Saturday, 25 February 2012

U.A.E. - The first 240km/h rollercoaster

February 14
Hello everyone!

As I mentioned before, Abu Dhabi welcomes international influences whilst maintaining its traditional Islamic heritage. On our second day in the Emirates we paid our respects to both in the most spectacular style – a style befitting a fast-moving, ever-growing future metropolis.

We rose at 9.30am – a wonderful lie-in when you’re used to being on your third lesson at that point on a normal school day – to head out to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It is the sixth biggest mosque in the world, and certainly one of the most eye-catching. Its marble white exterior glistens gently under the scorching sun, whilst the noise reverberating around the grounds ranges from the murmurs of quiet conversation to the cacophony of prayer time, played out to a backdrop of lightly splashing fountains.

You can tell that a lot of Dirhams – the local currency – have been injected into the construction of this most modern of mosques. This is most noticeable from the stunning chandeliers that dangle delicately from the ceiling, which are studded with stones from across the globe. The floral patterns that decorate the floors and walls of the complex make this a particularly welcoming place of worship.

A taxi ride – as that is the common way of commuting through Abu Dhabi – then took us to Ferrari World; an homage to one of the most famous car manufacturers in the world. Formula 1 brought its showpiece event here a few years ago, and an entertainment park was constructed to help build and sustain interest in motor racing.

The park is certainly aimed at the younger generation. Most of the rides are designed with future F1 champions in mind, as opposed to adults. In spite of this, there is enough to entertain people who have long given up on the dream of being the next Michael Schumacher. There are two rollercoasters – I’ll come onto that later – simulators, and a show called La Gara.

The show was phenomenal, and seemed to have absolutely no connection to Ferrari or cars whatsoever. From somersaults on stilts to a twirling girl high above our seats, via an incredibly well-balanced man in a spinning wheel, it was great entertainment.

The main entertainment for me, however, was being shot like a rocket along the world’s fastest rollercoaster. Formula Rossa was opened in late 2010, and has been designed to simulate the effects of being in a Formula 1 car. What this means for the person who nervously gets onto the ride is that they are immediately fired along the track using a hydraulic launch system.

Due to the ferocity of the ride, riders have to wear goggles, which is a bizarre feeling. The ride reaches a speed of 240km/h, or 150mph, after about 5 seconds…which is an amazing feeling. To be fired like a bullet from a gun gives you a phenomenal feeling of helplessness. To experience that feeling in a Ferrari would be very intense, and very satisfying.

After a feast of Indian food we turned in, and said our goodbyes to Abu Dhabi the following morning. It was time to drive south to the millionaires’ playground. Hello Dubai!

Love you all


Friday, 24 February 2012

U.A.E. - The first stroll on the Corniche

February 13

Hello everyone!

Week after week of temperatures in the region of -30’C take their toll on a person’s happiness and well-being. The inability to go for a walk without spending as long getting ready as you would spend outside can become somewhat demoralising for even the most optimistic soul. Thankfully, one of the perks of being a teacher in a British school is that you receive holiday on a regular basis, and we have one week off in February. Time for some fun in the Emirati sun.

The United Arab Emirates consist of seven small mini-states, each run by a different Sheikh. You may have heard of two of the three that we will visit in the next week. People often confuse them with actual countries. We left Astana – relatively mild for this time of year, at around -24’C – and landed in Abu Dhabi, the federal capital of the U.A.E. Temperature? At 11pm? A balmy 18’C. A swing of over 40’C in one flight, and a feeling of warmth both inside and outside our group.

There are five of us in our travelling group. Some would say that the chance to travel with four young ladies would be their idea of travelling heaven. Others may suggest that the chance to travel with four young ladies would be their idea of travelling hell. I’ll let you know how I get on, though as we all work together I’m sure there won’t be any issues. Aside from who needs the hairdryer the most, of course…

Four of us – myself, plus the three girls I live with – were together in Abu Dhabi, a city that is built purely on petrodollars. It is hard to compare it with any other place I have been. My first impression was that it has aspects of Shanghai’s skyline and Astana’s futuristic ideas, but in reality I hadn’t really seen anywhere like this before. This is an entirely new region of the world for me to explore and savour, and it would be wrong to associate the Abu Dhabi with any other city I have visited.

That’s not to say that the largest Emirate hasn’t been influenced by other regions of the world. Far from it. Abu Dhabi is an international city, and an increasingly influential global city at that. Part of the joy of this for us was that we could access and enjoy simple things that we have missed in the harsh Kazakh winter – ranging from wearing flip-flops to eating a decent burger.

Whilst embracing many aspects of international culture, Abu Dhabi is still dominated by a more conservative outlook. We were unable to visit the beautiful President’s Palace complex or the Emirates Palace. The former is strictly off-limits, which is understandable if Sheikh Zayed lives there. The latter is a hotel, but you need to make a reservation to visit. When we enquired about this, we asked about going for breakfast so we could explore the interior. We declined when informed that it would cost 219AED – almost £40 – for that privilege. The beauty of the gardens suggests it would be very pleasing on the eye inside, but we’ll save that for a time when we have money. I don’t want to know how much a room is…

The sunshine was most welcome to us when we were walking along the Corniche, Abu Dhabi’s serene seaside strip. I was surprised by how quiet and clean the city seemed to be, though that could be explained by the fact that it was a Monday and people were working. The constant construction is unfortunate in that it overshadows an otherwise pleasant skyline, but is probably seen as necessary for the long-term development of Abu Dhabi.

10, 11

Though temperatures were greatly appreciated during the daytime, they dipped sharply once the sun began to fall. We spent our afternoon and early evening at the cricket, watching England play Pakistan. The stadium is currently in the middle of nowhere, which partly explains the low crowd. However, there is a large Pakistani community here, so the turnout was healthy enough for the time of day.

12, 13

We had some great banter with the Pakistani fans that surrounded us. One man insisted on doing an aeroplane celebration whenever Pakistan took a wicket. England took a wicket in their third over, so I responded in kind. Not the cleverest thing to do when there are no other English supporters on the entire grassy bank, but everything we did – and they did – was taken in great humour. One man also offered me his jacket, which I reluctantly accepted when I was visibly shivering.

24 hours in Abu Dhabi, and we have enjoyed every one of them. Not to mention every ray of sunshine…

Love you all


Sunday, 5 February 2012

Kazakhstan – The first days of -40’C

January 11-February 5

 Hello everyone!

I mentioned last time that the cold snap would curtail our adventures, and unfortunately the weather has taken a nasty turn for the worse over the past month. Temperatures have dipped to the point where anything ‘higher’ than -30’C seems like a warm day.

Kazakh fun fact: Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world, with only Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia recording colder temperatures. Over the past five years, however, Kazakhstan’s capital has often been colder than its Mongolian counterpart, so arguably we do live in the coldest capital city on Earth…

The Russian word for ‘cold’, ho-LOD-na холодно, has been used regularly in any taxi that we have been fortunate enough to flag down. Haileybury Astana is the only school that stays open in these extreme conditions – all state school close below -32’C. Our school is open, even though parts of it resemble a scene from The Day After Tomorrow...

The cold snap has resulted in us staying in on weekends and not being willing to continue the exploration of our home. My plan to do a river dip – known as walrusing – has been put on hold until the temperatures rise to the point where I wouldn’t turn into an ice statue within seconds of escaping the chilly water. Board games, movies and lesson plans will suffice as entertainment for now.

On one of the relatively milder days we decided to run around the ice maze that had been constructed on the river. It’s probably more of a challenge for the vertically challenged, but was good – if slippery – fun. Even though I lost…

We have also continued to sledge and slide down onto the river, and freeze our faces off as we walk from the gym to the bus stop. I’ve had a couple of nasty experiences where the wind has begun to swirl and make the night air feel even colder, so it is best to stay indoors for now. We are counting down the days from when we wake up in -40’C to one week from now, when we will wake up in a much hotter climate…

Love you all