December 2018: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was top of my list for years but virtually impossible to visit for tourists. Saudi Arabia the founding nation of Islam and home of the holiest city in Islam, Mecca was set on eliminating any foreign influence that could threaten the sanctity of Islam and the rule of the Saud family. Foreigner were allowed in only for work permits and were not given tourist visas. I looked for every possible loophole and even went out of my way once to book a transit flight in 2014 via Saudi Airlines to Jeddah, an airline that segregated families with women from single men into different cabins, had a countdown to mecca on each seat monitor and a section of seating removed to create a prayer room in the middle of the plane. Jeddah at the time was an airport that epitomized 3rd world squalor back then despite Saudi Arabia being one of the richest countries on Earth. I hoped that because of my long layover, I could convince immigration to allow me into the country for a night. Immigration was friendly and extremely apologetic but would not let me in. Instead, a kind immigration officer feeling bad for my friend, and I managed to get us free passes into business lounge.

Then I attempted to convince the Saudi Embassy in the USA to grant me a visa to no avail and I looked into a loophole of getting a business visa but the cost of 1000USD was too much to justify. The closest I actually got to entering was through an American teacher I contacted online who was teaching at a prestigious school in Saudi Arabia. The teacher along with a Saudi dean of the school wanted to sponsor me to come and present on my travels to the Saudi students and my invitation from the school went all the way to the highest immigration ministries before finally being denied. i was heart broke because I really looked forward to the opportunity.

Then right when I felt like there was no hope, out of nowhere Saudi Arabia under its new generation of leadership under the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) decided that opening Saudi Arabia to foreigners like the United Arab Emirates to boost its status in the world and prepare for a future world beyond oil, was the best path forward. Saudi Arabi would try out foreign tourism to see how it liked it but only for a Formula One sports event. If the experience went well, it would examine the possibility of opening up further to tourism in the future. To get a tourist visa, you also had to book a Formula One ticket and the visa process was almost laughably easy considering the difficulties of the past. not knowing if the opportunity would every present itself again, i jumped at the opportunity to go and I booked a ticket to Saudi Arabia two weeks after just returning from that part of the world. Luckily, I had an understanding boss. But I had no intention of going to Saudi Arabia for a Formula One race and instead i skipped the event entirely and visited Jeddah to its old city and coral reefs of the Red Sea, but my main goal was to explore some of the desert caves east of Riyadh that were almost unknown at the time to foreigners. I found a group of Saudi rock climbers on social media who were interested in exploring the desert caves. My friend Jimmie and I paid for the vehicle and the Saudi’s brought rope, camping and rock-climbing gear. Prior to the trip we researched different caves we could explore and came up with a long list of potential options for caves that have had little exploration and little information available online.  This is the story of my 5-day trip to Saudi Arabia with my friend Jimmie.

 

 

 

My route in Saudi Arabia

About Saudi Arabia

 

 

I was excited to visit Saudi Arabia and to discover its realities and meet the real people to understand on my own what they were like. Saudi Arabia to me was a country that only seemed to receive bad press from the western media about terrorism, an intolerant form of Islam-Wahhabism and the grandiose luxurious lifestyles of its ruling elite. of course, there are truths to some of this. Wahhabism is one of the strictest branches of Islam with religious police enforcing its edicts, separation of women from men, women wear black Abays covering their faces and sometimes their eyes and public executions that are done by beheading according to Sharia law. The people of Saudi Arabia are also strict about their prayer time, which occurs five times per day starting before sunrise and lastly just before sunset. The streets empty and most businesses close during prayer time.

 

Fast food restaraunt with entrance separated for men and women by a curtain. Most of the pick-ups where of South indian descent workers picking up food for the families they worked for.

During the time of my trip Saudi Arabia was on a new path. The old path was isolation and the new one under MBS sought to make Saudi Arabia a regional leader and a global player in more areas than just oil. MBS was opening Saudi Arabia to reform that seemed to bring a more moderate form of Islam to the country and more rights to women and they have recently been allowed to drive, although I didn’t see any driving.  But reform aside MBS showed that he was still a middle eastern dictator intent on securing his power. His father was king and to ensure he was successor; he had a number of other members of the royal family arrested or detained for various charges and it was still very dangerous to be a political dissident in Saudi Arabia. Only a few months before my visit a Saudi journalist, Jama Khashoggi, who was also a US citizen was lured into a Saudi consulate in Turkey where he was tortured and murdered by Saudi agents under the orders of MBS. When I was in Saudi Arabia most people, I spoke to loved MBS. In a part of the world where strong dictators are normal, people were just happy that MBS was making reforms and looking to improve the economy of Saudi and they were willing to look passed his other indiscretions.

 

King Saud and MBS murals common across the country

Jeddah

 

 

I flew into Jeddah via British Airways with a stop-over in London where I ironically was able to have enough time to go into the city and sneak into the graveyard where one of the greatest Victorian era British explorers, Sir Richard Burton is buried in a Bedouin tent shaped tomb.

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the day snorkeling a local coral reef only accessible via a private beach club, full of mostly foreign expats and afterwards we explored the old town of Jeddah near where we stayed in a cheap guesthouse.

 

Jeddah on the Red Sea

We explored mostly at night when the humid air cooled and the old streets fell silent, and the memories of its past come to life in the shadows of the past. The beautiful song of the muezzin singing praise to Allah echoed through the streets. We stayed in a cheap guesthouse in the center of the old town.

 

 

Muezzin calling Muslims to prayer in the mosque.

Walking the streets of Old Jeddah at night

Old Wooden Windows of Jeddah Old Town

Ornate wooden doors of Jeddah Old Town

Jimmie and I walked for miles in the narrow alleys of the old town and we came across some outdoor areas where African migrants congregated. Saudi Arabia and the middle east are a big migration point for many immigrants hoping to find work and many come to Saudi Arabia illegally and find themselves treated very poorly and heavily exploited.

 

African migrants playing pool in Jeddah Old Town

African migrants playing outdoor video games in Jeddah

I loved old Jeddah and the crumbling wooden facades outside of the old buildings some made out of stone and others coral. The wooden facades are as old as 500 years and are called Rawashin. The intricate wooden designs of Rawashin are large enough to let light in and the occupants of a building to see outside but small enough to preserve the privacy and keep men from looking inside and seeing the women inside a home.

A few of Saudi friends I met on social media met us to show us the old city and take us out to eat and we had some great traditional meals and see some of the historical sites. We learned that the government has big plans to renovate old Jeddah and to modernize it and make it a key tourist attraction in the future. I just hope that the renovations don’t compromise its magical atmosphere and replace it with a sterile and kitsch tourist attraction common to the Gulf States.

 

Rawashin-Old wooden window patios

Old Jeddah

Riyadh

 

 

From Jeddah we flew via domestic flight to Riyadh, the modern looking capitol of Saudi Arabia in the desert interior of the country. We were picked up at the airport by my Saudi rock-climbing friends and after visiting some of the historical places in Riyadh such as the Masmak Fortress, where the current ruling family’s ancestors in the early 1900’s led a revolt to seize power of the country. Riyadh was mostly modern however, and some of the skyscrapers were ingenious in their design and one was shaped like the eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. We also stopped on the side of the highway once to gaze at a row of patriot missile batteries that were aimed into the sky ready to defend Riyadh from missile or drone attacks from the Yemen Shiite Huti’s that were aligned with Iran, the arch enemy of Sunni, Saudi Arabia.

 

 Masmak Fortress 

Antique market

End of the World

 

 

We drove to one of the most impressive desert vistas in the country a few hours outside of Riyadh, where we hoped to rock climb down the dramatic cliffs that appear to drop off from a flat rocky escarpment from 1000′ cliffs into a vast desert valley below in what is called the “End of the World.” The place is located on a military base and there were training activities during our visit, and we were not allowed to rock climb and even drive down certain roads. At first the military wasn’t going to let us in but we were able to obtain permission because one of my Saudi friends had a military contact.

The road to the cliffs where the land suddenly just drops into the valley below was via a long and rough 4WD road and we heard explosion nearby from military helicopters that were likely practicing for the war in Yemen. Once we arrived at the End of the World, I was amazed by the views, and we were free to climb along the rocks by ourselves. There was no one else in sight and the strong desert wind off of the vast valley below was chilling. We spent hours exploring the cliffs and admiring the views. I only wish we could have been here at sunset or sunrise. My Saudi friend explained that the government plans to develop this place and make create a theme park/shopping mall to attract thousands of people. I am glad we came when we did.

 

Jimmie and my Saudi friend standing on the top of the cliff

Jimmie

Me, the little dot standing on the top edge of the cliff

Me and the middle, my Saudi friends and Jimmie

The Desert Caves

 

 

To get to a vast desert plateau with numerous sinkhole desert caves in the Ma’aqala area, we had to drive approx. 4 hours deep into the desert. Our plan was to find as many as we could, but we weren’t certain if we would find them, and we also weren’t sure what their condition would be. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia had record amounts of rain which may have impacted the caves.

On the drive into the desert, most of the desert was a barren parched land with few people but we did come across one lush green oasis village where the king has a weekend hunting lodge and Saudi families come to enjoy picnics. The park was completely wild overgrown with desert brush and families would bring their own blankets and food to barbecue in small portable grills.

 

Saudi family having a picnic

Saudi family picnic

Along the road there would be occasional venders in small tents selling anything from camels, snacks, to tea.

Woman selling food at a roadside stand

Traditional toothbrushes forsale at a roadside stand used to pick teeth clean

Camel seller at a roadside stand who invited us in for free tea and to talk to us

At this gas station, I encountered this group of young Bedouin men who were very curious about me, and we took photos together and exchanged Instagram information.

 

Friendly beduin at a gas station

Camels wandering alone throughout the desert were a common sight

All of our cave information was obtained from online research, talking to other cavers, climbers and stopping to talk to local Bedouin people in the desert. most of the caves were offroad and to find them we would drive into the middle of nowhere. We had two vehicles in case one broke down and we had a lot of fun driving up and down sand dunes at exceptionally fast speeds. Saudi’s definitely love off-roading in the desert, and I could sense their glee when doing so.

The first cave we came to was just a small sink hole in the desert barely big enough to fit our bodies down. The sink hole was about 50′ deep and opened up into other small tunnels. A Beduin family with falcons were gathered near the cave and we stopped to discuss the cave and others like it with them and also to pose with their falcons. Falcons are a traditional source of pride for all Saudi but especially for the Bedouin who catch them in the wild and train them to hunt.

 

Beduin father with his Falcon

Beduin son with his falcom

beduin son with traditional head wrap for protection in desert

Me with a falcon

The Bedouin watched us in shock as we descended into the pit. They told us that the pit is full of ghosts or genies and that at night they can hear the voices of these ghosts trying to lure them. They warned us that entering might be dangerous and they had never heard of anyone going inside before. Once inside we crawled around several small tunnels but didn’t find anything particularly interesting. These types of caves are known to harbor snakes and we were always on the lookout but didn’t see any.

 

Jimmie setting up his rope to rapell into the pit

Me rapelling into the pit

Beduin looking down at us with curiosity 

Beduin fascinated with us

After exploring the cave, we had to find a campsite in the desert. We needed to find a campsite in the desert, and we drove deeper into the sand dunes and just pulled over in a wild area of dunes and set up our tents. It was freezing at night, and we set up a large bonfire with desert brush as fuel and barbecued and drank non-alcoholic Saudi beer. The next morning, I awoke at sunrise and wen to explore the desert and its beauty.

Small desert village we drove passed with a lonely mosque in the middle of nowhere on the way to finding a campsite

Camping in desert

Morning walk

Desert eagles hunting

Desert plants

Desert plants

From our campsite we drove across the roadless desert to more caves following GPS coordinates and sometimes we would just stop whenever we saw a cave and explore it. Other times we would see a pit and look inside and smell the stench of death. Caves are used by Beduin to dump dead camels and goats and some of the were full of decaying animals with an absolutely putrid smell.

We discovered that one of the largest caves, called the ‘Father of Fears” because of its 300’ drop that can only be entered via abseiling was full of water from the rains and we couldn’t enter it. This was disappointing to me, but we continued on searching for as many caves as we could find.

Me rapelling into a cave

Desert caves

Me crawling through a small passageway in a desert cave

Crawling through a small passageway in a desert cave

The largest and most beautiful cave we explored was the Dhal Shawyah Cave which descended into the cool depths of the desert hundreds of feet. Inside we found small rooms of spectacular shimmering crystals, and other large rooms that were large with giant domed ceilings. This was my favorite cave and likely someday it will be made into a show cave since it can be walked into, but the terrain was treacherous and steep and at times, we had to tie a rope to hold on to avoid slipping in the steep unstable rock and sand.

We found old bones hundreds of feet inside the caves and some that appeared to have been human. The bones could have been brought in by predatory animals like hyena, fox, wolves or other scavengers. It was also possible the animals and humans themselves could have entered the cave to seek shelter and became stuck or lost condemning them to perish. The caves are steeped by local in superstition and few enter the caves out of fear of ghosts and evil spirits. The Saudi government has big plans to develop some of the caves into show caves which I fear will destroy the ecosystem sadly.

 

Us eating lunch in Dhal Shawyah Cave

In a room full of crystals

Me in one of the larger cave rooms with a domed ceiling in Dhal Shawyah Cave

After visiting the caves, we drove back towards Riyadh and stayed one night in a tent camp that was owned by one of the friends of the Saudi’s traveling with us. The next day after more exploration of Riyadh and a nice traditional dinner, Jimmie and I flew back home via British Airways.

 

14 + 15 =

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