Taking our first flight of the trip to Dubai was definitely never part of our original plan or even our back up plan – but that’s the nature of this trip – things change and you need to be flexible. Both of us agreed that Dubai never held much of an appeal to us but we were kind of intrigued by the place and were looking forward to exploring what this crazy city built in the desert has to offer.
We arrive at midnight and are met by an Aussie guy named Scott – who is both a scholar and a gent! Even though he is flying back home to Australia for Christmas in a few hours he offers to come and collect us from the airport, and even more incredible after only a couple of emails and chatting to us for maybe an hour at most he hands over the keys to his flat and tells us to make ourselves at home whilst he is away! Scott you are a legend.
The first big shock to the system is the heat and sunshine! It is 25 degrees with blue cloudless skies, quite the difference to the past few weeks we have spent in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and a welcome change. The apartment is in a city north-east of Dubai called Sharjah. We spend our first day in the UAE taking a look around and then shamefully we head to a cinema to watch the final instalment of The Hobbit. We realise it shows a lack of adventurer spirit to sit in the dark watching dwarves traipse around middle earth in search of gold, when we could be out absorbing the culture of a new country – but it was a little taste of home during the holiday period and it had to be done!
I had never really thought too much about the name the United Arab Emirates and it was soon explained to me that the UAE comprises of seven different ‘Emirates’ which are perhaps like counties or states or provinces, but each Emirate is owned by a different Arab family and run by a different Sheik. Sharjah is in a different Emirate than Dubai and there doesn’t seem to be much collaboration between the two on practical issues. For example it is very difficult to travel by public transport between Sharjah and Dubai even though the distance between the two is less than 20kms and the taxis are very expensive, as taxi drivers from Sharjah are not allowed to pick up passengers in Dubai, therefore if you want a taxi to Dubai you have to pay him for the return journey too. It is all pretty confusing (and out of our budget) so we decided to keep it simple and do what we do best – cycle!
The next few days we spend cycling into Dubai itself and taking in the sights of this incredible city. The ride into Dubai is pretty nice as we stuck to the small roads that clung to the coast, it was not the shortest route, as the road winds back and forth a lot, but it was the most enjoyable and quiet. The first place we take a look around is the creek area, which is the historic part of town, although I don’t think there is too much of the historic town left. However, it is an interesting place with a strange mix of tourists milling about and Pakistani and Indian workers loading and unloading wooden ships with all manner of goods, sacks of rice, stacks of fridges and other goods and produce that cross the gulf regularly. It seems the creek is still used as a trading hub. On the creek side is where the Gold, Spice and Textiles souks (markets) are located. The Gold souk is a crazy place with shop after shop selling masses of gold jewellery; But the constant hassling was more than we could handle – there is only so many times you can be called ‘Shakira’ (It was André’s hypnotic hips that did it I think) and offered a genuine fake Rolex or Louis Vuitton bag! To escape, we lock the bikes near the creek and took a small traditional wooden boat called an Abra across the water to the other side. These little boats are very cheap roughly 20p each way and it is fun to see the area from the water.
Our remaining time in Dubai was split between taking it easy as much as possible and whizzing across the giant urban sprawl that is the city of Dubai. Travelling on the overground metro allows you to easily absorb how vast the place is – it is enormous and rammed with high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls. It is not a walking-friendly city at all. We visited the marina filled with fancy yachts, where you can also view the famous, extravagant Palm Tree Island in the distance. However, as a structural engineer André was most keen to see the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa, which is an incredible sight to behold. It is 829 metres high, and to put that in some context The Shard is 308 metres high and the CN Tower is 553 metres high, so it is pretty big! Unfortunately the only exit out of the metro and to the Burj seemed to be through the world’s largest shopping mall – no mere planning mistake I am sure! The mall was awful and completely overwhelming, neither of us are fans of shopping malls anyway and they are bad enough when they are an average size, but this was truly terrible and there seemed to be no clear, easy way out! Eventually we managed to navigate ourselves to the Burj complex. The Burj was completed in 2010 and cost 1.5 billion US dollars. The building was supposed to be called the Burj Dubai but it was changed at the last-minute to honour Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi who bailed out Dubai’s bankrupt sovereign wealth fund with 10 billion dollars in 2009 – that is a whole lot of dollar for one man to fork out! The building is surrounded by a park with water jet fountains that regularly feature a sound and light show, palm trees, pools and lots of places to sit and admire the building! The building is so tall that the exterior temperature at the top is rumoured to be 6 degrees cooler than at the base and the lifts/elevators have a speed of up to 40 miles per hour!
Nearly the entire time we are in the UAE we ate Pakistani or Indian food, it is cheap, delicious and sold everywhere. The simple reason being that there are a lot of Indian and Pakistani people living in Dubai, a lot more than I had ever realised. There seems to be three main groups living in Dubai, the Westerner expats, the wealthy locals, and the Indian and Pakistani migrants who do the low paid labouring work. In the entire UAE only 20% of the population is made up of nationals, which is kind of crazy.
On our way home one night we happened to stumble across the Dubai Fish Market. This was not mentioned in any tourist guide or websites we read before arriving in the city. It was hands down one of the most interesting places we saw while we were in the city. The first thing we saw upon arriving was a line of hundreds of dead sharks laying next to each other on a concrete slab, we were both a bit gobsmacked at the site and it made us both really think about the impact humans have on this world. Once we managed to peel our eyes off the sharks we saw a little bit of the huge complex where fresh fish is cleaned, gutted and sold over stainless steel tables, rows and rows of tables.
One part of life in Dubai that I was pleasantly surprised to observe was the sheer number of families out in the parks and waterfronts enjoying the warm (and not ridiculously hot) weather. Everywhere we wandered there were lots of people picnicking, barbecuing and playing games. Women laughing and chatting in big groups and children running and cycling all over the place – it was great and such a nice scene to witness. Of particular interest for us was the traditional outfits worn in the UAE as they differ so drastically from western fashion.
In Dubai most men wear a kandura, which is an ankle length, long sleeve white garment like a robe. Although white is the traditional colour and the one worn for formal occasions other colours are common in winter such as blues, greys and browns but in summer white is the colour of choice due to the heat. Headwear is usually the Guthra which is a headscarf which most commonly is either plain white or white and red checks. I bought André and red and white check one as a Christmas gift and after wearing it whilst cycling across the desert in the midday heat he immediately saw the reason why men in the middle east chose to wear them. The scarf acts as an excellent protector from the sun and the material they are made from is light and airy. These headscarves are worn in different ways that are sometimes to do with the latest fashion but can also denote the importance of the wearer – I won’t even begin to pretend I understood these differences! The one thing we did notice was that some men used black rope to fix the scarf into place but this seems to be more common in Saudi Arabia rather than the UAE.
For women the most common outfit we saw was the Abaya – a black long flowing gown that is worn over the top of your outfit. Nearly all women wore this garment while in public and although they are all plain black they varied significantly in elegance and attention to detail. Some were adorned with jewels, lace or other delicate stitched patterns around the cuffs and hems in particular. Headwear differed in Dubai, nearly all women would cover their head but the amount covered is what varied. Some ladies just wore a headscarf, some would have only their eyes exposed and some would have a veil that covered their entire face including their eyes. It was sometimes difficult for me as a woman to accept that many women here chose to wear these outfits. As I myself can’t imagine choosing it. However, to some women here the skintight outfits women in the west chose to wear are seen as degrading and worn solely for the pleasure of men. Therefore, in the end I decided that as long as the garments women wear are their own choice and not a method of oppression, then women should try not to judge each other so harshly on something so inconsequential. It would be better if we all tried to be more accepting and understanding of our right to chose our own attire.
Hitting the Road
On Christmas Eve we left the city and cycled out towards the desert and the border with Oman. The route out wasn’t as easy as we hoped. The roads were not that cycle friendly and when traffic was heavy it got a little hairy at times, but the main problem we encountered was when trying to find smaller, quieter roads using Google maps. Often the road would start paved and then slowly become sandier and sandier until we were off-roading across the dunes dragging our bikes! This meant there was a lot of back tracking and retracing our steps until we could find another road to follow. After a frustrating afternoon of cycling we made it to the main highway heading across the desert and to the border. We were slightly disappointed to discover that along the entire length of the highway the sand dunes were surrounded by a very high and secure looking wire fence – this not only looked ugly and seemed a shame but could prove a problem for us later when trying to find a camp spot. The road we were on was very busy with white, tourist 4x4s taking carloads of white people into the desert to go off-roading. Speeding over the dunes in a 4×4 did appeal to us (especially at times when we were sweating profusely as we dragged our bikes across patches of sand) however after witnessing a ‘sand dune adventure’ in action we were glad not to have wasted the money. All the 4x4s turned off the highway at the same place and proceeded to follow each other in a loop over the dunes like a tiny trail of ants – it looked lame.
We awoke on Christmas day in the desert and the only indication it was Christmas and different from any other day on our tour was that we exchanged a couple of small gifts! For me the hardest part of this trip for is missing my family and friends and today I did feel sad that I couldn’t just transport back home to catch up with everyone and I think André felt the same. However, as we were in the desert and boiling hot it didn’t really feel much like Christmas anyway! And there were some positives, I was happy to not have to deal with the commercial aspects that have now become so entwined with Christmas and are so hard to escape in Western countries. I hate the stupid Christmas adverts that are on constantly and all the pressure to buy so much unnecessary stuff; it was nice to escape this for once. It was also lovely to spend Christmas with André as we are usually on different sides of the Atlantic and the novelty of spending Christmas in a completely different way was fun.
After only a short distance we cycled across the border into what is technically Oman however it is kind of a ‘no mans land’ as there is no official crossing here and it only lasts for a few miles before you are crossing the border back into the UAE again! We made it to a town called Hatta where we decided to stop for lunch, this was trickier than we expected! We couldn’t find any restaurants but we could smell something good coming from a row of small shops, however, when we went inside the place was empty – we were perplexed! Thankfully a local guy stopped and helped us, it turns out that the small shop sells roasted mutton and only roasted mutton and you have to go out the back to buy it! We got chatting to two Indian guys in the shop and as a Christmas present they bought our lunch for us, which was really kind! Christmas dinner for us this year consisted of roasted mutton, rice and a spicy dip, with a fruit loaf crumb dessert! It was delicious!
In the hope of speaking to our families on Christmas day we went to the only place in the vicinity that had wifi– a very fancy hotel! We talked our way inside under the pretense of considering staying the night although after taking one look at us I think they cottoned on to our ruse pretty quickly. However, luckily they took pity on us and let us use their internet! I was happy to speak to my family even though it was brief, unfortunately due to the time difference in Canada André didn’t get hold of his. On the up side though we did get to see Father Christmas (that’s Santa to all you Canadians) riding a camel, a spectacle obviously for the entertainment of the western guests at the hotel. It was pretty amusing as one of Father Christmas/Santa’s helpers was an Indian guy who sounded like he had never heard how ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ should sound because when he shouted it, it sounded more like a cross between ‘he, he, he’ or ‘ha, ha, ha’ – it did make us chuckle!
The rest of our Christmas day wasn’t so exciting or interesting as we had to cross the actual border into Oman. Leaving the UAE was so painless; in fact it was a pleasure! We were invited into a immigration border officer’s booth for tea and a chat as he was excited and curious about us and our trip. He then invited his friend over to meet us too and throughout this time the cars queuing up to hand over passports had to wait until we had finished being served tea! Afterwards we were escorted to the VIP waiting area, offered more refreshments and after assuring our hosts we didn’t need anything further and thanking them we were sent on our way!
Our stay in the UAE was short but sweet, we got our first taster into life in the Middle East and are excited to be travelling further in this part of the world. We look forward to sampling all that Oman has to offer.
Visas – Nice and easy; The British, Canadians, EU citizens (and others) don’t need a visa for the United Arab Emirates. Entering and leaving the country was an easy, painless process.
When to go – Winter time, as the summer is far too hot!
For more photos of our time in the United Arab Emirates click : HERE