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Old 3rd January 2020, 03:21 PM   #1
SQueeze
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Default Saudia Unveiled: IST-RUH-BOM in J and a peek of newly-open Saudi Arabia

Background:

In September 2019, Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists with a drastically simplified visa procedure. For citizens of 49 countries, Singapore included, visa is to be obtained instantaneously through self service visa application stations at the airport, or online. The process is very seamless through the portal https://visa.visitsaudi.com/ . It costs quite a sum though (total of about USD120 including compulsory insurance).

I was amazed at the speed and swiftness of the implementation. Previously, tourist visas were technically not granted to anyone and therefore only people on pilgrimage or expats have access to enter this Kingdom. The Kingdom has been very conservative (or so its reputation), and I was expecting that even when they start issuing tourist visas, it will be the usual way where one goes to the embassy, submits the passport, gets vetted through our background, pays, then granted the visa. I didn’t expect they would fling open the door so fast, so swift, so open, and so immediately.

With this news, I just happened to have to make my way from Istanbul to Mumbai in mid December, and so I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter a newly open territory that few outsiders had seen. Coupled with fantastic mild weather, a cheap 3 digit business class fare (which is cheaper than Turkish economy direct on the route), and an innate adventurous spirit to explore, I signed up for a weekend in Saudi!

To my surprise, and to all my friends in social media, this country is truly stunning beyond words. It is easily the most spectacular place I have ever seen so far. And it is so untouched. After the trip, I was hoping that they should not have opened it so openly as it is currently. They should do the Bhutan approach, restrict the number, increase the quality. This place is too precious to be spoiled by mass tourism.

I will let the pictures promote Saudi Arabia by itself. And I am only seeing a tiny bit of the country and there are many many more places, even more spectacular, more untouched than this.

But first, let’s start with the flight with Saudia, the national carrier.

Part 1: Istanbul to Riyadh

Flight: Saudia
Number: SV264
Aircraft: A330-300
Registration: HZ-AQ16
Seating: 1A
Load: 100%


This is not my first time flying Saudia. In the summer of 2018, I flew with them, making use of the cheap EUR450 fare in business class from Rome to Jakarta. It was a good experience with an amazing assortment of juices (no alcohol), cold planes, friendly crew, and very good food (ex RUH). It was also a transit through Riyadh, the better airport as compared to Jeddah.

Trip report of that can be found here on this site too
http://www.sqtalk.com/forum/showthre...=223302&nojs=1

For this trip, I started the journey from Istanbul New Airport, a massive terminal with 5 piers and what seems like miles and miles of walking.

I sent my friend off on the SQ flight, and I walked towards one of the check in islands on the left to check in at Saudia counter (P island).

Privilege of flying business class is a red carpet queue with just one passenger ahead.




Whereas economy line was quite long (but not that bad either).



Check in was slow-ish but then I was not in a rush. This was more than 3 hours before the flight. So I just let it be.

Istanbul New Airport is a massive terminal. It has beautiful roof made of mini domes which partially let light through. It’s inspired by the traditional Turkish hammam I believe.



There is no shortage of things to do here. There is a lot of floor space for shopping including this bazaar-like area where one can find a myriad of Turkish goods and delicacies.



I have had enough shopping at the Grand Bazaar so I headed straight to the Lounge.

It was a long walk to the Skyteam Lounge which is located on the upper floor towards the left side of the Terminal. In this terminal, one better watches for signage and direction carefully because a wrong detour might mean it will be an extra mile of walk.

It has a beautiful entrance area.



And also a cozy and quiet space for a lounge with ample seating and charging points.





Lots of food too.

Especially the selection of appetisers.



And a range of salads.



The mains were quite a limited range and they were rather bland by Turkish standards. Just these two dishes were there for the afternoon.



First I couldn’t find the bar. They tucked it away quite discreetly. But then I managed to pull out this cold beer. My last drink before Saudi Arabia!



40 minutes before the flight, knowing how far things are at this airport, I started to make my way towards my gate.


Last edited by SQueeze; 4th January 2020 at 06:05 AM..
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Old 3rd January 2020, 03:31 PM   #2
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Almost 15 minutes later, I reached the Gate, and this would be the bird that would fly us to Riyadh that day.



I was excited to go to this closed Kingdom. I never knew I would be able to visit it in my lifetime.

By the time I reached the gate, all passengers had boarded!



I reached my seat. This time, I got to try the newer business class seats installed on at A333s. In 2018, I was on their A320 and older 777s. The 787s have even better business class seats in reverse herringbone. But for this time, I am happy with this seat. It is arranged in 2-2-2 configuration with slight angles, similar to what is installed on Thai Airways 787s.




Looking around at the seat, there is storage at the side, and charging points.




IFE screens are quite large.



Yes!!! The aircon vents. I need these because generally I prefer colder temperatures on flights than what standard temperatures are. I can sleep only with 20 degrees and below!. So generally I prefer Middle Eastern Airlines such as Saudia and Etihad rather than SQ where I usually have to ask for reduction of temperature, or worst I think is Turkish.



Earphone nicely packed.




But not branded stuff. Anyway, good enough.



Now that I realise it, there were no amenity pouches given! They used to give one in 2018. It was by Porsche. And it had a very nice eye shade. Not this time. Not on both flights, not even on the night flight, cost cutting? How else are they going to survive with these 3 digit fares in business class.


Prior to flight, service started with a beautiful assortment of dates.




And Arabic coffee, served by smiling and enthusiastic southeast Asian crew. I find that flying Saudi is like flying Garuda. Just as good with the crew.




Then the juices came. But not in the incredible assortment of 6 varieties in my earlier flights. But just 3 options mentioned I think. The assortment was not served in the tray for us to choose which was a visual delight.

I picked the date juice. I remember this was the juiciest! And still it is.


Last edited by SQueeze; 3rd January 2020 at 06:10 PM..
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Old 3rd January 2020, 03:36 PM   #3
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Instead of a comprehensive juice menu, apparently Saudia has created a water bar instead! Yes --- a WATER BAR. And it was beautifully described! And it occupies central position in the menu. No wine, no problem, water is as expensive in Saudi Arabia! I was eyeing the Icelandic Glacial with ph8.4. Alas, only the Berain is available on this flight.



Next, on the taxiway, after the safety video, there were prayers for our safety with English subtitles I appreciate it.



Looking out towards the window, some other exotica carrier. My next choice / aspiration



Then finally we took off to the skies.


Past the massive 5-armed terminal.




And then finally over Istanbul (the Bosphorus was on my side), and then onwards south to Saudi Arabia.




I didn’t take the flight route snapshot. But the flight actually went south to Egypt before turning dead east towards Riyadh. Apparently the flight avoided entire Syria and Iraqi airspace. It was actually quite a long detour. I remember in 2018, from Rome, we also flew southerly towards Egypt. But from Istanbul, it is an even more marked detour.


1.5 hours into the flight, dinner was served with my bottle of exquisite water on the right




Bread basked is beautifully placed to my left. With imported French butter. Classic.




Then I started with the Arabic mezzes. All were very delicious.



And then with my fish on rice. This was good too. Fish was moist.



I ended the meal with the tartlet and praline and cup of tea.



And of course, all along my Berain water from the Water Bar was on my right.


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Old 3rd January 2020, 03:44 PM   #4
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It was a satisfying meal and afterwards, I just settled down with the IFE. The selection was just ok. I watched a rather propaganda-ish English movie on the 2nd king of Saudi Arabia King Fadh. It was a good show even if it was made with Saudi perspective.



A few hours later, we were over the Sinai.




And then finally the endless grids of Riyadh, a massive city kilometres and kilometres sprawling across the desert.





We landed at a remote bay. Literally this was a remote bay, at least 2-3 kilometres away. Even more. As per the airport website, this airport has land area 2nd largest in the world. And it is 375 sq km. That is half the size of Singapore. I won't be surprised this is true. It is really huge and sprawling.



It took at least 15-20 minutes by bus to the terminal building. But at least this bus is the most comfortable I have been on for an airport bus.



Finally, Welcome to Riyadh. And to my surprise too, half the immigration officers were women. Even in India, this was not the case. Saudi Arabia is rapidly changing at speeds I didnít expect. I hope this is for the good of the country.




From the airport to the city, Uber is very easy to use. It has a dedicated stop which makes this system very organised.


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Old 3rd January 2020, 03:53 PM   #5
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Part 2: Riyadh and the Edge of the World

When I first planned this weekend, I was contemplating between Jeddah or Riyadh. Most people pointed me to Jeddah, saying it is more open, more friendly, more things to see, more buzzing. But I thought that’s not really what I am looking for. Not a Mumbai. I already have Mumbai, and/or Istanbul for that. I was looking for more spectacular landscapes.

And just 2 weeks prior to this trip, and luckily I have not booked the routing via Jeddah, I came across an Instagram feed of one place called Edge of the World, 80km outside Riyadh, and my jaw dropped in awe. I have never seen anything so dramatic before. It makes Grand Canyon looks like a canal….

Anyway, so I jumped into the idea. It was an expensive tour. But I think it is all worth it for that sight that makes me pious again as if I were in front of God almighty. The scale of things in the place is of godly proportion. Truly a magnificent sight.

But first, Riyadh first. Riyadh is all full of highways, and there are not really a lot of things to see. Except Fort Masmak.

It is an imposing structure, a residential fort, of the first Kings of unified Saudi Arabia.



The only entry into this relatively small opening with 3 openings right above where defenders can shoot arrows into it.



Typical of desert architecture, the interiors are relatively unadorned as well but it plays light and shadows very well and quite dramatically.





Windows are generally very small which is both suited to climate (defense against heat and dust storms) as well as culture (privacy).



Just around the corner from the Fort, is what everyone knows as “chop chop” square. Apparently this is no longer in use. Executions are no longer public spectacles. The country is changing very fast.



Next was lunch, a feast for just 2 of us (me and my awesome guide).



Except for the rice on the bottom left which is similar to a briyani, the rest are all very new to me in both looks and taste profile.


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Old 3rd January 2020, 04:16 PM   #6
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Finally after lunch, we went on the 4WD offroad to the place I have been looking forward to most. Probably, the most spectacular place I have been to in 2018-2019.

For an hour, we were driving on the highway, and then we went offroad….





Through very desolate landscape.



Until we finally reached, that place, where humans are literally like ants.



And the most spectacular spot where ants congregate



I stood at the Edge and had my triumphant moment!



And also looked down towards infinity. This place is biblical to me. I can imagine scenes from the Bible in places like this.






All around, there is only nothingness. An expanse of nothingness. Leading to nowhere.


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Old 3rd January 2020, 04:16 PM   #7
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Someone sat on the cliff singing.



And then I went there. It looks really small. But the space is actually very big to sit on. One can comfortably camp here.




Truly stunning.

After sunset, we set up a small picnic camp under some trees. This is actually a river bed and it gets flooded when it rains. So trees grow in the desert too.








It was just too dark for photography, but it was a nice dinner with a conversation, no social media, no internet, no distraction. Very special.

And I just had the reflection how incredible this country is, how much potential it offers, how much it has been maligned in the media, and how much I think it deserves a chance to be known in better light. I am glad to share this experience and I hope I will make someone else curious and I hope the word spreads.
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Old 3rd January 2020, 04:34 PM   #8
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Part 3: Riyadh to Mumbai

Flight: Saudia
Number: SV740
Aircraft: A330-300
Registration: HZ-AQ20
Seating: 1L
Load: 10%



My flight to Mumbai was scheduled at 2am. I reached the airport at 8pm, only to realise that they wouldnít accept me in even with boarding pass in hand, and I had to escalate it to the manager to manually clear me so I could get to the lounge and rest there.


Riyadh Airport is not friendly for waiting, so try not to arrive too early. This is more or less the only space available prior to security and immigration and they donít allow early birds to go in.



Check in counter for Saudia is on the right side. There are just 5-6 counters. I wonder how they manage all considering this is a big Hub for millions of passengers.




For First Class Passengers, they have a sad-looking makeshift booth serving coffee and dates.




Post security is the duty free zone, but there isnít much to buy as prices are very inflated.




So I headed straight to the lounge, my second time.



I like these lazy chairs best, but these are the most popular ones.



There are other seats too. Ample seating.




And also 2 semi private rooms.



And this is the dining area.



Food selection is quite extensive and is also of very high quality.

The only thing about this lounge is it is lacking shower. If there were one, it would have been quite perfect.


All in all, I spent almost 5 hours here, and started to drift in and out of sleep.
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Old 3rd January 2020, 04:39 PM   #9
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At 130am, I headed to the Gate where again all passengers had boarded.



This time, flight was of very light load. Just 5 passengers in business class. My seat is Row 1L.



This is the same plane type and business class like on the earlier sector. Seats are arranged in 2-2-2 with slight angle.





This time, the crew was mostly not from Southeast Asia but South Asia. They are peasant enough although not as smiley as the southeast Asian ones.
Service started with Arabic coffee and cold towel. And dates too, but I skipped the dates.



And not long after, we were airborne, I remember the food was good from my 2018 experience so I didn’t want to miss it either. I ordered the fish on rice option. Not too memorable unfortunately.



I ended the meal with the infamous Mineral Water of Saudia.




I just slept through after that and landed in Mumbai the next morning.

Final thoughts

I like Saudia. That’s it! I encourage everyone to give the Saudis a chance to charm their way.

Come and visit Saudi Arabia too. I think they have the best sights in the region.

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Old 4th January 2020, 07:20 AM   #10
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Thanks vy much for this SQueeze Surely one of the more exotic places for those of us not planning on pilgrimages there. Iím quite amused at how much marketing one can pull out of H2O - amazing that we are comparing ph levels rather than grape types if i may ask, how 3-digit is the 3-digit from IST-BOM? Your stats on RUH - 1/2 the size of SGP - and Edge of the World are setting me to Google to find out more
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Old 4th January 2020, 03:21 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jammed View Post
Thanks vy much for this SQueeze Surely one of the more exotic places for those of us not planning on pilgrimages there. Iím quite amused at how much marketing one can pull out of H2O - amazing that we are comparing ph levels rather than grape types if i may ask, how 3-digit is the 3-digit from IST-BOM? Your stats on RUH - 1/2 the size of SGP - and Edge of the World are setting me to Google to find out more
Itís USD900. Itís also the same price IST-RUH-SIN or CGK. And for SIN, they fly the 787 with reverse herringbone.

Sometimes they also have USD500 fares out of Europe to Jakarta or here. I used to take this fare ex FCO. MXP and GVA had these too. Then it was pulled. But recently itís back ex-ATH.

The curated water is good actually. It tastes different from tap water or the usual cheap bottled water. There is one brand from Bhutan I really like and is of good price. Veen. Usually I see it in India only. Nice bottle too.
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Old 6th January 2020, 08:32 PM   #12
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Thanks for another superb TR, SQueeze!

I've been to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia once, but it was a work trip, so I didn't get to do a lot of sightseeing.

Quite stunning scenery! Superb pictures (Of both scenery and food...). I wish I knew these places, like the Edge of the World, existed! A very different way of life.

Agree it is best to go while the country is still unchanged by tourism.
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