Dubai QuickTrip: The Other Emirates

I believe I’ve written previously about the Traveler’s Century Club, a U.S.-based club for individuals who have traveled to at least one hundred countries. We’re nowhere near one hundred yet, but of course trying our best. We imagine that by the end of our trip we will be somewhere around 75, which is sufficient for an observer/provisional/half membership to the club.

One quirk of the Traveler’s Century Club is that they have their own definition of what a “country” is for purposes of counting to one hundred. Not only are the usual sovereign, UN-recognized states included, but certain isolated or culturally distinct parts of countries are counted as separate “countries” (think Hawaii or Zanzibar). Also included as “countries” are certain individually administered regions of countries, such as the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. So when our flight plans (on Air Arabia, on which I hope to blog later) gave us an opportunity for a stopover in the United Arab Emirates, I decided on a plan–a quick five country pickup. [See also my later post on our trip to the Musandam peninsula.]

The United Arab Emirates (or UAE), as its name suggests, is actually a collection of semi-sovereign states ruled by emirs/sheiks. Geographically from West to East, the emirates are: Abu Dhabi (sort of in charge and controller of much of the land area and oil), Dubai (the overdeveloped juggernaut and commercial center), Sharjah (a cultural center and now something of a huge suburb of Dubai), Ajman (tiny), Umm al-Quwain (also small, and most famous for its liquor store, the only one in the UAE), Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah (on the east coast). Each ruled by a hereditary ruler, they joined together as a nation only in 1971-72. Prior to unification, each of these emirates, plus Bahrain and Qatar, had operated under a special quasi-colonial contract with the United Kingdom. Bahrain and Qatar formed independent states, while the remaining seven, by 1972, unified into one country, led by Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The Traveler’s Century Club counts each emirate as a separate country. Since we had previously been in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, that left five emirates, five new countries, for us, on a three day stopover. Five contries, three days? No problem–to drive in a small loop covering each of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah takes no more than a few hours (leaving us plenty of time for our real destination, the Musandam peninsula of Oman, which lies directly north of Ras al-Khaimah). In truth, there isn’t a whole lot to see in these places, although in general each emirate has a small fort museum and some other sites (Sharjah has perhaps the most for a tourist, although generally bad signage in the UAE makes places hard to find, especially in the tedious traffic). Some photos follow.

Sharjah skyline. It’s not only Dubai that’s building, building, building. Only a few kilometers away (although the few kilometers can take over an hour in the traffic), Sharjah is fast becoming a suburb of Dubai. Sharjah Airport is the hub of Air Arabia, a useful discount carrier in these parts.

Umm al-Quwain’s wall. It’s the wall that’s short, not the tower that’s big.

On the east coast (not sure whether technically in Fujairah or in Sharjah’s east coast exclave), we were surprised to see a fishing routine remarkably similar to what we have seen in Varkala (please refer to earlier post of March 6)–except that in the place of two teams of men pulling the nets, two trucks were used. It being a Friday (part of the Muslim weekend), there were many sightseers out for the day who pulled up to watch the spectacle, including a gentleman from Kerala, who was as surprised as we to see what he thought was a Keralan technique being used in the UAE (albeit updated with mechanical power). He thought that it was perhaps experimental. Another (Indian) spectator explained to us that the technique, which was used all over the Indian subcontinent, was imported by the team of Bengladeshis who were handling the nets (with two Arabs running the trucks).

The catch was significantly better than in Kerala. [One gets the feeling in Kerala that the fishing is as much a matter of tradition as livelihood.]

Every Friday at a designated area in Fujairah, local bulls are brought to compete in a test of strength and endurance, a game watched by hundreds of local men (and curious overseas workers/expats). The announcements were in Arabic, of course, but we were able to make out the gist of it with some help from another spectator. Each match lasts just a few minutes, with the bulls first induced to engage each other in head-to-head combat. The bull that moves the other bull backward wins, and then the bulls are pulled apart by teams of men. It was surprising how quickly the bulls would walk away from each other, once pulled apart (as if they realized that it was all a game, no real enmity). All in all, so much more humane than bull-fighting (no spears, stabbing, killing).

One note: Some of the people of the UAE (though since “locals” make up a small minority I’m not sure whether it’s the Emiratis or overseas workers/expats to blame) drive extremely aggressively. Some of the worst in the world I’ve seen–shame on you!

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Hainan Island

Hainan is a fairly large island off of the southern coast of China, between Hong Kong and the Vietnam border. Known as something of a remote hinterland through much of Chinese history (the kind of place to which one gets exiled), Hainan has been aggressively developed for tourism, including especially resorts near the city of Sanya on the southern coast, as China’s Hawaii. I’m told that Hainan even advertises on U.S. CNN!

When my employer announced that we would have our office retreat at a resort on Hainan, I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled. I thought that somewhere like Chengde would be far more exciting (somebody had even suggested Pingyao, an old walled city, by train). I thought the greatest benefit of the trip would be having another Traveler’s Century Club country under my belt. (Why Hainan is considered a separate country, I’m not too sure.) But, I must admit, even if Hainan isn’t quite Hawaii, Sanya’s resorts are well-executed and thoroughly enjoyable, and the natural environment clean and beautiful.

Sanya is a bit over an hour’s flight from Hong Kong, and flights are fairly plentiful. Flights are also available from Shenzhen Airport. We stayed at the Marriott Sanya Resort & Spa, which is not the newest upscale resort (the Hilton is newer and other hotels are opening soon, including a Ritz-Carlton), but tastefully designed along a wide stretch of pristine beach. The rooms and beds were quite comfortable, and the pool fun. The beach is sufficiently large, the sand soft and the water clear. The weather was glorious and warm (though we are told that there were some cloudier, cooler days before we arrived). All above expectations, though the resort experience was predictably totally isolated from any sense of being in China.

We also went on a couple tours. Of course, staying in resort hotels and going on group tours are not our usual travel M.O. at all, but at least the resort was comfortable and enjoyable. The tours were depressing. Monkey Island, as it turns out, is a thoroughly landscaped amusement park. The gondola ride to the park is beautiful, and there are indeed plenty of monkeys, but not at all in a natural setting. We did see one totally surreal “animal circus” performance, however.

The other tour was to a Li and Miao minority village. The Li and Miao are two of the “native” ethnic groups of Hainan, to be distinguished from the Han majority that now dominates the island (and the rest of China). While I believe that some original Li and Miao villages exist on Hainan, and I by no means expected to see anything really authentic on a group tour, the place to which we were taken was a full-fledged amusement park, complete with fire-breathing little people. While some displays (of traditional homes, weavings, etc.) were not bad, the overall experience was dispiriting.

But the hotel, the beach and the weather were great! A solid choice for a quick beach getaway if you don’t mind staying at your hotel.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Kaiping Diaolou

I first ran into the Kaiping diaolou while surfing the UNESCO site for World Heritage Sites. Little did I know that a World Heritage Site had been recently designated so close to Hong Kong! Some google searches led to some promising pictures, along with an interesting back story.

The diaolou, which means watchtower, historically were communal castles in small Chinese southern villages. They were built and owned communally, and the residents of a village would seek refuge in times of conflict or flood. In the early twentieth century, wealthy individuals, principally individuals who had left China to earn money abroad (in the United States, Southeast Asia or even Hong Kong) returned to Kaiping to build a different kind of diaolou—an elaborate multistory mansion. What makes them so interesting is that these individuals built these towers not only to show off their new wealth but incorporated foreign architectural styles, ranging from European to South Asian. There are over a thousand of these towers near the city of Kaiping in Guangdong Province (to the southwest of Guangzhou).

We had read that there were direct ferries to Sanbu Port in Kaiping from Hong Kong, so we headed to the HK-China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui early Saturday morning. (Chu Kong Ferries website) The direct boats weren’t running, but the ferry company had arranged a direct shuttle from Zhongshan Port to Kaiping. The whole ride (ferry to Zhongshan, the bus shuttle) took about four hours. An alternate route, which we had also considered, was to take the train to Guangzhou, and then a bus to Kaiping. This of course would have taken longer, although we would have had the option of staying overnight in Guangzhou.

At Sanbu port in Kaiping were several minibus taxis. After some tough negotiations, we arranged one of the drivers to take us around to three different sets of diaolou for RMB 280 (about USD 35). We went to San Men Li, which has the oldest diaolou (built in the Ming dynasty), Li Yuan, which has an unremarkable collection of diaolou all built by one individual, and Zili Cun, which is probably the best set of diaolou (including the watchtower of Deng Lou just outside the town). Many of the diaolou are furnished in period furniture and can be climbed to the top for views. Almost all of the sites were well labeled with historical details in English. Despite leisurely visits to these sites, we had a few hours before sundown, and so we asked our driver to take us to Jin Jiang Li, which contained two beautiful diaolou in another rustic setting.

Admission to the diaolou is predictably expensive, it being China. A ticket permitting entrance to most of the major sites costs RMB 120 per person.

We returned home by bus from Kaiping to Zhuhai’s Gongbei bus station on the border with Macau. We could have taken the ferry from Zhuhai but chose to overnight in Zhuhai so that we could spend part of the day in Macau before heading home.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Shenzhen

Shenzhen is, along with Macau, the quickest, easiest QuickTrip from Hong Kong (if you don’t count worthy destinations within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region). Shenzhen is close enough to go for a day or even part of a day but has enough to entertain a visitor for many repeat trips (by population, Shenzhen is actually bigger than Hong Kong, and so it makes sense that it has a lot to offer). A border crossing and a significant difference in environment add to the feeling of adventure.

The logistics. First, you need a visa (assuming you are not a PRC passport or travel document holder), which is pretty easy, especially in Hong Kong. You can go directly to the China visa office located near the convention center in Wan Chai, or you can go through an agent such as CTS or Swire. As a tourist, you are unlikely to get a multiple entry visa, but you should be able to get a multiple entry visa if you have the right credentials for a business visa or if you have a Hong Kong ID Card. The process will likely cost you over USD 100 if you are an American citizen (thanks to reciprocity), or somewhat less if you are from elsewhere. Citizens of countries other than the United States and the United Kingdom, I was told once, are able to get a special Shenzhen-only visa at the border crossing, although I am not familiar with the process.

To get to Shenzhen, you have two principal options: train or bus. The KCRC East Rail starts at Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST) East Station, goes through Hung Hom, Mong Kok and Kowloon Tong stations in Kowloon and heads up to either the Lo Wu or newly opened Lok Ma Chau stations, which are connected to border crossings (Luohu and Huanggang, respectively). The train runs every few minutes from around 6:00 AM to midnight and costs about HKD 35 (USD 4) for the run. The bus leaves from a few different locations throughout Hong Kong, including the CTS office on Hennessey Road in Wan Chai, and goes to the Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang border. Which you choose can depend on where in Shenzhen you want to go. The Lo Wu border offers the main Shenzhen train station as well as a down-and-dirty mall featuring all your immediate needs, such as counterfeit goods and tailors, while the Lok Ma Chau border is closer to other parts of central Shenzhen, Shenzhen airport and the amusement parks in Shenzhen. The bus costs a bit more but can be convenient, especially at times when the train isn’t running or on the way back from the airport (the guaranteed seat on the bus can be a little more comfortable than a potentially crowded train requiring a change of transportation in TST).

Attractions. What is there to do in Shenzhen? A lot. I am by no means an expert on Shenzhen, having only been up a handful of times during my years in Hong Kong, but below is a short list. None of them may be world-class attractions, but they’re good diversions for all or part of a weekend.

Restaurants. Food in Shenzhen is outstanding, and cheap. Shenzhen, perhaps because it is a city of immigrants from other parts of China, offers an outstanding array of restaurants featuring all Chinese cuisines. Many of these restaurants include outposts of famous Chinese restaurants based in other parts of China, including restaurants that have not yet made it across the border to Hong Kong. On our last trip, we went to Mao Jia, featuring food from Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan province. Restaurants are well-decorated and spacious, offer a high level of service and cost about a third to a half of Hong Kong prices.

Shopping. I haven’t done too much shopping in Shenzhen, but right at the Lo Wu/Luohu border is a multistory mall featuring countless shops selling cheap but creatively designed clothes, jewelry, tailors, counterfeit goods (watches, handbags, DVDs), souvenirs, cheap electronics, etc. Quality can vary, but the prices are good. Shopping for genuine brand name goods is generally much more expensive in Shenzhen than in Hong Kong.

Spas. Shenzhen (like many other big Chinese cities) has many huge spa complexes (the one we’ve been to is called Pacific (not too far from the Luohu train station)). The best description of these spas is a Las Vegas casino, but with spa services instead of gambling. Pacific (the neon sign says “Pacific Lay Fallow Agora”) features large dressing rooms with huge jacuzzis, sauna and steamroom (and attendants who help you undress and dress), comfortable chairs with personal televisions in which you can sit eating fruit while getting foot massages, a restaurant, massage rooms, small sleeping quarters, karaoke, a computer room and many other facilities. Massages are quite affordable, of course, and use of the sleeping chambers (to nap or to save on lodging) is included if your bill exceeds RMB 138 (about USD 18).

Historical/Cultural sites. Surprisingly, within Shenzhen city limits or just outside there are several historical/cultural sites worth visiting. To the north in Dongguan city are the Humen fort, an Opium War site, as well as Ming and Qing dynasty villages. On the highway toward Shantou, within city limits, is an interesting fortified village. We have also been to Dapeng fort, which is somewhat far to the East (1.5 hours by bus), but a well preserved quiet old town.

Amusement parks. Shenzhen features several large amusement parks. Splendid China contains miniatures of all of China’s great historical and cultural sites and is adjoined to a folk village containing homes of China’s various minority groups (from Uyghurs to Dong to Koreans, many of whom put on song-and-dance shows). Windows of the World includes scale models of famous world landmarks, some rides and a rather crazy over-the-top show, as well as indoor iceskating and skiing. Minsk World is an old Soviet aircraft carrier that has been turned into something of a Russian military amusement park, and is somewhat less worthwhile than the other two, though there is the novelty of being on a Soviet aircraft carrier.

Beaches. We’ve never been but are told that there are some nice beaches, where you can hang out or rent motorized vehicles.

Nightlife. We are told that there’s great nightlife in Shenzhen. We have been to one gay bar which was surprisingly lively and upbeat.

Travel to other parts of China. As I’ve discussed previously, Shenzhen can act as a gateway to countless travel destinations, mainly in China. The train station is right at the Lo Wu/Luohu border and the airport is a 30 minute drive from the Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang border. Buses leave for destinations in Guangdong province as well as Yangshuo/Guilin. And you can also take the new high-speed train to Guangzhou in about an hour.

Hong Kong QuickTrip: Mekong Delta

Corresponding recently with an American traveler who is planning a trip to Vietnam, I was reminded of one of the best short trips we’ve made from Hong Kong: Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Outstanding aspects of this QuickTrip include convenience, price, great food and unbelievable contrast from Hong Kong’s urban bustle. 

For the Hong Kong traveler, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, or Saigon) is one of the cheapest, most convenient flight destinations from Hong Kong. Not only are there twice daily Cathay flights and a daily Vietnam Airlines flight, but most conveniently there is a United Airlines flight, serviced daily by a Boeing 747, that is often sold at cheap fares and has a perfect schedule for QuickTrippers: a nighttime outbound and early morning return. Even for a weekend, you get two full days in Vietnam with a Friday night flight departing 8:45 PM to arrive at 10:05 PM and a Monday morning return at 6:15 AM arriving at 9:50 AM (okay, so you may be a bit late to work). For this QuickTrip to the Mekong Delta, I would recommend a three- or four-day weekend.

Since the flight arrives late at night, it’s probably best to sleep in Saigon the first night (the airport is very convenient to town, with cheap taxis making the short run). My favorite place to stay is in the Indochine Hotel, which runs about USD 20-30 per night. If you’re feeling really energetic, you can go out for a quick bite (say, bahn xeo at the famous Banh Xeo 46A, at 46A Dinh Cong Trang, off of Hai Ba Trung) or a drink at the eclectic and seedy Apocalypse Now.

Early the next morning, catch a bus from the main bus station (near Ben Thanh Market) for Vinh Long. (Before catching the bus, you can do like Bill Clinton and have breakfast at Pho 2000 nearby.) We find that catching a public bus while traveling provides one of the most natural opportunities to interact with local people on an equal basis. For the more comfortable traveler, hiring a car and driver for the weekend would not break the bank.

Vinh Long is about three hours away, and a restful town with a good selection of hotels (around USD 10 for a comfortable room) and restaurants. Food in the Mekong Delta is definitely some of the best we’ve had in Vietnam (your visit will likely take you near places that make shrimp paste, fish sauce, rice paper and other Vietnamese staples). By wandering around the waterside street in Vinh Long, you will likely run into at least a few local women offering boat rides (or, rather, they will run into you and follow you around). Prices are negotiable, of course, but good value even if you aren’t a great negotiator. Depart early the next morning to see the best floating markets at their liveliest. There will be other tourists of course, but they’re dwarfed by the amount of genuine commerce taking place. After Vinh Long, we left for Can Tho, a somewhat bigger city in the Delta that also offers early morning trips to floating markets and beautiful waterways. If you depart Hong Kong on Friday night, you should be able to have a peaceful Saturday arriving in the Delta, take boat rides on Sunday and Monday, and return to Saigon Monday night for your early morning Tuesday flight.