In the tragic oil kingdom of Kuwait

Welcome to the city state of Kuwait! Kuwait is quite unlike the rest of the Gulf states. To start with, Kuwait is the richest of them all. In terms of oil reserves per capital, it beats even the almighty Saudi Arabia. My local acquaintance boasted that it’s enough to stick a finger in the ground and the oil will come gushing out. On the other hand, Kuwait was the epicentre of a still recent and still painful national tragedy. The invasion by the troops of Saddam Hussein in 1991 has shaped the national character. A whole generation of young men was eliminated. Kuwait City (and there isn’t anything else in Kuwait, the rest is an empty desert punctuated by oil wells) was utterly destroyed, looted, burnt by the retreating Iraqis, when the overwhelming might of the coalition forced them to flee Kuwait.

But in the case of Kuwait there is no ostensible hyper compensation. The Kuwait City centre is strictly functional, there are no new eye catching buildings that you would expect from a country risen from the ashes. Obviously this is not a question of money. Rather it is the conservative culture that prescribes focusing on the private space, hiding all wealth from jealous eyes of an outsider. Only recently the government took a decision to build a proper national museum and to renovate the Kuwait Towers – more on that later.

The first glimpse of Kuwait from a plane window:

Continue reading In the tragic oil kingdom of Kuwait

Greater Muscat

Most cities go around in concentric circles. Muscat, the capital of Oman, is quite different. Being built in the valleys hidden between the coastal rocks, it stretches on and off along the coast for some 30 km, forming in the process the Greater Muscat.

And surely the most important concentration of the urban activity is in the souk, a covered market, which is located right next to the Mutrah port of Muscat. The souk has several entrances. This is the parade entrance, from the Mutrah waterfront:

Continue reading Greater Muscat

Old Muscat, the fairytale capital of Oman

Oman…

The very name of this exotic sultanate has always seemed an epitome of fairytale. Closed off to all visitors for so long, it seemed to hold endless secrets somewhere among the shifting sands of Arabia. Visiting it seemed an impossible feat, like going into a fairytale. Little did I know…

Oman was not always a hermit of nations. In 17-18th centuries the Sultanate of Oman was a dominant seafaring empire which controlled the Indian Ocean and possessed a network outposts in an arch stretching from Mozambique all the way to India. Oman successfully held off and defeated the Portuguese and only in 19th century did the British and the French gradually subdue it. In Arabia only the Oman’s ruler is titled “sultan” – which is the most important title in the East. (The king of Saudi Arabia does call himself “the guardian of Mecca and Medina”, which is more prestigious from the religious point of view, the word “king” used to translate it into Western languages being a kind of a misnomer.) Moreover, the Oman’s dynasty is by far the oldest of the Gulf dynasties. Thus when the Arab rulers gather, the sultan of Oman possesses a special weight among them – rather like the sultan of Brunei among the Muslim rulers of South East Asia. In the case of Oman though the historic importance is not supported by economic might – among the Gulf states Oman has long been the poorest, endowed with the least oil. Yemen is poorer still but it’s not in the Gulf. In recent times Oman has embarked on an energised development track, to a great extent inspired by the current sultan Qaboos, a unique figure.

I had considered flying to Oman from Dubai or combining it with Bahrain or Kuwait on a sort of an air triangle. Soon I realised that it was not worth it price-wise, and then I came across information that Dubai is connected to Oman by a regular bus! Which is ridiculously cheap – about 10 euros. Actually taking a physical bus seemed a lot more interesting too. And so I did -not with some difficulties, as the office of the Oman’s company that provides the link is well hidden in Dubai’s Deira, and there is no bus station as such. Soon though I find myself on the bus wondering if the border guards in Oman are aware of the new rules freeing me from the visa requirement?

No problem at all! Crossing the border was quick as a flash. The bus did have to stop three times, with intervals of several kilometres – first on the UAE border, then Oman border guard, then the Oman customs. On the last stop all the bags had to be removed from the bus and lined up for a friendly dog to sniff. Last time I went through such an old fashioned check was in Paraguay customs as I took an endless bus over Chaco from Bolivia.

The bus reaches Muscat about 10pm at night. The smartphones have transformed the way we travel – as I’d downloaded a map of Muscat, even in the dark of the night I easily found my hotel, which was some 20 minutes walk from the bus stop. The next morning a set off for a walk around Old Muscat.

The geography of Muscat is rather extraordinary. The capital of Oman is built on the ocean coast among the hills. The hills separate it into many valleys which historically used to be separate settlements, and to get from one to the other you need to drive several km. Therefore Muscat stretches along the coast for some 30 km. Its major areas are Old Muscat, Mutrah, Ruwi and Qurm. The sultan lives in Old Muscat, surrounded by fortresses, museums and administrative buildings, but no hotels are located there. The hotels are either in the business centre of Ruwi, the touristic and port centre of Mutrah or in posh expat area of Qurm. I stayed in a middle range Mutrah Hotel about midway between Ruwi and Mutrah.

On my first morning in Muscat I passed through the old souk to the Mutrah Corniche. First sighting of the sea:

Continue reading Old Muscat, the fairytale capital of Oman

Non-standard Dubai

Dubai is such an intense place with so much going on that in my mind I was certain – I would be surprised. I would find things that lie outside of the stereotypes of megalomania and shopping. I just had to keep my eyes open and they would come.

Probably the most unexpected find turned out to be an incredible richness and variety of contemporary art galleries. I’d read about at least two clusters of galleries – one in the industrial Al Quoz area close to Noor Bank metro stop; the other in the Dubai International Financial Center area (metro Emirates Towers).

I started in Al Quoz, from its most well known gallery called Courtyard. The eponymous courtyard is surrounded by a whole series of galleries. The main gallery and the passage to the courtyard:

Continue reading Non-standard Dubai

Standard Dubai

I decided to write two posts about Dubai: one post about the “standard Dubai”, the one which everybody imagines, and the other about the “non-standard Dubai”, the Dubai which we least expect.

Even though I am such an experienced traveller, strangely I’d never been to Dubai before. The obvious reason is that before spring of 2014 I needed a visa to enter Dubai which was expensive and bureaucratically difficult to obtain. I had a hunch that soon enough this would change and so it did.

Most tourists are drawn to Dubai for two major reasons: shopping and beaches. As for me, none of this was of any interest. Rather I wanted to experience for myself that paradoxical contemporary miracle, an urban mirage built in the middle of the desert. My expectations were pretty low: I imagined a society torn between the ultrarich locals and the slave-like migrant workers, between modernity and fundamentalism, a tasteless mix of extreme consumption.

Dubai exceeded my expectations. Yes indeed it’s a mirage willed into existence by the imagination and self-confidence of its rulers. The mirage that shook all the surrounding rulers and spurred them into copying it. Actually the emirate of Dubai is a rather small piece of land, the lion’s part of UAE being occupied by Abu Dhabi. The same goes for oil: Dubai has practically run out of it by now. And yet its emirs managed to get the most of out their small territory. Today it is an incredible futuristic ensemble that will leave no one unimpressed.

So let’s get it on. Standard Dubai! Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Simply dwarfing the surrounding skyscrapers:

Continue reading Standard Dubai

Bahrain, the key to the Gulf

December for me was the month of the Middle East. It started from the (re)discovery of the Turkish low cost airline Pegasus Airlines. I’d already flown them before, yet somehow never considered it as a workable option – and for any movements around the Middle East, it is certainly a great one. It is in the same price category as Ryanair, however it is much more human in the way it is organised and treats its passengers. This time I used it to the limit. The ticket from Brussels to Bahrain changing planes in Istanbul cost me around €100 – and it is quite a distance, almost half the world! Playing around with their website produces quite amazing options. An important advantage is that they have a base in the Sabiha Gökcen airport in Istanbul, which is linked with a strong network of frequent flights with all kinds of destinations, allowing a convenient way to connect very unusual points. For example you could fly from Skopje to Kutaisi or as I did, from Brussels to Bahrain – all for a very reasonable amount.

As I departed from Bahrain, my knowledge of this country was rather limited. I initially envisaged heading for Dubai, and I added Bahrain only when I realised that I could easily visit one more country in combination with the Emirates. For the holders of Estonian passport like myself there was a mini-diplomatic breakthrough in the beginning of 2014 – at that time almost all of the Gulf countries changed the entry rules for the “new” EU countries, making the entrance either visa-free or visa-on-arrival. I’d read in the press about the changes introduced by the UAE, but as I was checking the visa rules, suddenly I realised that Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait had followed suit! And only Qatar is lagging behind. I did try to include Qatar this time around, by applying for its visa the old fashioned way, but the procedure turned out to be quite kafkaesque without any clear rules or deadlines – and so I dropped it. My guess is that their visa rules will change soon too.

In a paradoxical way Bahrain is just the right country to start your Gulf visit. The whole history of the Gulf in a way starts right here, on this tiny island. We’ve all heard of the great Mesopotamian civilisation. The great epic poem of that civilisation was the famous Epos of Gilgamesh, in which King Gilgamesh among many other things visits the fairytale land of Dilmun, a paradise on Earth and the source of eternal life. The prototype for the mythical Dilmun was the island of Bahrain. At the time – we’re talking 5000 years ago – it was the economic centre of the whole Arabic peninsula, thanks to its location at the crossroads of trade routes.

This favourable location was at the same time its undoing. Being at the crossroads of the empires, it changed hands between them innumerable times. To this day it is an apple of discord between Iran and the Arabs. Iran considers Bahrain its property and supports the local majority Shiite population, which protested very loudly against the ruling Sunni elite during the Arab Spring. As the Emir of Bahrain is a close ally of both Saudi Arabia and USA, the protests were put down by force and their spacial focus, the so-called Pearl Roundabout, a local equivalent of the Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was destroyed with bulldozers.

Bahrain is the key detail in the big puzzle of the Gulf, due to the fact that it is the base of the American Fifth fleet. Whenever an American aircraft carrier parades along the coast of Iran, it is in Bahrain that it will dock.

The Gulf starts out of Bahrain in one other key aspect. In the old days it was the economic centre of the Gulf due to it being at the centre of the pearl trade. Cartier would buy his pearls right here in 1920s. The pearl trade in the Gulf collapsed in 1930s after the invention of cultured pearl farming in Japan. And then Bahrain gave the Gulf yet another gift of immense wealth. It was right here that the oil was found and the first oil well in the Gulf was dug in 1932.

My plane landed in Manama at 3am at night. It turned out the visa free regime is not quite visa free – I had to buy a visa, and it seemed the cost was at the mercy of the immigration worker – each new visitor would be quoted a different amount. I had arranged an airport pickup with my hotel, although my actual reservation allowed me to check in only at 14:00. I wasn’t sure the plane would be on time, and so decided I’d wait in the lobby working at the computer. This didn’t quite go according to the plan – the hotel manager just could not tolerate a guest sitting all night long in his lobby. When I opted not to pay for an additional night, he checked me in for free at 7:00. If only all hotels managers in the world were as welcoming! I therefore heartily recommend the Bahrain Ramada hotel. My first look out the hotel window, which seemed very exotic on that first morning:

Continue reading Bahrain, the key to the Gulf

Best photos

This week I allocated one full day in order go to through all the images I’ve ever made and pick out the best ones. My actual goal was to create a portfolio of best images. I’d already started this work before as I had identified all the best portraits and even asked for feedback from critically and artsy minded friends. When you do the selection yourself, the challenge is of course to abstract yourself from your memories of making the photos – memories about the person, about the shoot, about your mood, your conscious creative choices – and only concentrate on the merits of the image itself. Not an easy thing to do. Of course you also want to have a certain variety in the selection – if all your best photos come from the same situation, that looks iffy.

To go through all of your images sounds like an easy task in theory, but in practice it is anything but. From my DSLR cameras alone I have by now over 35’000 images. Indeed even visually to go through all this on a computer screen, assuming you take 3 seconds per image, would take 29 hours. So I took shortcuts: I’d only look at the very best images, the ones I’ve already published on the blog or the ones that I’d given a high rating in Lightroom.

The result is out there – I’ve created two “portfolio” collections: People and Places.

As a side project, I decided to also choose (somewhat arbitrarily, of course) the best ten images for 2014. Just as a way of looking back and of gauging my progress in photography. Here they are:


Singapore, Marina Bay
Continue reading Best photos

Their art is not art, it’s a part of general ritualistic complex. They use it as a tool. Only in a disconnected society like ours, the Western society, art is called art, it’s isolated and not a part of the whole system.

Марина Абрамовић

Twenty best experiences of 2014

What does it mean to travel for a year around the world? At the end of 2013 I wrote a selection of 20 best experiences of the first part of the trip. As the year 2014 was rolling in, I was seriously asking myself: could I possibly surpass 2013?

Today my answer is: absolutely yes! This was a tremendous year full of events and impressions and new people and places. Indeed so intense was the year, that as I re-read some of my early posts of 2014, I feel like they might have happened in another life eons ago.

Here are the twenty most powerful experiences of 2014:

20. Helicoptering to the top of a glacier
It was my lifelong fantasy to fly in a helicopter, and what a spectacular way to do it! In New Zealand’s Franz Josef, a helicopter took us up all the way to the top of a glacier, inaccessible otherwise. An otherworldly walk in the land of ice and light inside a deep glacier valley followed.

Continue reading Twenty best experiences of 2014

A meditation in Enghien

My trip started from Brussels as far back as 5 July 2013. After almost exactly 500 days of travelling I found myself in Brussels again. I took a train from Cluj to Budapest and then a couple of days later flew Wizzair to Brussels-Charleroi. My first impression from being back in this city where I had spent six years of my life was a striking feeling hat nothing at all had changed. My favourite cafés were just as cozy – and full; the construction works in Arts-Loi and Schuman stations seemed just as hopeless – and seemingly without any progress during the intervening 1.5 years. My friends’ habits had not suffered a tiniest adjustment.

Of course after a while you start noticing changes. Quite a few interesting new places have popped up in the city centre. Free wifi which used to be a rarity in Brussels is now available in most unexpected places. The church of St Catherine mutated from horrifying black to pristine white. New faces – the new Commission – are looking at you from a huge poster on the side of the Berlaymont. And of course there have been important changes in my friends’ lives.

This time around I spent almost a month in Brussels, thanks to the kindness of my friend. It was a time of rest and reflection. The main question that I was asking myself was what comes next? What is next in my life? What is next on my trip? Is it over or will it continue?

The answer to this latter question is two-fold. Yes, the grand Round-The-World trip which started in Brussels in July 2013 by definition ended in Brussels in November 2014. I have come full circle.

But on the other hand I am not truly back to Brussels. I am not returning to my old life. Not yet, anyway. From here on it’s a new journey and I will continue to be somewhere in the world for a while. There is still a number of things I would like to do and experience before I settle down.

Extremely organised as I am, I possess a list of places in Brussels/Belgium that I would like to visit. This list was a permanent work-in-progess while I lived in Brussels: something was always added, something crossed off as I went. One place figuring prominently on the list was Enghien (à la française), or Edingen (in Flemish). I became infatuated with it after reading the Estonian author Tõnu Õnnepalu’s book Flandria päevik (i.e. A Flemish Diary), which was written around there (he was on an artistic scholarship). Enghien is famous for its superb park which used to belong to one of the most illustrious Belgian aristocratic families – the dukes, later princes, of Arenberg.

It is surprisingly easy to get there from Brussels. You board a train at Bruxelles-Central and in 25 minutes you descend in a small Walloon town. Enghien is located precisely on the linguistic border, i.e. the border between Wallonia and Flanders. It is one of the so-called communes à facilité,  a complex, typically Belgian notion. A commune à facilité is a commune which belongs to one linguistic community, but which provides specific rights for members of another community. In the case of Enghien, the town belongs to the French-speaking community, but the speakers of Flemish have special rights there. These rights include things like the right to address and be addressed by the administration in their native language and such. I kept thinking wouldn’t it be lovely if we introduced such communes à facilité in Estonia? Ironically, the law on national minorities foresees them, but not one commune of this sort has gained the approval of the government despite repeated applications.

Back to Enghien though, it is also a member of the Slow City movement, founded by a group of small towns in Italy inspired by the idea of Slow Food. Indeed Enghien with its sleepy, cozy and classy atmosphere seems to fit this notion rather perfectly.

The entrance of the park:

Continue reading A meditation in Enghien