Skydiving over the Pyramids

After my second jump over the pyramids

Egypt, such a land of dreams.

Everybody has a mental picture of what it should be like, and like most, I also had some rough ideas of what to expect. Especially after hanging out with some Egyptians, I had a pretty good idea of what the traffic would be like in Cairo. It didn’t get to see a lot of it unfortunately as it was a very short trip.

It was not like my usual trips as it had a very special goal. It was my first skydiving trip and quite the unique one!

First of all, I never thought it would be doable, let alone that I, a baby skydiver, would be able to do it.

But that’s the great thing about having friends from that country and being an honorary member of the “Egyptian bastards”. I was told about the insane project. And when it started to be put together I was invited to join. Getting most of my other skydiving friends insanely jealous in the process!

Flying to a different sand box

The day I flew to Cairo, I have to admit I was nervous. Even though I knew my friends were going to be there, I was still flying in on my own. By now you wouldn’t think that it would no longer get me nervous, but it’s like the more I travel, the more anxious I get to arrive in an unknown city. Until I get to the plane that is. Once I’m on my way I’m fine and know I’ll figure it out, but on the days before I fly out, I seemingly wonder if I can still do it. Silly me.

Cairo

It would have been a lot easier if I had decided to join my Dubai friends, but being the Egyptians that they are, they got everything ready rather last minute. I knew this would most likely happen and I didn’t want to wait and risk paying more money. So I booked without them.

So there I was, arriving in Cairo, alone. Well technically surrounded by tons of people (and some very good looking) but I was on my own.

Since I had borrowed a parachute, I had to buy a suitcase for the trip as it didn’t fit in my usual green backpack.

After an uneventful flight, I paid for my visa went through immigration and collected my suitcase. While watching the suitcases get onto the carousel, I kept thinking that with my luck, and a borrowed parachute in it, my suitcase might not make it. But of course, even if it was the one before last, eventually it made it.

I had planned on changing some of my money at the airport, but there was a long queue and of course, I didn’t want to wait. So I walked out, only to find out there didn’t seem to be any money exchange office, not that I could see anyway, but there were quite a few ATMs.

I withdrew money and cued at the Vodafone booth to get a SIM card. There was a rather cute guy who was also waiting for a SIM card and I almost wanted to ask for his number but in the end, I decided against it. I was way too shy, unfortunately.

Why remove the old plate when you can just add the new one on top?

Once I got my SIM card with data, I ordered an Uber. The first driver somehow didn’t manage to find me, and after calling me and not managing to communicate between my non-existent Arabic and his very limited English he cancelled the ride.

By then I had already been waiting for a bit so when the second driver finally picked me up in his dusty old car, I was ready to leave. But that was without counting on the guard asking him a bunch of questions. What they actually talked about I have no idea, but I was starting to feel like getting to the hotel would be quite the adventure!

Eventually, we got the okay and we left. It took about 1 hour to reach the hotel, thankfully the traffic was actually quite smooth. The driver was very funny as he tried to communicate using Google translate. It worked somehow and he showed me some of the attractions on the way. Between the traffic (light by Cairo standards), his typing questions on his phone and trying to point out everything I needed to see, the ride was quite interesting. It would have however been incredibly stressful to anyone coming straight from Western countries, but I loved it. Once I checked my seat belt was actually holding me of course!

Cairo

When there is proper traffic it must be really painful to try to get anywhere as the streets are very narrow. People don’t follow rules. Pedestrians are crossing just about anywhere. There was even one guy who had missed his exit so he rolled his window down, signalled with his hand outside of the vehicle and started to reverse. Seemingly not caring about whether or not there was oncoming traffic.

When we made it to the hotel, it was dark, but I could still make out the outline of the pyramids in the dark. It felt surreal.

1st jump or crashing on the walls surrounding the Pyramids

The next day we all started out by having breakfast before piling up into buses to go have a look at the landing area. The landing area was definitely not as smooth as an actual landing area in most drop zones but the surroundings were surreal. The landing area was in front of the Pyramid of Menkaure, right next to the Pyramid of Khafre. We all took photos of course and then got back on the bus to reach the military base.

So far Cairo was exactly what I was expecting, sandy, dirty and old. There are some new developments in the city of course with malls and even an Ikea (although it did look rather out of place). It was great. Seeing the pyramids was really weird. I was not sure what to think. Everything felt very odd as I did not quite realize what’s happening to me.

Some of the C-130

When we arrived at the base, the process was rather slow, which was to be expected of course. We finally got in the military base, got the briefing of jumping out of a Hercules C-130, and started splitting into different groups and passes.

Jumping out of a C-130 is quite different than from a Twin Otter, first of all, you jump out of the tail, and there no separation between the groups as the plane goes quite fast even when it slows down.

I had decided to do my first jump on my own, so I could enjoy the view and not get distracted. I was already jumping out of a new plane, and landing in an unfamiliar area. It was enough changes for me.

Getting on the Hercules!

The jump was quite overwhelming. The experience of sitting in a military plane was quite unique. I thought of my dad a lot as I knew he would be impressed. He used to take me to all the airshows when I was younger, so not only to see a Hercules but sitting in one was special.

I wasn’t all that nervous yet, but I think that’s because I had no idea what was happening to me.

Finally, it was time. I got close to the door, and quickly it was my turn to run out and jump. Looking back at the plane was quite fun. Seeing everybody else exit too.

And the view.

I had never thought in my life I would see the pyramids like this. Seeing the extent of the city and how close the pyramids are was insane.

I had packed my parachute for myself for the first time since my course, so I was wondering how that was going to open, but it was super smooth. Thankfully!

That view!

We all had decided to open up quite high as we knew we would want to take in the views. Doing my landing pattern over the pyramids was surreal. And it really put into perspective the sheer size and immense feat of engineering involved in building them.

As I was in my final approach though, I saw a dust devil. I had never experienced one of those fuckers but I had heard about them. I knew they were affecting areas a lot larger than they seemed, but I didn’t really realize how big exactly. And at that point, I didn’t have much time. I tried to avoid it as best as I could but got caught in it anyway. It all happened really quickly and next thing I knew I was crashing onto a rock wall in front of the pyramid.

The wall I crashed in, the whole was already there I promise!

Adrenaline had kicked in so I didn’t feel anything. My only worry, when everybody came rushing towards me, was that they were trying to pick up my parachute, dragging it on the very sharp rocks. I didn’t know if it was okay but I didn’t want to risk ripping a hole in it.

At that point, I was surrounded by people, which looked quite scared as both my arms were bleeding. I took my helmet off, told people to leave my parachute where it was and started gathering all the lines. One of the organizers really wanted me to have the paramedics look at me, but I kept telling her I was fine, it was only skin after all!

Eventually, she did manage to convince me to have them at least clean my cuts. I was so embarrassed. Not only did I messed up my landing, but it was a unique experience and I had managed to fuck it up.

Proudly saying hello to my wall the next day

While everybody was dealing with the media, and on a high from their jump, I took my parachute and my bruised ego and went back and hid on the bus.

Eventually, everybody got back on board, and we went to the hotel. I was very lucky that a French paramedic was part of the group and that he had brought stuff with him. An actual suitcase full of meds and bandages, which I ended up using a lot of.

He cleaned my wounds properly and bandaged me up. Then I joined everybody in the hotel hallways to pack my parachute.

The Nile

At night we had a cruise on the Nile. It was interesting to see. The buildings are either really new or falling apart. There didn’t seem to be much in between.

Driving in Cairo sure was once again rather interesting. People cross the street everywhere, walk in on motorways. There are no traffic rules as far as I can see. When I was in the uber from the airport, I had seen a guy who had taken the wrong exit, rolling down his window signalling to people he was reversing and then simply backed into incoming traffic. I had thought this was funny and rather unexpected, but the exact same thing happened with our bus that night. The police made the bus go backwards, stopping people and we moved to the other exit. But reversing a bus onto an exit rampway sure is not quite the same as a small car!

Cairo

During the Nile cruise, I chatted with the French crew but I was clearly not in the same mood as everybody as all I kept thinking about was my landing failure. It was also a lot of emotions for one day and I was getting quite tired. I spent quite some time simply looking at the city pass by.

When we were back on the bus heading to the hotel sitting was feeling a bit uncomfortable. And when I got in my room after Tom changed my bandages once again, I took off my clothes and that’s when I saw the biggest nastiest bruise I had ever seen on my butt. It was taking almost an entire side of my ass. No wonder sitting felt a bit uncomfortable!!

Second day

Once again after breakfast, we all piled up in buses. This time we knew the drill and were a bit more efficient in the planning,

We were constantly under police escort, one car in the front and a truck with officers with guns in the back. It was a bit surreal but it was true that there were barely any other tourists so I guess we were easily targetable.

Skydiving over the pyramids!

For that second jump, Tom, my personal French paramedic offered to jump with me so I would have at least have some photos of my experience. It was very sweet of him. And it is true that if I didn’t jump with him I would have actually had no photos since I am not experienced enough to be jumping with a camera. This jump went really well, and even though I was quite stressed out about my landing, it was a very smooth landing.

After the jump, we came back to pack our parachutes and quickly we had to get on our way to go to the restaurant. The vegetarian options were the same for most meals, fries, soup, white rice, and pasta. Not the most interesting choices. And if I was to do this again I don’t think I would take any of the meals. I had been craving kosheri and since they kept feeding us, I ended up not being hungry enough for my favourite Egyptian food!

A pretend ground briefing at the Egyptian Museum

After lunch, we went to the Egyptian Museum and it was fascinating. Although like everything else there was a lot of waiting and then rushing through. Seeing the mommies was special. It’s really weird to think they use to be alive about 5000 years ago. And we can still make up their bodies and faces. I found it really weird to be looking at people as it didn’t feel quite right to have a bunch of bodies and people taking photos… Tutankhamon’s mask was also really impressive. Super shiny and eerily beautiful.

I really enjoyed the museum and the rather messy presentation. I could have easily spent the entire day there looking at all the artifacts, however, we had very little time.

Khal el-Khalili souk

The next activity was Khan el-Khalili a major souk in the city centre. Just like most of the French guys, I didn’t feel like walking around and being hassled so instead we grabbed tea and enjoyed some quiet time and interesting conversations before going back for yet another dinner on the Nile.

Our bus inching its way through the souk

I didn’t feel all that sociable during the day. It’s always really challenging for me to always be with a group. Sometimes I am envious of people who can seemingly spend time with a lot of other people and be perfectly okay. Not needing any alone time. I am also not used to travel in a pack and I am quite independent so it was rather difficult to always be waiting on people.

Last jump

For our last day, everybody was once again a lot quicker and as Bill Booth (skydiving legend, engineer of the three ring system and overall just really cool dude) said: ”the first day it was super exciting, the second day was good and now it’s routine.” It’s a crazy thought that jumping over the pyramids was now routine, but it was oddly so true.

The legendary and hilariously funny Bill Booth

For my last jump, I decided to go alone again so I could enjoy the view and not worry about anything. I took in as much of the views I possibly could. When it was time to land, all I could think about was don’t fuck it up, don’t fuck it up. So, of course, it wasn’t a very good landing. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the first one as I landed on my feet but then somehow managed to trip over my own feet and end on my knees, adding a few more scratches to my already badly bruised up body.

Giza house next to the pyramids

After the jump I attempted to go back to the Pyramids with Tom, because I wanted to have a look inside, but after the taxi driver tried to rip us off and I lost my shit, the guard wouldn’t sell us tickets to go inside of the pyramids as it was closing very shortly so we walked back to the hotel going through the small streets. It felt like I could breathe again. Not being in a group, walking and discovering new areas was great. We met a whole bunch of locals going about their day and they all kept telling us the pyramids were the other way as if it was the only possible reason to go to that area!

Giza

Discovering new places really is what’s keeping me alive. Seeing, hearing, smelling new places. There’s nothing like it. I had a really good time. I loved Cairo. It’s busy, dusty, just how I like my cities.

Back to reality and processing my epic adventure!

It was a very quick trip, so much so indeed that it took me a long time to even realize it had happened.

As one of the guys said, I didn’t even know jumping over the pyramids was on my bucket list. And out of a Hercules on top of it, it was fucking epic.

I did leave pretty beaten up by my first bad landing and my last tumble. I had scratches and bandages on my arms and legs and a massive purple bruise on my butt. I’m very lucky I didn’t actually get hurt more as it was a pretty bad landing. I did look like I took a serious beating though. But since I actually did, I guess it was quite normal.

Already the third and last jump over the pyramids

The Uber I took to get back to the airport drove me next to the Military Base and it made me want to go and ask if I could get back on the C130!

When I arrived back in Dubai, I went to the pharmacy to buy some cream to put on my wounds (since I no longer had my own personal paramedic looking after me). Of course, the pharmacist being Egyptian I had to show him some photos and videos! And like most other Egyptians (besides my Skydiving friends) they had never seen the view from that angle.

This very short trip does make me want to return to Egypt and explore the rest of the country, and see the pyramids again, most likely from the ground this time though!

UAE road trips -Part 4 – Zipline and Hatta

For my last road trip in the UAE, I only had two days off, so it had to be quick.

I decided to return to Jebel Jais since they had now opened the longest zip-line in the world, apparently certified by the Guinness World Records. It sounded pretty nice, so I rented a car again and headed North.

My GPS was confused though and brought me back to Sha’am. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t going in the right direction, actually as soon as I left RAK I knew it, but didn’t trust my instincts. And of course, it was right. after calling the zipine to let them know it’d be quite late, I turned around and followed the actual way to the mountain.

All geared up and ready to go!

The Toroverde zipline is a neat experience. However, it felt like skydiving took away my adrenaline rush. I was quite relaxed for the entire process, especially compared to the people whose group I joined. The zipline measures 2.83km, which means you have time to enjoy the ride. It goes fast, but like most things speed related, the heavier you are the faster you’ll go.

Jebel Jais zipline launching platform

They start up by gearing you up with the harness and a backpack to carry the pulleys you’ll need for the second half. You then hop on a minibus for a few minutes to reach the platform. They use superman style harnesses which makes you feel very secure. Not quite what I was hoping for!

Getting onto the platform does give you a few butterflies in your stomach as you have to put your hands to the edge of the platform, and do a handstand-ish while they secure your harness. They then add some weights to ensure you reach the other end (they added about 70kg for me and I barely made it).

It’s almost time. They crank up the lines and get your hands in your back.

Ready?

3, 2, 1 and go!

You are flying!

Almost. You go on for a few minutes and then reach the middle platform, they change your harness type, and now you are sitting to head back to were you started. It gets very windy of course, and it was still pretty cool to get to see the mountains from a different point of view. They are gorgeous. So rugged.

I absolutely loved driving up and down the mountain road and I think it’s funny that the older I get the more willing I am to take risks in all aspects of my life.

Hatta

I drove to Hatta on my second day off and it was beautiful. I had been told the area was very different and quite beautiful, and it was true. Hatta is located in the Hajar moutains.

Hatta dam

Hatta dam is very pretty. A big lake with rocky mountains around it. People can rent kayaks and when I was there a group set off and they were being quite loud. It really disturbed the peace and quiet I was looking for.

Hatta dam from the other side

I had read about Hatta Lake being just on the other side of the mountain so I went there instead. It was a very similar scenery but I was alone to enjoy it. I really enjoyed being alone and having no other humans around. I think that’s because I worked and live with people so it easily became too much for me and I actually needed quiet time to recharge my batteries.

Hatta lake

After the dam and the lake, I explored Hatta Fort and the heritage village, the oldest preserved heritage village in the UAE. It was interesting to walk around and be free to open the doors to discover the history of this place at my own pace. I found it also very interesting to see the houses and be able to compare them to what I had read in the Girl who fell to the Earth.

Hatta Fort and Heritage Village

Returning to my all-time favourite spot in the UAE, Jebel Jais

When I had decided I would leave Dubai, I knew I needed to return one last time to Jebel Jais. It’s quite funny how every single time I went there, I was originally supposed to go with the guy I was seeing or wanted to be seeing more of at that time. And every single time, I ended up going alone. I guess karma had different plans for me!

Jebel Jais, my favourite road in the UAE

This time around, I didn’t plan things too well. It wasn’t as pleasant of a road trip I thought it would be as I was stuck in traffic for most of it and when I got started on the road up the hill, I realized I didn’t have much fuel left. But at least when I finally got up there, there was barely anyone and if it wasn’t for the generator, it would have been really quiet!

Watching the sunset was amazing and relaxing, once I found a quiet spot where some rocks were blocking the generator sound.

My favourite spot up Jebel Jais

Driving back was quite the experience though. I was quite zen until I got back into the car and remembered how very little fuel I had left when the fuel light went on. I drove down keeping an eye out for the curves, and the fuel gauge. Once I finally made it out of the mountain area, after what felt like an eternity, I went to get some fuel. But RAK still being under construction seemingly everywhere it was rather challenging. They mark roads as closed but you can still use them. Go figure. In the end I found some fuel and felt a lot better knowing I wouldn’t be stranded!

Even on my way to go to Jebel Jais, I had to go through a blocked road. I was rather dubious that I was supposed to head that way, but the guy working on the construction site gestured that it was indeed the way. This happened many times, actually every time I drove in that area. It’s rather challenging to find my way in Ras Al Khaimah, but the good thing is I’m not really stressed anymore when driving there, or anywhere for that matter!

Nevertheless, even with all the new developments and the fact that it most likely will never be the quiet place it once was (hearing people scream for their lives as they zipline through is not what I call relaxing!) it was my last must needed nature retreat from the sometimes intense life in Dubai.

Did you miss my other road trips?

Part 1: Fujairah and Jebel Hafeet

Part 2: Ras Al Khaimah, Leopard Canyon and my all time favourite, Jebel Jais

Part 3: Liwa, the biggest sand dunes of the UAE, and getting my rental car stuck in the sand.

UAE road trips – part 3 – Sand dunes of Liwa

I did a quite a few road trips during my year in Dubai, and it seemed that I still didn’t have quite enough of sand and desert yet! I had another couple of days off and I decided that before the weather would get unbearably hot, it would be a good idea to actually go spend some time in the desert.

At that point, I had already been on a few road trips and wanted to go somewhere new. I looked at the map of the UAE, and decided that the big mostly empty area towards the border with Saudi Arabia would do. It would definitely have enough sand and desert for my liking!

Local wildlife

There was a place called Liwa, an oasis lost in the middle of the desert. It sounded perfect. Not only that but it was also home to the largest sand dune of the UAE. That should definitely involve enough sand!

I picked up the little rental car as soon as the office opened, grabbed some coffee and headed towards Abu Dhabi. The speed limit is 140 in this area and it sure drives really well at that speed. The roads were not too busy probably because it was a Friday morning. (Friday is the beginning of the weekend in the UAE)

I decided not to go see the Mosque as I didn’t want to risk getting stuck… I was smarter when I started the trip

The road started to be pretty from the junction towards Madina Zayed. The town itself was an oasis and was green and lush. I felt like I had just started driving so I unfortunately didn’t stop for photos.

Peaceful Liwa

I arrived in Liwa and checked-in in early afternoon. It was a bit warm to go explore the sand dunes, so I enjoyed my balcony for a few hours.

Moreab Dune is supposed to be the biggest dune in the UAE and one of the biggest in the world. It is 300m tall and has an incline of 50 degrees, so it looks a more like a wall of sand than a dune. I had originally thought of walking up the sand dune, but it was very busy and noisy with pickups and 4×4. It was quite entertaining to watch, but once again, not quite the peaceful escape I wanted.

Sand dunes everywhere

I decided to go back to a different dune so I could enjoy it on my own. A bit more anyway. I parked the car on the side of the road and started walking up the dune. It was beautiful. As soon as I reached the top, I could hear a family not too far from me, somewhere else in the dunes, so I moved to a different area. I sat there and took the views and quietude in. It was perfect.

I made a little video of a guy coming to play in the dunes with his pick-up truck. Little did I know that he would offer to take me up the dunes and that I would spend the rest of the day with him. When Khaled offered to join, I wasn’t too sure but I thought: fuck it, I’ve got nothing to lose! Plus he was kind of cute.

I went down my dune while he removed some air from his tires and we went up. He said he was going to help another guy who was clearly stuck but when we got there, another jeep was already helping him out.

So we kept going towards Moreab and next thing I knew we were on the edge of it! I squealed as we went down. It was so much fun! When we reached the bottom, we stopped to put some more air back in the tires. He shared his coffee with me and we went back up and down one more time.

On top of Moreab Dune, just about to come down

After all those emotion and fun times, we drove to the other side and sat in the sand for a while sharing stories about our lives. He shared more of his Arabic coffee and dates. Eventually, as the sun was gone and it was getting cold, I asked him if he could bring me back to my car. I thought he would ask for money at some point but he didn’t. He was just happy to have some company to play in the sand and have interesting conversation with. We exchanged phone numbers and I returned to the hotel.

Moreab dune, proudly standing 300m tall.

I was so relaxed after the desert. It felt like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders. All my worries stayed in the desert, exactly like Khaled had told me when he explained why he loved the desert so much.

Liwa sunrise

The next morning, I woke up early enough to see the sunrise and it was beautiful. It was so quiet and I could hear the birds chirping. It was simply perfect. I think I could have stay there easily for a few days. It was peaceful and quiet and had a soothing effect on my soul. I was truly recharging my batteries.

The UAE was a lot prettier than I expected. As long as one leaves Dubai, there’s actually a lot to discover. And I loved it, it is what made staying longer bearable as I kept exploring the surrounding nature regularly.

Khaled’s ride

The desert has a fascinating effect on me and it had been the same in Jordan. It’s no wonder some of the bedouins can’t leave it. It inhabits you and takes over in the sweetest and calmest way. It almost made me want to build myself a camp in the desert and not come back to civilization, at least not regularly!

More sand dunes

The plan for my second day was to drive around some more and see what was in this area of the country.

Dhafeer Fort, Liwa

Once I had packed everything, I left the hotel to have a look at Dhafeer Fort. It is a small fort with no signs, no explanation or anyone. I toured it anyway. The walls of these forts are quite high and it’s unfortunately hard to see the view on the other side.

The ladder up one of the towers of Mezairah Fort

My second stop of the day was the interesting Mezairah Fort. It’s a 3 tower fort and I went up in two of the towers. Both forts are now housing mostly pigeons but it was still very interesting to see. It’s a good thing I had a visited another fort with a guide during a previous road trip as I could somewhat guess the use of each room.

I drove the very scenic road towards Hamim, stopping at a staff accommodation compound on top of a hill. The view was beautiful over the oasis and date plantation. My plan was to go see Qasr Al Sarab as I was told it was a superb hotel, but they had special guests that day and the security guard wouldn’t let anyone in who didn’t have a booking or a restaurant reservation. I was quite disappointed.

I kept driving towards Hamim but I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Dubai yet so I turned around and went towards Shah. It’s mostly camps and oil and gas industries in that area, but at one point there was a roundabout and I could access the other side of the fence. There was a big empty area, and at the back, lovely red sand dunes.

Lovely sand dunes near Shah

I parked the car and climbed up. It was hot since it was already 12 pm. The sand was very hot too and when I wasn’t climbing I had to put my sandals back on not to burn the sole of my feet. I explored the dunes, being careful to always see the parking lot or my tracks so I wouldn’t get lost! I sat in a dune after making a sand angel of course.

Sand, sand and more sand!

When I was warm and relaxed enough, I came running down the sand dunes back to the car. I had decided to go towards the border with Saudi, without crossing of course, and decided to do a u-turn in one shot instead of the smarter decision of staying on the more solid sand. It took half a second and the left tire was stuck in soft sand. I needed some traction aid which I obviously didn’t have.

In that moment, after trying to get unstuck and fully realizing I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own, I wanted to cry.

Tears of rage.

I was no longer my zen self.

Luckily there was a business straight across the roundabout. It was still a few minutes walk but since I could see pick up trucks, I figured they could possibly help me out. I swallowed my pride and walked there. After trying to call the security office and hear the phone ringing inside the empty building, someone finally walked out of a different building. He didn’t really know or understand what I needed but pointed me to some guys a bit further away saying they could help.

Beautiful road near Liwa

They were taking a break and were going to leave a few minutes later to go change a tire so my timing was pretty good. I got in the truck with them, and after the tire change, they came to my car and got it out within minutes. They all insisted I should stay for lunch but I was still so angry at myself, all I wanted to do was to head back home. I thanked them profusely and went on my way.

About 20 minutes later, one of the guy called me to make sure everything was okay. It was very sweet of them. After this adventure, I headed back pretty much straight to Dubai, watching the beautiful dunes turn to white sand before bringing the car back. I was quite happy the car dealer didn’t look underneath the car as he might have noticed it was a bit sandier than usual!

Did you miss my other road trips in the United Arab Emirates?

Part 1: Fujairah and Jebel Hafeet

Part 2: Ras Al Khaimah, Leopard Canyon and my all time favourite, Jebel Jais

Part 4: Hatta and one last visit to Jebel Jais

UAE road tips – Part 2 – Ras Al Khaimah, Leopard Canyon and Jebel Jais

About 10 days after my first road trip, I needed another fix. I had another 4 days off in a row. It was the perfect opportunity to keep exploring the UAE. I was no longer housesitting, so I rented a car and went on my way.

The first day was spent jumping at the desert campus followed by dinner at a friend. I wasn’t too sure if it was worth going to RAK right after, but I knew it would give me a full day there. If I would have gone back home to sleep, I would most likely have started my day much later.

After dinner, I dropped a friend at one of the Metro station and headed towards Ras Al Khaimah. I didn’t see much of the road as it was night time, but it also allowed me to avoid the terrible traffic to Sharjah.

A few colleagues live in Sharjah and work in Dubai, and even though it’s only about 50km, it sometimes takes them about 2 hours to get from home to work, and 2 more hours from work back home. I honestly never understood why they would choose to put themselves through that every day. Thankfully, that evening, there was barely anybody on the road. So after slightly over one hour of driving I checked-in the Al-Nakheel hotel.

On my way in, I could see people chilling and having fires on the sand dunes by the highway. I almost stopped and joined people as it looked like everyone was having a great time. But I didn’t. I wasn’t too sure it would be a good idea to stop and ask random people if I could join them!

Exploring the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah

I had originally planned on going hiking for my first day in Ras Al Khaimah, but I was slow to get ready and since I had not picked a hike beforehand, by the time I was actually ready to leave it was way too late to start a long hike. So instead, I drove around the Emirate and stopped whenever I felt like it.

Al Jazirah Al Hamra abandoned village

I first headed towards Al Jazirah, Al Hamra but for some reason couldn’t find the right road. I drove by the Hilton and the nearby coffee shop. I obviously needed a bit of cafeine to help me out, so I picked up a coffee and then easily found my way and explored the abandoned houses of Al Jazirah, Al Hamra.

The houses were left abandoned when people left for the city. Technically people still owe them, but most of the houses are in different states of ruins. It is also widely believed to be haunted, and it was pretty quiet when I was there! I explored the different ruins for a while, picturing what it would have been like to live there. I’m not sure I would be brave enough to actually do all of this exploring at night though!


Al Jazirah Al Hamra abandoned village

Once I had enough of exploring empty houses (or at least empty from things I could see…) I went to Dhayat Fort. The fort is an 18th Century fortification. It boasts 360º views over the entire valley. A rather strategic choice. It is also said to be the highest hilltop fort (as opposed to tower or lookout post) in the UAE.


Dhayat Fort

I was lucky to have the entire fort to myself, so I explored, took the obligatory selfies and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery.

Peaceful Sha’am. Can you spot the UAE flag painted on the rocks?

I got back in the car and drove to Sha’am, a coastal village in Northern Ras Al Khaimah. I dipped my toes really quickly in the super cold water and drove around the village. It was so quiet and peaceful. I stayed longer than I thought I would. Sha’am is located close to the border with Oman and I was very tempted to go, but since I had a rental car that was not insured outside of the UAE, I decided against it.

Sha’am

I turned around and since on my way I had seen a sign for Wadi Ghalilah and I had liked the name, I decided to drive it all the way to the end. When I got to the house at the very end of the road, I turned around and came back. The owner of the house looked rather puzzled as to who I was and what the hell I was doing there when there isn’t much to see! It did have a genuine feel though, like most small not-touristy villages I’ve visited everywhere in the world. The kind of place where time doesn’t have the same hold onto people. The life is simple and quiet.

Heading up to Jebel Jais

The road was very confusing because of some constructions and I followed the GPS to an actual highway exit, which I obviously took on the wrong direction. It was fairly flat between the exit and the road I was supposed to be on, so I quickly went offroad, got out of the exit and on my way. Pretending as if nothing had just happened!

Going to Jebel Jais

I kept going following my GPS but mostly the very few the signs to Jebel Jais (they have now added yellow signs pointing lost tourists in the right direction). Jebel Jais, at an elevation of 1934 m is the highest point of the UAE. The rugged mountain and the road leading up to the top is beautiful. I planned my trip so that I would arrive there at the end of the afternoon, sit for a bit to enjoy the views and the sunset before coming back to Ras Al Khaimah.

Jebel Jais

When I first went there, there was a main parking area, and a quieter area next to it (it’s changed a lot now, as it’s being developed for the Zipline). I sat there and took in the beauty of the place, and the calming feeling of being back in a mountainous area. People kept coming, mostly couples or families, to take photos. Most people were being rather loud, and didn’t seem to have the same feeling that I experience when I’m in nature. When it gorgeous around, I want to stay in silence, or whisper and take it all in. All that chatter and excitement was starting to get on my nerves, and instead of being calm, I was quickly getting annoyed.

Jebel Jais

Eventually, I realized some people had climbed up the mountain on the other side of the road, so I decided to copy their smart move. I changed my shoes, climbed up and finally got to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Second day, hike up Leopard Canyon

Since I realized I was far from being in a good enough shape to even consider a long hike (it had been a very long time since I’ve been on a proper hike) I decided on a short ”easy” one. I also liked the name although the story is not as cute as the name would suggest. Leopard Canyon was named that way as it’s where the last leopard was either seen or killed depending on the sources.

Ras Al Khaimah

I needed to fuel the car before I left the city, so I headed to a fueling station nearby according to my GPS. Of course, when I got there it was no longer a fueling station, but it was now turned into a parking lot. I finally found another station, and from Ras Al Khaimah, I followed the same road towards Jebel Jais, until the junction to a gravel road.

The road to Leopard Canyon, not ideal in a small rental car

I really didn’t have the ideal car to go off-roading so I went really slowly and it took forever to reach the beginning of the trail. I was almost at the village when the road got really bad. It was so bad that I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it with the car, so I parked on the side, and continued on foot. I walked past a farm and many goats which reminded me of Nepal.

Last house and it’s adorable residents before the hike

The Leopard Canyon hike is considered an easy walk, and while it is fairly easy, it can get quite difficult on the ankles since it’s mostly boulders and rocks. There’s also not many shaded areas once the sun is up.

Leopard Canyon

Luckily it was early enough that the sun had not passed the mountains yet so there was still a lot of shade for most of my hike. It was also winter season when I went, so the temperatures were bearable.

A tree! I have to attempt a photo shoot, right?

I walked past a beautiful tree and I felt like I had to stop for a photo shoot. It was a stunning location so I had to! Being alone though I couldn’t count on anyone else to take the photo. I resorted to using the timer, but it turns out running on rocks is not as easy as it looks! There was also a lot of flies who followed me for a while and kept disrupting the otherwise amazingly peaceful moment.

Leopard Canyon

When I reached the end of the canyon, I didn’t have quite enough of walking yet. I wanted to go see the view from the top, so I kept climbing until I reached the top, making sure I would be able to come down. It was a lot of scrambling up and I didn’t want to twist an ankle or stay stuck when no one knew where I was and there was no cell service!

At the top, I enjoyed the views for a bit. I wanted to keep going but I was unsure of the path to take and the sun was now out and it was getting very hot. I didn’t want to get lost and I was already tired so I made my way down carefully, slipping down the rocks multiple time, getting a back workout at the same time trying to keep my balance.

Shepherd’s house in Leopard Canyon

On my way out of the canyon, I noticed some shepherd’s houses and went to have a closer look before continuing my descent. It was a nice walk following my own rhythm but it got me super exhausted and I crashed into bed early that night. Driving out of the canyon, on the potholed road, made me realize that I clearly had not picked the right car for the job!

Road trip back to Fujairah and the East coast

The next day was my last day off. I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood for. I had originally thought of going back to the Desert Campus to get more jumps in, but since it was rather windy and I was in an exploring mode, I got back in the car and decided to drive to the East Coast and the other border of Oman. The drive was simply beautiful and it was the best decision I could have made.

Going East

On my way East to Diba, I stopped in a very small village which had the best view of the mountains. I parked the car and simply sat there for a while taking the views in. Once again some locals seemed to wonder what the hell I was doing there. But we nodded hello and they moved on with their day.

Waterfront promenade in Diba

When I arrived in Diba, I went towards Corniche street, passing a rather large oil lamp which made me laugh a lot! Back when I lived in Western Canada, I had done a side road trip to see what was claimed to be the largest oil lamp in the world. I still don’t quite understand why someone would decide to have that as their main tourist attraction…

Diba

Being the confused driver I can sometimes be, I took yet another a wrong turn. For some reasons, (I was most likely so lost in my music and my thoughts I wasn’t paying attention anymore) I took the wrong exit on the roundabout and picked the one that was leading to the actual Oman border control. I did an awkward u-turn in front of the gate and headed to the water, this time taking the right street, passing lovely municipal buildings.

Slightly windy!

It was very windy that day and Diba’s promenade reminded me of Baie-Comeau, the city I grew up in. The water, the rocks, the wind, I truly felt at home. I walked along the promenade for a while, looking at the Omani mountains on the other side. Eventually, I got back in the car and had to circle the whole promenade again because I, once again, missed the exit. In my defense though, they were doing a lot of work, and had cones and deviations everywhere!

Coral Bay, standing far from the cold water!

Shortly after I saw a car coming back from what looked like a beach, so I went too. Coral Bay was lovely and empty. I took a few photos, dipped my toes in the water and almost dropped my phone. I didn’t expect the water to be freezing cold, which explained why nobody was on the beach!

Al Bidiyah Mosque

I kept driving and stopping everywhere that looked potentially interesting: Faqiat Beach near the Fairmont hotel as well as Al Bidiyah Fort and Mosque. The Mosque dates from the 15th Century and is the oldest existing mosque in the UAE. After a quick look at the mosque, I walked up to the fort. I saw that I could walk up a little mountain next to the fort so I obviously had to go and explore. The view was perfect.

The path past Al Bidiyah Fort

There was a guy at the top and he asked if he could take my photo. At first, because of his thick accent, I thought he wanted me to take a picture of him at the top, but no, he simply wanted a photo of me there. Not even a photo with me… It’s always a bit weird to me but I thought why not.

Later on, I stopped at Sandy Beach where my friend Camille had recommended I stop. It was a beautiful white sand beach exactly how she had described. After sitting on the public beach for a while getting a lot of sand in my face because of the wind, and knowing I still had some driving to do, I decided to head back to Dubai.

Sandy Beach, and the mountain road behind me

It was so nice to explore and discover. This is the main thing that makes me happy in life. And while everyone at work seemed surprised I would go on such a road trip alone, I enjoyed my own company and had a really good time. This mini holiday recharged my batteries. A full day of skydiving, dinner with friends, mountain roads with old forts and small marinas finished by a stunning sunset, a hike in a rocky wadi and relaxing. And another road trip with mountains and gorgeous views. It was the perfect getaway.

I was rather proud of myself for going exploring pretty much without a GPS and allowing myself to get lost and stop everywhere I saw something interesting. Trusting my own navigational skills, even when it leads me to border crossings! Getting lost is not the end of the world and I can always turn back and return to where I came from. This realization made my road trips much more enjoyable. Of course in the cities or when trying to actually reach something I would use the GPS, but I’ve relearned to read the signs and notice stuff so I can find my own way instead of simply relying on technology.

Did you miss my other road trips in the United Arab Emirates?

Part 1: Fujairah and Jebel Hafeet

Part 3: Liwa: the biggest sand dunes of the UAE, and getting my rental car stuck in the sand.

Part 4: Hatta and ziplining from Jebel Jais.

UAE road trips – Part 1 – Fujairah and Jebel Hafeet

Living in Dubai was different than everything I’ve experienced before.

Being from Canada, I need a regular dose of nature otherwise I go crazy. I also need a regular fix of exploring and seeing something new. If I would have been born in the great exploration days, I would have definitely been on one of the many European boats exploring the world. I would most likely have either died on board or not been allowed because of my gender, but that’s beside the point!

Exploration and curiosity to see how things work in other countries are rooted deep in my genes.

When I started working in Dubai I rarely had two days off in a row. I was also torn between going skydiving or exploring on my days off. It’s actually a decision that I still struggle with all the time.

View from Jebel Hafeet, UAE

Once you have a working visa in the UAE, you need to switch your driver’s license to a local one. I was very lucky to be able to simply switch my license without having to take expensive driving courses like most nationalities have to do. The process was very quick and simple. All I needed was my license (and a certified letter from the embassy since it’s a French license), eye test, copies of my IDs and money. I went to the licensing office, gave all my paperwork, paid and was quickly handed my new license. It was actually still warm from the press when the guy handed it back to me.

As soon as I had switched my driver’s license to the UAE one, I knew a road trip was needed!

I don’t know if it’s because I’m from Canada where it’s always cheaper to drive than fly anywhere (I drove across the country multiple times, about 5000km one way) but I love to spend time on the road. I find it relaxing. It finally calms my overactive mind. I put my favourite music on, the scenery goes by and so do my thoughts. I simply love it.

Soon after leaving Dubai, heading East

At that point, I was housesitting for a friend. I had met her in Hamburg, Germany and had looked after her adorable dog. She was now also living in Dubai and needed someone to look after Tilda. She gave me access to her car so I could go to work and jump in the Desert Campus. This was the perfect opportunity for my first road trip.

I couldn’t go away for very long since I needed to come back to look after the dog, so I picked a location not too far. I had heard about Fujairah from friends and when I saw there was also a mountain called Jebel Hafeet that one could drive all the way up, my decision was easily made!

Heading East to Fujairah

As soon as I left Dubai towards Fujairah, the Emirate located on the East coast, the scenery changed to a desert and then to mountains. Seeing nature and mountains made me actually tear up. It felt so good to be outside of the city and see something else than super clean and superficial Dubai. The windy road up and down the mountain pass was exactly what I needed.

Curious cuties foraging through garbage in Al Hayl

There was barely anyone on the road and I really enjoyed my experience. After about one hour and a half, I turned at the beginning of Fujairah city towards Al Hayl and its castle. The village felt much more authentic and Middle-Eastern and it reminded me of my experience in Jordan.

Wadi Al Hail Dam, Fujairah

I drove next to Al Hail dam. Being the daughter of someone who used to work on maintaining dams for Hydro Quebec (the hydroelectricity company in the Province of Quebec) I’ve learned a fair amount about dams and always have to make a point of taking a photo of dams whenever I see them. This one seemed really small, dry and empty. Nothing to do with the Manic-5 dam near Baie-Comeau!

Al Hayl Castle

I kept driving toward Al Hayl Castle. There was no other tourist there when I arrived. I had read that the guardian of the castle was giving tours and he indeed took me to all the buildings, explaining their use in a rather broken English (explained by the fact that he was actually from Bengladesh).

Improvised photoshoot during my castle visit

During my short visit of Al Hayl Castle, the guide kept wanting to take photos of me with my phone, so it felt like a little photoshoot. Something I’m not a big fan of, but for once I have plenty of photos of myself that are not selfies!

My Canadian roots are not too far sometimes

After my visit to the castle, I returned towards Al Hayl village, but stopped in the Wadi to sit in the shade of a tree and take in the beautiful scenery. I ended up making a tiny Inukshuk. The silence felt very weird and unsettling which made me decide to rent a car and go explore other Emirates for my next days off.

Listening to the odd sound from a garbage lid moving into the wind, or an animal expressing itself in the distance, it made me realize how silence is rare nowadays. We rarely sit and listen to nothing. There’s usually traffic, horns, people, music, police or firefighter sirens, or in Dubai tourists showing off in their rental Ferrari and Maserati.

Road to Al Hayl, good thing I wasn’t driving a Maserati!

Being in a quiet and peaceful environment also means you can no longer escape your thoughts and feelings, and that can be really scary sometimes. Eventually, I had enough, I needed to move again, so I got back in the car and drove through the city of Fujairah. It was actually more in the industrial area towards Kalba, because I wanted to have a quick look at the coast of the Gulf of Oman. I took the mountain road between Kalba and Sharjah and the 102, going in a tunnel before exiting on the other side of the mountains. I went through Wadi Helo (I loved the name so I had to go have a look), and a few villages that obviously do not get to see that many tourists driving around much, or they simply like to stare a lot.

Beautiful road to Al Ain

It was nice to see the ”normal” Emirati life. There was a lot of massive villas and little shopping centres everywhere but also smaller houses. It had a much more genuine feel than anything I had experienced so far.

I went through Al Madam (that name made me laugh) to Al Jimi and crossed Al Ain entirely to reach Jebel Hafeet. Al Ain is a very pretty city with flowers and trees everywhere. It actually looked like a good place to live a quiet life. But I didn’t want to visit yet another city I wanted expansive mountain views.

Driving up Jebel Hafeet

The drive up Jebel Hafeet was so much fun. It’s a mountain road with sharp turns and places to stop everywhere along the way to enjoy the views. The top is rather underwhelming but it was worth the drive. When you reach the top parking, there’s a café, cars and people and it’s fenced everywhere. Not quite what I was expecting. The parking spots just before the top were actually a lot more enjoyable for me, being alone to enjoy the view and the sunset. No kids running around or people being super loud.

Jebel Hafeet café and massive parking lot

After the sunset, I came straight back to Dubai. Tired but happy. And I couldn’t wait to rent a car and go on other road trips. Being out of Dubai, exploring, not waiting on anybody else, doing exactly what I wanted and stopping where I wanted, felt so good. It would have been really nice to have someone to share that with of course, but I made the most of it and enjoyed myself. I was quite proud I went on my own for over 550 kms through unknown territories and cities. I trusted myself (and my GPS) and was pretty confident that worst comes to worst I could always turn around and come back.

Jebel Hafeet

After this road trip, I made it my priority to go out and explore more. It all started with that one little day trip, and next thing I knew I was hooked again!

Keep an eye out for the following posts if you want to see more of my road trips in the United Arab Emirates!

Part 2: Ras Al Khaimah, hiking in Leopard Canyon and my all-time favourite Jebel Jais

Part 3: Liwa: the biggest sand dunes of the UAE, and getting my rental car stuck in the sand.

Part 4: Hatta and ziplining from Jebel Jais

Long Weekend Escapade in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

I heart Bishkek sign in a city park
I love Bishkek!

Back in May, I needed a break from living in Dubai. I had done the odd expedition to some of the other emirates, but I needed some time away from the city, and a few days to myself. When I received my work schedule for the month, I saw that I had 4 days off in a row, so that made my decision super easy. I was going somewhere on holiday!

Deciding to go to Kyrgyzstan for a few days holiday was definitely not the usual destination people go for, but it was perfect for me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed something different. I’ve never been one to like beach holidays so I looked into alternate destinations. I had never been to any of the ‘stan, and since it was only a short flight away, I thought it was interesting. FlyDubai also happens to have a lot of cheap flights to that area, an obvious plus.

I didn’t know where to pick between Bishkek, Almaty or even Georgia or Albania. Since it was May, I knew that most mountainous regions would still be very much in winter like weather, so it quickly became a choice between Bishkek and Almaty. In the end, what made my decision was the flight times since they were pretty much the same price. Bishkek was a bit shorter flight, and it suited my schedule better.

As I wrote in my journal before booking: I’m not sure I’m in good enough shape to actually go on hikes but I’m sure I’ll love being in the nature. Seeing trees and grass. It will most likely be a shock after 6 months in Dubai.

Finally flying out of Dubai!

I was quite worried once again that I wouldn’t remember how to travel, just as it had happened last time I decided to go explore somewhere new. And once again, as soon as I left for the airport, I knew I would be fine, my travel reflexes all coming back slowly.

When I was ready to disembark, I looked behind me and saw Alexandra, an Austrian girl I had met at the Skydive Dubai Desert Campus. She was here to go paragliding with 3 other guys. Their guide was picking them up at the airport and she asked if they could give me a ride. I was going to get the minibus to the city, but since it was very early and I hadn’t been traveling on my own for such a long time, I was quite happy to have the opportunity to be dropped off and not have to worry too much about finding my way to the hostel.

We met up with their German driver, and he said he was happy to take me but on certain conditions. First of all, he could not guarantee there would be any room to squeeze me in since they had all their paragliding gear. Secondly, there wouldn’t be a seat belt for me, so Alexandra and I would have to share the front seat. Of course, that’s not legal in Kyrgyzstan, as in most countries, however the possible fine if we got arrested by the police would be less than a taxi ride. We agreed that should we get stopped by the police, I would pay the fine. We packed everything and everybody up, and set off towards the city.

We saw a few police cars on the way, but every time Alexandra slid down on the seat, and I hid her behind the bag that was on my knees. Nobody saw us or cared. We had to do this a few times getting in the city, but thankfully never go stopped!

Manas International Airport, Bishkek

The roads reminded me of Transnistria, the separatist region of Moldova, all lined with tress with the bottom painted white. It was very similar except for the fact that they have massive mountains in the background. I was already getting excited to see nature and something else than endless deserts!

I arrived at the Apple Hostel at around 6:30 am and luckily, I could check in right away in my female dorm.

First impressions

I was already in love with the country and I had not even been there for 2 hours! It reminded me of Moldova and I felt right at home. I’m not sure what it is with those post-soviet countries, but I always feel very good there. It’s a rather simple living, everything is written in Cyrillic, yet it feels more natural to me then going back to Canada.

Creative reuse of the well-know yellow M for a shawarma place

The cafeteria next to the hostel was very typical and packed with locals grabbing their food either before their bus rides or on their way to work. I knew being vegan was going to be very difficult in Kyrgyzstan, most likely next to impossible, as even vegetarian food can be hard to get in one of the countries that eats the most meat per person!

I had picked a pastry that looked sweet but the cashier put the fork in and since it was too dry for her liking so she had me pick something else. All of this using gestures only since her English was about as good as my Russian. I used my very handy translating app to ask which other pastry wouldn’t have any meat in it, and surprisingly the potato pastry she gave me was fresh, filling and actually quite tasty.

Discovering Bishkek

It was sunny, fresh and green. Making all of it amazingly different from Dubai. A lot more down to earth and not solely focused on appearances. It took me a while to feel ready to get started and go explore. I was quite tired from my sleepless night flight and a bit anxious to see if I would be okay to travel on my own again after what felt like so long.

After a few hours, however, I felt so happy to be traveling again. It made me realize I had missed this more than I ever thought possible. It was a more than welcome break from Dubai.

The White House, presidential office building in Bishkek

I walked aimlessly in the city, following my instinct and what appealed to me, going from busy streets to green parks. I stumbled upon on an artistic performance, including some dancing and a guy rapping to what looked like a university crowd. I’m not sure what it was about, but everybody seemed to be having a great time and so did I.

Watching people driving felt a bit chaotic, but then I remembered Alex’s guide mentioning how the cars here were all imported a while back from all over the world before the ban on import which means that they have cars that have the steering wheel on either side. It must be quite the challenge to drive here, and I have to admit even though I wanted to go explore the countryside a bit, I didn’t feel brave enough to go renting a car and setting off on my own!

Side street near the East bus station in Bishkek

Bishkek reminded me a lot of Chisinau in Moldova or Tiraspol in Transnistria. Old Soviet cities with not much to do but with green parks, monuments and trees everywhere. I found it truly incredible to see that much green everywhere. I did however felt like I was standing out a lot more than I did in Chisinau since I was clearly one of the very few people who didn’t have an Asian look.

The Kyrgyz women are beautiful and like in most place the younger generations are much more thinner than older people. The women are also quite well-dressed and I was hoping I would find a dress or something to bring back, just like I did in Chisinau. I do not buy many souvenirs anymore, but I do like to buy clothes as it always reminds me of the travel when I wear the piece of clothing again. And usually the chances of meeting someone wearing the same thing are quite slim!

Going out of the city

My second day in Kyrgyzstan was simply a perfect travel day although it didn’t quite start up this way! The plan was simple. Leave the city and go for a hike in the mountains.

I got up early and went to Osh Bazaar to find the marsutka 265. I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to find the minibus and was looking for a station. The only information I could find online said it was leaving from the Bazaar. I couldn’t see anything that resembled a station, so I went to the other end of the market. People were bringing in their stuff which meant I ran into dead animal bodies, some with fur still attached. I thought I would throw up but I kept moving quickly between cars and through the small aisle of the market. Once I reached the other end of the bazaar, it was obvious I was no longer in the right place to find a minibus.

I went back to where I had first seen some minibuses earlier and asked a lady using my new translating app. She pointed down the street so I headed that way. At the junction with another slightly busy road, I asked a lady selling the fermented milk drink and chai and she literally pointed in front of us. I had finally found the ”station”. For those of you who would like to go, the bus stop is on Токтогула улица at the corner of ъейшеналиевой улица and since the bus only leaves every 3 hours or so, I would recommend getting the 8:15 one.

People standing in a packed minibus
Bumpy minibus ride to Ala-Archa Canyon

A few seconds later, after finally seeing a minibus with the right number written on it, I tried to see if it was going to Ala-Archa Canyon, but a guy stepped in, explaining in Russian this specific bus was not going all the way to the Canyon, so I would have to wait for the next one. He grabbed his very old Motorola type phone, typed something in and then showed me. It said 8:15. That’s when I understood what he had been trying to tell me for the last few minutes…

Shortly after, a blond girl wearing hiking boots arrived. I asked if she was going to the canyon and she said yes. It was pretty obvious we were both tourist, and I was rather reassured that at least I would have someone to either follow or get lost with!


Towards Ala-Archa and the Tian Shan mountains

The right minibus arrived shortly after so we got on, paid our 40 som (0.77 CAD) and went on our way. At one point, the driver stopped and went into a shop by the side of the road. Another guy came in and we left. Only to stop again a few seconds later. This new driver went into what looked like either a house or a shop, stayed there for a while and eventually came back out and drove us to the 1st gate. The bus doesn’t drive all the way to the start of the trail, but only to the first gate of the park.

We paid our entry fee, 80 som ( about 1.50 CAD) per person, and started walking. We wanted to hitch a ride since there is about 12km between the two gates and were rather lucky as a few meters in, a car drove in and picked us up. He was a local with his young son sleeping in the back seat. He drove us all the way to the second gate, even though that was not even where he was going. Since Monica spoke some Russian, they had a conversation, while I enjoyed the scenery from the back seat.

Start of the trail

Once we reached the second gate, there were signs and the path was clearly visible. We thanked our driver and started our walk. Shortly after we started I was getting thirsty so I grabbed my water bottle only for it to explode everywhere. I didn’t realize I had brought carbonated water and not still water! That’s when I realized the meaning of the word газдалган.

Ala-Archa National Park

The scenery was amazing for the entire trek, going from forest looking just like the city in grew up in Canada to mountains overseeing riverbeds with white rocks and glacial turquoise water like Nepal. It was super quiet and getting to hear the birds and the wind coming down the mountains felt unreal after busy Bishkek. It was also quite nice to have someone to talk to, joke with and to share what I was seeing with.


I found snow on the way down from the mountan, and I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to see snow!!

Eventually, we arrived at the waterfall point. According to our GPS anyway. We had seen the waterfall from the car but we got confused with the trail, and simply ended up going towards Ratsek instead. We walked for 13km and went up to about 3000m. From the start of the trail, Alplager at 2100m, it was only a 1000m climb but since I was no longer used to hiking, I was truly exhausted that night!

Ala-Archa National Park

We were going to keep walking up the mountain for a bit but as we sat down to take a break, enjoy the view and eat our snacks we could see dark clouds forming. We decided it would be smarted to head back down if we wanted to make sure to have enough time to catch a minibus back to the city, especially if we had to walk all the way back to the 1st gate in the rain.

As we arrived back to the town, it started raining. We decided to try to hitch a ride back down to the 1st gate at least and thankfully a Belgian couple picked us up rather quickly, which was very lucky as it started raining quite heavily as soon as we got to the second gate.

Perfect lunch spot

The couple was also returning to Bishkek however they had not booked anywhere to spend the night yet. So being the clever person I can sometimes be, I told them there were private rooms at the Apple Hostel I was staying at and it was actually quite okay. That convinced them and they drove us all the way back to my hostel’s door.

We all had dinner together at the cafeteria. I ate a weird looking meal. It was a massive dumpling shaped into a crown and filled with veggies. It turned out to be rather tasty, but I have to admit I wasn’t too sure about it to start with!

Third day, Burana Tower and Konorchek Canyon

The next morning I was struggling. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and where I could go. Communication with the hostel staff wasn’t really flowing. I wanted some information and felt like I had to be really precise in my questions, otherwise, I was not getting complete answers. Sometimes the language barrier can be quite challenging, especially on days where you already feel a bit more fragile and unsettled than usual.

Part of the reasons why I felt so out of it that morning was because I had lovely conversations with a bunch of people at the hostel the night before. They were all going through the ‘stans, exploring and hiking and I knew that this was just a very short break before I had to return to Dubai. I was already questioning my decision to move to Dubai in the first place, and being faced with people living the kind of life I was aspiring to, made it hard.

I was also remembering how hard it can be to travel alone. It’s great at times because you have all the freedom to do exactly what you want, but you also have nobody to share the little things with. Or have nobody to step in and take over when things get difficult.

Kazakh mountains in the distance

As I was having breakfast and writing my journal processing all of the above, Eva and PJ, the Belgian couple, came in and sat with me. I asked them what their plans were and if I could hop in the car with them. I would get a minibus or find another way back. I didn’t really care where I was going but I wanted to go somewhre. Anywhere!

Becky, another girl from the hostel, joined us for breakfast and we all agreed to leave shortly after. Sometimes all you need to change your mood is to have the balls to ask people what they are up to and if you can join them!

Interesting side-road shops

The couple were heading East towards Karakol and wanted to have a look at a few sites along the way. We drove to the Burana Tower, and saw rural Kyrgyzstan along the way with various stands, including some to buy brooms and water containers. Also a lot of vehicles carrying cows, horses, etc. The big minaret is located about 80km from Bishkek, not too far from the town of Tokmok.

When we arrived close to Burana, we parked the car and walked across the very yellow gate. We paid our entry fee (60 som per person, which is about 1.15 CAD) and went straight to the tower. The Burana site is quite interesting. It has the tower of course, but also some mausoleums, castle foundations, grave markers, pteroglyphs, and a small museum.

Lovely dark staircase in the Burana Tower

The stairs to go up the minaret were quite narrow and dark but I did very much enjoy going up. We had to take turns going up or down, as you could only fit one person… given you didn’t have shoulders too broad! The view from the top was truly stunning. The tower used to be about 45m high, but over time and because of earthquakes, parts fell down and it’s now only about 25m.

We explored the surroundings, having a look at the rocks with pteroglyphs on it and other artifacts before getting back in the car.

Burana Tower

We had lunch while driving to Konorchek Canyon. The road is right by the border of Kazakhstan and you can see the Kazakh mountains while driving in the valley. It was gorgeous.

The trail wasn’t too obvious to start on. I had read that you had to go on the other side of the train tracks, but it didn’t really say anything else. There are no signs, but once you have crossed the tracks, it becomes a lot more obvious. It’s a canyon and there’s no other option than to go forward! The canyon carves its way into the mountains, including some easy scrambling. We ended up arriving in a gorgeous area which looked very much like Utah.

The train track, and start of the Konorchek Canyon trail

By then the day was already well into late afternoon, we could see rain clouds forming, and since Becky and I still had to make our way back to Bishkek, we decided to turn around and come back to the car. I would have liked to keep going, but safety first, I preferred to come back to the city before it was dark, just in case we would not make it to the Western bus station and had to walk to the hostel.

Konorchek Canyon

Becky and I wanted to get a minibus back but when the couple dropped us off we crossed the street and a guy offered to drive us to the town before Bishkek. We tried to communicate but I couldn’t understand anything he was saying. We were communicating using google translate. We finally agreed on the price for him to drive us all the way to the bus station.

At some point during the drive, he was saying something, which seemed to mean he would not bring us all the way back to Bishkek, although that was what we had first agreed upon. I pretended not to understand and reply yes, we are going to the west bus station.

Eventually, he got a minibus to stop and pick us up to finish the road. I wasn’t happy but it’s quite hard to fight or argue when you don’t speak the same language. The guy still wanted the entire amount we had agreed on, and the bus driver wanted his share of the money. I managed to explain that we had agreed to a price to bring us all the way to the station, the fact that the guy changed his mind meant that I was not going to pay the entire amount without going the whole way. In the end, we got 100 som back, which in hindsight doesn’t seem worth arguing over, but it was more for the principle of it than the actual money.

We sat on the bus and tried to recover from our adventure. The only seat that was available was rather wet, and even though it was raining a bit, it sure wasn’t raining enough for it to be this wet. So not only was I now sitting in a minibus instead of a car, but I was also sitting in piss. Lovely.

When we finally made it back to the hostel, we decided we deserved wine so we used part of the 100 SOM we argued back for a bottle of red local wine. It was quite the experience, and once again very typical of a backpacking adventure. We ended up laughing it off.. we now had a funny story to tell!

Last day in Kyrgyzstan

After living in Dubai and always seeing blue skies, I must have been the only person in Bishkek truly happy to get to enjoy a wet and grey day. Seeing clouds and rain actually felt more normal. So did having to wear long jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt or jacket. I was definitely not really looking forward to going back to sandstorm and heat.


Driving in Bishkek

The scenery in Kyrgyzstan is so varied. I didn’t go far and I saw gorgeous alpine scenery with glaciers, green rolling hills and a flat valley as well as red rock formations that look a lot like Utah, all of this within a few hours drive from the capital city. The country seems to have a lot to offer and according to all the backpackers I’ve met, so does Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

I wasn’t sure what to do for my last day. I would technically have had plenty of time to get on a minibus to somewhere but all the interesting places seemed too far for a day trip. And I didn’t want to be stressing out about making it back on time to catch my flight.

After taking it very slow all morning, reading about Bishkek and trying to find something new to see, I went to the Osh Bazaar. I stepped in a few shops but soon realized I didn’t actually want to be surrounded by people so I walked towards Tsum centre which once again reminded me of Moldova and its ”shopping centre”. I had hoped to maybe find clothes but my attempt at trying some skirts didn’t work at all. I was failing at explaining what I wanted (a larger size or a different color) so eventually I gave up and kept walking.

Coffee and menu in Ecodemia café

I decided to treat myself to a vegetarian restaurant called Ecodemia, a restaurant in the Dostuk hotel. And just like most things in those lovely labyrinthic Soviet buildings, it was not easy to find. It was quiet and relaxing and the food was great. Unfortunately, it now looks like the restaurant is permanently closed, which is rather sad, but quite understandable since it was extremely pricey for locals. A meal which costs about 20 CAD (1000 som) is nothing when you get paid in CAD, but when the average monthly salary is 15 000 som (not even 300 CAD) it sure looks like a lot.

The closing of the restaurant might also have to do with the cutest little mouse I saw just poking her head from underneath the stairs before changing her mind and going back into hiding while I was eating!

Other random note about Kyrgyzstan, they never have knives in restaurants (or at least in the places I went to), only forks and spoon to be used to cut things and eat. This can make eating rather messy and challenging!

State History Museum

I spent my last few hours in the country before my flight back to Dubai at the hostel, chatting with other guests. It kept me busy until quite late then the girl working at the front desk started asked me rather personal questions. She was in her early 20s and was very curious to know how life and relationships worked in other countries. She wanted to know if it was really like the American teen movies, where everyone sleeps with each other and parties a lot.

She told me how traditional it still was for most Kyrgyz girls. They were still expected to bleed on their wedding night. Some marriages are arranged and some are love weddings depending on the family background (it tends to be a bot more modern in the city than in villages). And once they are married, the first son of the family and his new wife will move out to their own house, but the second son had to live with his parents, meaning that his wife would now have to move in with a family she doesn’t really know.

We talked for a long time about boyfriends and first time. She was obviously very curious and quite nervous and I was happy to share what would have normally been discussed in a sex ed class, should those still exist. It was a very interesting conversation although rather unexpected! And a really funny end of my long weekend trip in Bishkek!


Eternal fire in Victory Square, apparently a popular place for wedding photos

One Year in Dubai

Sunrise behind dubai marina tower buildings
Sunrise over Dubai Marina

I would have never thought I would end up going to Dubai, let alone live there for one year. When I was studying Tourism, the Palm and the ski centre in the Mall of the Emirates were being built. I clearly remember wondering who would do that, and what kind of people would live there. Turns out it’s a lot easier to live there than I thought.

This realization actually occurred to me a few weeks before I left the country. I was coming back from buying my groceries at the supermarket in the Mall of the Emirates and was driving back home, to the house and cat I was taking care of… on the Palm. And the weird thing was, it was actually totally normal to me. I had been doing this for about 6 months at that point.

inside the Mall of the Emirates
Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Dubai is a fascinating place to be, especially from a sociological point of view. Reality is different there.

At least very different from Canada. Everything has its own rules, like most places in the world. But unlike most places, everything is disposable. Employees, friends, relationships. Everything and everyone is temporary.

Of course, it’s not the only place in the world where one can see massive difference between classes of people or different nationalities, but in Dubai, there’s no attempt to even pretend everyone is somewhat equal like in most western societies. I’m not saying Western countries are actually equal by any mean, but they do try to reach that ideal, or at least pretend to try.

In Dubai, money or passport issuing country is what makes the most impact. Not your actual work. As with every generalisation there are exceptions, but from my experience, whether you are competent or not doesn’t seem to be the main thing employers look for.

Tandem skydivers landing next to Dubai buildings
Skydive Dubai

I was working in skydiving, so of course, any other environment would be quite different, but from what I noticed in most of my friend’s workplaces is that it was expected from them to work crazy hours, have no personal life, especially if they happened to work in sales or in banking and investment. I am aware these work conditions are very similar in most big cities since competition is fierce. But I’ve never experienced such a place where everything and everyone is disposable and can easily be replaced. And this also transpires through friendships and relationships.

view of the World islands in Dubai
Dubai from the sky, including the World and Burj Al Arab

It’s a very superficial environment, of course, this doesn’t come up as a surprise from a country who happened to have built multiple palm tree-shaped islands out of nothing. Dubai doesn’t need to only look good from the ground, but also from the air. Most buildings look fairly new, and they are, but if you look a bit closer you quickly realize they are not made to last.

Dubai Marina view from Marina Wharf building
The view from my first flat in Marina Wharf, Dubai Marina

Take the apartment building I was living in for example, it looked fine from the outside, was finished only a couple of years ago, but every time it rained (which is only a handful of times per year) water would come through the roof and drip in the bedrooms and kitchen. Water infiltration in an older building is understandable, especially after many years of getting beaten up by the changing weather, but on a brand new building I find it hard to accept. All the buildings have to come up quick and cheap, so a lot is botched along the way. But as long as the facade looks good you are golden.

It’s pretty much the same when it comes to people. As long as the facade looks good, we don’t really care about anything else. So many people have plastic surgery, it’s a usual sight. So much so indeed that a friend of mine who’s lived in Dubai for a few years even stopped seeing or noticing when people had had work done. I used to think that was crazy until one day when I experienced something that I found profoundly scary in terms of what was now my normal.

The girls were talking about a new procedure to lift the lashes, and instead of thinking how weird of an idea that was, I actually started thinking I could maybe get more information about it. I didn’t make it to the step of actually going and getting it done, but anyone knowing me would most likely be surprised I would have even considered it. That’s how insidious and prevalent the whole facade culture is. It affects everything you see and do.

Traffic view from shoreline building, the palm, Dubai
Lovely place to have my morning coffee, in the flat I was housesitting for on The Palm, Dubai

There are of course some very good parts of living in Dubai too. Nothing is ever all black or white. But since we can’t really talk about the not so pretty things while living there, we don’t hear much about it. We know there are issues, especially when it comes to human rights, but understandably no one is quite ready to put themselves on the line while living there and stir some shit up. The possible consequences are far from being the same as in the usual free-speech countries I call home (Canada and the UK).

One good side of everything being about keeping up appearances is that if you want to be fit, there’s absolutely no excuse not to be since every single residential building has a gym. There are fitness classes and activities available everywhere. And the offer is impressively varied, from the usual gym and spinning classes to pole fitness and everything in between.

small boat crossing the water in Dubai Marina
Dubai Marina

I did live in Dubai for a lot longer than I had originally anticipated. Somehow, I’ve lived a very comfortable life for a while, but I could see that I was slowly changing. And slowly turning into someone I didn’t like. And that, for me, was reason enough to get away and find somewhere closer to nature to call home.

During my year in Dubai, I have visited every emirate and left the country a few times for long-weekend holidays. I think that’s what kept me sane (somewhat anyway). I will be revisiting those road trips and further expeditions in future posts.

Sunset over the landing area of Skydive Dubai
Sunset over the landing area of Skydive Dubai

21-Day Writing Challenge Day 21 – Last Day!

Last day of my 21-Day Writing Challenge!

I have to admit, I didn’t think I was actually going to make it to the end without having missed a day or two. But I did it. I made it my priority every single day and it worked.

Not all the posts are great or even interesting, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve challenged myself to write something every day for 21 days, and I succeeded.

It may not sound like that big of a feat, but after about one year without writing much, this is very significant for me. Knowing that I also have a very big tendency to give up and not complete things when it gets tough, this achievement holds two remarkable wins.

I’m quite proud of this, and I think I might now be ready to start writing again more regularly. In the last year I’ve lived in Dubai and visited a few countries (Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Tonga, and New Zealand) and now I’m heading off to Lisbon in Portugal for about a week. I feel a lot more confident now that I have things to say about my experiences in those destinations as well as other challenges I’ve gone through in the last year.

I still feel very self-conscious when I publish anything, but since the only way to get past that is to do it, write and publish articles, I’ll keep pushing myself. Enlarging that comfort zone ever so slightly.

In the same way that I am a lot more confident as a traveler, because of my years of experience, I’ll eventually get more confident as a writer too. Hopefully anyway!

The more we do things, the better we become at them. It’s the same for every aspect of life. The more you cook the better you become. One day you might even have the confidence to make things without having to rely on any recipes, but simply following your gut. And your past experiences of what flavors go well together and which ones to avoid.

We do not all commence our personal journeys off at the same starting point, but we can all improve if we get our mind to it and spend the time. We chose how we spend our days, and while it’s a lot easier to pretend we do not have a say in the matter, choosing to write, read or learn a second language instead of watching one episode every night means that eventually, you’ll have hours of practice in that subject.

 It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to be able to see improvement at some point. Consistency is key. Yet it’s so easy to forget and give up sometimes!

21-Day Writing Challenge Day 20 – In the Moment

It’s good to remind ourselves to stop and breathe. Take it all in. Fully enjoy the moment.

It doesn’t actually matter what the moment is.

Maybe you are at the supermarket, waiting in line to pay for your dinner.

Maybe you are bored at home waiting and hoping for someone to call or message you.

Maybe you are walking in the old part of your city, on an almost warm (not unbearably freezing) winter day with your mom on the day before your next adventure.

Whatever it is, being in the moment and taking a break to notice what is going is key to making you feel better. Unless you are in a really shitty situation. But in the situations listed above, you could be in a place where you are surrounded with options of what to eat. The abundance is all around you.

If you are bored at home. Well, you’ve got a home, you are warm and dry. You probably even have furniture you like. Maybe even photos of said friends. You are comfortable. And you finally have an opportunity to relax and do something you enjoy doing. Maybe it’s yoga, reading, listening to music, or simply staring out of the window and watching life and people go past.

And if you are lucky enough to be spending time with someone you love, the best thing you can do is be aware it’s happening and take it all in. Being in the moment, creating memories that will last forever.

Today was such a day. I had a few moments where I remembered to stop and be aware. I was living something great. It was very simple, a walk in a neighborhood I love, with my mom. Sharing our thoughts and what we were seeing. Simply being fully there, in the moment.

I consider myself extremely lucky that I got to have that moment. But even in less pleasant moments, it’s good to be aware.

I was waiting in line at the pharmacy yesterday. The little lady before me was taking a very long time. I only had to pick a prescription up, which took seconds to prepare. I could have gotten annoyed. Actually, that’s what had started to happen, when I remembered that I was thankfully in very good health.

I have no massive problems requiring extensive care. I had time, I was actually in no rush since I was going back home. So instead of getting agitated, seeing the situation for what it was made me see that one day it’ll be me. I’ll most likely be lonely at home, and some of my only human interactions will be with clerks. I’ll be slower at finding things in my bag. And I might have to take many pills which can interact with each other.

Being present led me to be thankful. I did make it home a lot later than I thought, but even on my walk in the beginning of a snowstorm with very strong winds, I felt good. I was present. I enjoyed the very strong gust of wind that literally pushed me in the street. I noticed the cold air and the humidity getting through my clothes. I was going home. And I knew that minutes later I would be warm.

It changed my entire attitude. Everything is temporary. The same way that waiting on people is. Or being cold and bored.

I ended up walking home being happy to be me. I was enjoying a true Canadian winter. I’m in good health. I’m still young-ish.

I’m lucky.

I might as well enjoy it and make the most of every single moment!

21-Day Writing Challenge Day 19 – Time Left

I went to see my grandparents yesterday, a short visit before I leave the country once again without knowing when I’ll be back. My grandmother is far from being emotive. She’s never told my dad or myself that she loves us. That’s just not something she does. She obviously loves us but she’s never learned how to say it with words.

But yesterday, I could feel her emotion, piercing through her usual protective wall when it came time to say goodbye.

If I would have waited a few more minutes, she might have even teared up a little. I know I felt quite sad saying goodbye once again.

She did ask if my stay in Quebec City had made me want to stay here. But unfortunately for her, I told her that no. My stay here made me want to leave and go explore even more. I like seeing my family, but I’m in no way ready to settle down back here again.

As we were leaving, I remembered a post I read a few years ago about how we do not quite realize how many times we have left in our lives to see people.

Life expectancy for Canadian woman is around 84 years. It means that I have about 50 years of life left if everything goes according to statistics.

As we grow up, we live with our parents, and as soon as we leave the house, we usually have less time left to spend with them than we’ve already had without even realizing it.

I left my parent’s house when I was 16. By then I had spent about 5840 days with them. Since then, I haven’t seen them all that much. I did see them more regularly for the 8 years that followed, but for the last 10 years, I have spent on average 15 days per year with them. It’s only roughly 150 days. If I keep going at this rate, we’ll probably have about 300 days left to spend together. That is if they reach about 85 years old. While it might look like a big number, it would be less than a year if we spend them all in one go…

The same way, if I see someone once a year on average, I have about 50 times left to see them. It seems like a lot, but if they are already 65 or so, I most likely have less than 20 times left to spend time with them.

I tend to see my grandparents two afternoons per year. They are already about 90 years old. So there are just a handful more times I’ll get to see them.

Thinking about this can be very depressing, but it’s also an opportunity to make sure every moment spent with the people we love counts. Making sure to create memories, and not have too many regrets so that if we never meet up again, we’ll have lovely memories to hold on to.

This applies to most relationships or most situations in life. We never really know when the end will come, so we might as well make it worth it. Holding grudges do seem pointless when you realize it is actually removing time from the available moments you have left to share.

On a similar idea, I could stay here and spend more time with my family, (and I might regret my decision to leave later on,) but I also have to keep in mind that my life could also stop at any given time. And I’d much rather go thinking that I’ve followed my passion and gone way past my comfort zone regularly. That I’ve tried new things, experienced new ways to live. That I went out of my way to catch up with friends. That I’ve loved, even if it means I got hurt in the process. Or more simply, that I’ve lived. Truly and fully.

Trying to balance the time I want to spend with people and my need to explore the world is not easy. Thankfully with the new technologies, we can still talk regularly. It’s not the same as seeing each other, of course, but it’s as close as I can get to get the best of both worlds. It’ll have to do for now anyway!