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Being a tour guide - 2

Prior to Covid I had been liaising with UK-based railway tours operator PTG to help them put together a tour focused on railway interest to visit KSA. This originated following an earlier PTG tour to another land when the tour leader there said he had always wanted to visit the railways of Saudi, but did not have any contacts. My friend Clive said he knew me to be there and made suitable introductions. Their intended tour guide Ray had visited us in Riyadh in January 2020 to scope out the various non-railway add-ons in the city, and the tour had been planned to operate in November of that year. We all know what happened next, so fast-forward 2 years and the tour programme was resurrected but with a different tour leader (Kevin) in charge as Ray was indisposed. My part in the tour was liaising with the various railway companies, with the permission of the Transport General Authority, to allow the tour participants to visit several out-of-public-domain sites. I was also to travel with the tour as in-country specialist host to smooth out any admin or permission issues that might arise. PTG paid for my travel and hotel costs, and the TGA released me from normal tasks to do this. Thank you to both.

The tour participants gathered in Bahrain then crossed into KSA by bus over the causeway, and I met them at their hotel in Dammam on Saturday 19th November. PTG had also enlisted – as required by Saudi law – a KSA-licensed tour operator, and this company had booked the hotels and buses to transport the tour on their non-rail journeys and arranged access to local tourism sites. They provided a tour manager too, a gentleman from Tabuk called Ali. The 16-strong tour party comprised of participants from the UK, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, and only two of them were ladies. The tour had been marketed as a rail-interest tour with some local interest visits, and as much train travel as possible.

The first site visit was on the Saturday with a visit to the SAR (former SRO) fleet workshops at Dammam, and SAR kindly provided their workshop manager to show us around. This was to be a feature of the whole tour, local managers were mobilized to welcome the tour wherever it went. On the Sunday there was a visit to SAR’s Nairiyah main workshops, a 3-hour drive north of Dammam. On return, there was a visit to the old market area, which was frankly disappointing. Much better was Al Ahsa (Hofuf) old souk, a well preserved and restored area where a warren of indoor shops was near the heart of this old city located around an oasis. Al Ahsa had been the Arabian capital of the Ottomans when they were in this area in the 1800s. We visited there in a stop during the rail journey from Dammam to Riyadh on Monday. The adjacent fortress was a disappointment though, being closed for renovation.


Al Ahsa souk

On arrival in Riyadh, once checked into the hotel there the group visited the internal 11km automatic railway system in the Princess Noura University for Women. This visit had been arranged for the evening due to the university being out-of-bounds for men during the daytime! Being back in Riyadh, I took full advantage with 2 nights back in my own bed.

On the Tuesday we visited the Musmak Fortress in Riyadh, unchanged from my visit there in October apart from the opening of a couple of exhibition rooms which had a display of Arabic coffee and its significance in the culture here. 


Display of a traditional coffee hospitality lounge

Following that was a visit to the trolleybus system in King Abdulaziz bin Saud University for Health and the adjacent National Guard Hospital. And after that we visited the Aviation Museum at the Royal Saudi Air Force offices, but found it to arbitrarily closed on the day due to Saudi having just played against Argentina in the World Cup and winning 2-1. Next was a visit to the Al Rajhi Mosque where we were given a tour by a young imam. This is the largest mosque in Riyadh, and has a main prayer hall we were told can house 30,000 people at a time. Very impressive. 


Prayers in progress at the Al Rajhi mosque, Riyadh

Next day the group travelled by train north to Hail, and on arrival had a tour of the city, visiting the (closed) Qishlah Palace, the (closed) A’arif castle and the (very open) area where dallahs (traditional Arabic coffee pots) are hand-made.


A'arif Castle, Hail

On Wednesday night the tour split into two groups, with those who had opted to travel to the end of the line going with me to Qurriyat on the overnight train, and those who preferred more historic culture travelling with Kevin and Ali on the Thursday morning to Al Ula. The second group had organised visits to the Hegra tomb sites, whilst my group arrived there by road on the Thursday afternoon, just in time for a sunset visit to the Elephant Rock site. The commercial clutter around this iconic rock continues to grow apace with both sides now housing café complexes, thus killing off any opportunity for a photo of the natural shape on its own. What next? – elephant ears painted on? Instead of staying at an hotel, the group was billeted in a private villa with a dozen or so bedrooms, some en-suite, some not. There was no resident staff, the owner dropped off a takeaway evening meal then delivered a breakfast in the morning. Not quite what most of the tour party were expecting, so it added a touch of team-building ambience as everyone tried to work out how all the appliances and hot water systems worked.


Elephant Rock / Jabel Al-Fil, 2022

Friday had been planned for a desert / transit day as all sites and museums would be closed, so the group piled onto the bus and headed south towards Madinah. The journey was planned around visits to two sites where there were Hejaz Railway relics. The first of these was at Hadiyah, and the second at Buwayr. 


Former Hejaz Railway scene - 1


Former Hejaz Railway scene - 2


Former Hejaz Railway scene - 3

The abandoned train at Hadiya (photo 3) seems to have diminished since my last visit there,  signs of metal theft being evident. I wonder how long it will last?

The bus rolled into Madinah at dusk, and Ali guided it past the Prophet’s Mosque, which was nicely illuminated. Unlike the mosque we visited in Riyadh, this site was haram – prohibited to non-muslims, so entry was not possible.


Prophet's Mosque, Madinah, as seen through the windows of the tour bus.

After a much-appreciated stay in a western quality hotel near the airport, the group set off for the first location of the day, the Hejaz Railway Museum in Madinah. Although the museum was open as advertised, it was only the station building, with no access to the “garden” where the station platforms and rolling stock was displayed. Ali’s tour company had been asked to gain access to this, and to the locomotive shed for the tour, but had failed on that account. I applied some wasta (influence through contacts) and called a senior person I knew, and a little while later access was granted. Unfortunately the key-holder for the loco shed was not available, but there were a couple of window panes missing and the tourists were able to see the contents. Next was a visit to the trains maintenance depot for the Haramain high speed railway, and finally a journey on the train from Madinah to Jeddah. After the tourists were safely onto their next bus to the hotel, I made my way to the airport and back to Riyadh. Their final day on Sunday was a tour around the city sights of Jeddah and then departures to their home countries.

So, an interesting week with a group of characters who were (all but one) experiencing their first visit to KSA. Feedback from them was that they were pleasantly surprised that the infrastructure of the Kingdom was so advanced, but that the organisation of small details in hospitality and tourism needs further work. 


Maybe, once I retire, there could be a niche for me in leading railway-based tours? Anyone needing such services, please get in touch! 

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212