When one thinks about Saudi Arabia, there are many things that come to mind.
But among those, very few would state green mountains.
But along the Southern Border adjacent to Yemen several areas that fit this description well.
Most people (and among them many Saudis) seems to know little about this region of the country. Named Asir it is one of the loveliest and more interesting regions of the country. Much of it used to be part of Yemen or at least affiliated and culturally close to Yemen in the south.
The Asir Region
Asir certainly lives up to it’s name. Meaning “difficult” in Arabic it was certainly a region that was difficult for invaders and travelers alike.
Abha as a city is not the most interesting to visit. At least in terms of things to do or places to see. The reason you come here though is for the nature and the weather. While further south, the mountains and rain of the region brings cooler weather when much of the north is bathing in summer’s heat. Many Saudis actually flock here during these times to escape the suffocating heat of their home regions.
There are two main sights that everyone was eager for me to visit in the region, Al-Souda (the black one) and Habala (which means hanging/rope). Of the two, I found Habala the more interesting one.
The mountains around Habala look formidable. You wonder how and where people would live among the area surround here. If you had to guess it wouldn’t be the most unlikeliest of places…clinging to the sheer rock faces of the mountains below.
You have to commend these people. I couldn’t help but stand and wonder exactly how did they decide, plan, and build their little slice of civilization here. Who were the first among them who thought “this” of all locations was the most logical. Definitely from a difficult to access point of view it was probably chosen in terms of defense and security. Who in their right mind would try to attack a place they can’t logically access?
Over the years though it appears that the rest of civilizations encroached on the areas around these villages. Therefore it was only inevitable that things would change probably both for the better and the worse. The government I’m sure also realized the tourism potential of this area and possibly in particular these villages as well. The advent of the gondola made it easy to bring tourists down to visit and spend time in these improbable villages.
I’m not sure on the specific story as information varies widely from different sources, but many of them claim that the government evicted the inhabitants of these villages and many not too many years ago. Some left willingly but not all wanted to move out of their ancestral homes. Some I’m told do come back during high season for demonstration and other shows to the tourists that cycle through the region. Others claim the population was offered significant funds to relocate to newer homes further away and closer to city services. Whatever the story though it is sad a bit to see this place as only a shell of its former life.
What good are stones without the people to breath stories into them?
Visiting the Village of Habala
Getting here is a challenge in itself. Driving in Saudi Arabia as I discussed earlier is an adventure onto itself, and there is really no other way to get here beyond driving yourself.
The drive is fairly easy once you get out of the main parts of the city. Actually once you get out of the city, the countryside starts to open up and get quite lovely. The area around Habala is breathtaking…really. Green trees and imposing cliffs are not what expected but I certainly was not disappointed. As you approach the area you notice the landscape change and once you get to the area you realize the road really only goes so far.
You find yourself perched on top of a cliff and its certainly a long way down. The road hugs the cliff but then doubles back itself and the only way to go is the way you came.
I love how the land seems to just expand out from you into the hills. You get the sense of desire to just run through and follow the trail although also with the difficult terrain you wonder how feasible such a voyage would be.
I’m sure getting there in the past was as difficult as it looks from the view over the mountains. These days however getting there is just about purchasing a ticket for the cable car. Built in the 90’s the cable car was installed to help promote tourism to the region and to Habala in particular. However this is what I’m told also finally pushed for the move of the people from the houses to a more modern village nearby. During the time I was there it was low season, but I heard that during the higher season some of the former inhabitants do return for traditional dances and displays.
The place itself is amazing once you get the chance to visit. I’ve shown photos of this place to friends and family and none of them believed me when I told them it was Saudi Arabia. A few imagined I had swapped photos of Spain or some other Mediterranean destination in its place. Certainly the green and the architecture does not immediately conjure thoughts of Arabia, but then I think that is one of my favorite parts of exploration. You tend to realize most of your beliefs are lacking in completeness. We tend to only get exposed to one aspect of a place from afar. It is only upon closer inspection do we really get the opportunity to discover that there is more than we really ever imagined. Saudi was one of those places. Sure there are things that match what we all have come to hear about Saudi, but more often than not those biases are narrow and do not adequately encapsulate the place.
Most of these old buildings have been converted into facilities for the tourist season. These appear to be houses, but the mostly serve as a restaurant and café. The folks outside sitting and enjoying tea and the company of their friends. I do wonder how many people inhabited this village before the influx of tourism. Sadly I could find nowhere that exactly specified that information.
The views were incredible. Actually there was nothing like that anywhere else I’ve been to in Saudi. Certainly I wonder if such other views exist in this country. This area is one of the most incredible parts of the country and one that it seems is probably less explored than many of the other places. Even before leaving I knew I needed to return to see and do more in this land. I think even with a car you are limited in where you can go, and I’m sure finding a guide has its own difficulties as well.
There was however another village or part of the village that seemed separate with no way to reach there. I met another tourist from Jeddah (originally from India) who was trying to find that path as well. We tried a few things but fear of falling off a cliff quickly changed our plans.
But it was through a bit of wandering and luck that we found a trail. And the trail itself was a bit well, surprising. We were walking through what looked a bit like a jungle to reach the disconnected village area.
A jungle…really? Am I still in the same country?
But sure enough it was the right path and no we did not stumble into Malaysia or Indonesia or I suppose more likely Yemen.
The buildings here were mostly unused this time of year. They provided good views of the land and seemed to be museums in the higher season. I think it was both good and bad to be here off-season. The good being the tourists were low and the scenes unmarred. But the bad was that the hours and the facilities were certainly limited so actually getting to see all it offered was unfortunately not possible.
All tourism in Saudi Arabia requires a visa. Generally it’s easiest for those here for work or business. However, it seems that Saudi has instituted a new e-visa. I don’t have any experience with this new program yet. Historically, religious tourism visas didn’t allow you to fly into this particular airport. You should investigate both the new Visa on Arrival and E-Visa for what best meets your travel.
Habala is located about a 1 hr. drive from Abha. It is an easy drive but public transportation is not readily available and taxis would be a problem as well (you’d need to get one to stay and it’d be rather expensive).
The cable car runs from 10am until 6pm during the high season and from 2pm – 6pm during the low season. Or at least it was running at 2pm when I was there. The price was 80 Riyal round trip (about 21 US Dollars)