About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:
Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car.
The older ones are calm as Zen:
… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:
Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:
We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:
Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):
Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.
During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:
Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:
And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.
The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:
We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:
Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:
We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:
After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.
And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:
And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .
This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.
The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.
Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”
Me: “Are you joking? No!”
Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”
Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)
Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”
Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”
(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)
15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):
Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.
For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.
Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.
Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.
Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?
Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”
Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)
Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)
Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.
Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”
Me: “…(what is going on)”
As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:
Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:
Who were we to stop him?
We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.
Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:
We then crossed a long tunnel:
And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.
Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .
. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:
And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.
This photo is from Wikipedia:
And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:
And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:
I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:
With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:
We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:
…as well as an all-girls university:
We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:
…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.
And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.
The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:
- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear