Dubai, a concrete jungle built in the midsts of the desert. My very first taste of the Middle East in this intoxicatingly spectacular, man-made playground.
My expectation of Dubai was that it would be an exciting, but rather soulless city. This image shifted as I was greeted by friendly Emirati’s at the airport in their crisp, white robes. As I was leaving the airport, my friendly Egyptian taxi driver was describing his life there to me and Dubai's unique character began to unveil itself. While it is distinctly Middle Eastern (more so than I expected actually), it is the most international place I have ever been. When sitting on the metro there is such a variety of people from around the world, if I didn't know I was in Dubai already, I would find it impossible to tell you what country or continent I was in.
While I quickly learnt that there is more depth to Dubai than I imagined, it is still the flashy playground of wealth held in my expectations. The first advertisement I saw as I left the airport was a neon sign advertising ‘Dubai Shopping Festival 2018’. And my favourite advertisement - a towering billboard promoting a newly built apartment complex with the slogan "Buy an apartment, get a free Tesla!" I kid you not.
Most flights seem to land in Dubai in the middle of the night, so I arrived at Christina’s (my very good friend who recently relocated to the city with her husband) just in time to hear the morning mosque prayers and to fit in a nap before the first activity of my trip. I arrived very early on a Friday morning, which is the start of the weekend in Dubai. Friday's in Dubai are synonymous with one thing - brunch. I have been to a handful of free-flow brunches, but suitably, none of them have been quite as extravagant an affair as brunching in Dubai. The brunch of choice was at Zero Gravity, which has its own private beach, bar, restaurant and pool. This was really quite something to experience as my first time seeing Dubai in the daylight. Zero Gravity is located right next to the drop zone of Skydive Dubai, overlooking a stretch of skyscrapers. As my eyes adjusted from a long English winter to the hazy desert sun, all I could do was gawp at all the model-like people surrounding me, at the people falling from the sky above me, and at the mesmerising skyline. Truly, an overhaul of the senses.
In true Dubai style, everything you could possibly want from an afternoon brunch was at our disposal. As well as the beach, pool and city views, it offered pretty much any food you could desire (including Kangaroo, as it was Australia day), any drink you could desire (there was even a station just for mojitos!) Even the DJ's, Leftwing and Cody, had been flown in from the U.K. Extravagance, excess and hedonism at its finest. Any tiredness I felt from travelling quickly evaporated and I took full advantage of the five hours of overindulgence I paid 295AED for (approx £60), which I believe is one of the cheaper options for brunching in the city.
As an antidote to hedonistic side of Dubai, where I managed to loose my phone, on the very first day of my trip no less (I'm putting it down to jet lag.. and the fact that I consumed a number of mojitos that I might struggle to count on two hands..) the next day we headed out to see Dubai in its most natural form - endless powdery desert. The desert is like the city itself, spectacular in an intimidating, intoxicating way. We did the 'desert safari' experience which included dune bashing (driving fast over sand dunes in a jeep) and a meal under the stars with live performances of traditional Arabian dancing, optional henna and shisha. While the whole experience was fun, it was walking over the sand dunes at sunset towards the horizon that was truly spectacular. Traversing the arid land was somewhat other-wordly, it felt like being on mars...
On the morning of my final day in the city, I found myself alone and bemused in Christina and Nic’s apartment. While my friends had returned to work, a blaring alarm along with a slightly terrifying sounding Arabic announcement disturbed my morning. It didn't seem to be a fire alarm, so I just stayed put, wondering what on earth was going on. Later, I discovered that Sheikh Hessa, the mother of the UAE's president Sheikh Khalifa, had died. The death of a member of the royal family is a big deal in Dubai and three days of mourning immediately follow. We were informed that this means flags are flown at half mast, the radio just plays classical music and the city is 'dry' (no alcohol). As this was my last day in Dubai, we had planned to go to a ladies night that night (tip for girls travelling in Dubai, every week night there are a number of very sophisticated ladies nights to choose from, some offering all you can drink, others three free drinks per lady.. I found an article here which lists 80(!) that happen weekly, for your reference). As it was Sunday, we had booked a table (sometimes necessary for the ladies night in Dubai) at the W Hotel, what a way to end my stay in Dubai, the floor to ceiling windows of the 30th floor bar offer a sprawling view of downtown Dubai and the canal. We turned up unsure if the bar would be serving alcohol, the lady who greeted us was deeply apologetic when we arrived, as there would be no live DJ due to the morning period, however when we asked if there would still be drinks? "Of course!" So i'm not entirely sure where the 'dry' rule applies, as you can only drink in hotels and homes in Dubai anyway...
As well as getting a taste of the lavish side of Dubai and the powerful beauty of the desert, we also took an afternoon stroll around the Bastakiya quarter to get a sense of the city’s more humble roots, before the tourism boom and the discovery of oil. This area, also known as 'Old Dubai', is charming, a maze of ochre buildings and towers made from traditional materials - coral, mud, gypsum and palm wood. With a spattering of museums, restaurants and cafés. This area is also a bit of an art hub, it plays a central role in Dubai's annual art week and there are numerous murals decorating the walls throughout to add to the charm.
After taking a very tranquil stroll through the Bastakiya quarter, we crossed the adjacent Dubai creek for just 1 Dirham (10p?!) on a traditional abras boat and entered the considerably less tranquil souks. While Bastakiya is more of a preserved memory of Dubai and how it used to be, the souks are a living and breathing reminder of the city's trade routes. Selling gold, spices and numerous Arabian crafts and souvenirs, the chaotic energy here is very different to the rest of the city. It's raw hustle. Shouts of 'Shakira, shakira, take a look!' follow us through most of our meanderings. You won't have much peace navigating the maze of these souks!
Dubai was more than I expected. It is a place of towering skyscrapers, malls upon malls and high-end hotels.. but it is also the most international place I have ever been. I awoke on my final morning ready to set of to my next destination.. my long awaited return to Hong Kong and the beginning of my second adventure in Asia!
With special thanks to my dear friends Christina and Nic for having me - and to Christina for ensuring I had some photographic memories after the failure of my GoPro and the loss of my phone!