Supposedly the last day of our existence on the planet, Friday 21st December was my last day in Dubai and also the final day of my round-the-world trip. However, it would also be a day of firsts (as you will read) and, as all the best days do, started early.
Friday is the Muslim equivalent of Sunday - so it was no surprise at all that the Metro wasn't working at 5am, when I snuck out of the Youth Hostel having paid and retrieved my beloved passport. In fact, the Metro was not due to open until 1pm, which was not long before I was due to fly out of Dubai, which made getting round the city a little more complex than usual...
I hailed a taxi and got a lift to the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world and my destination for the morning. The chap I was chatting to in the car gave me some very interesting information - primarily, that there are over 11,000 taxis in Dubai, travelling on average over 1000km per day (share between two drivers) and are so heavily used that they are fully serviced every 20 days and replaced after 2.5 years! No wonder the public transport system is so under-used! But Dubai really is a city for the taxi - wide, fast freeways, unbearable climate, cheap oil and lots of rich people does make for a city where personal transport is the main way of getting around...
Anyway, I had been researching the cabs in advance and we got onto the issue of honesty in taxi drivers. He persuaded me to open the glove box - inside was a newspaper article about one Pakistani cab driver who had been praised for his honesty in returning 100,000 AED (£17,230) after it had been left in his cab. I had seen this article before on the Dubai Taxis website - it turned out that I was travelling with that very cab driver!
Despite all this talking, it didn't actually take us that long to get to the Dubai Mall, the world's largest mall, atop which lies the Burj Khalifa. We had to take the most bizarre route into the mall to find the sunrise entrance of the 'At The Top' experience, but eventually I found my way there with a similarly perplexed westerner who, like me, had booked his ticket in advance for the privilege of seeing the sun rise (or the world end, depends how superstitious you are) from 'Atop' the world's tallest building.
The At The Top lobby reminded me very much of the Singapore Flyer - full of tidbits of engineering about the building, how it represents leaves etc and was shaped to prevent the formation of the vortices that can shake a tall building to pieces. http://www.burjkhalifa.ae/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burj_Khalifa
Then the 6:15 entry was called and we were syphoned through the obligatory security check and photo shoot to the elevator. There must only have been a handful of us but maybe lots of tickets were sold then not honoured, as the screens at the entrance all said 'fully booked'. The express elevator took us to floor 124 in about 30 seconds, and when we reached the top I looked around for the next elevator to the top. There wasn't one - this was as high as we were going to go. Quite disappointing for a 211-storey building!!
Anyway, on the level we emerged at, there was an indoor section, looking out through you couldn't see much as the windows were quite tinted, but there was also a large open balcony (it was the top of one of the buttress layers, look at the plastic model above) from which you could see the whole of Dubai. Which was starting to get really quite beautiful
With all my experience going up tall buildings to take night-time pictures of cities (an unusual skill, I know) I have got very accustomed to getting the best out of my camera. But the reason that these photos came out so well (if I may say so) is that, in Pokhara, I found an imitation GorillaPod camera tripod for less than £10 and thought it would be a good buy. For this sort of thing, you couldn't get anything better :-)
Anyway, to many people's surprise, the Sun did its consistent trick of rising into view above the Eastern horizon which, for us, was over the desert. As a result, the sunrise was a deep red and looked more like a sunset - it was quite beautiful tempered only by how painfully slow the whole thing happened. And how cold it was 1,000' up in December. But if there is ever a day to see the sunrise, it might as well be the year's shortest day, when it will be as late as it ever will be!
Eventually the sun rose enough to satisfy the crowds, which slowly dispersed, and I was able to photograph the rest of the city before getting back in the lift for the ride down to the bottom (much re-pressurising of the sinuses was needed). It was interesting to note, though, that the upper floors of the building which I could see from the balcony were little more than skeletons. No services, no fittings, certainly no residents. What a waste of a huge building - but this is because this is a country which has so much money it can invest in superlatives, it does not need to respond to the commercial pressures that keep a normal city buzzing and developing at it's own pace!
When we got down, of course we had the obligatory walk through the gift shop - something I've seen a lot more of is attractions such as this, where your photo is taken as a matter of course, is that they print out all the photos and put them on display in the shop. I'm sure that some people will like the quick convenience of being able to buy their photos immediately, but if this tactic has increased sales, it is probably as a result of many waste-conscious customers seeing this unnecessarily-printed photo for sale and buying it out of pity rather than let it be consigned to the waste bin!! But unforunately, the inane picture of a rather unenthusiastic morning-Colin stood in front of a clearly composited image did not fill me with the required pity so I walked on out of the shop and into Dubai Mall.
Outside the Mall, I found myself overlooking a small lake surrounded by exquisite buildings. Probably empty, or mostly-empty, not least of all the Burj itself. But around the lake were Indian- and Nepali-looking cleaners, doing their bit to keep it looking pristine purely for the pleasure of the occasional tourist who might glance that way. I imagine this is what it must feel like to live in Disneyland. Or Sim City. Hmm...
Anyway, I did get my picture of me with the Burj Khalifa, thanks very much to my GorillaPod mount which I could rest on the floor just far enough away to get the whole building in. I headed back into the Mall in search of breakfast. I found a hot chocolate shop, had a muffin and a drink and, finally, found some good WiFi and sat there for an hour or so on my laptop! Which, of course, I had no alternative but to lug around with me for the whole morning.
Then I went to explore the Mall. Shops, shops, cleaners, cleaners, staff, staff. Barely a single customer. But at least the place was gleaming, right? The Dubai Mall has cinemas, waterfalls, aquaria, fitness suites and pretty much every top-brand shop under the sun. I know that it was a Friday morning but really, is there a need for this excess? Is shopping this much of a pastime that Dubai can support this many humungous malls?
One of the Aquaria.
I had soon had enough of Dubai Mall and, miraculously, found my way to the bus stop. Eventually a bus pulled up, the driver of which confirmed that he could take me to the central bus station where I could get a bus to the airport (no direct bus between the world's largest Mall and the main port of entry - amazing!). But, of course, I would need a ticket. I waved a 10-Dirham note at him. He shook his head - he could not sell me a ticket. I asked him where I could buy one. He told me to go to the Metro station. I told him they were closed until 1pm. He agreed. I asked him whether it was possible for me to buy a ticket ANYWHERE. He said no! And drove off!
What a stupid system. So, for the second time that day, I hailed a cab and trundled to the airport feeling quite fed up with Dubai. This cab driver wasn't so interesting, but the car was probably one of the older ones on the road (maybe 2.5 years old) because it had nearly 1,000,000km on the odometer!!
I checked in at the airport sans luggage, because it should be making its own way to Heathrow without me. For the first time I downloaded the boarding pass onto my mobile phone - this did work quite well, and I could avoid all the queues for checking in, but it was risky because it was just a cached web page rather than a .pdf so, if my phone tried to load any other page, I would lose my boarding pass forever!
Anyway, to my great disappointment, Dubai International turned out to be just another mall disguised as an airport and I eventually found my way to my gate where there was not a single power socket. I exchanged my last Dirhams for Euros and sat on the floor next to a cleaning socket (does no-one think these things through?!) and updated the blog.
Eventually, our flight was called and I got the first view of the aircraft which I had paid an additional £120 to fly on - the Airbus A380! But the size of this thing did show its flaws when you consider the size of the gate to allow all the passengers to mingle before being permitted to board. The whole boarding process took about 30 minutes - but once on board I could enjoy a very comfortable seat and the promise of an interesting flight - supplemented by a gamble I had made months beforehand to sit on the left side of the plane right at the back, for the best view upon departing Dubai!
My assumption was that, being situated between the sea and the desert, Dubai would have a sea breeze for most of the middle of the day, and that we would be taking off towards the West. Therefore, out of my left seat, I should see the main city, the Palm Jumeriah and The World archipelago (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_(archipelago)). I was delighted to have got this right :-)
I was able to settle into my flight at last. Habitually, I intend to write up blog posts while in the air, but this always descends into watching the films, waiting for the food to arrive, listening to music and sleeping. So I did all of these and wrote maybe a couple of paragraphs of blog. Economy class in Emirates is probably the best I have ever had - very good seat, good legroom, exquisite food and superb entertainment. Spoiled only by the annoying penchant of airliners to include dual-jack headphone sockets and provide their own rubbish, over-ear headphones instead of an adaptor for you to use your own nice Sennheiser in-ear earphones! That said, the A380 was noticeably the quietest airliner I've been on, despite me being a long way behind the engines and being on the lower deck. I was very impressed...
Somewhere around here, we were approximately over Greece. Greece also happens to be the furthest East I had been before my round-the-world trip. Which means that, at about sunset local time on the 21st December 2012, I had completed one complete lap of the planet :-) However it passed without any noticeable change, I did not suddenly achieve enlightenment or any other physiological event, so I went back to watching my film!
Eventually, familiar countries started re-appearing on the in-flight map. First Eastern Europe, then Western Europe, then the country of my birth, then finally the country of my home. One of the great advantages (and pleasures) of flying into Heathrow from the East is that you fly right over the city itself, and out came the camera again to record the moment.
Can you sport the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf?
Finally, touchdown. I had made it around the planet, from Heathrow to Heathrow, in little over 4 months and with a huge aggregate of new experiences, friends, knowledge and appreciation of foreign people. But, as I will explain in my next post, the whole experience is far too large to take in all in one go. I just can't make sense of it in one go - but when I think back to each country or city I visited, a flood of memories comes back and I am sure I will savour that forever.
before I left the aircraft, though, I was determined to have a look upstairs. I had already filed my request with the chief flight attendant who, once the cabins were vacated, was very happy to take my upstairs and show me the bar, the spa (complete with hot shower) and the individual pods used by the First Class passengers. What luxury - but surely no-one short of a millionaire would pay over £3,000 each way for 7 hours of luxury!!
Finally, I got through immigration successfully and went to baggage reclaim to wait for my trusty Berghaus luggage.
Which never turned up. I fly around the world through China, India and Nepal without any loss of luggage - so typical that it should abandon me on the very last leg! The luggage people actually didn't know where it was, so I left my details in the vain hope of it (and all my Christmas presents) turning up soon.
I walked through arrivals and saw my father waiting for me. He gave me a look of sympathy when he saw my luggage was gone - then we embraced and my journey was complete.
After just a minute my younger brother turned up, sporting a crazy beard and a big grin. How I had missed him during my travels.
We got into the car and drove back to Warminster and I was home, to see my mother delighted at her family re-united. 4-month journey round the world - tick!!