Abu Dhabi and the Western Region
Hanging out in Dubai for 3 weeks is an expensive undertaking, particularly on a tight cycle tourer’s budget. We hadn’t had much luck with finding free accommodation through Couchsurfing or Warmshowers, so we were staying in a hotel. That’s why we were quite excited when Chris contacted us from South Africa via Twitter and suggested we could stay with his daughter Melanie, who lives in Abu Dhabi. ||
A few days later we gathered our belongings, leaving the boxed bicycles in our hotel in Dubai. There is a regular bus service between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and we arrived at Abu Dhabi bus station in the late afternoon. Somehow we hadn’t arranged an exact time with Melanie beforehand, so when we called her, we found out that she was actually in Dubai for the day. We had a few hours to kill before she came back, but with 25kg of luggage each, wrapped up in two plastic beach bags, we were not very mobile. There was a mall nearby, and we eventually solved our dilemma by loading all of our belongings into a shopping trolley. Tramp look complete, we shuffled to the flashy shopping mall, trudging past the designer stores and fancy cafes to kill some time.
Eventually Melanie came to our rescue and picked us up in her 4WD Pajero. Her flat was a bit out of town as she wanted the space for her two little doggies to run around, Daisy and Jackie. We felt instantly at ease with bubbly Melanie who works for the national health service implementing an IT system. She has been living in Saudi Arabia and the UAE for 9 years, so she was able to give us some fantastic insights into Emirati life and culture.
Melanie had to work during the week, and we spent a few days taking Daisy and Jackie out for walks, hanging out at the coffee shops in the local mall, and trudging back and forth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to sort out our Indian visas.
Though working all day Melanie was kind enough to drive us around Abu Dhabi. One of the highlights is the stunning Emirates Palace. This is a luxurious grand hotel which was recently built and is apparently a replica of the Sheikh’s palace. In the hotel foyer they have erected a 13m high Christmas tree decorated with glistening jewels. The Christmas tree actually broke the Guiness World Record for the most expensively decorated tree, as it is embellished with jewels worth over US $11 million! We also amused ourselves with a gold vending machine, which looks like a drinks machine and spits out gold necklaces and trinkets, some worth as much as US $3,000. Unfortunately we ran out of change around the $2 mark. The most interesting part of the hotel is an exhibition about the future of Abu Dhabi, as they are planning to build some amazing new art galleries. The architecture for the planned Guggenheim museum, a branch of the Louvre and the Maritime museum is breathtakingly futuristic.
On the weekend, Melanie took us for a drive to Liwa oasis in the Western Region of the UAE, near the Saudi border. On the way we visited the Emirates National Auto Museum, which was officially closed, though we managed to convince the attendant to open it for us in exchange for a tip. The museum is the private collection of the “Rainbow Sheikh”, so named because he once bought a selection of 7 Mercedes 500 SEL painted in different colours – one for each day of the week. These are exhibited in the museum, along with about 250 other antique and modern cars. The most impressive display is a monster Dodge Power Wagon, build to a scale of 64:1. Other cars fit comfortably underneath, and the wheels are about 3m high. This is used to pull a giant motor home containing 8 bedrooms, complete with balconies, in which the Sheikh used to go “camping”. Quite a contrast to our little Boris.
We did see some other rich Emiratis on a camping trip in the desert later that day. We were having lunch on some sand dunes enjoying the desert silence when a bright red Hummer roared past. The driver and passengers were dressed in the traditional Emirati dress, with a white floor length gown, Arab scarf covering their head, and the obligatory designer sunglasses. They were all cheerfully waving to us, and were followed by two pickup trucks carrying all their camping equipment – carpet, tables, chairs etc! Melanie said that this was quite common, and she was once invited to a camping trip where everyone laughed at her when she brought her little tent along, as the camp had already been luxuriously set up for all guests by a number of servants.
Even though they may live in the cities and hold high-powered corporate or government jobs, many rich Emiratis also have a camel or date farm in the desert where they like to spend their weekends. This includes the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai who originally hail from the Liwa area. At heart, they are still nomadic desert people and feel at home in these vast expanses of sand dunes.
We spent the day admiring the undulating golden dune landscape, venturing off the tarmac here and there, and in the evening happened upon the Dhafra Festival, which is one of the highlights in the UAE’s cultural calendar and promotes desert life and heritage. People come from all over the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman to attend the festival. First, we visited the camel race track, where we watched camels being trained for the race. Races usually take place in the morning, and there was big prize money of half a million US$ on offer for the winner! We then visited the traditional Souk with its numerous market stalls selling Emirati food, camping equipment, camel saddles and, above all, many sparkly camel accessories which are used to decorate the camels for a Camel Beauty Pageant! Rather than walking around to browse the stalls, many locals never got out of their flashy white Landcruisers, driving past the stalls and lowering the window to place an order when something took their fancy.
Melanie speaks some Arabic and was able to communicate with most of the ladies at the market stalls. At one stall, we ordered some milky tea and were promptly invited to sit down inside by a bubbly 10 year old girl. Her mum, clad in a black floor length Abbeya and a head scarf covering her face, refused our money and gave us a box of dates from her farm. The family owned a date and camel farm and they were very keen for us to visit them if we were ever in the area.
The colourful festival offered a fantastic insight into traditional Emirati life and culture. There really is a lot more to the UAE than just the modern skyscrapers and shopping malls of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
We had another great experience the following morning. Melanie had offered to drive us back to Dubai, via the oasis city of Al Ain. On our way, we came past a camel race course where a race was just about to begin. The race was broadcast live on TV, and the proud camel owners were more than happy for us to have a stroll around the compound where camels were being prepared.
The track is 10km long, and the camel owners drive alongside the camels in their 4WDs to shout encouragement. The outside of the track is reserved for spectators. Entry is free, and we simply drove onto the dirt track and followed the racing camels along the track. The camels race at 35-40 kph. There are no jockeys, but each camel has an electronic, voice activated whip attached to their rears. The more the owner shouts into his microphone, the faster the whip hits his camel. It sounds horrible, but in reality the whips look quite weak and most of them don’t work very well.
Al Ain was a lovely green desert oasis city. Melanie had to drop off a key with one of her colleagues there, a young Palestinian guy. He showed us a restaurant where we could buy some lunch to take for a picnic, and in a true display of Middle Eastern hospitality, insisted on paying for it. Outside of Al Ain, we found a lovely picnic spot near some hot springs, and drove up to the highest mountain of the UAE afterwards, from where we had a view all the way to Oman.
After a fantastic week with Melanie, it was time for us to return to Dubai for some last minute shopping to prepare ourselves for India. We are glad that we had the opportunity to see a different side of the UAE, rather than just limiting ourselves to Dubai’s glittery malls and skyscrapers.