The Etihad pilot gave us the facts. 6am and 37 degrees celsius already. Welcome to Abu Dhabi.
Flying into the United Arab Emirates' second-largest city brings you over Yas Island, with its big, red Ferrari World. On the city map this is suffixed (u/c). A lot of the city is u/c. Under construction, that is. On the 40-minute drive into town, my taxi driver told me this is thanks to massive international investment. He told me not even a palm tree would grow here without intervention. And I take everything that all taxi drivers say to be gospel. Especially when I can see the huge irrigation efforts spiked by each and every tree.
Everyone, the taxi driver told me, should visit the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. They do guided tours. Everyone, said the helpful lady at reception, takes taxis. The hotel even had an air-conditioned taxi-waiting room. Like a bus stop on ice. I took another taxi. It was worth it.
The Grand Mosque, as locals call it, is positioned so it's highly visible from whichever road you take into Abu Dhabi. And it's only spoken about in accolades and superlatives, like its namesake. The late Sheikh Zayed, the modern father of the UAE. He and his quotes are well represented on the walls at International Arrivals.
Planning for the "White Pearl of the Gulf" started in the 1980s. It opened in 2007, although the landscaping is still u/c. To date it has cost more than three billion dirham (about $1.1 billion), using the best construction materials from around the globe. This is a deliberate ploy to make visitors proud of contributions from their home countries. New Zealand is represented - wool for the carpet and paua for the columns. The ploy works. I was proud.
There are four ornamental minarets, 82 domes and upwards of 1000 columns around the building, which has ticked up three world records. There's the largest carpet in the world - hand sewn from New Zealand and Iranian wool by the Iranian Carpet Company - flown to Abu Dhabi in two aeroplanes and assembled on site by the same women who sewed it. Then there's the world's hugest dome of its kind and the world's most massive chandelier. Designed and made in Germany, it includes copper, 24-carat gold and a cool one million Austrian Swarovski crystals. You wouldn't want all nine-and-a-bit tonnes of that falling on you. Nor, I imagine, would you want to be the one to clean it. Weekly.
Beautiful designs conceal practical functions - air-conditioning units are hidden in columns and the carpet's subtle ridges denote kneeling lines. There are comparatively plain windows to pray towards. So as not to cause a distraction.
A major distraction for me was my tour guide's sexy skyscraper stilettos. She lost 15cm in removing them to take us inside. As I submitted to the clothing checks at the door - body completely covered? hair totally tucked in my headscarf? - I couldn't help fixating all my own prejudices firmly on to those high-heeled wonders.
I saw more of the same that afternoon in the Abu Dhabi Mall, a haven of air-conditioning and international labels. The shops full of scanty undies and impossible shoes seemed incongruous with the heavily-covered shoppers.
I got to the mall by taxi. How else? Attempting to walk back, with temperatures topping 40 degrees, I only found dingy dairies and one beautiful fig and date shop open to ask for directions. Most directions involved "call a taxi".
I decided to stay local for dinner, having purposely sought a hotel that wasn't part of a shiny international chain - no mean feat in a city that boasts the Hilton, the Corniche Hilton and the Baynunah Hilton Tower.
The buffet was a kind of help-yourself-to-hummus-heaven, but the best part of the evening was eyeballing the corporate dinner function. Men in dishdashas held hands with friends in suits. Waiters danced attendance, laden with trays of Coca-Cola. Yep. An alcohol-free restaurant. Actually, abstinence is such a popular choice in Abu Dhabi, there's even an alcohol-free five-star resort. Well, it's u/c.
Dinner descended into a cloud of smoke - cigarettes as punctuation and the mellow spectacle of hubbly bubblying. Having a non-smoking section would've been as useless as having a peeing and non-peeing section of the pool.
I left the next morning, having only scratched a dusty surface: I took a taxi, of course.