When we left our hotel room, perhaps the first notion we had was, where are all the women? In the UAE roughly 69 % of population is male, and in Dubai the ratio is even more skewed with more than 75 % males. This is due to work-related immigration of males from countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Philippines. The Deira area, where our hotel was located, is popular among these expats, which provides even more reasoning for our amazement.
The second notion was that mobile phones are a huge thing worldwide compared to all other electronics. This is something that we have believed to know, but not really understood. The whole Deira district was filled with mobile shops selling used and new phones and accessories.
The area turned out to be a solid location for our stay. The place felt safe, had a vast number of inexpensive restaurants offering tasty food from around the world, and provided us with a metro stop to reach city center. After dinner we visited nearby grocery stores mainly to get drinks for the evening and next day.
Moving around in Dubai
Taxis in Dubai are quite affordable. A four-kilometer drive is around 5 euros and with 10 euros you get a lift of 10 to 15 kilometers. But taxi is usually only a secondary option for us, as we prefer public transportation.
Using the metro is easy, as the signs are clear and there are only two lines, red and green (plus orange tram line), The public transportation area is divided to 7 zones, which will act as a basis of fare calculation. First you buy a metro card, either red or silver. Red is cheaper if you need to use the metro for just a single trip or few trips maximum, as the cost is only 2 AED for the card and there are no minimum balance requirements to enter the metro (just one trip). However, there are limitations, as you can’t change the transportation mode on the go and you’ll have to decide how many zones you want to travel when you purchase the ticket. Silver is better if you plan to use the public transportation system more, you can easily use it for different distance trips, and you can switch the mode of transport on the go. We bought two red two zone tickets with 6 trips for up to 2 zones for 76 AED, which would give us 3 visits all the way till Business Bay Metro station. Later we bought silver cards as well.
You’ll tap the card against card reader when you enter and leave the metro. The trains are divided in three classes: Regular class (Silver/Red/Blue Card holders) for most of the people, Women’s and Children’s class (200 AED fine for males using it), and Gold Class (Gold Card holders pay double price). We would be using the Regular class, and Laura would occasionally go and sit on women’s side as it’s always half empty. The downsides of using the metro are its coverage, no eating or drinking allowed and it’s not running during nighttime.
Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall
The main attraction of Dubai is Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world with a height of 828 meters. And that was the first attraction we wanted to see. Baniyas square metro station was just a 15 minutes’ walk away from our hotel. From there we would first take a green line metro towards to Union Square station and then switch to Red line and continue to Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall metro station, which is still a few minutes’ walk away from the main attractions.
First, we went to Dubai Mall, which is huge with over 1 million square meters of total area and over half a million square meters of internal floor area. But as grand it was, there is not much to do as a budget traveler. We tried to find a wide-angle lens for our camera, but the prices were not that competitive. We also tried to find a place to have drinks, but those were quite expensive as well. So, all we did was some window shopping.
Just outside the Dubai Mall is Dubai Fountain, which provides a huge choreographed water show at rhythm of music. The show is free and nice and thus certainly worth a visit. But the place is filled with people, so you might want to come a bit early, or as there are show every 30 minutes from 6 P.M. to 11 P.M., just wait for a next show to get a better spot in the crowd.
Another spectacular view was the Burj Khalifa, which stood right behind the Dubai Fountain Lake. And the building had a nice light show going on as well. That was good value for our 25 AED metro tickets, two-way two-person. After returning to Al Murar in Deira, it was time to enjoy drinks from a local supermarket with much more affordable price tags than in Downtown.
Dubai is not all about shopping and sightseeing. The city has some decent beaches as well. On December 9th we took a Metro to Business Bay station and walked the 3.5-kilometer trip to Jumeirah Open Beach. Walking is manageable, but the city is not planned for travelling long distances by foot, and crossing some streets wasn’t that nice. The beach would have been much more reachable by taking a bus number 8 from Gold Souk station (or by using two buses from almost next to our hotel). The beach was almost empty, only few other visitors were there, even though the beach was nice, clean and had good facilities. There even was a 2.1 Volt USB port to charge mobile devices. Water was warm enough and we both had balls to swim. We didn’t find changing rooms though and used bathrooms to become street legal. Using bathrooms for changing clothes is forbidden in some beaches, so hopefully we didn’t break any laws.
After the beach it was time to try to take some sunset pictures from the bridge leading to a seahorse shaped Daria island. The view was okay, but there was nothing that was yelling “take a picture of me”. After the sun had set, we began walking again. This time we decided to take a different route and aimed to reach the Burj Khalifa / Dubai Mall metro station. The distance was longer, but weather was perfect for evening walk. We passed through some beautiful neighborhoods with rows of luxury cars parked on the street. For some reason the locals park their cars outside the fences. Maybe they just want to show off? Or maybe they own even more cars?
One nice looking place was City Walk, an outdoor shopping center filled with nice (and expensive) looking restaurants. We just walked past it to reach the Metro station and our home area Deira, where we could eat cheap and good food. That evening we had tasty hamburgers and two cans Pepsi at Al Shahba’a for 25 AED.
Another beach we visited during our stay was Jumeirah Public Beach, which is still 10 kilometers further down the coast. As our red cards were only for two zone travel, we needed to get new cards. This time we took silver cards, so that we would have more flexibility with public transport. The bus number eight dropped us right next to the beach. The Jumeirah Public Beach was larger and more crowded (but still not too busy) than the Open Beach. However, there were red flags forbidding swimming due to wind, and thus we couldn’t go to the water. The beach is probably popular due to Burj Al Arab Hotel (the 5-star hotel that some call a 7-star hotel), which can be seen from the beach.
When it was time to return to the hotel, we considered walking to the nearest metro station, but as Risto was starting to feel a bit sick, we abandoned the idea. We took a bus number X28, which we changed to X13 and had to walk just 400 meters.
Eating, walking and feeling the Deira surroundings
It is said that there’s no place like home. As we don’t have a real home anymore, the hotels and hostels will have to do the job. Al Farej Hotel became our home during the stay in Dubai, and maybe that’s why we began to like its surroundings. It’s not as posh as the richer parts of the city, and to be honest, walking the streets makes you feel it’s a different country. Indian expats living there earn just a fraction of what people downtown do. And thus, the area is much cheaper as well. We didn’t eat or buy groceries anywhere else than Deira.
Deira is filled with restaurants and offers a vast selection food from different countries: Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Indonesian, Filipino, Syrian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese and so on. We would have loved to eat in so many of these places, but we had such a limited time there. Some foods we loved were beef nihari at Delhi Restaurant right next to our hotel, chicken korma at Mian Jee and hamburgers at City Burger and Al Shahba’a. There are western fast food joints as well. You can find at least McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Popeyes from Deira. These, however, are relatively expensive, and we kept away from them.
If somebody likes bazaar atmosphere, where the overenthusiastic shopkeepers will do everything to get their friends just look in their shops, the Gold and Spice Souks in Deira are great places to visit. We as shy Finns that don’t like shopping, are not big fans of these places. But we visited them, and Risto got a handshake of which he nearly couldn’t get himself free.
After visiting the bazaars it’s a perfect time to see the Dubai Creek as well. You can watch beautifully lit boats and ferries sailing between Deira and Bur Dubai. It’s certainly worthwhile to step into one of these boats from Al Sabkha station and cross the creek. It’s only 1 AED per person, which ferry operator will collect from you when you are sitting on the boat.
On Bur Dubai side you will arrive to Old Souk station. As the station name suggests, you arrive to a marketplace selling clothes, fabric and stuff. Here again it’s hard to just look the goods as you will be targeted by aggressive salesmen. Nearby you will find the Grand Bur Dubai Masjid, a mosque with 70-meters tall minaret. For museum lovers there is Dubai Museum with Al Fahidi Fort is nearby and should cost only 3 AED to enter. When you keep walking east you will arrive to Al Fahidi Historical District.
Leaving the city of opposites – Risto got a farewell flu
We were supposed to visit Al Mamzar Beach Park on December 12th, but Risto had gotten ill after the trip to Jumeirah Public beach on 11th. So we spent the day in the hotel room. Laura did some school stuff and Risto mainly just slept. Only thing we did was go and eat something from a restaurant nearby. As Risto’s fever was nearing 39 degrees and didn’t go away with a combination of 1000 mg paracetamol and 400 mg ibuprofen, it was time to start taking antibiotics. The fever was not gone by December 13th when we took the metro to the airport. Risto had nice time. At least Laura got to sit on females’ side of the metro.
Dubai with its grand landmarks looks stunning, feels safe, has just a perfect weather during winter and offers tons of nice thing to do, if you have enough money to spend. However, there’s another side of the story. Average income of a national household in UAE is about 36500 AED, which is nearly 9000 euros a month. Yet unskilled construction and domestic workers that come from nearby Asian or African countries can easily get paid less than a 1000 AED a month. That itself would not be a big problem as it might be major pay rise to what they would earn back home. But if, however, the construction workers have their passports confiscated, have been given false promises about the pay or working conditions by the manpower company, and their wage is delayed by months and/or is not paid in full, that’s hard to call acceptable by any means. When we see the glorious buildings in Dubai, we just can’t but wonder, how were they built. As outsiders, we don’t know the truth.
It’s a bit funny that in a country where it’s very safe to move around, the biggest security issue might be breaking the law yourself. We were quite stressed about this. Taking a picture of restricted areas, such as airplanes, government or military buildings, people without their consent, a certain bridge, etc., could lead to huge fines or a prison sentence. And certainly, not every place has a sign that forbids the picture taking. First, we were pretty guarded about taking pictures, but with days passing we relaxed a bit. Still shooting with a drone was out of question in UAE and will be in India as well.
Using VPN for banned activities such as Whatsapp or Skype calling, visiting a wrong Wikipedia page and so on, could lead to prosecution. Being rude, whatever the definition is, is illegal. Carrying drugs, the legal ones in your home country, might be illegal. Risto got flagged by the airport security check when we were leaving the country. After two samples he got a green light and we were able to leave. At least, as we are married, we were allowed to share a hotel room.
Next stop would be India, but we couldn’t get past the check-in counter as the airline officer did not allow us to board the plane without proof of onward travel from India, as we only held 90-day single-entry e-visas. So, we bought tickets from Goa to Sri Lanka for New Year’s Eve and could board the plane. Here we come India.