Over the course of four days, Melvin and colleagues would savor Ballooning, sand buggy racing and elegant dining in what can only be termed “the Las Vegas of the middle east”. We were in Dubai for work of course, as part of a corporate retreat kicking off the new year.
But once the business part was over, it was time to let hair a little loose.
Hit the road
Now as you probably should know, Dubai is mostly desert, lots of it. Surrounded by it and lives it it (eg the sandstorms). And deserts in its natural state are normally very hot in the day and cold at night. That’s real juxtapose that you wouldn’t believe.
So even at 4pm, the desert sands are still freshly baked even as the sun has begun to set. Out in the middle of the dunes, we began our adventure. Buggies, designed with wheels that work well in the slipping sands but the skill of the driver remains paramount. For although the buggy is light, the sand shifts a lot under the pressure of a moving wheel at high torque.
That means that at low gear, you have a greater chance of “digging in” and risking the need for the rescue 4WD to come to your aid. And at 1.8 liters, the engine capacity is sufficient to drive a sedan fast let alone a lightweight tin can that we drove in.
It was actually a race between two teams of convoys. Keep your hands on the wheels, or they will slip and you may flip over! The race was so intense that we actually drove till the sun was setting and totally missed out on sand-boarding. Aargh!
Souks, shopping, old and new
To be brutally honest, Dubai is not the place to do any form of shopping. For a country that imports almost everything with perhaps the exception of oil (and not true, it’s Abu Dhabi that has it), I cannot see why anyone would be here to shop except for windows, eh I mean window shop.
It is true that the souks still bustle with people haggling over the price of tea, spice and saffron. But the main attraction is to walk through the gold market in the souk. You probably will never find another place in the world where so much glittering jewelry is staring in your face.
Walking from store to store, you will soon tire of looking at the same things, different designs perhaps but not that alluring afterall. Though tourists from India or Pakistan would not have the same view. They throng the stores…but wait, you can also pick up some gold bars at the ATM.
The spice market on the other hand was a lot quieter. Somehow we must have been here when all the shopping had been done by the locals. Colorful and “smellful” (no I don’t mean flavorful) but very clean and dry.
Right next to the end of the market is the Creek where for 1 dirham, you can take the dhow taxi across to the other side. Along the way, I could see the small boats moored along the piers offloading or loading cargo. Maybe some of these go to Iran…
At the other extreme, you have malls so large that an entire aquarium can be found inside. The Dubai mall is one such place, and for 100 dirhams you can take a tour of the aquarium tunnel, the “night safari” and the glass bottom boat ride (which lasted for a grand 7-8 minutes). The variety of fish in the aquarium is quite astounding, especially the number of rays. There were large schools of jacks and other fishes whose names I still don’t know (not thinking when not at work…). Feeding time for the sharks is at 4pm, so that could be an interesting experience to watch.
And you need to be here for the fountain show. It takes place at the full and half hour. Each show is slightly different – each water show spouts to a different music. Forget about the modern “souk” adjoining, it’s just another mall though there are some interesting stuff there.
In the background is the Burj al Khalifa, at that time the tallest building in the world. Like the twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, you can book a ticket to the viewing platform but the tickets are said to be sold out well in advance.
See the sun rising
Like any other ballooning around the world, this activity takes place really early in the morning. So it was a 5am pickup to drive out into the desert. It took us nearly an hour to get to the launch area. I later learnt from the pilot that we are quite close to the Oman border… It was a little chilly in the morning, but not as much as it was in Turkey for me.
The crew took some time to setup the balloons. It was fun to watch how they inflate the structure and begin to fire up the hot air into the balloon for lift. Stupid me, not smart at using the camera. Could not get really sharp pictures… Just before sunrise, we lifted off. Afterall this is Dubai, a country of desert. Thus all that we can see in the distant is nothing but sand and dunes. We rose to a level of about 1000m and began to follow the flow of the wind. There is little in the way of navigation except to take the wind flow direction at different heights to sort of get to the destination that the pilot wants. Frequently this does not work and the ground crew has to constantly monitor where the balloons get “blown” to.
Sunrise revealed a different hue to the landscape as the rays of light played on the contours of the dunes. As we gently floated over the dunes, I can make out the patterns on the sand sculpted by the wind. It was a clear day, and we can see very far into the horizon.
Upon landing, I found some curious looking melons that is bearing fruits. No water apparent in the area! Could this be our source of water if stranded in the desert? I could not find evidence of animals eating the melons… It could be toxic! Anyway, that was the end of the flight.
Two other places you need to go take a look. First up, the Palm. Pity could not take the photo from the air as we flew out, but here the reclamation of land into strips that resemble the branches of a palm tree had been completed sometime back. Many houses and apartments now dot the “branches”. Our stop is at the Atlantis, at the very ‘top’ end of the palm. It’s a mall + playground for the children and/or adults who did not grow up. We had lunch there. Nothing of note but a nice drive up.
The other thing is to have a meal at the Burj Al Arab. This 6-Star (or so I recalled) hotel is not freely accessible for casual visitors. You apparently need to be a hotel guest, or having a meal at one of the 9 restaurants there. We had a buffet at the Al Iwan, so on the first floor. So not grand views, just lots of reasonably good food, pricey but nice.