I’m mostly enjoying Kyrgyzstan but it’s not always the easiest country to live in for an American used to certain things (burgers, guacamole and decent wine mostly.) It’s been 9 months since we’ve been on a plane and we needed to get out to somewhere warm with good food. Since I’ve recently been convinced to make some time for India, the usual warm vacation spot for KG PCVs, we wanted to pick someplace else. We found out there are direct flights to Dubai and the weather was forecasted to be near 80… perfect.
Another volunteer near the airport was kind enough to host us and after chatting for a bit we settled in for a restful 90 minutes of sleeping before getting up at 2am for our super early flight to Dubai. The upside was landing early enough to have a full day in Dubai once we arrived and so we grabbed some breakfast at the airport before taking a taxi to meet our couch surfing host. If on a budget, I recommend checking out couchsurfing.com. I was amazed how many hosts there were in Dubai and staying for free in Dubai saved us at least $1k over four days. We met up with him at Starbucks near his apartment, David turned out to be a really interesting guy. A Malaysian-born, ethnically Chinese doctor now working in Dubai. One awesome advantage of couch surfing are the people you meet. Over the four days we had great conversations with David and took some notes on future vacation ideas (we’re now adding Malaysia to our trip home, sorry mom, that’s another week!) David took us to his apartment which was in the perfect spot with a great view of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
We were a little tired but we had only four days to see this city so we went for a walk. Craving sushi we headed to a Japanese restaurant that Google says was about 30 minutes away on foot. Reminiscent of Las Vegas (and this wouldn’t be the first thing that reminded us of Vegas,) 30 minutes turned into over an hour while we tried to navigate the maze of the Dubai Mall, they definitely avoid any straight routes anywhere. It was worth the walk, fresh, authentic sushi does not exist in Central Asia. We walked around a bit more, took a nap, enjoyed the sunshine and ate Lebanese food while watching the fountain at dinner. Day 1, a success.
On day 2 we made our way to the Burj Al Arab hotel, the world’s only (self-proclaimed) 7-star hotel. You’ve seen this hotel before, uniquely shaped like a sail, and more than anything else probably what first put Dubai on the map to people all over the world. Normally you need to either be staying at the hotel or there for a meal to even step foot on the grounds but I wanted to see it and they agreed to give us a tour (at $1800 a night for the cheapest room we weren’t staying!) Our taxi driver drove us to the man-made island and we were relieved to see the guard had us on the list. Stepping into the hotel was amazing. The interior is entirely open and looking up you see a dizzying view of rainbow colors and roundish, narrowing rings as the building tapers towards the top. Our guide first took us up to a Presidential Suite, of which there are 12, near the top. This is without a doubt the most incredible hotel room I’ve ever seen. After my mind was blown from seeing a couple bedrooms, a walk-in closet bigger than my first apartment, two living rooms, both with iMacs and bars I was reminded we’d only seen one of two floors! The hotel room was nearly 7000 sq ft and cost $17-18k a night. And the craziest thing, they were entirely booked up!
After that we viewed the spa floor (the ‘ceiling’ you see looking up is actually the floor of the spa level,) and their main seafood restaurant in the basement. Everything there was amazing, pristine and ridiculously over the top (the bidet handles are all gold-plated.) The best way to see the hotel is to make reservations for the afternoon tea which starts around $130 per person but I hear is well worth it.
Back at the apartment we took a nap and made our way on the tram to ‘Old Dubai’ where the city was first founded. Now populated almost entirely by South-East Asian immigrants, it’s the spot to go for cheaper meals and the markets. We ate at XVA Café which was incredible and highly recommended if you visit Dubai. The two most popular markets are the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk (where we picked up really cheap spices we can’t find in Kyrgyzstan.) The highlight to me are the boat rides down Dubai Creek which serves as an alternative public transport. The cost is about $1 per ride and it feels so far removed from the crazy, over-the-top nature that makes up the Dubai you see on TV. We thought about finding some Indian street food or something in the area but the hungrier we got, the better Shake Shack sounded. And you know what? It was amazing. I had to fly four hours to find a decent burger and shake, but this alone was worth the trip.
Day 3 was exciting because our couch-surfing host had a meeting in Abu Dhabi and offered to take us so we could see it. We didn’t think we’d have time to see this city also but what a perfect opportunity! We started out the day with a quick tour of the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world. I don’t know what else I can say about it besides it being really, really, tall. It’s tall in a surreal way. It reminded me of skydiving, the ground so far below it doesn’t look real. Thanks to the nice people at the Burj Khalifa for giving us complimentary tickets! After the tour we went back to the apartment and met up with our host to drive to Abu Dhabi. He dropped us off at the Grand Mosque, an unbelievable $545 million mosque recently built.
I haven’t been in many mosques (1 actually) but I’d wager no others in the world are quite like this. It was large, impeccable and had a lot of gold. We were getting hungry again and our goal was to find Thai food. Foursquare led us to another mall near where the spot we needed to meet our host to head back and had a highly-rated Thai restaurant. Long-story short, it was the only disappointing meal of the trip and I’m now resigned to going without Thai food until next summer when we go to Thailand again. Life is rough. We drove back to Dubai just in time to change and meet with a college friend and his girlfriend that happened to be in Dubai (the previous day I was joking with Taylor we’d run into someone we knew…) We met up with them at their hotel where they were kind enough to buy poor Peace Corps volunteers not ready to buy $15 drinks and then off to an amazing Lebanese meze meal (kind of like a buffet in way, they bring way too much food for you to ever eat.) The food was super good and the people-watching was fun. We’re also pretty sure the guy next to us was eating dinner with 7 or 8 women that were all his wives so there’s that…
On the last day we got breakfast with our host near the fountain (it really is a nice place to hang out, especially in early spring when the weather is perfect) and then went to the grocery store. We had little on the agenda for the day except to eat all the food we were still missing. Luckily the grocery stores here are well-stocked (they even have pig products although you have to hit a button on a wall to open a mostly-hidden door so Muslims don’t have to see them) and we got everything we needed. We made guacamole, steak bites and a caprese salad. I don’t care what the cost is, I’d kill for a Trader Joe’s in Kyrgyzstan. We grabbed a taxi for the airport, stopped by the duty free store and walked to the gate. I realized the vacation was over when I spotted men wearing kalpaks around me.
We never really had Dubai on our bucket list but the place is amazing. Now the busiest airport in the world, it’s becoming an increasingly common layover if travelling to the Middle East or Africa. If you find yourself having a layover I definitely recommend taking a few days to check it out!