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Dusk To Desert – 72 Hours In Dubai

Posted on Apr 2, 2014 by in Blog Posts | 0 comments

Famous for absolute excess, Dubai was previously only a place that I had seen a few times from an aircraft window, as well as the Emirates terminal at the airport. Upon finally being able to leave the aforementioned terminal, I engaged my ultimate tourist mode and tried to take in as much of Dubai as possible, before the heat caught up. Arriving on a Wednesday morning, I had until Friday night to see what all the hype was about.

From the outset, I can already tell you that Dubai is an interesting place. One minute you’re surrounded by (mostly incomplete) skyscrapers, and then in a sidestreet not too far away, you’ll essentially be mugged by people wanting to sell you “genuine” name-brand watches. Supercars wait at traffic lights alongside barely functioning heaps of scrap on wheels. Locals throw lavish boat parties while a homeless man watches on from the shore. It was kind of like the law of physics… for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Extreme wealth vs extreme poverty. Dubai in a nutshell.

Leaving the sprawling expanses of Dubai International Airport, the transfer bus was greeted with the sight of what I can only presume was dawn smog, or dust haze. Having landed in the darkness, not much had been visible. While gazing vacantly out the window with minimal visibility, I spotted a few interesting sights – one of which was a group of people having a roadside cricket match at 6am. You guys have some serious dedication to do that. I’d been sitting in an airplane seat for the previous 8 hours and had not even half of their energy levels.

Once check in at the hotel was completed, it was time for a walkabout in the area. The sauna-like heat had already made the decision for me that this outing would be a quick one. After a few laps around, it was evident I was staying in a rather anonymous part of town, that didn’t seem to want to draw too much attention to itself. A supermarket here. A McDonalds there. Some sand. A few buildings. And that was it. But what lay on horizon made me remember what I had come here for. In the distance, I could spot the skyscrapers flanking Sheikh Zayed Road.

Welcome to Dubai. Have some sand.

Welcome to Dubai. Have some sand.

For those of you who are a little unsure of places within Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road is the main highway that cuts through Dubai. Being a total of 12 lanes wide, it has a massive amount of traffic flowing through at every hour of the day. And it was thanks to Sheikh Zayed road that I arrived at my first point of interest for this trip. Behold, Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa.

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Skyscrapers located along Sheik Zayed Road

Dubai Mall firstly, in one word: damn. This place is an absolute maze. A simple trip to the bathroom turned in to an hour long excursion to find my original starting point. Finding the food court was an equally fun adventure. It was in this Dubai foodcourt that I formed a new bond with Subway. Seriously. We were missing out on this in South Africa. But I wasn’t here to eat, or shop (mostly no shopping because I couldn’t afford anything). After all, Dubai Mall was a mere stepping stone to the next destination on my trip – Burj Khalifa.

Burj Khalifa was an attraction that I had wanted to visit for ages. It was one of those places that looked impressive in photos and on the Travel Channel, but I knew that it would look ten times more impressive in person. And what do you know? I wasn’t disappointed. The scale of construction here boggles the mind. It just looks so surreal. And the numbers are equally astounding. Over 828 metres tall. 160 floors. 7 Guinness World Records – the most obvious one being the title of worlds tallest building. The lift to get to the 124th floor takes a mere 60 seconds, and it honestly doesn’t give you any sense of movement. Well done, engineers. Now I’ve also been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and even though this viewing deck is way higher up, it feels much safer. Good mark for people who are afraid of heights. Word of advice though, don’t look up at the top of the building from the viewing deck. Then you’ll feel uneasy (PS: this viewing deck is only halfway up the building. Imagine going all the way up…)

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The worlds tallest building, the Burj Khalifa

Well, what else is there to say about the worlds tallest building? Not much, but its certainly worth visiting while in Dubai, even if its just for bragging rights. A tip would be to buy your ticket online first though, since they do tend to sell out rather fast, and you’d look like an idiot joining the masses of other people who can’t get to the viewing platform.

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Looking directly down from the observation floor. 3 images processed in HDR with a 10-17mm fisheye lens

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Similar image as above, just not processed in HDR.

After being whisked away from the exit of the Dubai Mall, it was time for a dinner cruise along the Dubai Marina. The amount of construction here is even crazier, with massive buildings perched just meters from the waterline. I have no idea how the engineers accomplished such a construction feat, but can only presume it involves many hours of minimum wage labor. While the cruise was all fine and dandy, it did give me a brief insight into the Dubai nightlife. The route through the marina passes many restaurants and clubs, of which most seemed to be rather empty. However, the ones that were full were incredibly packed. Western music was blaring through the speakers, and party-goers were loving it. Due to the large amount of expats here, I’d imagine people are capable of getting a bit loose at times.

Dubai after dark

Dubai after dark

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On a cruise while being flanked by buildings along the marina

Day 2 started out with an impromptu visit to the Old Dubai. After a whistle-stop tour of the Dubai Museum, it was time to head across the creek and take a look at the origins of this city amongst the dunes. And it was here that the wealth difference between rich and poor became rather evident. The distant skyline was littered with buildings reaching for the sky, while people here sold their goods on the road side – just trying to make enough to pay their daily expenses. I’ve noticed this type of split in many larger cities in the world… North London vs South London, for example. There are plenty of Abra’s on hand to ferry you across the creek, at the so-cheap-it-may-as-well-be-free price of only 1 dirham. Once landed in the Old Dubai sector, it was time to explore the souk.

This was an area that many people on travel programs speak about in very complimentary tones. You know, you can’t leave Dubai without visiting the souk type of conversation. However, it didn’t quite grab my fancy. The stores on offer were decent, but the sheer amount of people trying to sell you illegal goods was ridiculous. It was impossible to walk more than a few steps without someone offering me a “genuine” Breitling that would be better than the one strapped to my wrist, no questions asked. Or how about some “genuine” fragrances? It was all just a bit too much, and it robbed the souk of a lot of the charm that it deserves. Which is a pity.

A brief view of what the inside of the souk looks like

A brief view of what the inside of the souk looks like

Gold for days

Gold for days

Once navigated out of the many side streets in the souk, it was time to visit the desert. And that meant a dune bashing expedition. Being a keen car enthusiast (have you noticed from this website?), I was bursting at the seams to be thrown around in a Landcruiser up and down some dunes. And it was everything I could have wished for. Seriously. These guys can drive. It seems that the people in the very back of the car got it the worst, as they seemed to bounce around a whole lot more than those of us seated further forward. And all the while, they were transporting the passengers to a sort of desert oasis, where we would be treated to camel rides, sandboarding, firedancing, and dinner under the stars. Decent. And with that, day 2 was drawn to a close.

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Essentially, the road to nowhere

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3 image HDR processed photo, looking along the ridge of a sand dune

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The aforementioned oasis

The third and final day was to be probably the most relaxed of the lot. It would consist of a grand tour of Dubai from inside an air-conditioned bus, before passing some time at the hotel before a midnight flight to London. It was probably the most diverse and educational day I could have asked for in Dubai, as we were able to see so many sights in such a short space of time. A highlight was visiting the Atlantis hotel at the tip of The Palm Jumeirah. If you can’t guess why it’s called the Palms, I’ll give you a hint: a huge man made island, made in the shape of a palm tree.

Atlantis resort, located at the very tip of the Palm Jumeirah development

Atlantis resort, located at the very tip of the Palm Jumeirah development

While development had looked to be flourishing in some parts here, other places featured half constructed buildings that had clearly ground to a halt. Massive monoliths of concrete and steel were scattered in-between residential houses and shopping precincts. Which is a shame, because some of the places looked really great. For one, I would gladly own a house somewhere there if I had the money (spoiler alert: I don’t have the money).

So much potential, yet completely barren.

So much potential, yet completely barren.

With the tour concluded, it was time to wallow around at the hotel for a few hours until the airport shuttle arrived. It was during this time that I headed up to the rooftop swimming pool that I had never bothered exploring, and try push for a last few photos. Being nighttime, the temperature was much more enjoyable, and I spent a good amount of time amusing myself with a variety of long exposures, and panoramic photos (results pictured below).

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The quiet streets still make for some interesting exposures. 30 second exposure looking off the roof of the hotel.

Double image panorama, with a 66 second exposure on each image

Double image panorama, with a 66 second exposure on each image

And just like that, 3 days in Dubai had come and gone. Departing at close to 1am, the window on the flight featured an amazing array of lighting on display, all which quickly disappeared as the airliner climbed and headed north west towards the UK. While I can safely say I did a lot in only 3 days, I would certainly go back again and explore in a bit more depth. The surface of Dubai has only been scratched, and the surface only consists of the touristy stuff that you see on TV. During my next stop, it will be time to delve a bit deeper. But for now, there wasn’t much to do except wait for the gloomy skies of London to appear.

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