Riyadh is a straight ride down from Hail. Of course my route is somewhat different, first I’ll ride towards west to the town Al-Ula. As I’ve traversed the Arabian Desert from north to south, I’ll ride also from west to east.
I must say that you have cell connection everywhere in the desert. Aside a couple spots STC cell line works fine. (PS: Mentioning from time to time some brands is not a part of viral marketing. Those companies are not sponsoring me. I mention them just in case you’ll travel one day in that country, I have tested all those brands. Don’t rise to the bait.)
Murat a friend of mine sends a message from Turkey:
– Gurkan you are really crazy! I’m checking your route from google map, there is nothing. You’ll be riding for miles through emptiness. Never and ever turn left or ride entering a side road. I swear you’ll kick the bucket somewhere out there.
– I know.
– Don’t fuck me!! Dude, it is a hell long distance. I’m telling you till the other end of the country there is nothing just bare land.
– Yes, exactly as you say. But I’m prepared, don’t worry about me.
– You are not normal dude.
Whenever I stopped for a break I was checking Murat’s messages. From time to time he sent some coordinates: “Go and check whether there is something like this?” Even so, as if I were to go there… hahha. I wouldn’t be able to ride on sand with this bike.
The route from east to west Saudi Arabia is a real torture because of head wind. For a couple of days I was free of police escort. One day as I was struggling again riding forward in the empty desert under a strong wind, the police officer came to me and said: “A sand storm is approaching.” Approaching?? The last time sand particles hit my body that fast was in Turkmenistan. The police car horned as I was trying to take out my long armed jacket: “Come here to the car.” I said, no I won’t. While I was struggling with my bags I hadn’t recognized the storm cloud was heading us. I looked around, this storm cloud is going to pack us in 20 seconds. You must have seen how fast I had dressed. Covering my mouth, nose and lastly wearing my glasses, at the end I covered my face totally. At that moment the dust storm packed me from my head. At this moment I was laughing. Totally covered up I was looking at my jacket in astonishment how the dust particles hit the fabric. If sand particles would continuously hit as such while riding at a certain speed they would probably break into pieces the fabric.
On front of many cars in Saudi Arabia a kind of sand colored dye in applied to protect from damage due to sand. This chemical is especially applied on long distance cars to protect them from tearing due to dust storms. I’m sure the police officers in the car think that I’m not normal.” Covered all up I started to ride again. It was impossible to take photos. Anyway, the sensor of my camera got damaged and scratched during the previous dust storm. Also, the GoPro camera is in its case with no further protection. Therefore I even didn’t make a try to take the cameras out. Although everything on my bicycle was covered and closed afterwards a shovel full sand was deposited in each of my bags, I’m not exaggerating which I carried along for a long time.
The police officers left me alone as I told them I’ll overnight in the desert again. I guess they were thinking: “Do what the hell you want.” One day one of the police officers said: “Today is Friday, we have holiday but I’m assigned to follow you. Put your bike on the car and I take you wherever you want to go.” As I said: “And my duty is to travel around the world on bike. Do your business and I do my own” he got upset and turned back.: ). Another day I had such a strong head wind that it became impossible to pedal. Enes knows how it feels, we could only finish an 80 km long desert leg riding at a speed of 4 km/h in Morocco. I never give up easily. On that day the strong wind didn’t allow to ride even at a 4 km/h speed. At one point I stopped and called the police car. The police officers were happy that I gave up at the end.
– Move in front of me with 20 km/h speed.
– Are you going to follow us?
– Yes, but don’t drive fast. I’m already tired cannot follow you up.
I pedaled exactly 120 km behind the car and arrived in Al Ula. The police officers took me to the Arak Hotel immediately. I was told that this was the only hotel of Al Ula where foreigners stayed. Its price 160 USD per night. I look rich dude, although I’m traveling on bike, smell and look unkempt. One of my followers sent me a message: “Abi (elderly brother in Turkish) everyone around me thinks that you are a very rich person. They say that only the rich travel like this.” When my followers think like that, what then police thinks? I said at the reception: “I just stroll around in the city, then come back”. The hotel was 3 km outside the town. Al Ula is a small nice town. It has nice spots. While taking photos here and there the police officer following me started to grumble at me: “Dude, why didn’t you check in first?”
Actually my purpose was to find a Turkish restaurant and ask for the cheapest hotel around and of course to chat. Ibrahim from Hatay opened a barber shop in this town. As Ibrahim saw me he got shocked. The police officer noticing that we were speaking in Turkish turned to Ibrahim and talked in Arabic to him.
– What is he saying bro
– Abi they got tired and want to go to sleep. He got mixed-up.
– I was the one who rode 120 km on bike today. They were in the car all the day with air conditioner and escaping the dust storm. Tell them they can go, I’l stay for 3 days in this city.
Thanks to Ibrahim I stayed in a hotel just in the middle of the street, 16 USD per night. One for 160 USD and the other for 16 USD. First of all, there are cheap aparthotels in the town. During my stay in Al Ula Ibrahim and his friends kept an eye on me. The best shave I ever had was done by Ibrahim. : ) Furthermore, I received a fire cupping therapy. On that day I had my body reset.
Now coming to the town Al Ula. Well, I don’t know where to start to tell. I noticed this town when I was searching in internet where to go in Saudi Arabia in 2011. Thinking what a different geography Al Ulan has I saw the photos posted and added to my route.
Mada’in Salih (Archeological site of Al-Hijr)
Discovered towards the end of 19th century by Europeans, the excavations started in 1968 under the supervision of University of London (the instability of this region negatively influenced its discovery). The inscriptions and artifacts found showed that the settled life could be dated back 3000 years to the Lihyan Kingdom. Its capital was Dedan (called Al-Khurayba – ruin hillock by the natives).
During 1000 BCE as Nabateans were settled down around Dead Sea (Jordan), the Lihyanites were ruling in the region Hijr in Arabian Peninsula next to them. Kinship among them was due to inter-marriages. When Roman Empire captured Petra in 100 BCE the Nabateans migrated towards south and settled down making use of their kinship, declaring Dedan as their second capital. Actually, this is the exact place of this perished tribe mentioned in Koran. Also, the place where prophet Salih summoned a camel back of a mountain mentioned in Koran and one of the wells from which this camel drank water is said to be here. I get all this information from the official guiding me.
Mada’in Salih is the necropolis where pre-Islamic pagan Lihyanites held religious ceremonies and buried their dead. This name was given after acceptance of Islam. It is 20 km to the capital Dedan. Well, where is Dedan then? Inside Al Ula but there isn’t any signboards in the city. The visit to the ruins of Dedan was by chance.
The first day on the road to Mada’in Salih we chatted. I got information about this region. With the new excavations the amount of tombs have become 135. We had to spend two days in this area by car. That is, the one who visited Petra know how huge it is. Here, only the graveyard is 4 folds bigger than Petra. You need one or at most two days on foot for Petra. The monumental tombs resemble first periods of Greek and Roman architecture.
Three new monumental tombs have been found recently. An area middle in the desert collapses and tombs or ancient cities hidden under sand become unearthed suddenly (I had mentioned about such a place in Turkmenistan before). The excavation works for these tombs haven’t started yet, they were only wire fenced. Of course there wasn’t any sand hills in front of the other tombs nor were they wire fenced. I was curious why the others weren’t fenced. I wasn’t lazy to climb one of the sand hills and on the top my jaw dropped. A corpse was lying in the sand its bones recognizable. A Nabatean or Lihyan at least 2500 years old was lying in front of me. How lucky I was.
The first day I wasn’t able to visit all tombs and on the road back I told this to the guy accompanying me:
– Well, this here is a necropolis. There must be a city where this tribe had lived in.
Close to the city center of Al Ula is a castle called Ottoman Castle by the citizens which actually is Ibn Nusyr Castle. It came up from the inscriptions found that this castle was built by Lihyanites in 3rd century which was later used by soldiers during Ottoman period.
Just around the perimeter of this castle is a settlement of ancient Arab tribes established after 8th century. The dwellings are inter-connected to each other altogether 1032 houses. This labyrinth has 14 exit gates. Looking around from the top of the castle, the Kasbahs I have seen in Morocco came in my mind but much smaller than this here. I saw exactly the same type of Kasbahs in other places also in Saudi Arabia later on. By the way, the white Bodrum houses have the same architecture but miniatures of Kasbahs. : ). Standing out till present though altered. This labyrinth like inter-connected dwelling system actually makes us to understand the traces of the Arab society and culture from past to present.
“My friend this here is the old city” he said. “No, impossible. Such a civilization wouldn’t happen of only few houses” I said. The next day he took me to another spot of the city and said during our conversation with a smile: “The place you were wondering about yesterday is here” Not an informative plate nor a signboard was anywhere but this site was under protection with fences. He continued to talk:
– Since excavations in this huge area still continue gold and many articles of value have been found. Therefore it is forbidden to enter this site but with a special permission you’ll be allowed to enter only a part.
– Alright, I have such permissions. Let’s go.
We went but the gates were closed and there was nobody around. What a pity, I came here but won’t be able to visit Dedan, what a pity!! Anyway, I said I wasn’t lucky and we turned back. By the way, due to robbery and unpermitted excavations in this place strict precautions were taken by the police.
– Dude, let me ask something. For example, someone has stolen gold from here. What is the penalty? Are his hands cut off?
As I said this he looked at me as if I was a killer. Well, it came to me the heads off, hands cut off when he mentioned strict precautions were taken.
– Of course not. He is not stealing anything from a house or robes someone. He’ll be prisoned for so many years equating the worth what he has stolen.
Hugh, that’s good. That is the guy must be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, the artifacts you excavate wouldn’t be worth just 5 years of imprisonment. Anyway, we left this place and headed towards Mada’in Salih again.
– Dude, wait a second. Something is wrong with this region. The amount of sand hills are more on the left side compared to that on the right side. Also, there are houses built on the hills at left. Dedan is back 20 km. There must be something within this area, and there should be. An antique road, dwellings. That is, nothing for 20 km? It makes no sense.
I said and he smiling:
– Mr. Gurkan you are really a lucky man because you are with me now. Well, what you said is true.
Then we entered the desert with our jeep at the place where entrance is normally forbidden and the people around informs the police against everyone entering that place. By the way, the man accompanying me is an employee of Saudi Arabian secret service. Furthermore, I was asked for not to take photos and not to mention about this region.
I assign this place to be discovered by the travelers who will visit this region in the future. Moreover, our archeologist my come here for excavation works. I believe that the Saudi Arabian government will invest in this region in the future. There is a vast history lying beneath the sands to be unearthed.
(The famous Elephant Rock found in this region)
Of course after my questions and observations I made a serious doubt arose about my occupation. Actually, I always write engineering on occupation sections but don’t write media. Communication Engineer. : )
PS: Don’t write journalist, photographer, TV-programmer, travel or blog writer, columnist etc. on occupation section when you are traveling internationally. You visa application would be politely rejected.
After visiting Mada’in Salih the second day I was ready to leave the city but how come without visiting Dedan? There is nobody waiting for me at the next city. Stay for a couple of days then you’ll pedal extra 50 km to close up. The next day, I went to that site for several times. The gate was always closed and there was nobody around. In South Korea I entered and visited such places illegally but I don’t have the balls doing the same in Saudi Arabia. The second day I went at 10 a.m. and saw a jeep in front of the gate. I pedaled as fast I could in case the jeep escapes. Yallah Gurkan yallaaaaaaaaaah!!
I caught them up. Dude, you built such a nice tourism building but nobody is there..
– Yes please, how can we help?
– Hi, I’m coming from Turkey traveling on bike. I want to visit this place. Here are my documents.
– Ooo… You are that Turkish traveler. Welcome. Tea or coffee? Please have a seat.
Why are you holding this place always closed? I asked to start a chat. In fact special permission given by the ministry in Riyadh is required to visit this area which is not given to everyone. Why? Because under each stone there might lay a fortune. The excavation works still continue. I said “doesn’t matter” I’ll just look around I’m coming for days to have an opportunity to enter. The guys already knew me. Well, since I had also the necessary permission, it was not hard to enter this site. We went to the gate, they unlocked a couple of doors and finally let me in. Then, they locked the doors behind me and went away.
(Behind the palm trees)
Welllll. It is a huge place, where to start? Let’s go first to the rocks over there. It is obvious that there were stone dwellings which collapsed due to earthquake or some another reason. Only the well remained intact. The area in incredibly huge, I spent time from 10:30 a.m. till 5 p.m. in this place.
The best season to visit this place is February, otherwise it would be impossible to visit due to the hot climate. By the way, a one day visit is far then enough for this huge place. Anyway, after a point it was impossible to walk due to the wire fences. They told me not to go further since excavation works have not finished yet. The official wandering what I was doing inside this place for so many hours came to me once and shouted at me from below. I made gestures saying “I’m walking around, I’ll come” from above. What to say,
I left my bicycle somewhere far, it would take me two hours to go back. Good that I had some water and food with me. Like in Petra. The food storages carved in the rocks still remain intact but all the big constructions were ruined.
There was a mound before at the place where I was walking on. The cut rocks are scattered all around. To my count there were 181 constructions all fallen into ruin. That is, I’m at an incredibly huge place. Once I sat down on an outcrop watching around. I closed my eyes dreaming how this place was looking like in the past. For a moment I found myself in the agora of this city walking on the streets reviving everything in my mind. I like doing this. Time passes by so fast, I have to go back those guys are awaiting. I would stay all the night if they would allow me.
The next day before leaving the city I visit the city museum. The small artifacts found in these excavation areas were exhibited in this museum. Also a couple of artifacts belonging to Ottoman period catches my attention. Well, I have visited one more interesting place. Now the route is Khaybar, Medina, Badr. : )
You can see all the photos related to this region among my Saudi Arabia Photographs. Furthermore, there is a beautiful restored station belonging to Hejaz Railway on which I’ll write in my next article.