Sand and sun... lots of both

Trip Start Aug 17, 2008
Trip End Jun 17, 2009

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Flag of Qatar  ,
Friday, September 26, 2008

Here we are breaking with our (already a) tradition and write an entry outside of an airport.  What self-discipline! What willingness to share their experience, one might say!  Well, the truth is, we have nothing better to do.  Today is Friday, the last Friday of the Ramadan and nothing (and we mean nothing) is open.  The sun shines relentlessly and at 10 a.m. the heat is already brutal so no chance of wandering around.  We are sitting by the pool in the hotel (air-conditioned, by the way, so unbearable is the heat) waiting for the time to pass.  Supposedly, after 4 pm the malls and markets (souks) will start opening and we'll have an extra way to kill time before our plane is leaving around midnight tonight.  Quite an interesting departure time at the first sight but not that unusual given the local daily routines.  From what we could see during these past few days, the locals wake up very early, eat, pray and run some errands in the morning. Then, around noon, everything closes down (shops, banks, government agencies, etc.) and the local rush hour occurs (we were initially baffled by the fact that the traffic is worst at 1-2 pm and rather light at 5 pm).  After that, at about 4-5 pm everything comes to life again and after dark the real life begins.  Not that the heat is much better but at least one deals better with the Ramadan fasting this way (during Ramadan, Muslims eat no food and drink no liquids from sunrise till sunset).  At any rate, at midnight everything is incredibly busy, including the airport.

Now back to our travel impressions from Qatar.  We've arrived at around 10 pm on Tuesday and, as we've mentioned above, have been quite surprised by the dynamism of everything at the airport.  The immigration procedures went OK but it's hard to remember a more blasé immigration officer in our recent traveling history. "Welcome to Qatar!" was definitely not part of her vocabulary.  At any rate, the guys at the car rental office were much nicer and this was the first sign of what later became an axiom in this country:  people that work for the government are some of the most sour people we've ever met, while those working for the private sector are very nice, willing to help and quite friendly.  At any rate, in 30 minutes from landing we were out of the parking lot and ready to get to our hotel and the long-awaited shower.  And, with only a 15 minute drive, we should be there in no time, right? Wrong!  One hour and a half later, after countless wrong turns, undecipherable (or missing altogether) road signs, closed roads due to construction and hectic traffic we were ready to give up and hire a taxi to lead us to the hotel.  The only problem was that there were no taxis in sight in spite of the bustling night life (by the way, there is only one taxi company in Qatar and, from what we understand, government-controlled; just like in Communism).  Therefore, we decided to stop at one of the many, many fast foods (KFC, Mac, BK, Hardee's, anything you can think of in the US, is here, too.  In a big way). After a food bite and a (non-alcoholic) drink we've decided to ask the restaurant owner for directions.  As we've mentioned earlier, as a private entrepreneur, he was very eager to help and even offered to drive us there.  Since we had our own car and we managed to get pretty close to the destination on our own, a map on the back of a tissue proved to be more than enough to finally get to the hotel 2 hours after starting in its direction (about half the duration of the flight from Vienna to Qatar, by the way J).  At least the hotel was worth it. Thanks to hotwire we managed to get a 5-star hotel for a very decent price and we've really enjoyed what we know it is going to be our last sample of luxury for a while.

Next day we woke up at around 10 am (what the heck, we partied all night in the Doha traffic!) and we dared to go out to buy something to eat at the nearby mall (during Ramadan, most food places are closed all day and you can eat out only after sunset).  And that was our first contact with the Qatari sun: brutal.  In a few minutes we were already melting and the short walk to the mall was becoming an endurance test.  Therefore, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the above-mentioned pool enjoying spectacular views of the skyline (and the pool all for ourselves, by the way).  We had to leave after a few hours before freezing to death and this, by the way, pointed out to the unbelievably energy inefficiency that we've seen in this country (almost as bad as in the US): arctic temperatures indoors, open store doors letting out a blizzard of cold air, driving around with open windows and AC on, etc.).  Anyway, once the sun has set we went out into the city and we admired the spectacular Al Corniche, a promenade that goes along the bayshore for 7 km (5 miles).  The view of the skyline from the sea level was indeed breathtaking. 

Then, we decided we would go to see the Doha Souk, have dinner there and browse the shops.  Of course, this undertaking that was supposed to take 10 minutes, took us an hour due again to roads closed, poorly marked and crazy traffic.  Boy, they do love big cars here (80 percent of the cars on the road are huge SUVs like Toyota Highlander, Ford Expedition and Hummers, etc.), and they love to drive them fast.  Well, when gas is 80 US cents a gallon (yes, this means 20 cents a liter) I guess mpg is not a concern.  During this back and forth on the city highways we discovered that actually most of those skyscrapers you see in the pictures are now in construction and most of those that are finished are empty (no offices inside).  Also, from the signs posted around this "ghost town" it looks like many of the new buildings will be inhabited by State Ministries and other State agencies and organizations.  They do seem to build the glorious Communism based on oil!

Anyway, we finally got to the souk.  When compared to the souks we have seen in Morocco, this one felt more "civilized" (cleaner, more spacious, shop owners were not trying to bring you in their shops at any price) but also, maybe due to the same reason, kind of fake.  It did not have that crazy mix of smells, sounds, colors, movements like the souk from Fez, for example.  G kept saying that it looks just like a movie set and all the locals were movie extras. However, at a local restaurant we enjoyed the best kebab and shaworma we've ever had in our lives and L's smile while gulping the food (see picture) is not at all fake.  We did hit the traffic rush hour while going back to the hotel (it was midnight), especially wherever a mall entrance was close.  This is their Holiday shopping season, by the way.  Very much like Christmas in the U.S.

Next day we've decided to drive 40 km North of Doha to see a charming fishing town that also had a nice resort ("providing plenty of photographic opportunities"- this was a phrase used by the guide we bought to describe most of the points of interest.  To G's delight, I might add. My little Romanian Japanese!).  I don't think I have to mention that it took us an hour to find the right road to get out of town.  We spent a few hours there driving around, walking on a deserted beach and we were lucky enough to find the café at the resort open to have something to drink (as we said before, between 12PM and 6PM everything closes down).  Unfortunately, due to Ramadan, all the beaches were closed for swimming.  At 2 PM the heat became unbearable so we drove back to the hotel and in the evening we went again for a walk on the promenade and dinner at the souk.  Unfortunately, many of the places we wanted to see were not yet open (like the Museum of Islamic Art) or they were closed due to renovations. 

Extra note: Now we're writing from the airport, as usual.  The last day was a bore.  We've spent more time in the mall that we have done in our lifetimes combined (this might be an exaggeration, L spends some time in the malls back in the U.S., G. doesn't) but this was the only thing we could do for free in an air-conditioned environment. 

The bottom line? Qatar is a more interesting country that some of the blogs here would make you think but one needs to be aware of several things before planning to come here:
1. Get a car. In this country and its capital city, without a car you are dead. The distances are big for walking around in the hot weather and the interesting stuff is quite some distance apart.  However, the road signs are pretty poorly marked; especially those giving directions, so simple itineraries can become quite a challenge for the non-locals.  Otherwise, the roads are well maintained and good to drive on and the gasoline is waaaaay cheaper than water.
2. Being tourist in an observant Muslim country during Ramadan can be a challenge since most of the touristic objectives or places for people watching (cafes, restaurants, patios) might be closed.
3. It's best to avoid dealing with government institutions, if possible (we haven't even told you the adventures we had to go through in order to send some postcards; maybe some other time).
4. Qatar is not an unexpensive country by a long shot. Be prepared to pay the same prices like in the US (and even more at times).

We hope you enjoyed our entry and now we're off to more adventures! Singapore, here we come!
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