When I tell somebody that I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, I inevitably hear one of three questions. Colleagues and acquaintances ask if I had to wear an abaya. Friends ask if I rode a horse there. And people who know me really well ask if I wore an abaya while riding a horse. Well, yes, yes and no.
I’ve started writing this story many times, but I couldn’t really get any further than the second paragraph. You know that every story has many sub-stories and many points of view. I didn’t know what I really wanted to begin my story with. Should I begin with the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the least known and most secluded countries in the world? With my first impressions? With the story about my many (six, to be precise) previous attempts to get a business visa there, all of which were rejected simply because of the fact that my chromosomes are XX and not XY? Or with the fact that now I’m an official record holder as the one and only female employee to visit offices in Riyadh and Jeddah?
So when I finally (on my seventh attempt) got a business visa for my passport, my immediate thought was that the next time I might not be that lucky, so I absolutely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add another country to my list on that particular trip. Thanks to Google, I quickly found a pretty nice place called Dirab Golf Club. It’s located about 70 km from the center of Riyadh, a bit too far away, but the possibility of adding a new country to my list makes me unstoppable, if not pigheaded ☺.
A couple of weeks later, I was in the spotless and a bit deserted Riyadh international airport feeling pretty awkward in my fresh-from-the-sewing-machine abaya.
I took a taxi, and my adventure started. On the way to the golf club, looking out at the deserted Central Province land that is so flat that you can literally see the Earth curving and observing the dozens, if not hundreds, of Saudi flags, which are, ironically, the only splashes of green around, I thought that my years of travelling had taught me not to trust common prejudices about different countries and nations. (In fact, I myself could serve as an example of stereotypes that one cannot trust—I’m Russian, but I’m not blonde; I have never drunk vodka; not once have I worn an ushanka; and never in my life have I seen a bear strolling around the city ;-)). So, I’ve chosen not to believe any Saudi stories circulating around Facebook and mostly shared by people who have never been to the Kingdom.
About 45 minutes later and over 100 km away from the airport, my driver realized that we were lost. Perfect timing! Providing him with the map didn’t help; thus, I had to navigate on my own in the city that I had spent less than one hour in. So there I was . . . on the highway, in the car, going over 120 km/h with no clue where the golf club was.
To add to my confusion, it was hotter than 45 degrees Celsius outside, and my shoulder devil kept asking me, “Tell me again, why do you do it? Wouldn’t it be better to stay in a fully air-conditioned hotel room for the whole day?” And what was my shoulder angel doing, you might ask? He cowardly remained in silence ☺.
Despite taking a few more wrong turns, we finally arrived at the stables exactly on time . . . and then the unexpected fairytale-like experience started.
First, I got introduced to Mutheeb, a 19-year-old pure Arab gelding, and then I met Saleh, my guide for the day.
Saleh advised me to leave my abaya in the tack room as it was (surprise!) completely fine to ride without it in the territory of the club. Then I got a straw hat to protect my head from the direct sunlight, and we went on the path. Canyon-like hills, red sand, and tumbleweeds—nothing indicated that we were in the middle of the driest and one of the most strictly regulated countries in the world. “It looks like Arizona,” I said.“Everyone says so,” replied Saleh ☺.
We rode further into the hills, and he told me his story. About 25 years earlier, he had come to the Kingdom from Egypt at the invitation of the wealthy Saudi man. Earlier that year, Saleh’s employer had given his daughter a two-year-old Arab stallion as a present for her 12th birthday, so Saleh’s job was to break the horse and to teach the girl how to ride him.
And he did just that. Years passed by, and more horses joined the stables. Then the golf club and a small hotel were built nearby. The girl grew up, married, and had children, but she still regularly comes to visit her now-retired stallion.
My 1.5-hour ride was filled with lots of equestrian stories. One of the most exciting ones was that the riding club personnel not only have polo ponies exported from Argentina, but they also managed to train some Arab horses, including Mutheeb, to play polo. Furthermore, there is some kind of polo league that has been established in the KSA.
Unpredictably, in the low humidity, +45 Celsius didn’t feel that bad, and I enjoyed that ride much more than I would have ever imagined.
And of course I couldn’t leave the stables without a picture of me in my abaya astride Mutheeb. To my surprise, it became the most popular picture on my Instagram.