A direct but long (16 hours) flight brought me from LA to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and its largest emirate.
Having read that Arab countries may refuse entry to people who traveled to Israel, I was a bit nervous coming to the UAE with a passport that had a few Israeli stamps. But my worries were unwarranted: the immigration process was one of the fastest I went through.
The reason I came to the Emirates wasn’t so much for sightseeing, but rather to visit my son who resides here and to finally meet my daughter-in-law.
Still, I had my Brompton with me and, defying the heat and surprising humidity, I cycled around Abu Dhabi to see the few attractions it has to offer.
The two main attractions, besides malls and amusement parks, are Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Le Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Mosque is the largest in the country and is stunningly beautiful, both during the day and at night.
Le Louvre in this iteration is a teaser for novice museum-goers: it has a little bit of everything in an attempt to hook one up on cultural values. Throughout the museum we were haunted by the smell of camels: maybe a fragrance is sprayed so we don’t forget where we are after all.
My son and I drove to Al Ain, a desert oasis on the border with Oman. During the whole trajectory, we were driving in a sandstorm, mild but nonetheless a storm. We reached Al Ain at roughly 11 am and it was already hard to tolerate the heat. Al Ain is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has few noteworthy places to visit. After we saw a couple of forts and the Palace Museum, the heat drained us and we took a break in a local restaurant – less for food, more for A/C. Having cooled down, we went to an oasis near another museum. We took a couple of wrong turns and by the time we finally got to the museum we were close to a heat stroke, so we skipped it, got back to our car, and drove back to Abu Dhabi.
A desert safari a.k.a. dune bashing was fun. With camel feeding and riding, sand-boarding, and watching a belly dance performance, it made a great night out.
Abu Dhabi in numbers:
90 km – distance cycled
87% – of UAE territory is Abu Dhabi emirate
15 – billion US is the estimated worth of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi
41000 – worshippers can visit Grand Mosque at the same time during Eid
20% – are Emirati citizens, the rest are expatriates
A short drive away from Abu Dhabi is Dubai, the second largest emirate, and the most populous one. There’s little oil left there, so its economy depends on tourism and real estate, for which it is most famous: everyone probably heard of Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab.
Dubai is quite different from Abu Dhabi: bigger, taller, faster, glitzier, busier, fancier. It has the feel of Las Vegas.
We started the day at old Dubai in gold and spice souks – there was nothing particularly fascinating but it was particularly hot walking around. We paid a quick visit to the Dubai Frame, a useless kind of edifice. We finished the day by watching La Perle, yet another water show from Franco Dragone. Beside the fact I had difficulty keeping my eyes open due to jet lag, I lost the plot early on and there was nothing that really grabbed my attention throughout the show. It’s not a bad show, it just didn’t wow me.
I didn’t give up on riding my Brompton despite the heat – I got up very early morning (still jet-lagged) and set off from Dubai Marina towards Burj Khalifa. It was slightly windy when I began pedaling but the wind quickly picked up. A sandstorm was coming. It’s OK if you are inside a car but not so much on a bicycle. Soon enough, I could barely see the cityscape, including my final point of destination: the tallest skyscraper in the world, Burj Khalifa. When I finally got there, my mouth, eyes, hair, beard, shoes, and pockets were full of sand. Supposedly, it’s unusual to have back to back sandstorms around here: I got “lucky”!
Because it was windy and dusty in Dubai, we didn’t feel like going outdoors but also didn’t want to be stuck in the hotel room. We drove to the neighboring Sharjah emirate to visit the Museum of Islamic Civilization. It wasn’t especially interesting to us, but as a time killing it was fine.
When the skies cleared up, we went back to downtown Dubai to glance at architectural and engineering marvels, of which we snapped a ton of photos (delete, delete, delete). Having spent enough time in the heat we went to cool off at Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort with a 400-meter-long run. Who knew I’d be skiing in the middle of the desert with temperatures outside reaching 40°C! After a couple of hours, we were frozen so were happy to return outside.
We concluded our brief visit to Dubai by watching the dancing fountain downtown, then going to the observation deck on the 125th floor of Burj Khalifa.
Dubai in numbers:
52 km – distance cycled
829.8 m – height of Burj Khalifa
95% – of mosques are subsidized by the government
27 km – the distance from Dubai to Sharjah
24000 – USD per night is the price of a Royal Suite in Burj Al Arab hotel
The day I traveled to Oman was entertaining.
It started at Abu Dhabi airport: since I was flying to Muscat on a staff ticket, I had to comply with Etihad rules as a “representative” of the company: no shorts, no flip-flops, no t-shirts, no too colorful sneakers. I hoped to sneak in under the radar but was asked to change at check-in. Luckily, I came prepared and, albeit reluctantly, abided. I changed back, however, as soon as I boarded the plane.
Once in Muscat I rented a car and headed to Bahla to see its fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site. My iPad wouldn’t get a GPS signal so I had to go the old-fashion way – following road signs. Although it was windy, instead of another sandstorm I got caught in a full-blown thunderstorm with heavy rain. As for the Bahla Fort, well, if you are in the area, you can stop by, otherwise, it’s not worth the drive.
Then the real entertainment began: on a roundabout, my car was rammed by an SUV. As a result, I spent two hours dealing with police and insurance, with a little bit of English and a lot of sign language. Everyone was nice, including the driver of the SUV who reattached the rear fender of my car with metal wire so it wouldn’t flop on the way back.
Coming back I dropped by Nizwa Fort, more interesting than one in Bahla.
When I returned to Muscat I couldn’t find my B&B: I didn’t have the internet connection so I couldn’t contact the host for directions. I was driving in rounds until I stopped and asked a taxi driver to lead me to the address. I dragged my Brompton suitcase to the third floor, went to a nearby café to have my first proper meal and called it a day. Ouf, entertaining it was!
Did I mention Ramadan just started? When I got up in the morning and went for breakfast, nothing was open, not until sunset.
I returned my rental car to the airport and cycled back to Mutrah. It’s a good way to see the city, despite the temperature of +37°C under a blistering sun.
While cycling, I noticed that many landmarks were named after Sultan Qaboos, the present ruler, the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East. His name is as ubiquitous in Oman as Lenin’s was in the Soviet Union. Sultan Kaboom, as I called him behind his back, is the chief of staff of the armed forces, chairman of the Central Bank, Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs; he has his hands full.
Before I left Oman, I took Greengo for another spin, to Old Muscat. What a nice place! Place abundant with white buildings on a backdrop of mountains, practically deserted at that time of the day. From there I continued to Al Bustan beach to cool off. I was sole bather around, I spent more than an hour floating in turquoise waters. Friday market in Wadi Al Kabir was my last stop before going back to Mutrah. I was looking for a kuma, the traditional men’s cap, for a souvenir.
Back in Mutrah everything was still closed. Thankfully, I had snacks to munch on. Still, I probably lost some weight these last few days.
Oman in numbers:
79 km – distance cycled
250 – indigenous varieties of dates grown in Oman
75% – of people living in Oman are Muslims
300000 – tons of Indian sandstone were used to build The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
1744 – the year Oman was established as an independent state and has been ruled by the Al-Said family since
82% – of the land mass is desert
1 – Omani rial equals 1000 baisa, unusual when most currencies are divided into 100 coins