Wednesday, March 29, 2006

United Arab Emirates | Dubai | Photos

Dubai's Main Mosque
Another mosque near the main mosque
Details of mosqueAnother mosque
Street Scene
Covered Souk
Water Taxi
Dubai Creek Golf Club

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

United Arab Emirates | Dubai | Hotel California

My next order of business was finding a cheaper place to stay. I tried at least a dozen places and got the same answer, sorry, we are all filled up. Many of the places were jammed with Russian tour groups— big beefy guys in shorts, sandals, and “Visit Bangkok” tee-shirts and frousy blonde-haired overweight women all sun-burned to the shade of boiled lobsters. It was not an edifying sight. Finally in a back alley off Naif Street I found a place improbably named the “Hotel California.” They said if I came back in two hours they would have a free room. I went back to my first hotel and got my luggage and returned by cab. When I told the cab driver “Hotel California,” he said, “Hotel California? You must like black women.” Actually the hotel was ran by South Indians, and although there were some African businessmen staying there, I did not see any black women. The neighborhood seemed populated largely by Africans, however. Maybe the black women come out at night. Despite the unprepossessing exterior of the hotel the rooms were quite large, spotlessly clean, with frigid air-conditioning, cool tile floors, and light-colored hardwood furniture. Not bad at all.
There's plenty of room at the Hotel California . . .
Later that afternoon I walked back to the wharf and took a water taxi to the other side of the Creek. It was Friday and most stores and any many restaurants were closed.
Water Taxi Stand
The Dubai Museum, just across the street from Dubai’s main mosque, was open. The museum is state-of-the-art, with huge dioramas and multi-media exhibits on big video screens. The place was packed on this day of rest and easily a dozen or more languages could be heard echoing around the exhibition halls.
Ship Building Diorama at the Museum: the figures are actually mannikins
Sailing boat on display at the Museum
From the museum I walked down to the Majlid Gallery, which had an exhibition of nineteen-century paintings of the Mid-East done by European painters. Edward Said would have had a field day here commenting on the “Orientalist” viewpoint of the various painters. The paintings ranged in price from $50,000 to a little over million dollars.
Several were marked as already sold. I would love to see the homes in which these paintings end up hanging.

While I was there a group of at least twenty young women identically dressed in full length black robes and completely veiled in black except for the eyes came in. They were chaperoned by an older woman, also in black but with only a head scarf. The young women were students at some woman’s school in Dubai and were on an excursion. Each had very expensive designer handbags and the very latest digital cameras and video recorders. They diligently stood in front of each picture as their chaperone gave a small talk in Arabic. The first thing I always notice about any woman is her hands, and with these young women the only thing exposed was their hands and their eyes. It would be a bit impolite to stare into their eyes, but they certainly did have lovely hands: long, delicate, fine-boned fingers the color of mare’s milk, with short, perfectly trimmed finger nails and no polish. Long nails and polish are no doubt forbidden for these girls.

Popped back across the Creek by water taxi and went back to the Perfume Souk. Bought a tola (10 grams) of seven different perfumes and essential oils, four kinds of stick incense, bark of two different local trees which is burned as incense, and a carved wooden incense burner. I am now fully prepared for the Apocalypse, at least scent-wise. Checked out the Gold Souk but I am not yet sure it is time yet to cash out of dollars and into gold so I did not buy anything.
Gold necklaces — apparently just looted from the Tomb of Ur. Necklace and earrings : Eat your heart out, Ms. R!This little gold trinket cost 500,000 UAE dirhams — $136,147.
Dinner in an Iranian restaurant—eggplant stew on rice and mint tea. Later popped into the bar/coffee shop of the hotel for a double expresso. There were two irate African businessmen in white robes, both built like William "The Fridge" Perry, snapping photos of the liquor bottles behind the bar with their cell phones and sending them to their travel agent. Apparently they had been told this hotel with alcohol free, which it is not. The expensive hotel I stayed in the first night was. No alcohol served anywhere on the premises and none in the minibars in the rooms. When you checked you were told you had to go somewhere else if you wanted to drink alcohol.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

United Arab Emirates | Dubai | Apocalypse | Perfume

According to one alleged hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammad not included in the Koran), one of the signs of the approaching Apocalypse is that "you will see barefoot, naked, destitute bedouin shepherds competing among themselves in constructing tall buildings." According to some commentators, the bedouins who will build the buildings will come not from the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, that is the western part which contains Mecca, Medina, etc, but from the eastern part, which includes Dubai and the other Emirates. In the days of the Prophet the people of what is now Dubai may have been barefoot, naked, and destitute. They are no longer. The city is awash in money from petroleum-related trade and tourism. And as if in fulfillment of the Prophet’s prophecy Dubai is now constructing the world’s tallest building, specifically designed to outclass every other skyscaper in the world. This is the building known as the Burj Dubai, tentatively scheduled for completion in 2009. It will reportedly be 160 stories—2213 feet— high.

For background on the hadith of the prophecy concerning the construction of tall buildings see Mohammad Hisham Kabbani’s The Approach of Armageddon: An Islamic Perspective:

For another view of Islamic eschatological thought see:

Wanting to see for myself if I could detect any signs of the imminent Apocalypse in Dubai I booked a non-stop ticket on Southern China Airlines. It’s an eight and a half hour flight from Bejijng to Dubai. The big Airbus was completely sold out, but fortunately I had an emergency row seat and was able to stretch out. As far as I could see I was the foreigner on the plane. We flew west over Gansu and Xinjiang provinces of China and then down across Pakistan and Iran. Over Pakistan we got magnificent views the incredibly rugged Hindu Kush Mountains. Somewhere down there in those narrow valleys lined with snow-covered knife-edged mountains was Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. Then across Iran and down to Dubai.

The airport is immense. I must have walked a mile to Passport Control. Citizens of the US and most European countries do not need visas, which is not so unusual any more, but here you do not even have to fill out a form. A partly-veiled woman just stamps your passport. What hotel are you staying in? she asked. I said I did not know. You have no reservations? she asked. Again I said no, and she gave me a very skeptical look. I soon discovered what the problem was.

At eight in the evening it was a balmy 70 degrees outside the airport. I hailed one the brand new and spotlessly clean taxis out front and told the uniformed driver, an Indian from Bombay, that I needed a hotel. Very busy now, he said, lots of Arabs in town, but I will help you. Thus began a long trudge through the Deira district of town adjacent to the airport. We stopped at ten or more hotels only to be told they were full up. Having exhausted the budget places the driver suggested a new up-scale hotel which had just opened a couple of weeks ago. They had one room left, for about four times the price I would pay for a hotel room in Beijing. But I took it, since it was by now after eleven o’clock and the taxi driver was quickly running out of patience and threatening to leave me standing alone the side of the road. The room turned out to be an enormous two room suite, much larger than my apartment in Ulaan Baatar. But there was no in-room internet! What a rip-off! Even the rooms in the humble Yong An Hotel in Beijing have free high speed internet in the rooms. It had been over twelve hours since I had been connected with the internet and I was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Even though it was near midnight I hit the streets looking for a quick fix. A half block from my hotel I found a very swank coffee bar with wireless internet for 5 dirhams ($1.36) an hour. I ordered a triple expresso, logged in, and settled back in the huge over-stuffed leather chair to read my latest emails from Beijing and Ulaan Baatar. My withdrawal anxieties quickly subsided. Even though it was after midnight the air-conditioning was going full blast and I was actually quite chilly. Back in my hotel room an hour later I turned on the TV and had the dubious treat of watching the Simpsons dubbed in Arabic. I fell asleep before the show was over.

Before beginning my researches into the Apocalypse I decided to check out the famous Perfume Souk in Dubai, reportedly one of the world’s greatest scent emporiums. I wanted some Arabian perfume for gifts and also some essential oils and incense for myself. If the end of the world comes I want to go out smelling good. The next morning I got a city map from the concierge and headed for the Perfume Souk down near the coast. It turned out to be about a walk of a mile. I sampled perfumes till my nose was satiated, but decided to put off any purchases till another day when hopefully I was a little better oriented. I seemed to be suffering from a tinge of jet lag. Next door was the world famous Gold Souk, whose hundreds of stores and stalls has what is reportedly one the largest—the largest, if you believe Dubai’s relentless boosters—selections of gold jewelry and accessories in the world.

Dubai is divided into two parts by the Creek, which egresses on Gulf of Arabia. On the east side, where I was, the area is known as Deira. The other side is known as Burj Dubai. Near the Gold Souk the Creek is six or seven hundred feet across. A steady stream of water taxis carries people back and forth. Hoping to get an overview of the city, I hired a taxi for a quick spin up the Creek and back.
Bank of Dubai Building from the Creek
Another view from the CreekWater Taxis on the Creek
Cruise Boat and Restaurant: in the evening you can eat dinner in these while cruising along the Creek. Some also go for a spin on the Arabian GulfAnother Dining Cruise Boat

Thursday, March 09, 2006

China | Beijing | 1001 Nights

From the time the plane left the ground in Ulaan Baatar to the moment the door closed behind me in the Yongan Hotel 2 hours and forty minutes had elapsed, shaving eight minutes off my earlier record on the Ulaan Baatar – Beijing commute. In Beijing it was a balmy 62º, a far cry from the ten below zero temperatures in Ulaan Baatar the week before. My first priority was buying more tea. Instead of making the long trip to Maliandao Tea Street for a full-scale tea shopping trip I decided to get just a few day’s supply of tea at the little tea shop just down the street from the Kunlun Hotel and not far from my hotel.
Tea seller
The regular women was on duty and the moment I walked in she started brewing a complimentary fresh pot of Puerh Tea for me. This tea shop also serves as a currency trading shop, although there are no signs indicating this. It is instructive to sit here sipping tea and watch the Arabs and Africans from the nearby embassy district come in here and exchange four-inch thick wads of US one hundred bills for Chinese yuan. For the first time to my knowledge the black market exchange rate has dropped to less than eight yuan to the dollar: it is now 7.98. Over tiny cups of Puerh the woman in charge says that the black market traders expect the rate to soon fall to 7.80 yuan to the dollar. Things are going to get more expensive for visitors to China . . . so I decided to stock up on tea: Yunnan Black, some Qi Min Black, and some Dragon Well Green.

That evening Ms. R. and I went to Ms. R’s favorite restaurant, the 1001 Arabian Nights. This is right on the edge of the Embassy District and a lot of people from the embassies hang out here, especially people from the Mid-East. They also have belly dancers from Xinjiang in Western China, Ms. R’s home province, which is one reason she likes the place. Another is that they don't serve pork. Ms. R. won't eat in any restaurant that serves pork, which pretty much eliminates most Chinese places.
Relevant Portions of Uighur Belly Dancer
We no sooner sat down than four very young girls came in and took a table right beside us. They seemed young to be hanging out by themselves in a nightclub. Ms. R talked to them and discovered that two of the girls, a fourteen year old and a twelve year old, were from Tehran, Iran; another twelve year old was from Turkey, and an eight year old from Pakistan. They said that they are the children of embassy employees and that they came here together quite often after finishing their homework for yoghurt, cokes, and mango juice.
Eight year old girl from Pakistan whooping it up at 1001 Nights.