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Dubai

Chris gave me a lift down into Bristol to catch the coach to Heathrow airport. It was 06:45 on Sunday morning and we were both feeling rough and half-asleep. I stumbled up to the coach driver and tried to buy a ticket, but he refused. I was confused. Apparently, he'd run out of tickets - not seats, there were plenty left on the bus, but his book of tickets was finished. It took quite a bit of persuasion to get him to finally let me onto the coach so that I could get to London and catch my flight. But he did so, and he didn't charge me.

The sky seemed to be clear across all of Europe, and I had a terrific view all the way as we flew over France, the Alps, then past Monaco and over Italy. Eventually, I dozed off and awoke as we flew in over oilfield flames in the Gulf and came in to land in Dubai. Once I'd gone through customs I went to find out what the situation was with the Oman border. The passport information office assured me that the border was open and that it would be no problem getting a visa when I arrived there. I sat down in the airport cafe where everyone was intently watching the BBC World news which was showing a live report from the war in Iraq. Suddenly it all seemed very real and very close.

I managed to grab a few hours sleep on a bench, lying half across my bag, then got up at 06:00 (02:00GMT). The coach to Oman was due to leave at 07:00, so I went off to find the bus station. After a lot of hunting around it turned out to be an unmarked parking space in a back street, which I only managed to find because someone stopped me as I was about to walk past and asked me if I was looking for the coach to Muscat. Hardly anyone else was waiting for it, so I sat down. When it appeared, however, they wouldn't allow me on board as I didn't have an Omani visa. I wasn't having much luck with buses.

I grabbed a taxi and headed to the Oman embassy. I was hoping to get the visa I needed and be back for the coach to Muscat in the evening. The embassy was still closed when I got there as it was only 07:15, but one of the guards pointed me in the direction of a restaurant for breakfast. Around 35% of the population of Dubai are Indian so there's a huge Indian influence in the city. I sat down and ordered what everyone else was having, which turned out to be curry and bread. Afterwards I sat in the shade, out of the morning sun, across from the embassy and waited for it to open. Eventually it did, and in I went and applied for my visa. But after all that effort they just looked at my passport and rejected my application. Two local businessmen whom I'd been talking to also had their applications rejected. Apparently, they'd stopped issuing visas a few days before, and now they weren't giving them to anyone. The situation was supposedly the same at all borders in the Middle East because of the war. Disappointed, I caught a taxi over to the youth hostel and checked in.

The hostel turned out to be one of the most luxurious I'd ever stayed in, similar to a three or four star hotel. There were only two beds to each modern en-suite room and they had satellite tv and a fridge. I grabbed a few hours more sleep before going out to explore Dubai.

Dubai has shops everywhere, selling everything. There's a gold district, a clothes district, a tools district, electronics district, in fact a district for everything. The problem is that if you don't know where you're going, then like me, you end up in the clothes district looking for a flight to Muscat. Allegedly, I could get a visa on arrival at Muscat airport, so although it felt a bit like cheating, this was now my plan. Finally, I found a travel agent. After lots of typing on his computer he came up with a price of 1000 Dirhams, about �200. It was a bit steep so I told him I'd think about it and got up to leave. Then at the last second he said, "You could fly with Kish Air for half the price". This sounded like what I was looking for - a cheap ticket on an unknown Iranian airline. I bought it and couldn't believe my luck.

All that people are talking about here is the war, but still most people seem to be very friendly in Dubai. Strangers talk to you, and cars stop to let you cross the road (before starting again to try to run you down - just joking). I was in a taxi and the driver was talking about the war in Iraq and saying that all people want in the Middle East is peace when he asked, "But where are you from? You could be American or English and here I am telling you this." To which I replied, "No, I'm Scottish. We hate all of them". He paused for a second then exclaimed, "Aah! Scotland! King of the alcoholics!" Obviously, my reputation had preceeded me.

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