Dubai: From sand to the sky

By Pamela Wade

Burj Khalifa dominates Dubai's skyline, writes Pamela Wade

The 200-story Burj Khalifa building stands in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo / Bloomberg
The 200-story Burj Khalifa building stands in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo / Bloomberg

It's the tallest thing on the planet, and I can't see it. Admittedly, I'm bamboozled by the 1200 shops I've just negotiated in the Dubai Mall behind me, including a walk-through aquarium with sharks, an ice-rink populated by small boys in robes pushing plastic penguins, and a four-storey waterfall complete with bronze divers - but still.

I look across the wide aqua sparkle of the man-made lake, ignore the prancing fountains, and tilt my head back further. And further. And further still, until my sunhat falls off.

Finally, there it is: the Burj Khalifa in its entirety. At 828m high, 160 storeys, it's almost three times the height of the Eiffel Tower, and twice the Empire State. It's also a vision in shiny steel and glass, attractively rounded and stepped, tapering upward to its unfeasibly distant tip. All around me, people with cameras are walking backwards, trying to fit it on to their screens, while others simply gaze at this audaciously tall building, silver and slender and beautiful.

Of course I go to the top, congratulating myself on having bought my ticket online at a quarter of the price of one from the entrance desk. Let through in half-hourly batches, we walk along corridors lined with photos and facts and figures - the concrete used weighs the same as 100,000 elephants; 12,000 workers were employed at the height of construction; the tower's tip can be seen from a distance of 95km; a team of 36 takes three months to clean the 2600 windows - to the lift, which rises so smoothly and swiftly, at 10m a second, that I count only six ear-pops to the observation deck on the 124th floor.

It's bright out there. Directly below is the turquoise sweep of the 12ha lake and the blue of scattered swimming pools, and it's impressive how much green there is, considering that it's all planted and watered. But mainly, despite the loops of motorway around clusters of glass buildings, the view is of expanses of sand, even within the city boundaries. Beyond, in the sea, is the World, the series of artificial islands mimicking the continents of the Earth, a symbol for the whole of Dubai. That the city was created from nothing is clear when I look through the electronic telescopes, which have a history setting of photographs showing what was there before people got busy building: sand, empty sand.

There's a luxury hotel and fancy restaurant in the Burj - plus, I suspect, many empty offices, though the information boards are less forthcoming about that - but their views, naturally, lack Dubai's focal point.

More satisfying is to enjoy dinner at one of the restaurants across the lake, sitting outside in the warm dark enjoying the fairy lights and reflections.

On the half hour, conversation stops as the illuminated fountains dance to music, swirling and pirouetting up to 50 storeys high while, behind, the Burj Khalifa rises sharp and bright, right up to the stars.

Checklist

Getting there: Emirates flies from New Zealand four times daily (including two A380 superjumbo services) via Australia to its hub in Dubai.

Further information: Avoid a long wait and inflated prices by booking in advance online for AED100 ($32.50). The tower is open until midnight every day and the entrance is on the lower level of the Dubai Mall. Get to the mall by taxi or the Metro.

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