AJMAN // When visitors fly into the Emirates at night, their first sight is usually a string of seemingly inconsequential orange lights that lead into black, empty desert. Those who drive the road know the lights line a landmark.
The E-311 motorway, better known as the Emirates Road, was built to connect the emirates - to make it easier to get from city A to village B. Still, to anyone who has taken the time to cruise the road with open eyes, it is as much about people as about transportation.
Some count the thoroughfare, which runs from Ras al Khaimah to Abu Dhabi, as the most beautiful place in the country. They say the Burj Khalifa and the open desert have nothing on the strip of tarmac because it has the best of both worlds: ties to the past with the conveniences of modernity.
"My concept of my nationality, it's changed," said Afra al Kutbi, 20, a business student. "It makes me very proud when I use the roads."
The E-311 also serves as more than a transport link. Families line the road on Fridays, holding dusk to dawn picnics as they find relaxation over the roar of traffic; Ms al Kutbi came with 13 family members. Each loves the road for a different reason.
The family have a farm near Al Dhaid and the Emirates Road offers easy desert access as well as fast food and petrol stations. For Ms al Kutbi, the picnic is the perfect end to a day of shopping on the way back from Dubai's malls. For her mother it is about the past. For her father it is about driving his 4x4 over the dunes.
Her brother Hamed, 16, likes to spot the sports cars that flash past. Masood, age 7, the only boy not in a kandora, practised cartwheels while his sister Sheikha, age 11, danced to Justin Bieber tunes with the dunes as a stage.
Even the youngest found a new experience as Mera, just 15 months old, was entranced by the feeling of sand through her fingertips. The only brother missing was the eldest, Mohammed, who stayed home with his PlayStation.
The sky above was filled with stars and aeroplanes. Sepia billboards hid cracked foundations for developments that never rose. By midnight, the party was in full swing. Members of a Jordanian family camped out at a nearby dune came from Jebel Ali, Karama and Ajman to enjoy grilled meat and good music.
"This is our culture, really," said Fuad Yousef, an accountant full of mirth at the end of a hard week. "My job, it's a headache, it's a big responsibility with numbers. Sometimes it's not easy, so I'm spending my time relaxing, laughing, dancing, doing whatever I want to do."
Eman and Farah, cousins and classmates at age 5, were lifted on to the shoulders of their fathers Mohammed and Ebrahim Amer to belly dance for the moon, wriggling their hips to the melody of Omar Abdullat. Anas, 17, led a folk dance with youthful strides as his mother Noha tapped a beat on a tissue box. The children and men danced in the headlights of their cars, fuelled by Noha's coffee.
The event was not just for families. Humaid and Abdulla al Sharhan, 19-year-old identical twins, joined about 20 young motorists from across the country to cruise together and share a meal on the dunes at 2am after hooking up through social media sites. They plan to make it a regular event after doing it for the first time. "We met on Facebook and MySpace," said Humaid. "We have to think of a dangerous name for our club."
More adventurous still are Mohammed al Band and his friends, who ride quad bikes from Sharjah to RAK and back every Friday. They regroup at 8.30pm on the dunes for a BBQ and card games.
Mr al Band, 35, is not just chief navigator. He is also the card shark. For best vision, he suspends a fluorescent light on a rope that is powered by his car's cigarette lighter. The men relish their freedom.
"It's a little breath from our family," said Tariq Abdul Rahman, 37, from Ajman. "One day a week we are really single."
Salem Mohammed, 21, a pony-tailed biker from Sharjah, nods in agreement from inside his leather jacket. So does Khalid al Qassimi, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiast from Dubai, and his 10-year-old son Mohammed.
"In the desert, you see different places. From the road, you see just the outside," said Mr al Qassimi, age 38. With the Emirates Road, it's a glimpse of both.