Friday, January 01, 2010

Trip Report: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

These posts are mainly for the benefit of my family and friends, but all are welcome to read it. They constitute a trip report for my recent vacation to Morocco, Egypt and Dubai.

Please forgive my tragic misspellings of placenames; I jotted down what I heard, and I'm going to avoid too much fact-checking just to get this up on the blog quickly. Likewise, I'm not editing this too closely, so you're reading whatever I blathered out in that evening after the tours finished.

I will put large blocks of history/trivia in red so that, if you're not interested, you can skip quickly over that material.

Lastly, my husband is quite a bit shyer than I am about having details of his life put up on the internet, so I'll refer to him as "El Husbando" everywhere. Those of you who know his real name can substitute it in yourselves. :-)

Day 15, travel to Dubai

When we left Cairo airport, we passed upward through the thin cloud that covered the city, and from the air, it was pretty obvious that cloud was dirty grey, not white like the clouds higher up.

The Red Sea is actually a very pretty shade of blue. The Saudi desert had fluffy little clouds floating above it, which made it look much less scorched than it would have otherwise. We did spot some green circles of irrigated land.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) have a population of 5 million, with Dubai accounting for 1.5 million. However, 80% of the population consists of foreigners working on visas. There's little unemployment, because if a foreigner loses their job, they have four weeks to find a new one or leave the country.

45 years ago, Dubai consisted of desert and Bedouin tribesmen; its whole amazing cityscape has been built since that time. The city's grandparents grew up in tents; its parents grew up in the first stone houses; its children walk among glass towers. They estimate 30% of the world's construction cranes are in Dubai.

Like Egypt, the work week is from Sunday to Thursday, and Friday and Saturday are the weekend. (Morocco keeps the same work week as Europe.)

After Cairo, Dubai looked incredibly clean and orderly, but we learned it can be a bit too orderly for comfort. For example, you can be arrested for taking pictures of airports, military buildings, government buildings, police buildings, police officers, police cars, and even Emirate ladies (it's okay if they walk into your shot, but don't focus on just them.)

Foreigners can buy alcohol in hotels and pubs, but they may not drink or be drunk in public, with the penalty being up to four days in jail. Also, buying alcohol to drink at home is more effort than it's worth. You have to apply for a liquor licence, and your application must include a note from both your employer and your landlord saying they're okay with you drinking alcohol. Then, you go to one of only two stores in Dubai that will sell you alcohol, and you're not permitted to spend more than 5% of your income on it.

That's in Dubai. Some of the other Emirates don't allow any alcohol at all.

The Emirates are one of the safest places in the world to visit. Crime rates are very low due to a combination of high police presence, strict laws, public cameras, the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) and a policy of deporting any foreigner who tangles too seriously with the law (which is fine, considering other Arab countries have been known to whip or cut off the hands of criminals, with foreigners getting no special treatment in that regard.)

Dubai has the largest shopping mall in the world and the tallest building in the world (and they're side-by-side, as it turns out.) The latter, the Burj Dubai (burj means "tower"), is 818 metres high with 169 floors. It's due to open on Jan 4, 2010, but that date has already been delayed twice, probably due to the economic slowdown. In case you hadn't heard, Dubai is in some financial trouble; it's in debt to the tune of 80 billion US dollars.

We caught our first glimpse of the Burj Dubai at the airport, and my impression of it is, and remains, that it looks almost mythical, like something out of Tolkien. It spirals up to a very narrow point, so it's dramatic in profile. Its glass is blue and its metal silver, and if you're viewing it from far enough away, the tower starts to fade into the colour of the sky a bit, like distant mountains do. Then it looks quite surreal and magical.

The UAE gets its water from desalination plants along the gulf, and Dubai's can produce a billion litres per day. This is a good thing, because Dubai has the highest rate of water consumption per person in the world: about 800 L per day. However, 80% of that water is used for irrigation. The rule of thumb is that the richer the Emirate, the greener it looks. (Abu Dabi is greener than Dubai, by the way.) All the landscaping must be irrigated, and as a further expense, all of Dubai's bedding plants have to be replaced annually. With the temperature of an average summer day being about 45 degrees Celsius, even irrigation won't keep their flowers from frying into cinders.

Dubai first started to grow on the strength of oil money, but that accounts for only 10% of its income now--which is good because they estimate they only have 10 years of oil reserves left. That said, UAE residents own 10% of the WORLD's oil reserves. Presently, per litre, oil is about half the price of water here.

The largest industry in Dubai is now tourism, which accounts for 30% of their income. Due to the economic slowdown, they've suspended construction on a lot of the luxury island building they had planned (you've probably seen shots of the original Palm Island; they were building a second Palm Island, and a World Island, and some other larger Islands.) Dubai currently has 70 km of coastline; the islands would have expanded that by 800 km, and there would have been room for 3 million more people there. With the cost of one of the small World Islands being 6 million US dollars (Germany sold for $45 million US), it's unclear where these 3 million super-rich people would come from.

In fact, there's a lot of things about Dubai that make your common sense say, "WHAT?!" There are 60,000 hotel rooms in the city, and the plan was to double that number by 2012. They are still building Dubai Land, which is a leisure city half the size of Dubai itself, featuring every attraction you can think of including reconstructions of the Great Pyramids and other landmarks of the world. It sounds insane, and we can't imagine how anyone thinks these things will be profitable. Even office buildings aren't profitable right now. Since the economic slowdown, the rumour (no official numbers) is that Dubai's new buildings have only about 20% occupancy.

The Emirates are governed by 7 Shiekhs, one from each Emirate. They vote on who the president and vice president are, but there's an unwritten law that it's always the Shiekh of Abu Dabi who is president and always the Shiekh of Dubai who is vice president. They both get veto power on any decision made.
That evening, we walked along the seawall that edges the "creek", but I'll describe the area better later in this report.

Day 16, Dubai

One of the interesting things about Dubai is we never talked to anyone Arab there; everyone who served us in the hotel, the shops, or on our tours was a foriegner. The only Arabs we spoke to at all were the Customs agents at the airport.

Our tour guide was Sebastian, from Germany, and our driver was Aminham, from Pakistan. We asked both of them individually whether they liked living in Dubai, and rather tellingly, both started their reply with, "Uh..." Sebastian doesn't like it because of the ferocious summer heat and the fact he can't get a beer in the Emirate where he lives. Aminham doesn't like it because he's a driver, and with all the construction, the roads are constantly changing. However, we did meet other tour guides, drivers and an ice cream vendor later in the trip who do like living in Dubai, including one fellow who has been living here with his family since the 1970s.

Driving to pick up the other guests on the tour allowed us to get our first real look at the city. Because it has grown so fast, there are clusters of skyscrapers widely separated from one another, like different city centres in a metropolis, except that in Dubai the effect is caused by someone simply deciding to start building a new office district somewhere. If you look at photos of the Burj Dubai's area as it was being built, you'll see that the region was mostly desert. Now, it's completely built up and shot through with major highways.

We went to see the Burj Al Arab, which is the first 7-star hotel in the world. It's a landmark building you've probably seen pictures of: it's shaped like a giant sail, specifically the sail on a dhow, which is a small boat used for shipping.

There is no such thing as a hotel with more than a 5-star rating, but the Burj Al Arab has such a superlative level of service that the rating is arguably not just a marketing gimmick; it's earned.

The smallest suites are two-floor and 178 square metres, and they will cost you $1,500 US per night. The largest suite is 780 square metres and will cost $15,000 per night. The hotel offers a pickup service from the airport. If you're staying in the cheap suites, they pick you up in a Lexus. If you're in a mid-priced suite, they pick you up in a BMW 7-series. If you're in an expensive suite, they pick you up in a Rolls Royce. And if you're too impatient to be driven, then you can arrange a helicopter from the airport to the hotel's helicopter pad.

The hotel serves the most expensive cocktail in the world, the Triple 7, which costs about $7000 US and comes in a gold-encrusted crystal glass you get to keep. Our guide Sebastian says the Triple 7 is a drink consisting of layered liqueurs--not that he has tried it!

One thing that got Dubai into trouble is that from ocean side of the Burj Al Arab, the building looks like a giant Christian cross. The building's "sail" has a mast, and the hotel's restaurant forms a crossbar on it. Apparently this really offended some other Arab countries, and they wouldn't allow Dubai cars in, because the Burj Al Arab was featured on the licence plates. Dubai has since removed all images from its plates.

The Burj Al Arab is located in an area knicknamed Little Venice, because they've built waterways all around it. It's quite pretty, as is Jumeira beach, which the Burj Al Arab faces onto. We didn't get to see the inside of the Burj Al Arab because it's locked up tight for guests only. The cheapest way to see the inside is to have high tea there, and that costs $375.

We drove past the Mall of the Emirates, which is the one with the ski hill in it. Apparently skiing there is reasonably priced, although the hill itself is a bit small. I believe the Mall of the Emirates is also the one with the water park in it, although if you want to go there and you're male, you need to check whether it's a women-only day. They have a few of those per week so Emirate ladies can take their children swimming. On women-only days, no one male over the age of 8 is allowed in.

Next, we went to a mall that sold Arabs arts, and that was quite interesting. It was very upscale, but we got to see all kinds of beautiful textiles (rugs for walking on, jeweled rugs to use as wall hangings, clothing), carved wood, detailed metal urns and teapots (some several feet high and obviously for decoration only), and ornate brocade-and-silver-plated furniture.

Outside, we got to look at Jumiera beach properly, which has huge waves and white sand beaches. It's very beautiful, and there was a parasailing company nearby that just left their parasails anchored on the beach. We saw a big cloud of sails wafting about like kites there. To our left, we could see the halted construction of the World Islands, and to our right, the finished Palm Island (which just looks like islands from the ground; you can't tell there's anything special about them there.)

We saw Jumeira Mosque from the outside; non-Muslims are not allowed in Dubai's mosques generally, although the historically interesting ones, such as the Jumeira Mosque, do make exceptions. However, you need to make an appointment first.

The mosque is a pretty, cream-coloured building with high square minarets and relatively small domes. It was built in 1979 in the so-called "new mosque" style, and apparently it's a copy of a building in another country. By the way, Abu Dabi, the capital of the UAE, has the largest mosque in the Emirates, and it's also the third largest in the world. They spent 3 billion dollars on it; I suspect it's very nice.

Churches, Hindu temples, etc. do exist freely in the UAE, but they may not display their symbols, such as the cross, on the outside of the building.

Next, we went to the Dubai Museum, which was actually right across the street from El Husbando's and my hotel. The museum has a dhow displayed outside, which is quite attractive. The whole boat is made from moderately dark wood and it has a sail and oars. Dhows with motors are still used to transport spices and other goods all over the Arab world, including to Dubai. We visited a spice market later in the tour, and our guide said the merchants love coming to Dubai because they can just park their boat somewhere and they don't need to worry about theft at all. There's also no taxes on the goods they sell.

At the museum, we saw a traditional Bedouin hut featuring a wind tower. This is a square tower made of canvas with an 'x' of canvas sheets inside it (going corner to corner.) The top of the tower has open sections under its roof, and the purpose of the tower is to catch wind coming from any direction and funnel it down into the house.

The museum is housed in an old fort made of coral rocks and cement made of mud and lime. They've built a newer section under the fort's courtyard, and this has displays teaching a bit of Dubai's (relatively sparse) history. The most cool thing we learned in the museum? Gerbils are native to Dubai! (Or at least its desert.) Also, we were able to buy chocolate bars made using camel milk in the gift store.

After the museum, we took a water taxi across the "creek" (actually a salt water inlet) to the spice souk and gold souk (where "souk" means "market".) There are bridges over and tunnels under the creek, but the water taxis are still one of the most popular ways for people to get across on foot; the boats are cheap to take, about 4 Dirhams, which is a little over a dollar. You sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a little bench in the middle of the taxi, and there's no guard rail, so if the boat tipped for any reason, everyone would wind up in the creek! Still, the water taxis are cute little boats, also built of wood, not metal.

The spice souk was mostly closed for a Shia Muslim holiday; most of Dubai is Sunni Muslim, but the spice merchants are from other countries. We did get to look at the wares of one merchant. He had branch-sized cinnamon sticks, extremely cheap bags of fresh vanilla beans, frankincense, and dried lemons which are used in cooking and tea (and which are beautifully fragrant when you crack one open to sniff.)

Because of the holiday, there wasn't much else to see in that souk, so we moved on to the next. One interesting thing is there are guys hanging around the souks who will invite you into back rooms or even private houses to see knock-off goods and other wares. Our guide Sebastian said it's perfectly safe to go with these fellows, if we were interested. Dubai is indeed a very law-abiding town!

The gold souk was astonishing. It has 300 jewelry shops and is the largest gold trading centre in the world. They buy and sell 3 tons of gold there every year.

The souk had huge, intricate gold necklaces, almost like collars (which is the Indian style.) They had pearl necklaces in all kinds of colours, but the pearls were the size of gumballs. They had rings with gems the size of cocktail ice cubes.

And there was a lot of perfectly normal looking jewelry too, but the more ostentatious stuff was just jaw-dropping. A lot of the gold is given to brides when they get married. This serves as a kind of insurance policy for the women, because in the case of either their husband's death or a divorce, the wife keeps the gold. This provides her an income, if she's left alone, and it also discourages her husband from divorcing her.

We drove back from the tour, and since it was after dark, we saw for the first time that the Burj Dubai flashes from top to bottom. This is done just by lighting the offices in series all along the tower. Later in the trip, we saw that the tower also has lights along its main terraces that flash in unison, and the terraces have spotlights that are slid all over the tower too.

Day 17, Dubai

The morning of our second day in Dubai, I sat by the window and watched a cloud of starlings swooping and flying around the Grand Mosque, which was just past the museum from us. We could also so a bit of the gulf beyond that.

The tour wasn't until the late afternoon, so El Husbando and I went for a bit of a walk to see the city near us. We had a small textile souk near us that we wandered through, and then we walked along the water of the "creek" to see the sights. There were some pretty buildings farther along, but the boats were probably the neatest thing. There is a whole row of restaurant boats anchored beside the seawall, all made of dark wood and varnished shiny. At night, they're lit up with strings of yellow lights; I don't know if that's always done or if it was special for Christmas (in all the countries we visited, the tourist areas were decorated for Christmas and they played Christmas music.)

The tour itself proved to be utterly awesome. We went for a jeep safari into the desert. The jeeps all gather at a meeting point before going out as a convoy, because--as I'll describe--there is an element of danger. On the way to the meeting point, we saw a road sign for a camel crossing! (Note: We have sometimes have moose or caribou crossing signs in Canada, so I found this pretty funny.)

At the jeeps' meeting point, El Husbando and I got a chance to get out and examine what the raw desert looks like. The area had true sand dunes, and the sand was wonderfully fine and silky. It floated away from your fingers like smoke. There were a few taller trees that looked very exotic, and some hillocks where vegetation had taken hold and kept the sand in place. El Husbando picked up something I had assumed was a tennis ball, and it turned out to be a tiny melon, just like a mini-watermelon. Then we realized some of the little hillocks had a hundred or so of these tiny melons buried in the sand, just growing wild. Our guide said they're simply called desert melons, and they're not edible.

They partly deflated the jeep tires for traction on the dunes, and they we got going. This was an amazing ride. The jeeps roar up the hills, jack-knife over the peaks, then nose-dive into the next valley. They slosh side-to-side wildly, fishtailed often, and many times skied down hills sideways thanks to the soft sand. It was wilder than riding a roller coaster; it was more like being in an inner tube in white water. The experience was utterly exhilarating, and I'd recommend it to anyone--but if you're at all prone to motion sickness, you'd want to take a pill beforehand or it could be a very un-fun experience. The jeep ride lasted about half an hour, and we did see some camels grazing in the desert, although we couldn't release our death-grips on the jeep long enough to get any pictures.

After the ride, the convoy stopped beside a big dune and let us all work off our adrenaline by running up and down it. The sand is so silky that for every step you take upward, you slide backward by at least half that distance. I still have that sand in my shoes; it slithered into every little crack and crevice and I haven't managed to bang it all out yet.

The top of the dune was easiest to walk on and gave us a nice view of the desert at sunset. The sand turns many subtle shades in that light, from pale pinks to dusty greens. The sun passed behind a cloud in such a way that we saw a starburst pattern of rays coming out from all around it.

After that, the convoy drove to a camel farm so we could have a good look from up close. Camels are extremely cute! They have huge dark eyes with very long lashes, a droopy bottom lip and the hint of a smile to the way their mouths are formed. They're also wickedly tall beasties.

Finally, we drove to the (fake) Bedouin camp where we would have dinner. There were several attractions there, from falcons you could hold on your wrist, to a henna artist who would put patterns on your hands, to a shisha (also known as a hookah) pipe you could puff while you had coffee and dates (El Husbando said the pipe tasted wonderfully of apples, and the dates were some of the best he's ever had in his life.) They also had sand surfing, where you could ride a snowboard down a dune either on your feet or your butt (I did the latter; I'm a coward.)

And yes, they had camel riding! And yes, I was stupidly excited to ride a camel for 90 seconds. I am dork, and I feel no shame. The camel's gait is a slow hiccup of motion, but what's really exciting/scary is when the camel stands up or kneels down. These creatures are huge, and they have very long legs. Because of all their knees, it's about a five-stage operation for the camel to stand or kneel, and regardless of which direction they're going, it's a huge swoop of motion for the riders, and you're tilted very far off horizontal while it happens. Freaky!

The dinner was very yummy, and afterward we saw a belly dancer in green who was very good at getting the crowd involved. I'm not enough of an expert to say if she was a good dancer, but everyone enjoyed her show a lot. All in all, this tour was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Day 18, Dubai to Vancouver

Our plane didn't leave until 2 AM the next day, so we had all of this day to bum around Dubai at leisure. What we decided to do is go to the Dubai Mall.

El Husbando and I are not big shoppers, so I'm happy to say we both enjoyed ourselves far more than either of us would have expected to. The Dubai Mall is currently the largest in the world. That's in physical size; it apparently has about the same amount of retail space as West Edmonton Mall in Canada.

To our delight, we discovered the Burj Dubai is right beside the mall, so before we went in, we walked right up to its base and took a zillion photos like the tourists we were. The tower is still being constructed, although it's very close to done. At the base of it (beyond where we were allowed to go), the workers form swarms of yellow helmets. I've never seen so many construction workers in one place.

There is a large fountain area in between the tower, the mall, and a smaller mall (built in a more traditional architectural style), and we did stay long enough to see the music-and-fountain display at six PM that evening. That only lasted about 5 minutes, but it was very pretty, with circles of jets spouting huge blasts of water, and also long lines of jets that waggled to create spiral-shaped spouts. With the lights shining from underneath, the water sometimes looked as bright as campfire sparks shooting into the air.

But back to the mall--or rather, the malls.

As I mentioned, there was a smaller mall built in an older style just across the fountain from the Dubai Mall, so we looked in this first. It proved to be a very beautiful building with lanterns made from punched metal and an arched, decorated ceiling. The goods were lovely also, featuring things like lamps with shades made of coloured glass, carved wood furniture, and some beautiful clothing. I saw a loose turquoise dress with a neckline so decorated it was like a breastplate of gold embroidery and jewels.

After that we dove into the Dubai Mall. The bottom level seems to have a zillion chocolatiers, and the second level is where some of the most high-end vendors (Gucci, Dior, etc.) are located. There is a waterfall fountain that's about three stories high with water pouring down a pebbled brown incline and statues in the form of diving men hovering above all its faces. In general, the mall stayed quite quiet and relaxed until the afternoon, so we didn't have to deal with crowds.

With a mall that big, you see all kinds of wares, so I won't describe too much of that, although the section that had Abeyas--the black outer dresses that Emirate women wear--was memorable. Some of them were lovely! The mall has an ice rink and many stores you would have heard of; for example, El Husbando stopped to get himself a Krispy Kreme doughnut, although the Cinnabon store was also tempting him also. (And for family members: On the way back from the mall, I spotted a Tony Roma's!)

One store I enjoyed far more than El Husbando was the one that had movie/book paraphernalia. From The Lord of the Rings, they had the one ring, Aragon's crown, and Arwen's pendant. From Harry Potter, they had Griffendor's sword, Lucius Malfoy's pimp cane, and all the characters' wands.

The gold souk in the mall wasn't as ostentatious as the one we'd seen the previous day, but it was still astonishing because we saw some very high-end jewelry. These are the kind of things you see royalty wearing in their formal portraits!

The highlight of the entire mall, however, was the Aquarium and underwater zoo.

The Aquarium is three stories high with glass sides so anyone strolling by in the mall can see the sharks, fish and manta rays stocked in it. If you pay the very-reasonable entrance fee (about $15 per person), you get to walk through the tunnel inside the aquarium and go to the underwater zoo on the top floor of the mall. Most of your money's worth comes from the latter, but being able to study a shark from inches away, as it glides over your head, is amazing too.

The underwater zoo is a series of aquariums that are open on top and have a glass face in front. Thus, you can lean over to see the animals from above or squat down to look at them under the water. The zoo featured eels, piranhas, turtles, sting rays, river otters, and lots of fish, including a whole tank of tetras, and some things that were literally log-sized! There were animals called water rats that looked exactly like beavers except with rat-like tails. There were also these bizarre fish that had duckbill snouts and swam with their mouths so wide open you could see their ribs inside.

We saw young crocodiles and pufferfish (which have eyes as iridescent and colourful as opals.) There were octopuses and jellyfish, frolicking seals, lobsters, and crabs the size of small dogs (but taller, because of their long legs.) There was a display of penguins, who are so cute and tubby when they're in the water. We also saw water dragons, which are about the size of your hand and look like sea horses covered in branches and leaves. These "leaves" are its appendages, but at first glance, the animal really does look like a floating clump of seaweed.

There was a display of bamboo shark eggs. These were fascinating because the shell is translucent and you can see through. The display showed the eggs at different stages of development. When they're very young, you can't see much, but at the intermediate stage, you can see the shark embryo attached by umbilical cord to the egg yolk, and the embryo is wiggling around constantly, which apparently builds up its muscles. In the final stage, you can see the shark ready to be born, and we were lucky because one egg had already hatched and so there was a baby bamboo shark swimming around the bottom of the tank looking very pale and new.

We did walk basically the entire mall that day, and yes our feet were tired by the end of it.

We left our hotel a bit after midnight and got another taste of what makes Dubai so safe. To leave the country, we first had to go through a security checkpoint and have all our luggage x-rayed just to get into the airport, then we picked up our tickets and checked our luggage, then we went through passport control (note: on our way OUT of the country), then we went through another security checkpoint and had our carry-on bags x-rayed again, and finally we had to go through another security checkpoint and have our carry-on luggage x-rayed a third time to get into the pre-flight lounge.

That third checkpoint was cute, however, because they have some female staff and a little cubicle there. If a woman sets off the security gate, she goes into the little cubicle to have the wand passed over her by the female staff. This is presumably to protect the woman's modesty, but given our flight was going to Heathrow airport and was mostly full of European women wearing slacks and tshirts, it was kind of funny.

The airport itself was rather interesting, too. The section near our pre-flight lounge had a grove of fake palm trees and carpet patterned to look like the ripples on sand dunes. They also had these large bangles of shiny gold metal up above the palm trees, clearly meant to represent suns. When I visited the restroom, I saw a section of the airport that had large, lit-up, shiny silver UFOs dangling from the ceiling.

And many, many hours after that, we were home in Vancouver again, where we also had to go through a lot more careful scrutiny than we expected, thanks to a recent terrorist scare. We had the most amazing, memorable trip, but it was also exhausting and so even getting home felt pretty fabulous.

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