Young Saudi dentist breaks out of his comfort zone to tour 120 cities around the world on a backpacker’s budget

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Rayyan Abdulwahed
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Updated 11 August 2018
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Young Saudi dentist breaks out of his comfort zone to tour 120 cities around the world on a backpacker’s budget

  • In his travels, Rayyan Abdulwahed volunteered as a dentist in Cambodia and at a refugee center in Greece
  • Aside from experiencing different cultures, Abdulwahed had also tried eating the weirdest native delicacies in many places

JEDDAH: Take a minute and imagine all the images you’ve seen of travel destinations on your social media feed disappear. Now, why not turn that dream of visiting them into reality? One Saudi traveler decided to do just that on a backpacker’s budget, traveling to 120 cities across four continents.

Rayyan Abdulwahed, a 29-year-old dentist from Alkhobar, has always sought to challenge himself by breaking out of his comfort zone. Speaking exclusively to Arab News from his hometown, he told stories of his experiences, including a recent 15-month journey to Europe’s Balkan states and South America.
“I was a shy and timid child, and went to Jordan to study dentistry after high school,” he said. “I tried my take on traveling alone for the first time during that freshman year — and I haven’t been able to stop since.”
Spain was Abdulwahed’s first destination. Staying with a family and learning Spanish at a nearby institute helped him feel independent, and he got a taste of what it’s like to travel alone.
For a couple of years, Abdulwahed traveled to countries such as Kenya and Cambodia as a volunteer, visited France to live with another family and improve his French, and took his brothers hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“Kenya was hard to grasp at first,” he said. “I volunteered in an orphanage for two weeks, and it was difficult to see whole families and communities living in slums on mountains of garbage. At some point, it hit me that we’re very blessed; it hit hard. I understood then and there that I would be selfish if I didn’t try to bring a significant change in a life.”
Abdulwahed spent time volunteering in Cambodia as a dentist and teacher. Giving back to a less privileged community is as satisfying as going on a beach vacation, he said; it’s just how you choose to look at it. He believes that the key to traveling the world is self-exploration and pushing your limits, while keeping a tight budget and living the moment.
Case in point: His stay at a Buddhist temple in China. “I had just finished a residency program in Riyadh and I had been working non-stop for months,” he said.
“I was given forced vacation leave and found myself booking a stay at a Buddhist temple. There was nothing spiritual or religious about it. I just wanted to experience what it’s like to stay there. We did tai-chi every day and kung-fu, cleaned, meditated from early sunrise to sunset. Rumor has it that the shifu (master) of the famous movie “Kung-Fu Panda” is based on the monastery’s shifu.”
At the same time, a plan was brewing in the young traveler’s mind. “The plan was simple: A cultural experience on the smallest budget ever. I would start volunteering at a refugee camp in Thessaloniki, Greece, for three weeks, then I had a one-way ticket to Colombia. What happened next was unexpected,” he said.
“Instead of my three weeks as a volunteer dentist, it turned into three months. It was a demanding and an addictive job. You just couldn’t stop. I was performing dental procedures for people who hadn’t seen a dentist in years. It was a surreal experience, difficult at times, too.
“Dealing with teenagers was the hardest. They were traumatized from their war-stricken homelands and just seeing the dental tools could freak them out. Some might have been tortured; you never knew who you were dealing with. I was empathetic and numbed, which helped with my stay at the camps.”
Abdulwahed canceled his flight to Colombia and found a budget-friendly flight to Romania. “The only catch was that it was five weeks away, so I did what any rational person would do — couch-surfed my way through the Balkans, of course, before reaching Romania,” he said.
His months-long journey through South America began in Bogota, Colombia. “I couch-surfed and stayed in hostels, getting to meet people and communicate. We don’t do that often, as far as I could see. We don’t know much about the world and neither does the world know much about us,” Abdulwahed said.
“Take this example: I met a German girl at one of the hostels, and she asked me where I came from. I said Saudi Arabia. She said that her dad worked there, and I felt excited — finally, someone knew where my country was. I asked her where her dad worked. She said Dubai. I face-palmed then and there. Sorry, another country.”
Meeting different people from across the world was fascinating, but for someone who thought he was proficient in Spanish, Abdulwahed soon found that was far from the case.
“From the first day I stepped on to Colombian soil, I knew my Spanish was not as good as I thought it would be. It was time to learn the proper way, by traveling. I stayed in Medellin, fasting during Ramadan and studying during the day. Things started to look up.”
So many cities, so many memorable experiences. He improved on his Spanish while traveling through Colombia, hitchhiked his way through Chile for three months, hiked up Machu Picchu in Peru, worked in the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia, watched the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, tasted the famous steaks of Argentina, and even took an “expensive” flight to Easter Island to see the Moai statues.
South America had a lot to offer: Indigenous tribes, ancient civilizations, superb food — and even better people.
“One of the most adventurous things I’ve done would be in Iquique, Chile. I took a paragliding course, but I haggled with the instructor, wanting only five days instead of 10 and ignoring the certificate for a lower price. I should have realized the red flags, but I ignored them. So, I took the necessary course, and my instructor and I headed out to the top of a hill about 500 meters above sea level to run, fly and land on the beach. That was the plan. But it didn’t go so well.”
“A million questions ran through my mind, and I was already on the edge of my seat. I ran off the hill and off I flew. The cars and people looked like ants from up above. I was flying and relishing every moment. The instructor was guiding me on which direction I should take to gain elevation through a mic in my ear. The only problem was I was supposed to be going up, but instead I was dropping fast. I could only see the highway by now and the cars were getting closer.
He paused, recalling his brush with danger. “I calculated where I was going to land, and found a small dirt bend that had a hill drop on the side of the highway. Miraculously, I landed safely, with only a few scratches, and people ran to check if I was
OK. Thankfully, I was. With the adrenaline still high, I hitchhiked back up the hill again and took another turn, flying over the whole city, and landing on the strip of sandy beach just as I wanted. The feeling was indescribable.”
Now that’s an exclusive even his mother didn’t know about.
Abdulwahed’s journey ended back where it started: Greece. He spent the final two months of his 15-month journey volunteering at camp Moria, on the island of Lesbos, where refugees and asylum-seekers arrived each day in search of a better life.
Exploring the world is one of the most invigorating and life-changing experiences. Abdulwahed’s journeys confirm that. “It could sound a bit cliched, but it’s true: Traveling does make you a better person.”


As China locks up Muslims in Xinjiang, it opens its doors to tourists

This photo taken on June 3, 2019 shows the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. (AFP)
Updated 15 July 2019
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As China locks up Muslims in Xinjiang, it opens its doors to tourists

  • A traveler from Southeast Asia, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals, described the barriers he faced when trying to pray at a mosque

KASHGAR, China: From the expansive dunes of the Taklamakan Desert to the snow-capped peaks of Tianshan, Chinese authorities are selling troubled Xinjiang as a tourist idyll, welcoming travelers even as they send locals to internment camps.
The government has rounded up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking minorities into re-education camps in the tightly-controlled region in China’s northwest, but it has also created a parallel universe for visitors, who are only shown a carefully curated version of traditional customs and culture.
In the Old Town of Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road city, smiling food vendors serve mouthwatering lamb skewers, while children play in the streets.
“It didn’t look to me like — unless you were picked up and put in a camp — that these Uighur communities seemed to be living in some kind of fear,” said William Lee, who has taught at universities in China for 10 years and visited the region in June.
“That’s just my impression,” he added.
Xinjiang, a fraught region where flare-ups of interethnic violence have led to unprecedented levels of surveillance, is one of the fastest growing areas for tourism in China.
Armed police and frequent checkpoints have not dampened the flow of vacationers visiting the region, which in 2018 saw a 40 percent increase year-on-year of visits — mainly from domestic tourists — outstripping the national average by 25 percent, according to official figures.
Business has grown steadily over the years mainly because “Xinjiang is very stable,” explained Wu Yali, who runs a travel agency in the region.
Though tourists are not used to the high-level of security at first, “they adapt after a few days,” she told AFP.
But travelers are barred from witnessing the most controversial part of Xinjiang’s security apparatus: the network of internment camps spread across the vast region.
Many of these facilities are outside main tourist hubs and are fenced off with razor-wired walls.
On a six-day trip to the region last month, AFP reporters encountered roadblocks and were turned away by security forces upon nearing some camps.

China describes the facilities as “vocational education centers” where Turkic-speaking “trainees” learn Mandarin and job skills.
“The violence that is being inflicted on the bodies of Uighur and other Muslim people...has been rendered invisible,” said Rachel Harris, who studies Uighur culture and music at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London.
“For a tourist who goes and travels around a designated route, it all looks nice,” she told AFP. “It’s all very quiet and that’s because there’s a regime of terror being imposed on the local people.”
According to Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, the regional government offered travelers subsidies worth 500 yuan ($73) each in 2014, after tourism plunged following a deadly knife attack blamed on Xinjiang separatists in southwestern China.
By 2020, Xinjiang is aiming to hit a total of 300 million visits by tourists and rake in 600 billion yuan ($87 billion), according to the region’s tourism bureau.
Tourism packages to Xinjiang often feature the region’s rich array of natural beauty, from the azure waters of Karakul lake to Tianshan — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many also offer “ethnic” experiences, often in the form of dance performances. Some tour operators even include visits to Uighur homes.
Even as Chinese authorities seek to contain the region’s Muslim minorities, they are monetising ethnic culture — albeit a simplified version of it, experts say.
“Uighur culture is being boiled down to just song and dance,” said Josh Summers, an American who lived in Xinjiang for more than a decade and wrote travel guides for the region.
“What makes me sad is what ends up happening is there are only very specific parts of Uighur culture that get maintained because of the tourism,” he said, citing the neglect of Uighur paper-making traditions and desert shrines.

Beijing’s security clampdown has also squeezed Yengisar city’s artisanal knife trade, said Summers.
“Ever since the management of Xinjiang became stricter, the impact on Yengisar’s small knives has been very large — now there are very few shops selling small knives,” agreed Li Qingwen, who runs a tourism business in Xinjiang.
The government wants Uighurs to “show how they excel in singing and dancing, instead of living under religious rules and restrictions,” he told AFP.
But while ethnic song and dance is showcased to tourists, Uighurs are often restricted in how they express their own culture.
Large, spontaneous gatherings of Uighurs — even if they involve dancing — are less frequent because of tightened security, said Summers.
Night markets too are more controlled. In Hotan, what used to be an outdoor night market is now inside a white tent, where red lanterns hang from the ceiling and uniform food stalls adorned with Chinese flags sell lamb skewers, but also sushi and seafood.
Over the past few years, cultural leaders in the Uighur community have disappeared, raising fears they have been detained.
In February, Turkey’s foreign ministry claimed that prominent Uighur musician and poet Abdurehim Heyit had died in a Chinese prison — prompting China to release a “proof-of-life” video of an inmate who identified himself as Heyit.
Famous Uighur comedian Adil Mijit is also missing, according to social media posts by his son-in-law Arslan Hidayat.
And though tourists are buffered from the ugliest parts of Xinjiang’s security crackdown, it is not difficult to bump against the region’s many red lines.
A traveler from Southeast Asia, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisals, described the barriers he faced when trying to pray at a mosque.
Many places of worship were closed in Kashgar, he said, unlike mosques in other Chinese cities.
At Idkah Mosque, Kashgar’s central mosque, the tourist was told he couldn’t pray inside — and that he had to buy a ticket to enter.
“They want to separate travelers from locals,” he said, adding that his visit to Xinjiang confirmed what he had read about re-education camps.
He added: “There’s a lot more of Xinjiang that I want to discover. But I really hope that Xinjiang will become the old Xinjiang.”