The sheer magnitude of the buildings in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi is just mind-blowing. You’ve seen the photos but to actually be encompassed by these beautiful structures is something else. There was always an exciting tower to stare at. Each was unique, like nothing I had ever seen before. The liberties taken in design ... The creative roofs. Just mesmerizing.
The city is divided neatly into pockets – Dubai Internet City, which has all the technology companies, the .coms, tech startups and global names such as Facebook and LinkedIn. There is Dubai Media City, home to such companies as CNN, Forbes, Reuters and Sony. And there is Knowledge Village, the area for personal development, training and schools. These areas are called “free zones”, where companies are 100% foreign-owned and not taxed. Companies outside of the free zone must have 50 per cent local ownership. It is beyond me how the city was able to organize all of its businesses into categorized areas.
There is an "old" section of the city, where the markets are – old ... the UAE only established its roots 42 years ago.
Bevan has now lived in Dubai for more than five years. He said amongst the shiny buildings, the glitz and glam, the fancy Lamborghinis and McClarens, the 5-star, 7-star hotels, there was one thing Dubai lacked – old character. There was no deep history, there was nowhere to walk where people had walked hundreds of years before. The bars were mostly upscale, attached to expensive hotels. There weren’t really any dressed-down, old-school pubs, no Horseshoe Taverns, no Imperial Pub, no Dominion on Queen. He missed those types of spots. I get that.
TIP: Torontonians, we can still boast: even though the twisty building is seriously cool, our CN Tower is way taller.
Friends are a beautiful thing, and there is something so wonderful about bonding with people when you are so far from home. I think those who have travelled know that feeling. It's just different. Perhaps it's due to the fact that travelling brings out a whole other side of you – you are forced to take care of yourself and be real with yourself, and in turn, a stronger person emerges, with a few more layers to his or her character. People respond to this genuine version of you by being genuine back.
This is Bevan, my close friend for 10 years running, and Gigi, my new friend next door. I am taking a moment to say that I love being in your company and thank you for being so wonderful. Such a special place in my heart you both have.
Gigi is from Beirut and Gigi is just beautiful, inside and out. She speaks with an accent that is a charming fusion of Lebanese and French. I feel blessed to have met her. An important shoutout: Gigi gave my website strength and spark, and for that I am grateful. Her talent is stunning. It was a meeting that was meant to be – she needed a writer, I needed a web expert.
TIP: Believe in serendipity!
Still can’t slip one by me! I seem to be gingerly awakening when the mosque summons the neighbourhood to prayer, instead of being startled. Bevan says everyone sleeps through it after a while.
TIP: Embrace the 4:30 hour, come on, you can do it (so says the perpetual night owl).
With mosques every hundred feet, suffice to say I see many every day. But why not go visit the third largest mosque in the world, by square footage. Why not walk on the largest carpet in the world, and see some of the largest chandeliers ever made, withh Swarovski crystal. I’m in.
Classic line of the day from Bevan after I get dressed to go. “You can’t wear that to a mosque.” Oh. Right.
On the way there is lots of sand. I get so excited seeing the desert. Bevan finds this funny, but to a Toronto girl, the desert is a rare spectacle. He's laughing as I am hanging out the car window angling to photograph the sand. Bevan told me the city planta trees along the highway about two deep to give it ambiance, but then it’s all just sand. And more sand.
We drive out to Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE. I’m excited to enter yet another emirate. Then I catch glimpses of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Constructed entirely of a stunning white marble, this massive mosque is a true masterpiece. It cost $500 million to build and can hold 40,000 people praying at one time. It’s a beauty.
Tourists are everywhere and it is a sea of black, in sharp contrast to the entirely white structure. Every woman has to don an abaya and I’m reminded to cover my head as I walk inside. We have to leave our shoes and the marble floor is freezing beneath my feet.
The chandeliers in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are spectacular. I have never seen a chandelier of this magnitude, and there were seven of them. They are 24-carat gold-plated, with millions of Swarovski crystals, the largest one weighing 12 tons. We are told the chandeliers are the third largest in the world – the second largest inside a mosque.
And then there's the carpet. Yes, it’s just a carpet. But the story behind constructing the biggest carpet in the world is very cool. Coles Notes: It weighs 47 tons. It took two years to make, with 1,200 Iranian women working 24 hours a day in two work shifts. It’s 6,000 square metres. It’s very nice. It was made in nine pieces, flown to Abu Dhabi in two airplanes, and then sewn together.
TIP: Speak to the man at the counter inside the mosque – he knows all the cool facts. Men, take a trip to the washroom. It's a good one.
Bevan and I set out for a road trip to see another emirate called Fujairah and also to see the oldest mosque in the world. Fujairah's coastline is on the Gulf of Oman so we are heading to the farthest point of the UAE. Bevan certainly is doing his part in showing me his adopted country! It is the only emirate that is totally mountainous, so the drive is a sight. It's interesting how one part of the country is all sand, another, all mountains. We stop at a Persian carpet market along the way in the countryside (the real thing!).
The Al Bidiyah Archaeological Mosque, above, is built of stone and mudbrick and is considered an unusual design for the region. It dates back to 1446 AD.
TIP: Ladies, cover up here even though it is not a functioning mosque.
I was pumped for the Dubai Mall – the largest mall in the world. The sheer enormity of it was awesome – four floors, 502,000 square metres of shopping space and more than 1,200 stores (and 14,000 parking spots). I was a happy girl. This is definitely solo time – I would not do that to any guy, no matter how many "man chairs" there were. I aimed big.
Big-time shoppers whose bags grow beyond their carrying abilities can hire a bellboy-type gent to cart around their bags on a trolley behind them and wait outside the stores. This would not be me, but how posh.
Wandering around the lavish space for hours, there was just so much to see. I came upon a giant aquarium with 10 million litres of water, of course one as per Dubai of the largest suspended aquariums in the world, measuring 51 metres in length and 11 metres in height. The acrylic panel in front of the tank won a Guinness World Record for the longest panel in the world, and you can check out its 140 aquatic species from three levels of the mall. Another largest in the world:
its collection of sand tiger sharks.
Everything and everyone was at the Dubai Mall – there was even a Tim Hortons! Read this article about how expats are populating the Tim Hortons shops in Dubai. I remember when spotting the first Timmy’s in the States was a big surprise. The article says 120 Tim Hortons are planned for the Middle East.
I also happened upon an Olympic-size ice rink, and oh, the tallest building in the world, right outside. The Burj Khalifa was a sparkly spectacle, and I did feel some regrets for our CN Tower in Toronto, which had held the record for the tallest tower, or free-standing structure, for 34 years, and is now dwarfed by this giant. The Burj Khalifa stands at 829.8 metres (the CN Tower at 553.33 metres).
Highlight of the day was to walk out of the mall to feel some sun and find the Burj Khalifa right there, and just the most beautiful expanse of buildings. There was the Dubai Fountain show to Arabic music, designed by the creators of the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, shooting water jets as high as 150 metres, which is equivalent to a 50-storey building. And then the stunning outdoor face of Dubai Mall (above) with picturesque cafes to sit in and stare and people-watch. I sat there in the sun for a really long time.
In my shopping-break serenity I noticed a billboard advertisement wall with Twilight actor Robert Pattinson in front of the Burj Khalifa. I tweeted the image. Next thing I know, my tweet takes off like wildfire, and every @Robossesed super-fan (@robforever, @slaveforrob, etc.) is retweeting and favouriting my image. I got 200 mentions. The power of Pattinson (and social media)!
Later on that day, I came out of a store and there was a guy wearing a Robert Pattinson T-shirt. I did a double-take. How odd … it’s not every day you see a dude in a Robert Pattinson shirt, nor is it every day in Dubai do you see Robert Pattinson. I guess they like him in Moldova, where this guy was from. I decide to reignite the Patty fan club and tweet this pic too. The Twitter frenzy takes off again.
I spent nine hours at Dubai Mall, and don’t think I saw half of it. Check out some more pics!
TIP: Even though you are captivated by the mall, take the time to go outside – Dubai is so thrilling, you never know what you will find. If you want to tackle the entire mall, best to set aside two days.
After the camel market we venture to drive up the second tallest mountain in the UAE, the Jebel Hafeet – a whopping 1,249 footer bordering the next emirate of Oman.
We spiral up the mountain, racing to make sunset. We make it just in time. The drive, which has been described as “among the greatest driving roads” by sources such as Edmunds.com (an automotive information source), is incredibly twisty and windy (and nauseating – ugh). It is a triumph when we finally reached the peak.
There is a massive house built on a cliff near the top, which we reason must belong to a sheikh (a member of the ruling family of the UAE), who must have a helicopter to get around.
The Mercure Jebel Hafeet hotel is also at the top. Very cool but very strange – do guests really want to travel up and down such a long and steep distance to and fro? I shiver at the drop in temperature and breathe in the unparalleled views of the mountain valleys below, as the setting sun cast a rainbow in the sky.
TIP: Plan to head up the mountain for sunset, and bring a sweatshirt for the drop in temperature.
What I was really after at the camel and goat souk was some proper goat yodeling – or more accurately, those that yell like humans. My favourite YouTube – the one that gets my goat every time – is Goats Yelling Like Humans – the one I have seen over and over and just can’t stop laughing. Thanks to Ben (shout-out time!) for showing me this gem and letting me roll around on his kitchen floor in laughter. I listened long and hard at the goat pens but alas, only average goats here.
As we were surveying the goat scene, one of the workers reached into the pen for a baby for us to hold. It was a way to make money off tourists, yes, but hey, why not. Who could say no to this adorable little sweetheart, with soft brown fur like a stuffed animal, its gentle demeanour and small frame so very endearing. Oh was she sweet! We wanted to take her home but didn’t have our goat license. When we thanked the man and reached for our money, he smiled and refused. Yes, he was sure. I was so moved at his gentle kindness – it was such an easy way to pocket a few dirhams. Over on the camel side they were pestering us to play with the camels so they could pocket some cash, yet this nice man simply did it for the smiles and delight of a tourist. It was such a kind and pure moment.
TIP: Hold a goat! And watch Goats Yelling Like Humans.
I told Bevan I wanted to see camels, so he gave me camels. Hundreds of them.
A trip to the camel and goat market (souk), where workers of Afghani and Pakistani descent sell their camels to locals for their farms, for breeding, racing and for meat. The dusty expanse in Al Ain, a city in Abu Dhabi, was just buzzing.
The workers kept urging us to get right in there. I was happy to stay on dry land. They wanted money to get us up close and personal, and we obliged, as Bevan loved my camel delight and wanted me to get right in there. I was definitely all camel starstruck. They are sooo cute.
We witnessed a camel sold, as alerted by it screaming its hump off. A bunch of men struggled to lift it into the new owner’s hatchback. I felt sad for the camel, which obviously didn’t want to leave its friends, but perhaps it was moving on to a better, un-caged life. It was a rush spotting a camel roaming on a desert farm from the highway.
TIP: You could easily fall in love with a camel or baby goat, so get your license beforehand so you can bring him or her home with you.
Driving on the massive highways across Dubai and the surrounding emirates – some of which are six lanes – takes some getting used to. Lots of very fast drivers. But they are allowed – the speed limit is 100 but they can drive 120 before a camera snaps their car. Bevan points to the exit lane towards Abu Dhabi and said it gets faster there – in places the speed limit is 120, but motorists can go 140 before a ticket.
On the roads there are hardly any stop signs. In their place are roundabouts to keep the flow of traffic moving. After a long time driving, the continuous sharp turns around these roundabouts can really shake up a stomach, and with frequent U-turns to get across to the other side of the road, the cars are on a perpetual spin ride. Blech.
TIP: The driving feels different and is constantly circling due to all of the roundabouts and U-turns. Those with sensitive stomachs should get accustomed. Don't rush anywhere.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver