Contact us

Hajj and home

At the end of June the annual Hajj was on in Makkah. As several times previously, I was privileged to be able to attend in my supervisory role at the railway system. I have described the railway before, and this time it was fully used, the reductions of the covid years being over. Overall, there were 2 million Hajjis in Makkah, and of these 313,000 were users of the railway.


Hajj railway in operation

One difference this year is that I went by car from Riyadh to Makkah and back. The reason for not flying was down to flight availability and late bookings meaning my colleague and I could not find convenient timed flights to and from either Jeddah or Taif. So my colleague and I shared the driving in a hired car. It was 850km from Riyadh to Makkah, and with pit stops it took us about 8 hours each way. Once out of the city limits the permissible speed is 140 km/h (87mph). En route, we passed well over 100 coaches taking police and other security personnel from the Riyadh are to Makkah. The Hajj is such an important event in Saudi life that thousands of people are seconded from the rest of the Kingdom to serve in Makkah.

As before, I was staying in Al Hada which is at the top of the ridge, some 6,000 feet above Makkah city, and at the same level as the nearby city of Taif. After the Hajj had finished, we (the crew of 6 ex-pats who work with me) had a spare evening before making our various ways back to our bases. But what could we do? I was prepared for this, and had promised the guys something different. Taif has a small ice rink in a shopping mall, and I had brought 4 curling stones, some brushes and other essential curling paraphernalia with me in the car. I had checked to see if we could run a pop-up curling game there, and so a token demonstration of the sport was possible in our second venue in the Kingdom. But when we arrived, there had been a problem with the ice plant and the rink resembled a very shallow pool. Thwarted!


Wot - no ice?

Once back in Riyadh I had 2 weeks at work in which to write up my technical report from the Hajj, and I completed that in time. That was followed by 2 weeks leave, and I was more than ready for that. Now, there has been a change in the flights to and from Saudi Arabia, one of the European budget airlines, WizzAir has started operating from mid-European countries to and from both Riyadh and Jeddah, and their prices are significantly less than BA and the other main carriers for flights out of the Middle East. So I decided on a novel route home, and using the app Skyscanner to look at options, booked a WizzAir flight from Riyadh to Naples, a train from Naples to Florence and a flight from there to Edinburgh, saving myself some £250 against BA prices. And for the return leg, it was Glasgow to Frankfurt to Larnaca (Cyprus) and then on to Riyadh. Less convenient I know, but substantially cheaper again. The one thing about booking budget airlines is to remember that the advertised prics exclude luggage, seat reservations, etc. Even so, still significant savings can be made if you are prepared to accept a little inconvenience.

And once home it was nice, as always, to relax and see family and friends. Someone asked my what I miss most from home, being resident in Saudi Arabia. Taking the context of the conversation into account, I think my questioner expected me to say alcohol or pork, but my response was somewhat more prosaic, as after a short consideration my answer was fresh air, drinkable tapwater and green scenery. These are things we take for granted in Scotland, and I suppose it proves the saying “the best things in life are free”.


Green scenery - Biggar style

As well as the usual delights of being at home and catching up with friends and family, there were summer activities in and around Biggar. The best of these was the annual Biggar (agricultural) Show, which is held each July in the Showfield. This features farm and domestic animals being shown and judged, crafts and baking competitions, Highland Dancing shows and competitions, agricultural and rural equipment sales, entertainment stalls and tents, tractor parades, the local pipe band, and dozens of other local features. It has been described as “the best one-day show in Scotland”. Maybe so, but for us it is also a chance to see lots of familiar faces as well has having a pleasant day out. This year the weather was reasonably kind, predominantly dry, which will have aided local ticket sales.

A novelty this time at home was being able to harvest some of our own rhubarb, and enjoy eating it in a number of formats. It had been planted last year, we had been given a root from a friend. It was delicious! This savoury vegetable is something that I have never seen in Saudi, in any format: pie, crumble, jam or raw. Other quintessentially British foods that I have never seen in KSA are liquorice and gelatin/jelly foods. I can understand the latter as gelatin often contains pork, however bovine gelatin also exists so I’m not sure why we can’t get that. But why we can’t seem to get liquorice remains a mystery.

On my way back to KSA I had a night in Cyprus, 14 hours in Larnaca between flights. I didn’t mind too much because I had never before visited the island, and I would get a good sleep on Friday night before arriving late into Riyadh and work early on the Sunday. I booked an apartment not far from LCA airport on the bus route to the city, a late booking ensured a very modest price. On the Saturday I had a long lie in then a leisurely “Full English Breakfast” at a café in the town square within sight of St Lazarus church/monastery. 

Then time for a walk along the promenade to the Yahct Club for a leisurely beer then the bus back to the airport. I was surprised how anglified the place was, which in retrospect makes sense because there is a large UK forces presence in the Greek end of the island. All customer service staff spoke good English, British style foods were available in restaurant menus I saw, the traffic was left hand drive like the UK, and standard UK 3-pin electrical plugs were the norm. And, most fortunately Cyprus was not – at that time anyway – suffering from the forest fires which are currently plaguing southern Europe.


Lazarus preparing for a quick getaway!

Contacting us is straightforward

* Email:

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