Travel: The man who got off at Dubai: Just a desert service station? Far from it. Simon Calder found beer and beauty in this Gulf emirate

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The Independent Travel
Nobody asks any more if you have anything to declare. But if the customs official at Dubai had inquired, I would have said that all I had brought with me was a sackful of preconceptions.

Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, those iniquitously rich little countries that fringe the Gulf. The only thing I had ever read about the place was the traveller John Hatt's comment that he had 'never regretted going anywhere, but three days in Dubai was enough'.

Dubai used to be a necessary nuisance. There you were, flying from Heathrow to the Far East, when the plane suddenly landed (invariably in the middle of the night) to refuel. Passengers on some planes still have to endure this desert nightstop. I arrived on one such, but had chosen to break the journey. So while everyone else padded sleepily around the duty-free shop, I smuggled my preconceptions through customs.

Preconception one: Oil has made Dubai one of the richest places on earth, and hence one of the most expensive.

I stumbled out of the customs hall into what I believe is the world's only 24-hour staffed tourist information office (I am happy to be corrected on this). Steadying myself to be well and truly fleeced, I asked the man at the desk if he could help in finding a room. He summed up the cut of my wallet instantly and, jabbing energetically at the phone dial, called the cheapest hotel in his repertoire.

'That's far too much,' appeared to be the essence of what he was conveying. 'You must be able to make it cheaper.' Here, at two in the morning, a man I had never met before was haggling with a hotel on my behalf, reducing by one- fifth the amount I would contribute to the economy of Dubai (and hence his wages). 'And for that price you can send the courtesy bus, too]' he finessed, replacing the receiver with a satisfied clatter. 'Welcome to Dubai.'

Almost everyone in Dubai does deals, a habit inherited from its status as a free port. Bargains were struck there a thousand years before the oil. Almost anything can be bought, sold or bartered.

The geographical feature that made the emirate a marketplace for the Gulf is Dubai Creek, a sparklingly clear waterway that slices the city in half. Dhows, the shapely vessels that used to swarm all over the Middle East, are moored along the banks, their crews dozing until the cargo of their dreams materialises. Providing the best public transport system in the East, small launches dart back and forth across the Creek, their pilots chuffing on cheap cheroots.

A two-minute voyage (for 10p) reveals the finest views in the city. Much of the waterfront is high-rise gleam, with bank (money) upon bank (river). The creek's finest arc, however, is occupied by the Emir's palace. And in case you thought, fleetingly, that some expense might have been spared, gold glitters from every surface to which it could plausibly have been applied.

Preconception two: Any semblance of life-before-oil has been washed away in the tide of cash.

A hundred yards from the ruler's ostentatious display of wealth, a shambles of ancient sandstone and modern breeze block provides homes for poorer immigrants. The alleyways between are carpeted with sand, alive with children scampering among the shadows.

Preconception three: I'd be lucky to find anything more appetising to eat than sheep's eyes.

I ate splendidly and was never offered anything even vaguely ocular. I would be content to be locked inside any of the city's Asian restaurants, devouring delicious dahl, spiced lamb and chapatis. For something a little more familiar, every day is Thursday in Dubai: the well- known restaurant chain, TGI Friday's, has a branch in the middle of the city, but for religious reasons (Friday is the Islamic day of prayer) it is called TGI Thursday's. Thank God It's not insensitive enough to spell out the acronym.

Preconception four: The only white faces, patched scarlet by sunburn, are those of overpaid, tax-avoiding expatriates.

Dubai is the Gulf gulag. Russian has replaced English as the language of trade, a consequence of the number of Russians who come to shop in the emirate. Since Communism collapsed and capitalism swept into the void, aspiring entrepreneurs have swarmed into Dubai.

If you are fair-skinned, you will be addressed in Russian by the canny multilingual traders. More worrying for self-esteem, you may find yourself greeted like a long- lost comrade by the Russians themselves. Given their taste in clothes, which would have been outmoded in the Seventies, this could rightly be construed as a sartorial slight.

They do not come merely to buy up the surplus from the world's electronic warehouses - they come to sell, too. All kinds of post-Soviet tat are laid out along the banks of the Creek.

Preconception five: Getting into the desert is tricky and expensive.

Dubai spreads far beyond the city, as anyone possessed of pounds 1.25 and 90 minutes can discover. A little local bus will take you 60 miles, into the middle of a spectacular nowhere, almost to the Indian Ocean. Do not be put off by the guidebook warning: 'There is a bus system of sorts, used almost exclusively by low-paid workers, and not recommended.'

In the heart of the mercantile mayhem that passes for the centre of Dubai, you trip over the bus station, hidden behind overstocked stalls. From here, buses serve all the obvious places, such as the airport.

The schizophrenic No 16 is the one to catch. It rumbles around the periphery for a while, then suddenly metamorphoses into a high-speed, international coach service. European males become honorific women for the journey, seated, at the driver's instruction, to the front in the part marked 'Ladies only'. The driver demonstrates an entertaining contempt for the 62mph speed limit, casually overtaking police cars at 70mph.

Preconception six: The desert looks just like it did in Lawrence of Arabia, with waves of golden dunes and galloping camels.

It does. Other countries claim to possess deserts, but they are dull counterfeits compared with the treat that whizzes past the Ladies' window of the No 16. The Sun has melted the Earth into a grotesque and beautiful crumble. And just when you think, 'All that's needed to complete my mental image is a camel or two,' a hump heaves into view. And then another, and another. The sight of these creatures galloping gracefully across the sands is the most magical confirmation of a preconception you can imagine.

According to the map dispensed by the man at the airport, the path of the bus is impeded by the nation of Oman, a finger of foreign territory. Sure enough, we make a guest appearance there, streaking through the country for long enough to read the Sultan's signs that bid you a safe journey, and see the Hajar mountains in the distance. Ten minutes is all it lasts.

Gradually the dunes give way to bare, lunar hills resembling Tolkien's Misty Mountains - except that the haze here is generated by heat. The freeway swerves through the foothills, and the bus judders to a halt at the village of Hatta.

Much of Dubai's history resides among these low, plain dwellings, each enlivened by a gate or doorway of exquisite intricacy. But oil money has managed to seep this far inland, and the dusty streets are littered with Range Rovers and Mercedes.

On the edge of the village, merging into the mountainside, sits the Hatta Fort hotel - a mirage if ever I saw one. Why should anyone put a crazy golf course in the middle of the desert, and a pool and gardens kept verdant at enormous cost?

Judging by the helipad behind, most people do not come here on the No 16. 'Nice to see you back, sir,' the head porter lies.

Preconception seven: Once you've seen one emirate, you've seen them all.

Wrong. Sharjah, the emirate next door to Dubai, is a very different character: a broodier, puritanical brother. The searing heat and blinding light make you yearn for just one thing: a beer.

Preconception eight: The chances of getting a beer are zero.

There is indeed a problem here: which pub to go to. It is easier to find a pleasant pub in Dubai than in the West End of London - and cheaper, too. All the big hotels have a bar or two, exploiting the local loophole that 'members only' clubs can serve alcohol. (No one asked for a membership card on my pub crawl around the emirate).

At the George and Dragon in the Ambassador Hotel, you can have a decent pint of Fuller's London Pride and watch Whose Line is it Anyway? on satellite television. But then a disc jockey starts his banal patter, and a light show straight out of a mobile disco in Seventies England spatters unhappy colours on the walls and dancers.

You move on to the Baron's Table bar (where Essex Girl meets Desert Man), Thatcher's, and finally the Nicia bar, an exotic grotto buried in the Phoenicia Hotel. Sipping a Heineken, nibbling chick peas and olives, you can drink yourself into believing that the events of the day actually happened.

Preconception nine: There is no such thing as an attractive airport, and Dubai's is one of the least edifying.

Correct.

FACTFILE

Getting there: a discount fare from London to Dubai on Lufthansa costs pounds 405 from Airline Ticket Network (0800 727747). For a little more, you can continue to the Far East and Australia; Simon Calder's pounds 569 ticket from Quest Worldwide (081-547 3322) took him to Singapore, Bangkok, Perth and Darwin, as well as Dubai. Bridge the World (071-911 0900) sells pounds 598 tickets on Emirates. Bizarrely, if you travel on to Bombay or Delhi, the price falls to pounds 465.

Packages: Somak Holidays (081-423 3000) offers a week at the Chicago Beach Hotel from pounds 499 (with flights).

Accommodation: Simon Calder stayed at the Palm Beach Hotel , which is nowhere near a beach. The address is PO Box 5822 (tel 010-9714 525550, fax 528320). The official room rate is Dh375 (pounds 75), but the airport's tourist information office negotiated a discount rate of pounds 60 for him. The Hatta Fort Hotel in the desert (PO Box 9277, tel 010-97185 852 3211, fax 852 3561) costs about pounds 60 per night.

Information: Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board is at 34 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0RE (tel 071-828 5961, fax 071 630 9750), but you might just as well wait until you reach Dubai airport. The most useful guidebook is the relatively new Gulf States: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 9.95).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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