Picturesque Dubai! I have wanted to visit this city for many years, especially after many acquaintances came back with stories of wonder from this city. I knew the road would take me there sooner or later. Every time I heard that this city amidst the desert grows by minutes and not days, about unbearable heat, riches and size, I wanted to see this place for myself. Is it true that they have ATM’s that dispense gold bars? Only luxurious cars driving the streets, and people in them wearing the latest fashions? And, how about the oil price drop, has it stopped the construction boom?
Finally that day came, it was a cold winter’s morning at home when I set off to Dubai. I landed not long after the sunset and the sky was covered in dust fog, but the air smelled warm and dry. Although it is supposed to rain very little here, while I stayed there little less than a week, it did rain a few times. After coming home I read about floods in Emirates and saw videos of people boating in their back yards and roads. But even in winter one can count on some sun rays in Dubai and the temperature of roughly 25°C, just it sometimes gets quite windy.
The drive to the city center allows me to size up the grand surroundings where skyscrapers are growing out from enormous construction zones, grass is so green that I almost believe someone might have painted it.
There aren’t many people on the streets, just the Indian gardeners. Indian immigrant population is the largest one in the United Arab Emirates, and currently is about 2.2 million people. The taxi ride let’s me experience the unpleasant side of this culture I felt in India too, having to prove that you are not the average tourist and will not be cheated. Before coming to Dubai I read that credit cards are accepted in all taxis by the order of the city to enhance the experience of visitors. But my taxi driver just shrugs and says that the terminal isn’t working and I should be able to get some cash from the ATM in the hotel! When I tell him that it is supposed to work by law, he is unfazed and just asks the porter (also Indian), to explain to me, since I clearly don’t understand. I do understand very well, but I want to pay by card and I know my rights! Porter looks surprised at first, but after a small chat in Hindi he soon sings the same song – ATM is down there! I later learn that some drivers in the airport won’t even accept riders to hotels nearby, so it’s safer to book a shuttle. After such experience I really felt like giving a try to the pink women’s taxis in Dubai, where women wearing pink hijab are driving the cabs. For women travelers pink taxis isn’t the only way of transportation, metro also has carriages for women only. Later I was told that in any cases of issues with the taxis, you just take a picture of the licence plate, the taxi number and tell you will call RTA (Roads and Transport Authority) to complain, this is supposed to immediately fix the issue!
How to Move Around in Dubai?
United Arab Emirates have become a popular destination not just for conferences and business meetings but also as a beach destination. Often Dubai is just one of the cities where to spent time, but it’s definitely worth to visit it! To move around the city one of the options is the metro that was included in the Guinness World Records’ book as the longest automated metro in the world (75 km). But tourists can also use hop on hop off buses, a day ticket is around 60 euro. Of course, buses also will stop at every major supermarket, but they also provide basic information about the city and top attractions in the audio guide and it isn’t the worst way to see the city, especially if you are short on time.
From Fisherman’s Village to Metropolis
The first impression of Dubai is that the city really is grand. Wherever you look, unusually shaped skyscrapers, prime parking spots at the shopping malls full of exclusive cards. Some even have signs “do not touch”. But there are simple cars too and not everyone you see on the street is wearing latest couture. Dubai seems to be an endless construction zone, where there are gin trucks hiding behind every corner and workers moving things around. My colleague once said – it would be nice to come here again few years from now and see how the city has changed. It might be that you will not recognize it anymore!
Although Dubai is first mentioned around 1095, little is known about it’s first inhabitants. Dubai as we know it know, was established in the beginning of the 18th century as a fishing village, and its development was aided by discovery of oil in 1966. Now only 5% of Dubai Emirate income comes from oil, but the development drastically changed the number of inhabitants, massive immigration brings population to about two and a half million people. Dubai is also 22nd most expensive city in the world, and, if to compare hotel prices, more expensive is only Geneva.
The first famous sight I see is not even tallest building Burj Khalifa, but the burned down hotel The Address, which is actively being renovated bare two weeks after the accident. I proceed to see the Palm Islands where hotel Atlantis is located and above which you can jump with a parachute. When you drive in the islands, the shape of palm leaves is not really felt, but it is still nice to see fancy private houses and apartments. Dubai also has a public beach not far from the best hotel in the world Burj Al Arab. When describing Dubai, it’s difficult to avoid superlatives as “the best”, “the most expensive” or “the tallest”, as everything is over the top and must be the best. No wonder Dubai has an indoor skiing slope!
There aren’t too many people at the beach and it is quite windy, but it’s nice to hear the waves crashing and pick up a few seashells for my collection. Dubai coast line keeps changing, in some places it is transformed into walking areas with shops and restaurants, in others it is moved even deeper in the gulf, and houses that used to be near water, now are more inland.
There is a crowd of people taking pictures at Burj Al Arab fence, at least to take a picture of not to stay here! It is mostly known as a seven start hotel, which is actually not true. After the opening ceremony of the hotel a British journalist described this hotel as best the she had ever seen and called it a seven start hotel. The hotel management claims they have never said so or used this in advertising, and officially it does not have such a status. If the aura of luxury wasn’t enough, there are numerous events that have taken place on the roof of the hotel to make it even more grand, such as David Coulthard driving Formula 1 here or Andre Agassi and Roger Federer playing a game.
Opposite the hotel is the traditional Arab market Souk Madinat Jumeriah, which is more of a theme shopping mall where you can buy jewelry, scarfs and other typical souvenirs. You can also ride a boat in the channels and many families with children do use at the opportunity! There are many similar markets in Dubai, also a gold market, but these are not centuries old markets but new concrete buildings. It’s common in Dubai to try to vintage some of these places.
The famous sunset excursion is no exception, you can take it either individually or also using the same hop on hop off bus ticket. You will be able to get a henna drawing on your hand, take a picture with a falcon or camel and have a meal in almost authentic fort, which will even have some cracks drawn on it. There are many Bedouin villages like this one, some even have hotels and desert spas. One of my Lebanese colleagues comments that she once wanted to start a conversation with the henna artists, but turned out she didn’t speak any English or Arabic. Many of the immigrants from Asia unfortunately live in horrible conditions and make very little money, most of which is sent home anyway. Although discussions about human rights are in order, especially after the rumors of 14 hour working days in 50°C, officially there is not such problem.
Dubai is a city of glass, skyscrapers, highways and dust storms. But there is a place where you can be for at least a little while with the nature. Ras Al Khor refuge is a place I enjoyed very much! It’s a lake near the city border where flamingos live.
Feels surreal when pink birds just walk around and few kilometers further blue skyscrapers twinkle in the distance, men are at work and there is a highway nearby. Although the city does seem like a construction area from this viewpoint, the drop in oil prices has influenced the construction boom and some projects have been stopped altogether.
Where in the world could the largest shopping mall be if not in Dubai? It has 1200 stores and was the most visited building in the world in 2011. During the day it isn’t very crowed and you wouldn’t have guessed it can host 55 million people a year. But evenings is a different story! Even near midnight, when it’s closing, it’s extremely full and you have to push through to get anywhere. There are thousands of tourists and local women shopping. I see niqabs, hijabs and even hair flowing freely. I walk by the famous Dubai Mall aquarium that also has dozens of people at the huge tank that holds rays and sharks.
There are three places I enjoy very much in Dubai Mall. The first is Kinokuniya book store which is a dream come true for every bookworm and bookdragon. There are so many books here that everyone will find something for their taste! I come back here a few more times, but I keep getting lost on the way in and out. The second store is from local Soukh area, Ajmal Perfume. One can buy typical perfumes, especially those that have Agar wood smell. I learn that on it’s own, it doesn’t smell like anything, but when the wood is infected by a particular type of mold, it develops a raisin like dark substance that has this unusual aroma, known as oud. It is used for male and female perfumes and is typical in Arabic countries. I have a few personal favorites such as Rose Wood and Aurum, which I first bought in Abu Dhabi airport on the way back from my destination wedding & honeymoon in Seychelles. Loveliest memories!
I also visit a Japanese store where I learn that I am not too familiar with the culture of this country. I see numerous things for house and various pens and pencils, but there are so many items where I don’t have the faintest idea what it is! It doesn’t stop me from looking at the colorful packages, many of which have cartoon like drawings.
When coming to Dubai Mall one should definitely take a map, as you really can get lost here! At first it might seem that only oil tycoon children might be able to buy anything at all here, as there really is a gold ATM and the most expensive stores as well, but actually one can also find stores for general taste here too.
When I finally manage to push through the crowd in the store, I exit on the other side of the complex at the Dancing Fountain of Dubai. Accompanied by music, water shoots up to 150 m high, moves around, dances and lights from Burj Khalifa twinkle nearby. If it feels like you have maybe seen this somewhere else, it’s not a big surprise to learn that the fountains are made by the same company that is responsible for Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas.
Of course, the one in Dubai surpasses all of the others in the world, as it can simultaneously shoot up 83 000 liters of water. From six til eleven in the evening it dances every thirty minutes and twice during the day. The crowds of thousands of people may impair your chances at witnessing the show, so we decide to head to Wafi Gourmet, a Lebanese restaurant with a viewing terrace to the side of the fountain. We eat a very tasty traditional meal here, a perk of multicultural environment here in Dubai, and see the show numerous times.
To be honest, the current tallest building in the world is not much different from all the other tallest buildings, except for it’s height – 828 m. You can observe a view from the top, including the Palm Islands in the distance. The air is slightly foggy and the dusty windows also don’t add to visibility.
Depending on the price, you can see either viewing deck of the 124th floor or even get to 148th floor, which will cost you four times more. You can also dine in an expensive restaurant here. If the price of the visit (30 euro) doesn’t scare you, you should buy the tickets in advance. The price isn’t different on the spot or online, but sometimes tickets sell out.
I meet several people who work in white collar professions in Dubai and have citizenship of other countries. One of those is a Latvian girl who lives there for over five years, we decide to take a walk in the Dubai Marina area. It is known as a well situated expat area and also for the fact that many bars in the are serve not just virgin drinks.
Before we even start talking about Dubai, I notice that she no longer has blond hair! How come? She says that light hair attracted too much attention and two months was enough to color it dark. Even with dark hair she sometimes gets questions from the local girls who want to touch it, as structure is different that of that in local women.
I finally have a chance to ask about the covering of hair, why some cover and why some don’t? She says that sometimes even the same women would have it covered, at times, would not, seems it depends on the company they are in. Men also wear headware, kufiya, which is supposed to be depicting the fisherman’s net. They are made from cotton (but I heard that you can also buy warmed ones in winter) and their purpose is to protect from heat and dust. I also ask about a redhead with blue eyes in the traditional men’s wear I saw during the day, is he a business person adapting to the local customs? No, not at all, there are many Arabs who have European mothers, that’s why the look. I also learnt that to work in Dubai you don’t need to know Arabic, English is enough.
We talk about the prices here, as living in Dubai is expensive, a small studio type apartment can be 2000 euro per month. But while working in Dubai, everything else seems cheap, and many exotic destinations are within reach from the large Dubai airport.
I talk to my Lebanese and Filipino colleagues and they mention some of the negatives about living in Dubai. Firstly, this is not a place where to live with children, as education is extremely expensive here. Lebanese colleague mentions she can afford the school for her two daughters only because they study in French and France sponsors the school. It is also frowned upon unmarried couples living together and when you are headed to deliver a baby, it’s a wise idea to pack your marriage certificate. Moral police? I also learn that getting married to her second husband was also linked to the fact that she didn’t want her children to be called names, as their mother isn’t married. Of course, she loves him very much, but in modern society in many countries it’s no longer important to be married, but it is not the case in Emirates. But she isn’t planning to move back, as situation in her home country isn’t that stable. On the other hand, all that my Filipino colleague talks about, is going home so she can get married. Her fiancee is waiting for her back home, this is one long distance relationship! She is putting money aside for a large wedding at the church.
Before going to Dubai I was worried if I can come here alone? Yes, you can! I was there by myself and it didn’t cause any issues. I would only recommend to think about modesty when picking your clothing, as shirt skirts and tops won’t be respectful to the local culture. The women here tell me that it has gotten much easier now, as I had seen a few scarcely dressed women and had questions. At the same time, I have read that there have bee cases that local women approach tourists in the store pointing out the inappropriate clothing and call the security. The wise thing to do is to apologize and say you will get changed or will buy something to put on top, you should never get into an argument. Such cases happen rarely, but an American woman was put in jail for inappropriate dress. I learn that when she was told to wear more clothing, she started protesting and taking off her top. This is a recipe for disaster. Modest clothing is still important in the region and one indicator of that is the symbol at the washrooms, where usual woman’s depiction has a really long dress.
Dubai is a true Arabic Metropolis, where you will hear numerous languages on the streets and won’t be surprised it has become a business center. But it’s worth to see it not just a business destinations but also a city, and to observe the swift development and modern culture.
The best time for a visit is late autumn or early spring, when it’s warm enough to enjoy some sun. Summers are unbearable, heat reaching 50°C and locals tells me they have had problems with their cars overheating.
It’s not difficult to visit the Emirates for most European countries, you will just get a stamp in the passport and perhaps a few questions. Just bear in mind that for departure you have to arrive in advance, as security and passport control takes time.