A few months ago, Saudi Arabia announced that for the Formula E race they would be hosting in December they would also be issuing eVisas to those who bought tickets to the event. Now, historically, Saudi Arabia has only issued tourist visas if you travel with one of a very few authorized tour agencies, who universally charged rather outrageous prices for what you get – usually in the several thousands of dollars range. Because of this, Saudi Arabia has always been a country that “country collectors” have trouble checking off unless they’re Muslim and can go on the Hajj, or they get invited on business.
The Saudis have promised several times that tourist visas were coming soon, but it has never materialized. We all thought this was too good to be true, but their Sharek website was not only online, but buying a race ticket and getting your eVisa only took about 15 minutes and you received your eVisa by email. Now, the timing was terrible for me as my December was already packed, but this was one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities, so I couldn’t say no. Hopefully they keep issuing these visas going forward.
The other reason I felt I had to jump on this is that Saudi Arabia is one of a few countries that I’m not thrilled with the quality of my initial visit on the first round of visiting every country. (Others include Yemen, Syria, Sudan, FS Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands) So this was a chance to take care of one of them.
Right. Fast forward a few weeks, and the first people started arriving, and were having no trouble with the visas, so this was really happening! Now, word of this spread like wildfire in the country counting community, and there was a rather substantial number of people jumping on the bandwagon, so this would also be an awesome opportunity to meet a great number of other travelers with well over 100 countries under their belts. Should be an awesome time!
Landed pretty late at night, and wanted to get to bed since we had a very early morning tour planned to the “Edge of the World.” This would be the first chance for the majority of the group to meet each other, and there were about 30 of us heading out. We were meeting at 0530 to head out, which prevented hotel breakfasts or even a Starbucks stop. I thought to stop at Starbucks the night before and get an iced coffee with extra ice and put it in the minibar fridge, in hopes that in 6-7 hours it would still stay largely frozen and cold…and it worked like a charm.
Small hotel note: stayed at the Marriott Courtyard, which was a perfectly nice hotel. Rooms were very nice for a Courtyard, and staff tried to be helpful, but like most places in Saudi Arabia the service culture was short of Western standards. All said, however, it was a perfectly nice hotel.
Right, off on the drive to the Edge of the World. Beautiful scenery on the way out of Riyadh. The grey cloudy skies certainly gave it an otherwordly look:
Our driver just chugging along in our Chevy SUV:
First impression at the Edge of the World:
A little better perspective. It was also super windy and surprisingly chilly here!
Did I mention that the sky was just crazy?
Standing at the Edge of the World. You can’t really see the perspective in this shot, but if you look at knee-level that’s where the ledge sharply drops off hundreds of meters.
This puts into much better perspective just how huge and vast this place was, and how sheer the drop was. About half of our group only about 100 meters away:
The windy walk to the Edge of the World. I think this is my absolutely favourite shot.
The group. I’m not sure a larger group of people who’ve visited 100+ countries has ever been assembled in one place!
After the Edge of the World our drivers took us straight to the Formula E race, which was the raison d’etre for issuing the visas. I wasn’t terribly interested in it, but with no other plans for the afternoon figured I should stop by and check it out at least. They had a fair/festival going on as well near the race, with a bunch of very slow food trucks and displays. Scott and I briefly considered giving it all up for jobs with Saudia….
Who would have expected a Grilled Cheese truck in Saudi Arabia? Unfortunately, it was as bad as I expected. Boo.
Locals milling around the festival waiting for the race to start.
The race….was a disorganized mess, but we eventually made it to the bleachers to watch for about an hour. I can’t say I’m in a great hurry to go to another Formula E race, but it was cool to see an event like this happening in Saudi Arabia.
Note all the westerners taking photos, lol
Little close-up race action:
…and I definitely didn’t expect to see a local guy in a unicorn onesie at the race!
After we’d had enough racing action we headed to the Kingdom Tower, otherwise known as the giant taser. You can see why the way it’s lit up at night: (not my photo – not sure who in the group took it though) It changes colour every few seconds, which gives a pretty neat effect:
The walkway at the very top, 99 stories up, is a glass enclose walkway. I’m not generally a big fan of heights, and this was pretty creepy. They’d even let you lean on the windows. No thank you!
View of Riyadh’s main drag from 99 stories:
We got there right at sunset, so got a chance to see the city lighting up at night:
Playing with perspective…giving the inside a bit of a Star Trek look:
Forget who in the group took this photo, but at night there was also a concert featuring David Guetta and One Republic. It was really hard to believe this was happening in Saudi Arabia of all places, where just a few years prior even movies were banned!
Next morning, I was up early to get some Starbucks. Store was divided right down the middle with two separate entrances, although the employees worked behind the same counter. The dividing was was just a foot short of ceiling high, and ran all the way up to the counter. Way to rub it in Saudi Arabia, making me sit in the “Single’s Section”
After that it was time to begin the trek onwards to Germany…but I’ll write about the flights in my next post about this trip.