(continued from a March 29 travel story)
Mada’in Saleh: Desert Tombs
On my fourth day in Saudi Arabia, our group took a military plane to visit Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site of an ancient civilization whose people created dwellings and tombs by carving full-size rooms out of massive rock outcroppings.
Deplaning after the two-hour flight on a cargo plane used by the Saudi Royal Air Force, my eyes adjusted to the intense brightness outside and settled onto my first sight of Arabian desert skyline. The view was a cross between New Mexico and the moon.
As we drove in an air-conditioned tour bus supplied by a local hotel, we passed rock structures that made the inspiration behind the Sphinx seem obvious. I was seeing faces in mountainsides that had been shaped by millennia of wind erosion.
These natural carvings paled in comparison, however, to the man-made modifications made to the landscape that we saw once inside Mada’in Saleh. Our bus made several stops, allowing us to visit these ancient tombs firsthand. Unfortunately, due to our tight schedule, we were allowed to take only ten minutes per stop.
I ended up causing a delay as I took off and decided to climb to the top of one of these huge outcrops. I couldn’t help myself; I’d been moving at a snail’s pace for the past five days and just needed to raise my heart rate. I felt bad for keeping the group waiting, but was enchanted by the endless vista that spread out before us. It was just a hint of the vast, history-rich landscape that defines this country.
The next day the whole group flew on another military aircraft to the Eastern Province, where my family had spent their time in Arabia, and where my father and I would spend the remainder of our trip. Upon landing at the Dammam airport, we were ushered onto yet another tour bus and taken to Dhahran, the headquarters of Saudi Aramco.
The area that makes up Aramco is a heavily guarded camp – a fully functioning entity with schools, hospitals, a firehouse, golf course, tennis courts, a skate park, administrative buildings, chemical research facilities, water treatment stations and everything else needed to operate the world’s largest oil company as well as comfortably sustain its employees. About half of Saudi Aramco’s employees are expatriates, so the camp shows familiar signs of Western culture, including a Little League baseball team.
Driving into camp was like returning to Earth. The camp felt oddly similar to a small Midwestern U.S. town. People were dressed casually in Western clothes; women drove freely and everyone in camp knew everyone else.
Immediately after entering camp, we exited the bus, went into an administrative building and met several Aramco officials. After introducing ourselves and explaining our connection with Aramco, we were given a presentation about the new King Abdulaziz Cultural Center.
It was made clear on this occasion, as well as several others, that Saudi Arabia is seeking to shed the image of an oil-loving Muslim extremist state and adopt an identity of a world leader in culture preservation and celebration.
After lunch, the majority of the group took the bus back to the Dammam airport and then flew back to Riyadh, where they would spend one more day before departing and returning home. Several of us, however, had arranged to stay in Dhahran for several days before returning to the States – my father and I at his best friend’s family’s home. Unfortunately, his best friend, Tom Owen, was going to be out of town for the weekend (observed on Thursday and Friday in Saudi Arabia), so we were left in the care of Tom’s lovely wife, Kathy.
The first full day in the Eastern Province was relatively uneventful compared to the jam-packed schedule we’d kept in Riyadh. Kathy, my father and I spent the morning shopping in downtown Khobar, which is connected to Dhahran by a highway surrounded by modern seaside condominiums.
According to my father, the area between the two towns, a few miles, “used to all be desert,” a claim I would hear over and over again as we discovered that the region I had heard so much about had undergone massive growth. The changes had rendered my father’s home nearly unrecognizable. The area of downtown Khobar where we bought traditional Arab clothing and other gifts had expanded from one street of markets to a maze of carpet and tapestry stores, gold and silver shops and discounted electronics merchants. The abundance of Oriental rugs was particularly astounding.
After shopping and wandering for several hours, the call to prayer sounded, and we headed back to camp along the newly constructed highways.
We had plans to take a drive out into the desert to see some real empty land, but a shamal (winds from the north) had rolled in, carrying a massive dust storm, and visibility was cut down to a few hundred feet. I actually collected sand in my mouth just standing outside for a few minutes.
The evening ended with us visiting several homes and hearing much of the usual topics of conversation: life and work in Saudi Aramco. It seemed that the security of this enclosed camp made it easy to be fully engulfed by life in the fishbowl.
Into the Desert: Wild vs. Man
The following day, Friday, February 17th, we got our trip into the desert. Again, David Owen loaded us up into his 4-wheel drive SUV and we caravanned for nearly two hours southwest into the Abqaiq desert.
We drove down heavily littered roads lined with power lines and oil refineries for hours, just looking for nothingness. Eventually we pulled off the road and headed straight into the empty desert. Soon the road was nowhere in sight, and we’d wound around so many dunes that I no longer had any idea which direction we were facing.
This area of desert was truly vast and, save for massive dunes, featureless. I commented that Bear Grylls could film an episode of Man vs. Wild out here. My Dad suggested he would probably give up in such an unforgiving environment.