Something feels forbidden about Dubai's Business Bay metro station at 6am on this particular Friday morning.

Maybe it's because my body clock is shot and I'm tweaking on Nescafe after consuming five sachets of the stuff since waking up in the wee hours. Whatever it is, for some reason it feels as if I shouldn't be here.

Out for a jetlag-busting run, I enter the station to use the walkway it offers for crossing Sheikh Zayed Rd, the massive motorway that shoots between Dubai's skyscrapers. It's deserted inside, the only sounds the hum of air-conditioning vents and my footsteps on the impeccably polished floor.

Then all hell breaks loose as a high-pitched alarm begins shrieking through the building. It's the last thing I need, what with the caffeine jitters, jetlag and irrational conviction that I'm doing something wrong. The alarm is soon joined by a calm but completely useless pre-recorded Arabic message that, I can only assume, explains the situation.

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I'm about halfway across the walkway and wondering whether to keep going or return the way I came. As I push on, an English message comes across the PA.

"There's been an incident," it says. "Please leave the building."

By this stage I'm certain that I'm the incident.

I find a uniformed officer of some kind waiting on the other side of the walkway.

"Is there a problem?" I ask, ready for a set of handcuffs to appear.

He stares back at me, however, with complete disinterest.

"We just trying, trying," he says. "Relax."

All right then. It was just a test. Onward. I resume my run, heading along Sheikh Zayed Rd towards the downtown area of Dubai.

The Rigga al Buteen district, as seen from a water taxi - or abra. Photo / 123RF
The Rigga al Buteen district, as seen from a water taxi - or abra. Photo / 123RF

It's early March and the temperature, around 20C, is perfect. The 830m tip of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is gleaming in the early morning sunlight, flanked by the vapour trail of a high-altitude jetliner.

It can be trendy to bag Dubai — "oh, it's just so artificial" — but the place has grown on me over a number of visits.

It's strange, because I'm not naturally suited to the city — sprawling shopping malls and big shiny buildings don't really float my boat. But I have, nonetheless, managed to embrace the over-the-top gaudiness of the emirate.

One of the best things about Dubai, in my view, is that it's a melting pot of Middle Eastern, Asian, African and European cultures.

Later on, after my run and some more instant coffee, I travel across town to the Bur Dubai district, which illustrates that point perfectly. Migrants from the sub-continent overwhelmingly populate the area, located on the western shore of the inlet locally known as the Creek.

Walking the streets you hear a mishmash of languages ranging from Arabic and English to Hindi, Urdu and south Indian and Sri Lankan tongues such as Malayalam, Tamil and Sinhalese.

It's like going to a more orderly, tidier version of India. You can have a fantastic curry feast here for a fraction of the cost of a meal at one of Dubai's swanky restaurants.

Water taxis ply the section of the Creek between Bur Dubai and the Deira district on the other side, home to the famous gold and spice souks. The fare is just 1 dirham (about 40c) and I catch one across, before kicking off my visit to the spice souk by purchasing some Somali incense from an Iranian who loudly jokes that his Afghan rival next door is a terrorist.

"He will say he give better price," the shopkeeper from Shiraz tells me. "Ignore him."

With the deal complete, I move on to my main task — buying football shirts for my sons.

An aerial shot of the financial centre, taken from the observation deck of the Burj Khaifa. Photo / 123RF
An aerial shot of the financial centre, taken from the observation deck of the Burj Khaifa. Photo / 123RF

The Gold Souk, a labyrinth of shops selling the precious metal basically any way you want it, is filled with hustlers peddling fake Rolex watches.

Word quickly spreads among them about what I'm after and a young man from Kerala, in southern India, soon appears at my side. He knows just the place for football shirts. I follow him down a side street and into a narrow alley. We end up in the dingy foyer of a nondescript building and hop in a tiny elevator that ascends a few floors.

I'm then led along a dark corridor to a closed door, which the Keralite knocks on three times.

It all feels wonderfully illicit. I imagine this is what drug deals are like.

A heavy latch is opened to reveal a sportswear shop about the size of your average kitchen. Men mill about inside, maybe eight of them, and the air is thick with incense and cigarette smoke.

The room falls silent as I enter.

I'm not sure who the men are or what they're doing in here as they don't appear to be customers. In the centre stands a man in traditional Arab dress, topped off with an impressive red keffiyah on his head. His gaze locks on to mine.

"Do you have football shirts?" I ask, noticing my heart rate has increased.

One of the men goes into an adjoining room and returns with some Paris Saint-Germain gear. My kids aren't fussy about teams and I pay $84 for two outfits (shorts and shirts). In the flash shops at Dubai Mall, a single outfit costs about $120. In the low-lit room, they appeared to be the right sizes (they weren't).

Back in the souk, my impromptu guide shakes my hand and disappears into the ether as quickly as he came. The jetlag jitters have dissipated and I'm buzzing with the feeling of a mission accomplished.

It must be time for some more Nescafe.

DUBAI'S OTHER SIDE
The Bastakia Quarter: Built in the late 1800s to house wealthy Persian traders, the quarter offers a welcome oasis away from the skyscrapers and hectic streets of Dubai.

Dried herbs and spices abound at the spice souk at Deira. Photo / 123RF
Dried herbs and spices abound at the spice souk at Deira. Photo / 123RF

Inside Al Fahidi Fort, considered the emirate's oldest building, the museum explores Dubai's rise from a sleepy fishing and pearl diving village to the fast-paced city it is today.

Diving Village: The village aims to illustrate Dubai's close relationship with the sea through displays of fishing, diving and other maritime-related equipment.

Gold Souk: More than 300 shops dealing in pure bling. It's said that roughly 10 tonnes of gold are present in the souk at any one time.

Spice Souk: The stores in this covered market sell everything from frankincense and myrrh to cardamom, saffron, dates and shisha-smoking pipes. It's great for photos.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies four times daily from Auckland to Dubai, including a non-stop service.