It only took a few hours for me to realize that Dubai was not the place for me. Actually, it took exactly four hours—I touched down at midnight and fell asleep at my hotel around 3am—only to be jolted from my slumber at 4am by the sound of an imam wailing out prayers from a mosque across the street.
I didn’t wake up again until noon, at which point my travel buddy Julien and I grabbed breakfast/lunch at a shwarma joint and hopped in the car. Our plan was to go to Abu Dhabi for the afternoon—about the same distance as New York to New Haven. On the way out, we finally saw the “real” Dubai: rows of skyscrapers rising from the desert, giving way to stalled construction projects sitting like beached whale carcasses along the city’s periphery and vast rings of asphalt parking lots yet to be filled.
After two hours of driving and a stop at a gas station bathroom equipped with no toilet paper, only an ass-jet (thankfully, I just had to pee), we arrived at a town on the border of Oman. We rolled down the windows and quickly rolled them back up after discovering no cool breeze, only a hot wind that felt like a giant hair-dryer turned all the way up.
We decided it might be fun to try and go to Oman; upon entering, we had a few very confusing conversations with a few agents who spoke little to no English, and somehow we got funneled back across the border to the U.A.E. As we crossed back, the customs official asked to see the “exit stamps” on our passports. Apparently we were supposed to get these on the way out of the U.A.E. and we hadn’t done that. For a moment, I envisioned a doomsday scenario: the man notices the multiple Israeli stamps in my passport, decides I’m a spy, and detains me in the Oman desert until I shrivel up and turn to dust. Fortunately, he saw that we were foolish American tourists and let us back in without any trouble.
We continued on and arrived in Abu Dhabi as the sun was setting. More skyscrapers, though not quite as absurd as Dubai’s supercharged skyline, perhaps because Abu Dhabi is the more conservative and less profligate of the two. And contrary to popular belief (from “Garfield”), there were no kittens. Our next stop was at the Emirates Palace, a Plaza Hotel-sized building topped by a color-changing dome above; inside, half a dozen restaurants and the famous gold bar vending machine. We managed to find a surprisingly reasonable Persian restaurant where I had a meal of beef kebab drenched in an incredible yogurt-based garlic and eggplant sauce.
We returned to Dubai and woke up the next day after another fitful night’s sleep. We took a quick peek at the Dubai Museum across the street (the whole place is about the size of a single exhibition hall at the Met – not much history to preserve, I guess). Then we headed over to the Burj Dubai, now called the Burj Khalifa, and its observation deck about 1,500 feet in the air. The tower itself stretches up another 800 feet or so, making it 600 feet taller than the second-tallest building in the world. It took only five years to built, and it cost $1.2 billion dollars to build. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind the new Yankee Stadium cost about $1 billion to build and is about 2,000 feet shorter! The reason: questionable labor practices.
All in all, I was surprised to find that Dubai was a) very much like Texas, with its emphasis on oil, religion and air-conditioning; and b) relatively empty, especially for a place where, less than a year ago, the line for a cab on a weekend night was an hour long. Didn’t run into a single traffic jam the whole time I was there, and there were scads of empty plazas and arcades.
Other highlights from Dubai included a visit to the indoor ski slope (more on that in an upcoming article), a trip to the top of The Building That Looks Like A Sail ($25 for the cheapest cocktail) and—you guessed it—another early wakeup call.
Next stop: Hong Kong!