I saw a civil jeep waiting for me as I left Ahmet’s hut in the morning. I waved and passed by. Nothing to do, they will follow me everywhere. Of course there will be some places where they would not able to.
Morning hours of January 15th 2015, the weather is perfect. Today is my 36th birthday. In 2011 Tokyo, 2012 Ankara, 2014 Spain, 2015 Saudi Arabia. What about my 37th in 2016? Where will I celebrate? Reading one word after another feels like I took a flight to each destinations, sounds wealthy.
While I was riding in no hurry a civil police came in front of me and made me stop. From oncoming lane a Land Cruiser pick-up changed its lane stopped next to us. Time to take over. Yet, I don’t know what their job is. I don’t talk with them much. I never act friendly to police or security when they follow me especially on the road. I don’t like this and I think they also don’t like either. Meanwhile, one of the police officers following me came to take a selfie. I said: “Ok” The others also introduced themselves, Samet and Mirzuq. They were friendly and Samet spoke English: “Just go on, we’ll follow you from a wide distance” he said. “Good, they recognized that I got angry by close-up follow.”
Now we are in the desert. There are dunes one after one. Climbing in desert reminds me the conversation we had with Enes and Funda in Spain. Due to the route I had chosen we had to climb up and down a lot. Of course they were grumbling about those slopes on the road. I’ll never forget, I said to Enes: “Alright dude, alright, in Morocco we let the bikes go free, it is desert! Just go free”. But it didn’t turned as I said. Hahaha. Starting to ride from the northeastern side of Morocco we entered the Rif Mountains, came out, then through Atlas Mountains. In the desert we always had head wind. Enes continually reminded me what I said in Spain: “We were to let our bikes go free??” Then I rode through Sahara Desert where the situation was the same. The Rif Mountains were extending till Tunisia and Libya. On top of it, climbing up at 50-60°C I remember saying: “Hugh, now I’m going to evaporate” After experiencing all these I never said again: “Desert roads are straightforward.” Karakurum and Gobi deserts were level among the deserts I’ve traversed yet. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia desert was not level, I remember the 4 days on which I finished the day driving for 100 km gaining 600 m altitude. Shortly, let me write what I’ve learned in the deserts I have traversed so far:
Taklamakan Desert: Northeast China, its altitude is generally below 1500 m. Asphalt road with up and downs. There are villages around. It is possible to hit a village per 50 km. I crossed this desert in August. Due to high altitude the temperature was 25-30°C. To the north the altitude drops to 800 m and the terrain becomes level.
Gobi Desert: The route I followed was starting at Ulan-Batur heading towards Chinese border. The length changes from 650 to 750 km depending on the route chosen. There wasn’t any asphalt road in 2010 but was under construction, I guess it has been finished till now. Its altitude is 2000 m. I crossed this desert in November. The weather temperature changed from minus 30°C at night to plus 15°C during day. It is level. Depending on the route you either don’t see any settlements or pass two small villages. You might not come across anyone for 400 to 500 km. The road is soil stabilized. There is almost no vegetation. Hard to pedal on. The wind blows from north to south.
Karakum Desert: Stretches from north to the south and east of Turkmenistan. It has an altitude of 600 m. The road is straightforward. I crossed this desert in early June. The temperature was 40°C. The road is asphalt. I came upon a small village at every 100 km. There is vegetation occasionally. Also, there are trees under which I could rest but rare.
Sahara Desert: I crossed Sahara in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. There is an asphalt road going through the middle of the desert. Its altitude is 800 m. Many up and downs. I crossed this desert during June, July and August. Maximal temperature was 61°C. There isn’t any vegetation and not a single tree.
Arabia Desert: I pedaled through this desert in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. Altitude 800 m. The route goes over dunes, therefore 400-700 m climbs a day are common. During January the temperature is at most 20 and at night minus 1°C. During June 57°C during day and 38°C at night. Sometimes there aren’t any settlements for 400 km. There is a shrub found in this desert used for firewood with good ash.
Tabernas Desert: A desert in Spain I crossed during January. The temperature changed from minus 1 to plus 15°C during day and minus 5°C at night. There are gas stations every 50 km. The only desert in Europe.
By the way, I have had traversed 6 deserts and 3 or 4 deserts remain. : )
Along this road many people stopped me. Especially it was really hard for me when they made me stop while climbing up a dune. Not due to gear shifting. My leg muscles burn, they heat up while climbing up and when I stop they cool down immediately. Restarting to pedal I get serious muscle pain for the first 3 to 4 minutes.
I was riding up and down the sand dunes, it was about 1:30 p.m. when I saw a small town behind the sand dunes. Hugh, alright I’ll take a short rest in this town before I go on. Coming closer to the town I recognize the crowd on the road. Really many people were standing on both sides of the road. Also, a man with a bouquet of flowers in his hands. I swear that I looked back behind me “Dude, is someone coming or is all this for me?” Samet inside the car shouts “move, move” … : ). Oh my god, what’s this? Hhaahaha…
I mix with the crowd. For the next 20 minutes photos were taken at the city square. People didn’t let me go. The mayor Abu Ajram presented me the flowers:
– Mr. Gurkan welcome to our town. We want to host you today. We would appreciate if you accept.
– Well, what to say, I would like to of course, thank you very much.
First we went to the municipality building with a convoy of 30 cars. There was a small event held for me. The journalists and TV-reporters were there. Drinks and sweet were offered. At last a huge cake
– Thank you very much, today is my birthday and I thought I wouldn’t have a birthday cake. I’m very happy for this surprise. Thank you very much.
– Really Mr. Gurkan, how old are you?
– I became 36 today.
The mayor Ahmet Elbabadi took his keffiyeh off his head and presented me. At night Samet told me that when a state official presents his own keffiyeh it is to honor the person. Plaques and presents were given. It was impossible to carry all those plaques on the bike. Therefore, I put them in Samet and Mirzuq’s car which I sent to Turkey via cargo after 50 km. Actually, they offered me to take all my load and said: “Go free without any load on you bike”. No thanks bro. I prefer to travel as if you were not escorting me.
Well since we are on this subject. When you talk about me I’m sure people say: “He takes a bus or goes by car, for sure”. Also, you may have heard the question: “What about sea, how does he cross?” And the last question might be: “Why the hell is he traveling?” Honestly I must say that as long as there aren’t any life threatening issues and I have enough power in my legs “I’ll only travel on bike” I won’t give my load on bike up to the car escorting me. Some may call this foolishness, some eager, some proudness, etc. No my friend, this is my life and I’m on the road to realize my own dream taking respect to what I’m undertaking. I must admit that it is hard but I like to travel this way. I’m happy so. : )
This night they hosted me at municipality. Dude, I had overnighted in municipality buildings in various countries but never seen such a guestroom before. Especially the bedroom wowww. I took a photo of it and sent immediately to Enes with whom we stayed in a municipality room. Instantly he sent me a message fully foul-mouthed.
The main income of this town was due to breeding and farming. It lies on the crossing of Al-Ula. There is a gas station also. I didn’t see any date palms around but I’m sure there were many. The town’s kids waited at the door of the guestroom till night.
But Samet and Mirzuq didn’t allow me to go out and also didn’t let the people come in. For dinner we had lamb on rice, fruits and date desserts. Then, Arabian coffee and tea. I got informed in detail about their occupations and why were they escorting me. Also, they told about why tourists are not and will not be permitted to enter the country in detail. I didn’t argued against these explanations saying: “Yes, but…” It is their own culture and lifestyle. They requested from me not to share what was spoken among us and I won’t write about these issues on social media. I did similar talks in different regions of Saudi Arabia both with men and women. The outcome was almost the same everywhere. But, I would like to give a detail about my travel in Saudi Arabia: They won’t be able to put under control the system they want to protect in the future”
The next they we set off. At noon during a rest on roadside a trail truck stopped next to us. I thought he stopped while he recognized my bicycle. The driver came next to us and talked to Samet in Arabic. I got it, he was asking for an address. He got the description, turned back and saw the bicycle and looked at the Turkish flag on the back.
– What are you doing here my friend?
– May it be easy.
He said and turned his back. While he was gone Samet asked me:
– I guess you are not famous in Turkey as you are here?
– No, I’m not. Only people interested in cycling and traveling know me.
– What you do is impressive but difficult. I couldn’t do. I respect for what you are doing. Also, Saudi people like you very much. Our chief calls us frequently and asks for your well-being. We’ll do our best for you till you exit the country.
– Thank you very much.
By the way, since Turkish trailer truck drivers get only transit visa from Saudi Arabia they have to leave the country as soon as they deliver their freight. I guess our Turkish driver was late since he didn’t stop for a chat. You know from my road memories how good I get along with those drivers.
Saudi Arabia was really a different experience for me. They let me experience at least how it feels like being a star without actually being one and honestly my first feeling was panic and fear. Still, when I go through towns and villages I feel uneasy. In one country one of our citizens wanted to invite Kivanc Tatlıtug (a Turkish movie star). He wanted me to call his manager. I said, alright (what’s got this to do with me? : ). The manager of him and many other stars is a friend of mine from the university. I called her and talked about this invitation, whether it is possible. She said: “Gurkan we don’t come to this geography because of life threatening interest of people.” Later on I was confirmed about this information at the Jordan Embassy. When Kivanc Tatlitug was at the embassy, the employees feared that the wall of the building wouldn’t resist the swarm of the people. Arabs are mad lovers of Kivanc Tatlitug they had almost smashed him to death. When Arabs like someone they like to death, similarly when they hate someone they hate to death. The Arabs know no bounds. Make or break.
As I arrived in Dumat Al-Jandal two police cars were waiting for me at the city entrance. In the city at each roundabout one of the police officers was blocking the other road. After providing my safe pass they were clearing the roads. Dude, I messed up the city traffic. As we came to traffic lights turning red the roundabouts were cleared immediately. (By the way, everybody in Saudi Arabia obeys to the traffic lights in the cities because traffic tickets are high. Even the richest would stop after paying a couple traffic tickets.) At every red traffic light a camera takes a photo of the car automatically, lightning shortly. Aha while I was thinking that those guys would get traffic tickets I realized that the system was turned off due to me. Expecting a small hotel I was brought to one of the best hotels of the town. I said to Samet: “Dude, no need for such an expensive hotel” but then was informed that a stay for 3 nights was already paid. Upon telling to Samet that the city is nice and that I would like to visit its historical places, Samet called the city officials. How nice people, thanks to all of them.
Duma Al-Jandal is the first archaic city I visited in Saudi Arabia. I kept saying the word “kadim” (archaic in Turkish and Arabic) in Saudi Arabia. They also use this word “kadim” a lot in Arabic the meaning the same; old very old.
The name of the city comes from Dumah the sixth child of Prophet Ishmael’s second wife. This city was under the rule of Qedar Kingdom. The time period I’m talking about is from 800 BC (at least the beginning of its written history) to 633 AD. As I was reading about the history of this city something caught my attention: This kingdom was ruled by queens for centuries. Names of kings were not mentioned anywhere. The border of the kingdom stretched from Sinai Peninsula to eastern Arabian Peninsula. Arab territories were ruled by women for 1200 years or maybe more than that who knows. Some of the queens fought against Roman Empire. The guide accompanying me was proud of these female rulers. I could feel this from his speech. In 629 Prophet Muhammed gave the order to capture the city and after a combat in 633 this city was included into Islamic territories.
During a later period caliph Omar lived here for a while and helped to the construction of the mosque Omar Bin Al-Khattab. I held my Friday pray in that mosque together with Samet and Mirzuq. Well, this old mosque is still in charge. Those two mosques, Omar Bin Al-Khattab and Dome of the Rock in Palestine are special to me. There is a place called Al Dar’i Quarter next to the mosque, an old bazaar. The restoration works were neatly done. The dwellings and streets are nested. You can pass to buildings from one to the other quite easily. Actually, this architecture came familiar to me. I saw the same interior design in Morocco but the exterior designs were different.
One evening we came here to drink coffee. It was pretty crowded, the number of women outstanding. While some of the women were taking my photos their companions recognize me and say something. Then, they come to Samet and ask him whether I’m the Turk Rahel. Samet said a few “yes” and then there was a stampede, people swarmed. All the people around came to me to take a photo. This chaos and photo shooting took more than an hour and at the end we couldn’t drink coffee. We were packed like sardines in that place. The street we wanted to take got blocked due to crowd. “DUDE I AM NOT A STAR, ALLOOO!” Samet, Mirzuq and me could hardly go out elbowing our way across. It was a hard night.
The next day, as it happened in every town, I met with Turkish people from Hatay. Cahit Abi (elderly brother in Turkish) came over here and opened Istanbul Restaurant. He cooked a delicious kebab meal for me. His friend Metin is hairdresser working together with his wife. I asked him what they do when women call. He is sending his wife to the houses. His wife was working for women, I got it.
This gender segregation issue results in strange situations in this country. For example, the educational level of women are quite high. They are mainly becoming teacher but if they are assigned to a different town, they usually are not able to work there, because women are not allowed to drive. So, a male member of the family has to accompany her. The Saudi Arabian fathers don’t allow their daughters to go anywhere on their own. This time the cost doubles and it becomes meaningless to work. The state pays 450 USD for unemployment. Therefore women prefer to sit at home. Of course this is just the outlook, the Saudi women are very active in e-commerce sector. They establish e-stores via Instagram or Snapchat and sell their handicrafts, etc.
In this city I came upon a date palm festival, one of the biggest in the north. I guess I ate all the possible desserts that can be made by dates. Wow what’s this, wow what’s that, wow what does it taste like? I tasted all different kinds of dates. Well, since I had a camera in my hand and was a foreigner every one called me to his own stand. The mayor also visited the festival. They presented me a box with best dates.
After coming out of the tent I saw another one across.
– What is in this tent Samet?
– Gurkan only women and families are allowed to enter this tent. We cannot enter.
– Dude, how do you know?
– There are rules. Don’t you see the religious police standing in front of the tent? We can’t tell him what to do.
– Come on, let us ask at least. Translate him what I’m saying to you.
We talked to the religious police and he allowed us to enter the tent but under one condition not to take photos inside. I said alright. Honestly I must say that I wasn’t expecting that easy. We entered inside the tent. There were 50-60 stands occupied by women. The women who knew me took their handys out to take my photo. They invited me to their stands. Some of them were speaking English fluently. As I already mentioned above, Saudi Arabian women are educated. I always found someone speaking English even in remotest towns. As it came in my mind let me share another information. If young people want to go abroad for education the state grants all of them under one condition to return to their countries.
I ate the meals cooked and looked at the handicrafts produced by the women in the tent. There were many handicrafts which resembled that of inner Anatolia. When I was invited by men in Saudi Arabia almost always was lamb on rice or goat on rice on the table. But in this tent I realized that next time when I visit Saudi Arabia I’ll try to get invited into women assemblies. There, the meal variety is much higher and also their taste. Thanks to them, I spent about half an hour in the tent. I was happy for this unique experience.
Dumat Al-Jandal is the town I would stay longer if I would visit Saudi Arabia once more. I’m sure there are many places worth sightseeing around this town.
The next day I was on the road again. After this point there is an uninterrupted desert traverse for 350 km till the town Hail. Let’s see what else I’ll come upon.