Dubai December: The Burj Khalifa

Finally, a month after my birthday trip to Dubai, I’m bringing up the rear with the last-but-not-least-post about the world’s tallest building. If you want all the stats about the height and amazing construction efforts, the largest this and fastest that, you should go read Wikipedia, I’m here to talk about the experience.

After my lovely boat ride down the Dubai canal, I caught that coveted taxi and headed over to the Dubai Mall. That is the giant mall structure that rests at the bottom of the Burj Khalifa, next to the beautiful dancing fountain in the world’s largest artificial lake. The entrance to the Burj Khalifa “At the Top” experience is inside the mall.

The mall itself is, like all Dubai malls, huge and awe inspiringly wealthy. On my way to the entrance, I passed the display for the aquarium inside the mall – a two story high window showing off the underwater reef and fish display.

After some research I had decided to buy my tickets online in advance for two reasons. One, it’s much much cheaper. Deciding to go to the top at the last minute will cost you big bucks, so if you’re heading to Dubai, and want to catch this attraction, go the website and book ahead. When you do this, you pick a time. The website advises readers that the ticket is only good for getting in at the specified time, but once you are at the top, you can stay as long as you like. The website also says that the tour typically takes 90 minutes.

What it should say is that the line typically takes 90 minutes.

Even having purchased my ticket in advance, and arriving 20 minutes ahead of my ticket time, I had to stand in line to redeem my online receipt. Then I had to stand in line to get to the line inside for the security sweep. Then I had to wait in line for the elevator (world’s fastest). Meanwhile we are packed in like sardines, there is nothing to look at but an endless loop video telling about the Burj Khalifa that none of us could hear over the crowds. There is no where to sit, nothing to drink, no bathrooms, just standing in line for 90 minutes. Disney Land has shorter lines.

Now, to be fair, the line may have been excessive because it was both a weekend (Saturday) at I had chosen to go in a time slot that should have allowed me to see the sunset from the top, which is a very high demand time as you may imagine. Maybe if you go off-peak, you’ll have a shorter line.

Your other option is to pay nearly double the ticket price to get the “fast track”. This one might be worth it. It’s about 45$ (US) for a peak time ticket, and about 80$ for the fast track. Either one seems like a lot of money to me to go up a building, but hey if you want to go to the tippy top VIP balcony, you’re looking at 135$. And who knows, maybe that’s worth it too, Dubai does know how to lay on a VIP treatment.

I’m permanently going through life in “poor college student” mode, so I tend to opt for the cheaper choice. So there’s me in line.

When we finally get to the elevators, we’re told these are the fastest elevators that will take us up in less than a minute. Considering they packed us in to absolute capacity, that was a relief. I’m not usually claustrophobic. I managed to ride the subways in Beijing where they literally shove people in at rush hour, but after an hour and a half of being scrunched up in the line, being even more scrunched up in the elevator was not fun.

Some people took video of the floors ticking by so fast, and while that itself is a kind of cool experience, I didn’t think it would be fun for you all to watch. It does bring up an interesting idea of how time and space are linked in our perception. We grow accustomed to traversing a certain amount of space to take a long time, the larger the space, the longer the time. So while the fastest elevator may be a marvel of technology, it seriously distorted my body’s perceptions of how high we had traveled. I wonder if the first people who traveled in airplanes from city to city had a similar experience of distance distortion.

We piled out of the elevator on floor 124 (not actually the highest floor but, I didn’t want to pay for the floor 148 experience (almost 100$ more than what I had already paid). And it was pretty crowded. Not surprising.

The first part was the outdoor viewing platform. Similar to “The Experience” at Al Faisaliah, the platform was surrounded by very high, very strong clear glass walls. I have to admit, that was pretty impressive. There is something really magical about feeling the air from really high places.

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It was crowded, but I was happy to be there finally. I wandered around the edge of the platform, admiring the view, enjoying the breeze and lingering sunlight, and trying to wrap my head around the sheer scope of what I was seeing. Partially, because everything in Dubai is built huge, so it’s hard to feel a sense of scale just from the surrounding architecture. Most of the buildings we can see here are between 50 and 90 stories tall themselves. The distance to the horizon is somewhat more helpful, but since I had never even come close to such an experience before (not even the Empire State, which at 103 stories would have been 21 stories below me). The tallest building in Seattle (my hometown) is 76 stories. It was almost more like I was looking at a model of a city rather than a real city at a distance. Combined with the super speedy elevator trip, it made the whole thing very surreal.

Finally I headed inside. The outdoor platform was not 360, and looked more or less east. I had booked a time to see the sunset, so I wanted to get to the west side of the building before the main event.

The website advertises an “unobstructed” 360 degree view from the top. This is not realistic. Not only are there way too many people to get a clear view, but there is a giant gift shop in the middle, and a green screen souvenir photo set up on one end. There are windows everywhere, and you can walk around and see the whole thing eventually. I got the obligatory “world’s highest selfie”. Getting close to a window was really quite a battle, though.

Perched at what was certainly the best sunset viewing window were three European tourists. They weren’t even looking out the window, just sitting in it playing on their smart phones. I mean, ok if you want to Instagram your world’s highest selfies, take a couple seconds, but to spend the $$, wait in line, and then just sit there on your phone? I tried to politely get past them to take pictures, and finally one of the staff came by and made them move.

No one who was actually taking pictures or actively admiring the view was asked to move, by the way, so I was happy to see that even if the tourists thought they could do whatever they liked, the staff were trying to be fair to everyone.

I stood in the press of people patiently admiring the orange red glow in the west. We should have been able to see the Burj Arab too, that giant building that looks like a sail on the coast of Dubai, but it turns out that the air quality in Dubai isn’t that great. The reasearch I did online seems to indicate that it should be in the green zone, under 50 on the AQI (air quality index, Seattle is around 8, and the worst parts of China are now breaking 500), so maybe it was the reputed “dust fall” but there was quite a serious haze in the air. It was a little bit disappointing, because I can only imagine how spectacular the view would have been if the air were clear.

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I don’t mean to whinge. It was a cool experience, and I’m glad I went. But, I don’t know if I’ll ever go again. And I’ll certainly have some choice advice for anyone who hasn’t gone and wants to.

I should mention at this point that I was heading straight to the airport from the Burj Khalifa. My flight was at 9 and FlyDubai says to arrive 3 hours early for an international flight. Sunset was at 5:30. I’d already determined the 3 hrs wasn’t going to happen, but I figured 2 and a half was probably enough, especially since I didn’t have checked baggage (oh the glorious joys of flying without checked baggage). So shortly after the glow dipped below the horizon I started to plan my exit strategy.

The website had also indicated that there were “official” souvenirs that could only be purchased by one who had got the “At the Top” ticket, and other souvenirs that could be purchased in the mall. I don’t like big gaudy souvenirs, I don’t collect T-shirts or spoons or anything. I have a small shotglass collection, but those are mostly from bars, not souvenir shops. But, I do like odd unique items sometimes. So I wanted a quick look around the souvenir shop before I headed out.

Have I mentioned the crowds? Crowded.

I ducked and weaved my way around the crowds until I found a cute little phone dongle and a lapel pin with the outline of the building. Small cheap but hopefully durable souvenirs with the “exclusive” label so I could rest assured they were at least unique to ticket holders.

Finally, I’d had more people than I could handle. While I had really hoped to see the city lights come on after the sunset, I couldn’t physically handle the crowds anymore, and was starting to get the adrenaline/anxiety combo that had totally eluded me when standing right at the edge and heralded the onset of a mild anxiety attack.

Time to go.

There was a line for the elevator to go down.

So I stood in line some more.

In line.

I don’t know how the fastest elevator stuffed to capacity still takes so long to move people that we had a line to go down. Up I could almost understand, maybe they wanted to wait for a certain number to come down before letting more up because it’s really kinda tiny up there. But down?

When I finally got down, I had the long walk of the Disneylandride-esque line on the other side (where, for some reason they had decided to put all kinds of pictures and stories for us to read on our way out when we were in a hurry instead of on the way in when we had to stand around forever). Then I was dumped into another gift shop (I keep seeing the Disney Land similarities), where I was dismayed to see the same items I’d purchased at the top.

It turns out the shop can’t be entered by mall patrons, so they weren’t lying about the exclusivity, but I really feel like they could have provided a better viewing experience if they’d cut out the gift shop and let us look first and shop later. Plus the gift shop at the bottom was roomier, less crowded and had more stuff.

I took a quick look around to make sure there wasn’t anything else to my tastes (almost bought a scarf, I have an addiction), before glancing at my watch and beginning to panic about my flight. It was already 6pm!

Quickly I darted for the nearest exit, and was greeted by the famous Dubai fountain in full performance as soon as I stepped outside. Airport be damned, this was worth stopping for. Sadly, I didn’t get any pics or video of the fountain in action, because I walked out after it had already started, phone in bag and stuck at the back of the crowd, but what I saw was amazing. That big blue swimming pool looking thing you can see from my picture at the top is actually a lake where the fountain is. This almost makes me want to go back at night so I could see the fountain show from the air. I am going back to Dubai next month, and I do plan to make sure I get a good view at least one night I’m there, even if only from the ground.

I also took a few more quick pictures of the Burj Khalifa at night, cause it is sooo pretty, before I had to run off in search of a taxi (again). As always, check out the facebook page for the full photo album of this and all my adventures! 🙂

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Summary?

Worth it. I am an achievement junkie though, so for me, being able to tell the story of when I watched the sun set from the world’s tallest building is the prize.

My advice to anyone else?

-of course buy the tickets in advance. I’m willing to bet if you want to go off peak, you can probably get  by with a shorter line than me at the cheapie tickets, but if you want to see the sunset, or go on a weekend, spend the extra cash for the Fast Track tickets, those guys were definitely speeding past us. And if you’re flush with cash, check out the VIP and tell me what it’s like.

-don’t bother shopping at the top, everything they have there is in the shop at the bottom.

-show up early, get to the ticket counter at least 30 minutes before your ticket time, which means get to the mall at least an hour before, because you have to walk what seems like several km to get from the mall entrance to the ticket counter.

-be careful what you carry with you. there is a security station that forbids luggage (backpacks seemed ok) and shopping bags (odd since they’re in a mall).

-use the restroom before you get in line. I didn’t see one again until I got back out into the main mall.

Other than that, enjoy it. I had some frustrations, which hopefully if you go after reading this, you can avoid. But the end result was a rare experience, because even if I go back to the top again, I’d go at a different time or day, and see different things. I’m glad I went, and for anyone who likes to build memories of awesome adventures, I recommend it.

Post Script: The Flight Home

International travel without checked luggage is the best. I got to the airport “late” and rushed in, only to be directed to a special check in counter for no luggage customers that also had no line. The clerk was very friendly and we chatted about how much I had enjoyed Dubai, and he gave me an exit row seat, as he said, so I would have extra leg room on my flight. (requesting those seats beforehand can cost up to $50 for the extra room, btw)

I had plenty of time to stretch my legs, explore the duty-free shop (where I got myself a beautiful new hijab, black with one edge done up in blue and silver embroidery. And to make some new friends in the waiting lounge, a nice woman from Kuwait who chatted with me about the cultural differences between Saudi and Kuwait while we waited for our flights.

On the plane, I was still in “western” clothes, my abaya and hijab tucked away in the bottom of my backpack. I was quite surprised when a Saudi gentleman addressed me to ask if I wouldn’t mind moving from the aisle to the window seat. It’s not uncommon for men and women who are not married to trade seats around to avoid sitting next to one another on planes here, so I took the window, he took the aisle and his wife sat between us so everyone was safe.

It was surprising because I was used to being addressed only by women if a married couple needed something, or by a flight attendant if the man single, but I figured she might not speak English, and after all, we were in Dubai still. We chatted a bit more on the flight, I think he must have lived abroad before to be so comfortable talking to a woman who wasn’t covered, and not being at all skeezy about it either.

Pro-tip, order the hot meal when you buy a ticket on FlyDubai, totally worth it.

When we landed and I got my backpack back from the overhead bin, I reached in and pulled out my abaya and hijab to put them on before disembarking in Saudi. There were several relieved faces from the men around me as they saw me getting properly dressed, and the gentlemen who shared my row gave me a compliment on my hijab donning technique, saying that I must have had some practice to become so proficient.

It was really an interesting cultural moment. Clearly these men were braced for the fact that an abayaless woman was about to get off the plane in their country. I’d seen it in the Riyadh airport, where most international flights come in, but this was Tabuk! Yet none of them were chastising, or even giving me dirty looks, they were just prepared to accept that I was different. But the moment that I showed my acceptance of their culture despite my differences we connected in that special inter-cultural space that says of course I don’t live your way, or understand your way, or even like your way, but I’ll respect you.

None of us had demanded our own way and were all prepared to be a little uncomfortable to make the other feel better, and I think we were all happier for it. It was a good trip.

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2 thoughts on “Dubai December: The Burj Khalifa

    • Considering the image we are given in so much Western media of Islam and Saudi in particular (especially when it comes to women covering), it felt very nice to see such tolerance in action.

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