Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dubai (part 10) - Mercedes bus and elephant clock!

(please click on the pics to view in full size)

Next up on our list was using the Dubai bus and Ibn Battuta mall which was on the other side of Dubai! Again it was the friendly RTA helpdesk who told us what bus to take to Rashidiya metro station. All buses had a frequency of roughly 10 minutes and so far I had never seen the same bus number arrive immediately one after the other (something we see often in Chennai!). The door slid open and we stepped inside. The buses had 2 entry points, one in the front and one in the middle. There were 2 card reader machines in both places. We placed our card on the machine and it displayed the current balance along with a beep.

There were 3 TVs in the bus - 2 normal size ones for passengers and 1 mini TV for the driver. In our bus the passenger TVs weren't working - some problem with their input signal. The front portion of the bus was for ladies and families where you had seats facing on both sides - so you had little compartments within the bus. I took a seat in the back and noticed the Mercedes symbol engraved behind the seat (the three-pointed star which they say is supposed to mean domination over water, land and air). It was a pleasant surprise because I didn't know Mercedes had buses! I later learnt that these are Mercedes-Benz Citaro single decker buses with low floor access. The bus, which was air-conditioned, took 45 minutes to reach the main bus terminus but it was a very pleasant ride; odd it was - travelling 45 minutes in the desert under the afternoon sun and yet it was pleasant! Ibn Battuta was pretty much the last stop on the metro; in fact the station hadn't yet been completed and so we had to get down in the last station and take a feeder bus to the mall (feeder buses are regular RTA buses operated between two specific points - no intermediate stops and there was no extra charge for using the feeder bus).

The entrance to the mall had some Egyptian carvings. There was also a large Helium balloon which unfortunately was under repair. Otherwise you can get to go up in the air in the balloon for 15 minutes! On stepping inside I learnt about Ibn Battuta - a scholar who traveled across the Islamic world - through Middle East, China, Africa and India. He is considered one of the greatest travelers in the world – he surpassed the amount of travel done by Marco Polo by a large margin and his voyage lasted around 30 years! He started at the age of 21 (wow – what were we doing at 21?!).

This was a themed mall with the theme being Ibn Battuta's travels and learning. The entire mall was divided into different regions (or courts) - each region being one of the areas that Ibn Battuta visited. So on entering we were in the Egypt area and the entire setting - from floor tiling, walls, pillars, trees, paintings, wall carvings to ceiling had an Egyptian feel (notice the Hieroglyphics on the wall in the pic). The first item we saw was the funny mirrors - a set of 3 mirrors that made you appear comical! Then was the armillary sphere - this is a celestial sphere consisting of many rings depicting the universe and it was used to solve astronomical problems and calculate distances. This was a large scale version of it, almost touching the ceiling. There were little kiosks were you could learn some interesting history and science. (pic of Aramillary sphere below)

Our plan was to send my nephew and bro-in-law for Avatar movie while we would explore the mall and continue our quest for my shoe! So we rushed from the Egyptian into the Persian and then Indian court. On the way, my niece saw jelly and she became adamant over it; jelly stalls were common in all the malls and they had weird types of jellies - from snake jellies to animal jellies! The Indian court had the Taj Mahal feel; it had a huge elephant statute (that looked quite real) standing in the middle. On close examination we learnt that this was the elephant clock - an invention by the Muslim inventor Al-Jazari, somwhere around the year 1206! He wrote a book called "book of knowledge of ingenious mechanical devices". There was a video that gave a brief explanation of how the clock worked: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SflvgXhzu7c (this is the same video that is present in the kiosk near the clock).

This clock in the mall is said to be a working model! Quite a grand clock and quite fascinating to watch.

And now something might click in your head – you might have seen forwards about shopping malls in Dubai having a variety of architecture; those forwards were about the Ibn Battuta mall!

(The elephant clock pic on the right is from Wiki - I didn't have a good snap of it. Notice the pillar, walls and dome...)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dubai - 9: Recession and shoes!

  Deira city center is another large mall with over 300 stores. Our first stop was in a clothing shop where we found a blue-black shirt that appeared different. After trying it on, we decided to pick it; my first purchase - but not exactly my purchase because my sister paid for it!

  After you visit a couple of malls you can pretty much guess the major shops that you will find in other malls as well. I continued my hunt for a sports shoe but invain - none of the shops had my size; we came very close but the shop wouldn't have that extra 0.5 in size. I was surprised because there were a lot of Westerners living in Dubai.
"We used to have large sizes earlier but last year since they weren't moving we stopped it."
Ah, the recession effect was felt in shoe shops as well!

  Dubai had certainly come a long way in a number of things but I felt it had gone down in one aspect. There was this polite notice I noticed in one of the malls that read something on the lines of "Respect the tradition of the country; ensure your dress covers upto your knees and your elbows." Unfortunately, though most people adhered to the guidelines, there were some who didn't. 10 years back you could never have seen such sights of sleeveless tops and or short shorts! But then, 10 years back Dubai never had these many malls - there were hardly 1 or 2 and even they were nowhere near to these in size. There always used to be a fair amount of Westerners but now I felt there was a lot more diversity and you could see that in these huge malls.

  Petrol was cheap; around one third the price; you'd get around 75 litres of petrol for Dhs. 100 (around Rs.17 per litre!); perhaps the low cost fuel encouraged people buying 4-wheel drive fuel guzzlers. There were plenty of 4-wheel drive SUVs on the road. And another factor was that SUVs cost less in Dubai; they were less than half the price in India because in India we had huge tax on these imported vehicles. A good SUV cost around Dhs. 100,000 (Rs.13 lakhs - for which we can only get a high end sedan in India). Pollution didn't seem as bad as in Indian metropolitans; maybe because all vehicles used petrol and not Diesel in Dubai. Almost everyday, if you went out to the street, you can be sure to spot a few Hummers on the road (Hummers are large SUVs that were originally designed for the US military and are very costly; it was originally called the HumVee and then branded as Hummer when GM reached out to the public).

  Another change I noticed was that there were a lot of good things like the metro design, buses, road designs (with exits on highways, petrol bunks with mini-supermarkets) developed similar to the US. Also imbibed in most drivers was the good habit of respecting pedestrians; most drivers stopped their vehicles when they saw someone about to cross. the road It wasn't up to the extent I saw in New York (where I've seen drivers stop the vehicle when they see you approaching the zebra crossing from the footpath) but  things were certainly changing for the better. It feels good when you see those little gestures. My bro-in-law told me how driving used to be rash a couple of years ago but with increasing traffic police patrol and slapping of fines, people became more disciplined on the streets. Seat-belts for the driver and co-passenger were compulsory and if found without the seatbelt, it would lead to a fine.

The pic is the Burj Al Arab - notice the sail structure of the building; it's a 7-star hotel and it's the one which has a tennis court in the sky, about 200 metres above the ground, where Federer and Agassi played a match;  its actually a helipad that can be converted to a tennis court; I forgot to check out if we can go up to the helipad - will check it out next time! By the way, curious to know the hotel rates? Ranges from around Rs.50,000 to Rs. 2 lakhs per night ($1000 to $4000)! Ahem - SS, become a millionaire soon :-)

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Dubai travelogue (8) - Bus stops should be like this!

Next day we didn't have any plans of outing in the morning; with the amount of walking we did yesterday we had to give ourselves a little break. When there are two kids around, it so happens that you will find one in the best of moods when the other is in their best off-mood - maybe it happens with adults as well! We played some PlayStation 2 in the morning trying out a new two player game that I bought; it was more of the shoot-em-up games which would bore you in a very short time - was a reminder that it is good to check reviews of games before buying them! I put aside "The Three Musketeers" book and out of curiosity started reading "Crime and Punishment" (a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky that is considered to be a literary classic).

In the evening we planned to go to the metro station by a bus and then take a train to Deira City Center (another mall!) - my sister called up the RTA and got the list of bus routes we could take; they warned us that the buses will take around 40 minutes since they take a circuitous route. A taxi ride to the station would take just 10 minutes! Long before I had planned for this trip, I had received an email forward about Dubai bus stops. And ever since then I'ev been quite curious to step inside one. The bus stop was hardly 5 minutes from our home. It had a slightly weird curved shape similar to the outline of Burj-Al-Arab (a 7 star hotel which is the second tallest hotel building in the world); the shape is similar to that of a sail.

There was a machine near the bus stop which could be used for checking your Nol card balance and recharging it (the RTA cards are called Nol cards). We placed our red card on the card reader area and the machine said "Invalid card". We tried flipping it around in all directions but the message was the same. Another person said, "You can only recharge the silver cards." But my sister insisted that she saw a couple of guys recharge their red cards yesterday. She called up RTA and they said that red cards could also be used. Finally, since it wasn't working, we tried to get a new silver card which cost Dhs. 20 each; after inserting the money, the machine displayed Dhs. 60 and then said something like ‘insufficient money’. We tried different denominations of currency and different number of cards but the result was the same. A couple of Filipino ladies who appeared to be regular users also tried for us but failed. I had a feeling that the machine probably didn't have silver cards in stock and the error message was wrong - minor bug in the software! There was another bus stop on the other side of the road but that didn't have a recharge machine.

"Maybe we can ask the bus driver and see."
As a bus slowed down to stop, I hurried inside and asked, "Can we use the red card?"
"Do you accept cash?"
"No, only card."
"The machine here isn't giving new cards."
"You can still come but if they check somewhere then it will be a problem."

The bus stop was fully air-conditioned and even though it was very hot outside, I felt chill inside after just a couple of minutes! There was a sliding door that ensured the door wouldn't be open unless you pushed it. Inside the stop was a large RTA map with bus route numbers and a nice bench that appeared to be metallic but was comfortable to sit on. There were a couple of ads and a button that said "Press at night if you want the bus to stop" - the button would light up the bus stop!

20 minutes after leaving home, we took a taxi to the metro station at the airport - this was closer than Rashidiya station. There was one duty free shop at the entrance of the terminal building and we jumped in to see if they had honey roasted cashews – something that all of us loved. The airport here was different from our Chennai airport where only passengers are permitted to step inside - here anyone could walk inside up to a certain extent. We had to settle with a couple of packets of caramel roasted cashews.

We took the escalator up to the metro station and the lady at the counter told us that red cards couldn't be used in buses. She advised us to get the silver cards because they would work out cheaper than the red cards - we didn't fully understand her explanation of how cheap it would be but it seemed that the fares on the red card were costly across zones. We bought 4 silver cards (the cards are just like a credit card) and hopped onto the metro - the familiar voice announced, "The next station is Deira City center."

Inside the train, I glanced at the map and learnt that Dubai was divided into 4 zones. Now it made sense – the rates for using RTA service was based on whether you were travelling within the same zone or across zones. Our trip cost around Dhs. 3 per head.