Archive for June 2019

United Arab Emirates (Sharjah and Ajman) and Musandam, Oman: 25th-27th February 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers our time in the emirates of Shajah and Ajman, our ‘desert safari’ and a boat trip on the Straits of Hormuz in the Musandam enclave of Oman.

On the morning of the 25th we left Dubai and it’s weird architecture; this is a station on the overhead monorail system.

During our tour we were subjected to three compulsory ‘retail outlets’. The first one a carpet warehouse was visited yesterday, the others selling leather and then jewellery came this morning. I’d like to put it on record that I strongly object to being made to attend these hard-sell sessions. The carpet guy started off saying that these carpets were hand woven by women and girls in the poor parts of the Arab world and if we didn’t buy anything they would all starve! No amount of explaining to the sales staff that dogged your every move that you couldn’t afford, didn’t like or didn’t have room for their carpets would deter them. I even spent time hiding in the gent’s to get way from them. This process was repeated at the leather and jewellery outlets as well. This system was a also feature of the tour to Turkey we did with the company RSD a few years ago, they clearly take a cut from the retailers and that helps keep their costs down. Having confirmed that this is the modus operadi of RSD then we have decided that we won’t ever travel with them again and I can’t recommend them to anyone who doesn’t think a holiday is about shopping for goods at inflated prices.

I particularly objected to the leather outlet selling furs which I consider to be a cruel and unnecessary practice. I did manage to slip out a bit early and was able to photograph this Hoopoe nearby.

Overhead were a number of Pallid Swifts.

We boarded our bus and continued out of Dubai to the Emirate of Sharjah. This is a more conservative emirate than Dubai where alcohol isn’t allowed so I wasn’t too happy until I found out that we weren’t staying here but in the neighbouring emirate of Ajman where alcohol was restricted but available. Our so-called tour of Sharjah just involved stopping at this roundabout and photographing the exteriors of this government building …

… this mosque …

… and this statue representing the Holy Quran.

We headed on to Ajman and our pleasant hotel by the beach …

… having unloaded we found out another annoying bit of information …

… our guide Ozlan who had been very helpful and informative was leaving at this point. I was now thinking that this trip was very poorly organised, however things would improve as you never knew what was happening from one minute to the next.

During the afternoon we explored the harbour area and saw a few birds like the ubiquitous House Crow.

We also had the following morning to ourselves but the following day we joined up with four other people in a 4×4 for a ‘desert safari’. Again the information provided was misleading as we were driven to an enclosure where you could hire a quad bike for a 30 minute drive. As we had been told it was all inclusive we declined …

… but did use the time to make friends with an falconer’s Saker. Here Gill, one of our fellow passengers, poses with the falcon …

… then it was my turn.

After that we took to the 4×4 for the ‘desert safari’ a fast drive in a convoy up and down the sand dunes. It was a bit scary and there were a few frightened squeaks from Margaret but then …

The driver misjudged a ridge top and we just slid down the slope. It felt worse than it looked and we were all worried that it was going to roll over. Eventually we managed to crawl out.

The car in front and behind stopped and after 30 minutes of digging, pushing and pulling we were free to continue. Our driver, an immigrant to the UAE, blamed the guy in front for not driving fast enough to allow him to crest the ridge. The guy in front said ‘these immigrants come over here and don’t even know how to drive properly’. Wherever you go in the world its always someone from elsewhere who’s at fault when things go wrong!

We were supposed to gather to see the sun set over the desert, due to our incident we were delayed so I was lucky to get this shot the moment we arrived at the desert camp, it was supposed to be a traditional Bedouin camp but was clearly set up just for tourists.

We were late so we were hurried loaded onto the back of camel for what must have been the shortest camel ride in history (all of two minutes). Gill and Keith try to look like they’ve enjoyed the ride.

We were given a very substantial meal then as it got fully dark the entertainment started. First a dancer with a costume that lit up as he twirled …

… creating fantastic shapes in the darkness.

The a belly dancer. It always surprises me that a culture that maintains such conservative values when it comes to women’s dress should be responsible for the invention of the erotic belly dance.

And then the man who danced with fire …

… which was quiet breathtaking.

On our final day we were taken to the Omani enclave of Musandam which is totally surrounded on land by the UAE and sits at the point where the Persian Gulf meets the Gulf of Oman, otherwise known as the Straits of Hormuz. Our boat trip departed from the town of Dibba just over the border from the UAE.

The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are known as important wintering grounds for gulls that breed over a wide area of Eurasia. So far my attempts to watch and identify them had been somewhat unsuccessful. So when we arrived a Dibba and I saw groups of gulls on the beach I thought my luck was in but we were herded onto the dhow so quickly that I had virtually no chance.

We soon set off along this arid but starkly beautiful coast.

A lot of the tourists took the opportunity to sunbathe but i was more interested in photographing the gulls that flew by.

I was puzzled by the ID of most of the gulls but studying photos when I got home i came to the conclusion that most of the ‘Herring Gull’ types were a form called barabensis which has variously been considered a race of Caspian Gull, a race of Lesser Black-backed Gull or a species in its own right known as Steppe Gull. This is an adult, as is the bird perched on buoy in the earlier photo.

… whilst this is a 1st winter.

Small parties of the delicate Slender-billed Gull flew by.

A bird I wanted to see (although I’ve sen plenty before on previous visits to Oman) was Sooty Gull, a bird largely restricted to the coasts of the Arabian peninsula and East Africa.

Quite unlike any of the ‘large-white headed gulls’ these were easy to identify.

As we passed close in shore the boatman excitedly called out ‘Arabian falcon’, it was of course an Osprey. Not much good for falconry unless you fancy fish for supper.

We landed at a small cove …

… most, including Margaret went swimming …

… but of course i went birding, seeing Socotra Cormorant, a local speciality …

… a fairly distant Hume’s Wheatear …

… and White-cheeked Bulbul. There is a zoo-geographical area called the Western Palearctic (WP), which includes all of Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. A new handbook has been published by two eminent ornithologists which convincingly argues that the whole of the Middle East including Iran should be included. All the three species shown above occur only in the expanded ‘greater WP’ but not in the former ‘lesser WP’.

Before we boarded the dhow we were taken to the nearby cliffs …

… for a trip inside a sea cave.

I don’t know what it is about tourist sea trips but they nearly always seem to involve a sea cave!

Then it was time to head back to Dibba and catch the bus back to the hotel.

By the time we got back to Dibba there were hundreds of gulls on the beach, again there was little time to study them, but I think I can see Lesser Crested Tern, Black-headed, Slender-billed and Steppe Gulls plus a House Crow in the image. I had hoped to find an arctic subspecies of Lesser Black-backed called Heuglin’s Gull but I couldn’t convince myself that any were present among the many ‘Steppe’ Gulls.

Back at hotel as we had to check out of our room before we left we were given a chance to shower and change at the hotel’s gym. Then all that remained was to take the bus back to Abu Dhabi for our overnight flight back home.

Although on time the transfer at Istanbul was problematic. Unlike on the way out we had to go through a security check, there were many hundreds in front of us and once we entered the zig-zag taped zone people kept ducking under the tape and queue-jumping which led to frayed tempers from many. We made the flight ok but there was hardly any time to even sit down, not what you want in the middle of the night.

I’ve been wondering what to post as my final shot, there have been so many highlights on this tour, the mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Burj Khalifa, the boat in Oman but I’ve decided to conclude with another shot of the ‘desert safari’.

In conclusion the United Arab Emirates and the Musandam enclave of Oman were very interesting places to visit and I’m glad we went. However the actual tour arrangements fell well below expectations. The chaotic transfers at Istanbul which could have been avoided with direct flights, the lack of clear information on what was and wasn’t included in the tour price and of course the compulsory visits to hard-sell retail outlets mean that we will definitely boycott the company RSD in future.

Dubai: United Arab Emirates – 23rd-24th February 2019   Leave a comment

In my last post I detailed our visit to Abu Dhabi. This was part of a week long trip to the United Arab Emirates. Our next stop was the Emirate of Dubai another of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, we spent our time in the city of Dubai.

From Wikipedia:  Dubai is a global city and business hub of the Middle East. It is also a major global transport hub for passengers and cargo. Oil revenue helped accelerate the development of the city, which was already a major mercantile hub, but Dubai’s oil reserves are limited and production levels are low: today, less than 5% of the emirate’s revenue comes from oil. A growing centre for regional and international trade since the early 20th century, Dubai’s economy today relies on revenues from trade, tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services.

 

Dubai seems to be the product of a competition entitled ‘who can build the most outlandish building’. There seems little point of this structure other than somewhere to go up an elevator on one side, walk across to the other and then down an elevator again to ground level.

 

Our first stop in Dubai was the Dubai Mall. This is not just any shopping centre, its absolutely enormous …

 

… and has dinosaur skeletons in the concourse …

 

… multi-level fountains complete with sculptures of diving men …

 

… all discretely wearing swimming trunks of course …

 

… and even a massive aquarium where you don’t see minnows or goldfish swim by …

 

… you come face to face with sharks and rays.

 

Outside the mall you are overwhelmed by the scale of Dubai’s towering skyline …

 

… never more so than when you gaze up at the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa at a mere 830m. Originally named the Burj Dubai, the project ran into financial difficulty during the financial crisis of the ‘naughties’ and the project was rescued by input from the president of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and so was renamed in his honour.

 

Fancy a job as the window cleaner on the world’s tallest building?

 

Here is a diagram from Wikipedia showing the Burj Khalifa in relation to other notable tall buildings.

 

Of course the Burj Khalifa won’t remain the highest building for long, it is said that Saudi Arabia is building an even taller one, so not to be outdone Dubai is erecting a new tower that will be over a kilometre high in the Dubai Creek region. Here in the Mall is a model of what it will look like.

 

As a town Dubai didn’t exist until 1799 when the Bani Yas clan established it as a dependency of Abu Dhabi. It wasn’t until 1966 that oil was discovered and the place was transformed beyond recognition. As a result there are few old buildings in Dubai and a historic tour would be short indeed. One old building that survives is this fort that has been turned into a museum.

 

The museum contained many reconstructions of traditional Arab life including the pastime of falconry. A falcon, usually a Saker, was used to catch and kill a Houbara Bustard (I know that officially its now called Macqueen’s Bustard but most people still use the name Houbara). Unfortunately in the modern era this traditional practice is having a devastating effect on both predator and prey, with both the Saker and Houbara being wiped out in the wild in Arabia. The demand for wild hatched Sakers is now so high that few exist west of Tibet and the Asian form of Houbara has been extirpated in most areas west of Kazakhstan, (except of course, Israel for obvious reason). Unusually on this blog these photos of birds, albeit dead ones, are the only ones in this post.

 

We crossed Dubai Creek by traditional dhow on our way to a traditional market …

 

…where we perused the spices, fabrics and other stuff on sale …

 

… but didn’t buy much.

 

That evening we went on another outing on Dubai Creek, evening meal included.

 

As we slid under various bridges we passed buildings that were even higher than those in Abu Dhabi …

 

… and of even weirder shapes.

 

The first port of call this morning was the dreaded carpet warehouse, I’ll mention that little inconvenience in the next post. Then we went on to the Burj El Arab, said to be the only 7-star hotel in the world (a description the management say they didn’t coin) but certainly one of the most expensive. We paused briefly at the gates for photos …

 

… and at this hotel with a herd of ‘golden horses’ on the lawn …

 

… before we drove to the Palm Islands. There are three artificial islands in Dubai shaped like palms (and another group of islands shaped like a map of the world) and we visited one of them. The apartments on the fronds of the arms are mega expensive but there is a huge waiting list for them.  After all they have a guaranteed sea view! Photo from Wikipedia.

 

We drove up the central ‘trunk’ of the ‘palm’ and through the arch of the mega hotel at the end.

 

They build them big in Dubai.

 

In the foyer of the hotel was the biggest aquarium I’ve ever seen, not only was there full sized sharks and rays in there …

 

… guests can even scuba dive or rent a room with a window onto the aquarium. Imagine waking up to see a shark float past your bedroom window.

 

We also strolled along the breakwater which forms the perimeter road in the hope of seeing some seabirds, no joy but Red-vented Bulbul near where the car was parked was notable in a (Greater) WP context.

 

After returning to the hotel we came back that evening for what was to be one of the highlights of the trip, a visit to the Burj Khalifa itself. First we visited the adjacent plaza where at dusk the fountains played to music every half hour.

 

Although it was difficult to get a clear shot due to the crowds, the display was breathtaking, especially as it was all done in the shadow (perhaps not the most appropriate term, as it was now night) of the Burj Khalifa …

 

… which was illuminated by writing in a variety of languages promoting the Dubai Mall and the Burj itself.

 

In due course it was time to leave and ascend the mighty tower to the observation platform. There are two observation platforms, the main one on the 124th floor at 452m or the more expensive one ‘Sky Level’ at 148th floor at 555m.

 

Not very often you see an elevator with floor numbers like this!

 

If you pay for ‘sky level’ you can visit both observation platforms. The upper one is a lot less crowded, but as always its difficult to actually get a view due to people taking selfies by the windows.

 

The view from here was more like the view from an aeroplane than a tall building.

 

The lower level had one advantage, there was a narrow slit open to outside so you could poke your phone (but not your proper camera) through and get a pic of the fountains playing around the lake below.

 

The evening wasn’t over we headed past other strangely shaped buildings …

 

… to the impressive Burj al Arab hotel which is shaped like a spinnaker sail.

 

This hotel displays an ostentatious level of opulence and is completely ‘over the top’. This is the view looking upwards from the foyer.

 

From the reception desk that looks like an old fashioned juke box we took the escalator to the first floor …

 

… past a series of waterfalls and fountains …

 

… to an ornamental pool …

 

… with even more fountains.

 

So how much does it cost to stay in ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’? According to TripAdvisor a single bedroom suite will set you back £1200 per night but the presidential suite which is reserved for heads of state and royalty is more like £2000.

 

However the hotel must make a nice little side line by letting tourists pop and and have a drink in one of the bars as the combined cost of the outing to the ‘two burjs’ wasn’t cheap.

 

It was lovely to see Margaret lighting up the room.

 

We left about 2300 finding that the hotel and the causeway leading to it was illuminated in purple.

 

That more or less covers our time in Dubai, however we still had a couple of days left in UAE during which we would visit the Emirates of Sharaja and Ajman, go on a desert safari where the 4×4 nearly rolled down a big sand dune and travelled to Oman to catch a dhow to the Straits of Hormuz. That will be the subject of the next post.