Hotels and Hostels, Spring of 2015

So, I meant to do this before I went on my second spring break, also known as the “Royal Decree Holiday”, but I’m clearly not motivated to write every day, which is probably why I’m still not getting paid for my words. Alas. So without further ado, let me tell you all about the places that I stayed during the two (separate) weeks of holiday in the Middle East this spring. Although this is mainly a “review” post to help other people decide where to stay, I still hope some of you will enjoy the stories.


Al Ula ARAC Resort, Saudi Arabia

This was my hotel in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia when I decided to go see Madain Saleh. Al Ula is a very small town and has only 2 hotels. (Booking.com swears now there is a “tent camp” option, ooo.) I scoured the internet for reviews, but neither one was well spoken of. It seems that since they basically know that they have a monopoly on a world heritage site that they don’t actually have to provide service and can charge whatever they like.

I will admit, the resort was very pretty. The grounds had well cared for trees and lawns (actual grass!) and even some flowers trying to bloom. The view was stunning, but I get the impression that would be true nearly anywhere in Al Ula since it is surrounded by great sweeping cliff-like mountains. And the room was clean, which has not always been my experience in travelling. However, my positive things to say basically end there.

When I arrived with my guide who had picked me up from the airport, the receptionist was unable to find my reservation, even though I had printed out a copy of the website’s receipt and confirmation number. After keeping me standing around in the lobby for a while (this is after my all day travel and 7 hour layover stuck inside the Madinah airport), my guide told them to just find a room for me and sort it out later. So they did. However, the room had not been prepared? I guess, since the hot water tank was switched off when I arrived so I had no hot water to bathe with, and would have to wait several hours for the tank to heat up.

I also avoided the restaurant entirely because of the price gouging. My guide took me by a local restaurant where I got a very tasty dinner for much cheaper. The prices are rather insane and the quality of the food, from what I gather from others, is nothing to write home about.

Having to bathe cold, I was somewhat grateful for the blankets, but had to put both bed’s blankets on me to get warm, since the room lacked heat as well. I know it’s Saudi, but February in the desert at night is NOT warm.

At breakfast, I went into the lobby to get some coffee from the little shop there whose sign proclaimed it to open at 8am, however it was completely dark and the receptionist told me they didn’t open until 2pm… which would have been less of an issue if they had bothered to update the rather large sign in front of the counter. So I slunk into the restaurant which only served buffet style breakfast (90 SAR) and had no a la carte options. There I purloined a cup of the “American” coffee, but since there was no staff anywhere to ask the price, I gave up and went back out to the courtyard to enjoy my leftovers and coffee with the stunning mountain view.

As if all of this weren’t disappointing enough, a couple weeks after my holiday, I got an email from booking.com telling me that since I hadn’t stayed in the room or cancelled that I would be charged anyway. Whut? The fine folks at Al Ula ARAC who couldn’t find my booking registration at check in apparently found it later and filed a claim for payment, despite having been paid when I checked out. And this is why, even though I pay a foreign transaction fee, I like to use my MasterCard to pay for big items like hotel rooms. Papertrail.

After a couple more weeks of sending the original receipt, a print screen of my bank statement and a photo of the room I stayed in, booking.com finally agreed that yes, I really had stayed there and they would inform the hotel.

And the rub? I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend the other hotel any better, because it has even lower ratings and more complaints. So, if you’re going to Madain Saleh (which you should if you get the chance cause it’s quite cool), just resign yourself to a cold shower and an overpriced dining experience with unhelpful staff, then get out and enjoy the city where there are cool people, nice restaurants and excellent things to see.

The Jordan Tower Hotel, Amman

My next stop was in Amman, Jordan. I really wasn’t planning on staying there long, just one night before heading out to Petra, so my criteria in booking were primarily about cost. I booked a bed in the all female dorm at the Jordan Tower because it was going to cost all of 7$ (5JD) and included breakfast. I wasn’t expecting too much, but boy was I surprised.

A staff member contacted me shortly after I made my reservation and introduced himself and what services the hotel offered, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We exchanged a few emails about my plans in Jordan and he gave me tons of information about transportation options and ideas for what else to do. I ended up using their driver service to pick me up from the airport, which was nice since it was about 3am when I came in and was saved all the trouble of looking for or haggling with a taxi.

The manager decided not to bother with the official check in that night and simply showed me to the room so I could go to sleep. My one and only complaint of this whole place is that the dorm was listed as 4 bed and turned out to be 4 bunk beds, so 8 people. I think in the end that didn’t matter too much because all the ladies were super polite and I didn’t even hear them when they got up a few hours after I came in to go on their own adventures, but it still would have been nice to know.

Picture 101Breakfast was really nice, bread and cake with lebnah and jam, also fresh egg and veggies and bottomless hot coffee or tea. I sat by the window enjoying the downdown view as I soaked upt the good food and coffee. During breakfast the staff helped me feel out my options for getting to Petra, looking up prices for rental cars and private drivers as well as bus station information. They really were awesome. When I checked out that morning, heading off to see the Roman Theater and then on to Petra, I didn’t really expect to see them again.

The next day, when I returned to Amman from my overnight in Petra, I had several hours to kill between when the bus arrived and when I needed to be at the airport. I had sort of considered heading back to the hotel simply because it was familiar and I knew they would help me find a place to eat and possibly something to do. I headed off the bus considering how best to flag down a taxi, but to my surprise there was a driver there with my name on a sign!

The Jordan Tower had sent their driver to pick me up at the bus stop based on our emails of my plans, even though I had not made any specific arrangements. I suppose if I hadn’t wanted a lift, I could have just said no thank you, but it was dark and cold by then, and I loved the idea of a car waiting to take me somewhere warm. The driver had thought he was taking me to the airport, but I explained that I still had a long time yet and would he mind taking me back to the hotel instead?

There I got a huge bowl of steaming soup, some kind of flavorful broth with what seemed like giant couscous and a heaping plate of bread. I also met a fellow traveler, who you can read a little more about in Spring Break Vol. 6. We hung out in the lobby chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go and were also able to split the cost of the car back to the airport.

I cannot recommend this place enough. It’s small, and up a flight of stairs behind some kind of junk shop, but it’s amazing. Best service, really above and beyond, plus clean rooms, good food and nice fellow guests. If you are ever in Amman, go check them out.

The Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa (Petra)

Picture 150This place also turned out to be pretty amazing. I decided I needed 2 days in Petra, so I booked an overnight room in the nearby town of Wadi Musa (nearby meaning a few minutes drive from the park entrance, if you felt like adding another 20 minutes of walking to your hours of park exploring, you could even walk there). My bus dropped me off right at the door, and they got me checked in pretty fast, since I wanted to get up to the park quickly. I had planned to get to Petra earlier, but as events transpired it was already after 3pm. When I couldn’t find a taxi to take me down to the park entrance, Jane (the owner) said she had to run down to the market anyway, and gave me a ride the short way.

When I got back to the hotel after dark, I waited briefly with some other guests in the lobby for our ride over to her husband’s property, an outdoorsy tent hotel (heated tents, and a generator for wi-fi) up in the mountains, where we had a Bedouin dinner. The dinner was pretty standard for me, but would probably be a cool experience for someone who doesn’t live in a half Bedouin town already. And the setting was astonishly beautiful. Far from town we had a great view of the stars, and they had set up paper lanterns on one of the nearby rock faces.

Sadly, my one complaint about the Rocky Mountain is the timing of their hot water. I understand the need to conserve both water and electricity where they are, so hot water is only on for a few hours each morning and evening. In theory, I have no issue with this, but since her husband’s hotel’s dinner didn’t get us back to our hotel until after hot water time, it seemed like poor planning. I know a lot of people prefer to shower in the morning, but I like a hot shower before bed, especially when I’ve been travelling all day and want to wash the road dust off before climbing in clean sheets. This was the 3rd hotel in a row with no pre-bed hot shower for me, so it was a little disappointing.

Picture 152Everything else was great. Although the heater in the room was off until I got back (did I mention Petra is cold at night in February?), it worked really quickly and I was soon warm and slept comfortably. Breakfast was again included on the rooftop restaurant where we had a stunning view of the valley with our traditional Jordanian breakfast (eggs, fresh veggies, bread, lebnah and jam).

The hotel also provides a shuttle service to the Petra gate 2 times each morning and each evening, so I got another ride back to the park. I was also able to request a packed lunch for my day, since there’s only a few places to eat inside Petra and all are expensive. I got a simple sandwich with some snack cakes, a candy bar, a juice box and come “all natural” corn puffs. It sounds like a lot of junk food, but when you’re hiking all day, high sugar and carbs is actually pretty welcome. There was enough food for my lunch in the park, a snack on the way out of the park, and a dinner on the bus back to Amman for 8JD.

Jane was also really helpful with information about the area. I asked her several questions about the locals I had met on my first day including safety, general expectations and trustworthiness as tour guides as well as what I should expect to pay for certain tour services. She also helped me figure out the bus schedules to make sure I wouldn’t miss the only bus out of town that afternoon, and kept my bag for me after I’d checked out until I was ready to leave town.

Maybe there’s a better place in Wadi Musa (there is a Movenpick after all), but I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal for the price than the Rocky Mountain, plus you’ll be supporting small business so it’s really win-win.

Tamani Marina Hotel, Dubai

IMG_1476This was the last stop on my February trip. I had planned to spend 3 days in Dubai, and after being highly disappointed in the quality and price of hostels there, I went into fantasy mode and just started randomly checking the prices of hotels near the beach. Most of them were way outside of my price range, but then suddenly my cursor hovered over one that popped up a really reasonable rate! I checked about 4 more times incase there was a catch, but since booking.com has free cancellation, I decided to go ahead and book it, then do more research. If it turned out to have a horrible reputation later, I could always cancel and find something else. However as I continued to research the hotel, it looked like it was a pretty nice place, and moreover that I had something close to a 60% discount on their normal rate.

And thank goodness I did. Because if I had paid full price for that, I would have almost certainly been outraged. As it was, I was just a little miffed.

When I first arrived I had quite a wait while another guest harangued the girl behind the counter about having to show his passport again. I kind of thought he was being a douche and felt bad for her, so I tried to just relax in the lobby and wait it out rather than complain and add to her problems. When they finally did get someone to me, I was chastised for “checking in late”. I had arrived at the hotel around 2pm, which is standard check in start time for most hotels in the world. I flew into Dubai around 9am and knew I wanted to do some shopping, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. Apparently because I had told them I might arrive early, that meant I was now late. And they had given my room away.

The clerk said they were all out of singles now, but I could have a larger suite for just the increase in city tax. I guess I could have stuck to my guns, but I really wanted a bath and a bed after so much travelling, and the tax wasn’t all that much so I agreed. The room was insanely huge. I think two families could have stayed there comfortably. Picture 173There were two furnished bedrooms, plus what seemed like another empty room, four bathrooms, a giant living room, dining room and expansive kitchen. There was also a washer/dryer combo unit, so I dumped in my clothes and went off to bathe. The baths win all the stars. I also took a short nap. But even after all of this, my clothes weren’t done. I managed to pull out everything but two lightweight items so they dried faster, but this left me with a pile of wet laundry.

Why not just leave it running while I went out for the evening? Well, it seems even in luxury hotels, you have to put the key card in the wall to turn on the power, so as soon as I took the key to leave, the machine would stop running, leaving my wet laundry to get stinky. So I called down to ask for another key. This shouldn’t be hard, and it really shouldn’t be a negotiation or an argument, but it took a really long time to explain the situation and make it clear that I was not going to be held hostage in my room by their stupid electricity issues, so they needed to bring me a key.

The next day, I tried to ask their tourism desk, the people whose job it is to know what tourists staying at their hotel can do, where the Big Red Bus stop near their hotel was. I should point out that it’s less than a block away, and one of the largest tour bus operators in Dubai. They actually knew the company, but insisted that there was no stop near them, pulling out an outdated map to try and prove it to me. I had to cut and run, since debating the issue with them was just going to make me miss the bus they knew nothing about. Later on, when I brought them an updated map for their records to help future guests, they treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes.

Housekeeping managed to steal or throw away some of the groceries that I’d bought at the Carrefour next door, while at the same time leaving trash and dishes that needed cleaning. One evening I decided to order food in because I was just too tired to go anywhere, but there wasn’t a room service menu in the room. I called down to ask for one and they told me, rather annoyed, that it was in the binder next to the television. Now, the suite is the size of a large house, so not being able to find something right away isn’t all that odd, but there was no menu in the binder. So I called back, and had to argue with them, again. I feel like if I was asking for something odd or unreasonable that the staff might need to disagree, but if you’re asking for something like an extra key, a menu or a towel, there shouldn’t need to be a discussion. The guest says ‘please bring me x’ and the hotel staff say ‘sure no problem’. Even when someone finally showed up with a menu, I had to show them the menuless binder before they would hand it over! At least the food was tasty.

Also, on the day I needed to take a taxi instead of the bus, one of the hotel staff stepped up to me as I headed for the line of taxis and asked if I needed one. I replied that yes I did. This didn’t seem odd at the time since I’ve seen lots of places have deals with drivers or queues and try to make sure that guests get into waiting taxis in order. The guy told me they had metered hotel taxis, stressing the meter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standard meter and ran almost double the city taxi rate. The car may have been nicer, but I felt lied to. They could easily have been upfront about offering “luxury” or “private” cars at a higher rate, that’s what Uber does and it works just fine. And I might even expect local drivers to try to claim they’re homemade meter is just as good as a taxi. But I was pretty upset about having been deceived by the hotel staff where I was a paying guest.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had more sympathy for the guest I’d seen on the first day than the staff. After several days of being treated this way in a supposedly luxury hotel, it was about all I could do not to loose my cool with the staff too. The only thing that really made it bearable was my discount, but this place is no way worth it’s normal price tag. The best thing about it? Walking distance from the Barasti Beach Bar and Carrefour.


Thus concludes the Spring Break portion of my accommodation reviews. During the Royal Decree Holiday I stayed in 2 more places.

Bedouin Garden Hotel, Aqaba

I have a lot of good things to say about this place. However, when I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I came in after dark, having driven from Tabuk after school Thursday and planning to leave for Egypt on the next day. Aqaba was just meant to be a resting spot in my journey from Tabuk to Sharm el Sheikh. When I was shown my “single” it had three beds crammed in, and there was no TV or (far more important) wi-fi, despite the fact that both of these had been advertised on the website. There were also several large flies in my room.

wpid-20150320_162111.jpgReminding myself that it was just one night, I gritted my teeth and decided to bear it. I got some dinner (which was quite generous and delicious), chatted with the Filapina server and went to bed. My ferry to Egypt didn’t leave until around 6:30 the next evening, but the hostel looked much better in the light. wpid-20150320_094947.jpgThere were flowers in bloom and lots of “Bedouin tent” style outdoor seating areas. I figured I could just enjoy the weather and read my book until it was time to go. Breakfast was simple but good and I got to chat with some Pakistani guests who were also out of Saudi for the holiday and heading to Petra.

There was a dive shop there, but since I don’t have my license, I kind of ignored it. I bid good travels to my breakfast companions and took my coffee over to some cushions in the shade to relax and read. The full story of my Friday adventure will be told in another post, but my plans of quiet reading were fully and enjoyably foiled. I had a great day at the Bedouin Gardens, and as it turned out accidentally ran off with their key, so I came back again the following Friday as I was making the reverse journey and spent several more hours there.

So, yeah, the rooms aren’t much. You’re not going to watch movies on satellite TV in your room or surf the web from your laptop, but if you give it a chance, you won’t miss those things at all and you’ll only be in your room to shower or sleep. Wonderful people, amazing place, beautiful beaches. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of the city and see the beach in Aqaba.

Park Inn by Radisson at Sharm el Sheikh

This was another one of the luxury deals that I found online. Not quite as big a discount as Tamani, but Sharm is so insanely cheap because the Egyptian Pound is very weak and business are dropping prices to attract tourists back after two revolutions destabilized the country. I should mention, I felt totally safe the whole time.

wpid-20150321_071427.jpgThe resort is insanely huge. Buildings and buildings full of rooms, two swimming pools, two restaurants, 5 bars, a private beach across the road, a water park on the premises, and a gym + spa. It took me about 45 minutes to walk around the whole thing. Plus there were shops and bars outside too.

My very low price tag included 3 meals a day (but really more, because poolside snacks were served all day) and free local booze, which amounted to pretty low end stuff, but free and unlimited goes a long way to making up for quality. It was a really beautiful place, the staff were if anything too friendly, the food was decent, although not 4 star. In terms of value for money I can’t say enough.

I had a few issues, since nothing is ever perfect. I had some trouble with overly flirty staff pushing me for a phone number or to come out with them after work to some local bars. I think if I had been with a group, that might have been fun, going out with the locals and seeing local bars, but since I was alone it just made me uncomfortable, especially coming from people I would see every day in the dining room or bar. The good news is that the one time I felt something went to far, I commented that I thought it was not appropriate and he stopped instantly, so I think they have just found that more often than not, guests respond well to the attention and so do it to everyone.

I also got food poisoning. Normally this might be enough to turn one off of a restaurant, but I know that it’s a normal hazard of international travel. Honestly, considering everywhere I’ve gone in the last few months, I’m surprised this is the only time it’s happened. I’m less upset about the illness than how the hotel handled it. I know I was already getting a cheap deal, but it would have been appropriate for them to offer some kind of recompense, especially since I had to delay my trip to Cairo at extra expense. Instead they just awkwardly tried to change the subject when I brought it up.

wpid-20150325_095331.jpgHousekeeping was adorable, if overly persistent. If I forgot to put up the do not disturb sign when I went to take a nap, they would just knock and knock and knock. Once they even had reception call me to ask me to let them in. But, to be fair, any time I had that sign up, they were quiet as mice. They also would shape my new towels into various animals on the bed and bring fresh flowers into the room.

I also noticed there was plenty of kid specific entertainment, as well as nightly activities on site like karaoke or dance performances, and daily poolside activities like yoga and water aerobics. I myself was mostly a bum, sitting poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, but there seemed to be a lot to choose from.

wpid-20150321_163956.jpgOverall, I still would recommend this place. It’s a really nice resort with lots to do and it’s easy to see many places around Egypt on day trips from Sharm. It’s less pricey than some of the swankier places, but it’s still more than nice enough to make you feel like you’re on a pampered lux vacation and you can easily spend a week or two there without breaking the bank.


So what have we learned? Well, I can tell you for sure that all my best vacation experiences are shaping up to be at tiny hole in the wall mom and pop stop type places, while the big fancy resorts are somewhere between just ok and a let down. I’m still planning to drag friends and family to some of the resorts because I think they’ll be more fun in groups and easier to do with kids than my solo traveler preferences, but it is sort of a relief to know that I not only don’t have expensive tastes, but might actually enjoy myself more at the cheaper options!

Thanks for reading, I hope it was entertaining or maybe even helpful. Check out all the adventures surrounding these hotels in any of the Spring Break 2015 posts or the soon to be published Royal Decree Holiday posts! 🙂

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page 🙂

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

Picture 060

Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

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We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

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Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.


So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows,  I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 2: A Morning in Madain Saleh

I spent a whole day in transit to get to a city only 3 hours by car away from the one I live in. Why go through so much trouble and pain just to see some old ruins? Because Saudi Arabia is closed to tourists.

Madain Saleh may have been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but very little is yet known about the people or the civilizations that predated the Nabateans (who we know all about by studying Petra in Jordan) because it’s only been in the past few years that archaeologists have been allowed to enter and excavate the site. In fact, the French archaeologist Dr. Laila Nehme was there at the same time I was. I didn’t meet her, but I did have in interesting run in with the French cultural attache who had come up from Riyadh to check on her that day (more on that later).

So, as a pure achievement junkie, I could not imagine coming so close to such an amazing piece of history and missing out! The only other time that I could have gone would have been in the summer heat after the semester ended, so I took two days of my precious vacation, and spent one of them simply travelling so that I could walk these grounds.

As it turned out, my adventure was way more than I’d bargained for, but in a good way. Read about it here and see all the photos on facebook!


Arriving on one of only two inbound flights for the week on Friday evening, my guide picked me up at the airport. You have to have a guide to see Madain Saleh. (disclaimer: Lot’s of Westerners don’t, because all rules in Saudi are malleable, but it’s a safer option than travelling all that way and possibly getting turned aside or lost). Particularly since I cannot drive in Saudi, a good guide was important to me. I searched a long time to find one, since tourism isn’t yet a big deal and locals who want to go to Madain Saleh just drive themselves!

Mr. Fayez

After emailing everyone on the official tourist guide website, and scouring Trip Advisor, I found Mr. Fayez. Who, by the way, is awesome and I’ll be happy to send you his contact info if you need a guide.

Mr. Fayez spoke very proficient English and had not only agreed to be my guide to Madain Saleh, he also arranged all my transport, the necessary permits to visit the sites, and helped me with meals! He even sent me a message shortly before my vacation began to verify our plans, a true rarity in Saudi where everything is “Inshallah”.

Knowing I was a single lady travelling alone, he brought his niece and nephews with him when he picked me up at the airport (at night). This may sound odd, but its actually very courteous. It is a protection both of his reputation and of mine to ensure not only that nothing untoward happens, but that no one will talk bad or spread rumors. We drove around a bit and I got a sneak preview of the amazing rock formations that surround the town of Al Ula. He told me that the hotel had a restaurant but that it was very expensive and offered to take me to another restaurant that was much more reasonable.

Of course, he’s friends with the restaurant owner, this kind of thing is standard in lots of places with local guides, but it really was a better price and very good food with such generous portions that I ate the remainder for breakfast the next day. Sadly, the restaurant owner says he’s tired of running it because kids come by and tag the walls with paint all the time, so he’s selling the space to a traditional kabsa restaurant.

During our time talking, I also discovered that Mr. Fayez is 37 and planning to get married in just a few weeks. His bride is only 20, but this age gap is fairly common, since men have to finish their education, get a job and save up money before they can get married, while women only have to be legally old enough. He told us that his young bride really didn’t know anything about running a home, she didn’t even know how to make tea yet! To me, this is just another example of how the oil wealth has really changed the younger generations in Saudi, making them dependent on servants to do anything that resembles “manual labor” including simple household tasks like cooking or sewing a button.

IMG_1059Mr. Fayez is one of many tour guides in Al Ula, but he is the only one who makes guiding tourists his full time job. All the other guides have “day jobs” (which doesn’t amount to much real work for Saudis) and take tourists around on the weekends. He said that the reason he charges less than the others (and he does) is so that he can attract more customers, but that the other guides give him a hard time because he is making their prices seem too high (which they are). It made me happy to be supporting a Saudi who wanted to make a success of his own business and work hard to achieve his goals. I feel like that’s a rare quality in the Kingdom nowadays, so I may be shamelessly plugging for him as a great choice if you visit Madain Saleh.

While we waited for Isha prayers to end so we could pick up the food, Mr. Fayez took me by one of the towns public parks. It was a beautifully grassy area just alongside one of the prodigious rock formations with a nice walking path, and a playground for children. On a Friday evening, many families were out enjoying the mild weather, and it was really neat to be able to see the community. In many ways it reminded me of the Corniche in Jeddah. When I told Mr. Fayez this he laughed and said except there is no sea.

Al Ula is a very small town. I’m not actually sure why it has an airport except for the UNESCO fame. Some blogs I read said that there were smaller hotels or hostels around, but they were single men and had more options. As a woman (single or not) the only real option was one of the towns two hotels. Yes, two. I chose the Al Ula Arac Resort because it was only slightly more expensive and a lot nicer looking. And as with so many things in Saudi, looks are all. I’ll be doing a separate post on all the accommodations of my trip, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

We were scheduled to set out at 9am, joined by a man from the UK who had also booked Mr. Fayez for a tour. My day trip companion was Indradeb (you may notice the name is a teeny bit Hindu), and he arrived decked out with a large professional looking camera and a loaded backpack.

On the drive out, Mr. Fayez explained to me that we would start the day with Madain Saleh, since it closed fairly early, the we would see the Ottoman Train Station, Elephant Rock, the Dadan ruins, Old Town and finish with a sunset view from an overlook rock. Quite a full itinerary, but traffic was minimal and Mr. Fayez had made all the arrangements so everything went smoothly.

He also told us the origin of the name “Madain Saleh” which means Saleh’s Town. Although I have found that this story is fairly well known by Muslims, I cannot speak to the Quranic veracity of this version of the story, I can only relate it as it was told to me.

The Story of Saleh and the Camel

It comes from an Islamic belief that the Prophet Saleh (PBUH) entreated the people to follow a single god, Allah. The people ridiculed him and treated him very poorly, demanding proof of Allah’s power. Finally, Saleh prayed to Allah to send a miracle to convince the people. Allah turned a giant stone into a pregnant camel (also giant) who then gave birth to her calf.

Allah instructed Saleh that the people should alternate days in using water for themselves and for this camel. Drinking one day, and watering the camel the next, but that they could then drink the milk of the camel.

The giant camel came and went from the town as she pleased, seen by the people only when she came to get water and give milk. They were instructed not to follow her when she left.

But people being human, some of them were still not satisfied with the miracle, and desired to kill the camel. So they followed it into the mountains one day, and killed it while the calf escaped. Allah was so displeased with them that he sent a plague. On the first day their faces all turned yellow, on the second day red, and on the third day they turned black and died.

Only the people who believed Saleh (PBUH) and left the town with him were spared.

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells his followers this story when they camp at a site somewhere one the road between Tabuk and Madina, and makes them leave the place because it is cursed. Many Muslims today believe that Madain Saleh is that place, although there is still room for question as we await further archaeological discoveries.

As a consequence, some Muslims avoid the historical site, believing it to be the cursed place told of by the Prophet.

Madain Saleh

This is known to be the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization which Petra is the main capitol of. Everyone knows Petra from Indiana Jones, and I was planning to visit it next, but was excited to see the contrast between the two.

The actual town of Madain Saleh is still underground, yet to be excavated fully, and is not open to the public, so we contented ourselves with the necropolis and temple.

The rocks around Al Ula are tall jutting mountain sized boulders, leftover from when the whole area was under water. In fact, I could see clear signs of water erosion on the rocks that the tombs were carved into. It made the tombs stand out even more, since they were smooth and flat in contrast to the pocked, uneven stone they had been carved from.

The tombs range in age and size. The size depended mainly on the wealth of those to be buried within. Mr. Fayez told us that the builders would start at the top and carve the facade, then excavate the inside of the tombs. We saw several that had been only partly finished and this method was obvious.

Also, unlike many historical sites, there was nothing preventing us from walking right inside the tombs where we could see the tool marks left by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. There were niches in the walls that had been carved out for single bodies, and deeper pits that had been designed to hold several bodies together.

The front of the tombs were decorated almost without variation by two pillars, a peaked triangular shape connecting them, and five stepped ziggurat shapes carved above that. Some had urns above the pillars, there were also many eagles as central adornments. A five petal flower was also quite popular. Mr. Fayez explained that five was a sacred number, and that the steps on the ziggurats represented the steps ascending to the gods or descending to the netherworld.

We also saw one tomb that had two small sphinxes guarding it above its pillars, indicating some influence of the Egyptian culture.

The grounds that cover Madain Saleh are quite large, and while we walked around many areas, we also drove between several. The temple area was quite astounding. A narrow passage between two high rocks led past a deeply carved gathering place for worship. Mr. Fayez showed us how the people had used the rocks to funnel the rain water into cisterns to be used in holy rituals.

We passed through the high rocks (a walk that echoed the long passage at Petra leading to the Treasury) looking at the small niches and carvings along the way, small spaces to place statues or offerings. We also climbed one of the tall rocks within, affording us a spectacular view of the whole area.

I’d cast off my hijab in the morning, deciding that I didn’t really need it if we were isolated from the crowds, but I was still wearing my abaya this whole time. Climbing around on the rocks in a flowing black dress is not easy. We ran into some tourists (who turned out to be from the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh) on their way back down from the view point, and I noticed the younger woman had doffed her abaya too. We had all done as much on our trip to the Edge of the World, and it was getting quite warm with the shinning sun and climbing, so I took the opportunity to shed mine and tie it around my waist, promising Mr. Fayez that I would put it back on if we ran in to anyone Saudi.

After admiring the view and posing for a few more pictures we moved on to some of the more “quintessential” spots in Madain Saleh, the ones you’ll see if you search Google Images. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the tombs I saw, I didn’t get tired of them. They shared general characteristics but were all unique. Here there were two serpents, or two lions, once a scowling face. Some had become two-storied in an effort to use more of the rock’s interior space. Some of the tomb faces in this area were pockmarked with bullet holes, reminders of Saudi’s bloody unification.

In a daze I drifted in and out of the ancient monuments, feeling an intimacy with the past that we so rarely experience in the modern era. Finally we arrived at the crown jewel, the Unique Palace. It stands alone in a single huge rock, taking up nearly the entirety of one face. It is the only tomb in Madain Saleh to have four pillars, and despite its opulence, it was never completed. Only the facade was carved, and no one was ever buried inside.

The ground around it was a striking shade of yellow, in stark contrast to the rich red sand all around. There were steps leading up to the door that Mr. Fayez said had just been added yesterday. Further evidence that the site is changing as Saudi attempts to build interest in tourism.

We also visited a couple of excavated wells. Apparently the land around Madain Saleh still has a lot of natural water. And the red sand is rich for agriculture. In fact, we saw a few wood and mud remenants of houses that had been modern Saudis living in the area until only a decade or two ago. The government had paid them to move, and torn out all the farmland to return the Heritage Site to it’s natural state.

The Ottoman Train Station

On our way out of Madain Saleh, we stopped at the train station, now defunct, where there was a restroom and small mosque. Duhr prayer call had passed while we were taking in the tombs and Mr. Fayez needed to pray. I was amazed that even out among the ruins we could still hear the Athan although only faintly.

Sand is pervasive. The sand out here isn’t like beach sand. It can range from the larger gritty crystals down to a fine talc-like powder. My shoes and socks were full of sand from my hours in the ruins, so I took some time in the bathroom to try to shake them out. On the way out, I got caught up talking to a man from Africa, because I can’t go anywhere in Saudi without men trying to talk to me and get my number, but Mr. Fayez returned from prayer and rescued me from further awkwardness.

The train station looks exceptionally British. Indradep remarked on the similarities to train stations in London. I suppose by the 1900’s the remains of the Ottoman Empire had been highly affected by British colonialism. We stood around with some other tourists, taking pictures and being generally amused at the contrast between the ancient sites behind us and this nearly modern train.

It reminded me of the old West tourist sites in California, carefully preserved or even replicated relics of that were less than a century old. The date on the trains wheels was 1914.

Elephant Rock

Ok, it really looks like an elephant. That’s kind of all, but it was a short side trip, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the amazing rock formations around Al Ula. It’s especially stunning to see sand dunes drifting right up to the bottom of these rocks. The whole landscape looks like it’s barely changed since it was under water 50 million years ago.

I think at this point we finally stopped for lunch. Mr. Fayez had brought along juice and some snacks, which was very thoughtful, but it was a lot of trekking, even with the car. We went back to his friend’s restaurant and had a quick sit down lunch of kebab, grilled meat, green salad, humus and pita, then back in the car again to try to stay on schedule!

To be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3.

Don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook!