Friday, May 12, 2017

As-saalum Alaikum!

Well, we're back in Hong Kong after a long, action-packed, photo-filled trip, full of good stories and wonderful memories.  It all seemed to pass in a whirlwind!  I can't believe we're closer to the middle of May now than the beginning.  One of the best things about this trip was getting to travel together in a group.  It's so hard to coordinate schedules in this day and age, and traveling can be very stressful even in the best of times, but when you have good travel partners that jive, it is such a pleasure.  Michael, Katie, Justin and I spent some time in the car driving around Oman especially, and having a group of four made the road trips more entertaining (and also go faster)!
Here you have it - one of the main stretches of downtown Dubai
 To recap, Michael and I started our trip in Dubai.  Our trip was met with a rather inauspicious string of events, beginning with our outbound flight at 1:30 AM being overbooked.  We got to the airport check in counter and stared in disbelief as the flight attendant offered us a cash voucher to give up our flight.  Turns out, in the Hong Kong airport, they can't check you in unless you have a seat assignment, and they didn't have seat assignments for us because the flight was already full and they were relying on people to volunteer to give up their seats and take cash vouchers in lieu of the flight.  Michael was aghast and I was worried.  Who would be willing to give up such a late night flight?  Plus, we were only spending a day in Dubai and not getting on this flight would mess up our travel plans for the next two days.  We spent a long time anxiously patrolling the check in counters, waiting, waiting... until they informed us to our great relief that a couple had given up their seats.  It was a close call.   I wonder how much the vouchers were for!

The flight itself was pretty miserable - they didn't dim the cabin lights until after the meal service ended, which was, by the time the plane took off and everyone was served, had eaten, and all of the food cleaned up, approximately 3:30 AM.  I chose to skip the meal and instead plugged in my earplugs, put on my eye mask, and tried to go straight to sleep.  I can't say that I was that wholly successful, but at least I tricked my brain into thinking that I was getting some shuteye.

Once we landed at Dubai airport (at the uncivilized hour of 6:30 am), we went to pick up a rental car at the airport.  Michael had tried to rent a fancy, fun car (a yellow Corvette) but when we landed we saw that the (admittedly very) sketchy car rental company had sent him a whatsapp while we were in the plane, explaining that a mysterious engine light had popped up, leaving him unable to rent us the car for the day.  Another issue!  We ended up renting a BMW 5 series from a local company called fast rental (which then leads to another issue...see below), which made us stand out from 99% of the cars on the road, which were white Land Cruisers.

From there, we checked into our hotel, the Park Hyatt Dubai, a golf resort, near the Dubai Creek.

It was not situated directly downtown but we loved the location for its peacefulness and quiet. 
 After we spent the morning traversing all of downtown Dubai (it's amazing what you can get done when you land in a city at the crack of dawn), we retreated to the pool in the afternoon to relax.
 I thought our hotel was a bit boring, to be honest - perfectly nice and nothing to complain about but it could have been anywhere.  (Plus I dislike how Park Hyatt carves up their swimming pools with squares of potted plants.  They did the same thing in Siem Reap and I find it a distraction.  Such terrible issues I have, I know.)  What I did love was the view of the sunset from our room.  How peaceful and beautiful is that!

We were also situated right next to the seaplane docking station, so periodically we could hear them gearing up to take off or land.  
I could see how the noise might bother some patrons but I was thrilled to hear and see them swooping in and gliding off.  Michael and I flirted briefly with the idea of renting one for a quick flight around Dubai but quickly decided the cost was prohibitive and we didn't care enough for the city's sights and sounds to do it.

This brings me to my next point.  I was so unimpressed with Dubai.  I don't understand the hype of this city, and frankly, if it weren't for the ease and price of the roundtrip flight from Hong Kong, I would say avoid the UAE altogether!  Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but I remain stumped.  This was our view for most of our day out and about in the car: lots of roads, lots of desert, urban sprawl, and haze.
 We drove to the Palm Jumeirah, which is an entirely artificial island built in the shape of a palm tree - but while you're driving it you can't tell at all what you're traversing:

 We drove all the way out to the Atlantis, seeing construction all along the way.
 We had a rather unimpressive view of the very hot and very empty boardwalk, however, this was my first view of the Persian Gulf!  ...It didn't smell great.
 We also went to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper (currently).  We walked up to the counter to purchase tickets to the top (not so much because we really were dying to be at the top, but more so because there was nothing else to do) but the quoted price was staggering and we walked away in disbelief.  For two people to go to the 148th floor (which isn't even the top), it cost AED1,000, or US$272.  I stared at the woman and asked if anything else came with the price of admission.  Her response?  Unlimited tea and coffee and no time restrictions.  Oh, gee, thank you!  For that price I would rather spend a little more and go in a helicopter.  What was craziest to me was the number of tourists who were approaching the counter to buy tickets, seemingly without batting an eye.  Wtf?  How has Dubai managed to convince people to throw away their hard earned money like this...
This thing was admittedly very impressive, as it is beautiful and really, really tall.  Can you see me at the bottom left corner of the photo?  This was taken with me standing on a bench a couple of hundred meters away, and Michael taking a picture while kneeling, in order to capture the whole thing. 
 Because we were there doing the day, the fountains weren't on, but we did get to see the massive amount of labor that went into getting them ready.  There were little boats all around the fountain and workers in full scuba gear working in and under the water readying the jets.  Apparently there are multiple fountain shows daily.

Our final stop was the Dubai mall, right next to the Burj Khalifa, were we wandered through fancy shops after shops similar to what one would see in Hong Kong or Macau.   Apparently this is the largest mall in the world by total area.  If that's a fact that is meant to be impressive, count me completely disinterested.
We found nothing particularly great about it (it's a mall, how excited can you get?), but the aquarium was something else.  Centered squarely in the middle of the mall, the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo is a massive glass tank of 2.64 million gallons of water, containing hundreds of sharks and manta rays and all kinds of fish.  According to a quick google search, it's the second largest aquarium in the world.  Of course they offer some cool/crazy things, ranging from venturing into their underwater observatory to going cage diving with sharks, but we kept it tame this time.  Michael and I spent quite a bit of time here just watching the sharks and rays and fish glide by.  Confoundingly, the aquarium costs a mere $10 or so for entrance, and actually almost all of it is available to be viewed for free.  I would take 30 visits to this over the top of the Burj any day! 

Finally, after our tour around the city in the morning and our lounging by the pool in the afternoon, we were ready to head out to dinner to a local restaurant for which I had read really great reviews - Al Ustad Special Kebab.  It's a family-run South Iranian restaurant that has been in business since 1978 and it has exactly the kind of homey, warm, comfortable feel that I love discovering when traveling.  Their menu is very simple and no frills - always a good sign.  They specialize in kebabs and make them simply and quickly.

Unfortunately, before we could go, we had to deal with yet another hiccup on the trip - our flight the next morning to Muscat had been inexplicably canceled.  Michael received an email notification from Salam Air, a budget airline, saying simply that changes had been made to our flight and that we were entitled to a refund.  No phone number, no email address, no other information.  That took about an hour and a half to sort out, as we quickly learned that the airline didn't have service after hours, we couldn't reach a customer representative, and not only did we have to contest the charge, but we also had no flight the next morning.

When we then learned that our flight had been scheduled to fly out of a smaller, regional airport in Dubai that was an hour away from our hotel (as opposed to nine minutes - somehow Michael didn't realize this when booking the tickets!!) we threw up our hands and went to book a new flight entirely.  Ouch.  We booked with Oman Air (which turned out to be the nicest flight we took on this trip, by the way) but I guess buying plane tickets at the last minute in the Middle East with a foreign credit card throws up ALL of the red flags, because we had to try three different credit cards before the transaction would go through.  And even then, I received a fraud alert email from the airlines warning me that my check-in process would take longer than expected because our flights were "frozen" due to fears of unauthorized use of credit card.  What a trial, am I right?

At least dinner was delicious.  Parking was a pain of the largest order, and we had to make another ATM run because we didn't have enough cash.  We almost gave up and went back to our hotel, but thankfully we persevered and went home full and very satisfied.

The next morning, after a large and plentiful breakfast, we headed to the airport to take our flight to Muscat.  There, we would meet up with Justin and Katie and begin our Omani adventures and do the rest of the trip together.

When we arrived at the airport to drop off our car, the car rental company refused to let us go without our acknowledging damage to the car.  The inspector claimed a scratch at the very bottom of the right side of the car.  The scratch was practically invisible to the naked eye and to me looked almost like dirt streaks.  We couldn't believe it - the car was in very good shape, perfectly clean, no damage whatsoever.  And the way the inspector was looking at the car... it just felt like he was searching for any excuse.  We walked away refusing to acknowledge liability (they may have picked the wrong tourists lawyers to mess with here) and Michael immediately called our credit card company (from my cell phone at international rates I might add, ouch) while I raced to the airport counter to plead with the Oman Air travel desk to let us on our flight despite purchasing at the last minute with a credit card. Michael finally managed to resolve the issue with the car company (he said they crowded around him and cajoled him, while patting his shoulder, "to just sign it") out of sheer stubbornness - they dropped the issue when they realized he was never going to sign off on the scratch.  I kept pestering the airlines as they repeatedly tried to reach their main office via telephone (no one was picking up) for about half an hour, to have them authorize the release of our tickets for check in.

How's that for stressful?  The trip felt doomed - in the last 24 hours, we had nearly missed our flight due to overbooking, our first car rental fell through, our first flight fell through, our new car rental was a scam, and our new flight was nearly missed due to administrative reasons.  Leaving the security line at the airport, Michael and I agreed firmly that we needed to get the hell out of Dubai!  Our impressions of the Middle East at this point were admittedly at a nadir.

One thing I will wholeheartedly recommend, however:

Al Ustad Special Kebabs
Al Mankhool Road
Near Al Fahidi Metro Station
Bur Dubai - Dubai - United Arab Emirates

The place we stayed, which we enjoyed for its tranquility despite not being downtown or next to some of the arguably cooler places:

Park Hyatt Dubai
Dubai Creek Club Street - Dubai - United Arab Emirates

No comments:

Post a Comment