The three coolest things in Doha (Qatar) — and why I still wouldn’t want to move there

Sad as we were to lose half a day of the time we’d planned to spend in Doha (capital of the little Arabian kingdom of Qatar), Steve and I still managed to cram a lot into the remaining day and a half. I formed some strong opinions and was most captivated by three things:

1) How new so much of it feels. I’ve never been any place that felt newer. Although this part of the world is ancient, the city of Doha is racing to receive the world in 2022 for the World Cup, and much of the effort is just now coming to fruition. A gleaming subway system that includes three respectable lines opened less than a month ago. A brand-new business district (Msheireb) appears to be built but is (mostly) still not yet occupied. The slightly older business district known as West Bay rivals Shanghai in the flashiness of its skyline.

2) A small section of the old heart of the town has been preserved. That’s where we stayed, next to a market area (Souq Waqif) that looks cleaner and feels safer than any other Middle Eastern souq I’ve strolled through. The Qatari vendors don’t ever hustle or hassle visitors. It was pleasant, if a trifle bland. What seemed quite extraordinary, however, was the nearby falcon souq. Falcons are an ancient, still venerated, part of Arab cultures. But we’ve never seen such a concentration of shops selling nothing but falcons and falconry gear. Qataris train the raptors to hunt (for sport), and the shopping we observed looked very serious. One merchant told us the cheapest birds go for 2000 reals (about $550), while the biggest and most gorgeous ones fetch 200,000 to 300,000 ($55,000 to $83,000).

The fierce birds sit quietly, with their hoods on.

Falcon hoods R Us!

3) We visited two museums, and both were knock-outs. The Museum of Islamic Art, designed by architectural superstar I. M. Pei, contains hundreds of exquisite objects…

rugs to glassware…

…armor to ceramics, and much more. The building, exquisite on its own, interplays beautifully with the striking site.

The National Museum of Qatar, which opened less than a year ago, impressed us even more.We walked in hoping to erase some of our almost-complete ignorance of the country, its history, and recent development. In less than three hours, we succeeded. Or more accurately, the museum’s designers did, through story-telling tools combined in ways we’ve never experienced anywhere else. No gallery is a simple cube. Rather, walls meet obliquely, creating complex spaces, and most of those walls are used as giant projection screens, filled with mini-movies that, together with music and other sound effects, complement the objects and interactive displays.You start out a million years ago, and stroll right up to the present (including most of a gallery devoted to the onerous embargo placed in 2017 on Qatar by its Arab neighbors, harsh treatment that continues today. A clear understanding of what underlies that brouhaha is one of the few things we failed to come away with.)

I walked out of the national museum swollen with pride in Qatar; imagining how I might almost want to move here (if the weather weren’t hellish nine months of the year.) My knee, which I injured less than a week before we left San Diego, was throbbing; we’d walked for hours. But Steve wanted to make a quick metro trip to the other side of the bay to at least glimpse what was at the street level of that stunning skyline.

I couldn’t resist that either, so we rode the metro for three stops and emerged to gawk at the buildings……and stroll up the wide boulevard that runs alongside the metro station. Cars whizzed by, but we saw almost no other pedestrians. After walking just a few blocks, we were about to turn around, when a wacky architectural detail caught my eye. I captured it with my telephoto lens, then wheeled to return to the metro station. At that point, a youngish man dressed in the long white gown and headgear that locals wear stepped up to us and asked if we had IDs. “Who are you?” we queried. “Police,” he replied.

He took our passports and photographed them with his phone, then gave them back. We turned to go, but he followed us. We needed to wait, he ordered.

“Why?” Steve demanded, glowering. Another young guy dressed in jeans and a t-shirt stepped forward and identified himself as a plain clothes cop. We had been taking photographs of the nearby 12-foot wall, he explained. This was forbidden.

We were stunned. We pointed out that no signs warned of the photographic prohibition. We were clueless tourists! How were we to know?

Over the course of the next half hour, no one ever answered that question. They pointed out small, hard-to-miss signs on the wall that said, “Don’t Come Near” (in English and in Arabic). We retorted that these were hard to see and more importantly said nothing about taking pictures.

More men appeared, some wearing military uniforms adorned with patches reading “General Head Quarter.” They shrugged. They assured us there was really no problem and that we could go in just a minute. But then they took away our passports and disappeared with them into the complex. Time passed. Eventually, I began insisting that I really, REALLY needed to get to a toilet and VERY SOON! This was not quite true, but I hoped it would make them uncomfortable and expedite our passport release. Still more time passed. I crossed my legs and started hopping up and down, hinting of dire imminent consequences. I also showed them the photos on my camera, which really did not include anything other than this……and this:

(Actually, you can see the forbidden wall way in the distance, if you enlarge my street view.But how threatening should that be?)

Finally after close to 40 minutes, another young man in the white robes and headgear appeared. He shook our hands (or mine at least; Steve continued glowering). He offered no explanation but he did give us back our passports and let us go.

Racing back to the metro station, Steve and I agreed we had never felt scared. But we both felt keenly aware those guys could have complicated our departure from Qatar. We’re happy they didn’t. (I’m writing this from our plane, en route to Entebbe in Uganda.)

I still like Qatar. I’m happy I got to visit it. But any pipe dreams I might have nursed about returning went up in smoke outside that mysterious walled compound.

Made it!

We finally made it to Doha, touching down a little after midnight Sunday.

For some reason, there is a giant gold thumb in the old souq in the center of Doha’s old town.

We didn’t turn off the lights in our hotel room until almost 3 am. But we slept soundly till 10 and felt remarkably good. 

I love the lobby of our very nice (quite new) hotel.

We felt good enough to stroll around for several hours, during which we saw at least one thing we’d never seen anywhere else before: blocks and blocks of shops selling falcons and gear for hunting with them.

Tomorrow we will have a full day here, and we’re aiming to see at least two of Doha’s stunning museums. Our six-hour flight to Uganda takes off early Tuesday morning (if someone doesn’t decide to send it to Hawaii instead). I’m looking forward to writing more then.

Don’t try to get to Africa this way

It’s not the easiest thing to get from San Diego to anywhere in Africa. But this time Steve and I appear to be doing it the hard way. The irony is, it seemed to start so well.

We had scored inexpensive tickets traveling on Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Boston, and then continuing on Qatar Airways to Doha, the capital of Qatar. These tickets would enable us to stay in Doha (a place we’ve never visited before) for three nights before continuing on to Entebbe in Uganda.

The first flight was at 9:50 am and we were inside the terminal by 7:44. We had our boarding passes by 8, and the signs all said we’d be on time. Outside, the sun gleamed off the plane parked at our gate. We went for coffee and doughnuts and returned around boarding time, when the first creepy thing happened: a tug began pushing “our” plane away from the gate. “Wait, stop!” I wanted to shout. “We’re not aboard yet!”

But no one was, and a minute later, the sign changed to Delayed — first to 10:20, then 10:30, then 10:40 am. Our spirits dipped, but when we returned to the gate around 10 and saw another plane parked next to “our” jetway, they rose again. Boarding started soon after, and by 10:40, everyone was seated, ready for take-off.

The captain’s voice over the loudspeaker smashed everyone’s good mood. He sounded annoyed, not with us, but with whichever imbecilic manager had decreed that our plane was needed to fly to Lihue on the island of Kauai, a route on which Alaska is aggressively competing. Everyone and their luggage would have to get off this plane and onto some other one.

The infants on the plane (and there were a bunch of them) all began screaming, an apoplectic chorus, and many of the grownups looked almost as unhappy. I was aghast, but I wasn’t panicking. Our flight from Boston wouldn’t depart until 10:15 pm. We had been facing a long wait at Logan, so this would shorten it a bit, but not catastrophically. Then the ground crew announced that a replacement place wouldn’t arrive until after 1 pm; it wouldn’t reach Boston until around 10:30 pm.

Here’s the Alaska plane we all had to get off, to free it for a lucky Hawaii-borne group. Aloha!

Poof! went our visions of a swift easy transit to the Middle East. We could barely see the Alaska gate staff, the line of querulous customers trying to reach them was so long. I jumped on my cell phone; called Qatar’s customer service. The guy I talked with made what sounded like a intense effort to find some other path to Doha for us. But the flight from LA was leaving in three and a half hours. There were no flights, so we’d have to cover the distance on the ground in two and a half — not something we felt like gambling could be done. Other Qatar flights from other cities all were leaving earlier than the one from Boston. The guy on the phone finally told me Alaska would have to fix the problem.

It took some gal on Alaska’s International desk in Iowa almost an hour to figure something out for us. She said she could get us on a nonstop flight from San Diego to London that was leaving San Diego at 2:50 pm. Once in London, we could connect to a nonstop Qatar flight. It wouldn’t arrive in Doha until after midnight Saturday night (versus the 5:30 pm we had originally been scheduled for). But in our beggarly positions, we didn’t feel we could be picky. We searched for the British Airways check-in counters, where we would have to go to get our boarding passes.

Somehow the young lady in Iowa had gotten the time of the flight wrong. It turned out to be 6:35 pm, not 2:50. Waiting for the check-in counters to open, we considered getting Lyfted home and back, since home was the only place we could think of to nap in. (We couldn’t get into the secure part of the airport until we got our boarding passes. But we couldn’t get our passes until the BA counters opened. I’m here to tell you, the NON-secure part of San Diego’s Terminal Two has no place where any normal person would consider napping.) Reluctantly, we decided against trying to go home and then return. The likelihood of meeting up with some other problem that would keep us from catching our flight (a traffic accident? a Lyft strike?) seemed all too real. The hours dragged by. We finally got those boarding passes; moved to another gate area. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. More than eleven and a half hours after we’d entered the airport, our 747 lifted off from the tarmac.

I’m writing this onboard now, with about 17 hours left to go. Our connection in London is short. That might get screwed up too. But if it doesn’t, and we reach Doha, I’ll post this, maybe in the morning.

With any kind of GOOD luck, we could even still have a day and a half to see Doha’s sights. Then we’ll move on to Africa, where bigger adventures loom.

More than once, we were thankful we travel with carry-ons. (Here are our four, plus our lunch bag. Checked luggage would have significantly complicated the nightmare.