Dubai: Air Conditioned Perfection
Walking into our glitzy hotel foyer it felt as if we had entered another world. Polished floors, a glistening chandelier, a serene ambience. Everyone looked so well fed, so well groomed. Catching our reflection in the lift mirrors as we went up to our room we couldn’t help but laugh: we were grubby, our clothes faded and grease stained, hair ruffled, it was clear we were in need of a good wash if we were ever going to cut it in this town. ||
Scrubbed and trimmed we ventured outside in search of a grocery store to buy a few provisions. Looking around it became clear that Dubai is not a place for street shopping. Everything was encased in big malls, not a small shop in sight. 8 and 10 lane highways twisted around the towering skyscrapers, and as pedestrians we felt vulnerable and insignificant. The roads are built like Formula One tracks and the flashy cars zipping around treat them like it.
For those of you that don’t know us we are more tree huggers than urbanites so we tend to avoid malls, but walking into the entrance of the Deira City Center, feeling the blast of air conditioning strip away the searing heat we could have sworn we were walking through the pearly gates of heaven. We had forgotten about all the delightful little luxuries we had missed out on in the last few months. Posters in shop front windows screamed at us to BUY, BUY, BUY. Everything we wanted and needed was there, all under one glorious roof. We headed for the nearest cafe, sat down, looked at the prices, stood up, then skipped off to the supermarket. It was clear we would be doing a lot of window shopping for the next few weeks (we ended up spending 3 weeks in Dubai waiting for our Indian visa). Our favourite shopping mall became the Dubai Mall, not only due to its free Wifi service, but also its gigantic aquarium. In the middle of the shopping mall, a huge vinyl window allows for hours of free entertainment, watching several types of sharks, stingrays and dozens of other types of fish floating through the aquarium with up to six divers joining them at any time.
The following morning Freddie’s father arrived, after flying all the way from Hamburg to visit us. After over indulging in the breakfast buffet we met Jörg, a colleague of Freddie’s father who had been living and working in Dubai for several years. We jumped in his air conditioned 4WD and scooted downtown through the urban forest of Dubai to check out some of the highlights. So many of the buildings are a showcase in modern day architecture and supreme engineering but the grand daddy of them all, the enormous Burj Khalifa, is the real spectacle. The Burj Khalifa was previously known as the Burj Dubai before Abu Dhabi’s president and ruler of UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan propped up Dubai’s flailing economy after the economic bust in 2008 and asked for the building to be renamed. Towering at some 828 meters it is currently the world’s tallest building and an awesome sight with it’s jaggered edges and glistening metallic skin. At sunset there is a fantastic musical fountain that swirls and shoot jets of water up to 150 meters into the air, all perfectly synchronised to thumping Arabic music with the glistening Burj Khalifa towering in the background.
As we drove through the city we soon got an understanding of the rather rigid class system within the UAE. Emiratis lucky enough to be born into one of the royal families are the ones driving the absolute top of the range luxury cars complete with traditional white robes (“dishdashas”) and Ray Bans. They have an air of confidence as they motor at high speed tooting anyone that gets in their way. Next are the nationals that are not of royal blood, though still well off as they are also supported by the Sheikh and encouraged to be active business men through a variety of lucrative grants. No foreign ownership is allowed without partnering with a national so many have found riches through this avenue – their favourite vehicle is the white Landcruiser. Emiratis only make up 20% of the population of Dubai, but they are clearly in control of the country. (Interestingly we later learned that the Emiratis were really quite poor before they discovered oil and used to commonly work in Mumbai carrying loads at the ports and railway stations). Coming in third are the western expats with their lower end 4WDs, followed close behind by skilled professionals from India, the Middle East and Asia.
Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, African and South East Asian workers bring up the rear and have a very different lifestyle than the rest. Most are unskilled labourers on low pay working largely in construction and often in substandard conditions. They’ve come to support their families back home or escape persecution. Their vehicles of choice are pickup trucks, buses and creaky old bicycles.
Jörg took us down to his favourite little beach spot, with gin clear waters and the Dubai skyline shimmering in the background. In true Dubai style the spot had now been converted to a building site as another luxurious hotel was rising from the sands.
With minimal drinking in Turkey and Iran the general consensus was to head to the nearest watering hole. Though Dubai is dry, it’s fine to have the odd sherbet at specific venues. Luckily Jörg knew of just the place so we ended up at an Irish pub and soon consumed a Guinness and hearty Chicken pie. We have found the diversity and quality of food in Dubai fantastic, perhaps in part it is related to our 3 month long Kebab diet.
The following day we visited the very compact “historical area” of Dubai which largely surrounds The Creek – a river which served as a trading hub for pearls divers and spice merchants for centuries. It is still a bustling hub of activity where Dhows are loaded with goods for their long voyage to India or East Africa. The Dubai Museum (squashed in between skyscrapers) is really the one and only place to get an impression of Dubai’s past. It was very informative and mind blowing to think that a sleepy desert city has sprung up to what it is today in such a short time. Interestingly the exhibits of the traditional traders had a very strong resemblance to what we saw in parts of Iran today.
Though both are oil rich gulf countries, the difference in standard of living between Iran and the UAE is extreme. In Iran the majority of people seem to be low middle class, where UAE nationals are very well provided for. Where the UAE are starting reforestation projects in an effort to reclaim some of the desert, Iran managed to destroy a large part of their wilderness in just over a decade. In Iran funding for the arts is severely drying up whilst the UAE invest heavily as they plan to build a branch of the Louvre, an opera house and Guggenheim museum.
Heavily focussed on moving away from their oil dependency which accounted for 75% of the economy in the early 80’s they have now reduced this to 25%. Though oil rich with still massive reserves the UAE are moving ahead with a US $22 billion project to develop the world’s first carbon neutral zero waste city. It’s hard not to be impressed with their vision and determination to progress and take on ambitious projects, it’s an exciting can-do attitude, where dreams really are turned into reality.
The next morning we said a sad farewell to Freddie’s father and loaded him up with kit not required for India and South East Asia, largely our tent and old companion Boris. We were able to convince Boris that a European winter will be more enjoyable than camping it up in India where it is likely he will be taken apart by monkeys. It was a difficult choice as we lose our independence but we also know from other travellers that the chances of camping in India without being disturbed are pretty much nil.
Our stay at the IBIS hotel was a lovely gift from Freddie’s father but now we needed to downgrade to something cheaper and ideally with kitchen facilities and space to work on the bikes. So we packed up our bikes and a little hesitantly cycled across town to our new abode, where the lively and cheeky Philippino manager took delight in calling us Mr and Mrs Bike.
The following day was dedicated to cleaning and boxing the bikes in preparation for India. It tooke us a whole day as it was the first time we had boxed our bicycles. We also managed to finally catch up with Jet and Jen, a British cycling couple who had been closely behind us since Istanbul. In Esfahan, we had missed them by only half a day, so we were glad to finally meet up with them in person. We may see them again in India.
Our objective for the next few days was to book our flight to Goa, from where we plan to cycle around the tip of the Indian peninsula to Chennai, a journey of around 2100 km. We ran around to various airlines agencies to ask about their bike policy and found that Emirates and Jet Air seemed to be the best choices. Prices were rising every day as it was getting closer to the busy holiday season, and all direct flights to Goa were either booked out or did not accept bikes. This meant we had to fly via Mumbai or Bengaluru and change to a domestic flight there. Many of the domestic flights are operated with small ATR planes and don’t accept bicycles, plus our weight allowance would drop to 20kg for the domestic segment compared to 30kg for the international flight. In any case we found a cheap flight to Goa via Bengaluru and tried to book it online, but the payment process kept falling over, and when we phoned the airline they were unable to even see the flight on their system.
It was now close to midnight, and in a last minute huff we gave up trying to fly to Goa. It was simply too complicated. We quickly looked for a cheap flight to Mumbai, booked it and went to sleep, deciding to worry about getting to Goa later. Perhaps it was a regrettable decision as we will now have to find a way of transporting our kit to Goa, and we know the Indian train system is chaotic at the best of times. However, one big benefit of going to Mumbai is that we will be able to catch up with some friends there – Abhishek, Freddie’s friend from her university days, and Amol, who we have been in email contact with and who is planning to travel to Mumbai all the way from Pune to meet up with us.
But first, we had some time to kill in the UAE whilst waiting for our visa to come through.