Riding the Dubai Metro

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By Graham Simmons  thestar.com.my

Take the new Dubai Metro and you’ll find yourself journeying to the limits of a seemingly limitless metropolis.

Despite the shortage of seats, this train would top anyone’s transport wish-list. I’m riding the new Dubai Metro, a rail service that in just a few short months since its opening has revolutionised getting around in this sprawling megalopolis.

With over 30 stations now in operation, and with many more on the drawing board, Dubai’s Metro system seems tailor-made both for commuters and for visitors who want to explore the wonders of what is still (despite the financial crisis) the world’s fastest-growing city.

I start this trip of exploration at the Metro station in Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport. Terminal 3 handles all Emirates flights, while Terminal 1 (also with its own Metro station) is where all other airlines touch down. But even with the addition of Terminal 2, Dubai International Airport will soon be dwarfed by the huge Al Maktoum International Airport, which will be bigger than Heathrow, JFK, Frankfurt, Changi and Narita combined.

Al Maktoum Airport, in the Dubai World Central “aerotropolis”, is currently under construction near Jebel Ali at the other end of the Metro line.

Terminal 3 at the Dubai International Airport.

Buying a ticket on the Dubai Metro is fast and easy. The best bargain of all is a silver Nol smart-card. This costs Dhs20 (RM16.85) and includes Dhs14 of stored value. The card is used to touch on and off at each Metro station or on linked feeder buses or water buses, and can be topped up at ticket-vending machines in all Metro stations and at 64 bus stops throughout Dubai.

Best of all, if you spend Dhs14 on any one day, you get to ride free for the rest of the day, so that the maximum daily outlay for unlimited public transport is just RM11.80.

From the Airport Metro station, it’s just three stops to Deira City Centre. Every station on the Red Metro line has one of four colour themes. Deira’s theme is “air”. This seems a little surprising, as Deira is one of the most crowded precincts in Dubai. Deira is also home to a big population of Russian “shopping tourists”, with hotels (including the grand Moscow Hotel in Al Maktoum Street) having special store-rooms for their ample purchases.

But the new high-rises in Deira precinct are dazzling — trying to count the reflections of sunlight off the windows is a bit like to trying to guess the number of grains of sand in the Sahara Desert.

The next stop is Al Rigga Station, with the theme “fire”. Once again, the theme is a little confusing, as the station is the gateway to Dubai’s dhow wharfage, one of the last remaining vestiges of traditional Arab culture. The crew of these dhows — traditional wooden craft built from solid tree-hewn beams — thrive on the re-export trade, as goods arriving from China are shipped on to places like Iran, Somalia and the Sudan.

I can’t resist alighting at Union Square Station (theme: “earth”), which with its murals of early Emirati life, invites extensive exploration. The space-age station terminal building opens out onto Union Square Park, from where a footbridge leads to a strip of budget restaurants offering probably the cheapest dining in Dubai (lunch and dinner buffets range from Dhs10-20).

The indoor ski resort at the Mall of the Emirates being used for a promotional event.

Union Square Station will also be one of two hub stations connecting to the new Green Metro line which, when it opens late 2011, will link some of Dubai’s most popular attractions, including Dubai Creek, the Palm Deira complex on the Deira Corniche and Dubai Health Care City, which will be home to over 2,000 healthcare professionals in disciplines ranging from acupuncture to dentistry and surgery.

The next station on the Red line — Khalid Bin Waleed (a LONG way from Union Square) — will be the second connecting station to the Green line.

From here, I skip five stations to get to the must-visit Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, on the shores of a scenic lake with spectacular views from Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall. I pick up a feeder bus map from Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station, jump on one of the regular buses and alight at Dubai Mall which, with its over 1,200 outlets, stuns both the senses and the credit card all at once.

On the eastern side of the mall, Reel Cinemas with its 22 screens is one of the world’s largest cinema complexes. Among the 40-plus cafés within the mall (in addition to nearly 90 restaurants and fast food outlets) is More Café, superbly located on the lake shore and with stunning views of the Burj Khalifa and the Bedouin-themed Souk al Bahar.

From here, I’m wondering if anything could possibly surpass Dubai Mall. But four stations from Burj Khalifa, the Mall of the Emirates with its attached Kempinski Hotel (which houses the world’s largest indoor ski run) certainly makes an impact. The mall has its own Metro station, as does Dubai Internet City, two stops further along the line.

I step through the gates of Dubai Internet City and find myself in what seems like the fulfillment of a technology worker’s dream. It’s set against a vast ornamental lake with rowing boats on clear turquoise waters, palms too lazy to sway in the minimalist breeze, and shrubbery forming a lush green pleasure garden. And all around rise the corporate headquarters of the giants of the IT industry, including Dell, Canon, Oracle and IBM. The Microsoft Building sports a giant Emirati flag.

Dubai Mall – the world’s largest shopping centre.

But where does Dubai end — if indeed, it ever ends at all?

Clustered around Jumeirah Lakes Towers Metro station are over 70 high-rise office and residential towers, each around 40-50 storeys high, all semi-completed and all awaiting occupants. And given Dubai’s bubble status at present, it’s not hard to envisage it taking quite some time for all the buildings to be fully occupied.

Then, past Nakheel Harbour, Ibn Battuta Metro station is the gateway to Ibn Battuta Mall, looking like a mud-walled city and with a landmark hot-air balloon flying overhead. Ibn Battuta Mall is not so much a shopping mall as a museum dedicated to the great traveller (and one of the earliest travel writers) Ibn Battuta, whose journeys in the 14th century took him to most of the then-known world.

The six different sections of Ibn Battuta Mall are each named after the main places visited by Battuta — Egypt, India, China, Persia (now Iran), Tunisia and Andalusia (in Spain).

And this is by no means the end of the Metro line. Way past Ibn Battuta station, Jebel Ali is the hub of a whole new mega-precinct, including the aforementioned Al Maktoum International Airport. Al Maktoum will be joined by the Metro via a new Blue line to the existing Dubai International Airport. Then there is the planned Purple line, and maybe a Yellow line.

This being Dubai, they’re sure to come up with a brand-new colour that hasn’t even been invented yet!

Dubai Metro info: For advance planning and information, see www.rta.ae. When in Dubai, pick up a copy of the booklet The Handy Guide to Using Dubai Metro, available free at any Metro station. Each Metro station also has local feeder bus maps. A very handy Journey Planner is at http://wojhati.rta.ae.