Al Hofuf Souq
Jebel Qarar Stef
Camel market

To Al Hofuf from Riyadh

The road is aligned with dramatic rock formations when we start our bus journey from Riyadh to Al Hofuf. Halfway between Riyadh and Al Hofuf, every hint of rock is gone. There is just sand composed of miles of red dunes sprinkled with litter, camels, and some greenery. It is December, and the temperature averages twenty-five degrees Celcius during the day. Luckily for me, it cools considerably here at night. The desert sand does not retain heat, ensuring one sleeps well.

Al-Koot, the centre of Al Hofuf

Al Hofuf, or Al Asha, as the city is also called, is located in Saudi Arabia’s most extensive oasis near the world’s largest conventional oil field. Oil money has brought prosperity to the city. The streets of Al Hofuf are not clean, but almost unlike many other cities in Saudi Arabia. The Al-Koot district’s historical centre is home to one of the most beautiful souks in Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaisariah.

After dinner, we take a walk. The street is busy, with only men—thousands of Indians, Bengalis, and Pakistanis. Bizarrely, there is not a single woman on the street. Despite my obvious womanhood, I feel invisible. Men keep their gaze averted, while in other Saudi cities like Jeddah, I was looked at from top to bottom. These were mainly Saudis. Here, in this neighbourhood in the centre of Al Hofuf, there are only Asian immigrants on the streets.

A Western woman with almost white hair is unique in this part of the world. Most women are veiled in public, thus not showing their hair. Even older men only sport sporadic grey hair. Do the Arabs & Asians colour it, or don’t they age as we do?

The next day, we visit a camel market—one of the city’s key attractions.

 

camel market Al Hofuf

Al Hofuf camel market

The market has dust, sand, flies and thousands of camels. Loud roaring reveals the location of the market from far away. Some camels stand inside an enclosure, eating hay from a rack. Others cross the road in a herd driven by cars, a shepherd on foot or another camel.

Tea with dates

We came to see the market. The market is looking at us as the only Westerners, half of whom are women. If I don’t count the camels, the only woman on site. ‘Hello, where are you from? ‘ ‘Welcome.’ The head of the market invites us for coffee on the terrace overlooking the auction.

A servant offers us sticky dates covered with tiny flies. The creatures have good taste as the fruit is nice and sweet. Unfortunately, the flies refuse to give up their meal for me, the bigger and stronger one in this case. After three dates and sticky fingers, I give up the fight.

A trader wants to know which camel I like better: the red or the white? ‘The white one is nicer,’ I say. Yes, he thinks so, too. The camel is too ‘beautiful’; she is ‘jameelah‘. Would I like to take a photo? ‘Yes, I’d like that.’ He moves his animals so they are in a more photogenic position.

Beautiful and less beautiful camels and their owners

Further on, a man on a trotting camel flies out of control. They both end up on the ground in the sand. The camel quickly gets up, but the man needs time to recover. This humiliation is deserved for a man who has just whipped the camel harshly.

Young guys secretly film me while having coffee with the big boss. Will I be on TikTok, YouTube, or an Arabic social media variant feeding the trolls? It’s best not to ask.

It is time to return to our accommodation after being sufficiently observed, filmed, dusted, and swarmed by a million flies. The camel market is twenty kilometres outside the city. Getting there by taxi was fine. Back, it is a problem. None of the three taxi apps used here can find a driver for us. Then, we have to ask for help.

Taxi to Al Hofuf is ‘no problem’

We walk into a gas station, where I buy a water bottle. It costs one rial. Looking into my wallet, I notice I have no cash left. ‘No problem,’ says the cashier. I can take the bottle with me without paying. This is a common theme; people offer us water anywhere we go: in shops, on the streets, and at bus stops. Everywhere. We are, after all, in a country where a lack of water can cause death in a matter of hours.

When I ask a gas station attendant if getting a taxi from here is possible, he disappears to call his boss. The supervisor, a young Indian, recruits a friend for the job. ‘Ten minutes’, then our ‘taxi’ will arrive. We can wait in his office. Inside, two sagging couches are cooking in the smell of smoke. He swats away a fly. And another one. Indeed, after less than a quarter of an hour, a car appears. We get home another day to continue our exploration of the city.

Jabal Qarah

One of the other sights in Al Hofuf is Jabal Qarah, a hill fifteen kilometres from the city’s centre. Jabal Qarah is a photogenic hill about 200 meters high, made of gigantic red-brown boulders. Inside are several caves.

Caves in Jabal Qarah

A man approaches us and tells us that he used to live there until the government asked him and other residents to move out of the mountain caves. He says: ‘We could sleep well here; it was nice and cool at a time when there was no air conditioning.’ I can imagine.

It is now winter and thirty degrees Celcius in the middle of the day. After walking up and down the hill, my head is bright red from the heat. The only exuberant colour in this part of the world where everything is black, white, grey or sand-coloured.

After all, we are in an introverted country which has only recently opened up for general tourism. There is no shouting, loud music or other extroverted behaviour. Smoking, eating or drinking hardly happens in public.

A kiss as thanks

Sitting on a bench to recover from the hike, the bravest of a group of Saudi ladies approaches. She wants us to take a selfie together. Yes, why not? Go ahead. My bright red face next to her black veil contrasts beautifully. As a thank you, I get a kiss from her, discreetly placed with her fingers from her lips to my cheek. A small and special gesture in this country where chastity is the norm and physical contact in public between the sexes is taboo.

Although my travel partner and I, as a couple, are not particularly cuddly, I now notice how often we almost touch each other and then realise: oh no, that’s not allowed. However, touching is permitted with the same gender. Men walk hand in hand, and women hug each other extensively when greeting. Contemplating the virtues of Muslim society, I concluded it is time for some serious souq dwelling.

Al-Qaisariah souq

The historic centre of Al-Koot is home to one of the most beautiful souks in Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaisariah. The narrow aisles of the souk display merchandise, including perfume, heavy desert cloaks, dishdasha, abayas, knickknacks, and gold. The gold souk covers a complete district with dozens of streets and hundreds of shops where the only items on display are made of gold.

Al-Qaisariah souq

The historic centre of Al-Koot is home to one of the most beautiful souks in Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaisariah. The narrow aisles of the souk display merchandise, including perfume, heavy desert cloaks, dishdasha, abayas, knickknacks, and gold. The gold souk covers a complete district with dozens of streets and hundreds of shops where the only items on display are made of gold.

Drink, Eat, Sleep in Al Hofuf

  • Go to the Ratio Al Kout tea house on King Abdulaziz Road for Friday afternoon drinks. You must make a reservation to enjoy a view of the city upstairs on the terrace. However, a nice seating area is downstairs if you don’t have a reservation. The drinks are alcohol-free.
  • For traditional cuisine, visit Dar Basma, an Arabic restaurant. It’s a nice place, and the food is tasty.
  • Al Kooti Heritage Hotel is a luxury hotel with traditional Arabic décor.
  • Spar Furnished Hotel is in the centre and offers spacious apartments with a kitchenette, sitting room, and comfortable large beds.

Transport in and to Al Hofuf

 

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