Al Ain


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The second city of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is an oasis city on the Omani border and the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE. The area has been populated for thousands of years owing to the natural springs beneath the desert, which have led Al Ain to become known as the Garden City of the Gulf. The city hosts the best zoo in the country, and it also sits at the foot of the Hajar Mountains, notably the peak of Jebel Hafeet which overlooks the city.

Like much of the UAE, I first visited Al Ain during the late 1980s, from which I remember traipsing around an enormous and dusty zoo, and not being tall enough to go on a decidedly unsafe looking roller-coaster. These days the zoo is much improved, but I think the roller-coaster bit the dust a long time ago.

Al Ain Palace Museum

Al Ain Palace Museum is one of the key attractions in the city itself, and is the former home and birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates.

Inside the museum rooms are done up in their traditional Arabic finery, with low cushions and coffee pots.

Inside Al Ain Palace Museum

Al Ain oasis

Al Ain is built around an oasis, which is evidenced by the large amount of greenery throughout the city, not least at the vast palmerie in its centre.

Nearby stands Al Ain fort, another of the few remnants from the time before oil.

Al Ain fort

Jebel Hafeet

A little out of town is Jebel Hafeet, the tallest mountain in the area which stands almost on its own in the desert plain, reaching a height of 1249 metres. It is surrounded by jagged outcrops such as these, typical of the Hajar Mountains straddling the UAE/ Oman border.

At the base of Jebel Hafeet are the hot springs of Green Mubazarrah, greening the desert and providing a few naturally heated swimming pools too.

Hot springs at Green Mubazarrah

Twisting mountain road up Jebel Hafeet

The road up Jebel Hafeet could rival any Alpine pass for its tight switchbacks and impressive construction. It has been named one of the best driving roads in the world.

Jebel Hafeet straddles the UAE/Oman border, and from the top you can gaze across the Omani desert. The Hajar Mountains are formed of oceanic crust, unusual in that normally it is the continental crust which gets pushed up during plate collisions. As such, you can find sea shells in the rock up here.

View into Oman from Jebel Hafeet

UAE-Oman border from Jebel Hafeet

The border between the UAE and Oman crosses the top of Jebel Hafeet, and is clearly visible as it extends away from the mountain. Oman is on the left in this shot. The border fence was only constructed in the 2000s, where previously the frontier was undemarcated.

The mountain is also equipped with a Mercure hotel, which makes for a great place to stop for a refreshment before heading back down.

Mercure Hotel, Jebel Hafeet

Hotel pool with Al Ain by night

From the Mercure Jebel Hafeet at night the city is laid out shimmering far below, beyond the swimming pool and bar.

Al Ain Zoo has been one of the city's major attractions since opening in 1969, and is the best zoo in the country. Here barbary sheep make an Arabian scene against the late afternoon sky.

Barbary sheep in Al Ain Zoo

Flamingos in Al Ain zoo

Pink flamingos are one of the first exhibits seen when entering the zoo.

The zoo also hosts a pair of white lions, one of the rarest breeds of lion left in existence. Unlike at Harbin lion reserve, the public are not allowed to feed these lions.

White lions

Digital mosque

Being at the forefront of regional technology development as the UAE is, even the mosque in Al Ain now has a digital display.

On the road back to Dubai, this bus stop caught my attention. It's going to be a long and lonely wait…

Desert bus stop

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2012