OCTOBER 8 - OCTOBER 23
So this is probably obvious to some of you, but this country is not ideal for backpackers. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was hoping that we were going to be able to manage seeing a couple of cities in this country on our backpacker budget. We were SO wrong. This country is not backpacker friendly and it most certainly doesn't offer backpacker prices. If you decide to visit Abu Dhabi or Dubai make sure you bring a full wallet or two because there's no other way to enjoy yourself. Despite being strapped for cash, we still manages to have a great time thanks to Jen and all he amazing people we met.
We were flying from Istanbul to Abu Dhabi but we had a stopover in Kuwait City. We didn't get a chance to see Kuwait but we had more than enough time to kill at the airport. It was interesting. The airport was very chaotic and nothing seemed to be organized. Nobody knew what was going on. Since neither of us have been to the Middle East before, we were witnessing some things for the first time, such as:
- There were seperate prayer rooms for men and women and they were usually right beside the washrooms.
- I've never seen men's traditional Emerati dress in person. They wear the kendura, an akle-length white shirt. The women wear an abaya, a black dress covering most of the body, but I've seen this before.
- The Emerati are very, very wealthy. I say that because every single person, whether it was male of female had expensive items on them whether it was jewelry, purses, watched etc. Things you and I only dream of having. Maybe? Maybe not.
We landed in Abu Dhabi International Airport and waited for our friend Jen to pick us up. Actually, she was the reason we were travelling to United Arab Emirates in the first place. We wanted to catch up, hang out and have a break form moving around all the time. If it wasn't for her, I don't think we would have made a stop here. She was also the reason why we were staying there for a whole TWO weeks (WAY too long if you aren't visiting a good friend!)
When I spotted her outside, we grabbed our backpacks and exited the air conditioned airport. HOLY CRAP! The heat was unbearable! If you know me, you'll know that I love the heat, even when most people complain about it. I'm also not a fan of places that are pumping out AC all day long, but I couldn't wait to get into her air conditioned car.
For the next two weeks, our home base was Abu Dhabi. From there we were going to make short trips to Dubai and the surrounding areas. Once we got to Jen's apartment, unpacked a few things and packed a small bag for our desert camping adventure the next day. We were all really looking forward to this. Originally, we were suppose to go camping in Oman, but it didn't work out unfortunately. Instead, we found an awesome place near the Saudi Arabian border.
We woke up to the beautiful Islamic call to prayer. If you get a guy with a good voice the prayer can be truly mesmerizing, otherwise it can sound like a broken record. We got up, had some breakfast and got ready to meet everyone else. There was a big group of us going so we all met in the same place in the morning and headed on our adventure. We bought all kinds of food, snacks and LOTS of water! This is the one place you don't want to be left without water, so we stocked up. If we managed to get out of Ramazan's secret garden alive, I really didn't want to die of thirst. Not the most exciting way to go...
We drove for a few hours and spotted a body of water. Was it a mirage? No, it was the Persian Gulf. We thought it was the perfect spot to set up our tents.
How amazing is the colour of that water?! It was THAT blue.
So what is there to do in the desert? Well, not much. After walking around and swimming for a bit, we all got pretty hungry so we started preparing some food. Oh - I can't forget the turtle skull that we found. We all agreed it would make the perfect mascot for our camping crew. We put a stick through it and decided it was going to burn by the campfire that night. :)
At one point, we spotted a car coming towards us and it looked like the police. The men inside were wearing kenduras and the keffiyeh on their heads (traditional headwear) were blowing in the wind. I felt like I was in the movie Aladdin for a second. Too bad they weren't on a magic carpet. ;)
We freaked out for a second because we had quite a bit of alcohol sitting around and you can't drink in public so we didn't want to get arrested. Luckily, they just smiled and drove off. :)
It was incredibly hot. Most of us were hiding in the shade or in the water until the sun started to set. It got a bit cooler and more comfortable.
How about this sunset though?!
You know how in movies they say that everything seems closer in the desert than it really is? It's true!! Nothing is what it seems especially when you get a little thirsty! :)
We stayed up pretty late eating and drinking by the bonfire. We also met a great group of people from different places including Lebanon and Palestine. We talked about everyday life, travel and even politics. It's always interesting to hear different people's perspective on everyday life, especially when they live in a different country and halfway across the world. It's also nice to be able to witness, first hand, how things work in this part of the world and what people here think of the west. Some things that we learn about the Middle East in western media are true, but a lot of them are false. I feel so fortunate to be able to travel to all these places, see things for myself and make my own judgements. People here are very proud and they strongly value family. In United Arab Emirates, it's very safe and clean. That being said, there are a lot of rules. A LOT. Here are a few:
- Kissing/touching is not allowed in public. Some people still do it, but if you get caught you might be arrested.
- No swearing/indecent gestures. Don't give anyone the finger because if the wrong person sees you, you might get arrested.
- No pictures allowed on the beach. Yes, you read that right. We were on this one beach and the security guard went around warning people not to take pictures when he saw then snapping away.
- No indecent clothing. Don't try to look to sexy in UAE because if you do you'll get some really dirty looks and maybe even....get arrested. :P You are allowed to wear bathing suits on the beach, but maybe not thongs. Didn't care to test that one out.
These are just a few of the many rules. A friend told me that during Ramadan you are not allowed to drink or eat in public even if you are not Muslim. No restaurants are open. If you need to eat or drink, you have to do it in private so that you're not tempting those who are fasting. You can't even eat or drink in your own car. A bit extreme, don't you think?
Anyways, I'm not judging. It's just different. You learn something new every day!
We were back in Abu Dhabi and we had a lot of time on our hands. One day, we decided to walk along the beach and check out the Corniche Road. As you walk along this road you'll notice cycle paths, fountains and playgrounds and eventually you'l reach a area with several cafes and the beach.
Do you notice anything odd about these photos? There is not a single soul outside - it's deserted! But what can you excpect when you're in the middle of a desert? ;)
It was literally that hot. This was about 3pm and we were the only idiots walking around. Everyone was either in their air conditioned cars, homes or at the mall. It's kind of like being in Toronto when it's -35 with a windchill warning. Everyone is hiding indoors. Well, it was the same in Abu Dhabi except everyone was hiding from the hot and humid weather. I think this changes once the temperatures cool down in December/January but in October it was still too hot.
This was certainly not a pedestrian friendly city and neither is Dubai. You can't just walk places. Everything is spread out too far or it's just too hot (except in the winter months). Either way, you pretty much need a car or taxi to get around anywhere.
Things are also quite expensive in UAE. To really enjoy yourself in Abu Dhabi or Dubai you have to come with a lot of money. You will not have fun with $50/day budget (per person). This is why most of the time we tried to stick to free activities, such as going to the beach, the mall, the beach, the mall.....well, that's pretty much it for the free activities. There were a few good markets that sold pretty cheap produce, fresh fish and the most amazing dates! Yumm! Everything else was pretty expensive. Even a cup of coffee was $4-6. :(
The oil however, was VERY cheap. :)
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Ok, so this was one of the highlights in Abu Dhabi. This mosque is BEAUTIFUL. The Sheikh Zayed mosque is the largest mosque in United Arab Emirates and it was built in 2007. One of the most impressive aspects was the carpet in the main prayer room. It is the world's largest hand-knotted carpet hand crafted by over 1,000 artisans. The carpet is 5,700 square meters, about 70% being wool and the rest of 30% is cotton. AHHH-mazing!
WEEKEND IN DUBAI
On our second weekend in UAE, we planned a weekend trip to Dubai. It was about 1.5 hour drive from Abu Dhabi and luckily Jen's friend, Jackie, was nice enough to offer us her place to stay. This definitely helped with the budget. Dubai is pretty impressive and some of the architecture is really interesting. It's crazy to think that not too long ago this area was all sand.
Dubai is even more expensive than Abu Dhabi :( I know I keep saying that, but if you are backpacking for a year, it's pretty much impossible to survive in this city. It's all about luxurious hotels, fancy restaurants, yachts and shopping. Obviously, we were really limited to what we could do.
One of the most famous buildings in Dubai is the Burj Khalifa. It's been used in a few movies but i remember it mostly from one of the most recent Mission Impossible movies. This is the tallest building in the world, soaring at 2,717ft! The buildings Y-shaped floor plan maximizes views of the Arabian Gulf. It's got offices, residential units, retail space and the Giorgio Armani hotel. The buidling also incorporates new structural and construction efficiencies which reduce material waste. Because of its height, the building is able to utilize ventilation where cooler air temperatures, reduced air density, and reduced relative humidity at the top of the building allow for “sky-sourced” fresh air. When air is drawn in at the top of the building, it requires less energy for air conditioning and ventilation. Pretty cool!
Unfortunately, we didn't go to the very top because it cost abut $80/per person. Instead, we decided to have a VERY expensive cappuccino at the Armani Lounge. For a whopping $15 you get cappuccino that tastes no different than Starbucks coffee - ok maybe it's a bite better - as well as some fancy cookies and Armani packaged sugar. Worth it? Not really. It should be illegal to sell coffee for that much!
BURJ AL ARAB
One day we went to check out the Burj Al Arab, a very luxurious hotel. It's located on an artificial island, just off of the Jumeirah beach. We actually never checked it out. We admired it from a distance. We couldn't afford to go in.
I'm sure you've heard or seen pictures of the famous palms islands. Look familiar?
Another pretty impressive sight. Although we never got to see the aerial view we had a chance to drive around the islands and stop at the Atlantis Hotel.
Not too far away from the islands was a pretty cool beach. We went there for a bit to relax and listen to some good beats.
After a while of walking around we all got pretty hungry and Jen took us to a pretty awesome, healthy joint for food. If you're ever in Dubai, check out Comptoir 102.
Aaaaaand yet another healthy restaurant. Jen knew all of them :) Apart for the few times we ate out, we mainly bought groceries and ate a lot Lebanese food. So good!
We wanted to check out the Mall of the Emirates just to see the ski hill. Yes, when you feel like you need a break from shopping, you can hit the slopes. This mall is the largest in the world and Ski Dubai is a ski resort within the mall. Another mall had a skating rink, penguins, gold, you name it. ONLY in Dubai!
SHISHA TIME IN DUBAI
We couldn't leave UAE without trying some shisha and we thought Dubai would be a perfect place for it. Jen and her friend Samer took us to a pretty low key spot where we enjoyed grape and apple flavoured shisha. The place was full of locals and expats and...prostitutes.
I don't know how but we ended up staying out until 6am! I guess it was the perfect way to end a weekend in Dubai.
Once we got back to Abu Dhabi, I was trying to plan something for Mike's birthday. He suggested that we go out and try traditional Emirati cuisine. And what is that you ask? Well, it consists of a lot of meat, grain and dairy due to the harsh weather conditions in the desert. The food is influenced from a variety of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. They also drink a lot of tea and not much alcohol, if at all. In fact, it's very hard to find places that sell alcohol in Abu Dhabi and it's ever harder to find it in Dubai. If you want to drink, you have to go to a hotel bar.
We decided on a place called Saudi Kitchen and a group of us went. This very special group included Mike, Jen, George (hey, you made the blog! ) and me. It was an interesting set up. We had a private booth and we all sat on the floor. We had the option of eating with our hands but we all felt more comfortable with some cutlery.
The food was pretty simple but as long as Mike enjoyed it, we were pretty happy.
We also wanted to see what the Emirates Palace was all about. Well, it's a fancy place. This place is a 7 star, luxurious hotel. Everything is made out of gold, silver, marble or Swarovski crystal. I can see how some people would be amazed by it but i found it a bit tacky. Personally, I'm not a fan of over-the-top decorations.
Upon arrival, you have to pass through security and we were actually turned back because Mike wasn't dressed appropriately. He had to have long pants and dress shoes on. What backpacker brings dress shoes on a trip? Exactly! No one. Which is why this country sucks if you are a poor backpacker! Anyway, we managed to get him some shoes from Jen's friend and we got in after the second try.
And here we are at the very fancy Hakkasan restaurant at the Emirates Palace. We ordered a drink each, which cost us about the same as 10 dinners in Thailand!
The Desert Experience
Desert camping wasn't enough. We wanted to see more sand, camels, mirages....just like in the movies! I bought a voucher from groupon for a desert excursion and it only cost us $40/per person. This included dune bashing, camel riding, dinner and show and pictures in traditional Emirati dress.
On the day of our excursion, the bus was really late. We got to the desert JUST in time for the sunset so we were able to take a few pictures, but not many. Everyone was pissed off. The dune bashing was fun, but because we arrived so late, even that was cut too short. I don't have any pictures from that because we were literally being through up and down in the car (kind of fun actually!).
Of course we didn't have time to use the ATV's or go camel riding. Everything was rushed. However, we had a pretty good dinner and bellydancing show.
I think we found this part the most fun. We tried on the traditional Emirati dress and decided to have a little photoshoot. Mike was having the time of his life. He suits it doesn't he? :P
When the show was over, everyone waited at the front to get picked up by the tour bus. Ours left without us. Just when we thought things couldn't get more disorganized...they did. One of the employees started yelling at us basically telling us that it was our fault for not getting on the bus. Luckily, he drove us through the desert at lightening peed and we caught up to the bus. The bis driver was as dumb as a doorknob. He had no idea what was going on and he never actually did a head count.
Anyway, it was fun but i guess for $40 you get wait you pay for in Abu Dhabi.
So, what did we think of United Arab Emirates? It's an interesting place and maybe a good stopover location. Three to five days are more than enough to see both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I don't really care to go back. I would love to go back to the Middle East, but not United Arab Emirates. Been there, done that.
We did meet some amazing people and thank you Jen and Sonia for having us! :)
Here's the breakdown of how much we spent for 16 days:
Domestic Transportation: $24
Tourist Visa: $0
Daily Average (per person): $31
*Excludes one-way flight from Istanbul to Abu Dhabi ($277.50 each)
**Currency exchange 10/08/2015: $1 (CAD) = 2.84 Dirham
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