Travelling The City of Gold...
No one can deny the ambition of the worlds latest ode to capitalism. Located in an ideal global location, smack dab between Europe and Asia, Dubai attracts millions of ex-pats for business, education and service. Arab UAE nationals, the natives of the land, make up only 17% of the citys population the rest of us are here for work!
As a destination spot, however, The City of Gold lures the masses with consumer indulgences and sparkly new concert halls, making it the seventh most-visited city in the world. Surrounded by nothing but barren desert, Dubai is a place of extremes: the first man-made islands (which now appear to be sinking), the tallest building and the fourth biggest mall in the world, temperatures hovering around 118 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and the surfeit of skyscrapers practically overflowing onto Sheikh Zayed Road. Where many cities have a delineated area for these dizzying emblems of modernity, Dubais aren't confined to the financial district. The big boys are EVERYWHERE.
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Empty as the Skyscrapers, Shallow as the Gloss
Beneath the sheen of new moneys splendor lurks concrete doubts as to Dubais positioning as the international hot spot for business and pleasure. Recent theatre debuts have been cancelled due to religious censorship just one of the many speed bumps on the road to importing culture. On top of that, the economic downturn left scores of newly constructed buildings empty while leased luxury vehicles sit abandoned like elderly greyhounds in mall parking lots across the emirate.
The consecration of desert ground with the countrys freshly made oil money seems to have resulted in little more than a few malls and empty buildings. Even Dubais residential crme de la crme, the Jumeira Palms, hasn't quite lived up to all the marketing hooks initially used to attract buyers. As the reality of suffocating city planning and the utilization of slave labor became ever more apparent (workers made as little as $40/week and lived 12 people to a room with no air-conditioning), the Palms are now being called more of an eighth blunder than an eighth wonder of the world.
Although the latest headlines here claim a quick recovery of the market, outsider doubts seem to have more solid grounding than the Dubai skyscrapers themselves, erected in the hasty hope, if we build them, they will come. If you seek the artifacts of a rich lengthy history quality museums, traditional festivals, any vibe to speak of you'll come up sweaty and disappointed in Dubai. The Bedouins we're a nomadic people, some fisherman, family-oriented, lovers of falcon and camel breeding the simple life, the good life. But not the urban life. Until now.
The Bright Side
Dont get me wrong, the UAE has done some incredible things with infrastructure and investing in their brand spanking new education system (cheers, guys, happy to be here!). Arguably their most admirable move so far: in light of the concrete knowledge that oil will eventually run out , the government is spearheading a country-wide green movement to pave the way for a sustainable future here. <high five!>
And yes, there's no shortage of lovely high-end spas in Dubai (not an amenity unique to this city), and you'll find a healthy smattering of galleries showing local and international talent (though be sure not to visit on a Friday galleries are generally closed. If what you're after is the cultural capital of the UAE, it's under construction in Abu Dhabi, on the $27 billion Saadiyat Island (manmade, of course). There you can visit sister galleries to both the Louvre and the Guggenheim in 2015. Abu Dhabi is also home to an international film festival consistently attracting innovation.). There are loads of things to do in Dubai, but as a visitor I'd recommend finding an event you're interested in, a massive music concert, perhaps, and planning your trip around that.
From the perspective of this young yogi tourist, Dubai still has a lot of growing to do. Its the perfect city for a day of shopping, average (and severely lacking in substance) yoga classes, a brief beach adventure (mind the sewage!) and painfully mainstream clubbing (yech!).
To drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, the citys main artery, the average tourist isn't exactly handed beauty on a silver platter. When I think new city, I think of all the potential for exploring the exceptional. I was imagining each and every structure to be a vision of distinction, a testament to our capacity for creation. But if you're looking for something to admire, other than the sheer big-ness of it all, you'll really need to put your peepers on and examine the buildings details. A wrap-around layer of ornate metal cascades around the crust of one building, flying arches crown the top of another, giving it a kind of lotus vibe.
True, there are gorgeous buildings to see but as with most cities in the world, Dubais skyline really only boasts a few gems amidst a sea of mediocrity. For every feat of modern architecture, there are three glass and steel rectangles that say nothing more than Hi, I like money. Tell me something I don't know.
Architectural hopes buried in the sand, I was determined to find something really stellar about this city. Surely there must be something more to what seems at first to be a vastly overrated man-made atrocity. There must be some history, some culture, some depth to the story.
The Tourist Beat
I began my journey as a typical tourist, on the lazy mans BIG BUS TOUR, thinking I could at least get a lay of the land, for future explorations. Stops included the Jumeira Mosque, the Gold Souk (closed that day *sigh*), the Dubai Museum and the Sheikh Zayeed Al Maktoum House. They all sounded worth seeing, as suggested by the chirpy host of our bus tour. But after respectfully perusing each and every stop, I can't say I agree.
The Dubai Museum is a tiny underground reenactment of life in the desert before oil. The kind of curatorship you'd see at a circa 1983 natural history museum in a forgotten Midwest suburb, where expressionless mannequins stare at your quizzical countenance. Yup, just a few stiff models with painted-on eyebrows making traditional jewelry in a poorly-lit store for tea-sipping customers sat upon a traditional Arabian rug. It just isn't my idea of an engaging, or thought-provoking, or even just aesthetically pleasing museum exhibition. Yes, I know the Bedouins once wore those clothes because they still do! Although my travel homey liked it, for me, it's best quality was probably the air conditioning.
An empty smattering of rooms, boasting nothing more than a few sun-damaged photographs on display, The Sheikhs House was probably the worst of the tour. Want to know more about the photographs? Yup, so did I.
The best souk in Dubai was actually a brand new indoor mall with cool imports from India and Africa. Where are the rugs, the spices, the shisha pipes and bartering owners? The hunt continues for a more distinctly local flavor . . .
The Epicenter of City Life in the UAE: The Mall
But not just any mall. Dubai Mall . The fourth biggest shopping center in the known world. Come find everything, reads the malls fairy-tale promise. As though you'd just rubbed the right bottle, and out pops a mustachioed genie, dancing behind eye-watering oud smoke, cloaked in a musky cologne, one eyebrow raised in anticipation. Everything , you say?
If it takes three visits before you even feel comfortable writing a blog on the subject, then yes, the mall has just about everything. An Olympic-sized ice rink, twelve banks, a travel agent, a gold souk, an aquarium, a dancing fountain, and the tallest building in the world. Yes, thatll do.
Coming from America, and having lived in Europe, Thailand and Japan, I thought I'd seen most of what shopping has to offer. Indoor mall monstrosities are common in Asia, and the boutiques and markets in Paris or London are unparalleled as far as I've seen. But Dubai Mall is hardly a mall at all it's more like a consumer life center, a kind of highly-condensed culmination of all that hyper-convenience has to offer.
My first experience here was brief and I was thankful for it. The crowds descend upon the megalith at 7pm sharp, making a leisurely stroll about as enjoyable as an obstacle course in a military training yard. Groups of abaya-ed women float along in wide rows, engulfing whole walkways. German tourists sip espresso at the mid-aisle Italian-style standing caf. Long-haired filipino besties laugh at an inside joke, shopping bags in hand. Indian families, eight people strong, crowd onto escalators, mouths agape at the circus we're all a part of.
We paused for a bit to indulge in Japanese soba noodles served cold with a simple sesame green onion garnish. And who can resist few plates of kaitenzushi, immaculately presented, fresh as you like. Oh, how I missed eating off a conveyor belt!
Strolling about like royalty, I found myself particularly enamored by the candy stores. Not simply because of my domineering sweet tooth what's left of it but the artistry of the wrappings and the clever interior design of the spaces. Is this a chocolate store or a jewelry boutique?!
These hyper massive centers are becoming more common every year in countries with a growing middle class the day trip of choice for socializing groups. It all makes sense when you realize, the weather is just about as friendly as a desert viper caught between a rock and a cactus tree.
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Posted in Business Post Date 08/14/2019