Dubai, UAE – The Burj and The Sand

Burj Khalifa. 829.8 m, or 2722 feet, tall. Just over half a mile. If you for some strange reason would drive upwards from the base at a speed of one mile per hour, it would take you half an hour to get to the top. If you wanted to stack people – with the average height of 1.70 m – standing on top of each other, like a very fragile human pyramid or tower, the 488th person would finally be able to touch the top of the spire. I could probably come up with a huge number of comparisons of how tall it is. But let’s just agree it’s really freaking tall. In fact, taller than anything else.

It’s an architectural wonder in so many ways. Surely there have been documentaries on Discovery about it. They were really pushing the boundaries here. I have a thing for cranes. Surely, they needed cranes to finish it off, even at the very top. How did they get the cranes up there? Helicopters? Did they build the cranes up there? Are they still there? Fascinating.

You see if from everywhere in Dubai, and well beyond. Regardless of where you are, you can use it as a landmark to get your bearings. It helps that the topography is completely flat, as deserts usually are, but still. Flying into the airport you see it miles away, literally. The top of the building could probably scratch the belly of the plane if they were to fly too close.

The building itself – although simply calling it a building sells it rather short – is a city, or at least a town, in itself. The base comprises several blocks in the middle of the city. It’s a mall, an entertainment center, office complex, business park, hotel, and whatever have you, all in one. Obviously, it’s not a unique concept to incorporate multiple functions into one. It’s been done before, and if you have such a massive building, logically it would be multifunctional. After all, raising a mega-tall building with only offices would be boring. But this one, it’s in a different league.

Tom Cruise decided to climb around on the outside of the building in Mission Impossible 34 or whichever installment of the MI franchise it was. Adventurous. Foolish. Most likely highly illegal. Some would argue there would be easier ways of accessing a room than from the outside. But he had a stunning view while trying to save the world.

I wouldn’t quite say it was always a dream to visit the Burj and experience the views. I’ve been to tall buildings before. I don’t exactly collect tall buildings or world records in my portfolio, but my travels have taken me to several super-tall constructions, some of which were once the tallest in the world. Yes, they’re impressive. Being at the top of the tallest building in town, looking down at pretty much everything else right there and then is pretty awesome. Not to mention you’ll get photo ops like nowhere else. But it’s more of a “uh-huh, yeah, this is pretty cool, what’s that way over there?” than a jaw-dropping “wow, eh, uh, wow, squirrel” factor. No matter how tall the building is. For me, anyway.

But, when in Rome. It would obviously be a shame not taking the chance of going up when in Dubai. Unfortunately, you can’t quite be spontaneous with your visit. Mass tourism is prevalent in Dubai like in so many other places, and you have to make a reservation for a specific time slot. It’s not outrageously expensive, but steep enough that you don’t want to forfeit your slot.

The weather on the day of our booked slot isn’t great. The air is clouded by dust, or sand. A sandstorm in non-technical terms. Not as bad as the one in that Mission Impossible movie that allowed the bad guy to get away from Ethan Hawke, but enough to reduce the visibility significantly. We only have a couple of days in the city though. This is our last day, so we don’t have the luxury of time flexibility, even if they would give us a slot for another day.  So, we go up.

Up, up, up we go. The observation deck isn’t at the very top, but still at 550 or so meters, it’s higher up than most other things in the world attached to the ground. You must be able to see something from up there, right? Wrong. With a bit of squinting, and a great deal of imagination, we can make out some of the nearby buildings. There are signs by the window ledges with descriptions of what you see in which directions. Many tourist sites with a viewpoint have them, and they’re often very useful. Here, they’re just taunting us. The signs tell us we should be looking at such and such building, but all we can see looking out the window is sand. A cloud of sand. Maybe some contours that could be buildings. But mostly sand.

Dubai has a mostly tropical climate. 360 days of the year it’s warm and sunny and clear skies. But not today. Not today. But it’s nature. There’s no use blaming the sand for doing what sand does when it’s windy in the desert.

Enthusiastic staff is trying to upsell and offer us creative photos from the building. A We were there keepsake. “So, you’re asking us to pose in front of a green screen and pay and exorbitant price for a photoshopped picture or the view that we didn’t get to see, in addition to the entrance fee for that very sight? Thanks, but no thanks”. But amazingly there’s a business for it, and many a tourist happily walk away with their fake photos.

It wasn’t meant to be. We weren’t meant to see anything from up there, not today. Maybe it’s even better this way. Millions have seen the magnificent views from the viewing platform. Only a fraction of those have seen what we’re seeing now – sand, sand, sand. Everywhere sand. At least we can try to convince ourselves of that to soften the blow. But if nothing else, it’s a better story.