As you all know Riyadh Season just kicked off last week with the arrival and performance of Korean pop sensation, BTS. Now before anything else, we wanted to document the Taif Season which we had the privilege of experiencing last August. It is one of the ten Saudi seasons that was launched earlier this year to start promoting tourism to local and international guests. It was my first time to actually visit Taif (Janelle had gone two weeks earlier for a different assignment) but we ended up being invited by the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Heritage to catch its last remaining days.
Located at the southwest of Saudi Arabia, Taif is known as the “City of Roses” and the Taif Season logo exemplified this throughout all their publicity materials. They are frequently visited for their pleasant weather temperatures all year-round with prominent luscious landscapes that include the Taif rose plantation, Al Hada Mountain, and Al Shafa Mountains, which is best viewed through their famous cable car ride called the “Telefric”. During my stay, I was hosted at the Awaliv Hotel, which is also the only towering structure in Taif.
The Taif Season showcased four major events: the Crown Prince Camel Festival, Ward Village, Souk Okaz and Sadat Al Beid. I was able to experience the latter two events: visiting Souk Okaz and hiking with a mountaineering club up to Sadat Al Beid. There wasn’t enough time for me to see Ward Village and the Camel Festival, though I did see a lot of camels at Souk Okaz anyway.
In pre-Islamic times, Souk Okaz was an integral trading ground in the Arab peninsula. Not only was it a “souk” (market), but it was also an integral meeting of the minds: from exchanging ideas, announcing new rules of law to even expressing art through poetry. During the Taif Season, it was like being transported to that dimension in time as tall, sturdy men donning costumes of that era strolled along the paths of Souk Okaz. Others rode camels and horses, exhibiting skills in showmanship.
The Caravan Experience was a delight to witness with the march of the camels leading into the souk. Merchants and local products were being sold to the visitors, such as lamps, jewelry and handmade fabrics. By sundown, a theatrical presentation was enacted in the “centerstage”. And while it was in Arabic, I can deduce that it was about a tribal war of sorts and someone died and they all had to make peace (not so accurate but that’s what I gathered).
There was also a number of pavillions dedicated to the participating GCC countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE and the like. Each area showcased their culture and famous landmarks as well. By the end of the evening, there were scheduled performances/concerts from famous Arab singers but since I wouldn’t be able to understand them, I opted out of the nightly event. Because the next day, I had to get ready for the hike in Sadat Al Beid (now that’s a story!).
Sadat Al Beid
I’m going to start this off by saying that the hike in Sadat Al Beid was LIFE CHANGING. I have never hiked in my life (I don’t count the walks around the trails of the DQ/Safarat as hiking) and while I consider myself to be fairly athletic, I wasn’t quite prepared to experience what I did when I arrived there.
The hike was organized by the Masarat Adventure Club, the official tour operator of this particular leg of Taif Seasons. I had to sign up for the hike a day before on their website and paid the fees online (around 200 SAR). Luckily, the meeting place for the pick up was just right beside the hotel that I was staying in and by the time I got there, it was obvious that I was the only non-Arab member of the group. Despite that though, I found everyone to be cordial and welcoming, especially the lead guide who assured me that he will be with us every step of the way.
We drove all the way to the base of Al Hada Mountain where we had our orientation and warm-ups. While it was all initially done in Arabic, they were kind enough to translate the reminders to me in English after. At first, I was over-eager and excited to start walking. The trail in particular wasn’t that rocky; in fact the steps were pretty flat. However it was the ascencion that got to me. I wasn’t ready to hike “upwards” so to speak. So with every turn of ascending levels, my breath started to shorten and I was slowly realizing that this may not be as easy as I thought it was going to be.
Thirty minutes in, I was now panting, seeing spots, and my legs started to feel like jelly. I literally thought I was going to pass out. We had the occasional stops along the way but it was proving to be a difficult task for me. One of the guides, Mohammed, was very accommodating and told me not to pressure myself and to take my time. I had already offered a thousand riyals to the guides, telling them to bring me back down, but none of them allowed me to give up. Even if I would just take 10 or 15 steps and rest, they would stop and wait with me till I can go again. I was also touched by one of the participants who stopped from her hike and went back to encourage me that I could do it. Thank you, Sal! (The girl with blue hair) You were so cool.
Finally, after what seemed to be forever…I finally joined the rest of the hiking team on the top. Whilst there, they had arranged for a five-minute meditation that had us all in silence. In that moment, I truly felt how my heart started to calm down as I inhaled and exhaled each breath. When the leader told us that the five minutes was over, I slowly opened my eyes and saw the horizon. It was only then that I managed to notice the beauty that was right in front of me. It was an overwhelming feeling, almost spiritual. Below, I could see how far I was able to hike. Ahead, I could see the beautiful sunset framed by the surrounding nature. The experience made me realize how giving up is such an easy thing to do, but if you push your strength and overcome your struggles, then the reward after it is priceless.
Come night time, we enjoyed the camp site overlooking Taif with hot tea and fresh grilled barbecue meat for dinner. While waiting for the food, a group of Saudi ladies taught me how to play “Carrom,” a traditional board game. After our delicious dinner (which also had vegetarian options, btw), there was a live acoustic performance using an oud guitar by the bonfire and I watched in awe as the Arabs around me sang along.
Apart from the kindness and professionalism that I observed from the group, one of the notable things I commend the Masarat Adventure Club for is their dedication to reduce the use of plastic and avoiding littering in the mountains at all costs. For water bottles, they provided us with reusable tumblers. During dinner, they served us with ceramic plates and silverware. They have incorporated this message of being more conscious about our ways of consuming plastic and conserving nature into their trips and I was extremely pleased by their commitment in this matter.
Of course, my body paid the price for this “journey of enlightenment” by the next day as I woke up to a body that is not used to being so active, especially outdoors. It was also my 30+ something self telling me that I need to workout more. ;’)
Nonetheless, it was a trip that both had a touch of culture, sport and tranquility. Taif has surely made its mark in my book as an unforgettable trip and even though this post is coming in a little bit late for news, it certainly needs to be commemorated here in our blog.
**We would like to extend our gratitude once again to the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Heritage for hosting us on this trip.