We arrived in the middle of a week of celebrations for the Sultan's birthday. The streets were heavily decorated with elaborate scuptures and lights everywhere, there were firework shows each night, and all through the heart of the city impromptu markets were thronged with people. We had arrived late in the evening, and with little idea of the city we set out immediately to see what was around our hotel. A large food market was established in a small park only a few blocks away, so we walked up into the heart of the city then backtracked to the market to find something for dinner.
Because we only had two days in Brunei we didn't have time to go up-country. Instead we explored Bandar; the weather was warm and humid but not so oppressive that we couldn't walk from one end of the city to the other, and when we got too hot we could duck into one of the air-conditioned shopping complexes to drink iced juice. Bandar is interlaced with waterways, and countless water taxis tout for business. The public architecture is grandiose, but rather splendid in a massive fashion. Across the water from the main mosque can be seen a rickety stilt village, vivid counterpoint to the richness of the gilt and curlicues. The main fresh food market in town runs alongside a tidal canal, with a wealth of fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and fish on offer and a crush of people all flocking to buy.
We succumbed to a market of a different kind. Brunei has wonderful material shops, with jewel-coloured silk shimmering in the window displays. Irresistible to someone who sews.
On to Dubai. Well, where do I start? It truly is an amazing place. Kaye's cousins picked up us and whisked us back to their apartment on the Palm Jumeirah. It was the middle of the night and we were very grateful to have family who just let us go to bed and sort things out in the morning. An early rise revealed a remarkable view: an empty marina stretched away in both sides, and across the water sat a fully developed "palm frond", looking like a scene from post-apocalypse movie, with empty houses sitting in majestic splendour, and not a soul to be seen. Apartment towers, sisters to the one we were in, lined the stem of the palm, with only isolated signs of habitation. All the while more and more palatial houses and towering apartment blocks are under construction. As a portend of the gloom settling on the financing of building projects, many of which are sitting unfinished with development monies dried up, the air has its own dull gloom, with the desert sands blowing in, muting the sunlight and casting a pall over the entire city.
Kaye's cousins made our stay in Dubai very enjoyable, taking us into Shajah and indulging Kaye's interest in buying even more silk at the bustling silk shops. Dubai in July was oppressively hot and humid - this isn't a city to walk around in. A visit to the Heritage Village is followed by a rapid removal to an air-conditioned shopping mall to recover, and we notice that even the bus stops are air-conditioned.
Driving around the city proves to be interesting; the roads are built to optimise the flow of traffic, eliminating cross-streets, so that it can take 5km or more before you can find a clover-leaf overpass to get over to the other side of the expressway and made your way back to a shop or service on the other side of the road. Petrol is cheap here. All through the city infrastructure projects sit unfinished, with roads torn up and huge holes in the ground - for the moment the expansionist bubble has certainly burst. Directly across from the apartment sits the foundations of a shopping centre, with a train line striding across it and train station high off the ground, but no means to reach it. This project, too, sits unfinished, with no prospect of completion. A driverless train runs up and down the stem of the palm; Kaye's cousin had never once seen anyone on it. There are other train lines services Dubai, but this one on the Palm Jumeirah doesn't link to them, and is less than useful.
Our overall impression of Dubai was that it was simultaneously awesome and appalling - to have created all this from nothing is amazing, but the sheer waste of resources and money is overwhelming.
We decided to take advantage of being in the Middle East to also get a quick look at Oman, so flew to Muscat for a couple of days. It was instantly obvious that Muscat is a much more human-scale city than Dubai. There is a history here, with old forts and castles on the hillsides and while the main souk is stocked with lots of tourist tat it is also well-frequented by the local people and a lot more fun to wander around than the Dubai shopping malls.
Our hotel was out by the beach, and a small fishing fleet sat beached in a tidal creek - another sign that this city still had some of the old life carrying on. The weather wasn't as exhausting as in Dubai, and we could walk along the beachfront, where a few people were swimming, and even black-shrouded girls kicked along in the gently lapping waves. The choices of places to eat along the way were very disappointing, and we resorted to a Starbucks not out of choice but in desperation. Our hotel had a restaurant, so we were able to find something reasonable for dinner.
There was a small shopping mall close enough to our hotel to walk to, with a very large well-manicured park along the way, next to a small amusement park. We were a bit unusual in our desire to walk around, rather than choosing to take taxis everywhere, but we weren't the only people wandering around on foot - another indication of how different Muscat is from Dubai, where it simply wasn't feasible to walk anywhere.
We flew back to Dubai, trekked the long and circuitous route through the terminal, then caught a taxi to yet another terminal and idled away the six hours until our departure in the middle of the night for London.