Expo 2020 Site Visit

When Dubai announced they would be conducting free tours for residents to visit the Expo 2020 site which is rapidly taking shape, I wasn’t about to pass up such an incredible opportunity. With pick up points across Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and tours scheduled three times a week from July 20 to the end of August, it was no wonder that tickets were booked in a mere three hours.

Taking the bus from Mall of the Emirates we found ourselves driving up to the Visitor’s Centre in little under an hour for a quick overview of what to expect from this mega event which will span 6 months starting 10th October 2020.

At the Visitor’s Centre expect the traditional UAE hospitality in the form of cold drinks and dates and snacks before you head straight in. The guided tour began with a look at the remarkable development of the UAE from its humble beginnings grounded in pearl diving to the nation it is today living and breathing the words of Sheikh Mohammed:

They say the sky is the limit for ambition, but we say the sky is only the beginning.

Entering the Visitor Centre

From understanding how the Ghaf tree provides the inspiration behind the different thematic districts that make up the Expo 2020 to understanding more about the scope of the Expo beyond the pavilions, the Visitor’s Centre was a great place to have those burning questions answered, in particular- what happens when it’s all over.

Spanning roughly 1000 acres, the size of 613 football pitches, the Expo will be home to three thematic districts – Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity. The site will also have different country specific pavilions where countries will have the opportunity to showcase their technology and their culture. You can expect to see anything and everything from 3D printing to K-Pop and Monet to commercialized space travel. With 192 countries set to participate it will truly be a reflection of the diversity that already exists in the UAE. All three thematic pavilions will be connected by Al Wasl Plaza, a stunning dome shaped structure inspired by the Expo 2020 logo. In addition, there will be an exhibition centre, two parks, a rotating observation tower around 16 storeys high, 200 food and beverage outlets from fast food to Michelin star fine dining and over 60 events a day for 6 months.

Terra

We soon left the Visitor Centre behind with its virtual reality tours to see the site firsthand. Our first stop was the Sustainability District with the stunning Sustainability Pavilion, also known as Terra, expected to achieve LEED Platinum rating, covered with an array of solar panels, surrounded by solar trees and slated to have net zero energy and water consumption. The Sustainability Pavilion, we learnt, will be transformed into a Science museum at the end of the Expo.

The wings of the UAE pavilion inspired by the falcon taking shape

From there we passed the UAE pavilion, the site where the remarkable achievements of this young nation will be showcased, and saw the domed trellis of Al Wasl Plaza taking shape.

Al Wasl Plaza- the connecting point between all thematic districts

We then moved on to the Mobility Pavilion which is interestingly enough designed in the shape of a fidget spinner (yes you read that correctly!) and which will be home to a high speed track and the world’s largest elevator capable of transporting 250 people at a time.

Mobility Pavilion taking shape

We then passed the sites for the two parks (wadi inspired Jubilee Park and Al Forsan Park), the onsite nursery which will supply the thousands of native trees and shrubs used around the site and in the parks, and the site of the Dubai Exhibition Centre where the glass facade was in progress before making our way to the Opportunity Pavilion. Now this Pavilion is being constructed using organic recyclable materials only – from stone to reclaimed timber and coiled rope long enough to stretch from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

Expo 2020 Village and Route 2020 Metro Station in the distance

In addition the Expo 2020 site is connected to the largest metro station in the UAE – Route 2020 which will go on and connect to the Sheikh Makhtoum Airport thereby ensuring easy access to the site via public transportation – something that will be critical considering the expected volume of visitors is 25 million over a span of 6 months. The Expo Village a massive apartment complex rated LEED Gold and connected to the new Dubai South Mall will be used to house the staff of all the people participating in the Expo. The great news is the apartments will then be available to the public for rent once the Expo is over as part of the District 2020 Masterplan.

As we got back from the tour, we were all struck by the scale of the event, something that needs to be seen to be believed and also left impressed by the immense amount of thought and planning that has gone into ensuring District 2020 will be left a fully functioning and vibrant community once the Expo is over. As the tour ended, we passed the Volunteer’s House – HQ to over 30000 volunteers of all ages and all nationalities who are committed to making this Expo an experience of a lifetime.

The undisturbed Ghaf tree- inspiration of the Expo, around which construction is taking place

If you haven’t gotten a chance to take the tour, all is not lost. Despite all the tickets being booked, the Expo 2020 team has announced that they will be opening up more slots soon. All you have to do is sign up and they’ll let you know as soon as bookings are open again.

Sharjah Aquarium

I’ll be honest with you. I love animals with all the fascination and wonder of a 5 year old- just as long as they stay well below the four leg limit that is. That’s as far as my fascination is willing to go. Any further than that and I’ll be moving from child-like awe to panic stricken scanning for viable escape routes. I do love going to aquariums, though, despite the possibility of encountering certain animals that are way out of my comfort zone. The odd octopi and jellyfish I can handle as, I’m happy to say, they are all arms rather than legs… in my mind at least. The stray giant crab, however, poses a bigger threat so I’ll normally try to plan ahead and actively avoid being caught near one.

I found myself at Sharjah Aquarium this weekend at the start of the ten day long Sharjah Aquarium Carnival. It’s been quite a long time since I last visited but it looked just the same.

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Hello shark!

From fierce sharks, to serene stingrays the large two storey aquarium is filled with silver and gray gliding around gracefully through the clear chlorine filled waters stopping by for a closer look at the visitors.

One of the nicest things about visiting an aquarium is getting to see an endless rainbow of colours and patterns streaking past you- from electric blues and vibrant reds to simple stripes and eye-like spots in an underwater museum of living art.

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Looking closely, it looks like a honeycomb on its back

The other amazing thing is being able to get a first hand view of various underwater communities, salt water, fresh water, mangroves and the like, and the complex relationships that exist, from the symbiosis that binds clownfish and anemones together, to the stingray with their cleaner fish and the moray eels with their cooperative hunting partnerships with coralgroupers in a picture of balance and harmony.

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Symbiosis

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Flotsam and Jetsam

It would seem that the most important lessons in life are learnt, not in the classroom, but from firsthand interaction with the world around us and from open-minded introspection.

If you haven’t been to the aquarium before, it’s a good time to head out, since the Sharjah Aquarium Carnival is on till the 10th of March, 2018. There are lots of outdoor activities for kids and of course, we can’t forget the food trucks. ^^ Tickets are AED25 for adults, AED15 for children while kids under two have free entry (as of Mar 3, 2018). The museum is closed on Sundays, and timings are 8am to 8pm on all other days except Fridays when the museum is open from 4pm to 10pm.

Sharjah Light Festival 2018

It’s that time of year again – to escape from the confines of a mall and to immerse yourself in art that everyone can truly appreciate for the few fleeting days of February when Sharjah organizes the Sharjah Light Festival which is free and open to all the public.

Our first stop this year was the 1000 Palm Oasis where they had set up multiple infinity light tunnels in bright electric blue and soft golden yellow fairy lights. I have to say, I was completely blown away by the blue. It’s the kind of blue that makes you want to lie down and look up and pretend that every glowing fairy flower and butterfly is a star so close the universe is within your grasp.

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A-maze-in

It was a really good idea to set up multiple versions of the same installation in order to manage the crowd. The last time it had been rather difficult to get pictures in what with all the people, but this time, the crowd was nicely distributed so everyone got a chance at that perfectly instagrammable shot.

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To infinity and beyond

Right next to the Palm Oasis is one of the most beautiful mosques in Sharjah – Al Noor Mosque. This year I can’t decide if I was more attracted to the mosque due to the beautiful symmetric patterns that lit it up like a jewel in the night sky, or the qirat of the imam at Maghrib prayers. The former was a delight for the eyes- a sort of surface and fleeting pleasure, but the latter stirred something deep and personal in one’s soul. The combination of the two was art in itself.

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Al Noor Mosque

It’s interesting that this year’s light festival seems a lot more toned down than previous years in that the colour projections are a lot less vibrant than before which probably has something to do with both the light intensity and the choice of artwork on display. But that didn’t stop us from finding our way to our next destination after an amazing dinner at Saffron of course. Our next and final stop was the Heart of Sharjah.

I’ve never been there at night before, and parking was quite tricky because it seemed as though all parking near the installations and shows was closed off, possibly for VIPs, and regular public parking was all full. After going round and round in circles we finally just stopped and asked the security guard how we could get in. It turned out the parking that had been closed off was actually reserved for non-VIP visitors like us (yayyy!), except there was no sign there that said so. I’m guessing a lot of people ended up walking a long way to get there because the number of cars there was in no way indicative of the number of people actually there.

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Peonies Alumines

There were a number of installations set up along with light shows on the fortress around which people were seated on the ground, their cameras all set up and ready to capture the riot of colour on the sombre beige fortress walls. While my mum loved the trio of paper peonies flapping in the suddenly cold wind on an unusually warm day, my personal favourite of the year was the “Abstract” set up in which light disks hovered and pulsated in sync with the music in a mesmerizing affair.

 

If you haven’t been yet, I highly recommend making a weekend of it and visiting before it ends on the 17th of February.

Bezar at Ajman Qubes

As the world headed to Dubai on New Year’s eve, we decided we’d escape from the madness and make the most of the empty roads in Ajman to visit Ajman’s homegrown version of Dubai’s Box Park, aptly named Ajman Qubes, at the Ajman Sports Park in Al Hamidiya.

I’d never been to the sports park before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It turns out entry to the park is free (as of Jan 2018) and the park is home to a running track and outdoor exercise equipment which are also free to use- very Korean style. It also has at least 3 outdoor football fields, a volleyball field and an outdoor basketball court complete with dressing rooms which you can book in advance, for a fee of course.

But the facilities aren’t what left me impressed. I was actually blown away by the number of people spending quality time with their families on New Year’s eve at this park- from the young men playing football under lights to the girls up on the exercise machines, the mothers and sons who were out for a brisk walk to the blindfolded fathers comically dancing trying to tag their wives while their kids hugged their legs, from the little army of kids trying to drift on their bikes on the moisture covered walking track to the dreamers lying on their mats staring up at the stars. Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Eve well-spent.

Of course, there’s also the Qubes to feed you while you’re there. The Qubes are basically container restaurants, coffee shops and there’s even an art gallery and a men’s spa there to add some variety. It’s a small affair, but there are lots of restaurants to choose from- 71oz Steakhouse if you’re fancying a steak after a heavy workout, Patatello Cafe for some dessert to put back on those pounds, Tackle Shack if you fancy catching a game as you eat, Bezar for fancy Emirati-Indian fusion cuisine and a lot more. We were spoilt for choice and are notoriously bad at making decisions on where to eat, but we took a democratic approach and after checking out the first menu it was a unanimous decision to try Bezar on our first visit to the park.

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Time for dinner!

We went in expecting to order something more Emarati but ending up ordering Indian instead… butter chicken and mutton rogan josh with biryani rice, khameer bread, fatoosh and Vimto slush for drinks. I’ll be honest with you. I’m always bragging about this little known restaurant close to my office which my colleagues and I had agreed, had the world’s best fatoosh, and they did for 3 years running. But I’m afraid, they lost their crown on New Year’s eve to Bezar which made the most mouth wateringly good fatoosh I’ve ever had.

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Say hello to the world’s best fatoosh

And their mutton rogan josh… let me just say their chef put big restaurants like Gazebo to shame. While big chains usually think adding massive amounts of spices and making the gravy thick and difficult to eat is what subcontinental cuisine is about, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Bezar’s mutton rogan josh was pretty much something your mum would make for you at home – in other words REAL subcontinental style. No spice OD. The biryani rice was also really good, none of that crazy mix of rice you normally get that makes you wonder if people have forgotten what biryani really means and the butter chicken was super sweet- the chicken itself was a bit on the hard side but I’ll forgive them because everything else was so awesome.

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Great ambiance

And that includes the music selection. The music alternated between English and Indian classics (no Arabic classics ㅜㅜ ) though I’m not quite sure how Kolaveri Di got past the muzak filter of the world. It did make for a good laugh and we ended up staying for dessert instead of hopping off to another restaurant for a sweet something. Ordering dessert was probably the most hilarious with dishes named Deewana and Mastana (crazy and carefree boringly translated). I’ve never order crazy before.

We had a great time and only the cold could bring us back home to watch the fireworks. It’s safe to say Ajman Qubes and the Sports Park deserve another visit and preferably while the weather still holds. If you’re in the area, I’d definitely recommend stopping by.

Kayaking in Al Zorah

After the amazing time we had kayaking in Hatta, we decided to give it another go, this time much closer to home – about 10 minutes to be exact. We headed out bright and early to Ajman’s latest development, Al Zorah which is currently home to a 18 hole golf course, 200 hundred year old mangroves and an upcoming townhouse development. We’d managed to get our bookings done online with Quest for Adventure tours, who are the only licensed operator at Al Zorah primarily because their activities are much wider than just water sports in that they are charged with raising awareness about the mangroves, its environmental significance and the need for its preservation.

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Just some of the wildlife that call the mangroves their home

They had the option of taking out single kayaks, or going tandem, so this time we decided to give the tandem kayak a go and set off towards the thick mangroves. It was interesting to note that the mangroves were much shallower than I had expected and as a result, the oar size was also much smaller than the ones we had used back in Hatta. While it made for convenient maneuvering especially in the dense brush, it did also mean we were soaked from the very get go, with the water from the oars raining in at every stroke. That also meant that we got to learn (the hard way), as we handled our phones, that the mangroves actually grow in salt water which meant by the end of the trip our phones were nice and salty. ^^

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Time to set off

Al Zorah is home to grey mangroves spread out over 2 square kilometers and as we paddled on, we were able to see through the clear water the bed of sand which looked pretty much like an underwater beach, being covered with shells! We were told that we would probably also be able to get a glimpse of the flamingos who normally migrate here during the winters but we were sure not to get too close so as not to disturb them. It was amazing to see the flamingos were mostly white, not as pink as you see in pictures, and that we found out was because these waters are not home to much shrimp and crab which lend them their distinctive colour. The only crabs in these waters are mostly white, only the tips of their pincers are red. We were lucky enough to see one of these crabs up close, albeit dead, as he’d already been someone’s breakfast. 

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Into the mangroves we go

As we sat and watched the flamingos, we also learnt more about how mangroves breathe and grow. It turns out mangrove trees are quite clever. The thick mud in which they grow has far too little oxygen concentration for them to survive, so their roots grow upwards and out of the ground to get the oxygen they need and once the tide goes out, the trees effectively breathe, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. It was also amazing to learn that mangroves are in fact more carbon rich than rain forests which means they are of strategic importance in reducing global warming and climate change and with sea levels rising the way they are the very existence of mangroves is threatened.

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Old mangrove trees and new ones coming up

After a nice long paddle all the way up to see the flamingoes and our lesson on all things mangrove,  we then had to head right into the thick of the mangroves for a little “adventure”. Since we’d taken a tandem boat, maneuvering through the thick branches was a bit of a struggle, especially when a branch got caught in an opening on the side of the canoe, which left us struggling forward, only to be rocked right back. Once we managed to escape from the clutches of the mangrove tree that was determined to keep us, we then inched our way forward, alternately swatting away branches and hunching over to make it through. We finally made it, only to find out we’d picked up an assortment of hitchhiking spiders along the way. Surprise!

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Paddles Up!

Lucky for us we were in the tandem kayak, which meant we had enough time to swat away the spiders while the other person rowed on. ^^ We started on back to where we had started as the tide was getting low and on our way back we found lying there in the salty water, a plastic cake box that had been swept in with the tide. While our guides fished it out to dispose off later, I felt that this was just another example of single use plastics dangerously finding their way into ecosystems that one would assume would be immune to their impact. I was suddenly reminded of the Great Pacific garbage patch. As garbage swirls in our oceans, the world goes on much as before. Out of sight, out of mind. sigh

It was an overall amazing experience, and I’m sure I’ll be going back again but better prepared next time around! Remember, say NO to jeans and sneakers, say YES to a bottle of water, cap, sunscreen, flipfops and an extra change of clothes. Booking can be done online through their website. Renting out a kayak costs only AED30 per hour (as of Jan 2018) while the kayak tour costs AED190 for adults. They have a whole lot of other activities to try such as paddle boarding and wake boarding and even offer archery and bike rentals so there’s a little something for everyone.