One of the things I have promised myself to visit if I ever set foot onto Emirates’ soil, is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. There was a TV documentary that I have seen a couple of years back about the way the Mosque was built and it looked so grand and surreal, that it surely rushed up to my Top 20 bucket list. And look, there I was, in Dubai, less than 150 kilometers from Abu Dhabi!
It’s possible to go from Dubai to visit the UAE capital either by the services of travel agencies or just by yourself. Day tours are about 50 euros. The minibus is going to pick you up at the hotel, take you to Abu Dhabi, stop at several locations, and then go back, after 6 hours or so. True, it might happen that departure is delayed several times due to lack of a group. The other option is to go by yourself, which is very easy. If you go by regular bus lines (the ticket costs 25 dirhams or about 5 Euros in one direction), you will find your way around the city with the help of a taxi and maps, or you can rent a car, which also comes at reasonable prices (since the oil is cheap). There is no way to take the wrong turn or get lost in traffic on the way to Abu Dhabi, because there is only one highway, going straight, cutting the desert in two.
Getting there cheap and late
Annoying our Filipino travel guides with numerous questions, we actually found out that there was a way to go to Abu Dhabi even by the sightseeing bus. They also have tours around the capital, but since we are “old customers”, there is a discount and the price comes to 30 Euros.
It takes off in front of the Wafi Mall at 8 am, going back from Abu Dhabi at 5 pm to Wafi. A bit far if your accommodation is in Dubai Marina.
Still, my eyes popped wide open when I was told that the first stop of the trip, before going into the actual city, is the Grand Mosque of Sheikh Zayed, opening its doors for tourists at 10 am! A local guide is going to be at our disposal, they said, and we should dress accordingly. I wouldn’t miss it for the world! The “helter-skelter” of getting ready – I have borrowed pants from a friend who lives there. Early the next morning, I was ready to go!
Nonchalant guides and drivers
But then, all the nonchalance of drivers and guides comes to the surface. We were told that the bus is leaving at 8 in the morning, but it goes half an hour later „because clients are often late so we tell them to come earlier“. I was there 20 minutes before time! But okay, an hour here and there, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Just to get to the Great Mosque before 10, since that is the only time to get inside and the main reason I was going to Abu Dhabi in the first place!
„Don’t worry, ma’am, we’ll be there before 10“, said one of the guides.
So, I set back as pleasantly as possible in that plastic chair and tried to take pictures of the desert on both sides of the road. The limit is 140 kilometers per hour.
An hour goes by, there was still nothing outside but the sand… An hour and a half, only that dry desert… Well, it was 10.30 already. If the Mosque closes, this trip to Abu Dhabi wouldn’t make any sense! It’s too hot outside. Our driver knew that we were supposed to get to the Mosque until 10. There is no guide on the bus, one of them has escorted us from Dubai and the other was going to be at the first station on the way to Abu Dhabi.
Finally, the bus stopped in front of the Mosque. Oh my, it looks even more beautiful than in a photo!
I didn’t even want to think about the option of not entering, so I have spilled out dozens of questions towards that Asian girl who was waiting for us at the station. She was constantly apologizing, „it wasn’t her fault“. The driver has carried out his „mission“ and there he was, smoking behind the bus, it wasn’t his problem. The guide was still apologizing… Okay, I said, „you don’t need to apologize, just to make sure to get me inside for that tour around the Mosque at 10“.
After a lot of those „well, ma’am, I’m sorry“, „you know…“, „I will check for you…“ etc, I have just rushed in, leaving the bus and the driver and that guide behind. And there at the entrance, I found out that the Mosque is actually open for tourist visits almost all day long! Those guided tours by locals are free of charge and they take place a couple of times a day. There was one at 11 am! (Shouldn’t the bus guides know about that?)
Rushing towards the entrance, we were directed to the dressing room to take black abaya and white dishdasha. And finally, I have stepped onto that white marble!
The Mosque is all in white, with fountains on its sides, numerous pillars, huge courtyard with a floor decorated in marble patterns of flowers and leaves. You don’t know where to look first! It’s nothing like I have ever seen before, that’s for sure, it resembles the Taj Mahal in a sense. White domes (80 in total), four minarets, 1,000 pillars with palm leaves motives at the top of each and every one of them, made of gold. Within small domes, in the passageway around the courtyard, there were Qur’an inscriptions in three different calligraphy. Drinking fountain nearby, an escalator that takes you to the washing room bellow, the main entrance in the middle. Bustling tourists, fine breeze, white marble sparkles in the sun, leaving you blinking but amazed by the unreal structure in the midst of the sand!
Local guides take you in, passing by an interesting clock on the wall pointing to the time of five daily prayers. And then the huge space that can welcome 7,000 Muslim worshipers at the same time, without the courtyard area. The capacity of the whole Mosque is for an astonishing 40,000 people! Walls are decorated with pearl motives according to tradition. Long hand-woven Persian carpet, woven in one piece and then transported from Iran by train. It covers 5,400 square meters. The Mosque is proud of its romantic arches, huge gold-plated chandeliers.
Sheikh Zayed was buried here. He passed away three years before the Mosque was opened to the public in 2007.
UAE oil reserves
After walking around that white marble for a couple of hours and made few hundred photos, it was time to stroll back to the station. The bus takes you downtown, but the (new) guide says there wouldn’t be enough time to go to the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi Theme Park nor to the Yas Island, since the bus leaves from Marina at 5 pm for Dubai.
A group of tourists has just left, they gave up and called a cab. The rest of us stayed in the bus that was driving around and we were shown a couple of landmarks of Abu Dhabi on the way. We stopped at the Marina. It looks smaller than Dubai even though Abu Dhabi is the capital.
Oil was discovered in 1958 (eight years later in Dubai as well, but those reserves are almost empty). Abu Dhabi reserves have a huge 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. The UAE formation came after the discovery of oil.
After the fall of Muslim empires, both the British and Portuguese became interested in the area due to its strategic position between India and Europe. Dubai and other emirates were under British protection since 1892 and it gained independence in 1971. So, the new state comprised of six emirates – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, and, in 1972, Ras Al Khaimah. Emirates’ leaders elected the ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan to be the president.
View from the 74th floor
On the way to Marina, you will pass by tall buildings, one odd-shaped as a ball, Al Itihad Square, a huge Arab coffee kettle in front of the Abu Dhabi Mall, Iranian market, Corniche Fountain, a lot of greenery along the nicely organized promenade and the beach. But also a lot of dry, empty parts that are still covered with sand and cranes.
You will be shown „the biggest tourist settlement“, which is yet to be built and where they will point towards the future museum „that will be erected to resemble the Louvre“.
The best view of the city is from the Observation Deck on the 74th floor of Etihad Towers with the pleasant ambient of its restaurant. It is amazing to see the most luxurious hotel Emirates Palace from the deck, along with Marina and the rest of the city. You can also have a coffee at the Sky Tower deck within the Marina Mall and look at the city in its desert surroundings.
And so, after a few coffees and sandwiches, small talk with Arab children eager to practice their English, and one Lebanese woman who moved to Abu Dhabi with her family two months ago and „still feels too foreign“, she said, the time has passed.
Smiling in front of the bus, the Asian guide asks if we were satisfied with the tour, taking the opportunity to offer „a night tour“ to see Dubai „in all its splendor“, „with very nice discount“…
Images of Dubai at night emerge immediately into your memory when everything is just too dark, buildings marked only by one illuminating line, and you barely discern various shapes of all those constructions. Furthermore, you remember all those drivers who are never in a hurry, guides who are constantly sorry…
„Thank you so much, maybe next time.“
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