Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Incredible India: Postscript: Abu Dhabi

world-map abu dhabi

As 2014 draws  to a close, so too does Incredible India. I hope that you have enjoyed it and had a fruitful, travel-filled year. All the best for 2015, may it exceed your expectations!
Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

Part 16: Delhi – The National Railway Museum and Indira Gandhi’s Villa

Part 17: Delhi – Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb and the Jama Masjid

Postscript: Abu Dhabi


Abu Dhabi City Center

Postscript: Abu Dhabi



I'd fallen fast asleep almost the moment I'd sat down in my seat on the flight out from Delhi but even so, three hours is nowhere near enough sleep in a night and I was fighting exhaustion from the moment that I got off again at Abu Dhabi. Nonetheless, this was a new city to explore and I did not intend to waste the opportunity, tired or otherwise. From the very real grinding poverty of India to the surreal and unreal wonderland of the UAE where money literally does gush forth from the ground and those who control it are limited only by their imaginations.

But what I saw first on my grand tour of the country's capital was not another bombastic and wasteful use of that wealth but instead a very positive example of what can be achieved if money and imagination are put together in the service of good, not ego.

I'd read all about Masdar on the internet whilst in India. It bills itself as the “City of the Future” and whilst that boast is a little laughable at present – it only has a few hundred inhabitants at the moment so it's more village than city – its aims are laudable. Masdar is a model for eco-living in amidst a sea of gas-guzzling, a carbon-neutral community that actually generates more power than it uses. Terms like “eco-living” and “carbon-neutral” conjure up images of a commune of ageing hippies strumming out Bob Dylan numbers whilst dressed in linen and smoking spliffs, but Masdar is no back-to-nature groove-fest, it is high-tech and cutting edge. It's had money thrown at it and it shows, but if the aim is a noble one then such expenditure is no crime, indeed, it is an investment.

Entering through the main doors, I was met by a security guard from Uganda who directed me to a model of the project and then proceeded to explain it all. It transpired that what I was about to view was only a tiny part of what would soon become a much greater whole; a city of a hundred thousand entirely self-sufficient in energy even to the point that it would sells its excess electricity back to the national grid. What had been built so far of this carbon-neutral utopia was based on the university – the Masdar Institute – post-graduate only and mostly ex-pats. It was all powered by banks of solar panels of the roofs and then below those roofs, the buildings themselves, clustered around squares, everything pedestrianised and with all amenities including a mosque. And then, below all that, another realm, an underworld where driverless cars ferried the citizens around.

And after having it all explained to me, I then boarded one of those vehicles and was whisked noiselessly under the new city to the stop for the central square. It was fast, efficient and environmentally-friendly and the only drawback to it all was that the two academics who shared my cab with me were extremely unsociable.

I alighted and rose up to the surface where I wandered around aimlessly. It was true that Masdar is still in its infancy but the vision was clear and it was not one that I disapproved of. True, the buildings were hideous but modernist architects seem to think that ugliness is what people yearn for,[1] but their layout was conducive to communality and the lack of cars a blessing. However, there was one aspect to it all that I have to say deeply troubled me and that was the “Service Level” below, that realm where the driverless cars whizzed to and fro. Maybe I've watched one too many sci-fi dystopias, but to me it seemed wrong. Apart from the obvious class hierarchy implications, surely that vast, empty, dark realm was an open invitation to crime, a ready-made underworld just waiting to be populated with addicts, homeless, alcoholics, criminals, youth gangs, the mentally-ill and all others who have fallen through the cracks of the society above. I thought that the moment that I set eyes on it and now, after several months of working with the addicts, alcoholics and homeless of my own city, I feel it all the more.

After Masdar I took the bus into Abu Dhabi itself. An Emirati would never dream of taking public transport; that is reserved for guestworkers, but in a land where 90% of the population are temporary immigrants, this meant that the (ridiculously cheap) bus services are well-patronised.

On the long journey in – in countries where land is cheap and plentiful, cities spread out far more – through innumerable housing complexes and past other, more interesting buildings including a circular skyscraper like a radio telescope full of offices, but I took little in and very soon I was drifting off to sleep.
In the centre I pounded the streets and saw the paltry sights. The main one, the Fort, was shut, getting prepared for a festival. That annoyed me since the Fort was the one place that I'd wanted to see. In his classic desert travelogue 'Arabian Sands' Wilfred Thesiger had described Abu Dhabi thus: “A large castle dominated the small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore”[2] and in amidst the concrete and glass spires of commerce, the fort was only tangible link between his time and mine. Which does not sound so extreme until you consider that when Thesiger was writing, my grandfather was already a grown man. The most startling thing about the UAE has been the speed of the progress, (if progress it is).

The other “must-see” sight in the centre, (if that is remotely an appropriate description), was a set of gigantic sculptures of a cannon, a teapot and other traditional Emirati items which I duly photographed without much enthusiasm before hailing a taxi to take me to the Heritage Village.

Giant teapot in the street

The Heritage Village is a most inappropriately named place indeed, just like its counterpart in Qatar, since there is nothing remotely “heritage” about it at all. After all, how could there be when it is built on on a spit of land reaching into the sea was constructed from scratch only a decade or two before? Nonetheless, I wanted to see it. Culture is not all bricks and mortar, (or mud and palm fronds); it is also traditions and customs and besides, in a land of limited attractions, where else was I to go?

And fake or not, I rather enjoyed it. I ambled around the reconstructed mud-brick dwellings, read about the pearl divers who once sustained the region's economy, ogled some traditional costumes and perused the faux handicrafts on sale. Real or not, this was as close as I was going to get to Thesiger's desert world in modern-day Abu Dhabi. Besides, from the shady palm grove beside the “village” there were spectacular views across the bay to the Corniche from whence I came, a stunning procession of glittering high rises twinkling and shimmering in the desert sun.

I ate in the restaurant and fell into conversation with some of my fellow diners, members of a party from a cruise ship stopping off at different ports around the Gulf. They'd been to Muscat and Dubai and had Doha and Bahrain to come. They admitted that it was an unusual choice, a far cry from the Norwegian fjords or myriad sun-kissed isles of the Caribbean that are the usual staple of cruises, but they were finding it fascinating. What fascinated me though was the fact that they were all from Montreal and spoke French as their first language and several of those at my table obviously struggled to express themselves in my native tongue. I knew that French was the lingua franca in Quebec but had always assumed that all Quebecois, like the native Welsh speakers in the Cambrian Mountains, were fully bilingual.

The view over the bay from the Heritage Village

After the Heritage Village I took a taxi to the Emirates Palace Hotel which is mentioned in respectful tones by every taxi driver and tourist worker in the city as it is Abu Dhabi's very own seven-star hotel, the city's statement to its upstart neighbour that anything you can do, we can...erm... match it.

Architecturally though, Dubai's Burj al-Arab is far more striking, although I could not dislike the classical lines and symmetry of the Emirates Palace. Inside though, it just did not do it for me; gold, gold everywhere, so that the whole place basked in a putrid yellow glow. It was nouveau riche on heat – they even had a gold vending machine: ingots of the yellow stuff at the touch of a button – and more than anywhere else that I've visited, it reminded me of Ceauşescu's House of the People in Bucharest, another oversized neoclassical pile built by an autocrat with no one to put the brakes of taste on his vision. Still, there is one point in the Emir of Abu Dhabi's favour: he had at least the funds to pay for it all. Anyway, it was all a little too much for a yokel like me; I felt like it needed bringing down a peg or two, and so I did just that, heading into the marble toilet suite and taking a very satisfying dump there.

The Emirates Palace Hotel: nouveau riche

Fort, giant teapot, fake ancient village and tacky palace all ticked off and I was fast running out of things to do in Abu Dhabi, so in that toilet fit for a king (or emir...) I delved into my guidebook and picked out my next destination. I learnt that someone had had the bright idea of constructing a replica of Noah's Ark[3] which sounded like a rather quirky thing to do. So, liking a spot of the quirky now and again, I asked the taxi driver about it but he didn't seem to know where it was so I showed him the map and he looked at it as a man who had never had such a strange diagram presented before him before, before then agreeing and off we drove.

And drove.

And drove.

And drove. And still no Noah's Ark. And all the while the meter ticked over and over.

In the end I realised that we'd gone straight past the place so I told him so, he looked at me as if it was all my fault and we went back to where the Ark now lives.

And there it was, the huge painted rainbow on a wall indicating the connection to that ancient holy man and his boat. But underneath that rainbow... wait a minute, where was that most famous of all boats? Luxury yachts a plenty, but no flood-floating Ark. My driver asked a wealthy-looking Emirati who was climbing out of an obscenely-large 4x4 and he confirmed my worst fears: Yes, the Ark had been here once. No, it was here no longer.

I was dropped off back in the centre from whence I'd started, angry at the hefty taxi fare for nothing and half-asleep, the effects of only grabbing those few hours on the plane now really catching up with me. I went into a souvenir shop and bought all manner of tat for those folk back home, (and me...); I'm talking snow globes, flashing glass models of the Burj al-Khalifa and mosque alarm clocks. Then, I decided to walk the short distance to the bus station.

Short distance on the map that is. Four blocks to be precise. Half a mile at a guess. But in the city of the car where the foot-bound man sure ain't king, those blocks are much larger than elsewhere; I estimated half a kilometre minimum for each one. Shattered as I was and coming down with a cold, they seemed to go on forever. I stopped in a shopping centre for a large Coke to pep me up and then continued on my way.
By the time that I reached the bus station I was the walking dead yet there were still many hours to kill before my plane left and one big attraction to check out. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was constructed between 1996 and 2007 under the orders of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi. He wanted a structure that would unite “the cultural diversity of Islamic world, the historical and modern values of architecture and art.”[4] Inspired by Mughal, Persian, Arab and Moorish architecture and using material from all around the globe, it covers the area of five football pitches and can house four thousand worshippers making it the eighth-largest mosque in the world.

And in a city where the next biggest attraction is a giant teapot, then that made this an attraction not to miss.

I was deposited by my bus at the back of a supermarket, the nearest stop for the mosque which is generally reached – in true Emirati style – by car. Still, it was not far away, sitting dramatically on a hilltop at the end of the road.

But when I reached it I discovered to my dismay that I could not access the building that way. “You have to walk round,” the security guard told me, but that is easier said than done when things are built in Emirati scale, the complex easily a mile square and the entrance on the very far side. I started to walk round but in my state I was not up to a three-mile trek so I hailed a taxi and got dropped off at the entrance.

Exactly what I had expected I can't say, but what I found exceeded those expectations. This was new and expensive, but unlike the gold-splattered Emirati Palace Hotel, it was not nouveau riche. It was beautiful, the most beautiful mosque that I'd visited, far superior to Casablanca's King Hassan II Mosque. It was a symphony in glass, marble, light and stone. I wandered around in awe, (and was congratulated by countless people on my Indian kurta), and then sat in a corner and thought. This was it, the end of my trip to the Sub-Continent; my first trip there but, hopefully, not my last. On my journeyings I had seen countless wonders, more perhaps than on any other adventure that I'd been on, certainly far more than I could take in.

And for all that I was thankful, for no other emotion would have been apt.

Inside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque


Llandeilo-Shrewsbury train
16th February, 2014

[1] I was reminded of the new county council headquarters in Stafford. Equally eco-friendly and equally offensive to the eye.
[2] Arabian Sands, p.262
[3] The story is in the Quran too and Noah is decreed to be a Prophet in Islam, the Prophet Nur.

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