This place just defies description.
I'm sitting on the 29th floor of the Fairmont Dubai, looking out at the desert as it stretches away from me. It's an utterly foreign view, like what I imagine the view from a hotel on Mars would be.
Things were weird right from the beginning of the trip. We started in Cologne, which feels like Western civilization itself (though at 3:00 in the morning it's a sleeping civilization). Flying is flying, and mostly my job in the cockpit is what I've been doing now for almost 18 years. Mostly. The phraseology is a bit different as we cross Europe to the East, and the further one gets from one's regular haunts the more you have to be aware of the odd sounds of fixes and navaids and such. We're forever being cleared to places that are neither familiar nor roll off the tongue gracefully. But that vigilance is a skill acquired like any other.
What a roster of places we go over, reflected by the controlling agencies we talk to. After departing Cologne we talk to Langen Radar (pronounced LAHN-gen), then Rhein Radar, then Munich Control, Vienna Control, Budapest Center, Bucharest, Sofia, Istanbul, Ankara. Normally we leave Turkey's airspace and enter Nicosia (called "Ercan Control" for some reason), but because Cyprus and Turkey are not on speaking terms there is no coordination of air traffic control services between them. This would all be so junior high except that there are missiles involved. So make that so Lord of the Flies. And so our radio contact with Turkey just kind of fades away, and we are expected to have made our own contact with Nicosia before crossing the border into Cyprus, hunting and pecking among the thousand frequencies on the crowded high altitude enroute chart. The problem is that you have to make contact with Nicosia before entering their airspace--that is, before actually exiting Turkey's airspace--and both entities have the bad habit of giving you instructions--headings or an altitude change or a new squawk code--which the other side knows nothing of and has not authorized. Here's a new tool for the skill set: avoiding international incidents!
After Nicosia we talk to Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Jeddah, Bahrain and UAE Center before talking finally to Dubai Control. That's the normal routing. But on this day we are routed to the North of the Turkey / Cyprus quagmire, only to encounter... a different quagmire. (This is, after all, THE quagmire part of the world, or one of them. Every crumbling rock or washed-out little hill seems to hold the concentrated passions of the adherents of this or that mythology. Even my captain, when I ask whether the body we're crossing is the Black Sea, says "I think so. Noah's Ark is down there." Sorry, dude, but it's not. Wait! I think I see the Flying Spaghetti Monster's limo on the highway down there! But I digress.) Today's routing skirts us over the Northern edge of Iraq and into Iran's airspace. Tehran Control. We follow the Eastern shore of the Persian Gulf down a ways and then cross the Gulf to Dubai. Those Tehran folks, they not only don't like we Yanks, but a big commercial airplane like ours might seem to perfectly exemplify one of their key pinch points. Kinda makes a fella nervous.
Today everyone is on their best behavior (as they have been each of the two or three other times I've been here), and soon enough we are on descent for the 105° heat of Dubai. I always have trouble actually doing my job as we descend in here, as I can't keep from staring out the window. The heat envelopes everything in a kind of dusty haze, and there seems to be no color until one is almost ready to touch down. And almost none then. This is starkly different from every other place I've ever seen. Mostly it's because there is no natural foliage here, apart from some widely-spaced scrubby bushes. The city has some imported and carefully-cultivated trees and the occasional golf course or manicured lawn, but these things are rare and seem as shockingly unnatural as prime rib in India. Looking in every direction, over city and open desert, one is aware that about 2/3 of the color palette is AWOL. Everything is the color of sand: white, bleached, dusty, baked. Houses and roadways and walkways. It's a challenge to pick out the airport from the surrounding terrain even when you're practically on top of it, as everything is exactly the same color.
Apart from a domestic architecture that reflects the building materials and climate, the city looks and feels otherwise like a city. Albeit one without shade trees or hedges or lawns or anything like that. (I'm reminded that China is nearly as hot--and its humidity makes it even more insufferable to me--but there are trees and shade everywhere.) But out beyond the hard border of the city things become surreal, like a page out of Frank Herbert's Dune. There's a real sense of the town having a distinct perimeter: outside this line you're on your own. And there are scattered settlements out in the desert that I simply can't fathom. Quite a few of them. They appear to be single-family dwellings, but I can't be sure. They're scattered like widely-spaced farms, except that there is no acreage with them. They're just round courtyards with dwellings in the interior (much like Luke Skywalker's home on Tatooine but bigger). Each has a clear perimeter like a human cell with its distinct border and the functioning machinery inside. A sturdy fence or wall or some such. And there seems to be no way to actually get to these places, as there are no roads or visible tracks. They just float out in the desert like lily pads. Where does their water come from? Or power? How do they deal with sewage? The modern multi-lane highways that slash off to infinity across the desert seem to be protected with walls or borders, and the on- and off-ramps all have sand drifting over them, threatening to engulf. One even sees sand plows parked beside the roads like snow plows in Minnesota. Out in the desert roads are visible which are completely drifted over. There's no way for me to know if this is the work of hours or days or months or years. They look to go to facilities that may or may not still be in use, and it's impossible to tell from 5,000' whether the drifts make the roads impassable or not. But it all gives the impression of a hostile place, even deadly. And to live out in the midst of it is to exercise a real expertise, I think. A guy like me turned loose would go Chris McCandless pretty quickly--within hours, I'd say.
We schlep our bags down to the crew bus and go through the customs shuffle. Lots of little differences: all crew vehicles have the motors running at all times to keep the interiors cool, and all have curtains which are drawn against the sun. As you approach, the driver keeps the doors closed until you're right at the door and closes the door quickly behind you as you board. The mechanics have air conditioning carts ready to keep the airplanes from heating up while they're on the ground; all window shades are pulled and screens turned down to keep heat down. People are dressed in a mixture of familiar Western clothes and several varieties of desert clothing. The most resplendent are the men in the long white robes with headscarves. Very cool and comfortable, I'd think. This mode of dress seems reserved for the wealthy or important.
The customs line at the airport is like most other customs lines, plodding and listless. The woman sitting at the luggage scanner stares hard at me for about 90 seconds after looking at my bag scans. It's a stare that's equal parts utter boredom and contempt. These kinds of civil servants the world over tend to have the civility pounded out of them like a cheap steak, but this woman's stare seems something more. Maybe I'm imagining things. The hotel driver is waiting outside the door, standing in the heat in a dark suit (in fact, all outdoor workers wear long pants and shirts and hats; protection against the sun's rays seems to take precedence over facilitating evaporation). We drag our bags over to a white Toyota Previa van (the Previa is a dead model in the US, but alive and well here, I see). He has a cooler with ice water and *cold* wet towels for a quick freshen-up.
The desert whizzes by as we drive the 10 miles to the hotel, probably the nicest hotel I've ever seen. Shockingly posh. We have 48 hours here, but we're cautioned that the anniversary of 9/11 is shortly upon us and to be vigilant. I think there's not much trouble typically in Dubai, but it is a Muslim country and I'm pretty obviously American. Kidnappings for ransom are not unheard of. We'll see whether I can make anything of the layover or not.