14 February 2018

Instant Pot Sauce for Tortas Ahogados

It’s February 14th and the anniversary of the founding of Guadalajara, so tortas ahogadas are needed. I’ve started making one spicy tomato sauce rather than a mild tomato sauce and a super spicy arbol sauce.  If you want to make the arbol sauce or need a reminder about how to make all the parts of the sandwich, see this post. http://amiralace.blogspot.com/2017/03/tortas-ahogadas.html

1 kilo tomatoes, cored
1/2 cup water
1 onion, chopped
A few cloves of garlic
Oregano, maybe a teaspoon
Pinch of cumin
Pinch of cloves
Cayenne to taste 
Salt to taste

Dump everything in the pot and cook at high pressure for 15 minutes.  Do a quick release or a natural release and blend with an immersion blender.

08 February 2018

Instant Pot Dolmas

I love stuffed grape leaves, but the rest of the family doesn’t.  I prefer them without meat, but making them at home just for me is a hassle.  Until now.  This recipe takes less than thirty minutes and makes enough for one person.

1 tomato, minced
1green onion, minced (or two small ones)
1/3 cup coarse bulgur
Salt to taste
Drizzle of olive oil
Grape leaves
Juice of two lemons (1/3 cup)

Combine everything except the grape leaves and lemon juice, then use that filling to make about 15 dolmas.  Don’t roll them too tightly because the bulgur will expand. Put them in a single layer on the bottom of your instant pot, then add 1/3 cup of water and the lemon juice.  Cook on high pressure for ten minutes and do a quick release.  

02 February 2018

Instant Pot Corundas

I made these at Christmas but didn’t get around to posting the recipe.  Good thing for Candelaria.

This is basically the same recipe I posted in 2015 with a few changes for the instant pot and not living in Mexico. These are made with fresh corn leaves in Michoacán but banana leaves are a great substitute and they’re always available here.  You can find them in a decent Mexican or Asian grocery, probably frozen, but that makes them easier to work with.

Around three cups masa harina, plus water to reconstitute to one kilo of prepared masa
A few tablespoons of oil/lard/your preferred fat
A few tablespoons water/broth/your preferred liquid
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp soda
Banana leaves

Combine the prepared masa plus the fat and liquid to make a spackle-like dough. Add the salt and soda too.  It really is flexible. If it’s less sticky, that’s okay.  But you don’t want it to be any more sticky than spackle.

Cut your banana leaves into two-inch wide strips.  They can be hard to work with, but it’s okay if your strips are short.  You’ll just use a couple for each blob of masa in that case.

Take a blob of masa (75 grams or so) and put it on the end of a strip of banana leaf.  Wrap the banana leaf around to make a triangular package.  Use more than one if necessary. Arrange the packages on a steamer rack in the instant pot (add a cup of water first), using two racks if possible to keep the bottom layer from getting too squished.  Just do your best.  Cook on high pressure for 30 minutes, manual release, then enjoy.

I serve these with crema (or labneh in Saudi) and tomato sauce with shredded chicken. Blend 5-6 tomatoes, a couple of garlic cloves, and a hunk of onion, then pour it into a lightly oiled skillet and fry for a couple of minutes.  Easiest sauce ever.

15 January 2018

Instant Pot Egg Cups

We nearly always eat eggs on school mornings, but the boys don’t approve of adding vegetables.  We’ve done baked cups like this which are fine but I prefer the texture of these.  You can put whatever you want in each cup (vegetables, cheese, sujuk) then pour the eggs over the whatever.  Usually I do one egg per cup I’m making, but if I want lots of vegetables, then I do one egg for two cups. I use silicone muffin liners which have turned out to be a very useful investment. You can also use small canning jars which is a good idea since they puff up.  It’s best to brush a little oil in the cups before you add any ingredients.  I tend to forget this but it’s not the end of the world. 

Just beat as many eggs as you need, then add salt and milk or cream or any ingredients everyone wants.  Grease the cups and add any individualized ingredients. My favorite is jusay. Add water to the insert, put in the trivet, and put in the cups.  Pour the eggs in the cups and cook at high pressure for five minutes and do a quick release.  It’s a little hard to move the cups when they have egg in them, so even though it’s a not easy to pour in the egg when the cups are in the insert, it’s better than moving them later.

14 January 2018

Instant Pot Jareesh

This dish is perfect for a pressure cooker.

1.5 cups jareesh (cracked wheat)
3 cups dairy (milk, cream, a mix, whatever)
2 cups chicken broth
1.5 cups yogurt
Shredded chicken, up to a cup
Salt to taste

Dump everything in the pot and cook on high pressure for 10 minutes then do a quick release (watching closely for sputtering).  It can be anywhere from runny to thick according to your taste.  Add water if it’s too thick, let it sit a bit if it’s too liquidy.  

13 January 2018

Instant Pot Yellow Fish and Rice

One reason why I waited for years to get an instant pot was that all the recipes I was seeing were for typical American food which I don’t cook much.  But then more Indian recipes started to appear and I read enough about it to realize that it’s a pot, not some super specialized thing that needs its own recipes that someone else develops.  Just use it to make what you usually make, only easier and faster.

We’ve been eating this fish for at least ten years.  It’s not difficult at all, but since I always make it with rice and these greens (http://amiralace.blogspot.com/2012/05/recipe-day-bangla-vegetables.html), it does require some fiddling in the kitchen.  So I tried cooking the fish in the insert and the rice in a separate bowl.  They turned out perfectly and it was easy to make the greens while the rest cooked, and to read a book for a while too.

About a pound of frozen fish (this is flexible)
One can coconut milk
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
Salt and cayenne to taste

Put the fish in the insert then mix everything else together and pour the sauce over.  Put the trivet that came with the pot on top of the fish, then put a cup of well-washed basmati and a cup of water in the bowl.  Cook for six minutes on high pressure, then let it naturally release for 10 minutes.  The coconut milk frothed up quite a bit when I tried this and got into the rice, but that made the rice taste even better.  

Since the fish is frozen and your coconut milk probably not hot, this one will take longer to come to pressure so the entire cooking time from when you turn on the pot to when you open the lid will be closer to thirty minutes.

12 January 2018

Instant Pot Zucchini Noodles

So I really like zucchini noodles but I don’t like them raw and I don’t like dealing with cooking them because all methods have drawbacks.  But you can steam them quickly in an instant pot. This helps a lot if you’re doing regular noodles too because some people in your family aren’t impressed with vegetable noodles. Personally, I stick with zucchini because they’re quicker to spiralize, but carrots are really good too.

Prepare as much zucchini as you need, then steam it for zero minutes.  Quick pressure release and you’re done.

11 January 2018

Instant Pot Thai Pickled Cabbage

I prefer this cabbage prepared the regular way, but it’s not easy, with letting the cabbage wilt all day then packing it into jars.  This is beyond easy and only takes a few minutes, so it’s even handier to keep this in the fridge all the time.  I use it when we do hot dogs over a fire, or with all kinds of rice and noodle dishes, or as a quick serving of vegetables.  You can also drain it and stir-fry with garlic in a bit of oil for a warm vegetable dish. The salt and sugar can be adjusted.  

1/2 large head cabbage, coarsely chopped
1 cup vinegar
1/3 cup sugar 
1 Tbsp salt

Dump everything in the pot and cook for zero minutes at high pressure.  Quick release then pull the lining out to cool.  Dump in a jar (this amount makes about enough to fill a big peanut butter jar).

10 January 2018

Instant Pot Pasta

1 pound (400-500 grams) whole wheat pasta (not fresh)
5 cups water
2/3 cup cheese
1 cup labnah
Salt to taste

Dump the water and pasta in the pot and cook on high pressure for 4 minutes.  Do a quick release (it’ll be messy so watch it), then add the cheese, labnah, and salt.

09 January 2018

Instant Pot Pomegranate Chicken

We got an Instant Pot a few weeks after, after watching sales come and go for a few years.  I really like it and use it a lot, and I’m working on making easy versions of the kind of food I like to make. I have a baked version of this that’s very good too, but I need to write down what I did for this version.

1 pound boneless skinless chicken
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup pomegranate molasses
A small drizzle of olive oil
Zaatar, maybe 1/2 Tbsp
Cayenne, maybe 3/4 tsp
Salt to taste

Mix everything except the chicken in the insert, then add the chicken and cook at high pressure for 10 minutes.  Do a quick release.  You can remove the chicken and boil the sauce down a bit before serving, or just serve as is.  This was really flavorful and very easy.  I used hot water and had preheated the pot while I was assembling it with the sautĂ© function and it came to pressure in less than five minutes, so the entire cooking time was about 15 minutes from pushing the pressure cook button to opening the lid.  You can garnish this with mint and lots of pomegranate.

08 January 2018

Places Left to Visit in Saudi

I’m not sure which, if any, of these we can manage, but a list is helpful. There are lots of other places in the region to visit, but since we can get visas for those, I want to focus on Saudi while we’re allowed to be here.

Jubbah (stop at visitors center to open gate, 7 hours)
Other petroglyph sites in Ha’il

Qaryat al-Faw (probably closed)

Al Mithnab, Al Ghat, Al Khabra (three hours)

Tayma (too far, probably)

Empty Quarter (except no one else wants to go)

Edge of the World (to compare with our much closer and easier sites)

Shuwaymis (except I’m not sure if someone is always at the gate to let us in, search for As Shwimes, 8.5 hours)

Abha (9 hours, but there are flights, or you can stop in Al Aflaj/Layla)

Thee Ain, other places in Al Bahah (north of Abha)

07 January 2018

Dumat al-Jandal

When we were driving to Amman we stopped in Qurayyat, but on the way back we wanted to get a little further and drove on to Dumat al-Jandal.  When we went in the hotel, we saw photos of some interesting looking sites and I suddenly remembered this town is one of of the oldest in Saudi Arabia, something I'd totally forgotten when I was looking for hotel options.  It was already 10pm and we needed to get something for dinner, but we went to see if we could find the castle and old mosque first.  It was easy to find (sites in cities/towns are always the best options because they're much easier to find) and was a lot of fun to poke around.  There was an old stone village, a mosque that is attributed to Omar but the current version can't be that old, a castle, and a museum. We also, randomly, found some men cooking nutella crepes inside a restored building next to the mosque so we brought a stack back to the hotel, in addition to some shwarma and falafel some Egyptians sold us later.  We stopped by again in the morning before driving off.  

In many ways this was similar to the old section in al-Ula, but this one was a little better and the castle was cool (although al-Ula is more like a fortress which is also good).  It's very much worth a visit if you're driving by, but I can't say it's worth a nine-hour drive from Riyadh.  However, if you're coming up to go to Jubbah and other rock art sites, you really should go a little further to come here too, and there are decent hotels.

06 January 2018

Refugee Camps

Jordan may have changed a lot, but they're still hosting a huge number of refugees, far more than in 1997, and many many times more than almost any other country per capita.  We drove by two Syrian refugee camps and several Palestinian camps.  The Palestinian camps have been there for decades and decades, of course, but the Syrian camps are new.  The Zaatari camp, which we didn't drive by, is one of the largest refugee camps in the world right now.  It's near the Syrian border in an area with a climate more similar to Syria.  We drove by a small camp that the UAE built (we couldn't see anything from the road) and then the somewhat larger Al Azraq camp.  Al Azraq was built since the Zaatari camp is overcrowded, but not many refugees have wanted to live there since it's hot, dry, isolated, and there was no electricity until this past spring when the UN built a solar plant.  Now people can at least charge their cell phones (an absolute necessity for keeping in contact with family), run a fan, or keep the lights on for their children to study after dark.  We got a few low-quality photos from the road of the camp and the solar plant.

05 January 2018

Lego Donation

The primary reason for going to Jordan (and without it we probably would have gone someplace else entirely rather than driving so far when things were unsettled before we went) was to deliver Legos from a nonprofit in the US who donates Legos every Christmas.  It was definitely worth driving up for this and we're already planning to do this again next Christmas in Cairo (where we won't have to drive so far). We had a good time building with Legos with the children.

04 January 2018

Northern Jordan

I don't really have photos for this part of the trip, but we did zip up to al-Husn to go to church on Friday.  We visited an older version of this branch in 1997 and it was so good to be back there.  We talked to one woman who was still there after that long and reminisced about some mutual friends in Iraq and also saw our old Arabic professor who lives there now.  We had planned to stop in Jerash on the way to the border but that didn't work out.  But we still had a lovely time driving around northern Jordan.  I love it there and this was the most relaxing part of the trip.

03 January 2018


Not surprisingly, Amman has changed a lot in twenty years.  It's more than twice as big and it really feels completely different.  It's not a sleepy little city anymore.  The traffic was bad and the air quality terrible the days we were there.  Much gunkier than a normal day in Riyadh (although they're similar today and I think they usually are). But it was still so nice to be there.  We didn't have much time because we had things to do, but we did stop at the Citadel for a bit. And we saw Star Wars and ate at restaurants my son chose for his 17th birthday celebration.  It was disconcerting to end up at the nicest mall in town (I didn't know when we were choosing) after driving by refugee camps to get there. 

We also went to some places we remembered from 1997, like the Abu Darwish Mosque.

02 January 2018

Riyadh-Jordan Drive

As I mentioned in my last post, we went to Jordan right after Christmas.  I had been planning to go to Jerusalem, but things weren't coming together for a lot of different reasons, and we did have to go to Jordan because we were delivering a huge load of Legos there.  So we changed our plans to a rather short trip to Jordan that included 30 hours of driving, celebrating the middle son's birthday, delivering the Legos, a tiny bit of sightseeing, and church in a branch in northern Jordan that we visited in 1997. Plus an accidental stay in a 3000-year-old town in Saudi.

First, the practicalities, since it's so hard to find this type of info about Saudi.  I am fully aware that this may not be applicable to anyone else (my post about Mada'in Saleh from November is already partly out of date because the site has been closed), but maybe it will help someone a little.

We drove on the most direct route from Riyadh to Amman.  If we'd had more time, I would rather have done a loop and gone through Tabuk and up and around, stopping in Wadi Rum, Petra, and Madaba.  But this was a trip to get things done, not to wander about.

Again, the biggest drawback to driving around Saudi Arabia is that I can't help with the driving.  The distances are long, and when you can't even find reliable information about the places you're visiting, you can't ask your husband to drive for 10 hours on a hope.  One of my biggest regrets about living here is that we're leaving one week before I would be allowed to drive.  This would be a completely different place to explore if I could drive.

There are a reasonable number of places to get gas and eat through Ha'il, of course, but after that there's nothing at all on the road till you're near where you turn off for Sakala.  Make sure you have gas for at least 350 kilometers when you leave Ha'il.  At one point there was a sign that said there were no gas stations for 250 kilometers, but it was actually much longer than that.  We had gotten gas in Buraidah and were fine until Qurayyat near the border.  There are few options between Dumat al-Jandal and Qurayyat too, but not quite as sparse as between Ha'il and Dumat al-Jandal.

Also, there aren't convenient places to stay on this road. It's around 15 hours to Amman from Riyadh (a little less, but 15 hours is easier math) and there are places to stay every three hours- Buraidah, Ha'il, Dumat al-Jandal, and Qurayyat.  If you drive past one town, you'll need to be committed to drive for another three hours. In Ha'il and Dumat al-Jandal, the hotels are off the road and you'll need to look for them.   I was very glad I had checked on hotels before we started driving.  Some friends of ours did this drive earlier this year and ended up sleeping on the side of the road with their four children because they couldn't find anything.  Even the hotel we stayed at in Qurayyat right on the road wasn't labeled as a hotel in Arabic or English so we wouldn't have seen it on our own.  After our two bad hotel experiences in Ta'if with overpriced, sorry rooms, we've had better luck in other places.  We've now stayed in hotels in several towns where we get a two-bedroom place with a decent bathroom and at least a fridge for 200 riyals a night which I'm perfectly satisfied with.

I'd recommend staying in Dumat al-Jandal if you're driving this route.  It's nine hours from Riyadh and six from Amman, which makes it about as close to the middle as you can get (unless you stay in Ha'il which is six from Riyadh and nine from Amman).  It's a bit of a drive off the road, but the town is very interesting and has several hotel options.

I had no idea what to expect at the border, but it all worked out.  The Saudi exit was easy, as expected, although the reentry was a little longer, but if you have a Saudi visa, it will be fine.  The Jordan side was a little more exciting.  To enter, you park (you don't ever need to get out on the Saudi side, except maybe for customs on entry) and start maneuvering between different buildings.  First, get your visa.  They cost 10 dinars each and you must pay in cash.  There are exchange places available where they were happy to exchange our riyals to dinars at an exorbitant rate, but we didn't really have a lot of options for getting dinars elsewhere.  But if you can, try exchanging money at a bank before you enter Jordan.  There is also a Zain outlet near where the exchange people are and it's a good place to pick up a sim card and it's worth getting one right away.  After you have your visa, you go to another line (although there never was a line, anywhere, at any point on either side of crossing the border, more than one car or one person) and they stamp your passport and verify your identity (this is the only part of entry where everyone in the car needs to do anything- the boys waited in the car for everything else).  You also need to buy car insurance and then get the car insurance paper stamped and pay a fee for the car to enter.  Things broke down a bit at this point and we arrived at the next check-in place without a stamped paper, but they cheerfully sent us back and we sorted it out.  I never really saw anything that explained what we were supposed to do at any point (there were signs in English on the exit side though) but we figured it out.  And everyone was more than happy to help, although if we didn't speak Arabic it would have been harder.  In the end, everything was fine.  Customs happened in there too at some point.  If we'd known what we were doing and had dinars it probably wouldn't have taken more than 30-45 minutes, but I think it took us closer to 2 hours.  But you gain an hour crossing which helps.  And Jordanians are noticeably more cheerful than Saudis so you end up happy to be hanging out there for a while. And I have less than no expectations that a land crossing will go quickly. Also, if you have a pass (the Jordan pass, I think), I believe you don't have to pay the visa fee, but since we weren't being typical tourists, I don't know much about that.

Also, get gas once more in Saudi before exiting.  It costs five times as much in Jordan.

Driving around Jordan was so much fun, especially further north where you're going up and down hills and the roads are interesting. Google maps took us on a unique route- sort of like the old days in the US when it would take you on the shortest route by miles even if it was not the best way to go if you're trying to get somewhere quickly.  Jordan was very easy to deal with.  I did get stopped randomly by the police once, but when I pulled over and he saw me driving, he just sent me on my way.

The exit from Jordan was less complicated than the entry.  You do need to pay an exit fee of 10 dinars each, and you get out of the car for that, and they'll want to check any other stray papers they might have given you on the way on so save those.  Everyone needs to get out of the car to get the exit officially stamped. But mostly it's just checking papers and not a big deal.  The Saudi side was quick too and the whole process was a lot quicker than going the other way, although it will depend on customs on the Saudi side- that can be long.

And there you have it. I knew that driving there was a little crazy (the police man who stopped us on the road in Saudi near Dumat al-Jandal was incredulous that we were there and talked to us forever since he seemed to be happy to see us (random police stops are normal in a lot of the world and stopping people for doing something wrong is far less common)) but it was a neat experience in a lot of ways, and my husband survived.  Especially with Saudi gas prices, it was much cheaper than flying too.

01 January 2018

Hello 2018!

I'll start off acknowledging that 2017 was my worst blogging year ever.  I've noticed that a lot of people don't blog in Saudi as much as they do elsewhere, and that's definitely true for me.  It's not really a bloggable place for a lot of reasons.  But that doesn't mean this wasn't an eventful year.  In fact, this one has to go down as one of our most memorable, even if it was a really hard year too.

Here's what I posted last year, and I had some big plans:

Oldest child graduates from high school and second child ready to go in 2018
Line up an amazing place to move next
Student loans paid off
Do something good for our 20th anniversary
No moves
Travel more
Do a big refugee project
Figure out other good ways to oppose Trump
Lots of histories and history
Explore Saudi and try new food
Buy a condo?

And we did a lot of these.  The oldest child is happy in college in the US and had a great first semester.  I am so glad he's in a good place for him right now.  The second child isn't anywhere near decided on anything for his graduation, but he's young and has time.  We're moving to Cairo in the summer which definitely counts as an amazing place, the student loans are gone forever and ever, we traveled more than I ever could have imagine, I've found really good options for political advocacy, and we've done as much exploring of Saudi as I could wrangle out of this country.  And I did two things I never expected to pull off - a total solar eclipse and Uzbekistan.  It was an good summer (and I was able to see all of my sisters, and meet my grand-niece).

I kept trying for something wonderful for our 20th anniversary, just the two of us, but it never came together.  But maybe this year?  I can't see a time to fit anything in this summer though, and my husband probably won't have any time off after that.  And we didn't quite manage Jerusalem.  It was in the works and nearly booked for Christmas, but it just didn't come together with the uncertainty about Jerusalem at the last minute.  But that did result in a trip to Jordan by car which I need to blog about soon.  I didn't manage a big refugee project, but we did donate a lot of Legos to a Palestinian camp in Jordan, and I found good ways to step up my advocacy.  2018 should be better for that.

So, 2018.

  • Blog more, at least in Cairo
  • Two more successful semesters for oldest son
  • Enjoy the last few cool months in Riyadh and survive getting out of here
  • No medical crises
  • Second son decided on his next plan and enjoy whatever time I get with him this year
  • Manage the move to Cairo the way we've planned, complete with a non jet-lagged child on the first day of school.  I can dream, right?
  • Some sort of trip with just the two of us
  • Effective political advocacy
  • Explore CAIRO!
  • Jerusalem
  • Arabic and be ready for a new branch, plus histories
  • Good food, good exercise

21 November 2017

Ebelskiver Pan

I got an ebelskiver pan a few weeks ago after reading about other types of breads you can make in them too.  I couldn't think of a reason to have a pan that could only be used for one thing, but when I realized that there are lots of places that make little round pancake things, I decided to give it a try.  I did popovers and ebelskivers before our trip and last night we had paniyaram (southern India) with tomato chutney and banh khot (Vietnamese) with nuoc cham.  I think it's best to use this pan for breakfast or a snack rather than for dinner because it takes time when you can only cook seven at once (and I really can't justify two pans) and they really are best hot so it's nice if you don't have the whole family waiting for food.


Saute some diced carrot, onion, chiles, etc in some oil along with mustard seed and curry leaves.  You can add some hing too, and some salt.  Mix that into 2 cups of dosa batter and cook in the ebelskiver pan.  This makes around 20-25 paniyaram.

Banh khot:

Combine 1 cup of rice flour, 2 T of cornstarch, 1.5 cups water, 1/2 cup coconut milk, 1/2 tsp turmeric, and 1/2 tsp of salt.e'  These aren't flipped like ebelskivers and paniyaram, but cover them with a lid so they'll steam.  I added tofu or chicken to each after I filled the pan.  This also makes around 20-25 banh khot.

I also want to try takoyaki (Japan), khanom krok (Thailand), masa (West Africa- found this one while looking for corn-based recipes), and vitumbua (East Africa).

20 November 2017

Mada'in Saleh

Edited to add that Mada'in Saleh is currently closed, maybe just for a bit, maybe for as long as two years.  But some of the info here will still be useful, and the area is still worth visiting. 

Mada’in Saleh has been the place I’ve wanted to visit in Saudi and we finally made it there last week. Saudi has tons of interesting archaeology but it’s nearly impossible to get decent information about seeing it, and since nearly all of it is many, many hours from Riyadh, you can’t just head off with your whole family and hope for the best. Mada’in Saleh is only marginally better in the information category, but we were able to do this one on our own.

Most people do go to Mada’in Saleh on a tour. That’s a perfectly good option with some advantages over doing it yourself, but there are also disadvantages. Since I wanted to do this on our own and it was so hard to find the information I needed for this trip, I’m going post a fairly detailed trip report in hopes it helps someone else and I'll try to get some photos up later.

We drove to Al Ula from Jeddah. It’s less than seven hours, with Yanbu a convenient stop in the middle. You can also drive through Medina which I would have preferred, but the coastal road was quicker. It’s my understanding that non-Muslims are allowed into the city so I’d have liked to see it, but maybe some other time. Not long after we left the coast, the terrain got a lot more interesting and rocky and the scenery was amazing till well past Mada’in Saleh. It’s a lot like southern Utah in many ways. The road along the coast is boring as can be since you can’t see the Red Sea, but looking out the window later was perfect. In my opinion, I think it would be better to drive instead of fly if you live in Jeddah since the trip isn’t too long and it’s so interesting.

Hotel options in Al Ula are getting more varied. There are a couple of cater to western expats but that’s not what I wanted so we took a chance on a place called al Harbi. Maybe our experiences in Ta’if made me more realistic, but this hotel was fine. No towels or supplies in the kitchen, but the beds were good and the air conditioning worked without being too noisy and the price was much lower than what we paid for worse places in Ta’if. I’d be fine with staying there again. It’s on the west side of King Fahd road a little north of the museum down an alley next to an optical shop. We ended up having to call the place since we couldn’t find it ourselves because it’s not marked.
We ran over to the museum before it closed and I really liked it. It’s small but has lots of good information. Definitely worth a stop but if you’ve already read a lot about Mada’in Saleh and its history, it won’t be too long a stop. Afterward we went exploring around Dedan and found a man from Al Ula who got us ice cream and then took us up on top of the escarpment overlooking Al Ula. That was one of the places I was hoping to go and it would have been hard to find without him showing us the way. The wadi was beautiful in the dark.

The next morning we went to Dedan first. The main thing to see there are the Liyhan Tombs. You can see them from the main road, or the road that runs along the fenced area. But I think it’s much better to go inside. Just hand over your iqama and you’re in. You can drive down to the old train station, stopping to climb up to the tombs. There are plenty of signs along the ways. The most popular spot is the Lion Tombs (search for "Lion Tumbs" on google maps), but the whole thing is fun to poke through. There’s a dirt road through the palm grove near that marked point on google maps, or you can go down to the real road. It’s at the intersection of 375 and 70. Instead of going onto 70 from 375 (if you’re going north) take the paved road off to the right and follow it to the main entrance. That road isn’t on google maps yet.

Most of Dedan’s ruins are under palm groves so the main thing to see are the tombs, but it’s possible you can find someone to show you more things (the man who took us up the escarpment told us he had a friend who could show us around, but we didn't take him up on the offer). Based on the things I’ve read from people who have done tours, they mostly go along the tombs you can see yourself, but locals told us there were other interesting things to see that we didn’t have time to find. We spent about an hour there and everyone had a good time.

Then we drove to Mada’in Saleh, about 15 minutes up the road. If you read all the tour and hotel websites about visiting Mada’in Saleh, they say you need a permit to get in. But I’d read other things that made it sound like it wasn’t necessary, and some friends of ours tried to get a permit in Riyadh a couple of months ago and we’re told they didn’t do permits there. I decided there was no way a Saudi was going to turn away someone who’d driven for hours to get to a national site like this so we didn’t bother with the permit. Also, our hotel told us we didn’t need it. And we didn’t. No one mentioned it - all we needed was my husband’s iqama and they let us in. I’m not sure what would happen if you didn’t have someone with an iqama in the car, but if you’re a resident and doing this without a tour group, I don’t think you need to worry about the permit.

The north entrance is the only one open, at the railway station. At the beginning of the 1900s the Ottomans built the Hijaz Railway along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah. It wasn’t used for very long because it was a target during WWI and then the Ottomans were no more, but the old railway stations are still there (and there are good websites where you can learn lots more). Most of the administrative buildings in Mada’in Saleh are in the old station buildings, and there’s a railway museum too. There’s also a pilgrimage route museum in the old fort that I was looking forward to, but it was closed. I have no idea when it’s open.  There are plenty of other Hijaz Railway stops in the area and it would be fun to track them down, especially since they follow the old pilgrimage route and you could see historical sites too.  That would be a fun trip.

Unlike Petra, Mada’in Saleh is nearly all drivable. The road loops around to all of the major sites and there are parking places and trash cans along the way, with plenty of signs and a few bathrooms. We didn’t see any food for sale, so bring your own if you want to eat there. They’ll give you a map at the entrance that isn’t entirely accurate but still is useful. After that, you just poke around as you please. We spent about four hours there. I think tour groups generally take two or three hours.

The tour groups tell you more stories (some of dubious provenance and some completely incorrect, or at least they're incorrect as reported).  There are plenty of sources out there to learn about Mada'in Saleh's history, even if the practical details aren't there.  And we all liked climbing around.  You shouldn't climb on the tombs, obviously, but you can poke around the area and climb up to some great views. The Diwan area is particularity good for this.

Mada'in Saleh isn't as impressive or monumental as Petra in any way.  But it is still a large and interesting site that's very worth visiting.  Also, there are pretty much zero visitors and no tourist anything at all.  It's a pleasant and quiet visit in the middle of some amazing scenery (think southern Utah with cool tombs and no one around).  And visit in the winter if you can.  January or February would be lovely.  Mid November was still a touch hot in the afternoon.  Remember that it's closed on Friday morning, as are most things in Saudi.

After Mada'in Saleh, we went to Elephant Rock (it's labled Jabal (I think, I can't remember which word they used) al Feel (Fil means "elephant" in Arabic).  There are other dirt roads in that area that would be fun to explore among the rocks.  We saw more people there than in all of Mada'in Saleh. And then we went back up the escarpment to take the boys and to see the wadi in the daylight.  Go west at the 70/ 375 intersection, stay to the right at the circle and drive up the escarpment to the end of the road for a great view.  It's fairly steep in some places but there's a good guard rail the whole time.

Also, near the town of Mu'tadil is where the Zuhayr inscription was found.  I never could find an exact location so we didn't see it in person, but it's still nice to know it's there.

We dropped the boys off at the hotel and went to al Dira next (al Ula Heritage Village on google maps).  I always love these restored towns even if other family members have to humor me.  The buildings are made of stone for the first story which holds up a lot better.  The second stories are mud brick and mostly collapsed.  The beset part is the fort right in the middle of town.  This was definitely one of my favorite restored towns I've seen.  It also has a lot of stones from Dedan (they're about 3 km apart) on that first level and you can see Liyhan inscriptions in places.  People have been living in the wadi for thousands of years, but al Dira was settled around 1300 and there are records about it from pilgrims passing through since it was a stop on the Dimashq-Makkah route.

And then we got dinner and went to bed.  We left first thing the next morning, since it was Friday and most things were closed.  By then, people we ready to try to get home in a day.  It was about a ten hour drive with a longer stop in Buraidah.

It really was a great trip.  There are still SO MANY things I want to see in the area, but it's almost impossible to get good information to know if you can even access the site or how to find it.  I'd have liked to go to Taima and Tabuk, and to see more of the pilgrimage route, if only to see the old towns along the way.  But I was glad to be able to do what we did and to do it on our own.  My husband wasn't sure it would be worth the trip, but I'd told him that if he didn't go with me, I'd have to line up a tour that would cost $1000 (it's incredibly frustrating that there is no way for women to see these places on our own), he went along and ended up loving it.  He keeps commenting that it was much better than he expected and that he loved the terrain.  I'm also glad that we drove rather than flying (although it would have been nice if three of us had been able to drive instead of just one of us).

It helped a lot that we speak Arabic.  There are far fewer south and SE Asian expats in al Ula than in the bigger cities.  Most of the expats we talked to were Egyptian.  Staying at our hotel, finding the road up the escarpment and learning about that area, and ordering at some of the places we ate required Arabic (although I bet you could do most of those without Arabic, if you're determined).

I know that you can't do this on your own if you don't have a man around to drive and check into hotels, but if you're thinking about it and have the resources, give it a try.