Shopping and Dubai are synonymous. While I did not shop there, a lot of my Dubai moments were spent at its shopping centers and malls. The main reason was to escape the Dubai heat and boredom and I also found it the best place to do some people watching. The traditional souks were left for the evenings, post sunset and afternoons were always at the luxurious air conditioned malls of Dubai.
It was summer and Dubai offered mega sale on everything. Shops blazed with sale stickers and drew people from all over Middle East. Like the rest of the city, Dubai malls were also a mishmash of exceptionally beautiful characteristics and technological wonders from all over the world. My favourite hangout place was the Dubai mall and I have quite a few memories attached to it. The most embarrassing one was to quickly learn, never to wear revealing clothes if wandering solo in Dubai.
I also met a very good friend there and it was while I waited for him at the cavernous food court in shorts, unblinking scores of eyes taught me my first Dubai etiquette. The reality hit soon that I was no longer in the cocoon of airline crew friends and was traveling solo in Dubai on a budget. I glazed over, stared around uncomfortably and pretended to ignore my surroundings. It was a mini world of retail crazed people and shoppers jostled excitedly. Shops, food court, escalators and every possible inch of space was filled with groups of men in traditional kanduras, their ladies in burqas and entire teams of children, nannies, personal shoppers and relatives in tow. While most men minded their own business, some obviously found non ME single ladies extremely interesting and worth long uncomfortable lookovers. They were loaded, at least with shopping bags and it was incredible to find sedate veiled ladies grabbing mini skirts and sexy dresses to try in the trial rooms.
The naughty curiosity of what lies underneath the burqas raged through my mind and I had the most original Sex and the City moment. The kanduras intrigued me too, but I left that thought blissfully unanswered to avoid unnecessary cultural complications. Dubai Mall was huge and housed the famous musical fountain, some incredible installation art pieces, a zoo, an aquarium and an ice skating rink. It also had a beautiful gold dusted ceiling and a massive dinosaur skeleton at its entrance. I could have never imagined myself to be gushing about a mall, until I visited Dubai shopping plazas only for exploration purposes. Apart from being incredible shopping destinations, the malls were no less than works of art.
The Ibn Batuta Mall was another such retail paradise and had stunning pavilions decorated painstakingly after the architectural styles of India, Egypt, Persia, China, Andalusia and Tunisia. It was incredibly beautiful and the feeling of enjoying a Starbucks latte underneath the famous Golden Peacock dome styled after an Esfahani (in Iran) mosque was simply surreal. Then there was the opulent Madinat Souk and its in house moat. Designed after a traditional Arabian souk it was resplendent with dim lights, narrow meandering alleys, lanterns and Arabian objects d’art. Although incredibly breathtaking it was too opulent for my taste and after 1 evening at the Madinat, I made my afternoon beelines at the brash Dubai Mall. It was more grounded, less exclusive and more for a commoner like me. Kandura clad men spat on the escalators and burqaed ladies yelled at children making nuisance of themselves in front of the shark filled aquarium.
Most of Dubai’s malls cluster around the glamourous Sheikh Zayed road and it was the nerve center of all things rich and powerful in Dubai. The night view of Sheikh Zayed Road is legendary for its beauty and is a must see sight in Dubai. My jaunts to Sheikh Zayed road were because of my friend Burak and we both loved the finale of the musical fountain against the diamond columned Burj Khalifa, the Tunisian food at Tunisia court at Ibn Batuta mall and the World Cup football matches (slouchy bean bags and cheap beer) at the moat side sports bar at the Madinat. In fact all our mall memories had nothing to do with shopping and that was what made those jaunts super fun. We would gawk, cheer, bitch and laugh the nights away.
My favourite shopping destinations in Dubai were however the souks or the traditional Arabian markets. Most of Dubai souks are located along the Creek where in the past the dhows used to unload the wares from China, India and Far East. In olden times spices, perfumes and silk used to change hands there and nowadays cheap electronic appliances, computer peripherals etc have taken over. Both sides of the Creek house countless souks and the shoreline is the most atmospheric part of the city. Old
wind catchers, mosque minarets, traditional squat buildings line the banks and against the setting sun, Old Dubai (before the oil rush) resurfaces like a forgotten romance. Among all the souks, my favourite was the aromatic Spice Souk. It was not easy to locate but I could smell it even before I reached its narrow entrance. Spices and condiments from all over the world were up for sale and it was an absolute photographer’s paradise. Apart from spices, fake designer bags, not so real pashmina, belly dancing costumes and water pipes were also peddled by pushy vendors from parts of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
No shopping trip in Dubai is complete without a visit to the iconic Gold Souk and honestly I found this highly touted place most disappointing. Located in Deira, I was very excited about it and rushed my way through the abra/water taxi station at Bur Dubai to cross over to it. Nothing but a patchwork of lanes lined with shops selling gold and diamond jewelry, I found it extremely over hyped. Huge traditional and modern sleek designs crammed the shop windows and the vendors of the souk supposedly sold ornaments by weight. I walked around staring at diamond encrusted crowns, massive gold bracelets, waistbands and endless rows of gold chains. Coming from a gold crazy country like India(where men wear shirts made of gold), I was accustomed to such sights, but I must admit that the display was indeed dazzling.
Gold and Spice souks took up 2 evenings and unfortunately I did not have time to explore the others. Perfume, Textile, Fruit and Vegetable souks were also recommended as worth visiting by most of my local friends and I loved the fishy bustle of the huge Fish souk at Deira. My Dubai evenings had been most exciting and as strange as it sounds, shopping is indeed a very unique Dubai characteristic. Rooted in history, it was the mainstay of Dubai before the oil rush and is still its biggest attraction. Luxurious, premium, mundane and cheap, in Dubai the colour of money comes alive.
TRAVEL TIP – I found 2 websites particularly helpful regarding Dubai’s souk trail. http://manishareview.com/ and its Dubai souk page http://manishareview.com/2013/06/24/top-10-dubai-souqs/ was very informative and gave inputs about its local weekly markets too. For a more comprehensive idea, check out http://www.dubaisouks.net/ and fall in love with historical flavours of souks of Dubai.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE