December 14, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 7: Sunrise, Sunset

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5am makes a very early start to the day. I have sacrificed sleep to ride a hot air balloon in the Arabian desert to catch the sunrise. It would be a unique experience as I’d never been in a hot air balloon before, nor had an aerial view of the desert except from high in a commercial jet.

The ride out to the desert take about an hour, and I try to catch some more z’s in the bus. When we arrive at before 6:30 it was just beginning to get light. The balloon was about half made, still lying on its side filled with cold air. Our captain – an Englishman named Dee – turns on all 4 of the blasters and huge flames shoot out, filling the balloon with hot air. We jump into the ballon inside one of 4 compartments, and I convince Dee to let me take my full set of gear inside.

It takes a while for the balloon to lift off, as the basket was full of some heavyweights (I was probably around the median weight of the group). The slow ascent was an interesting experience. The uninitiated don’t realize that flying the balloon is a continuous cycle of adding hot air to maintain one’s altitude – since the air inside the balloon cools after a while, and the weight of the basket drags the balloon downward. Part way through our ascent, we catch the sun peeking over the Hajar Mountains and get our first sunrise. Dee then releases some hot air and turns the basket around while we lose some altitude. We ascend again as more hot air is added, catching our “second sunrise” for people on the opposite side of the basket to take some pictures.

The sand in this part of Dubai is similar to what I saw in the Wahiba Sands in Oman - reddish/copper tones on top of the more common yellow grains. The warm light of the morning sun gives the dunes a beautiful golden hue, looking like wavy highlights on the hair. I find the view breathtaking, but keep my finger on the shutter button as I take picture after picture of the scenery.

Dee takes us to about 2,500 ft above sea level, which is 2,000 ft above the desert. This is reportedly where the top floors of the Burj Dubai would reach, so it gave some perspective on the height of the building.

From here we gradually descend, with the wind taking us in different directions at different times. We spot Bedouin settlements with camel and goat farms. As we get close to ground level, we find camel tracks over the dunes and eventually spot a camel family with two calves. Eventually we make landfall a few km from our original spot, little more than an hour after take-off.

I am really sleepy when I reach the Grand Hyatt around 11am, and collapse on the bed for a 3-hour nap. Lunch today was the doggy bag from last night - seafood couscous. Still tasted fine even if I ate it cold. The early part of the afternoon is spent by the hotel pool, lounging around while I start the blog drafts on my notebook.

Evening comes and I take my camera bag and hop into a taxi for the Mina A' Salam, one of the hotels in the Madinat Jumeirah development next to the Burj Al Arab. I wanted to take pictures of the Burj at sunset, and thought this would be the ideal location as it's on the western side. Unfortunately, I am stopped from going to the private beach as I am not a hotel resident. I settle for a few shots of the hotel and canal within the Madinat.

As I explore the hotel, I walk into the Bahri Bar and find a table on the balcony. Here is a great view of the Burj, and at an elevated level. I sit down and order a few drinks, enjoying the multi-colored light show that the Burj puts on starting at 7pm. It seems to change colors every half hour, and we go through all colors of the rainbow. It's kind of kitsch yet pretty in a way. I happily snap away with my camera, ticking off yet another item on my to-do list.

A couple of pink mojitos and watermelon caipiroskas later, I am feeling a little lightheaded as I walk to Pierchic for my dinner. The Madinat Souk has some interesting-looking shops, but I have no time to browse. I continue walking through the large and pretty pool area at Al Qasr, and reach the restaurant just in time for my reservation. The view from the pier back to the hotel is very pretty.

As I arrived at Madinat Jumeirah, one thing that was immediately apprent was the difference in the guest profile. A lot more young, pretty girls hanging out in groups of friends. Many seem to be British or Australian. It's clearly a younger party crowd here, compared to either the Meridien or the Hyatt. Maybe this should be the place to stay on the next visit.

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