From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by a festering pile of trash next to the jetty and entertainment consisted of drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups in a rickety shack while watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

<<< Preamble & Paperwork | Life on a Train >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Preamble & Paperwork

For the past 15 years, my father has been talking about traveling “from Hesa [Helsinki] to Lhasa” by train.  This year, we finally did it, and it was enough of an adventure that I’m resurrecting my long-dormant travel blog to tell the tale.  Expect plenty of pictures and less text.

Table of Contents

Paperwork

Pulling off a trip like this requires quite a bit of preparation, since each of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet require their own visas or permits, which needs to be applied for in advance…  but not too far in advance, since they have expiry dates!   Most resources about the Trans-Siberian advise people to go via a travel agency to get these, but (excepting Tibet) it’s entirely feasible to do this on your own, so here are some notes for posterity.

Some personal notes, although the details will vary based on your citizenship and where you apply: this is all for an Australian applying in Australia. Also, despite minor differences in the requirements on paper, standard Australian passport photos were fine for all three.

Russia

img_20180517_090142This is the most complicated by a long shot, so get this one first. I applied in person at the Russian consulate in Sydney, using the detailed step-by-step guide here, which was extremely helpful.  The guide, that is; the consulate, on the other hand, felt like a live-action version of Papers Please.   Apply for your visa appointment well in advance, since it may take a few weeks to find a free slot!

On arrival, I was first treated to the sight of an extremely angry businessman chastising a security guard in an ill-fitting green polyester suit on the other side of a locked gate: “You’ve been incredibly rude! I’ll report you to your manager!”  The guard didn’t even roll his eyes, just asked me for my appointment and let me in when I claimed to have one.

At reception, though, another unfortunate soul had made a reservation but had neglected to bring his chit.  Nyet, try again in a few weeks.  The high-tech QR scanner didn’t much like mine either, but it grudgingly accepted the 16-digit code when punched in manually.

The waiting room was plastered with signs strictly forbidding the use of mobile phones, which were roundly ignored by everybody including myself.  When my number came up, I headed to counter 4, whose previous victim was undergoing an interrogation:

– You are attending a conference?
– Yes.
– You cannot use a business visa, you must apply for [inaudible] visa.
– But but…
– Here is form.  Next!

I got to the window.  My friendly greeting was unanswered.  I piled my papers and passport on the counter and careful examination ensued.  Everything was going swimmingly, until…

– Your visa invitation is 1 to 5 July, but your visa application 1 to 8 July.
– Yes, I am traveling out by overnight Trans-Siberian train.
– Why are you going to Irkutsk?
– To see Lake Baikal.
– Hmm.

This was clearly highly suspicious, but the bureaucrat showed grandmotherly kindness and accepted my unworthy application.   Learn from my mistake, use the same dates on your letter of invitation (I used ivisa.ru) and the visa application, and feel free to add plenty of buffer — you’re never asked for an actual hotel reservation.

So now it was time to pay up at counter 6, but the old Chinese lady there was in trouble too.  Neither of her credit cards was accepted, EFTPOS didn’t work either, and rejected receipts were piling up.  The gentleman behind me had prepared the exact amount in cash, which was also unacceptable.  Eventually my turn came and, wonder of wonders, my card worked!  The printer spat out a receipt, Svetlana sliced it in three with a ruler and gave me the smallest piece.

– Come back May 17. No appointment, collect at reception. Next!

I returned as requested, arriving at the consulate when they opened at 9 AM sharp, along with a bunch of other people.  We filed inside, but the “Visa Pick-Up” counter was resolutely closed.  Eventually Feodor arrived, but when somebody had the effrontery to approach the counter, he silently pointed at a small sign saying that Visa Pick-Up is available from 9:30 AM.  So we waited for half an hour under the steely glare of Comrade Putin, and then I finally got my grubby mitts on my shiny new visa.  Victory!

Cost A$135, processing time two weeks plus wait for appointment.

China

img_20180517_095124By comparison, getting the Chinese visa at the fully-outsourced Visa Center in Sydney was a miracle of socialist efficiency with Chinese characteristics.  Appointments are required, but are usually available next day and apparently you could get one on the spot too.  I arrived two minutes before my appointment at 10:00, and my number was called at 10:01.

You will need to fill out your tediously long application online and print it; it’s not an online application!  You will also likely be asked for proof of how you will enter and depart China, so bring along train/flight tickets or reservations.  I also had an itinerary from a tour agency in China, which is not strictly necessary, but it was sufficient to cover all other documentation needs.

Cost A$109.50, processing time four business days.

One catch if you’re also planning to visit Tibet: China won’t grant visas to people who want to go to Tibet unless they already have Tibet Travel Permits (TTP), but you can’t apply for a TTP unless you already have a visa.  The only way around the Catch-22 is to make up an innocuous itinerary that involves panda-watching in Chengdu or something for visa purposes, and then apply for the TTP afterwards.

Mongolia

img_20180524_172646There is no Mongolian consulate in Sydney, so I applied via post at the Mongolian Embassy in Canberra. The documentation and travellers’ reports are not clear on whether you need to include train tickets for a tourist visa, but I called them up and was told that a “tourist agency itinerary” was enough. I sent along my ticket reservation receipts (not an actual ticket) and that was good enough. Also, Russia & China take credit cards but Mongolia insists on a bank cheque, so order that at least a week in advance.  It’s also highly advisable to register your mail both ways, meaning you need to prepare a self-addressed envelope and get the post office to register it before you send off your application.

Cost A$230 (!), processing time 4 days.

Note that transit visas are cheaper (A$150) but have tighter documentation requirements (“Detailed travel program provided by the Tour agency”), so I played it safe.  In retrospect, though, Mongolians don’t seem to be the same kind of sticklers for paperwork as the Russians and the Chinese, so this would probably have been fine.

Tibet

dsc_6014Unless you’re a PRC citizen (including HK/Macau), the only way to visit Tibet is to join an organized tour.  This is expensive, particularly if you do what we did and opt for a custom/private tour, but it’s a pretty routine process and the tour agency handles all the paperwork.  That said, there is a certain element of nail-biting involved, since the permit can only be applied for 20 days before arrival, takes around 8 days to grant, and can be denied for no reason if there’s anything happening in Tibet that China would prefer the rest of the world didn’t hear about…

Before 2008, there were occasional stories of people hitching into Tibet and sneaking around without permits.  As of 2018, I feel confident in saying that you won’t get very far these days: your permit is checked constantly, on average 2-3 times a day, and in places including train stations, airports, road checkpoints, hotels and major tourist attractions like the Potala Palace.

Elapsed time

I started my paperwork on April 21st and received my final visa on May 31st, so around 40 days end to end.  (The Tibet permit can only be applied for 20 days before entry into Tibet, but this is handled by the travel agency anyway.)

If I had been in a hurry, I could have shaved a week off this by booking my Russian visa appt earlier, another week by paying for express processing for Russia & China (not available for Mongolia), and a few days by paying for express mail to/from the Mongolian Embassy.

The journey begins here: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal >>>

 

Five Flights in Five Words: SIN-FRA/HHN-TMP/HEL-FRA-MUC-SIN on LH/FR/AY Y

Wordy trip report? Not this.
Five words in every line.
Map and flight list: http://openflights.org/trip/214

LH 779 SIN-FRA seat 55K

Twelve hours in tin can.
Ancient jumbo, even toilet scuffed.
Man, not flying SQ sucks.

Mainz

Beer. Sausage. Beer. Schnitzel. Beer.

Frankfurt Book Fair

Weekdays all work, weekend play.
Bounteous, mostly underaged, cosplayer bonanza.
Next time, bring better lens.

Deutsche Bahn

Unreserved tickets are a pleasure.
But whence famed German punctuality?

Cologne

The Dom: yes, it’s big.
Lounge in Marriott Cologne rocks.

Wuppertal

Suspended monorail for the win.
Even had to buy T-shirt.

Assmannshausen

Everybody else here is retired.
Good wine though. Where’s Tittenmädchenplatz?

Burg Eltz

It’s a pretty castle alright,
but I preferred the hike.

Luxembourg

Arab oil sheikhdom, only European.
Hearing spoken Lëtzebuergesch scares me.
Judd mat gaardebounen with Diekirch!

FR 1921 HHN-TMP seat ??

Ryanair: it’s not so bad
when expecting rubber glove proctology.
(Well, OK, it’s still bad.)

Tampere

Salsa with five blonde pixies,
plus Finnish mixology until three.
It was worth the hangover.

Helsinki

Michelin starred lunchelf shopping,
flourescent minigolfmore wild parties.
Even the weather mostly cooperated.

AY829 HEL-FRA E190 seat 20A

First AY flight in years.
Bumpy Embraer, sad snack pack.
I’ll stick with Star Alliance.

HI Frankfurt Airport-Nord

Albanian shuttle-cabbie brought along girlfriend.
Time-warp motel free on PointSavers.
Decent room, chocolate, decaying fruit.

FRA LH Senator Lounge

Healthy German breakfast: beer & sausage.

LH966 FRA-MUC A321 seat 30F

Bigger than the Helsinki plane.
More time waiting than flying.
Take off, snack, circle, land.

MUC LH Senator Lounge

Munchen wrapped in foggy quilt.
Empty terminal is shaded gray.
Only my flight not delayed.

LH790 MUC-SIN A340 seat 55K

So much nicer than jumbo.
AVOD, decent pitch, great service.
But ending soon? Load 20%…

Conclusion

Patronage and praise much appreciated.
Next time, I’ll try haiku. 

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait International Airport

Kuwait, the airport, is just weird. Entry into the terminal is through a bizarre scrum of four gates leading to different check-in areas for different airlines, with cars honking at each other outside and a constant flow of passengers, trolleys and porters trying to squeeze through both in and out. If going to Zones 2 or 3, you first have to trudge through an honest-to-Allah multilevel shopping mall, complete with Debenhams department store and Harley-Davidson outlet; on the other side, finally, lies Check-In Zone 3 for local LCC Jazeera (crammed full of pax) and Qatar (almost queueless). After a brief scare of demanding proof of my Singapore residency, successfully bluffed by flashing my Access Card (which is no such thing, but has enough state seals, embedded photos and IC contacts to make it look terribly convincing), I was checked in and could start wondering how I’d spend the next two hours.

The inside of the airport is old-fashioned but well-maintained. The gates go from number 1 to number 26, which might make you think KWI is pretty big, but unfortunately everything between 7 and 20 appears to be missing. There’s a boozeless but nonetheless amazingly popular dutyfree (why, I know not; an iPod Shuffle 1GB costs nearly twice what it does in Singapore), a McD’s/Pizza Hut, a Costa Coffee, and that was it. Except for a Ghiraoui chocolate boutique, which I inspected in detail, playing a fun game of “spot the chocolate” by comparing the unlabeled pralines with an illustrated brochure, and eventually handing over my last five dinars to the equally bored (but rather cute) Filipina salesgirl in exchange for rather more than 5 KD worth of chocolate.

On the way in it was the ammo boxes, on the way out it was the soldiers: none in full uniform, mind you, but those GI Joe haircuts, desert camo everything and combat boots are a bit of a giveaway. Even some of the Filipina ladies were toting about “US Army Reserve”-branded bags.

And that was that. Boarding was ordered, we were marched into the airline by tube (no buses here), and the Kuwait Towers loomed on the horizon as we did a few turns and then set off to Doha and home.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait City

Kuwait was rather more fun than I expected. My arrival wasn’t particularly propitious: it took me over an hour to get my on-arrival visa, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the hotel, the city was wreathed in a persistent slow-motion sandstorm for the first three days, filling the air and even the swimming pool with dust, and at work half the hardware on site was missing and the customer’s idea of reasonable timelines was rather different from ours. But the Courtyard Kuwait City is a mind-bogglingly amazing hotel for a Courtyard, our partner’s technical people were actually competent (such a refreshing change from the usual), and Kuwait had one immense advantage over my previous work site: it’s not Saudi Arabia.

It only slowly sunk into me how different these two “conservative Islamic” countries are. Yes, both ban alcohol and pork and like to execute drug smugglers… but that’s about it, as in almost all other things, Kuwait is infinitely more laissez-faire than the Saudis. Women can, and do, wear pretty much what they want, with a remarkable array of head-turners at the (ultra-expensive) Arraya Centre mall next to the hotel and some even lounging about in bikinis at the hotel pool. Music in public is allowed, which — even subconsciously — just makes a huge difference to how lively a restaurant or shop feels. And while prayer calls were piped into shopping malls and echoed along the streets, nobody cared if you trotted off into the mosque or not. Saudi papers, and streets, and TV shows, are full of effusive paeans to the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques HH King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the vast tentacular branches of the al-Sauds; Kuwaiti papers, on the other hand, are full of Parliament debates, squabbles between voting blocks, elections, demonstrations and all the noisy trappings of a democracy; while Kuwait certainly isn’t a real one, it certainly feels like one, and even the occasional paeans to the wisdom and sagacity of HH the Amir were usually tucked away on page C17.

Above all, though, the best thing about Kuwait is just that you could feel at ease: in Saudi, you’re always a little on edge, not even because of the ethereal threat of terrorism but just always being a little unsure if you’re staying within the tightly prescribed boundaries of Allowed behavior…

The downside to visiting Kuwait in late June, though, is the heat. After the dust storm and its momentary (comparative) coolness wore off, the mercury crept closer and closer to 50 degrees, making the daytime feel literally — not figuratively, literally — like a sauna. Metaphoric saunas are usually associated with humidity, but no, the real thing is actually quite dry, and that’s how it’s in Kuwait too: you can walk outside for a few minutes, thinking “gee, now that’s hot”, before you start to sweat. But the evenings were quite tolerable, and even the daytime furnace heat was almost enjoyable if spent at the Courtyard’s breezy rooftop pool, which by afternoon had heated to the point that the jacuzzi next to it was usually cooler.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha Airport

Qatar is the world’s only country whose name starts with the letter Q, and they don’t let you forget it: in the five-minute ride from plane to terminal, you pass signs for QAS, QAAC, QNB, QJet and QTel. But DOH is also the closest I’ve seen to an airline monoculture anywhere in the world: both planes on the tarmac and flights on the information boards were 95% Qatar Airways. The DOH-based frequent flyer isn’t going to have much choice.

The airport is amazingly small and unpretentious for what may be the world’s richest country’s main gateway: one runway, one small rectangular main terminal with no jetaways, only buses. On the inside, DOH feels like a recently-built airport in a small city in a rich European country: slick, modern, supremely efficient, yet without the slightest bit of the usual Arabic penchant for ostentation with gold paint, chandeliers, palm trees and whatnot. Even duty free feels downright restrained. Enjoy it while it lasts, they’re already busily building a new DOH which will be umpteen times larger…

I had tight connections both ways — 1:20 on the way in, a scary-sounding 0:50 on the way out — but Doha’s minimum connecting time is 45 minutes and, indeed, everything worked like clockwork. I would even have had time to duty-free shop on the way back, but at midnight the queues at the registers were long and I was scared out of line by snippy “passengers on the flight to Singapore report to gate for IMMEDIATE boarding!” announcements coupled with a boarding pass admonition to show up 20 minutes before departure… which (inevitably) just left me with time to drum my fingers in the bus departure lounge. Gah.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Singapore to Kuwait on Qatar Airways

The Firm recently found itself with a customer in Iraq, but visiting Baghdad being presently contraindicated for unbelieving khawagas like myself, I was asked to visit the next best thing — Kuwait. Always ready to check another Gulf state off my list, I accepted the offer and set off figuring out how to get there on Singapore. There are no direct flights, and I first looked at Thai via BKK, but they only fly three times a week and the schedule didn’t fit. Going through DXB on SQ and/or Emirates would have required two long layovers on the return leg, although detouring via Sri Lanka did sound kind of interesting… but in the end, I decided to try out Qatar for the first time: the schedule was excellent, the price was right and it was time to see if they lived up to their “five-star airline” hype, especially in Y — there are plenty of trip reports about QR C/F on FT, but I couldn’t find any for economy.

http://openflights.org/trip/1

As I flew the same flights on (almost) the same planes in both directions, I’m going to condense the flights together: one report each for SIN-DOH-SIN and DOH-KWI-DOH. No pictures, alas, as my CF card did a disappearing trick on my very last day and took every last picture of Kuwait along with it.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: Manama, Bahrain

The Bahraini capital Manama reminds me of Abu Dhabi: they’re both smallish and filthy rich cities on the Gulf, relatively liberal by Gulf standards, have city centers dating to the 1970s but with huge amounts of construction now adding modern skyscrapers into the mix, and have virtually nothing in the way of attractions.  Bahrain‘s unofficial symbol is the Pearl Roundabout, which is, you guessed it, a roundabout which has a large statue of pointy things (supposedly dhow sails) holding a pearl aloft.  Yay?


Hotels in Manama are ridiculously priced (US$300 and up), so I’d exchanged 25,000 Priority Club points for a night at the Crowne Plaza Bahrain.  The remarkably clueless reception, though, wasn’t having any of it — they refused to acknowledge the existence of my reservation until I dug up my laptop and showed it to them, and then kept us waiting for half an hour out of spite, eventually giving us a room waaaaaay at the back of this sprawling complex with a lovely first-floor view of a pile of bricks.

The pool was being repaired with paint fumes and drilling noises, which didn’t do much to improve its concrete-and-Astroturf charmlessness, but there were two consolations.  First, real live women in bikinis, and second, the tower counter also did a brisk trade in cold beer.  I’m not a huge beer fan in general, but there are times when a Corona with a wedge of lime hits the spot, and this was definitely one.

The hotel reception continued to be obstructive, huffily telling us to go take a taxi and find out when we had the temerity to inquire after bus schedules instead of just taking their chauffeur service back to Saudi the next day.  As it turned out, our choices were to leave at either 9:30 (d’oh) or at noon, which would have cut it a little too close for comfort for our 4 PM flight, so we regretfully picked the earlier one.  Then to the National Museum, which was closed for a private function, so we opted for an aimless amble down the rather pleasant Al-Fateh Corniche, culminating in an ISO standard Arabic meal of hummus, tabbouleh, kebabs and Ali’s mom (as I insist on calling om Ali, the Arabic version of bread pudding) by the waterfront.

And then back to the hotel, which (according to Wikivoyage) hosted the Harvesters, one of the most popular nightspots in the city.  Indeed, the place was packed, with both Westerners and Saudis — many in full thobe-and-guthra regalia — quaffing down frothy brewskis.  (I was tempted to take a picture or two, but somehow I had the feeling that they might not have appreciated it.)  The mere availability of alcoholic malt beverages didn’t quite seem to explain the crowds, but the mystery was solved soon enough when the Filipino band launched into their second song.  The all-male musicians were joined by half a dozen Filipina singers strutting around in skimpy tops and tight little hotpants, and while it soon became clear that they had not been selected for their vocal talents, nobody seemed to mind very much.

Next morning, we hit the hotel’s fairly decent breakfast buffer, which also hosted well-signposted “Pork Items” section for all us Westerners pigging out.  After yet another fight with hotel reception, who now wanted to charge us extra because we had two people in a twin room (you don’t say?) but were yet again defeated by my laptop and its Reservation Confirmation of Doom, we headed out to the bus station and proceeded to repeat yesterday’s trip in reverse, with only two differences.  First, Bahrain immigration had managed to screw up Trsqr’s entry into the Kingdom somehow and held him for nearly 30 minutes while trying to figure out their own paperwork (it’s a good thing he had the visa receipt!), and second, this time we drove straight past Khobar into the singularly uninspiring sprawl of Dammam.

So all in all, how was Bahrain?  Well, despite beer, bacon, bargirls and other unmentioned decadences like movie theaters and Fashion TV on the telly, I can still sympathize with a friend of mine who was stranded there working for a year — it really is small, and would get boring pretty fast.  On the upside, it certainly makes a nice change of pace from Saudi, and I might even consider a second trip someday.

Beer, Bacon and Bargirls: A Multimodal Escape to Bahrain

One sunny day I found myself in Riyadh with a weekend to spare, and as luck would have it, fellow Wikitraveller and Flyertalker Trsqr was in exactly the same predicament. It was school holiday season in Saudi Arabia and flights to sensible places like Jeddah and Abha were packed tighter than the Jamarat Bridge on 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, so fuelled by a champagne-and-cigar binge in a giant disco ball suspended 240 meters above Riyadh, we eventually settled on visiting that den of relative iniquity known as the Kingdom of Bahrain, taking the train out and the plane — my first flight on Saudi Arabian LCC Sama — back in via Dammam.

Index

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Riyadh and Janadriyah

First Wife Bribed for Understanding

YANBU, 26 February 2008 — Ah, the complexities of having multiple wives. Some may think this makes life easier, considering that multiple wives means multiple housecleaners and multiple food-preparers and if one gets on your nerves you can go hang out with the other one until the first one behaves properly. But in fact it’s not as easy as it sounds to have a number of women in your life: life ain’t easy for a player, as some might say. So it may come to no surprise that – according to the daily Al-Madinah yesterday – a man lavished his first wife with a grand fete filled with expensive gifts and jewelry when she did not dispute his desire to marry a second woman. Perhaps there is no better way to reward a woman for allowing you to marry another woman than to give her lots of shiny things. —Arab News

Somewhat to my surprise, Riyadh was rather more fun this time around: by now I felt that I pretty much knew how things worked, and thanks to my diving buddies I was introduced to another side of life in Saudi through an invitation to dinner at one of the expat compounds on the outskirts of town — which shall remain nameless for soon to be obvious reasons. Just getting in entailed running an impressive security gauntlet: the outer gate checked who I was, who I was meeting and whether there was an invitation for me, the second automated gate some hundred meters away was opened on command, and the taxi I’d arrived in was turned around at the third and final gate, which was guarded not just by the compound’s own guards but two Saudi army soldiers sitting on top of a tank! This would be pretty excessive anywhere else, but four compounds in Riyadh alone were bombed in 2003-2004, using tactics like first blowing up a car and then sending in an a larger bomb disguised as an ambulance.

Compounds are popular among expats not just because of the security, but because they are in effect little bubbles where Saudi laws don’t apply: women can go wherever they want (within the compound) and wear whatever they want, people can mingle at the pool, and even alcohol is available. It was Wednesday night, the Saudi version of Friday, so after dinner at the compound’s restaurant we adjourned for a drink. I was expecting a juice bar where staff dribbles a little siddiqi (moonshine) into your Coke in exchange for a hefty tip, the way we used to do it at unlicensed university parties, but no: these guys had created an entire English pub, complete with wood paneling, jukebox, Premier League on the telly and beer being ladled out from an honest-to-Allah tap. Ladies in low-cut tops and skirts were clinking together glasses, the guys waved around cigars and the very worst of Britney Spears, Vengaboys and Bon Jovi blared out from the speakers. I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in Saudi.

But rest assured that even if you lack the wastah to get underground, Saudi Arabia has a plenthora of alcohol-free “malt beverages” that provide all the calories of beer with none of the kick, most of them attempting to make up for the fact by adding in copious quantities of sugar and artificial flavor. The bizarrest by a mile has to be “Budweiser NA Green Apple”, the solitary American entrant in the market, and I can state for the record that it is neither overly sweet nor artificial-tasting; it’s merely absolutely disgusting. This is not beer, nor even close to beer — it’s like Sprite with fermented oatmeal poured in. Yecch.

On my last full day, I headed out to the fortuitously timed Janadriyah festival, Saudi Arabia’s largest (only?) cultural event held yearly for two weeks in February-March. It had opened the day before with a camel race and the traditional arhda dance, which I’m told involves the royal family waving around swords as they waddle around, but being a Wednesday I had to work then. Information in English regarding the event is incredibly sparse (the newspapers couldn’t even agree on opening times or schedules), but I chartered a taxi and zoomed 45 km north of Riyadh into the surrounding wastelands to check it out. (For posterity, it appears that the event is open all day, but the best time to come is after 4 PM when things are in full swing.)

Rather stupidly, I’d arrived just before high noon, and it turned out that the site is gigantic and taxis aren’t allowed inside — I thus had to plod about on foot, spending the first half hour just trying to figure out which of the several dozen buildings scattered over the sands actually contained anything of interest. Signage in English was nonexistent (well, there was one that said “Exit” and pointed to the gate), but there were a couple of Arabic-only maps left over from previous years, so I figured that the area with the most points of interest marked had to be the place to go and headed there, pausing along the way for a few camel snapshots courtesy of a bunch of friendly herders.

Basically, Janadriyah is a mutant cross between a temporary exhibition, a job fair and a souk. The centerpiece “village” contains two large buildings full of stalls with artisans making and selling local products ranging from daggers and coffeepots to honey and kebabs. One of the buildings is very nicely done up like a traditional two-story souk, complete with narrow streets, balconies and pavilions; the other is just a square block with stalls along the sides. But in addition to the artisans, there’s a Saudi Who’s Who of ministries and companies showing off: the Interior Ministry had a rather gory exhibit showing the aftermath of the compound bombings and what they do to drug dealers, while Saudi Arabian Airlines had built a replica of an airplane cabin and even had a stall selling SV goods, including the playing card sets I’d lusted for — but, alas, the guy running the stall was AWOL and nobody else could sell me one. There are also quite a few shops selling food of all kinds, but having just had my breakfast I picked up a few ridiculously huge pastries for a riyal a pop, trekked back across the sands and returned to the hotel to nurse my burgeoning headache. In the unlikely event that there is a next time, I’ll go late in the afternoon and bring a hat.