Dubai: Desert Dreams

From the viewing deck perched atop the world’s tallest standing structure, the Burj Khalifa, on the 124th floor, you can distinctly see two Dubais sprawled way down.

One, the ancient desert land from where the sands of the past swirl around the dunes, as strains of the azaan streak the twilight skies with strokes of serenity.  Where the culture of ages comes alive at dusk desert camps, reached by a swerving jeep ride over the dunes (reminiscent of being tossed bout on a camel’s back), where under a clear starlit sky, belly dancers and bagpipe players and dervishes spin their magic into the night. As the barbecue pit spews its sizzling aromas, and the music spreads on the evening desert winds, you are slowly seduced back in time, to another era. To miles and miles of sand and life under a harsh sun.

All that’s changed now. With the discovery in 1966 of oil reserves, the other Dubai has emerged spectacularly. Shifting sands have given way to miles of high resistant asphalt on which the world’s millionaires and billionaires have set up their entrepreneurial dreams.

This duality in Dubai makes up for some sublime architecture,  a two edged experience, and a contrast that shifts you suddenly from the past to the future at the supersonic speed of the elevator that takes you up the Burj Khalifa at 18 metres per second.

The traditional wooden dhows have made way for perfectly white, stunningly sleek luxury liners, splurged on by international tycoons.

Dubai is a city on a rollercoaster roll.

A magnificent amount of petro dollars have been pumped into its futuristic appearance.   Meteoric high-rises that are architectural marvels, some of which have found their way into various world records, wide radar controlled roads on which elite brand of cars race by at 120 km per hour, and the iconic palm islands built in the shape of a date palm tree, that are touted as the 8th wonder of the world, hosting some of the most extravagant properties internationally and homes that can be seen from as far off as space.

Dubai in fact stands for everything man-made. Nature has been slowly hushed up to slip into the background. Technology has transformed this dry landscape into a destination of dreams and power. It’s out on display here, what sweeping changes man can bring about, even reigning over nature, if he has foresight, concrete plans, the will – and wealth, to make them happen.1430554603

And by far, the best way to get an overview of this futuristic city is by the open- top hop-on hop-off bus that neatly assimilates this dichotomy of Dubai, interlinking its past and its present, by 2 distinct routes. The ideal way to do this is to start off early on one line, which should get covered in about 2 and a half hours, hop off for lunch, and then hop on again and do the other route. This again should take a couple of hours.

The commentary on the headset is lucid and full of interesting anecdotes which serves in bringing Dubai closer to the tourist. Weaving him into the history, culture and landmarks of the city, seamlessly. Like for instance, when citizens of Dubai get married to each other, the government gifts them a house and 70,000 dirham for their honeymoon! Or that Dubai experiences the maximum difference in temperatures in a day, fluctuating from 48 degrees during day, to 28 degrees at night, a range of 20 degrees in less than 24 hours! Or, that under construction, is a residential building that actually rotates once every day. So that the view that you get out of your bedroom windows will be different at various points of the day – and night!

In fact the night tour atop the double decker bus is a glittering tribute to the city. Riding all the way to Palm Jumeira,  this piece of prime property dotted with villas owned by the likes of Michael Schumacher is designed and built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree. This stretch also boasts of The Atlantis, a resplendent luxury hotel that houses an aqua adventure theme park, and one of the world’s finest aquariums dedicated to the lost mythical city of Atlantis. Here in the hotel, you can stay in rooms which are underwater and whose walls are made totally of glass.  Peek-a-boo time for the fish?

Easily tall on any Dubai itinerary is a visit to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. The viewing deck on the 124th floor of this 160 storey structure is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people and houses offices of the who’s who in business. It also holds the distinction of having the world’s highest nightclub, the highest mosque and the world’s highest occupied floor. Ostentatiously, also the world’s largest New Year fireworks display show.

But then, for a government that’s keen on shifting  its economy from being oil centric to one that is service and tourism related, such an extravagant display of wealth, and what may seem to be an over the top indulgence,  is simply, a strategy that has paid off.

Certainly when you are in the muted hush of its steel grey elevators, feeling the world drop away at a breathtaking – and  ear whistling speed of 18 metres per second, (of course, making it the fastest elevator in the world),  you reach the 124th floor and then, all of a sudden, you are at the top.  It’s as if the world has fallen away beneath you, leaving you in the company of the soaring birds, a bluer sky and a careless wind.

And there, way down below you lies Dubai – and you can see clearly now, that it has risen from the desert.  On the gleaming roads flanked by glittering structures, it is all too easy to escape this fact.  The city looks like a giant Lego set, offset with glass blue and copper buildings, the turquoise sea hugging the powdery white sands of the palm jumeira beach, as the setting sun rays bounce off the gleaming facade of the Burj Al Arab (which has a landing helipad for guests), easily the most lavish and interestingly mounted hotel property in the world, and circular roads buzzing with miniature cars and blinking traffic lights.

Dubai seems almost like a city straight out of a modern fairy tale. Where from here, high up in the company of the cloudless sky, you can wave a magic wand and your wish will materialise in three dimensional wonder way down. There are magical facts marking every structure, and records of something or other are being liberally created and sprinkled all over the city’s edifices.

Once you are up at the viewing deck, they don’t hurry you down after your allotted half an hour. Instead you can spend time peering down from paid binoculars which, when trained in any particular direction, show you how Dubai looked at that very same spot, 4 decades ago, just at the point in time when old was ushering in the new.

The best time to visit Burj Khalifa is of course at around 4 in the afternoon, especially in the winter. When you finally come down, you step into an open space in the complex of the Dubai Mall, (which incidentally, is one of the largest in the world) looking out into a placid waterfront, alongside which the Burj Khalifa rises majestically into the burnished sky.  It is at this moment, when the the setting sun cascades its colours into the reflectively calm waters, and shimmers off the Burj Khalifa, bathing it in warm golden light,  that the call of the muezzin slices the evening air stirring the soul into bowing acquiescence. You are at once humbled and haunted by this particular azaan, where in the midst of all the prosperous icons and manmade indulgences surrounding the space, the almighty is still,  all pervading and powerful, and continues to hold sway.

Consumerism is king here, of course, and malls load up on all that money can buy. An array of brands, showcased alluringly in an environment that is preened, polished and pitted against the best in the world. Each mall has something up its sleeve to cajole the customer: whether it is the ski world at the Mall of the Emirates, in which an entire snow world, complete with ski slopes and snowmen, sleds and snowballs; or the Dubai Mall which has a tunnel aquarium replete with penguins. However, for a really different experience of the mall culture, a visit to the Wafi Mall is a must. Here ancient Egypt is recreated and relived in every installation and interior work. Giant monoliths of pharaohs herald you into the mall. From the entrance itself, you are transported into Egypt, with frescoes and stones and its unique identity continues right into the shopping arcade, with Egyptian couture, artefacts and paintings. Even the cuisine served here is typically Egyptian and restaurants sport a distinctive decor and service unique to Egypt. The lighting, the restrooms, the way the mall is constructed with its flanking majestic steps that leads in to its recesses – all have an Egyptian feel and mystique.

For an authentic feel of old Dubai, head to the Museum in Bur Dubai where pottery, stonework and oyster diving pursuits are depicted with figurines, and beautiful installations, and you realise the amount of progress the people have made in just a short span of 40 years. Four decades of raising dreams from the dust, of having the courage to dream big in the first place.

For all its shopping ranging from high end electronics, branded couture, to traditional souks dealing in spices and pure gold, its extravagance and its showmanship, Dubai is a land of vision.  A land that changes the way the world views it. In spite of occupying such a small area on the world map, it is at the hub of global economy, tourism and commerce, engaging the collective fantasies of entrepreneurs, shoppers, tourists and governments. Inspite of being one of the wealthiest cities of the world, it is one of the safest. Inspite of being governed by a harsh climate, it has found its way to make the most of its reserves, capitalising on opportunities and building on them with a certain flamboyant élan and astuteness. Dubai is ultimately a city that says, I can and I will. And it does. For that attitude alone, Dubai is a city that woos you at every step and wins you over, so that you leave its shores hoping that you will be back soon. As you pack in the last of your last minute shopping at Dubai duty free, the azaan streams in through airport lounges, meshing again the eternal and the ephemeral , juxtaposing just how much Dubai draws on its ancient strength to forge an ambitious tomorrow.

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