SV1069 RUH-JED Y B777-200 seat 45D

…skipping a dull week in Riyadh and heading straight to the next destination…

I’d wanted to try out Nas or Sama for this flight, but neither had conveniently timed flights, while Saudia’s departures are near-hourly and reasonably priced at SR 280 (~US$75). I’d already booked my ticket before the Delhi detour, but changing the departure with a call to SV’s Singapore office was quick, effortless and free, and I could confirm that the date was changed online. Props to SV.

Riyadh’s domestic terminal is creepily similar to the international terminals — no surprise, really, as they’re all cast from precisely the same mold, down to way you have to X-ray all bags (carryon and checked) before check-in and then walk back out through the metal detector before going through security again into airside.  Being the beginning of the Saudi weekend, Wednesday evenings at the airport are unsurprisingly busy with fairly long lines at the Saudia desks, but I’d budgeted for this and check-in itself was unproblematic. The airport’s flight info monitors are rather annoying though, as not only do they switch back and forth between Arabic and English (which is understandable), but they spend half their time showing pretty pictures of the airport…

The airside of the domestic terminal looks identical to the int’l one as well, but one lady was sufficiently impressed by the cascading fountain in the center to lift her veil to take a better look! The domestic terminal is noticeably more lively than the international one, with three restaurants/cafes doing a brisk business and a gift shop/bookstore that, much to my surprise, even stocked the latest Economist. I opted for the Saudi Gazette at a sixteenth of the price, picked up a green salad and bottle of water from the Sport Cafe and leeched off the Saudia Al-Fursan Lounge’s unsecured wifi. Quite a few Umrah pilgrims also heading to Jeddah were already in ihram: consisting basically of two towels wrapped around your body, it looks rather like a cross between a terrycloth bathrobe and a shoulder-baring Roman toga, and the terminal’s bathrooms were full of pilgrims taking care of their ablutions before donning it.

As on my previous DXB-RUH-DXB sectors, the plane today was again a B777, again looking a little worse for the wear and in the odd 2-5-2 configuration. Getting everyone settled down took a while though: for example, in my row, seats F/G/H were taken up by the three Saudi wives, with seat F objecting to having a young Saudi guy sit next to her in E, so the guy was swapped with an Indian lady who didn’t object to my male presence and satisfied Ms. F’s sense of decorum. Now repeat this all over a plane that appeared full to the last seat, and I was surprised that we in the end managed to take off more or less on time.

The plane had the same IFE as on my previous DXB-RUH flights of equal length, but this time it wasn’t even switched on. As flight time was about 1.5 hours, there was enough time to serve a quick meal, which turned out to be precisely the same chicken-and-rice mandi as last time, with a small salad and piece of cake, but minus the bun or drink service other than tea/coffee. About half an hour before arrival, the same prerecorded voice that informed us of seatbelt signs and pre-flight supplications announced in remarkably crisp British English: “We have now entered miqah. At this point, pilgrims should don ihram and recite talbiyah.” Turns out the plane from RUH actually flies over the sacred territory around Mecca — and that’s the closest I’ll ever get to it. (I should have taken a window seat.)

Neatest sight while deplaning: a lady tapping out a text message on her phone under her veil, lighting it up from underneath.

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XY 406 JED-RUH Y A320 seat 15E

King Abdulaziz Int’l Airport is a mess. Turns out check-in desks are layered two deep when you enter the domestic side, and I’d plunged in towards the Saudia desks and wandered around for a while, looking for Nas… but then I spotted competitor Sama and guessed (correctly) that Nas would be near them, behind the sign saying “International departures”.

You know you’re flying off the beaten path when your very appearance at the check-in desk appears to make the day of the young Pakistani guy running… not the counter, but the old-fashion analog scale next to it, used to weigh bags. (Mine clocked-in at 17 kg, and Weighing Machine Guy was simply delighted to report that it would be free.) This ticket, too, had been booked prior to my Delhi detour, and while the departure date was easily changed by e-mail (!) to Nas customer service, I had to pay SR 50 extra at check-in, and sorting this out took a few minutes. This also meant that my original fare of SR 269, 11 riyals cheaper than the Saudia fare, turned out SR 39 more expensive than the legacy carrier with better schedules, flexible tickets, meals and all. Oh well…

Once through security, I was presented with what looked like a badly maintained bus terminal, which is in fact pretty much what it is: rows of hard plastic seats and half a dozen tightly packed gates for the buses waiting on the other side, without a single jetway. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and flies hopped happily on tables, so I was glad I’d already eaten and thus didn’t have to resort to the solitary eatery on offer. But I scrounged a chunk of table, snarfed wifi from the Al-Fursan lounge again (thanks Saudia!) and passed an hour without too much pain.

Boarding was a little confusing, as there’s no centralized departures board of any kind, you just need to listen to the announcements or try to scan the LED scrollers above each gate, all carefully positioned like the rocks in a Zen garden so that no matter where you sit, you can see only see half of them at a time. But shortly after scheduled boarding time somebody carried over a Nas poster, a mob formed next to it, and boarding started. Yay! As JED has no jetways, at least on the domestic side, we were bussed out to the plane and clambered up the stairs.

The all-female flight crew (Moroccan, I hear) was rather fetchingly decked out in a wispy half-veil a-la Emirates/Etihad, white blouse and green skirt that seemed drop-dead sexy after a week of abayas: you could actually make out the vague outline of a bust when they stretched their arms upward to put in the bags! <insert sound of bug-eyed Wahhabis having heart attacks>

The plane was considerably newer and shinier than Saudia’s workhorses, but based on the “vueling” stickers on the catering boxes it had had at least one previous owner. Seat pitch was a little tight but tolerable, helped by having a pocketless plastic seatback with a one-inch indentation for your legs.

The flight was packed full, and despite checking in pretty early I was put into a middle seat — haven’t been in one of these for a while. The flight experience was just like flying one of Europe’s better LCCs: chirpy announcements (no pre-flight prayers!), trolley service for drinks and snacks (SR2-5 for drinks, SR8 for a sandwich, so not entirely unreasonable), zero entertainment. The Saudi guy next to me bought me tea without saying a word or even smiling, but I had to reject his somewhat excessive hospitality as caffeine in the evenings keeps me awake at night.

In due course we descended and rolled straight up to a jetway. RUH seemed like an old friend now, so wonderfully quite, large and clean after JED. My suitcase came out after a tolerable wait, and my first Saudi LCC experience was over. All in all, no complaints, I’d definitely fly them again if the price and time are right.

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Jeddah

Jeddah‘s King Abdulaziz International Airport has a bad rep, and on landing I could see why. We were bused into the terminal and let loose in the baggage claim area, which is split in two and entirely devoid of signage of any sort (except to note that porters are SR 10 and luggage carts are free), but the solitary moving belt drew the crowd and soon enough bags from RUH, mine among the first, started plopping onto it. I paused at the unmanned Supreme Commission for Tourism booth long enough to pick up a map in fractured English, then hopped on a taxi outside and headed to the Marriott. JED is supposed to have the same fixed-fare system as RUH, but here too there is zero signage showing the correct fares and I stupidly figured I could get it sorted out at the hotel. According to the net, SR 50 should be plenty, but the cabbie of course asked for SR 80 and wasn’t happy at being fobbed off with SR 60 — the standard fare in Riyadh, where it’s a longer distance to the airport. Grumble.

Bright and early at 6 AM in the morning, my alarm bell rung and I headed off to dive in the Red Sea. I’d booked with Desert Sea Divers who picked me up, packed 18 people on three boats and set off on the open ocean. Unsurprisingly, all fellow pax were expats, and it was fun to watch the abayas come off and reveal bikinis underneath. We cruised through the creek, passing resorts and palaces of increasing ludicrousness, and then headed out for an hour before hooking up next to the reef. The plan of the day was three dives, so I elected to sit out the first and deepest one (as it happens, I was later told it was the worst of the three), but I joined the second one… and… whoah.

Poking around the Chicken Wreck off Jeddah Lionfish off Jeddah

pictures courtesy of Marja-Leena Lehtola

I’ve dived 50 times in a dozen countries, but I’ve never seen something quite like the Chicken Wreck. Yes, it’s a wreck, once laden with frozen chickens (hence the name) and not even particularly big as far as these things go, but on this dive everything just clicked: 30+ meter visibility, the great looming shape of the wreck encrusted with marine life, plenty of fish, corals bursting with color thanks to the sunshine above… about the only downside was that I was wearing just a 3mm shorty and was freezing my pansy tropicalized ass off towards the end. I switched to my own 1mm diveskin for the last dive (in part due to reports of jellyfish), and it seemed a better choice: better a slightly cooler torso than keeping your arms and legs entirely exposed.

The third dive, too, was through some of the most remarkable coral I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately there was a distraction: my buddy, a morbidly obese Indian guy, with such a pair of man-boobs resting on his pregnant belly that I actually initially thought he was female. Now, there are plenty of well-insulated diving walruses out there, but this guy, despite holding PADI Rescue Diver certification (the highest non-divemaster rating), was probably the most incompetent diver I’ve ever had the mispleasure of partnering with. Yo-yoing wildly up and down with total lack of buoyancy control, smashing into and grabbing onto the corals, swimming way up ahead and ignoring the DM’s frantic banging on his tank, it appeared that the only skill he had mastered was mouth-breathing. I was rather relieved when he surfaced alive.

Fortunately, the other folks on the boat were rather better company, and I hit it off well enough with a blonde Finnish girl and a friendly Basque-Irish couple to arrange to meet them later in Riyadh (about which more later). Once back at the dive shop, a bit of surprise awaited though: I’d paid SR 250 (~US$65) for two dives, which was reasonable, but the shop charged SR 150 for the return transfer from the hotel; not entirely out of line, given that it’s a good 50 km away, but it would’ve been nice to mention this a little earlier. A quick meal of shwarma and Saudi champagne (soda and apple juice) later I crashed and slept until morning.

My second day in Jeddah was a Friday, which in retrospect was a little unfortunate, as nothing in the country stirs until the noon prayers are over. The Marriott obligingly gave me a late checkout, so I whiled away the heat of the day by the rather nice pool until driven out by a quadruplicate mosquecast of the noon sermon, and only headed out to al-Balad, the old town, around 4 PM when I figured the shops would be opening again.

Jeddah’s old town, or more specifically Souq al-Alawi, is the first place in Saudi where I felt like I could have been wandering in the souqs of Cairo, Tunis or East Jerusalem, if not quite as hectic or packed. Conical piles of colorful spices, the queasily intoxicating smells of Arab perfumes and incense, tailors and cobblers with piles of shoes and clothes… but what makes Jeddah stand out is the local style of architecture, with towering buildings (often five or six stories) built from coral and framed in wood painted brown or green. With the lanes rather too narrow to get about by car, they’d been spared from razing, but aside from a few beaten-up “Historic District” signs and a duly ignored English-language sign requiring visitors to register for photography permits, precious little had been done to maintain them. Nearly all were in an appalling state of disrepair, and quite a few were uninhabited and literally falling apart.

The al-Alawi Restaurant was closed (not unexpected; Saudis like to eat late), and I realized I’d better get a move on if I wanted to eat something before the first evening prayer, so I hotfooted out through the gold souq and into the modern part of al-Balad, where not a few shaven-headed US Marines were walking around souvenir shopping — the only other foreigners I’d seen in the area. Picking a large shopping mall at random, I headed to the top floor to find a deserted-looking foodcourt and a packed Filipino restaurant with the delightful name of Barrio Fiesta. Today, the fiesta was being celebrated not only with a string of Christm…err…secular tree lights, but strobe lights above the sign as well, so I decided to give the Pinoys a chance to tickle my tastebuds.

I asked the waiter what was the most popular item on the menu among locals, and after pondering a bit and confirming that I really did want their food as opposed to, say, a nice plate of fried rice, he suggested kare-kare. Having not the slightest idea of what it was, I readily agreed and awaited something different for a change. I wasn’t disappointed in that respect at least: kare-kare turned out to mean a peanut-based stew of oxtail, banana flower, bitter eggplant and string beans, a rather peculiar and, to me, rather unpalatable mix. Fortunately, I was also given a little pot of bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp paste) to go with it, and while Wikipedia notes that “to many Westerners unfamiliar with this condiment, the smell can be extremely repulsive“, I’ve spent long enough in South-East Asia to positively relish the salty-spicy kick it added. I wonder how this stuff would taste with kebabs and hummus?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 2: Delhi, Riyadh, Jeddah and Janadriyah

This trip report is a followup to the original Wahhabalinese Adventures, detailing my second sojourn to the Magic Kingdom. I’ll be traveling a bit longer this time, and hence my agenda includes a little sightseeing and scuba diving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city and commercial capital.


This was supposed to be a straight Singapore-Saudi round-trip with a local round-trp thrown in.  However, two days before my planned departure I got an early-morning phone call, and by the end of it I’d changed my plans to head to Delhi for a week first instead. Our corporate travel agent, who are good at everything except finding cheap fares, first suggested a ridiculous SIN-DEL-BAH-RUH-JED-AUH-SIN routing on 9W/GF/SV/SQ that would’ve cost nearly US$3000, but Etihad’s remarkably helpful Singapore office managed to rebook me on DEL-RUH-SIN for barely a third of that — it actually ended up costing substantially less than my previous SIN-RUH return!  Here’s the final route:

Index