A breath of fresh air
My Arabian adventure began in exciting Dubai the archetypal Middle-Eastern paradox. The cosmopolitan city never sleeps, and its futuristic ultra-modernity flourishes from the roots of ancient traditions.
Heady cloud-kissing skyscrapers watch over centuries-old souks, while fashionable residents mingle with chador-clad womenfolk.
Dynamically sophisticated Dubai, with its colourful clash of cultures and times, can be intoxicating, especially for travellers who love the luxe life.
But in just three days, I felt overwhelmed by the glamorous hedonism of the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) crowded economic miracle. A simple man at heart, I had had my fill of the glitzy mega-malls, classy restaurants and throbbing entertainment and was secretly yearning for some solitude.
A Dubai-based friend suggested I visit a pretty oasis two hours inland. I would come back refreshed, she assured me, ready to conquer the rest of the city. So, the next day, I hopped on an early morning bus bound for Al-Ain.
UAE's Garden City
Al-Ain (pronounced "a-lane") is roughly 130km south of Dubai and about an equal distance east of UAE's sparkling capital, Abu Dhabi. Within minutes on the freeway, Dubai's magnificent skyline dissolved into the vast expanses of the desert.
Except for the occasional car throttling past, there was little else but reddish-brown, deceptively gentle sand dunes stretching as far as I could see. Until my virgin encounter with desert land, I hadn't the faintest idea how mercilessly arid it could be.
Al-Ain - the fourth-largest city in the UAE - offers visitors a much-needed respite from the heat and dust. Like a mirage appearing out of the ever-shifting, murmuring dunes, the Unesco World Heritage oasis - with its forests of date palms and tree-lined avenues - is truly a breath of fresh air.
So rich and dense are its seven oases that Al-Ain is often called the Garden City of the Gulf. Most visitors head straight for famous Al-Ain Oasis to wander and take refuge in the cool labyrinth of nearly 150,000 date palms and fruit trees.
Inhabited for more than 4,000 years, Al-Ain sits on the border of Oman, and many overland travellers pass through it. It is also the birthplace of the country's much loved first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was instrumental in uniting seven former sheikhdoms to form the UAE. He reigned for 33 years until he died in 2004.
The city has strict height controls that forbid buildings - save for a handful of swanky hotels - from going beyond four floors, and this further emphasises its lush greenery. For temporary escapees from UAE's frantic-paced megacities, Al-Ain is like a dream.
Arabian history and culture
There are two museums in Al-Ain. Situated on the edge of the Al-Ain Oasis is the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, a former residence of the first president. Visitors can get a glimpse of how the Sheikh and his family lived till 1966, and there are old photographs of Al-Ain.
The Al-Ain National Museum, housed within the compounds of the Sultan Fort, has a number of prized archaeological finds, including weapons, jewellery and jars from excavations made in nearby sites.
They reveal how natives and nomadic Bedouins lived, and some findings go all the way back to the Stone Age.
When I was there, two locals in traditional garb were showing off wild falcons they had caught, and enthusiastically describing to visitors the traditional Emirati sport of falconry.
Al-Ain's other major attraction is the immaculate Al-Jahili Fort - one of the largest in the country - built in 1898 as a royal summer residence. Perfectly restored, the beige fort looks like a glorious golden sandcastle.
I spent some time in the fort's welcoming air-conditioned visitor centre engrossed in an interesting exhibition.
Dozens of photographs document the adventures of legendary British explorer and writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed Arabia's Empty Quarter - the largest sand desert in the world - twice in the 1940s.
He visited Al-Ain during his journeys, and stayed at one of its forts as Sheikh Zayed's guest. The intimate exhibition relates Thesiger's fondness for the harsh desert, and the lifelong friendships he had with his two faithful Bedouin travel companions.
My final stop in Al-Ain was a camel and livestock market, located at the edge of the city 4km away. Here, countless camels, goats, sheep and other livestock of all ages and sizes are kept holed up in pens.
The scene is usually chaotic in the mornings when a flurry of livestock trading takes place, explained one of the friendly caretakers, but the animals were rather sedate when I was there, probably because of the afternoon heat.
Still, a few inquisitive camels tried to bite my camera as I intruded into their space!
I left Al-Ain with insights into Arabian culture and history. I glimpsed a part of the desert, developed a healthy respect for it, and saw the traditional face of the Emirates.
As promised, the oasis city soothed my soul. It was time again for seductive Dubai to get my heart racing once more.
- I flew from Singapore to Dubai on Emirates. Frequent buses leave Dubai's Al-Ghubaiba bus station for Al-Ain, two hours away.
- A day trip to Al-Ain from Dubai or Abu Dhabi is possible, but the oasis city is best enjoyed overnight. Budget stays are very limited though.
- Rent a car or hire a taxi and visit Jebel Hafeet, a majestic 1,250m limestone mountain 30km west of Al-Ain, and get a look and feel of the spectacular Empty Quarter.
- If it is camel-racing season, head to nearby Al-Malagit Race Track to experience this pulsating Arabian pastime.
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