Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Ta’if

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. . . .

Mecca/Makkah

 

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 . . .

 

(Wikipedia)

 

. . . 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:

 

(Mine)

 

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.

 

–EDIT–

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

 

Return of the Jeddah

Return of the Jeddah

 

 

Picking up from where we left off after 2 days in and around Riyadh, we’re now in Jeddah: the second largest city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a port city on the Red Sea.

 

 

You can tell it’s a port because of all the abandoned fishing boats still marooned on the harbor:

 

 

After last night “outing” at Joujou, we got up at 8am today for a tour of city centre and old Jeddah – al Balad:

 

 

Here we wandered around the old city gates, from a time before cars …

 

 

… as well as the traditional markets in this labyrinthine part of the city.

 

 

This maze like area is where traders from all over Arabia and Africa live and work in a colorful world.

 

 

Jeddah’s coral houses, still standing in various states of disrepair, are some of the most famous architecture here:

 

 

If you’re looking for a museum, then spend your time at the 19th century Nassif House, formerly a mansion:

 

 

And after some souvenir shopping here, we headed onwards to Ta’if (post to come tomorrow).

For our second night in Jeddah after returning from Ta’if, we decided to make another visit to Joujou as we’ve been told it remains the only happening place in town right now.

And as how every monsoon should end, it would be with an unexpected surprise: A nurse based in Saudi Arabia named Jazzie has been following me on instagram ever since the pandemic began. When she noticed from my IG stories that I was in Jeddah, she reached out immediately if she could say hi. 

The universe always will reward the ones who show up. She showed up.

 

 

After a spirited conversation about fate, travel, our future, and everything in between, we regretfully had to say our goodbyes as they had to return home before their 11pm curfew.

With the bill and best wishes paid to the energized manager of Joujou, Corey, we drove out for one final walk along the Jeddah Corniche for views of the Red Sea.

 

 

If you look far up north enough here, you’ll catch a glimpse of Al Rahma Mosque, aka the ‘floating’ mosque, constructed on stilts in the sea:

 

 

Despite having some ice cream at one of the numerous “Cone Zones” stalls here, the wet heat ended up defeating us; by 11pm we were dropped off back at our hotel for an assumed end to our night in Jeddah.

However, I would then find out that the BinaxNOW test that Mihaela had helpfully got for me did not have the Telehealth option that allowed me to return home last month from Italy. Without a third party telehealth option to verify that you performed and read your test correctly, it cannot count for travel and a return home to the USA (even if you’re fully vaccinated).

I therefore quickly sent out a last minute message out to both Jazzy and our local guide Abdul Aziz, both of whom immediately responded with options. And at midnight, Abdul Aziz offered to drive us 10 minutes away to Al Borg Diagnostics for a rapid PCR (2 hour turnaround at the cost of around 550 rials or $150 USD).

 

 

Negative once again! Let’s go home.

 

 

Speaking of returning home, did I mention how ridiculously beautiful Jeddah’s one year old airport is?

 

 

Even more beautiful was I used 70,000 American Airline miles to obtain a free business class itinerary on the world’s “best business class” via Qatar Airways from JED to DOH to JFK. I last flew with Qatar First and Business was 2 years ago while on my way to Pakistan.

 

 

I proceeded onwards to getting stamped out of Saudi Arabia:

 

 

Then after passports and security, I proceeded onwards on a train and a very long walk to the newly opened Wellcome Lounge at JED airport. You’ll just have to forgive the first impressions of their elevator welcome:

 

 

Because the rest is much better:

 

 

At 9:30pm we began boarding for my JED-DOH leg of my itinerary home.

 

 

How I missed Q-Suites:

 

 

With 2 big surface areas to place your things as well as a storage cubby underneath the “ottoman” next to your main seat, there was plenty of room to call this a “suite.” The main attraction remains the sliding door to maintain your privacy.

We landed 2 hours later into Doha, where even the transfer shuttles are fancy:

 

 

It was a quick 1 hour turnaround to make it to my onward DOH-JFK flight. And when I approached my randomly assigned seat, something looked very familiar:

 

 

The same seat as the last time I flew Q-Suites with Qatar Airways 19 months ago when I was traveling from Dallas to Pakistan!

 

 

As always the welcome refreshments remain top notch:

 

 

Thank you again for the included pajama set from The White Company London!

 

 

And today’s complimentary gift bag:

 

 

We began meal service approximately 50 minutes after takeoff:

 

 

This is the only airlines that finally gets lobster done right:

 

 

After 4 hours in the air, they offered to get my suite ready for bed:

 

 

After a full 8 hours of sleep, there’s nothing like another fresh avocado lobster spread to wake you up first thing in the morning:

 

 

One day I’ll combine two suites and get myself that full sized bed:

 

 

Until then, I’m now back home resting up for the next 4 weeks until the next monsoon!

 

- At time of posting in Jeddah, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

Picnic on the Edge – Jebel Fihrayn: The Edge of the World

Picnic on the Edge – Jebel Fihrayn: The Edge of the World

 

 

After our first day in Riyadh with an early 6am rise and coffee, Salwa’s partner Mohammed picked us up in his car where we began our 2.5 hour drive to the Edge of the World:

 

 

Stop by for the Saudi Arabia’s distinctive black camels before you go off-roading!

 

 

Where am I?

 

 

The Edge of the World is an unexpected and dramatic geological wonder within the rocky desert northwest of Riyadh. Considered as Saudi Arabia’s own “Grand Canyon,” it boasts its unique name because from atop the escarpment, you have an uninterrupted view of the horizon.

 

 

The view reminded me of the Yangykala Valley in Turkmenistan.

 

 

We then spent an hour here underneath Mohammed’s shade enjoying alcohol-free beer, coffee and tea.

 

 

Afterwards by 11am we headed back into Riyadh where we caught the 3pm domestic onward Saudia flight to Jeddah.

 

 

We landed at 4:30pm in Jeddah where it wasn’t taxi drivers or family members that greeted us, but a freaking aquarium:

 

 

Another one of Salwa’s travel partners, Abdulazis, picked us up here where we drove into Jeddah for sunset.

 

 

We parked up at Joujou for dinner where sights that couldn’t have been imagined years ago were occurring naturally here. Let alone being informed by literally everyone we were one of the first foreign tourists to visit the “new Saudi Arabia.”

 

 

I took full advantage of it:

 

 

- At time of posting in Jebel Fihrayn, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

A My-“Riyadh” of Potential

A My-“Riyadh” of Potential

 

Got my third booster for COVID-19 yesterday! And what better way to revel in my potential side effects of the booster than a 12 hour red-eye flight from NYC to Abu Dhabi to Riyadh?

 

 

The days of loopholes and hurdles to obtain a business or transit visa for Saudi Arabia (or trying to get invited to a wedding… or even an “archaeological dig”) have long been over: Since September 27, 2019 it has been possible for citizens of Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, China and the whole of the Schengen Zone to get a tourist visa, let alone an e-visa within minutes. All I had to do was apply on Saudi Arabia’s E-Visa website and get access to the country (excluding Mecca) for 90 days!

Then all you need is (from left to right in the photo) your proof of:

  1. Negative PCR test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of your departure flight
  2. E-Visa after applying through their online portal
  3. Arrival Registration after submitting proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19
  4. Saudi Arabian travel and health insurance that automatically comes with your e-visa application

 

 

With flights I picked the aforementioned 9:05pm Etihad EY100 Flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi (AUH), with a 1 hour layover for Riyadh (RUH) afterwards. The perk of this itinerary was also getting to come early to check out the new AMEX Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4 of JFK:

 

 

There’s an Equinox studio inside for compression stocking therapy, massages, physical therapy, yoga studio and a small gym, as well as a speakeasy bar downstairs:

 

 

After an uneventful 12 hour flight from JFK, transiting through Abu Dhabi to the gate for Riyadh took about 20 minutes:

 

 

At 8:30pm I arrived an hour later into Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia which also has limited flights from Europe and Hong Kong. 

 

 

They also now have their very own dedicated “tourist visa” line, something you’d never expected to see 2 years before. 

 

This is the first time in the country’s history where tourism is officially allowed and we are those very people at that doorstep!

 

They take your photo and fingerprints here, and don’t even ask you any questions.

 

 

Without them even batting me a look, I was in and out with an oddly handwritten and stamped visa within 15 minutes.

 

 

Crossing customs was also a breeze and I was out in the airport ready for my pickup:

 

 

We then drove 30 minutes into the city for our centrally located hotel

 

 

We immediately hit the sack at 11pm, waking up the next morning at 7:30am for breakfast and finally meeting our local guide and head of Haya Tours, Salwa. She’s one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to not only drive her own car (women were legally allowed to drive in the country only 3 years ago), but also owns and runs her own tour company!

 

 

We began our day at Al Masmak in the city center: a clay and mud brick fort in the Riyadh city center and one of the most iconic part of Saudi Arabia.

 

 

Its location took centerstage for the restoration of the House of Saud.

 

 

Then we headed to Dheera Souq.

 

 

Located in the old part of the city, this market has a plethora of little shops arranged in rows along narrow streets selling carpets, gold, silver, souvenirs, antiques, traditional clothes, accessories and even furniture. Most of the shop owners here speak English and welcome good hagglers. They seemed a bit … closed when we arrived.

 

 

Right by the souq on your way back to the fort is Deera Square, aka Alsafat Square/Justice Square

 

 

…which is also known for this:

 

 

With nothing else open nearby, Salwa insisted that we stop here for saffron coffee and dates with tahini dip. To be honest, that’s a winning combo.

 

 

We next visited the Grand Mosque. Not only the largest active place of worship in Riyadh, it is one of the largest mosques in Saudi Arabia and seats up to 17,000 worshippers.

 

 

Before lunch we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. First opened in 1999, the design of this museum was inspired by the form and colors of the sand dunes of the “Red Sands” located outside Riyadh and includes a unification hall which shows the establishment of modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud after he captured Riyadh. A handwritten Quran is also in display.

 

 

We then visited the Kingdom Center Tower and its observation deck

 

 

At 99 stories and 302 meters tall, it is Saudi Arabia’s 5th tallest tower and you can go to the very top of the “bottle opener” at the 99th floor for the walk across its Skybridge:

 

 

You can view the rest of Riyadh from both directions:

 

 

And below the Kingdom Tower is one of Saudi’s most popular malls, one of countless in this country.

 

 

I find it ironic while the USA is axing Victoria’s Secret shops by the hundreds, you can still find them here in Saudi Arabia:

 

 

Leaving the mall and Kingdom Tower, we then enjoyed a long awaited traditional Saudi bedouin local lunch at Najd Village:

 

 

After a long day around Riyadh, we strolled a bit at sunset before a hearty dinner of smoked BBQ baby back and short ribs at Salwa’s son’s joint 7Rib.

Tomorrow we get up early for a 6am drive to the Edge of the World!

 

- At time of posting in Riyadh, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear