As a child, you could have told me my Aunt Jenny lived on the moon and I wouldn’t have thought it any more astounding than her living in Newcastle. In an ever-surprising world, kids seem in a state of constant acceptance and appear only awed by everyday minutiae like the miraculous cross-cut mango that, when pushed out, produces a crown of tangy yellow cubes.
I spent years cultivating a healthy cynicism. Then, as a wizened seven year old, I saw snow. Weather was suddenly a magician who could freeze the stars and bring them to earth. And in the Mall of the Emirates, just past a Cinnabon, I find the magic again, in line at Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East (AKA, the desert).
Outside, the temperature is nearing 40 degrees and I’m still clad in a thin skirt and singlet. But included in the price of my ticket is all the gear and clothing I need. So before long I’m crunching along on snow as real as that in Thredbo, gawking at 3,000 square metres of faux Alpine mountainside sprinkled in sudden manmade snowfall.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s as ridiculous as finding a giraffe in an Irish zoo or an ice rink in Darwin; Dubai just does ridiculous on a bigger scale.
From top to bottom, Ski Dubai shows how we have come to tame the natural world. Deep in the basement, a twisted labyrinth of steel pipes feeds a 96-kilometre long cooling system buried under the snow. And above, stopping the desert heat from turning the snow to slush, is a roof of nearly 20,000 square metres of heat-reflecting aluminium, which sits atop a 15 centimetre layer of foam rubber insulation and a four-metre thick barrier of trapped air.
After marvelling at how Ski Dubai even exists, there are still enough activities to keep you in down jackets all day: you can ski, snowboard, hang with penguins, fly above skiers on the world’s first indoor sub-zero zip line, roll down the slopes in a giant ball, toboggan, bobsled, or build up an arsenal of snowballs to pelt at cheeky kids. You can also do most of the above and still be back in the stores (and your summer garb) in a couple of hours.
Jamie is six and visiting Dubai from the UK with his parents. So far he has hit me with four snowballs. I manage to untangle some of the vowels from his very Liverpudlian accent and soon realise he thinks Dubai is a big theme park, only the entrance is at the airport. So far, Jamie has been to Aquaventure at Atlantis The Palm, ridden a camel, touched a falcon (he didn’t want to hold her) and scaled sand dunes. He got here two days ago.
Family is important to Dubai. The ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, wants the emirate to be the world’s leading family destination. That means, says Jamie’s mum, that there’s enough to keep the kids and the husbands busy so that, “Mums can have a real holiday.”
SANDCASTLES IN THE SKY
Finer than gravel, bigger than dust, sand is the product of aeons of wear and tear, made up of all that has come before and is what everything may eventually become. Sand seems the only real permanent resident of an ever changing Dubai.
I’m walking through Bur Dubai and have to stop to shake the thin, almost dust-like sand from my shoes. Bur Dubai is where you find ‘old’ Dubai, or at least the bits of it that came through the emirate’s rapid developments unscathed. In the old Al Fahidi Fort, you will find Dubai Museum, which serves as a startling reminder of just how far Dubai has come in a relatively short period of time.
In the late 1820s, Dubai was described as a town of just 1,200 residents on the south side of the Creek (where Bur Dubai is today). Here you’ll still find clusters of Arabian heritage buildings and their distinctive wind towers, often called the world’s oldest form of air conditioning.
In 1966, oil was discovered. But Dubai didn’t have the oil reserves of its neighbouring emirate, Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (father to the current ruler) used the influx of cash to create a Dubai that would become the seed of the megacity we know today.
There’s an old adage that warns against building on sand, that eventually sand reclaims what it gives. But I think that Dubai, which has indeed built its skyscrapers from its sand, hasn’t had time to get cemented in its ways. Instead, Dubai is testament to a culture of nimbleness and impermanence that, like sand, can be reformed, rewritten and become all consuming.