Dubai

'In Dubai, nothing is free.' – Traveller from Mosambique

On my way back from Germany to Australia I stopped in Dubai for a few nights. I had never been in the Middle East before, and although I’m not incredibly attracted to the region and culture, it was on my flight route so I took the opportunity to check it out.

Flight time from Frankfurt is only about six hours, so I left Germany in the morning and just after sunset I was in Dubai – three hours time difference included. The huge and modern airport is an attraction by itself and once I had retrieved my luggage I converted the remaining Euros in my pocket into Dirham and walked to the Metro station.

Modern metro station
Modern metro station

I could have taken the easy option and grab a taxi to my hotel, but I thought it would be worth getting to know the Metro system early, as it’s a great way to get around in Dubai. I managed to buy a Nol ticket (public transport) from a vending machine and get onto the correct train that would take me to the nearest station from my hotel. All surprisingly easy. What surprised me too, was how packed the train was in the end, even that late in the evening (it was around 8pm by then).

My hotel was good value for money. The best thing was the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet. I’ll have the steak, and the grilled lamb, and the chicken satay, and the pasta, and the rice, a mixed salad and a plate with assorted cakes and fruit. Afterwards I asked reception to try and book a ticket for Burj Khalifa, the highest skyscraper in the world, since tickets for the viewing platform need to be booked in advance.

The following day I wanted to check out the beaches, but instead of taking the hotel shuttle bus, I tried to find the way myself. I walked around Dubai Marina first and eventually found a way to a public beach. It was close to what looked like an industrial port and it was still early in the day, so I chose not to stay.

Dubai Marina
Dubai Marina

I had bought a day ticket for public transport, so I could just hop-on hop-off at any train station, tram or bus, which was very convenient. I took the tram to Palm Jumeira, a large artificial sandbank construction for hotels or apartments, or something. The monorail there would take people to the Atlantis, The Palm hotel resort at the far end. One of the public attractions there is a dolphinarium. For some reason Nol tickets weren’t accepted at the monorail station. Since I don’t support keeping dolphins in captivity and also didn’t want to purchase another ticket just for a monorail round trip, I left again.

I knew there was another public beach near Burj al Arab, so I went there. It was very crowded, and again, not very attractive. It seems the best beaches in Dubai are reserved for guests of adjoining hotels, so if you go to Dubai for the beaches it’s probably worth staying in one of the hotels that have a private beach.

Beach near Burj Al Arab
Beach near Burj Al Arab

I stayed for a little while, but then jumped on a bus back to Dubai Marina – however, I missed my stop and ended up in Dubai Internet City, an area with lots of IT companies, like Microsoft and Dell. Fortunately, a metro station was just around the corner, so it actually saved me time.

With some time left in the afternoon, I decided to check out the Mall of the Emirates, which was only one stop from the hotel. I thought shopping centres in Australia were huge, but Mall of the Emirates surely beats everything.

Mall of the Emirates
Mall of the Emirates

Back at the hotel I found out that unfortunately staff weren’t able to book a ticket for Burj Khalifa for me. It was the main season in Dubai and apparently tickets for the viewing platform were booked out days in advance. Why they couldn’t add more than one viewing deck on a skyscraper more than 800m high, remains a secret. I then booked a Desert Safari tour instead.

The next day I went back to Mall of the Emirates to organise a few things. In the afternoon, the driver picked me up for the desert safari tour. It’s fascinating how these cheap tourist tours that you can book in hotels work the same in every country: the tour seems affordable at first, but then after a short drive there is a ‘toilet break’, conveniently located at a market, shop, gem factory or some other place (that secretly partners with the tour operator) where you are made to feel obliged to buy souvenirs. In this case it was a supermarket where vendors tried to sell Keffiyeh, a traditional Arab head scarf. I refused to buy, and the salesguy wasn’t happy.

Desert safari tour
Desert safari tour

A short drive later we arrived at the sand dune area, where all tour operators seem to meet, each group a few hundred metres apart. Once all cars of our tour had arrived – all Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser – and tyre pressure was reduced, we departed on a dune bashing ride for the better part of an hour. It was great fun and the best part of the tour.

Afterwards all cars went to a ‘camp’ between the dunes where all tour operators dropped off their guests. In the end there must have been at least 200 people there, clearly it’s a popular tour among tourists, and the locals did their best to milk the cow. First we had the choice between riding a quad or riding a camel. At extra cost of course. Given how unmaintained the quads looked I still can’t believe I actually paid for it, but our driver was a convincing salesman.

Inside the ‘camp’ (it was meant to resemble some kind of fort), once the different tour drivers had agreed who can sit on which table, we were left sitting for probably at least an hour. By then the sun had gone down. I was so fortunate that I had brought a jumper with me, I did have a feeling it might get chilly in the desert at night. Others hadn’t thought that far ahead. Conveniently, plenty of shops inside the camp were selling everything from arabic clothing to scarves and souvenirs.

Sun setting
Sun setting

After a performance by a (single) traditional dancer, starters were served. People had to queue up at the catering tables. For some strange reason they insisted on a queue for men and another one for women, but serving the same.

Another half an hour later, another performance, this time by a (single) belly dancer. With her blonde hair she looked about as arabic as the Lamborghinis on Dubai’s roads, but her dancing was good. To avoid long queues though, plenty of guest didn’t even let her finish the dance and ran for the catering tables again, nearly starving by then. The dancer obviously wasn’t too happy.

On the tour operator’s website, the belly dancer performance is described as

Excitement rents the air as the audience try to match her steps.

Rest assured this didn’t happen.

After the main buffet with plenty of food we left fairly soon, and thanks to the maniac we had as driver, we were back at the hotel in no time. Next time I would probably try to book a private desert safari trip, without such a large group, and without up-selling at every stop.

Dune camp
Dune camp

The following day was my last day, but because my flight would depart late in the evening, I had booked another half day in the hotel so I could check out at 6pm. I went to Dubai Mall which is located next to Burj Khalifa, so that I could at least take some photos of the huge building from outside.

Dubai Mall is an incredible place. It feels even larger than Mall of the Emirates. You would probably need an entire day just to see every part of it. So many shops, it’s overwhelming.

Outside the mall you stand right across from Burj Khalifa, and I must have stayed there for at least half an hour, fascinated by this gigantic building and trying hard to fit it into a single photo.

Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa

Back at the hotel I packed up and took the metro back to the airport. Once again the train was so packed some people even skipped the train to try the next one.

Is Dubai for me?

You should consider visiting Dubai, if

  • it happens to be in your flight path and you haven’t been there before
  • you have lots of money to spend, and don’t mind paying for extras everywhere
  • you find it enjoyable to spend your holidays admiring other people’s wealth and decadent display of luxury
  • you think shopping and money is what life is all about
  • you have no interest in nature, because everything in Dubai is either artificial or at least imported – except for the few sand dunes left
  • you’ve always wanted to see a Lamborghini racing a Ferrari in a 60 km/h zone
  • you have no problem with Russian tourists, their embarrassing sunglasses, their 90’s clothing, their rude manners and their inexcusable swim wear

A few more photos are in the new album Dubai.