From the 125th-floor of the Burj Khalifa — the world's tallest building — even high-rises resemble matchboxes, writes Nicholas Jones.

The Burj Khalifa towers over Dubai (main) and the views show the city in all its glory (top and inset). Photos / Getty Images; 123RF

Outside the entrance to one of the world's biggest malls are a row of sleeping pods.
They cost about $16 an hour. According to the attendant, shoppers at the Metropolis-like Dubai Mall who book them, do so for a two-hour nap.

I get a free test-run. The roof slides over like a bread bin, with only a few slits letting in shafts of light. It's less spacious than the stacked pods that make up Japan's sleeping hotels, and has about as much spare room as a coffin.

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Perhaps that's the idea. Sleep the sleep of the dead and, reborn, find whoever has left you behind and keep spending.

We're visiting Dubai during Ramadan and for that reason the mall is much less crowded than usual. Tourists and a few expats wander around, and special wooden screens have been placed in front of the food court area (it's forbidden to eat or drink in public during the day at this time).

Wealthy residents or visitors who don't want to mix with the masses can book special rooms and, after selecting the brands they are interested in, attendants will bring a selection of goods to them.

But we're not at the mall to shop. It's also the entry point for trips up the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The approach feels like walking through an airport — long corridors lined with photographs and information on the engineering feat behind the building.

Twelve thousand workers were on-site during the peak construction period. Its spire can be seen 95km away on a clear day. For some sort of perspective: the Burj Khalifa tops 820m. The Sky Tower is 328m.

The elevator that takes us up to the viewing platform seems pretty standard until the doors close. Music becomes louder and louder — drums, flutes — and hundreds of lights contained behind the glass walls flash in time, radiating out in lines to the roof and floor.

We're rising at 10m a second. My ears pop at least five times as the numbers displaying what floor we are on flick rapidly upwards. I look away when we are in the 40s. It's only for a moment, but when I look back we're in the 80s.

The music gets louder and louder, and then stops dramatically at floor 124. We're now almost 450m up. There's plenty of room to take in the view, with floor to ceiling glass wrapping right around the floor.

We've been in Dubai for a day but it's only from this height I get a sense of the city, and why so many locals proudly tell us how not long ago this was little more than desert.

There are as many half-constructed high-rises as completed ones and huge patches of sand are slowly relenting to hundreds of cranes, earth movers and the shells of towers. It's like something from the computer game SimCity.

Dots swarm over the motorways and overpasses below. Bright blue manmade lakes surround the base of a neighbouring high-rise, and huge air conditioning fans battle gamely on rooftops.

The Burj Khalifa towers over Dubai and the views show the city in all its glory. Photo / Getty Images
The Burj Khalifa towers over Dubai and the views show the city in all its glory. Photo / Getty Images

There's another viewing area up some stairs to level 125. I count a dozen selfie-sticks, and the people-watching is a good diversion from the view below. One boyfriend happily snaps away, as his partner changes her pose slightly, checks the results and poses again.

Up here the city's growth seems relentless and inevitable — ambition and money more than a match for inhospitable nature.

But taking a city tour at ground level, the reverse can feel true, almost as if Dubai was once bigger and has lost territory to the heat and sand.

The half-constructed towers, some with interiors open to passing traffic, give some areas a dystopian feel. Overpasses curl overhead like massive pipes.

BMWs and Maseratis fly past our bus on a seven-lane highway framed by huge billboards advertising the latest smartphones and housing developments (slogan: "where life finds you").

"Sometimes you see a policeman driving a Ferrari or a policewoman drive a Lamborghini," our tour guide happily explains. Another fact: last year an Indian businessman bought the personalised number plate "5" for US$10 million.

We slow in traffic and I notice the kerbside flower beds have black irrigation snaking under each row of flowers.

The megacity is still materialising. Unlike other modern marvels such as Singapore, there are barren areas between developments.

Our guide points out where a new Dubai Creek Tower will rise in time for the 2020 Dubai World Expo (at which New Zealand will spend $53m on a pavilion).

The tower will be taller than the Burj Khalifa, but at the time of our visit hasn't even started the climb.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates

' A380s fly Auckland to Dubai daily, with return Economy Class fares from $1399.

DETAILS

visitdubai.com