Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Leaving home for 12 months isn’t easy at the most basic of times. We’d been through the experience of putting our lives in boxes and leaning on parents for housing and storage until we leave the country. Only to do it again.. this time with a house to leave, car to store (thanks Grandma!) and even more boxes. Thank-you to everyone who has helped us.. particularly the Lund family who has housed and bathed us in the weeks prior to our departure…
We boarded EK 407 in only 10 degrees of Celsius in Melbourne. Emirates are really great. Their plane and service was exceptional, a really nice experience.. and it’s difficult to say that on a 14 hour, cattle class flight, but it was.. great entertainment system, comfortable seats, great meals and ambient lighting all made the flight great. It was really only the chatty Brits behind us who kept us awake..
We arrived into Dubai at some ungodly hour in the morning and it was already 33 degrees. The first thing I noticed and have noticed continually is this sandy kind of haze in the air, that reminds you, if you needed it, that it’s dry and hot. Dubai airport is a monolithic beast with colonnades, silver and marble everywhere.. we managed to get to the immigration line and stood waiting to be cleared. There was a population of immigration officials just kinda standing around, with a collection of immigration stamps in their hands, casually pointing at different immigration desks, even sitting a few empty ones.. of which there was no line waiting.. but there was really only a few doing any actual work. One guy opened gate 39, forwarded an Asian passenger to be cleared, couldn’t for some reason and directed her to another desk. Then closed the gate. That’s enough work.
We did eventually get through though, collected our bags and walked straight through customs; all this consideration of not packing stuff like codeine was kind of lost. One of the things I love about travel is that moment you walk outside of the airport, it’s your first gasp of foreign air.. most often full of taxi and or bus fumes but it’s still pretty cool. We jumped in a cab, kind of like a band van, and were soon on our way to the Qarmadeen Hotel. First impressions were striking; Dubai’s infrastructure is pretty swish, highways are clean and broad, it’s skyscrapers creative and impressive. But it’s an unusual feeling, for someone who hasn’t visited anywhere like this, to see all this amazing infrastructure surrounded by vast and endless sand. Many of the apartment and compound style buildings, Arabesc in their design are this sandstone type colour. It’s a pretty charming mix when you have stained wooden panels and lattice work thrown in.
The hotels great, it’s been this little oasis for when the heat becomes overbearing. It’s this real boutique style place in the middle of what appears to be an ex-pat suburb full of long-term residential apartments, but the beauty of the location is that we’re smack bang next to Dubai’s latest wonder-child the Burj Kalifah. I had a bit of a Taj Mahal moment when I first saw it, in that it truly takes your breath away. It’s scale is beyond anything I’ve had to comprehend before. It’s so vastly beyond that it appears as a kind of cut-out, false skyline, like it was the set of a sci-fi movie and everything is just a green screen. The Dubai Mall is right next door to the Burj Kalifah and around that is a man-made lake complex that like everything here, is pristine and clean.. a mean feat considering the fine Dubai sand and dust that gets everywhere. I learned later that amongst the huge amount of engineering for the Burj, there was significant design consideration for ensuring that horizontal surfaces were minimised to prevent build up of filth as a result of sand and dust. Clever.
We wandered over to the Mall and found it to be of that amazing standard we’d quickly come to expect. Stores put a huge effort into retail presence and every shop front is interesting in it’s own right.. there’s plenty of marble, stone and amazing architecture to keep you interested but it’s the Dubai Mall Aquarium that dropped my jaw. A 10 meter deep tank full of a huge variety of fish including grey nurse, sand tiger and hammerhead sharks, a massive population of jacks and a huge variety of rays. It has this kind of amazing ambiance that you could just sit and watch for hours in a semi-hypnotised state, laughing occasionally as a ray swims along with the trevallys. But you’re not a trevally!
We spent our first night in Satwa, near Jumeriah beach. Given that everything here is very pricey, and we’re only 1 night into our year long expedition we thought it sensible to hunt out the budget food in town and word is that Satwa is where it’s found. Taxi’s are pretty reasonable and good highways means traffic has been pretty good too. We were dropped at Jumeriah Beach, near the mosque and surveyed the public beach shoreline. Plenty of people doing their post-work activities.. running, stretching and strolling. Again, it’s a hazy, dusty stretch of beach with a few strategically placed palm trees here and there, couldn’t imagine spending the height of the day here considering it was still 33 or so degrees and close to 7pm. The call of prayer rings around around the city, and you get this odd stereo-phonic sound as all the prayers from the local mosques converge into one song.. it’s a really strong sense of being somewhere totally different.
We wandered back past the beautiful mosque, lit up this shade of orange and sandstone in the evening. We eventually walked into Satwa where there’s an abundance of busier roads, traders and shopfronts exploding out onto the street with wares for sale. In amongst the chaos we eventually got to Picnic Restaurant and ordered a shwarma and a mango shake for dinner, which was awesome.
We’ve been going to the local Shimmeys for groceries in the morning and they’ve been great. Bread is nice and cheap but given the climate, a lot of fresh stuff is imported and pricey. For some horrible reason, coffee is horribly expensive too, despite plenty of outlets. I made the mistake of ordering a ‘Power Breakfast’ from Dome in the Mall the day prior, forgot about the bacon issue and ended up with this awful beef bacon that I just couldn’t eat. Instead, relied on my filter coffee.
Deira is the souk marketplace area in Dubai so we caught a cab mid-morning to the gold souk and had a wander around nearby marketplaces as well. The souk is a mix of modern shopfronts and older style shopfronts covered by an undercover timber walkway. A few hawkers asked us what we might be after, iPads, copy-watches and the like but were pretty good and seemed to get the message pretty quickly. We managed to get across the road to the Dubai creek which strangely has a touch of Venice about it, what with all the wooden style boats ferrying people back and forth and long the creek (which is more like a river, don’t be fooled). It was about this time the radiant heat, particularly from the pavement got all a bit much and we were again in a taxi back to our hotel.
We were due back to head to the observation deck on the Burj at this point anyway. There’s this whole shuffle-to-the-next bit operation happening at the observation deck but it’s beautifully organised and there’s this amazing model of the tower which lights up in sections when the information screen is describing it’s features. The elevator is as close to a time machine as I’ve ever been, with all these illuminated arrows on the walls, mirrored ceilings and a top speed of 10m per second. The view is again like a green screen illusion, it’s like some crafty person has constructed models of all the buildings in the city and projected them into the windows. The closest correlation I can make, is coming in to land at an airport because you’re just so h
igh above the city. But it gives you an amazing sense of the history of urban planning in Dubai. It really does seem that an area is isolated, a suburb is built and connected to the rest of the city. In between all these zones is either construction.. or sand.
That night we took in some Lebanese cuisine from the Mall, not a lot of effort there but it was delicious and not overly expensive, plus we got to see the amazing fountain dance, set to the theme from City Slickers. We’ve had the luxury of an oasis pool setting at the Qamardeen for when the midday heat becomes a bit much. The past few days we’ve punctuated our expeditions with a break by the pool in the middle (hottest part) of the day.
Taxis are pretty reasonable, a 20 minute or 10 kilometer journey might cost you about 10 bucks. So we got into a taxi and headed for Bur Dubai, over the river from Deira, to check out a restaurant recommended by the trusty LP called Kanziman. But before filling our stomachs we were dropped at the Bastikya quarter, home of the original Iranian traders on the river. It’s got a bit of a faux-village feel about it, I’m unsure as to whether the buildings themselves are reconstructions or not but perhaps it was the time of day, the call to prayer which rang out across the city or the men in full robes walking toward the mosque, but it was a pretty humbling experience.
Arabic style buildings with mud or sandstone finish, tiled streets and narrow alleys. Towers with ventilation frames protruding from the upper parts. It kind of looked like a village from the first Star Wars. It shared real-estate with a few government buildings a long the water so we strolled along at dusk, watching as wooden passenger ferries toiled back forth, and souk shop owners hung up their colourful wares. We wandered far enough up the end of the creek that we could almost see the outlet to the Gulf and came across Kanziman restaurant. As we sat down by the river we were accompanied by a cat fight.. to which one of the waiters ran over, tsk’ed the cats away and said to us ‘too much cats’.. We ordered a massive amount of food, shish taouk, falafel, taboleh, hommous, and an awesome lemon-mint drink. Considering we haven’t had any alcohol for the past few days, it was a nice substitute.
The next day we slept in a bit before heading down the freeway to Mall of the Emirates, again a mall on a mind-blowing scale as this is the mall with the indoor ski center. While we were roasting outside at a toasty 37 degrees, it was -3 inside the ski center where kids frolicked in the snow, staff threw snowballs at each other and probably some Swiss tourist flies down the only indoor black diamond run in the world.
The rest of the mall is typically marble everything and ornately and attentively finished with wrought Arabic style ironwork on just about everything. The center of the mall has this beautiful ‘grand-central-station’ type dome ceiling. From there we grabbed another taxi to try and get a glimpse of the Burj Al Arab, one of the worlds only 7 star hotels, shaped like a sail, out on the ocean, where people like Andre Agassi come for tennis, some 60 stories up on an outdoor platform. We couldn’t get past the gate so snapped a few ‘we were here’ type pics and moved on. The nearby souk is mentionable for its beautifully finished wooden ceilings. Middle of the day calls for another oasis pool visit, we have an early departure for Rio tomorrow morning.