Chronicles of hitchhiking and backpacking in Saudi Arabia

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backpacking in saudi arabia

The following article narrates my personal adventures when I was backpacking in Saudi Arabia. For tips and advice on visiting the country, I recommend you read: How to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019

We were driving at 185km per hour.

I know, it doesn’t seem like WOW, but when the driver is overtaking on both sides, by the shoulder of the road, like he was in a rally, in a car with no security belts, well… it was scary as fuck.

I was in the copilot seat, pulling my body towards it, holding onto whatever was available and, with a tense, fake smile, I was trying to pretend I was not nervous at all, but hell I was.

That Saudi man, however, seemed to be very calm, basically because he had been watching YouTube videos on his phone since the beginning, without paying much attention to the road.

Occasionally, without even slowing down, he would put his arms behind his head and drive and overtake with his knees.

It looked like he had everything under control. Should I worry about it then?

Sometimes, he would lift up his phone to make some selfie Snapchat videos. Just a couple of seconds videos, not a big deal.

Saudi man – Look at the camera! hahahaha

I tried to look at the camera with my fake smile, but couldn’t stop looking at the road.

Then, after a couple of minutes of complete silence, in order to break the ice, when I saw there were some military clothes on the backseat, I said:

Are you in the army?

As an answer, he pulled out a gun from the glove compartment and, while holding it with his right hand, he said:

Of course, I am in the army, hahahaha

Fortunately, he put it away and went back to the classic routine of driving at 185km/h while watching YouTube videos.

Saudi My father and one of my brothers died in a car accident. In two separate accidents actually.

Me – Oh, I am sorry – But that doesn’t really comfort me, I thought

Me – Then, you should drive more carefully 😉 – I said, in an attempt of making him feel bad about it.

Saudi – hahahaha

Honestly, he was nice, but as crazy as fuck

We were 30km away from his city, the place where I was supposed to get off to continue with my journey.

I really wanted to get out but, fortunately, we would be there soon enough.

However, when it seemed that nothing worse could happen, I noticed that a 4×4 was approaching us at full speed, it aligned with us and the driver started yelling like a crazy man.

‘My’ Saudi pulled down the window down and started:

Saudi – Hey fuck you, fuck you, hahahaha – He yelled in English, while putting up his middle finger.

Saudi – He is my brother, hahaha

And the worst came when they decided to have a race.

Saudi – My brother is crazy, hahaha. He is drunk probably. He drinks every day.

I didn’t know whether to believe it or not but he was crazy as fuck indeed.

Fortunately, we made it to his village and I had never been before so happy to touch solid ground.

Then he invited me to come to his house, to have some coffee because, after lunch, he was going to I don’t know where in the same direction I was going to, but I told him:

No, thanks, I prefer to continue on my way now. 

There was no chance I would ever get again into his car.

Welcome to Saudi Arabia

Read: A two-week itinerary in Saudi Arabia

 

Did you find it funny?

Sure, I find it funny too, but not when I was there.

After being in so many places in the Middle East and other Asian countries, with loads of bad reputations for driving, I can finally confirm that Saudi Arabia has the sickest people on wheels.

However, the problem isn’t that they drive fast but they are fearless people.

They aren’t afraid to die because they drive at 180km/h and keep switching between lanes without giving a shit about who may come up from behind.

It is a very particular cultural fact.

During my journey, I met loads of crazy people, especially in the countryside and the problem is that, when you hitchhike, many of those crazy fucks could be your potential traveling partner.

Moreover, it seems that all cities in Saudi are connected by several-lane highways where cars are all-free-to-go and, obviously, you need to stand on the edge of those roads.

Hitchhiking in Saudi Arabia
Hitchhiking in Saudi Arabia

And, how do they stop if they drive so fast? – Good question.

Obviously, Western backpackers are a rare thing to see in Saudi Arabia, so when they saw me, they were doing a U-turn or, sometimes, even going in reverse (on the highway, yes).

What can you say then? Despite being crazy, they seem good people so, of course, you get in. 

I hitchhiked more than 1,300km and, as you may imagine, I got lifts from many people.

According to my calculations, I would say that 50% of Saudis drove normally, 35% pretty fast and then 15% were absolutely sick people.

It was an adventure worth mentioning but I wouldn’t do it again.

Read: Saudi as a solo woman traveler

 

Saudi is the country of extremes

On the one hand, when you are backpacking in Saudi Arabia, you can have your worst hitchhiking experiences ever but, on the other hand, you can have some of the best as a traveler.

Let me introduce you to my friend Abdullah.

Abdullah

I was waiting close to the edge of a city named Al-Kharj.

From 20 meters away, I saw a man doing a U-turn yelling at me. 

Typical Saudi: people who see you from far away and do U-turns just to say hello.

He approached and said: Hey! Where are you going?

Me – Well, my final destination is Jizan (it was more than 1,000km away), so I am going in that direction

Abdullah – I was going home but I am free now, so I can take you to the next city if you want. 

The next city was called Hotat Bani Tamim and it was 80km away from Kharj, so that good man was willing to drive 160km just for fun, because he was kind and because I was his guest, according to him.

Abdullah was an English teacher and a very traditional Saudi man who strictly follows Saudi culture and Islam.

He was one of those men who, by just seeing his face and the way he talks, you knew he was a kind-hearted man.

During our journey, we talked about so many topics, and he taught me many things about their interpretation of Islam, things that opened my eyes and made me understand their culture better.

When we arrived in Hotat Bani Tamim, I thought he would just drop me off in a good hitchhiking spot.

Abdullah – No, you aren’t living until we have some coffee together. Let’s call a friend of mine who lives here. 

We went to his friend’s farm. They took me around their palm dates plantations, we had some coffee, talked about many things and when it seemed we were OK to go, they said:

Abdullah – No, you can’t leave until we have lunch together. 

Abdullah and his friend
In his friend’s farm

They ordered a huge dish of Yemeni mandi and when we finished, he said:

Abdullah – No, you can’t leave until we show you his camel farm.

The fact is that I didn’t care about arriving late at my final destination because that was the reason I came to Saudi. 

I was extremely happy to experience, at first hand, the rural life in Saudi Arabia, so different from live in Jeddah and Riyadh and extremely different from the one the media and that biased Netflix documentary show us.

That backpacking experience was priceless, one that few people have been able to experience and, if I hadn’t hitchhiked, I would have never met these beautiful people.

With Abdullah in his camel farm

 

When you are hitchhiking or backpacking in Saudi Arabia, these experiences happen continuously, to a greater or lesser degree

I said it many times, but I will say it again.

People in Saudi are, definitely, as hospitable as the ones you meet when you travel in Iran, Pakistan, and Oman.

Meeting Abdullah was the best example but I met many others like him. 

Ibrahim is another example worth mentioning.

I had just arrived in Abha, 1,000km south of Riyadh, and I was wandering around the market with my heavy backpack, as I still didn’t know where I would spend the night.

Hey! Is this a parachute? – One Saudi asked me

Is it an inflatable boat? – Another Saudi said

That kind of comments made me realize that I was in an unprecedented destination for backpackers.

While I was forced to taste the different kinds of honey from all the available stalls until I had nausea, one man named Ibrahim approached me.

We had been talking for a while about the reasons that brought me to Saudi when he said:

Tonight you are staying with me and, tomorrow I will show you around.

We went to eat some seafood, stayed at his friend’s and, on the next day, he took me around Abha’s mountains.

Again, this level of hospitality was beyond any expectations.

With Ibrahim

Ibrahim was a beekeeper and, apparently, one of the most famous in Saudi Arabia. In fact, he won the 3rd prize for having the best honey in all Asia in the most important Asian convention, held in Malaysia.

He also came from a very traditional family and, actually, his father was an important Imam in the region. However and, controversially for a man from this region and background, he was married to a Filipina woman and had a little girl, which he kept from his family for a very long time, but this would be a different story. 

Sightseeing with Ibrahim

 

Personally, Saudi Arabia surprised me more than any other places I have been to

There are many misunderstood societies all around the world, Iran for example, but, before visiting Iran, I had already heard about their hospitality, so I was not that surprised when I experienced it.

In Saudi Arabia, however, all I had heard was bad things about them, like the distortions of reality from the media and the stories from people who had gone there for business, a sort of traveler whose opinions I would never trust. 

And, in case you are wondering, Ibrahim and Abdullah weren’t exceptions.

Hospitality everywhere, even in the most random spots
Hanging out with some Saudis

Those men were people coming from traditional families with traditional values, good people with a completely different culture from us and, despite not sharing many aspects of it, I respect their beliefs and, somehow, I can understand their point of view.

Some Saudis will actually tell you simple facts about their culture which, for a Westerner, can literally be translated into crazy stories, like when I met those guys from Jizan. 

In Jizan, one of the remotest areas of Saudi, thanks to Couchsurfing, I managed to meet up with a group of young Saudis in their 20s. 

They took me on a day trip to the mountains.

As usually happens, those Saudis were absolutely beautiful people but they had some really crazy cultural aspects. 

For example, all of them had at least 15 siblings, one of them having 25. 

Some of them were all from the same mother and father, while others were from different mothers, as their fathers had 2-3 wives (at the same time). 

Having more than a wife is common all around the Muslim world but it is usually a rare thing to see, whereas, in this part of Saudi, it was a very normal thing. 

I went to one of those guys’ house, which was a huge 3-floor mansion. 

Young Saudi – We live all together here and even when some of my brothers get married, they live here with their wives as well. 

He even lost count of how many people were living in his house but more than 30, definitely.

Me – And do you ever talk to your sisters-in-law?

Young Saudi – No, no, no way. In fact, I have never seen their face, only with niqab. 

Me – Are you telling me that you live with your sisters-in-law, yet you don’t know what they look like, not even from a photo?

(Actually, I had already seen this situation when I during my backpacking journey through Pakistan). 

Young Saudi – Exactly. It is forbidden. You can only see your direct relatives and the only exception is when you get engaged, as you are allowed to see the face of your potential wife for a few minutes, with her acceptance and in presence of her parents. I actually got engaged a few months ago, so I was allowed to see my future wife’s face and, since we liked each other and our parents agreed to it, we are getting married next year. 

In Jizan

Yes, they decided to get married in a 5-minute blind-date, and they won’t see each other until the wedding day. 

In that region of Jizan, I never saw a single local lady who didn’t wear the niqab and, since that guy had barely left the region, only once or twice to Jeddah, it made me wonder if he had ever seen the face of a Saudi woman before traveling out of Jizan. 

Me – At what age did you see the face of a random Saudi woman for the first time?

Young Saudi – Well, there are some women here in Jizan who don’t wear the niqab but it is not good because it goes against our religion’s rules. 

That guy, along with most people from his region, truly believed in all those rules, but I was happy to listen to him because it is their culture and, as travelers, we need to respect them and not interfere with their way of living. 

After coming back from Saudi and uploading all my photos on Instagram and writing many stories, I received shit loads of hatred messages from some followers:

How can you promote a country that doesn’t respect basic human rights?
How can you say good things about those people who stone their wives to death?
Sexist!
Ignorant, you don’t know anything

a man praying somewhere in Saudi

Obviously, all these comments came from people who have never been to Saudi and I still find it unbelievable that, at this time, people still believe everything the media says, but I guess it will always be like that. 

For a better understanding, I recommend you read:

Is it ethical to go to Saudi Arabia?

Saudi as a solo woman traveler

Like in any country around the world, you will find good and bad people but I am telling that Saudis are particularly hospitable as compared to other nationalities and cultures and, as a backpacker, you will have one of the best experiences of your lifetime. 

Here you can read all my articles and guides to Saudi Arabia

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The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. I am going to, due to your Pakistan travels, plan to go to Pakistan in 2020.
    The next country I would “follow”you could be Saudi.
    Greetings from South Africa

  2. Thank you so much for all your kind words. You are so nice even though we only had a few moments to get to know each other’s , i couldn’t even talked or hear you clearly because of that One Republic concert’s back in Riyadh , obviously because of the noise back then, and after that your friend asked for my instagram account. And yet I found your account and followed you. I’m so glad and so happy that you liked it here again thanks a lot.

  3. From the photos, I can see you made friends there…

    I, too, love backpacking, but age has taken over me, and I’m not as “mobile” as I was a few years ago…

    Saudi looks like a wild card, I’ve heard horror stories from travellers who has been there.

    Luckily you came back unscathed.

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