Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back in the UAE; Part Two

Have you ever been in a foreign country and absolutely craved Taco Bell? Well, it happens to me every time, in every country I’ve even been in. It’s pretty much the only American fast food I do crave, and its one of the fast food chains that tastes nearly identical to its American counterpart, no matter where you are in the world. But that’s another story.

Day two of the first weekend trip starts pretty much the same as the first one ended; with sand. Lots of it. The winds are really gusting, kicking up sand, silt, dust and Lord knows what else into the sky. The sun is out, but unseen… and this really, well, sucks. Especially considering my plan today was to venture over to the Atlantis the Palm Dubai hotel, resort, Water-park, and general monstrosity. The Palm Jumeirah is the location for Atlantis and is one of those enormous “floating” palm islands you see in the ocean north of Dubai (speak of monstrosities).

Well, given the no sun and the swirling winds nature of the day, Larry suggests we try something of an interior nature: the Dubai Mall. No, this is not the mall with the ski slope – that would be the Mall of the Emirates. And no, this is not the mall with the golf course right next to it; that would be Dubai Festival City.

This is the Dubai mall, the largest retail outlet in the entire world. Yeah, the one with a massive aquarium, full size hockey/skating rink, a giant multi-screen theater, a gold souk, over a 1,000 stores and an outdoor lake/fountain that nearly rivals that of the Bellagio. Oh, and it’s next door to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Yeah, when they say “go big or go home”, you know which one this city chooses.

The Dubai mall is home to what appears to be just about every major fashion brand in the world; over 5 million square feet of shopping all told. I believe some relative perspective is needed here. The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota (my old home) is spread out of over 4.2 million square feet and has 520 stores. Compare that to the 12 million+ sq ft overall size and 1,200 plus stores at the Dubai Mall and you get an idea. Oh, and for those of my friends in Ft. Lauderdale; the Galleria Mall on Sunrise is 1 million sq. ft. and has 150 stores… get the picture?

No? Alright, Here are some more mind-blowing details (or at least somewhat fascinating ones:
The Olympic-size Dubai Ice Rink can host a capacity of up to 2,000 guests, and converts into a multi-functional hall with world-class multimedia system including a 60 ft. × 30ft.m LED screen; it also houses over 1,800 pairs of skates imported from a leading manufacturer in Italy.
The movie theater? Reel Cinema is a 22 screen megaplex with more than 2,800 seats. Next door is SEGA Republic, a 76,000 sq ft indoor theme park, which features over 150 amusement games.

There are several waterfalls both outside and inside the mall. Two of them feature numerous Silver Surfer dudes diving in midair…. Surreal to say the least.

To say the most would be to mention the Book World by Kinokuniya, easily biggest freaking book store I’ve ever set foot in. It quite literally wraps ¾’s of the way around an enormous turret; take a look at the panoramic picture below to try and get an idea of what I’m talking about. Its numbers are equally impressive: Kinokuniya is a massive 68,000 square feet paragon book gallery which stocks more than a half million books and a thousand magazines in English; Arabic; Japanese; French; German and Chinese at any given time. I have friends (myself included) who can spend an entire day in Barnes and Noble. You could spend a month here.

But, I don’t. Hunger is calling, which leads me to that whole Taco Bell thing mentioned earlier. We had to eat, so we visited the “Food Court” There’s a reason that phrase is in parentheses… the total number of outlets in the food court fluctuates, but there are generally about 160 different places to eat, covering pretty much every type of food the world over. I love what the Dubai Mall website says about the food court: “Whatever the number, there are more than you'll find in any other shopping mall, and enough cholesterol suppliers to keep even the hard core hamburger junkies satisfied. Main Food Court is on the top floor, with an outdoor seating area, and the first Taco Bell in the UAE (if you haven't tried it, it's not that exciting).” AS IF!

Larry, Bernardo and I, with bellies overly full, head over to the Dubai Aquarium and Discovery Centre, which has earned the Guinness World Record for the world's "Largest Acrylic Panel" (90’ wide x 30’ m high). Its 750 mm thick acrylic viewing panel can withstand pressure of 10 million liters of water used in the aquarium, but its transparency gives visitors clear views of over 33,000 marine animals. Oh, and there’s a top part that has all fresh water attractions, and the crème de la cream; a moving tube that takes you under and through the whole attraction. Well, as long as you’re not overly claustrophobic or are paranoid about the thing leaking.

Which it did! Two days before we arrived, apparently water was gushing out of the tank. Don’t believe me, here’s the link:

We leave the aquarium, exit the mall and cross the exterior bridge to take in the one and only (the cliché really fits here) Burj Khalifa. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about this soaring tower: Burj Khalifa (Arabic: برج خليفة‎ "Khalifa Tower"), known as Burj Dubai prior to its inauguration, is a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the tallest man-made structure ever built, at 828 m (2,717 ft). Construction began on 21 September 2004, with the exterior of the structure completed on 1 October 2009. The building officially opened on 4 January 2010. The building is part of the 2 km2 (490-acre) flagship development called Downtown Burj Khalifa at the "First Interchange" along Sheikh Zayed Road, near Dubai's main business district.

Given the dusty, sandy, crappy nature of the day, the Burj is shrouded in a haze that makes taking pictures hardly ideal, but it’s still impressive to stand at the base and try to take it all in without requiring a chiropractor afterwards. I’m pretty sure most of my friends know that on any given day, I’ll be the first person to stand in a ridiculously long line (unless it’s freezing cold in Chicago Jenna!) to get to the top of anything. However, the visibility is nil, and they’re not letting anyone up today anyways... my curious nature wonders why... You see, it seems just last week the elevator broke and 15 people were trapped for 45 minutes on the 124th floor. Yep, both the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall Aquarium (separated by about a football filed) both broke. From what I heard, visitors on the observation deck a half-mile-high heard a loud boom, then saw dust that looked like smoke seeping through a crack in an elevator door. One of the people actually trapped in the elevator said that the lights went off and the car began to fall before the brakes kicked in. Yeah, you read that right.

People, that’s 1,600 feet in the air. If it was me, I would probably be thinking, “when the hell is Keanu gonna rescue me?”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back in the U.S.S.R. Wait, no, I mean UAE.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

While I hardly agree, I’m referring of course to the introduction of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice“(I say of course, but it’s not like I knew before I looked it up). After successfully penning Sense and Sensibility, she had to start writing again… so, why not commence with that line?

I too need to start writing again; what with being back in the United Arab Emirates and my many loyal followers interested in my whereabouts and doings… all 15 of you (and yes, that includes my family, who are biologically contracted to at least feint interest)…

…. and now that I have gone and compared myself to one of the most widely read and most beloved writers in English literature, the rest of this dribble should no doubt be as worthy as a third elbow and equally disappointing. Nevertheless, here goes… I arrived back in the UAE on a Wednesday night, after leaving the States on a Tuesday afternoon, after finding out I would be doing all of this on a Sunday evening. At the very least, I now do not feel the need to fulfill my daily obligation of answering the query: “Hey! When are you going back to Al Ain?” There just isn’t many things worse than having to answer (or in this case, not be able to answer) the same question over and over by well-meaning friends, family and colleagues. Well, yeah, I guess polio and perhaps being eaten by sharks whilst kite-boarding (sorry Howard Shafer), but I digress. It’s just annoying but you feel bad because everyone means so well. Anyways…

If you have the option to fly over to Dubai, or say Tokyo, Beijing or especially Australia, can I make a pertinent suggestion to you? DO NOT book a coach seat between two people on Delta. You will not sleep, you will not be comfortable and you will not be happy for say… 16 hours straight. There, I said it.
Okay, so most of what I do during the week is not really that exciting, and it definitely does not make for great copy, so instead I’ll do what I usually do and alk about the road-trips we take on the weekends. Larry is back with me over here and we have a presentation to give to a prospective client in the northeastern part of UAE, Ras al-Khaimah (also known as RAK). Therefore we decide to trek north and engage in some regional exploration and research. Oh yeah.

First stop: Hatta Fort Hotel Dubai. The lodge here has garnered a reputation for excellent service and as a tranquil escape from the chaos that is Dubai. Felt like a bit of an oversell to me; I mean, the setting is decent, perched high over the town with a decent view of the Hajar mountain range as a backdrop. The hotel features 80 acres of manicured gardens, quite a lot of turfed areas (the green on grey contrast is striking), and two large pools; one cut into and under a dining facility, the other with a large rock- outcropping serving as the kids slide. However, the most unique feature of the hotel is not the clay pigeon shooting range (okay, that’s pretty cool), it must be the 9 hole “mountain” golf course. The terrain is quite varied with numerous elevation changes… although I couldn’t figure out if the ‘greens’ were rock, sand, clay, or a combination thereof.

Next on the itinerary, Hatta and the wadi pools. My last time here in the UAE, I missed out on a tour of these areas by a week, but Larry really enjoyed it, so we come back. Joining is Carlos from Kobi Karp Architects. If you look at the accompanying map below, you may notice that Al Ain is semi-surrounded by its neighbor to the east, the Sultanate of Oman. So, technically, you have to leave the UAE to get to Hatta, which is in the UAE; this only makes sense if you actually make the journey.
Hatta is somewhat situated between two vertical masses, the Jebel Hafit to the west and the Hajar mountain range to the east. In pretty much every direction, you see unfolding layers of peaks protruding through an abundant atmospheric haze. (Sorry, overdid it on that one). Anyway, all these mountains funnel occasional rainfalls down through a wadi (a valley or mostly-dry riverbed) that during peak storm events creates some serious flooding and some very cool rock formations. The other reason numerous people – local and expatriate alike – trek to this area is the clean and cool pools that from between the rocks. Actually this is the main reason.

Larry and I waste no time climbing to the peaks and jumping off. It’s only about 20 foot (7m) jump, but how often do you get to do this in a vast desert? Check the hand-held video I took with my underwater camera that attaches this blog. Fun. The locals get a kick out of watching us jump, dive and flip off the rocks (okay, perhaps I’m the only one silly and crazy enough to perform the latter two), but I have no doubt they engage in similar behavior as soon as we foreigners are out of eyesight.
We hop back in our always serviceable Toyota Prada and continue due north to RAK. Ras al-Khaimah (Arabic: رأس الخيمة‎, rās al-Khaymah, literally "The Top of the Tent"), formerly known as Julfar, is one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE); it is located in the northern part of the UAE bordering Oman. If you look at the map above, you’ll see it directly north of Al Ain (spelled Al Ayn on the map). It is an industrial city with many quarries and cement factories, and really until you approach the coast, not very scenic at all. But before arriving at the coast, we stop outside the city at the Al Wadi Banyan Tree Resort and Spa.
Some immediate thoughts come to mind with one glance at the Banyan Tree website: their resorts are located in some of the most striking, faraway and wonderful places around the globe. The images provided showcase their locations, facilities and services that could easily fill those ubiquitous exotic screen savers that your coworkers without fail, love to display (guilty as charged). If it is top notch resort and spa services you seek, and a veritable bounty of eye candy that you covet, these are the places. Of course, the one overriding caveat is that they will most likely consume your entire bonus. Bonuses… remember those things?

Unfortunately the Al Wadi Banyan Tree Resort and Spa, located just 30 or so minutes south of RAK, has just opened, has a way to go, and was experienced on a dreadfully windy day. Although, to be frank, not even the sand in your teeth, detracted from the notion that this particular resort might be the weakest in the Banyan Tree portfolio in regards to appearance, comfort and mystique. This is most likely one of those resorts that looks absolutely stunning on the website and brochures (and it does make for some striking photos), but ultimately fails to live up to its billing and portrayal. The surrounding views aren’t the greatest, there does not exist a tremendous number of things to do, and I cannot imagine ladies getting dressed up for dinner only to be buffeted by swirling winds of sand on your walk from your villa to the dining areas. Nope.

Larry, Carlos and I head back north to the RAK coast, where we actually were earlier in the day, and make our way to the Cove Rotana Ras al-Khaimah. The Cove is comprised of a main hotel, several restaurants and lounges all situated at the top of hill (or more likely a huge stabilized sand dune) overlooking Arabic villas weaved together by a waterway, or aha, cove if you will, and beyond that a vast stretch of beach. This is not an altogether bad idea, and I think executed quite well.

The main resort hotel features a large with infinity edge pool overlooking the cove villas Watch as the next few shots progress through the night. The pool, pooldeck and background take on a completely different atmosphere! Thank you D90 (more on that later) Thus concludes day one of our first road trip, and I must say, it was quite fun. Other than the obvious reasons, the overriding ‘fun’ factor is my new Nikon D90 camera. It simply takes shots I could never quite capture with my traditional point and shoot cameras; particularly in regards to night shots. Thank you Bobby, Blake, Andrew & Marla; your advice was much appreciated. And as always, much more of these pictures can be found on my Facebook page: Middle East Journey Take #5.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oman Road Trip #2 Part Three

... The end is near ...

Leaving the Gulf of Oman, commencing our westward trip home, and heading towards the deserted town of Tanuf, the Mediterranean feel of the coast gives way to stark desert and the serrated edges of the Hajar mountain range. I had not imagined in the slightest "the desert" could have some many different climates / ecosystems; but I am pleasantly surprised.

Famous for its Tanuf-brand mineral water, the old town of Tanuf was abandoned in the 1960s, a casualty of the Jebel Wars of a decade earlier. Bombed by the British to quell a rebellion at the request of the then Sultan, the town was demolished forcing its inhabitants to abandon their home, and what's left today is a great example of a tradition Omani town.

A falaj (an ancient gravity irrigation system) runs through the town next to the mosque. A track leads 8km or so up to Wadi Qashah where there are pools in which you can swim. The entire area is spectacularly beautiful even if the ruins of the ghost town of Tanuf are more than just a bit sobering.

Back in the car we go and up the twisting road we turn until we reach the Al Hotta Cave, which is located at the foot of Jebel Shams, is one of the largest cave systems in the world and in the vicinity of the Tanuf Valley in Al Hamra district. It is more than 5km long cave traversed by underground River.

Supposedly the cave is enormous in size and scale and absolutely picturesque, but as they only offer tours every few hours, we miss our window; that is, if we want to make it to our final destination with any light left. So, we have pass. Note to self: another reason to return one day!

Before we begin our ascent up the Jebel Sham mountain peak, we first have one more stop: Al Hamra (Arabic: red) is a 400-year-old town in the region Ad Dakhiliyah, in northeastern Oman. It is home to the mountainside village of Misfat Al Abryeen. Al-Hamra is also known as Hamra Al-Abryeen with reference to the Al Abri tribe who live there. Some of the oldest preserved houses in Oman can be found in Al Hamra, a town built on a tilted rock slab; it also features terraced gardens and a piazza, it almost feels Italianate. Many of the houses have two stories, with ceilings made of palm beams and fronds topped by mud and straw. We grab some very sweet panoramic shots of the date palm oasis and once again ... repeat after me .... jump back in the car.

Okay, here we go .... Jebel Shams! Jebel Shams Arabic: Jebel Shams mountain of sun) is a mountain located in northeastern Oman north of Al Hamra town. It is the highest mountain of the country and part of Al Hajar Mountains range. It is a popular sightseeing area located 240 km from Muscat. In the summer, temperature is around 20 ° C and in the winter it drops just above 0 ° C. 3,075 meters (10,089 ft). From what we are told, Jebel Shams is the "Grand Canyon" of the Middle East. Yes, we are pumped.

Oh, and before I continue on ... btw, if you ever try and make it to the top of this mountain range ... one suggestion: do not attempt the climb in the aforementioned Mitsubishi Lancer. You will not make it. Our "car" had to be put in first gear to even achieve forward motion up the grade, and even then, I felt like giving it the ole "Fred Flintstone" and using my feet. Sad.

Thankfully, just as we were about to wave the white flag and turn around ... we run into a very friendly stranger who jumped out of his dusty truck to say hello. Before we knew it, he was showing us a map of where we were and where we wanted to go. He kept pointing at our car, and saying, "no make it." Yeah, tell us something we don't know.

Well, the next thing we know, this strange man we don't know named Mohammed is instantly transformed into MOHAMMED! our trusty guide and savior of the trip! We all enthusiastically hop into his 250,000 mile + Land Rover as the13 Omani real price we negotiated for our trip to the top sounds like a bargain.

Mohammed talks to us the whole way up ... up, down, left, right, back n'forth ... yes the road is a gravel and dirt rollercoaster ... and Mohammed is very pleased to tell us all about the history of this place. At least, I think that's what he was attempting. For the only two phrases any of us could make out were, "you understand?", And "no problem!"

So, yes, we understood; it was no problem.

I could literally go on and on about how outstanding this part of the trip was ... the drive up, getting out and walking to what felt like the edge of the world .... The views of the vast expanse of canyon for as far as one could see ... the cool wind whipping up off the bluff ... the instant smack of vertigo as you looked over the brink straight down. It was surreal.

While it is quite a cliché to say so, the pictures shown here (or the many more I have posted on Facebook) of course don't do any justice to the vistas, the feeling, and the overall experience. This probably sums it up best: like any worthwhile and incredible trip, as soon as you leave, you can't wait to go back.

But back we must go.

The ride back down is treacherous and exhilarating ... with some sketchy sections and precipitous grade changes. Before leaving we wander around for just a few more minutes - stealing time - watch Mohammed pray towards Mecca, and attempt to store this one deep in the memory banks. I even write a flattering yet sarcastic (is there any other method to my madness) testimonial in Mohammed's notebook / advertising pamphlet.

As we venture further west, the sun bleeds into the triangles of rock that just out of the road ahead. The journey has finished.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Oman Road Trip #2 Part Two

So, we awake and grab a quick breakfast on the rooftop of the Marina Hotel – the view is really great; check out the panoramic above. Next, we head across the street into the Fish Market. The smell is exactly what you expect, but the sights and sounds are something else. The market features over 30 different types of fish, all laid out for the discerning shopper to bargain and haggle over. It reminded me of the fishing docks/market in Malpais, Costa Rica, just a lot busier and more streamlined.

We exit the Fish Market and cross the street to duck behind the building facades facing the bay; behind them lay the Muttrah Souk. Yes, I said Muttrah, not Muscat; more on that in a bit. Anyways the souk has all the normal features of an Arabic souk; narrow lanes with overhead enclosures/shade structures, dozens upon dozens of shops featuring everything from incense, clothes, textiles, pashmina scarves, jewelry, gold, silver, spices, food, coffee to the most of kitsch ‘knick-knacks’ you can find.

I love the souks though; the smell of frankincense and sandalwood, the constant shouts and sales pitches of the overly eager workers, all the colors and amazing outfits being displayed. I even get fitted for a traditional Turkish cap and scarf. The kummar is an intricately embroidered cap that is put on first, and is sometimes covered by a muzzar; a square of finely woven woollen or cotton fabric, wrapped and folded into a turban.

We head out of the souk and decide to get on the road to the city of Muttrah. After driving around somewhat lost and checking and re-checking the map (which btw, the maps we have are not the greatest)… we finally realize…. We were in Muttrah the whole time. Yes, we though we were in Muscat, but didn’t realize we had left it the night before. Ooops!

So, here’s a little backstory/information about Muttrah (Arabic: مطرح‎) population 650,000, is a city located in the Muscat province of Oman. Before the discovery of oil, Muttrah was the center of commerce in Oman. It is still a center of commerce as one of largest sea ports of the region is located there. Other landmarks include Souq Muttrah, a traditional bazaar and Sour Al-Lawatiah, a small community of houses surrounded by an old wall.

Our next pit-stop is Qurum, although it’s a brief one. We find the nicest Starbucks you’ll ever see, situated between a large saltwater marsh and the ocean. I grab my goodies an go for a ‘walk’ in the Gulf of Oman (YES! Another body of water I can check off my list, lol).

Back in our car… a very crappy Mitsubishi Lancer rental, with what seems to be a 4 horsepower lawnmover motor… we begin our journey back across Oman heading west towards the abandoned village of Tanuf.

….to be continued… the journey is almost done...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Oman Road Trip #2 Part One

Alright, so our normal work week here starts on Sunday, goes through Friday, with Saturday being our one day off, and then we get right back to it. Yeah, not ideal for relaxing and exploring. But then again, that’s not what we’re here for; so no complaints!

However, on the weekend of October 23rd – 24th, we actually get a Friday off, and we all take advantage of it. Bruce, Rand and Nick head to Musandam, in northern Oman, to meet up with Bruce’s social group to go diving. Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my equipment with me, nor do I really have the money to go diving and buy all new stuff, so instead I join some of my new PGAV friends, John and Maurisz, on a 2 day road trip to eastern Oman.

Anyways we set out to cross the UAE-Oman border and this is a bit trickier than say crossing from the States to Canada or even Germany into France (although historically, that’s always been pretty easy, hehe). We get through what seems like 5 or 6 different checkpoints in a ¼ mile stretch and we’re on our way. I noticed Mariusz is noticeably shaken or just not quite right and he finally confides that he was really stressed out. Apparently growing up as a boy in Poland and even as a teenager and college student, whenever he crossed borders into the Soviet Union or other Eastern bloc countries… well it was always a stressful situation to say the least.

We finally make it across and our first stop is the historical capital of Oman in the 6th and 7th centuries AD: Nizwa. Nizwa is one of the oldest cities in Oman and it was once a center of trade, religion, education and art. Its Jama (grand mosque) was formerly a center for Islamic learning; it also possesses a number of other renowned mosques, such as Sultan Qaboos Jama.

Set amid a verdant spread of date palms, Nizwa is strategically located at the crossroads of routes linking the interior with Muscat and the lower reaches of Dhofar thus serving as the link for a large part of the country. Today, Nizwa is a diverse prosperous place with numerous agricultural, historical and recreational aspects; it is also a center for date growing and is the market place for the area.

We arrived in town around noon, albeit about 5 minutes late as literally every single shop, store, restaurant, and place of business closes down as practically every resident heads to the local mosque (pictured to the right) to pray. What a spectacle as hundreds upon hundreds of male Muslims converge on the Jama mosque, remove their shoes and completely canvas not only the interior of the mosque, but also the streets and steps surrounding it.

Our next stop is Muscat, (Arabic: مسقط, Masqaṭ) the capital and largest city of Oman. Instead of myself describing the city, I’ll leave it to someone more capable:
"Muscat is a large and very populous town, flanked on both sides with high mountains and the front is close to the water's edge; behind, towards the interior, there is a plain as large as the square of Lisbon, all covered with salt pans. There are orchards, gardens, and palm groves with wells for watering them by means of swipes and other engines. The harbor is small, shaped like a horse-shoe and sheltered from every wind."
This is how Afonso de Albuquerque described Muscat, after the fall of the city in 1507. Pretty accurate description even today though!
The city holds fast to its past, roots, and traditions, shunning Dubai’s rapid acceptance of all things large and modern. Most of the buildings adhere to the traditional Gulf-Arab style of architecture, are usually bleached white or sand color and surrounded by extremely clean streets. It also seems that every single shop, office and building has a picture of Sultan Qaboos hanging somewhere. And lastly, while I’m not sure how new they are, Muscat also features numerous waterfront parks and linear parks, making the edge of the city feel very green. Another striking architectural feature is that of the enormous incense burner monument above Riyam Park, which was built to celebrate Oman's National 20th Day (pictured to the left).

We continue on further south towards the Al Bustan Palace Hotel; a majestic octagonal piece or architecture that juts out of its own bay by the ocean backed by the mountains (see the accompnaying picture that I did not take). The exterior of the building does not really lend to the opulence found within. The crème de la crème of the hotel is its magnificent atrium, which is large enough to house a Boeing 747 on its end. The lofty atrium is clad in 800,000 tons (!) of Blue De France and White Dionysus marble imported from France, Greece, Italy, amongst others. It is truly spectacular, especially as the lighting and coloring changes from one perspective to another. The exterior pool decks, multiple infinity edge pools, fountains, sculpture, manicured lawns, and expanse of beach only add to the ambiance, experience and undoubtedly, some extravagant costs!

We leave the Al Bustan and turn around and head back north to Muscat to find a cheap hotel and crash for the night. We settle on the Marina hotel, grab a decent Indian dinner and retire. We plan on waking up early and exploring more of Muscat… there’s just one problem.

- To be continued….