What was the first word that crossed my mind when I landed in Saudi Arabia?
Everything is beige. The desert that seems to extend for eternity, miles and miles of complete nothingness except for brown sand, brown sand, and even more brown sand. It reminds you of the Star Wars movies, the scenes of alien planets that are just hot and barren with absolutely no living thing. The camels are brown. The buildings are tall and brown.
But then you realize that the thing about this place is that you need time to observe it properly to realize that there is more to it than just bland-colored buildings, men in white robes and women covered from head to toe in black. And if you ever visit Ta’if, the city on the slopes of al-Hada Valley, this is when you begin to see that there might just be more than meets the eye about Saudi.
The first rule of a traveler is you need to be objective. This means stepping out of your predetermined impression of what a place is like. And I’ll be honest – like the most of us, of course I had an impression of what Saudi might be like. When it was described to me that the al-Hada valley is a haven, I was perplexed. A haven? How is a haven possible in the middle of a scorching hot desert?
But as I strolled down the many stalls selling local fruits, all bursting with beautiful colors and juicy natural sweetness, I was amazed with the amount of produce the valley is able to yield. The place was so much more pleasant than I expected; a more temperate weather due to its elevated location, amazing historical monuments, and gorgeous ripe grapes I nibbled on as I explored the Ta’if city.
Slightly outside the city, you get to see ancient history. Small mosques, centuries old, just as small as the modern-day huts made of clay so that they block the cold in the winters, and yet stay cool in the summers. You can roam around mindlessly and check out the old manuscripts and books kept in the corners of these small buildings. It makes you wonder what life must be like back then, when these buildings were all there were. Did people in these times went through the same things we went through? Definitely a much simpler life, I concluded.
I stopped by a streetside tea ‘station’, which is basically an outdoor stove with large iron kettles brewing scalding hot, overly sweet mint tea. In the evenings when the temperature drops, this is the best choice of beverage, whereas in the hotter middays one must give the pomegranate juice a shot – the pomegranates are locally grown and naturally ripened, which make for divine juices.
If there is one other thing this region is famous for, it’s the roses. You might think that it’s just some little old local rose farming, but al-Hada produces some of the best out there, with the flowers being used by notable perfume houses, like Chanel and Guerlain. Drop by a rose farm and you get to sample the products infused by these intoxicating floral fragrances. For me, the highlight is the farm itself. It’s the strange paradox; the background is of rocky, sandy hills, but the roses seem to thrive here, all lush and green and intertwined by rosemary and sage plants. It’s quiet, cool, and smells like you’re in a luxurious perfume bottle.
So I suppose there really is more to Saudi than meets the eye. I’ve only been to al-Hada Valley, but if that was any indication, I suspect that there are so many other hidden gems, just waiting to pleasantly surprise us with the fascinating secrets they have to offer.