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World Tour: Cycling Saudi Arabia and Jordan

Daddy Feb 02, 2024 · 14-min read
World Tour: Cycling Saudi Arabia and Jordan

Coming from Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia couldn’t be easier. It was going from fighting off takers to fighting off givers. Really! There were a few times I refused bottles of water simply because I wasn’t in the mood to stop one more time. It went from rice and beans to Kristy Kreme, from constant noise to the emptiness of long desert roads, from avoiding scams to being smothered in gifts. Jordan was similar, except people left you completely alone, which I was more than ready for.

Difficulty

Profile

1,324 mi
⭧ 40.7k ft
⭨ 38.4k ft

Enjoyment

The Route

From Jeddah’s sprawling, winding metropolitan to uninhabited desert. Westward to Madinah through a secondary road, through spaces between mountains to Alu-la, and into a national reserve with insane grades down to sea level. In Jordan, the King’s Highway connects many major tourist sites, but I took detours to avoid two massive gorges going from one castle to another.

What are Saudi Arabia and Jordan Like?

Scenery

Saudi Arabia always brought up images of flat, light-colored sand for as far as the eye can see, and so the rugged mountain ranges throughout the country was a pleasant surprise that altered the original plan to just go along the coast. It’s also home to ancient architecture, incredible mosques, and date farms. Jordan has much of the same, sometimes on a grander scale, but also another layer of history being closer to the Holy Land and Rome.

Roads

It was like riding in the good ol’ US of A. Saudi Arabia has expressways with massive shoulders that are either swept by the wind or vehicles. You can’t ask for more. Secondary roads were very hit-and-miss, and sometimes the quality of the northbound and southbound side would be world’s apart. Other times, they’d be too steep to ride. Jordan’s King’s Highway was decent most of the time, but I didn’t ride it into the two gorges between you and Amman.

Safety

Arguably the safest country in terms of being able to leave your stuff wherever, Saudi Arabia’s only real danger was the drivers. Jordanians seem to have a better command of the wheel, and the only danger I faced was probably a one-in-a-million sort of deal.

Interactions

People

The people in Saudi Arabia are from all over the world, and most of the time you’re talking to people of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, or Indonesia who are either there to make a lot of money and do their pilgrimage. Regardless of the background, people were excited to see me, and instead of trying to rip me off, sometimes threw in something for free. This is especially common out on the road where drivers pull off to the side of the road and hand you a bottle of water. This made for a great first three days, but the constant stopping, talking, and selfies lost their charm – and people just recording me never had charm to begin with. Why I liked Jordan was that people don’t care. Sure, it might be harder to get help when you need it, but they’re still generally nice.

Police

The reputation that citizens had built for their country was tarnished by the police. Not far out of Jeddah, I’m being stopped, questioned, and have to deal with a lot of unprofessionalism. The police are quite nice, but rather annoying. They stopped me for riding on the shoulder going against traffic, which was annoying the first time because it meant I had to ride on the jarring opposite side, and dangerous the second time because there wasn’t a shoulder at all.

Jordanian police err on the side of being too lax, and wouldn’t put much effort looking for the guy who tried to stab me because his tractor didn’t have a license plate.

Resources

Water

There was more than enough water points to get by on 4 liters in the winter, but the summer might need twice that in a couple stretches. There are petrol stations everywhere, but more importantly mosques. Mosques almost always have a source of water for people to do ablutions before prayer, and sometimes even filtered and chilled water dispensers right in the parking lot! It’s a cyclist’s paradise. They stop before Jordan and you’re back to filling up at the foot washing stations. Theoretically it’s clean enough to drink, but the locals will insist it’s not so I add disinfectant drops.

Food

Saudi food is like goat over rice, seafood, or baby camel (hashi), and the rest is from abroad. They have a mind-boggling array of American chains that not only hit the A-tier (McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut) and B-tier (Burger King, Popeyes, Tim Hortons, Dominos), but things like Fuddruckers, Raisin’ Canes, Krispy Kreme, and Little Ceaser’s that I’d never seen outside the US. Beyond that, Indian/Pakistani restaurants are never in short supply. Jordan seemed to have more local food.

Supermarkets

Small supermarkets are an infestation in Saudi Arabia, and you’re never too far from two you can compare prices at. They usually have everything you would want, just maybe not in the right size. Peanut butter was tricky to get in larger sizes.

Get flatbread (pronounced: xhu-bos, xhob-is, or something like that) which is cheap and delicious. It’s often inside a closed box on the floor so it doesn’t dry out.

Coffee

Around larger cities you can find drive-through coffee kiosks all along the road. Saudi coffee is traditionally very light, some might even say gross, with a hint of cardamom. The herb is also added to darker roasts at supermarkets, which gives it a local flair.

Bike Shops

Generally, there were bike shops within a reasonable distance. In, Jeddah you’ll be able to find whatever you need if you go to the bigger ones; Amman also has an established cycling scene. Yanbu had one that was just barely passable, but could work in a jam.

Money

ATMs are often at petrol stations, but better yet, cards are accepted all over. If you want cash going into Jordan, you’ll have to exchange at a bigger city like Jeddah, Madinah or Tabuk or face the border rates. You cannot exchange Saudi Riyal to Jordanian Dinar in Haql.

Route Sections

Entering Saudi Arabia

An e-Visa into Saudi Arabia came within a few minutes of me submitting it, though I had to pay for insurance as part of the visa fee. Flying in was a simple process and I was rolling in no time.

Jeddah to Madinah

Long expanses of flat, uninspiring expressways to Yanbu and then up through gorgeous mountain towns after Badir. Why go to Yanbu? For the flower festival! (Just kidding, one happened to be on while I was there, and I was so convincing when they interview me you would have believed it.) There’s a more direct route to Madinah, but I’d been told the route through Badir was more beautiful. Madinah is the second-holiest city in Islam, and the holiest ones foreigners can expect to enter. People will say all sorts of different things, but you’re allowed to go into everything except the Prophet’s Mosque.

  • Jeddah scuba diving: Just north of the Jeddah Tower are pretty impressive places to dive if you don’t want to go to Yanbu or want a done deal.
  • Yanbu scuba diving: It’s worth the extra day of riding to see reefs some of the best reefs in the world. There’s just a tad bit more color and vibrancy out there, than there was back in Jeddah. The trade-off was that groups going out aren’t as common and was lucky to tag along with students; otherwise, it’s paying a ton for a private boat or waiting a day or two.
  • Madinah: Non-Muslims are NOT allowed to go into the Prophet’s Mosque. Don’t even think about buying a little hat, wearing top and bottoms of the same color like you saw a bunch of other people doing, or pretending you rode all the way from Kyrgyzstan. It doesn’t matter that the guards don’t discriminate and will let anyone walk in or that once inside no one seems to notice you. There’s a good parking lot at 24°28'04.0"N 39°36'24.2"E where there are enough public eyes.

Madinah to Al-Ula

The highway out of Medinah is really quite nice having mountains on both sides without too much rising and falling. It feels like something from Mars, and unsurprisingly this area is where they’ve filmed a filmed quiet a bit of space films. Maybe not here here, but you get the best of along this route.

  • Khaybar: Rhymes with ____. Wrong, “guy-bar”. Just north of it forking off is Al-Rawan, but don’t look it up on anything other than a map app or else you’ll ruin the surprise.
  • Al-Ula: It’s on par with Moab Utah but with ancient history and recent history pervading through the channel in the mountains it occupies. It’s home to the same people that did Petra, just on a smaller scale. The city’s charm only gets better with the renovated old town. There’s a really cool overlook from the Harrat viewpoint, but you will be pushing uphill most of the way. Oh you’re a big tough guy, huh? There’s a place to set up a tent by the radio towers for an awesome view in the morning.

Al-Ula to Haql

For those still reading, I have a secret cool route just for you. Because I love you. Head to Al Rakah along a small road into Prince Mohammed bin Salman Royal Reserve and take the roads to Duba. Absolutely fantastic scenery, just when you thought it couldn’t get better. It does. A little. After Duba, it’s crap riding that only serves as a means to accomplish your goal. It was neither flat nor oceanic as it seems. While it may be tempting to take the 8900 fork to Tabuk instead, you’d be missing the most spectacular view I may have seen on the trip. Going northwest, you descend down a 23% grade, which would be impossible going the other way.

Exiting Saudi Arabia, Entering Jordan

Buy the Jordan Pass! Buy the Jordan Pass! Buy the Jordan Pass! This isn’t an ad, it’s common sense. It waives the visa fee and entrance fees to all the good stuff. It will pay for itself by the second thing you go see. You won’t be able to exchange Saudi Riyal to Jordanian Dinar in Haql. Can you in Aqaba? Maybe?

Aqaba to Shobak

The route between Aqaba and Shobak is a great little run mainly because of Wadi Rum and Petra; Highway 15 (the Desert Highway) runs through development most of the way, though with a wide shoulder. It breaks off onto Highway 35 (the King’s Highway) running through many of the top sites in Jordan.

  • World’s oldest purpose built church: Surprising you’d find it in the Dead Sea and Red Sea’s taint.
  • Wadi Rum: I could see how this would be a wower if you didn’t just come from Saudi Arabia, but by this point I was sort of jaded. The redeemable part was the experience of getting to walk around on the sand like some freak of nature. There were several Bedouins who tried to persuade me that it was too far to walk, but if you have a day to burn, walking alone among rock outcrops is a feeling you probably won’t get somewhere else. You cycle from the entrance to the village, which is a real village and not a bunch of themed shops. Why do I bring that up? Because I didn’t feel safe leaving my bike in a real village! The sand is too soft to ride on but with a mixture of riding/pulling I struggled to just before the curve to Lawrence Spring where there was a small mound I could wheel up to. I walked all the way to Lawrence of Arabia’s house and back before sundown.
  • Petra: If all you know about Petra is the carved out tomb in the wall, then don’t do any more research. Just go. Just south of Rajif are two gift shops. One claims to have the best view, but go to the one boasting the second-best view.
  • Shobak: There’s a castle here that was moderately interesting only once you learn the history. I had to use Organic Maps’ offline Wikipedia articles since there weren’t any brochures. It’s less grand than the one in Kerak on the same highway, but felt a bit more authentic.

Shobak to Amman

The Kerak Castle sets along the King’s Highway with a canyon to the south and to the north; not close enough to be of actual defensive purposes, but I didn’t have time to ride through either of them so I skirted the first one by riding east to the flat Desert Highway until I was past it and then cut back through Moab and the rode back to the Desert Highway to Amman.

  • Kerak Castle: A former stronghold of crusaders who went a little too far not only east but in talking of invading Mecca, which got them sacked. Egyptians later took over the castle meaning it was held by peoples of three continents. It feels like a typical European medieval castle, but later additions add in Muslim/Arabic elements.

Exiting Jordan

The only truly safe way out of Jordan in early 2024 was either flying out or cycling around Syria through Iraq. Central Israel should be fine to cross, but since I’d already been and was on a time budget, I flew off to Cyprus.

What I Missed

  • Dead Sea (already been)
  • Madaba
  • Desert Castles around Amman
  • Amman ruins
  • As-salt
  • Jerash
  • </section>

Film Strip

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Daddy
Who is your Daddy?Follow
Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.
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