At 2200m Abha might be Saudi Arabia’s most pleasant city. In the winter it’s so cool that I was finally able to use all the warm clothes that I carried from Jeddah:
The high season for tourism is the summer when people flock to Abha to escape the intense heat suffered in most of the Arabian Peninsula. Abha’s average July high temperature of 29°C, compared to 42°C in Riyadh and Mecca, sounds very pleasant indeed.
Similar to my experience in Oman and United Arab Emirates, urban areas in Saudi Arabia are pretty grim for pedestrians and cyclists. I saw more pedestrians in Abha than anywhere else I went, the best of a bad lot, I guess you could say. There was this quite pleasant park, a nice 20 minute walk connecting my hotel’s neighborhood with downtown Abha:
On my list of things to see in Abha were the Ottoman Fort:
and the Ottoman Bridge:
neither very exciting as you can see.
However, right across that bridge is the historic Al Basta District, preserving a small neighborhood of Abha’s traditional architecture. I totally missed this place during my research, but it ended up being my favorite part of Abha. Much of Saudi Arabia’s traditional architecture is adobe which is fine if it doesn’t rain much. As one of the rainiest places in Saudi Arabia, Abha added an interesting twist to adobe construction. They’ve slotted in thin stones to act as awnings, keeping the rain off the adobe. How clever is that?
Nearby was Abha’s Tuesday market, similar (but much smaller) to the outdoor market where I do my weekly shopping in Antalya (also on a Tuesday!).
Adjacent to the market, the Almeftaha art district is well worth visiting.
Talal Maddah, a famous Saudi musician:
In the evening some of the galleries and museums opened up, and I saw, not surprising, more Al Qatt art.
My last bicycling of the trip was a short morning ride from Abha to Khamis Mushayt. I found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and treated myself to an Egyptian lunch:
The food highlight of Khamis Mushayt is certainly the Bin Hamsan Restaurant and cultural center where Abdullah, Budor, Lavi, and Faisal treated me to a traditional Aseer meal which included meshrota, arekah, margoog, and of course the ever present kabsa.
Bye bye, Aseer.
I put my bicycle on the SAPTCO bus for the comfortable 15-hour ride from Khamis Mushayt to Riyadh. Dealing with the bicycle on the bus was super easy — they didn’t charge me extra, let me put my bicycle on first, and I didn’t even have to take the bags off the bike! Doesn’t get much easier than that.
I spent four wonderful days in Riyadh with Anas, a fellow cyclist and warmshowers host. He picked me up from the bus station early on Friday morning, and we drove south to Uraidh where the Riyadh Wheelers were hosting a bicycle race that morning.
Anas’ ride the following day was in Diriyah, an area I was looking forward to visiting. Historic Diriyah was the capital of the first Saudi state, the birthplace of Wahabiism, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is, unfortunately, closed to visitors this year for restoration. Here’s what historic Diriyah looks like from the outside:
Modern Diriyah is an inhabited town on the outskirts of Riyadh. I enjoyed wandering around and taking photos in the morning light while waiting for Anas to finish his ride.
By pure coincidence in Khamis Mushayt I had run into Nasser Alhussein. He had overheard me speaking English at the Bin Hamsan Restaurant. Thankfully he came over to say hello and invited me to one of his excellent free cultural tours of Riyadh, organized through the Scientist’s Gift program. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting Riyadh.
Here’s Nasser in Masmak Fort giving us a quick overview of Saudi history:
The first Saudi state (encompassing an area even larger than present day Saudi Arabia), based in Diriyah as I mentioned above, became large enough and strong enough to get the attention of the Ottomans who sacked Diriyah in 1814. The Saudis regrouped in Riyadh and built up the second Saudi state which collapsed of its own internal strife around 1891. The Al Saud family, including young Abdulaziz, went into exile for 10 years in Kuwait.
Stealthily returning to Riyadh in 1901, Abdulaziz sieged Masmak Fort, shown here:
took control of Riyadh, and spent the next 30 years unifying the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, eventually founding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. That’s my summary. I found Nasser’s explanations quite interesting.
You may have noticed in the above photo inside the fort foreigners wearing the traditional Saudi outfit: thope (the robe, white in this case), schmaag (the head scarf, red in this case), and eegal (the black loop to secure the schmaag on one’s head). Indeed, that was part of the tour.
It seems like it could be kind of, uh, cheesy or tacky, but the vendors in the souq that we visited seemed to genuinely appreciate and enjoy seeing the foreigners in the traditional and still very common Saudi outfits. Here’s one of our guides (and fellow cyclist!), Ali, checking out a gun that was about to be put up for auction at the souq’s weekly auction:
I spent my last day in Riyadh visiting the King Abdulaziz Historical Center. I feel like I had been discouraged a bit from visiting this area, but I certainly enjoyed it — the grounds, the Murabba Palace, the Saudi National Museum. I learned more about King Abdulaziz, the single most important person in the Kingdom’s history. The exhibits about the various civilizations in the Arabian Peninsula from the Neolithic age to the present day are very well done.
There was even a temporary exhibit of handicrafts from the Tohoku region, reminding me of another place I’ve wanted to visit for many years!
I really have to thank Anas and his wonderful family for hosting me and treating me like royalty during my four days in Riyadh. Somehow I don’t have a photo of Anas, but here I am with his son, Abdulaziz, as I was getting dressed to attend the engagement party for Anas’ nephew.
Bye, bye, Saudi Arabia. I won’t forget the sincere hospitality and the kabsa meals I shared with so many generous Saudis.