In Transit [DOHA, QATAR]

by - December 30, 2018

 If I told you that within my "Drafts" folder reside unfinished posts dating back to 2016... well, you would likely believe me, seeing how bad I am at keeping up with this blog. All shall be brought to light eventually, but for today, my final post of the year, I have prepared a travel log of a trip that I went on with my parents and fiancé in the October of 2018 in the hopes that the upcoming year will hear my call and send us on more wonderful adventures. Yes, indeed, this is the story of our trip to Japan! But not just yet... five hours after taking off from Sofia Airport, we were to spend an eight-and-a-half-hour layover in Doha, Qatar.

Frankly, everything I can tell you about Qatar, to put this into context, you could easily learn from a simple Google search. Its history dates far back into Antiquity, with settlements as old as 50 000 years having been unearthed in the peninsula. The earliest known written accounts of the peninsula's inhabitants come from the mid-first century AD by a Roman writer known as Pliny the Elder, dubbing the locals Catharrei, possibly deriving from the name of a prominent local settlement. Another theory behind the name is that it comes from the Arabic katran, meaning tar or resin, in reference to petroleum. Despite being a tiny speck in the western corners of Asia in our modern world, it somehow manages to produce the fourth highest greenhouse gas emissions and also the highest per capita income in the world. Indeed, once one of the poorest countries along the Gulf shorelines, it has amassed a wealth large enough to support its futuristic architectural vision of traditional Arabic design. But I am getting ahead of myself; before we immerse ourselves in the night lights of Doha, we must pass through the strict border control in Hamad International Airport. Luckily, the airport provides a guided tour service which does most of the work, such as tourist visas and passport checks, for you, but they do allocate a solid hour aside from the full tour solely for security measures. If you haven't the 5 hours necessary for these tours, you will be happy to know that Hamad International Airport actually houses several art installations aiming to introduce foreigners to Qatari culture.

The Museum of Islamic Art

 Life in a Continental Climate area has moulded me into subconsciously expecting night time to be cold, or at least chill. Hence why, when I stepped out from the sweet air-conditioned airport and was hit by a wall of dry air and sweltering heat, I had to take a moment to process what had just happened. Looking around at the other tourists, I clearly wasn't the only one. Our guides, both Indonesian expats with bright smiles, ushered us to the cool tour bus and handed everyone a bottle of much-needed water. And so we set out on the motorway to Doha beneath a constant stream of colour-changing fluorescent lights.

 Our first 10-minute photo stop was the spot for those city-scape shots that you see on every tourist photo and every postcard from the country. To our left, we were greeted by the infamous skyline of Dafna Park (the first image above), which is a well-kept green promenade along the banks - ideal for picnics and evening jogs. It even has charging stations every few meters. To our right loomed the Museum of Islamic art (pictured above) which, though I would have been interested in visiting, was already closed.

 After we were rushed back to the bus (the tour times have to be very strict and controlled, after all) and offered more water, we were given a glimpse of The Pearl Island, a man-made pearl-shaped island housing only the finest (or fanciest?) restaurants and shops. We circled around the signature Pearl Monument which we were told was actually best photographed at dusk, before making our way (downtown) to Souq Waqif market.

 As the sheer quantity of images I have from there suggests, Souq Waqif was likely my favourite out of all of the stops we'd made. We were given 30 minutes to explore the bustling narrow streets of the market and we used each of those to our advantage. Souq Waqif is exactly what one would imagine if they were told to picture a traditional Arabic market - low, introverted buildings made of gypsum and coral, an intricate mosaic of garments and sewing materials, dazzling jewellery and quality handicrafts, all veiled by the appetising smell of coffee and various spices. Of course, we hadn't come prepared with any Qatari riyals so shopping had to wait until next time. The only part of the market that I vocally asked my fiancé we avoid was the pet market. The cries of various animals reached us before we even saw the dozens of tiny cages stacked on top of one another and my heart dropped to my feet. Luckily, he and I are of the same mind when it comes to the matter of what constitutes as animal cruelty and we quickly swerved away into the open restaurant street.

 I was entranced by the detail and colour that goes into glass decorations. I hate to use blatant clichés, but stepping inside any building adorned with such rich colours and sparkling decoration was not unlike staring into a kaleidoscope, and sometimes equally as bewildering for one with little sense of direction such as myself.

The spiral of the Abdulla Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Center, visible from across the market.
Another short drive and 250 ml of water later and we were dropped off at the Katara Cultural Village (no water bending involved, sorry). This is the hotspot for many cultural festivals and exhibitions, both national and international. Its foundation is rooted in the hope for more peaceful human interaction through art and culture and, with 2.3 million out of its 2.6 million-people population, you can imagine that it is quite diverse in its shows. Of course, whilst everyone was admiring the stunning main buildings, me and the other half noticed that all of the lamp posts along the brightly-lit streets had carvings etched into them. Though we failed to find any information explaining what the engraved letters in Arabic meant, it was a nice detail. One of these days I will make good on my promise to learn Arabic, if for no reason other than how similar its writing looks to all forms of Tolkien's Elvish languages. Anybody else agree with me?

 Our final stop was in the very centre of The Pearl which we'd only seen in passing up until this point. It was more heavily guarded than other areas and as soon as we beheld the spotless displays separating us from articles from high-end fashion brands, luxurious vehicles and expensive artwork we immediately understood why. I apologise to any who may be eager to see images of us posing in front of Ferraris and the like, for we had no interest in this particular area and chose to simply stay inside the bus and have a power nap before we were dropped off back at the airport.

 So, final verdict? It is a tad more difficult than a mere "Yay" or "Nay", for travelling tends to endow me with rose-tinted glasses. Looking up at what I've written thus far, I can see in myself a trace of our tour guide whose main job was more focused on advertising the city to us than to guide us through its culture and history. Those who know me are aware of the fact that I am a forest-dweller at heart and large cities tend to overwhelm me more than to attract me. And Doha was large, both in scale and in modernity. And yet, despite us visiting during the ideal time for casual walks outside, everything felt a bit too empty, sterile even. The cars seemed to be more in number than the pedestrians which is always a red flag for me, all of them sparkling, new models. Qatar's main focus was clearly attracting rich visitors to its industrious capital and its holiday resorts along the Persian Gulf, but the majority of the country seems to be an arid desert land. And, although this was a brand new experience for me and I would certainly spend any long transits I may have exploring more of it, I do not have any plans to spend more time in this particular Arabic state in the foreseeable future.

 If you would like an "atmospheric" video of my brief stay in Doha, please proceed to the one available on my YouTube channel:

 Thank you so much for reading, and I will see you soon with more travel posts!

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