Our first visit to Al Ain

Last weekend we had half a plan to visit Abu Dhabi.  After seeing my photos, Elle is very keen to see the Grand Mosque for herself.  However I only remembered in the morning when it was too late that there were specific opening times.  We would miss the tour by the time we would get there, so we needed another plan.

A colleague mentioned Al Ain is also worth a visit, so I started Googleing to see what was available.  Once again I come across the limitations of the UAE’s web presence.  Compared to what I’m used to in Australia and elsewhere, there is very little online information available here about pretty fundamental things people would want to find. And the information that does get returned is invariably unreliable.  I was reminded of the night I tried researching how to catch a bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.  This would ordinarily be a very straight-forward web search which would give me the official site for Road Transport Authority, where I could download the timetable and station maps.  But no, I got everything except this kind of info.  It didn’t matter what combination of terms, or even synonyms or different spellings I used, nothing much came up.  The best I got was one bus watcher’s personal site where he had detailed all of the bus models he has seen in the UAE, including where and when they were manufactured.  Riveting, but totally unhelpful for me.

To find out what was best to see in Al Ain I found the personal travel blogs to be almost the best source of information. The Al Ain Palace Museum was a winner, the other possibles at the time seemed to be the National Museum, and the Al Ain Zoo. I confirmed the GPS had these locations listed otherwise I’d have to allow an extra three or four days travel time before setting off.

While the GPS’s satellites were still kicking-in I made my way over the creek which turned out to be a mistake. There is so much road work going on, the directions we were supplied were terrible. We kept getting informed to enter roundabouts that no longer exist. Then we were swept away into one way streets in the wrong direction. All of these tacks left and right with plenty of U-turns were happening every 100 metres or so.  So it was quite surprising when the advice changed to “Drive straight for 100 kilometres”. The drive wasn’t too exciting with sand, sand, and more sand – only interrupted now and again by the odd camel or a dozen. It was nice nonetheless.

We made one stop on the way at a service  station to eat, drink and stretch our legs.  As I got Myles out we heard a loud, high-pitched “Hello, how are you?” from some distance away. A guy in a mechanic’s uniform was sitting 30 metres away in the shade waving. It was clear he was talking to Myles, so I said he could go over if he liked. Myles went and offered the guy some of his chips, and the two of them seemed to be getting on well.  I went over to see if everything was fine and the guy asked how I was, and asked where we were from.  I asked where he was from and he said Iran, then I asked him if it was this hot in Iran and he started to look confused. I broke it down into smaller words, and started the non-verbal hand movements, but then he came clean. He said, “I only know ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’,  ‘how are you?’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘where are you from?’, ‘change tyre’, ‘air in tyre’.”  It all became clear, I was trying to go beyond his English abilities.  We continued to have a basic conversation with him by going through his reportoire a few more times before it was time to return to the car. Definitely an interesting pit-stop.

Although we didn’t have a big look-around, it was obvious Al Ain is a very different place to Dubai, and even the rest of Abu Dhabi.  I’d describe it as a  sleepy town compared to the rest of UAE I’ve seen. Sleepy such as Toowoomba compared to Brisbane, which sort of fits as Al Ain happens to also be known as the Garden City of the Emirates.  Having said that, it still had more than its fair share of cars on the road. It seemed there are many less Westerners around Al Ain. A lot more shops had signs in Arabic only.  Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are each around 120 kms from each other forming a triangle.  So you probably wouldn’t want to see them all in one day, although you could.

It was pretty close to lunch time, and Lewis had been upset for some time – he’s still getting over his flu – so we sought out the first familiar takeaway logo we could find and grabbed a bite to eat. It turned out to be KFC, which is quite nice when you haven’t eaten it in years.

First stop after this was the Al Ain Palace Museum. This is where one of Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s wives, Sheikha Fatuma lived. It was nice to see for its wondrous lack of extravagance. I was expecting gold bathroom fittings, massive chandeliers, and plenty of marble throughout. But the whole compound was beautifully simple. There were generous rooms for many guests, yet the Sheikh’s actual bedroom was quite modest to say the least.  The kitchen was probably three times larger.

From there we went off to the Al Ain Zoo. I must say I was a little concerned agreeing to go to this, given some of the feedback I’ve heard about Dubai Zoo.  The Al Ain Zoo has no issues in that respect. The temperature was just over 40 degrees so we were struggling. It was interesting when we were at the meercats. We were contemplating how they keep any of the animals cool, when suddenly a powerful mist of water began spraying from the ceilings above us. It was great for Myles and Lewis particularly. I looked to see if the meercats were enjoying the cool down, but they had all vanished amongst the mist – if only there were gorillas in there.

Actually the zoo could have had gorillas, we were forced to cut our tour short at around the half way mark. It was either that, or die from heat (and it’s not even Summer).

At the equivalent of $12 AUS for all four of us I figure there’s no issue going back. To visit the late Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo you’d have to add a zero to the price we paid in Al Ain, and then some. Interestingly some of the enclosures were quite similar to the setup in Australia.

The zoo also had a train operating, which we promised Myles we would ride next time.

We’ve also added the following things to the agenda for when we’re in the neighbourhood again:

  • Jebel Hafeet (the striking mountain range you spot as you approach the zoo)
  • the Oases
  • an Al Ain Football Club game (according to Wikipedia they’re UAE’s most successful team and one of the best in Asia – I wonder if someone like “Al_Ain_Fan_1984” came up with that)