Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Qatar Cycling Adventures: Doha to AlRuwais

Since bringing my bike to Qatar 3.5 years ago, I've had an ambition to one day cycle all the way to the Northern tip of the country, at Al Ruwais.  18 months ago, I got just over half way when I made a trip to Al Khor on the East Coast and spent the night before Eid Al Adha 2016 under the stars. 

You would think the endless sunshine in Qatar would make it perfect for long distance cycling.  However, the searing heat from May to September, the freezing desert nights during winter and the crazy winds that whip up sudden sand and dust storms at a moment's notice all mean that you need to choose your window of opportunity carefully.

After a few attempts scuppered by some freakish thunder storms, heavy rain and strong winds and a dust storm thrown in, the weekend of 20th April looked perfect for me to try again.  Everything was prepared, my paniers packed, my chain oiled and I was up at 3.30am.

Had some strong coffee and porridge (the one time I forgive myself for eating carbs is when I'm cycling), I paused to reflect on whether I really wanted to do this, and set off nervously into the last remnants of darkness, at exactly 4.30am.

The weather was perfect, around 21 degrees and a light breeze and not much traffic to contend with at this stage.  

I cycled along the Doha Corniche, past the silky calm waters of the bay, looking across to the city, and then cut behind the Emiri Diwan (Qatar's ceremonial state building) to ride along the "red road'... tarmacked about a year ago to replicate the royal road around Buckingham Palace!  

It was wet from its nightly clean, so without mud guards I got a free shower to start the morning!  I passed the Grand Mosque not long before sunrise, the end of Fajr, the dawn prayer.  

I decided to avoid the Doha Expressway for as long as possible by taking Arab League Street until I reached Doha Festival City Mall where I would cut across to the Expressway and join the Shamal (North) Road.  This would carry me all the way to the very northern tip of Qatar.  So no map required.
I was feeling good and I was making great progress - averaging around 20kmph and marking my target kms every 30 mins.  I kept this up for approximately 4 hours, despite my desperate need for a bathroom break.  

Qatar is undergoing a total overhaul of its infrastructure, including its roads, and several times I saw signs for "Services 1km" but there were no services (I guess they put the signs up first and build the services later?), and believe me when I say there is nowhere to hide to take a pee n the desert!!  And then the back pain started to creep in so I had to make one or two stops to stretch and get some relief.

Finally at 80km, I saw a Woqod petrol station.  Relief at last!........I took a few minutes to stretch my legs, buy some more water and a fruit juice (the one time I forgive myself for drinking fruit juice is when I'm cycling).  It was 8.45am when I stopped - Id taken 4 hours 15 mins to travel 80km and I had around 45km to go - maybe another 2.5 hrs.  So I would reach Al Ruwais at maybe 11.30.  Knowing the sun would get quite severe, I applied suntan lotion to my arms and face and off I went again. 

The Shamal Road is a 3 lane highway running from Doha all the way up through the desert to the Northern tip of the country.  I was lucky to have a hard shoulder to cycle along because the speed of many of the drivers here is terrifying.  

The big trucks are directed to drive only in the "slow" lane beside me, but they too drive at reckless speeds.  Initially quite terrifying, this was something which in fact I learned to love, because as they rushed past, I would momentarily get sucked along by their draft and it was a wonderful relief.

However, there was an occasional reminder that these speeds can lead to a loss of control with grave consequences.  I saw several wrecks and a few abandoned vehicles along the way.

I felt better for the stop but the wind had now increased, and my progress was slower, and within 30 minutes the back pain had reappeared with a vengeance.  I was experiencing back spasms which sent an electrical wave of pain through my whole body,  a few times so bad that I was forced to stop peddling and free wheel for a few seconds.  

I was terrified that at any time, I'd seize up completely and have to abandon the ride.  So I stopped every 20 minutes to stretch and loosen up, under the shade of the nearest bridge, as the temperatures were really rising now to around 36C.  I felt the risk of serious injury (having two herniated discs in my spine already, I know the signs) but I couldn't give up.  I was close to my destination and although it wouldn't be pretty, I would finish, come what may.

A few kilometres on, I started seeing signs of civilisation.  It must be Al Ruwais.... It wasn't.  It was Shamal City.  I passed a strange building in the style of a Fortress but which is actually a sports stadium!  Then a few kilometres and roundabouts later, Al Ruwais!   Finally.  I needed to get inside an air-conditioned building and spend some time there cooling off.  Id seen a shopping centre on the map so I imagined it would be a small mall where I could sit for a while and have coffee.  

However, it was only a supermarket with no cafe.  I bought some provisions for later and cycled around the town looking for someone to go inside.  Unfortunately I'd arrived at around 1230pm, which was Friday noon prayer time, when cafes are usually closed.  So instead I headed for Abu Dhalouf Park, where I was sure I could find some shade.  

As I cycled towards the park, I passed half a dozen young boys around the age of 10 on beach buggies, driving recklessly on and off pavements and paying little attention to the traffic.  They looked like they'd just come from the mosque, dressed smartly in their mini thobes.

I finally found the park around 1pm.  Beside it was one of the most beautiful mosques Ive seen in Qatar.  Once inside the park, it was very busy with families and children.  

As I was pushing my bike around to find a quiet spot, a guard approached me and told me "no bikes allowed"... I asked him how to get down to the beach and eventually found the way.  I found a big palm tree with lots of shade and set out my little camp to relax for a while.

It was a lovely spot looking out to the sea, a light breeze and the background sounds of children playing, and a group of Indian guys playing volleyball.  After 125km and 7.5 hours in the saddle, finally I had a place to relax, recharge my batteries and rest my back.......  

......Until the Qatari kids on their beach buggies arrived to tear up the beach, racing back and forth and driving straight through the volleyball net and ripping it out of the ground.  They continued to terrorise the family beach goers and create noise and chaos so I decided to leave and find somewhere to watch the sun go down and see the stars come out.....

to be continued.......

Monday, 26 March 2018

Qatar goes farming

Last week I had the opportunity to visit AgriteQ, an International Agriculture Exhibition, at the Doha Exhibition and Conference Centre.

Held in Doha each year, it brings together agricultural specialists from around the world to share expertise, showcase innovation in farming and do business in Qatar, which has a rapidly expanding food production sector, as it seeks to become much more self sustainable and food secure.

Since the blockade by Qatar's neighbours, which started some 10 months ago, this nation found itself cut off from the mainland when Saudi Arabia closed the only land border and the UAE prevented the shipping of goods via Dubai.

These measures and others have given Qatar a real challenge to continue to meet the needs of its 2.5 million population.  However, the country's rulers moved quickly to secure assistance from its allies whilst it immediately began fast tracking its plan to become self sustainable, particularly in the areas of dairy, poultry and vegetable production.

But the drive towards food security did not start with the blockade.  AgriteQ is now in its 6th year and the interesting thing to note was the number of local Qatari producers already in operation and expanding rapidly.

Some of them, such as Baladna, the largest dairy and meat producer in Qatar, offered an opportunity to taste their products, while others were demonstrating growing techniques such as hydroponics.

This is a technique used to grow vegetables in arid environments, used by local companies such as Agrico, which grows a range of vegetables and fruits sold widely now in Doha's supermarkets and farmers markets.

Also on show at AgriteQ was a range of livestock,  including sheep, goats, chickens and other poultry and even a camel or two, which were auctioned to local farmers.

On a smaller scale, there were producers from around the world bringing their goods for sale - olives and figs from Palestine, chocolate from Portugal, pickles and preserves from Morocco,

as well as local nurseries offering ornamental plants, water features and sculptures for residents who like a bit of bling in their back garden!

This effort is already proving fruitful, as the range of products now available in supermarkets is increasing again and the sense of loyalty towards Qatari products can be felt all over town, from the local date and honey sellers in Souq Waqif, and the farmers markets popping up everywhere, to the big supermarkets like Carrefour.

There is a ground swell of support for the local effort being made and it seems Qatar's big and not so neighbourly brothers totally underestimated this little nation's determination and resilience.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

What would Gertrude make of the Kurdish referendum?

With the current situation in Northern Iraq simmering since the Kurdish referendum, its perhaps a moment to reflect on a much forgotten and neglected historical figure and her role in this important moment.

It is a little known fact that Iraq's existing borders, including within it Iraqi Kurdistan, were drawn up by an Oxford educated British woman adventurer.  Gertrude Bell was one of the most extraordinary and influential women of the time.  Described by some as a female Lawrence of Arabia and by him as a "wonderful person, not very like a woman", she was by all accounts considered far more accomplished and deserving of more recognition than she ever received.

She had a passion for archaeology and fell in love with the Middle East, travelling all over the region as a woman alone, throughout Syria, Arabia, Persia and what was known then as Mesopotamia - now Iraq, southern Turkey, Kuwait and eastern Syria.  During the time of the power struggle for the region between British, French and Ottoman Empires, she travelled extensively across deserts and through tribal lands, quickly building an affinity with the Arabs and befriending local Sheikhs.

She was a risk taker who held no fear of harsh environments and though small in physical stature, refused to be intimidated by people or situations.  She found herself an accidental expert in Arabic culture and became a 'go-to' specialist for the British Government, fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German and a natural sociability, trusted by bedouin tribes and noble Sheikhs alike.

She quickly developed the Arabic epithet "al-Khatun" - which can be translated to mean 'lady of the court who keeps her eyes and ears open for the benefit of the State' and her view that Arabs were more than capable of managing their own affairs without the interference of colonnial powers, was at odds with the prevailing winds of the West.

But her belief in Arab self-determination won out when she was instrumental in installing King Faisal as the new post Ottoman ruler of Iraq.  Gertrude had known Faisal when he was King of Syria, before being deposed by the French.

He had an interesting lineage which she believed made him a good choice as leader of Iraq - the combination of him being a Sunni which would appeal to the Kurds in the North, whilst having direct lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, which would appeal to the Shia population, would provide the balance required for peaceful co-existence.

However, her friend TE Lawrence didn't agree on the position of the borders , saying "Bell should never have acquiesced in the inclusion of the Kurdish dominated province of Mosul in Iraq".  And perhaps he was right.  The Kurds are the largest ethnic population in the world without their own homeland - somewhere between 30 & 40 million.

After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, an independent Kurdistan was considered within the borders proposed above.  But it was oil that helped tip the balance to include them within Iraq's borders - the Kurdish region holding 40% of Iraq's oil.  The British Government decided to include this particular region, now known as Iraqi Kurdistan, as part of a 'stable' centrally governed Iraq, so they could keep their interest in the oil.  So of course this is also the reason that Baghdad wont let it go now.

I watch this huge moment in Iraq's history wondering what Gertrude would make of it.  Being largely responsible for the shaping of modern Iraq, and somewhat uncomfortably representing the British Government, her heart was still Arabian.  Indeed she had quite a disdain for colonialism, observing "we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme...... wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed."  In that, history has proven her right.

Ironically, for one so passionate about the right to self-determination,  it was Gertrude who ultimately allowed the sacrifice of an independent Kurdistan for a larger prize of Iraq.   Perhaps its time for the British Government to stand up, accept their role in depriving the Kurds of their own land and support them in their quest for independence.

As for Gertrude, she remained in Baghdad until her death in 1926 at the age of 57, having never been married and lost both loves of her life in tragic circumstances.  Ultimately, it was the Arabs who held her in the highest affection, her funeral procession observed from his window by King Faisal himself.  She is buried on the eastern banks of the Tigris river.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Has the smartphone stolen the beauty of delayed gratification?

Qatar's recent Guinness World record for the longest selfie stick is another very small notch in the belt of this 'bantamweight' of a Gulf State.  It was a record set by a Qatar youth program called 'Sky Climbers' during their graduation ceremony on 19th September.

Although not averse to taking the odd selfie here and there (a necessity for a solo traveller), I do however, shudder at the scourge of the selfie stick.  Lets put it this way..... you may be a narcissist, but why advertise it?  When you see a grown man puckering up to his digital camera on a stick, while his wife is sitting right there, it does make one question where all this is going.

There is something about the instant nature of all things these days which leads to a growing sense of frustration, lack of patience and an endless search for perfection - if we dont like the selfie, we can keep taking it until we feel satisfied with the image.

I never thought I would reach the age when I started to 'remember the old days' with affection.  But i have to say, I feel fortunate to be of the generation who knew what it was like to take their roll of film to the photographic developers and wait for an envelope of photographs to be printed.  The word 'instant' in this context at that time usually meant anything between 1 and 5 days.

They eventually sped up the process and if you could afford the additional charge (yes kids, you had to pay for it!).... you might be able to get their premium 1 hour service!!  But dont forget, you had to finish the whole roll of .... 24 or 36 photos.  Yes, thats right.... you only had 24 exposures in each roll of film!  Imagine that?!

But I now mourn the loss of a time when we had to wait for stuff.   We had to wait for the News to come on the TV or radio to find out what was going on in the world (pre-Twitter).

We had to wait in a queue outside a public telephone booth to make a phone call when we were out of the house (pre-mobile phones).

We had to wait in a queue at the cinema for tickets for the latest blockbuster movie.... I remember doing just that to see Star Wars for the first time in 1977 (pre-internet).

We had to wait for letters from friends to arrive in the post (pre-email).

When I travelled around America and Canada on Greyhound buses in 1989 when I was 20 years old, the only way I could communicate with my family was by letters sent through the post and a very occasional telephone call in a public phone box using coins, spending the whole conversation dreading the onset of the 'pips' which would indicate that your time was up.

Now I hear the cries of "whats so great about all that?"

One word...... ANTICIPATION!  There is a great joy to be had in the delayed gratification of all things.  Waiting, anticipating and then when you get that thing, valuing it completely.  Who values the ability to communicate these days?  Whatsapp, facebook, twitter, instant messenger, skype are all useful tools and have made the ability to communicate across borders, timezones and miles much easier and who would deny that?

But this instant everything society is one in which the post internet generation expect it all NOW! NOW! NOW!, get a medal for coming last and waiting for anything will just not do!

 But Im sad that this generation will never know the delightful anticipation of delayed gratification.  The pleasure of waiting itself that makes the event so much more worth the wait.  The nervous excitement when waiting for your batch of photos from your recent holiday.  And the beautiful reliving of the memories when you finally open the envelope and get 24 little 6x4 surprises.

In addition to our 24 snapshots, we used our minds to build a memory bank of internal photos and movies of events in our lives which remain with us to this day, without having to swipe through our photostream.  I wonder if any studies are being done to discover the affect of smartphones on our ability to remember.

The problem being that so many people now witness events through their smartphone screens.  One colleague of mine recently recounted an event where he saw a woman recording the first half of a performance through her smartphone and then she proceeded to watch that during the second half !!

We no longer experience things 'live' at all.  Even when we are there..... we are not really there.  I see people sitting together in cafes in the Souq here in Qatar, and I observe them for a while..... no conversation, no eye contact, no acknowledgement that they are together at all.  Life literally passing by with no engagement whatsoever.  All attention on the little screen, giving instant access to the latest news,  latest trends, latest updates on what friends are doing...... while their friend who sits beside them is ignored and is doing the same thing.

There seems to be no way to put this genie back in the bottle.  Smartphones, email, whatsapp, Amazon - we all use them and they are a fact of life..... here I am blogging, so I know the value of the technology.  But we need to find a balance where we use the technology for good rather than allowing it to control our behaviour. And we somehow need to find a way back to valuing what's important, sometimes leaving our phones at home and being present in mind as well as body.

As for the selfie stick?   Why not instead, talk to a real person and ask if they wouldn't mind taking your photo - thats what we used to do.  You never know who you might get talking to.