Saudi Arabia

In the morning I packed up and resumed cycling. After a few hours, I reached the Saudi border. There wasn’t much traffic, but it was a remarkably big complex – and this was just the Jordanian side.

I had a fair few people asking to see exit papers for my bike, but was able to convince them all that wasn’t required. I paid the exit tax, got stamped out, and left the Jordanian area. It was another couple kilometres over to the Saudi side.

It was pretty straightforward here as well. I showed them my eVisa on my phone, and before too long I had an entry stamp in my passport. Customs took a little longer. They first wanted to scan my bike but it wouldn’t fit in the machine. The agent was satisfied by a look in the framebag and a feel of the other ones. I had to wait for some sort of paperwork as my data was entered to a database, but then I was free to go, stopping at a bank on the way out to exchange my remaining Jordanian currency.

When I rode away from the border, I was followed by a police car. I’d heard this sometimes happened in Saudi Arabia. He kept a fair distance from me, and didn’t seem to mind when I stopped for a break. The only time he came up close was when passing drivers slowed to talk to me or pass me water.

If you say so…

He asked where I planned to sleep for the night. He said I couldn’t camp there in the desert but that in about 30 kilometres there was a petrol station I could stay at. We got there, and he drove off.

There was no one at the petrol station and I sat down and rested for a while. Eventually someone arrived and they told me I couldn’t stay there. It was still light so I got back on the bike and resumed cycling.

The area I was in now had some agriculture – which meant fences by the road. I cycled along looking for somewhere to camp, and passed a police checkpoint, acquiring another follow vehicle. I asked that officer if he knew somewhere I could sleep, and he said I could camp anywhere I wanted along the road. I made my way as far as I could from the road and set up camp next to the fence. It wasn’t completely out of sight, but no one was likely to see me in the dark.

I had just 50km to reach Tabuk, a city where I planned to take a rest day. However a strong headwind picked up in the morning, so this turned into quite a slow ride through the desert.

I finally reached the city and rode to a hotel marked on iOverlander. The streets were wide with minimal traffic, making for easy cycling. I stopped at an ATM and a supermarket, where I was surprised to see a woman with her hair uncovered (not a common sight in Saudi Arabia).

Passing a university campus on the way into Tabuk

I checked into the hotel. I was feeling unwell – just a bad cold – so I ended up staying there for several days as I recovered.

Once I was feeling better I set off cycling. After a while a strong tailwind picked up and pushed me uphill at a very pleasant speed. After reaching the summit of the climb and beginning to descend I was soon running out of gears despite the very gradual slope.

Leaving Tabuk

This part of Saudi Arabia is pretty empty; there were often a few hundred kilometres between towns. I stopped at petrol stations to resupply. The supermarkets attached to random Saudi petrol stations were of a scale that, in Africa, would only be seen in capital cities. It was nice to be able to buy pretty much what I wanted, at reasonable prices.

For a couple of days I was stopped remarkably often as people wanted to give me things – water, soft drinks or snacks. I wondered if this level of hospitality could be because I was on a pilgrimage route: signs counted down the kilometres to Medina and Mecca. When I turned off that route, the number of people stopping dropped from about once an hour to once a day.

After a few days I approached the city of Ha’il. I stopped and camped a couple hours’ ride outside the city, then rode in the next morning and checked into a hotel for a rest day. While I was there I found a tailor to replace the zips on my tent, which had been in a poor state for a while and by that point did not work at all.

The sky was cloudy when I left the hotel and started cycling out of Ha’il. It was windy, too; a cold combination.

The headwind made for slow going. I climbed briefly through the range of hills outside the city before returning to the flat, open desert.

I was surprised to suddenly see a McDonald’s at a random petrol station in the late afternoon. I stopped for food. When I set off again, the clouds had mostly cleared and the windspeed had reduced.

The road was fenced which reduced my camping options. I decided to sleep under the road instead. The storm drain was just a little too low to fit my tent so I set it up just at the edge.

I was woken a couple hours later by a few drops of rain. I considered putting on the outer tent, but with nowhere to place pegs it would have been a problem if the wind started up. Instead I disassembled the tent and moved inside the storm drain, using the tent like a second sleeping bag.

I cycled south for a few days, gradually approaching Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

Crossing a regional boundary, this sign proclaimed the region’s various records. But surely everyone already knows about the largest sauxal botanical garden.

As I approached Riyadh the motorway got busier and busier. The onramps and offramps became full of cars that made it all but impossible to stick to the edge of the road, and cycling in the middle of 6 lanes of traffic is not a fun experience. So I left the motorway.

Initially I managed to cycle along some quiet roads through a peaceful neighbourhood. It was quite fun, and I thought to myself that I was enjoying Riyadh.

But after a couple of kilometres I got to the edge of the neighbourhood and now I was stuck. Riyadh’s roads follow a strict grid system (oriented towards Mecca, rather than Cardinal directions). There were major roads roughly every couple kilometres and absolutely no way of crossing them. That left the only real option being to cycle through Riyadh on one of these highways.

It was the intersections with the perpendicular roads that were the problem, as I had to contend with the 3 rightmost lanes of the road suddenly becoming an on/off ramp, and having to dodge vehicles moving left or right.

There was a junction like this every couple kilometers

Eventually I made my way into Riyadh’s “old city.” Not long ago this was the entirety of Riyadh: in the 1920s the city had a population of 20,000 compared to 8 million now. In the old city was a somewhat unimpressive fort with a not particularly great museum inside. It was at least free. Nearby was Deira square, where the Saudi government performs their public beheadings.

Not the sort of place you’d guess is used for beheadings!
The headquarters of the morality police, whose powers have supposedly been weakened significantly

I continued on and eventually was out of the city. I entered a brief section of desert. This was my only option to camp but there were still houses around. Therefore I took the option of sleeping under the road in a storm drain.

In the morning I cycled a couple hours before reaching the town of Al Kharjl. There I checked into a hotel and spent a rest day.

The next day, I spent the morning making the most of having paid for a hotel room. It was about midday when I set off cycling. For a while I passed farms. The farms themselves were mostly set well back from the road, but nearer the road there were factories and processing plants.

Later on I reached a desert. In the evening I wandered off and set up camp in the sand.

I passed through just one town the next day: Harad. Then it was back to the desert as signs counted down the kilometres to the UAE. Traffic was now much reduced.

That evening was unusually warm – 29°C, even after sunset. I waited outside the tent for it to cool down. I considered removing the tent’s outer layer but I could see lightning flashing and did not want to be caught out if the rain reached me. The storm stayed far enough away that I only heard thunder a couple of times, though I saw lots of lightning.

Feb 27: 126 km

Feb 28: 48 km

Mar 6: 158

Mar 7: 119

Mar 8: 113

Mar 9: 134

Mar 10: 126

Mar 11: 31

Mar 12: 122

Mar 13: 184

Mar 14: 144

Mar 15: 107

Mar 16: 140

Mar 17: 31

Mar 18: 105

Mar 19: 200

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