All photos: Gregory Han

All photos: Gregory Han

Sixteen and a half hours is a long to time to be confined to a single seat, especially if the flight is for purposes of business, not leisure. A  person’s patience, alongside the fortitude of their bladder and their endurance for humanity in close proximity are all tested in the span of such a flight. Yet there I was, flying across the globe, crammed into the corner of a window seat, burrowing into the 14° incline seating like a rodent readying for hibernation, each attempt to find a comfortable position unfulfilled. It was the promise of exploring the Middle East for the first time that allowed coach fare discomforts to be endured.

Several single serving meals and not-so-critically-acclaimed films later, I landed in Dubai to attend Dubai Design Week. I unraveled my spine first, then turned to do the same with the city before me, a metropolis still very much in the midst of creating its own identity and history in parallel.

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The surrealism of Dubai is immediate – a gigantic Sim City development of competing corporate egos materialized into high rise forms. Edifices of metal and glass jut obscenely erect against the hazy-sandy canvas of a true desert sky, some notably unique, the majority indistinct. Their placement were planned years advance, but their presence seems to communicate a perpetual state of “…to be continued” in the sum of a city. The saline-perfumed Persian Gulf is temptingly nearby, but often forgotten, as if the city’s planners deemed the natural landscape insufficient an expression of their wealth and dreams, the haze of sand and urban pollution obscuring the view for miles. The sprawl of artifice this city lays out before the eyes an urban statement makes Los Angeles seem downright undeveloped country in comparison!

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At 125 floors above ground level, you might expect to feel dizzy or discombobulated. Instead, I found a strong desire to pinch to zoom.

Dubai is in beta stage, with countless experiments in the realm of architecture, landscape design, and infrastructure unfolding concurrently. Things happen here in real time, visibly and invisibly. One moment, I was surveying enormous construction vehicles slumbering across a dry canal bed from my hotel window; the next morning the same canal was opened with zero fanfare, with millions of gallons of sea water passing through the newly constructed thoroughfare where hours before wheels tracked across it (the canals were designed for solar-powered shipping boats). Where other cities plan, Dubai executes.

A scale model of Dubai Creek Harbour, currently being constructed. Upon completion, the development will be three times the size of Downtown Dubai and include the world’s tallest twin towers, alongside eight million square feet of retail space, 39,000 residential units, 3,664 office units, and 22 hotels with 4,400 rooms.

A scale model of Dubai Creek Harbour, currently being constructed. Upon completion, the development will be three times the size of Downtown Dubai and include the world’s tallest twin towers, alongside eight million square feet of retail space, 39,000 residential units, 3,664 office units, and 22 hotels with 4,400 rooms.

Later that same day, I was rocketing upward on an elevator traveling at 3 floors per second up to the highest observation deck inside the tallest building in the world. At 124-125 floors up the landscape below takes on a whole new persona, one more akin to computer game simulation or real time strategy level rather than the reality of life unfolding below. The urban landscape of yet-to-be-finished developments, sprawling shopping centers, checkerboards of pools glistening aqua, and large squares and strips of lands still left barren, all intersected by freeways as busy as Los Angeles and trains as perfunctory as Paris are revealed. The view is so unrealistic, the mind is lulled into disbelief rather than vertigo.

As the sun began to set, the desert landscape ignited in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.

As the sun began to set, the desert landscape ignited in a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.

Only a few days later I was boarding onto an Emirates flight to make the same 8,000+ mile trip back to Los Angeles. Besides the complete open row of seats – the best surprise ever – I found one last surprise awaited.

About a half an hour into the flight a desert landscape never seen before revealed itself below – an arid realm I had only seen in science fiction movies…or dreams. The land appeared shaped by the nocturnal kicking of once slumbering, long forgotten titans, like bedding kicked into folds and piles. A range of mountains, dunes, and other indescribable geological formations stretched for hundreds of miles without the sight of habitation.

“Where am I?!”

I was flying over Iran – the modern lands of the ancient Persian Empire.

In realizing the plane was traveling over a country I was very unlikely ever to set foot upon in my lifetime, a tingle of excitement shot through my body. I was flying over a forbidden landscape, and everything laid before me was stunning. For those several minutes, with nose pressed against glass, my coach fare felt like first class.

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