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Jazan, Farasan Islands and Abha

The 23rd of September, National Day in Saudi Arabia, is an unusual date in the calendar. Nothing strange about that date inasmuch as it’s the day after the 22nd, and the day before the 24th. However it is fixed in the Gregorian calendar whilst the rest of the kingdom’s events and festivities are based on the Hirji calendar which as I have explained before is a period of 12 lunar months and usually 10 or 11 days shorter than our solar-based calendar. So whilst the Hajj and the two Eid festivals get earlier and earlier in our year, National Day remains fixed. And this year it was the 90th such day, celebrating the founding of the Kingdom, which must have been in 1930. But no, in fact according to the history books the two previous kingdoms of Najd (Eastern/central Arabia) and Hejaz (western Arabia) were united under King Saud on 23rd September 1932 (22nd Jumada Al-Awwal 1351).  I make this 88 Gregorian years ago, however the Saudis seem to reckon that there have been 90 lunar years since 1932 so claim this is the 90th National Day. But wait, this year is 1442, so that’s 91…? In the words of the urban philosopher Derek Trotter “…It’s a mystery, like the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea…”

Anyway, King Salman kindly gave us Wednesday 23rd and Thursday 24th off, allowing a 4-day weekend. Normally this would be an opportunity to escape the country and go somewhere for a mini-break. But not this year with international travel still effectively suspended. So rather than 4 days off and sitting cooped up in our compound in Riyadh, we set off to explore a different corner of the kingdom – the south west. We booked three nights in Jazan. This city is on the Red Sea coast and is 50km away from the border with Yemen, but is classified as a safe destination for tourists. Its main claim of interest is being its proximity to the Farasan Islands. The city is the administrative capital of Jazan Province and has the requisite second tier authorities and directorates. To my western eyes the city is unremarkable, its only interesting fearure being the promenade beside the sea, which in common with most Arabic seaside cities is called the Corniche. This is a word that has lost its original Latin meaning of a coastal road cut into a ledge on a cliff, and the nearest coastal cliffs to Jazan are many dozens of kilometres away. In Scotland we would call this a “links”. I digress, the corniche in Jazan is a pleasant grass and asphalt walk with benches, childrens’ playgrounds and the ubiquitous warning signs from the Border Guards not to swim.20200923_151526jpg

Prior to going to Jazan we had done our homework and looked for official tourist information. But there wasn’t really much official to be had. Despite KSA now offering tourist visit visas, there is next to nothing available in the English language, so we turned to the usually helpful information available on two ex-pat commentary website/blogs, Blue Abaya  and Pink Tarha  The former is from a European perspective and the latter from an Asian one, and the same location sometimes gets contrasting but informative commentaries. Even so, these can be very loose guides as places in the Kingdom can open, close or disappear entirely at the drop of a hat. Commentaries on Tripadvisor weren’t too positive either as it gave its no.1 visitor attraction in Jazan as the local shopping mall. As it happened, our hotel (Marriott Courtyard) was next door to this mall and had a direct connection into it. The only thing I could see in the mall’s favour was that it was air-conditioned.20200926_103356jpg

View of Jazan from the hotel

We had read conflicting information on booking ferry tickets to the Farasan Islands, ranging from being able to book in advance, not being able to book in advance, and having to book in person at the port on the day or on the day before. Certainly I could find no on-line option. Time to call in a favour. Working in the Transport General Authority I have occasionally helped out our marine sector colleagues with proof-reading their English language publications, so I asked for help in obtaining ferry tickets. They were able to contact Jazan and sort out tix for me, Elaine and the hire car (I had to pass on the registration once I had collected it at Jazan airport). The journey is advertised as being 1 hour in a modern twin-hull fast ferry, so it seemed a bit much to be required to check in 90 minutes before departure. But those were the rules and we complied, arriving at the port before 5.30 am for the 07.00 departure. The administration was fierce. To enter the port we had to show travel tickets to the guard on the gate. Then in the general car queue all the passengers were turfed out and required to go through foot embarkation, and once inside the terminal building were security screened and ticket checked. In the car queue we were called forward in tranches, and had to show tickets, proof of ownership of the vehicle (I had to show the hire agreement), the car was searched and drivers had to get out and stand in line whist we and the cars were sniffed at by a security dog. By the time I drove the car on board Elaine was already embarked and sitting in the saloon. The ship had three seating areas – Women, VIP and Open. We were in the Open area which in itself was segregated with men on the port side and families on the starboard. Once underway we were not allowed out onto the promenade deck and a Saudi border guard was stationed at each external door. I must admit that the experience of travel was diminished by the restrictions placed upon us tourists. On the positive side, the journey itself was free of charge, including the car booking. And importantly, it was safe being as it was within 50km of Yemen, and within 20km of Yemeni controlled islands. (If this blog is being read in the future, since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been trying to assist the government of Yemen by fighting against the rebel Houthi faction that is occupying much of the country).20200924_062950jpg

Boarding for Farasan

Once we got to Farasan there was no tourist help available, and no “brown signs” indicating the location of places of interest in English. Whether there were any in Arabic I am not sure, but I suspect not. So what are the places of interest? Well, the islands (there are two inhabited and dozens of uninhabited ones) are actually coral constructions which are exposed a few metres above the water level and have been solidified over millennia by organic matter and blown-in sand. There are no natural trees so the landscape is similar to the mainland – ochre coloured and bare. The main attraction lies offshore where – reportedly – some amazing and unspoilt, and even unexplored marine habitats exist. Tourists come here to dive and snorkel. There are a few dive centres on the islands and four local hotels. Not being dive enthusiasts, and having only a few hours to spend, we drove to the far end of the main island, parked the car at a quiet bay and went for a paddle in the sea. It was lovely, in late September the temperature was over 30 degrees C, and the water was crystal clear. So, if you are looking for a holiday that gives you peace and quiet, no mod cons and no tourist services this beach is the place for you. There were a few small boats at the beach and these looked mostly unused, but could be used for fishing if need be. Equipment was on board some we looked at, no rods but polystyrene looking blocks with line wrapped around them waiting to be baited, dropped overboard and paid out.  


Not quite Ayr, Bondi or Copacabana, but Farasan has simplicity.


Farasan fish market

We drove back to the main town on the island and found it was nothing special. The only interesting feature was the fish market which had a very elaborate entrance. There’s an old Ottoman fort just north of the town, but we didn’t visit that as it wasn’t unique to Farasan and we were quite tight for time. The restaurants and coffee shops in the town were all Arabic in nature, there were no western outlets or chains on the island – a haven of non-multinational influence.   We took the ferry back to Jazan, observing exactly the same formalities as on the outward journey.

In the evening we met up with one of our Saudi curling friends who is a nurse and has been posted to Jazan for a few months. It was nice to see her, and we had coffee and cake in a cafe overlooking the corniche and as a bonus, had a good view of the National Day fireworks show.  How times have changed in the time I have been in KSA. Outdoor cafes, fireworks, curling. Who would have thought it?

On the Friday we visited Abha. This city is 2½ hours drive from Jazan, and the attraction is that it is perched high in the Asir mountains. The final 45 minutes of the drive are quite spectacular as the road enters the foothills and then really climbs the mountain, with steep gradients, hairpin bends and tunnels and bridges. The main part of Abha city is about 2,280m above sea level, which is about 7,500 feet. This is slightly higher than Taif which I have visited before. There are similarities, with the environment being more pleasant than the Riyadh area, at least 10 degrees C cooler, and far more greenery which is the result of more rain and early morning cloud coverage. And like Taif, there are tribes of baboon living at the roadside and being fed by passers-by. So, what to do in Abha? Blue Abaya had some positive suggestions, mostly centred on viewing the city and its environs from some of the cable cars that have been built, and from visiting some of the parks and hills inside the city. Pink Tarha was completely scathing of Abha, having visited the city during the winter when it was cold, and all the places of interest were closed. Armed with the minimal tourist information that existed online, we decided to head for the cable car at Al Soudah. This is in a ridge a further 1,500 feet above the city , and drops down into a valley to give access to an ancient abandoned village. We arrived at the top station at around 2.00pm, and found out that it was operating, but all tickets for the day were sold out. The last journey was advertised at 5.30pm. So, we spent some time mooching around the ridge area and enjoying the views. With a gentle breeze, the place was very pleasant indeed. An ice cream van was doing good trade and we sat for a while enjoying a cone each.

So back into the city, stopping to marvel the view of the unique hilltop restaurant on the horizon. This is a restaurant kitted out from a retired Saudia 747 jet and it is perched on top of a hill to the north edge of the city. Is it open for business? Apparently not. See this article published in AlArabiya, an on-line news site for an explanation on how a cream coloured jumbo has become a white elephant.   The world is littered with follies and this is surely one of the more absurd ones. 


In the city we decided to head for the Green Mountain, a raised hillock which according to the tour guides boasted a rather good restaurant. Even better, we could arrive in style via the cable car from the nicely sited Abha Palace Hotel grounds beside the lake. Even better, it was working and we bought return tickets to the Green Mountain, costing 100 SAR apiece.  Like the Al Soudah “cable car” it is actually a gondola system and the journey to the green mountain is over two systems with an intermediate change station. As the crow flies the distance is 2.3km, but the cables take a large loop around a scenic valley and the actual distance travelled is actually 3.6km. With social distancing capacity was restricted to 1 family per gondola car and people were employed to spray disinfectant on the cabin seats and wipe the inner handrails after the previous party had alighted. After a pleasant journey we arrived at the green Mountain terminus and got off. 


Approaching Green Mountain

Immediately though we were ordered to reboard again with the explanation that the mountain and its restaurant were closed. And indeed, the exit was barricaded so there was no way out. Big disappointment. Had we known that we wouldn’t have bothered going, especially as the transit prices weren’t cheap. There had been no indication in English at the ticket sale point to warn of any restriction. Poor show at what was one of the prime attractions in the “Arab City of Tourism 2017”. Back to the car and then a drive around the city looking for somewhere appetizing to dine  We found an Italian themed restaurant which had an inviting menu and had quite a nice meal there.

And so the drive back to Jazan in the darkness. The road down the mountain was quite hairy, not because of the road quality, but because of the antics of the other drivers who obviously knew the road better than I did and knew which tight corners and blind summits they could overtake on. But the worst bit was when we got back down onto the plain and on a straight and level road we were hit in the rear by a car with 5 youngsters in it, out joyriding with their car number plates taped over to avoid recognition. I will gloss over what was a few worrying hours, but we were uninjured and we made it back to Jazan, contacted the car hire company and Najm (insurance loss adjusters call-out service) and sorted out all the formalities.

So, would I go back to the area again? Jazan – no, nothing inspiring there. Farasan – yes, but only of I were a diving enthusiast, which I am not. Or perhaps if I wanted to read a good book in peace and quiet. Abha – yes, possibly for a couple of days to see more of the city and hope that more places were open. I’d probably go there in summer as a break from Riyadh, but at that time it is peak season and the many hotels could well be full as the city is one of the sites for royal summer palaces, and if the court is in town, I expect that everything would get block booked.

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