Friday, January 12, 2007 United Arab Emirates United Arab Emirates

Quick stopover in Dubai

Dubai [Enlarge]

Fly Emirates if you ever have the chance. They make British Airways look like a no-frills carrier…

As we passed over the vast Saudi desert at 35,000 feet we wondered what might have been if we had been able to travel to Dubai by coach. We certainly wouldn't have had the chance to sample Emirates's in-flight entertainment and their meal with real cutlery (remember that on planes?); but that knowledge did not overcome our disappointment at taking a huge chunk out of the earth's circumference in a mere couple of hours. Our inflatable globe now has a big, ugly straight line drawn on at the end of the meandering line between London and Amman.

We landed in Dubai at about 16:00 local time and had that nervous wait to get our checked-in luggage back that air travellers know so well. So far on this trip we've had both our bags in sight all the time when travelling, but although Emirates aren't as strict as British Airways regarding toothpaste and liquids, a Swiss army knife and two medical kits full of syringes are still no-go for hand luggage. So we reluctantly decided to check in one of our two bags at Amman.

Immigration was easy. We thought we needed to buy a visa for the UAE, but having asked two different official-looking people where we needed to go and being told "no problem, just go ahead" we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the visa for UK nationals is now free, and is issued at passport control.

Having got Isla's bag back, we stepped outside into a warm, sunny afternoon. It felt about the same as May in the UK, so for the first time since leaving home we didn't need our fleeces or coats! The hotel was about 5 km away so we took a taxi from the airport rank. We joined the queue of traffic trying to cross one of the few bridges across Dubai Creek, and we made slow progress across through the late afternoon rush-hour traffic into the centre of Dubai. In Amman, taxis are cheap: almost cheaper than the cost of the wear and tear on your shoes if you walk. But in wealthier Dubai, the taxis seemed very expensive to us—40 Dirhams (about GBP 5.55 / USD 10.89) for a ride that would have been 1.5 Dinar in Jordan (GBP 1.08 / USD 2.12). We reminded ourselves how much the same journey would cost from London Heathrow—probably well over twenty quid.

We were relieved to find that Dubai has nice, normal money. One Dirham comprises 100 Fils, and that's all you need to know. The trouble was, we had by now got used to the strange Jordanian system, so we spent half an afternoon thinking a shop had overcharged us by a factor of ten by taking two Dirhams fifty for a stamp that said "250 Fils" on it. Of course these were UAE Fils, not Jordan Fils—only 100 to the Dirham. We got there in the end.

We splashed out a little bit and stayed in the Regal Plaza Hotel in Bur Dubai. Our room was clean and spacious and came with a bath and a large LCD TV. See how little it takes to please us these days? We're happy if the sheets are clean and there's hot water. We noticed that from the hotel's main entrance we could see three malls within two minutes' walk. We decided to continue our quest for an Indian guidebook. Surely one of the malls would have a bookshop, so before dinner we went for a look. But we soon found that these were no ordinary malls. Literally every shop in all three buildings was a computer store. Having toiled and struggled though rainstorms and fields of mud, and up and down hills to buy our laptop in Amman, we had inadvertently booked a hotel in the middle of Dubai's IT district, where all we could buy was computers. If this is not proof of the existence of Sod's Law, then we don't know what would be.

While we were there we couldn't help but look at some prices for laptops. Eventually we spotted the exact same machine we'd bought in Amman—for slightly more money! We were surprised. We'd been bracing ourselves to find it in this tax haven at a fraction of the price.

Back on track in the hunt for a bookshop, we spotted a Sheraton hotel and decided that even if they didn't sell books themselves, the concierge staff there would know the city well enough to point us in the right direction. The lady at the desk said no, they don't have a bookshop, but we would probably find one in another mall two blocks up the street. It wasn't far so we set off.

If you're thinking that all there is to Dubai is malls, you wouldn't be far wrong. This is a new city: its oldest building dates from some time in the 1960s. Because of its oil wealth and tax-free status, the UAE is a magnet for ex-pats from the west—bankers and engineers, mostly. And it seems that the wives of ex-pats like to shop a lot, hence the malls. On the top floor of the Bur Juman Centre mall, we found a large bookshop, Magrudy Books. They had a whole stand dedicated to the Lonely Planet. But precisely none about India. The assistant's computer said that he might have one copy left, but he couldn't find it anywhere (he even dismantled part of the stand to get at a further stash of Lonely Planet books underneath, but to no avail). Just like in Amman, we would have been fine for Burkina Faso, but not for that 'most visited by backpackers in the world' country lying a couple of hours' flying time to the east of Dubai. We did manage to find a small book conveniently covering Goa and Mumbai however, so we bought that and resolved to try to find a Lonely Planet India in Mumbai.

We had a couple of housekeeping issues: back at the hotel we had just done the laundry when we discovered that our washing line was missing. It was one of those special travel ones, with hooks on either end and made of twisted elastic. The clothes are held in place by the twists, so that you don't need pegs. We know we had packed the line in the morning. It was in the washbag, which was inside Glenn's main bag, which we took on board the plane as hand luggage. We thought back to the bizarre security procedure at Amman airport, where our bags had been x-rayed and then hand searched, before we even checked in. Having security before check-in means that there is three or four times more luggage to search because people 'selected' for a manual search have to have their hold luggage searched too. Amman airport was not designed to cope with the resulting chaos. Anyway, during our manual search the bloke had opened everything, and we both remember seeing the washing line being inspected. Either the security man was a collector of rare washing lines (unlikely) or he dropped it on the floor when putting our bag back together. Either way, we lost it. So following a trip to a hardware store in Dubai we now have a lo-tech washing line consisting of one long piece of string.

The second housekeeping issue was that a screw fell out of Glenn's sunglasses and was lost. This is actually quite a problem because Glenn is very short-sighted and is completely helpless without his specs. To lose the use of his prescription sunglasses just as we enter the hot, sunny part of the world would not be good. So we found an optician who was sympathetic and very helpful. He not only fixed the sunglasses, but we left his shop armed with a tiny screwdriver, and a bag full of every possible screw that we would ever need for repairing any of the six sets of glasses and sunglasses that we have with us. He was so helpful that we thought we would give him some free publicity (for all that a plug on this blog is worth), so here goes:

A great optician in Dubai is OPTX 20/20, at the Al Ain Shopping Centre, Near Ramada Hotel, P.O. Box 52235, Bur Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Telephone 04 3519952, Fax 04 3526957.

We spent the evening of our only full day in Dubai down at the waterfront watching the world go by and enjoying the warm evening. Dubai is a strange place: it feels like a western city, but without any sense of history or culture. But despite its sterility and commercialisation, there was something about it that we liked. We didn't get a chance to go out into the desert for a bit of dune bashing or camel trekking, so we've got a good excuse to come back some day and have a better look. For now, it's onwards to Mumbai for a few days, and while we're there we need to sort out transport down the coast to Goa, and some accommodation. We're used to it being low season everywhere we have been so far, but in Goa right now it's high season. Hopefully we will still be able to find something decent but cheap for a few weeks.

Map of Day 047

Day 047
Amman to Dubai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Anonymous said...

The shops in Dubai are not pitched purely (or even mainly) at resident expats. There are lots of very rich Arabs in the UAE, and they (male and female) love to shop. Also, Dubai is cooler in summer than Saudi Arabia, so rich Saudis often spend the summer there - more shoppers. And it's a tax-free destination in the same way as Singapore: people travel there purely to shop.

Dubai flights said...

Great post! I'm always trying to show our readers to interesting write-ups. Do you mind if I use a photo and link to this post from our website?