A Qatari stopover- 10 hours in Doha

Back on the road again. Back on the sweet, sweet road again. It didn’t really feel like long since my last trip because, well, it wasn’t. An amazing sojourn in Panama to escape the dampest excesses of the British winter, and here we are less than 3 months later escaping without doubt the most boring and grey part of the year when you live in a tiny and very seasonal seaside town. 

Pin in the map time… definitely had to be in the tropics or further south to guarantee a decent bit of sun. So, I settled on Sri Lanka. And as luck would have it the cheapest flights turned out to be a BA/Qatar codeshare. I haven’t done well on stopovers recently, with an entirely unsatisfactory couple of 6hr stints in Mexico City airport with no prospect of escape. A full 11hrs to see a brand new country and city though, I was in… Another very good deal on flights, £430 return.

After a fairly uneventful flight we landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule. 

Plane travel…robs you of your dignity. Plane blanket ninja!

I was relatively bamboozled by this point due to an acute lack of sleep. I’d gone from a night shift, via about 4 hours of deeply unsatisfactory kip, to the train station. And then onto a flight. Which in itself wasn’t really long enough to grab anything more than the odd 30 minute power nap in between film and dinner duties. 

Arriving at Doha, after a lengthy debate as to whether I should be going to arrivals or transfers, I managed to successfully pick up my next boarding pass, however completely failed to either book a city tour or buy a bus smartcard before I left the point of no return into arrivals. Mistakes. So you can learn from these, here are my Doha city tour top tips: 

Free city tour: Plan A, Qatar Airlines

Qatar Airlines heavily promotes these on its website. I think it’s a joint affair between them and the tourist board. As far as I was aware, these were free to Qatar Airways customers on layovers between 6 and 12 hours- However I did hear another guy trying to book one and they were saying about a 40 Riyal charge. In any case, it’s only about £8 and is probably worth it. It lasts 3hrs and takes in all of the sights that I managed on my “Plan B” tour. And you get to do it with a driver who knows where he’s going and on an air conditioned bus. All good bonus points.

So- Go to the Qatar Airlines desk BEFORE you leave the transfer area. You can’t go back and you can’t book it from the non-secure area.

Free city tour: Plan B, DIY

The lady on the information desk did somewhat save my day. I was feeling rather despondent having left the interesting bit of the airport and with nearly 12hrs to kill before my next flight. She revealed that all of the city tour sights were easily reachable from the public bus. Bonus!

It’s line 777 you need, this runs all the way up the ‘strip’ to The Pearl. It probably takes about 50 minutes to the end of the route, and they run every 15-20 minutes. 20 Riyals (£4) gets you an unlimited 24hr hop on-hop off pass. You can also buy single journey tickets for 5 Riyals (£1). The bus drivers are friendly, however severely limited on change so it’s probably best to buy the passes at the Mowasalat office BEFORE you leave arrivals… I missed my first bus because of this, but another driver went to all of his colleagues to get me change, which was really lovely.

The Pearl marina

The Pearl is when you start to realise that Qatar is essentially pretty dull as tourist destinations go. A bizarre, sterile series of sculptured little roads, bridges over fake canals, magnificently expensive interiors shops and the odd coffee chain restaurant. Particularly if you arrive there around 9 in the morning, when there’s nobody there. Other than the deeply sinister and watchful security guards on every corner. Watching you because, well, there’s nobody else to watch.

The only apparent subversion was some cheeky graffiti on the wall of the jazz kitchen…oh, they’ve paid someone to do that.

I imagine it’s a fairly pleasant, if entirely soulless, place to live, as evidenced by the dead-eyed runners and women that lunch completing laps of the glossy marina, on the glossy painted track intended for the same, being constantly mopped by sad-eyed immigrant workers. 

The wealth is astonishing, whilst waiting for the loser cruiser to my next sight I saw at least 2 Rolls-Royces being batted around the streets by wealthy looking Sheikh types, and quite literally every other car was something (very) prestige or interesting. Petrolhead Nirvana.

Next stop, for no other reason than it featuring on the official tour, was the Katara Cultural Village. There isn’t a stop on the 777 route for this (Probably for good reason, let’s be honest!) so the bus driver helpfully offered to drop me off opposite the place. Great.

…Not great.

He pulled onto the hard shoulder of what probably equates to the Qatari M25 and I hopped off. Not only were there around 12 lanes and a central barrier between me and my destination but I had also been deposited at the middle of a junction with fast on and off slips so I was effectively…trapped! After a few moments of deliberation on my predicament I decided to run for it, as the very well-behaved traffic wasn’t going fast, and to be fair there wasn’t a great deal of it anyway. 

This didn’t result in my death however I sprained my right leg a good’un due to the application of a sudden burst of speed to get myself to safety. Dusty, construction site safety but safe nonetheless. I limped into the Cultural Village. (This sprained ankle lasted a good 4 days…)

Yep, again, amazing buildings and beautifully manicured grounds (sad-eyed immigrant labour again) but absolutely sod all going on, and virtually no-one around. I couldn’t again fathom the point of it, I think it’s an ‘events’ type place. And there were some falcons.

I limped around the rest of the admittedly impressive arena and the admittedly beautiful beach, and then headed inland to plan my escape. There is some brilliant sculpture dotted around the almost Romanesque amphitheatres…

Saved from permanent entrapment within the Village, I found a sliver of free Wifi and Ubered my way out of Dodge to the…

Museum of Islamic Art

Absolutely, 100% worth the visit and the minimal entrance fee. Housed within a building which itself is staggering, there is a well-curated and beautifully presented array of Islamic art across the ages. The setting on the wind-wafted Corniche, with Dhows in the harbour and the distant skyscrapers of the financial district, is in itself spectacular.

And then you get inside, to the central atrium. A truly staggering piece of architecture. They definitely have had the royal chequebook out. The lines and imagery throughout, and the intense attention to detail on every surface, is incredible.

I trawled though the 3 floors of incredible antiquities. Sadly most of my photos didn’t come out on account of a mucky lens. Such is life! Here are however some of the highlights.

Indian carved sandstone panel

Very early Qur’an

Stone carving detail

With the day dragging on, i made tracks through the museum’s courtyards, losing my way and being accosted by an extremely friendly guard who wanted to know ALL ABOUT ENGLAND! Eek.

Time was now gently starting to tick down, so I headed (limped) over the road for my final stop of the day, Souq Waqif. This again is featured on the Qatar Airlines tour, and is definitely worth a visit. A slightly reconstructed/primped but otherwise authentic Arab market. 

Top tip… don’t leave it until siesta time. This should really have been my first stop in the morning as by 3pm it was mainly deserted. Time then, for a spot of lunch. I incurred the universal wrath of the waitress by ordering the wrong things. This is a disdain seen all over the world and solely reserved for tourists who don’t understand how to construct a meal. 

Alluring chapati/chapati combo

I should explain that my parameters were somewhat limited by my remaining Qatari riyals, that I neither wished to have a surplus of nor wished to withdraw more, and also the impending 5 hour flight. Therefore I had to steer clear of any particularly expensive or gastrointestinally controversial choices. So, a cheese chapati it was. With a babaganoush salad. The latter was lovely however came with its own chapati, therefore I had a double chapati treat. The waitress cocked a cynical eyebrow at my poor choice, but served it nonetheless. Should have had a kebab.

Into the souq 

A few points of interest- Firstly the finest public benches I’ve ever seen, with comfy cushions and a prime spot in the deliciously warm late afternoon sun. The temptation to grab a cheeky nap was nearly overwhelming. And secondly, I’m sorry… Did you miss it? Yes, that’s a FALCON HOSPITAL over the road. And the shop behind the benches is a FALCON SHOP, where you can buy actual birds of prey. Seriously, if you needed a reminder that you’re not in dear old Blighty any more I think you’ve just found it.

Mosque tower behind the souq

So, back out to the main road and a quick hop in bus 777 back to the airport to get on the…777 to Colombo. Qatar’s a funny place. I definitely liked aspects of it, and the public infrastructure is impressive from what I saw. There are construction projects everywhere around the city and huge concrete edifices springing up all over the place. It didn’t feel like a free country by any stretch of the imagination, and in many aspects life seemed quite constrained. But what do I know, I’m just a tourist on a layover.

Omnipresent images of the King

Doha International Airport, however, is by any stretch of the imagination incredible. I last transited through here around 2010, when it was all under construction and a bit of a mess. Now though, it’s very much finished, with some spectacular public art…

By far the most joyous sight so far here came as I blearily approached my assigned gate. By now I was into advanced-stage tiredness, with several delicious micro-naps on the airport bus and a deep yearning for more. I needed a lie down and as luck would have it… There were (sex-segregated, naturally) rest rooms directly next to the gate, with reclining seats. A full hour of kip, thank you Qatar. Next stop, Colombo…

Is it worth it?

Right, honest opinion…for a destination on it’s own, I definitely wouldn’t pick Qatar. But, if you’re flying Qatar Airways anyway then I’d definitely take a bit of time out here. And I full-on love Qatar Airways. In total, including bus and taxi fares, lunch coffee and incidentals, I spent less than £25. For a chance to see a whole different culture, and to tick off country 45 on the LIST, it’s more than worth it.

The best way to do a layover would be to give yourself a night there. Explore the city in the morning, good night’s kip in a plush hotel (They definitely do plush hotels, and at least you can get a beer) and off on a flight the next morning. Job’s a good’un. Plan well and Qatar Airways will even put you up!

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