Saturday, December 31, 2011

Postcards from Abu Dhabi and Dubai

There's pretty little touristy stuff to do in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Hardly any historical monuments or places of history are there, but there's a sampling of culture to be had, apart from loads of shopping and good dining. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are your typically splurge, fun and chill out holidays. 

Both the Emirates have Souks; exquisite bazaars or markets in a multi-storied building with long lanes, bylines and even courtyards and several shops lined up one after another. You get all things Arabia, arts and crafts, boutiques, clothes, jewelry and plenty of dining options, at prices somewhat higher than normal, but you can bargain at many shops. At the Madinat Jumeirah Souk in Dubai, be sure to visit the sand art stall and the hand painting stall. 

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi is one of the most beautiful structures in the world. It is the largest mosque of its kind in the UAE. This is what money can buy; the most beautiful carpets of the world with designs so intricate, you just can't take your eyes off them, with the largest- and probably the most expensive- chandeliers made of  24-carat gold which were imported from Germany and designed with thousands of Swarovski crystals, its hand-crafted tiles, its 80 domes decorated with marble, the list goes on. There are guided 1-hour tours, free of cost, that start at 10 am and 11 am (I'm not sure whether there are evening tours), on all days except Fridays, I think. It's worth your time joining one of these tours and getting to know the Mosque's history and what went into making it. The Mosque is covered by ponds that, coupled with the place's beauty, lends to its serenity.

Emirates Palace Hotel is another place you must visit. It's a palace converdhated into a luxury hotel. Prior reservation at one of their restaurants or coffee shops is  required to gain entry, but at times there are exhibitions going on in there and you could visit one of them and then take a tour of the hotel on your own. It has its own exclusive beach that is open to only its house guests. But the lobby is beautiful, the steps that lead you onto the ground floor are grand- it has paintings of the Hotel on both the walls; one depicting the hotel in day time and the other in the night time- the hotel personifies luxury. 

 But apart from the above, few shopping malls and a beautiful Corniche (sea-side coastal road with pavements that permit cycling, gazebos where you can sit, lunch, and be merry with your family, friends and loved ones, beachside cafes), there's nothing else to do in Abu Dhabi. Dubai offers more entertainment, though. Of the eight days we were there, we ended going to Dubai four times. A man-made gigantic ski resort inside a mall, the Atlantis Hotel at the Palm Jumeirah where you must have a meal, and the Global Village are some other places we went to. We didn't spend much time in their massive malls, but my cousin tells me that it takes about 5 days each on an average to see the two largest malls in Dubai, The Dubai Mall and The Mall of the Emirates.

Abu Dhabi desert safari

 A trip to the UAE is incomplete without savoring the desert experience. And the best way to do this is the Desert Safari. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi offer desert safaris through numerous tour companies. Since I was based at Abu Dhabi, I stuck to an Abu Dhabi tour operator, called Abu Dhabi Desert Safari. Since I did not do advance booking, I called them up from Abu Dhabi and emailed them a request. They sent me my confirmation over email itself, after just a few minutes, and I was set. The desert safari is a four to six hour desert adventure and they take us far outside the city limits, deep into the desert. The pick-up was arranged at about 3 pm and the car was right on time. Another pick up and a detour from the main Abu Dhabi - Dubai expressway a few minutes later, we were zipping at 130 miles per hour in the middle of nowhere to get to our destination nestled far away in some God-forsaken place deep inside the desert. I was driven in a four-wheel (4W) drive, Toyota Land Cruiser.

Once there, the safari starts. First activity: Dune bashing. Continuing in the same 4W drive, they took us up and down the high sand dunes. It feels like a roller-coaster ride and most exciting. Driven vigorously and quite roughly, the car speeds up tough gradients of sand dunes, we slide back down in high speed. Sharp turns that makes us feel as we're going to be thrown out of the car, we hold on to our seats, handles and whatever else we can get our hands on, tightly. But the drivers are very experienced and well-trained. So you're in safe hands. We slip and slide, we climb massive dunes- with all speed and gusto- that feel as we're climbing four floors, we reach the top and can't see the other end, it's as if we are in the air suddenly, wanting to fly...but no, we come crashing down. It is an exhilarating ride that lasts for about 35 minutes and keeps you wanting for more.

Dune bashing over, we head off to a camel farm and get up, close and personal with all the camels there. One of the gentlest of all creatures, they calmly stand next to us while we touch them, hold them and pose for pictures. There's also a camel ride arranged for us as well as desert biking and sand surfing; glide down the high sand dunes on surf boards, like you do surf boarding on the beach at the sea. After spending some time watching the desert sun go down, we chill out at a desert camp for an evening of drinks, barbecue, dinner, frivolity and we watch a belly dancer dancing. A very Arabian experience!

Abu Dhabi and Dubai: First impressions

That a desert is barren and offers vast landscapes of nothingness is ironic. Because what the Sheikhs of the Middle East have made out of the United Arab Emirates is nothing short of a marvel. And it still appears work in progress; there's still a lot more coming, global economy health permitting. Ofcourse, the jewel in their crown still remains Dubai- the most advanced, modern and inviting of all the seven Emirates that together constitute the United Arab Emirates (UAE)- but signs of development, progress and modern society can be seen beyond the borders of Dubai. Early in December 2011, I had the good fortune of paying a visit to Abu Dhabi, at my cousin Huffrish's home. Lovely destinations, they turned out to be.

We went via Dubai because getting an Abu Dhabi visa is painful. We were asked to fly only by Etihad- Abu Dhabi's national airline- to qualify for a visa, else we have to tell our hosts there to procure a Visa (after answering a dozen questions I am told) or I book something called a 'hotel visa'. I book a hotel there, get them to do my Visa, have them courier me it and then cancel my hotel booking. Now why would I want to do all of that when I don't even intend to stay at a hotel, and also especially if Etihad tickets are amongst the most expensive for a Mumbai - Abu Dhabi round trip? I found this practice to be quite silly. I had even booked my Jet Airways Abu Dhabi tickets only to find out about this stupid Visa rule later; I had to cancel them and rebook the Dubai tickets. Dubai visas are easier to get; you fly by an airline of your choice and you can also go to Abu Dhabi on the same Visa, but only by road. Abu Dhabi visa- I am told- does not allow us entry into Dubai; you need a separate Dubai visa for the entry into Dubai.

On the other hand, Dubai immigration process is also painfully slow. Be prepared for long and slow winding queues at the eye scanner and passport control sections at the Dubai airport; an otherwise magnificent structure. My host who was stuck in a massive traffic jam just outside the Dubai city limits (when I was at the end of a queue) managed to come to the airport that's quite a distance away and I had only waded through half the queue I was in, by then! Otherwise, Dubai airport is vast, buzzing with a fantastic shopping experience. Singapore and Hong Kong airports are still my favourites, though. But the Dubai airport is very well connected; there's a metro station, buses and taxis are available aplenty.

The city looks very modern and advanced. The usual glimpses of several intertwining flyovers, that you get to see just as your plane is about to land, continues as  you get out of the airport, especially if you are sticking to the highway that goes to Abu Dhabi. But the numerous tall buildings of luxury apartments hide a very sordid past of the 2010 Dubai crisis; the occupancy rates of most of these residential apartments is very low, many expatriates left when they lost their jobs, they left their cars at the airport because they couldn't pay the mortgage. Many flats are still lying vacant and real estate prices have dropped. Jobs have moved to Abu Dhabi where real estate prices have gone up in the last year. The real money now lies with Abu Dhabi; when the Dubai crisis unraveled, Abu Dhabi pumped money into Dubai and bought over its Metro and Burj Dubai; the world's largest building that was eventually renamed as Burj Khaleefa; in honour of UAE President Khalifa Bin Zayed  Al Nahyan.

Still, the roads everywhere in UAE are excellent; even better than those in the US. I have never seen a 12-lane massive expressway before, even though it's for a relative short distance that starts from the Dubai city leading to its outskirts. But UAE's roads, especially the highways, are wide, very well-maintained. Traffic discipline is a must and conveniently enforced upon. Licenses are stuck on car's windshields and they carry a magnetic chip so that they can be read by machines and cameras installed at strategic places. All licenses must be topped up with money and must be renewed once a year. Automatic and man-less toll plazas capture your license and car number as you pass through them and your balance gets deducted automatically. No waiting in painfully long queues to hand over money at toll nakas, like in India; in UAE you drive through them 100 miles per hour! If you overspeed, numerous cameras placed at strategic locations catch you. They flash at you, so you know it's you who has oversped. Your money gets deducted from your license card as fines, no questions asked. And since the camera has proof, you can't argue. This isn't new if you live in a developed economy; for us Indians who see traffic violations by the minute here in India, it's refreshing.

The Arabs take great pride in their national dress, the Khandura. Loads of them walking around you can see, in malls, in restaurants, on the roads, young and old alike, everywhere. And their ladies in burqas, as well. They're conservative, yet modern. Most don't cover their heads and underneath their burqas, they wear make-up, gloss and shine like fashonitas and wear high heels. Money talks in the UAE and the Arabs in their Khanduras drive Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas and their Hondas. The language is Arabic; all shops have their names displayed in English as well as Arabic. Most taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi are pathans and Pakistani Muslims who are most cordial with you, whether you are from India, Pakistan or anywhere else in the world. People from all cultures, races, religions and backgrounds can be seen living in perfect harmony. Tradition mixed with modernity; that's UAE for you.

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