Rijal Almaa: 3 visits in 8 days!

Saudi Arabia has huge plans for tourism.  According to an article in the January 2020 issue of DirectionsKSA (published in Riyadh), Saudi Arabia plans to be “among the top five tourist destinations in the world by 2030”.  They predict “the number of domestic and international tourists will reach about 100 million by 2030”.  I’m guessing that includes Umrah and Haj visitors as well, but still it seems wildly optimistic.

If you read anything about where to visit in the Kingdom, well, the area around Al Ula, including the Nabatean site of Madain Saleh, is often the first place mentioned.  Oddly for their first winter with the country open to tourism, the sites there were mostly closed this year for a big tourism development project.  That’s why I didn’t go.

The second place on these lists is mountainous Aseer Province in SW Saudi Arabia, bordering Yemen.  I have some photos of the steep mountains and the schist architecture in my last post.  The crown jewel of Aseer is perhaps Rijal Almaa.

IMG_20200205_171400_3 by bryandkeith on flickr

During my rest day with Hassan at his house in Sumeri, Hassan’s brother-in-law, Hasan Ali, wanted to take me by car to Rijal Almaa.  No, thank you, I said, I’ll be arriving by bicycle in a couple days.  He insisted.  It is, I suppose, the only reason anyone comes to this area.  It’s not hard to see why.
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Bicycle touring Saudi Arabia: Aseer’s schist villages?

The scenery between Jeddah and Qunfudhah was pretty uninspiring, and overall I was disappointed with the snorkeling as well.  I had a nice rest in Qunfudhah with Sultan and his friends, but I wasn’t super optimistic when I left.  Who knew that I was heading into the best riding of the trip?

Maybe I should have known because I was crossing into Aseer where the famous (?) “Flower Men of Saudi Arabia” live.

One of the flower men of Aseer? by bryandkeith on flickr

First I had to ride inland a bit on the main highway to get around yet another desalinization plant.  Then I found some fun roads to take me back to the coast for the last time.
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Bicycle touring Saudi Arabia: the Red Sea snorkeling report

This snorkeling report only covers the places I snorkeled while cycling between Jeddah and Qunfudhah.  In brief, it was disappointing, not worth the effort.  Maybe the snorkeling is better north of Jeddah.  Maybe I didn’t find the right places — it’s very hard to find any information.  Maybe you really need to get out in a boat — although I did try this once and also failed to find good snorkeling.

One difficulty you’ll have both with snorkeling and bicycle touring is dealing with the “border patrol”.  They’re very active along the Red Sea and prohibit swimming in most places.  They also prohibit using the coastal track in many places.  However, they’re super friendly and polite, always giving me water, sometimes food, and once putting me up for the night in an air conditioned room.  They usually wanted my passport and entry stamp, sometimes my visa, usually made some calls, apologized for taking my time, and welcomed me to Saudi Arabia.  When I requested (which was every time I really wanted), I usually (always?) got permission to cycle their coastal track and sometimes permission to snorkel.  I don’t have any photos because, well, they don’t want people taking photos.  However, here’s a photo of the dinner they gave me when I spent the night at one of their merkez:

IMG_20200127_201524 by bryandkeith on flickr

I wrote about snorkeling at Al Qattan in my last post (more photos here).  I’ll mention it again because it really was good.  If you like snorkeling, it’s worth a detour (in a car) from as far as Jeddah.  I’ll say it again, the hard coral was stunning:

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Bicycle touring Saudi Arabia: Jeddah, Al Qattan, Mujairmah

On the day that Ferda and I rolled into Seoul, Saudi Arabia, without much fanfare, swung their doors open wide to tourism.  It’ll be a flood, I’m sure.  Doesn’t everyone want to go to Saudi Arabia??!!  Googling for information in English about bicycle touring in the kingdom, I was only able to find accounts from Gürkan Genç and Pablo Garcia.  I thought I’d give it a try.

I left Antalya in the afternoon, had a layover in İstanbul, and took the red eye to Jeddah.  I slept at the most a couple hours on the flight (it was only 3.5 hours).  I built my bicycle at the airport, got money from the ATM, and bought a SIM card.  One thing I’ve learned from the first week of cycling here is that distances are huge.  I left the airport around 3:30am, and it would have been getting light by the time I set up my tent so I decided just to pedal all the way in to the center of the city, about 37km from the airport.

Building my bike at the Jeddah airport by bryandkeith on flickr

I spent the first couple days exploring Jeddah’s historical center, Al Balad, one of Saudi Arabia’s few UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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The ancient city of Neapolis

While Tommy was visiting from Boulder, Seb took Tommy, Ömer, and me up to Neapolis, an archaeological site that I’d heard Seb talking about for years.  The site isn’t so far from Seb’s house, northwest and above the village of Doyran.  The site is accessed from the west via the dirt road network to the west of the Doyran Reservoir.

IMG_20191203_131503 by bryandkeith on flickr

According to the research by Nevzat Çevik at Akdeniz Üniversitesi, the site sits “at the crossroad of Pisidia, Lycia, and Pamphylia” and had close ties with nearby Termessos.  For the non-expert the most obvious remains are Lykian tombs, Roman temples, and a Byzantine basilica.

The access trail comes up through the Necropolis.
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