Friday, November 25, 2011
One of the recent fads hyped up as a panacea for skin diseases are skin care products derived from ‘dead sea salts’. The mud derived from the Dead Sea apparently has an amazing variety of minerals and is being increasing promoted for anything from the treatment of psoriasis and allergic disease to skin aging. So if you are a self /publically proclaimed old hag, just jump into the Dead Sea, roll around a bit in the blackish mud and voila! You come out with glowing skin a la Mama Aiswarya Rai! It’s not really an apt place for suffering husbands who are planning to dispose their ‘bitter’ half by the good ol’ ‘death by drowning thing’….not only will these wives remain floating on the surface, they might actually come back looking unrecognizable!
A couple of weeks back I too had the grand honor of dipping/floating in the Dead Sea (from the Jordanian side of course). Unfortunately no ‘ugly duckling to beautiful swan’ thing for me….my skin remained pretty much the same…extraordinarily thick and itchy. Besides, if this Dead Sea thing actually improved itchy conditions you would have expected that the Arabs and the Israelis would have a less scratchy attitude towards each other by now……but I suppose even nature’s cures have their own limits.
The Dead Sea
We visited Jordan in early November (We, as in my family and my friend with his family). The weather was great, the food was great and the people were great. We drove into Jordan from the Eastern end of Saudi Arabia and as expected the long drive was an experience in itself. It is about 1700 km from Hofuf to Amman , virtually a criss-cross across the breadth of Saudi Arabia. Major cities on the way were Hafr- Al Batein, Arar, Rafah and Turaif .We broke the journey and spent the night at Turaif. The ‘Omari’ border crossing is from the Saudi town of Qurayat. This time the Saudi side took just about half and hour (surprisingly!), while the Jordanian side took a good two hours, mainly for the visa on arrival thing and the car insurance (Visa is around 20 jordanian dinars per person and car insurance works out to about 50JD for a month). Most Jordanians speak at least a smattering of English, so conversation is not as difficult as in Saudi. Amman is around 2 hours from the Omari border and our first impression of Jordan en route to Amman was quite disappointing….mostly desert stretches for at least 150 km…I mean if you wanted to see deserts we have absolutely no shortage in Saudi! The other very interesting and mysterious thing is that every few kilometers you find a ‘police training center’. The Jordanian police apparently is a very professional unit, but so many training centers? I was half expecting to see some ‘Bad guy training centers’ ahead so that these cops would be kept occupied!
Things started picking up when we approached Amman. The desert started giving rise to more greenery and then we started experiencing the typical ups and downs of Amman. Amman is basically built around hills and it shows in the roads…it’s a bit like a marriage..Up-down, up- down with few level stretches!
We’re traditionally not very much into the planning thing, so we were cute enough to reach Amman and then search for a hotel instead of booking in advance as level-headed mere mortals would do. As expected (and as that guy Murphy found out) , we were going in circles and we had no idea where we were exactly (It felt a bit like my life story…going around in circles and not reaching anywhere..but apparently the others claimed to be more normal so they apparently felt uncomfortable). Finally we decided to trouble Dr Radi , one of our former Jordanian colleagues in Saudi, who is now settled in Amman. Poor Dr Radi went out of his way to help us. He found us a furnished apartment, invited us for breakfast and lunch the next day ( we were sweet enough to extend that to tea and dinner too!) and also gave us a little guided tour to one of major the attractions near Amman - the roman ruins in Jarash, around 65 km from Amman. We spent almost the whole of the next day at Dr Radi’s ancestral home in the village of Naimah, which is near the major town of Irbid (quite close to the Syrian border).The whole area has beautiful hilly landscapes.Besides the omnipresent olive trees and the lovely people we were treated to great food. Breakfast was ‘Khubuz’ (Arabic bread, something like a more obese cousin of our Indian roti), with hummus (made of chick peas…it’s another things which the whole middle east fights over …as to who has original patent rights – the Lebanese, the other Arabs and the now the Israelis are all laying claim to hummus….as though these dummies didn’t already have enough on their plate to fight about!) .We also had Felafel with a very tasty sauce made of vinegar and spices. In the afternoon we had Ouzi….essentially rice and chicken with lots of nuts and interesting flavours ( although Ouzi I think has more of a Lebanese slant compared to ‘Mansaf’ which is more typically Jordanian…who cares…generally if you put rice over a murdered chicken and rub salt into its wounds and cook it, it tastes good!). Anyway I’m sure we upheld the glorious image of our country in Jordan…Dr Radi will henceforth think twice (at least) before inviting Indians over again!
Amman city is more or less similar to most Arab capitals. What strikes you most is the almost monotonous white limestone buildings everywhere. This particularly white stone is very imaginatively called ‘Hajr al Abyad’ which means ‘white stone’ in Arabic (Ok…I’ll cut down the sarcasm next time……you think!) .Otherwise its typical congested roads, government buildings, malls and lot fly-overs, fly-unders and fly between over and unders. The people seem to be generally very well dressed (my wife though is convinced that even Bappi Lahiri is better dressed than yours truly, so maybe that’s just a relative thing).
Sometimes we sorely missed the luxury of talking in Hindi or Malayalam to every other person (like in the other Gulf countries).Indians generally seemed to be in short supply around here…till we bumped into a jovial mallu from Kannur who was in charge of the play area in Mecca mall, one of the largest malls in Amman. He was ‘simbly’ overjoyed and even gave free game passes to the children who were also ‘simbly’ overjoyed. The other major attractions within the city include the majestic blue mosque and the Roman theatre…but you should definitely not miss the “Citadel” on a hill in the center of downtown Amman…an area which has remains an ruins from half a dozen civilizations and is considered to be one of the world’s oldest inhabited places. So here you have the ‘pillars of Hercules’ and an ‘Umayyad mosque’ all jostling each other in the same space. The citadel also gives an absolutely grand 360 degree view of the whole Amman city around it.
Citadel, Amman and
The Pillars of Hercules
The two must-see things in Jordan of course are –Petra and the Dead Sea. Petra is around 400 km from Amman, while the Dead Sea is around 100 km. ideally you should do Petra and Wadi Rum together, but our schedule was a bit tight, so we skipped Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is apparently famous for eco-tourism – things to do include desert drives, rock-climbing and horse-riding. The area is famous because of its association with T E Lawrence, of the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame. The port of Aqaba is another place near Petra- famous for water sports and shopping.
Petra of course is quite magnificent…especially considering that the whole city was virtually carved out of rocks somewhere around the 6th century BC. The admission ticket is priced magnificently too…I’m sure that a lot of the rocks are actually guys who got ‘petrified’ after hearing the admission fees! Maybe that’s why it’s one of the new ‘wonders of the world’….you hear the price and then you ‘wonder’ whether you really want to go in or not! One Jordanian Dinar (JD) is around 1.4 USD .A ticket to Petra costs 50 JD per head..But jokes apart, it’s worth every cent. The ‘rose city’ as it is called needs to be viewed in leisure. The easiest way of course is to walk, but there are other options like horses and horse-driven carts, especially if you’re going with older people or children. The piece-de-resistance of course is the ‘treasury’ building, made famous by the Indiana Jones movie – ‘The last crusade’
The USP of the Dead Sea is the floating thing. You can actually lie down and read a book while floating effortlessly on the Dead Sea. Personally though I felt the drive into the area was more breathtaking. The Dead sea is the lowest point on the earth and is surrounded by a fabulous landscape which stuns your visual senses as you descend down the hairpin curves. Many Jordanians believe that it is not good to spend a lot of time here as it is a ‘cursed place’, alluding to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah of the ‘destroyed by fire and brimstone’ fame (The area around the Dead Sea is believed to be site of these ancient cities). There are quite a few historical areas nearby including Bethany along the Jordan river.
There are many areas to actually take a dip into the water, but most recommended is the ‘Amman Beach resort’. You have to leave before sunset though. Our guide mentioned that this restriction had something to do with the ‘not so friendly neighborhood Israelis’ being concerned about their security. The West bank is clearly visible from the Jordanian side. Our guide, an interesting and resourceful motor-mouth named Khalil, a Palestinian –Jordanian, intermittently put in nostalgic comments on his homeland where he was no longer allowed in, whenever his gaze drifted to the West Bank. Seeing the beautiful and serene Dead Sea, it would be hard to fathom the amount of conflict and hate deposited on its banks…..
Floating in the Dead Sea
Some general tips:
The best accommodation is around the area of the Jordan University. All major hotel chains are present. You can get a pretty good room starting from 50-60 JD a night. However if you’re going with a larger group getting a furnished apartment would also be a good option. A three bedroom furnished apartment comes for about 60-70 JD a day.
For moving around Jordan, it is better to catch hold of a taxi (even if you have your own car, the route can be confusing).The yellow taxis charge by the meter and seem the best option. For longer trips (like to Petra) you try a taxi, take one of the Jordanian Express Transport (JET) buses or rent-a-car. There are plenty of car rental outlets – a standard sedan like a Toyota corolla goes for about 200 JD a week (most places don’t rent for less than a week)
Prepaid sim cards are easily available at most company outlets. One of the best options is the Zain card which is available for around 10 JD
Petrol ( or benzene, like the Jordanians call it) is pretty expensive here, so if you’re driving in from Saudi, make sure you fill up your tank at the border.
ATMS are surprisingly scarce in Jordan, so keep some cash handy.
Nadia and gang at the Treasury in Petra
Please feel free to use the photos with permission.Thanks!
Sunday, October 16, 2011
My association with the city of Groningen apparently went back quite a few years. One of my arch enemies was from Groningen (only I didn’t know it until recently…that too courtesy good ol’ Wikipedia)….now if you are thinking that I was some medieval Spanish king with a more than passing interest in capturing Groningen, I was actually talking about Mr. Daniel Bernoulli….one of those multitalented creatures that were quite a plenty in renaissance affected Europe. Never quite understood his crazy principles of aerodynamics and fluid motion. Unfortunately my high school physics teacher Mr RK did understand, and was apparently enamored of the guy and he also understood that I didn’t understand much about Bernoulli ji and his musings, so as expected things weren’t quite ‘uplifting’ when he got down to business to discuss how an aero plane takes off in-spite of its heavy butt. I of course tried to convince him that we should not be bothered about explaining things that are already known…we should be looking to the future etc etc. Mr RK apparently was not the ‘great vision’ kind of guy…so he just gave me very unflattering marks. Period. That was the first time Mr Bernoulli pissed me off…not the last though. Apparently this guy’s fantastically unbelievable super duper principle had some crazy implication in the blood flow in the human body. Obviously I couldn’t care less with my great vision of sticking to the future etc. Dr S my examiner in my medical school physiology viva however turned out to be another great fan of Bernoulli ji. So it was déjà vu with Dr S with her psychotic eyes replacing Mr RK with his invisible eye ( because of the -15 lenses he wore…..fitting in with my theory of him not having great vision).The rest of the event was pretty mundane and predictable….I think the marks were also pretty much on same low scale. We parted on good terms after though; I even asked Dr S if she had a brother who was teaching in high school….which she apparently didn’t.
Well the whole flash-back about my depressingly glorious past was basically because I was in Groningen for a couple of weeks as part of a training thing in the medical school of the University of Groningen, and while looking up Wikipedia before I left, I was struck with the revelation that sweet ol’ Bernoulli ji was one of the many famous sons of the Groningen soil. It kind of a put a bad taste in my mouth and an odd sense of foreboding.
I could not have been more wrong though! Groningen was a wonderful place with a capital W. By the way the pronunciation of Groningen according to Wikipedia is 'ɣroːnɪŋə(n)’….which I’m sure literally seems Greek to you (and me), but the simple idea is that the ‘G’ is pronounced something like an odd mixture of k, h and c when you have a bad cold. The advantage is that if you have something struck in your throat just say ‘Groningen’ and voila! Throat clear!
The moment our vehicle pulled into Groningen (Its around 2 hours from Schiphol airport, Netherlands), the first thing that struck me was the bicycles and the second thing that struck me was the bicycles and the third thing that struck me was….well you get the idea. Groningen is considered the ‘cycling capital’ of the world and it shows. Everybody irrespective of age, sex, caste, creed and species is on a bike. No I didn’t get the species thing wrong……you’ll pretty frequently find canines and felines cosily sitting on wicker baskets while the owner cycles away to glory. Like I often mention I’m really not impressed by the concept of exercise…..but got to hand it to these guys…the cycling probably partly explains the totally pollution free air that you get around there. You save on petrol, you burn calories, and you don’t have to worry about parking….and no oil change every 5000 km! You also don’t have ego clashes of the ‘Mera gaadi tumhare gaadi se chotta kaisa’ type…except for very few almost all the cycles seem to be of a standard issue type.
We were put up at the NH Groningen, one of the famous NH chain. It was a really pleasant place with great facilties and friendly staff. The highlight was a basket of fresh green apples which were always there for you in the lobby…retrospectively I wonder though if it was symbolic…we were a pretty large group of doctors…maybe they thought a bunch of apples a day would keep these doctors away…talk about wishful thinking!!
The not so pleasant thing at times was the weather…it was typically what Obelix (of the Asterix comics fame) would have nonchalantly remarked as “This Dutch weather is crazy!”.Luckily most of the days were pleasant, except when it was raining…which was like always though…and it also seemed that the rain clouds over here are a bit like a lady in a clothes store, finding it really hard to make up their mind on the big ‘to pour or not to pour’ question…so you have these irritating little drizzles in irritating little spurts which can make you more than a little irritated. This was especially an issue in the night which was the only time we had to ourselves as the mornings and afternoon were busy with the training sessions.
There are plenty of canals here too…as in the rest of Netherlands and they make quite a pretty picture. On one of the canals near the medical school there’s a quaint little restaurant in a boat called the ‘Pancake’ ship.
The center of the city is the Martini square with the Martini tower which is probably the most famous landmark in Groningen. Next to it is the major shopping streets and the Grote market. The story goes that this area (too) was apparently pretty badly knocked up by the crazy Nazis during WWII. Groningen is very close to the German border and this was one of the last pockets of German resistance around this area to prevent the allies entering Germany. The Nazis didn’t hold on…but apparently managed to make a mess of the city, especially effectively blowing up a lot of the bridges over the canals…the famed German engineering in reverse!
Shopping can be a pretty expensive affair in Groningen ( in spite of not being with my wife!), however while you are here you should get some souvenirs from the tourist office next to Martini tower (typical ones being small windmills and miniature brightly colored wooden shoes) and also recommended are the typically Dutch ‘Stroopwafel’ (syrup waffles) for those with a sweet tooth. Groningen like the rest of Netherlands is quite into flowers too…you have an interesting flower market near the main square , with a wonderful collection of fresh flowers. There are some great shopping malls like V and D, Hema and C and A…especially good for sweaters and shawls I thought. I was looking for some original made in Holland Phillips products…but it seems even that has been outsourced to our friendly Chinese neighbours!
Being a typical university town there are plenty of small eating joints all around the city and the Indians and Chinese are also amply represented (which is quite natural considering that their biggest contribution to the modern world is human beings) .There are also all the typical junk food outlets in plenty – including McDonalds, KFC and so on. Our group tried out a couple of ‘Indian’ restaurants both of which are de facto run by Bangladeshis and this was pretty evident when the ‘lamb biriyani’ was announced as ‘lomb’ biriyani and the ‘Murgh’ biriyani became ‘Morgh’ biriyani:) , the food was OK, a bit on the expensive side though. There are a slew of Turkish ‘doner’ kebab shops too (a ‘doner’ is basically like a mutated burger heavily stuffed with meat and salads).We had typical European food for dinner on a couple of days….a bit low on the spices these Dutch …if you’re Indian it might help to keep a small sachet of ‘garam masala’ in your pocket which you can drop over the food on the sly! The desserts were fantastic though. There are plenty of small cafés around ….and then there are the ‘coffee shops’ which apparently are not for coffee really but other hot stuff (which we will not discuss further as this blog has or at least claims to have a ‘U’ rating)
On a Saturday we were taken to a place called ‘Bourtange’, which is an interesting ‘star’ shaped fortress near the German border. Apparently like rest of the world and especially us Indians, the Dutch too were not very much into the ‘love thy neighbour’ thing and vice versa ….so at times they were fighting the Spanish , sometimes the Germans and sometimes the British ….they would have fought more, but then there were only so many neighbours around. ‘Bourtange’ was something which helped the Dutch maintain control over Groningen. It also houses a cute lil village and an interesting wind-mill inside with a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops. We were also given a guided tour by a guy dressed in one of the mercenary outfits of yore. Worth a ‘dekho’ as one of our polished bollywood movie reviewers would say.
The other great thing about the Dutch is their appreciation for art.You’ll find sculptures and art galleries in every nook and corner. The University hospital itself is laced with some great creative work….of course with my limited knowledge of fine art I could not appreciate the more abstract of them (but then I was never really into art appreciation….I’m the kind who would always think that Phantom comics is better art than Dali’s surrealism…but that is just poor mentally challenged me!).Incidentally there are a couple of good museums around,including an interesting comic-strip museum.
And last but not the least ( that’s one cliché I’ve not used for a long time!), the highlight of the trip was the group at the University of Groningen who were responsible for our training….and it was an absolute pleasure academically (and socially).I really thank all those involved –including but not limited to – Prof Borleffs , Prof Cohen, Prof Molenaar, Prof Tio, Jan, Remko, Hana, Harry, Hanke,Elaine……….and of course the problem-solver, logistics expert and ‘jack of all trades’ rolled into one –Renzo!
N:If you feel like you using any of my pics please do go ahead, but would really appreciate it if you use it with permission.Thanks!
Monday, July 11, 2011
This being my second visit to Thailand, I thought there would not be much of an issue getting around.However I forgot that the ‘eleventh commandment’ around hereabouts continues to be -‘Thai’ shalt not speak English !-Most Thai people you meet don’t speak English at all and many of those who speak the language are not quite fluent in it. In a country that depends a lot on international tourism this seemed a bit strange.So if you want to get around by yourself makes sense to brush up on a little basic Thai language…and a little trick I learned is speak real slow.Slow as in S…L…O…W.For example if you’re ordering coffee you don’t really get coffee till you say COF (1sec) pause for half a sec and then FEE (1 sec) – total duration of 2.5 seconds - and incidentally tea and coffee around here is cold tea and cold tea by default, so if you want your daily cuppa hot coffee you have to specifically say H-O-T (1 sec) - half sec pause -COF (1 sec) – half sec pause -FEE ( 1 sec)…..and whatever you say add ‘Khap’ ( If you’re male) or ‘Kha’ if you’re female at the end of the sentence….it really doesn’t translate to anything specific in english, but is a sign of good manners.(The general courtesy and manners of the Thai people really needs to be appreciated)
The last Sunday me and a friend ( who’s been in Bangkok for over a year now), decided to pay a visit to the historical town of Ayutthaya.In spite of my friend being a so-so Thai speaker, we had trouble at times negotiating our way through.We ultimately reached Ayutthaya by taking a direct bus from the Bangkok bus terminal (chatuchak/mochit).Ayutthaya is around 80 km from Bangkok.The other options are mini-vans, taxi, train and even boat, but the bus seems to be the most convenient,cheap and comfortable option.Taxis cost around 1000 Baht one way and mini-vans around 175.Train tickets depend on the class …the bus costs only 50 Baht one way.
In Ayutthaya we had to rely on our ‘friendly neighbourhood’ tuk-tuk man for the local sightseeing.For those not in the know the tuk-tuk is basically a three wheeled vehicle – a distant cousin of the ‘Auto-rickshaws’ you find in India.The tuk-tuk guy I think ‘took took’ me for a ride literally and figuratively charging about 650 Baht for a 4 hour whirlwind tour (I wonder if this was how the name came to be?After a tuk-tuk ride the common refrain is that the guy took a lot of my money and also took me for a ride!) , but we really didn’t have too many options though.There are bicycles available for 40-50 Baht and hour , but the weather was quite hot and humid, also we had no real idea of where to go and how to go…..and cycling is kind of like exercise, and me and the concept of exercise don’t really get along well.
Important sights to see in Ayutthaya mainly include – a lot of Wats like - Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Phra Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Thammikarat (before you wonder ‘wat’ the heck is going on, ‘wat’ basically alludes to temple in Thai, and Ayutthaya is basically famous for what remains of it glorious temples after it was ransacked by the Burmese somewhere in the latter half of the 18th century. The ruins of the old city now form what is called the Ayutthaya historical park, which is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.One of the interesting aftermaths of this ransack program is the large number of ‘headless’ Buddha statues you see across various sites in Ayutthaya.The other attraction in Ayutthaya is the interesting ‘floating market’ – a good place for food, shopping and general fun activities – including elephant rides, snake parks, traditional thai dances based on the hindu epics and so on.If you are the real nerdy encyclopediaphilic nut there are a couple of great museums around mainly highlighting the history of Ayutthaya.
If you do opt for a tuk-tuk I would suggest that you take a quick round of the different ruins and when your time is up ask the driver to drop you off at the floating market, where you can have grub and simply walk around.After that you can pick another tuk-tuk to drop you off at the bus-station or train station.
Food is a big problem in Thailand if you are not the carnivorous type.Even the selective carnivores like me find things tough.The one thing in abundance in all food stores seem to be ‘moo’ (and if you like me immediately conjured up an image of a lazy cow….sorry ‘moo’ in Thai means pork….though a well raised conventional pig according to me should go ‘oink’ as in the Asterix comics).I don’t eat pork so one of the staple diets for me while in Thailand has been ‘Pad Thai’ (or Phat Thai), which is basically is an odd but tasty combination of rice noodles, bean sprouts, tofu and eggs. Normally either shrimps of chicken are added to the combination….and in the ‘floating markets’ of Ayutthaya too I resorted to good ol’ padthai. What was different was the setting…with all the cooking and serving done on little boats parked next to longitudinal piers which were decked with tables where people could sit and eat. It was a real novel concept.Another good thing about such an arrangement of course is that you can wash your hands right in the river water before eating( If you’re one of those dumb hygiene freaks who don’t get along well with the poor germs on your body) …….and even lovelier is the fact that if you end up eating something that does not agree with your stomach you can easily throw up in the river without bothering other people too much..though the fish in the river would not think very highly of you!)
All images copyright - Feroze Kaliyadan - please do not copy without permission.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Driving across countries is an interesting experience in itself. Add to it the lure of traversing through miles and miles of empty desert stretches in the sandstorm season and you could have the grand honour of being labelled as adventurous or plain, simple, hopping mad. When we set out for Qatar by road last weekend, from Hofuf (Saudi Arabia), where we live, we weren’t expecting much. Especially because this was going to be our second attempt in as many weeks. And if you’re thinking that the 250 km drive to Doha is something like scaling Mount Everest, requiring multiple attempts, that was hardly the issue. THE issue was, or rather IS that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains one of the only nations which has a rather elaborate and curious ‘exit-re-entry visa’ for all expatriates, even if they have a residency status. To put it simply: ‘no exit visa, no leave country’!
We had got our visa all right (We as in me, my wife and daughter + my friend and his wife).Unfortunately the first time we reached the border, the customs guy was not too impressed with my daughter’s visa. So we got out of the car and went to have a lil chat with the ‘mudeer’ (Arabic for top honcho).The mudeer was quite cordial (unlike some of our previous border experiences where the guys in charge of the border seemed to have distinct psychopathic ‘border’line personalities..yech! ...bad pun, even for my low standards...), however in spite of playing tug and war with the computer entry system for the exit visa, he too gave up. “Fi mushkil visa...irja” (In plain English ‘Visa no good ...go back’)....and we irja’ed back home to Hofuf vowing to return another day a la Shahrukh bhai mouthing “Picture abhi baki hai mere dost............!!”
(N: Incidentally if you want to do a quick check on your exit/re-entry visa status you just have to type in your visa number/passport number in the e-services section at http://moi.gov.sa/wps/portal/homeEN.
You can also check for any outstanding traffic fines etc. also)
And back we were the week after (After a bit of hectic running around to get my daughter’s new visa).This time the paperwork at the border was pretty smooth and we got through the Saudi side in less than half an hour. The distance from Hofuf to the border, Salwa, is 150 km. If you’re driving in from Dammam it’s around 310 km. The road is pretty good, wide with three lane traffic. There are some areas where you need to be careful of camels crossing the road (especially if you are adventurous/intrepid/stupid enough to drive at night).These camel guys apparently are quite top-heavy, so if you happen to ram one at speeds of 120 km/hr, you might end up with an assorted mixture of your meat and camel meat ...not a very tasty combo. So be careful.
There are virtually no petrol stations after entering the highway from Hofuf, so makes sense to fill up your tanks at Hofuf. Petrol of course is pretty cheap in Qatar too, but not as cheap as in Saudi, so it also makes sense to do a second top-up of your tank at the border before crossing into Qatar.
At Salwa, before the customs area, you have a petrol station, some shops and a Pakistani restaurant where you can grab a quick bite. Interestingly there is a hair cutting place too, the logic of which I couldn’t figure out. Not sure if there is some deep philosophical basis in having a haircut before you cross international borders. If you have time you can spend a while on the beach adjoining Salwa on the Saudi side. Not a very clean beach but the water’s good and there’s scope for some fishing too.
My daughter Nadia- Salwa beach Saudi side
Once you cross Saudi customs there is a 5km stretch of no-man’s land after which you enter the Qatari side. The Qatari immigration set-up is done up pretty well with some neat, impressive buildings and lawns. Expatriates are issued a ‘visa –on –arrival’ based on their profession. There’s an extensive list of professions eligible for a VOA, available on the net. The visa fees is 100 QAR per person and they don’t accept cash, so you have to go to the attached unit of the Qatar National Bank and convert the money into a e-cash card and then pay. Car insurance is around 100 QAR for a week (can be paid as cash).There are at least 6-7 immigration counters working at a time, so normally the whole business finishes in less than an hour or so.
From the border it is a straight 100 km to Doha. Doha seems to be full of speed radars and round-abouts, (Roundabouts really drive me crazy....never could figure out why civil engineers prefer a roundabout instead of a 4 way traffic island), so go easy on the accelerator pedal. Traffic fines apparently are pretty steep in Qatar. The city itself can be a bit of a maze for first timers, even with a GPS .Always better to get a rough idea about the city roads from someone in Doha you know beforehand. We were helped immensely by an old student of mine – Ashik who is doing his orthopaedic residency in Hamad Medical Corporation, the premier medical establishment in Qatar. If it wasn’t for him we were in for quite a long period of aimless wandering.
It isn’t difficult to find a hotel in Qatar even without prior booking, but always better if you’ve phoned in some place in advance. The average rates per night for a varies from 300 qar to 1500 qar depending on whether you’re the three star or the five star type. There are plenty of serviced apartments also available at good rates. We went for a Hotel Ghazal, which was quite near the corniche. Quite cozy and comfortable.
So where do you go once you’ve settled in? Again plenty of places to visit in Qatar, so you’ll have to prioritize based on the time available. We had kind of a whirlwind tour lasting for a couple of days, but we managed to cover most of the major attractions.
You can just drive through the corniche enjoying the sights, especially at night, or if you have time, take a quiet little stroll. If you have the time, inclination and the money you could go for a dhow cruise too. There are quite a few parks adjacent to the Corniche. The Rumailah is one such well maintained park. If you’re driving by at night you also get to witness the fabulously lit sky-scraping buildings on the West-bay and also the Qatari parliament which is wonderfully illuminated in a pearly white hue.
Quite a few beaches – at least try for the ‘Sea line’ beach which has a resort attached to it. Very clean beach with great water. Has dune-buggies and camel rides for those interested.
Again you’re a bit spoilt for choice. The Islamic heritage museum and the weaponry museum are famous. However a bit away from the city you have the Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al-Thani museum which is a must see .You need to call in advance for an appointment. The whole place would take a day in itself if you’re planning to see it in leisure. The biggest attraction for me was its wonderful collection of antique cars and bikes. On the way back you also get a peek at the Emir’s palace...don’t peek around too much though, or you’ll soon be playing peek-a-boo in a Qatari jail.
Khalifa stadium /Aspire tower
Monuments to Qatar’s emergence as a major sporting venue. The work for stadiums designed to host the 2022 FIFA world cup are also going on. Sporting buffs can also peek at the Qatar golf course (Never though golf was a sport though!)
City centre mall – with its great multiplexes and food courts is near the corniche, but even you’re not really the mall type you should see the Villagio mall adjacent to the Khalifa stadium. The Venetian atmosphere built into the design is fabulous. It even has a boat ride in a canal in the middle, with Gondoliers thrown in. Parking is a big issue at peak hours, and this I suppose applies to all Malls in Doha.
Education City is an initiative of the ‘Qatar foundation’. It covers around 15 square kilometers and has a number of educational complexes catering to wide variety –ranging from schools to research units. The complex has a number of esoteric, interestingly designed buildings. This apparently complex is part of the plan to develop Qatar into a knowledge-based-society. Wonder if the explosion in media growth in Qatar – Arabic and English (think Al-Jazeera), has any direct relation.
These are a bunch of clustered shops built in the style of the traditional Arabian market .The market itself is quite old, but the buildings were done up recently. Good place for collecting trinkets and souvenirs and quite close to the city centre. Special things to look for are – rugs, perfumes and jewellery. The largest one is the Souk Waqif. Should go in the evenings...we missed it coz most of the shops were shut in the afternoon when we visited. Incidentally there is a ‘Gold souk’ also nearby, but for obvious reasons (Read WIFE) we skilfully steered clear of that danger area.
This is something built on the lines of the Atlantis in Dubai, with high end malls and flats straddling clear blue waters .Worth a visit if you’re into photography and window shopping (If you have deep wallets you can do actual shopping too...though I’m yet to really meet a genuine idiot who has actually done some shopping in these hi-end kinda malls).
We stuck mainly to our mallu food from a little, but comfortable restaurant named ‘Swagath’ a short walk from our hotel, near the Mansoura signal. However all kinds of cuisines are available in Doha. The city-centre mall itself houses a larger array of all kinds of eateries in the food-court.
The malls have good multiplexes which play English, Hindi and Malayalam movies. There are quite a few ‘traditional’ Indian style theatres around too. We took in a movie at the ‘Doha cinema’....where we were witness to Mammooty chettan as ‘Dy SP Perumal’ single-handedly (as usual) unravelling an assassination conspiracy against the chief minister of Kerala. The movie seemed to be a bit a of a propaganda thing for the communist party, but watchable all the same.
This is one of your run-of-the-mill water theme parks which is around 30 km Doha on the Salwa road, to Saudi. So we put in a visit on our way back. Not very large, but still quite enjoyable, especially for kids. Only issue is that it is basically an outdoor set-up, so the weather is a major factor. When we went it was drizzling and the water was a bit on the colder side.....a bit of a put-off. Nice ambience all the same. Tickets are 100 QAR per person, free for children 3 and younger.
Language unlike Saudi is not a major issue at all in Qatar. English is generally well spoken and understood. Of course Indians (especially mallus), Pakistanis and Bangladeshis will crop up in every nook and corner, an universal phenomenon in the Gulf (with mallus I think that should ‘simbly’ be the whole ‘werld’)...so you can get by with Hindi, Malayalam and Bengali too! Qatar is not as conservative as Saudi Arabia, but the general sensible advice is to dress, talk and behave in a manner that does not go extremely overboard the local culture.
Things to keep with you in the car include – copies of your travel documents, a portable air compressor unit, extra pair of car-keys, charging cables (In case you end up with a dead battery) a bit of lubricant oil (in case you need to change tyres) and of course a complete tool kit.
(All images copyrighted under cc license- feroze kaliyadan- please use with permission)