Saturday, April 14, 2012

Oman Trip: Doha, Day One

Two weeks ago, we took a week-long vacation to Oman. I know what you're thinking -- Oman? But it's been popping up in the travel press the last couple of years and was also a place that both Cagatay and I could go without having to pre-arrange a visa. (To go to the US or Europe, for example, Turks have to apply for very costly visas, which aren't always a sure thing.)

Because of the flight schedules, which would have put us arriving in Muscat at 3am, we decided to spend the first full day of our trip in Doha and take an early evening flight to Oman. We thought it would be simple -- Qatar is another place for which neither of us needs a pre-arranged visa -- but we had a bit of a scare. When we arrived at the Istanbul airport Saturday evening, the Qatar Airways representative looked at us askance and said, "You know your layover is 24 hours, right?" She then proceeded to tell us we wouldn't be able to leave the terminal in Doha. Whaaat? She then clarified that we needed to have made a hotel reservation and thankfully, we had printed out the confirmation sheet, but it still didn't seem like a sure thing. She also pointed out that our luggage would be checked through to Muscat -- which totally makes sense, but it hadn't occurred to us, and we didn't pack anything useful for an overnight in our carry-on.

 As we were landing in Doha, we found out that you don't actually even land at the terminal building -- you land on the tarmac and then are brought by bus to the proper location based on your status, as a way to make sure everyone goes where they're supposed to. Although we had the "transfer" colored boarding envelope, we decided to just fake it and see how far we could get. The bus first went to the arrivals terminal and a security guard was positioned at each bus exit  -- when the guy asked me if Doha was our final stop, I just nodded quickly. Inside the building, there was a huge desk with a sign over it reading Pre-Arranged Hotel Reservations. I thought this meant generally, considering the strictness of the rules (it turns out you can avoid this whole stuck-in-the-terminal problem by booking a hotel through the airline), so we went to talk to the guy there, who told us that Turks were in fact NOT allowed to buy a visa upon arrival. Whaaat? He was a nice guy though and kind of shrugged his shoulders and told us to give it a try. So we did. The Qatari official looked at Cagatay's passport for a good five minutes, studied our hotel reservation for another few minutes, but eventually gave us the green light. And that was our introduction to Doha...

We took a taxi to the hotel. When we got in the cab at the airport, they driver told us it would be around 40 Qatari Rials, which is what the dispatcher had said -- but he didn't use the meter and ended up asking for 20, which we thought was a mistake. (But this turned out to be a trend -- when we went back to the airport the next day, I asked about the meter and the guy gave me a plaintive look and asked if I really wanted it on...when I asked him how much it would be without, he also said 20. From him, I gathered this was a way to pocket a little extra money.)
Anyway, we arrived at the hotel around 12:30am so we just went to sleep. Turkey was switching to Daylight Saving Time that night, but it turns out that in the Middle East, they don't observe it at all -- the hotel desk guy was quite confused when we asked about it. :)

The next morning, after hitting up the hotel buffet breakfast, we went exploring. We stayed at the Kingsgate Hotel, which was nice enough (we were barely there), and seemed to straddle the Disney-fied souq area and the behind-the-scenes area, if you will, where some of the workers live. Overall, I liked Doha from what I saw, and would like to go back and spend another few days there, but it also seems like a very strange place. For one thing, with all of the building construction, I felt like we had arrived at the party, but way too early. In a lot of ways, it felt like the city was still being set up.

We spent the morning wandering around the souq area, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Although the guidebook made it sound like there are various souqs -- the animal souq, falcon souq, gold souq, Souq Waqif -- it seemed to me like it was one big souq but with separate sections. After walking through some of the covered passageways, we managed to find the animal souq, which was pretty heartbreaking. There were all sorts of creatures -- pigeons, chickens, neon-colored chicks, parrots, rabbits, turtles, kittens, etc -- and all stuffed together in little cages out in the blazing sun.

From there, we managed to find the Falcon Souq, which seemed like it had just been opened -- in there, it was more like proper, individual stores, and the peregrine falcons were just sadly sitting hooded on little perches. On the way back to the main area of Souq Waqif, while crossing through a car park, we came across this sandy area filled with camels. I have absolutely no idea what they were doing there, but we jokingly referred to it as the camel park.

We probably spent a couple hours wandering around the souq area and so after, we decided to take a break at a shaded coffee shop along Souq Waqif's main street. While I liked the souq, it was too prettified and too new-looking, which made it feel like we were instead at Epcot. I think part of it is that it's not the locals doing the work -- instead, they've brought in tons of workers from third-world countries like India, Pakistan and the Philippines. I'm not sure we ever saw a local in Qatar. And, as a result, the souq doesn't feel all that authentically Middle Eastern when it's staffed by Indian guys. This is also generally true in Oman and, as I understand, the UAE -- but places change and evolve, of course, and maybe this is, in some ways and places, the new Middle East.

After about an hour's break, we headed to the nearby new Museum of Islamic Art, which sits out on a little peninsula in the Persian Gulf and was designed by I.M. Pei. The building was absolutely amazing -- my photos don't do it justice -- and to our surprise, the museum was free! As the name implies, the museum is devoted to Islamic art and the pieces on display were generally pretty amazing. If I am remembering correctly, the art is more or less from the 12th to 17th centuries and came from all around the region -- there were gorgeous pieces of jewelry from India, intricately carved wooden doors from Egypt and Iran, and even exquisite examples of Turkish tilework from Iznik.

We spent most of the afternoon (and the heat of the day!) in the museum and so we ended up not having any significant time to stroll along the corniche, which is a 13-plus kilometer path that runs along the water. We also never made it to the Katara cultural village -- which looks pretty amazing though also Disney-like in photos -- or West Bay, where all the skyscrapers are going up.

For our remaining hour, we headed back to Souq Waqif to have dinner -- which ended up being yummy hummus and pizza at an outdoor cafe as the sun set. As we sat at our table, we watched these four Qatari guys in white outfits ride up and down the street on horseback, and I gathered it was to entertain the tourists. But interestingly, there was a worker with them, and his sole job seemed to be to walk a couple paces behind them and clean up after the horses. See what I mean about Disneyland?

The slideshow is next, but you have to be on the blog page to see it:

Created with flickr slideshow.
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