Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Ten Things To Take You Outside Dubai.

It’s coming up for the visiting season: that time of year when the weather’s just peachy for barbecues and beaches. And that will bring the inevitable influx of visitors, Christmas Aunts and others. So what can you do with them to get everyone out of the house and celebrating some of the richness and diversity around us? And no, I’m not being sarcastic. There’s loads here, if you just know where to look for it. It really riles me when so many people don’t even bother to go out and explore, just sit in their gated gardens whining about how little culture there is etc etc.

So here’s a starter for ten: all fascinating and all linked to the culture and history of the UAE, so mixing pleasure with perhaps even a little edukashun. And a nice antidote to those fake plastic souks!

Warning: Megapost

I woke up with the idea of doing this, for some reason, and started with the intention of doing one a day because they’re each longish. And then I had a flight to Cairo and real work to do, so I did these instead and thought I might as well just chuck ‘em all up here. Please do feel free to cut and paste, but if you paste on the web, do link back here, ta! You never know, perhaps these will inspire young Bluey to get snapping again instead of lazing around on the beach…

Ajman Museum

The home of the ruler until 1967, Ajman Museum is situated in Ajman Fort and is probably in line for a UNESCO award for being the most charming, eclectic and generally just eccentric collection of historical artefacts and household junk in the Middle East (yes, they’re virtually indistinguishable), but it’s a fascinating insight into life in the Emirates before traffic and features some marvellous displays. For some odd reason they get funny about photography but will issue a permit if you ask ‘em nicely. By no means as slick or sophisticated as Dubai Museum, which is really why it’s such an appealing place. One amazing, if simple, display is the date store, showing how they used to collect the date syrup from the pressed jute sacks in runnels that led to an underfloor tank, out of which they used to ladle the syrup, straining it through a palm fibre funnel to get rid of the wasps. Other displays include the Ruler’s suite, a souk, crime and punishment (including real stocks and some graphic stuff about shooting criminals) and a medical display.

Find it by driving to Ajman and asking anyone where Ajman Fort is. They’ll lie to you, but the diversion will be fun…

Once you’ve done looking at old furniture, house displays, boats, souqs and so on, then turn right out of the museum and right again at the roundabout and you’ll find yourself, after a couple of hundred yards and a left turn off the traffic lights, in Ajman’s Iranian souk, which is well worth an evening’s wander.

Sharjah Desert Park

Originally built under the eagle eye of amateur zoologist and long term UAE resident Marijke Joengbloed (hope I got that right, did it from memory), who wrote a letter to His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan Al Qassmi, the ruler of Sharjah, to complain that the Bedouin were decimating the breeding grounds of the spiny tailed lizard (or Dhub, in Arabic) as it is considered an aphrodisiac. The good Dr. responded by suggesting they build a wildlife park and conservation centre, which they duly did. Joengbloed, a delightfully eccentric woman, took great pleasure in the fact that the larger animals are outside, while the humans are kept inside looking out at them: effectively reversing the accepted zoo visitor/animal relationship. The park and museum are fascinating, with super displays on the geology and natural history of the UAE’s desert biome as well as examples of the very rich flora and fauna of the Emirates' deserts and wadis. The stars of the show are the Arabian Leopards, who are just big, lazy, arrogant tarts.

You’ll find the park on the Sharjah/Dhaid highway.

While you’re there, try not to look at the awful thing on the other side of the road. It’s a monument to Sharjah being nominated UN culture capital or something like that.

Al Ain Oasis

Lush, verdant palm groves surround you as you walk through the pathways that twist around the plantations watered by a traditional falaj (waterway) irrigation system. It’s a delightful place to wander whatever the weather and is a photographer’s dream. When you’ve done wandering around the oasis (go to Al Ain and just ask around. You’ll get there eventually), then have a stab at visiting the museum, which is great. Alternatively, you can visit the Umm Al Nar tomb in Hili Park (well signposted) or take a trip up the 13km or so of winding road to the top of Jebel Hafit (or Gerbil Halfwit if you have the sense of humour of a weak-minded 8 year old, as I do) and take a gander across the rolling stretches of dunes that mark the start of the Rub Al Khali desert, crossed in the 1950s by Wilfred “The boys’ wet young thighs glistened in the sun” Thesiger.

While you’re there, look up BSS and BRN for tea. Just leave a comment on their blog and they’ll have the kettle on, I’m sure! >;0)

Jazirat Al Hamra

This little coastal village was totally deserted after the family that predominantly inhabited it fell out with the local sheikh. They decamped to Abu Dhabi in the main, leaving the village literally deserted behind them and it remains pretty much in that state today, old coral-walled houses with henna trees in their central courtyards, wired with basic electricity and three-figure ‘phone numbers installed in the richer houses. It’s a little slice of transitional UAE and it stands today. There’s a new village of Jazirat Al Hamra just on the road, just before you get to the Al Hamra Fort Hotel on the Umm Al Qawain/Ras Al Khaimah coastal road. Turn left just as you arrive at Jazirat Al Hamra and drive towards the coast and you’ll find the old village. It’s great to take a wander around and have a good old fossick: the mosque, in particular, is wonderful. The beach here is beautiful, but sadly is usually dirty with litter. After the first storm of winter, you’ll find the distinctive egg casings of the paper nautilus washed up on the beach – if you’re lucky: they’re really rare.


Something of a hidden jewel, Khasab is the small town in the Omani enclave that sits at the tip of the Emirates promontory into the Straits of Hormuz. You just need a passport with a UAE residence visa in it and a few dirhams and you can get through the border post in minutes flat (life’s potentially a bit more complicated for visitors from overseas who should, ideally, get an Omani visa processed from their country of origin. This saves any hiccups on the day, believe me.) There are two hotels in Khasab at the time of writing, the Golden Tulip which is a slightly overpriced 3* and the Khasab Hotel, which is a clean but functional caravanserai type of affair. They’re building a new extension, so that may have changed but we’ve stayed in the old one and it’s OK for a night. They even let us cook our own barbecued dinner and breakfast as we didn’t really fancy the menu on offer!!!

Why go to Khasab? For the drives around the mad, fjord-like coastline, for the drives up into the mountains that overlook the legendary heights of Wadi Bih and the fossil fields up there. And, ultimately, to hire one of the local boats (they range from speedboats to traditional dhows) and motor out into the fantastic seascapes, passing by telegraph island (in 1886 the Brits established a telegraph cable link through the Gulf that passed through Bahrain, telegraph island then out to Bombay. A couple of Brits were stationed there and apparently used to go bonkers waiting for the 6-monthly supply ship to hove to around the corner, originating the phrase ‘going round the bend’. No, I don’t really and truly believe it either, but it’s too great a story not to tell your wide-eyed visitors!). At the end of the boat trip, you can then play with the schools of dolphins that stream through the water in the boats’ wake. A great afternoon out.

Mahatta Fort Museum

To my immense surprise, this slice of colonial history was preserved by the Sharjah Government just when it was crumbling to pieces and seemed set to be knocked down. It stands today as a great little museum to the history of flight in the region, from the Handley Page biplanes (and seaplanes) that used to connect Croydon to Queensland in the old days when a chota peg jolly well meant a chota peg.

The restoration of the fort, built originally by the ruler of Sharjah to offer protection to the passengers on the Imperial Airways route as they overnighted in Sharjah, is true to the original in every detail and is most impressive. There’s a great display of ‘planes in there, including some of the first Gulf Aviation planes (the precursor to Gulf Air) and the curators usually allow people with kids to get up in one of the riveted aluminium exhibits. Given that I occasionally have issues with trusting Airbus 321s (are you listening, Al Italia?), I can’t imagine flying in those things, really. Amaazing.

The Mahatta Fort was immortalised, incidentally, in the 1937 documentary Air Outpost by London Films under the aegis of Alexander Korda (and with a soundtrack by William Alwyn). “Thanks to the achievement of modern flight,” the soundtrack gushes in a truly Cholmondeley-Warner voice, “It’s possible to fly from Croydon to the desert Kingdom of Sharjar in just four deys!”


The documentary is held up as an early example of ‘true’ documentary, where the film-maker takes an unscripted approach to showing life as it truly is, which is a little dubious, but it shows not only life in the fort but Sharjah’s people and souk in a fascinating and unique piece of footage.

Mahatta is just around the corner from the ‘Blue Souk’, the Saudi Mosque, Ittihad Park and ‘Smile You’re in Sharjah’ roundabout (known to us for many years as ‘Smile You’re Insane’ roundabout). You can tell when you’re on the right road, it’s straight as a die – that’s because it is in fact the old runway. It’s the road that runs parallel to Feisal Street, going from Ittihad Park to Wahda Street, just round the corner from Mega Mall.

The Masafi Friday Market, Dafta and Bitnah

Drive from Dhaid, the inland town of Sharjah, to the mountain village of Masafi (where the water comes from) and you’ll find yourself passing through the village of Thorban as you approach the foothills. There’s an Eppco station and then, a few minutes after it, there’s a roundabout. The next turning right will lead you to the Thorban pottery – well worth a visit to see the traditional Indian kiln and the potters working away at their wheels. They export the pots from here, believe it or not!

Going on up into the mountains will take you inevitably to the Masafi Friday Market, a spontaneous growth of stalls that sprang up around the speed bumps here which sell everything from odious pots and rugs to plants and fresh fruit and vegetables from the surrounding farms. Despite the name, it’s open every day and makes for an interesting wander.

Go on up to Masafi and sling a right at the roundabout (a left will take you past the Masafi factory and then onto the delightful Indian ocean town of Dibba) and you’ll come to a village with shops either side of the road. This is Daftah. Take a left and drive up through the houses (you’ll need a little trial and error) and you’ll eventually find the track that leads up the wadi to the old deserted village of Daftah. Sadly, the great wadi here has been drained of water, but the village is worth a view.

Carry on down the road towards Fujairah through the mountains and you’ll come to the village of Bitnah. There are two things worth stopping off to see here: Bitnah Fort (drive through the village and down into the wadi bed and head right – you can’t miss it once you’re in the wadi. I’d recommend a 4WD, but a 2WD can do it if you don’t care too much about your suspension), which is an ancient looking fort (it isn’t really that old, but it’s picturesque) and the megalithic tomb. To get to the megalithic tomb, head for the base of the huge red and white telecom tower: it’s directly in line between the tower and the wadi and is protected by a fence and covered with a corrugated tin roof. You can’t get in, but this tomb is important in its way: excavated by a Swiss team in the ‘90s, it shows that the wadi from Fujeirah to Masafi was, indeed, part of a 3000 year old trade route and is one of the oldest burial sites in the UAE. It is, sadly, neglected.


Hatta is to Dubai what Dhaid is to Sharjah (and Al Ain to Abu Dhabi): the inland oasis town that the semi-nomadic peoples of the UAE (Trucial States then, but that’s another story) used to escape to in the hot summer months. In Hatta’s case, it’s super-cool, high up in the Hajar mountains and always relatively fresh and lush compared to the arid desert plains. Hatta’s marvellous track, which led from the mountain town across the range and down to Al Ain, has sadly been turned into black-top, but it would still be a fantastic drive and you can still access the pools and side wadis.

Hatta also has an interesting Heritage Centre, which is well worth a visit, with displays of old mountain housing and the like. On holidays and high days they put on displays of dancing and stuff like that.

The Hatta Fort Hotel is well worth an overnight stay. A tiny, delightful and extraordinarily well-run hotel (kept by 19 staff – you’ll find the day’s pool attendant is the evening’s sommelier), the Hatta Fort’s food is great when they’re on their best classical fine dining form, but I wouldn’t go mad for the buffet nights. It serves the best breakfast in the Middle East.

Do ask them to knock you up a curry if you eat in the restaurant: it’s a great undiscovered wonder. And do have a drink in the unintentionally uber-funky walnut and gold ‘70s Romoul Bar upstairs from the restaurant (mourn the passing of the old cream leather sofas while you’re there). Sadly, they’ve started to renovate the hotel for some reason all of their own and the rooms have been overhauled with tacky gold-sprayed tin dog ornaments and faux leapordskin wraps stapled to the furniture, but just because that spoilt it for us doesn’t mean it has to for you!

Dibba and Wadi Bih

Dibba is a sleepy town on the Indian Ocean coast which belies a bloody past: it was here that the final great battle for the consolidation of Islam on the Gulf peninsula was fought. Get there by leaving Sharjah on the airport road towards Dhaid, and driving through to Masafi, then turning left at the Masafi roundabout.

Turn right at the dolphin roundabout in Dibba and you’ll be on the way down the East Coast road, through Khor Fakkan and down to Fujeirah. You’ll also pass the Hotel JAL Resort and Spa just as you leave town, a new development by the Japanese airline. It’s worth a stay: we went when it was soft launching and they had some teething troubles, but it seemed to have great promise and very good service indeed.

But turn left at Dolphin roundabout and you’ll be set for a trip up into the mountains. Sadly, I haven’t got space to give you infallible instructions, but find someone (or an offroad book) that will give you directions to Wadi Bih and take a drive up the most awesome wadi track in the Emirates, curling far up into the hills at the top of the Hajar mountain range. The geology alone, the mad folding rock formations and misty valley vistas, is worth the trip – and includes a drive through the largest area of denuded, uplifted seabed in the world. So there. They’re building a spa hotel by the village of Ziggi so by the time you read this they’ve probably asphalted half the track, but go anyway.

You may get turned back at the UAE/Omani border post towards the end of the track (give yourself a good hour to drive it), but if not you come out in Ras Al Khaimah.

The Souk Al Arsah

The Sharjah government started to renovate the Souk Al Arsah in the ‘90s, turning an area of broken down old coral-walled buildings into a dramatic and pretty faithful reproduction of the original Sharjah souk. Delightfully, they then let the shop units to the families that had originally owned them although many of these have now been leased out to Indian shop-owners. Some have remained as locally owned and run bric-a-brac (sorry, ‘antique’) shops and are fascinating visits. I cannot recommend a wander around this souk highly enough. Many of the old trading family houses around the souk have also been restored and are open to visit and there’s a maritime display put together by the heritage association, too, reflecting some of Sharjah’s history as a pearl diving centre. When you’ve done wandering, wander over to the Sharjah Fort, again a huge renovation project (there was only one round tower left of the original fort) that has resulted in an interesting building: although it could be a richer display than it is currently, it’s still well worth a trip to see.

Right. If that lot doesn’t get you out of the house, nothing will!


DXBluey said...

Great post!

I've done many of these, but not all. And yes, maybe, just maybe, it will inspire me to get out there again!

In Barcelona right now and then in UK for a week or so...

Once back I will be returning to the blog, just not sure in what form yet - may be quality over quantity or a total change, but I will return.

Thanks for the inspirations ol' chap.



Seabee said...

Well done - we should all follow your lead and post stuff like this. I hope Gulf News' blog review picks it up so that the 'nothing to do here but shopping' brigade may see it.

halfmanhalfbeer said...

Alexander: what a great post. To my eternal shame in the six years here there are three of those entries that I still haven't done. These ten you have highlighted are excellent.

Can I ask your permission to paste your whole post on my blog (with all credits and linkage properly observed!) and to which I would like to add a couple of my own. Though not sure which ones yet as you've already covered the best!


Alexander said...

Thanks for kindnesses!

HMHB - of course! :)

Khasab Overnight Package said...

Once back I will be returning to the blog, just not sure in what form yet - may be quality over quantity or a total change, but I will return.

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