One thing I have learned from working for 13 years as a foreign correspondent is that getting to and from a place can teach you a lot about a country. Even in a war zone. It’s a cliché to say it’s the journey that matters and not the destination, but there is truth in that statement.
So it was that I found myself canceling a plane ticket from Medina to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in January in favor of taking the train.
It was not just any train.
I had discovered, while on a trip to report on a high-end concert series in the remote Al Ula region, that in October Saudi Arabia had opened a high-speed railway between Medina and Mecca, the most important pilgrimage sites for Muslims. It ran a total distance of 281 miles.
I had a flight from Jeddah that night back to Washington, where I now work as a diplomatic correspondent. If I boarded the train around noon, I could get to Jeddah by midafternoon, have time to walk around the old town and seaside corniche, maybe get dinner and catch my flight.
Booking a ticket was as easy as making a reservation on Amtrak. From my hotel room in a desert canyon in Al Ula, I got on the website of the Haramain High Speed Railway, clicked on the English-language option and looked at the schedule. There was a train departing at noon the next day that would get me into Jeddah at 2:16 p.m. All economy-class tickets were sold out so, using an American credit card, I booked a business-class seat for 220.5 Saudi riyals, or $59.
I’ve always enjoyed train travel, but there was a particular reason this railway intrigued me. When I was Beijing bureau chief, my job at The Times before this one, I researched commercial projects abroad that involved Chinese companies. Chinese state-owned enterprises were getting infrastructure contracts in many countries, even before President Xi Jinping began heavily promoting his Belt and Road Initiative.
I came across the fact that a Chinese state-owned enterprise was involved in the first phase of building a high-speed railway between Medina and Mecca. There was a certain dissonance here: The ruling Communist Party of China, officially atheist and repressive toward many of the country’s Muslims, was helping build a railway connecting the holiest sites in Islam.
I emailed an official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington about getting a visa to go report in Saudi Arabia, but nothing came of it. The country usually does not issue tourist visas, and journalist visas are hard to get.
That was years ago. Now I had a visa, granted so I could cover a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the kingdom. And at the end of the assignment, after four days of reporting in Riyadh and Ula, I had a train ticket to Jeddah.
On the morning of Jan. 17, a driver took me south from Al Ula to Medina. We were careful to skirt north around the bustling heart of Medina to the high-speed train station. Non-Muslims are forbidden from entering central Medina. Even on the outskirts, I saw more minarets than I had seen in any other city I had visited in years.
The first thing that struck me at the station were the pilgrims. Outside, men in white robes and women in full black dress, often with their faces covered, wheeled suitcases. A few times I saw Muslims who appeared to be from as far away as Southeast Asia.
The cavernous station was busy but not crowded. A sign pointed to a mosque. Pillars and archways pulled the eye toward the dark, soaring ceilings, decorated with diamond-shaped motifs that let in sunlight. The floor tiles gleamed.
I scanned the electronic ticket on my phone at a turnstile to be let into the platform area.
In China, I had taken many high-speed trains, and these looked similar. There was a bullet-shaped car at the front and a string of passenger cars behind it. They resembled, too, the high-speed trains I had taken in Japan and France.
Each train had 417 seats.
I walked to a business-class car and got on. The cabin was nearly full. I sat down in a wide seat. All the seats had a seat-back television screen. This train had been designed and built by a Spanish company.
Leaving Medina, the train steadily picked up speed, until it reached about 190 miles per hour. It zipped through flat, dry countryside dotted with shrubs. Waiters in white shirts, black vests and white gloves served dates and Arabic coffee. Then they came by with lunch: a chicken roll, a sweet cake and more coffee.
“What do you think of all this?” asked an older man with a thick beard and a traditional red-checkered headdress sitting in front of me. “It’s a smooth ride?”
The scenery became hillier as we approached the Hijaz Mountains parallel to the Red Sea, before continuing south along the coast. At 1:30, we sped through a station in King Abdullah Economic City. Soon afterward, we pulled into Jeddah.
I wanted to travel on to Mecca, but — as with central Medina — non-Muslims are barred from entering the city. I stepped off the train with my bag.
As I walked to the taxi stand with the pilgrims, I saw a poster with large photos of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the train, plus the words Saudi Vision 2030. A family took cellphone photos of themselves standing in front of it.
Saudi Vision 2030 is the catchphrase for an ambitious economic development program spearheaded by the crown prince. In the West, he is now known more for violent acts — carrying on a war against rebels in Yemen that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and, according to the C.I.A., ordering the murder last October of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist. The Saudi government has denied the crown prince’s involvement in the murder.
The train presented a different glimpse of the complexities of the kingdom.
I got into a taxi and looked back at the pilgrims streaming from the station as we drove off toward the Red Sea.