Due to a delay of 18 hours by Emirates airlines, and a wait in the queue at Dubai immigration of an hour, (which is normal) I arrived in Dubai much later than I thought and got one day knocked off my 4 day visit right from the start. Since I was using Dubai as a convenient and cheap stopover on the way to Osaka however, I didn’t mind too much and if anything the quality of the airline and the in-flight entertainment system made up for it somewhat. Over 100 films to choose from which you can start, stop and pause independently of anyone else, plus lot of other things too. I had been to Dubai airport in the past to change flights and was impressed by the airport but not by the staff, so I did wonder what Dubai itself might be like. One thing is for sure; the taxis are not very expensive and won’t give any trouble. The traffic on the other hand is diabolical, and walking is not a great option either since there are several roads that are long, wide and uncrossable since there are no underpasses or bridges, and the roads can be 4 fast lanes each side with a high fence in the middle. There’s nothing like having to walk a few hours out of your way just to get the other side of the road to make you just want to call a cab to take you there instead. So hey, Dubai infrastructure planners! Whilst you’re busy spending all that money, think of those people that travel by foot once in a while, since you’ve got no decent public transport alternative bar taxis, and your traffic problems are terrible.
Since I’ve visited many places now, a lot of places are beginning to feel a lot like other places I’ve already been. Dubai is one of those. Deira, the old section seems a lot like Istanbul with it’s spice markets, creek and old school appearance and way of life, whereas the skyscraper street in Jumeirah feels a lot like Hong Kong Island’s skyscraper streets. The rest of Dubai feels a little like Las Vegas at times, because it’s hot, there’s a desert and most things are new, built with all that spare money that is washing around the place. Also like Vegas, the showpiece building is a hotel, in this case the 7 star Burj Al Arab hotel, which is a large impressive and elegant building built on a small artificial island right next to the coast and linked by a guarded bridge to keep out the commoners like me. You can get close enough to take a good photo though, and you can sometimes get inside for an expensive drink too though not whilst I was there as there was a private function, no doubt for the very rich given the high numbers of helicopters taking off and landing from the hotels saucer-like heli- pad near the top. As Vegas, there are several entertaining distractions from real life. The main two are to take a desert safari with one of the many companies that offer them, or to visit the Wild Wadi water park next to the Burj Al Arab hotel. There are many more distractions being built or created.
The desert safari is the slightly more cultural of the two diversions, ending with a good Middle Eastern buffet, a camel ride and a belly dance. The first part of the safari is the best though – a guy in a Toyota Land Cruiser picks you up from your hotel, and drives about 40 minutes to the desert. Whilst you stop and take photos of the sand and the camels, the drivers lower the tyre pressure to make the sand driving easier, and then you’re off for a 40 minute tour of the sand dunes at high speed, usually driving up them and sliding down them sideways. It takes great skill to do this so only the driver is in control, you don’t get to have a go, despite the roll cage fitted in the vehicle. It’s all very bumpy and quite a safe feeling experience. Even if the Land Cruiser were to roll, the sand is really soft anyway. I sat there bouncing around waiting for it to roll, but alas he kept in the right way up for the duration. Right before the buffet section of the evening is a desert sunset to be photographed.
The Wild Wadi water park is a very large place, with many water slides, places to swim, surfing pools, and one stupidly high one-person water slide which I went down in a moment of brain-fade. It did look high from the bottom. It looked even higher from the top and yet for a moment there I just thought that going down would be no problem at all. After all, the person that went before me had just got up from the bottom, a tiny speck below but very much alive and moving about. So down I went and after travelling only a few meters and picking up a lot of speed, it suddenly seemed to be not quite such a good idea after all and a rather large and fast moving problem. By this time of course, there is no stopping, no slowing and no way out or off until you’ve reached the end. The end comes soon enough but only after you’ve taken off part way down. You might only take off 1 or 2 centimetres but since the sides of the chute are only about 30cm high themselves then there’s the briefest moment of terror as you imagine yourself landing outside the ride and on top of a palm tree or a piece of tarmac many meters below. Arriving at the bottom in a thunder of speed and water is something of a relief despite the feeling that there is no possible way to stop before hitting the wall at the end. But you don’t hit it, or even come near. Praise for the lack of aerodynamics of human feet. A lot of the other rides involve sitting in a large rubber ring and riding around the entire park on the water, in the sun, occasionally going down some dark enclosed water slide. You could do this all day long as whilst being busy, there were no lengthy queues in November. I can imagine in the 50 degree heat of a Dubai summer it becomes a lot more packed. None of the water in Wild Wadi is particularly salty either which is a good thing a certainly some of it will end up in your mouth. There are plenty of places to do regular swimming too, including one artificial wave pool that was not in use on the day I went there, but detracted in no way from the enjoyment of the place. Given another few days in Dubai and I might well have gone to Wild Wadi twice.
Many of the beaches in Dubai are only accessible if you are staying in a beachfront hotel, which charge premium prices for rooms. Staying in a much cheaper and very good quality managed apartment/hotel called Golden Sands 3 in Bur Dubai, this meant that the beaches were a 15 minute taxi ride away, and only the public ones were available. When researching this in the UK, it didn’t sound like a great option, but the reality in Dubai is this is no problem at all. Taxis are cheap and easy to find, and the public beach in Jumeirah is one of the best I’ve ever been on. The sand is golden and fine, and the sea is blue, warm and clean. Neither have any trace of rubbish, seaweed or fish, and the sea is great for swimming. In fact the only negative thing about the sea is the salt content which is so high it makes you want to vomit if you get it in your mouth.
There are not a lot of great buildings to see in Dubai. There are a lot of new skyscrapers, including the semi complete super skyscraper destined to become the highest in the world until someone goes one better. But none of these are particularly cultural or famous. Jumeriah Mosque is quite nice and the biggest in Dubai, however I could not help but make comparisons with the much bigger and more historic/impressive blue mosque in Istanbul. Some of the largest buildings are the many super shopping malls, such as the giant mall of the Emirates. If shopping is your religion, then this is your temple. It comes complete with a large indoor ski slope with real snow and a genuine minus 3 degree temperature from countless air-conditioning units placed inside. This struck me as a very Vegas type of thing to build. If you do happen to be in the Mall of the Emirates, find the cake/pastry shop called Cinnabon and buy one of their cakes, and you will find the most heavenly tasting sweet thing you could ever imagine. I hope they have some words in Arabic to describe just how good this thing is, as there certainly are not good enough words in English. The Mall also has several large food courts, some cheap and some expensive. There is good Lebanese food and kebabs to be found as well as the inevitable McDonalds.
I had heard Dubai was a destination only for the rich. This certainly isn’t the case. Flights from the UK are cheap if you book in advance, and the good quality but reasonably priced Golden Sands managed apartments/hotels are certainly more than good enough accommodation. Taxis are cheap and food is also cheap (and good) unless you’re purposely going to try and find high cost restaurants. The only thing that might set you back is alcohol. You can’t find this anywhere except the bars of the hotels used by foreigners and they can charge whatever they like. At the time of writing, this seems to be about 3 times as expensive as you’d expect to pay in a pub in England. In the Deira area, crossing the creek by abra (a type of boat) is so cheap I don’t even think there is even an equivalent amount in the UK.
Deira is the older part of Dubai, and has many markets called Souks. Souk just seems to be a local word for what I’d know as a Bazzar. In the gold souk I was approached on average about once every 30 seconds by men chanting the mantra “Rolex, Bulgari, Breitling”. Never before in all my travels have I been offered so many copy watches in such a short space of time. Around Deira is also the Dubai creek, where you can still see many old looking boats loading up with cargo for a long journey. Deira and it’s souks are well worth a visit, especially if you want to buy spices or a carpet. They’re the most cultural part of Dubai and have a reasonably good feel of the old fashioned Middle East. But it has to be said this type of thing is better experienced in Istanbul.
I had expected to be tripping over Ferraris and Lamborghinis in Dubai, but it simply wasn’t so. I only saw two of the former and one of the latter. What they do have is probably 50% of the worlds Porsche Cayennes and BMW 7 series, nearly all in white and many with giant alloy wheels and thin tyres. But if you really want to blend in on the roads in Dubai, get a white Toyota Camry.
I’m not sure if I’d ever make Dubai my end destination, but since it makes a damn good, convenient , warm, cheap and relaxing stopover on the way to Asia, I can see that I will end up there again sooner or later, and I’ll be sure to visit Wild Wadi water park when I do. By 2017, there will probably be more entertaining distractions in Dubai than anywhere else on earth, once the massive Dubailand super theme park is finished. Now all they need to do it speed up their woefully slow immigration queues and sort out a good public transport system.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2007