Sheikhs, Sultans and Sand

I’m not exactly sure where to begin here because the last 5 days in the Emirates and Oman have been a blur. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this extra time that popped up on my trip but I am positive I made the right move staying in the UAE. I got to really know Dubai, seeing friends and meeting new ones. I also took a classic and very comprehensive road trip around all 7 Emirates and the Musandam Peninsula and Madha in Oman. The Emirates and Oman boast some of the best desert scenery you will ever see and there is so much going on in all 7 Emirates that it’ll make your head spin. You can’t help but wonder how they will fill all these resorts and buildings, where they find all these dirt cheap laborers, and what these places will look like in 10 years. I was here three years ago and it looks a hell of a lot different than it did then.

Dubai is a city on the move as everybody knows. Cranes dot the skyline and traffic slows the ground pace but glitz and glamour is everywhere. The city is built to dazzle you. The city was built by laborers, mainly from India, who work for peanuts in the scorching hot sun for hours and hours a day. They are paid a pittance compared to anything they deserve but there are a thousand in line to replace anyone who doesn’t want to do the backbreaking labor.

I heard many stories this week about how they weren’t being paid properly and how they are abused both mentally and physically. Stories of the labor camps that make them seem to be more like slave camps than work camps. It is normal to see them on the side of the road sleeping in groups at all times of the day and night. They may have missed their bus back to camp or whatever, but they don’t seem to be well accounted for. Apparently retinal scans are used to keep track of them period; but I don’t know exactly.
That aside, as I guess throughout history most great civilizations were built by less fortunate people, Dubai is something else. I am still not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing but it certainly is something and something that cannot be ignored. My first time here three years ago, I was sick and didn’t have a good time. I got annoyed by all the traffic, dust in the air and being surrounded by cranes. This time I was healthy and really saw what has happened to this former fishing village.
The Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building by far, at over a half mile high is unreal. It seriously will blow you away. Words cannot express the height and it is gorgeous to boot. A $30 trip to the worlds highest observation deck is pretty cool but to best appreciate the scale, you have to look from afar and see that it’s more than twice the size of any other building in Dubai…and there are a ton of tall buildings. It is really impressive and while I was there, Tom Cruise was dangling off of it filming Mission Impossible 4. I didn’t see him but it was in all of the papers. (Ironically, 3 weeks ago I was up in the CN Tower in Toronto, formerly the worlds highest free standing structure and will also be at Taipei 101 in a week or so which is formerly the worlds highest building).
The entry to the Burj Khalifa lies within a mall as you would imagine in Dubai where everything happens in a mall. However, this wasn’t just any mall, it was THE mall. Dubai Mall is the mall to end all malls. I hate malls but this place is a sight to be seen. It is immaculate, immense and glitzy as anything you’ve ever seen.
Every imaginable fancy store is there and decked out to the nines. There is flare coming off the ceiling creating a scene reminiscent of when you shake those little Christmas snowflake things when you were a kid. They have everything. They had a 110 inch, $12,000 television that made my 64 inch look like a midget invention. They had a gourmet food court. They had ice skating rinks. They had women who don’t even show off their clothes because they wear birkas buying $5,000 outfits. They had sheikh’s just hanging out sipping lattes and talking on mobile phones eating Pinkberry. It was weird, kind of cool, but really weird.

Moving away from the malls, I finally went into the Burj Al Arab. In fact, I made a reservation for lunch, thanks to a recommendation of a friend of mine. This saves you the $50 cover charge to see the inside of the Burj. It also allows you to go up to the sky bar and see the killer view of the Gulf Coast. It allows you to be on the beach and even use it if you wanted. I didn’t bring my bathing suit unfortunately but the beach was great as you can see. The restaurant was OK, way overpriced but I just got a Caprese Salad anyway, so it wasn’t that bad. I then headed inside and up the Burj.
The world’s only 7 star hotel is as gaudy as anything. It is seriously the tackiest thing I have ever laid eyes on. It is something to see though. The lobby is like a dreamland. Not necessarily in a good way but it is a dreamland of colors, fountains, gold columns and floor designs. It is hard to explain and hopefully these pictures can do some justice to the gaudiness or perhaps you’ve seen it on TV before.
The bar upstairs, opposite the helicopter pad, is a jacket required bar. I, of course show up in tee shirt and hiking pants. They make me put a jacket on to head into the bar which is fine, although it didn’t fit. I felt like Tommy Boy with the little coat on. Anyway, I didn’t order any of the ridiculously overpriced drinks but did admire the view then politely said thanks and headed back downstairs.

The Burj is a piece of work by any standards. Again, not my taste but something to see for sure. The new Atlantis Dubai (Same one from the Bahamas) is right down the beach as is the palm island group and the universe. They are expanding the size of Dubai proper to where the new Atlantis is heading toward Abu Dhabi. There are hundreds of new buildings and the light rail heads all the way out there. Crazy, it really is. So after all the malls and sightseeing I could take, my friend had a Chevy Tahoe, so we hit the road!
I will give the abbreviated version of this awesome trip as this is already getting long. We headed north through Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qaiwain and Ras Al Khaimah and crossed the Omani border and headed to Khasab. Khasab is the main town in the Omani enclave of Ras Musandam. I had previously been here in 2008 and it didn’t disappoint this time either. It is truly gorgeous with great views around every turn of the windy mountain road.
After you hit Khasab, to get back to the UAE, you can either head back the way you came or take the dirt/rock mountain road through the rugged mountains to Dibba. Shockingly, we decided to take the mountain road, as we had a Chevy Tahoe 4 wheel drive.

The drive was unreal. It’s hard to explain the drop offs and the tough roads, turns and corners. After an hour and a half in the dark, we arrived at the Omani border station with just a little gas left in the tank but plenty to get to Dibba to refuel. The guard came to the car and said we couldn’t pass because the road was closed to Dibba. Apparently there was a flash flood that caused a landslide on the dirt road. He told us we had to drive all the way back to Khasab. This did not please us.

After much arguing, there was another road and we asked why we couldn’t take that road back to Ras Al Khaimah. He kept saying there was no stamp there and the road was only for Emirati who didn’t need a stamp. He said that no foreigners had ever been let through there. My friend had a resident visa but that didn’t matter. Eventually, we convinced him to let us drive the 12km to try and reason with the guards at the UAE border post. He laughed at us and said that we were welcome to go but they would never let us get through and we would be wasting our time and fuel. We decided to risk it. Even if there was a 10% chance, it was worth it to not have to drive that road again in the dark with little fuel.

We arrived at the station and they looked at us like we had three heads. They said no right away. After pleading using mainly hand signals because they didn’t speak good English we showed him the fuel gauge. To make a long story short, he had to call his captain who was an asshole. We talked to him on the phone and he kept saying he’d call us back etc. After about an hour, he shows up from out of nowhere and starts ranting in broken English about passport stamps and illegal entry etc. We play dumb and say we can get it tomorrow, blah blah. After a while he gets tired of us fighting with him and he just let us go. We were the first ever foreigners to cross that border crossing. The problem was we had now left Oman and entered UAE illegally.

After navigating roads that shouldn’t have been driven on, we made it back to Ras Al Khaimah (RAK). In the morning we headed back to the original border crossing and tried to explain ourselves and why we needed the stamps in order to leave the country again without hassle. Eventually after explaining the story to both sides of the border they stamped us out and we were relieved and headed to Fujairah, the Emirate on the other coast that boats some of the best beaches in the Middle East.

Following some quality beach time, we headed to find the Omani enclave of Madha which was easily located right off the highway. To our surprise, there was no border post and very little fanfare at all. Within Madha, there also lies a UAE enclave of Nahwa which most people do not know about. This is made up of dirt roads which we gladly traversed. Until of course, the road was closed and we had to head back to Fujairah.
Back in Dubai, I met up with another friend at some Irish bar on Sheikh Zayed Road called Fibber McGee’s. There were some real characters there. There were no open tables but my buddy knew a Sri Lankan, Canadian guy who invited us to his table. We sat, had a few pints along with some Irish guys. They taught me a lot about the real Dubai and I had a great time chatting with them. I was wearing Quebec Nordiques tee shirt and the Sri Lankan Canadian guy couldn’t get over that fact and it was funny the whole night he kept talking about it.
In Abu Dhabi, I visited the new Grand Mosque that opened in 2007. It is just that-grand. It was easily the nicest mosque I have ever seen and I believe it is the 8th largest in the world. The outside was immaculate white marble everywhere with intricate carvings and mosaics. The inside was vast and gorgeous. The place has to be seen to be believed. No expense was spared in building this mosque and is worth a trip to Abu Dhabi alone just to see it.
The inside is just as spectacular as the outside and the size of two football fields and the largest rug I have ever seen. It is impeccably clean and was a pleasure to visit. Little school children were sitting around singing songs and everyone was really nice.
I am a bit spent trying to write all these details and don’t know what to include and what not because there was so much stuff that I could do like 5 different posts. However, it’s been a long day and I am sitting in the Abu Dhabi airport dreading the overnight flight to Colombo I have coming up. I will be the only foreigner as usual and it looks to be full which means annoying.

I will be in Sri Lanka for a day and a half exploring the north of the country. This will be my third time there and should be fun before I head to the Maldives to catch my free flight to Singapore. I am excited because I have to make a bunch of Skype calls and they block Skype in the UAE for some stupid reason. Hopefully, I can find some wifi in Sri Lanka and set up my hotels etc for the next week and stop my damn credit card company from stopping my credit card.

I swear I call them every time I leave the States and tell them I am traveling and not to block transactions if they are within so and so country but every time they still do it. It is relatively enraging and certainly annoying. Anyway, check back with me soon as I have booked my tickets for an exciting next 2 weeks in really cool places.

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  1. Thanks for this post Lee. I am heading out to the UAE in two weeks and this post just got me even more excited about my trip. I am heading there to visit family, but they are arranging for me to see as much as the area as possible. Also, I’ve been trying to skype with them for the past three years to no avail.

    Looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip!

  2. Looks amazing!

  3. Michelle, email me if you need any advice on UAE or Middle East in general…lets get together when you get back, been forever…

  4. Thats an unreal picture of the Burj

  5. Wow it\’s neat to see the mosque completed, it was under construction when we were there. I need to get back to Dubai/UAE at some point soon.

    It sounds like you made good use of your extra time you had, too bad the Chagos and Wake Island tours were canceled. Any word yet if they\’re rescheduling the Chagos trip? I pushed my Guam trip back a week now, going to Palau, Saipan and Pohnpei in December.

  6. I made good use of time but it would have been nicer to get Chagos and Wake completed. I actually just signed up for the Wake trip next December for the 70th anniversary commemoration. They assured me it wouldnt be cancelled.

  7. The Abu Dhabi mosque was absolutely gorgeous btw, easily the nicest one I have ever seen and massive to boot.

  8. Hello Lee, I have few questions to ask you.

    I want to visit all the countries you have visited, how long will it take? Also, how much aproximately will it costs ?

    Thank you very much, I am very impressed about what you did

  9. Hi David, thanks for the comment but it is very hard to give you accurate answers to those wuestions as there are a ton of variables that go into cost and time. It totally depends what your budget and amount of time available are; how you travel, ie modes of transport, places you stay, food you eat, etc. I cannot possibly answer that question with any specifics but good luck and if you have any specific questions, please let me know.

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