The temperature was unbearable as we stepped outside the refrigerated environment of Dubai airport. Like opening a hot oven, the searing heat engulfed us. It was a very warm welcome to the enigmatic wilderness of concrete and steel: a buzzing modern city that has popped up like a synthetic mushroom from a parched desert. All this happened in less than a decade or two. It is amazing what money can buy.

Dubai is an impressive collection of skyscrapers, Wi-Fi technology and the finest of consumer goods. The nature identical green parks and velvety golf courses have been created to please and pamper the wealthy inhabitants of Dubai. Meanwhile, inside air-conditioned shopping malls the crowds can be swept away on ice skates and sleds in a snowy wonderland or take a stroll beneath a well-stocked aquarium - a pleasant diversion from endless arcades of luxury goods and exotic restaurants. There is no need for sunshine.

Carry on building

Spot the local!

Over 60 per cent of the people living in Dubai are now foreigners; mostly migrant male workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other economically compromised countries. They toil in the heat to build and keep up the artificial miracle of Dubai. They drive taxis, run hotels and serve in restaurants, we soon discovered. We also found out that most of them do not understand English very well and could not give us any helpful advice or directions. The local Arabian gentlemen are clad in pristine white long gowns and wear a white cloth on their heads, secured by a black braid. They have little to do with backpackers like us and certainly don't rely on tourism for an income. Why should they care if their imported labour force did not speak functional English? In a hi-tech wonderland of punctual efficiency we had a communication problem.

We stayed at the Eureka Hotel where the Indian staff spoke a bit of English. The taxi driver only understood "Airport." Most of them come from Kerala in the South of India. These people have a customary way of shaking their heads when they mean yes. So when you don't want something, don't shake your head, as I did. I tried to make it clear that I did not eat bread and shook my head vigorously. The waiter brought me a few extra pieces of bread. The hotel brochure said the food at the slightly run down Eureka hotel would "treat your buds to uncontrollable taste." That is, providing you like Indian food! I hope the five-star hotels do justice to Arabian cuisine.

View from the top

Only men were eating at the tables. Women are not to be seen or heard in public, it seems. Wherever we ate I was the sole representative of the fairer but invisible sex and tried to cover my shoulders, arms and ankles as best I could out of respect for their strange customs. At least I did not have to dress in black and view the world through a narrow letterbox opening. Jim was wondering how husbands recognized their wives when they all look the same. Perhaps shape, size and perfume make a difference and if in doubt, they all carry mobile phones.

Both Arabs and Indians eat with their right hands. But with the invasion of technology a new use for the left hand has been discovered. The left hand operates the mobile phone and communicates via SMS with the rest of the family back home while the right hand slops around a plate of curry and rice. Call it a hybrid form of multi-tasking. When the left hand is used in the lavatory then the right hand probably is in charge of the Wi-Fi. People are obsessed with "keeping in touch" these days.

Air Conditioned Shopper's Paradise

Dubai is definitely the place to buy mobile phones, cameras and geeky gadgets. There is a large selection. The prices are reasonable and are duty-free. We needed a few upgrades and were pleased to find that the Canon SX 500 we were stalking was selling for the same price at all the camera shops and even at a supermarket like Carrefour’s. This made a pleasant change from having to bash and bargain. Also absent in Dubai are beggars, filth and squalor. The streets are clean and tidy and you feel safe walking around because nobody will steal your cell phone. Everybody has one!

Bling shopping mall

Everything in Dubai is new and efficient - a frenzied display of technology at its zenith. The place hums with progress and development on all fronts. High rise buildings are frantically being added to a skyline that already looks like a pincushion in the middle of a barren stretch of sand. Over 900 high-rise buildings compete with each other but the tallest of them all is the Burj khalifa. At a height of over 150 stories it is now the world's tallest building. We made our way to it on the Metro, passing vast structures that resembled salt and pepper pots, slabs of chocolate, twisted candy bars, an imitation of Big Ben and a wall of blue mirrors.

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world at the moment

As the wife of an architect, I share a lot of time with my husband Jim visiting famous places and buildings. The Burj Khalifa was truly a highlight in terms of concept, aesthetics and engineering. Taking photos and videos of such a tall structure is a challenge. We had to do endless up and down panning to get a clean sweep of its elegant verticality. The view from the public gallery 140 stories up was well worth the small fortune we paid for the quick ride in a lightning fast elevator. Tourists can have their photographs taken on a special green background. Their images are then merged by a special graphic technique with outside shots of the Burj at that dizzy height. The result is a scary postcard of you clinging to the side of the Burj like Spider-Man or balancing on scaffolding on the edge of a sheer drop to the desert floor.

Burj Khalifa from belowSouvenirs from the top

A trip to the coastline is not complete without visiting the famous sail-shaped Burj el Arab hotel. This building is a technological wonder with eco-friendly climate control that makes use of rising air currents. The beachfront nautical theme is well depicted with fabric sails that are also used functionally to control light and temperature within the building. How disappointing it was to be taken to the wrong side of the tourist attraction by our not - so - English-speaking taxi driver. We walked around in the heat and landed at the beach next to the Burj. A huge fence screened off any view we could get of our target. It was hot, so we had a swim instead. But we have been there, took a photo and got all hot and sticky! We saw the rest on television, back home.

Burj al AhrabAir conditioned bus stopCredit: Sue Visser

How to get around Dubai and keep cool

For sightseeing in Dubai the cheapest option is to buy a travel pass for unlimited mileage via city buses and trains. Hop on and off, as you please. It is one way to escape the searing heat, especially as all the bus stops are fully air-conditioned! You walk along the pavement and step inside what looks like a refrigerator with seats inside. What a cool idea, to be so in control of the climate. But there's more: you can go skiing or visit the snow penguins at shopping malls in Dubai. We saw whole families don snow jackets, gloves and boots and step inside a man-made world of snow and ice. We could watch them frolicking around at sub-zero temperatures from windows that looked out over the theme park. There were ski slopes, toboggans and kiddie slides, a snowman or two and a row of plastic fir trees.

Snow box

Another way to cool off in a shopping centre is to go ice skating or visit the indoor aquarium. It has the largest sheet of glass in the world. It is amazing what money can buy. Walk along the fake ocean bed in an acrylic tunnel for an intimate view of life in a huge and very well stocked fish tank. Have a close encounter with as many sharks as you want and stay dry. We were amazed at the variety of fish, sharks and rays that were cruising around the artificial coral reefs. We have dived in many places around the world and it was great to see such an authentic representation. The reflections of garish neon lights from nearby shops on the huge glass sides of the aquarium were a dead giveaway on our "underwater" photos. An eerie surrealistic marine world so close to shopping trolleys, beauty parlours and designer clothing.

Largest pane of glass indoor aquarium

What really makes Dubai tick?

"I want it all, I want it now!" Those were the famous words of Freddie Mercury when he sang with the pop group Queen. The same goes for Dubai. They want it all and they want it now. They keep on adding tall bizarre looking buildings to the skyline. It is just too bad that they can't find any more tenants for them or even afford to continue building them, now that their cash flow is running as dry as their oil wells. Dubai has encased its heart in concrete in the process of trying to impress the world with the biggest and the best in the shortest time. They even own the world symbolically with their latest marina development that has islands to represent the countries on this planet. Having your own national territory is certainly a cut above owning a small slice of a palm tree island. But what really makes them tick?

 Dubai is part of a cultural heritage where families are seldom seen together in public and women are hidden behind black shrouds. Where lonely foreign men (mostly married) roam about the streets or gather in restaurants for some company after a hard and very hot day's work. They come to Dubai to earn money to send back to their families on the other side of the world. We chatted to a few of them who told us they went home once a year to see their wife and children. Traditionally they buy gold jewellery from the famous Dubai gold souk a few times a year and this habit also consumes a lot of their hard-earned cash. The local dignitaries buy gold by the kilogram. Dubai may be clean and efficient but it certainly is not family friendly in a public sort of way - regardless of all the toys and trinkets that money can buy.

Gold per kg!Gold souk

We were "done" with Dubai and its underground synthetic Barbie world after two days. How many buildings do you need to photograph? It's not as if there is anything worth seeing inside any of them. No wonderful museums and art galleries, or cultural events were on offer. There were a few reconstructed scenes from the past to satisfy camera happy tourists. Trips out to the desert to visit an oasis or ride a camel are available, but we has done that in other places where it was a more genuine event. We visited the gold souk (market) in the older part of Dubai and realized that all that glitters is really solid gold. But no amount of money can buy a heart of gold.

We had admired their emerald-green manicured lawns and appreciated the palm trees, shrubs and fish ponds in the heart of the business centre at the station.

Green Metro station

We had strolled around cool air-conditioned buildings and walkways, rode in slick trains and buses and shopped till we dropped. But we still felt like lost aliens in a wireless concrete box, devoid of a soul. It was time to go and experience a real desert! Time to move on and visit Oman.

Before we go to that region, have a look at our movie. A 9 minute exposure to our view of Dubai. Make sure you turn on the air conditioning!

Dubai in the sky - a quick look around. 9 minutes.

Scary place, with a heart encased in concrete


Follow the Metro to Burj Khalifa