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Why I Recommend Travelling to Dubai

Dubai is the most contentious place that I’ve traveled to. I’ve met people who have been there and loved it, and others who say that they wouldn’t go there if they were given a free plane ticket. My take on it is this. Dubai exists, for better or for worse, and therefore it deserves to be seen. Further, it’s an excellent soft-core introduction to Arab culture. Having never been to Egypt I can’t say for sure, but I Imagine that it’s something like New York City crossed with Cairo. A sleek blend of an extremely modern lifestyle, blanketed all around by sand dunes. A place where it’s common to see underpaid migrant workers walking past cars worth more than the GDP of Nigeria. You might not like that such things happen, but refusing to look at the problems isn’t going to make them disappear either. In any case, this is why I liked Dubai, and this is why I believe that you should travel there too.

It’s a City That Shouldn’t Exist

Dubai has risen at the edge of two hostile environments. Behind the city is the desert, where the heat can reach 115 degrees in the summer. To the front is the Persian Gulf, a body of water saltier than a meal at McDonald’s. There’s nothing life-giving to hint at the populous city that Dubai has become. And yet there it is. The world’s tallest skyline, built on sand and poking into the rich sky. As if that’s not enough, they built a massive, octopus shaped island into the gulf. Pictures like this one due a horrible injustice to the actual scale of The Palm. It’s massive. And at the moment it’s nearly deserted. Few people have moved in and there’s no restrictions on where you can drive. I imagine that in the future the average person won’t have such a high level of access to one of the most grandiose pieces of real estate ever conceived.

The Locals Would Lose in a Riot

Dubai Dry Dock WorkersAbout 80% of Dubai’s population is made up of expats. Think about that when you blame your own country’s problems on foreigners. In Dubai, four out of five people were not born there. As you walk around, or take the metro, you’re exposed to a baffling number of ethnic groups and languages.  I walked down to the Dubai docks and took this picture of East Asian workers just getting off their shift. Fascinating. Demonstrations and unions are illegal in Dubai, but imagine if every single underpaid worker got together and decided to strike. The city would be crippled. This is unlikely, but I believe that it’s interesting to visit a place with such a skewed population.

The Food Defies Expectations

Dubai has the best food of any city that I’ve visited. I knew in advance, before I left, that I would miss eating there. The array of restaurants caters to all taste buds. I ate meat with my hands, wiped plates of spicy rice clean, and left a large tip at a restaurant that only served dishes made out of eggs. The grocery stores had an exotic array of foods that I couldn’t identify, and satisfying prices on the ones that I could. I wish that I had bought more figs and brought them to Hanoi with me.

Still Not Convinced?

Some very smart people have said that Dubai will not exist in fifty years. Are they right? Who knows, but it does seem reasonable to assume that Dubai won’t exist, in fifty years, in all the same glory. Today it’s home to the super car, the helicopter executive, and the world’s tallest building. That, combined with its audacity, topped with the food, makes it a city worth visiting. You’ll also be able to get an idea of what it’s like to visit an Arab country. If you like it, you can go full-out and visit a place like Saudi Arabia. If not, well there’s always Southeast Asia..

I Didn’t Buy Anything at the Dubai Mall

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There was only one reason that I wanted to visit Dubai: the Burj Khalifa. I didn’t know much about Dubai except that it was very modern and very wealthy. This idea was reaffirmed when I arrived at the airport and my taxi was a brand new Lexus. It was only slightly shorter than an aircraft carrier, and so padded, quiet, and comfortable that it felt sterile and detached from the world. Like being inside a hospital operating room. I was reminded of the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has said that luxury cars separate the driver from the experience of driving. Indeed, I felt like I was floating along the road, instead of driving on it.

As we got closer, my driver kept asking me which hotel I was going to. I valiantly tried to explain that I was going to a hostel, not a hotel. My efforts were in vain. He didn’t seem to know the word hostel, and all of my attempts to explain it to him crashed and burned.

“It’s a place with lots of young people in a room. Lot’s of foreigners living in the same apartment. Do you know what dorms are? Like that.”

“This place has both men and women living together?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“This is not a good place to go.”

The last five minutes of the ride passed in silence, as I wondered what kind of place I had come to.

Arriving at the address, I was disconcerted to find that we were in a back alley behind some residential apartments. It was 2:30am, everything was dark, and there were no signs for my hostel. I didn’t have a telephone to make a call, nor could I get online to find out which building it was. I wondered aimlessly up to the first door I saw and tried opening it. It was locked. Even if it was open I wouldn’t have gone inside, I knew that it wasn’t going to take me to the hostel. I felt scared, and discouraged. I felt like I shouldn’t have come.

I went back to my driver and I put myself at his mercy.

“I don’t know where it is” I said. “Can you maybe call them?”

“This is bad, you should not be here” he said sternly, before making the call. He spoke into the telephone gruffly, with heavily accented English, and then hung up after twenty seconds.

“Come on” he said, grabbing my bag from the trunk. We walked around a building, through an open entrance, and he pressed the button for the elevator. “Give me 30 Dirham” he said, as we watched the number counter on the elevator move from three, to two, to one. I gave him 50 and he didn’t make a pretense of looking for change.

We took the elevator to the third floor and walked down the hall to the right. Standing in the doorway, holding open the beige colored door, was a sleepy looking girl who didn’t look like she could be a year over twenty. My taxi driver, assuming the role of a legal guardian for an underage teenager, asked if I was in the right place. She nodded and said yes, as if this had all happened before and it was nothing out of the ordinary. My driver gave me my bag and walked back to the elevator. I called out a thank you to his retreating back and received no acknowledgement. I felt a wave of relief to have arrived at the hostel without any serious trouble. I had a comfortable bed to sleep in, the girl was from Belarus so I had a chance to speak Russian, and most important, I had a ticket to take a ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa.

The Flat and the Tall

The city planners of Dubai seemed to be acutely aware of what the focal points of the city are, and the metro had a designated stop for the Burj Khalifa. Being inexperienced at riding the metro in a Muslim country, I nearly stepped onto the female section of the train by accident. I was quickly shooed away, and I slipped into the guy’s section just as the door was closing.

Riding the metro in Dubai will give you a good idea about who lives in the city. In 2013, about 84% of the population was made up of expats. In Dubai, these expats include a wide range of people. Lots of East Asian construction and dock workers, along with a smaller percentage of white collar, Western expats. The result is that even though I was obviously a foreigner, I didn’t feel as though I stuck out in any meaningful way. Another blogger summarized it best when he said: “Everywhere I go in Asia, people ask me where I’m from. In Dubai, they ask me how long I’ve lived there.

Half a dozen stops away from the hostel I got off the metro. Then I began the quarter mile walk from the train station to the entrance of the Dubai mall. The entire walk was through an air conditioned tunnel that you could drive a SUV through. As I approached the entrance to the mall the first shops began to appear. They were selling tourist gear, scarves, tea, and expensive coffee.

A picture of multiple floors at the Dubai mallMoments later, I suddenly found myself standing in one of the main halls of the Dubai Mall, looking out over a vast expanse of space that covered multiple floors. It was larger than I had imagined and it seemed to stretch forward into eternity. I leaned against the railing, peered down at the people walking below me, and marveled at its size. To give you some idea of how large the mall is, I think it would be interesting to mention a few statistics. Measured by total area, it’s the largest mall in the world. Laid flat, it would cover fifty (European) football fields. It’s home to more than 1,200 shops, and in 2011 it was the most visited building on the entire planet. In 2012, with more than 57 million visitors, it was a larger tourist destination than New York City.

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I walked into it. I only knew that it was a big mall, that somewhere it held the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, and I had no idea where it was. Three floors and two wrong turns later I got it. I retrieved my ticket, went through security, and took the ludicrously fast elevator straight to the top. Why then is this the story of the Dubai Mall, and not the story of the Burj Khalifa? I was surprised at the answer myself.

At the end of the day, when I looked back at the two buildings, it was the mall that made a larger impression on me. Even though the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, it didn’t feel all that much more impressive than being at the top of other tall skyscrapers, like the CN Tower. On the other hand, the Dubai Mall was exponentially larger than any other building that I’ve ever been in, and I was struck by its fantastic proportions. So it was that after only twenty minutes at the top of the Burj Khalifa I was already looking forward to taking the elevator back down, and continuing my exploration of the Dubai Mall.

Of Sharks and Men

A picture of the fashion hall in the Dubai MallI set no goal for myself and wandered at random. Directly after leaving the Burj Khalifa, the first area I found was fashion square. A massive circular hall with enough room in the middle for a tennis court. Running around the ring, in two stories, were all of the luxury clothing shops that you’d expect a stock broker’s wife to be familiar with. Running out of fashion hall was fashion avenue. An area with plush, padded sofas and decorations so decadent that they made me feel small and insignificant. The Arabic area, styled on traditional Arabic design and desert lifestyle, was tasteful and imbued with a subtle look of jubilant wealth.

Several minutes later I tried to take a selfie in front of the shark tank but I failed. My camera did a terrible job of capturing the sharks and stingrays gliding through the water several feet behind me. I watched the tank for a minute, then walked off to find somewhere to relax. I bought a coffee and a cookie, then sat down and listened to the noise coming from the full sized hockey rink fifty feet away. A surreal experience, made more vivid by a brilliant cup of coffee. With gusto I left my seat and walked down to the third story, to see a movie in the theater.

Fifty Shades of Change

Even though I didn’t buy anything but a cookie, a coffee, and a cheap ticket to the movie theater, I look back fondly on the Dubai Mall. The whole building was remarkably well done and wonderfully impressive. What struck me the most was the way the mall seemed to mimic a chameleon, constantly changing colors. I walked from decadent fashion avenue, done in a vaguely Italian style, to a modern Pop flavored area with stores for people under thirty. Then through shiny tech zone and into the traditional Arabic, multi-floor area.

The mall was so large that it felt like it could support its own climate. An astonishing place that stands ready to impress even the most jaded. Even though I loved the experience, if I go back to Dubai I don’t know if I’ll return to the mall. I think that a great part of my enjoyment was the novelty of the experience. It’s like moving into a new house. When you take those first steps inside you’re living in a world of pure possibility. You explore the rooms and discover new surprises. Then, just a day later, everything is known and it becomes a regular part of your existence.

The strongest memories come from those first steps, just as you’re walking in and you have no idea what to expect. As you step over the threshold you stop for a second and smile, as you realize how amazing it’s going to be.

4 Reasons I Fell in Love With Dubai

Mosque in DubaiDubai was amazing, it’s a must hit for any person who has some time to travel. The city is a marvelous blend of old and new. Everywhere you look the ancient Arab culture mixes seamlessly with the new Western influence. You know those crazy cities in Star Wars? That’s what Dubai felt like to me. I’ll begin this post by listing all the reasons that I loved the city, and then I’ll give you a few resources that you can use if you’re planning a trip. If you just want to see some pictures from the city, check out my photo gallery.

1. The Food is Awesome

Three minutes from my hostel I found a restaurant that didn’t serve anything made without eggs. Every morning I ate at a vegetarian place called Swades. Close to the metro I got to experience some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. The list goes on. The cool thing about Dubai is that there are so many restaurants serving so many different ethnic foods that you’re bound to find something you love.

2. Most People aren’t From Dubai

According to Wikipedia, only 10 to 15% of Dubai’s population are native Arabs. That means that 85 to 90% of the population is from somewhere else. Most people are from Asia, but there’s enough Western expats that you don’t stand out. Why is this cool? Because you don’t get treated like a tourist. Dubai’s incredible diversity means that you canblend in and be taken for a local on your first day there.

3. Everyone Speaks English

I never had a problem communicating with anyone in Dubai. While most shop signs are written in Arababic, as soon as you go inside you’ll find out that you can easily communicate with all cashiers and waiters. The flip side of this is that if you speak another language (Russian, French, Hindi, Arabic, Mandarin, and so on) you’ll almost definitely be able to find someone to chat with. I never would have guessed that I’d use my Russian in Dubai, but I ended up speaking every day.

4. The Attractions are Breathtaking

Sky View of the Dubai FountainsI came to Dubai to see the Burj Khalifa and ended up being more impressed by the Mall. Most of The Mall is four stories, although some places are only two or three. There is a shark tank, an ice rink, a theater (where I watched Sicario), and more shops than you could possibly visit in a day. The most fascinating part of The Mall is the way it changes shape and character. Some areas are plush and luxurious, other areas have a strong Arabic influence, and a couple of places are dark and modern. It felt like walking between different continents.

Another interesting feature Dubai has to offer is The Palm. This man made “island” is unnecessarily large, and yet totally awesome. Unfortunately, The Palm is best accessed by car. I was lucky enough to meet Konrad who had a rental car. However, if you happen to be in Dubai you can rent a super car for the day (if you’re over 25), which would be a great way to see this stunning island.

Planning Your Trip to Dubai

At the Base of the Burj KhalifaI spent four days in Dubai and I think I spent about $200. For that I got four nights at a hostel, fantastic food every day, a t-shirt from the Dubai Mall, a ticket to the top of the Burj Khalifa, at ticket to the Dubai Mall Cinema, several gallons of bottled water, a cab ride in Lexus from the airport to my hostel, and about half a dozen metro tickets. Not a bad deal altogether.

As for accommodations, I stayed at the BackPacker Hostel and I enjoyed it. It’s close to the metro, there are tons of restaurants around, the room was comfortable, and the girl running it was from Belarus so I got to practice my Russian. A hint though, if you want to book this hostel do it through Airbnb. On their website they advertise a bed for $32 a night when in reality I only paid $20 a night.

Standing next to a green Rolls Royce in DubaiYou’ll also want to buy your ticket to the Burj Khalifa in advance. I bought my ticket 10 days in advance and paid $35. Later on, I took several women from Moldova to buy a ticket (acting as their translator) and the cheapest option was $120 per person. You can buy your ticket in advance here.

Other people have suggested dune bashing which does sound awesome. Unfortunately I ran out of time and wasn’t able to do it. That, along with checking out the Dubai Marina, will be for next time. I had so much fun that I’d really like to go back again for a week or two. Definitely during the cooler months though. It was 90 degrees every day which is fine as long as you pound the water. 115 degrees in the summer though, forget it!