Dubai: Desert dreams

Dubai has risen magnificently from the desert sands to become one of the most alluring places on earth, complete with man-made islands, theme parks and the best places to shop in the world

Easily tall on any Dubai itinerary is a visit to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, a 160-storey structure, which is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people and has offices of the who’s who in business. It also holds the distinction of having the world’s highest nightclub, the highest mosque and the world’s highest occupied floor. Ostentatiously, also the world’s largest New Year fireworks display show.

But then, for a government that’s keen on shifting its economy from being oil-centric to one that is service and tourism related, such an extravagant display of wealth, is simply, a strategy that has paid off.

The viewing deck is on the 124th floor. When you are in the muted hush of its steel elevators, you feel the world drop away at a breathtaking and ear-whistling speed of 18 metres per second, [making it the fastest elevator in the world]. You reach the 124th floor and then, all of a sudden, you are at the top. It’s as if the world has fallen away beneath you, leaving you in the company of the soaring birds, a bluer sky and a careless wind.

From the viewing deck, you can see two distinct Dubais sprawled way down. One, the ancient desert land from where the sands of the past swirl around the dunes as notes from the azaan streak the twilight skies with strokes of serenity. Where the culture of ages comes alive at dusk desert camps, reached by a swerving jeep ride over the dunes [reminiscent of being tossed about on a camel’s back]. And where, under a clear starlit sky, belly dancers, bagpipe players and dervishes spin their magic into the night. As the barbecue pit spews its sizzling aromas, and the music spreads on the evening desert winds, you are slowly seduced back in time, to another era. To miles and miles of sand and life under a harsh sun.

All that’s changed now. With the discovery of oil reserves in 1966, the other Dubai has emerged spectacularly. Shifting sands have given way to miles of high-resistant asphalt on which the millionaires and billionaires of the world have set up their entrepreneurial dreams. The traditional wooden dhows [traditional Arabic ships] at the waterfront have made way for perfectly white, sleek luxury liners.

From atop, the city looks like a giant Lego set, offset with glass blue and copper buildings, the turquoise sea hugging the powdery white sands of the Palm Jumeirah beach, and circular roads buzzing with miniature cars and blinking traffic lights. The rays of the sun bounce off the gleaming facade of the Burj Al Arab [it has a landing helipad for guests], which is easily the most lavish hotel property in the world.

Dubai seems almost like a city straight out of a modern fairy tale. From here, high up in the company of the cloudless sky, you can wave a magic wand and your wish will materialise in three dimensional wonders way down.

This duality in Dubai makes up for some sublime architecture, a two-edged experience, and a contrast that shifts you suddenly from the past to the future at the supersonic speed of the Burj Khalifa elevator.

The best time to visit Burj Khalifa is at around four in the afternoon, especially in the winter. Once you are up at the viewing deck, they don’t hurry you down after your allotted half an hour. Instead, you can spend time peering down from paid binoculars, which when trained in any particular direction, show you how Dubai looked at that very same spot four decades ago, just at the point in time when old was ushering in the new.

When you finally come down, you step into an open space in the complex of the Dubai Mall, [which, incidentally, is one of the largest in the world] looking out into a placid waterfront. Alongside the mall, the Burj Khalifa rises majestically into the burnished sky. It is at this moment, when the setting sun cascades its colours into the reflectively calm waters, and shimmers off the Burj Khalifa, bathing it in warm golden light, that the call of the muezzin [the person who leads the call to pray] stirs the soul into bowing acquiescence. You are at once humbled and haunted by this azaan, where in the midst of all the prosperous icons and manmade indulgences surrounding the space, the almighty is still, all-pervading and powerful, and continues to hold sway.

Consumerism is king here, of course, and malls load up on all that money can buy. An array of brands, showcased alluringly in an environment that is preened, polished and pitted against the best in the world. Each mall has something up its sleeve to cajole the customer: whether it is the ski world at the Mall of the Emirates, in which an entire snow world, complete with ski slopes and snowmen, or the Dubai Mall, which has a tunnel aquarium replete with penguins. However, for a really different experience of the mall culture, a visit to the Wafi Mall is a must. Here, ancient Egypt is recreated and relived in every installation and interior work. Giant monoliths of pharaohs herald you into the mall. From the entrance itself, you are transported into Egypt, with frescoes and stones and its unique identity continuing right into the shopping arcade. Even the cuisine served here is typically Egyptian and restaurants sport a distinctive decor and service unique to Egypt.

Dubai stands for everything man-made. Nature has been slowly hushed up to slip into the background. Technology has transformed this dry landscape into a destination of dreams and power. It’s out on display here, what sweeping changes man can bring about, even reigning over nature, if he has foresight, concrete plans, the will—and wealth—to make them happen. A magnificent amount of petro dollars have been pumped into its futuristic appearance—meteoric high-rises that are architectural marvels, wide radar-controlled roads on which elite brand of cars race by at 120km per hour, and the iconic palm islands built in the shape of a date palm. The islands are touted as the 8th wonder of the world, hosting some of the most extravagant properties internationally that can be seen from as far off as space.

But, by far, the best way to get an overview of this futuristic city is by the open-top hop-on hop-off bus. It neatly assimilates the dichotomy of Dubai, interlinking its past and its present, by two distinct routes. The ideal way to do this is to start off early on one line, which takes about two and a half hours, hop off for lunch, and then hop on again and do the other route. This again should take a couple of hours.

The commentary on the headset is lucid and full of interesting anecdotes, which serve in bringing Dubai closer to the tourist. For instance, when citizens of Dubai get married to each other, the government gifts them a house and 70,000 dirham for their honeymoon!

Or that Dubai experiences the maximum difference in temperatures in a day, fluctuating from 48 degrees during day, to 28 degrees at night, a range of 20 degrees in less than 24 hours! Or, that under construction, is a residential building that actually rotates once every day. So that the view you get out of your bedroom windows will be different at various points of the day—and night!

The night tour atop the double decker bus is a glittering tribute to the city. It rides all the way to Palm Jumeirah, a piece of prime property dotted with villas owned by the likes of Michael Schumacher. It is built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree. This stretch also boasts of The Atlantis, a resplendent luxury hotel that houses an aqua adventure theme park, and one of the world’s finest aquariums dedicated to the lost mythical city of Atlantis.

In the hotel, you can stay in rooms that are underwater and whose walls are made totally of glass. Peek-a-boo time for the fish?

For an authentic feel of old Dubai, head to the Museum in Bur Dubai where pottery, stonework and oyster diving pursuits are depicted with figurines, and beautiful installations. Looking at them, you realise the amount of progress the people have made in just 40 years. Four decades of raising dreams from the dust…of having the courage to dream big in the first place.

For all its shopping ranging from high-end electronics, branded couture, to traditional souks dealing in spices and pure gold, its extravagance and its showmanship, Dubai is a land of vision. A land that changes the way the world views it. In spite of occupying such a small area on the world map, it is at the hub of global economy, tourism and commerce, engaging the collective fantasies of entrepreneurs, shoppers, tourists and governments. It is one of the wealthiest cities of the world, and one of the safest.

Despite being governed by a harsh climate, it has found its way to make the most of its reserves, capitalising on opportunities and building on them with a certain flamboyant élan and astuteness. Dubai is ultimately a city that says, I can and I will. And it does.

Fact file

How to get there

All major air carriers have regular flights to Dubai. Flight time is around three hours and on the clock, Dubai is behind India by approximately 2.5 hours.

Best time to visit

Dubai has an extremely long summer and a short winter. Best months hence to visit are December and January, where apart from the chill, the Christmas spirit is very much in the air. Dubai is resplendently lit up, most malls have special Christmas attractions and the entire city is in a celebratory mode.

Best buys

Though Dubai has a much-awaited shopping festival on its annual calendar, when hordes of tourists descend to splurge, most of the merchandise available is something you can get on home turf too. Gold is pure undulated 24 karat, but the prices are not really competitive compared to Indian ones. If shopping means getting good deals, then definitely Dubai is not a good choice. But for sheer variety in international brands, luxury pieces, and designer jewellery, Dubai wins hands down. For the casual shopper, dates and unusual Arabic souvenirs, especially those sold at desert camps, are a good buy.

Must see

Apart from Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, the Mall of Emirates, try the breakfast at the Burj Al Arab, which can be booked online. Visit the Dubai Museum, the Madinat Souk Jumeirah for its Arab marketplace experience, and take the night tour of the big city bus. Also must-do is an evening at Palm Jumeirah beach and a day at the creek mall spread over 96 hectares [don’t miss the dolphin show]. Try the desert safari in a Hummer, if you are prone to motion sickness but still want to enjoy the dune bashing. Do travel by the metro lines—apart from being a lovely way to soak in the city, it remains the best way to feel a part of it.

This was first published in the March 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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