Couple cycles across Saudi Arabia as part of epic 9-month expedition

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A couple who “gave up everything” in their home country of Germany are now cycling through Saudi Arabia in the ninth month of an epic cycling expedition.

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Environmentalists Julia and Tilmann Schöllnhammer swore off traveling by plane in an effort to cut their carbon emissions, and are now living out a lifelong dream to see the world.

Traveling only by bicycle and the occasional ferry, the pair carry everything they need to sustain themselves, subsisting on a diet of mainly rice and vegetables (and the odd soft drink to boost calories), spending most nights camping out in tents.

They have crossed deserts, faced rain and thunderstorms, become desperately stuck in deep mud, and even witnessed protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, and yet the pair don’t see any end to the adventure in the near future.

Their voyage started off in Hessen, central Germany, in April, when they decided that they needed a change from the routine of their daily lives working at the German environmental protection authority.

Animal skulls and flowers adorn the bicycles of Julia and Tilmann Schöllnhammer, who are undertaking an epic cycling expedition across the world. (Marco Ferrari/Al Arabiya English)
Animal skulls and flowers adorn the bicycles of Julia and Tilmann Schöllnhammer, who are undertaking an epic cycling expedition across the world. (Marco Ferrari/Al Arabiya English)

Julia and Tilmann left their jobs and packed their belongings into a storage unit. While packing, Tilmann found a painting he had done as a child, illustrating his dream of traveling around the world in a sailboat he had built himself.

Crippling shyness had prevented him from taking on an overseas adventure as a young adult, and he missed out on several opportunities to travel while at school and university.

“I was always interested in exploring something,” he told Al Arabiya English at a café in Riyadh, after cycling through the Saudi desert for eight days. “But as a child and as a teenager and as a young adult, I was extremely shy and I never dared to do anything… I was not courageous enough to do it.”

But he remained fixated on the dream, and eventually managed to inspire Julia to come around to the idea.

She was reluctant to join him, not thrilled by the thought of sleeping in tents every night, but in time she became “infected” with his enthusiasm.

“Sometimes you have half a day where you think: ‘Oh okay, now it’s not the nicest place,’” she explained, “But then something happens. Sometimes with people, sometimes it’s the environment. Every day has something special, and so you never get really bored.”

From Germany they headed through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran before catching a ferry to the United Arab Emirates.

They were particularly impressed by Oman, where they spent a month exploring the country, before cycling back through the UAE and across the border to Saudi Arabia.

‘Positively surprised’

While their initial plan had them continuing eastwards from Iran through Southeast Asia and eventually China, the civil war in Myanmar and Chinese COVID-19 border closures forced them to consider an alternative.

The Ukraine war made travel through Russia impossible, and Saudi Arabia became an attractive option. The country has only in recent years started issuing visas to tourists, and the online e-visa system meant they were able to get the necessary paperwork online in matter of hours.

For a country that had been closed to tourists for so long, Julia explained that they were unsure how the locals would receive them.

Tilmann added: “I think the image the Saudi still has in Germany is that it’s a country with very strict rules where you are not allowed to move freely…”

“We cannot say for sure, our insight into society is just a very, very small insight, but our overall impression is that we are positively surprised.”

Inquisitive locals chat with them at petrol stations and rest stops, and they soon found that people all over the Kingdom were eager to snap a picture with the cyclists for social media.

A police patrol car escorted the couple through rural areas, explaining that they wanted to make sure Julia and Tilmann were safe on the highways.

But the travelers were pleased to find out that they were allowed to camp anywhere they wanted, without the sorts of restrictions that might be expected back in Germany.

“Actually, we can do whatever we want,” said Tilmann, “They let us camp in an abandoned petrol station, in the in the park, and in the desert.”

On one night, the couple decided to rest in an abandoned office building outside of Riyadh. It turned out to be the perfect shelter as a rare night of rain and thunder battered the Kingdom.

The most dangerous part of the journey in the Kingdom so far, they said, was entering the capital itself.

Roads were flooded due to the rains and rush hour traffic was even heavier than usual, but they eventually made it to the center and stayed with a local host who had invited them into his home.

Throughout the journey, Saudis have been hospitable and welcoming, inviting the travelers to stay with them and cooking them meals.

“So often, you were asking for a small, simple thing, and then often you got much more than you expect. It’s amazing how hospitable and helpful a majority of the people are,” Tilmann said.

Julia and Tilmann Schöllnhammer cycle along the highway in the western United Arab Emirates, on their way to the border with Saudi Arabia. (Marco Ferrari/Al Arabiya English)
Julia and Tilmann Schöllnhammer cycle along the highway in the western United Arab Emirates, on their way to the border with Saudi Arabia. (Marco Ferrari/Al Arabiya English)

Next steps

One attraction that Julia and Tilmann want to see in Riyadh is the cinemas, which only opened in 2018 after a decades-long ban on public entertainment was lifted.

After exploring the capital, the cyclists plan to ride west to Taif, where they hope they can see the famed baboons who are said to keep dogs and cats as pets.

Then, they will cycle on to Jeddah where they will catch another ferry across to Sudan, and ride up through Egypt, before returning to Saudi Arabia to see the northern part of the Kingdom and from there cross to Jordan.

Purveyors of all things sustainable, Julia and Tilmann are particularly interested in the planned mega-city of NEOM, which is due to be fully-powered by renewable energy.

With no serious ambitions to settle back down into ordinary life at the end of the trip, Tilmann explained what his plans were after returning to Germany.

“I was thinking about maybe just taking a short break in Germany and then going on to Africa…” he said with a grin.

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