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Yes, that’s Yvonne above (and Juergen in the background pattern of this page).

 

Are you curious to know who travels to Saudi Arabia?

 

We were too, especially as only 6 of us signed up!

 

The others were a woman IT manager (the only traveler still working), a woman who had been in the military police, a software man who made a mint in tech stocks, and a business man (packaging). Only one of these people was not married. The spouses of the married people (other than us) weren’t interested in coming along. They are all people who have traveled to a great many “off the road” places. The tour was superbly arranged by Spiekerman Travel’s owner Ihab Zaki.

 

We were escorted by a 78-year old Archeology professor from the University of Texas at Austin who also leads groups to Oman and Iran. She is Dr Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who is a French woman married to a German.

 

Our national guide has won the title of best tour guide in Saudi Arabia and we concur. He did whatever he could to give each of us the trip we wanted…even to Yvonne’s request to run down sand dunes!

 

We were told we were the only tour group in the entire country at the time. Of course, there are many Westerners working there in all fields, not just oil, and they travel around. Five million foreign workers are included in the population of 27 million.

 

We joined our tour in Jeddah on the west coast by the Red Sea. Jeddah is the most liberal city in this very conservative country. We ended our trip in Dammam. We flew from there to Abha and toured the south. From  Najran we flew to Medina and toured the north west. From Al Jouf we flew to Riyadh and from there to Dammam

 

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The morning after we arrived we set off to sightsee and to buy the abayas the three women on our tour had to wear. Head scarves were optional so the morals police could tell us from the locals and not bother us.

 

Right away we came across a group of high school girls also on a tour. They were as fun as the Iranian girls we met when we were in Iran. They all had cameras and we were posing for them – not just they posing for us! …aren’t they pretty!

 

Note the shop keeper in the back thinking the entire thing was as fun as we did!

 

 

 

 

 

This is a museum in a museum, a restored traditional Saudi rich person’s house.

 

These old houses in Jeddah were constructed of coral and reinforced with wood so that the beams criss-cross the interior walls.

 

This Nasif House was built in the 1850s by an influential trading family.

 

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Jeddah is on the sea and has an incredible fish market (that’s Yvonne inspecting the fish).

 

 

 

Later, while we were still touring around we came out of a building and found our friends walking by. We were still on the steps of the building above the street when we took this photo.

 

You could have thought we were arriving rock stars we received such a raucous welcome!

 

These men escorting them are their teachers. They acted oblivious to our goings-on with the girls.

 

We chatted with them again. One girl was going to the US to a university the next year.

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The corniche in Jeddha stretches 60 miles and has international hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, fishing areas, picnic areas, a science museum and mosques. It has the tallest fountain in the world (over 1000’ high).

 

There are sculptures and other artwork along 20 miles of the corniche, many by international artists like Moore, Arp and Miro.

 

We liked this one.

 

After we got back we read that Jeddah is doing an intensive update to the area.

 

 

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Saudi Arabia is about one-fourth the size of the US – the world’s 12th largest country. Getting around involves flights.

 

We flew south to Abha, in the highlands (6000’) near the border with Yemen. The population belongs to ancient tribes that were native there.

 

The region’s culture shares much with Yemen, a place we’ll probably never be able to visit, so we were glad we could get this close to the architecture and the people.

 

The Saudis were able to take power here only in the 1920s.

 

 

 

 

This fellow is the caretaker of the very old mosque we wanted to see. Note he wears a jambiya, the traditional dagger of Yemen (and of course, this area). This dagger is called a khanjar in Oman.

 

There are societal and Islamic norms that must be used to avoid defamation of the dagger. The jambiya should only be taken out of its sheath at times of extreme cases of conflict.

 

Said another way, the dagger should only be taken out of its sheath if you want to kill someone.

 

That way it isn’t waved around as a threat.

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We went in a caravan of six 4x4s towards the Najran desert. We visited Al Fau (rock carvings) and Bir Hima.

 

Once we arrived in the desert Juergen switched into the  dishdasha he had purchased in Oman.

 

The Saudis thought he looked amazing – to the point that our driver (in white at right in the photo) took off his dagger and put it on Juergen for photos! We think the guy on the left couldn’t believe it!

 

Our perfect guide, Khalid, is to Juergen’s left.

 

Juergen got inspired by his outfit to enact Moses casting down the tablets with the ten commandments.

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We flew north (via Jeddha) to Medina then drove to Al Ula.

 

Ever since we visited Petra, Jordan, the capital of the Nabataean kingdom, we’d wanted to visit Madain Saleh, the southernmost city of that ancient kingdom.

 

The inhabitants were merchants who had grown rich on the incense trade which passed through on its way to ports on the Mediterranean. The city went into decline when the Romans started navigating the Red Sea themselves.

 

 

The buildings the Nabataeans (1st C. CE) lived in were made of wood and are long gone. They left 100+ beautiful rock-cut tombs.

 

The Nabataeans first appeared in history in 312 BCE.

 

Above photo left to right: the IT manager, the software rich guy, the retired policewoman, Khalid, Juergen, and far right, our archeological escort, Denise.

There’s only Yvonne and the retired business man missing from the photo!

 

Small group in a very large country.

 

 

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Our group was totally alone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The women: Yvonne, retired policewoman, Denise, IT manager.

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Following photos show just a few of the tombs.

 

 

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Although women tourists don’t have to wear a scarf, the four women on the trip decided to wear them so we could feel more part of the culture. Photos look much better when we’re taken with locals, as well.

 

 

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This is one of the larger tombs.

 

The tombs are absolutely amazing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In between the tombs there is a wonderful landscape to wander in.

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This was the feeling we had here!

 

Such a spectacular place in all ways…

 

…and we were there alone!

 

 

 

Even though we were such a small group this nice bus was our private transportation when we weren’t in 4x4s (which was much of the time).

 

We had rows of seats to ourselves! Actually, we only used a big bus when we were crossing large areas of “empty” desert – for security reasons, we assume.

 

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One of the women bought a niqab because she wanted to experience wearing one. Yvonne thought it was a great idea. Here she is with Khalid just after putting it on; the two women wore them all one day.

 

It was interesting to both of them how quickly they found it was nearly impossible to communicate anything that needs body language – like making a joke. Wearing one shuts you out of society.

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We got into 4x4s and climbed into the hills nearby.

 

Yvonne had asked Khalid at the start of the trip if we’d be around sand dunes, and if we were, if she could run down them. He said he’d see what he could arrange.

 

On this day of 4x4ing in the dunes, all the cars pulled to the stop of a sand dune. Khalid told Yvonne here was her chance.

 

Then, Yvonne challenged him to a race down. (She forgot where she was, obviously) He hesitated, then agreed and off they went down the hill. Naturally, Khalid won. Here she is happily climbing back up for another run down!

 

Nothing in Saudi Arabia fit our expectations – it was totally different than expected. Better!

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There is an oasis on a hill nearby and a local has set up an interesting museum of old objects. Outside he has this jeep and old Mercedes (non-running).

 

Juergen wanted to photograph Yvonne “driving” as women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia.

 

We noticed afterwards (by looking at our preceding photos) that one of our drivers had gotten in the Mercedes so it would look like we were in traffic. After Yvonne’s run down the dune, the drivers felt comfortable doing this. We were sorry we didn’t notice at the time as we would have liked to thank him.

 

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We did a full-day 4x4 excursion into Hisme Valley to see the wonderful rock formations and sand dunes.

 

Love those camels – and this kind of desert!

 

The formation on the right is called Sakhrat Al Feil’s Mountain (elephant’s rock).

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This young man was moving along smartly when our car came beside him. We stayed next to him and he was obviously shy and uncomfortable with it.

 

 

The camel’s quick gait was amazingly smooth. The rider didn’t bounce at all.

 

It looked like fun.

 

 

 

 

When we arrived in the morning to this desert, Khalid went to some Bedouins we had passed and asked them to prepare some camel milk for us in a very sterile manner.

 

When we arrived we had fun saying hello to the very affectionate camels.

 

Their camel hair is beyond soft. It’s silky…and, believe it or not, they’re very sweet. Yep. Sweet!

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The fresh camel milk in this stainless steel bowl had been somewhere that kept it very cold.

 

It was delicious; sweeter than cow milk.

 

Our 4x4 driver, background right, put his own ghutra (the checkered square most of the Saudi men wear) on Juergen. The braided black cord that holds the ghutra on is called an igal.

 

What our driver had on under the ghutra is his kufiyyah (skullcap).

 

 

 

While in the desert, Khalid and the drivers made a fire and cooked chicken for us.

 

 

While all that was going on Yvonne walked across the wadi and climbed this huge sand dune. Juergen took this with a tele lens - she’s the little black speck in the middle of the photo. She climbed to the top at the left of the photo and ran down a straight down part.

 

 

Ah, happiness!

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Because we had Denise with us and she wanted to see the latest finds from an archeological dig she was curious about, Khalid arranged for us to go into the storage area of the museum.

 

 

Can you tell us women apart?

 

 

 

Wow! Were we surprised to find this in the storage room!

 

When we were in Petra, we bought earrings with this pattern. Yvonne was wearing them on this day because we were in Nabataean territory.

 

We were told in Petra that they found a rock carving and described it to be like this – and that it was the only one at Petra. It’s no longer there but in a museum (not this one).

 

They thought it was probably the Egyptian goddess Isis.

 

 

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We visited the Haddaj well in Tayma, a large oasis.

 

The well is thought to be 2500 years old. It’s mentioned in the Bible: “The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty…”

 

It has long been a stopping place for caravans crossing the deserts of Arabia.

 

There are twelve of these wheels on each of the four sides to the well. Each wheel had a rope that went over it; at one end was a bucket in the well, a camel was at the other end. So there were 48 camels pulling water, bucket by bucket, from this well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We saw several birds of prey for sale. They are very expensive to buy.

 

They are proud beautiful birds.

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One of the highlights of the entire trip was definitely the camel market in Riyadh!

 

There were hundreds of camels in large pens of a few camels each. Some had cute babies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whenever we walked up to the fence they came over and nuzzled and loved us. They’re totally different than they seem in our zoos.

 

They’re more like cats or dogs, I suppose. Only far silkier and gentle, even.

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They couldn’t drag us away.

 

Most of us hugged about 3 camels at a time at least once during our visit.

 

You can’t help it. Several come over and sort of lean-in.

 

Khalid enjoyed them as much as we did, of course!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we all had “quality time” with those we really hit it off with!

 

We can’t emphasize enough how soft that nose is!

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The eyelashes are wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one was eyeing Juergen as he took the photo!

 

In the background you can see what the camel market looked like. Clean and uncrowded.

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One of the few disappointments on this trip was that we didn’t get to go up in the Kingdom Center in Riyadh (in the center of the photo)!

 

It was spectacular to see as we drove through Riyadh – note the traffic jam.

 

Several times on our drives we saw signs to Mecca (Makkah) like this one, but we never got close.

 

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