If Abu Dhabi is urban planning gone boring, then as Chris wryly observed as we took the metro through the towering business district, Dubai is what happens when you give your designers-in-chief a copy of SimCity and the cheat codes. Visiting is a series of appointments with the world’s tallest this, the world’s biggest that, and the world’s most pointless the other. Not that it’s not all cool. Dubai has clearly set out to buy the world’s interest, and it succeeds. But that success comes in a way that feels a little more attention-whorey than they’d probably hoped.
At least Dubai doesn’t suffer quite so terribly from my primary complaint about Abu Dhabi: you don’t have to get in a car in order to be able to do absolutely anything at all. It’s still not a brilliantly walkable city, but the shiny, futuristic metro will at least get you around a good handful of the main attractions.
It will get you, for example, to the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. And tall it is, and elegantly striking. But when you pay your money to go up to observation deck and find yourself only about halfway up the building, you’ll be told that’s because the Burj Khalifa has pretty much nothing there from the waist up: above the observation deck is basically just machine rooms and elevator shafts, save for a couple of how-good-am-I-I-live-at-the-top-of-the-world penthouses near the very summit. Still, it’s a pretty building, and very shiny, and well, it is the tallest. And from said observation deck, you can look down at Dubai Mall – the largest in the world. And you can see just how much airconditioning is required to keep cold such a behemoth of a monument to consumerism. (Quite a lot, it turns out. I’m guessing that keeping that sort of floorspace nicely refrigerated has got to account for a fairly hefty line item in the budgeting for Dubai’s oil reserves for the next thirty or forty years, til it all runs out.)
Wandering down from the Burj Khalifa into the Mall, you realise that at the end of the day, being the world’s largest shopping mall really just involves being a normal shopping mall but with more shops. So you quickly get over that – although the place does deserve some extra credit, I suppose, for housing an indoor waterfall and an indoor aquarium. (In what, in combination with the aforementioned airconditioning, can only be interpreted as a big ‘fuck you’ to Dubai’s natural heat and lack of water.) Oh, and for having a Burger Fuel in the food court. And a Waitrose in the basement.
Aside from doing some shopping (yes, I know, ‘monument to consumerism’, etc., but I needed a new phone), our other excursion out through the metal forest of Dubai was out to the Palm Jumeirah – the giant tree-shaped expanse of land and sand that Dubai has bulldozed out into the sea. First, out to Atlantis water park, right out on the tip of the Palm. Because, well, why not? And because there’s actually something quite amusing about the combination of western girls in bikinis and middle-eastern girls in full-body swimming costumes, all lining up for the same rides. And, to be honest, because it was actually quite a decent water park, and we had fun.
Then second, up to the bar of the Marriott Hotel – following the advice of a helpful American bloke I’d met in Turkey (whose other great advice had given me a tonne of excellent books to seek out and read) – which allows entry to those of us not guests at the hotel, and also has a great view out to sea, to see exactly what Dubai’s fronded expanse of sand looks like in the flesh. It turns out it looks incredible. I’m still not sure whether it’s incredible in a good way or bad. But it’s definitely incredible.
We turned up to the hotel just after 2pm, and were impressed and excited to see a Guinness tap. But we were bemused, upon ordering, to discover that the bar wouldn’t serve alcohol between 2 and 3pm – a strange limitation, we reflected, looking around at several groups of nearby customers (many clearly well progressed in their enjoyment of a loud and somewhat tipsy party) who’d clearly stocked up just before we arrived, to get themselves through that arduous hour. So we made do with coffee and the views, and spent our time pondering the bizarreness of a place that’s cool with building giant sand decorations in the sea for people to live on, but not so much with purchasing booze between your wine-fuelled late lunch and your gin-and-tonic-focussed afternoon tea.