The Cycle Diaries: Travelling Saudi on Two Wheels
The Cycle Diaries: Travelling Saudi on Two Wheels
Adventurer on two wheels, Maxime Jansen talks to us about traveling throughout the kingdom on her bicycle
Maxime Jansen (Maxi to her friends) is sitting outside her tent just after sunrise, looking across a rocky valley and an open road that stretches into the distant sand dunes. She cycled here from AlUla three days ago and, after a breakfast of fruit salad, laban and dates, she’ll once again pack the saddle bags on her bike and head to Wadi Al Disah, to spend a couple of days exploring the farms and villages of the area. But that plan could change depending on who she meets and what she sees along the way.
Going with the flow has been a recurrent theme of a trip that started on April 26 last year. Cycling and hitching rides from Germany through the Balkans, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia, Maxi then flew to Abu Dhabi in mid October. She continued through the UAE to the south of Oman, back to the UAE for New Year, and then across the border into Saudi at the beginning of January.
Inspired to ride as a teenager by watching YouTube travel blogs, Maxi was just 20 years old when she set off on her adventure, quitting a medical degree after deciding it was now or never to live her dream. Now, reflecting on almost three months in the kingdom, she says this has been the most inspiring part of a trip that has opened her eyes to the world.
"When we got to Taif, a family invited us for coffee and we ended up staying with them for two days."- MAXIME JANSEN
“Cycle tourism always seemed like a great way to not just see destinations but to interact with the locals, because people will always talk to you when you have a bike,” she explains.
That has certainly proved to be the case during her time crossing the kingdom. She also explains that she didn’t have any expectations for this trip, and how some people were worried about her travelling alone to a new country. But as she wanted to find a winter destination that was on her way to Egypt – where her trip ends – she decided “to just get to Riyadh and then see how to continue.”
In the capital she found a Spanish female cycle tourist, and also a friendly Saudi cyclist who invited her to stay with his family for a couple of days. Then, along with her new Spanish friend, and aided by advice on where to go next from the social media groups of cycle tourists around the world, she set off for Taif. The cyclists took the old road and stopped at tourist sites along the way, including the Edge of the World cliff face at the end of the Tuwaik (or Tuwaiq) escarpment and the heritage site at Shaqra. “When we got to Taif, a family invited us for coffee and we ended up staying with them for two days. They showed us their souk. They have this special winter drink of warm, thick milk and spices. The locals were also proud to show me the many different types of rose water made from locally grown products.”
On the next leg, this time travelling alone, Maxi hitched a ride to Jeddah where she stayed for three weeks over the course of two trips. There she met tour guide Sami Nawar, who is currently overseeing restorations of Al Balad, Jeddah’s historical centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sami invited her to stay in his 300-year-old family house, with its striking coral walls and painted wooden ceilings.
During this time, Maxi joined some archeological digs, along with a small community of locals and an archeologist from abroad trying to preserve the ancient port city’s history and culture. In between, she also took a bus south to Jazan and Abha, where she found mountainous terrain, lush greenery and coffee, mango, and banana plantations. She explains how beautiful it was to ride down switchback roads up in the hills, and how at Jabal Sawda, near Abha city in the Asir region, “it was so high up that I could see the sun set through the clouds.”
It was near here she saw the traditionally dressed Qahtani tribesmen from Habala, who wear colourful headpieces of flowers and herbs, and carry decorative Jambiya daggers. After another stop in Medina, where she met a small group of travellers and stayed with a family from Pakistan, Maxi set out for Hail, camping on the moon-like landscape amid volcanic craters close to Khaybar in northern Saudi.
Then, at AlUla, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, she experienced the kingdom’s push to develop modern tourism infrastructure, including guides knowledgeable in the site’s ancient history that dates back as far as the Nabataean and Dedanite periods. All of which brings Maxi to today, finishing her breakfast and contemplating the 30 kilometre ride to Wadi Al Disah and then on to Tabuk to see the region’s coastal towns, ancient tombs, archeological sites, and the Springs of Moses near Maqna (also referred to as the 12 Springs of Prophet Moses), where water flows under date palms.
"Cycle tourism always seems like a great way to not just see new destinations,Maxime Jansen
but to interact with the locals - people will always talk to you when you have a bike"
Trying to pick a highlight from the trip is almost impossible, Maxi says, as she has seen so much. “When people think of Saudi Arabia, they think of deserts. But actually, there is lots of greenery, mountains and different geologies, cultures and climates. You’ll even see monkeys in the coastal mountain range that runs from Jazan in the south up to Taif.”
Maxi talks about the ancient abandoned villages that can be found on the backroads in the Asir region and Al Baha. She saw this first-hand when she was invited to stop with one family at their new home. While there, they took her to visit the old stone houses and told stories of their grandparents and how things used to be 50 years ago.
As for what comes next, Maxi is unsure of whether to keep on cycling or return to her studies. “It’s going to be a culture shock as I will have been away from home for a year, although that is also quite exciting. I have to figure out what to do next. It’s all open,” she says. At least her family are now comfortable with her decision to travel. “They worry, of course. But now they see that I’m changing; that I’ve met a lot of incredible people and actually that I’m hardly ever alone.
They see how much I’m learning about the world,” explains the young cyclist. Whatever she does next, Maxi has made memories that she will carry forever – particularly from Saudi. She says that in any country in the world, travellers have to exercise a level of caution and have a level of awareness, but that she’s been “very comfortable travelling alone in Saudi, and the level of hospitality is something you won’t find in Europe.”
“I’ve been welcomed into homes. They have trusted me and I was able to trust them. So, I’ve seen a side that most people don’t know about.
I think this hospitality, along with their traditions and history, will take them far. I came here to meet the people and I learned that people are good.”
Imagery with thanks to Maxime Jansen and Marta Rosete