Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I saw it on the road to Dubai

The early morning mist was hanging low over Abu Dhabi when we left the Corniche and battled through the grinding gears and exhaust fumes of trucks leaving Mina Port. At the first chance, we ramped onto the new Sheikh Zayed Highway that skirts the city, a virtually deserted six-lane speedway running through a barren landscape past Saadiyat Island, soon-to-be-home of the new cultural center, and Yas Island, home of Yas Marina and the new Formula One track.

Both are, or will be, spectacular developments, and I'm sure the city will find its way to them. But seen from the expressway, through the mist and slanting sunshine, they sat off in the distance, oddly-shaped futuristic structures isolated in a wasteland of sand and scrub interspersed with pools of water and mangroves. It made me think of an old sci-fi film, of what the producers imagined the surface of Planet Krygon12 should look like. I half expected hovercrafts to emerge from some hidden silo and zip across the empty land to the next pod.

In the far distance, across the flats, were the hazy outlines of the city and suburbs, and more buildings that made you ask in wonder, "What's that?" Like the almost-finished hotel billed as the most leaning tower on earth - it cants 18 degrees to the west, 14 degrees more than the famous Tower of Pisa - far away but hard to miss as it winked in the sunlight.

The new road connected to the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway, infamous for its high speeds and deadly accidents, and we raced through the suburban developments. Slicing through the desert, the road running on a straight line for about 120 kilometers between the two cities, the buildings became smaller and less futuristic, but no less perplexing: boxy and windowless structures dropped in the sand with no obvious purpose; a large mosque being built directly beside a convenience store with no other buildings nearby; a cluster of villas in the distance with no clear way to get from here to there.

There was a road sign that said "Camel Race Track," although as much as I strained I couldn't spot a grandstand or track. I can't wait to find out more and perhaps come back and see if they have a paddock and a parade ring and a call to post. I know they have camel beauty contests here; I wonder if the prettiest camels are also the fastest.

The desert seemed to stretch endlessly, but sooner than you would think, larger buildings appeared in the distance, and we sped through the industrial area of Jebal Ali and the unexpectedly shiny Metro station, the last stop on the new commuter rail line than runs the length of Dubai city.

As we passed the huge plant that provides power and water to the emirate, the sand and scrub gave way to the high-rises around Dubai Marina, and then the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the iconic sail-shaped building off to the left, the world's only seven star hotel, with light panels that change the color of the sail every 30 minutes, and where Agassi and Federer squared off on a rooftop tennis court that extends out over the water.

The towers faded briefly before picking up again, and soon I was craning left and right to see them all, like a rube in New York City for the first time, but I really didn't care because so much of it was just so remarkable. Most striking of all is the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at 165 floors, looming over the other skyscrapers like a big brother who plays on the basketball team.

People make this commute every day, I'm told, living in Dubai, where the rents are cheaper, and working in Abu Dhabi. I assume that over time, the visual impact diminishes and the sights disappear into the landscape, but after only two trips, that's hard for me to imagine.

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