I decided to write two posts about Dubai: one post about the “standard Dubai”, the one which everybody imagines, and the other about the “non-standard Dubai”, the Dubai which we least expect.
Even though I am such an experienced traveller, strangely I’d never been to Dubai before. The obvious reason is that before spring of 2014 I needed a visa to enter Dubai which was expensive and bureaucratically difficult to obtain. I had a hunch that soon enough this would change and so it did.
Most tourists are drawn to Dubai for two major reasons: shopping and beaches. As for me, none of this was of any interest. Rather I wanted to experience for myself that paradoxical contemporary miracle, an urban mirage built in the middle of the desert. My expectations were pretty low: I imagined a society torn between the ultrarich locals and the slave-like migrant workers, between modernity and fundamentalism, a tasteless mix of extreme consumption.
Dubai exceeded my expectations. Yes indeed it’s a mirage willed into existence by the imagination and self-confidence of its rulers. The mirage that shook all the surrounding rulers and spurred them into copying it. Actually the emirate of Dubai is a rather small piece of land, the lion’s part of UAE being occupied by Abu Dhabi. The same goes for oil: Dubai has practically run out of it by now. And yet its emirs managed to get the most of out their small territory. Today it is an incredible futuristic ensemble that will leave no one unimpressed.
So let’s get it on. Standard Dubai! Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Simply dwarfing the surrounding skyscrapers:
Of course I climbed the 125 floor and took all the crazy photos from the open balcony where you feel the gusts of wind and where the glass does not separate you from the air.
This is madness. You are so high up that your brain refuses to quite process it. When I did my bungee jump I had a similar feeling – my brain just couldn’t grasp the distance.
I made this photo through the glass looking due West. Here it is obvious how Dubai is composed of two main clusters of tall buildings – one is concentrated around Burj Khalifa and further East, the other is several kilometres West – you can see it out in the distance. The sail-like Burj al-Arab is about half way between the two – here it is on the right.
Burj Khalifa towers above the largest shopping mall in the world – called Dubai Mall. Indeed you enter the tower through the mall. Looking from below:
Before entering the elevator, you pass through a gallery describing the construction process:
In the evening every 30 minutes you can watch a fountain show. I only kept this pic.
Dubai Mall is famous for its grandiose aquarium several floors high, situated smack in the middle of the shopping area. Madness too:
The brand names appear to float deep in the water:
This fantastic fountain is also located inside the Dubai Mall.
The only thing I bought there was this wonderful date chocolate in a classic Batak sweets shop.
Actually to defy the stereotype I commenced my exploration of Dubai from its old part. The little town of Dubai grew around the mouth of a small creek which flows into the Gulf. My hotel was close to Al Fahidi metro – right in the “historical centre”. It’s about 15 minutes walk to the riverfront from there:
The passenger boats constantly criss cross the creek:
On the other side of the creek is the Deira area, famous for its markets. The Main Market is particularly known as the place to buy spices:
I wandered around Deira:
Actually looking for the Gold Market:
This exotic market offers gold in every possible form – including by weight. The retail prices are shown on an ever-changing electronic screen:
and more gold…
The darkness fell as I was walking around the Gold Market, and so I had to cross the Creek in the dark:
The very centre of Old Dubai is marked by what is now Dubai Museum, formerly a fortress-residence of the ruler. It’s the building with a tower in the back. The fortress is not very old and is rather small, which highlights the limited importance of Dubai in those days. In 18-19 centuries Bahrain was the centre of gravity, whereas Dubai was a forgotten province.
And yet the visit to the museum is quite fascinating. It is built in an ultramodern style and offers glimpses of Dubai’s life as it was 100-200 years ago, and so get an idea of the incredible transformation that has taken place. It is often said Dubai has no history to speak of. Strictly speaking that’s not true. It was not always a desert, indeed it used to be grassland and a surprising number of archeological finds have been discovered. This is a model of the rock tomb that was built by an unknown religion 5000 years ago. Plenty of other prehistoric structures dot the Dubai desert.
The Al Fahidi traditional village is located next to Dubai Museum. This village is full of boutique hotels, galleries, restaurants and cafés. Its streets being quite empty of visitors, particularly in the evening, it is enchanting to discover it as you only hear your own footsteps in the silence.
Back to the mass commerce. One more famous shopping mall is the Mall of the Emirates. I visited it as a quaint tourist attraction. This is where the famous artificial snow mountains are located, and the local families eagerly test their Alpine skiing skills. I was there before Christmas, and the complex was full of Christmas symbols – a rather strange sight in a Muslim country, come to think of it.
On the map Burj al-Arab is right next to the Mall of the Emirates. You cannot visit it without a room or a dinner reservation. An alternative is to visit the Medinat Jumeirah mall, playfully recreating an atmosphere of a medieval souq in an ultramodern take. I decided to walk there from a metro stop – just to see how friendly is Dubai to pedestrians. The verdict: not friendly at all. It’s only 2 km but everything in Dubai is meant for cars and so you walk around roundabout after roundabout. I took a taxi on the way back.
Burj al-Arab as seen from Medinat Jumeirah:
In the wonderfully clean Dubai metro you have these touchstreen digital maps allowing to study the station’s environment and plan your journey. Welcome to the future!
Overall the Dubai metro reminded me of the metro in Bangkok. There the lines are also mostly placed above ground – and often you have to walk quite a bit from the metro stop to your actual destination, as the number of lines is very small. Indeed I felt there was a lot of similarities between Dubai and Bangkok – both are exhausting, both are intense, and both are democratic in small things. In Dubai everybody speaks English, most of the population are foreigners, and so it feels like Dubai belongs to all and to no one in particular. I think it is a true city of the future in that sense – this is where most cities are heading.
I rode the local buses a couple of times too – surprisingly it’s often quicker to take a bus rather than take the metro, even large distance. The buses are double deckers, and from time to time you hold your breath – this is from the front row on the second floor:
All of Dubai is covered by a grid of bus stops. In December when I visited it was winter, so the temperature topped at about 27 Celsius during the day. In summer 40 degrees are common – so air-conditioned bus stops are indispensable.
As you can see, the standard Dubai is not so standard after all. I liked it – despite expectations to the contrary. Now I get it why living here is an option for many people.