3.6 Hours In The City Of Gold: The Dubai Layover Challenge

03/26/2012 07:33 am ET | Updated May 26, 2012

On March 24th, I had a ten-hour layover in Dubai on my way from Bishkek to Karachi. Having already mastered the art of duty free fragrance identification, I thought long and hard about alternative ways to entertain myself during my time in Dubai. Eventually, I settled on creating a timed race from the airplane to the top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and back to the gate. I am happy to crown myself the world record holder at this point in time, but reckon that with a little effort somebody could complete the challenge much quicker.

Before I begun, I had to answer the question that all race organizers must face; where to put the starting point and finish line. While the unbuckle seatbelt sign would serve as a clear cut starting point with a convenient audible chime, this would create a discriminatory system that favored those sitting in first class. Unacceptable. The next logical point was when one crosses the threshold from the airplane to the jetway. This leveled the playing field between those in the front of the plane and myself in the back, but still incorporated the maze of airport checkpoints into the challenge. Perfect.

On the return, I considered airport entry, clearing security, gate arrival and takeoff as possible finish lines. I saw no reason to stop the race at the airport perimeter or at security, though there is a nice irreverence about finishing a race by refastening your belt. Waiting for takeoff would pack too much downtime into the challenge, so I settled for gate arrival.

As for rules, its quite simple: Get from an airplane at DXB to the Burj Khalifa observation desk and back to the airport. No private jets, no VIP airport liaisons, no private drivers waiting for you. Just you and Dubai. Base on these guidelines, I completed the challenge in 3 hours 2 minutes and 14 seconds. What follows is a rundown of my race and a list of tips for those who are looking to compete.


0:00:00 - Step off of plane onto bus. I've arrived into Terminal 2, the backwoods of DXB, which seems to be reserved explicitly for planes arriving from countries George W. Bush labeled as the axis of evil. I note that we taxied between and Iranian jet and an ominous looking Tupolev tu-154 that simply reads "global" on the side.

0:12:43 - Spend a few too many minutes trying to figure out the logistics of my checked luggage. I've booked the two legs of my journey separately and need to ensure my luggage will go through to Pakistan. Arrivals board shows us landing between flights from Kabul, Baghdad, and Tabriz. Love it.

0:18:16 - Need to change cash. Only ATM machine is an Iranian Saderat Bank terminal. Spend 30 seconds deliberating what would happen if I put my American debit card into that machine. I certainly don't want my $3.00 service fee going to finance their extremely well documented nuclear weapons program!

0:18:46 - Card rejected. Go to currency exchange desk instead.

0:24:24 - Dubai Metro only services Terminals 1 and 3, so I get into a taxi and say "Burj Khalifa, and step on it!" Something was lost in translation, I think.

0:25:17 - Note that Terminal 2 seems to be surrounded entirely by buildings dedicated to prosecuting traffic offences and exporting fencing materials.

0:31:16 - Passing the Hyatt, I can see the outline of the iconic Emirates towers as we merge onto Sheikh Zayed Road. Beyond it, a faint shadow of an impossibly tall object comes into focus through the early morning haze. My destination!

0:34:17 - Note that the road reminds me of what 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan would ok like were it on the outskirts of Dallas.

0:34:18 - Nandos! No way! Consider giving up the entire mission for chicken with peri-peri sauce.

0:44:14 - Taxi takes me to the entrance of the Burj Khalifa rather than the entrance to the observation deck, which is accessible through the Dubai Mall. Precious minutes being wasted.

0:46:51 - Pay driver 60 Dhs and exit taxi. I note that the length of the journey was just about 20km. Adding in the 850m height of the Burj Khalifa, the round trip back to the airport will come out to nearly 42km, the exact length of a marathon. Just sayin'.

0:52:12 - All ready to go to the top. Unfortunately, I booked my ticket in advance, as there is a 75% discount for booking ahead and I underestimated my speediness and dexterity. My ticket is not until 10:30AM, a full 50 minutes from now. I ask if I can please go up sooner as I am just one person trying to complete a race against myself. That's the kind of bipolar talk that will get me nowhere.

0:52:13 - Discouraged, I resign myself to killing time, the exact opposite of what one should do in a race.

1:01:58 - Observe man dusting the plants. This place is weird.

1:11:34 - Pass English rugby team outside the mall. They are all wearing those sunglasses Tony Gwynn used to wear. Makes me wonder why anybody not in the midst of a sporting event would ever wear those sunglasses.

1:11:40 - Spot Dean & Deluca hiding across the pond. Must resist urge...

1:12:13 - Take a walk around the grounds. Can't believe that this is a real city and not Disneyworld. The entire premises is nearly abandoned, all the lawns are perfectly manicured and the buildings nothing more than facades trying to mimic some contorted view of culture heritage that long since disappeared, to the extent it ever existed at all . There is a soundsystem throughout the courtyard that sounds like a Putamayo CD, if Putamayo were targeted to elevators instead of people.

1:15:20 - Enter Dean and Deluca.

1:29:06 - Exit Dean & Deluca. How did they know that $19.87 is my favorite price to pay for a small sandwich and a cup of juice? That is so nice of them.

1:29:54 - Wonder why there are five scuba divers urinating in the middle of the fountain pond.

1:30:02 - Realize that the scuba divers are just adjusting the fountains in an awkward depth of water that requires them to all be partially squatting.

1:33:01 - Things getting serious. I'm handed in my observation deck ticket and am walking towards the elevator.

1:33:12 - Will this Indian family reunion please use the right hand side of the moving sidewalk for standing and the left hand side for walking?

1:36:52 - Elevator begins ascent.

1:37:58 - 124 floors later in 66 seconds. Elevator doors open. That is seriously impressive.

1:38:29 - Snap a photo, observe. Haze looks the same as at ground level. I think I could make out some sand far below.

1:41:19 - Hmmm, wasn't counting on this queue for the elevator back down. Consider buying souvenir, at least for the timestamp on receipt. Decide that while I love pralines and scented candles as much as the next guy, I'll manage without them. I've made it this far.

1:52:23 - Bottom of elevator. The final stretch!

1:57:06 - After four signs for the Dubai Metro in about 100m, any sort of directional assistance seems to have vanished. My definitive stride devolves into a cautionary step.

2:16:01 - Get on metro bound for airport, allegedly with my boarding pass.

2:34:31 - Realize that I've lost my boarding pass.

2:39:51 - Get off metro, definitely without my boarding pass.

2:41:19 - Curse myself at the check in kiosk for wasting time due to my inability to hold onto a piece of paper for three hours without losing it.

2:48:37 - Through customs. Phew.

2:49:16 - Placed in security line behind man in wheelchair. Things not looking good.

2:51:17 - Shoes in hand.

2:54:17 - Patted down.

2:56:42 - Rebuckle belt. Now to the gate...

3:02:14 - Finish! Arrive at Gate 204. Stop timer. Sit.

I am happy to have completed the rally and I hope that some of you will challenge yourself if ever you find yourself transiting through Dubai. Following the following recommendations will enhance your time, though until you do, I will annoyingly refer to myself as the world champion of the Dubai Layover Challenge.

+ Things will be much easier if inbound and outbound flights are both out of Terminals 1 or 3. The metro is right there and you don't have to deal with the baggage transfer issue. With no traffic, the taxi was 1 minute and 23 seconds shorter than the metro, but the metro was 1/10th the cost.

+ Book Burj Khalifa ticket for one hour after anticipated landing, rather than two hours after. The people at the Burj Khalifa seemed to be flexible, and if I was a little late I still think I would have been able to go up. Buying a ticket on the spot is not possible as a) tickets almost always sell out ahead of time and b) that would mean you spent $100 to go up an elevator, which officially makes you a jerk.

+ Don't live in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Had I been arriving from New York, for instance, I wouldn't have been uncontrollably drawn to Dean & Deluca as I was. The thought of pesto and arugula and bread that is called 'artisanal organic farmstead local 30-seed rustic loaf' was too much to handle and I lost a few precious minutes tucking into my roast beef sandwich and pineapple juice.

+ Don't lose your boarding pass.