Last Sunday, I decided I’d go to Azerbaijan. Monday, I dropped my passport off at the Embassy (which, to our bad luck stopped issuing visas in the Baku Airport only two weeks ago) hoping to have it back before the weekend. Thursday, I picked it up just in time, and with passport in hand, I was more than ready for a trip Friday to Doha, the capital of every country in the world that begins with the letter Q.
At 4:45 in the morning we left Abu Dhabi by cab for the Dubai budget airlines terminal (flights to Kabul, Baghdad, Peshawar) and our 7:30 am flight. We launched out over the world’s tallest building, the world’s highest concentration of investment bankers, and the dredged archipelago that resembles the world itself, this one parched and abandoned.
And there we were, headed for Doha — or just “Dah,” as our Brit captain said — where the weather is “virtually exactly the same as it is here”. In fact, at first glance, it was like we hadn’t even left the Emirates. Just like in Abu Dhabi, the corniche winds quietly along the waterfront and its well-kept grass. The tall glass buildings, too, are set apart from everything more than four years old. There was a film festival, playing almost identical screenings to the last week’s in Abu Dhabi. And with a flight of exactly sixty minutes and the Qatar time zone one hour slow, we even arrived at exactly the same time we left.
Yet little by little, Doha shows its own character — you just need to be as calm as it is to find it. The New York Times has published a “36 hours in Doha,” assuming you’re flying all the way in from JFK for a day and a half. Here’s 18 hours (and 5 minutes) done right:
8 AM: Little shops are open in Souk Wakif, the new but traditionally done market in the middle of Doha. Find Zatar W Zeit and have a zatar saj with labneh, herbs and yoghurt wrapped in warm soft dough and be sure to start the day with mint tea.
9 AM: Walk all the way around the corniche from the souk to the financial district. Say hi to some fisherman. Notice how all of the huge buildings are packed together with no “underbrush”, no smaller buildings in between — not even any real streets.
10:30 AM: The city isn’t quite ready for you yet, so hop in a cab (or a car if you’ve rented) and tell the driver to take you somewhere. North is nice. Not far outside the city is the famed “Education City”, where six American universities and others have their campuses alongside research centers in what is perhaps the world’s most concentrated college town. Further away from Doha proper, where 80% of Qataris live, is the road to Al-Khour that stretches through barren, white desert.
“I don’t think so.” Our cabbie pulled off to the side of the roundabout as he approached the long straightaway to Al-Khour, an easy 100 Rial in his pocket for lack of any turnoffs. “We don’t go past there.”
11:30 AM: If you happen to be there during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (if you don’t know what DTF means, have someone immature tell you quickly), check out the Doha Film Institute and their outdoor stone amphitheater. If you’re not, don’t.
12:30 PM: Take a bus to City Center — the mall that reminds you once again what the Gulf states have in common. Huge and peppered with Starbucks literally on top of Starbucks, the Doha mall gives Abu Dhabi a run for its money. Watch out for the incredibly localized directory maps that tell you only how to find the stores you’re standing right next to. Have some noodles at Noodle House, or at least the jasmine tea.
2 PM: Get yourself to the gem of Doha — the Islamic Art Museum. Designed by I.M. Pei, the angular limestone building is a work of art in itself, planted at the end of a long row of palms extending into the water. The building is reflected day and night in the calm bay, and in a large pool at the entrance. “I hear it’s sinking,” said one cab driver. So get there quick.
Inside, incredible artifacts span the timeline of Islam, from pages of Qur’ans written barely a century after Mohammed to ceramics glazed with the cosmopolitan influence of the Silk Road and Chinese tradition. Free audio guides can keep you entertained for hours, but beware: the 5:30 closing time means the chase begins at 5:15.
6 PM: Walk along the corniche and get yourself a part as an extra in a TV commercial. If last week was any indication, a film crew will be set up to film spots for the Asian Cup, this January in Doha. They’ll need some whiter looking folk mixed in, so put on a smile and channel Deniro.
7:30 PM: Have a huge dinner. Tajine, a fantastic Moroccan place deep in the souk, offers typical North African dishes and traditional Gulfi fare like stewed baby camel. Have something else. Kick back with a shisha and some perfect Moroccan mint tea until you feel drunk.
11:30 PM: Head to the rooftop lounge at La Cigale Hotel where drinks cost a bunch of rial but the view is priceless. Doha embodies a rare and clever paradox: none of the city really is where pictures tell us the city is — that is, no one lives or chills in the skyline. Everywhere else, though, is staring right at it — like Hoboken without the jealousy. By building “the city” outside of the city, Doha gives the feeling that you are always right in the center.
As the house music plays, city lights and the lights of nearby cranes dance, building highlights changing colors miles away almost certainly in concert with the music of this one bar. Or at least that’s what it felt like.
2 AM: Go stick your feet in the water at the corniche, it’s really nice.
2:05 AM: Get to the airport, you’ve got a flight to catch.
In a quiet city, everything does not happen all the time. Doha speaks, and to get the most out of your 18 hours, you need to listen. Follow the balanced path of activities and chilling that the city suggests (museum opens at 10:30, the souks are closed from about 1 to 4, etc.) and you’ll feel the day pack itself in just the right way.
22 hours after leaving the Dubai airport, we were right back in it, demolished but reveling in our exhaustion. There’s a kind of satisfaction you get from doing a place the way you want to do it, from busting in the door early in the morning and saying, “hey, country, let’s make this happen”. Qatar most certainly did. Next stop Azerbaijan.
More photos from Qatar here