Eight other colleagues and I took an amazing trip out to Taif – about three hours outside of Jeddah. It was my first time getting out of the city since we arrived about two months ago. Although Jeddah is an overall great place to live, the traffic and daily grind can get to you and this trip seemed to come at just the right time. Since this was going to be about a twelve hour outing, Michelle and the kids stayed home – the thought being that I would go on the trip, “advance it,” and if it was suitable for our family, then we would go again. At least this way I would have some idea where to go and what to do if we decide to go as a family.
Road to Taif
In order to get to Taif from Jeddah, one has to take the road to Mecca, the holiest site in the religion of Islam. Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and the site of the Grand Mosque which is the largest mosque in the world. Additionally, one of the five pillars of Islam is that all Muslims should visit Mecca at least once in their life, if they are able to do so. It is considered “haram” (i.e. unholy) for non-Muslims to be in Mecca, so on the road to Mecca there is a sign directing non-Muslims away from the holy site.
Leaving the urbanity of Jeddah as you head east one encounters vast expanses of desert (as you might imagine – since this is Saudi Arabia). However, it doesn’t take very long before the landscape shifts dramatically upon entering the foothills of the Hijaz mountains.
As we continued to climb higher and higher, we encountered some of the local wildlife – we saw many baboons! I can’t say I’d feel comfortable outside, but we were in the comfort and security of a fully armored vehicle, so we stopped and took a few photos.
We continued climbing higher and higher into the mountains, and the views got more and more spectacular. As we drove, it dawned on me that this part of Saudi Arabia (I’d even go as far as to say most of the Arabian peninsula) is indeed a brutal environment. The heat and intensity of the sun, the dearth of water, and the vast emptiness of what we saw impressed upon me how tough and hardy one had to be in times past to survive here – I pictured groups of Bedouins and camels roaming the desert, violent clashes between nomadic groups as they sought oases and sanctuary from the sun. The geography and climate of this land have been some of the most significant determinants of the history of Saudi Arabia, the others being the religion of Islam and the discovery of gargantuan oil fields beneath the sands of this seemingly inhospitable world.
As we approached Al Shafa, the highest point in the Hijaz mountains and the second highest point in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we stopped at a nice inn overlooking the mountains and valleys below. We walked around this inn for a while, took some photos, and then hopped back into our van to continue on towards the city of Taif.
The City of Taif
Upon arrival in Taif, we were met by our police escorts. Not that the city is really dangerous anyway, but when diplomats are outside of their normal area of operations (i.e. Jeddah), the Saudi Ministry of Interior likes to make sure they are in good hands (read – keep an eye on them ;0). Whatever the reason for their presence, our MOI guys were AWESOME! They knew the city like the back of their hands and led our vehicle to many interesting parts of the city. In Taif, our first stop was Shubra Palace. This was the Saudi Royal family’s former summer residence in Taif. It now functions as a museum. Although the electricity was out, and the museum was closed, our MOI escorts negotiated to allow us to enter where we observed many historical photos, interesting archaeological exhibits, and got to experience the grandeur of the palace firsthand.
Following Shubra palace, we stopped at a nice outdoor park to have lunch and then went on to the old souq (marketplace) in Taif, where we walked around to various shops and bought a few items.
We made a few more stops in the region – once at an abandoned dam, and once at a roadside fruit market. However, by that time, I was completely exhausted having spent the majority of the day in high altitudes in severe heat. On the drive back to Jeddah, almost all of us dozed off (the driver not included!). I can only imagine the toll it would have taken on Jacqueline and Jonathan, and I was glad they were at home with Michelle – comfy and cool in the comfort of the air conditioner. I think we will take a trip back to Taif, and perhaps stay in that mountaintop inn. Getting out of Jeddah and exploring was really a great experience and we hope to do more of it soon.