A Travellerspoint blog

Qatar

Disco dhow

sunny 34 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I am in the habit of climbing the highest point of many of the countries I visit if the peak is reasonably accessible and within my fitness level. Qatar's highest point is quite low. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is a low sandy limestone outcrop about a hundred and twenty metres above sea level. It's quite accessible if you hire a car and driver, it is just off the main highway to Saudi Arabia with an access road all the way to the top. However, there is a military observation post. Other peak-baggers have reported that the post was unmanned and they encountered no obstacle; others report that they were turned away by stern policemen. That was before the long-running diplomatic crisis that has seen most neighbouring countries led by Saudi Arabia break off all relations with Qatar since 2017. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is quite close to the Saudi border. And it would be just my luck to be speneing years rotting away in a Qatari jail without consular access for trespassing on military property.

So I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and spent the day in my hotel room instead.

I woke up at ten after thirteen hours of soul-renewing, blissful, refreshing sleep. I woke up feeling sufficiently alert and energised but didn't feel the urge to go outside. I just wanted to chill - literally chill in my room's agreeably freezing air conditioning. I have travelled enough now to know that when your body and mind tell you to rest, it's a good idea to do so. I often push myself way too hard when travelling, I often place myself under too much pressure to see as many things as possible, but I have learned over the years that even if I'm on holiday, I still need to look after myself and take things at an appropriate pace.

So I spent a few hours updating my blog and my online photo albums and chatting to friends on social media, and I didn't leave the Concorde Hotel until the early afternoon. My destination was the Villaggio Mall in Doha's western suburbs. I consulted Google Maps before leaving my hotel. I caught the metro one stop to Mshiereb station, and then exited the station to Salwa Road where there was a bus stop.

Getting to the bus stop was not easy. I found the right station exit but the way to the bus stop was blocked off by yet another construction site. So I went on a lengthy detour around back lanes until I reached the bus stop on Salwa Road. Or not.

I opened the offline map in Google Maps. I was definitely in the right place. But there was no bus stop. After about ten minutes a taxi finally stopped and we took off to the west along a very busy arterial that turned into a motorway.

Qatari driving is bad. It's not as shocking as in Sri Lanka, I cannot conceive that any place could have worse driving than Sri Lanka, but it is still very bad. The taxi driver kept alternating between revving the guts out of the engine and slamming on the brakes. A car in front would brake but the taxi driver would continue accelerating.

"Are you f×÷#ing blind! Do they not teach you how to drive? The car in front has its brake lights on! See those bright red things on either side of the back of the car? That means you brake too! Are you a f+×#ing congenital moron? For f+×#'s sake!" I wanted to shout at the driver but I didn't. Thinking back, I should have. How else are these imbeciles going to learn how to drive properly if they don't get a rightfully deserved ear-bashing from people who come from countries where people don't drive like psychopathic homicidal maniacs?

After about twenty minutes of a repetitive monotonous suburban scenario of strip malls, hotels and apartment complexes with every building coloured exactly the same bleached blonde sand colour as the Qatari desert, I arrived at the Villaggio Mall with the blood drained from my face. Villaggio is the most bizarre shopping centre I have seen. The entire centre is built to resemble a neighbourhood in Venice with a network of canals along the corridors and gondola rides on the canals. There is only one level of shopping on the ground floor but above the shopping level are fake Venetian apartments with lights behind the frosted windows and fake flower boxes hanging from the balconies. On the ceiling are paintings of blue skies with wispy clouds to give the illusion of being outdoors. It was contrived and it was cheesy and I absolutely loved it.

I had lunch at Applebee's, an American casual dining chain we don't have in Australia yet - it reminded me a lot of TGI Friday's which we do have Down Under. I would have liked something more authentically Qatari but it seems that generic American food is all that is available here.

I left the mall and crossed the road to Aspire Park. I read a blurb about this park in the Doha destination information on the in-flight enertainment system on the plane from Sydney. It was a nice park, a very large expanse of preternaturally emerald-green grass crisscrossed by walking tracks and bridle paths, whose centrepiece was an attractive lake with fountains and an ersatz mediaeval stone arch bridge. It was now approaching sunset - the sun sets very early in Qatar, before five o'clock - and Aspire Park was full of families enjoying a nice little stroll. By far the most pleasant time of day in Doha is the hour either side of sunset. The daytime heat and humidity has died down a bit and there is often a pleasant breeze. Later in the evening the air becomes very still and humid; midnight is far sweatier than 5pm. I enjoyed ambling around Aspire Park, they did a good job of turning what was once parched desert into a world-class recreational park, even though it was faker than Fairlie Arrow's kidnapping. Much like most things in Qatar, come to think of it.

On the other side of the Villaggio Mall is the Khalifa International Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup venues, and The Torch, a striking high-rise hotel built in the shape of, well, a torch. Long-time readers of my blog might know that I have a thing for towers. I walled up to The Torch and asked the doorman if there was an observation deck. There wasn't, but there was a mocktail bar on the twenty-first floor that was open to the general public. So I went up to the mocktail bar, paid a lot of money for a strawberry and mint mocktail, and enjoyed the view over Doha's flat, sprawling suburbs as twilight gave way to night.

I headed back to the old town centre. Buses left from Al Waab Road opposite Villaggio Mall every ten minutes. I boarded a bus and then got stuck in gridlock. It took over an hour just to travel a few kilometres to the main bus station next to Souq Waqif. Doha traffic is insane. Qatar is an extremely car-dependent society, even more so than Australia. What happens is that in the early evening, Qataris like nothing better than to get into their Lexus four wheel drives with their families and sit in the same traffic jams as all other Qataris on their way to hang out in shopping malls for two hours. So the roads leading up to shopping malls - and there are a lot of malls - are choked for kilometres and kilometres. It seems like a bizarre way to pass an evening with your family, sitting in gridlock, but if that is how Qataris want to spend their spare time, who am I to judge?

I am glad I didn't choose to catch a taxi back to the city because the cab would have been stuck in exactly the same traffic as the bus and I would have paid a fortune. After an eternity I finally alighted near Souq Waqif. I made my way to the Corniche along the waterfront and paid eighty riyals to go on a half-hoir cruise on a motorised dhow. These interesting open-decked timber vessels are the traditional seacraft of the Persian Gulf. In the past they were powered by sails, and some sailing dhows still exist, but the vast majority now are motorised like the Sarona, on which I was an honoured guest.

There were three other tourists and two crew. The Sarona was lit up like a Christmas tree and on the deck were pulsating disco lights and loud Bollywood music. If you ever see a YouTube video of a fat balding bearded middle-aged white guy in a NASA t-shirt dancing awkwardly to blaring Indian pop music, it wasn't me! Honest! It's just someone who looks a bit like me! Seriously!

The Sarona cruised north from the Corniche next to the Museum of Islamic Art up to the new city centre at West Bay. This afforded excellent views of the colourful sksyscrapers along the waterfront with great photo opportunities. The skyline is impressive enough by day but at night it is simply wonderful.

The Sarona moored at the Corniche and I made my way to Souq Waqif. The Souq is the traditional marketplace of Doha, a labyrinth of narrow corridors lined with merchants selling everything you could ask for. One section sold pets, another jewellery, another textiles. Some alleys were open air while others were covered. All throughout Souq Waqif there was the pleasant aroma of spices and perfumes. Finally, I had found something that was authentically Qatari. What made the souq even more Qatari is that the covered sections had satisfyingly frigid air conditioning.

There was even a row of battered old eateries serving authentic Qatari food at open-air tables with luxuriously cushioned seats. I took a chair at one of them and ordered this platter of three represntative Qatari dishes: machboos (a type of chicken biryani but with different spices to the Indian version), makarony (macaroni pasta with chunks of lamb), and margoga (soaked bread mixed with meats and vegetables).

It was awful. The chicken in the machboos was so dry that it was impossible to eat. The makarony was just edible, but two mouthfuls of the margoga made me want to vomit. If this restaurant is a true representation of Qatari cuisine, it is probably a good thing that generic American-style international food has taken over Qatar.

As I returned on the bus to my hotel I thought about Qatar. I wonder how older Qataris see the changes that have taken place in their country. Within the lifetime of a senior citizen Qatar has turned from an impoverished protectorate of pearlers, mariners and subsistence fishermen with only a few hundred thousand people into a significant middle power, the world's richest country per capita with an enormous multicultural expatriate population of two million people from every corner of the earth, an immigrant community that far out numbers the native population. Qatar might not be a liberal democracy, labour standards for expatriates leave much to be desired, but the country is stable, peaceful, clean, reasonably well-governed and prosperous. Qatar has a major global TV news channel that is the closest thing the Middle East has to a free press, significant sporting events such as the Formula 1 grand prix, the international athletics championships and the 2022 soccer World Cup, a major airline that has one of the world's largest number of destinations and is consistently ranked one of the best international carriers, a top-notch airport and a welfare state most countries could only dream about. All this within a couple of generations thanks to the blessings of oil and gas resources and the prudent, judicious management of that wealth.

Thanks for having me for a couple of nights, Qatar. It's an interesting place and well worth a quick look to break up the painfully long and tiring journey between Australia and Europe.

Villaggio Mall

Villaggio Mall

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

Mosque at the Corniche

Mosque at the Corniche

Sarona, the disco dhow

Sarona, the disco dhow

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Posted by urbanreverie 07:04 Archived in Qatar Tagged qatar souq dhow doha torch corniche villaggio Comments (1)

Base Qatar

35 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Qatar Airways has been judged the world's best airline by Skytrax five times, and I concur with their judgment. The seats are comfortable, the service was professional, the interior was decorated in tasteful maroons and restrained creams, nothing went wrong. I can certainly recommend flying with Qatar.

One thing surprised me though - just how generic and international Qatar Airways is. I knew that a large proportion of their crew were expatriates, but I wasn't expecting all of them to be. Asians, Africans, Europeans, Australians - but not a single Arab was to be seen among the cabin crew. Much the same can be said for the menu - penne pasta with Mediterranean vegetables, omelettes, focaccias, chocolate mousse, sausages; all decent enough but scarcely a window into Qatari culture. I admire how many airlines are essentially an introduction to their country's culture. Think of AirAsia's nasi lemak or Asiana's bulgogi or Qantas's Aboriginal dot-painting uniforms or KLM's safety video produced using stop motion photography of Delft blue chinaware.

As pleasant as Qatar Airways' A380 was, fifteen and a half hours is far too long to sit in one seat. I am jealous of people who sleep easily on aeroplanes; I only got about three and a half hours of extremely interrupted sleep. I was hoping that I would sleep far longer as I only got about three hours sleep the night before with my eye trouble.

It was with great relief that I left the plane at Hamad International Airport shortly before six in the morning, a very nice and nearly brand new airport. Even though there were only five people in front of me at my immigration counter, I still had to wait forever. It wasn't because the immigration officers were lazy and inefficient, but because they are extremely strict and thorough. As an Australian citizen I had it easy but they still demanded to know every last detail of my stay and I had to show my hotel booking. In front of me were some Chinese citizens and the officer was putting them in the star chamber.

I withdrew some Qatari riyals from an ATM and caught a nearly empty bus to my hotel. You need to buy a fare smart card for ten riyals (note: one riyal equals forty Australian cents) and add as many more riyals for a balance to pay your fare (in my case, the fare was three riyals). Luckily there is a smart card purchasing machine in the airport bus terminal.

While I was waiting for my route 747 bus (747 bus? To the airport? Geddit? Hahaha), I saw an unusual pedestrian crossing sign. It featured a woman wearing a long dress. I've never seen women represented on road signs before. I never knew that Qatar was such a paragon of gender inclusiveness. I took a photo and a security guard went crazy, he said all photography was strictly forbidden. He didn't make me delete it, so you get to see it for your enjoyment.

I was hoping that the Concorde Hotel would give me an early check-in at eight o'clock, but no such joy. I had to come back after two. This is probably a good thing - if I had gone to sleep at eight, my body clock would be out of whack for days afterward. So I started exploring. My hotel is right next to al-Doha al-Jadeda station on the brand new Doha Metro, the most bizarre public transport system I have ever encountered.

There are significant similarities betwen the Sydney Metro and the Doha Metro. They both opened in May 2019 (though Doha's is eighteen days older) and they both consist of driverless trains operating along a single partially completed line.

That's where the similarities end. So how bizarre is the Doha Metro? Let's see. There are three classes of travel - Gold, Family and Standard. Three classes for a metro line with only thirteen stations. At most stations the railway staff outnumbered the passengers by orders of magnitude. I know it's a Saturday but it was uncanny just how empty the trains and stations were. The entire system stank of hospital-grade disinfectant, the kind of stuff the World Health Organisation would use at a field hospital in the Congo after an Ebola outbreak. The security was extremely officious and intrusive, and they are everywhere. At one station I was feeling a little hungry and I saw a nearly empty vending machine in an alcove in a distant corner. I walked over to the vending machine and a security guard intercepted me to ask what I was doing. I said I wanted to buy a snack and he insisted on standing with me and watching like a hawk as I decided to decline to buy a pack of peanuts, the only product on offer.

The trains are tiny little three-car things, but the stations are six cars long so provision has been made for the day when people actually use the trains. Of the three carriages, two carriages are Standard class, half of one carriage is Family (for families and lone women only) and the other half is Gold class. I bought a 30 riyal daily Gold class ticket and I was the only Gold passenger on every train I took. The station staff are so numerous and so bored that all you have to do is look slightly puzzled and you will have a crowd of polite yet smothering employees asking if they can help you.

I rode the entire length of the red line and back, and then went to the Museum of Islamic Art. A bus took me part of the way from Msherieb metro station and I walked the rest of the way along the Corniche, a waterfront boulevard and parkland that hugs Doha Bay. It was hard work. It is extremely hot and humid here. Today was 35 °C. I was expecting it to be hot, Qatar is desert, but I was not expecting humidity. I have never heard of a humid desert before. I don't understand how the air can have so much moisture but it never falls as rain. There is no vegetation in Qatar at all; the view of the countryside from the outskirts of Doha presents a bleak prospect of nothing but bleached sand stretching to the horizon.

I had a good view while I was walking. The new Doha city centre, West Bay, is on the other side of the bay. I have never seen a more impressive skyline. Not even Singapore comes close. A collection of dozens of super-tall skyscrapers clustered along the bayfront as if they were competing against one another to be the tallest and most ostentatiously extravagant. I fail to see how a country with a population of two million can generate such an amazing skyline. Brisbane has a population of two million but doesn't have a skyline one tenth as dense.

The hard walk in the torrid heat was worth it. The Emir of Qatar is a keen art collector and has put part of his collection from the Muslim world into a museum open to the public. The museum is housed in a large octagonal palace jutting out into Doha Bay with tinkling fountains inside and out. It was a majestic building for a majestic collection. Calligraphy, jewellery, ceramics, utensils, scientific instruments, some over a thousand years old and showing the most exquisitely intricate handiwork. You couldn't buy jewellery half as good at Angus & Coote nowadays.

White nationalists and some conservatives claim that Islam is an inherently backward religion incapable of innovation. Let them come to Doha. Islamic civilisation gave the world a wealth of scientific knowledge. Modern psychiatry, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry owe a great deal of debt to the Islamic Golden Age.

By the time I finished with the museum, it was almost time for me to check into my hotel. It wasn't that far, about three kilometres, and by the time I found a bus stop and waited for a bus I could have walked there. The heat and humidity toned down a bit in the early afternoon so I resolved to leg it.

I set off on my way. After about a kilometre I reached a construction site that was blocking the footpath. So I crossed the busy four-lane arterial road but the other footpath was also blocked by a construction site. The road was too busy to walk on, so I walked along the median strip, only to find that the median strip was also blocked by a construction site a few hundred metres down the road. So I had to double back along the median and find a detour. Every detour was also blocked by construction. I ended up taking twice the time I expected to get back to my hotel.

I checked into the hotel, rested for a while and got hungry so I decided to head out in the early evening to grab a bite to eat. It is curiously difficult to find a place to eat in Doha. I had imagined that due to the presence of hundreds of thousands of South Asian expatriates that there would be yummy biryani restaurants on every street corner. Perhaps those places do exist, but they were hidden away, because on my travels through Doha so far places to eat are conspicuous through their absence.

I didn't feel like paying fifty Australian dollars at my hotel's restaurant so I headed for West Bay, Doha's brand new central business district north of the old city centre. I got off the metro at DECC station and found myself in a forest of skyscrapers lit up in a discotheque of dancing colours. There were plenty of people around, and people need to eat, so I reasoned that there must be restaurants in the area. I saw a shopping mall across a major multi-lane highway with a restaurant on an upper floor, but there was simply no way to cross the road. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no subway, no footbridge.

I decided to follow all the other people to see where they were going. Many were crossing this side street that led to a car park entrance. They were walking through the car park into another shopping mall. The City Centre mall was doing a roaring trade, every shop was still open at 7pm on a Saturday and the place echoed with the plaintive cries of hundreds of babies and toddlers being pushed around in strollers. So this is how Qatari families spend their spare time. I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that Doha is Desert Singapore.

I ended up buying dinner from Arby's, an American fast food chain that specialises in roast beef rolls of astounding blandness, and for dessert I tried disgustingly cloying doughnuts from Tim Horton's, a famous Canadian chain that thankfully has not yet reached Australia.

I left the City Centre mall by another entrance and got lost. I found myself on streets where it was impossible to cross the road. Footpaths would end forcing me to return the way I came or walk on busy highways. A couple of times I had to walk on garden beds. It is obvious that the huge numers of highly paid town planners and civil engineers who designed West Bay never stopped to consider that people might need to walk two blocks and cross the roads while doing so. At least I got to admire all the dizzying colourdd lights on all the buildings while I attempted to find my way back to the metro station so I could have a well-deserved sleep in my hotel.

The Forbidden Sign at the airport

The Forbidden Sign at the airport


Gold class on Doha Metro

Gold class on Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Train on the Doha Metro

Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Arabic calligraphy at Museum of Islamic Art

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Mediaeval jewellery from Syria

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Battle standard with Arabic calligraphy

Doha skyline

Doha skyline

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Posted by urbanreverie 02:10 Archived in Qatar Tagged metro public_transport museum qatar airways doha Comments (0)

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