Here we go again. This is the second time I've lost myself in the alleys of Dubai. As I try to figure out a way through these narrow lanes, surrounded by the archetypal wind-towers perched on restored middle-eastern dwellings, I realize that I've achieved the unthinkable. Getting lost in Dubai! It's true. Dubai relishes in its unabashed youth. With its perfectly carved out roads, immaculately laid out signboards in Arabic and English, its sky-scraping buildings that'd rather kiss the clouds than touch a traveler's heart, it's a little tough to get lost here. Wherever in Dubai you be, you'll always have the tallest building in the world to show you a way, If nothing else. But what if you indeed came here to get lost, in its medieval past or in its meandering, dusty wadis, or its manipulative bazaars? Wait. Does Dubai even have any of those? Let's explore.
This is where the past of Dubai comes to life, in the restored village in Al-Fahdi district. Bastakiya, almost a century ago, was the abode of the Iraqis, Indians and other communities that arrived then in Dubai. Now, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding(SMCCU), located in the same premises, organizes guided heritage tours and cultural meals within the restored quarter, both of which lend wonderful opportunities for visitors to gain insights into Emirati culture, religion and even cuisine! The tours take you around Bastakiya, with guided commentary on the old architecture and its pertinence with respect to the culture of the Emirate and usually end with a visit to the Diwan mosque followed by coffee (with Arabic dates!) in a Bastakiya house. Needless to say, all of these, including the time at the mosque and the coffee time, are great chances to have a candid conversation on the Emirati lifestyle and the SMCCU guide and host will most probably ensure that you don't return unanswered.
The Bastakiya quarter
And if (like me), you get lost in Bastakiya, you may just find yourself in a charming art gallery or its quaint café! The XVA art gallery and the Arabian Tea House cafe are two such places and can help with some great breakfast. And, as if this wasn't enough, there's accommodation at some of the guest houses within Bastakiya. Ever thought what it'd be like to stay in a (at least) 100 year old restored village in the heart of a bustling metropolis like Dubai?
'Outdoors' is a good question in Dubai where even the ski-resorts tend to be indoors and probably the best answer we have heard to this is the 'evening desert safari'. Ditch the desert and instead try out the morning Hatta safari. No, there isn't any belly dancing music here, only the beeps of your international roaming cellphone to tell you that you've crossed the UAE-Oman border multiple times. Take some time off the phone, to have a look at the Hajjar mountains among which Hatta, the exclave, lies.
The mountains around Hatta
Hatta boasts of an array of Wadis (valleys) and to add color, pools of blue-green water among them. One can hike, one can bike, and if nothing else, at least take a morning dip or two in the waters of these pools before stopping at the Hatta heritage village on the way back. This is another restored village with a museum of sorts to exhibit the old village lifestyle. The return route is a scenic ride through muddy mountains, best enjoyed through a self-drive.
The pools at Hatta
As a separate itinerary, one can also head to the Musandam peninsula, where camping, fishing and snorkeling are the norm of the day. Do check for entry rules for your passport though, for both Hatta and Musandam will involve border crossings between UAE and Oman.
Yes, there's one inside the Dubai mall also and that's not the one we are talking about here. Souks (local markets) have been an important part of the middle-eastern lifestyle and continue to remain even today, albeit only a little more charmingly. Cross over the creek to the other side of Dubai, quite literally, where the old markets, of gold and spices promise to bedazzle at least two of your senses, optical and olfactory. And if your taste buds feel left out, wander around in the lanes till you stumble across a camel milk ice-cream shop tucked away in a quiet corner. Eat to your heart's content and then head out, haggle for the Persian and Kashmiri zafran, smell in the Arabic coffee, gaze and gap at the magnificence of the jewelry in the gold souk and lose yourself in the aroma of spices flowing in from every direction in the spice souk.
A stroll around the busy Spice Souk
And after all these sensory overloads, end the day with a stroll along the creek, where the water side buildings light up with bridal elegance in the night and watch the dhows pass by with an ease that's in stark contrast with the speeding SUVs behind you. Spend some time wondering which is the real Dubai. That of the tallest tower tearing through the winds into the sky or that of the wind-towers of Bastakiya? Either ways, you're already lost in (the thoughts of') Dubai!
The Creek in the evening