Snowboard Dubai: when the desert freezes over

Words and photos by Noah Lederman, Somewhere Or Bust

There’s probably only one place in all of the United Arab Emirates where you can see your breath. In order to get there, you have to walk through Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, where abaya-clad men and women shop the brand-name stores. The mall is the location of Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor snow park.

Most visitors from other nearby Gulf countries and local Emirates enter the below freezing resort to visit the penguins, sled on the hills, or roll inside those giant plastic orbs that look like hamster balls for humans. I —having had more than six months off from the slopes–wanted only to snowboard.

SD-inpost3 From the inside, looking… in. Mall-goers take in the faux-winter landscape.

I was handed a pair of comfortable, hardly used rental boots and an official Ski Dubai winter suit: a red, blue, and black two piece that all visitors without the appropriate gear wear, transforming the indoor resort into some Communist-looking retreat and subsequently robbing the mountain of those ridiculous and fluorescent fashions on the Western World’s slopes.

Inside the faded sky-blue-walled ski park, which would look like an empty factory if not for the snow, the hill ascended and twisted to the left past fake pines and artificial boulders. I boarded the chairlift operated by islanders from the Philippines and a few men from Nepal. Slow to drop the safety bar, the lift operators hollered at me as if their jobs were at stake.

“Lower bar! Lower bar!”

All of the yellow signs with black Arabic writing and English translations shouted, too. I had never seen so many exclamation marks on caution signs. I leaned against one side of the lift, raised my board, and rested an edge on the seat, taking the pressure off my joints.

SD-inpost1 No gear? Ski Dubai has got you covered

“Sit straight! Sit middle!” the mid-mountain lift operator yelled.

I followed instructions.

Then, when I pushed the chairlift bar up one pole before the disembarkation point, I received one more reproach.

“Wait for platform!” the peak operator shouted.

While Dubai is the city of the world’s tallest buildings and fastest elevators, able to travel at ten meters per second, the chair lift was abysmally slow. It took seven minutes to reach the peak, where I often found one of the lift operators dancing to Arabic music as if it were a nightclub (and it did feel a little clubby with the lights that pulsed and changed colors). It took only ten seconds to fly down the hill.

SD-inpost2 It’s a far cry from a mountain peak—from the bottom, looking up.

Despite the critical lift operators, slow ascent, and brief rides down simple terrain, I had a great time snowboarding Dubai. There were little launch pads beside the chairlift posts, a few things to grind on in the terrain park, and a few lips where the “expert” run, (which was at best a blue square), met the “intermediate” run (that would have been demoted to Bunny Hill anywhere else in the world). While the snow was a little sticky, it was better than most of the days I had this past year where ice tended to blanket my East Coast terrain.

But snowboarders and skiers from the Western Hemisphere should not expect the best in snow. They should ride Dubai for the irony.

Firstly, you’re in a desert, where the extreme heat outside is as dangerous as winter conditions on many mountains back home, and yet they’re making snow in a mall. While that should be enough irony to appreciate Ski Dubai, there’s more. Though the mountain had at least a half dozen decent boarders and skiers, most of the patrons riding the chairlift were not there to snowboard or ski. To them, the lift was the attraction. With abayas hanging from winter coats and sheilas on instead of helmets, they were loving the worst part of a day on the slopes. And unlike little American brats who hope you fall so they can scream “Wipe Out” or cackle at you from a safe distance, all of the Ski Dubai lift riders cheered when I pulled big air or clapped as I fastened my back foot into the binding. I even saw a few couples opting to go around on the chairlift a second time. One devout Muslim couple, dressed from head to ankle in Islamic couture (the snow boots on their feet are probably not traditional garb), stole kisses as the chairlift rounded the corner, enjoying the privacy of Ski Dubai.

“What do you think about the mountain?” I asked a local twelve-year-old boy who was helping his little brother fit his foot into the foreign contraption.

“It’s good, but it’s not real ice,” he said. “I want real ice.”


Noah Lederman writes the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust. His travel writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, Islands Magazine, the Economist, and elsewhere. Visit his blog to get your free copy of his humorous travel ebook, Misadventures in Southeast Asia. You can also follow his (mis)adventures on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google+.

Check out Noah’s blog, Somewhere Or Bust


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