Monthly Archives: May 2016

Atlantis

Not satisfied with the biggest and best on land, the Emiratis have also set their sights on showcasing man’s supposed superiority over the sea. Reclamation is a big part of the Dubai renaissance and the results are spectacular. Our accommodation here is at the Atlantis hotel which is set on the outermost frond of a group of islands, reclaimed from the sea in the shape of a massive palm tree.

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Wrapped around the resort is a massive aquarium that forms a backdrop to the famous Ossiano Restaurant as well as much of their lobby area.

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SCUBA and snorkelling in the massive aquarium is available and I indulge in the latter among thousands of fish including sharks and rays.

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South of The Palm is another group of reclaimed islands arranged to resemble a map of the world. These islands are being developed for sale. Each represents a country and for the right price the rich punter can own the country of his choice.

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Last but by no means least is the world’s first 7 star hotel, the Burj al Arab set on its own man made island it is the preserve of the rich and famous. Built to resemble the sails of an Arab sailing boat (dhow) rooms here start at $2000 US per night. The architecture is spectacular and access is restricted to only those who have a reservation here. Riff raff is not welcome. We secure access by booking the pricey ($200 pp) afternoon tea set in the restaurant on the top floor. It is a decadent ending to a fascinating trip.

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Trucial states

Being nerdy as a kid when I was growing up, in a computerless society, for me meant being a stamp collector. Of course in true nerd style we referred to ourselves as philatelists. We would be treated to stamps from all sorts of exotic places such as Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Dubai and the Trucial States. I remember wondering where are the Trucial states? In an era where one had to look it up in expensive encyclopaedias (remember those?) or in libraries I never did find out.

We are on our airconditioned bus gliding along the open 8 lane freeway that connects Dubai to the UAE capitol of Abu Dhabi. The dry desert wastelands of Dubai are transformed through massive, extensive and expensive irrigation to greenery as we enter the largest state of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. It is then that the guide drops the term “Trucial states”. The British left the Arabian Peninsula in 1968 and the 6 coastal sheikdoms formed the Trucial States. In 1971 these formally amalgamated to become the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The discovery of oil transformed this country from a poor desert backwater sparsely inhabited by Bedouin nomads to the affluent modern society of today. The sheikhdom of Dubai is not as well endowed with the black gold and have moved on to be the tourist and financial hub. The sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi has enough oil to export at the present rate for another 200 years and therefore it is not as brash and hyped as Dubai. Nonetheless it is moving away from sole reliance on oil with the emergence of Etihad Airlines, the building of a massive modern new airport to rival Dubai’s and the custom built luxurious F1 Grand Prix complex which is our first stop on the tour.

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Abu Dhabi is an elegant metropolis by the sea. Skyscrapers abut the long green sweep of the Corniche as it hugs the coast.

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The Presidential Palace is a massive complex that resembles an exotic oriental domed wedding cake.

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The piece de resistance is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the fourth largest in the world. Dazzling white marble in the sizzling sunlight, decorated with inlaid marble reminiscent of the Taj Mahal with four massive Swarokovski crystal chandeliers inside. Definitely a highlight of this or any other trip.

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Sky high!

The Burj Khalifa is the highest building in the world. To maximise the superlatives it contains the highest observation deck, apartment, swimming pool and library. Literally sky high and that is where we are headed. Arriving at the ticket office I ask for tickets to the highest observation deck for the two of us. As my credit card is immediately stung for 1000 dirhams. My mind tries to process the exchange rate. Something seems to be wrong! The brochures say it is $44 US to get to the top. Surely there is a decimal point out of place or I have my arithmetic wrong, but I keep coming up with a converted ticket price of an “eye watering” $170 US per person. It transpires that the $44 ticket only gets you to the 125th floor observation deck. The higher price gets us to the 148th floor. Here as with any purchase in Dubai sky high also applies to the price. Nonetheless the view is not to be missed and the Emiratis know that punters will pay through the nose for this experience.

 

Base of Burj Khalifa

Base of Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Dubai skyline

Dubai skyline

Longest driverless train from 148th floor

Longest driverless train from 148th floor

Dubai skyline

Dubai skyline

Looking to the reclaimed islands that form a world map

Looking to the reclaimed islands that form a world map

Dubai skyline

Dubai skyline

Dubai mall

Dubai mall

The evening sees us travelling out to experience the desert sunset. Unsurprisingly it is highly commercialised with camel and falcon photo ops and henna painting. The dunes and the sunset are somewhat underwhelming.

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Old Dubai

Our first full day sees us atop an open bus braving the 30+ degree heat. Traversing the length and breadth of this massive city, the scale of construction is mind boggling. Literally hundreds of skyscrapers jostle with each other vying for my attention some modelled on classics such as Big Ben in London and the Chrysler building in New York. In between sit large construction sites attesting to the ongoing wealth of this oil rich country and its ongoing expansion.

 

In contrast to this ostentation is the area of Old Dubai straddling the Dubai Creek the historical heart of the original township. This started as a pearling village in the 19th century and the creek with its harbour was its lifeblood. Today it is the lowest rise area of this metropolis with some pretty, if largely reconstructed historical precincts. We alight from the bus and it is now sizzling high 30s temperature as we amble through the gold souk. Row upon row of dazzling jewelry shops under a covered arcade . Sadly in this expensive country no great bargains to be found and the whole effect is less dazzling than the gold markets in Asian cities such as Bangkok.

Gold souk

Gold souk

Emirati

Emirati

Emirati woman

Emirati woman

Emirati women

Emirati women

I find myself seduced by the neighbouring spice market but again more scenic are the markets in the subcontinent. Nonetheless the variety is amazing including quality saffron, worth more by weight than gold, and biblical classics such as Frankincense and Myrrh.

 

Myrrh

Myrrh

We escape the heat to seek respite in the cooled Dubai museum featuring some surprising 5000 year old, Bronze Age, antiquities excavated from the desert sands before crossing back across the river for an evening cruise on a dhow boat down the Dubai Creek. Remarkably these sturdy teak boats still ply the ocean transporting goods thousands of miles across open water to India and Sri Lanka exactly as they have for hundreds of years.

Dubai museum

Dubai museum

Dubai museum

Dubai museum

Loading Dhow

Loading Dhow

Fishing dhows

Fishing dhows

Water taxi

Water taxi

Dhows

Dhows

 

 

Dubai

Gaudy, kitsch, tacky all very appropriate descriptions of the excesses of the people who conceived of this city in the desert. Strangely it is also compelling and one finds oneself drawn into the repeated mentions of the Guinness Book of records and how Dubai features so frequently in it. For instance the highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa also features the highest observation deck, the highest accommodation and the highest library in the world.

Burj Khalifa, world's highest building

Burj Khalifa, world’s highest building

Here is the first “7 star hotel” in the world, the Burj al Arab.

Burj Al Arab

Burj Al Arab

The world’s biggest shopping mall, the Dubai Mall the worlds biggest indoor ski fields at the Mall of the Emirates and so it goes on and my eyes glaze over.

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall

There are multiple massive aquariums wrapped around restaurants and hotels and even a shopping centre with an Egyptian antiquities theme with a pyramid, massive Ramses statutes and a delicate little Philae temple.

 

Wafi, Egyptian themed mall

Wafi, Egyptian themed mall  

Temple of Philae reconstruction at Wafi

Temple of Philae reconstruction at Wafi

Wafi, Egyptian themed mall

Wafi, Egyptian themed mall

 

Apart from the obvious tourist dollar incentive there seems to be an underlying theme from those in power here that they are, in common with the people who built the monuments of Egypt, all about constructing a city that is grandiose and will stand the test of time. They are building a monument to modern civilisation and to themselves in particular, all atop the searing heat and the desolate desert sands.

Remarkably they have established green vegetation on the arid sands and built massive world class sporting facilities so that they have the world’s richest horse race, lucrative tennis tournament and a state of the art F1 circuit in neighbouring Abu Dhabi. Massive skyscrapers dominate the landscape where formerly desert sands supported nomads and Bedouin tents. All of this has basically happened in the last 12 years, less than half a generation and all of it has been built on the obscene wealth generated by a single resource, oil. Black gold which has transformed this tiny peoples living a nomad lifestyle to one where almost obscene displays of wealth are de rigeur.