I haven’t traveled to a lot of foreign places. I can count the number of countries on my hands. Travel within the United States can only be so different, not quite enough for culture shock even if you’ve made it around a small amount. Coming to Armenia gave me quite a bit of culture shock, but it’s fizzled out over my now nine months in the country. To be expected. After seven months, I was able to take some time off of work and travel for the first time during my service here in Armenia. Brooke and I had a romantic trip to Georgia planned. We were going to stay in houses and lodges tucked away in mountains of the Greater Caucasus, in villas in the middle of wine country, and in the cutest of apartments in Tbilisi. That didn’t happen and instead we had about a week to plan a different trip. With the ease of access from Armenia, we decided to go to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Time to flip on that culture shock.
We started our adventure in Abu Dhabi. It’s a couple hour bus ride south of Dubai, situated along the Persian Gulf. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and also the largest emirate. We hadn’t really had time before hand to plan our trip out, so we were planning as we went only knowing what major sites we wanted to see along the way. Our first day out and about was somewhat of a wash, spent wandering around and hitting some major logistical setbacks. The second day in Abu Dhabi, as in the picture seen above, we got to see the view from the Jumeirah Towers, the Emirates, Palace, bike along the Corniche, and hit the beach for a bit. Things started falling into place.
First is the Emirates Palace. This place is unreal, as in top three most expensive hotels in the world, serving gold sprinkled Arabic coffee, or gold face masks in their spa, unreal. We opted for a quick walk through, grasping the photo ops along the way; we had an epic brunch to get to anyway.
One of my favorite ways to explore a city is by being at the street level. Walking and biking makes me feel more apart of the cityscape than driving ever could. Acting as a buffer to Abu Dhabi’s skyline is a series of parks, beach access areas, and one continuous path along the beach. This path is called “The Corniche” and offers beautiful views of the Persian Gulf, the city’s skyline, and the more expensive hotels across the way.
Without a doubt, the best part of Abu Dhabi for me was visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and kayaking through the Eastern Mangrove National Park on our last day. The Grand Mosque is a must-do experience for those who visit the country, and the mangroves were a great escape from the bustle of the city.
Eastern Mangrove National Park is very much unlike the institution of national parks that I know in the United States. I saw this park on a map when I was exploring places to stay in Abu Dhabi, and a quick look on Trip Advisor said its a neat spot to check out. Access to the park is as easy as it could be. Brooke and I taxied from the Grand Mosque to the hotels directly overlooking this park. We grabbed some delicious Indian food at a restaurant along the water with only a narrow canal separating us from the afternoons adventure; we rented a pair of kayaks shortly thereafter. No map, return time, or suggestions were given, only a push off the dock when we had our paddles and life vests and were sitting in our kayaks. It was essentially free range in this unique ecosystem. The mangroves are a joy to explore.
In all, I had a lot of fun in Abu Dhabi despite our misadventures. The must-dos of Abu Dhabi:
- Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
- Lourve Abu Dhabi Museum (the only extension on the world)
- Eastern Mangrove National Park
- Brunch – This is a true feast in the UAE on Fridays, the Southern Sun Hotel brunch blew us away.
- Corniche – The Corniche isn’t only home to the beaches, but it has the Emirates Palace, the Jumeirah Towers and a number of cafes along the way.
Abu Dhabi wasn’t exactly smooth sailing when we got there, but we managed to pull together some pretty amazing days. We saw a lot, ate some really good food, and still had plenty of time to relax(see Lush bath bombs, room service, and pool lounging).
We weren’t ready for Dubai. We stayed outside of city center, which made transportation an ordeal. At one point, we both got hurt by some food. The desert excursion was all together dumb. It was a lot of of flak from one city, and I think I can safely say neither of us have a strong desire to return here. But, we made the most of the time we had despite the seemingly endless setbacks.
The first place that I think was worth a visit, and really the only place I felt like held a sense of culture, was Old Dubai. This part of the city straddles the north end of the creek, and was what I was hoping more of the UAE would’ve been. A small area named “Al Fahidi Historical District” was even made to recreate the feel of the city when Dubai still mainly made their as a trading center for the region. This district is all narrow streets, art galleries, and cafes, and even has the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding(we didn’t have time to go, but it looked like a unique experience, especially for westerners). In the surrounding area are the many souks(markets) which are fun enough to walk around if you don’t mind strange men putting scarves on you and everyone yelling about saffron(Dubai’s largest export, unconfirmed).
Maybe my favorite part of Dubai came about because the Miracle Garden. The Miracle Garden is the the world’s largest flower garden, and was closed due to construction. Having taken a taxi so far off the main strip, we figured we could at least spend some time in the nearby butterfly garden that was suggested by our taxi driver. This butterfly garden consumed the first half of our day it was so cool, and that’s factoring in that both Brooke and I got pooped on. This garden is four geodesic dome greenhouses, three of which have smaller netted areas where you can try your hand at butterfly whispering before going after the guys in the big areas. No surprise, I’m a natural, gathering and placing a grand total of SIX butterflies on Booke at one time. Anyways, it was a great way to be fun and silly and act like an unapologetic child for a bit.
Dubai is certainly known best for the leaps and bounds its taken into modernity. It is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the world’s only seven star hotel, and number of other similar records. Traveling through Dubai exclusively to visit these sorts of sites is possible, and surely could make up an entire getaway to this city.
[Burj Al Arab, Aquarium, Marina, Burj Khalifa]
Here’s a list of must visits in Dubai:
- Bur Dubai – This is the historic district in Dubai, and includes the many souks in that area.
- Downtown Dubai – This includes the Dubai Mall, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
- Butterfly Garden/Miracle Garden – Although we didn’t get to visit the Miracle Garden, I’d still bet this is a must visit, and you could pair it with the Butterfly Garden to make a nice day out of it.
- Dubai Marina – This is a great place to spend the evening walking next to the water, with plenty of restaurants to choose from when the sun goes down.
- The Burj Al Arab – There are a number of beaches nearby this fancy hotel, and it’s a great place to catch the sunset while swimming in the warm waters of the gulf.
Dubai is a difficult city to visit on a whim, and there’s a couple more pieces of advice I’d like to leave for those looking to visit. First, stay where you want to be. Dubai is a very sprawled city, and staying near attractions will save you a lot of time and money from travel. Look at staying near the marina, or “downtown Dubai” near the Burj Khalifa. Second, plan your days by proximity. We didn’t realize how long it was going to take to get from one place to another. Well planned days can save you plenty of time. A final note, or maybe more of a word of caution. We did end up doing a desert excursion on our last day in Dubai, and it was horrendous. The experience was lacking in most ways for us, so just be sure to do your research beforehand, and don’t expect anything too authentic.
The United Arab Emirates was an amazing experience. The food was phenomenal, the introduction to Islamic culture was fascinating, and it was unreal to see a true modern melting pot of different people, identities, and cultures. Maybe the biggest culture shock to me, was seeing that the UAE didn’t have a strong overlying culture like you see in the homogeneity of Armenia. We would see glimpses into other lives, but never felt an all encompassing “way of life”, so to speak. That sits in stark contrast to Armenia. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, may be the way of the future, where culture is expressed and found in microcosms instead of broadcasted over radios and seen in the uniformity of dress.
As my travels are over, for now, I’ve slipped back into somewhat normal life here in Armenia. Winter is here and challenging me and my service in brand new ways. A topic for next time. Happy Holidays!