Dubai, UAE

Seventy days ago I was half way up Everest, sleeping in $2 wooden tea houses, dragging my tatty 13kg rucksack around the world. Today I Air Emirated it into the world’s glossiest airport, wearing wedges and toting a wheely case. Sell out, moi? Absolutely. Dubai is possibly the  polar opposite to backpacking. You have to mix it up though don’t you.

Before arriving, my Dubai word association game with myself would have gone something like this;

Desert, supermalls, construction, man-made, oil, gold, shopping, luxury, strict, arabic, westernized, ex-pats, wags, excess. 

After 5 days here my preconception were wro… No, actually that’s all pretty bang on. Although I would add:

Tourist centric, vast, humongous, fun, Disney-fied, into appearances, safe, pleasant, fake, voyeuristic, unique.

You can’t get too mad it Dubai, it’s only a baby, since the United Arab Emirates is just over 40 years old as a country. Build on oil & gold dollars, and now increasingly on tourist dollars, the city lives, breathes and oozes money. It’s a reigned in Vegas meets a cleaned up Macau. Its infamous non-libral laws verge on the ridiculous. Yet talking to people who live here they might kind of make sense. You can’t flick the v’s at anyone or drink in public (bad?) but then it’s unheard of that anyone throws a punch on a night out (good.) Mall staff can fine you if  they find your clothes ‘offensive’ (bad?) Yet, being given the power to judge the world for harem pants, Hollister, and jeggings? Come on, this is has to be good right?

Dubai is a world where a TEFL teachers salary means you can drop $100 on the famous weekly tradition of Friday brunch, drive Land Rover Cruisers, spend $40 on Jo Malone candles and wear Harry Winston jewellery, just to keep up with the ipad toting 5 year old sons and daughters of Emirates pilots that you teach in International School. It’s a real life episode of Gossip Girl. In the UK, the closest I get to London clubs like Mahiki & Embassy are reading Grazia. Here we graced both in one night. Whilst London however gets Prince Harry , Mahiki last Wednesday saw the likes of Rio Ferdinand. And I. Although I should point out quite separately.

Dubai is ALL about a world record. The Burj Kalifa glitters nightly as the world’s tallest building. It’s home to a nightly fountain show, which apparently alternates Thriller and more traditional Arabic music. They also threw in Whitney tribute last month for the late Ms Huston, which gives you some idea how ‘subtlety’ is a dirty word here. The Burj Al Arab is the worlds only 7 star hotel. Shaped like an iconic sail boat it’s apparently much prettier on the outside than in, and is ‘by appointment only’ even for a drink in the restaurant. It’s next to the famous ‘World’ multimillion pound island complex and the Atlantis on the Palm hotel, but again all are more iconic in reputation than they are accessible and easy to photograph. Unless you have your own helicopter to hand, which I wouldn’t put past most people here. By far the most memorizing sight is the world’s largest aquarium (just piping Japan’s) inside the Dubai Mall. Possibly it’s extra spectacular as it’s facing an almost equally giant sweet shop, which must be hell for the Great Whites cooped up in there staring out at Reeces Pieces all day long.

There’s possibly only one thing you cannot do in this city, and that’s its ultimate flaw; to be on foot!  Without a car, driver or taxi you are dwarfed by the sheer giganticness of the place.  To cross the main Sheikh Zayed highway is a 7 lane overpass. You don’t ever have to worry about coming into contact with traffic or the outside air, Dubai is an air-conditioned warren of walkways and lobbies. They even have early morning exercise classes groups who power stride through the miles of the Mall of the Emirates before it opens. You can’t blame them. To brave exercise in the outside desert would be to die at melting point in the unparalleled heat here. People at Arabian Ranches where I stayed laughed with amusement when I inquired about waiting outside to catch an afternoon bus into the city (for the record you can and I did;  the F30/3 dirhams). But then again in a beautiful gated complex with pools and tree-lined boulevards, I guess no one really catches the bus that often. Here is about splashing the cash, not saving it.

One evening we did brave outside the man-made bubble of new Dubai and drive down to the old town district of Deira & the Gold Souks. It’s here you have that Alice in Wonderland moment where she eats the cookie and everything shrinks back into its proper proportion. The skyscrapers give way to more modest mosques. The only thing that sparkles here are the rows and rows of garish yellow 22 carat gold shops. An acquired taste you might say, but century’s of trading can’t be wrong. Locals zigzag the industrialised creek at dusk via the rather magically named ‘Abras’ – small wooden taxi boats, that appear only 1kg from dipping into the jet black water. At 1 Diham a crossing it’s a nice touch to the city though, and a rare chance to feel real like you have broken out of the theme park, into the open air.

I’m not going to cliché enough to pretend I would turn down the wealth, glamor and the manicured ways of the new town over the tatty, crowded old town,  but it’s nice to see both.  I may have replaced by backpack with a suitcase but give me $5 Lebanese food down winding souk alleys that you can walk around any day.

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An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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