Day 513: Curse of the Black Pearl

28.05.10:

So with a day to kill, Tracy and I headed out to the museum of Islamic Art. As I’ve mentioned before, with a pretty much outright ban in place over depicting any living thing in a picture or a statue, Islamic art is concentrated around two disciplines – calligraphy and complex geometric shapes. When these two disciplines come together to create something as spellbinding and complex as the Taj Mahal, it truly is a joy to behold.

What was particularly cool about the museum (certainly not the architecture I have to say, typical boring brutalist crap by I.M. Not-Very-Good-At-This-Am-I?) was the Pearl exhibition that was on. Before they found oil in the 1930s, the Gulf states paid their way through the pearl trade. A trade that had pretty much dried up over the preceding decades as cultured pearls for Japan had begun to dominate the market. In fact, it’s a good bet that had oil not been found there would only be three gulf states – Saudi, Yemen and Oman. I seriously doubt that Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE would exist as separate nations.

But they did find oil and the rest, as they say, is history. But that’s not to detract from the importance of the pearl trade throughout the 19th century and what a shame that the new commodity is – unlike pearls – dirty, polluting, and contributing to an impeding global catastrophe that no politicians in the world today seem willing or able to do anything about. A necessary evil some might say, but then they probably haven’t watched the documentary ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’.

A least pearls are fairly innocent trinkets and treasures – the idea of snorkelling down to the bottom of the sea with a knife and looking for riches hidden in shells is a lot more romantic than the poor wretched life of a diamond miner in Sierra Leone or a silver miner in Bolivia (life expectancy 40 years).

So after soaking in the history and the art of Qatar and the surrounding regions, Tracy and I grabbed one last coffee and at 6pm I was on the bus that was supposed to leave yesterday.

Again, the border crossing into Saudi was painless, but I wasn’t too happy when I got to my transit stop only to find that the bus to Dubai didn’t leave at 10pm (as it said on my ticket) but it would be leaving at 12pm. Three hours spent literally in the middle of nowhere on the edge of The Empty Quarter. This also meant we had an incredibly ill-timed border crossing in the middle of the night which wasn’t completed until well after 3am.

Needless to day, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.

Day 514: Cyclic Redundancy Check

29.05.10:

UAE: I arrived in Dubai at precisely three hours later than the bus company promised, but that just meant three hours more kip… which is never to be sniffed at. Dubai is pretty hot, especially when you have a backpack and a leather jacket tied around your waist – I was just asking for trouble… I frantically texted Damien, Helen Power’s mate in Dubai who had generously offered his couch for me to sully for a couple of days. Incidentally, I am thoroughly convinced that Helen should change the name of her house to Greyskull, for reasons to obvious to document here.

Damien (I would find out later) was nursing the mother of all hangovers and therefore in no fit state to text back, so I spotted a nearby Subway and thought sod it and sat there for a couple of hours finally polishing off these blogs I keep forgetting I have to write (least I incur the wrath of a particularly sexy pole dance teacher).

I know it’s no excuse, but I just can’t seem to write my blogs when I’m stuck somewhere… I need to be moving to get the creative juices flowing…

So anyways, I got my scribblings and musings up to date and headed out into the midday sun like all mad dogs and Englishmen have a habit of doing. Walking around ‘old’ Dubai was a treat – I thought that Dubai was this sterile Las Vegas nightmare of Demolition Man proportions, but head to the Deira district and you’re slapbang in the Middle East, mate – no messing about. Okay, the wooden boats that cross the nearby creek are I little kitchy, but as far as the sights and sounds and smells are concerned, this place dumps from a great height on the neat-n-tidy (and therefore humourless) Souk in Kuwait or the Disneyfied ‘old’ Souk in Qatar (hilariously demolished, reconstructed out of concrete then demolished again and rebuilt to look like the old one).

I keep telling you this, but I don’t think the message is getting through to the Powers That Be™ – you can’t impose a fun and interesting community down from above… these things have to grow organically… life isn’t Sim City.

As for the rest of Dubai, well, we might as well be living in a bubble on Mars. A city of the future imagined by a sci-fi addled child of the 70s. Most of the buildings look like toys, the twentieth century love affair with all things concrete shows no signs of abating and, well, it just doesn’t have the grit and determination that marks the cities of the world that I love. Can things be too clean?

That’s not to underplay Dubai’s achievements, such as the Burj Khalifa, which is by far the tallest building in the world and thankfully understands its purpose as a TOWER (ie, it tapers towards the sky, unlike the Twin Towers (unimaginative boxes that they were), any high rise ever built in Blighty (urgh) or that utter abomination in Manchester that actually gets THICKER towards the top. Jesus wept.

So Dubai, first impressions… I kinda like you. I’d like you more if you were a bit grubbier, but I guess that’s just me. At least you have the Deira district to remind me I’m still in the Middle East and at least you are prepared to gamble on crazy projects (such as The Palm and The World). We need more filthy rich people who are up for doing crazy stuff. Britain tries to be wacky, innovative and novel and what do we get? The ****ing Olympics logo…

And, even worse, the Olympic mascots…

Oh my giddy aunt.

Designed, no doubt, by a team of cretinous cretins from the planet Kretin exiled to Earth by the galactic warlord Kretinus the Cretin for being too cretinous for even the great Kretin empire to contain.

So for the restrained stupidity of Dubai, I salute you. Mid-afternoon, after mooching around the kooks and souks for a couple of hours, Damien finally raised himself from the dead and texted me back. I grabbed a taxi to his gaff, cutting through the business district on the way and making up my mind that the Burj Khalifa gets the thumbs up from me… does this mean I’m losing my pithy hatred of all things concrete? Not on your nelly. The Liver Buildings in Liverpool are made (internally) of concrete and I love them. As I opined in Azerbaijan, I don’t care what rotten slop you construct your building out of, as long as I don’t have to see the damn stuff.

Concrete is a little like your innards.  I’m sure they are critical to your prolonged success at staying alive, but I’d be more than a little miffed if you flopped them out at the dinner table.

So I found myself meeting up with the fabled Damien of Dubai and within a couple of hours we found ourselves where all northerners are bound to end up given half the chance… the pub. Damo originally hails from the Yorkists, but spent many years in Manchester so I guess in the Battle of Bosworth, he’d be that guy who sat on the sidelines, scoped out who was winning and joined them. Which (perhaps) explains why he supports Liverpool.

Even though the only ship never to dock in Liverpool is the Premiership etc.

We went to some beachy-drinky affair, but Saturday night might as well be Sunday night round these parts (the weekend in Arabia is Fri/Sat, not Sat/Sun) and the place was pretty much dead. Which didn’t give the Kiwis who were remarkably rude to me an excuse – if you’d care to peruse my League of Nations, you’ll see that New Zealand is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Congo and Cape Verde. Be warned you natives – when you talk to an outlander, you speak for your nation. Be nice.

Day 515: Encounter at Farpoint

30.05.10:

UAE: The big task of the day was getting my bumper to bumper passport back to the UK so I can get a new one – if you’re keeping up, it’ll be my fourth. Mission accomplished (thank you DHL, you’re THIS much better than British Airways) I arranged to meet up with a certain Mr. Kashi Samaddar. Yep, the bloke whose Guinness World Record™ I’m attempting to beat.

It took him six and a half years to visit every country in the world. Me? I’m up to country 158 out of 200 and it’s only been 17 months.

(Although I am STILL firmly convinced it could be done in a year… if only I had a yacht…!)

Oh yeah, and I’m not flying…! Sometimes I fail to see how monumental the task I’ve set myself really is – I mean, what other world record can you set whilst still going to the pub?! But here I am, only 42 countries left to go. I just need a boost in terms of funding and I’ll be laughing.

Talking of funding, crikey I’m down to my brass tacks now. Like a Hollywood blockbuster that’s over schedule and over budget, the good ship Odyssey is in desperate need of an injection of cash.

This being the case, if any of you reading this knows a company that wants me to big them up in return for some readies (marketing is tax deductable chaps!) I’m happy to endorse anything (much in the manner of Krusty the Klown) for a fiver. Incidentally, the companies I’ve relied on most (and who haven’t let me down) to travel to these 158 countries have been Visa, Dell, HSBC, Sony, Vodafone, Vans, Levis, Coca-Cola and Lowe Alpine. Just saying…

Kashi’s colleague, Sanjeep, came to pick me up from Damien’s flat and I was driven to the Far East Seafood Restaurant in one of the swankier hotels in town. There I met up with the legend himself – Mr. Samaddar – the first guy in the history of the world to visit every country on an Indian passport. And I think I’ve had visa traumas…

You can read more about our meeting on my special featured blog entry.

Record Breakers United!

Last Sunday I had the great pleasure of meeting the legend that is Mr. Kashi Samaddar – the current Guinness World Record™ holder for visiting every country of planet Earth in the least amount of time.

Top bloke!!

What makes Kashi’s record even more impressive is that he did it all on an Indian passport – meaning that for some countries he would be faced with the nightmare of having his visa rejected for some lame reason and then having to wait SIX MONTHS before being allowed to even apply for a visa again!

Kashi treated me to an amazing seafood feast at the Far East Restaurant in Dubai and we chatted for a good few hours about our various adventures… you think I’m mad – he’s gone places where angels would fear to tread.

I asked him the questions I always get asked – favourite place (he couldn’t choose), motivation (to encourage world tourism) and how he got to North Korea (flight from Beijing). How did he feel about the possibility of me breaking his record? He was full of praise and encouragement, which was wonderful. I’ve no doubt that if I set this record the person who ultimately breaks it will have read my blogs and sussed out where I went wrong and all power to them!!

It was great to be able to talk to someone who has shared many of the experiences, the dizzying highs and the crushing lows of attempting to do something like this. He understood my drive, my motivation, my single (some might say bloody) minded desire to see this thing through to the bitter end, wherever that may be.

Kashi, like me, has seen something through all his trials and tribulations that not many people see nor understand – the world is an amazing place filled with amazing people. We do not get told this enough. Our governments and the media grow fat on the power of nightmares. Don’t let them make you live in fear, let go of that paranoia and the fear of otherness – we’re all in this together peeps – for better or worse this planet is ours and it’s the only home we will ever know.

It took Kashi six and a half years to visit every country. I’ve already got the Guinness World Record for visiting the most countries in one year without flying, if I finish the final 42 countries this year I will not only pick up the Guinness World Record for visiting every country in the world without flying – but I’ll take Mr. Samaddar’s title of fastest travel to every county in the world using any form of transport – yeah, I’ll have done it faster than people who have flown!!

I might even be able to snag the record for most countries visited in one continuous unbroken journey…!

Four Guinness World Records for the price of one? Nice! But this is no time to become complacent. When I hit the final forty you’ll see just how far I still have to go. My huge thanks to Mr. Samaddar – hats off to you, sir – you’re an inspiration to us all.

Graham Hughes

DUBAI, UAE (158 of 200)

Day 516: The Burj Is The Word

31.05.10:

UAE: Damien kicked me awake at the marvellous hour of 6:30am (5:30am in my still-in-Kuwait time zone) and after stuffing my stuff in my bag I headed out into the big dirty world.  Damien dropped me at the swanky new metro station (looks like a big silvery sand worm from Dune) and we said our fond farewells (although there’s a good chance I’ll be back here in a couple of weeks – I honestly don’t know what is going to happen next, but I’ll explain more tomorrow.

My mission for today?  Ascend the Burj Khalifa (nee Dubai) – at 828 metres high by FAR the tallest building in the world.  I was told that tickets had to be booked in advance and that if you turned up on the day they would want £100 off you.  I got there at 8am (the eager beaver that I am), only to discover that the building didn’t open until 10am.

Which, in my opinion, is a bit silly.  At 8am the heat haze isn’t so bad and so you should be able to see further, but I guess you can’t get the staff these days.  The good news was that none of the trips up the tower were full today, so I could quite happily book myself a trip to the top without having to shell out a month’s wages.  Excited at the prospect I rose 124 floors to the viewing platform – the Burj is so high that the 124th floor is only two thirds of the way up.

The view was, well, impressive more than inspirational as I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be looking out for.  One side looked out over to pure desert whereas the other side looked out over Las Vegas.  I guess that’s what you’d see if they built a ridiculously tall tower in Las Vegas (and why don’t they?!).  But as a feat of engineering and human ingenuity I take my hat off to it.  Do you think in 4,000 years time, annoying stoned morons will be of the opinion that it was built by aliens?

You can’t see The Palm from here, but you can see The World, although it’s at such a funny angle I guess you could be forgiven for pointing out it looks like the Koopa Beach level off Super Mario Kart.

Koopa Beach
"The World", Dubai

So back down to Earth and over to the bus station – nice and early, just in case (and lucky I did – the bus left an hour earlier than advertised!) and before long I was whispering too-de-loo to Dubai.  One thing I like about the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait is that (much in the manner of The Kray twins) they look after their own.  Immigrants might get the short end of the stick (good luck getting a passport, matey!!), but if you’re a national you are given the golden ticket and no mistake.  Now you compare that with other decidedly (and grotesquely) oil-rich nations such as Nigeria, Angola and Gabon and you see how much the leaders of these basketcases happily shaft their own people in a way that only African leaders, shielded from WHATEVER THEY ATROCITIES THEY WISH TO COMMIT by Go-Go-Gadget-Historic-Guilt, can.

Anyway, when you hear that Emiratis (OH I LOVE THAT WORD – sounds like a secret cult of magicians who fly about on magic carpets) are given £2,000,000 on their 21st birthday and an extra £2,000,000 if they marry a fellow Emirati (sorry, just had to use that word again) – you only have to wonder what magic and miracles could be achieved in Africa if just someone – someone – would have the brains and the balls to call the thieving scumbags who run Africa into the ground up on the great disservice they commit to the good good people Africa.

And so onto the border with my 159th nation state of The Odyssey – Oman.  I’ve been told good things about this place, although all I have to report today is that there is a good 50km between the border posts of the UAE and Oman (seriously – who OWNS those mountains???!) and that the Omani guys on the bus (as well as sporting nifty hats) were of a friendliness level that I last experienced in Iran.  Oman – you’re doing well.

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