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)