It seems as though Dubai gets all the love and Abu Dhabi gets none at all. I think people have it backwards. Maybe I’m just biased, since I had a friend to stay with in the latter. And in fairness, I only spent a total of three days in the UAE’s biggest city and four days in its capital. So I’m not exactly an expert on either place.
From what I did see, though, Dubai is more of a playground for the easily amused. Both are cities built up incredibly fast using insane amounts of money, but Dubai has the tallest building in the world and the first 7-star hotel. It has the bigger malls, but I come from Land of the Malls, specifically the part with giant (rocky) mountains, so you’re not even going to impress me much by putting a ski slope in your mall. And on our trip to Dubai in April following ten days in the Seychelles, Molly and I hit up the Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis The Palm, which is a great way to spend a hot sunny day, but is definitely not amazing enough to travel all the way to the Middle East for.
Maybe the problem lay in the fact that we only got the proper Pakistani-taxi-driver run-down on things to do in Dubai while on our way back to the airport before leaving town. We were probably also a couple million dollars short of what one needs to do Dubai the way Dubai is supposed to be done. In any case, the conclusion I’ve come to is that Abu Dhabi wins the battle of the two big UAE draws.
To be honest, I didn’t really see or do enough in the capital that would tell you much about the place. One sight that did stand out, though, is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This is one of those architecturally stunning landmarks that would be taken a lot more seriously as one of the world’s wonders if its completion dated back more than a mere seven years. I was stunned by its beauty coming up on the city from the freeway and was looking forward to seeing it up close.
My friend Katie summed it up nicely when she mentioned that, despite not being a Muslim, she found it a very peaceful, tranquil place. I couldn’t have agreed more. Even the bathrooms were ridiculously clean and beautiful:
There were a few tourists, but it wasn’t completely overtaken (at least not on the day I was there). I did have to go to a room to borrow an abaya, the Muslim robe-like garment worn by women across the Muslim world. I can’t say I wore it well – in fact, I thought I looked a bit like an ewok. But I guess rolling in style is not the primary objective of an abaya.
A few interesting facts about the Grand Mosque: It’s the eighth-largest mosque in the world and the largest in the UAE. It features the largest hand-made carpet in the world, which contains over 2.2 billion knots and weighs 3.5 tons. And the only thing more impressive than its sheer size is its beauty – with the minor exception of an incredibly gaudy chandelier in the middle.
In short, like the unforgettably beautiful cathedrals of Europe and South America, the Grand Mosque is worth a visit even for the non-religious or those practicing other religions. It’s one of the few mosques in the world that non-Muslims are allowed – and even welcome – to enter.
Regrettably, that’s about all I know of the cultural side of the UAE, because my visit in mid-May also wasn’t much of a cultural, sightseeing, learned travel experience. I blame Katie.
First, a few things about Katie, an expat from London now living and working in the UAE. I met her in 2000 when we were both exchange students a the University of Freiburg in Germany. We had a class together on German music and there were a number of characters in that class worthy of blog posts of their own. My first impression of her was one of an outspoken, energetic 19-year-old who blew any notion one might have of the English as timid, polite and proper out of the water. My favorite story of Katie is of the time we came across the term “sich rächen” in our class. As a class intended for foreigners, instruction was in German but we were always encouraged to speak up and ask to have a word or phrase explained if we didn’t understand. So when “sich rächen” popped up and someone in the class needed clarification, Katie was there to help.
Without a second of hesitation, she launched into a story about when Tupac Shakur, a California rapper, was gunned down in 1996, New York City-native Biggie Smalls was then killed as tit-for-tat in part of an East Coast-West Coast feud. Yes, the word “avenge” was described to us in the most 90s-tastic gangster rapper terms by a white girl from Islington, and the looks on the other students’ faces were priceless.
One night we got to talking at the Irish bar where she worked, and we’ve been friends ever since. We saw each other every now and then – first when I visited her in Leeds and Manchester while she was at university there, a few years later at my then-home in Munich, and later still with a Freiburg reunion featuring our mutual friend Steve in New York City when I was living there. I always looked forward to visits with Katie, so putting a stop in Abu Dhabi on my RTW trip was a no-brainer.
We had grand plans of seeing a bit more of the city than actually materialized. A tour around town, expat brunch, stand-up paddle boarding, etc. Unfortunately Katie, her significant other Alex and I all had to work the day after I arrived, so part of my day was spent in front of the computer. My gracious hosts made sure I was well-connected to the outside world by equipping me with the greatest cell phone of all time:
I did manage to get the hop-on hop-off bus around town one afternoon. The place is way too spread out to walk, and at $62 for a day pass, the hop-on hop-off highway robbers knew it. Regardless of the price, it was a pleasant ride around in the warm – but not yet oppressively hot – Arabian sun.
That night Katie, Alex and I had a quiet evening of dinner, drinks and bed for the festivities the next day. Apparently Friday brunch is a tradition among expat Britons living in the UAE, so a feast was at the top of our agenda. The brunch was similar to one of the nicer buffets in Vegas – all the food you could possibly want from chefs who know what they’re doing, topped off with ridiculous amounts of dessert and as much booze as you want. Maybe that explains these pictures…
The rest of the day and evening were spent getting into even more shenanigans, as any trip to visit Katie would entail. We got back to the apartment somewhere around 4 a.m. and were not quite up for stand-up paddleboarding the next day, so we took it easy instead and eventually left the apartment on Saturday for some cheap, delicious curry.
I had an amazing time and my stay was far too short. One important lesson I learned is that you can skip the world’s tallest building, 7-star hotel and giant malls. All a destination really needs is a pretty building and some Katie and Alex. Our next Freiburg reunion will be in Toronto next year with our friend Steve, so stay tuned.