Googled ‘Saudi Tourism’ and what came up on my screen as the top 2 sites were Mecca and Jeddah’s tallest fountain in the world (King Fahd Fountain). No surprised there.
I’ve travelled to Saudi Arabia many years ago for a religious visit but to come other than this purpose was something I would never consider – despite at the back of my head, I knew how vast its heritage and natural landscape Saudi Arabia could offer. The visa issue, couldn’t travel as a solo woman, need sponsor, abaya (long robe) rules – just didn’t fit my value and lifestyle.
But the land of thousands of stunning and unique sites has been promoting heavily as a part of Vision 2030 to increase GDP of currently US$680 billion by 10 percent and bring 55 million international visits. Less than 5 months after the kingdom formally announced the issuance of the tourist visa, I was in the country as a solo traveller. Not merely sightseeing but I was there to participate in adventure sport that very slowly sprang up.
Is Saudi Arabia Changing?
What once a crossroads where Arabia, Africa, and Asia meet, and long tied by caravansary trade to Europe, Saudi Arabia is slowly changing. My entry point before Al Ula was Jeddah – the melting pot, the welcoming, most open (not as strict as Riyadh I was told). Women were indeed part of society. I was served by niqab (garment-covering-face) women at the hotel and the food takeaway counter. Well-spoken young guide toured me in fluent English around Al Ula sites. On the other hand, ladies not in black abaya were seen around in modest clothing – though not many that seen in the city. On my last night in Jeddah, I was supposed to join a short run with the community Jeddah Running Community but sadly didn’t happen because I went to a wrong location. This group has women training with male counterparts – talking about breaking taboo! In my opinion, it’s all got to do with mindset and attitude – less about choice of clothing. Changes can strongly come within community first then society.
Inauguration Eco-Trail Al Ula
Eco Trail was invited by the Royal Commission of Al Ula, and the French Agency of Al Ula to be part of the Winter at Tantora Festival, an annual cultural event that began in 2018 in the North Western of Saudi Arabia in the Medina region. The race is also part of the Asia Trail Master championship point series. Runners had the option to participate in running (83km, 42km, 10m) or hike for 10 km. I’ve seen local interests from cities like Jeddah and Riyadh – from expat as well as local Saudi. And from Saudi women too if you ask!
“It was years and years ago when I went for a run around the elephant rock and I was removed by special forces”, said Cyma Azyz, Riyadh based media representative for EcoTrail Al Ula at the opening night. You could imagine what a big milestone for Saudi Arabia to reach this point where runners gathered on this unique land. Utmost applaud to EcoTrail organiser for pulling this out for the first time in 2020.
So what is Al Ula famous for? A day before the race, I and newly acquainted Italian runners booked a self-funded tour of Hegra (aka Mada’in Salih/Cities of Salih, or Al-Ḥijr). The well organised tour includes a visit to Hijaz Railway (Ottoman period with World War II connection), Jabal Ithlib (over 100 rock carving inscription in various languages), Jabal Al Banat (ladies Tomb), Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza (the most important tomb carved into a tall stand-alone rock). Beautiful inscriptions and symbols can be seen on the tombs.
The area was well preserved and protected. Only authorised vehicles can enter. Not yet been over-tourism when compared to Petra in Jordan (given that Hegra was built by the same people of Nabataean). And no sight of vendors selling souvenirs as I’ve experienced in Petra.
Tombs aside, other attractions recommended by few traveler acquaintances are Wadi Al Qura (where the citadel and tantora/sundial located), Desert X (contemporary art display in the desert environment), and Harrat Uwairidh (solidified lava field of inactive volcanoes and 360° views of Al Ula).
Runners Respect Environment
Seven runners who raced at other 13 brand locations were on stage to honour the night. Al Ula is the first race in the Middle East, and others are mostly in Europe. EcoTrail is all about respecting the environment and knowing the impact runners make on the environment. What’s core is the EcoTrail DNA of ‘Eco-responsibility, equity, solidarity, accessibility, and conviviality’.
The race briefing ended with local performances by men wearing headgear in a long white top, and sarong wrapped around the legs. On the other side of town, there was a performance by Yanni, the Greek-American composer performed – part of Winter at Tantora’s 8-series of music from world-class musicians.
Runners who participated in 83 km were driven in a bus to the start line near Ashar. We gathered on a dark cold morning. I got a bib represented Hejaz Ultra, a Jeddah based trail running group courtesy of my old running mate from previous sandpit life, Fabroice. Closer to kick-off, we pushed Salameh Al Aqra, Jordan’s elite runner to the front as he was a bit shy. “Number 1, ok?”, I shouted at him.
The race began at 6:30 pm which was still in dark but light appeared pretty quickly on this desert land. It was brilliant seeing the tunnel light from the elite runners’ headlamp from afar. In the morning mist, we passed by Maraya, the mirror-clad concert hall but I didn’t realise it until a runner told me a few days after.
We ran for a good few kilometres on the tarmac where photographers and supporters cheering from the cars. Among them were two event’s MCs, Haiya Al Jarba (Saudi’s first female rock climbers) and Thomas Brackmann (German expat and Saudi-based triathlete).
We ran into small dunes and passed by a green oasis filled with lush date palms. We hiked a small rocky hill after the second water station. That was the last time I ran with my running mate, Fabroice.
No Chip & Elephant Rock
At the last checkpoint before heading to Elephant Rock, I realised that I’ve forgotten to take the timer chip at the start line. I didn’t recall any announcement reminding everyone to pick up the chip at the start line. Or maybe I didn’t hear! Worried that my race won’t be on the result, I informed one of the race crew but nothing could be done. They acknowledged that I was indeed present during the race.
I ran around the compound where the Elephant Rock was situated – not up close as I thought. But understood this from a conservation point of view. Other 10km and 42km runners continued to the Sahary Resort as I took a different turn. Around this time, I saw a very beautiful desert hyacinth in purple and yellow that grew from the dune.
Wide Dirt Road
The sands filled my shoes and only got heavier with each step. I stopped by the side trail. A race crew car passed by and stopped to check on me, and I mentioned to them again about the chip situation.
At the wide dirt trail, I saw dark coloured camels and a camel herder. Suddenly, the wind blew hard and I covered my face from the blowing sand. My pace turned into shuffling, I then put on my iPod Nano. A Fatboy Slim’s song ‘Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat,’ came up and speed up my cadence. Later on, a few runners cut me including the two Saudi young triathletes I recognised in the first half.
Rock & Climb
I came through a checkpoint and got clearance to continue up the climb around 650m altitude gain. A French runner, Gaël Couturier whom I chatted at the hotel passed me on way up. He convinced me to rest for a bit looking at how tired I was. So I sat down for a bit enjoying the stunning view in this peaceful corner of the world as he hiked up.
I then climbed over big rocks and boulders of terracotta, brown and purple colours. Some areas weren’t clear with marking. But I recalled the race director mentioned at the briefing that ‘you just need to keep going up’. I had to figure out the best way up among options of boulders and rocks rather than simply follow the markers. This slowed me down further.
Spotted some coral-like rocks, and I wondered could they be coral fossils. I remembered reading how the area used to be an old sea bed that dried up many million years ago.
Dark & In Group
When I reached the top the sun was slowly setting. It’s a wide uneven area. I saw few runners from afar. They were the Saudi chaps I was running with earlier.
I got dizzy and slowed down terribly, but managed to get closer to them. They also had an issue with markers. It’s getting darker but the supposed markers weren’t helpful as they didn’t come with light reflective. We hiked together in a group of four. Not much running involved. With us were few volunteers of sweepers who guided us the way. One was a Medic guy who insisted on taking a blood test on me. Well, I let him in the end and I was fine, other than my usual dizziness and the vomit story.
We were supposed to reach a sand dune before the finishing line, at Sahary Resort – a tough section runners being warned at the briefing. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to continue as it already passed the cut-off of 7 pm.
Overall, Tips & Lesson Learnt
A must-do race and as a gateway to visit Saudi Arabia. Despite the race outcome and missed out on the 3 points ITRA points, I had a tranquil time in this remote area surrounded by sandstones, rock formations, and sand dunes. Runners must wear a proper gaiter, and bring a head torch. The course cutoff of 13 hours was a quick one that requires consistent running effort. Upon hindsight, I would conserved my energy for the second half so I wouldn’t get too tired on the big hill.
I do hope teething problems being picked up by organisers for improvement to make it a successful race in the future. Better marking at the rocky area (perhaps using natural paint that fades over time) and using light-reflective tags are my two top feedbacks.
Going Back To Saudi?
I can see myself going back to explore many other distinctive regions and cultures. And I hope there will be more sporting events like this. With many developments planned to come throughout the country, only time will tell if the 2030 target will be achieved. In the meantime, the interest from local sport community will only grow and prosper from here. This was evidenced on the highest participation runner were from Hejaz Ultra group. While no Saudi runners finished in top position, I was glad my friend, Al Aqra came 4th – could have been better result had he not fell off.
VISA: 10 minutes online visa application (US$ 125 for one-year tourism visa multiple-entries). Enter here for application.
STAY: I stayed with Sahary Resort where the race briefing took place. It may be a bit far from the airport about 50 km, but pick up was provided. A small hiking activity can be enjoyed around the resort’s surroundings.
Other resort options are Shaden and Ashar. I would’ve loved to do farm stay with the local house when return to Al Ula – something my Jeddah runners mate did. Else, plenty of campsites or Bedouin tents – just bring a sleeping bag.
Pictures/video on Sahary being posted on SOTG’s Instagram here, and while there you might as well check the Story for more Al Ula pictures.
FLIGHT: I flew direct from Singapore to Jeddah and back with Scoot – a ten-hour flight. Domestic flights to Al Ula direct (an hour fifteen minutes flight) and then back to Jeddah via transit at Riyadh (an hour thirty-minutes to Riyadh, and an hour-forty minutes to Jeddah) with Saudia (the national carrier of Saudi Arabia). The flight was not regular for Al Ula which is why some runners opted for ground transport (self-drive). There are 4 terminals in Jeddah so check before travel.
WEATHER: It’s not always hot in Saudi Arabia, as people thought. There’s four distinct seasons -from chilly winter breezes in January to peak desert heat in August – and a climate that varies between regions. In winter especially at night and early morning, Al Ula’s can be cold below 20° Celcius, then rise to under 30° Celcius.
More details here:
Disclosure: I was part of a media trip organised by EcoTrail. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.
Till we can explore the world again.
Live to thrive.