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 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
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 https://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1405563
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 was quite a limited range and it was 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.
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 was 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.
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 avoids entire Syria and Iraqi airspace. It is 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.
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 didn’t 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.