Summer’s Almost Gone

I know many people think that summer starts around May or June, but here in Busan the weather didn’t get ugly until July and it’s only just starting to get nice again now that October is half over. I have already shared my early summer adventures, June with the sand sculpture festival, drag show and Pride Festival in Seoul, July with the Mud Festival in Boryeong, and I’ve started to share the August adventure in New Zealand. Oh, and the Jeju September trip is in second draft… but, things in Korea happen faster than I can write about it and I’ve been getting behind on some of my smaller weekend adventures. So, what’s fallen through the cracks this summer? I got some parental visits (other people’s not mine) and had a chance to play tour guide around the Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream, UN War Memorial Park, more Dala & Sulbing, and Beomeosa Temple. Plus, I took myself down to the amazing lantern festival in Jinju. Let’s check it out.

Busan Tower & Yongdusan Park

escalator-yongdusan-park-busan-south-koreaThis park in the Nampo neighborhood is up on a bit of a mountain, but there’s no need to climb up exhausting stairs because there’s an outdoor escalator installed to let you ride up in comfort! When we got to the top, we were already blown away by the great views of the city below and we hadn’t even gotten to the highest points yet. As we passed by the stage area, it was clear that a performance was about to get underway. There were plenty of people dressed in the standard white garb trimmed with bright colors and fun hats and the parents hadn’t gotten to see any traditional dances, so we pulled up a seat. I have since found out that cultural performances happen here every Saturday at 3pm between March and November.

20160910_142412The MC for the day was excited to see so many foreigners (not just us) in the audience and brought out a poor young Korean lady who was nervous and not particularly fluent to try and translate for us. Representatives from each visiting country in the audience were invited to come up on the stage and play a traditional Korean game of trying to toss a stick through one of 5 rings attached to a jar. My friend’s mom went up and they let her stand extra close because she was over 60 and she brought us honor by scoring the center ring! We didn’t sit for the whole performance, but it was a kind of musical story. From what I could follow, some performers arrived at a lord’s house and were invited in to party, but there were some rascals around who may have been trying to steal away or marry off the lord’s daughter? The language barrier was a bit of an obstacle to the plot, but it was fun to watch and clap along with.

20160910_145221We snuck out during a lull and headed to the main attraction of the Park, Busan Tower. The tower stands 118m high, but it’s also on a mountain so, it seems to be rather higher than that when you look down. For 5,000won you can get a ticket to ride up to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a stunning 360 degree view of Busan. There are helpful decals on the windows that identify major landmarks and there;s a little cafe where you can enjoy a snack with your view.

UN Memorial Park & Busan Museum

I went here in February with the EPIK orientation team and I meant to go back in the summer for the roses and azaleas, but it seems that I missed them because by September, all that was left of the flowers were a few fading blooms. One stunning contrast was this tree which went from a brown lace of twigs in winter to a full brush of vibrant color in summer.

The little streams that had flowed in February were dry, but there were beautiful dragonflies all around the pool and grounds. I think the UN Memorial is a beautiful park, but it’s also a sad one. My trip this time was enjoyable because I was hanging out with some military history buffs who were tickled pink to look at all the markers and statues for different nationalities. I’m not really sure what else to say about it, other than war is horrible.

The Busan Museum is just a short walk away from the Memorial park, so we decided to stop in afterward. Unfortunately, a large part of the museum is under construction this year, so we were only able to access the second gallery, but it was worth the visit, especially since they gave us free tickets to enter. It’s largely a history museum, but it focuses narrowly on Busan and the history of this particular region of Korea. Since I’m still learning the big picture of Korean history, it was occasionally hard to place things on a timeline in my head, but there was a timeline on one wall that lined up Korean history with Chinese and Japanese histories (which I’m much more familiar with) and that was a useful comparison.

Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream

Who doesn’t love giant bursts of water and light choreographed to music on a summer night? Waaaay back in 2008 I went to Xi’an China for the first time and in addition to getting to see the Terra Cotta Warriors which the city is famous for, I managed to catch both the day time and night time editions of the Xi’an North Square Fountain Show (someone else’s video).

Later in 2015, I made it to the Dubai Fountain show (my video).

Both are astonishing and huge. The Xi’an Northern Square is 168,000 square meters (1 ½ football fields) and the fountain show covers most of it. There are dry spaces around the edges to stand, but the whole middle is full of moving, glowing, colored fountains. The largest one, the Fire Fountain, can shoot water 60m high. The Dubai Fountain show is in the man-made lake (121,400 sq m, a little more than 1 football field) at the base of the Burj Khalifa and it’s highest water spout reaches 140m high. It also claims to be the largest choreographed fountain show in the world. I’ve seen tiny versions of choreographed fountain shows in a few other places, including the Tokyo 20150823_200510Sky Tree (left) where the small fountain lights are coordinated with the tower lights high above. These shows are fun, awesome, wonderful, and sparkly, so when my friend told me he wanted to take his parents down to Busan’s own choreographed fountain show, I was all in favor.

I have to be honest, I expected something small, colorful and cute. I was completely blown away. Dadaepo is far out at the south western corner of the city, so you have to ride the subway line all the way to the end and then take a bus the rest of the way. And then walk several blocks. The fountain and lights are all flush with the ground, so before the show starts it just looks like a flat open space. 50f0There are some permanent concrete bleacher type seats along one side, but the rest of the area around the fountain had been filled up with plastic chairs to accommodate the higher number of spectators on the warm weekend nights. We arrived early and laid claim to seats in the front row, hoping that we wouldn’t have to worry about the crowd standing in front of us when the show started. Refreshingly, the Korean audience stayed in their seats during the show and we had a first class view. In both China and Dubai, the spectators jostled for the best standing spots and to get my video, I had to start standing in my spot almost 30 minutes before the show started to get an unobstructed view. IMG_0101This is 2,519 sq m fountain is listed as the largest fountain in the world by Guinness. I suppose that the show at Dubai is not considered a single fountain and is therefore only the largest fountain show. The tallest jet of water at Dadaepo is a mere 55m.
In case you’re wondering, the world’s tallest fountain goes to the King Fahd Fountain (right) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 260m (which I visited in 2014, it’s tall, but not much else).

While the sheer square meterage of the event isn’t 3% of a football field, the show more than makes up for it in quality. The tempo at which the water and lights shift and change to keep pace with the music is astonishing. The colors come and go, making the water seem to appear and disappear, lighting up only a portion of the water’s path or changing partway through it to take advantage of the new shape to make a different effect. The fountain heads move. Water comes out at different speeds and volumes. There is such a wide variety present that I felt more like I was watching a special effects music video than a choreographed fountain show. This video on youtube is better than what I was able to capture. 

I understand they change songs on a regular basis, so although this was my friend’s second time to the show, the songs were totally different. After the final song, the fountain and lights are turned on a bit more sedately to allow people to come in to the water to pose for pictures in front of the lighted shapes or to run through the cool streams in the warm summer air. There is only one show on weekdays, but two on weekends, so you can see the second one if you’re late or just stick around and watch both because it’s amazing.

Dala & Sulbing

20160430_134641I’m not a food blogger, but sometimes food is just too good not to write about. I’ve done some basic coverage of these things elsewhere, but it doesn’t get old. Dala 100% Chocolate is this tiny hole in the wall chocolate cafe in my neighborhood in Seomyeon. The first time I went there, I had to try their signature dish, the dinosaur egg. This was an amazing concoction of shaved milk ice topped with crushed chocolate cookies and chocolate shavings with a giant egg made of cookies and cream candy. When smashed with the provided hammer, the egg reveals a scoop of truly decadent chocolate ice cream and a tiny chocolate dinosaur. If that’s not enough chocolate, you can pour chocolate sauce over it too. It takes at least two people to eat this dessert. Since that time, we’ve also tried the chocolate pizza (nutella spread, banana slices and toasted marshmallows for toppings, scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce again), and for the two separate parental visits this summer, I also managed to try the fruit fondue (kiwi, grape, orange, grapefruit and banana… turns out grapefruit in chocolate is awesome), the “special brownie” (molten chocolate inside!), and the chocolate churros (churros you dip in chocolate). Let us not forget the milkshakes, which come in a variety of chocolate compliment flavors and can be made white, milk or dark. I don’t just love this place for it’s chocolate, but because it’s good chocolate. It’s not too sweet and they do a good balance of flavors in each dish so you don’t get tired (as if that were possible) of a single chocolate flavor. I think we’re about halfway through the menu now, and if the weather keeps cooling off, I’ll get to try their hot drinks soon!

My first encounter with sulbing was during my first week at work when my co-teachers took me out for dessert after our first staff dinner. It pretty much blew my mind and I’ve been trying to drag everyone I know there ever since. The season fresh fruit flavor that was there in March was the strawberry cheesecake, and while they have strawberry on the menu year round, it’s just frozen berries out of season. However, the summer seasonal flavor was in full force and we got to indulge in the melon-cheese-yogurt madness. The uniqueness of sulbing as opposed to bingsu is what the ice is made of. The traditional shaved ice desserts just use water ice. The Korean Dessert Cafe (a chain by the way, look for it if you’re here) and a few other places make a different dessert using frozen milk for a richer taste. 20160730_174636-1The melon special was not just using frozen milk, but frozen yogurt… and not the kind you’re thinking. Imagine you mix some yogurt with milk or water until it’s all liquidy, then freeze it solid, then shave it off into teeny tiny snowflakes. Ok. Now, take a honeydew melon (the green ones) and cut it in half. Hollow it out and freeze the shell. That frozen melon rind is now our bowl, filled with the snowflake texture frozen yogurt and topped with some cubes of what I can only describe as cheesecake filling. 20160730_175713Now, over the whole thing, put the melon you removed from the rind, the hemisphere of melon, all of it. The dish was served with a big plastic knife so we could cut up the melon for ourselves. It was the perfect combination of sweet, tart and creamy to refresh us in the summer heat.

Beomeosa Temple (more pictures)

That’s really redundant, since “sa” means temple, but for the ease of transliteration, that’s what people tend to call it. It literally means “heavenly fish temple”. According to tradition, there is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’. Its one of the most unique temples I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It wasn’t even high on my list of temples to see in Busan, but one of the visiting parentals had read about in Lonely Planet and was dead set on going so we set off to the northern edge of the city to ascend the mountains on a warm and misty Saturday.

We took the subway to the Beomeosa stop then decided to hire a taxi to take us up the mountain rather than wait for the bus. The driver didn’t turn on the meter, but helpfully explained his fare to us. We were 4 people and the bus would cost us 1.3 each, totalling 5.2 and he was going to charge us 6. Compared to the meterless taxis in China, it was truly refreshing to have a driver not try to take advantage of four foreigners at a tourist site. As we were driving up the mountain, he pointed out a spot where lots of taxis were stopping and said we could easily catch one back down from there and expect to pay a little less going back, but he drove us all the way to the highest car park so we didn’t have to trek up the mountainside.

20161001_131512When we arrived, a very nice older Korean lady offered to explain a little bit about the main gate to us in English and we got to hear a little history of the naming of the temple and the unique four pillar style that makes this era of architecture distinctive. As we ascended the stairs and passed through several gates decorated with bright lanterns and beautiful paintings we moved through a hall of fearsome statues and finally emerged into the main courtyard. The temple was originally built about 1,300 years ago, but was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592 and later rebuilt in 1713, but a few stone remnants and one stone pagoda left from the original still stand in the wide open square. The temple is dedicated to the practice of Seon Buddhism, which is the Korean descendant of Chan Buddhism the same way Zen in Japan is.

Buildings for various types of study, practice and prayer surrounded the square and monks and supplicants came in and out about their business. We heard chanting, drums and bells and the smell of incense was faint but pervasive. There was a spring near a large rock, presumably the ‘golden well’, where we could drink fresh clean water from the ground with no worries of pollution or infections. There was a hidden path that led around behind the main grounds to a smaller hall of prayer and some living quarters where we found piles of tiny rocks and beautiful blooming flowers.

After exploring the main temple grounds, we wanted to visit one of the eleven hermitages nearby. I’d read online that the Blue Lotus Hermitage was both the easiest to get to and the prettiest, so I asked for directions at the souvenir stand and we headed further up the mountain road. Within a few minutes of walking, we spotted a giant golden Buddha in the distance and soon we came to the Hermitage itself. There were hardly any people there, but the courtyard was a stepped platform covered in statues of sages and Bodhisattvas with the golden Buddha at the peak and center. The entire day was gray and the mountains were wreathed in mist, giving our temple visit a quiet and magical feeling. I hope I can find time to go back in another season to see the mountain foliage in different phases (especially in May for the famous wisteria blooms) or maybe even try my hand at one of the overnight “temple stay” opportunities that allow visitors to experience the monastic life for just one day.


Jinju Lantern Festival (photo album)

20161008_170238Also called the Jinju Namgang Yudeong Festival, it is held in honor of the fallen during the seiges by Japanese soldiers in the Imjin War in 1592-3 (the same time frame the orginal Beomeosa Temple was destroyed). During the war, lanterns were used as military signals, a means of communicating with reserve forces, and as a way to keep in touch with family members outside of Jinjuseong Fortress. Even after the war, people continued the tradition of floating lanterns down the river to pay tribute to the brave souls that had been lost during battle. Today, the festival is far more than a few lanterns on the river and instead is a whole palisade of life size and larger than life lanterns floating on the river and filling the riverside park where the fortress once stood.

It took us about 2 hours to get there in total, although the intercity bus is less than 90 minutes. We were able to walk down to the river from the bus station and get a daylight preview of the lanterns. We also walked around the festival tents and enjoyed a local specialty of Jinju bibimbap. It’s supposed to be made with a type of spiced raw beef, but sadly our tent dinner stop used the sunny side up egg instead. It was very good, though, so we didn’t mind too much.

20161008_181542.jpgWhen we entered the display area, we were given arm stamps so we could come and go as many times as we liked, then we began our stroll down the riverside. The water was covered in giant lanterns in shapes of mythical animals and heroes as well as famous landmarks like Stonehenge, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty. There were floating restaurants, boat rides, and yet more tents offering delicious snacks.There were giant tunnels of red lanterns where couples walked hand in hand in the twilight.

20161008_175956Two floating bridges at either end of the display allowed visitors to pass from side to side without returning to the street level. The day had been rainy, but as the rain dried up, the sunset lit the clouds in shades of brilliant gold and scarlet.We crossed the river and ascended into the wooded area to be greeted with the most amazing forest of light. Unlike the Taean light festival where everything was wrapped in LEDs, the park grounds had become friezes of the battles done in light and cloth. Japanese and Korean soldiers filled the grounds attacking and defending glowing battlements. As we moved along the scenes became festivals, crowds watching bulls in an arena, people at work in the village doing daily crafts.


There was a section of small, delicate lanterns on display like a gallery. More soldiers stood guard at every gate and wall. A landscape of giant mushrooms and insects took up one hillside. Enormous saxophones arched over a performance stage with live musicians. Glowing globes hung from the trees like ripe fruit. Overgrown flowers sprouted from the grass. Tigers wearing top-hats and smoking pipes smiled at us from behind trees. There were no gates or guardrails, and we were free to walk among the lanterns at will. There were tunnels of love and fields of snowmen. There were more lanterns than we could ever hope to see in just a few hours and we wandered back and forth through the park following winding trails and making our way from one scene to the next until we were forced to start looking for the exit in order to catch our bus home in time.

We got back down to the river and walked along more floating paths all the way to the far end of the park. My friend described it as “drunk walking” because the floating panels would occasionally shift to one side with no warning causing us all to lurch and stumble. The bamboo forest growing along the waterfront was filled with glowing cranes, frozen in the act of taking flight or catching fish. When we reached land again, we were greeted with the largest lantern structure of all: a giant castle with a dragon and phoenix on either wall and a crowd of lantern people celebrating below. Above the castle walls, large poles held LED fireworks that burst over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lantern festival on such a scale.


I feel like every time I think Korea can’t show me something even more amazing, it does, and yet before coming here I knew almost nothing about this country, it’s people or it’s culture. Plain old “weekends” become magical adventures in a land of light or a sea of flowers. Misty mountains redolent with the odor of incense and the chanting of monks are just a bus-ride away from beachfront karaoke bars. Dancing fountains are down the street from skyscrapers that hide forests of cherry trees between their towering walls. Hidden gems wait around every corner and there is always something to celebrate. Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying my stories at least half as much as I enjoy making them. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or Instagram for updates and pictures. ❤

Spring Break 2015 Vol. 8: Goodbye Dubai

Even now, as I sit in my office at school trying to wrap up this story before the next one starts, I wonder: can she do it? I’ve been saying all along that I’m putting the accommodations in a separate post, which has now migrated into a post for all the hotels/hostels for both the February *and* the March trips, so all I have left is the final day and a half of Dubai. I used to think keeping a blog was a breeze, what could be so hard about just getting your thoughts and experiences out there? I’ve written about a million papers for school and those require reading and analyzing and research and thinking. I’ve written works of fiction that require creating worlds and people and events out of nothing. So writing stuff that actually happened to me personally should be a breeze, right? NO. Turns out, putting your own life and thoughts down in black and white is HARD, at least if you don’t want to sound like a rambling 5 year old. However, I think it’s a great experience — not just for sharing my tales and adventures with you (which is awesome, I love sharing), but to help me assess my travels, what I’ve done and seen and how it’s affecting me, to cement these stories in my mind by viewing and reviewing them, and to create something lasting I can look back on later. So thanks again for joining me for the ride. You keep me accountable to my writing and to myself even when I’m tired, busy, rushed or just not feeling it.

Day 3

Despite having been up till all hours at the Global Village the night before, I still had a full day planned. The tour buses start around 9ish, but I had looked at the map and realized that I couldn’t possibly take the tour bus all the way from the Marina to the Dubai Museum in less than 2 hours, so I opted to catch a taxi to my first stop of the day and then take the bus from then on out. As I exited the hotel in search of a taxi, a nice hotel employee asked if I was looking for a taxi and I said yes. A lot of hotels will help you flag down a taxi and some even have arrangements with the local drivers, so I didn’t think this was unusual. He said they had hotel taxis that had meters, reassuring me more than once about the meter. It turned out to be a meter that charged almost double what the city taxi meters did, so add that to the list of things I don’t like about the hotel.

The driver also didn’t have a clue where he was going! It was like Saudi again, but I couldn’t believe this was happening in Dubai. I wasn’t even going to some out of the way place, I was going to the Dubai Museum, there’s only one. Fortunately this one at least had some concept of how to use his phone to find a place he wasn’t familiar with, so we got there after all, and after a brisk fare argument, I found my way into the museum.

Dubai Museum

IMG_1701I love museums. I go to them whenever I can. I was lucky enough to live a short distance from the Smithsonian as a child which has given me a lifelong love even if very few museums in the world can quite measure up. I try to appreciate them for what they are. There were museums in China that had random artifacts open to the not at all climate controlled air and taxidermied animals that (up until recently) I thought must have been fake. Given how BIG and glamorous everything is in Dubai, I had some pretty high hopes of it’s museum. How wrong can one girl be?

And yet, this museum could have been built at the very first sign of the city’s transition from humble pearl diving village to richest, biggest show off and never again updated. I took a picture of the outside of the building in December, and I think that might have been the best view. IMG_1687The museum started off with an outdoor courtyard display of boats and a sort of palm frond and mud shack. There was some kind of art shop off to one side, but it wasn’t like original or traditional art, so I wasn’t really sure what it was doing there. Everything was small, cramped, old and generally the opposite of Dubai. I think my pictures make it look better than it did in person, because looking back at them I don’t remember being impressed at the time. It was also very crowded, a couple busloads of Chinese tourists had all stopped there at once.

I finally found a door that led inside which took us to a spiral staircase down. Presumably the majority of the museum is underground, because it did take up more square footage than the topside appeared to. IMG_1692Hanging from the ceiling as we descended the stairs were several worn out stuffed seagulls. They were really quite pathetic looking, gray and dusty, feathers out of place and hanging at odd angles. As I looked down I saw that the floor had been painted to resemble the coastline and reasoned that the birds must be there to provide a perspective of flying over the beach, but I just couldn’t understand why these birds were so old and shabby. Dubai! Closer to the ground there was a dead flamingo in a similar sad state of taxidermy.

There followed displays of Arab waxworks, but unlike Madame Tussaud’s, these were not great works of near human art. IMG_1696They were awkward and the displays seemed completely out of time, not because they portrayed the past, but because they did it in such an ungainly way. There were scenes of Bedouin drinking coffee, selling goods, at one point there was a blacksmith forge that had a little movie of fire playing behind the wax people. IMG_1699The ocean room was not too bad, a larger room that used a mirror on one wall to make half a boat seem like a whole boat. At one point there were glass sheets at different depths with fish painted on them to appear more 3D. There was a waxwork pearl diver and a pair of legs coming down from the ceiling next to the bottom of a boat, as if we were underwater looking up. It sounds cool in concept, but the execution was just so tacky.

There were more stuffed animals, desert foxes and other creatures, just as badly stuffed and cared for as the seagulls had been. And there were more wax people displays of nomadic life in the desert. All of this was cramped and close together with tiny aisles between the displays. It was very dark, so they displays were hard to see, and it didn’t actually take too many people before the rooms felt crowded. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to get out a museum so much,  but somewhere between the grotesque wax people, the sad stuffed animals and the claustrophobic rooms, I could not remotely enjoy myself.

When I finally got to the gift shop, I was happy to be done and decided to find the bathroom before I got on the bus, but I was told that the bathroom was in the middle of the display tunnels. So now I had to fight my way through the narrow, crowded path backwards to find the small, hot, crowded bathroom. I seriously felt like nothing about this museum was even remotely Dubaiesque anymore. IMG_1700On my second time out, I noticed a room off to one side near the gift shop that more or less resembled a museum. It was spacious, cool and nicely lit. There were artifacts and scale models on display around the walls and on plinths or tables. It was actually a little bit of a relief to stand in it, until the hordes of tourists arrived. So I scurried past the gift shop, noticing as I did that there didn’t even appear to be any unique souvenirs there. I had to wait a while for the bus and the only shade was inside a phone booth, but it was still better than being inside. (more pictures)

Dubai is a pretty cool city, with lots of neat stuff for people to see, but I was so disappointed in the museum. I can’t even imagine why the Saudi King has made an infinitely better museum in his capital than the Emir has made in his, but there you go. Score one for Saudi.

Back on the Bus

My second morning starter having been so much less satisfying than my first, I plopped down in the air conditioned part of the bus and consulted my map. My next stop was the Heritage Village and Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House/Museum. I wasn’t too sure about this anymore considering how things had gone at the first Museum, but I’d seen the Heritage Village stop last time and it was definitely much bigger. It had looked like a full recreation of an old style village, perhaps similar to what I had seen in Old Al Ula. Once again, I am about to be surprised at the fact that Saudi is doing a better job of historical tourism than Dubai.

The bus had a stop or two before mine, and I glanced up as more people shuffled on and off, then I noticed that Urška had just gotten on and sat a few seats ahead of me. I called out to her and she was happily surprised to see me. So we moved closer and swapped stories of our evening before. I told her all about the Global Village, and she told me that she thought her husband was starting to feel better. We compared itineraries again, but it looked like the only stop we were both taking that day was the Heritage Village and after that we’d be parting ways. Still, it was nice to have company even if just for a little while.

Heritage Village

IMG_1704We got off at the stop and had to ask the driver for instructions on where to go more than once because again there were not clear signs. We found the entrance to the village, but it was pretty empty. It looked like maybe sometimes there were events there, people selling food or souvenirs, but there was nothing happening when we visited. There were some shops, a lot of buildings that just stood empty, and almost no other people at all. Maybe the Global Village had tainted my perceptions, but both the Museum and the Heritage Village seemed impossibly fake. I told Urška how strange it felt to be going to all these replicas of desert life, as though it were something from the distant past, when it’s still going on all over the Arabian Peninsula, and I had just been in the middle of it.

IMG_1706We gave up on the village pretty quickly and went in search of the Sheikh’s house. This turned out to be a very beautiful, large building (former house) overlooking the canal. Inside we could see a multitude of rooms that seemed full of posters with quotes from the Quran (in English). IMG_1708There was a small theater set up in the courtyard where people could sit and watch the big screen television, but nothing was happening there. We found our way up some stairs to the second floor and were promptly invited into an office. I’m not entirely sure who the gentleman was, but as he was seated behind a desk piled with books and a computer, I assumed it was his office. He offered us tea and talked about the hospitality traditions in Islam.

He seemed quite interested in having a conversation about Islam with us. I’m no scholar on the subject, but I know a bit, which seemed to make him happy. I can remember the first word and complete some of my favorite quotes. He talked about the importance of being tolerant to all religions (“to you your religion, to me mine” is a famous quote from the Quran) and slowly drifted over to the topic of offensive remarks in media. The Charlie Hebdo incident wasn’t that old yet, so I knew what he was referring to. It was not a subject I was terribly comfortable with.

He said that people should not want to cause offense to others, that we should respect each other’s beliefs, and of course I agreed. should being the key word. People should love their neighbors, and not lie, steal, cheat or murder, but they do. Sometimes the government steps in, for example: theft and murder are both illegal all over the world. So he asked me why shouldn’t the government step in when it comes to religious tolerance and offensive speech. I tried to explain that although I agreed that respect and forbearance were the ideal behaviors, and that even most Westerners would agree with that idea, almost all of them believe it is a personal choice and not something that can be enforced.

I really wish I could write more about these notions. How we view free speech, tolerance and respect as personal or governmental issues, but I’ve been avoiding posting anything about this topic because I don’t want my views to ever be mistaken for an insult to Islam. Also, by this time we were two cups of tea and a bottle of water into the conversation, and were getting restless to move on.

We made some polite excuses, which were not at all false since we did need to be getting on for time’s sake, and took our leave of the gentleman. As we wandered further down the balcony, we came across several rooms that were filled with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. IMG_1709There were many different styles and little plaques that explained the details of each one. I’m afraid I’m not well enough versed in the varieties of the artform, but I really enjoyed seeing so many distinct styles. Islam does not condone the rendering of living things into art, so there are no pictures of the Prophet (PBUH) or any scenes from the Quran, or even any scenes of nature. But that does not mean that Islam is without art. Beautiful geometrical patterns and stylized calligraphy such as we were looking at more than showcase the appreciation for beauty and creative talent of the Arab world.

Finally, we’d made a complete circut of the House so we decided to head back to the bus stop. Although the Village wasn’t that impressive, I’d say the Sheikh’s house is definitely worth a pause. (more pictures)

Gold Souk

My next stop for the day was the famous Gold Souk. A souk (or souq) is simply the old word for a sort of jumbled collection of small stalls in a market place. In the past, many of these were not permanent. They would form only on certain days of the week or holidays, made of of some local traders, but largely of caravans passing through. Over time, some of the most famous became daily events, and some traders stopped hauling in carts and started building stores. Now, some souks are little different from strip malls or shopping centers while others remain more wild. Often there is a blend of permanent and transient shops. The gold souks are simply markets where all the jewelers congregate. There’s generally one in every Arab town, even Tabuk has one, although much smaller than the one in Dubai.

Hopping off at the appropriate stop, I bid Urska goodbye and promised to keep in touch (which so far is working quite well). The bus stop was not in sight of the souk entrance, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for, but I was sure it had to be more than the meager collection of shops on the main road. IMG_1714After a few blocks and a couple turns and about a million people trying to sell me knock off fashion purses, I finally found the entrance. There’s actually quite a large gate emblazoned with the words “city of gold” so that was helpful. Once past the gate, it was hard to tell I was still outside. The streets were all covered over, keeping the pedestrians in shade, and no cars were allowed on the roads either. It reminded me of certain parts of the Balad Souk in Jeddah, except that every single window was full of tens of thousands of dollars of gold.

I’m not actually a huge gold fan, I prefer silver jewelry, but there is something madly impressive about that much wealth just laying around. There were some truly amazing pieces in the windows, too: necklaces that could easily have covered as much of the front as a shirt, bracelets designed to cover the whole lower arm in gold, and even a sort of suit of armor made of gold. All the shops sell various purities of gold all the way up to 24 (although it’s hard to find jewelry that pure because of the softness of the metal). They sell men and women’s ornaments, as well as coins and bars. It’s all the gold.

The main roads are wide, well marked and full of higher end stores (if you can use that for a place with all gold shops). There were also people wandering around with trays of cold beverages for sale (juice, soda, water) and the occasional vending machine, but there were no food stalls in between the gold shops at all. There were also a lot of barkers trying to attract tourists from the main streets to the shops off in the alleys. I actually had to get rather gruff with at least one of them who was being very pushy while I was still trying to get my bearings. But in the end, I found one who turned out to be helpful, so they’re not all bad.

An interesting fact I learned about the Dubai gold souk: the day’s market prices are displayed on large digital posters all around the area and the shops are mandated by law not to exceed the market price. How, then, do they make any money, you ask? They add premiums for the shape of the worked gold. So the jewelry will be weighed, and that price calculated, and then depending on the type of workmanship, there will be an added premium. I was just there to scout investment gold, not jewelry pieces, so I was looking at coins and bars. Turns out it’s far more economical to buy in large bars than small ones. Not only are many shopkeepers willing to offer a discount on the market price if you’re buying a lot, but the premium for a single bar doesn’t change much whether it’s small or large. So if you buy a 2 10g bars, you’ll pay nearly double the premium than if you buy one 20g bar, even though you’ll pay the same per g market price.

I also went around to several different shops to see what their prices were, and even though the market price is set for the day, the shops vary quite a bit in premiums, so it’s worth shopping around and asking for discounts. Most shops expect people to be buying small amounts, so I didn’t feel at all out of place even though I generally consider my own economic status sort of upper low class. Some of the shopkeepers looked at me a little oddly, but I think it was more for being a woman alone. Once I told them that my father had sent me, they all relaxed.

It was definitely an interesting experience. I think even if you don’t want to buy any, it’s a once in a lifetime display blending extreme wealth and grimy back alley shopping. And hey, if you do buy, now you know how to look for a good deal.

Snack Break

It was a long ride from the souqs to my next stop in Jumeirah and I had to transfer buses on the way. The transfer station was at Wafi, and remembering the bakery from the day before, I decided to stop and refresh myself. Touring is hard work, lots of walking, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast in my hotel room. I decided that I could get something nice from the bakery and then sit on the balcony with a nice cup of iced coffee. I bought a small loaf of olive studded bread and a chocolate croissant. The staff were very polite and had no problem at all with my plan.

When I asked for some butter to go with my bread, I was brought a little plate with two small covered pots. One contained the most amazing fresh sweet butter, and the other, an olive tapenade, which went just beautifully on my olive bread. Picture 276The croissant was everything you dream of pastry being. Those things they sell in grocery stores as croissants are sad paper imitations. This was the real thing: flakey and chewy and crispy in turns, perfectly layered puffs and deep dark chocolate melted into the center. My latte was no let down either. Served beautifully, it was delicious and refreshing. Instead of granulated sugar, it came with chilled simple syrup on the side so I could sweeten it to taste. The earthy rich coffee perfectly counterbalanced the croissant while accenting the olive. There’s a small part of me that equates luxurious world travel with the slowly enjoyed outdoor cup of coffee, so no matter how much I want to see, I think that’s always an important part of any trip.

Jumeirah Mosque

IMG_1719Mosques are often quite beautiful. I visited the Floating Mosque in Jeddah and was not at all disappointed, so when I saw the Jumeirah Mosque on the tour route, I decided I would make it a stop. The Jumeirah Mosque is part of the “open doors, open minds” program. Typically, in the Middle East, non-Muslims are not welcome inside Mosques. I’ve only been inside one at all because I went in Seattle as part of a research project for school. This mosque is famous for being the only one in Dubai that is open to the public. However, it’s only once a day at 10am. I’m not sure how “open” that is, but either way, I didn’t get there until the afternoon, so I was relegated to the outside as with every other mosque.

It’s pretty. One of the first things I noticed was a large banyan tree in the grassy yard with some of the migrant workers napping beneath it. There were also many other tall trees surrounding the building. The grounds were very peaceful after the bustle of the city. I wandered around admiring the architecture and taking pictures, but in the end I think I missed what makes this mosque stand out most, it’s “open doors”, because the bus drove past many many many more mosques on the Jumeirah which were, if anything, more beautiful on the exterior, which is the only part I can see. (more pictures)

Burj Arab

IMG_1737This is another one of Dubai’s famous landmarks. It is the world’s only 7 star hotel. There’s actually a helicopter pickup service from the airport for guests. However, after getting off at the bus stop and walking up the block and down the street, I discovered that no one can walk anywhere near the hotel without a reservation either for a room or for a meal, and the dinner minimum was several hundred dirhams. While I think that might be a worthwhile experience (similar perhaps to the Globe restaurant in Riyadh) the tour bus company did not provide the information in advance, so I had neither time nor budget for such an event, although the staff at the gate house did offer to call up to the restaurant for me if I wished. So it was that I took a couple pictures from a spot next to the security booth (where the staff pointed out was a great place to get a view) and headed back to the bus stop. I think if I go back to Dubai again, I’ll try to make it inside. I was impressed at how courteous the staff were even to passersby, and there was a cool water park there too that looks like it would be a fun way to spend a day before heading inside for a 7 star restaurant experience.


I was starting to feel like my whole day was a little bit of a wash. Other than the gold souk, I’d pretty much been let down by or missed out on everything else I’d tried to see. Yet one more reason the Big Bus company really needs more info on their tour apps so their guests can get the most out of limited or scheduled events. When I had come in December, I caught only a few seconds of the famous fountain show, so I scheduled my last bus stop for the day to be at the Dubai Mall, which was not terribly far from the Burj. Except, I forgot to account for rush hour traffic. The fountain show starts at 6, but goes again every 3o minutes until 11, so I knew I didn’t need to worry about being right on time and tried not to let the traffic get to me.

Soon, however, the bus was completely packed, and we were crawling along at less than a walking pace. My only solace was that taking a taxi would not have been any faster. There was a British couple in the seats in front of me that had tickets to the Burj Khalifa and I felt rather sorry for them, since although they’d left themselves over an hour to get there, the traffic was taking us far longer.

I checked Google maps a few times, and realized that while the distance was slowly shrinking, the estimated time of arrival was not. It took us over 2 hours for what at any other time of day would have been 15 or 20 minutes. Future note, do not plan on going anywhere in Dubai during rush hour. I didn’t even see the metro running on the monorail above us the whole way.

Dubai Mall Fountain Show

Picture 331I did finally make it to the mall, and despite myself, the enforced rest actually seemed to have helped me. I’d been running non-stop all day, and I felt quite refreshed by the time I arrived. I was further bolstered by the snare of a fro-yo kiosk where I got a small bowl of peanut butter and chocolate swirl with nutella sauce. It’s spring break, I can have ice cream for dinner if I want.

I got outside in between shows, which was nice because I had an opportunity to stake out a good viewing perch. It did mean standing for a while, since it gets pretty crowded, but it was worth it. The fountain is more like a fountain complex built into the man-made lake. The show is water and lights set to music, and as I discovered, if you wait around, each one seems to be different, so it’s not as if you catch just one show and take off. The first show I saw was set to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and may have made up for the entire rest of the day. I caught the whole thing on video from my great seat too.

After the amazing show, I went to find a bench and sit again for a while before deciding what to do next. Of course, I can’t go anywhere for long without meeting new people, and this was no exception. A couple of older European gentlemen asked if I could take their picture against the backdrop of the night-lit Burj Khalifa. I like taking pictures, and that building is soooo tall, that I crouched down to be able to get more of the building into the frame. This small photographic acumen drew comment from one of the men whose daughter did photography semi-professionally. We talked for a while about the industry, but I had to admit I’d been out of it for too long to know much. He was just as interested in my teaching, and asked if he could give my email to his daughter in case she had any questions about working in the Middle East. I was actually sort of impressed by the networking. I’m not a networking expert, or anything, but those guys probably had a whole rolodex of contacts for anything they could ever want.

They soon had to go, and shortly after the lights in the lake began blinking, signaling the start of the next show. I had waited at the bench a little long, but was still able to slide into a narrow spot at the railing. TPicture 300he next show was set to more traditional Arabic music. It was quite a long show, so I was able to take a handful of still pictures and another video. Like so much in life, they don’t do it justice. There’s a cool breeze that comes off the lake from the force of the rushing water, and the fountains reach so high. They only look small because the buildings around are ridiculously large. All I can really say is “wow”. (more pictures)


I was unbelievably tired, also hungry. Perhaps you have noticed that the only food I mentioned all day was a croissant, some bread and some fro-yo? It was getting late, after 9pm. The rush hour traffic was gone, so I caught a taxi back to my hotel. I wasn’t then sure of what my evening would hold later, but I knew that food and a hot bath had to be first. My feet were still swollen quite badly from several days of extended hiking and multiple flights, so I drew a bath while I waited for room service, and then indulged in another ridiculous luxury by dining in the bath.

All of the other problems that hotel may have, their restaurant wasn’t one of them. The food was quite delicious and very generous. Even as hungry as I was, I couldn’t finish more than half of the dish I had ordered. I expected a full tummy and a warm bath to send me straight to sleep, but it seems instead I caught a light second wind, and decided to go out to the Barasti once again. It was Thursday night, after all, the end of the work week and beginning of the weekend, so I couldn’t pass up a look at another beachfront club.

Barasti Beach Bar Couples Night

I had forgotten however that it was also Valentine’s weekend. Living in Saudi has made me really out of touch with “western” holidays, since they are all illegal. Without stores full of pink candy and red hearts, it had completely slipped my mind. There was a bit of a line at the security check, but it seemed to be moving fast, so I didn’t mind. On my way up, I was approached by a young man who explained to me that it was couples night at the club, and he couldn’t get in without a partner, and asked if I would help him get in. I didn’t really see the harm in it so I agreed. We chatted amiably in line. He was from Syria, but had left before the current mess began. The security asked me how many we were and I replied two, pointing to the young man, and they waved us in. Once inside, we parted ways, for which I was a little glad. I didn’t want someone assuming “date” privileges just because I’d helped him get in.

The club was crowded, but not oppresively so. I got myself a beer and walked around people watching for a bit. There was a DJ set up on the stage and people dancing in the sand. Others lounged around smoking shihsa from tall hookahs. Eventually I wandered down toward the water, where a security guard politely advised me not to go past the signs. I guess drunk idiots and open water aren’t the best combination. I think I was too tired for dancing, but the beach was nice and I was still glad to have come out. In the end, I spent most of the evening talking to the two security guards, one was from Africa and the other a former Soviet bloc country, but past that my memory fails me. I do remember that the Slavic man was actually living in one of the Emir’s palaces because the whole group that had been brought in for work had arrived before the accommodations were finished, so he was working at this beach bar shooing drunk tourists away from the water while living in a palace! Dubai!

Fairly quickly my second wind died down and I headed back out. On the way, I got asked by about 5 more guys to help them get in, and several offered me drinks or money. It occurred to me if I was more awake, I could have partied pretty well just going back out for a new guy every time I needed a new drink. I think the Dubai night scene is great, but not after a week of non-stop sightseeing, so I have to add that to the list of things to do next time.

Day 4

Seeing as how my last day in Dubai was a Friday, it was a very hard decision to forgo a second shot at the Friday brunch of awesome. If you haven’t read that one, well, just make sure you’re not hungry when you do. However, brunches all start at 11:30 or 12:00 and go on for 3-4 hours, not counting the post brunch lazing hour+ where you slowly finish your drinks, desserts and coffee as the staff cleans up around you. Meaning I wouldn’t leave for the airport until close to 6pm, and not be able to book a flight before 8pm, and get back to Tabuk actually sometime on Saturday. sigh

So with a heavy heart and a deep sense of responsibility, I booked a flight for 3pm and did not go to a champagne brunch. However, since the dinner at Barasti was so delish, I decided that a beachfront breakfast would be a decent close second. I actually arrived a mere 5 minutes before they stopped taking breakfast orders, and got myself a “breakfast bap”, which is apparently a British name for a breakfast sandwich. I also ordered a single glass of sparkling rosé, so I could do up Friday brunch a little more Dubai-style.

Picture 334The bap came with a polenta bun, on one side a fried egg and some kind of southwestern sauce, on the other, a pile of bacon and sausage. I’m not one of those expats who whines all the time about not being able to eat bacon in Saudi, but I have to admit, after 6 months without it, I really enjoyed my bacon that morning. There were also two golden rounds of hash browns. It could have been greasy spoon fare, but it was all done with a gourmet flair, and accompanied by a stunning view of the beach complete with swimmers and passing boats. It was the perfect farewell to Dubai and end to an amazing week.

Picture 336

And that wraps up the whole week of Spring Break 2015. In just 2 days, I’m heading back out for more adventure, the Royal Decree Holiday Week, an unexpected bonus week of no school courtesy of King Salman. Red Sea Beach Resort here I come! Thanks again for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories and don’t forget to check out all the extras on Facebook 🙂