My world from up above

2016 has been a spectacular year for me as a traveller (a detailed round-up post coming up next) – but one of the highlights was the bird’s eye view I got of some stunning natural and man-made wonders on chopper rides.

From the Grand Canyon in the USA to twice in Canada, over the Niagara Falls and over the Rockies, recently the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia from the vantage point of a helicopter.

Then the familiar landmarks of Dubai from a seaplane, and the very intriguing Nazca Lines in Peru from a light aircraft, it has been an amazing ride.

Here, a few of my favourite memories of the world I saw from above:

The dozen brown hues of the Grand Canyon

The magnificence of Niagara from the Canadian side

Up above the snowy Rockies

The mystery of the outstretched hands over Nazca

Fringes of the Palm and soaring tower of Burj

The 12 Apostles, shipwreck magnets from the past

Friday photo: Shark

I don’t usually post personal photos on this blog – but this one is special. I have a crippling fear of water (we are talking swimming pool terror here, and five aborted attempts to lean swimming).

So, when I was in Dubai recently and came to know that I was booked to go on this shark safari, I was excited and terrified in equal measure.

This is an underwater walk with the fish, sting rays and of course, the sharks – in other words, the thrill of diving, without actually diving into the ocean. And I am so glad I did it. After the initial seconds of panic, I relaxed and let go of my guide’s hand. And when the fish started swimming right by my face, I couldn’t stop smiling.

My Friday photo this week, from this incredible shark safari…

shark

Lesser known Dubai

The lesser known Dubai, in today’s HT Cafe… (as always, link valid only for a week, so read now, else see photo and sigh deeply in regret for having missed the article)

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Souk shopping in Dubai

In all the noise of the bargaining in the souks, I hear as in a dream the muted voice of the walking tour guide yelling at me (politely, for I have paid for the tour) for stopping yet again to photograph or just to stare. And suddenly that too no longer; the group has gone ahead, leaving me alone in the maze of narrow lanes, all smelling of cinnamon and pepper and the occasional red chilli too. Oh, but he did warn me. Several times. I am part of a walking tour, having just got off the hop-on hop-off open top bus that I took to escape the mad shoppers.

Blame it on the surprise element; I am not expecting to see so much commotion and color in Dubai, only steel and chrome. A city obsessed with being the biggest and the boldest, Dubai hides its tiny secrets well. The chaos and the colors, the smells and the sounds are tucked away in the narrow by-lanes of the old souks lined up along the creek. One minute I am standing at the entrance of the Dubai museum, and the next, as I turn a sharp corner trailing behind the group, I step into another world, another time. I walk under deep red arches and wooden lanterns that I imagine bring the lanes alive after the world outside has grown dark.

For one crazy moment, I am disoriented; I see tiny shops on either side selling incense sticks and pictures of goddess Lakshmi. And cheerful yellow marigold flowers that belong right in any shop outside any large temple in South India. Printed ads on the walls seeking Tamil bachelors as room-mates. Silks and cotton, spices and nuts, silver and gold, carpets and fragrances, all in huge careless heaps under the roof of the covered souk.

And then a short ride across the creek on an open abra, the cold wind on my face, to the assault of smells. The spice souk. The shopkeepers recognize me for what I am, an Indian, ergo not a prospective buyer. And so they turn to the Westerners in my group – just smell this, madam… Someone brandishes a tiny plastic box in the air, top quality saffron in the world… And further down, the gold souk, with over three hundred shops selling gold jewelry, the window displays twinkling, glittering, beckoning.

The souks of Dubai, for those mall-weary hordes, bored of the bargain labels and the air-conditioned conformity of shopping. Dubai, full of surprises, if you only scratch the surface.

And for those there for the shopping, Dubai Shopping Festival, the annual extravaganza, which attracts over two million visitors every year, is on from January 24th till February 24th.

Getting there and around

Emirates Airlines flies Mumbai – Dubai with special fares (starting from Rs.12000) and discounted hotel rates during the shopping festival. Other airlines including Indian have reasonable fares though only Emirates arranges for a visa along with the ticket. Inside Dubai, you can take metered taxis, many of them run by Indians and Pakistanis.

The open-air hop on hop off bus run by the Big Bus Company covers two routes inside the city and stops at popular shopping malls. Tickets are priced at AED 175 (AED 100 for children from 5-15 years) and are valid for twenty four hours. It is advisable to begin the tour after noon, so that you get the rest of the day and till noon the next day on the tour. The price of the ticket includes a walking tour, Arabian Treasures (only between October and April) which covers the souks and other local attractions, entry to the Dubai museum and an hour long Arabian dhow cruise on the creek. Tickets can be bought online at or at ticket counters at one of the larger shopping malls.

Shopping in Dubai

At last count, Dubai had twenty four shopping malls, and all of them participate in the shopping festival. The most popular ones are the Mall of the Emirates, Deira City Centre, Burjuman Centre, Wafi Mall and the Ibn Battuta Mall housing six different themed malls – China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia. More details of the Shopping Festival are available at the official website.

For those who miss this season of shopping Dubai also hosts the Summer Surprise shopping binge every August to encourage visitors to the city during off-peak times. For more exotic shopping, visit the old souks, most of them situated by the creek in Deira.

Dubai or not to buy?

The Dubai Shopping Festival had just began – earlier than usual – when I went to Dubai. And it was the weekend before Christmas. Half the world seemed to have landed in Dubai at that time, to shop, and shop some more. One crazy evening at the maddeningly crowded Mall of Emirates, and I decided to stay away from the mall-mess.

I hopped on to an open top bus that Sunday and explored Dubai on foot, by bus and by boat. I discovered more “shopping” opportunities in Dubai – the souks, or local markets, filled with the sounds and smells of the Middle East and South Asia. Tiny shops selling incense sticks and pictures of goddess Lakshmi. And cheerful yellow marigold flowers that belong right in any shop lining the main street leading to the large temple in any town in South India. And then the ads on the walls announcing “bed space available for Tamil Bachelor. Please contact… it is possible to close your eyes and wonder for a minute about where you are.

The other side of Dubai...

I walked through narrow winding lanes, each sharp turn leading into narrower lanes, each filled with some sort of “speciality goods” or the other. These souks seem right out of the distant past, with their deep red high arches and wooden lanterns that bring the lanes alive after the world outside gets dark. For these souks represent a world inside another world.

Arches of the old souks

Waiting for tonight...

The shop-keepers along these souks seemed to be as much of detached observers s we, the tourists were. Chatting among themselves, sipping glass after steaming glass of fragrant tea, they seemed to know the real buyer from the rest of the interested crowd. Most often, they simply ignored your presence, or welcomed you into their little group of gossiping men with a smile.

Turning my back on all the chaos

Trinkets and more...

Silks and cotton, spices and nuts, silver and gold… Large air-conditioned shops, their windows glittering with all the gold on show, and small roadside stalls, their wares seeming to wink at your right out of the tall rickety tables on which they are displayed.

Spicing up our lives...

Driving me nuts, yes sir

The gold rush!

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Surely, there is a lot to buy in Dubai!

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Note : Here is my earlier post on Dubai on Itchy Feet – Dubai and the -est obsession

Dubai and the -est obsession

Pointing out through the window of his living room, G said, See that building there, the one with all the cranes…. that is going to be the tallest building in the world. I am guessing the look on my face said ‘how interesting, yaaaaawn’. Dubai is suddenly obsessed with being and building the largest, the biggest, the mostest, he explained. The new airport coming up is supposed to be the largest in the world. There we go again, I thought.

The next day, on the open top hop-on-hop-off bus, the guide shreiked into the mike at intervals of five minutes, pointing and waving franctically (she was in a state of feverish excitement, you must understand) – this building you see is going to be the tallest in the world when it is completed in 2009. And she added, there is provision on the top to add on more floors in case any other building in the world overtakes this one, so our Dubai always has the tallest building in the world. How reassuring.

Then we were treated to the sight of the eighth tallest building in the world, the guide trilling on with the names and exact heights of each of the seven taller than this one. No, I do not exaggerate. The heights, down to the last inch or whatever it takes to be on that list.

This is a land obsessed with creating. And why not? the city itself was created out of nothingness – this lot of buildings here, this was just sand two years ago… And to think I found Singapore fake. Everything in Dubai is created to attract attention – snow and ski slopes inside a shopping mall, Christmasy decorations and teddy bears (or were they polar bears?) in red coats singing Merry Christmas in an Islamic country, a hotel built on reclaimed land to resemble a sail-boat (this, the Burj Al Arab, incidentally is not among the -est buildings, but it does happen to be the only seven star hotel in the world. So there).

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But I am not complaining. I loved it all… Camels in pink and yellow, the dumb looks on their faces intact in The Camel Company. Breath-taking sunsets along the beach, the sails of the Burj Al Arab hotel, magically opening up to the sun in front of your eyes.

And then the sky turns pink

The creek with its traditional abras (tiny taxi boats) ferrying locals in a hurry and tourists with all the time on their hands across. Old and new mosques with tall minarets reaching to the very skies, the sun sitting like the flame on top of a candle, and beautful detailing in blue on the walls (with a lift inside to get to the top floor!)

Beauty in blue!

Minaret... or candle?

Crossing the creek

I cheerfully gave the desert safari a miss, keeping my tender back in mind. Instead, I hopped on to the tour bus and spent the day riding around the city, taking in the smells and sounds. And the unexpected bursts of colors everywhere in the desert city. And shivering slightly in the chilly breeze in the middle of the day. I spent the evenings at eating places by the creek, watching the city lights twinkle in the distance, looking up suddenly to catch the fireworks that go off in the city every night during the DSF.

Dubai is full of these surprises. Ignore the obvious, the cliches that Dubai has been selling hard and fast for a long time now – yes, even the shopping – scratch a little deeper and there is a surprisingly modest and fun Dubai.

Note : Did I say ignore the shopping? Expect my next post Dubai or not to buy up on Itchy Feet as soon as I find the time for it.

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Update : Read Jai Arjun’s Dubai Nuggets for more on Dubai’s state of perpetual wannabeness. …This is bizarrely appropriate, for more than anything else Dubai gives the impression of being perpetually in labour, straining to produce one of the great metropolises-cum-tourist centres.

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One more note : as promised – Dubai or not to buy? finally on Itchy Feet…