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August 08, 2017, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Diamond in the desert

Dubai is audaciously glamorous, optimistically experimental, yet traditionally grounded and staunchly pragmatic. A good friend introduces Ryandall Lim to this glittering desert city of polar extremes

Ryandall Lim

I USED to perceive Dubai as just another mega city, one used merely as a transit stop to more exciting places in Europe.

But my perception changed last year, after I visited my good friend and ex-colleague Claudine, who had relocated there because of her husband’s job posting.

City of superlatives

The Emirate of Dubai is one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its capital, Dubai, is UAE’s largest and most populous city.

As the Arabian Peninsula’s undisputed powerhouse, it is home to some of the most marvellous urban developments on the planet.

Among them, astounding skyscrapers seemingly plucked from sci-fi movies, reclaimed islands that recreate the world, and huge shopping malls and theme parks.

First on my list: pay homage to the world’s tallest building. So Claudine, her five-year-old son Jamie and I took a metro to Downtown Dubai.

At 163 storeys, the Burj Khalifa breaks not just cloud layers, but all plausible logic to the genesis — and creation — of such a gravity-defying superstructure. Glistening like a gigantic aluminium needle pointing to heaven, the Burj Khalifa is as fantastic as Dubai gets.

Designed based on a local desert flower fused with Islamic architecture, it is clustered together with the hypnotic dancing Dubai Fountain, magnificent Dubai Aquarium, and massive Dubai Mall — the world’s largest entertainment-cum-shopping complex.

Claudine booked us for the At the Top, Burj Khalifa Tour, which literally is a tour at a whole new level. We stood anxiously as the 10m-per-second ascending elevator quickly numbed our senses.

When its doors finally opened on the 124th floor, I let out an uncontrolled gasp — which simultaneously released the built-up pressure in my ears.

All around were breathtaking, 360-degree unobstructed floor-to-ceiling views of Dubai.

I was especially intrigued to see the distinct demarcation where the city limits end and the Arabian Desert begins.

Man-made wonderlands

We continued our metro journey westwards to Jumeirah, passing by majestic sail-like Burj Al Arab, purportedly the world’s only 7-star hotel, floating on an island like a mirage in the sea.

Nearby are two premier water theme parks which are especially packed during summer — Wild Wadi and Atlantis. From afar, the latter looks like a lofty pink gate at the apex of Palm Jumeirah — home to the uber rich.

As we approached the Mall of the Emirates, Jamie suddenly beamed with excitement, as if he was in familiar territory.

But when he realised we were not going to its indoor Ski Dubai, which encloses an unbelievable 25-storey snow slope, he nearly threw a tantrum. So I promised him an ice cream treat instead.

We got down several stations later at Dubai Marina. With bobbing sailboats and gleaming towers, this obvious elitist playground is a spectacular sight to behold. We enjoyed lunch — and ice cream — at one of the swanky bistros along the pretty waterfront promenade.

Arabian supermodel

Barely 30 years ago, Dubai was a small, desert town. Fuelled by the ruling Al Maktoum family’s ambitious vision, and boosted by hefty trade and oil revenues, it transformed remarkably into a wealthy, cosmopolitan emirate.

But UAE’s crown jewel is more than just a cosmetic make-up of glossy skyscrapers, luxury hotels, boutique residences and mega-malls.

It is common to see stylish foreign professionals talking business with traditionally clad sheikhs in trendy cafés or Michelin-starred restaurants.

It is also so racially and culturally diverse that a staggering 85 per cent of its 2.8 million population are expatriates.

History by the creek

The neighbourhoods by Dubai Creek, Deira and Bur Dubai are a stark contrast to the rest of slick Dubai. Here, amid dusty and noisy alleyways, history runs deep in the form of traditional trades and occupations.

We spent a day exploring the exotic spice, gold, fish and perfume souks, and observed how locals haggled over prices of goods, probably like how they did eons ago.

The shimmering bling-bling, colourful trinkets and aromatic wafts were a veritable feast for the senses.

There was a constant flurry of activity along the creek as labourers loaded tyres, refrigerators and cartons of electronic goods onto docked trading dhows (traditional wooden vessels).

To end our history practical, we crossed the creek by abra (traditional water taxi).

Dubai au naturel

On my last morning, we explored the Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.

With Dubai’s skyscrapers as dramatic backdrop, I saw hundreds of migratory pink flamingos roosting in the middle of the mudflats, picking food and craning their necks in rhythmic unison, a surreal composition of nature versus man-made creations.

We then travelled 40km south to Al Marmoun to witness camel racing, a traditional pastime close to every Emirati’s heart.

As dozens of camels strapped with robotic jockeys jostled their way on a dusty dirt track, thrilled spectators — peering from sunroofs and windows of the countless four-wheel drives (4WD) racing alongside the frenzied beasts — burst into deafening cheers.

My holiday concluded on a high with a sundown desert safari. The 4WD dune-bashing was totally exhilarating.

After a golden sunset moment over the Arabian Desert, our convoy of 4WDs headed to a remote Bedouin village for a scrumptious BBQ buffet dinner as a belly-dancer shimmied away.

Under a blanket of twinkling stars, with fine desert sand tickling my toes, I felt so good to have reconnected with a friend, and at the same time, discovered this dazzling desert diamond.

GUIDELINES

I flew from Singapore to Dubai on Emirates.

The best period to visit Dubai is from November to March. Avoid summer (June to September) as it gets excruciatingly hot.

Dubai offers a wide range of accommodation. Bur Dubai and Deira have the best budget options and are easily accessible by metro.

The Big Bus Tours (24hr pass — AED 220/S$83) offers an excellent city overview. A cheaper alternative is Dubai’s extensive and convenient above-land metro system.

Dubai may have a modern outlook but is still a conservative Islamic country. Visitors should dress and behave modestly in public.

■ Dubai hosts many exciting festivals throughout the year — from art to food, kite to parachute, motorsport to camel racing. Check out www.visitdubai.com for event listings.

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