15th – 22nd November 2017
Abu Dhabi, Al Ain & the Rub’al Khali desert.

17th November 2017

Drove about an hour (1.5 max) to Al Ain, UAE’s Garden City and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Met up with our friend, Nicholas, at our hotel, Al Ain Rotana. He had decided to spend his weekend with us, exploring one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements!

For its cheap prices, Al Ain Rotana provided a decent room with a good breakfast buffet spread and one of the better hotel gym facilities. Parking was, of course, free for hotel guests. It was certainly a triple upgrade from the airport hotel.

Dropped the bags in our rooms and we were off to the camel market!


The last souq of its kind in UAE, Al Ain Camel Market is where traders convene to buy and sell their animals. Kenny and I had read about their hardcore negotiations in a business book and were excited to see such bargaining live in action. Well, stupid as stupid is, we completely forgot it was the weekend. So, no free show for us. But, we did get to see the camels, goats and sheep up close in their pens.

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Kenny and Nic took photos and videos while I stood, highly uncomfortable, watching them squeeze 6 camels into a tiny truck.


Kenny had to cut the video short because he got stares. We quickly walked away to avoid any confrontation. The locals might have thought we were conservationists or something. Just yesterday, Samir was telling us how camels were treated with respect and were loved by the Bedouin. Seeing this, the day after, only underscored the severe encroachment of modern civilisation unto traditional livelihood. A truck is, after all, the best way to transport the animals in today’s world.

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I just had to take a photo of our noble steed. Won’t be able to buy this in Singapore because Dodge has no plans to make a RHD version. It was easy to adjust to LHD within the first 30mins. Not too shabby considering the last time I drove left-handed was 9 years ago in Europe.

Suffice to say, I lived a little car dream in UAE! And what better way to tick off my “Drive Around The World” bucket list than driving on one of the world’s greatest driving roads – Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road!

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(kenny climbed over the railing to take this photo. after that bathroom scare, he gave me another one when I saw him disappear behind some rocks  _|_  )

Fun fact – Hafeet Mountain Road is also a challenging training ground for professional cyclists! On top of annual cycling competitions, Al Ain’s mountain played host to the last leg of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Tour in 2015.

This asphalt beauty is 11.7km long with 60 bends, rising at an elevation of 4000ft. As the second highest mountain in UAE, Jebel Hafeet’s famed road was built so that the rich has a place to play with their supercars. I took the Charger up at an average speed of 80km/h. Although it was not as fast as I would have liked to go, it was still enjoyable. Besides, Kenny gets car sick. #SupportiveHusbandFTW for wanting to sit through the car ride!


Major thanks to Nic for bringing his GoPro!
Song is a mashup titled “Rather A Night Out” – Madeon & Martin Solveig vs Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne.

We were shocked at how crowded it was at the top. LOL. Little did we know, Jebel Hafeet was a weekend spot for local expats to spend time with their families while catching the sunset at the peak.


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(can you spot the singaporean car?)

The 3 of us had seen better sunsets so we hung back on a park bench, sipped karak chai, ate ice cream (in winter!), ‘talked cock and sung songs” until it was time to make our way to a night souq for dinner. The cool weather made it twice as pleasant!

(thanks Nic for being the best wefie king ever! HAHAHA!)

At Al Qattara, it was another madhouse. Took us a while to find parking as the district’s souq was overflowing with people and cars. How festive for a Friday night!


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We were the only tourists in Souq Al Qattara; sticking out like a sore thumb. Naturally, it was the most authentic souq experience as we got to see a sliver of how the Emiratis of Al Ain spend their weekends – dancing to live music, watching traditional performances, feasting on all kinds of Arabian fare, buying toys for the children and shopping for little trinkets such as mini perfumes and traditionally-weaved bags.

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Kenny and I bought a bottle of local honey back home. IT IS SO TASTY AND NOT OVERWHELMINGLY SWEET! PERFECT!

Most of the stores we patronized could converse in English. Only one was tended by an elderly lady with whom we had difficulty conveying our orders. A fellow customer, an Emirati, stepped in to help. What surprised us 3 chinkies was that 5 people ordered karak chai but there were only 4 cups available and the Emirati split a cup with his friend just so we could each have a cup of our own! We thanked him profusely and walked away with our food & drinks, laughing at ourselves knowing that such gestures would never happen in Singapore or Malaysia. Emirati hospitality is truly in a league of its own!

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(not a fan of the mashed bread and curry but the fried balls were heavenly and addictive!!!)

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(hands down, my favourite middle eastern rice is egyptian rice!!)

Upon discovering the drinks truck served karak chai, I was a repeating customer for probably 4 times? Imagine a short, female, Chinese tip-toeing to slip a note on the counter and then struggling to carry 2-3 cups of karak chai while fumbling with her bag. LOLOL! The truck guy shot me a weird look but on my 3rd appearance, he put his hand up indicating that no verbal order was required, already preparing my drink without a word. We were a karak chai machine! Woohoo!

 

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I cannot emphasise enough how much more enjoyable the weather made our trip. I would have never been so receptive to having dinner at a ‘pasar malam’ if not for the cool temperatures. Not forgetting that I had to have my shoulders covered and the only thing I had was a leather jacket as I was wearing a sleeveless top.

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(perfect photobombing!)

The night was still young when we got back to the hotel. Nic took us to Abu Dhabi’s popular bar outlet, Trader Vic’s. Their cocktails were out of this world. With the aid of some alcohol, the lethargy started to set in and we called it a night. So much for wanting to ‘party’ till late!

18th November 2017

It was a day of UNESCO World Heritage site after site!

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Qasr Al Muwaiji – the birthplace of the current President of UAE, Sheikh Khalifa. The reconstructed fort and watchtower were exceptionally immersive and evocative. One of the best museums for me to date! Located along the road to Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Muwaiji was a symbol of authority which solidified Abu Dhabi’s control over the oases, protecting fresh water, date plantations and profitable trade routes. I have not felt such sense of enlightenment in a really long time. My inner history nerd was reeling in excitement.

After which, we took a beautiful walk in Al Ain Oasis which showed the irrigation network within the date plantations!

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Of its 7 oases, Al Ain Oasis is the largest and the world’s oldest, still functional, irrigation system aka falaj system. Known for their aflaj (plural for falaj), a prehistoric underground irrigation network that channels water from subterranean springs and wells to the surface, Al Ain Oasis’s is 30km long and covers more than 1200 hectares of land. What is truly amazing is that this oasis has been drawing spring water from the nearby Hajar Mountains for the past 3000 years (and counting!), turning arid lands into fertile ones. Essentially, this ancient system was sustained in the middle of the desert! #Mindblown

Today, Al Ain Oasis cultivates a huge date palm plantation. In light of global warming and climate change, these ancient techniques would come in really handy. More importantly, the methodology is a testament to the ingenuity of Al Ain’s ancient inhabitants and Bedouin tribes. Should a time come for our modern civilisations to employ their methods, these people will finally be seen as real visionaries of the human race.

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(courtesy of our wefie king)

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(taking a breather; it was a really long walk)

Had delicious briyani at a cafe located at the entrance of AAO. Kenny ordered camel meat burger and was in gastronomic heaven. Determined to walk off my briyani indulgence, I dragged the men to the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum which was a 7min walk from AAO. Just before we exited the oasis, I spied with my squinty eyes, a karak chai cart! BE.YOND ecstatic!

The palace was a labyrinth of rooms. We lost Nic for a couple of minutes. Phew! >D The preserved building provided some insight into the royal family’s past lifestyle. Every room had a designated, singular function. I don’t think we found a room which was multi-functional. At least to my recollection.

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(kenny really liked this tree which was right in the middle of the palace; a centrepiece of sorts)

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Kenny really wanted to catch a local football match due to his interest in the growing influence of the Middle-Eastern rich over world football. On the contrary, I had zero interest in the sport. Took him a while to get me on board.

We were in luck as a derby (Al Ain vs Al Jazira) was scheduled for the night! Managed to convince Nic to watch with us and head back to Abu Dhabi later. A decision, I must put on record, he did not regret. >D

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Since we were staying in Al Ain, we had to be home ground supporters for the night. LOL! Kenny got me wearing their club colours while he and Nic bought a shirt from their merchandise store.

Fun fact – Al Ain FC is the first and only UAE team to win the AFC Champions League. It is also the most successful club in the UAE! So, what is the deal with these two local clubs? Al Jazira and Al Ain FC are the biggest clubs in UAE. It was the biggest match to watch. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Both clubs are owned by members of the ruling Al Nahyan family. Al Jazira’s owner also owns Etihad and Manchester City.

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(stadium’s exterior lights)

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(hazza bin zayed stadium with a capacity of 22,717 seats)

Women were only allowed to sit in 2 designated areas – Women Only & Family. We bought the wrong section but were able to exchange our tickets for Family seats without any additional cost. Yay!

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(tickets were sgd7 per pax!)

Security was really on the ball too. They were strict in checking belongings and body search. Portable chargers were not allowed. They turned my lipstick out, checked the back of my hair, ears and in between my breasts. That was a first for me.

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(we were seated behind the goal, where the corner kicks happen. really good seats!)

It was quite an exciting match. Not like I had any prior ones to compare to. LOL. However, both teams being attack-minded made the entire 90mins bearable to watch and follow even. The fans were chanting, booing and drumming. The atmosphere was energetic! We got so swept up in rooting for Al Ain that Nic became really emotional at one point when Al Jazira scored. HAHAHA! Behind us, an Emirati was taunting his daughter, an ardent Al Ain supporter, by chanting along with the Al Jazira fans. She was on the brink of tears trying to shush her dad. We laughed together with her father, at her expense. Poor thing! LOL!

We managed to catch Marcus Berg tapping goals in. He will be playing for Sweden in the World Cup next year. I was more interested in Omar though. This David Luiz-doppelganger was all over the field, really working the ball and his team. His stamina is beast-like! I felt tired just watching him zip around. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. I can finally say that I have watched a football match live!

Upon reaching the hotel, we parted ways with Nic, who had to work the next day. He took a cab back to Abu Dhabi first while we stayed on for one more day.

19th November 2017

Woke up with a mini flu. Was afraid it would escalate into a full blown one. Lucky for us, it did not. After breakfast, we walked to Al Jahili Fort which was just opposite our hotel.

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(my standard operating procedure for the flu – walking around with a tissue box)

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Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al Jahili Fort, one of the largest in Al Ain, is the epitome of UAE military architecture. Initially an observation point, the iconic 4-tier watchtower was later fortified (1891-1898) to protect the falaj systems and palm groves.

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Upon completion, the fort also served as the royal summer residence, providing the royal family respite from the humid coast of Abu Dhabi. Its strategic location was ideal for both military and residential purposes. Close to water and surrounded by fertile land, Sheikh Zayed the First was able to farm the area, give refuge to residents of Al Ain Oasis in times of political turmoil / attacks and with the fort as a symbol of power, he strived to keep the peace between tribes.

In the late 1940S, world famous British explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, stayed in Al Jahili Fort as a guest of Sheikh Zayed the First, during his travels to Arabia. Between 1946 – 1949, he crossed the Rub’ al Khali twice, travelling some 16,000km on foot and on camel-back with his Bedu companions. Sir Thesiger learned to live as one with the land and its peoples. He wore what they wore and ate what they ate. To the people he travelled with, he became known as Mubarak bin London: “the blessed one from London.” The exhibition in this fort is a dedicated one to the British explorer. After spending 2D1N in the desert, I could relate to Sir Thesiger’s sentiments about the harsh Arabian landscape. Through his words and images in the exhibition, my love for the Rub’ al Khali deepened.

Between 1950s – 1970s, British paramilitary desert force, the Trucial Oman Scouts, used this fort as their base, expanding it with a small hospital, barracks and a larger enclosure of the original fort. They aided local communities with medical services on top of maintaining peace between tribes.

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Walked back to the hotel. Checked out and packed up the car. We were bound for Abu Dhabi city. Along the way, we decided to take a detour to check out the Jebel Hafeet Tombs but we ended up in Green Mubazzarah instead, which was essentially a cluster of newly constructed chalets at the base of Hafeet. Discovered upon an old, dried up dam by chance though – Al Mubazzarah Dam ?

In retrospect, we concluded Al Ain is not an expensive city to live in. As we drove around, we noticed buildings were restricted to a certain height so as to highlight the city’s greenery and architectural heritage. Palm trees lined the roads like Hollywood Boulevard. What makes this city so pleasant is that they put cultural heritage above everything else. Despite having access to our modern elements, we did not feel like we were in a modern city. Rather, we felt like we had travelled back in time. The government has done brilliant work in preserving the country’s legacy.

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A 2hr drive to Abu Dhabi. We took the longer but more scenic highway back to UAE’s capital.

Stay tuned for the next post on Abu Dhabi city!

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