30 May 2009

Wolves and Bears

On sunday I set off for a long ride to Ha'il, 400 and a bit kilometers to the Nortwest of Riyadh. At midday I arrived in Buraydah were I took a rest before tackling the last stretch to Ha'il. I pulled up at a petrol station around 11:30, or better said around 'Dhuhr' prayer time. finding the place deserted, as all men are supposed to be praying in the nearest mosque. It is one of the most bizarre and powerful experiences I have ever had, the effect that every call to prayer has on daily life in Saudi. In Qatar, you would also hear the muezzin five times a day, but life would basically just go on. Although you knew nothing would happen -businesslike- between 11:30 and 13:00, the time of the Dhurh prayer and lunch. In the Kingdom, everything would come to a halt, in the smallest settlement or biggest city. Supermarkets and every small shop would close, restaurants stop serving food, petrol stations go empty, trucks stop by the side of the road and you would see the driver praying in the shadow of his truck, barbershops are deserted, tea and sheesha bars stop buzzing... Everything is left behind, lights are still on, doors are locked and all men hurry to the mosque, only to return 20 minutes later or so, and go on with what they stopped doing. If you do not go to the mosque you run the risk of being interrogated by the infamous Mutawa (religious police), and your business being shut down for no compliance to the Shari'a Law. Luckily I could just go on wandering around because my Visa stated that I am a 'Christian'.

I waited for the prayers to be over (I needed fuel) and sat down in the shade, cooling down, looking at the orange monster that had brought me so far already, when I realized that the bloody thing was leaking oil. A closer look did indeed reveal a puddle of oil in the inside of the skit plate (aluminium plate to protect the engine). I removed the skit plate and cleaned the bottom of the engine block, although unable to find out where the oil was coming from. I topped up the oil and convinced myself that everything would be fine. An hour later I couldn't find any oildrops and set off again.

Twenty or so kilometers before Ha'il I passed my tenth checkpost of the day. At earlier checkpoints, the would content themselves to ask me where I came from. where I was going and what the topspeed of my bike was. This checkpoint, however, was different, I soon realized . It had been set up especially to intercept me, as the police dispersed the block as soon as I arrived. After a couple of phonecalls and radio conversations I was made clear that I had to follow the police car. They delivered me to the only hotel in town and made it clear to me that from now on I would have a police escort following me everywhere I would go, for the rest of my stay in the Kingdom. For my own security of course. In 2006 four french expats were killed in the area I was heading to, although none of the police men would give that as a reason, they would go on about the dangers of the wildlife:"There are dangerous animals out there, wolves and bears.". There is no point in starting a discusssion with a Saudi keeper of the law, believe me, I tried.

Al Ula, the small town in the northwest of Saudi, was my destination on Monday. As promised a police car accompagnied me. Every checkpoint there would be a new car waiting for me. Most of the patrols were very friendly although none of them spoke English. However some of them tailed me so closely that I had to force myself not to think what would happen if I fell. Others would urge me to go faster, which is easily said if you are driving a LandCruiser V8 4.5. I tried to explain to them that my bike would not go faster than 90 (km/h), especially with the fierce head-on desert winds, which forced me to sort of cling onto the left side of the bike not to loose my balance. Eventually I made it to Al Ula, checked into the hotel, excited about the Nabacean site I was to visit.

28 May 2009

"Why not take a plane?"

After the weekend I drove to the National Museum of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh. The huge modern complex in the center of the city is a proud display of the Bedu culture and the rich history of Saudi Arabia. It took me a while to find the office where I had to apply for the two day permit for the Mada'in Saleh site. At first they were reluctant to issue the permit, as it is very uncommon for an individual to come up there and apply for it. Saudi Arabia is not accustomed to tourism. The limited form of tourism they know is strictly group organised and easy to control. Independent travellers (or tourists) are a very rare sight in the Kingdom. Luckily for me they considered it a great plan that I was riding a bike from Qatar to Belgium (although somebody did ask me:" Why didn't you just catch a plane?") and would have my permit ready by early afternoon.


I wondered around the empty museum for an hour of two, overwhelmed by the complicated history of the country and the large collection or art and artefacts on display. The grounds of the museum are empty four days a week, only to fill up with families from Wednesday (around dusk) to Friday, when entire families sit in the buzzing shade and a trillion kids play around the parc, surrounding the museum. The museum howevers stays deserted for most of the time.

In order to clear my head, I set off to get lost in the old part of town and the busy real-life soucq streets. Narrow dusty streets, small shops selling cheap imported chinese goods, tiny juice bars, old cars...Riyadh doesn't differ that much from Doha. I remembered the first time I arrived in Doha, two years before. Back then it was a totally new world, so different from what I was used to. Strolling through Riyadh, I realized that I had become a bit indifferent to the surroundings I was in. The old (authentic) parts of most Middle Eastern towns are more or less alike. You find yourself in narrow streets in between major traffic boulevards. Houses look worn down, streets are patched up and ill maintained, dirt lingers around everywhere. Because of the fierce midday temperatures you will find yourself mostly alone in the streets. Every so often the narrow streets will give onto a deserted sandy square, which will only come alive at dusk, after the 'Magrib' (sunset) prayer. Then men will appear for a sheesha and a cup of tea, discussing whatever it is that Arabian man endlessy seem to discuss. Indian immigrants will flock togheter and exchange news from home, catch up on gossip or exchange latest possibilities for a new, maybe better job. Women are rarely seen, after all they are still confined to the other side of the walls, surrounding the square.

Around one o'clock I got my permit. Luckily I checked it, as they managed to issue it for the wrong dates, which was hastily fixed. My last afternoon in Riyadh I spend reading lazily and preparing my trip to Egypt.

couchsurfing Riyadh

The next day I started early and drove the 250 km to Riyadh. My first major city I entered. It was a magical feeling. You have no idea what is awaiting you or where you have to go. But that doesn't matter as you are so excited to enter that strange and new place. Around midday I installed myself in the Kingdom tower. Riyadh is a vast capital that seems to extend endlessy in all directions. There are however very few high buildings, of which the Kingdom Tower is one. It is a clear landmark in Riyadh, so that was where I headed to, waiting for my host, David. I had made arrangments with him through couchsurfing to stay at his place . I met up with him in a nearby shopping mall.

Arriving at his compound I had my first cliche on Saudi confirmed. The compound was a fortified place, walls, barb wire and several gates, checkpoints with armed guards, pick ups with machine guns mounted on it in front of the gate... ("A kind of a prison, not to keep people in but to keep people out" as David stated, and he could know as he lived in one of the compounds that was attacked in the 2003-2004 assaults). David and his wife, Charmaine, welcomed me in their home, this was better than any hotel room.

The next days I spent in riyadh. I visited the bridge on the kingdom tower, strolled along the streets and the soucqs of Riyadh, tried to visit Old Diriyiah, the old center of town where Riyadh was originally founded. Unfortunaly they are rebuilding the entire place and so it was pretty much close to the public. I also needed to go to the National Museum, in order to obtain my permit for visiting Mada'in Saleh, in the north of the country. So on wednesday afternoon I went there to arrange the permit. My mistake! The person, issuing the permit, did only work until 2 pm. Thursday and Friday are the official weekend days in the Kingdom, so I would have to wait until Saturday for my permit. Luckily I could stay with David and Charmaine as long as I wanted. On Thursday night I had my first and only taste of a Saudi party. A friend of David was leaving the country and threw a party. So I ended up have a great time and tasting the home made beer, wine and whisky.

6000 bottles of Jack Daniels

On Monday 27 April 2009 I left Qatar on two wheels. Qatar is small, so it only takes a 45 minute ride to the border post at Salwa. Through the help of a family member and his old business contacts in the Kingdom (that is how Saudi Arabia is reffered to by expats and Saudis) I was able to arrange a 1 month visa for Saudi Arabia.

Getting out of Qatar wasn't too hard, a couple of papers and stamps and before I knew it I was driving through no man's land to the Saudi border. Getting into Saudi was a different story. First customs was convinced that I was importing the bike into Saudi, so they wanted to give me Saudi registration plates. Finally I managed to explain I was only transitting, so the sent me to a different office and a different queue. Before I knew it I ended up between huge trucks, which were all transitting to Jordan, the UAE or Syria. Again I explained to the custom officers that I needed transit papers for the bike. They asked me where I would go and what route I would take, how many days I would stay in Saudi and so on and so on. After six hours of drinking tea, handing out cigarettes, a private tour of a water tanker truck in which, a day earlier, they found an illegal cargo of 6000 bottles of Jack Daniels and endless repetitions of the same answers the
manager of the custom office explained to me that they could only issue me a 3-day transit visa, in spite of the numerous attempts I took to explain him that I could not cross the kingdom in three days riding the bike, after all it is a vast country. I ended up with a three day transit visa for the Kingdom (for my bike, my visa was absolutely fine). The Customs at Salwa assured me
it was no problem if I stayed longer: 'Just make up a story about a breakdown when you are leaving the Kingdom.' What could I do? By then it was 3 o'clock in the afternoon everybody wanted to go home and I wanted to go on, so I agreed and half an hour later I was officially in the Kingdom, that mystical country everybody warned me of.

A short ride in the twilight and my first sandstorm later I arrived in the oasis town of Al Hofuf.

27 May 2009


While working in Qatar I bought myself a motorbike. That had since long been a dream of mine. I stumbled on this bike by accident, secondhand, on a expat community site. It was perfect, and that had nothing to do with the colour. So I bought it. Even then, the journey back to belgium was already part of the sale, a distant and vague plan, but one that always lingered in the back of my head. I enjoyed the bike during my stay in Qatar, on the road and even more "off the road" in the Southern part of Qatar, the sand dunes.

Untill the day I got fired in January 2009. Even the 'best employer of Belgium' was not immune for the global economic crisis and before I knew it I was out of job. I was left in Qatar with a group of good friends, a load of memories and an orange problem bike. A 'problem' bike, yes. In December 2008 it seriously broke down. I had to change the cylinder, the piston and the cylinder cover (and spent almost a month's salary on the repairs), due to a major breakdown related to poor fuel quality and a shabby maintenance service in Qatar. There I am, no job and a bike into pieces. My first reaction was:"Sell it!". I posted an add. One of the interested buyers was an Iranian man, the friendliest person I have ever met. We met so he could see and test the bike. The moment I saw him taking the bike for a spin around the compound I realized that I could not sell this machine. I would gear it up and do it. I would do what I planned the moment I bought the bike, go on that journey back to Belgium.

February and April I sorted everything out for the trip (in March I travelled Oman for three weeks with Liz). Paperwork, Visa for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, road maps, travel guides, sort out what spare parts and tools I would have to take along, installing the luggage system, give myself a crash course in bike mecanics and emergency repairs... Step by step I got myself ready for this adventure, until there was nothing left to sort out and the only thing I had to do was (apart from throwing three leaving dinner/bbq/parties) rev it and go.


A blog. Why? Why only now? I needed some time to let this adventure sink in from the day I started and I had to convince myself of the 'need' of this blog. Even today I am not sure that this blog has a right of existence of its own. Finally I decided that I would blog because I felt that writing about the journey helps clear my mind. Everybody who has been travelling knows the overwhelming effect all those constant new impression, sights, scents and confrontations have on you. Writing them down enables me to remain 'fresh' during my trip. The blog is a condensed version of everything recorded in my journal.

Secondly the blog is there to return something to all the people I have been bothering with my dreams, stories, worries and preparatory issues during the months preceding this trip.

so here it is.


It is orange. A bright orange, fierce as an african setting sun. And I am driving it, loving the idea when I am not, enjoying the feeling when I am. It is a motorcycle. Two wheels, one cylinder. I am driving it from Qatar to Belgium. This is the account of my journey.