Dubai Calling

Dubai, one of the 7 cities or rather emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates (the other 6 being Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain, and Abu Dhabi is the capital of UAE), celebrates its national day on 2 December. It is known for its passion to create world records like 
  • Burj Khalifa: world’s tallest man-made building and world’s highest outdoor observation deck on the 124 floor
  •  Burj Al Arab:  world’s only 7 start hotel, world’s tallest hotel, world’s highest helipad
  • Dubai Mall: world’s largest mall, world’s largest acrylic panel aquarium

A quick note on Burj Khalifa’s observation deck. There is no doubt that it is one of the main attractions of the city and hence advance planning will be a good idea. We missed it as we could not plan in advance. You can check out the prices here and also do the booking. The prices vary based on the time of the day. Based on the season and your own plans, you can pick a slot that works best for you.

As of now Abu Dhabi has the world’s largest indoor theme park – The Ferrari World, but Dubai is all set to beat this by creating another one that would be a couple of times larger than this. They seem to have an obsession that anything largest/biggest has to be in Dubai. Everything about this place is grand. So it was with great excitement that my family said yes, when I asked them if they wanted to visit Dubai. I was going there for a couple of days for some office work and we could easily take a few days off after that to make it a personal trip as well.

The trip was planned at a very short notice. Till the previous evening, we weren't sure of what flight we had to travel on. We just packed and waited for the details. Even as we sat the airport, ready to board the airplane in another hour, we were still unaware of the hotel we had to stay in. Such things didn't deter as this was our first international outing and we were pretty excited about this fact.

We were flying to Dubai, via Mumbai, by Jet Airways on their evening flight. The flight duration is 3.5 hours to Dubai and is 3 hours on the return, but the actual flying time is about 30 min lesser, so while going it takes about 3 hours and return takes about 2.5 hours. International flights expect us to be in the airport at least 3 hours ahead of flight time. To avoid any surprises on the Pune Mumbai expressway we planned to start early, but the taxi wala delayed. This resulted in our cutting short our Khapoli halt and we packed a few McDonald burgers and had it on our way. Family wasn't too happy with this change of plans and a not so satisfying lunch experience. Anyway we actually managed to reach Mumbai airport in a very reasonable time. So much so that the ticketing for our flight hadn't even started. 

While waiting, I tried to connect to the airport’s free wi-fi, but unfortunately it didn't work. The wi-fi needed sign-in. We had to select the 'domestic' option and then enter our mobile no to receive an OTP to sign-in, but for some reason, I wasn't getting any OTP messages. I tried a few times, but then gave up. So much so for free wi-fi.

In all international airports you don’t have to do a baggage scan and directly pass this on to the belt at the ticketing counter. We got our boarding pass and walked to the security check, where self and hand baggage were scanned and boarding pass stamped. On the return we realized that in Dubai, we don't even need to use the hand baggage tag. When i asked for it at the counter, the person replied, that the hand baggage tag is only required in India. Other places don't need it. 

When leaving one's country, one goes via emigration services, where they check the passport, a valid visa to the travel destination, purpose of travel and plans for return. Usually they aren't too particular of why the person is travelling as long there are valid documents and a return plan. When satisfied, they scan the passport to make an entry, take a picture and stamp the passport with date of leaving the country. The counterpart of this check is immigration, that happens in the destination country, where they again validate the same documents, are more particular of the reason of visit and appropriate arrangements having been made for the stay etc. and also a return plan. Sometimes they would even want to see the return ticket. The entry to a country is controlled via the visa and the duration of stay is decided by the person sitting at the immigration counter. Based on the purpose of visit, the duration gets fixed. These days many countries have an e-visa service, which is just a paper printout that we need to carry. There is no visa stamp on the passport itself. Dubai is one such place. BTW Emigration and Immigration usually tend to be related to long term visits and now most places call this check as Passport Control.

We went past the Indian passport control, where the person did ask if we had our return tickets and hotel accommodations already done. There was hardly any crowd at the passport control at this time of the evening and we were past it in a few minutes. Beyond this are the gates for the flights and since we had ample time, a half filled tummy, we decided to first have something to eat and then go to the gate. Airports tend to be pretty expensive places to eat at, but given the long duration between when we started from home to when the flight was, we could not help it. The airport did had ample space for passengers to relax both near the eating counters and also near the flight gates.

Soon it was time to board the flight and we cramped in the regular economy class seats. The only difference between this and domestic flight seemed the in-flight entertainment service and full on-board meal service. We had loads of choices from the in-flight entertainment system, enough to pass the flight duration. Soon after the take-off, we had juice/hard drinks being served along with some moong dal snack packet. An hour and a half into the flight, we had our dinner, which somehow Jet Airways seems pretty bad at. Their choice of menu is one of the worst I have seen on any airlines. Knowing that we will reach Dubai around 9 pm local time and it would be mostly 11 pm by the time we would reach out hotel, we had to make do with whatever was offered to ensure that our stomachs were filled.

We reached Dubai almost 45 min ahead of scheduled reaching time. The last 15-20 min of sky view of Dubai was amazing. The lights all bright and extremely well organized in straight lines. We landed ahead of time and this had caught the air-bridge folks a bit unprepared. So it took almost 10 min before the gates of the plane finally opened and we could disembark. From here to the passport control was a long walk. The airport terminal itself didn't appear anything fancy, especially also because it was under repair. At the passport control counters, we were directed to queues towards one corner. Given that Dubai’s international airport is pretty busy, you may want to budget at least 1 hour for getting past this section.

The people at the passport control were our first exposure to people dressed in local traditional dress. While there were many counters and it wasn't that late in night, but still the progress was pretty slow. The people at the counter weren't asking any questions as well. It was just appropriate documentation that they were concerned with i.e. the passport and a valid visa and that's it. Not all counters were operational. So in-spite of having landed ahead of time, it was almost 9.30 pm when we were past the passport control and then went on towards the baggage claim area. Due to the delay, the particular belt was already servicing another airline. Our bags were already on the belt. We picked them and exited the airport, where the hotel taxi was waiting for us.

As we reached the taxi, we could not help but look at each other with great surprise. The taxi was a pretty luxurious car, something like Nissan Armada waiting for us to take us to the hotel. We settled in and had our first taste of high speed driving on the roads, even though at that time there still was enough traffic on the road. Later, we realized that the highways have a speed limit of 100 miles/hour. We did notice that the regular cabs in Dubai were all Toyota Corollas, a car that is one of the luxury cars in India and is a pride possession. You will find multiple colors for these cabs – blue, green, brown, red and pink. There isn't much meaning to these colors except that they represent different companies, but the pink one surely is special. These are cabs driven by women and take only women passengers. Another aspect to note about the cab is that their base fare is AED 10 (there is some discussion happening to hike this to AED 15), though the display still reads AED 3. The moment you stop, and the bill is generated, it will jump to AED 10, so don't be surprised if you see this happening. The meter isn't rigged, just that the base fare hasn't been updated. If you want to take a cab, avoid asking your hotel desk to call for it. The best option is to just step outside and stop one (you might have to wait a little while, but there are is no shortage of taxis, so you will get one soon). If you call a cab, the base fare then is set to AED 20. The meter continues to move, though the cab may not be moving, like say at a traffic signal. So the fare will move upwards pretty fast. If it is a peak traffic time, taking a cab can hence prove to be expensive on your pocket. Metro is then the best option and most of the Dubai is very well connected via Metro.

The around 30 min drive took us from Airport, around Dubai Creek to Bur Dubai, where our hotel, 'London Crown 1 Apartment Hotel' was located. It was in a residential area, which along with regular apartments also had many other apartment hotels. We checked in and were put in room 512, on fifth floor. By the time we settled in our room it was around 11.00 pm, local time. We had a two bedroom apartment to us, fully furnished, functional kitchen and even a washing machine. While we enjoyed looking around, we suddenly realized that there was no drinking water in the room. When I asked the reception to provide for the same, they mentioned that we will need to buy it. No drinking water is provided. This turns out to be standard practice in Dubai and even when you go to a hotel, you will not be served water, like here in India. There will be a bottle on the table, which you can use, but that is then conveniently added to the bill. The hotel reception person told me that he could arrange water for us at a cost. I asked where I can get it and was told about a small general store two lanes away. I walked up to it and brought two 1.5 L OASIS bottles at AED 1.5 each. We realized in coming days that OASIS was a cheaper brand and our general store did had low prices. At restaurants, we noticed, most of them kept the MASAFI brand, and charged AED 4 for a 1.5 L bottle.

While we know different brands will have different prices, my Dubai friend also told me that many products do not have MRP mentioned on them. The shops are free to pick a price they want (needless to say within a certain range), so you may get the very same item at different prices at different stores. We may not find this strange as we are anyway used to paying different for products based on where the shop is – local store, mall, movie hall, airport etc.

Being in residential neighborhood, we had residential buildings around us, which looked no different than the regular flats kind of buildings that we have here in India. This did mean that the view was pretty boring from our hotel room. One thing did catch our eye though was lack of balconies in many apartments around us or if they were there, they were pretty small. Here's a good use of a small balcony that we saw

Cloth stand hanging outside the balcony
Our hotel was good in the sense that it as two bedroom apartment, but from a hotel perspective that as a tourist you look out for, it failed miserably. We had breakfast included plan, which was good as the hotel hardly had anything in the name of lunch and dinner. Breakfast was also not that very great. They had some obsession with Maggie, as we had that every day. Chicken sausages was another item we found daily. It almost looked like the items were all typically anything found in the market as ready to cook and eat. For dinner we located a Kamat near by and next to it was Gazebo, which saved our dinners. One day we ordered a pizza but there was only 1 veg option.

If you have seen the Dubai map, you know that it is located at the edge of Arabian Gulf. The airport is almost on one side of the city. From the tourists point of view, there are two main parts of the city that are a must see – the spots around Dubai Creek and the spots on the Jumeirah road. Sheikh Zayed Road is the main road that connects the city with Sharjah on one side and all the way to Abu Dhabi on the other. And then there is obviously the Dubai Downtown housing the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall and various other attractions. My take is that if you have 3-4 days, you can pretty much cover the entire Dubai city. There are good hotels near the airport and the Dubai creek. Most good hotels are on the expensive side and just room or at max room with breakfast are the plans that they typically offer.

The office of the friend, where I had come to work, was in the Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT), a place near Palm Jumeirah. About an hours drive on the Sheikh Zayed road took us past many high rise buildings to JLT.

On the way to JLT
JLT is like a business district with many tall buildings housing all sorts of offices. This is supposed to be the free zone, where non-localites are allowed to take up space and open their offices. Near to this office was a nice small lake created.

Jumeirah Lake Towers
A good way to get around for sightseeing is either the Metro, where you will need to plan your day on your own, or take a city tour from the likes of Big Bus. They have a 24 hour or a 48 hour package and if you book online you typically get some discount on their base fare. We picked the 48 hour package that included some freebies like free Dhow Cruise, free entry to Dubai Museum, free walking tours at Wafi Mall, free Sharjah 3 hour tour and discounted night Dubai tour. The freebies keep changing, so check out what you are getting when you book the tickets.

We found this tour very good. The buses are all in good condition and given the pleasant weather, we mostly sat on the upper open deck. There is audio that explains the parts of the city as the bus navigates it and is available on multiple languages. This proved to be very useful as from here we came to know that it is perfectly acceptable to bargain for prices, in some areas, like we are used to in India. The other benefit of the tour is that you can hop off and hop in any number of times during the day. So you can get down at a spot, spend as much time as you want and get back at the bus stop to get into the next available bus, which incidentally run every 15 min. The only thing that we realized a little late is that the bus will reach a spot, stop there for maybe a min, and if no one seems to be getting off, it will move on. Since we were expecting someone to explicitly call out, we missed our first spot (which turned out to be no big loss as we could cover it later in the day).

Big Bus operates on two routes. The red line, which covers the Dubai creek and the blue line (the bus is still the same and isn't really blue in color) that operates on the Jumeirah road. Both start from the Wafi Mall. Given that water needs to be bought in Dubai, a benefit of Big Bus is that it offers free water on board. The buses have a small freeze inside, which is loaded with half liter water bottles at the start of the day, and you can pick as many as you like. We had carried our load full of bottles the first day, not knowing of this provision. The second day, we relied on the bottles from the bus. Within a day we also realized that you can easily survive in Dubai with not just English but Hindi as well. There is good density of South Indian population as well. 

One of the first things we saw in our tour was the Dubai Museum. From outside it looked pretty small and as we entered the enclosed ground, there seemed to be only few rooms at the periphery. I was a bit disappointed.

Then we realized that we had to go to the basement for the actual museum. Once there, we realized the expanse of it. It reflects the era gone by of Dubai i.e. the life style of the people living in yester-years, their way of life, accommodations, their daily work, building of boats (called as Dhow) for fishing etc. The  museum is built in the basement as during summers Dubai becomes very hot and walking around such a large museum in that hot weather will be very difficult and would require extensive cooling. Having it underground, provided a natural coolness to it.

Lifestyle of people @ Dubai Museum
The Dhow Cruise took us around the Dubai creek and there was a constant commentary on what all buildings we saw don either side and also a lot about history of Dubai. We came to know that Dubai already had big malls and multilane highways in 1990s itself. Oil isn't really a big revenue earner for Dubai. Tourism, real estate and financial services are some of the other key contributors to its GDP. Ours was a free cruise ride, which lasted about an hour. You can book this separately as well, where you will have options of taking a dinner cruise, which has entertainment program on-board as well.

The Dubai Night tour, which we got at a discount with our 48 hour package, is something that I will recommend you take. It is a 2 hour tour, across prominent spots of the Dubai, which glow with wonderful colors at night. Our tour guide made it all the more enjoyable with a variety of jokes that he cracked at times. The amazing part of this tour is the realization that most big buildings are covered with bulbs to light them up at the night, but these are put in such a way that they aren't visible in day time from outside.

Dubai sleeps late and the night life is very safe. Many shops and most malls are open almost till midnight. The city is so brightly lite at night that after getting back to India, it felt that we were driving around in total darkness, given our feeble lights on most roads. The Burj Khalifa, shines like an exquisite diamond in the night lighting.

The only drawback on this night tour is that it is non-stop, so in case you need to take a bio break, you will pretty much need to wait till the tour ends and the bus returns.

Dubai has a host of malls. While in general the malls are pretty grand and host the best brands in town, each mall also may have something interesting to offer either in terms of their architecture or the features like The Mall of Emirates has the Ski-Dubai, and indoor Ski slope area, The Mall of Ibn Battuta has 6 parts, each part architected on a different geographic region, The Wafi Mall is architected like the Egyptian era of Pyramids,

Wafi Mall

The Barjuman Mall, one of the earliest malls in the city, houses some great places to dine with the presentation that of a beach front

Food Section @ Burjaman Mall

and definitely the Dubai Mall, the largest of them all, which boasts of world’s largest indoor aquarium, also has its own ice rink and the world famous Dubai Fountain. It has over 20 cinema halls and can have close to 16000 cars can park at a time. The majestic Burj Khalifa is right next to this mall. If you plan to visit Dubai Mall, you can avoid taking the ticket for the aquarium, as it is fully visible from outside as well and you can take a walk around it. The only additional thing that the ticket gets you is the walk under it (in a tunnel). Dubai mall is also probably the place to see all sorts of luxury and premium car brands. 

Outside Dubai Mall
You may rather want to spend your money in the Lost Chambers of Atlantis, located at Atlantis The Palm Hotel, at Palm Jumeirah. You get to walk around in an underground huge aquarium, which has more than 65000 marine species. You can even do a Shark safari or dive with the dolphins and feed then at The Atlantis. The ticket to Lost Chambers is AED 100 per person. If you are a localite, you get some discount on this. Being native to Dubai has its advantages like you get free education, many shops have 50% discount, the government gives loan for marriage and even helps sustain you, in case you don’t have a job.

Main Chamber @ Lost Chambers of Atlantis

Wafi mall, from where our Big bus tour started, has a section called the Bazaar. This is an underground market, replicating the street market of Arabian and Turkish goods and is a place where you can get most of your shopping done as a tourist (except for Menna bazaar, which is the place to go for the gold shopping). There are wide variety of shops selling local dresses, cosmetics, spices and a whole bunch of souvenirs. This the place to show your Indian bargaining prowess. Feel free to walk away, if the prices aren't adjusted as you are asking and don’t worry if the shop keeper doesn't follows you. There are many shops selling similar items, and someone will definitely reduce. When trying to buy souvenirs for our friends back home, one shop insisted on AED 10 as minimum per item, while at a later shop we got the same item 3 for AED 10.

Another benefit that is available for everyone is that Dubai is tax free city. There is no local tax, no income tax, no sales tax etc. So the price you read on any product, or in your hotel menu is pretty you pay. No Service tax, no VAT, no Service charges like we have in India. In short, you get to keep all of what you earn.

The last day of our trip was kept for the desert safari ride. The ride includes a pick from the hotel around 3.30 pm, a drive to the desert, which takes about 45 min, dune bashing all the way to the desert camp where you get to ride on a camel, and watch a few dance programs, return start by around 8.00 pm and drop to the hotel by about 9.00 pm. Dune bashing is riding at high speed in the desert, on its climbs and slopes, which feels almost like a roller coaster ride or that on a giant wheel. If you have spondylitis, stomach problem, travel or motion sickness, then you may want to consider avoiding the dune bashing, else you may end up with a sick feeling, resulting in vomiting. Our package included (which is what most packages include) the hotel pickup and drop, dune bashing, free camel ride, free water and cold drinks at the camp (both of which were chilled and we could not really take more than one), starters and then dinner. Be-aware that while they may claim unlimited starter and food, it really isn't so. For both, in our camp, it got over with only one serving per person. In case of dinner, for those who came in last, they got only rice and dal and maybe some non-veg curry. So when they announce serving of starters and food, you may want to make a dash for it. There are many different camps, of the same nature. So depending on where you got put up, you may get different experience. At our camp, the food was nothing great, and nor of sufficient quantity. Ours was at a cost of AED 125 per person. There were Groupon coupons available online for AED 99, but I was told by a friend that they take a shorter route for dune bashing and don’t maybe have the free camel ride.

En-route Desert Safari Camp
The program at the camp included 3 dances. The first is like the Rajasthani ghoomer, where a person kept on moving around in circles and kept making format with plate like things in his hands. This lasted for about 20 mins. Towards the end he lifted part of his skirt all the way to his head, and then in his hands. After his dance, he invited people to come try going around in circles holding the skirt in their hands. Some were successful, while one person, who was already heavily drunk, fell on his first try. The second dance was a fire dance, for about 20 min again. A dinner break followed by the most awaited dance of the evening, the belly dance. Instantly everyone's cameras were up in the recording mode. If you have been to the sand dunes in Jaisalmer, this safari ride may seem very similar, except for the dune bashing. 

Trying my hands at (empty) Hooka
The one interesting thing at the desert safari was the sand artwork in a bottle. You could have any kind of text written in a bottle filled with multi-colored sand. We saw the person in action and it is just amazing how he does it. The design of camel on side is pretty much fixed with the number of camel depending upon the width of the bottle's base. On the other side you could get any text written. 

Sand Art
We didn't do much on our final day. Most of the time was spent in packing and then we left for the airport. Our return flight was at 4.30 pm from Dubai. At the airport, we spent some time at the Duty free shop. While not everything is worth a purchase, but you can surely pick up a few cosmetics, because while they may seem a bit costly, but their quality is just awesome. We had picked a pack of perfumes and the quality is just amazing.

The return flight again was ahead of its time and we were at Mumbai airport by 8.45 pm local time. In the flight we had filled a disembarkation card, which surprisingly no one collects for Indian nationals. The funny part was that while I was just about to throw it away, I realized that this was being collected by the security at the airport exit. After we got off the plane, we came to a counter which had two long queues. I was wondering why there were only two queues for passport control at Mumbai, when someone told us that this was the counter setup to track the cases for Ebola virus. Anyone who felt sick or had similar symptoms was to report at this counter. I could not really understand that if this was voluntary disclosure, won't people just walk off without disclosure? Anyway, none of us had any symptoms so we walked past to the passport control, which was almost empty, then to baggage collection, then past customs via green channel and out to get to our taxi.

We were on our way back to Pune by around 10.00 pm and reached home a little past midnight and immediately dived into our beds to get sleep of whatever was left of the night. Thus ended a pretty exciting trip and our very first international family holiday. Let’s see where the next trip will take us.

Two additional points before I sign off. One is using ICICI bank’s travel card. I had taken a travel card in AED currency and it proved extremely convenient to use it pretty much at all places. I almost didn't had to deal in cash. The card being in AED, saved me any transaction cost that I would have incurred on my regular India credit card or even on a dollar card. Load this to the amount you would want for your entire trip and some buffer. The extra currency left can be easily transferred back to INR on returning the card.

Second is to use the DU’s Visitor mobile line SIM card. Extremely convenient wait to keep in touch with people back in India and even with local Dubai connects. It can be purchased at the Airport itself or from any of the big malls having the DU shop and activates within mins. The initial pack comes with 20 min of call time that can be used for local/international call and also has an AED 20 recharge voucher in it. While recharging you have option of recharging only your local calling, or international calling or the data plan or all of it. I mostly used it for international calling back to India, as locally I was connected via WhatsApp, given the free Wi-Fi at my hotel, my office and also in most of the malls. Local number. calling (land-line) was free from the hotel as well. I did face issues in connecting to Wi-Fi both at Mumbai international airport and Dubai international airport. For once, my Galaxy S3 Android phone didn't work, while my wife’s Windows 8.1 phone worked like a charm. 

That's all for now. 


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