How Our Former Beijing Bureau Chief Found Himself on a Bullet Train in Saudi Arabia

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MEDINA, Saudi Arabia — One thing I 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.

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.

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.

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