So impressive were the skills of the young, satin-clad kung fu artists who now lie exhausted on a mat just outside China that, long after the drums and applause had ended, Bijeesh Babu continues to smile.
In the space of just a few hours, the 30-year-old Abu Dhabi-based engineer had been exposed to cultures from Western Europe to South East Asia and many others in between. Babu isn’t a private jet owner, nor does he have the ability to time travel – he is simply one of millions of people who has fallen for the considerable cultural charms of Dubai’s Global Village.
Every year since 1997, between the cooler months of October and March, traders from around the world have set up stalls at this tourism and cultural destination where, under a night’s sky, they sell their traditional wares to tourists and residents, such as Babu, at unique, country-themed pavilions.
Tonight, 16 years after its debut, the grounds are heaving with people who have made the journey out of the city centre to its purpose-built grounds off Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road (formerly Emirates Road) to enjoy the spectacle. Organisers claim that the Village welcomes five million visitors per year, and attracted more than 500,000 people this Eid Al Adha alone. Rickshaw drivers relieve the burden of walking from the vast car park area to the main entrance (there’s enough room for 17,000 cars). Inside, costumed performers dance and put on shows to entertain the crowds that inevitably gather in the central outdoor food court area while, just metres from where Babu sits with friends watching the kung fu exhibition, The Lords of Lightning (two performers dressed in bodysuits) pass four million volts of electricity between each other. There’s a lot going on.
“This is my second year to come to Global Village,” says Babu, who is from Kerala, India. “My friends and I are in a festive mood. We came here to enjoy and learn about different nationalities and cultures. We’ve been here since 6pm; it’s 9pm now, and I think we’ll be here for a couple more hours yet. This kung fu demonstration was particularly good.”
The number of grinning children to be spotted with weary parents is testament to the quality of this year’s funfair, too, which takes the form of a Coney Island-style “Fantasy Island”, complete with wooden boardwalk floor, typical funfair games (think hooking ducks and throwing hoops over bottles) and an impressive selection of rides for the young and brave at heart, including a log flume and several rollercoasters.
But the majority of visitors inevitably end up shopping. When the event debuted in the late 1990s at Dubai Creek, it had 18 pavilions; this year, there are 37 to wander around, the newest additions being from Europe (Germany, Italy, France and the UK), and the general consensus is that it keeps getting better.
“I have been coming here for 10 years,” says Mohandas Unnikrishnn, a 40-year-old businessman from Kerala who has worked in Dubai for 12 years. “While it’s mostly the same stuff, I would say perhaps this year is a little better. I like the entertainment on offer here and the shopping. Among my favourite pavilions is probably India, but I like the many different countries showcased: you can get orientated with other cultures and their traditional items.”
At 6pm, the pair had bought only oils from Thailand but, as the venue stays open until 1am on weekends and holidays, the night was still young. “We may buy something else, I’m not sure,” says Unnikrishnn, with a smile. “The prices here can be a little high, so visitors should be ready to barter with traders. I think if you can get an item at around 80 per cent of the asking price then you’re doing well.”