Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Exploring Qatar and the Delights of Doha

Getting to know the Middle East

Arabian couple at museum with Qatar flag flying in blue sky
National Museum of Qatar
Raise your hand if you think of the Middle East as one big scary sandbox in some far off corner of the world where no one knows how to play nice. I think I can speak for many Americans when I say that most of the countries from Libya to Pakistan are toward the bottom of our travel lists. However, if you do want to start exploring the region, I do suggest Qatar.

First of all, the place is fairly tiny, measuring close to fifty by one hundred miles - a peninsula nation sitting in the Persian Gulf, attached to the north of Saudi Arabia. Just across the gulf is Iran. I have mentioned before that if there isn't at least some small element of fear in your world travels, you're doing it wrong. This is not to say that Qatar should make you afraid - quite the contrary - but venturing here does seem a bit like you are very far from home and should be on your very best behavior.

Old world meets new world

Dusty and quiet were my first impressions. The occasional call to prayer from nearby mosques cuts through the peaceful calm for the uninitiated, but after a while, it adds a bit of color to the simply tan-hued landscape which is much of the surroundings of the newer downtown skyscraper-laden big city. Men and women don what I would call robes, and are mostly conservatively, yet stylishly in many cases, covered from head to toe. The Westerner would see that as a requirement, but there is no such expectation that he or she follow suit. The souq is a market, or bazaar, and is a bustling tourist attraction come to life with hookah, coffee vendors, restaurants, and textiles. Some of the more affluent may be seen out with their falcons for a stroll. One thing you won't see is alcohol being consumed, unless you seek it out within the confines of certain more expensive hotels.

Traditional dhou boat in bay with palm trees and city skyline background
Traditional wooden dhow and Doha skyline

Culinarily speaking, I got a similar vibe to Singapore - that we were at a crossroads of many different cultures, and was hard-pressed to find something distinctly Qatari to eat. However, I did delight in being able to find Persian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and other cuisines from the broader region. Dates are a staple and are plentiful. Aside from Arabic coffee, one of my favorite drinks there is a boldly delicious and refreshing sweet lemon and mint. Shawarma lovers can indulge cheaply with beef or chicken cut from the spit and wrapped to go in toasty flatbread.

Green juice in glass on table reflecting Doha, Qatar
Lemon and mint beverage at Adhamiya
in Souq Waqif

Arabic is the official language of Qatar, but since Qataris are so rich, they have invited many Filipinos and other English speakers to do the work they don't want to do. Therefore, it is quite easy to get around speaking English most places you would be interested to go. The subway system is new and cheap and clean and glorious - only 2 Riyals (55 cents USD) to and from anywhere in the system. Soccer fans may already know the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be played in Doha, and the country is busy readying itself to accommodate. One of the top airlines in the world - Qatar Airways - connects the world to Doha and Hamad International Airport (DOH) is a quick and easy Uber or train ride from the city.

Nightlife in Doha 

Pilsner beer on table in a dark nightclub with live music

Visiting Doha on a tight budget may be a good opportunity to explore more daytime activities, as you will not find pubs unless you go to certain hotels. Even in these establishments, often they are sparsely populated if you go anywhere on a backpacker's rations, and the cheapest beer will likely cost upwards of 50 QAR (around $13) for a pint. However, my new favorite place (after a few more visits from this original post) is Krossroads Club at the top floor of Best Western Plus where they have live music, a largely Filipino staff, complimentary popcorn, and half-off specials for happy hour that lasts until 8pm. It gets a decent crowd and has a fun vibe.

Man posing on park bench with Arabic structures in background
Katara Cultural Village