Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sand and shoppingmalls: a stopover in Qatar

On my way from Frankfurt to Hong Kong, I planned a three day stopover in Qatar. I was flying with a really nice airline company, Qatar Airways, so far the best company I flew with. They call themselves 'the world's five star airline company', which I can pretty much confirm, because the flight was really comfortable.
It is 6am when I landed on Doha International Airport. Stepping out of the airplane, the hot air was blowing in my face like a hairdryer. It was early in the morning, but already well over 35 Celsius. I passed immigrations, waited for my bags, searched for a coffee and went outside the airport building to take a taxi. I told the taxi driver to take me to a small supermarket not so far from the airport. This is the place where I met my hospitalityclub contact Alp. Alp took me to his nice apartment and showed me the room where I could stay. The rest of the morning I slept. When I woke up, I talked a bit with Alp, who is a Turkish expat living in Doha. He told me some interesting things about Qatar and that he actually didn't like the country that much. We had a lunch and afterwards Alp drove me a bit around the city.
It was really nice to have met Alp, because there is virtually no public transport in Doha at all and even taxis can be very hard to find. Basically everyone in Qatar has its own car. In the nice air-conditioned Toyota, Alp drove me around the low rise city. We drove past the 'Aspire tower' of the 2006 Asian games and stopped for some food at a fancy shopping mall. The mall had a remake of Venice inside and looks really like an American style shopping palace. In a country like Qatar, there is nothing much to do besides shopping. Because of the incredible heat, outdoor activities are not popular, so people tend to look for air-conditioned entertainment, like shopping. We walked a bit around the mall, drunk a coffee and continued the city tour.
We drove along Corniche, a wide boulevard along the Persian Gulf, and continued to the heart of the city: the souk. Doha's souk is a really interesting place, although the souk is rebuild and doesn't look authentic, the atmosphere is quite nice. I found it very pleasant to walk through the small alleyways, past all the small shops with spices, antiques and clothes. Later on, we had a diner in a traditional Arab restaurant, where I met two of Alp's friends, a Turkish guy and a Hungarian girl. We had some coffees afterwards and drove back to the apartment. I watched a bit of the Olympic games and went to sleep.
Next day, Alp was working, which meant I was kind of stuck in the apartment. I didn't want to pay a taxi for the whole day and as there is no public transport, I couldn't really go to the city. I just stayed in the apartment, where I talked a bit with two Nepalese guys who were fixing Alp's air conditioner. As in other Gulf states like the Emirates or Bahrein, the ethnic composition of Qatar is really weird. It is weird because Qataris only make up about 20% of the total population. Most of the country's population consists of workers from South Asia (mostly Pakistan), Southeast Asia (especially Philippines) and expats from the West. Essentially, the Western expats are leading the oil companies, the workers from South and Southeast Asia are doing all the low-education jobs and the Qataris are shopping. It might be a bit simplistic, but this is what the division of labour seemed to me. The Nepalese guys I met were really friendly however and the rest of the day I just relaxed, watching the Olympics and using the computer.
The day after I was able to explore some more of Qatar, because the Hungarian girl (I forgot her name) had a day off and offered to take me to the desert. She picked me up from the apartment and she drove me past some chemical factories southwards. We drove around a town just south of Doha, which is besides a nice mosque, not so interesting. The way further south was quite nice, we drove along a dry and sandy area and I spotted some camels. At the end of the road, we stopped and walked a bit on the sand dunes.
With a day temperature of 46 Celsius, climbing dunes is not exactly easy. I really like hot weather, but together with high humidity, everything above 40 Celcius is a bit too much. The view from the dunes was rewarding though and after climbing down we continued to the Persian Gulf. We stopped at a beach for a while and drove back to the city. In Doha, we walked a bit around the souk and afterwards I went back to Alp's apartment. I had a Turkish dinner with Alp and he brought me to the airport a bit later. I checked in for my connection flight to Hong Kong, where I landed 8 hours later.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Planned route 2008 - 2009

General map
Southeast AsiaChina and Korea
Pakistan (KKH)Middle East Click the map for a larger version

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Reminders of home

Back from my journey through the Baltics, Russia and Belarus, I stayed for 6 days in the Netherlands before catching my flight to Hong Kong. In the short period I stayed at home, I was busy visiting family and friends and preparing myself for the following 15 months abroad. The reason I start my journey in Hong Kong is because I am participation in a one semester exchange programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After the four months in Hong Kong I plan to continue travelling around Asia, with Tashkent (Uzbekistan) as my final destination. I booked a flight to Hong Kong with Qatar Airways, with a scheduled stopover of 3 days in Doha, Qatar.
On the 21st of August, my mother brought me to Utrecht's trainstation, where I said goodbye to her and boarded the quick ICE train to Frankfurt-am-Main. I waited for a couple of hours in Frankfurt before taking my flight to Doha. In order not to forget about my homecountry, here a couple of pictures of the Netherlands (copied from google and wikipedia, I haven't made this pictures myself).
Cothen, the village where I grew up
Utrecht, my birthplace and city where I study
Amsterdam, the Dutch capital and my favourite city in the Netherlands

Monday, September 01, 2008

Traveling in 'the last dictatorship of Europe'

Halfway on the four hour train ride from Vilnius to Minsk I crossed the Belorussian border. As a point separating the European Union from one of Europe's poorest and authoritarian ruled states, the Lithuanian border with Belarus is heavily fortified. From the train I watched at least ten kilometers of fences, cameras, checkpoints and soldiers passing by the window. The Belorussian border guards stamped my passport and I officially entered the republic of Belarus, or one of the 'outposts of tyranny' as Mr Bush calls it. The landscape on the way revealed the welfare difference between Belarus and Lithuania, the villages and towns made a sad impression and I spotted almost no cars on the roads. My stay in Belarus' capital Minsk, however changed this first impression.
Like in Russia, I also organised free accommodation in Minsk. I met my couchsurfing contact Elena soon after I arrived that night on the central station. Elena took me to her father's apartment, where I stayed for the following three days. Elena and her father, who trades in toys, were really nice to me and showed me warm Belorussian hospitality. I drunk some vodka with Elena's father the first night and we talked a bit about our countries. Next day, I walked around the remarkably clean streets of Minsk, stopping by the main square, the parliament and the former KGB building. When I ate a cheap pizza in an Italian restaurant called 'Il patio', I met a commander of the Serbian army named Dragan. We started talking and he shared his impressive war stories with me. As a student in Political Geography, I listened with much interest to Dragan's anecdotes about his career in the Serbian army. He fought in Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, Angola and Iraq and was waiting for his next assignment in the just started conflict in South Ossetia. Later on we walked together along Independence Square and the former apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald (although both the CIA and the KGB never admitted Oswald lived there).
Next day I visited the Belorussian national museum with Elena and we had lunch in a good restaurant afterwards. A bit later I met Dragan again, with whom I drunk a couple of beers and walked for a couple of hours in some of Minsk's nice parks. From my conversations with Elena and Dragan, I got the impression that Belorussian people are quite reserved and shy. Interestingly, Belarus doesn't really have its own national identity, because it was strongly suppressed throughout its whole history (first by the Polish-Lithuanians, after by the Soviets). Although Belorussians have their own language, nobody really uses it. Russian practically is the main spoken language in Belarus and Belorussians identify themselves mostly as Russian.
Walking along the wide boulevards of Minsk, I saw numerous slogans saying 'I love you Belarus' as well as lots of pictures of president Lukashenko. And although Minsk is a very safe city, I felt some kind of tension, because I realised that people are a bit afraid to speak openly and everyone basically stayed at home during the night (only prostitutes and mafia guys go to the ridiculously expensive bars). For example, Elena got really scared when I tried to make a picture of the parliament. Also I found it very hard to approach people.
After my stay in Minsk, I moved on westwards by night train to Grodno, a midsized city next to the Polish border. I dropped my bags in the apartment of a young couple, Oleg and Irinka, and walked around town after. In three hours, I basically saw all the churches, castles and parks of Grodno, which really is a quiet and clean town. I had a dinner in a cheap restaurant, where surprisingly I heard a song in Dutch language on their radio. During the evening I stayed in the apartment, figuring out how to travel to my next destination Brest.
As public transport to Brest is quite inconvenient, I decided to hitchhike. Oleg brought me to the main road early in the morning and directly after I pulled out my thumb. After waiting for over 40 minutes, a rusty GAZ truck stopped for me and offered to take me to a town 30km further. The guys were delivering groceries to some small shops in the area and were really friendly. They brought me to the junction towards Brest, where I tried to stop another car. Again I waited for quite some time, before a man stopped for me and brought me about 50km further. He dropped me off at a junction, 6km from a town called Voltovysk. This junction was in the middle of a forest and the continuing road to Brest didn't had a lot of travel. It caused that after waving my arm for 2 hours already, I gave up hitchhiking and decided to walk to Voltovysk to continue by public transport. However, as all the buses already left and the next train was only late at night, I was kind of stuck in this town. I decided to wait for the train and I spent my time eating some bread and salad.
I took the train to a town called Baranaviki, from where I hopped on a terribly slow night train (9 hours) to Brest. To conclude my hitchhiking attempt: Belarus definitely is one of the most difficult places I tried. But yeah, I arrived in Brest after all. My intention was not to spend the night in Brest, but to buy a train ticket back to Netherlands. The train to Amsterdam however is very expensive, so I decided to take the night train to Berlin first. But before taking the train, I still had a full day in Brest to spend.
Brest is one of the Soviet Union's 'Hero cities', because it was heavily attacked during the second World War. As the city is only 6km from the border with Poland (along the road to Warsaw), it was the first Soviet city to be attacked by the Nazi's as part of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The city therefore is famous for its red bricked fortress, which was the main site of the fighting. I visited the fortress after a long walk from the train station. The entrance gate directly is very impressive, with a huge star carved out of concrete and I heard war music being played. Inside the fortress, I went into the small history museum and walked a bit around the red walls full of bullet holes. On the main square inside the fortress was a group of young soldiers marching (see the video), which I watched for quite some time. On the very hot day, I felt a bit sorry for the guys who were constantly marching around under the fierce sun.

With over three hours already spent in the fortress, I walked back to the city for some food. A couple of hot dogs and beers later, I made my way back to the station, where I passed immigrations and entered the train to Berlin. The ride to Berlin was very comfortable, although I desperately wanted to take a shower, since I didn't had that possibility for the past 2 days. Upon arrival in Berlin, I bought another ticket back to my hometown Utrecht, where I arrived that evening.