This week’s dream: Saudi Arabia, a kingdom of contrasts
Saudi Arabia is “one of the very least traveled countries in the world,” and for good reason, said John Sherman in The Boston Globe. The kingdom still doesn’t give out foreign tourist visas to anyone but Muslims traveling to Mecca and Medina for the Hajj. But that may change in the near future. The government recently announced that it will lift the ban sometime this year as part of a plan to diversify the country’s oildependent economy. In advance of this grand opening, I was allowed to visit the kingdom for 10 days in January and venture where other foreign travelers can’t. I knew it wouldn’t be a pleasure trip. Under the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam, women must wear head-to-toe black gowns, alcohol is prohibited, and public beheadings of criminals are routine.
My journey began in Riyadh, where much of the old city has been demolished to make way for opulent malls and skyscrapers. But modernity brings its own delights. Trek to the skyway bridge of the 99-story Kingdom Center just before sunset and you can watch lights come on in the city and bathe it in “all manner of neon hues.” Riyadh’s past survives at the 19th-century Masmak fortress, an imposing clay and mud-brick structure with four conical towers and massive doors 14 feet high. A stone’s throw away sits the Souk al-Zal, an old artisan market. “Its narrow passages are crammed with carpets, painted doors, coffee pots, swords, vintage rifles, and, of course, gold.”
After sampling the kingdom’s cities, I headed into the desert to spend two nights at an eco-encampment. My nomad’s tent had sides protected by goat hair, and its floor was covered with bright Persian carpets. It also came with a modern bath. Here, far from city lights, the night sky is “one of the world’s great marvels.” The planets were intensely bright, and the Big Dipper “seemed studded in neon.” Another natural wonder is the desert’s array of massive rock formations. “Together they eclipsed all of Arizona— and throw in Utah.” At Madain Saleh, I explored 1st-century tombs carved into the towering outcrops by the Nabataeans. Unlike other ancient sites in the Middle East, Madain Saleh has few tourists. There were no camel rides, no postcards, or baseball hats, either. “Just sand, cliffs, silence— and the spectacular tombs.”