Last Friday A and I took a day trip to Al Ain – birthplace of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the United Arab Emirates, and the Garden City of the country.
Driving through the desert landscape, it still amazes me how any plant life can survive in such a desiccated environment, but there are apparently 678 native terrestrial plant species. The most prolific being the date palm and various shrubs and grasses. More info on local plant life can be found here.
I was most excited about visiting the local livestock market, where camels and goats are sold and traded, so that was our first stop. Although the livestock market is not an official tourist attraction, our Lonely Planet guide had cautioned us against the possibility of being “tricked” into payment for tours of the place. While I was open to the idea of tipping in exchange for some camel petting time, A and I were shocked when we were asked to shell out 150 AED for the experience. A in particular was annoyed as he had explicitly asked for a price before we engaged in our camel photo-op, and we were told “price is no matter”. Thankfully, they didn’t pressure us too much when we declined the amount they requested and instead tipped them only what we felt was fair.
Our next stop was Jabal Hafeet, which rises an impressive 1,249 metres above sea level. As A and I had looked forward to doing a bit of hiking here, we were disappointed to find the summit of Jabal Hafeet surrounded by wire mesh gates. No marked hiking paths were to be found anywhere along the road up the mountain either. Clearly, hiking is still an underdeveloped activity in the UAE. Arabia Outdoors apparently offers guided hikes of the mountain but it appears their website has not been updated since 2014.
As our day trip fell on a Friday, most of the official tourist attractions were on reduced hours and we reserved our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum for the afternoon. The palace was impeccably maintained but asides from the various portraits of the Al Nahyan family, was not too culturally curated. Ancient arabic architecture is undoubtedly beautiful, but mostly “same-same”, so I opted not to visit the inside of the Al-Jahili Fort, though we did circumnavigate the monument.
We also had some trouble locating the date palm oasis in Al Ain by ourselves but was eventually pointed in the right direction by the tourist office, and had a nice stroll through the grounds of the plantation, which employ a falaj irrigation system tapping into underground wells to keep the trees happy and productive.
Our final destination of the day was the Hili Archaeological Park, which was basically a run-of-the-mill recreational park, only situated on a Bronze Age site dating from the 3rd millennium BC.
Though still in the early days of our exploration of the UAE, what I’ve found so far is that tourist and cultural sites still lack proper curation, with the exception of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But there is still lots more to explore!