Rushing round Dubai… then rushing to Kuwait

I woke early the following day to be taken around Dubai in a minibus. Breakfast was included in my “rent” and was quite passable.

I’d really wanted to go to Wild Wadi, the water park, but didn’t meet anyone at the hostel to go with – until I was waiting for the minibus to arrive for the tour. A shame, but perhaps I’ll go back another day. It was also annoying because the tour bus arrived over an hour late. This is a big waste of time when you’re only in a country for two days.

Finally, we set off with our cramped transport attempting to deal with the horrendous Dubai traffic. A major issue with Dubai is a lack of stopping or parking places for tourist vehicles. As a result, we were literally clicking like loons at the windows to get photos instead of being able to step out and take decent pictures. What I first thought was bad pollution also didn’t help when trying to take pictures of distant buildings, but I found out there had been bad sandstorms a day or so earlier, which was causing the foggy appearance.

Remember that Indian guy from the mall yesterday? Well, he’s from West London. He just got married to a lovely young lady who was with him and they were heading for Mauritius. I know this because he was on the same city tour! Small world, indeed.

We did see some impressive structures and managed 30 minutes at the Dubai Museum which was quite interesting. Set in an old fort, it looks tiny on first appearance until you see a door taking you to “new exhibits”. They are buried below the original fort and cover maybe three times the surface area. And they’re air-conditioned which was welcome.

The only other actual stops were on the Creekside and near the Burj Al Arab hotel (the big sail-like one that costs a mortgage per night to stay in). We drove closer to that hotel, but couldn’t get in – it’s £30 entrance fee to walk onto the grounds let alone stay there. We also saw the Trade Centre and Emirates Towers buildings, the Gulf Air owner’s “house” (I thought it was another town, it was so huge), construction on what it to be the world’s tallest building (Burj Dubai) and the outside of the only mosque that foreigners can enter.

One part we zoomed around at near neck-breaking speed was the under-construction “Palm – Jumeirah”, an artificial island structure being built out into the Arabian Gulf and effectively a small trial run for the much larger Palm Deira further east. In addition to these mental undertakings is another group of artificial islands somewhere between them called The World. The islands here look like a map of the earth when viewed from the air. I so wish I could afford to buy the UK island. I’d build my toilet where Sunderland would be located.

With that, we started dropping people off. I was the last one on the bus and got dropped off almost an hour later than I should have been again due to the traffic. At the hostel, it was recommended that I leave soon to ensure there would be no such traffic problems getting me to the airport. I wasn’t flying out of the nearby DBX where I’d landed, but instead around 20km away from Sharjah. Sharjah is a smaller town with its own international airport from where budget airlines Jazeera and Air Arabia fly. Much, much cheaper than anyone I could get a ticket from DBX for.

As it turns out, there was no traffic at all between Dubai and Sherjah so I got there with a ton of spare time. A shame they didn’t have wireless but I did get all my photos off my camera and burned to CD ready for mailing home at the next opportunity.

So, onto another aeroplane. Destination: Kuwait, number 15.

Surprisingly, a much better flight than the Emirates on of a couple of days ago. Air Arabia definitely get my recommendation! I wasn’t too impressed with Sherjah airport, though. Admittedly it’s somewhat under construction, but the Costa charges UK prices for their sandwiches and some bright spark seemed to think it made sense to provide a smoking room and then wedge the doors open on it so that one wing absolutely stank. Plus one of the toilets had paper in them despite having western loos and toilet roll holders. Not good.

Still, I’ve seen worse. I’ve paid money to live in worse. And it was only a couple of hours before I jumped onto that pleasant aircraft and another two before I touched down on Kuwaiti tarmac.

Now, I’ll be honest. I’m like a lot of people who hadn’t heard of Kuwait until a certain Saddam decided to march into it and try to steal all the oil back around 1990. As such, it was just another Middle East warground to me and a bit at the back of my mind was still expecting bullet-pocked walls, desert, and men with camels everywhere. What I wasn’t expecting was a swift run through immigration, a very small charge for a visa and to walk into an airport that looked more like a shopping mall with glistening tiles and chrome everywhere. And a KFC.

I was hoping to meet my uncle Bob in the airport (there are a lot of Bobs, Roberts and Robbies in my family) as I’d emailed him the day before to expect me. However, I know he’s busy and doesn’t check his email too regularly so I made a call to the number I’d been given. The nice Kuwaiti woman who answered didn’t seem too annoyed that I’d got the wrong number. Argh.

My next plan was to find somewhere I could make an international call back home to get the right number when I heard a broad Kentuckyan drawl over my shoulder. “Well, goddamn, that must be you. Nobody else in this country could get away with wearing those shorts!”

So that’s how Bob greets the first visitor he’s had in Kuwait since he moved there to work 8 months ago. No wonder people aren’t bothering to fly over! Seriously, it was great to see the guy again. I honestly can’t remember the last time we met – I’d hazard a guess at around 16 years ago at my cousin Avril’s wedding. She’s the one who’s now in Brisbane.

Bob had found me, but lost his wife Aurelie. Finally, we spotted her, we exchanged our hellos and made our way out of the airport to Bob’s nice company-provide 4×4. Sadly, Kuwait had suffered the same sandstorms as Dubai recently, so the air was really hazy. A shame as I’m told the views of the Gulf are phenomenal most of the time.

Our first stop was a Ruby Tuesday where Bob and Aurelie insisted on force-feeding me a pretty nice steak. I was a bit of a pushover when it came to being convinced, I confess. I think this was the same restaurant chain Hans and I ended up in in Mumbai before going to see Blood Diamond, and I recall them being stupidly expensive (for India) and the pizza was rubbish. No complaints here.

Night had closed in when we got to the flat. Wow. Half the third floor of a tower block and my room was about the size of the lounge in my old house. Free internet, a kitchen, a balcony with a (hazy) view of the Gulf, a gym, pool, sauna, 250-channel telly… I began to regret only having two days here.

Courtesy of Bob’s laptop, I spoke to my mother and one of my cousins in the US. You’ve got to love Skype and NetPhone.

Sun, sea, sand… and snow?

And on to number 14 – Dubai, another one-night stop. You know, I’m not sure if this is a country, a state or a region. It’s one of the United Arab Emirates, a group of recently-rich oil states which are spending their money predominantly on property development to try and entice tourists in.

I arrived at what will soon be the old airport. A new one at least four times the size is under construction further to the west of the city. In fact, that’s a hugely common theme across Dubai – construction. And on a silly scale. The tourist map I have must be around one third full of areas marked as “under construction” and I hear that 60% of the world’s cranes are located here.

My flight was on the flag-carrier, Emirates, and I have to say it was one of the least comfortable flights I’ve had. Especially given the company’s reputation I thought the plane was very poor. Great staff, but the seat was uncomfortable and the TV screen on my seat didn’t work properly. The food wasn’t that great, either.

Annoyingly, my flight landed at 4:30am and I discovered that the first public bus wasn’t due until 7:41. Well, after immigration I only had just over two hours to kill so I kicked back, fired up the laptop and enjoyed free internet. Then, a few minutes after logging off I reconnected after the 7:41 bus just drove past a bunch of people waving like madmen at the stop. Just like being back home. Only a little warmer.

At 8:11, I caught the next bus which decided to try the mind-boggling technique of stopping and handed over my smallest bill – 100 Dirham. The driver laughed and asked if I had change. Erm, no. He took my 100 and popped it by his window.

A short drive later, he waved me forward and returned my hundred. “This your stop – Al Ahli Club” which turned out to be a footie ground, not the nightclub I’d imagined. Either way, I’d saved 1.5 Dirham on the bus far by not having change which was a good start.

The next 45 minutes or so were spent walking around in utter confusion up and down a main road trying to locate the hostel from the rather inadequate directions from their web site. I finally approached the nice men with guns at the Central Police Headquarters who kindly pointed me in the right direction. Had I got off at the next stop, I’d have been able to see it.

Finally, drenched in sweat and with arms like Popeye courtesy of my laptop bag I walked up to reception and checked in. A kindly American girl told me what her group had done and how much to pay, and the chap on reception gave me a written list of buses I should need. I ditched my stuff in my room, had a much-needed shower and walked to the bus stop with the aim of visiting the Gold Souk and then the Mall of Emirates.

After an hour during which time roughly 12 buses had driven right past (except one, which disgorged four people then sped off without letting anyone else on) I gave up and walked to a nearby mall for a nice Indian lunch. Back to the bus stop and a 25-minute wait until I finally got picked up.

The bus arrived at the Gold Souk around thirty minutes later. This is an area filled with shops which sell – you guessed it – gold. However, being a Friday everywhere was closed. I waited thirty minutes to board another bus to the Emirates Mall despite three being sat there for ages. I think this was due to my arrival coinciding with prayer time. Another hour and I stepped off this bus around ten minutes’ walk from the mall. Believe it or not, there’s no direct route from one of the major bus stations to the largest mall in Dubai.

It’s an awesome, though ugly, building. At 1km x 3km in rough dimensions, it’s the same size as the original Dubai. Mind, the original Dubai didn’t have an indoor snow slope squirming its way overhead.

I grabbed lunch from Carrefour then walked around a few camera shops to locate a replacement for the Olympus I lost in Laos. I settled on a newer model for around the same price, so I’m now the owner of a 770sw. Everywhere charged the same price and there just didn’t seem to be any haggling possible, but I did manage to get a 2Gb memory card.

My main reason for visiting the mall was to see the ski slope so I walked off that way and sat down to set up the camera. I had to go to an information desk to borrow some scissors to get into the memory card pack and an Indian chap talked briefly to me while I was stood there. This seems inoccuous, but remember that it happened!

Camera set up, I started to fiddle with it. Only to find that it sometimes wouldn’t switch on unless I popped the battery out and back in, and kept “forgetting” the date and asking me for it again when it did power on. Good job it failed now rather than a few weeks down the line. Back to the shop.

Oh, what fun I had trying to explain this to the muppet at the counter. When I handed him the camera, it wouldn’t switch on – the same problem I had. He did the same thing – battery out; battery in. Then it worked. I explained that’s exactly the problem I’d had. He poked and prodded, swapped the battery around and said “no problem”.

“No. There is a problem. You had the problem. When I gave you the camera it didn’t work. And it had lost the date.”

“But it works. See? You will have no problem with this camera.”

“It has a problem. You saw the problem. It has done it three times now. I am concerned that it will do it again.”

He looked puzzled. “No, no problem. See? It works.”

“It works now, it didn’t work before, it could stop working again. Can you please swap it for another one?”

“What is problem?”

I literally lowered my head and banged it on the counter top. He genuinely seemed to have mentally blanked out the fact that the camera had failed to power up when I handed it to him. I think my anguish finally got through and he swapped it for another one, telling me that there’s an international warranty anyway so it’s not an issue. Well, it is an issue when you’re waking around Europe for 3 months and can’t spend a month in one place waiting for a replacement.

Anyway.

Next stop, Ski Dubai. For around £20, I got all my kit (except gloves and a hat as if you need them) and two hours on the slope. Oh, man, it was good. Take your choice of chair-lift or a drag-lift, two routes down the top half and a few jumps and pipes. Death defying photographers at the bottom try to snap you as you come to a stop and sell you the pictures. I have no idea how much they charge. I was too busy having fun.

Two hours, twelve runs and my times dropped from 10 minutes a run down to 7 as I got my feet under me again. I didn’t fall down until I started trying too hard towards the end, which impressed me no end as I’ve not had a board on my feet since New Zealand last year.

Great fun and well worth the money. It also helped me work up an appetite so that I could locate a KFC and partake in one of my customary “if there’s one in the country I have to eat there” meals.

Getting back to the hostel was “fun”, by which I mean “frustrating”. I couldn’t even find a bus stop after a twenty minute walk back down the road I’d come in on and ended up catching a taxi which cost a small fortune. The trip to the mall took almost three hours and cost 4.5 Dirham. The drive back took twenty minutes and cost 50.5 Dirham. Ouch. Definitely cheaper as a group.

I booked a city tour for the next day and prompty zonked out in bed.

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