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Unexpected sojourn in Bahrain

Having spent a lovely Christmas holiday at home in Scotland with the family, and having complied with the various strictures in place in this ever-moving jigsaw of health precautions it was time to return to KSA, with my flight booked for 29th December. A wee spanner was thrown into the cogs on 20th December when the Saudi government announced that all international travel into the kingdom would be suspended until further notice. So, more time with the family – yay! But how would my work take it? Fortunately, being a Saudi Government agency and cut from the same cloth as the organization that had closed the border, they couldn’t complain too much and it was agreed that I could work from home via my laptop.  So, on workdays it was up at 04.00 and logged online at 04.30 to coincide with my office hours.

This however didn’t last long as on 1st January it was announced from KSA that the travel ban would be lifted from the 3rd, and flights would resume. I was instructed to return to Riyadh without delay. So I booked a Covid PCR test at the drive-through site at Edinburgh airport (£80, nasal swab), and changed my flights to depart Heathrow for Riyadh on the 4th. But on the 3rd another spanner fell in with the news that people travelling to KSA from countries where the “new variation of the virus had spread” would have to spend 14 days outside the kingdom in a “non-spread” country before entering KSA. And Saudia again cancelled my reservation. Another conflab with work resulted in the instruction to do what I could to get back ASAP. The worrying thing was that with the new variant of the virus spreading quickly, anywhere I might go could in turn become a restricted country too.

There wasn’t much time to make an informed decision and change flights again, so after a hurried goodbye to the family I was driven to Edinburgh Waverley and caught the overnight sleeper train to London. Here the Covid restrictions worked in my favour as I got a twin berth with single occupancy, and being my first time on the new carriages I was able to sample the en-suite facilities. These were surprisingly good, with the shower and toilet cubicle cleverly designed. The downside to health restrictions meant that the lounge car was out of service for both a nightcap and a cooked breakfast. The long-life orange juice and soft croissant delivered to my cabin door before arrival were scant compensation, but at least the train was actually running. Euston was a pale shadow of itself. Only one food outlet was open where I bought a ‘breakfast bap’ and cup of tea.  

Another discussion with my work and I was instructed to travel to Bahrain, and stay there for 2 weeks. There were no direct flights to BAH until the 5th, by when my PCR test result would have expired, so in order to get going I booked an Emirates flight from LHR overnight to DXB with an onward connection from Dubai to BAH the following morning. The overnight flight EK006 was very quiet and I was able to stretch out over 4 seats and get some sleep on board. 


Unsustainable travel, on an A380 too!

On arrival in BAH, I was instructed to download their health tracking app ‘BeAware Bahrain’ and also pay for a PCR test at the airport (40BD / £80). They had a very efficient system, at immigration I had to show either the electronic receipt via the app, or alternatively there were cash machines adapted for health payment purposes in the airside arrivals area. The meet’n’greet area after baggage reclaim had been converted to a testing station with about 20 test desks. I had to show my passport and test receipt to enter this area and was quickly tested via nasal probing. Once done, I was instructed to re-test again in 10 days’ time (the 40BD fee covered this too), and to self-isolate until the first test result was posted on the app. I had not reserved hotel accommodation at that stage – I had looked online and the prices weren’t attractive – so I took a taxi to a hotel I had used before and where I wouldn’t mind holing up for a while if things got tough. On reaching the reception I said I was looking for 14 nights stay and asked what their best price was. I was offered a good rate which was about 40% below the internet options so went on in. The hotel was very quiet so they even threw in a room upgrade which included a work desk and internet included. Bonus! Food was to be ordered via room service, which I don’t normally like doing, but there was no way around that.

The next morning my test result came in as negative, so my curfew was lifted. I was able to do a full day’s work online from the hotel room, and go out in the evening. It soon became apparent that there were a number of people in the same boat as myself waiting to enter KSA, and that included 3 other railway industry Brits, who were in other hotels. We arranged a meet-up at the weekend and went to a nice restaurant for a Friday Brunch, which is a speciality in the middle east much enjoyed by expats and Arabs alike. The usual format is pay a fixed fee and eat all you like, and in licensed premises (Bahrain, not KSA) as much as you wish to drink too, for an additional premium.  Very pleasant. I had walked the 10km from the hotel to the restaurant but shared a taxi with my fellow ex-pats-in-exile on the return. I do like to walk, especially when the weather is clement, and Bahrain during the day was a very kind 22 degrees with sea breezes. A big difference from snowy and freezing Biggar where temperatures had dipped to -17 C for the first time in about 10 years. And in Bahrain walking is easy as they actually have pavements at the sides of the roads, unlike in KSA where walking is nigh non-existent. On the Saturday I looked to see what the transport options were for the next leg to Riyadh, and it seemed all direct flights were cancelled. I could have gone via DXB or Cairo, but these options were expensive and involved a substantial stopover at either airport. There is a regular coach service between Manama (Bahrain city) and Dammam in KSA which is operated by Saptco, the Saudi national bus operator. Their office in Manama was 8km away so I set out there.

I decided to hire a bike for the remainder of my sojourn in Bahrain, and although I found several bicycle shops, none rented. At one I was informed that renting as such wasn’t an option in Bahrain, there wasn’t a demand for it. There were a lot of cyclists about (the traffic is a lot more cycle-tolerant than it is in Riyadh), but they were all locals or ex-pat workers there who presumably owned their own bikes. As I walked through the city I happened upon yet another cycle shop, but noticed that this one had some scruffy-looking examples tied up outside. I enquired if any were for rent, but the response was still no. The scruffy ones were second-hand which had been traded in for new ones and were waiting to be exported to a country where people used second-hand bikes, or to be bought by resident Asians. Not even these could be rented, they didn’t have a mechanism for doing that. So I suggested to the owner what if I were to buy one and resell it back to him in 10 days time? He thought about it, and agreed that if I bought it for 20 BD, he would buy it back off me for a price that reduced by 1 BD for each day I owned it. He gave it a quick oiling and checked the brakes and lights and I was off. I found the bus station, but learned there that all the buses to Dammam were suspended too.  The same company offered a limousine service, at 130BD (£260), but this involved a car to the Bahraini side of the border check on the causeway where I would have to take may bags and walk through the controls and then be picked up by a corresponding car on the Saudi side. I wasn’t too keen on this as I didn’t know what would happen if for any reason I was denied entry to KSA. But it would do as a last resort.


Cycling destination - Amwaj Island lagoon

I was able to meet up with some old friends in Bahrain, Nor’n Irish ex-pats who used to live in Riyadh, and that was very pleasant. We had a restaurant meal one evening and then I visited the British Club with them on my second Saturday afternoon. I also met up with an English chap I hadn’t known, but Elaine knew his wife who was in Riyadh and he was stuck in Bahrain too. His was a slightly different tale, they lived in Riyadh and like me they had been home to the UK for Christmas. But In KSA she was the breadwinner and he was only there as her companion and she had an iqama (KSA residency status) but he didn’t. The wife could get vaccinations in Riyadh but he couldn’t, however through some connections he was able to get his jabs in Bahrain. He had had his first one and was waiting for another 3 weeks for the second one, then he would return to KSA too. He had been able to rent an apartment for 1 month and had paid about the same as my 2 weeks in the hotel.


British Club all-day breakfast. The last pork I will probably see for many moons. At least I could cycle off the calories!

However, by luck my new friend knew a private driver who could provide end-to-end transport across the causeway to Saudi destinations. I phoned this guy and was quoted 55BD for a journey to Dammam city. Much better! Buoyed by this I then booked a rail ticket with the SRO train from Dammam to Riyadh on the 19th. I still had to book my day 10 PCR test and the app gave me a date of the 16th, which I reckoned was day 11, but I didn’t complain as that would give me a certificate of non-infection within the 72 hours window that was required for entry to KSA. So, an afternoon visit to Manama’s Exhibition Centre and a cycle through the drive-through was quick and easy. Again, the test result came through the next day and was negative.


Bahrain caters for all tastes!

I confirmed my booking with the private hire driver and was picked up at 06.00 on the morning of the 19th. The journey over the causeway was remarkably quick, as there was nearly no traffic at all. I had to complete a Saudi arrival health form and show then that I was using the KSA health app ‘Sehaty’. Then the usual bag search and onwards and we arrived at Dammam station well in time for my train to Riyadh. SRO has a shortage of their modern CAF diesel units (they don’t react well to hitting camels) so my train was a loco-hauled set that is normally used on the Hofuf commuter services. This made the journey slightly longer as it has a lower operational speed. On arrival in Riyadh I was picked up by the courtesy car provided by my compound and we returned there after a slight detour via the kennels where I picked up our wee Saudi dog. The 41 days’ kennel fees were very substantial and I could have bought another dog for the price. I had been keeping my work up to date with my progress, and on arrival they advised that I had to spend a further week isolation in my apartment and could only go out for a PCR test after 6 days. This I did and used the Riyadh drive-through site on day 6 (a throat swab this time), and with yet another clear result was able to return to work in the office on the 25th, some 22 days later than expected. But all’s well that ends well, I just hope that Elaine’s journey back here when it is her turn is a lot easier. A special thanks to our neighbours in Riyadh who presented me with a bag of essential fresh groceries on my return, and offered to do any shopping I needed. Much appreciated folks.


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