Thoughts & Ideas

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Road to Abu Dhabi

Bahrain is a lovely place with very friendly people and I am really enjoying my stay here in terms of my work, my colleagues, the friends and acquaintances I have made, the place, and the weather. Yes, you read it correctly - the weather ranges from very to quite pleasant for nearly 8 months in a year. Bahrain is conveniently located, with flight duration to most places in India not being more than four hours and flights to most parts of Europe being between 3 – 6 hours. Moreover, there are great airlines with very convenient flights connecting Bahrain to all parts of the world!

The one thing that I miss living in Bahrain is going on long drives. I have a lovely nice car (it's a 7 year old Volkswagen Passat – but what a great car), the highways and roads are from good to great, the traffic conditions are fairly decent and of course fuel is fairly inexpensive (compared to most other parts of the world). But Bahrain is an island, that too a small one. So there are severe limits to how long a drive one can make. Over the years, I tried to make up for this handicap (if you could call it that) by generally exploring all the lanes, by-lanes, and the highways of this island of smiles. But covering the entire country thoroughly by car does not take more than half a day at the most.

For someone looking forward to taking a long drive, the only alternative is to visit neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia (KSA), Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai etc. Bahrain is connected to KSA by a longish causeway, so visiting any of these places, and also further afield to places like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq is technically feasible by going via KSA. For expats like me, there is one small hitch - getting a Saudi visa to enable one to transit that country.

I tried exploring the idea of driving down to neighboring countries with my friends and acquaintances here but no one that I knew in Bahrain had experimented with the idea or even given it much thought. First, because they thought it much more convenient to fly down and take a rented car at any of the neighboring tourist spots. Second, and more important, due to apprehensions about traveling through KSA in terms of knowledge of the local language (or rather the lack of it), the reportedly poor driving conditions in KSA, and the requirements of getting a Saudi visa, even a transit visa. A lot of my Bahraini friends do often drive down to Kuwait. But that is at the most a 5 hour drive and of course Bahrainis do not need a visa to travel through KSA.

But driving down to UAE (did I hear you right?) was a different ball game. It was a long drive (about a 1000 km), most of it is through desert (nothing much to see except sand during most of the stretch), wild camels wandering on the highways, and of course the fearsome stories of highway driving in KSA. But among the expats, especially Indian community in Bahrain with whom I discussed the idea, contemplating driving down to UAE was not just silly but outright suicidal. The overriding, clinching argument over all of this was – there is no way you will get a visa to travel through KSA. That stopped all options.

Then I happened to call a person (and now a dear friend) for collecting DVDs of the Mushaira organized by the AMUAA in Bahrain. He advised that he was in Dubai at the moment and would contact me on returning to Bahrain. We met thereafter, and in passing he mentioned that he had driven down to Dubai. I immediately cottoned up to him to find out how did he get the Saudi visa. He replied that the nature of his work was such that he had a Saudi visa so traveling through that country was not an issue for him. So my plans to drive down to UAE remained just that – plans.

The idea however remained buried in my mind, and I continued my efforts on finding out ways & means of driving down to UAE, especially on modalities of driving through KSA and getting a transit visa. I then decided to take matters in my own hands instead of depending on others and visited the KSA embassy in Bahrain. I was handed a list of accredited travel agencies in Bahrain by the reception and directed to contact any of the accredited travel agencies for getting a Saudi visa. I thereafter contacted one of the travel agents who listed out the documents required for getting a transit visa, which he arranged for in about 2 days time and at the cost of BD 15 per passport. The transit visas we got for KSA had a validity of 30 days and covered both sides of the trip with maximum stay within KSA (while transiting) limited to 2 days. Since traveling time through KSA is not more than 5 – 6 hours, this was sufficient for my requirements.

One of the documents required for getting the transit visa was letter from employer. I approached my HR department for one, which they promptly arranged for after speaking to Saudi embassy here as to its requirements. When I presented all my papers to the travel agent, he advised that the letter from employer needs to be attested by Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI) as to its genuinity. This letter needs to be signed by a person (an authorized signatory of your employer) whose signature is available with BCCI. The actual attestation is a five minute job and costs BD 5/-.

I then checked out the road route to Abu Dhabi on both yahoo & google maps. There was some difference as to both these sites, but I took print out of both. In actual practice, both were way off though somewhat helpful in setting the general direction.

We started at about 7.30 on a lovely, clear, pleasant November morning expecting to reach by evening as all calculations and feedback from yahoo maps and google maps suggested traveling time to be between 9 – 10 hours. A couple of things which were bothering me were what kind of reception one would get at the border crossings, what would happen if the car broke down in the middle of the desert, and what if we lost our way in the desert.

A little before entering the Bahrain – KSA causeway, there are booths where one can pick up limited period insurance covering third party damages and assistance in case of breakdowns. The insurance covering these two risks for a period of 7 days cost me BD 9 and took about 10 minutes of my time. We then proceeded on to the Saudi causeway, where midway is the Bahraini and KSA border. Crossing first the Bahraini custom and emigration checkpoints and then the Saudi ones was quite smooth taking at the most 20 minutes. It involved some amount of paper work and getting the car physically examined to rule out possibility of our trying to smuggle contraband into KSA.

The route is fairly straight once one knows about it. However, after entering KSA there were plenty of exit points for various places with none of them mentioning either UAE or Qatar. We had been advised by friends to follow the highway to Qatar and the yahoo maps also showed the route for UAE veering off from the Saudi / Qatar border. This was confusing so we stopped at one of the petrol stations and took directions from some Pakistani truck drivers we met. As we traveled along, we worked out the route: once out of Bahrain, seek directions for Dammam; on reaching Damman, look for directions for Buqauiq and Hofuf; on reaching Hofuf, look for directions for Qatar / UAE and on passing the Qatar border, follow the signs leading to UAE.

Soon after crossing into KSA we were overtaken by a car with its driver trying to convey something in Arabic. We could not follow what it was that the driver wanted to tell us, so we just waived and smiled and continued our way. Then his car overtook us and asked us to pull up behind him. This lead to some consternation in my mind. I had little choice but to pull up and stop beside the highway. The driver of the other car got out, walked up to my car and before I could react, stopped and pushed down the bonnet of my car. Then I realized as to what the problem had been. At the Saudi customs, I had to open the boot and the bonnet of my car to let them inspect it. While, I had closed the boot properly, I had not done so with the bonnet, which was noticed by this kind gentleman. He tried to convey the same to me, but since I could not understand his language, he took the trouble of getting me to stop and coming over and locking down the bonnet of my car.

The weather was very pleasant with clear skies while going, though there was some amount of wind while returning. This brought sand on to the road which reduced road grip and made the car sway a little at high speeds.

The traveling time within KSA, that is, from the time one leaves Bahrain and arrives at the UAE border is about 4 to 4 ½ hours while driving at a steady 120 kmph, with a couple of stops for fuelling up / taking a rest break. Since the weather was excellent and we did not encounter any major problems (except having missed a turning and going up a wrong route for about 20kms) we reached the Saudi - UAE border by 2 in the afternoon.

We encountered a massive road block of cars at the border: there were 100s of families with similar ideas as ours – driving down to UAE for the Eid holidays. Suddenly about 1 km from the Saudi side of the border we got enmeshed in a long line of cars slowly inching up and it took us nearly an hour to clear the Saudi customs and immigration, which we did with a sigh of relief of having overcome what we had feared to be the most difficult part of our trip – traveling through KSA.

However, we were not prepared for what awaited us at the UAE entry point. We had been assured that entry visa for UAE is available as a matter of course though the formalities could take some time. What we found was that there were literally 100s of cars jamming the entrance with no one having a clue as to how to go about getting the visa stamped. We inched along the jam for nearly an hour during which period we would have covered not more than 100 meters. Finally, finding some parking space, I parked my car and got down to find out as to what the matter was. We were directed to a large “Arrival Hall” of the UAE emigration office. The place was full of people standing in various queues. On enquiry, we realized we had to get into one queue for getting the visa application forms. After filling up personal details, we had to queue up again for getting our iris’s scanned and the forms stamped (to show that our iris had been scanned). Then there was a third queue to pay the visa fees, and lastly a queue to get the visa stamped on the passport. This entire process took more than 5 hours and by the time we completed it, and we were completely worn out. Anyway, crossing into UAE thereafter took another 5 minutes and with a sigh of relief we realized we had nearly arrived at our destination, with all major so-called hurdles crossed.

We were quite exhausted standing in all those queues over the last 5 hours and, after crossing into UAE, the first thing that came to our mind was to find a place to spend the night. We had initially planned to reach Abu Dhabi by evening but by now it was 9 pm and we were still 350 kms from Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, we found a small, economical, functional, and clean motel soon after crossing into UAE and spent the night there. Getting vegetarian food was however, another hurdle, and we had to satisfy ourselves with some hummous and khuboos for dinner. The next morning, we started at about 8 am and by 11am we were in Abu Dhabi.


  • At 6:34 AM , Anonymous vikas ranjan said...

    Sushil the travel bug seems to have bitten you hard. Hope to join you some day. How about a trip from Delhi to Manali on wards via Rohtang to Ladakh and through Ladakh Kashmir back to Delhi. Up to it?

  • At 7:17 PM , Blogger basant mallick said...

    Sushil loves exploration from Munger to KSA via Bahrain.Thanks there was no break down.Any it would have added more spice to ur exploration.I am looking forward ur cross-continental drive some day.
    Gud Mong

  • At 2:44 AM , Blogger anasuya said...

    Sounds like a great and momentous journey. Add a set of FAQs with bullet points for others who want advise.
    It is such a pity that KSA does not allow women drivers!

  • At 6:14 PM , Anonymous Stephen8 said...

    Great informative site. I'm really impressed after reading this blog post. I really appreciate the time and effort you spend to share this with us!

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  • At 1:37 AM , Blogger Sushil Prasad said...

    Do you still have the inclination? I have both the inclination and time.


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