Saturday, 20 November 2010

What is there to do in Riyadh?


Here’s a question lots of people ask about the dead boring center of Saudi, ‘What is there to do in Riyadh?’

This past week Riyadh, actually all of Saudi, has been on holiday.  It’s the Hajj season – a thoroughly western phrase I’m sure, which basically means to we Saudi based non-Muslims, ‘holiday time’.
Glenn and I knew Eid, the Hajj holiday, was coming. We knew Riyadh would be empty. Riyadh is rarely touted as a holiday destination. Riyadh is a place most everyone tries to leave as often as possible. That’s how we knew Riyadh would be a virtual ghost town for at least a week. So rose the question, ‘What were we going to do over Eid?’

We had a list of places we could visit – any place in Europe and a few destinations closer by such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to name a few.  Glenn’s boss was going to Bahrain. He suggests we go there - definite possibility.

We decided that we’re living in Saudi Arabia to save money, so the urge to fly off to exotic and wonderful destinations should be curbed. Let’s look at a local holiday. There must be things to do in Riyadh’s immediate surrounds - day trips or overnighters and the like.

What to do Pounamu? Find that info on expat ‘things to do in Riyadh’ that I’ve created from previous trawls of the internet and make a list.
  • Di'riyah and the Old city
  • The Red Sands and Quad biking
  • Graffiti rock and Hieroglyphics
  • Dirab and Horse treks
  • Anywhere and overnight desert camps.
All of these require The Husband to get his driver’s license, something I’ve been encouraging (a.k.a nagging) him to do for ages. Taxi transportation to our chosen locations was out of the question and I have, for a very long time, been keen to hire a 4Wheel Drive and journey into the desert and setting sun. 

Bless his little heart, by the last day of the work week, that’s what he’d done, along with a permit to enter Bahrain.  I thought he would have been a little more excited regarding this feat, but then he informs me he has to work the first 3 days of the holiday. Deep sigh! Deep, deep sigh!

3 days later we dig out a map of Riyadh and internet extracted directions of expats who’ve gone before us and head off for a morning visit at our first destination - aD Da’riyah (a.k.a Old Da’riyah). The map, we discovered, lacks a variety of necessary details and the road signs outside the city center are mostly only in Arabic.

Hubster: Are we goin the right way?
Wifey: Ummm, all the signs are in Arabic. You’ll have to drive slower so I can read them.

Hubster slows.

Wifey: Slower! ….Ta….ri….q….Shit, missed it.
Hubster: Do we turn off or not? Tell me now, tell me now...
Wifey: I don’t know. I didn’t finish reading it. You’re going to have to drive slower!.

Thence follows a 'discussion' on cars up our butt preventing slow speeds so I can attempt to decipher Arabic script. The result, we pass essential turn offs and have to find our way back.  We learnt something new about Riyadh - U-turns are not always a straight forward matter in this city.

This performance is repeated many times while on the road over the next few days as we drove in circular fashion to all our destinations.  Less harmonious couples could be tested by this situation, but I’ve spent megabucks on meditation so cast off any less than harmonious thoughts with a positive outlook - my Arabic reading will improve a lot after this week.

Day 1 - Di'riyah
A rebuilt structure of old in foreground with rebuilding
going on in the backround.
aD Di’riyah, according to all cyber space sources, is the old stomping ground of the Saud clan. Our visit was not what I had envisaged given internet descriptions. You see, we couldn’t get into any of the old sites in Di'riyah. It’s being rebuilt so is closed to tourists unless you get special permission from someone who couldn’t be named specifically by the informant we met.

There are, however, a few small building remnants to walk through and an information tent about the rebuild, where we were hosted to the most delicious qa’wah and dates. Once finished, Old Di’riyah will be worth a visit. Hopefully that won’t be too far away. For the time being you can drive past a number of the old ruins and see them from the road – they are still quite impressive.  
Glenn behind the wall....the one with the fence that obviously
 meant please stay out
Information tent
Old site from the Wadi Hanifa road
If you ever take advantage of Saudi's expanding tourism, directions to aD Di’riyah are: Take Makkah Road to DQ.  Turn right toward Qassim, you are now on King Khalid Road.  Look for signs for Di’riyah after King Saud Uni, which is on your right. Co-ordinates if you have GPS (which we didn’t) are 24°44′00″N 46°34′32″E.  Be warned the turn off to the town itself is a smallish wooden sign, not the usual green road sign – you could miss it, we did.
 
Views at the Red Sand
Day 2 - The Red Sands, Quad Bikes
Our next destination for ‘What is there to do in Riyadh’ was the Red Sands and quad biking. Somewhat vague directions were garnered from the internet. A map is printed off the internet for general navigation, certainly not its specifics. We’d been advised to go early, we left mid morning. ‘Are we going the right way?’ act was repeated as was driving in circles to get out of the city on to the correct highway.  Fortunately, the major road signs on the highway are written in English.

To get to the Red Sands we took the Makkah/Jeddah Road west out of Riyadh (yay a road we sort of knew how to get to). Travel out through the checkpoint, then a fast drop down the escarpment.  Going down is awesome.  At the bottom (or thereabouts) there's a junction, we kept our eyes peeled for Oosar al Mogbel/Dirab (my spelling may be a little off) and hung a hard right cos Glenn can't read as fast as me and nearly missed it.  Approximately 5 km later is a sign to Nasah.  About 20km up the road with the Nasah signpost we came across the quad bikes at the base of the red dunes.

Renting a 90cc bike cost us 50SAR for an hour - though one look at western Glenn put the price up to 100SAR from the first guy we spoke to – suffice to say, we moved on.  They have 250cc bikes as well if you’re into those for around 120SAR per hour.

There were loads of people at the dunes, mainly Filipino. There are no rules other than have fun and no helmets. I also discarded my abaya, but was sufficiently covered in T-shirt, jeans and cap. We had a blast. We took a picnic and had that on the other side of the road away from the crowds before heading home.



Day 3 - Bahrain
This afternoon we drove to Bahrain. I’d booked a hotel for a couple of nights with red wine on arrival.  Bahrain is very close, only a short 4 hour drive and I can see why people consider it a great weekend break from KSA.

Being able to shed the abaya and get behind the wheel is a major bonus to the place, but I’ll be telling you all about our visit to Bahrain and more ‘What is there to do in Riyadh’, in future blog posts.




Ka Kite,
Kiwi





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