your-dukes boxing.
Not even dramatic angles can make them look majestic.
Here they are, rounding the post?
After the camel farm, the sun began to set. It was dark when we drove up to the top of the windy mountain road and most of our group got into the cable car to ride down to the bottom.
This is what Kacey and the girls would have seen if it wasn't dark.
I, and the other drivers (including our guide in the Bentley), drove down the winding mountain road to meet them. We wanted to be at the bottom before the rest of the group got there, so it started to feel like one of the levels from the Grand Tourismo video game. I popped my Crystal Method CD in and it was awesome. While staying under the speed limit and not driving recklessly, just changing lanes and rounding curves was a lot of fun. When we reached to bottom, we had to drive an extra kilometer or so to the first place we could make a U-turn. Then we make a wrong turn and stopped to ask for directions. But we literally drove up to the meeting point just as our group emerged from the park gates. Well played.
Now imagine this at night.
To give you a sense of how winding it really was,
with the elevation changes.
I'm not sure exactly where we had to get back on the non-Muslim road on the way back, but we did. I found their use of the word "Obligatory" to be an interesting choice.
This photo was as obligatory as having to that that road again.
Our last stop of the night was at a traditional set-up where we were provided with dates and tea while lounging under the night sky. I'm told that the guide's mother oversaw how everything was arranged so that it would be just right for us. To get there, our guide switched out of his car into an SUV that was more appropriate from navigating the sandy roads that led up to the campsite.
Carpets, tents, fire, and little kids...what could possibly go wrong?
One of the highlights was that a falcon was brought out for the kids to pet and adults to hold if desired.
Yeah, this is pretty Saudi right here.
The kids got to pet the falcon.
Kacey and I both got to hold the bird. It's heavier than it looks.
This is as close to Mecca as I will probably ever get.
That's the Mecca clock tower in the middle there.
We drove home, and I think we got back around 11pm. The kids had fallen asleep hours ago, glad we put them in their PJs before we rolled out of the campsite. Talk about a long day.

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