Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sojourn in the Persian Gulf

In a period of about six weeks I travelled to the Gulf three separate times, specifically Dubai once on the way back from Nepal and Abu Dhabi twice for work.  All trips involved the usual visits to extravagant hotels and pricey restaurants and some obligatory sightseeing, none of which was very interesting in comparison to some of the other gems on offer across the Middle East.  Paling in comparison to places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and Turkey, the Arab Gulf lacks any sense of history and it is difficult to nail down a genuine cultural identity here.  The landscape is comprised of flat deserts, massive highways, and over-engineered skyscrapers. 

The major exception I can think of and one of the only cultural attractions worth a visit is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.  During the first work trip to Abu Dhabi we stayed in the RItz Carlton which was directly across from the mosque so I had the opportunity to visit and was pleasantly surprised.  Although not as old and historic as some other amazing mosques I've seen in North Africa, the Middle East, and India, the mosque impressive in its own right and worth a visit if you're in Abu Dhabi. 

Aside from the mosque, there is not much in the way of sightseeing.  Although I expected this going into it (this was not my first time to the Gulf as we had been stranded in Bahrain on way to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago), the tedium of the place got to me as three visits in a period of a month and a half is more than enough.  Dependent on cars and taxis for transport and mostly confined to your hotel or another hotel for dinner options, this can get very old quickly.

The UAE is very good for certain things.  The shopping malls are an impressive mix of the best of British and American retail, the hotels rival the magnitude and bling of the Vegas strip, and the restaurants do offer high quality fare, albeit at a steep premium.  The meals we had ranged from Thai, Pan-Asian, steak, seafood houses, and Nobu at the Atlantis Palm, all of which are well worth the time and money.  The restaurant choices in the St. Regis Abu Dhabi were a bit more atmospheric than the ones in the Ritz Carlton as they are located on the water.  Overall, when it comes to dining, you won't be disappointed. 

If you are an expat from the West you can have a pretty comfortable life.  Local skills and talent are on short supply as the number of Emiratis who actually work is low and they need educated foreigners to help run the economy of the country.  From a family life perspective you probably couldn't find a better place to live with great schools and affordable full time childcare, virtually no crime, big modern homes, and efficient roadways.  As a business traveller, you can have even more fun with the corporate credit card and expense account and enjoy some of the finest hotels in the world, boozy dinners, night caps, and all. 

However there is another side of the Gulf that is far more dark and not everyone who lives in this region enjoys the blessings and trappings I refer to above. 

The plight of the migrant worker in the Gulf states continues to be a source of frustration for me when thinking about my experiences here.  Despite all the luxury and convenience bestowed upon the foreign skilled foreigner, most of who come from the west, the migrant workers from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia face working conditions and violations against their freedoms which should not be legal or accepted in the twenty-first century.  Aside from having no political representation, most passports are confiscated for the contracted period of work, meaning these workers are not able to leave the country even if they desired to.  Most workers live in squalid barrack conditions on the outskirts of town and are transported to construction sites where they are expected to work through 40C heat building these grand hotels and high rises.

All in and all, the Gulf is dull as ditchwater and my least favorite region I have ever visited.  A weird mix of wealth and luxury juxtaposed against an underlying feeling of despair and injustice, it is a region in which I would happily not return.  - KV

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving with friends, family, and turkey! Our friends who just  moved back from California graciously hosted Thanksgiving dinner at their lovely flat in East Dulwich. Being the creative hostess that she is, she made a pilgrim and Indian hats for us as party favours, whilst her awesome chef husband roasted a fantastic turkey with all the trimmings. It was a lovely evening with great food, laughter, and a fantastic pumpkin pie.

As if Thursday night's dinner wasn't enough, I insisted on roasting a turkey for two on Saturday just because I wouldn't feel right if I didn't spend hours roasting my own turkey and making my artery-clogging mash potatoes. After four days straight of turkey, it's safe to say that I've had my fix...until next year.

This year we are incredibly grateful for the UK granting us our Indefinite Leave to Remain, our health, and our wonderful family and friends across the world. We look forward to seeing you all in a few short weeks in San Francisco. Enjoy then, let the festive season begin! Cheers!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Glimpse of Musandam, Oman

We took a small detour to Musandam, Oman, a small peninsula between the UAE and mainland Oman, for some diving and trekking through the rugged mountains. We didn't end up trekking as we got our fix of sore legs in Nepal. We did however did a day of diving including a mini refresher course ahead of our diving holiday in Playa del Carmen over New Years. The diving wasn't great mostly due to the visibility but there is some amazing life in the Musandam -- we saw a three sting rays which was amazing!  The scenery around Musandam reminded me a lot of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. The "fjords" of the Middle East as they call it is no less spectacular. Here's a glimpse of Musandam: untouched and unspoilt.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dubai: The Superlative City

Dubai's slogan should be: "Anything you can do, I can do better, taller, larger, grander, and bigger." Who would have guessed that some 50 years ago, Dubai was a sleepy trading port in the desert, but today, there's no shortage of luxury here in Dubai. Take for example, the Burj Al Arab, the world's only 7 uber luxury hotel; or the Palm Island, the largest man-made island; or the extravagant Dubai Mall, the world biggest shopping mall equipped with an aquarium, theme park, and indoor skating ring and no less than 1,200 shops; or the glitzy Burj Al Khalifa, the world's tallest building nearly 828m -- that's almost as high as England's tallest "mountain" (Scafell Pike at 978 metres). The list goes on... but you get the point -- Dubai is a superlative city. 

I must admit, Dubai was never on top of my travel list. But, as we had to fly via Dubai to get to Kathmandu, we thought it would be worth spending a few days in Gulf. Plus, Keenan's ex-coworker just relocated to Dubai with Deloitte and kindly offered to host us at his new house in Sports City, which was great as we got to experience a bit of the expat life in Dubai. There are loads of American, Aussie, British, and French families, many come on a sweet relocation package which includes a housing and car allowance, subsidized education for the kids, and tax free. However that said, the cost of living in Dubai (as is elsewhere in the Gulf) is high. Everything is expensive, except for petrol where you fill up a Ford Explorer for 25 GBP (and the Explorer is standard in Dubai). 

Ski Dubai
Dubai is  the most bizarre place I've visited, a place of contradictions and extremes with stark division between wealthy Emiratis, well-to-do expats, and the migrant workers from South Asia. In fact, our entire flight from Kathmandu to Dubai was carrying migrant workers, all whom work as domestic helpers, construction workers, or in the hospitality sector. 

If I had to describe Dubai -- it would be a hodgepodge of American cities: Dallas (read: car culture with 7 lane highways) meets Las Vegas (read: glitzy, out-of-this-world, over-the-top) meets Miami (read: urban beach, cool hotel bars). You can drink freely here provided that alcohol is consumed within a hotel or a restaurant with a liquor licenses, and bottomless Friday brunch is all the rage in Dubai. If you wish to consume alcohol in your home, you have to apply for a liquor license and married women must get permission from their husband to buy and drink alcohol (?!!?). Otherwise, count on making a stop at Duty Free whenever you fly into Dubai. 

Favourite past time in Dubai: you've guessed right - shopping. Our short time in Dubai, we visited both the Mall of the Emirates where our friend had a tough mudder race inside SkiDubai, an indoor ski resort, and Dubai Mall. Every American and British chain store you can think of has an outpost in Dubai including IHOP which is apparently quite popular. 

We also spent some time on Jumeriah Beach which was surprisingly clean with clear, shallow water. Great for kids and interesting place for people-watching. We capped off the evening with sunset drinks at the 360 Bar at the Jumeriah Beach Hotel, which had a fantastic view of Burj Al Arab and the Persian Gulf. 

In need of a dose of culture, Keenan and I went to explore the Gold Souk and Fish Market in Old Dubai. Whilst the souks were nothing compared to the grand bazaars of Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, or Marrakesh, it is worth having a look if you are bored sitting on the beach. You'll get a taste of what Dubai was like before the oil bonanza in the 1960s. Our last evening in Dubai was spent with our friend and his lovely wife at the Mango Tree at the Souk Al Bahar for some delicious Thai food. Mango Tree has prime seating overlooking Dubai Fountain, which has a dazzling Las Vegas-style light and water show every half hour in the evening to delight the crowd. 

If you're looking for guaranteed sun, luxurious resorts, top-notched dining, trendy bars, and shopping, Dubai is your destination. Otherwise if you're looking for culture and history, you're better off in Turkey, Morocco, or perhaps neighboring Oman. We'll get to that in the next post...well at least a few lazy day of diving on the Musandum peninsula. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Poon Hill, Annapurna Himalayas

We arrived to the lakeside town of Pokhara, the main tourist hub in the Annapurnas,  after a long bus journey from Kathmandu (6+ hours to cover 130 miles!).  Our main goal on this leg of the trip: conquering Poon Hill (3200 m), a circular loop in 5 days, covering 55 km in distance with an elevation change of +1500m, staying and eating at simple "tea houses." The mountain scenery was spectacular with cute Gurung villages and ancient forest covered in moss.

For the four us, we hired out 1 guide ($25 per day) and 2 porters to carry our larger rucksacks ($18 per day per porter). For Keenan and I, we spent circa $25-$30 per day - pay as you go for food and accommodations ($3 for a bed per night, and $5 per vegetarian daal bhat meal). Many people asked me about the trek, so here’s a short review.

Day 1: Long (6 hours) and strenuous to Birenthani - We left at 7am to drive from Pokhara to Naya Pul (1.5 hr), the start of the trail where we registered our details with the government office. Then we were off on a 3 hour trek uphill, breaking for lunch in Hille. By the mid-afternoon, it was fairly hot and we still had another 3 hour “stairmaster-like” trek ahead of us until the town of Birenthani. Be sure to bring a walking stick as it puts less pressure on your knees, sun cream, good sturdy hiking boots, and a hat.

Day 2: Easy and short walk to Ghorepani - With the most difficult day behind us, the second day was a lot easier as we walked for 3 hours up to the charming village of Ghorepani. We arrived in time for lunch (dhal bhaat of course) and spent the afternoon browsing through bookstores and local Tibetan shops, reading, and playing mindless card games. We also got to know our trekking staff and learned about Nepali politics as well as the upcoming election.

Day 3: Rewarding but also exhausting - An early start at 4:30am to catch the sunrise over Poon Hill – a short 45 minute, 800m climb to get a glimpse of the sun rising over the Himalayas. It was freezing but the view was worth it. I’ve never seen such majestic mountains in my life – the big boys were seriously tall -- Annapurna I (8091m), Dhaulagiri I (8167m), Annapurna South (7219m), and Fishtail (6993m).

After breakfast, it was off to our next destination: Tadapani. But first it was more stunning views and vistas over Gurung Hill which in my opinion was better than Poon Hill. We also spotted two pairs of eagles gliding across the gorgeous blue skies.

As October is busy season, we ran into a minor problem where we couldn’t find a room in Tadapani, which meant we had to walk another 2 hours. At this point, we had been walking for 4.5 hours and were lucky to find one room with enough beds for the four of us, except the room wasn’t really a room, it was a storage barn of some sort… and the facilities were disgusting. By far the worst teahouse we stayed in, but we were grateful for a place to sleep, thank goodness for our mummy sleeping sacks…

Day 4: Easy downhill trek to Syauli-bazaar - We set off early after an uncomfortable night in the ‘barn room,’ Day 4 was relatively relaxed and easy. We stopped for an early lunch in the village of Ghundruk, a well-established town with good facilities. Then we continued to our last and final night on the trek, to a little town of Syauli-bazaar, and enjoyed the views over the river.

Day 5: Easy walk to Naya Pul - The last day  was somewhat a joke since we were “ahead” of schedule since Day 3. We were originally supposed to stay in Tadapani, and overnight in Ghundruk on Day 4. So what would have been a 4.5 trek on Day 5 turned into a 2.5 - 3 hour walk. The last leg took us through rice paddy and millet fields; the scenery was very picturesque. Arriving back at the gate to check out at Naya Pul, we were feeling fairly sore. Technically, you could do Poon Hill in 4 days if you are fit, but these would be very long days, so 5 days would be more relaxed. Back in Pokhara, we spent two nights at the upmarket Temple Tree Resort for some post-trek spa treatments and relaxation by the pool.

Nepal is a fascinating country and for mountain lovers, nothing tops this magical mountain kingdom. Definitely worth a trip, perhaps together with northern India, which was exactly what our friends did, whilst we went to Dubai and Oman. More to come...

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Visiting Kathmandu Valley

Nepal has been high on Keenan's list ever since our university days, but after the grueling trek up to Mt. Kinabalu last Christmas I wasn't so keen for a multi-day trekking holiday. But luckily we met a lovely couple in Borneo who encouraged us to visit Nepal. They spent two years living in Nepal and did some amazing trekking to Everest Base Camp, Annapurnas, Manaslu, Upper Mustang, and Langtang.

So we planned for a trekking trip for mid October which is high season for Nepal where the weather is near perfect with glorious blue skies. We were joined by two of London-based friends whom we traveled to Syria with in 2010. Together we spent 10 adventure-filled days exploring the stupas and temples around Kathmandu, taking a harrowing (and slow) bus journey to Pokhara, and trekking around the Annapurnas Himalayas. In particular order, here's a list of things to do and see  around Kathmandu, Nepal's chaotic capital. 

UNESCO Heritage Sites: 

Durbar Square of Kathmandu and Patan: "Durbar" is the term in Nepal to describe historic plazas within the royal palace complexes, displaying a wonderful array of traditional Newari architecture of red-brick lattices and intricate carvings. There are also a number of temples and multi-tier pagodas flanking the square.  It's a wonderful day to spend the afternoon people-watching.  Foreigners are expected to pay an entrance fee of 750 rupees for a day pass to enter the complex, which tickets into the Royal Palace. In the evenings, it  turns into a night market filled with locals. 

Swayambhuanth Stupa: Also known as the "Monkey Temple", this is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Nepali Buddhist located atop of a hill about 30 minute stroll from Kathmandu, and one of the oldest stupas used since the 5th century AD. It's best to go during the mornings or late afternoon for the sunset, and be prepared for a short but steep climb to the top (good training for your Himalayan trek). 

Boudhanath Stupa: Another UNESCO-listed stupa located on the east side of the Kathmandu Valley; on eof the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. It's located within a popular tourist area where you can find all sorts of trinkets, yak wool scarves,  etc. Like Swayambhuanth, Bouddhanth is graced with Buddhist prayer flags and Tibetan prayer wheels all around the circumference of the stupa. 

Pashupathinath Hindu Temple: Located on the banks of the Bagmati River, this Hindu Temple dedicated to Shiva is another important pilgrimage and cremation place for Nepali Hindus. Expect to see Sadhus (holy men). The temple serves as the seat of the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath. 

Shopping around Thamel: Not to worry if you forgot to pick up walking sticks, fleece, or another pair of wool socks, Thamel has everything you can think of for your trekking holiday, plus more. Thamel is the main 'tourist' area, somewhat similar to Bangkok's Khao San Road. Nepal is a go-to-bed early kind of country so the nightlife is fairly low-key. There are loads of roof-top restaurants and "German Bakery" to cater to Western visitors. 

Splashing our for a meal at Krishnapan located in Dwarikas Hotel: A lovely, lovely (and expensive) heritage hotel located near the Ring Road. The interior architecture and surrounding courtyards are simply stunning and no stranger to hosting important foreign dignitaries and royal families. The National Geographic hosted a fancy reception here when we visited. We enjoyed a delightful six course meal at Krishnapan's, one of the finest Newari restaurants in Nepal for our post-trek dinner. If you want, you can order the 22 course meal! It was  the perfect way to end our trip.

Pokhara and the Annapurnas to follow...