Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dubai, the desert jewel

Dubai is one of those destinations that is very common on most travellers' lists. Just because you would have heard about it forever, there is a high likelihood that you would have visited it sometime or the other. But surprisingly, I had never visited it till now. It was midway on my way from London to India, so I always thought I would stop there on some trip to/from India. And that took more than 10 years to happen:).

It happened this spring - a couple of my friends were planning to get together in Dubai. But even though the plan fell through, I still got a chance to visit and explore this desert jewel. I stayed there for about two and a half days and was very impressed with what the Sheikh of Dubai had built.

It is not that Dubai is an amazingly touristy place - in many ways, it is pretty average. But its more about the vision that you see in the city which impresses you. Building this huge and luxurious residential, entertainment and commercial hub right in the middle of the desert is not easy.

The whole Dubai experience started for me with my Emirates flight. Its definitely one of the better airlines around and you can see luxury the moment you are on it. The seats are better than even the business class of British Airways when you fly within Europe. And this luxurious experience continued all the way during my trip.

While landing, there was a lot of fog, which felt weird to me, but apparently this is normal because of the mixture of desert sand with the cold temperature in the morning. From the air, I could see all the houses spread far, with a yellow hue all around. Maybe they were reflecting the colours of the desert?

JBR 3D painting
Once in Dubai, I was met by my friend who stays in Dubai and she showed me around the city in her BMW;-). The first day, we visited two places. In the morning, we went to JBR or Jumeirah Beach Resort - a touristy area next to the beach. It has lots of high rise apartments also located there and apparently most of the expats stay here. Maybe because JBR has a very European feel to it, or maybe its the reverse reason:).

JBR 3D painting
JBR is full of shops and hotels and things for tourists to do. You can see everyone walking around lazily in the sun, exploring the area and clicking pictures. While I was there, there was a street artist display of 3D paintings on the road which we saw. And then had a burger lunch sitting outside. The best part of being there for me though was the sun, especially given this year spring was very very cold in London. I just loved sitting outside, with the sun on my face, enjoying the heat and doing nothing else.

In the evening, we went for a desert safari to the Al Madam desert (in Sharjah). The desert safaris are standard tourism tours offered by many different agents. It starts with them taking you out of Dubai into the desert in their Land Rovers (I think). I did not even realise we had driven into Sharjah by the time we were in the desert! The landscape very quickly changes from the glitz of Dubai to the barren yellow of the desert. On the way the guide showed us many different parts of the city - the location for an artificial indoors lagoon that is being built, the race course for horses and one for camels. We of course did not see the race but would have been fun nevertheless :).

The desert experience starts with dune-bashing, where the guides drive you very fast through the sand dunes. They go up and down very fast and it requires very skillful driving, so that you know where you can take the car on the edge and where not. It was fun (and very scary!!) for the first 5 mins, but then my head started spinning. I don't think I was able to enjoy the whole half an hour they did that, as did a couple of other fellow travellers in the car. But it is an experience to be had at least once. You wouldn't think it is possible to drive on the edges and go up and down the dunes, the way those guides do.

We stopped after that crazy drive in the middle of the desert to take some touristy photos. To be honest, having seen many deserts before, I wasn't too impressed. It was not a desert till where your eyes can see either. Right in front you could see a rock mining location, so wasn't as much in the wilderness as it should be.

Desert safari camp
Sheesha corner
After the dune bashing, we were taken to a desert safari camp for the rest of the evening. It was a huge area with lots of tents set up and different activities happening all around. There was a henna corner; some food stuff; a sheesha corner; desert scooters to drive on the dunes; Arabian carpets being sold; photoshoots dressed up in Arabs costumes and so on to spend time. You have about an hour to experience it all, before the show starts. We got some henna done and then tried some sheesha. My head was too dazed from the dune bashing to try out the desert scooters. But am sure they are fun. Maybe for next time:).

Around 7pm or so, the dance show started. It included about 7-8 different belly dances, by about 5 or so dancers. To be honest, the dancing wasn't really out of this world. The music though I loved. The Arabian tunes all have this mystic and mast feeling about them which I really enjoy.

Dance in trance
The last dance of the day was the most impressive one in my view. It was performed by three men and involved almost being lost in the dance, with the dervishes turns (not sure if that's what its called). The men's costume had lights on it which switched off and on sometimes and they kept on turning and performing for at least half an hour if not more. There was a mystical quality about it which is very difficult to explain. All the dancers seemed to be pretty lost in the moment. And so were the guests all around.

The dinner was quite tasty, with lots of variety in terms of Italian, English and Arabic food. I was very impressed with the overall quality of the whole safari plus the hospitality of the guide and everyone else. And it was amazing being out in the desert at night. The sand felt very soft and cool. The sky was clear and twinkling with the stars. And there was a cool wind blowing, making the temperatures drop to a comfortable level. I really enjoyed this desert safari evening, even though the desert was nothing new for me. A relaxed, calm and cool evening with nothing much to do other than enjoy the sights around is surely welcome:).

One thing I noticed that day and later was that all the people who were working were Indians or Pakistanis - the guides, the henna women and all the other workers. Apparently Dubai has been built by people from the sub-continent. They all come there, work, earn and then go back to their country when they can't as no one can become a citizen in the UAE. The whole Emirates has been built by them, while the locals have it easy and enjoy its results;-).

The second day again we visited two places. First, we drove to the Palm. We've all seen and read about it before - an artificial island created by Dubai in the shape of a palm tree. The central trunk has all the apartments while the semi-circular fronds of the palm are full of independent luxury villas, each with private access to the beach! And the outer crescent has the hotels.

Driving around in the Palm, I saw what opulence and luxury can be about. And splurging money:). The whole area felt so rich - an entire island carved out of water artificially to provide apartments and pretty villas to the moneyed of the world! By this time I had already got used to the opulence of Dubai, so nothing surprised me anymore.

Atlantis on the Palm
We spent the morning at the Atlantis resort, which was right in the middle of the crescent of the Palm. It is a huge resort, similar to its namesakes elsewhere in the world. And is full of shops and restaurants, aquariums and water park (also offering swimming with the dolphins), and beaches and spas and many more things to do. I heard that some people who visit Dubai never get out of the Atlantis, they just spend their entire vacation there:).

Dubai skyline
We sat outside in the sun at the Nassimi beach cafe for some time, admiring the Dubai skyline across the sea. I loved it and couldn't have enough of the sun:). There was plenty of it around! And then we drove around the crescent, with the car top open!! It was fun standing up in the sun with the cool breeze blowing, the sea on one side and the hotels and skyline of Dubai on the other. What a moment!

Burj elevator
In the evening, I visited the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It is 830 meters high and has 154 floors. I bought tickets for 'At the top' which is a tour allowing you to go up to the 124/125th floors which have observation decks for tourists. The whole experience has been made very touristic, which start with posters detailing the making of the Burj. There is lot of history in the story of how the building came about and that is shared with all. Then you take the elevator which takes you up the 124th floor in just 60 seconds! The lift has also been designed to wow tourists, with lighting and music inside, climaxing when you reach the 124th floor.

Dubai fountains from above
Once there, you can spend time walking around and taking in the views of Dubai. There are two floors open for tourists - 124th with an open observation deck and 125th with glass walls all around. From both floors, you get a 360 degree view of the lights of the city, the city scrapers, and the desert beyond. And this is where you see what Dubai is, like a sparkling oasis with the yellow desert around. I spent almost an hour up there, admiring the views and later on, the sunset. While up there, I also saw the Dubai fountains from above, which run every half an hour after 7pm. I think they looked prettier from above than below :).

Day view from Burj Khalifa
Night view from Burj Khalifa

Dubai mall
The Burj is built on top of Dubai mall, again the biggest mall in the world. I walked around in the mall, which goes on forever. It has all brands possible and tourists from across the world. It also has a huge aquarium and a huge waterfall inside the mall! Once down, I saw the fountains again from ground level and realised they are not really synced with the music. Its like they are flowing independently. We then had dinner at PF Changs and ran into Chunky Pandey:).

Burj al Arab
Thereafter, we went to Kite beach for a walk on the sand after dinner. It was quite isolated and fun to walk on the cool sand, have juice on the beach and enjoy the stars above. You can also see the Burj al Arab from there, twinkling at night signifying all Dubai has built in the last few years. Apparently Dubai is very safe at night too, even for women, which is always welcome.

The third and last day, I had a couple of hours before flying to Delhi, so me and my friend drove towards the Gold Souk in old Dubai but we never made it. The old city is so crowded that we got stuck in traffic, so went to Bastakiya instead which is an art village. We explored it a bit though it wasn't much to see. Driving in old Dubai also made me realise that Dubai is not all high rises. Those are just the touristy and expat parts of town. The rest are like any other - small and not so shiny places.

With my trip over, I had seen most of what was there. The whole of Dubai has only this to offer which can be seen in two days. Other than these places, the Dubai Creek, Spice Souk, Gold Souk, Butterfly garden and Miracle gardens are also supposedly worth visiting. But not necessary. Unless of course you love shopping, because then there is no end!

For me, learning about life in Dubai was more fascinating than the touristic stuff. It seems like a comfortable and convenient place to stay. There are loads of high rises and villas spread out providing plenty of accomodation to everyone. Then there are gardens, parks and green belts all around the city - kept green by drip irrigation system. It feels so unreal given that its a desert and two miles out, nothing grows at all. The infrastructure there is totally amazing. The roads are well maintained. And lot of money is spent on improving the city. Recently, the Metro was completed. And now they are building a canal all along the main road - Shaikh Zayed Road - a la European style cities.

Inside the Atlantis
Hotels abound in Dubai and they all follow the maxim of grandness and luxury. The Atlantis I already mentioned. And we passed through a Le Meridien - its the biggest and most expansive Le Meridien I have ever seen! There were so many garden restaurants and pools sprawled across the campus. We got lost inside the hotel while returning from the desert safari! Space is definitely not a constraint in Dubai. You can just convert some more of the desert into part of the city. And of course, the Burj al-Arab is the most famous of the hotels in Dubai. It looks pretty from outside. We didn't get a chance to go in, as you need a restaurant booking to even go inside!

Aquarium inside Dubai mall
There are malls everywhere to shop. In terms of staying, lot of areas like Emirates Living and Dubai Marina have come up where expats are allowed to buy houses. The villas are the huge independent houses with gardens, which are mostly outside the main city centre, while there are more apartments in the city centre. Earlier only locals could buy most of the villas, but that is changing now and getting much needed cash into the economy (given current oil prices).

You need a car to get from one place to another, as there is limited public transport. Cheap local oil always helps:). The roads are good, though traffic is pretty bad. It takes forever to get anywhere at all. And people don't follow the traffic rules much either. Houses are good. Jobs quite adequate. Help available too. Apparently Dubai also has Sharia law, thought its quite lax especially given the expat community.

There are loads of events always going on in Dubai, some festivals, some conferences and so on. They have an indoor ice rink and are building two new islands - another Palm and the World islands. So lots of money still to spare:). Is definitely a good place to settle, except its too small. And sometimes artificial.

The Indian community is one of the biggest in Dubai, with a separate area where most of the Indians stay. Bollywood stars are also big here given the number of billboards with them on it. You can hear Hindi very often all around. But of course, as I mentioned, they can never become citizens of Dubai. They will always remain foreign workers, which I think is sad.

Dubai's rise has been stellar from a port town based on slave trading to an entertainment, business and tourist centre for the world. Of all the Emirates, Dubai was the only one to transform itself and move so fast to modernise itself. Its truly amazing. I feel that this city is an ode to what the human mind is capable of. And can be a case study on how to make a tourist destination out of nothing:).

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