Day 4, 16 November 2004 - City Tours and Evading the Authorities
Everyone started getting up around six or so, and shuttling to the bathroom for business, or the kitchen for coffee. The General�s sons had left an assortment of bread and jam for us to breakfast on, so we all fixed ourselves something while we packed up and waited for the General to come by. IN the meantime, my camera battery gave out, and I had to scrounge for a few more, and content myself by taking pictures with my actual film camera...haven't done that in a while.
Around eight, The General and his oldest son arrived, and we set out for a personalized tour of the city. As we drove around, Steve used his radio to broadcast information about what we were seeing, as told him by the General.
Our first stop was at the market for some shopping. Najran isn�t much of a tourist town, and while there was a bit of tourist kitsch, mostly the market was full of normal, every day stuff that people use, like pots and pans. At one time, we did witness a goat in the back of a truck getting ready to use an ATM, but I�m not sure how much he took out. While waiting for everyone to make their purchases, I noticed an old man just staring at the 2 dogs...he appeared stunned by their appearance and that anyone would actually let them sit an a vehicle.
After some shopping, we went to visit the old (sort of) fort in the center of town. It was patterned after the typical sort of mud structures that dot the landscape in the southern part of Arabia. It was actually constructed as the first Saudi Arabian government building around an existing pre-Islamic well. It was a study in color contrasts, and one of the most photogenic places we�d seen so far on the trip. And that�s frankly saying a lot...this trip has been a photographer�s dream in a lot of ways.
Just across the street from the fort, there was an old mud brick building that was the old hospital. The General got his first shots there as a child, and it was still around. No longer the hospital though.
The tour around the fort was an interesting glimpse into the life of the regional governor when he still lived there. The gates entering into the building were something out of Biblical times. The niches carved into the wall conjured visions of the tribal elders sitting there to screen who would get in to see the big man. Not sure if it really happened that way, but it seemed right...There were a number of different rooms for receiving guests, decorated in the Arab style with carpets and cushions on the floor. There were rooms for cooking coffee, a shower room, and all around, beautifully carved doors and hand made stained glass windows. In one of the darker rooms, a few bats were snoozing...flying mice.
After an hour or so of touring the fort, we headed on over to the knife souk. The day before, we saw some of the Bedouin guys with these wicked looking knives, and the General took us over to where they were being made and sold. Like most souks in the Middle East, it was like stepping back in time a few hundred years. These were the real deal...sharp, hand made, and not just for show. These were actually knives that you could buy and cut things with. Not just bruise someone.
Just around the corner was the goat skin bag maker. You could buy your very own goatskin with a faucet on it.
We spent about an hour at the souk, and injected several thousand riyals into the local knife making economy (hey, we�re a bunch of guys...we like knives!) before getting some gas, and heading to the hotel that the General�s cousin was building. Actually, it was being renovated, and looked like it was going to be quite nice.
The weird thing was that this hotel was an active construction site, and we just wandered all over it. We walked to the top of the stairs, careful not to fall out of the building once we reached the top. This place was a stark contrast to how buildings are built in the US. Nobody wore eye protection, helmets, back supports...there were tools and piles of rubble all over the place, and a big hole in the wall on the top floor, easily 200 feet above the street. Absolutely amazing...all we could think was, �what would OSHA say?� Still, not our country, so not our issue...it works for them. Plus, it was cool to go up and look at the view of the city. You could see the contrasts of the old, mud brick buildings and the modern, luxurious villa estates of the town, and the mountains of Yemen beyond.
Mosque in downtown
Finally, we had to take our leave...we still had several hundred kilometers to go north before we would be able to stop for the night. We needed to get north of As Sulayyil before it got dark. Along the way, we kept encountering our old friends, the MOI, including a checkpoint that threatened to keep us in Najran another night. The officers at perimeter of the city spent about 30 minutes copying our information, checking registrations, passports, and ID cards before finally letting us go on our way.
We passed many more MOI officers on the road north, but none followed us like they had the day prior. Finally, when we reached As Sulayyil, and negotiated the obstacle belt of the competing construction and idiot drivers there, and emerged safely on the other side, we turned off the road to find a place to camp for the night. After a couple of kilometers, we ducked behind a small group of hills that shielded us from view from drivers on the road. As we moved in, and set up camp, Ron and I went to the top of one of the hills to scan for anyone that might be following us. We figured that MOI was still waiting for us to pass checkpoints at certain times, and we had told them that we were headed for Riyadh, so we half expected someone to come looking for us. Since it was dusk, we figured that we should at least post a guard on the military crest of the hill until it got dark, and we were sure no one was following us. As I sat up there, I had a brief moment of unease when I noticed some headlights turn and start bouncing across the desert toward us. Fortunately, they were on the other side of the main road, and when the truck reached the highway, it turned and sped off toward town.
Once it was good and dark, we brought in the pickets, and started cooking supper. Since it was the last night, everyone chipped in what they had and consolidated the food to get rid of it. We ate well, and then sat around the fire until people started drifting off to go to sleep. The guard roster was decided on, and each shift came and went with no more than minor growls and gruffs from the dogs. No one came and bothered us at all...
Category: The Magical Kingdom