Arriving anywhere after a 15-hour flight is wonderful. When it’s Dubai, it’s sublime.
20 years ago Dubai was little more than a dust-bowl. What a difference two decades makes! Dubai stands today as one of the world’s most modern and magnificent cities. Its meteoric rise was only slightly less spectacular than its collapse at the height of the global recession. Dubai, being one of the only Emirates in the U.A.E with no oil, had borrowed heavily to fund its rapid development as a world business and financial center, and became famous around the globe for launching of many of the world’s most innovative projects, including man-made islands like the Palm Jumeriah, the Burj Dubai (the only 7-star hotel in existence) and the world’s tallest building, The Burj Khalifa. In 2007 Dubai was a symbol of prosperity and forward-thinking urban planning.
Then the recession hit, and everything ground to a halt.
The “Build it and They Will Come” theory on which these under-funded projects were developed suddenly looked less rosy. Had Dubai’s wealthy sister Emirate, Abu Dhabi, not bailed out the city-state there’s no telling what would have happened.
Some projects, like the Burj Khalifa, were completed, but many have been shelved or abandoned outright. Construction cranes still dot the landscape, but many sit idle, eerily silent.
The Burj Khalifa is by far the world’s tallest building. Construction took a mere three years and the mammoth structure opened in January 2010 amid much fanfare. It was originally to have been named the Burj Dubai, but Abu Dhabi bailed Dubai out after its financial collapse in the global recession, so on the eve of its opening it was renamed after Abu Dhabi’s sheik.
Towering 2,700 feet above the desert, the Burj Khalifa’s 162 floors host offices, private residences, the Armani Hotel and a 4-story fitness and recreation annex.
By coincidence, Tom Cruise was in town filming the Mission Impossible movie now in theaters while we were there, and was performing stunts on the outside of the tower the day we popped in. Eileen, Soo and I were each excited about this for different reasons; Eileen just really wanted to meet Tom, Soo hoped to be able to be an extra in the movie, and I fervently wished to see a mechanical failure in the cabling securing him to the building, plummeting him to his death.
Tom Cruise let us down on all three. We may not go see his movie.
The elevator up to the viewing platform on the 124th floor is almost as fast as the one at my office up to the 2nd floor (yes, I’m lazy enough that I sometimes take the elevator up one floor.) It’s modern, sleek, and your ears pop about a dozen times en-route.
The floor to ceiling glass walls greeting you when you step off the elevator offer stunning panoramic views you won’t find anywhere outside of a plane or helicopter. It’s awe-inspiring.
Eileen is a tad afraid of heights, so stayed back from the glass, but Soo and I attacked it with the enthusiasm of a fat kid at Golden Corral. The windows have a small opening through which you can stick your head and stare straight down, which we did over and over again. And we did everything we could to terrify Eileen, faking a fall more times than we could count. She didn’t speak to us again for an hour.
Given that the Burj Khalifa beat Taipei’s Taiwan 101 Tower, formerly the world’s tallest building, by more than 1,000 feet, I suspect it’ll hold the record for a while. It was an altogether amazing experience, and I’m thrilled I got to see it. I just wish we’d gotten to see Tom Cruise fall.
After touring The Tower we decided to take the SINAA Tour of the desert outside Dubai, which included something called “Dune Bashing.” It also included camel rides, belly dancing and a rest to smoke a Shisha, also known as “Hubbllee Bubblee”, a flavored water pipe like a Hookah.
The camel ride was neat, and we all enjoyed the dancing and traditional smoke, but Dune Bashing stole the show.
You began by squeezing ourselves into a roll-bar reinforced 4-wheel drive SUV, then hurled ourselves against Dubai’s red sand dunes at break-neck speeds. Our specially trained driver, Ali, raced us up and over dunes rising 600 feet above the valley, spinning us, often sideways, down and around steep drifts, in an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that makes the world’s steepest roller-coasters seem like Driving Ms. Daisy.
Ali told us as we set off that he expected a few of us to scream, and that we shouldn’t be embarrassed if we did (he said he considered screaming passengers the mark of a successful day.) None of us did, but my colleague Paul’s death-grip on the handle and Eileen’s attempts to take pictures during the ride had us all laughing hysterically (we wound up with a bunch of shots of Paul’s elbow, the ceiling of the car and our own feet.)
At one point we hit a dune with such force that it ripped the tire off the wheel. We wonder aloud if anyone ever got stranded out here, but were joined almost immediately by two other SUVs whose drivers helped Ali change our tire, and we promptly set back off.
We concluded our euphoric contest with the dunes at sunset, watching as the sun melted into the endless red sands, all of us agreeing that we would remember this day as long as we live.
The subsequent camel ride probably would have been more exciting had it not followed Dune Bashing, but then I suspect anything that followed Dune Bashing would pale in comparison. Our camel was grumpy and had an unfortunate smell, which we carried with us the rest of the night, but riding him was delightful, right up until he tried to flip us over by suddenly dropping down on his front knees. Soo and I, heretofore enjoying a “romantic” ride together, slammed into each other, hard, and nearly went over face-first, then knocked into each other again as he dropped down his backside. We wanted to be irritated, but it was so funny we couldn’t contain our laughter, which seemed to be the case for everyone present.
Following up this magnificent experience would be tough, but Dubai is cocaine for the senses, so we figured we had a shot.
This desert oasis is famous for many things, not least of which is the world’s biggest indoor ski slope. We weren’t about to miss something like this, so the next day headed straight for the slope! The woman at the entrance casually verified that we were experienced skiers as she passed over our tickets.
I said, “Of course, assuming that by ‘experienced’ you mean ‘liable to enjoy the final third of the slope tumbling head over feet.”
She promptly snatched our tickets from us and told us we’d be required to take lessons, nearly two hours later, with another large group.
No skiing for us.
Dubai, home to the largest mall on earth, is famous for its high-end shopping, which I’m sure is terrific if you’re a gazillionaire. For the rest of us, simply after local arts and crafts to take home as gifts, the Madinat Jumeirah Souk sounded just about right. The Souk (which means open air market in Arabic) is an old-style market housing more than 100 shops claims to offer authentic Middle-Eastern products.
Madinat Jumeirah Souk feels ancient, carved as it is out of old, dark wood with inlaid tile floors. It’s gorgeous, and we all eagerly set out to find gifts for our many friends and family members back home.
The “Made in China” stickers on the camel carvings and the “Made in India” labels in the silk scarves made us a tad suspicious, however, that Madinet Jumeirah wasn’t quite as “authentic” as advertised.
We were disappointed, and that was before we stumbled into the tacky tourist shop offering plastic camel-head lighters, Arabian-carpet replica mouse pads and Japanese ninja swords (why ninja swords no one could explain.)
We were rapidly losing our enthusiasm for the Souk when we stumbled upon the “Desert Magic” stand owned by local artisan Barbar Ali.
Barbar designs sand sculptures, often of camels in the desert, by taking multi-colored sand and crafting it into images inside of glass bottles. It’s fascinating to watch him work, and the finished products are both beautiful and unique – perfect souvenirs and gifts! Though not cheap, we bought six, and our already heavy luggage became nearly impossible to lift.
We were so pleased with our haul that we decided to sit by the creek and enjoy a cocktail while the sun set over the Souk. (Alcohol is illegal in Dubai, unless it’s sold in a hotel restaurant or bar. The Muslim population is forbidden to drink alcohol, but to encourage western tourism and business travelers the government allows it to be sold in hotels. The laughable net result of this is that hotel bars and restaurants are usually packed with more locals than tourists!)
The Madinat Jumeirah Souk is attached to the Madinet Jumeirah Resort, so all the restaurants, bars and cafes are licensed to sell alcohol, making them very popular places. The spectacular views of the creek and Burk Al Arab in the distance don’t hurt, either. It was a wonderful way to end our time in this magnificent city.