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
Burjairi
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
Sigiriya
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.

Buduruwagela
Buduruwagala
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
Sigiriya - the citadel is on top of the rock.

Sigiriya
The final climb up the lion paw staircase

Sigiriya
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
Ritigala monastery ruins are in the middle of the forest

Ritigala
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

22 June 2017

Sweet Sixteen

Bessie celebrated her 16th birthday a short while ago. Very few dogs live to see such advanced age, she was born so long ago that we did not even have a digital camera at the time.  The few, precious, photos we have of her as a put are in albums in our storage container.  After our long separation and her health worries last year we never thought she would not see her next birthday.  When she arrived in Jeddah in December last year we thought she had joined us only to say goodbye.  Since then she has shown how strong she is, she lives for the moments when the family are together and she can be with us all, she visibly deteriorates when people travel abroad, perking up again as soon as they get home.

People who see Bessie now see a dog that is bent and bowed, who has hardly any fur and whose skin sits in wrinkles on her hunched and skinny frame.  She was a beautiful dog in her prime and to us she is beautiful still.  Our honeymoon puppy, the dog who has followed us around the world  and who has helped to care for all our children.  Happy birthday to the very best dog in the world.












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ANIMALTALES

29 May 2017

Riyadh Rambles - Masmak Fort

Riyadh is not the first place you think of when you talk about a romantic break.  Mr EE is not someone to do things the easy way, however, and nor, really, am I.  A few weeks ago, during the school holidays, he had an evening meeting/social event scheduled in Riyadh and I had been asked to attend as well.  The date was close to my birthday so we decided to make a break of it.  The meeting was in the evening and not child friendly so we arranged for someone to stay at home with the children and pets and left the house at 3am for a romantic break in the most conservative capital in the world.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort, Riyadh.  Where the Third Saudi State was born.
Jeddah is, by Saudi standards, very relaxed and cosmopolitan.  Life here is pretty easy going but we had heard that Riyadh was much more buttoned down.  When we canvassed opinions of what to see and do we got a mixed response.  Half of our friends (local and expat) said we would be wasting our time, the other half have us a list of must see places.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The walls of the fort are made of Adobe
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Interior of the Fort
Mr EE had been a few times before, but as is typical of business trips, had seen practically nothing of the city.  The city itself reminded me very strongly of Astana.  Set on a flat plain in the middle of nowhere with futuristic buildings.  Even the dry climate was very evocative of Kazakhstan; with a spring temperature in the mid 30s it reminded me of Astana on a mid summer day.  That is where the resemblance finishes, however.  Astana is a young city in every sense of the word and exudes an air of fun that was missing from Riyadh. As always first impressions start when you step off the plane and into the airport.  Riyadh airport was swanky, particularly compared to Jeddah (which was voted last year the worst airport in the world although to be fair I have been in much, much worse).  The atmosphere, however, was very different, much more restrained.  I had packed my most sober abayas in consequence but did have to laugh as I was approached a few times by women who wanted to know where they could get something similar, I am clearly a fashion trend setter! 

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Some of the interiors are decorated in traditional style
Masmak Fort Riyadh
Others have museum displays.  Most have detailed information.
This one was a bit of an (amusing) let down with the 'small, medium and
large cannon balls'
 We went straight to the hotel for breakfast and a sleep.  After midday everything shuts down until about 4pm anyway (very civilised in my opinion) so we didn’t feel bad taking the time to rest after our horrendously early start.  Refreshed we took a cab to the Masmak Fort.  This compact mud brick fort was built by the Al Rasheeds who had taken control of Riyadh from the Al Sauds in the late 19th century.  In 1902 the future king, Abdulaziz Al Saud took control of the fort.  This was the start of the fight to establish the Third Saudi State.  These days the fort is a museum, entrance is free but certain times are restricted to men only so you have to check in advance to make sure that entry will be permitted to families (ie women).

Doors Masmak Fort RiyadhMasmak Fort Riyadh

Masmak Fort Riyadh

 The doors in the fort are heavily and beautifully decorated in typical Najd style.

The museum is self guided and if you follow the ‘tour’ it takes you through most of the ground floor.  The information is detailed, well laid out, and provided in both Arabic and English.  We spent a happy two hours learning about an event in history about which we knew almost nothing beyond the bare bones.  One of the real treats of expat life is learning, not only about the culture that hosts you, but also about the history of the country you call home, something you might otherwise never do.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The interiors are cool, dark and mysterious.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The Cafe is sparse but comfortable

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The fort was served by a well, allowing it to resist sieges. 
There are number of artefacts, mostly weapons and armour, on display and almost all the doors are sumptuously decorated in typical Najd style.  The museum also hosts a small gift shop and a café area.  By the time we had finished looking around we had hit Maghrib prayers so, rather than looking round the adjacent souk (no different to the ones in Jeddah) we used the time to take a few pictures of the sunset before taking a taxi onwards to our next destination.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
The evening light gives a beautiful warmth to the walls.

Masmak Fort Riyadh
Masmak Fort at Sunset

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Ersatz Expat