Leaving Mumbai on a Saudi Airlines flight to Jeddah our flight path directed our plane to traverse a giant desert of south-eastern Saudia Arabia known as the "Rub' al Khali" in Arabic or "Empty Quarter" in English.
Described by travel books as "The most inhospitable place on Earth," this section of the Arabian Peninsula features next to zero surface water, extreme heat which supports little permanent human population. In 2010 I crossed over this section of the Arabian Peninsula on a nighttime flight from Manama, Bahrain to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Today, I had the pleasure of crossing the area in the daylight. After an hour or so of crossing the Arabian Sea, and a through cleaning of the window with a bit of my valuable drinking water, I was ready to see the desert.
When the Omani coastline first appeared I could see a faint glimpse of a highway below. In Oman in 2010, I remembered that the state-run transport company offered a 36 hour bus ride from Muscat to Salalah some 1000km along the coastline. Was the road I was peering down on the same route? Soon thereafter, the flat-looking coast gave way to small hills. The blazing midday sun created dramatic shadows on landscape below. Further west we passed a very odd land form which is featured below. I couldn't figure out what it was, but I am sure I have never seen anything quite like it. It looked like a giant oil spill or an area with dense black forest.
Odd looking black land form, Over the Empty Quarter, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
As we continued on further, some puffy clouds dominated the desert-scape. The digital projector inside the cabin flipped between slides showing the flight path and a constantly re-adjusting compass rose pointing towards Mecca, the holiest site in the Muslim world. On the plane were over a hundred Muslim pilgrims wearing black head-to toe dresses (women) and towel and bed-sheet like wrap-arounds (men). Jeddah is the closest major international airport to Mecca, where the very important Muslim pilgrimage of Haj takes place.
I have felt inspiration while flying high in the skies during previous journeys. In 2008, I passed by Denali in Alaska at sunset en route to Korea and then we passed over the Bering Strait! At the time, I thought to myself, what's the probability I'll ever see this desolate part of the Arctic world again? Today's passage over the Empty Quarter is a similar feeling, when will I cruise the skies of the hot desert world again? A glimpse down on the desolate landscape of reddish brown sand and blue skies below.
Puffy Clouds, Empty Quarter, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
I feel lucky to having even touched down here in Saudia. Likely the most conservative country in the Arabian Peninsula, I was surprised when I found out I could transit here hassle-free.
Although the only steps I took on Saudi soil were across the tarmac to the bus that , I feel like I've got a brief taste of the mid-east. It tastes good (rice and chicken meal in the airport is the first meat I've eaten in four months) and culturally it feels a lot different than India. I am also pleasantly surprised how organized it all seems here compared to India.
To illustrate the transition to the organized world I give one anecdote. The man I sat next to on the plane was a Mumbaiker (term used by the newspapers in India to denote a person from Mumbai) going to work in Saudi for a Engineering firm in Jeddah. As it was his first trip abroad and first time on an airplane, I gave him some advice as we rolled towards the mid-east. I suggested that after we landed we should remain seated until the fasten seat belt lights went off. I predicted that the mostly Indian passengers would surge for the luggage with complete disregard for safety as is commonplace in India. However, this is Saudia, and I assumed the regulations were more strict and US-like. When my prediction was correct, and the massive human movement began, he was tempted to join, but I sent him a quick wink of the eye to help reassure him that I knew what I was doing. Then the infuriated flight attendants began screaming "SIT DOWN!! SIT DOWN UNTIL THE PLANE STOPS!!" We both shared a smile, as we both had behaved conservatively and with restraint. The plane still had about 15 minutes of taxi-time and when we landed. After the harsh scolding from the attendants, the on-board vibe continued in a more business like fashion.
Alan Washalan! Arabic for: Welcome! The Saudi Arabian Airlines employee in the transit corridor gave me two meal passes for lunch and dinner. I cleared security again and after passing through a large and expensive duty free area, landed in the departures area. In the afternoon the loudspeakers in the departure area guided the call to prayer at full volume. Around me, the mostly Filipino and Indian outbound passengers kept eating and typing away on laptops. Business continued as normal.
Elevation-modified landscape, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Of particular interest to a landscape-origin-interested-traveler, was to see the stark difference of plant life based on elevation (image above). The lowest elevations looked like pure sand while the hills looked more craggy with with brushy scrub. At least that's how it appeared from cruising elevation of almost 10km.
Over the Desert, Saudi Arabia
As we neared landing, I counted the multi-lane expressways from the birds-eye perspective by the number of cars I could see passing at once. The landscape looked dry, hot, dusty and the air quality as we descended got more hazy, until the familiar purple haze was visible on the horizon.
Landing in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Although I'd love to see the plane passing over Africa and landing in Addis, we're flying at night. More from Africa soon.