Dubai Part Three: Five Snapshots – The Good, the Bad-Ass and the Exquisite

It’s been far too long since my last post. The real world of content writing, subbing shifts and features pitches got on top of me in the last week and I was in writing hibernation, slowly digging myself out of my pit of emails, reviews and scribblings.

Now I’m back and can’t wait to finish writing about my jaunt around Dubai. I’ve already posted some images in Part One: Dubai in Pictures, so, as a condensed-down, easily-digestible whistle-stop tour of the what, when, how and where before I immerse myself in the nitty gritty, here’s my bonkers and beautiful Dubai in five snapshots.

Adrenaline High at Ifly at Magic Planet, Deira
iFly

“Who’s going first?” Asked the IFLY expert who, while wearing a leotard so tight it was verging on indecent, had just been flipping in a perspex tube a moment before. We glanced at each other, each trying and failing to blend into the wall behind us, before pointing out our Dubai guide as a designated lamb to the slaughter.

I watched him being manhandled by both the wind and the instructor who kept making bunny ear signals into his face, which had adopted a fixed grin of rigour mortis proportions. My borrowed suit was suddenly a lot more restrictive. I could smell the nervous flop sweat of a hundred wearers before me as we shuffled one by one towards the death tube and, as I lurched face first, arms across my chest like a sleeping vampire into the deafening roar of a wind turbine, I tried very hard not to cack my borrow pants.As the instructor grinned at me and told me to keep my head up and smile, something happened. I realised that I was floating, and it was bloody amazing. I managed not to scream as he pulled me up to the ceiling and dropped me in a semi-graceful corkscrew, spiralling to the ground. At least I’m maintaining I wasn’t screaming, over all that wind who could tell?For more information on Ifly, check the official website here.

Sun, Sea and…Snow? Ski Chalet at The Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Hotel

Living and Dining Area in Grand Ski ChaletRoaring fire, check. Chestnut polished wooden floorboards and beams, check. Alpine view, check. The faint sound of mall music, fake sky and a sun-flooded pool terrace out the back, check… wait a minute.This is no ordinary ski lodge, it’s a grand ski chalet in the Kempinski Hotel, slap bang in the middle of the Mall of the Emirates in sunny, snow-free Dubai. This three-bed, lavish chalet is an exercise in just how money and imagination can get you anything in Dubai. The two-floor apartment room has everything you’d expect from a luxury establishment with stand alone baths, monstrously big beds, chandeliers and dual aspect windows out onto the ski slope where hotel patrons and visitors alike take turns to shoop shoop down the slope or roll in Zorb balls.

Bedroom in Grand Ski Chalet

Apparently the glass, while obscured, isn’t totally peep proof as Elodie, who was showing me around, recounted. There was the time everyone on the slope got quite the eyeful through the chalet windows and an emergency staff member had to sprint up to the room to warn the occupants that they were on display.

Weird? Embarrassingly opulent? Magnificent or just plain bonkers, its just another amazing suite in the Dubai wonderland.

Bookings, prices and chalet information can be found on The Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Hotel website here.

Sticks at Dawn: Camel Polo at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club

Camel Polo Pros

Hit it! Hit it!” My jockey, Riaz, pleaded with me as I swung my arms backwards, shoulder screaming in protest and biceps like malnourished grapes straining to bring the leaden stick downwards onto the demon of a ball that had eluded me all morning.

The hammer connected with a thunk, shunting the ball all of two spectacular feet across the pitch. The thunk was followed by a crunch as I thwacked my mount, Moussiah, around the ankles. She swivelled her regal head towards me.

“Idiot.” Her liquid brown eyes said. “Bugger.” I said, aloud. Who knew a game of camel polo could be so difficult to master?

Moussiah the Camel

Very, as it turned out. Polo with ponies? Bah! Frankly you haven’t lived until you’ve lurched from side to side while swiping at an inflatable practice ball with a reinforced, six-foot broomstick.

That was from my diary and was written just after a tension-filled, gruelling (read: relaxed, mildly strenuous) couple of rounds of camel polo, Dubai’s ultimate grass roots sport. These beautiful, preened and pampered beasts are available for brave tourists and corporate away days and a morning spent learning how to play this most elite of sports was honestly the most fun I had in Dubai.

one man and his camel

Gulf Ventures can organise city transfers, half day city tours and a camel polo experience like the one I tried. Visit www.desertadventures.com to book or for more information.

Round the World Eating at Spectrum On One, The Fair Mont Dubai
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Eating brunch – what’s known as THE brunch in Dubai, mind you – at The Spectrum On One I had Ariel’s Little Mermaid song about gadgets and gizmos going round and round in my head. Except that I wasn’t singing about whos-its and whats-its galore, I was thinking about food, glorious food because this brunch mecca serves a never-ending buffet of delights from almost every continent and country on the planet.I had pancakes and roast beef a plenty.
I had cheeseboards and shawarmas galore. 
You want steamed buns? I had some. 
But who cares, no big deal. I wanted more.I had duck rolls and tandoori chicken and pulled pork tacos followed by candy floss and cupcakes and Oreo cheesecake, all washed down with an endless supply of mojitos, that seemed to materialise by my elbow like magic every time my straw hit the ice at the bottom of my glass.And then I was gently tipped put of my seat and rolled towards the exit like a swollen Violet Beauregard. Well not really, but it took a few attempts to stand after this feast.

Brunch at Spectrum on One starts from £58 per person, or £76 including unlimited alcohol. See their website for details here.

How the Other Half Live: The Burj Al Arab
Inside the Burj Al Arab

Entering the seven-starred Burj Al Arab is like walking into a modern-day Disney palace. The doormen have IPads, there’s 24 carat gold paved on the mosaic floors and there’re suites so elaborate and discreet that they’re stored on security access only floors.

Through the glass doors, the concept of a ceiling is suddenly ripped away as you find yourself in a vast, echoing space and, as your eyes go up and up and up and UP, you soon realise that this hotel is possibly one of the most staggering and terrifying places that you’ve ever set foot in.

Burj Al Arab - Lobby

I managed to scrape my jaw off the floor and nod weakly as our guide, the impossibly pretty Nazila, explained that the inner atrium could fit two Eiffel Towers inside and the fountain used to spit all the way to the top floor, before it had to be tamed to save guests from death by drenching. I continued to be lost for words during an afternoon tea that started with shortcake as light as air and a waiter with the world’s most flamboyant champagne pouring style and ended with a cappuccino topped with 24 carat gold dust, which I prompted scattered into the air with one excited exhalation.

Burj_Al_Arab_-_Skyview_Bar_

Then Nazila walked us on a never-ending display of the delights of Burj’s inner sanctum. There were glass lifts that moved so fast your ears popped, rooftop restaurants with panoramic views of the man-made world islands, an underwater restaurant with its very own famous resident fish – George – and a Royal Suite with a revolving velvet bed and a shower covered in gold leaf.

Romantic dinner in Al Mahara

There were stomach-churning peeks over the ledge on the 25th floor, there were squeals of disbelief, of wonder, of sheer horror that anyone could afford to travel and live like this and of childish abandon in a place that disarms you with pomp and privilege, shocks you with opulence and ostentatiousness and galls you with riches and ritual. It’s gorgeous and garish, its mental and marvellous, it’s…it’s…It’s the Burj Al Arab, which says it all really.

Traditional afternoon tea at the Burj costs £75. Book on their website, here.

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Part One: Japan in Pictures

I’ve always loved Japan. I used to dream of it after watching too much anime and borrowing my dad’s novels by James Clavell. I would read Gai-jin and Tai-Pan and watch endless episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, which in retrospect didn’t help my naive impressions of Japan. I was transported by historical, fictional and cartoon versions of  the country. In my head it was a world of meditation gardens, of white herons and of geishas in many-coloured kimonos.

231026_634676868042_2899311_nEmpty Sake Barrels on Miyajima Island

All the different forms of ‘my Japan’ distorted and intertwined themselves into a seething mass of rights and ritual, tea ceremonies and Yakuza; of hari-kari, seppuku, samurai, ninjas and honour and heritage; of maple trees, unagi, bamboo,  antiquities and ancient history.

250135_634569822562_2888633_nMaple trees in Kyoto

This bewitching country has always been top of my travel wishlist, wedged improbably and inelegantly between Vanuatu and Ushuaia, and, in 2011, I managed to make it there, at the tail end of a long trip with The Boy.

It was everything I had expected, if possible more and, I suppose, in measures it was less. It was shockingly expensive – we struggled to eat reasonably and to pay for the metro tickets after the soft introduction of bargain basement Thailand and Vietnam. It was staggeringly beautiful – the floating torii gate that appeared to me like a living doorway between the earth and heaven in Miyajima will stay burnt into my mind’s eye forever.

246669_634676304172_4420378_nThe Torii at Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima – Heaven’s Gate

Never have I felt more Godzilla-like as I wandered around Shinjuku and was surrounded by pocket-sized, lilly-white lovelies in Oscar-worthy make-up, pristine silk blouses and kitten heels. The business men in their sharply tailored suits and hair so stiff it looked like lego glanced at my dusty boots with politely-concealed distaste as my feet, feeling ashamed of their shabby appearance, tried to hide behind my travel-stained backpack.

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Japan was, to be truthful, also in turns a very strange place. Men would read explicit hentai – cartoon porn – on the metro on their daily commute and there were new breeds of bizarre hotel like the Cuddle Café, where patrons would pay by the hour to sleep and be hugged by a stranger.  I wrote a little about the oddities of Japan in a previous post about mental bentos, but, despite the intermittent other-worldliness of Japan, it’s a place I still yearn to return to, if only for the incredible food.

231173_634568949312_7925756_nTempura prawns and green peppers with miso soup, Nara

Last night Jun Tananka, a chef of Japanese heritage, transported me straight back to my 2011 trip with his plates of miso salmon, umami lamb and tempura shitake mushrooms. As I scoffed these delights I reminisced about the similar morsels that I had once eaten at the pop up sushi stands that stood alongside Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo like rows of painted beach huts.

There will be more on that tomorrow, as I try to put Jun Tanaka’s flavours into words, but for now here’s a collection of my Japan in pictures, from down town Tokyo and the deer-filled park in Nara to Osaka’s bright lights, Hiroshima’s prayer cranes, Kyoto’s temples and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama.

225236_634677162452_8005649_nTuna heads in the fish market. My foot is there as a reference to show their terrifying size!

227957_634455516632_671407_nGrannies on the Metro, Tokyo

227216_634456050562_4502138_nThe Glico Man in Dotonbori, Osaka

229061_634568709792_4109798_nSchool children admiring the view in Nara Park

248999_634675371042_7803631_nPaper prayer cranes in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, each crane has a special significance, which you can read more about here.

225525_634676204372_4079479_nThe torii, Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima. Once, not so very long ago, women weren’t allowed on this island and old folk would be shipped off it to die to keep this shrine island pure from death and contamination.

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227403_634573320552_1905114_nThe bamboo forests of Arashiyama

225828_634569253702_466575_nTemple gardens of tranquillity, Kyoto

225836_634573205782_8025778_nKinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple, Kyoto. The top floors of the temple are coated in gold leaf. It was reportedly the home of retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and made a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after he died in 1408.

229136_634570012182_5810063_nCycling around Sannenzaka’s wooden houses and temples along one of the oldest streets in Kyoto.

I know I’m not alone in my love and fascination for Japan. In fact, Frankie, a wonderful writer and blogger I met last year while dog mushing (which you can read all about here), also  dreams of visiting as you can read in her 2014 travel wish list. I would love to hear from people who have been to Japan and what their favourite places or experiences were.

Fingers crossed, there will, hopefully, be more to come on the food and the fish market in Part Two: Jun Tanaka’s Japanese Feast. 

Luoyang, Henan, China

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We seemed to be the only westerners in Luoyang when we visited. It was the middle of a bitter, Chinese winter and the further north we travelled the deeper the ice-laden wind cut.
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When we arrived at our hostel we realised it was a flat shared with the owner and his son in the centre of residential Luoyang. We found that we could only communicate through Google Translate, and, after a few false attempts he managed to tell us we should do three things here: eat steamed dumplings, see the Longmen Grottoes and take the local bus to the Luoyang Musuem – a mausoleum of Chinese antiquities and treasures.
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After two hours staring at jade, ivory and precious statues behind glass, we wandered back into the pale sunlight and straight into this gentleman. He sits, with his barrel of hot, roasted sweet potatoes, by the museum gates everyday, through summer and winter.

The smell of singed potato skin enticed us closer and, when he flashed us that smile we were powerless to resist. We left with handfuls of hot potato, warming our hands though our gloves for the bus home.
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If anyone is heading to Luoyang I would love to know if he is still there…

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Trømso, Norway

Nouka and Pacha

In Norway’s frozen north there’s a tiny company offering a unique experience: a window into the life of a dog musher in the frozen depths of Scandinavia.

Alongside Stian, Nieske, Amalia and 23 racing dogs, you’ll be shown the story behind the traditional two-hour tourist dog sledding, from harnessing and caring for your own dog team to lugging vats of drinking water from a half-frozen lake.

In return you’re rewarded with an incomparable chance to bond with these stunning animals and sled in your own small group through some of the north’s most impressive scenery.

These were my lead dogs, Pacha and his on-again off-again girlfriend Nucka. You can see the wolf in them, in their lupine eyes and their rangy, sinewy bodies as they shiver and rear in anticipation of the sprint. When Stian pushes forward you’re off. Barely breathing, sailing over the snow, your sled hissing as it carves through the powder, dogs at your back and dogs at your front, panting and straining, the wind slicing your cheeks as trees like black bars flash past in an endless carousel of black and white, black and white.

Unmissable

The trip with Magnetic North only runs a few times a year during northern lights season.

Crazy House, Dalat, Vietnam

Welcome to the house of fun

This house might look like a Quentin Blake drawing that’s leapt straight from the pages of a Roald Dahl, or one of Studio Ghibli’s creations on crack, but it’s actually the brainchild of Vietnamese architect Dang Viet Nga and is a fully-functioning hotel in Dalat, Vietnam.

The building is based around a giant, man-made Banyan trunk whose warped branches twist and knot to create skywalks, bridges, caverns and caves filled with fairy-sized windows and animal-themed rooms.

Interior Crazy HouseEverything here is designed, hand-crafted and suited to each individual room, from the tiger’s glowing red eye in the tiger bedroom to the giant kangaroo who has a fireplace in its stomach in the, yes you’ve guessed it, kangaroo room.

Apparently, Nga was inspired by the works of Gaudi and the landscape surrounding Dalat, and she managed to accumulate a hefty amount of debt building it, hence its transformation into a hotel in 1990.

If it’s all a bit too Dali, Disney or just plain bonkers for you to stay overnight, do as I did and visit for a few hours to fall down the rabbit hole and get utterly and completely lost in this organic labyrinth. When I visited, a ticket was just 35,000 VND – the best £1 I spent in Dalat.

Crazy House

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An Lanterns

With its riverside setting, elegant architecture and glut of restaurants and boutique hotels, Hoi An is fast becoming Vietnam’s Venice of the East.

In a sort of Primark-meets-Parisian-haute-couture way, Hoi An is most famous for its speedy, hand-made clothing industry and the streets are lined with endless tailors, cobblers and fabric shops hoping to entice tourists with made-to-measure suits and coats. However, if having pocket-sized women flutter around you with tape measures, reassuring you that “we make big big sizes, lots of material” – I’m 5’3, incidentally – doesn’t appeal, then see a different kind of workmanship on show at the Hoi An Arts & Crafts Workshop.

Yes it’s packed with tourists and you’ll probably leave with three lanterns and a wooden mask wedged into your rucksack because they offered you a deal that was just too good to resist, but it’s well worth a visit to watch the artisans make wood carvings, embroidered lanterns and pottery and catch one of the daily two-hour Vietnamese music and dance shows.

Admission is covered as one of your five entries under the city’s Heritage Pass.

Hiroshima, Japan

Paper Cranes

In Japan there’s an ancient legend that says magical cranes can live for a thousand years and that anyone who folds one thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. Some stories say you’ll be given eternal good luck, others that you’ll gain good health or a longer life.

Cranes can be made for peace, for luck and for happiness. In Hiroshima there’s a story about Sadako Sasaki, the 12-year-old school girl who made them for all these things when she contracted leukaemia ten years after America dropped the atomic bomb on her home town in 1945. Sadako tried to make one thousand paper cranes, hoping that she could wish to be well again, but died three months into her project.

School children still make these beautiful, fragile cranes to hang on the monuments in the Peace Memorial Park like these ones I found walking around there in May a few years ago. In September this year her relatives donated one of her tiny, finger-nail sized cranes to the Pearl Harbour visitors’ centre with Sadako’s nephew, Yuji Sasaki, explaining: “We have both been wounded and have suffered painfully. We don’t want the children of the future to go through the same experience.”

 

Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Chitwan Canopy

In Chitwan, Nepal you can organize up to week-long treks into the National Park to try and spot rhinos, tigers and the ever-elusive leopard. I joined a three-day trek from the Gaida Lodge and came across something unexpected deep in the forest.

As the first rays lit the forest floor, the morning mist evaporating. In the half-light the forest was a tangible sensation, an embalmed space where you could taste the damp richness of the soil and touch the heady moisture in the air. Shards of white light slipped and spilt through the canopy, falling in soft ribbons to the murky floor. All you could see was green and all you could smell was that fresh, sharp, living scent. Our guide Vishnu started to run and the forest erupted into a deafening cry, whooping and screaming as we crashed through the undergrowth until we came out on a path and straight into the eye-line of a giant one horned rhino.

It was one of those breathless moments of utter silence and immobility as we all stood, frozen while it dropped its head and grunted. It made a few short runs at us before deciding we weren’t worth the bother and instead letting us creep beside it while it fed on the surrounding foliage.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal

Room with a view
When you find out you’ve been allocated a window seat on a flight it always comes with a side order of smug satisfaction. You become baron of the window blind and lord of light with the power to block everyone else’s view if you fancy a sleep mid-flight. You might be first in line to be blinded by the eyeball-searingly unshielded sun as you swoop to land but you also have the chance to catch glimpses of views like this.

This was the view from my window as we climbed over the Mahabharat mountain range on route to Kathmandu from Delhi. As we scythed through the clouds, vast gulfs of rock, yawning valleys and indigo-stained peaks rose against the distant, milky blob of Mount Everest.

Then it all went a bit Garden State as the plane began a series of pant-wetting, buttock-clenching dips as went went through a patch of ‘thin air’ and my neighbour switched his mobile volume on full and thudded out a tangle of sitars, wailing and Bhangra beats. But who wouldn’t go through a bit of vomit-inducing turbulence to experience a view like this?