29 March 2019

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh has been in the news a lot recently (at least here in Saudi Arabia).  Most people will have heard of Petra, the famous Nabatean site in Jordan.  Sadly Jordan is not a place we have ever been able to visit, although it is on our bucket list, but we hear from people who have been there that Petra is a truly amazing location.  Maden Saleh is its ‘little sister’, the second and southernmost city of the Nabatean empire. 

Al Ula

Al Ula

We had wanted to visit this mysterious place, 800 kilometres to the north of Jeddah and close to the town of Al Ula for some time.  A little while ago we heard that it had been closed but nothing ventured nothing win and a request to the Royal Commission for Al Ula for a permit for a weekend visit proved fruitful.

Al Ula

Al Ula

The drive north was long, over eight hours in total, but not dull.  The costal motorway up to Yanbu soon gave way to smaller but well-maintained roads into the interior.  Camels, a significant hazard, wandered in front of the car and we moved from the flat scrub to mountains to stony desert to true sand.  Nevertheless, by the end of the journey our hotel, nestled in a canyon, was a welcome relief. 

The next morning, we were up early to beat the heat and make our way to the Maden Saleh complex.  The first thing to greet us was a railway station – Al Ula was a major station on the Ottoman sponsored/German built Hejaz railway (of T E Lawrence fame).  It was here that three great Hajj routes met and pilgrims took a break to restock their supplies.  The Germans built not only a station but a complex of outbuildings and an engine shed a the location and these have all been lovingly restored.  Some engines have also been fixed up and proved a big draw for the children. 

Hejaz Railway

Hejaz Railway Station

The engine shed has been fitted out as a museum showcasing the history of the railway.  Funded by subscriptions from the Muslim faithful around the world it must have made the difficult journey to Makkah so much easier and the photos of the inauguration ceremonies at different stations along the line show the real pride that those who worked on the project had in it.  I had not seen any sections of the railway before (although I once lived next to that other Ottoman/German rail collaboration the Berlin Baghdad line) but my father, who was visiting us, had been to a museum of the railway in Syria in happier times for that nation. 

From the railway we walked over to an Ottoman fort – small it might be but this fort was strong, well designed and built around a well which must have made it a fabulous stronghold in the old days.  Now it is set to a more peaceful purpose and serves as a museum of the Hajj.  The well is said to be the well of the she -camel who is connected to the story of the Prophet Saleh and the rather unpleasant people of Thamud (Maden Saleh) as narrated in the Koran. 

Museum of Hajj

Little remains of the town of Maden Saleh but the site is famous for its tombs (it boasts over 130 carved into the rock hillsides, many more depressions are cut out of the tops of the rocks as well, - possible pauper graves perhaps).  We looked around some of the smaller tombs before walking over to the main complex in the hill underneath the chamber of the girl.  The story is that the chamber is so named because a princess was locked up there by her father as punishment for her refusal to marry the man of his choice.  

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh

Tombs are carved into every section of this hill.  Many are topped by a face which we were told represented Baal and an eagle which represents Dushra, the supreme god of the Nabatean religion.  The eagles have been beheaded but other than that much of the carving survives including many inscriptions, written in Aramaic, showing who built and is interred in the tombs. 

Maden Saleh

A little further on the Divan is also well preserved and from there a cool, dark siq leads to spectacular red rock formations.  We climbed up the hills to look at the site before driving on to the most famous of all Maden Saleh’s tombs, the Qasr al Farid, alone in the middle of the desert, huge and unfinished this tomb is truly something very special.  One of the most fascinating things about the tomb was the fact that, in its unfinished state, it showcased the building methods of the Nabateans.  The stonemasons started at the top and worked down, it is impossible to know why this tomb was never finished, what led to its being abandoned – perhaps the untimely murder of a she camel… we will never know.
Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh
Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh was one of the most unique experiences of my life.  As it is officially a closed site we had the whole place to ourselves, the only other time I have ever been lucky enough to see a site without hoards of other people was a visit to NemrutDag.  The dry desert atmosphere and lack of human impact (many people believe the site is cursed and so do not wish to visit) have ensured that it is phenomenally well preserved.  All the infrastructure is there – the coach parks, the (empty) shop, the bathrooms, the information plaques.  With recent developments this site is now opening up again and is to be one of the cornerstones of the new tourism projects for Saudi Arabia.  Indeed media is full of photographs and information about the site and a concert was held in the nearby town of Al Ula just recently.

We were lucky beyond belief to see the site as it is now, lonely, hot and unforgiving yet mysterious, beguiling and beautiful.

Maden Saleh

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Ersatz Expat

16 March 2018

How to be an Expat in Saudi Arabia: Weddings

I love weddings – not only are they a celebration of the start of a life together etc etc but they are also a fantastic insight into the character of the people celebrating the marriage and the culture from which they hail.  We were lucky enough to be invited to weddings in Kazakhstan, Turkey and Malaysia and we have, of course, also attended weddings in our home countries of the UK and Ireland and I have celebrated, from afar, the weddings of many more friends around the world that I could not manage to get to in person.   

No event in Saudi is complete without coffee
Most weddings involve a ceremony and a party and guests do not, of course, always attend all parts of the event.  Here in Saudi Arabia things are slightly different in that there are two wedding celebrations – the bride’s celebration and the groom’s celebration.  A few months ago I was invited to a bride’s party – the daughter of a friend of a friend was getting married and the mother of the bride very kindly extended an invite to me. 

I was a little concerned about what to wear – wedding etiquette is a minefield wherever you are.  My friend told me the usual dress code was anything you liked but preferably black tie over cocktail and no need for white tie.  Most of my black tie dresses were bought when we lived in Kazakhstan and so are definitely not demure, I would not wear them in mixed company here in Saudi Arabia or indeed in any Gulf country.  I sent some photos to my friend and, to my very great surprise, was told they were perfect. 

Some things seem universal - confetti everywhere!
Weddings here are very much a late night affair.  My friends and I arrived at the wedding at about 11:30pm – some of the first to turn up.  Having walked past the modesty screens that stand behind all doors to womens only areas here we discarded our abayas at the concierge and walked into a room full of women dressed to kill and dancing the night away.  All the staff, from the DJ to the waitresses were female.  Having given our congratulations to the mother of the bride we settled down to people watch.  Women were socialising, dancing and generally having fun, none of us were really keen on dancing so we spent the time comparing wedding traditions from our respective home countries.  I must admit that I still don't have a real understanding of how weddings work here - from what my friends describe a process by which the parties set out the rules of their married life and the protections and rights of the parties.  The bride and groom must marry in court although there is also a religious blessing/wedding as well.  

The tables set up for the meal - A friend grabbed
this photo just before everyone else came through.
About an hour later we got the call to cover if we wanted to as the groom was coming (the groom attends the bride’s celebration for a short while but the bride does not attend the groom’s).  A long ululating cry sounded as the bride in a beautiful white dress and groom in formal traditional dress started their slow walk from the entrance to a double chair set on a stage at the front of the room; guests threw silver confetti on the couple.  There was time for photographs of the couple with female family members and the bride and groom cut the cake and had a quick dance before he left.  

Apparently cake and a first dance are not traditional but are becoming more and more popular amongst families who spend time abroad.  We were served cake and then, invited into the gardens to enjoy a meal outside, by this time it was past 2 in the morning and I must admit that I struggled to eat very much, for most other people, however, the party continued in earnest.  It was a wonderful evening and a fascinating insight into an aspect of life and culture here that I had not yet experienced.  As I said I love weddings and I wish the couple every happiness.

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Ersatz Expat

17 November 2017

Bessie 29 May 2001- 10 November 2017

Those of you who read my posts from time to time might remember our beautiful dog Bessie and the hurdles we faced moving her from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia.  Aged 15 our brave girl survived a near mortal illness and the advance of old age to make her way to us, finally arriving with our other dog, Perdita, on Christmas Eve.  She suffered a stroke on the journey and we were worried that she would not last long but our vet reassured us that she had a year to go.

Bessie took the challenge, within a few days she was walking again and enjoying life with her family.  Still very much top dog she brought endless joy to all of our lives.  That said over the last month she started to sleep even more than was usual and quite obviously felt in a lot of pain, much of the time the dementia that had started to creep in during our time in Malaysia was very evident, she often knew me and Master EE but no one else.  Her once beautiful fur was sparse and hard to keep clean.  We spoke with our vet who promised that he would try to find a lethal injection (they are strictly controlled here and home deaths are difficult to arrange) The weekend before last she seemed to be her old self again.  She knew the whole family, ran around the garden with gusto and seemed to be taking real pleasure in life. 

We thought this was probably a swansong and we were proved right.  On Tuesday last week she collapsed in the hallway and was unable to get up without assistance.  We made sure she was comfortable while we tried to sort out the necessary end of life arrangements.  We were able to spend the last few days ensuring that someone was always with her.  A hand on her head, a comforting word in her ear.  She had (turkey) ham to eat and we poured our love into her.  The night before she died I slept with her on her bed, my head with hers the way we used to when she was well enough to jump on our bed at night. 

She died on Friday morning, my hand on her face and my forehead on hers the way it was at every vet visit, Mr EE holding her paw.  We wrapped her up in a white tablecloth and placed her in the bottom half of her travel crate (with live animal stickers that tore at my heart) for transport to her grave.  The children came home and picked flowers to place over her and put in her bowls and her favourite ‘Mr Mallard’ toy.  She is now at rest under a tree in a stable yard.  A peaceful and happy spot for our beautiful girl.

Bessie was with us from the day after we returned from Honeymoon more than 16 years ago, she moved with us to four different international postings, she adopted Perdie and Kismet and loved them as her own.  We have had her so long that we don't even have any digital pictures from when she was a puppy, they are all, old fashioned film photos in family albums back in the UK.

She was one of the greatest joys of my life.  A support when times were hard, unconditional love, my very best friend.  The children have never not known a life without Bessie, she loved and guarded them from the moment they came home from hospital.  They don’t quite know what to do and watching them grieve makes our hearts break all over again.  Kismet the cat, a clever creature knew the moment Bessie died, she climbed into the crate with the body to say her goodbyes and has stuck very close to us ever since.  Perdie, who is not clever, didn’t understand what had happened at first but has grieved for the dog who raised her ever since.  She has been extremely clingy and has had a fair few accidents in the home.

Life will establish a new normal, we will have to learn how to get along without Bess but there will never be a moment in time when we do not feel her absence in our lives.  We are so profoundly grateful to have had her for 161/2 wonderful, magical years and looking at the pictures we have of her we see they radiate a wonderful joie de vivre.  I know I will see her again, her fur long and shiny, her nose wet and her tail wagging exuberantly.

The Power of the Dog, Rudyard Kipling

THERE is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

   Posted to the Animal Tales Linky hosted by the lovely Rosie.

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25 September 2017

Riyadh Rambles: Burjairi and the National Museum

During our trip to Riyadh earlier this year Mr EE and I followed the advice of friends and, after our visit to Masmak fort, took a car out to Burjairi, the gateway to Diriyah.  A short drive from the centre of Riyadh, Diriyah was the initial home of the Al Saud family and the capital of the First Saudi State (1744).  The town is in the process of being redeveloped with the aim of turning the old capital into an open air museum.  It is not yet open to the public (we had heard that it is possible to book private tours we had not got round to arranging something) but it is possible to view the walls from the Burjairi quarter.  Designed to manage visitors when Diriyah is open it is a pedestrianised area with gardens and a lot of picnic spaces it is the perfect place to while away a few hours walking and enjoying the open spaces of an evening before choosing a restaurant for supper.  In truth, until the museum opens there is not really much else to do.   We eschewed the highly rated Najd House restaurant with its beautiful décor and private dining areas, mostly because although it receives rave reviews neither of us really enjoy the traditional foods it offers.  For those who do, however, it would make the perfect place to spend an evening.  We will certainly be back, probably with the children, once the museum is fully open.

Burjairi, Riyadh, Diriyah
The following day we decided to visit the National Museum. The museum site is huge and sprawling, it took us half an hour to find the entrance. This highly rated museum was, sadly, almost empty and other than a VIP guest being guided through by minders and security, we had the place to ourselves.  Entry costs are low, SAR10 per person and allows access to all eight exhibition halls.  These encompass: Man and the Universe, Early Arabian Kingdoms, The Pre-Islamic Era, The Prophet’s Mission, Islam and the Peninsula, The First and Second Saudi States, The Unification and the Hajj and the Two Holy Mosques.  Again this will be a place we return to, not least because Master EE is studying neolithic life in Saudi Arabia as one of his school topics this year.

National museum, Riyadh

Al the sections were interesting but the stand outs for me were the displays about the Early Arabian Kingdoms and the Pre-Islamic era.  They were well designed and informative.  The section on the First and Second Saudi states and the Unification were also very interesting, like the Masmak Fort the day before it told us a lot about a period of history we knew little about.  They were not quite as well presented or as rich in detail as the displays at Masmak, however, which was a shame.  The museum’s final hall is dedicated to the Hajj and the two Holy Mosques and includes two huge replicas of the Mosques.  As non muslims we are not permitted to visit Makkah or Medina so these replicas are the closest we will get to seeing these beautiful and historic buildings. 

Exhibition Hall in the Museum
We spent a little bit of time exploring the grounds (and sneaking a peek at the car collection of King Abdul Aziz which is housed in a different building) before going back to the hotel to get ready for the evening, the event which had necessitated the trip in the first place.  We had hoped to have the time to see the view of Riyadh from the Sky Bridge in the Kingdom Tower but by the time we got there it had closed.

National museum, Riyadh
National Museum Complex

We enjoyed our time in Riyadh and we will certainly return  as there is lots to see and do there.  Mr EE was back there a few weeks later, however, and said that it really was not as much fun on his own, feeling rather bleak and unfriendly.  Like most places I think, it is the people you see it with that make it.
National museum, Riyadh
National Museum Complex

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Ersatz Expat

4 September 2017

Expat Stopovers - Sri Lanka

It has been a long time since my last post, the summer is not conducive to blogging!  We have had a busy few months from the children’s school break up mid June to their going back in a week’s time.  Part of that time included a two week holiday in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
At just over 4 hours flight from us it makes for an ideal expat stop over.  Mr EE and I have long wanted to visit the island and the children were won over with the many photos of elephants.  Other than a few short breaks and trips back to the UK we have not had a family holiday for some years and so we thought we deserved a good break.

Viharamahadevi Park
Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo
Sri Lanka certainly delivered that, from enjoying time just walking around the beautiful Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo to the many friendly people we met on our journeys round the island it was a relaxing and enjoyable break.

Elephants at Ude Walawe
Elephants at Ude Walawe
Colombo is not the most enticing of capital cities but we had to spend a few days there to sort out car hire and driving licence validation.  The rest of our holiday was spent driving around the island.  We stayed mostly in Air BNBs as we find these suit our large family and holiday style more than a hotel.  We had only one negative experience, a villa in Kandy that we had rented as a whole house and turned out to be a private room stay that was owned and managed by a different person to the one who managed it on Air BNB.  The website refunded our monies almost immediately and we found a different place to stay via a web search.

After Colombo we went to Ude Walawe for an elephant safari.  This was, hands down, our favourite day of the trip, we came close enough to these wild giants to almost touch them.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to see them in the wild, living their normal natural lives.  Another highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see the Buduruwagala Buddhas, a frieze of 7 Buddhas the tallest at 16m carved into a rock face in the middle of nowhere.  These spectacular carvings are at least 1,000 years old and are still a site of worship today.   From there we drove to the mountains near Ella, staying in Bandarawela in the mountains stopping at the spectacular Ravanna falls for a cooling paddle and a bite to eat from a stall along the way.  This is a highlight for many people but while we enjoyed visiting the tea plantations (including a wonderful tour at Halpewatte that  allowed us to go onto the factory floor) and the botanic gardens at Hakgala (originally a cinchona plantation) we were happy to move on. 

Ravanna Falls
Ravanna Falls
Other than Ude Walawe our favourite destination was Habarana, here we stayed at a lodge near a water tank, set in a plantation we were able to sleep out in the open, the children loved it.  We used this as a base for our visits to the 5th century citadel at Sigiriya and the abandoned monastery at Ritigala.  Sigiriya sits on top of a huge rock projecting from the plains, my telephone told me that we climbed the equivalent of 74 flights of stairs to get there.  It was worth the climb!  We took it in turns, Master EE climbed with me while Mini EE, being too old for a carrier and too young for the precipitous stairs, remained below with Mr and Miss EE.  We swapped after our return to the ground where Master EE and I were more than happy to enjoy a drink of water and wander round the water and rock gardens at the base of the hill.

Sigiriya - the citadel is on top of the rock.

The final climb up the lion paw staircase

Rock gardens at the base of the citadel
Ritigala monastery, built in the 1st century BC and abandoned to the forest was another fascinating day.  A walk of approximately 2km into the forest took us past a huge water tank, along a paved walkway and through courtyards and raised meditation platforms.  We got the impression that the accessible areas form only a minute percentage of the actual site.

Ritigala monastery ruins are in the middle of the forest

Resting mid walk

The walk is long (2km in each direction) in the heat
but relatively easy, even for little feet.
While in the region we also visited the Dambulla cave temples, another vertiginous and lengthy climb.  The temples with their many many paintings and statues of Buddha were beautiful but not a patch on the many spectacular temples we had seen (and lived close to) in Ipoh, Malaysia. 
Our final destination on this tour was the ancient capital of Kandy, home to the Temple of the Tooth.  The temple is the most important religious site on the island and as such is the premier tourist destination.  Other than Sigiriya we had had most of the sites we had visited to ourselves (a perk of going in low season) but the Temple was very busy.  We nevertheless enjoyed our time there, the temple itself is beautiful (and has been restored seamlessly following the terrorist attacks in years past).  Kandy itself is a bustling city and while there we enjoyed a local dance show (at Miss EEs request), visited a local factory to see how local wooden masks and other items are made and visited some of the many gem shops.  Sri Lanka is famous for its gems, sapphires in particular and the many shops selling beautiful jewellery are well worth a look round. 

Temple of the Tooth
Entrance way, Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth
Temple of the Tooth, all bomb damage repaired

Traditional Kandyan dancer
Sri Lanka was a very friendly destination, the children, Mini EE in particular, were welcome everywhere.  In fact Mini EE was taken off our hands for cuddles, fuss and treats pretty much as soon as we arrived anywhere.

Good to know

Remember to get visas before you travel.  These are available online and generally come through within a few hours although they can take up to two days.

Most visitors prefer to hire drivers.  Despite a bad reputation the driving on the island is easy and relatively safe, in fact the only really bad drivers are those in the tourist mini busses.  If you want to drive yourself make sure you have an IDP, if you don’t (ours had expired a few weeks before we arrived) you will need to get a Sri Lankan driving permit, easy enough but time consuming.

Don’t use Waze, no matter the settings it will always try to send you down a narrow field roads and tell you to take the least direct route possible.  Google maps proved more reliable.

More suited to a TukTuk than a car....
If you want to buy gems make sure you have the time to have them checked by the Assay office in Colombo before you buy. 

Sri Lanka is good value but it is not cheap compared to a lot of south Asia.  Foreigners pay significantly over the local price to enter sites of interest. 

Sri Lanka is, despite the monsoon, a year round destination.  European summer is monsoon season on the west coast but dry season over on the east, this means you can plan your trip accordingly.

While famous the Elephant Orphanage at Pindawala seems to be running itself more for the benefit of the tourists who flock there than the Elephants who live there.  We wish we had not gone.

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Ersatz Expat