SQ 375 DXB-SIN Y B777-200 seat 59D

I hate airport transfer desks: they’re always full of people with bizarre problems flying on bizarre itineraries that made my half-paper, half-electronic SQ-SV mutant combo look normal. This time around, a Chinese guy with a dodgy ticket, a very lost-looking Somali housewife and a pair of Pakistani mullahs had to be disposed of before the frazzled Filipino agent got around to processing me, and even my ticket took a couple of phone calls to sort out.

But eventually I had a boarding pass in hand and I set off to check out the Star Alliance Lounge, which based on the amount of LH propaganda lying around probably used to be Lufthansa’s. For an airport the size of Dubai, it was rather ridiculously small, with seating for maybe 40 and most of all of those taken even on this offpeak weekday afternoon. The full bar looked pretty good and they had rather spotty free wifi, but food offerings were limited to a few miniature sandwich-type things, chips and peanuts and the selection of newspapers was heavily Germanic (LH again?).

Back on the bird, which was coming in from Moscow and hence full of Russians knocking back vodka like it was going out of style. Somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be one of SQ’s regional models with no AVOD, and I understood why the people stuck on this thing for 12 hours were intent on getting liquored up. I’d forgetten to online checkin back in Saudi, so I’d ended up with an inner aisle seat way in the back of the bus, but the middle seat was empty and I could stretch out a little.

We took off on schedule and within minutes were back inside that crazy tail wind: I could feel the plane jittering a little as it was pushed forward and the airshow speedometer showed an amazing ground speed of 1138 km/h! Alas, once out of the Gulf the wind slowed down and meal service started. As I honestly can’t remember what I ate, I’m pretty sure it was airplane food, but part of the blame has to lie on Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, an utterly brainless Hindi comedy of the type that makes three hours on a plane fly past. A bit of laptop hacking later a simple breakfast rolled around (choice of muffin or danish with tea or coffee), and before I knew the plane was starting its descent, with a good half hour shaved off the scheduled flight time of 7:15.

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SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Riyadh

CO-ORDINATES: (0,1)
ALLEGIANCE: Independent
TYPE: Isolationist Religious Enclave
GOVERNMENT: Religious Dictatorship
MAJOR IMPORTS: None
MAJOR EXPORTS: None
ILLEGAL GOODS: Animal Meat, Liquor, Narcotics, Animal Skins, Live Animals, Slaves, Luxury Goods, Hand Weapons, Battle Weapons, Nerve Gas, Robots, Radioactives

The van Maanens Star system is the home of a radical religious sect that believes in suffering as the key to salvation. Mining is done without machines, and any surplus money that is not needed to satisfy basic requirements like oxygen, food and water is burned in a sacred ceremony. The system is only accessible with a special permit.

Back when I was a kid, I used to play a lot of Elite, the now classic space trading game where you get to fly around the galaxy, buy and sell goods to strange aliens and occasionally blow them up. Elite’s universe is vast and intricate, with star systems divided by level of technological development, type of government, amount of crime and so on, but whether you wanted to trade in wheat, electronics or drugs and whether to try your luck in an industrial democracy or an agricultural anarchy was up to you — just fly in and dock.

But there was one exception: van Maanens star. Located just a hyperdrive stone’s throw from Sol, this “isolationist religious enclave” only allows visitors with a special permit, which is famously difficult to obtain: you’re only allowed in if you’ve proved your reputation and have a package to deliver. And even if they do let you in, they cut visitors no slack, with a lengthy list of restrictions banning goods like robots and animal meat that are allowed everywhere else in the universe.

Saudi Arabia has been my van Maanens star. I’ve been to Aqaba, Jordan, and gazed across the desert towards the barbed wire separating me from the forbidden kingdom. I’ve flown along the Persian Gulf, looking down at a string of lights along the forbidden coast. Once, in 2003, I even had a Saudi visa in my passport and was all set to go… when the mullahs decided that picture messages on mobile phones were sinful and torpedoed that project.

This time, it was for real. I disembarked into the surprisingly quiet terminal, got a stamp in my passport and a seemingly sincere welcome from a young, grinning immigration officer and clambered aboard a taxi for the trip to downtown Riyadh down an eight-lane highway, with palm trees and Gucci ads lining both sides and the occasional dun or white-colored building flying past in the night. And, like in Elite the first time I got that long-awaited permit and visited van Maanens, I somehow felt oddly disappointed: this is it? Just another Arab country and just another Arab city, just like Abu Dhabi or even Dubai?

However, Saudi Arabia turned out to be a little more than a few flipped bits in a video game’s configuration. Most of what you’ve heard is true: tne women really do have to wear the head-to-toe black abaya robes (not all veil their faces, but most do), alcohol really is banned (although 0% “malt beverages” do a brisk trade) and red paint really is applied on CD covers to give, say, the Pussycat Dolls more respectable necklines and hemlines. But while I knew men and women were segregated, I hadn’t realized how segregated: every restaurant, bank, shopping mall, food court counter and historical site was either divided into separate zones or separate times. Want to go check out the National Museum? You need to figure out not just when it’s open (daily), but when it’s open for men: Sun, Mon, Wed and Thu mornings or Tue afternoons only. I knew the Saudis took their Islam seriously, but I hadn’t realized how seriously: five times a day, everything, repeat, absolutely everything — shops, restaurants, banks, post offices, tourist sites — closes for prayer. Want to eat dinner? You need to plan to have it before 5:30, between 6 and 7, or after 7:30, as between those times, every place you could get food is closed. I’m still a little conflicted about how I feel about all this, so I’ll leave that for the next trip’s musings…

Another bit of a surprise, which I know will sound both offensive and obvious, is that Saudis look like terrorists. Offensive, because that should be a ludicrous stereotype to apply to 20 million people; yet obvious, because most of the 9/11 terrorists were devout Saudis, and hence in the West we associate the Osama bin Laden look — white robe, red checkered headdress, scraggly beard, leather sandals — with fanatical suicide bombers. I like to consider myself a pretty tolerant kind of guy, and have travelled in a fair few Arab countries before, but I was shocked and not a little ashamed at how often I at first got a visceral “eek!” reaction on spotting bin Laden or Ayman Zahawiri’s long-lost identical twin shopping at the Hyperpanda or behind the wheel of a taxi. Is that a bomb vest under his robe? Is he planning to drive me into a deserted alley and slit my throat?

Yet not once — not once! — was I made to feel anything less than welcome. Precisely because (white) foreigners are so uncommon, especially outside the confines of their housing compounds and five-star hotels, most people I met were friendly to a fault and brimming with curiosity. The three Saudi brothers running the little corner store where I did my daily shopping endeavoured to teach me Arabic, the Indians at the curry shop around the corner made sure I got an extra-large portion when I paid the paltry four riyals (US$1) for my meal, the post office clerk smilingly humored my request to add a few phrases in Arabic to a card, and on my last night I ended up sharing a plate of injera and wat with an Ethiopian cabbie, him refusing to accept any payment for a meal that cost him the equivalent of several hours’ takings. (He did leave the meter running while we ate, so it pretty much worked out the same.)

Riyadh is famously short on things to do, but work kept me busy enough that I only managed to sneak out once in the evening to climb up to the top of the Kingdom Centre, variously likened to a giant bottle opener or Pikachu, but in any case the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and quite a spectacular sight when lit up at night. Up top, connecting the two towers together at a height of 300m, is the Skybridge, where you can gaze on the bright lights of Riyadh and get some idea of how big the city is. Definitely worth the 25 riyals, and it’s probably the only skyscraper tourist trap in the world without a gift shop!

My last day was a Thursday, the Saudi equivalent of Saturday, and I had a three-hour window of opportunity for sightseeing in the morning, so I opted to check out the National Museum. And it is, it must be said, quite a spectacle: done up with the latest technology, there are so many video presentations and mini-theatres that you could probably spend a day in there doing virtual tours of Madein Saleh (the Saudi version of Petra) or watching re-enactments of the Prophet Mohammed’s battle of Medina. It wasn’t quite so much a museum as a propaganda exercise though: the display on plate tectonics started with a quote from the Quran, the history of the Sauds was rather airbrushed, and the display on the birth of Mohammed, reached from the clash and noise of the Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) by riding an escalator up into a room of soothing, pastel light while a choir of angels sings, has probably inspired a few conversions to Islam.

And then to the airport, which is a bit of an architectural masterpiece, but otherwise a remarkably boring place to wait any longer than necessary. Once through immigration, the international departure holding area has prayer rooms, two snack bars, two long-empty dusty rooms where the bookshop and souvenir stores used to be, and nothing else. At least there were power plugs if you pry up the little brass things on the floor…

SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Dubai

The original plan had been just to do a simple transit in Dubai, but the flight I wanted on Tuesday was full — a good thing, in retrospect, as not only was Bush Jr and his security brouhaha in town, but unusually strong rains made sure that the city was completely and totally jammed. Wed was full too, so I booked Thursday — but on that day the connecting flight to Riyadh was full. Bizarrely, the earliest next flight out on SV or EK was at 4 PM the next day, 21 hours later (!), so there was no choice: I had to overnight. I shed a crocodile tear and rang up local resident F. who promised to take me out to his favorite shisha place.

The flight docked at the rather swanky-looking Terminal 1, but a lengthy sequence of escalators took me over to decrepit old T2 (opened — omg! — almost 10 years ago) for immigration. This time, the queues were mercifully brief, and after a solitary question (“Where are you staying?”) I was stamped in and invited to enjoy my stay. And here’s one thing where other countries should follow the UAE’s lead: absolutely no silly little immigration forms where you have to copy all the information that they can figure out anyway by scanning your passport.

Alas, the taxi scrum was rather longer and an hour from landing had passed by the time I got in the car. I’d opted for the brand new Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, a brand new hotel, and had misgivings about if the cabbie would know where it was… but he did, precisely, and earned a nice tip. The Four Points, incidentally, is the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a while: it’s brand new, squeaky clean, super modern, very comfortable, friendly and, by Dubai standards, affordable — my room cost 500 dirhams (~US$150), which, believe it or not, qualifies as a steal in Dubai these days. (I usually stay at Marriotts, but their cheapest property anywhere near the center, the Renaissance, wanted Dhs 1400.) But by the time I checked it, it was 11 PM local time and 4 AM my time, so F and I decided to put the shisha off until tomorrow and I hit the sack.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a pleasant visit to the gym (equipped with a well-stacked Spanish fitness trainer) and a bracing dip in the icy pool (January in Dubai is pretty chilly) I hit the street and started walking towards Dubai Creek. The section of older Dubai along the way was distinctly unflashy, a warren of crumbling concrete, haphazard wiring, oversized signage and fragrant odours that bore more than a little resemblance to India, the home of most of the district’s inhabitants, with nary a thobe in sight. But by sheer coincidence (I had neither map, guidebook nor any idea of its existence), I ended up precisely in the quarter of Bastakia, the solitary chunk of old Dubai that has been expensively restored as a heritage project. It all looked a little too new and perfect to be true, a contrast highlighted by the solitary exhibit of something that was actually old: a remnant of Dubai’s city wall, now a low stretch of roped-off, nondescript rubble.

On the other side of Bastakia is the Creek. I’d had a mental image something along on lines of the Singapore River or Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, with precipitous skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and harried businessmen lining the edges, but no, the buildings were low-rise and nondescript, with few higher than five floors. Abra boats shuttled busily around to the market buildings on the other side, but my side of the river (which did have a pleasant promenade) was largely given over to a neverending procession of increasingly over-the-top river cruise ships of the buffet-and-bellydance variety, with blinking lights, Romanesque pillars and statues in excerably bad taste (now whose bright idea was it to celebrate Arab culture with a life-size bronze of a conquistador?).

Before long I had to return to the hotel and was just checking out when F and his uncle showed up. Once an IT geek like us, Uncle had ditched that career for the evidently rather more lucrative business of designing air conditioning systems, obviously a booming market in the neverending construction site of Dubai. An excellent Lebanese lunch at al-Hallab later, we retired to a nearby shisha shop for a few early afternoon puffs. I was in no hurry to depart, but my flight to Riyadh was, so around 90 minutes before the flight I had to interrupt the stream of Arab hospitality and start making worried noises. We eventually managed to find a taxi company to call, but their driver was permanently 5 minutes away from arriving, and with only an hour to go until flight departure we had to resort to flagging down a cab on the main road (where there aren’t allowed to stop). One kind soul risked a thousand-dirham fine to pick us up and jetted us off to the airport, where I said my hasty goodbyes, brutally cut my way through the security line and arrive at the check-in counter precisely and literally one (1) minute before it closed. The check-in guy even had to check with his manager if the flight was still open, but it was — “You’re the last passenger! So rush!”. Through immigration, though another security point, the endless corridor to the other terminal again, up and up and up and across and, under 20 min before to the departure, to the gate. Phew.

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore

Unusually enough, I was looking forward to the airport more than the flight itself: this marked my first visit to the spanking new Singapore Changi Terminal 3, officially opened just a week earlier. Aviation geek that I am, I’d already had a sneak peek in the pre-opening “open house”, but this was my first time venturing into airside.

Flights to Dubai actually leave from T2, not T3, but the automated check-in kiosk had no complaints and soon enough I was through the space-age Departures portal. And wow: it’s really airy and spacious inside. The greenery isn’t quite as evident as landside though, with glass, steel and duty-free shopping dominating the show. I beelined for the “Krisflyer Gold Lounge” on the second level, where the poor guardian lady puzzled for a few minutes over my SAS gold card and admittedly rather lengthitudinous full name, painstakingly scribbling them out with pencil on paper and triple-checking the result.

On first sight, the lounge looks small, but actually it’s not: the seating area behind the entry desk is only about a fifth or less of the entire lounge. Soup, salad, rice, a main course, and a selection of desserts were available, along with a small self-serve bar and Tiger beer on tap. Most of the lounge is (how to describe this?) “almost-outside”, with no roof other than the top canopy and partial views of the tarmac due to the shades in the way. Comfy chairs, free wifi, a somewhat less than generous distribution of power points, a couple of PCs and a respectable selection of newspapers completed the offerings, and it’s fair to say that this will be my lounge of choice at SIN as long as I have some time to spare.

And how much time to spare, you say? Well, I experimentally determined that you need at least 10-15 minutes extra to get to T2. There are actually two separate Skytrain routes connecting the two, one at the north end (B-E) and one at the south (A-F), with the lounges are closer to the south end (A gates). However, my gate today was E28, literally at the last extremity of T2 right before T1 starts, and in retrospect it would have been faster to go to T1 and cross it on foot! But no, I ended up taking the longest possible way: walk to the A gate, Skytrain across to T2 F gates, walk across from F to the E area, and then the interminable walk from E20 all the way to E28.

A few more T3 pictures for those interested, mostly taken at the open house: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Singapore/Changi-T3/

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Singapore, Riyadh and Bali

At a squeak over 10,000 miles, this trip is no great shakes when it comes to distance, but there can’t be too many places on Earth with a greater level of contrast than its endpoints.

In the left corner, we have the virtually untouristed capital of a filthy rich, rigidly conservative, strictly Islamic absolute monarchy in one of the world’s most arid countries:


RUH DAFIF Riyadh [King Khalid Airport], SA

And in the right corner, we have the rather less wealthy yet famously liberal, only notionally Hindu and immensely tourism-friendly tropical paradise of Bali:


DPS DAFIF Denpasar [Ngurah Rai – Bali Intl], Bali, ID

I’m going to one of these for work, and the other for play, so my esteemed readers are invited to guess which one is which. Here’s the exact routing courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper:

SIN-DXB-RUH-DXB-SIN-DPS-SIN

That’s SIN-DXB on Singapore Airlines (SQ) Y, DXB-RUH on Saudi Arabian (SV) Y, and SIN-DPS on SQ C.

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