Friday, 26 February 2010

Abu Dhabi

Master Cabbie of Taking Shortcuts, and Cutting Corners

sunny 30 °C
David B had some good things to say about Abu Dhabi - the capital city of UAE - with its tree line streets. So we picked up a brochure from Holiday Inn Express, and rung up for a private tour. We were attracted by the tour destinations in the brochure, which includes:
  • Marina Mall
  • The Corniche
  • Heritage Village
  • Sheik Zayed Mosque (aka The Grand Mosque)
  • Emirates Palace Hotel
  • Presidential Palace
There were a few more sights, but I only list the major ones.
When we got up this morning, Dubai was blanketed in dust storm. Right from the start, it didn't bode well for our trip. We could only hope that either the dust/sand storm didn't hit Abu Dhabi or it would die down by the time we get there. The odds of the former happening is pretty slim. Dust/sand storm, like rain, spreads over a large area, and Abu Dhabi is only a little more than an hour drive from Dubai. So we could only pray for the latter. There's a sign pointing to the direction of Mecca (aka Qibla(h)) in the hotel if we wanted to pray. Since I'm not a Muslim, or indeed a religious person, so I just pinned my hope on some amorphous, nebulous omnipotent being in the sky who looks Chinese or Aussie. Female, no beard, preferably.

The Fraser Suite staff warned us that this dust/sand storm signalled the start of something bad, otherwise known as Summer. Or I would like to call the Hellish Season. I spent more than 2 months in Bahrain during the Hellish Season, and it was unforgettable. Yep, the sand/dust storm were common occurrence. It occurred every 3 weeks or so while I was there. Regular as clockwork.
The tour operator sent a driver/tour guide to pick us up at our hotel. Once inside the car, as per usual, we broke the ice with the time honoured tradition of swapping personal background details. Once again, I didn't mind. Especially today when we stuck with this driver cum tour guide for the better part of the day. It's good to find our more about him to keep the ball rolling, and chased away the uncomfortable silence in the car. He came from New Delhi, India, and have been living in Dubai for 12 years. I didn't ask him how long he had been working for the tour operator. I didn't think it was a germane.

When we crossed the boundary between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, he pointed out that the asphalt on the road had changed. I noticed that the Dubai asphalt was the usual black, while Abu Dhabi's is brown in colour. We chatted happily on various topics, especially about the bail-out of Dubai by Sheik Khalifa, Emir of Abu Dhabi, which automatically made him the President of UAE. I think.
Whenever the car exceeded the speed limit of 120km/hr, an alarm coming from the dashboard would sound, and I lost count on the number of times it went off. He seemed to have developed selective deafness on the alarm over time. Sometimes, he let the warning bells go off as long as 15 mins in a stretch (instead of easing his lead foot on the gas pedal). I found the alarm bells distracting. Maybe he found it soothing, like Santa's sleigh bells. The alarm bells were never mentioned in the brochure. Another driving manner he had was tail-gating cars while the alarm was going off. The while the gap between him and the car ahead was less than a car length (2.5m). You could fit a horse between the two cars, and it wouldn't fall off. I was sitting at the edge of my seat. Can't complain this tour was a yawn.
The chauffeur/tour guide seemed friendly and knowledgeable enough even if he drove like a maniac. And so I thought. I had a number of taxi dramas in this Dubai trip (described in glorious details in "Dubai - Day 3", and "Dubai - Day 9" entries). I thought I wouldn't get any more taxi drama in my last day. I had completely forgotten about the special presentation of a 6-hour final episode today. This episode is titled, "Like Sands Blowing thru the Desert, this is the Day of His Lies".
Of course, he wasn't a taxi driver, but a tour guide. As we shall see, the tour guide title could be appropriately dropped.
Crossed a large bridge, the glistering white marbled Grand Mosque loomed in the distance on our left like a mirage in the desert in one of the tales in the Arabian Nights. He said we would visit the mosque after lunch on the way when we returned to Dubai . Although the dust storm had died down somewhat, but the visibility was still not very high. I was quite happy to see it later when the sky cleared further. We both looked forward with anticipation.
Just as David B said, the streets were lined with palms, apart from embellishing the streets, and giving shades. It actually helps to mitigate the sand storm, even if it's only by a little. Every bits helps. Coming from Dubai, the office buildings here look very old by contrast. It was only because most of the skyscrapers in Dubai are half my age (ok, I'm giving away my age). And being young, the skyscrapers in Dubai are also flashy and loud. They all scream in unison, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!".
Our first stop was the Marina Mall. Although this is only a shopping mall, and I wasn't the slight interested, since it was in the itinerary, I may as well get off to stretch my legs after the ride. As this was a Friday, most shops were closed. But we didn't care.
He pointed it out the Corniche as we drove past. When asked if we could get off and had a closer look. He said that wasn't much to see. "It's nothing but a beach. You can see it from here". Ok. At the end of the Corniche was the Heritage Village, which I didn't realise then. I saw some interesting traditional structures. And it turned out to be the Heritage Village when I asked the driver. He drove past it and had no intention of stopping. I insisted to stop there. As Atta wasn't too interested in this kinda thing. I stayed for 2 mins, took a few quick snaps, and hopped back into the car.
Drove us past a impressive palatial building, and he indicated that this is the old Presidential Palace. We shouldn't visit the old one, we should visit the new one, he explained. At this point, I wasn't too convinced, and regretted that I didn't do a lot of homework on these destinations. Ok, next to nothing. That's why we hired a guide. To guide us. We put our trust in his hand. So I couldn't argue with him, and let him drove us to the new Presidential Palace, which was very close to the old one. He explained that since this is a Presidential Palace, no visitors were allowed. He dropped us at the iron fence so that we could take some photos from there. It wasn't a good angle.
I headed back into the car, and thought to myself that what had I seen so far up close? Well, a shopping mall. Drove around the fence and past the front gate, I saw a small group of Western tourists with cameras talking to the guard at the gate. I told the driver to stop at the front gate. Even if I couldn't get in, at least I could take this building from a more decent angle. As we got off, Atta explained that this isn't some Presidential Palace as the tour guide said, but the Palace Hotel that David B had told her. I was somewhat perplexed. Whom should I believe now, David B or a knowledgeable tour guide?

We approached the front gate. the sign at the gate clearly marked 'Emirates Palace Hotel'. The guard explained to the foreign tourists that they weren't allow to visit today because of a special function. A sheik had passed away, and a function was being held there. He pointed out the flag that was flying half mast. The guard suggested we should come back to visit another day.

Well, there you have it. Either our chauffeur was clueless about the itinerary, or worse he took us for a couple of chumps. My lack of research on the itinerary, which happened rarely, left me quite clueless about his intention. We found out soon enough.

Got back into the car, I tried to explain that this is a hotel. His boss called him on the phone, which I first thought he was checking on how we doing. After some exchange on the phone with his boss in his native tongue, he handed me the phone and said that his boss wanted to talk to me. His boss told me that we insisted on going into the Emirates Palace Hotel, and we shouldn't able to get in because it was a Friday. I explained to him that we couldn't get in because of the hotel is holding a special function. But he insisted that because it was a Friday. After got off the phone, I told the driver that we would like to go to the Presidential Palace that we had missed. We pointed out the destination on the brochure. Once again, he exercised his selective deafness, and rambled on some unrelated subjects. He drove further and further away. I finally gave up.

The only major destination left on the itinerary was the Grand Mosque. We decided to take a lunch break, and visited there on our way back to Dubai. Headed in the Dubai direction, and with a large lunch, we both nodded off in the car. But our internal clock alarm woke us up just in time. The car had just drove past the Grand Mosque. I said nothing yet because he may be looking for an exit to get off the highway. Although we were anxious to see the Mosque, which was the highlight of this trip, we patiently waited, and waited. 15 mins had past. I finally asked if he was looking for an exit to get to the Grand Mosque.
He asked, "Do you want to see the Mosque?"
What a very interesting question! It's like I ask a tourist if he/she wants to see Sydney Opera House while they're in Sydney. He may have suffered from selective deafness, but my memory was fine. He told us that we were going to the Grand Mosque on our way back. I wouldn't forget thing like that. This was the highlight of the day trip.
"Yes." I said resignedly.
"But this is Friday. There're prayers. You can't get inside." He said, still hoping to perish my enthusiasm.
"That's ok." I said. If I didn't go to the Grand Mosque, I had no good reason to go to Abu Dhabi at all. In fact, I prefer the outside photos than the interior where lights aren't strong. I had an overwhelming urge to wrestle him to the ground, locked him in 3/4 nelson, and farted while I was at it. Nah...I'm too much of a gentleman to do 3/4 nelson. I'm a full nelson kinda guy (full nelson gives people a head massage in Thai style).
The Grand Mosque wasn't disappointing. I snapped away over 70 photos just from the outside. I had at least 70 reasons to come here.

On our way back from the Grand Mosque, he drove in circles, having trouble getting out the tangles of circular fly-over as he tried to head in the Dubai direction. After about 30 mins of riding in a marry-go-around of flyovers, he finally gave up trying to head the Dubai direction. Instead, he headed back to Abu Dhabi's city, and then head home from there. All in all, he spent over 1 hour trying to get back to the point on the highway where he entered the Grand Mosque. He took less than 15 mins getting to the Grand Mosque from the highway.

I was quite exhausted after today's trip. It wasn't a relaxing tour even though I hardly did much. I was tired from having to fight for every single promised destination in the brochure (except for the shopping mall where he probably enjoyed walking in air-cons indoor). What did we actually sight see up close? The shopping mall, and the Grand Mosque, which we could have missed if we didn't wake up just in time. You can tell that the driver had the intention all along of letting us watched the whole of Abu Dhabi from his car windows if we didn't raise any objection. He should be given a trophy for taking shortcuts. Not on the roads (he was hopeless at this), but on the job. His safe driving, professional competence, and work ethics were all got blown out of his car windows during the dust storm.

We left the brochure in the car, so we can't tell you which tour operator should be avoided like plague (I don't have high hopes for others in Dubai). Outside the cab, you get hustle and bustle. Inside the cab, you just get hustled. The Dubai traffic and tourism authority should get their act together, and take tips from their PR department.

I guess catching cabs (or being driven in a car) in Dubai adds a lot of colours to our Dubai trip, even if the dominant colour is red. "I see red" as in a 1978 song sung by the Kiwi group Split Enz. Other colours being black and blue.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Dubai - Day 9 - Dubai Museum, Grand Mosque

Driving Me Crazy, Two Misses, Daisy

sunny 28 °C
We decided to visit the Dubai Museum and the Jumah Mosque next door (this is the name of mosque indicates on our map. can't say it's the best of map, and quite small). As before, we took a metro on the Red Line from Mall of the Emirates Stn and got off at Khalid bin Al Waleed Stn. We then took a taxi from there to Jumah Mosque.
Got into the cab, and surely enough our Asian appearance invited the cabbie's standard probing of bio(graphies). I didn't mind at all. It meant I could in turn get to know him better too. He told us he was from Parkistan. I told him that I wanted to get to Jumah Mosque. He corrected me, "Jumeira Mosque." We had been to Jumeirah Mosque last week (detailed in diary entry "Dubai - Day 3" with more taxi dramas).
So I said firmly, "No. Jumah Mosque." I pointed to our tiny map with the name Jumah Mosque printed on it.
"Jumeirah Mosque." He won't let off.
"Jumah Mosque." I said. "Next to Dubai Museum."
"No. Jumeirah Mosque." He said.
I felt like we were doing an Abbott and Costello's famous What's-on-Second-Who's-on-First routine. If we kept this up, we were going nowhere, literally. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Who knew, maybe there's another mosque of the same name. And said "Ok. Take me there."
After the exchange of personal profile, I posed the logical follow up question, "how long have you been in Dubai?", I asked.
"1 month." He replied.
He must have heard my question wrong, or I must have heard his answer wrong. One of us had to be wrong. Judging from his accent, he should understand me with no problem. So I repeated the question in a slightly different way, "How long have you been staying in Dubai?". I emphasized 'staying'.
Without pausing for breath, He said, "1 month."

Neither of us heard it wrong. And then I started to worry. How is he supposed to know the streets of Dubai in 1 month? Dubai government must be giving away taxi license easier than travel visa (and I don't need one). I guess the Dubai traffic authority must be desperate for cab drivers. Dubai's cab-fare is several times cheaper than Bahrain. In fact, the cab-fare was driven to low levels.
The way he drove convinced me that he just came from the war-torn Pakistan where life and death are part of daily living. He sped into a car that was 3 car lengths in front in a speed of about 50km/hr, and braked sharply just to unnerve the old driver ahead. He was cheesed off with this old driver because he turned into a house too slowly (How dare he drives so slowly!). The driver was fuming. I had no idea if the old driver was unnerved or even noticed our cabbie. I put on my seat belt at a speed of 100km/hr. The sand-dune ride in the Adventure Safari is a child's buggy ride compare to this.
After the composure, I realised he turned into Jumeirah Rd, which I recognised. I told him this isn't where we wanted to go. So I decided to tell him that we wanted to go to Dubai Museum instead. When he got there, I pointed to the mosque next to the Dubai Museum and said "This is the mosque I wanted to go."
He was quite peeved, in a scolding voice, accompanied by some Shakespearean theatre hand gestures, he said "Why don't you say so?"
I still haven't been able to think of a good come back. A young tourist couple hopped on his cab as soon as we got off. I said 'good luck' to them. Maybe 'God speed' would have been apt.

In his defence, the mosque next to Dubai Museum is actually called the Grand Mosque. The stupid map shows the wrong name. Still, I mentioned that the mosque we wanted to go is next to the Museum. And I also pointed the mosque out to him on the map. There's nothing like a taxi drama to start a trip.

We visited the Museum, took a few snapshots of the Grand Mosque, took an abra across Dubai Greek and re-visited the Old Souk because many shops were closed in our last Friday visit. Took a Metro to see the Burj Khalifa in the day time this time. Also we wanted to go to the observation deck to get a panorama view of Dubai, but was told that it was under maintenance. Bugger! Atta did some shopping and had two meals in the two malls - Dubai Mall, and the Mall of the Emirates.

We took a cab from the Mall of the Emirates back to Fraser Suites . Hopped on the cab, and the cabbie asked my destination. As soon as I told him, he spat out a whole lot of thing that I didn't understand. At first, I thought he spoke English in a thick foreign accent that I couldn't catch. A few seconds later, I realized that he was speaking in his native tongue (perhaps, Hindi). Atta speculated that maybe he wasn't happy that our destination was so close (the distance was about 35 mins walk), and the taxi rank was quite long. It didn't worth his while. I thought I smelled another taxi drama.
He suddenly stopped his rapid-fire talking, turned to me and asked where did we want to go again as he took off his bluetooth from his left ear, which was hidden from us all this time. He was busily talking on the phone. He didn't hear anything I said to him before.

Two misses in one day in Dubai cabs: first, miscommunication, then misunderstanding. And quite a few scary near misses on the roads, especially with the Pakistani guy. They both seemed very stressed. It reminded me of Cairo cabbies, the same highly stressed, fast talking, fast driving maniacs who growl, bark at the paying customers. Are they stressed because they drive madly? Or do they drive madly because they're stressed? Or this is a just a vicious circle - trapped a kinda Karmic Cycle of Traffic Mayhem. I wonder.

Bangkok roads may follow the rules of the jungle, but Bangkok cabbies drive in a civil way because the traffic is usually chockablock. They're not stressed at all, having learnt to put up with the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Big Bus Company runs in many countries including Dubai. They tend to charge an arm and a leg. But in Dubai the cheap cabbies help the Big Bus Company to justify their steep prices. This company may cost an arm an a leg, but may save you an arm and a leg by using a taxi. I've thought of a good marketing jingle for the Big Bus Company in Dubai, "Big Bus Company Saves Lives". Still, I haven't used their service during this Dubai trip. My life is cheap. And I like to live my life on the edge of my taxi seat, or was it the seat of my wet pants?

Stepping into a zebra crossings on the streets of Dubai has a higher chance of getting killed than stepping into the water of a shark-infested beach. I have done both, and hence speak from personal experience. The seemingly quiet nature of the water/street belies the hidden danger. A couple of times I stepped into a zebra crossing and nearly got run over. I had to stop using the crossings or else the epitaph on my tombstone would read, "I thought I have the Right of Way. I was Dead Wrong." (Painting the word 'Dead' red should enliven my tombstone, and grab attention from passing mourners while I push up daisies). Because there're practically no pedestrians in this country (or anywhere in the Gulf countries), motorists actually don't know what these markings on the road are. They probably think they are street decorations. When I mentioned my pedestrian close shaves to David B, he said that these are places where the traffic authority designs so to facilitate the maximum pedestrian killings in one fell swoop. What can I say, he's Aussie driver. Motorists from other Aussie states complained how terrible Sydney drivers are. I guess they haven't driven in Dubai.

There should be a souvenir T shirt that says, "I Survive Dubai Taxi and Live to Tell the Tale" (I probably wouldn't buy it). So buckle up and enjoy the g-force when you're catching a cab in those countries! Some dry undies would come in handy. Yes, indeedie.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Dubai - Day 8 - Medinat Resort, Burj Al-Arab

Playing Hide and Seek with Burj Al-Arab

sunny 32 °C
We moved back to Fraser Suites today. Loved the space. You can fit the whole hotel room of Holiday Inn Express into the living/kitchen/dining room area in Fraser Suites.

At first sight, Fraser Suites seems like it locates in the middle of Woop Woop because it's the only tall tower around and not much else. Looking out from the swimming pool area on level 7 towards north, I can see the world renown Palm Jumira(h) on my left (NW direction), and Burj Al-Arab on my right (NE direction). Both of these iconic landmarks are about roughly 2 km away from Fraser Suites. The hotel itself sits in the SW corner of Al Sufouh 1, which is immediately East of Al Sufouh 2, where I stayed in the last 6 days. The hotel is actually on Sheik Zayed Rd.

After studied the map, and did some aerial survey of the place from the swimming pool area, I marshaled enough confidence to walk to Madinat Jumeira(h), which locates right next to the Burj Al-Arab. Since we can't get into the gate of Burj Al-Arab, and I remember seeing a photo of Burj Al-Arab being shot from the private beach of Medinat Jumeira(h), so this is how I get to the aloof Burj Al-Arab. Very clever, I thought.

Looked like a mild day, so I decided to walk there. Could call a taxi, but you see more (definitely take more photos) by walking. After 20 mins, I was a little regretful with the decision. But pressed on, the sweat in my back started to break out like Wild Wadi Water Park. The Burj Al-Arab that I used as a landmark beacon appeared and then disappeared, playing hide and seek with me, but I was tired and no mood for it. So near yet so far.

The ground here are naturally sandy as Dubai is a desert except for the developed part where the surface is sealed with asphalt. Most of the ground I walked on so far are sandy until now, and this street is not only sealed, but lined with greens! I'm getting very very close now to where the action is. Very close. So hot, and tiring. I'm too old for this shite. And then I saw it. No, not the Burj Al-Arab, again. A bus stop! I bet you would be excited too if you see what I saw. Right now, this bus-station is an oasis in the desert. See the air-cons at the back of this (in)famous sleek steel enclosure that's the bus station? See also the recycling bins behind it?

bus-station.jpg

Even before the beginning of summer like today, it's quite uncomfortable to wait for the bus here for 20 mins. In the midst of summer when the mercury reaches above 45 °C. Anyone, especially older persons or young kids, can easily get a sunstroke waiting for the bus in more than 30 mins.
I went in the bus station to cool myself. Now that I was in the comfort of an air-cond interior, and far from being threatened to imminent collapse, I can now, and only now, think about the environment. 5 mins ago, all I can think of was water. I'd seen many of these air-cons bus stations around Dubai before, and RTA announced proudly that thousands would be rolled across Dubai. Whether these bus-station is famous or infamous, depending if you're greenie or not. Greenie wouldn't be too pleased with them, pointing out to the recycling bins next to the bus stations, and say, "Green here", and then point to the bus station, "but not so green here". Yes, I like pointing too. Pointing is fun.

I guess for a country, in fact, region, where oil flows like water, and much cheaper than water, fossil fuel is an obviously energy source. Solar panels would have been an obvious option to the Greenie (like me. Seriously. but I wouldn't shout it from rooftop. Too late). But in Summer even night time would reach above 40 °C (I was in Bahrain for almost an entire Summer), so some kind of battery storage are needed, and so on. Solar power would increase the costs of building these booths while decreases the size of the carbon footprint. I almost miss, almost, the days when I can suck freely in public second hand smoking (which is composed mostly of CO2, and a cocktails of some hundreds of little known chemical toxins). The good old days.

After cooling down, and getting off from my high horse before falling over (Gladly, I hate vertigo. But I do like the view and the rarefied air up here), I continued to hit the beloved asphalt. As it turned out, I was only 7 minutes from Madinat Jumeira(h) - the largest resort in Dubai that contains 2 boutique hotels. It's fronted by a large fountain with sculptures of horses (Arabian horses, I presume). Sculptures of horses can be seen around town. I think it's a symbol of Dubai (Not the same one I mounted before. Nah, just horsing around).

This resort recreates everything in the Old Dubai Creek: the characteristic charming UAE traditional wind towers, the gold souk, and various other souks, and compeletd with Dubai Creek waterways and Abras. What it lacks in history and weathering characters, it makes up for in polished recreations and concentration. It's a good things that I visited the Dubai Creek twice already to appreciate the effort of these detailed reproductions. Of course, I wouldn't trade this for the real things for a thousand dollars (a million is another story).

My goal was to take a photo of Burj Al-Arab from the private beach of the hotel. At the entrance to the beach, was stopped by security, who told me that access to the beach was for hotel guests only. Disappointed, I decided to find solace in a cup of bitter coffee, and arrived at Starbucks. Not surprisingly, Starbucks occupies the most scenic spot in any tourist destination. In this case, it locates next to the spot that offers the best view of Burj Al-Arab for people who couldn't get to the beach. You know it is the photogenic spot because the professional photographers set up shops here. You can view Burj Al-Arab as you sip coffee.

After the caffeine stop to recharge my battery, I left the hotel re-invigorated and tried to get to as close to Burj Al-Arab as I can. I eventually got there and got to he same spot that the Bangladesh cabbie dropped us last week. Yep, been here, done that. Now that I was here, I may as well take some near dusk photos.

I saw a long taxi queue next door, which turned out to be the Wild Wadi Water Park. It was a long queue with families who left the water park for the day. I imagined it probably would take 15 mins with cabs cooperating. Besides, My legs screamed at me for some rests. And when I said a long queue, I meant a not-so-long queue with loooooong waiting time. The cabs arrived infrequently. I ended up waiting for 1 hours and 15 minutes! I asked the cabbie why so long. He said it was time for morning shift drivers to knock off work. Taught me a time saving lesson not to wait for a taxi at 6:30PM in Dubai (or probably anywhere).

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dubai - Day 3 - Jumeirmah Mosque, Dubai Souk, Safari

Taken for a Ride in the Afternoon; Riding into the Arabian Sunset in the Evening


sunny 30 °C
When I woke up this morning, bleary eyed, Atta shoved this map in my face. "These are the sights I want to see. Take us there", She walked the maps with her fingers, and pointed 3 destinations: the Jumeira Mosque, Fort Fahidi, and Bastakiya.

Rubbing my eyes for better vision, I started to get a clearer view. It was one of those theme park type map with colourful drawings of 3D buildings and structures. One of those high on visual impact, low on specific fact map. It wows rather than a Just-the-Fact-M'am map.

"These things are all out of scales of proportions" I said, with an empty stomach, I couldn't come up with something that sounds smarter. "More research..." I adjusted my pairs of boxers.
"Take a taxi. Show it to the cab driver and he'll take us there", she suggested.
Famous last words.
"Ok", I would agree to anything so that I get get to breakfast.
Hopped on a taxi after breakfast, I shoved the map to the cabbie, pointed at the mosque on the map. "For the first stop, we like to go to Jumeira Mosque."
The friendly cabbie smelled a good business, tried to break the ice, he told us that he's a Bangladeshi, and in return he probed me for my biography, which I'm too happy to comply (with embellishment whenever I can to paint a great portrait of myself that Rembrandt would be jealous of). I'm blogging to a much wider audience, ain't I? So what happens in my cab I'm too happy to broadcast it to the entire bloggiverse.

Approaching the Burj Al Arab on Jumeirah Road, and the conversation naturally drifted towards this topic, and before I knew it, his taxi drifted in the same direction, in fact, had turned left and drove towards Burj Al Arab. He said we should snap some photos of the icon. I agreed. It would be nice to be asked, first. We were the fare paying customer the last time we checked the seating arrangement.
We weren't allowed to be into this so called 7-star (no such thing. 5-star is max) hotel unless we were either hotel guests or have a booking with the restaurant. Eating the food there is a serious health hazard because I have to sell a kidney to pay for the meal. You can book for a high tea there without costing an arm and a leg (just an arm), but make sure you book it weeks before you depart for Dubai. I think the advance booking is generally 6 to 8 weeks. We were allowed to take photos at the guarded front gate. A crowd of tourists was doing just that. We made some quick snaps as a parade of blinding white Rolls Royce were rolling out the gate. The Royces belong to the hotel. I felt like a poor folk peaking into a mansion at the big iron gate and wondering how the super rich is living. Allow me to replace "I felt like" with "I sure am". And append this to the sentence "To be sure. To be sure."

Drove back along the Jumeirah Rd, we spotted quite many mosques dotted along this road big and small (usually big and impressive) for this area is populated mostly by well-heeled Emiratis. Arrived at the mosque in question, and because it was a Friday, we weren't allowed in (so we were told). Besides I was happy just took pictures outside of the mosque.

Our next stop was Fort Fahidi, but we ended up in Port Rashid, which is nowhere near each other except it may sound the same to him and that both are in Bur Dubai area. Port Rashid is a working port, and a secured installation at that. When we got to the guarded gate, the silly bugger asked if we can take some photos. The security guard gave him a stern warning and told him roughly to turn back. I found the whole situation quite hilarious, if we weren't going somewhere and paying for his silly mistakes. Yesterday when I took some photos from/at the bus terminal, I was told to stop shooting. I wasn't even taking photos of the bus terminal, but shot the gold Souk across the streets standing there. And this is a bus terminal, not even a bus depot with roof, but an open area on the street with bus stop signs. This is how overly sensitive they're when come to any kinda government facility, even something as open and public as bus stops! Imagine asking to take photos of a shipping port that is closed to public and heavily guarded by armed personnel. The cabbie seems ignorant of this over-the-top sensitivity of the security issues in this country (actually, this region), and he's a cabbie of all professions should be very aware of this. And he has been living here for 10 years, and driving for 6. Atta rolled her eyes in the backseat so many times, they almost stuck up there. He deserved that.

After this little sea port drama (titled "Refused Entry at Port Rashid", played by Bangladesh driver, and produced by us), the cheeky bugger dropped us off at The Heritage and Diving Village, mistaken it for Bastakiya Quarter that we requested. I admit that the 3D cartoonish theme park type map isn't big on accuracy, and Bastakiya is actually next to this Heritage and Diving Village. For a Dubai cabbie who doesn't know about Fort Fahidi and Bastakiya is like a Los Angeles cabbie who doesn't know where Chinese Theatre and Hollywood is. But Bur Dubai (not whole of Dubai) is much smaller than LA. So all in all, the cabbie-turned-tour-guide made 4 stops in total, and only one, the Jumeira Mosque, is the intended stop. We were taken for a wild ride.

Because it was a Friday (and before 2pm), most of the things in this Village were closed. After cooling off with a drink (the afternoon in the sun could be quite hot at this time of the year. But we were cooling off from the drama production), we took an Abra (water taxi) across the Dubai Creek to the Gold souk in Deira. This is where I becom a pretend (or honorary) tour guide to Atta and Chin-Ping with the little experience I got from yesterday's trip (you pay for what you get). You can't say you've been to Dubai without riding an Abra. It costs Dh1 for the ride. It sometimes waits until the Abra is full, usually 15 passingers before departing from the station. It has a little roof-shaped canopy, perfect for the midday sun, and the relieving breeze as you sit and admire the panorama of the creekside view is the best bang for your buck (less than a buck, it's a Durham). If you don't want to share the Abra with others, you can negotiate with the abra operator, and pay, say between Dh15 to Dh20 (he probably asks for Dh40 to Dh50), you can have the whole 'ferry' for yourself, and losing out the experience of rubbing shoulders with the working expats. I took the 2 girls for a whirlwind tour of the few souks I'd visited.

Since we have another hour or so to kill, so we took an Abra back to the Dubai old Souk in the Bastakiya district in Bur Dubai. We did some shopping in the Old Souk under the old wooden traditional roof structures, and Chin-Ping said she found out a shop that sells a Dubai shirt. I told her that if she ever spotted some Dubai souvenir shirt, let me know. What a good listener she is. Her groom-next-week/hubbie to be is going to be a lucky guy (or habibi in Arab). I bought my obligatory souvenir shirt (one shirt, not skirt, at every port. I'm not a drunken sailor). It's priced at a surprisingly affordable 10 Durhams, which we bargained down to Dh8 (less than 3 bucks. Atta's shy from haggling, but Chin-Ping did it just for the fun). The material looks ok. If it shrinks in the wash, I'll use it as as PJ. Quite a few shops were closed because it was Friday. Few shops still open because it's a tourist spot, and these shopkeepers are probably not Muslim.

So one piece of advice, if you have a short stop in ME, try not to come on a Friday.

We quickly rushed back for the Desert Safari tour that we booked. After an hour or so driving on a 4WD, we arrived at the edge of a 'desert' - a sandy stretch of land with some small rolling sand dunes and patches of grass scattered about. We got onto another 4WD, only this one has some load bearing re-inforcing steel bars inside the car like those in F1 Grandpix Racing cars. Goodie, I said to meself. Vroom, vroom. About half an hour or so of rocking and rolling across the sand dunes while the driver tried some fancy moves that tried to thrill us, but only suceeded in upset my stomach, we arrived at a desert camp. It wasn't so much scary as dizzying. In fact, it was a yawn. If you want a scary, adventurous driving experience, just hop on a Dubai taxi, if you dare. I kid you not. Do fasten your seatbelts (they won't tell you to) if you want to come home in one piece. More on that, lots more, in later diary enrties.

There are quad bikes available for hire in the camp, but with the stiff hiring charge and the fact that you can only drive in a small circles, has little appeal to us (don't want to upset my stomach more than it had already). The camel ride is free. By 'camel ride', I mean you sit on a camel while the camel handler walked it for about 10 paces and then back. Still, it's good for photo op, and the mounting and dismounting would probably provide more cheap thrills than the sand dunes drive. The only trouble is, the bee line is quite long. The Arabian sun in the desert is quite magical around 6:30pm. The sand dunes aren't quite a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, but still quite nice and different from our usual dusk (yep, seen that in Bahrain).

Looking at the large number of tourists in the camp, I realized that it doesn't matter which tour operator you joined, you would all end up here. There's only one camp.

Dinner and dance show started at around 7:30pm in the outdoor. The bill of fare includes the popular international carbo staples of fried rice, prata, and pasta to cater guests from all continents. The meat was surprisingly yummy. We all got skews of chicken and lamb, which I don't normally eat because it's gamey. Whatever 11 secret herbs and spices that they marinated these mutton with had eliminated the gaminess. I would love to get my hands on their recipes. The drumbsticks took the first price: tender, juicy & mouth-watering. We all went for seconds. I really didn't expect such standard in this environment, especially when they handed them out with their hands (wearing gloves), for efficiency.

The performances were quite entertaining with its circular centre stage surrounded by dining tables like wheel spokes on a bicycle hub. There were the usual titillating belly dancing eye-candies, sandwiched between more spiritual whirling dervishes, and Arabic folk dances. We missed the Whirling Dervishes performance in Konya, Turkey, now we're made up for it. One of the dancer happened to be the very first female Sufi Whirling Dervish from Iran. The subsequent male Whirling Dervishes made up its lack of novelty with better performance, and got some audience participation by inviting female audience to put on their whirling detachable skirts that they twirl and throw into the air during their performances. Their male semazens' skirts are decorated with lights that lit up as the stage lights were dimmed, producing a pleasing, albeit somewhat less high-brow effect.

Overall, not a time and money waster at all.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Dubai - Day 2 - Souks, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall

Seek & Soak in the Sensational Sights, Soothing Sounds & Fishy Smells of Some Six Souks & More Massive Malls

sunny 29 °C
The hotel wasn't a convenient place until its Dubai Internet City metro station starts its operation.
Just when I was looking for lunch, the hotel's free shuttle bus pulled into the kerb. On queried, the driver told me that its first stop is the Mall of the Emirates. Great timing, no problem finding some grubs there. It's a large mall that houses an indoor ski slop (Dubai Ski). We were thinking to do some skiing there, but after a looksee at the place, we gave it a big thumbs down. Good enough only for kiddies, and people who have never hit a real ski slop. It feels too much like a snow globe, trapped and claustrophobic.

I cruised into the mall's food court, and unfortunately, just like Bahrain, this joint is stuffed with fast food fares that inspired - ok, copied - the Ford's innovation (assembly line production). Not my cup of tea. Alas, the choice of slow local traditional food was nowhere to be seen. I reluctantly ordered a teriyaki noodle soup. Not my 1st choice, I was so hungry, I can eat turkey.

Probably because I don't care much about shopping, and those loud and red 50% flashy sales signs are dead to me, the best part of the mall to me was that the metro station right next door, connected by sky-bridge corridors completed with air-cons and travellators (I'm travelling in style). From the sky-bridge, the Burj Al Arabs rises up from the sea horizon like a vision of some alien spaceship (not all spaceship are saucer shaped, so I'm told. Some look like cigar). It hogs all the limelight because it was surrounded by only low-rise village housing compound, and it was the tallest building in ME and Europe when it was completed. Location, location, location.

The Metro was opened only a week ago, another great timing on my part. So new that not all stations are fully operational. Sometimes, you get lucky, not Murphy's law. The station design is sleek and space-aged. The Metro has two lines: Red & Green. Only major stations are operating. The Red Metro Line runs literally alongside Dubai's main artery - the 12 lanes Sheik Zayed Rd (photo below) - that runs parallel to the shoreline for much of Dubai.

4Sheik_Zayed_Rd.jpg

In the middle left photo is the metro station with a sky walkway connects to the other side of the road. With 12 lanes highway, this is the only way for a pedestrian to cross the street. Like Manama, Bahrain, there're no pedestrians on the road, and so very little thoughts are given to them. It isn't so much that the Metro is considering the public pedestrians' convenience (as public pedestrians doesn't exist), this overpass is a way for the Metro riders to get to the station from the other side of the street.
At the moment, Mall of the Emirates is acting as a bit of a transport hub while the Metro is trying to get up and fully running. The Mall runs a fleet of free shuttle buses that drive hotel guests to their mall, which has one of the first operating metro station on the Red Line (R32) attached.

The Metro also offers a Gold Class, but the Great Unwashed like myself can only afford Regular Class ticket. The damage came to AED 6.5 (about 2.5 bucks SGD) to travel between The Mall of the Emirates stn (R32) to Union stn (R18) for a total of (32-18)=25 stops (of course, it only stops at major stops atm).
The Union stn is the closest stop to the various souks in Deira - the other side of Dubai Creek. I caught a cab to get to my first stop, which was the Fish souk. It cost less than 10 Durhams. Cab fare is quite cheap here relative to the cost of everything else, so it should because of the cheap petrol and tariff-free cars. If you have a few travel companions (lucky you), it's much easier, and not much dearer than using metro if you just hurl a taxi. Although when travel greater distance, say more than 8 kms, Metro is probably a better choice. The cabbies don't seem very knowledgeable When travelling outside their own locality. Most cabbies are expats and may just arrive the country. In their defense, very few cities on earth changes at this breakneck pace (Chinese cities would be comparable).

I got to the Fish souks about 15:30, so there aren't much actions to be seen. There was still some last sales carried out for the day. I snapped a few photos of the fishermen bargaining, and weighing some large king fishes on scales with metal weights. The Meat and Veggie souks are just right next to it, and also quiet at that fronts too. I crossed the busy Al Khor St to get to the famous Gold souk. I don't know the actual number of jewelleries here, but there're more blings blings per square inch here than on the chest (his body, not his box) of Mr. 'T' in The 'A' Team. Even with the sun in my back, one needs to wear shades to avoid the blinding reflective glisters when looking at these shop windows. A bus load of Chinese tourists were being shoved into one of the bigger jewellery store. Excited with glee, they were like kids in a candy store. The gold was obviously cheaper here to attract the savvy Chinese gold bugs in droves. And they are.

After some quick photo snaps, I quickly lost interest in this place. I decided to do some walkabout on the bend of Dubai Creek. Because of the late afternoon sun, I sought the shade by taking a small street that runs parallel to Al Khor St, which has no buildings on my right to block the sun being the second street from the shore of the Arabian Gulf (aka Persian Gulf or just 'The Gulf'). This detour into the small Al Ahmadiya St led me stumble onto the Heritage House and the Al Ahmadiya School. At first, I was simply mesmerised by its beautiful, yet simplistic design, and the pleasing stone surface texture and the earth colour in the late golden afternoon sun. I found myself surprisingly spellbound. It's reminiscent of a typical African traditional desert mud-brick dwelling. Gradually, it dawned on me that this place reminds me of scenes from Star Wars where Anakan Skywalker spent his childhood. I think it was shot in Morocco. It was only after a dozen of snapshots that I noticed the signs of the Heritage House. And behind it was the Al Ahmadiya School where old Dubai ruler were trained as future king.

This is one of those weird serendipity that happened to me once before. Weird because it happened in Bahrain (another Gulf State) as I 'accidentally stumbled' onto a heritage fort during one of my random walk (very few heritage sites in Bahrain. It isn't Rome). I seem to have a nose for 'accidental discovery'. Must be something to do with its big size, not Karl-Malden or George-C-Scott big, but not feminine.

As I emerged out of the shade of Al Ahmadiya St and into Baniyas Rd (the street closest to the Dubai Creek), this part of the river is where most of the dhows are moored along with their cargoes heaping on the quayside. The sun begun to set, and this is where I called it a day. Took a taxis back to Union Metro.

Someone in the office told Atta and Chin-Ping that there's water fountain show in Dubai Mall during nighttime, so we headed to see the spectacle. Dubai Mall is the largest Mall in the world (so we were told. At least one of the largest) that housed a skating ring (not to be outdone by an indoor ski slop in Mall of The Emirates. I had no idea who comes first, skating ring or the ski slop). It also has an aquarium that is open to the public. A throng of tourists and local shoppers alike are always gathers around here, transfixed by the artificial aquatic world. I always get hungry watching aquariums, thinking about how do they taste, and what best sauce to use if I were to cook them, steamed? Grilled? or Lightly battered? etc. The trouble was, I can't keep my mind out of the kitchen while in an aquarium. The stingrays are popular with aquarium, and this one is no exception. I imagine they taste like squid and grilling would be the best way to enjoy it, and lemon chili sauce should be a good dip. Oh man, here I go again. Sorry. I must keep my head out of the kitchen. I agree that watching these colourful marine lives swimming peacefully is a tranquil and satisfying experience, and so is eating a good seafood platter. All I'm saying is that one can appreciate nature on more than one level.

Right next to the Dubai Mall is the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai, surprisingly renamed during the opening to Burj Khalifa - the name of the president of UAE, the ruler of Abu Dhabi - soon after the sovereign debt crisis of Dubai. Guess who's bailing out Dubai in their financial snafu?). The whole area is known as downtown Dubai. Some of the highway signs still say Burj Dubai. In fact, its metro station is still named "Burj Dubai / Dubai Mall", and its PA also announces its old name.

We shuffled our way into a restaurant around the promenade of the Dubai Fountain where the water fountain does it magic, thinking we're getting the best seat in the Mall. Luck isn't on my side, this time. The fountain jets danced on the other side of the lagoon. We could still see it, just not the best vantage point. The show happened every 20 minutes, and it was spectacular, especially the finale when its jets reached its musical and literal climax. The water jets are said to shoot up at a world record height. This is Dubai, so you will assume it is anyway. And it is. It has to measure up to the tallest building on one side and the biggest mall on the other. Anything less would be anti-climax. We quickly finished our otherwise leisurely dinner (as leisurely as Atta's HK's pace is allowed), and took some not-so-hot snapshots of the fountain show.

The restaurant called Cafe Blanc, but it's neither a cafe nor serving French food, just hip to call it that (or 'ip' if you're french). It was some traditional ME grubs, and it tasted not bad. Can't remember exactly what I had, but I ordered a cup of peppermint tea (not on the menu), and belched out those uncomfy gas that built up in my guts while the fountain performing a symphonic dance of water, laser lights, and music to the tune of Andrea Bocelli's enchanting aria "The Prayer", duet with CĂ©line Dion. It's good to let off steam (or gas) from time to time. The Bocelli's tenor muffled much of my gastric explosion. All tone deaf audience would have lose out on my resounding wind instrument addition to the rendition.

On that high note (or low note), we called it the night.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Dubai - Day 1 - Internet City

Dis-Orientation Day

sunny 29 °C
Even though Fraser prefers Singapore Airline, we decided to fly with Emirates again because of our previous positive experience.

The seat doesn't seem to feel as spacious as I remember from my previous Emirates flight (see "Flying with Emirates" entry), perhaps because I'm sandwiched between seats. The plane is fitted with the latest extra wide TV screen - almost too wide for viewing at this distance. Power point and Internet socket is also available for your laptop, and so is an USB port for viewing your photos directly from your camera on a wide screen.

The Flight Info screens are also updated with some added 3D graphics, and views of a Forward Cam and Down Cam are available for the kiddies at heart like myself. The Down Cam is good for viewing the ground when your plane is taking off and landing. When the plane is taxing on the run way after landing, the images on Forward Cam looking like computer flight simulation game.

The flight took about 7 hours from Singapore to Dubai.

We supposed to stay in Fraser Suites, one thing or another, to cut a long story short, we ended up stayed in Holiday Inn Express @ the Internet City, next door to the districts called knowledge Village where you would find many universities huddle one another, and the Media City. These hi-tech cities are all located within a district called Al Sufouh 2. The trunk of the Palm Jumeira connects to Dubai Pearl in Al Sufouh 2 in the north.

Maybe our hotel is right on the boundaries of these cities - we have Zayed Univerity besides us, and Trend Micro outside my hotel's bedroom window, and BBC across the street. According to the plaque at the main door, this is a 2-star hotel. Dubai has a few clumps of skyscrapers that dotted along the main artery of Sheik Zayed Rd. This hi-tech city that made up of 3 cities is one such clump. The other clump is the city centre where Dubai Mall is located.

For a city that's supposed to developed its tourism industry, it isn't big on maps. I couldn't find any free maps in the airport (maybe they run out), nor any good ones in the hotel. The Etisalat Yellow Pages I found in the hotel is a heavy tome. Much heavy than the Sydney one and Dubai is only a fraction of Sydney in terms of both the size of the population and geography. Business here is blowing Sydney out of water, going by its business ads. In it I found 16 pages of street directory that are more detailed than the hotel tourist map, but short on tourism details. Bring along your guide books for maps.

David B - Atta's GM boss - took us to an eat street on the Jumeira Marina (the largest in the world, so I'm told). Going by the number of ristorante I've seen, the Emirates in Dubai seems to be falling head over heels with Italian grubs. And Chinese also seems to tail just behind Italian. The Chinese are tended to be the 'fusion' type, probably due to the lack of Chinese expat chefs here. But it won't be Italians who make the pizza here either. They are most likely people from the Indian subcontinent or Fillipinos.

Next to 'Wok Away' Chinese restaurant is 'La Dolce Vita', which we decided to walk into. As it turned out that even though we obeyed the order to 'Wok Away', we actually didn't. The two restaurants may have separate doors, names and signage, they're actually under the one roof (we didn't know that; we were sitting outdoor). They handed us both the Chinese and Italian menus (in English of course). Multiple national dishes in one restaurant turned out to be the way to go here (abuse of 'fusion'? Confused us profusely). Purity and authenticity isn't a big selling point here; diversity is. This restaurateur covers all bases and gives into popularity contest. And this culinary diversity also reflects the ethnic diversity in the population, but not correspondingly. I.e. there're many Italian and Chinese restaurants don't mean there many Italian and Chinese expats. But like most Gulf States, because of their low population, and oil-riched fuelled growth, they need to import many foreign workers. In the case of Dubai they're much larger than the indigenous population. About 85% of the population are made up of expats (Indian accounts for half of this), which suggests their explosive growth. Fair-skinned northern Indian are quite hard to tell apart from Arabs until they speak.

David B, who has been living here for months, and a lover of Chinese chow (he's a white Aussie fella), advised us to stay away from Chinese chuck in Dubai. He had yet found one he liked. We dined many a time in Sydney, so we know he has good taste in Chinese (we're his friends, aren't we?). So we ordered some pizza. Should've gone for Chinese. Could it get any worse? I doubt it.