Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

The rocky, desolate terrain turned into sandy, desolate terrain as I headed northwest out of Oman back to the United Arab Emirates.  I was on the fringe of the Empty Quarter that extends into Saudi Arabia.  There was some scattered, straggly vegetation that provided food for a few stray camels.  Signs warned of camels before I began seeing them.  Signs also warned of cross winds.  Maybe motorists needed to be alerted to them, but they were no secret to me.  They blew waves of sand across the road. The sand stayed low, but when a truck or car passed it would disrupt the air flow and lash me top to bottom with the particles.  My left ear was soon filled with grit.  I was buffeted all over the road, struggling to even go nine miles per hour.

Fortunately it was a cool wind.  For the first time in three weeks I needed my windbreaker.  When an Australian couple gave me some chocolate, I didn't have to worry about it melting.  If I had been battling such a wind when the temperature had been in the 90s I would have been pouring sweat and worried about running out of water.  

For the first time I had stretches over twenty-five miles between sources for food and water.  I turned off the road to go a kilometer to one small town.  There was water at its mosque, but not a store to be found nor a person to be seen.  Every home had a wall about it.  After a half hour rest as I headed back to the main road a car pulled up alongside me and a white-robed young man asked if I needed anything.  I told him I had come looking for food and water. He invited me to his home.  I told him I had found water and had eaten my fill of dates and cookies that I had in reserve.  

It was tempting to accept his offer but If I had gone to his home I wouldn't have had the appetite to eat anything.  A few minutes down the road I regretted I didn't think to ask him if he had WIFI.  Earlier in the day I had unsuccessfully spent half an hour  stopping at coffee houses and restaurants and photography stores seeking it in Ibri, the last city for one hundred miles.  I would have liked to have known if Van Garderen had been able to overcome his nine second deficit and taken the lead in the Tour of Oman. It could be a couple of days before I would find out.

For the first time in days I had to put the rain fly on my tent, not out of concern for dew as along the coast, but to protect me from the blowing sand and also for warmth.  The temperature fell to fifty.  There had been nights when it barely dropped below seventy.

Though I could ponder the majesty and barrenness of the Empty Quarter, I didn't have any sense of the solitude or isolation that accompanied me when I've crossed many another desert--the Kalahari in South Africa, the Nullarbor in Australia, the Atacama in Chili and even route 50 across Nevada (known as America's loneliest road), as rarely did more than a minute pass without a vehicle flying by, some mistaking the 120 kilometer per hour speed limit for 120 miles per hour.  

Oman has too many people with cars wishing to go somewhere making it hard to find a lonely road.  Maybe I'd have to head to Salalah, 600 miles south of Muscat near the Yemen border to find such a road, either the coastal route or the route through the interior.  Both are said to be very scenic.  I didn't allow enough time for such a loop this time. The winds have been very negligible until the last two days.  I'd have to allow quite a bit of time if I were to make such a circuit accounting for the possibility of harsh adversarial winds.

Crossing back into the UAE took a little more time than crossing into Oman with an official in a back room approving my passport rather than the woman up front and then an official at the next check
point taking fifteen minutes to draw up papers for my bicycle while all those in cars were given just a perfunctory check.  In the cool I hadn't been able to give myself much of a wash.  I hoped I didn't look too derelict to be allowed into the country.  Oman was said to be picky about letting unwashed cars into the country and would even ticket dirty cars in the larger cities.  

From the border it was fifteen miles to Al Ain, a sprawling city of half a million.  Along the way I passed several mini-caravans of camels out near the daily camel market.

I also passed a huge cement factory and then some smaller ones.  Before I knew it, I was on the fringe of Al Ain even though I had taken a bypass around it, as evening was approaching and I didn't care to be caught in the city.  A hotel was out of the question, as Lonely Planet said the cheapest to be found was one hundred dollars, more than I had spent in Oman the past sixteen days, other than my Valentine Day night in a hotel in Muscat. I thought I might be able to camp behind the wall of a mosque, but it wasn't secluded enough.  Nor was some vacant land behind a large car dealership.  I was tempted by a cluster of bushes besides a prison wall, but feared being spotted by the guard tower.  A little further I came upon the zoo with thick enough vegetation along one of its walls to disappear into.  It was a quiet night with no howls or grumbles from those on the other side of the wall.

The next morning I ventured into the city for some site seeing.  First was the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum. It wasn't particularly palatial.  Its prominent feature was a large courtyard with a tent and some vegetation within its walls.

Just beyond the Palace was a huge oasis of some 150,000 date palms, a collection of cultivated plots owned by individual landowners, each farming thousands of date palms.  A narrow cobbled road wound its way amongst them. I stopped and talked to a gentleman returning to his car after an early-morning stroll.  He asked me that question that is becoming a refrain, "Do you need anything?"  I told him I had hoped I might be able to buy some dates.  He said they won't be ready for harvest until June. Then he opened his car door and reached in.  I thought he might have a bag for me, but when he turned back he was clutching two 100 Dirham notes, more than fifty dollars, and presented them to me.  "No, no," I said.  "I've no need for that."

Also near by was the Al-Jahili Fort, one of the largest in the country built in the 1890s as a royal summer residence for a Sheik who lived in Abu Dhabi, which got steamy hot in the summer.  

It houses a large permanent exhibition of the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer who made two unprecedented explorations of the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950, that earned him a knighthood. He had spent time at the fort in his travels. The exhibit included a fifteen minute video of he and his two Bedouin companions reminiscing about their perilous trips that totaled ten thousand miles, staving off thirst and hunger.  They'd go days without water.  They never knew when they awoke in the morning if any of their camels might have died, which could have meant the death of them as well.

Now its off for my own small taste of the Empty Quarter to the most picturesque and prominent of the dunes of the UAE along the Saudi Arabia border.  I have better water carrying capacity than a camel with all the water bottles I've accumulated from the two bike races that brought me over here--two atop each of my panniers and plenty more buried inside.


T.C. O'Rourke said...

Two of my favorite George quotes ever:

"...feared being spotted by the guard tower."


"It wasn't particularly palatial."

Dud said...

Looking ahead, plenty of quiet camp sites on the Umm Al Zamool road and a good time of year. Interesting to see how more strongly developed the dunes are relative to those in central Australia which are more vegetated. Rainfall in that part of UAE being ~50 mm / yr relative to ~200 mm / year in the Simpson Desert of Australia. Some arty pictures of dunes, please George.