Saturday, 17 September 2016

Qatar Cycling Adventures - A night under the stars pt 2

Having found a nice little spot to spend the night, on a sandy spit, east of Al Khor, stretching out into the Arabian Gulf, I parked Grey Legs and spread out my towel.  I changed out of my cycling clothes and hung them out to dry on the handle bars.

The spit was raised out of the sea with large rocks and as I relaxed after my day in the saddle, I listened to the water lapping gently and shoals of fish jumping and darting about around the surface of the ocean.

The sun had now gone down and the sky was a dusky pink to violet, turning to dark blue, and looking up I saw the moon, just over half full and bright.  There was a light breeze and the humidity began to pick up a little as darkness fell.

I had noticed a group of Philippino guys parked up and a few of them wandered past me towards the end of the spit, carrying what looked like camping equipment.  I was a little disappointed that Id be sharing the space but they weren't too close and seemed quiet enough.

I then noticed some lights in the water, some out quite far and some close to the rocks - maybe kayakers?  Some of the guys were looking over the side of the spit close to me and seemed to be surveying for something, shining their torches into the water.

More and more lights were appearing in the water and what started as one or two voices in the darkness grew into a gentle background chatter.  Although sad that I hadn't found my place of isolation for the night, I found the combination of lapping waves and chattering fisherman rather reassuring.

I wasn't quite so chuffed with my other camp buddies...... ants!  Of course when you decide to camp wild, its good to remember it means you'll potentially be sharing your camp with all manner of guests and there is not much you can do to stop them from creeping in.  Scorpions are common in the desert so I got off quite lightly with ants.   Despite moving my camp 3 times, they tracked me down.... so eventually, I gave in and decided to relax and share with them.

As the bright moon travelled across the sky, turning from silver to gold and then in the early hours dipping below the horizon, out came billions of stars and I finally got what I came for.  I never see the stars in Doha due to the light pollution so it was really special to be lying there looking up at a sky full of stars, spotting constellations and feeling insignificant in the world.  While I took it all in, an occasional shooting star appeared then faded, its trail following like a tiny silver thread - I saw around half a dozen or so as I drifted in and out of a light doze.

The Philippino fishermen were busy all night - I was dying to know what they were catching but was too tired to investigate until the morning.  When dawn broke, and they appeared to be packing up, I asked them - "whats the catch?"..... and they showed me their haul of crabs.  Hundreds of small blue crabs - sadly far too small for my liking.  But Ive seen them for sale in supermarkets here so I guess its not illegal.

The sun started to rise quickly and spectacularly at around 5am.  A few guys had arrived just to swim and dived straight into the water - it was too hot for swimming they claimed - more like a bath!   I swiftly and delicately changed into my lycra and headed off with Grey Legs back towards the road and home.

I urgently needed to find 1. a discrete place to pee! and 2. somewhere to buy water - I'd been rationing my supply through the night - but I wasn't sure where would be open at 6am on the day of Eid Al Adha, a public holiday.

For no.1 (excuse the pun) - I found a small dune to protect my modesty - or so I thought!  A passing motorist was only too pleased to acknowledge my over exposure by tooting his horn - not sure whether in appreciation, disgust or simply surprise at seeing this strange apparition akin to a scene from Carry on Follow that Camel!!

When I arrived back at the main road, I realised I would have to turn right and away from the direction i needed to go until the dual carriageway hit a roundabout.  But at the roundabout, I decided to continue on to the little seaside town of Al Thakhira.  And boy I was glad that I did.  I headed towards the corniche and right there was a parade of small shops and a grocery store that was open, which satisfied urgent need no.2

I loaded up with water, guzzled down a fruit juice and bought an ice lolly and headed to the waterside. It was beautiful.... an inlet with mudflats and sand banks dotted with different kinds of sea birds and waders.  Grey Legs and I took a short breather before the epic now 80km journey home.  I wanted so much to stay longer in this pretty little place but we had to hit the road before temperatures started to soar into the 40s.  As it was they were well into the mid 30s already at 6am!

Everywhere were 4 x 4s crammed with young men and boys dressed exquisitely in pristine white thobes.  It was the early morning of Eid Al Adha so I guess maybe they were all returning from the mosque?  Or maybe going out for a morning cruise before family duties?  Not a woman in sight.  Maybe it was like Christmas morning when mums stay in cooking Christmas dinner while the guys go out walking the dog or down to the pub!.... clearly not either of those activities in this case!!

Anyway, water bottles full and sufficiently cooled by my ice lolly, we headed off back towards Al Khor and then onto the coastal road and home to Doha, singing "On the road again" out loud.  A ghastly headwind and rising temperatures started to take their toll after about and hour or so and I knew I needed to get out of the sun quickly for a break.  But there are no trees, no buildings, no shade along this road so when I spotted a mobile advertising hoarding, I stopped and hid in its tiny sliver of shade for 10 minutes, lowering my head to stop myself passing out.

I couldn't stop for long and as soon as I recovered enough, I was back on the road, pressing for home as the heat continued to climb into the 40s.  I felt relief as the Doha city scape came into view but I knew I had about another hour of cycling to go and my water supply was severely depleted already.

Once into the city, and another 20 minutes of familiar roads left, I really wanted to get home but a nagging voice was telling me to stop for water - so as I made it to the Corniche, I stopped at the Costa Coffee and stumbled inside, to the shock of staff and customers.   I ran straight to the cooler and drank a pineapple juice and a bottle of water before paying for anything!  I was physically shaking due to the combination of depleted sugar levels and heat exhaustion.   But it didn't take long to rehydrate and cool down and after a 15 minutes, I was feeling great again and ready to face the final stretch along the Corniche, waving at my lovely camels in Souq Waqif as I went by!

The beauty of the trip was not only in the reward of the night spent in the desert under the stars, but was also in the physical challenge of cycling in such conditions and the mental challenge of doing so alone.  As the quote goes... "Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort"..... and I now feel ready for a longer adventure - from micro to mini!

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Qatar Cycling Adventures - A night under the stars Pt 1

With Eid AlAdha approaching and the weather cooling to a mere 40 degrees, what better time to plan another micro-adventure and this time to do something I've been dying to do for a long time - sleep in the desert under the stars.

After little sleep and an aching back, I hauled myself out of bed and set off at 6.30 am on the day of Arafat, a fasting day for Muslims, before the celebrations of Eid Al Adha - the Festival of the Sacrifice - begin.   Roads were quiet, temperatures around 35C and no wind.  I planned to cycle up the coastal road running along the east coast of Qatar, to Al Khor, a small town in the North East, located on a creek - Al Khor is Arabic for 'the creek'.   The ride would be approximately 50km which I estimated would take me 2.5 hours, give or take a stop when necessary.

Id heard of a small island among the mangroves - for which Al Khor is famous - which looked like it might be a good place to camp and star gaze, away from bright lights and civilisation. I was excited but nervous - the heat being such as it is.  Ive not ridden for more than 45 minutes in over 40 degree heat and (except for my trusty Grey Legs), I would be alone in my endeavour.  Dogged determination and an inexplicable inclination towards discomfort would keep me going - after all, what pleasure is there in riding a smooth road?

Staying hydrated was my biggest concern so I stopped at the first truck stop at the start of the coastal road to refuel my water bottles and take a breather before the remaining 35km.  These truck stops in Qatar are not for the faint hearted.  They're always a little dodgy due to the large number of huge trucks and commercial vehicles that pass through them from all directions.

I had to be careful, being a tiny person on a tiny bike!!  But I found the convenience store in the corner.... aptly entitled "consumer goods" and gulped down a strawberry milkshake and as much water as I could manage.

I turned to look for the way out and was somewhat daunted by the sight of enormous tipper and concrete mixer trucks trundling along kicking up thick clouds of dust jostling with worker buses chucking out dense black fumes, weaving their way through the myriad of parked up traffic, out through the gas station and back onto the main road.  I felt very small very suddenly.

With my helmet and glasses back on and my scarf pulled up over my nose and mouth, we plunged into the melee and back out onto the main road, past Lusail - a massive construction site which will eventually be a brand new city for World Cup 2022.

Once past this, the only highlight on the long straight quiet road was the Lusail International Racing circuit and sports complex - quiet now for the summer, but a hive of activity during cooler nights when the circuit hosts motor racing, cycling, running and karting events.

After a relatively uneventful 2 hr 45 min and 58km ride, I finally entered the gates of Al Khor and headed directly to the air conditioning of AlKhor Mall, where I proceeded directly to the bathroom and changed into slightly more appropriate attire for Arafat Day (remember fasting relates to all things, not just food and drink).

I would spend the next few hours inside the mall, my only refuge from the heat of the day, before heading back out to find my little patch of desert beneath the stars for the night.

I set off again around 4pm towards Purple Island - another 10km or so out of Al Khor.  The traffic was building, something akin to Christmas Eve in the UK, where people rush out for last minute goodies for tomorrow's Eid feast with family and friends.  So when I finally got off main roads and onto the very quiet desert track leading towards the coast, it was a mighty relief, particularly as the sun was rapidly descending and light would soon be gone.

Passing a half sunken Nissan Patrol, which had bogged itself into the soft wet sand just off the side of the road, I was reminded to take care not to deviate too far off the beaten track.  The area is covered in salt flats which when wet can turn into quick sand - quite treacherous to the unwary.  With the sun setting, I found the turning to Purple Island - a firm sand track leading to a parking area just off the island, more conducive to mountain biking than Grey Legs' skinny tyres!  But he managed admirably and we arrived to find severals cars parked up and families stretching their legs.

However, where we expected to see a track leading onto the island, we found a deep swampy canal and no way in.  The whole island appeared to be cut off with mosquito infested mangroves.  With insects buzzing around my head, no tent and no insect repellent, I made the quick decision to abandon the plan and find somewhere else.  And with light disappearing fast, I needed a rapid pan B.

Back to the road and cycling as fast as I could muster, the wind having picked up, I headed down another desert track which I gambled would take me to the sea and hopefully a stretch of beach that wasn't fenced in as private land or owned by a gas company - as much of Qatar is.   At the end I found another few cars parked up with a group of Philippino guys gathering - maybe for a BBQ?? I wasn't sure.  The parking area was cut off from the sea by more mangrove swamps and a high sand bank on the left hand side.  Undeterred, I hauled Grey Legs up the steep sand bank and to my total relief, saw a sandy spit stretching out into the sea.

We cycled as far as possible along the spit and found the perfect spot for the night, just as the sun disappeared below the horizon.  I was exhausted and so happy to have found somewhere close to the water, isolated and peaceful.   Well..... so I thought.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Making a date with the local farmers of Qatar

Being a small desert peninsula, Qatar doesn't have too many natural resources apart from the obvious oil and gas, especially with the pearl fishing industry long since disappeared.  But there is one thing that grows well here..... the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera to give its Latin name!!).

In fact, dates have been cultivated here in Qatar since the bronze age and now there are over 1300 registered date farms in the country, producing more than 31,000 tonnes annually..... most of which are consumed by the local population with only a small proportion being exported.

Last week saw the start of the Local Dates Festival, in Souq Waqif, Doha.   18 local farmers have been invited to bring their crops for sale including fresh dates, some dried dates and even saplings for those who want to try their hand at growing their own!

The government is keen to showcase this locally grown super food and encourage visitors to the festival to taste, buy and learn more about the properties of this powerful little nutritional gem.

Dates have been important to the bedouin tribes of this region for centuries due to their high concentration of vitamins, minerals, fibre and natural sugar.  Indeed the bedu, which means 'nomad', survived as they travelled through the desert for months on only dates, water and camel's milk.

Packed with dietary fibre, dates help to reduce LDL cholesterol and prevent colon cancer.  They contain anti-oxidants known as tannins, possessing anti-inflammatory and anti-infection properties.  They contain a host of other antioxidants such as beta carotene which protects the cells of the body from damaging free radicals.

They are a rich source of several minerals including potassium, iron,  calcium, manganese, copper and magnesium, all important for bone growth, production of red blood cells and muscles.

They're a good source of vitamin A, which is essential for healthy vision, and is also known to help protect from lung cancer.  In addition, they contain vitamin K, essential for bone metabolism and blood coagulant, plus B complex vitamins which help the body metabolise fats, protein and carbohydrates.

Of course they contain high levels of natural sugar so its important that they're eaten in moderation and I imagine the majority of those visiting the date festival wouldn't be walking hundreds of miles across the desert with only dates and camels milk to keep them alive..... but they're a lot more healthy than a mars bar and that's the point.

For those with a sweet tooth, dates are a pretty wonderful natural alternative to those processed sugary snacks that so many children.... and adults come to that..... reach for on occasion !  And I, for one, adore them.  During Ramadan, in particular,  I always break my fast with 3 dates, some water and a little yoghurt.

Friday, 17 June 2016

My top 5 favourite things to do for free in Qatar

1.  Wandering the lanes of Souq waqif

My top recommendation for a visitor to Doha is a stroll through the lanes of Qatar's famous souq,  known as one of the best in the middle east.

This renovation of the original, rebuilt on the same site, is actually only around 15 years old, although some of the buildings are original and you'd never spot the ones that aren't as its been done very very authentically.

It is the very place where Qatari bedouin would trade their animals, wool other goods and a place where they could buy their essentials.  It is the heart and soul of Doha and although the main street that runs through the souq is characterised by souvenir shops and shisha cafes, exploring the alleyways behind will uncover some real gems... oudh, perfumes, traditional Arabic clothing, pots and pans, scarves, bags, shoes, and oh the spice market, where you can buy every spice, pulse or nut and the best Yemeni honey on the planet!

One of the best alleyways is one devoted to local craftsmen from the region.  All manner of goods are made on site from rugs and jewellery, to handmade lamps, basketweave and pottery.

One of the best shops sells everything you can imagine made from glass which is blown right in front of you.  This alleyway is a true treasure trove - even if you don't buy,  just watching as they display their now rare traditional skill is a treat.

There is a beautiful Arts Centre towards the far end of the main street, where local artists display and demonstrate their artwork, some will paint your portrait as you sit and the centre itself is breathtakingly beautiful.  Full of islamic architecture, Arabic lamps, furniture and relaxing water features.  And it is air conditioned.  So if you need a break from the heat, step inside and take a breather for a few minutes.

On weekends, local ladies come to sell their own homemade produce - all manner of sweet and savoury dishes - some cooked at home such as rice dishes like mandi or biryani and some cooked on site like delicious dough balls in rose water syrup and pancakes with all sorts of fillings.  The aromas are incredible and everything unbelievably cheap.

So when I said its free - you certainly can wander the lanes, breathing in the exotic aromas and taking in the unique experience of a truly thriving Arabic souq, which is frequented by as many locals as tourists for bargains galore.  The Emir has decreed that the rents for shop owners in the souq be kept low to encourage shoppers to keep coming.  You have to haggle of course, but thats all part of the fun.

My favourite thing is to sit in one of the many cafes, order a pot of Moroccan mint tea or the most wonderful Turkish coffee and watch the world go by.  There is always something interesting from the bedouin lady percussionists and singers who walk through the souq drumming and chanting, to the elderly porters with their wheelbarrows dressed in original outfits.  And most days morning and evening, traditional Qatari guards ride through the souq on horseback!

Every nationality, from locals and visitors from the region to tourists around the world.  Groups of young single guys in their thobes and women and girls in abayas, families with excited children, and babies with their eyes wide in wonder at all the colours and sounds.  The richest and the poorest, muslims and non muslims, walk along side by side, sit together smoking shisha enjoying the atmosphere.

If you want to explore the souq even further, venture through to the falcon souq where you can see birds and falconry paraphernalia on sale.  Just past this, you can wander through to the stables where the Arabian horses live and spend a few minutes there, before continuing on to the camel paddock.  Its wonderfully free to explore and as long as you're respectful to the animals, you're most welcome.

One word of warning - avoid the pet souq.  There is an ongoing campaign to improve conditions or get it closed down.  This is the only negative in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience of true traditional Arabia.

2.  Watching traditional Arabic music concerts

Again, in Souq Waqif - every Thursday night and Friday night, starting at 9pm, there is a full free concert of fabulous Arabic music.  Well known artists from the region visit regularly to sing traditional songs, accompanied by the house band.  And the rhythm section of hand drum and tabla players are the absolute best!!

A large crowd is always present, partially segregated between women and families on one side and single men on the other.  However, the area behind is much more free for mixing and mingling and watching the guys in the audience dancing traditional arabic dances.

Yemenis are the strongest presence in the dancing community at these events and when they really get going in formation, its quite a thrilling experience to watch them..... and if you're feeling brave, join in - they're wonderfully warm and welcoming to visitors.

The musical performers come from all corners of the region, from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  They also have big events spread throughout the year such as Eid, and various festivals where they have all sorts of traditional, local and international entertainment including street artists......

traditional music and dance......

camel rides.......

They also set up bedouin tents illustrating desert life as it once was before oil was discovered and modern conveniences swept tradition aside.

There is always something going on..... its fabulous, fascinating and totally free!!

3.  Visiting the Museum of Islamic Art

This is definitely one which should be at the top of the list.  Not just because the artefacts and displays are interesting, but the building itself is a real star.  Built by the same architect as the Louvre Pyramid, I.M Pei, it is a 5 storey marvel which requires time to properly explore and enjoy.

The Museum has a great website which gives up to date information on the latest exhibitions, which constitute the larges selection of Islamic art in the world, drawn from across three continents.  The display halls are gloriously dark and sparse, invoking a real sense of the history of the artefacts and allows the visitor space to learn and absorb.

On the ground floor, there is a great gift shop where you can buy really high quality and beautifully packaged souvenirs and there is a lovely cafe with a great view across the water to the city scape beyond.

A great place to relax and spend a few hours in a cool, calming and peaceful environment, marvelling at the exhibits and even more so the architecture.

There are occasional performances by a string quartet in the grand lobby, regular calligraphy classes and guided tours.

4.  Relaxing in the Museum of Islamic Art park

A beautifully landscaped green space bordered by a long circular promenade which extends around the museum, dotted with palm trees.

On weekends and warm evenings, the park fills with picnicking families and visitors keen to get away from the cities shopping malls and crazy traffic.   The museum park often hosts events such as the hugely popular annual Qatar International Food Festival, which showcases food from around the world.

There is a weekly bazaar on saturdays, with stalls selling everything from local food, to arts and crafts and traditional Arabic clothing.  During the cooler months of the year, there are free outdoor musical performances from jazz bands to chamber orchestras and there are various open air fitness classes throughout the week.

At the end of the promenade there is an outdoor cafe with the most spectacular view across the water to the city centre skyline.  A beautiful setting for morning coffee or to watch the sun go down at the end of an exhausting day.

5.  Going to the camel races

Camel racing in Qatar is big business and is a truly exciting spectacle.  Every Friday from November through to April, visitors are encouraged to visit the race track in Al Shahaniya - about an hour's drive from Doha city.  Camel racing is a traditional Arabic sport but became a professional event in 1972 in Qatar.  Races vary in length from 5km to 10km and there is a mix of adult and young camel races.  

These days, robot jockeys are used, after the participation of child riders was banned in 2004, following the rising number of injuries to the children of expats, mostly from south Asia.  The jockeys are controlled by the camel owners who drive alongside on a parallel track in their land cruisers, using walkie-talkies to control the robots which carry a robotic whip and a walkie-talkie through which the owner can shout encouragement to the camel.

There are many races during a morning and if your arrive early, you can watch them lining up behind the start line as far as the eye can see with their Sudanese or Bangladeshi handlers.  The races start with an explosion of energy, camel legs everywhere, whooping and hollering from the handlers and owners racing off down the track in the land cruisers, children leaning out of the windows to cheer on their camel.

The finish line is also a great spectacle, where the camels gather after the race and where the winner will be showered with saffron over his face and neck - a traditional celebration.  And if you still have time, take a drive around Camel City - the paddocks and stables where the camels and handlers live which sprawls alongside the track for block after block.

If you're lucky, you'll be invited inside to take a look around to see behind the scenes of the life of a racing camel.  See my previous blog for my day in camel heaven!