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.
Moments 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
I 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.