Sunday, 1 March 2015

"Arabian adventures" in Dubai & Abu Dhabi (UAE)

A quick break between the Iceland posts: a super-hot welcome from the United Arab Emirates! This blog-post is in English as most of the travel tips I got from friends & colleagues were in English, so I decided to "not reinvent the wheel" & just "go with the flow". And, here's my summary of tips & tricks for a curious visitor in Dubai...

CULTURE, RELIGION & CLOTHING:
* Emirati weekend starts on Thursday evening and ends on Saturday (Sunday is the first working day of the week)
* Black arrow on the ceiling in your hotel room shows direction of Kahba in Mekka (direction Muslims face while praying)
* Muslims don't always pray in mosques, so don't be surprised to find prayer rooms pretty much everywhere (airport, mall, etc.)
* You can’t enter a mosque as a non-Muslim; the only exceptions are:
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi (not only can you enter, but you can also take pictures).
The Jumeirah Mosque (the only mosque in Dubai open to visitors 6 days a week apart from Friday). Don’t forget to dress respectfully if you’re going in and, God forbid, (well, Allah in that case;-) you touched Koran: the Muslims won't be able to use the book an "infidel", so be respectful to local beliefs.
If you plan on taking pictures of the locals: ask for their permission first & don't take pictures during prayer.
* Local currency is called "dirham" & is the prettiest currency I've ever seen.
* Clothing: Traditional black women's dress is called “abaya”, headwear is called "shayla" & face-cover showing eyes is called "nakab"; traditional white robe that men wear is called “dish-dasha” (or toub).
* Despite globalization, some things remain conservative: although one can occasionally see the Emirati people wearing a baseball cap with their dish-dasha; or Arab couples holding hands in public, Courtesy Policy of the Mall of the Emirates clearly asks visitors to "please wear conservative clothing" and refrain from "Kissing or overt displays of affection".
* Apart from restrictions on how to dress & to behave, Emirate state insistently "suggests" to be aware of other things: some restrictions are connected to religion, others to general public order, but a European eye involuntarily stops (& smiles :-P) at forbidding signs like "No Chewing Gum on the Train".
Now & then even the Emirati people themselves admit that some of the signs they produce are strange... very strange... :-D
SIGHTS:
Because distances in Dubai are quite substantial & no matter which means of transportation you use, plan in enough time to get where you want to be. Therefore, it's a good idea to book a hotel somewhere in the center & plan your days in advance, blocking them by geographic area.

BARGAINING;
1. Souks: bargain there without any reservations! Vendors shamelessly over-exaggerate prices (I'd say 200-400% is a "norm"), so make a round around the souk to gage the real prices & then make a second round to bargain & actually buy what you need & like.
2. Malls: less flexibility for bargaining; although bargaining is definitely OK in the gold & diamond section. General advice: always ask for "special offers" and/or act as if the price is a bit too high: you'll notice that the shop assistants are quite creative with coming up with "special" discounts on the spot.

SOUVENIRS:
Great souvenirs from the Emirates are:
dates (chocolate, fresh, dried, with fillings of nuts, etc.) – you can find them pretty much at any mall & also at the airport. I'd say that unless it's some unique local hand-made product you'd be better off getting your date souvenirs at the airport as prices are cheaper than everywhere else, especially for “standard” products: the prices are regulated & standardized)
coffee pots & beautiful colorful plates – at malls & souks, e.g. at Souk Madinat (inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel - a bit fancy & quite expensive, but one doesn’t get hassled much by the shop keepers) or at spice souk (this is where I bought my plates: after having bargained the price down from an astronomical sum).

DIAMONDS & GOLD:
1. Gold souk (the best place to actually buy something); it's also kind of a "museum" of outrageous gold creations
2. Gold & Diamond Park (metro: FGB)
3. Shopping malls (Cara, "The Souk" at the Dubai Mall, etc.)

FOODS TO TRY:

  • Kabab Kashkash
  • Kebab Halabi (kebab with spicy tomato sauce)
  • Arayees (crispy grilled pita sandwiches)
  • Hummous (it's a hundred times tastier than in Europe!)
  • Baba Ganoush (eggplant mixed with onions & tomatoes)
  • Mixed grill
  • chicken liver
  • Mouhalabieh (milky desert with rose & orange water)
  • Halawet Jibneh (sweet cheese rolls)
TRANSPORTATION:
* Metro is closed on Fridays until 14:00; last metro on Saturday runs around 23:30 (beware: that could leave you "stranded" somewhere in the city as malls close at 00:00).
* Once in the metro, don't be freaked out: there're no streetcar drivers :-) So if you're lucky & it's not too crowded, try getting into the first car to get a rather unusual "driver's seat" view (especially cool at night between stops in the center): see top left photo on the collage below.
* Taxi is considered part of public transport system & is relatively cheap, but BEWARE: if you're making a very "touristy" impression they'll "take you for a ride" in order to charge you more, So, try to inconspicuously demonstrate that you know where you're going (maybe even check the best route with a navigator & ask the driver if they're going to take that route or another & why). 
* Take into account that everything in Dubai is designed for driving; in some places it's hard to find a pedestrian walkway to get you inside of your final destination.
* Even if you're lucky & there is an air-conditioned pedestrian walkway (e.g. at major malls like the Dubai Mall), it might take you good 15-30 minutes to actually get into the mall from the metro station, so bear that in mind when planning.

FOOD & DRINKS:
* It's not advisable to drink water from the tap. Usually, your hotel with supply drinking water "with compliments".
* Alcohol can be found only in special licensed restaurants & price/quality ratio is quite outrageous, so turning your time in Dubai into an “alcohol detox” could be not such a bad idea ;-)

So, below you can find a couple of suggestions of how one could plan a stay of several days:
DAY 1
A great way to see the city & understand “what is where” is to take a Bus tour (Big Bus Tour & Hop-On/Hop-Off). Big Bus Tour has two lines (red & blue), each one of them takes ca. 2 hours, so, if you’re planning to make stops & actually see the sights, you’re definitely going to need the whole day. Noteworthy is that Big Bus have two types of tickets: the day & night tour, the night tour costs extra, however in winter (November), it gets dark rather quickly, so if you time your tour in a way that you take the last (or the one before last) departure (check schedule), you’ll have a wonderful night tour of the city without paying extra.
Absolute must: Arabian Dhow Cruise (hop off at stop 7 of Big Bus Tour - the cruise price is included in the bus ticket) - the cruise departs 4 times a day at 11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm & 5:30pm; it takes about an hour. My advice is to time it in a way that you catch the golden hour (when sun is starting to set, but it’s still bright).
DAY 2
* Dubai Museum is situated at the Al Fahidi fort & is basically free (3 DHS) (metro: Al Fahidi)
*Abra station - cross the Creek on an Abra boat (1 DHS per person)
* Baniyas Road, where you can see the freight boats on Dubai Creek, it’s pretty cool to see the workers and the unloading of the ships. The best way to get there is to take the abovementioned abra boat to the other side (so, from the Dubai Museum side to "souk side") & walk to the Gold & Spice Souks.
Al Dhiyafah Road, Dubai's cheap-eats street
* Deira & the old city: Gold and Spice Souk - the spice souk is only a few streets north of Baniyas Road
DAY 3
* The Dubai Aquarium at the Dubai Mall – you can see it on your way to Burj Khalifa as you’ll need to go to the counter inside the Dubai mall in order to collect the tickets that you have to book well in advance online. A huge part of it you can see without buying the ticket, however if you want to walk through the underwater tunnel & see the underwater zoo – then you need to get a ticket (we did it & had lots of fun). If you have time, it's very recommendable: they've got giant crocodiles, play penguins, hungry piranhas & funky fish.
Malls have been created as not only places to shop, but also so socialize & be entertained: in summer it gets so hot that being outside is not an option at all, so to meet, people have to stay inside, with air-conditioning. So, don't be surprised to see over-the-top entertainment experiences like escape rooms, the world's largest acrylic panel viewing glass (32.88 m wide × 8.3 m high × 750 mm thick) or a real dinosaur fossil next to countless luxury shops.
* Burj Khalifa - there're multiple ways to see the view from the tallest building in the world:
1) AT THE TOP ticket (150 DHS p.p.) - book online and well in advance (peak hours won't be available already a week in advance);
2) ATMOSPHERE high tea (around 360 DHS) - apparently you can simply take a juice or a coffee, not necessarily a whole meal.
We did AT THE TOP as I was very keen on taking lots of pictures & waking around to see the city from different angles, but some people say that high tea is a better investment if you simply want to check out how the city looks from “up there”.
* Dancing fountains: there's a show every half hour - a very enjoyable way to see it is to dine at one of the nearby restaurants. My favorite was Baker & Spice (on the side of Souk al Bahar) because you get a "lengthway view" of all the fountains. One evening we also ate at an Italian restaurant Carluccio's, however, this one wasn't as characteristic & nice as Baker & Spice.
* If you've still got energy at the end of the day: have a look at the indoor ski/snowboard slope at the Mall of the Emirates (MOE).

DAY 4
Take a one-day trip to Abu Dhabi to see the Sheikh Zayed Mosque & the chic Emirates Palace. Don't forget to take your ID with you: at the entrance to the inner courtyard of the Mosque one can get a free audio-guide (very informative!) provided you leave your ID as a deposit.
At the Emirates Palace don't miss the unbelievable interior design (surprisingly, one can park just downstairs, at a free public parking. The only tiny parking "inconvenience": certain spots are reserved for the Emirates Palace limousine :-)
Also don't miss chocolate cakes decorated with edible 24 carat gold & cappuccino with gold leaf sprinkles. Pay attention at the world's first (& so far the only) gold bars ATM in the lobby of the Palace.
DAY 5
DESERT TOURS
* Desert Rangers: Evening Safari (with dune bashing) (270 DHS)
* “Sundowner” from Arabian Adventures (360 DHS): unfortunately, at the time when I was trying to book, the website didn't properly work with all browsers, so I had to book with Desert Rangers (which unexpectedly turned out to be a great choice, btw!)
As the desert tour starts at around 15:00 (depending on the company), you could do some sightseeing before being picked up by your tour car (pick-ups are possible from all major hotels, so I arranged to be collected from Byblos Hotel. So, in the morning we went for a nice promenade at the Dubai Marina & later had dinner at Amadeus Lounge Bar of Byblos Hotel while waiting for the car.
The desert tour itself includes a drive to the desert, dune bashing, photo-stop in the dunes, arrival at the camp where you can enjoy (all included) Arabic coffee, dates, shisha pipe smoking, a camel ride, henna tattoo & a 3-course dinner while watching a belly-dancing performance & Arabic music).
Of course, there’re countless other sights in Dubai, some of them have the potential of occupying the whole day (e.g. Atlantis Water Park or Global Village), others can be just a pleasant start of the day (brunch at the 360 bar with a view of Burj al Arab or you can actually book a table at the famous 7* hotel itself), but I am not going to go into all the details & will leave you some space for your creativity.
However, to wrap up my little travel notes, I’ll tell you that going to United Arab Emirates was an intensely insightful experience: it’s so different from what we’re used to in Europe that simply being exposed to its culture, lifestyle & history made me revisit some cultural notions & views I had & made me more open & susceptible to other cultures. 
Travelling is awesome!

8 comments:

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  2. As of August 2016, a ticket to the "top" of Burj Khalifa, that is, to level 148 at 555 meters above ground, is 500 Dhs. They also sell tickets to levels 124-5.

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  3. Dear, I'm a Muslim myself and let me tell you non Muslims are allowed in mosques provided everyone behaves appropriately! And no there's no infidels-not-touching-the-holy-book rule. I don't know who told you that but whoever did was wrong. I know a Christian man who teaches the Quran to the local children! And if you read the history of Islam, you would know the Prophet(s) made non-Muslim delegates stay at HIS MOSQUE as a sign of respect.

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