Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Dubai Desert

11th December 2007:

For our last full day in Dubai, it was time to do an organized tour. We had been self-sufficient in our trip so far, but our next task required professional guidance: it was time to put on the "Laurence of Arabia" hat and take a trek across the desert.

Our guide for the day was "Arabian Adventures" and the tour was "Desert Dinners". My first thoughts about what it would be like to travel across the sand dunes involved us riding camels from oasis to oasis. Thankfully (sadly?) things have modernized and instead of being collected by a herd of camels from our hotel ;), a big 4 wheel drive Toyota Land cruiser turned up instead. Still, within seconds of sitting in the air-conditioned interior any wistful notions of trekking on camels were quickly put into my mental rubbish bin.

Lisa, Alex and I were joined by a family from Melbourne and together we set off through the streets of Dubai towards the Dubai Desert. Another unfortunate facet of modern life is traffic and the vast amount of construction in Dubai conspired to make the streets particularly congested. The driver attempted to take a shortcut but due to roads being opened/closed on a daily basis, managed to get lost in the process. Still, it gave us ample opportunity to admire one of the local Sheik's palaces and then a short while later we saw another of his palaces: the second palace is there in case he gets bored with his first one(!)

We soon hit the highway and left the city behind. The already arid landscape quickly became more and more sandy and 3/4 hour after leaving the city we arrived at one of the entry points into the desert. It turns out that the tire pressure in the jeeps works well on roads, but not so well on sand. The entry points therefore provide spaces for you to lower the tire pressure on the way into the desert, and air compressors for re-filling the tires again on the way out. Incidentally, if you have the money, you can even buy jeeps with on board air-compressors which deflate/inflate the tires automatically: neat!

Lisa and Alex had both taken travel sickness tablets before we left the hotel and it was a wise move: we were soon being thrown forwards into our seat belts before crashing back into our seats as we climbed sand dunes, crested the tops and plummeted down the other side. We joined about 30 other cars in a convoy and we all off-roaded over the golden sand dunes: even the driver had a great time despite doing it probably every day(!) The only time he seemed slightly worried was when we came down a little bit too hard over a dune and the car ended up cutting out: he looked nervous because if we waited too long the car behind us would have ended up on top of us... Still, we were on our way again quickly.

First main stop was at a camel herder's station where we got up and close with the camels. They're pretty tall in real life, though they could do with a trip to the dentist :) They were also very docile as I presume they are used to being around new people every day. When we had been in the markets in Dubai over the previous days for some reason it was I who got most of the attention from the shop assistants and hawkers: sure enough, I was also the one who the camel herders asked for "a little extra money": I must look loaded or something(!)

We left the camel station as dusk was approaching and drove a short distance further out in the desert. We took a break from the off-roading and Lisa, Alex and I sat on top of a dune and relaxed as the sun crept lower to the horizon. Sunset over the desert was dramatic with the golden sun illuminating the golden sand and the long shadows cast by the dunes getting longer and longer as the sun dropped lower and lower...

Last major stop on the tour was at a Bedouin camp for the evening's festivities. They had camels nearby and we all had a go at having a ride (tip: hold on tight, especially when the camel gets up or sits down) and then moved into the camp itself. The giant square-shaped camp had a big Arabian rug in the open air in its centre and hugging the outer walls was one long tent which housed low-tables and cushions for seats. We spent the evening enjoying traditional local food with wine and then relaxed while being entertained by a traditional art form: belly dancing(!)


What I find fab about cities such as New York or Paris is that no matter how many times you visit them, there are always activates to do and you never seem to have enough time to do everything on offer. Dubai isn't there yet. We had three days there and had performed most of the available activates: had we stayed another two days we may have even run out of things to do. However, for a short stop over Dubai is well worth visiting. The wealth on display is at times breathtaking, everybody speaks English so there's no "Lost In Translation" problem and it also provided a gentle introduction to Arabic culture: Dubai is well worth visiting.

Jumeriah (Dubai)

10th December 2007:

For our second day in Dubai we were joined by Alex who was also from Sydney. The city is famous for having Gold markets with vast collections of very high caret (24 carrot) gold jewelry so the plan of attack for the day was to hit those markets later in the afternoon after spending the day down by the beach area of the city.

None of us in the group were hard-core beach people: personally, I could survive for a couple of hours at most before getting bored, so a day at the beach was not high on any of our agendas. However, there was something else at the beach area which WAS high on our agendas: the Burj Al Arab, the world's most luxurious hotel. Sporting an incredible 7-stars, the hotel is famous for such extravagances as gold-lined walls and a restaurant inside an aquarium. Sadly rooms start at over 1000 AUD a night and you can't even get in the front door without paying a fee.

So, we all jumped in a taxi and 20 minutes later were dropped off at the hotel. Security was tighter than we had expected. The front gate was locked and had a small team of security guards checking the names of people who were driving in. There was another small group of tourists ahead of us and I could see one of them trying to negotiate his way past the gate, but the guard was having none of it. Somewhat disappointed we wandered down the road hoping for a photo opportunity somewhere nearby.

The walk was surprisingly pleasant despite the searing desert heat. We did get one or two taxi's slowing up next to us wondering if we needed a lift: clearly the locals thought we were mad to be walking around ? About ten minutes down the road, past some other private hotels, we came to what turned out to be possibly the most impressive shopping center I have ever seen. Borrowing from the fort architecture from the past, this place was lavishly fitted out: it even had canals with gondolas. It also had what we were looking for: a view of the 7-star hotel. My suggestion if you come to Dubai, though, is to forget the DIY approach on this one: you can pay about 100AUD for tea and a guided tour of the hotel: this would be a much easier and more successful option if you can afford it.

After the hotel we next visited a nearby mosque at Jumeriah. Most mosques are closed to the non-believers, but this mosque is more open and has guided tours. Sadly, these tours must be booked well in advance and only operate at 10:00AM on certain days of the week: just turning up as we had done will get you nowhere.

Also in the region has, despite still being under construction, the world's tallest tower. As it is still being built, it is not accessible, but we were hoping for some pictures from nearby. We didn't manage to get close enough though, and it was always barely visible in the ever-present haze.

After a sumptuous long lunch at a nearby restaurant, it was time to head back to the markets. Businesses tend to close between 1PM and 4PM, and we found that many of the market shops didn't reopen until 4:30PM, but once they did, wow! The Gold Souk had shop after shop of gold and diamonds on display. It all looked quite dazzling. The gold also looked different from what we usually get elsewhere: the gold here is purer but instead of looking more "gold-y", it actually tended to look slight duller. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of it, and the way it had been designed into extravagant items of jewelry was most impressive. Equally impressive was the glittering array of diamonds on show. It was easier to spot the better quality diamonds as some of them twinkled brightly, while others clearly had flaws which didn't twinkle much at all.

After the gold markets, we moved on next to the Spice Souk which had many small shops in a maze of winding streets. My sense of smell wouldn't be the best but nevertheless the fragrance here was sensory overloading with big bags of vividly colored exotic spices on the streets. The most popular items seems to be Frankincense, Mirh and Saffron, though be prepared to haggle: we spotted some American tourists who were clearly being had!

Along the way we also squeezed in some more historical building reconstruction tours and by the time it was getting dark it was time for a relaxing sit down by the river with a drink (non-alcoholic naturally ;) All in all, another action packed day in Dubai.

Shopping in the Souks

9th December 2007:

After a quick breakfast with lots of coffee at our apartment/hotel (The Golden Sands) it was time to begin exploring. Neither Lisa or I had been to a Muslim country before and were not quite sure what to expect. So as not too offend any of the locals we both dressed conservatively which wasn't the easiest thing to do in the heat. Nevertheless, Lisa did get lots of attention throughout the day, especially early on but covering up the shoulders helped reduce the staring. It was also quite noticeable early on that we were the only Westerners in sight, though as we ventured more towards the tourist areas later in the day some more travelers became visible.

Our apartment is located near the airport and near the old part of the city. We grabbed a map from the concierge and started what turned out to be a long trek around the city. It was fascinating. The architecture of the older buildings is like something out of Lawrence of Arabia and you can wander around old restored forts with white walls and fortified towers. Some of these forts had been subtly/tastefully modernized with air-conditioned interiors with items of historical value in glass display cabinets. Some of these buildings were closed and we got the impression that it was off-season, but the entrance fees were cheap and one fort in particular that we did enter cost a whole 50 cents to get into.

No trip to Dubai would be complete without a visit to the local markets and alongside the cities river are small shops selling cashmere clothing and other items of touristic value. The shop keepers don't tend to wait for you to wander into their shop: they prefer to grab your attention as you are walking past as try their sales charm to get you to part with your cash. They were very persuasive, though with everything being so cheap their goods practically sell themselves. The only irritating restriction was the ever present weight restriction for baggage on the flights home :(

There were many very noticeable differences in Dubai to Western cities I am more used to. Every couple of hours call to prayers were sung over loud speakers from the mosques: it sounded surreal the first couple of times but after that I found that it added to a sense of community as it was an experience which everybody listened to. I had thought that everything would grind to a halt during these prayer times, but people continued on as normal: it might be that the people only need to stop what they are doing some times during the day, rather than every time.

The next main difference would have to be the lack of women walking around. You could literally look down a street full of people and see no women whatsoever. Those women we did see tended to be immigrants (predominately Indian) or tourists. Otherwise, whereas the men tended to wear white clothes, the women tended to wear black. However, there weren't as many of the full length black burqa's visible (the dress style which just shows the woman's eyes) as I was expecting.

The last main difference became evident as the day progressed into evening. Most Western cities I have been in can become a bit intimidating in the evening as you try to avoid drunks or other people acting abnormally: we didn't' see any of that behavior in Dubai. Indeed throughout the day we never got the feeling we were being watched or followed or in any type of danger whatsoever. I didn't see any pick pocketing or shoplifting either and I saw one policeman all day: he looked very bored ?

There were no bars/off-licences/bottle-shops or nightclubs visible at all. They do exist but apparently they tend to be part of the bigger hotels. The lack of the usual Western light life wasn't a problem though as within minutes of arriving back to our room the jet lag kicked in and it was lights out: a good first day and there's still plenty more to do.

Flying to Dubai

8th December 2007:

I was rather hoping that I’d start getting into the Christmas mood in Australia this year but nope: its still surreal seeing Santa in a big red coat surrounding by people wearing only shorts or bikinis :) So, I’m going back to the northern hemisphere for a bit of normal reality.

Seeing as I’m traveling soooooo far, it would be a waste not to stop off somewhere along the way. I've already been to Thailand and have gone through North America, so for a change of scenery this year it will be Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai seems to be an up and coming place, boasting the worlds most luxurious hotel (7 star!), the world's tallest tower and there's even a massive man made island in the shape of the world(!) Fancy owning all of North America and living in your own White House? Now's your chance!

My travel buddy for the trip is Lisa and together we flew with the UAE's national carrier, Emirates. I have heard a LOT of great things about the Emirates airline. How was the reality? Like most things, some of the expectations turned out to be true, others were mere wishful thinking. Naturally each seat had its own built-in LCD display panel. Having them touch screen was a pleasant surprise, but they did suffer from the same problem all of these displays have: when the person in front leans their seat back you can no longer properly see what you are trying to watch :( Still, I have never come across such an impressive entertainment system: it worked for a start (Qantas, you should take some notes) and had over 175 movies to choose from that you can start/stop/pause as you want. If you don't fancy a movie, you can also look through cameras mounted in the plane's nose and undercarriage to see where you are going or what you are flying over. As we were flying overnight there wasn't much to see, but the takeoff and landing was dramatic! Also, some airlines only switch the entertainment system on when the plane is flying: not so here and being able to watch movies while waiting for the plane to taxi during takeoff and landing was a welcome distraction. To be fair, much of this technology is down to the airline manufacturer so maybe I just lucky and ended up on a new plane with modern gadgets.

The in-flight meals were also some of the best I've had on a plane and we stared in wonder at the real metal cutlery we were given, even metal knives! However, they could have provided more meals and I have found the premium ice-cream provided by other airlines to be a great addition: sadly there was none on our flight :( Also interesting was that there wine/beer/spirits were not mentioned anywhere and in stark contrast to a Qantas or BA flight, nobody that I noticed had a glass or wine with dinner. Lisa did spot one or two later, but they were the exception rather than the norm.

The flight had a scheduled flying time of 17 hours and we had a one hour's stopover in Bangkok en-route. We were flying overnight and as were flying west we followed the darkness all the way: it was probably the longest night I've ever experienced. I did love the airplanes interior at night time though: most airlines just dim the lights, but for ours they first changed the light to a subtle red/pink colour (to simulate sunset) and then a couple of minutes later changed the lights to a dim dark blue/purple and they even had stars (miniature white lights) visible in the roof: very impressive!

Overall, flying with Emirates was positive but then they do charge more for the experience. We arrived into Dubai a little bit later than scheduled due to fog but it was nice and early in the morning and was just after sunrise: the perfect time to start exploring.