Monday, January 31, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Abu Dhabi

We had one free morning - before we had to leave for Kolkata - and I had enough of the malls of Dubai. So we decided to rent a car and leave early for Abu Dhabi, spend the day there and return in the evening. Our flight was much later that night. And we had everything packed, so it sounded like a good plan.

Except for a couple of things.

1) Right as we approached Abu Dhabi, the Wife became really sick. At first we decided to just head back to Dubai, but after visiting a pharmacy, she became well enough so we could just do a very, very quick tour and then return. We decided to visit Sheikh Zayed mosque (which is right before Abu Dhabi starts) and Emirates Palace Hotel.

We were also meeting the world famous blogger Suroor at the Emirates Palace Hotel, where she was treating us to (a very expensive :-D ) lunch.

Unfortunately the Wife became sick again right after lunch, so we could not even tour the hotel properly, and returned to Dubai.

2) I hadn't thought of the ridiculous driving standards of UAE! But more on that later.

So, without much ado, here's the magnificent Sheikh Zayed mosque - the world's 8th largest mosque.

Each pillar of the mosque has stone mosaics following a beautiful "nature" theme. This was evident all over - the courtyard of the mosque, the beautiful carpet in the praying areas and the pillars throughout the mosque.

A view of the mosque from the courtyard. The mosque is built in the traditional Andalusian style, with a courtyard surrounded by a "fence" of elaborately designed pillars, and the main praying halls.

The men's praying area is to the left, the women's area was to the right.

Yet another view of the court yard. Every women visitor had to obtain an 'abaya' from the mosque's visitor's office.

The abayas were designed very well and looked expensive. Many of the women visitors were keeping theirs.

Sadly, I also saw some women clearly being disrespectful, and I had noticed the same attitude when visiting the Vatican.

Not only did they wear short dresses or shorts (they were visiting a place of worship in a MUSLIM country for God's sake) but when asked to cover up with the FREE designer abaya, they were rolling it up to leave their ankles exposed or throwing down the scarf to expose their hair - leaving the female guards chasing after them all the time. Why visit a place of worship if you can't respect it? When I visited the Vatican, or any churches on our Europe trip, I took care to respect their wishes, even if other Christian visitors didn't - such as no photography at some places, no talking, etc. Even the Vatican had modesty requirements for womens' dresses!

After 10-15 shots, I finally got one picture with the sky the proper amount of blue that I wanted. I hate having to process any pictures at a later time via Photoshop!

Each alcove at the mosque had a really opulently beautiful design. When I did wudu, there was a cleaner on standby to immediate wipe the area dry.

Here's a final shot of the mosque before we had to leave for the pharmacy to get some medicines for the Wife.

For more pictures of this mosque, visit Nadia's blog for some fabulous shots of this place during night time.

And then off we went to the Emirates Palace Hotel to meet Suroor. She is as lovely a person in real life as she is on her blog. I have been fortunate to have some really gem of human beings as my blogger friends, and who I have met during my travels. Suroor is one such kind hearted and smart human being. She treated us to a delicious lunch at the hotel, after which we explored a bit before heading back to Dubai.

Here is the world's most expensive Christmas tree - and that too in a Muslim country! Valued at over $11 million, standing over 13 metres tall and decorated with over 180 diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones - this was one imposing tree.

This was in the lobby of the hotel reception. The following picture is the main rotunda of the Emirates Palace Hotel (above the tree).

Heading back to Dubai, I have to recount the wild driving incidents we saw on the road. On the way to Abu Dhabi in the morning, I stayed in the second lane, as I was doing around 145 km/hr. At that speed, I was routinely overtaken by zooming cars that were going easily at 180 km/hr. We saw a couple of deadly accidents too - but I guess the local Arab kids don't let that deter them. Driving is a crazy business here. I read somewhere UAE has the highest death numbers per capita from road accidents - and I can believe it.

I used to drive a lot in UAE. Here's a picture of Jabel Hafeet, a mountain you can drive up in the city of Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. These were my pictures on our last visit.

Now, I get scared when I think of driving in UAE, especially Dubai. As I entered Dubai, on the way back, we came upon a traffic jam. The car stopped as everyone was slowing down.

Apparently, not the car behind me. He saw he couldn't stop in time, roared on to the shoulder, clipped my mirror and damaged the side door before stopping.

For a second.

And then the driver sped off - a classic case of hit and run.

Thankfully, I had complete insurance and it was a rental car. If it was my car I would be seriously pissed off. Waiting for the police to come on their own sweet time, obtaining a report, heading to the car rental place to exchange the car (and driving in Dubai without a left side mirror - a death wish), returning home late - we managed to reach the airport just one hour before our flight was to depart.

Somehow, we made it. We were the last to board the flight to Kolkata!

Updated: Here are some more pictures from our last visit to beautiful Abu Dhabi.

The Etisatal Building - close to our old school

The beautiful Abu Dhabi Corniche - a great place for walks, bicycle rides, runs, relaxing or having a picnic in the beautiful parks

The shops inside Marina Mall - built on reclaimed land they call here "the Breakwater"

More Marina Mall pictures, probably Abu Dhabi's best mall (besides the self-titled Abu Dhabi Mall) - and unlike some of the malls in Dubai, here the malls are actually full of shoppers

The turquoise blue waters of the beach along the Corniche

On to Kolkata. To be continued ...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Dubai

It's been a while since I had visited Dubai, and the city has changed so much in those years. They built a whole slew of new stuff while I was away! Of course, the big thing for me was to compare how much the place I was brought up in has changed and if I would still recognize my old haunts.

We also met a very charming couple here - a blogger whose blog I have been following for quite some time, and her husband. I am of course talking about Nadia and Masood. It was a pleasure meeting two such lovely people who could squeeze some time to meet us very late at night! And thanks for that lovely treat!

Before all of that happened though ... here's the Emirates A380!

14 hours later, Dubai! This was just before they changed the rules for Canadian visitors to the country, but for now, I got a free 30-day visa for the UAE. I would, of course, be staying for just 3 days.

A big difference now is parking. Dubai is a mess (and Abu Dhabi an even bigger mess). Parking used to be free when I was growing up, now it's a cash making machine. Besides, when they were building all those buildings in the 80s and 90s, parking was an afterthought, and it now shows.

But Dubai has a shiny new Metro. We took that to Mall of the Emirates. I put some pictures of the Metro on my Facebook album; I found it to be very clean and efficient (and MUCH better than Toronto's creaky old system). Here's a picture of the Burj Al Arab as taken from the Metro:

The Mall of the Emirates is a HUGE mall ...

... but people only come here for one reason ...

... to see Ski Dubai!

It's pretty amazing when you think about it. It may be 40 degrees C outside and here you are, skiing, inside a mall! Whoever thought of this for the first time ... as they say, there's a fine line between genius and crazy. Sure, it's nothing when you compare it to the real ski hills in Canada or Europe, but think about it. SKIING INSIDE A MALL IN THE DESERT. Now that's something.

Of course, sadly, that was the only thing worth seeing in the mall. Most people in the UAE seem to go to malls just to hang out or to go to the food court. No one shops here. We walked by shops with no one inside.

I guess it's because the locals shop in Karama or Sharjah, where it's much cheaper. And the visitors, well, I could buy the same thing here for the same price, so why would I buy it in Dubai?

On the way back home, on the Metro, we entered the front compartment, so I could take some pictures as the Metro sped ahead.

The view does look like something of a futuristic city in a sci-fi movie!

The next day, we visited the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower.

For all the hype about this tower, and it's a marvellous and beautifully designed tower, the biggest disappointment for me was that they don't take you all the way to the top. In fact, you only go about half way up. So if you have visited Toronto's CN tower and you went all the way up to Skypod, you actually have gone higher than you would from visiting the Burj Khalifa, which is the world's tallest tower.

Here's a snapshop of Sheikh Zayed road and the buildings around that road, which is Dubai's main business hub now. It's amazing to think that these buildings would be skyscrapers in their own right, but they are now so dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa.

Again, for someone who hasn't been to this place, it's really, really, really tall. You realize how big the Burj Khalifa is until you come up close.

After that, it was time to visit Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall (and possibly the world's most emptiest mall too). It's a shame that they built such a HUGE mall, such a BEAUTIFUL mall, and their business plan is so flawed that not many people visit the mall, and even fewer make any purchases here. Or so it seemed to me. We were there on a weekend and it was dull.

Is this, er, the world's gayest Christmas Tree?

We were outside Hamley's (the toy store) and the mall was eerily silent. Look at the escalators, hardly a soul there. It was quite a different experience.

It's a beautiful mall, very well made. We walked through the Gold Souk, a section of the mall filled with bling, and the place really looked dead. Not only were the shops empty, many were boarded up. At others, the guys stood outside looking hopefully at us, or were playing with their cellphones, bored.

It was then time to visit the Atlantis. This is quite some drive away from the city, but it was cool driving up what was the "trunk" of the palm. And this is where we encountered a security guy who would not let us in! No visitors, he said.

Well I just drove away, parked, and then came at another gate, and told this guy I was going to the restaurant. Which was true, I was going there, but er, not to eat, but to sight see! :-)

On the way home it was time for Isha and we stopped somewhere to pray, only to realize later it was the famous Jumeirah Mosque, one of old Dubai's original attractions.

So what was my over all experience of Dubai? The more things change ...

Let me tell you about an incident while I was waiting for my wife to pick up her visa at the Dubai airport. We were in a line, and in front of us was a white couple (they looked British). And in front of them were two guys, brown, who looked Indian, and were most likely here in the UAE as labourers.

Everyone was going by the queue. When it was their turn, those two Indian guys walked to the official. "Wait!" He told them, "Move here." He motioned for them to move aside.

He told them to move out so he could serve the British couple who were AFTER them. When the guys, in broken English, asked: "Why? We are in line before them!" - this is what the Arab immigration officer said, no SHOUTED, at them, in equally broken English:

"Are you telling me HOW TO DO MY JOB?! I CAN MAKE YOUR LIFE HELL! Now stand here until I call you."

So, for all the stories you hear, when something like this happens in front of you ... I was just shocked. When it was our turn, we felt guilty walking past those guys, who were equally dumbfounded. And the rest of the officers were laughing at them.

And everyone we met in Dubai kept repeating one word - "artificial". As in life here is very "artificial". So, what can I say? I love Dubai, and it's a nice place to visit. The rest is your call.

As for me, I was headed to Abu Dhabi after 2 days.

To be continued ...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Prologue

I am back!

I was off for a month, mostly to visit relatives, but was also able to squeeze in some sightseeing in a very hectic but fun filled vacation.

I visited the beautiful city of Abu Dhabi and the tourist hub that is Dubai ...

I was off to exotic India, where we stayed in Kolkata, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur ...

... and finally home to Shonar Bangladesh, where we visited Dhaka and Rangpur.

I just got back, it's 4 am and for some reason I am wide awake. My relatives and my fun times, I will miss you. Jet lag, I won't!

Now off to sort from over 2000 pictures ...