Monday, July 12, 2010


(The view out my 25th-floor, floor-to-ceiling window.)

Well, this place is like another planet altogether.

To begin with, our flight into the region crossed over a whole host of unfamiliar territory: Eastward out of Germany over Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, then through Turkey's airspace and into Iran (just skirting the top of Iraq, with Saudia Arabia to the South). We skirt Bahrain's airspace before finally being turned over to controllers of the UAE, and on into Dubai.

I've never seen a desert, not a true one, and it's a little surprising. At altitude, the yellow sand extends as far as the eye can see, quite like an ocean. There are pathways and little settlements below, and everything is threatened by the engulfing sand. The highways that cross the open terrain all have small drifts over them.

Temps in Dubai as we maneuvered for landing were 114°, and one steps out of the airplane into a blow dryer. I actually burst out laughing: You have GOT to be KIDDING! Everyone jokes "But it's a dry heat," knowing there's no mitigating 114 degrees. But it's true; you're aware that it's bloody hot, but at least for shorter exposures it doesn't seem as take-your-breath-away stifling as a humid 92° in China. I sweat from every pore, though it evaporates so quickly outside that you don't actually feel damp. Until you step inside, that is, and realize that every pore is working overtime trying to keep you cool. I wonder whether the extreme, relentless heat is as hard on things as the brutal winters of Minnesota (or worse). A car parked unprotected out in this would quickly destroy itself.

(In the distance: the Burj Khalifa.)

(Our hotel.)

(The train station across from the hotel.)

It being too hot for my customary walking introductory tour, I took the train over to what I'm told is a spectacular high-end mall, which is in turn connected to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. There were a few trials in this little journey, reminders that Dubai is not really geared for walkers. The train announces the stop for the mall, but there are no signs in the station telling you where to go. And when I finally figure it out, it seems a 4-5 block walk is required over varied terrain, only to find no easy entrances to the mall. I wandered around for quite a while before finding an interior door underground in the center of a parking garage. I appear to be the first person to have ever walked from the train station (everyone else takes a cab, I guess).

The mall itself seems not much smaller than Minneapolis's Mall of America (translate: huuuuge), and it's all very high-end. [I've subsequently learned that this is the largest shopping mall by area in the world. No wonder it seemed huge. The MOA, once the largest in the US, anyway, is now down the list quite a ways.] They have a zillion restaurants, both the expected Western chains as well as a bunch of local things. There is a huge indoor skating rink and a big water feature, plus a zillion-screen theater and every conceivable kind of shop. I expect tomorrow to make a more thorough survey, as I will have to do my walking there.

(An indoor, full-size skating rink.)

(One half of a two-part, three-story water feature.)

There is a huge variety of modes of dress here, for men and women both. There is plenty of standard Western dress, jeans and t-shirts and running shoes. But a goodly percentage of women--maybe half--are wearing some kind of headscarf. And a minority are in the burqa, which is a frankly shocking sight for a fat fella from the Midwest. And there appear to be subtle gradations with the burqa as well, with some women having a bit of the face showing, while others are covered except for a slit for the eyes. I saw one woman with her entire face covered; she was apparently expected to see through the marginally-sheer fabric. Or not: she was being led by a man as if blind. I try to be worldly about these things--I am a visitor in someone else's country, after all--but it's hard not to feel revolted at this, either the notion that men get to determine what is deemed "decent" for a woman to show (the ideal answer apparently being 'nothing') or the notion that men are so easily tempted and cannot be expected to exercise even the least self-control. I'm sure I've missed the mark completely and there's much more to it than this, but it feels on first exposure like a form of slavery.

Anyway. There's a range of dress for the men as well (though nobody makes them mummify themselves), but I don't quite understand what the gradations mean. It is said that virtually no natives of Dubai perform any work. These folks all come from money--oil-based, I suppose--and all labor in Dubai is imported from neighboring places. As a result, I don't know that I can identify who the natives are. But a fair number of men in the mall are dressed in what appears to be formal long dress. The fabric is invariably flowing and white and extends to just above the ground. They wear open sandals with this outfit, and the headgear is a piece of flowing fabric held in place with a circular ring around the crown of the head. It actually seems a very dignified (and, in the blazing sun, a very functional) mode of dress, and my sense is that this the choice of the wealthy or important or powerful men of the city. If I had to bet, I would identify these men as natives. Interestingly, the burqa-clad women were not typically accompanied by men dressed in this formal way.

I saw a good bit of the mall trying to find the entrance to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (there were no signs that I could see, and one had to use the touch-screen guides for the mall). I expected long lines, but in fact the huge mall was not terribly busy and I got right in. Maybe it was the $30 admission fee. The whole presentation was very high-end, with long hallways showing pictures and videos of the design and construction process. The very swanky elevator whisks us up 124 floors in about a minute, accompanied by an abstract video and light show, and you emerge with a knee-weakening view of the city and far beyond, including a large outdoor deck with openings in the plexiglass so that you can get unobstructed photos.

(Looks like a model. It ain't.)

(Our hotel is in this stretch.)

(In all these pictures there are scores of unfinished buildings. The recession hit in the midst of an absurd building boom here, and many projects were halted. The hulks now bake in the relentless sun. But there's a lot of active construction going on now as well.)

(A little indoor / outdoor cafe at the mall--the outdoor portion for cooler times, apparently. Another large water wall.)

(Approaching the train station.)

I have just a few hours here tomorrow before heading back to Cologne.


Jon said...

Mike had mentioned a stretch of heat well over 140 while in Iraq and that it also was a dry heat. Hard to believe that anyone could live let alone work in such conditions. The ac must run overtime just to keep it within reason. Overall, it all looks new, as if it were all built in the last 10-15 years.

wunelle said...

All the big construction seems quite new. There are older buildings around, but they are all overshadowed by the boom of new architecture.

Every place is air conditioned, of course, and you virtually never see convertibles or motorcycles (except for one motorcycle courier service I saw). There is a huge indoor downhill ski slope here--another new construction item--which I haven't seen. But it's supposed to be immense, having a four-chair chairlift. One of the guys went there on his past visit and said it was very cool, and about $80 for two hours.

Dzesika said...

I'm all kinds of jealous over your recent posts ... this is totally fascinating, though. I used to share an office with another company that organized corporate travel to Dubai, and I've always wondered: seriously, is this place for real?

wunelle said...

It almost doesn't feel real. The Wikipedia page makes it sound like a really ancient place (first mentioned in historical writings in, I believe, 1095), but it all feels Disney-new and Disney-staged. Like Vegas without the gambling.

dbackdad said...

That's some funky ass architecture. Very space age.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am very jealous about your being there. I would love to go to Dubai myself---someday, maybe.
Several months ago, I read in the NYTimes that apartment sales there had tanked, presumably due to a world-wide recession. All these super-swanky, expensive apts. that are sitting empty; and sellers, completely hamstrung in trying to dump them without completely losing their shirts financially.
I would love to see the Burj in person.
Having lived many yrs. in Manhattan, the looking up at the WTC gave you neck strain; but this is nearly twice as tall as they were. Amazing.
david dunkle