Saturday, 29 April 2006

Into the Arabian Desert

From Dubai I took a sunset trip into the Arabian Desert.

A typical desert landscape with dunes and a bit of shrubbery.

This picture was take under extraordinary circumstances. It was a cloudy day, but suddenly the sun broke through in a strange fashion giving the desert reddish colour and making the mountains in the background look white, although they normally have the same colour as the desert. Our guide said he had never seen them look this way.

It was not all about enjoying the scenery. In fact it was mostly about so called "Dune Bashing": Driving on the dunes in 4-wheel drives with deflated tires. It is a moderately frightening experience, as the cars tend to slide sideways down the dunes, giving you the feeling it's about to roll over.

The desert camp where we had a nice dinner after the trip into the dunes.

Thursday, 27 April 2006

Old Dubai - by the Creek

So far I have shown pictures from the new Dubai. All the newest high rises are being built on strips extending westwards from the city centre along the beach. However, humans have lived in the area for millennia and there is an older side to Dubai - although nothing ancient by Indian or European Standards.

The oldest parts of Dubai are placed around the freshwater Dubai Creek. What you see here is the skyline of the very oldest part known today as Bur Dubai. After seeing all the modern skyscrapers and experiencing the liberal attitudes west of the city centre it is easy to forget, but the United Arab Emirates including Dubai are Islamic entities. Standing by the creek there are plenty of mosque minarets and onion domes to remind you of that.

A bit further down the creek the buildings get quite a bit more modern in their appearance. It is however still much more on the quiet and idyllic side, than the extreme architecture of the western strips.

Native Emiratis and visiting westerners are exceptionally wealthy, but obviously there has to be someone to do all the dirty work. This is where guest workers from India, Pakistan, Africa and other Arabic states come into the picture. These people often send most of their money home to support their families, so they don't drive around in Ferraris and Porsches. No, they (and yours truly) take the bus and cross the creek using these little motorised boats, called Abras. The creek is so filled with these, that riding them is very much like driving the bumper cars in amusement parks - with the added risk of falling in the water. Constantly do they sail into each other and the docks. Riding these things is not recommendable for pregnant ladies or people with bad hearts. But it is extremely cheap, AED 0.5 (DKK 0.3, USD 0.05).

Opposite from Bur Dubai, Deira (where I stayed) on the other side of the creek is a bit more dingy, but also the centre of the gold trade in Dubai. This is one store window in the Deira Gold Souq, the largest gold trading area in the world. Everything you see in the windows is made of pure gold, and there are probably hundreds of stores like this one.

I wrote that Bur Dubai is the oldest part of Dubai, but this does not make it all that old. Until about 100 years ago, Dubai was a tiny, sleepy fishing village. Not much remains from those days and this 200-year old fort is by far the city's oldest building. In the background you can see the minaret and a couple of domes form the city's impressive Grand Mosque.

On of the oldest and most intriguing architectural features of Dubai are these so called wind towers that you see many places in Old Dubai. These are ingenious air condition system that worked long before electricity made modern air cooling available. These things suck down cooling winds into the houses below and lower temperatures by several degrees celcius. And they are also very beautiful addition to Old Dubai's skyline.

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Afternoon Tea at the Burj al Arab

In my previous post I showed a picture of Dubai Hotel Burj al Arab. However, since I have long been fascinated by this hotel, I decided to pay the sum of DKK 350 (AED 220, USD 60) for afternoon tea at the hotel's coffee shop. There is no cheaper way to get into the hotel.

This slightly blurry picture shows me in the colourful lobby of the Burj al Arab. Being a social democrat with something resembling a social conscience it was not without some mixed emotions that I decided to financially support an institution, which more than anything represents extravagant luxury in a world where millions struggle to feed themselves. At the end of the day however, the Burj al Arab is not just a hotel for the rich - it is an aesthetically pleasing work of art. And that is why I had to see it.

This is one of the first things you see after entering the hotel. The escalator from the reception area to the main lobby is surrounded by huge aquariums and a giant fountain with light coloured water. This fountain uses a special technology where the water rays are coloured with light at the molecular level. Thus making at appear as if had been dyed - but then seconds later it changes its colour.

The world's tallest and largest atrium extending to the very top of the hotel. All pictures here were taken in hiding as visitors are not allowed to take pictures. I did it anyway, but often had only one chance to make a shot. It may be hard to sense the dimensions and colours properly in a picture, but standing there looking up, it is an astoundingly beautiful sight.

The actual Afternoon Tea table. First I got a big collection of different mini sandwiches, and then as you see here a huge collection of scones, cakes, pastries and sweets. All in all a full meal which I couldn't even finish. Considering restaurant prices home in Denmark, it was not all in all so expensive for such a fine meal in one of the most amazing buildings in the world.

Finally some pictures of the Burj al Arab from the outside. First seen from the public beach, northeast of the hotel. In this particular picture you can clearly see how the Hotel was made to resemble in profile a sail on traditional Arabic boats.

And here the Burj al Arab lit up at night. It changes its colour throughout the night.

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Dubai - The Sky is the Limit!

Leaving India, I still had one more great experience to look forward to before coming home: A one week stopover in amazing Dubai. Despite two obvious similarities with India - a large Indian population and a quickly developing economy - I could not have picked another place to provide a more pronounced contrast to India. Dubai is exceptionally clean, orderly, wealthy, developed... and most of all luxurious (for those with money). And it's hard to experience without your nose being pointed towards the sky.

Dubai's icon nr. 1 -the Burj al Arab. The world's first and only 7-star hotel seen from a nearby shopping centre dominated by palm trees and an artificial lake.

Another place that profoundly affects Dubai's skyline: Skeikh Zayed Road, where skyscrapers seem to simply shoot out of the desert sand into the sky. Just 15 years ago there was next to no development here.

But it doesn't stop there. This may not look like much but what you see here will in a few years time be the base of the world's tallest building - the Burj Dubai.

Here you see a sign showing what Burj Dubai is expected to look like when it is finished in 2008. It will be surrounded by numerous other new buildings and will stand at a height ofmore than 750 metres. This means that you could take the currently tallest building (Taipei 101) put the Empire State Building in New York on top of that, and Burj Dubai would STILL be taller.

The sky serves other functions than hosting large man made structures. Dubai is also a luxurious beach resort and these kite surfers harness the power of the wind, rather than the fury of the waves to perform their hobby. Here the surfers are pulling down their kites at dusk.

Thursday, 20 April 2006

Final goodbye to India - last days in Delhi

This will - for now - be my last post with pictures from India. I spent my last few days back in Delhi, and I will show some last pictures showing two characteristic features of Delhi, the city I could call my home for 6 months.

Here I am in one of Delhi's fashionable new lounge/bar/restaurants, Q-bar. Delhi has plenty of such establishments, many of which are just as trendy as anything you would find in Copenhagen, London or New York.

This picture shows a part of Connaught Place, a huge circle in the middle of Delhi, where also Q-bar is situated. In colonial times this is where the British ladies came to do their shopping, and also today it is filled with wealthy westerners shopping here. But these days there are also plenty of wealthy Indians, who come here to shop for the best Indian as well as Western brands, including Levis, Lacoste, Pringle, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger etc.

The point I am trying to make with the above pictures, is that Delhi is an island of modernity in an otherwise underdeveloped, rural and socially, deeply conservative country. Certainly there are a few other such islands, for example Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta and a couple others, but after having traveled around India, I can see that the VAST majority of Indians live in a very different world, even those living in big and important cities. In most cities - even some state capitals - there are very few modern shops, and certainly no trendy restaurants or lounges like the one above. Many places such establishment would even be against social norms, as alcohol is frowned upon or even banned in many states. Most places outside the cities, arranged marriages are the norm, the caste system is still firmly entrenched and physical power and money directly equals political influence.

And then I haven't even begun to describe the massive poverty that can be found in these regions, but I will leave that for now. All these things are very easy to forget when one is living in the extreme comforts of Delhi, and much more so when living in Denmark or Germany.

But Delhi is not just a modern commercial city - it is also the capital of a democratic country with more than one billion people. That means that many people are constantly dissatisfied and these people - often rural farmers or poor city dwellers - come from near and far to protest in the streets of Delhi. Here I came across one such demonstration. After no one reacted angrily to the Danish flag I had on my backpack I concluded that it was probably not a Muhammed/cartoon-demonstration so I dared talk to a few of the protestors. None of them spoke english particularly well, so I never managed to learn the exact purpose of this demonstration, but there was enough riot police present to handle a coup d'etat in a small African state.

Some of the demonstrators. Why Indians always bring big bamboo sticks to demonstrations I do not know, but maybe it has something to do with the before mentioned riot police.

The bigger point with these two last pictures is to show the contrast between these and the two first pictures. Modern, commercial, individualistic, capitalistic Delhi vs. traditional, agrarian, communitarian, poor India. This clash was not just present on this day, but is in fact one of the major and consistent rifts in Indian politics and public life these days. The Indian government led by the legendary Congress Party tries hard to balance the need for liberal, economic reforms with an increase in the tax base and welfare polices to reduce poverty and stimulate development in rural areas of India. But conflicts are still very common when the elite and the people cannot agree on the pace and form the change should take.

Also in social areas rifts are apparent. Magazines write constantly about the changes that are taking place in the way young people think about love, sex, marriage, family, religion, career etc. On Valentine's Day a youth organization with ties to the extreme hindu nationalistic organization Shiv Sena sent out action groups to catch young couple interacting in a bit too intimate ways, after which they meant to drag the unfortunate young lovers home to their parents and force them into marriage! This kind of story is only too typical for the India of 2006 - an India that is changing at the speed of light, but where millions and millions of people don't seem very ready for that change. The world will certainly hear more of this schisma.

And so I left India behind...

Monday, 17 April 2006

Guwahati - Temple City

As promised in my last post, I will now focus a little bit on a couple of interesting temples in Guwahati.

This is Khamakya, the religiously most significant temple in Guwahati. This temple, situated on a hill a bit outside town, is dedicated to Shiva's blood thirsty wife and incarnation Kali - same as the temple I visited in Calcutta. As with the Kalighat in Calcutta animals are also sacrificed ritually here. On this picture you can see a sheep being led by a devotee to the sacrificial pavillion, in front of the temple's main dome in typical assamese beehive style.

Here, the gory sight of the sacrificial pavillion. Statues and hungry birds watch the action.

A more serene part of religious life at Khamakya. Clusters of bells being eagerly used by the many devotees visiting the temple.

Here is the main dome of another hillside temple, known as the temple of the Planets. It used to double as an astronomical observatory and inside are 9 lit up pillars symbolising the then 6 known planets andother heavenly bodies.

Inside the very atmospherical temple, you can here see some devotees performing religious rituals by one of the 9 pillars.

Saturday, 15 April 2006

Guwahati - Gateway to the Northeast

I had a chance to spend a few days in Guwahati, which is main hub when travelling anywhere in the Indian Northeast. The city itself is not that charming, but it situated nicely by the gigantic Brahmaputra river, and it is home to a couple of spectacular temples.

This is the city seen from the water front. It doesn't look like much at all, but with a population of almost 1 million people it is in fact the largest city in Assam, and indeed the entire Indian Northeast.

At low tide you can walk straight from the city centre over to a couple of sandy, deserted islands, lying in the river between the two main parts of Guwahati. It is actually a quite idyllic beach attracting many picnickers, but I don't think the river is suited well for swimming, though.

A nice temple in the city lit up by night. It is not particularly famous though, and not one of the spectacular temples mentioned above. Those I will get back to in my next update.

Finally a picture, which will probably only make sense to my younger, Danish visitors. When I saw this sign I thought that Dolph would love this hotel. For those uninformed people, who have no idea what I am talking about, I am referring to a blue, fascist hippopotamus with the catchphrase "Yes, sir", who is a popular comical figure on Danish tv. Wikipedia has more info in english: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolph

Friday, 14 April 2006

Kaziranga (Day 2)

My second day in Kaziranga, was more than anything about spotting rhinos. I went on an early morning elephant ride into the park, which is the only way to get really close to the rhinos.

This one was really posing for the camera.

One of the most detailed rhinoshots I got. Here you can really see the animal's almost armoured skin.

The adult elephants sometimes bring their babies with them on the tourist trips. Seems to be something they control themselves without humans interfering.

Occasionally rhinos can get aggresive, and this is exactly what we experienced. This rhino followed us and triedtochase downthe baby elephants, so the adult elephants had to line up together and face the rhinos to scare them away. That is what is happening on this picture.

Finally a picture of some other babies. A huge litter of wild baby piglets.

Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Another Great National Park: Kaziranga (Day 1)

After Jaldhapara I went straight to another magnificent National Park: Kaziranga, in the state of Assam. Assam is situated in the Indian Northeast,the part of Indian tucked in on the other side of Bangladesh, bordering also Burma and China.

Like Jaldhapara, also Kaziranga is famousforits rhinoceros population - and here there are even more of them. In fact about 1700 one-horned rhinos (2/3 of the world's wild total) live right here in this park. The rhino on this picture did not lose its legs, it is merely walking around in shallow water. Notice the white cleaning bird on its back.

One of the most bizarre animals I've seen. Some sort of giant lizard with a very strange face. Click the picture to have a proper look at it.

A flock of wild elephants (3 adults two babies) having a sunset bath.

And finally an exceptionally lovely view as the setting sun hid behind the cloud formations on its way down behind the horizon. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

Monday, 10 April 2006

Jaldhapara National Park

As I wrote in my last post I ended up making an unexpected trip to the beautiful, but not much visited Jaldhapara National Park. Some quite spectacular wildlife can be seen there.

Here you see the star attraction of Jaldhapara: The one-horned rhino. This is one of the very few places in the world where this amazing animal still roams freely in the wild. This one was cooling off in the river.

Another Rhino makes a run for it, as we got a bit too close (VERY close).

Also the wild elephants didn't like our company so they made us literally bite their dust. Click the picture for more detail.

This is the best mode of transportation in the park - going on elephant back through the fern covered jungle.

This one only works if you enlarge the picture - a large flock of bison is using the road up ahead. Both adults and babies are there, with their characteristic white socks (feet).

Technically outside the park I saw these girls working in the water, either fishing or collecting some water plants. The second I pointed the camera at them, they instantly got up and posed, so I wasn't able to take a picture of them actual working.

Saturday, 8 April 2006

Bhutan

I had read in my Lonely Planet that it is possible to cross into the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing for a day without a visa. Normally a visa for the small, isolated Himalayan Kingdom cost no less than USD 200 (ca. DKK 1200) per DAY, so I thought this was a chance not to be missed.

I was greeted by this colourful gateway. On the other side there was none of the chaotic mess and dirt that is found in any indian town, including the Indian border town of Jaigon where I spent the night. I was really looking forward to experiencing a little slice of this unique country...

...but the gate was where it all ended. Despite the claims of my 5 month old guide book, the 1-day entry arrangement was abandoned more than 1 year ago. I tried to talk very nicely to the border guards, and they were all very kind and apologetic, but would not let me in. So all I got for my 2-day detour was a little peek into Bhutan. Instead of the planned trip to Bhutan, I went to the National Park of Jaldhapara a little south. More about that in my next update.