68 miles, 15 mph average5 Nov 09Day 1

Qatar, a former pearl-fishing centre and once one of the poorest Gulf States, is now one of the richest countries in the region, thanks to the exploitation of large oil and gas fields since the 1940s. 

Dominated by the Al-Thani family for almost 150 years, the mainly barren country was a British protectorate until 1971, when it declared its independence after following suit with Bahrain and refusing to join the United Arab Emirates. In more recent years it has become more relaxed with a free media (the Al Jazeera TV station started here) and votes for women in 1999. However on arrival I was reminded that for the next week alcohol, prostitutes and pork would be beyond my grasp as the whole of the Arabian Peninsula is run by a strict Islamic code.    

I’d planned to make an early start but my inner tube had ruptured during the flight and to my dismay my spare deflated again and again each time I tried to fix it, until I’d run out of patches and could only conclude that the hole was too big to hold. I strode through Doha’s busy shopping streets, carrying my wheel and getting plenty of sideways looks, in search of a bike shop, holding out little hope in what is clearly a non-cycling nation. After a few wrong turns I was directed to a toy shop that had a couple of kiddies tricycles hanging up outside. Thinking I’d have nothing to loose and that perhaps the owner could direct me to a more serious sports cycle shop, I went in and gestured to my flat tyre. In no time the mechanic had the tyre off, a new tube in, and was inflating it to the exact psi through an hydraulic hose.

By 9am I was making my way south out of the capital, under the distinctly Baghdad-looking crossed swords and already feeling the intensity of the desert sun. I followed the coast road that leads to the main port of Umm Said along with, it seemed, every truck in Qatar, and after about 20 miles I turned inland on a deserted road, glad to have topped up my water supplies at a mosque that was to be the last evidence of habitation for the next two hours. I was now in the Empty Quarter.

Taking up a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula, the Rub al Khali (literally, "quarter of emptiness"), is the world's largest sand sea. At more than 225,000 square miles (583,000 square kilometres), it takes in substantial portions of Saudi Arabia, as well as parts of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid wilderness larger than France and holds roughly half as much sand as the Sahara.

It was eerily quiet, the only sign of life being the occasional tiny bird flitting past and the only signs warned me not to venture off the road as I’d now entered a military zone. I was after all just a few hundred miles south of the Iraqi border. Away on the horizon I spotted an army jeep parked under a corrugated shade. The guard drove out to meet me and ask what I was doing. Once I’d explained my quest, he shook his head and pointed out that contrary to my maps and earlier research there is no longer a border between Qatar and the UAE, but only with Saudi Arabia. I’d reached the border but there was no way through. The Saudi’s don’t issue solitary tourist visas and even sponsored business visas can take months to secure, so I was going to have to retrace my steps all the way back to the airport and hop on a flight. As he was sending me on my way with fresh water and a can of 7-Up, a second jeep roared across the flat sands raising a plume of dust in its trail. The guard’s face dropped as he said to me, “You had better get out of here before this bastard arrives”. But it was too late as he was already alongside by the time I’d got my helmet and gloves on, and a furious row erupted between the two soldiers. It seemed the first friendly guard had been happy to overlook my straying into the military zone, but his colleague was a stickler for the rules and wanted to file a report, take me in for questioning and generally be a pain in the neck. I stepped forward with a big smile and a handshake that seemed to defuse the situation and made my way glumly back over the same empty road to Doha airport to catch the next flight to Abu Dhabi.

Qatar, UAE & Oman
38 miles, 16 mph average6 Nov 09Day 2
United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven states formed in 1971 by the then Trucial States after independence from Britain. Although each state - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain - maintains a large degree of independence, the UAE is governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the prime minister and the cabinet.

Before oil was discovered in the 1950s the UAE's economy was dependent on fishing and a declining pearling industry. But since 1962, when Abu Dhabi became the first of the emirates to begin exporting oil, the country's society and economy have been transformed. Being rich here now is ‘run of the millionaire’!

The emirate of Abu Dhabi is huge by comparison to the other emirates, comprising almost 87% of the country’s total area. Just as 50 years ago Abu Dhabi was little more than a fishing village comprising a fort, a few coral buildings and a smattering of barasti huts, the rest of the emirate is very ‘Arabian Sands’ with its enigmatic empty desert, dotted with oases such as Al-Ain and Liwa. The construction continues at a tremendous pace with ever more extremes of architecture, although a fabulous paved corniche has been maintained for cyclists and walkers to follow the coast at the most distal end of the island that makes up the hub of the city. At the western end of the corniche sits the vast Emirates Palace Hotel that dominates the horizon and even overshadows the nearby royal palaces.

Fittingly, the most impressive sight is the Sheikh Zayed mosque on the edge of town. Its almost as impressive as the Emirati themselves, who are always immaculately turned out in their white khandura robes and ghutra head dress. But to me the city appeared to be devoid of children and senior citizens; devoid of a soul.

Qatar, UAE & Oman
89 miles, 15 mph average7 Nov 09Day 3

To the surprise of the hotel staff I checked out of my luxurious abode (the Emirates don’t do much in the way of hotels less than four star) at 3am to avoid the city traffic and the stifling heat. There are few things I find quite as amusing as rolling a push bike through the marble foyer of a plush hotel – the reactions from staff and fellow guests are just priceless.

Regardless of the ungodly hour it was still hot and the humidity had risen with a sea fog that at least kept me a degree cooler, but made for a unique experience nonetheless. Hot fog is a weird, other-worldly phenomenon. Sadly it ruined any chance of a night-time view of the new F1 venue at Yas Island where, had it been a clear night, I could have seen this state of the art facility. All was still here now but just a few days earlier it would have been mayhem hosting the race at which my fellow west-countryman Jenson Button was crowned world champion. The fog didn’t lift until a few hours after dawn by which time I was nearing Dubai having ridden non-stop one of the most mind-numbingly boring five hours of my life along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway with a view no more than ten yards ahead of my front wheel.

Dubai’s expansion is also continuing at an exponential rate and my entry to the city ran through a forest of unoccupied, incomplete skyscrapers. This was the notorious Sheikh Zayed road – one of the most dangerous in a country that already has one of the highest death tolls per capita in the world. A new metro line is being built along the highway and at least I was able to ride through the adjacent roadworks to avoid becoming another statistic.

I’d been in touch with an old friend from Cornwall via Facebook, and Aileen met me at the marina even though I’d arrived a day too early. What a great host she was, giving me the run of her apartment, showing me the town and arranging for a friend of hers to accompany me when she was at a wedding party in the evening. She even had contacts at the Dubai 7Days newspaper who interviewed me, sent a photographer and ran an article about my travels, so quite a few people recognised me on the road to Oman the following day and stopped to offer their good wishes. Celebrity!   

Glitzy, glam, over-the-top and a little over-exposed, Dubai lives for attention. On the surface it’s materialistic beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and by treating every visitor like a VIP, visitors respond by spending like VIPs, only to need resuscitating when the next month’s credit-card bill arrives. But this is the whole idea. The UAE has the world’s third largest reserves of oil, and as this will run out in less than 100 years’ time, the Emirati are looking to tourism for their grandchildren’s future. They don’t seem to be making much of an effort to conserve their own oil right now though as huge gas guzzlers prowl the streets, petrol is cheaper than bottled water and in spite of year-round sunshine I didn’t see a single solar panel.

But Dubai is Vegas without the roller-coasters; Singapore without the history. It’s a place where luxury is so abundant it makes you reassess your definition of luxury. Is it sipping champagne in the Burj Al Arab (the world’s tallest and most expensive hotel)? Is it buying a Ferrari, when in Dubai your neighbour has two? If you try to keep up with the Jones’s here, they’ll have moved to a better neighbourhood before you’ve unpacked. Where else in the world would you find a chocolate shop that looks like a jeweller’s selling sweet treats for $100 a pop?

Qatar, UAE & Oman
158 miles, 14 mph average8 Nov 09Day 4

I made my way out of the city in the stillness of the night along the empty ten lane highway, past what will be the world’s tallest building, the Burj Tower, and out into the desert once more.

Stunningly situated within the mocha coloured Hajar Mountains, the oasis town of Hatta is a popular weekend getaway. Hatta was once an important source of tobacco, as well as a vital staging post on the trade route between Dubai and Oman and now harvests date palms watered through well constructed falaj irrigation cannels. Nowadays, a 20km stretch of the 105km drive from Dubai takes you through Oman and back into the UAE again, although there are just a few border guards languishing by their automatic weaponry.  The official border crossing is within the stark beauty of a desert wilderness. The immigration, customs and visa formalities were soon dealt with and I entered the Sultanate of Oman.

In the afternoon a strong headwind picked up that seemed to swing around to slap me in the face when I turned right at the coastal university town of Shinas. The wind was making me weary so I stopped for some refreshments, but the well meaning waiter was so astonished by my appearance that he called all of his mates to come and see this sweaty apparition that had landed from another planet. I wasn’t dealing with my new found celebrity very graciously, wolfed down my food and got straight back on the flat, dull road towards Sohar where I knew accommodation would be available.

Sohar is the home of two famous sailors, the historical navigator Ahmed bin Majid and the semi-fictional Sinbad. Majid was using a kamal to navigate by the sun and stars two hundred years before the sextant was adopted by European mariners and it was by such means that he was able to guide Vasco de Gama’s explorations of the Gulf and Indian coast. Today a different kind of seafarer roams these waters in the form of Somalian pirates. A thousand years ago Sohar was the largest town in the country: it was even referred to as Omana, and its ancient name was Majan meaning ‘seafaring’. As early as the 3rd century BC, the town’s prosperity was built on copper that was mined locally and then shipped to Mesopotamia and Bahrain.

I made good time in the relative cool of the evening and decided to press on in the dark, confident that there would be plenty of hotels along a coast lined with small townships. My assumption was very wrong and after another 20 miles I stopped to ask a group of men if they knew of any place to stay further down the road. After some initial confusion caused by my limited Arabic repertoire we found a common language in French (which they had learnt whilst working in Tunisia) and they were unanimous that my only option was to head back to Sohar, but that I should rest a while first and they kindly bought me a nice cold can of Coke. Their generosity continued when a plate of chicken curry arrived and I was introduced to the local English teacher who could better understand me. More food, all paid for, arrived and when asked what I’d like to drink I jokingly said a beer would be perfect. When the meal was over I was directed to the taxi rank and was taken aback when my new friends joined me in the taxi back to a hotel in Sohar. It didn’t feel like I was being kidnapped so I just went along with the flow and at the hotel, even the taxi fare was paid for me. This tradition of hospitality was becoming embarrassing.

The guys then said that I could get freshened up and that if I wished could meet them outside the hotel again later. Intrigued, I quickly got showered and true to their word they were waiting outside for me. Off we went into the darkness of the night, down a few back alleys and through a doorway where after clearing matters with a couple of hefty doormen we entered a building. The sight that met me through the dim light was one of the most surreal I’d ever seen. Omani’s to a man wear their traditional white robe and coloured turbans, of course alcohol is strictly prohibited but everyone was supping on foaming pints of German lager! The walls were painted gloss red and all the woodwork black, in one corner a band of Indian musicians thumped away tunelessly over the hubbub of conversation. In true wild-west saloon style all eyes turned my way, but the band played on. Those whose eye’s I caught simply nodded approval, and even though I felt massively conspicuous in shorts and t-shirt I was made welcome in this illicit drinking den plied with a steady flow of beer and without once having to put my hand in my pocket. After a more than sensible number of glasses, my hosts had to leave but I was quite content to stay and absorb this fascinating scene until a quartet of dancing girls (the only females in the place) joined the band. They were clearly available to rent by the hour and I chuckled to myself as I made my way out that all I needed now was a bacon sandwich to complete my trio of taboos!

Qatar, UAE & Oman
128 miles, 13 mph average9 Nov 09Day 5

The oldest independent state in the Arab world, Oman is one of the more traditional countries in the Gulf region and was, until the 1970s, one of the most isolated. Occupying the south-east corner of the Arabian Peninsula, it has a strategically important position at the mouth of the Gulf.

At one time Oman had its own empire, which at its peak in the 19th century stretched down the east African coast and vied with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

‘Renaissance’ is a term any visitor to Oman will hear, as it refers to the current period under the respected and revered Sultan Qaboos, a leader responsible for easing the country into modernity. Before he came to the throne after a bloodless coup in 1970, Oman had no secondary and only two primary schools, two hospitals run by the American mission and a meagre 10km of sealed roads. In addition, the country was in a state of civil war. Oman has since caught up with its more affluent neighbours, and it boasts efficient, locally run hospitals, universities, electricity to remote villages and an ever-improving infrastructure of roads. Furthermore, Oman is peaceful and stable, with an enviably low crime rate and a well-trained local workforce who pay no tax. Whilst there is no opposition party to the Sultan’s appointed government, every Omani I spoke to did not crave democracy. They all seem content that what isn’t broken doesn’t need fixing.

The Al Batinah region is a flat and fertile strip of land between the Hajar Mountains and the Gulf of Oman and is the country’s breadbasket and most populous area. I passed elaborately decorated mosques reflecting the Persian influence of the Farsi people who have settled in the region – Iran is just a few hours ferry ride away. The absence of any alternative to the long straight flat main road made for a tedious if unstressed ride. The people of Oman are slightly darker in appearance to the Emiratis and Saudis having a more Indian or African than Arabic appearance. They too wear long white robes, referred to as dishdashas here and cover their heads with a coloured turban or a fez like kuma.

The main reason for visiting Birka, 80km north-west of Muscat to see bull-butting. This is where great Brahmin bulls, specially raised by local farmers, are set nose-to-nose in a push-and-shove contest that supposedly hurts neither party. There was no bull butting on my arrival so I had a quick look at the fort that looks so typical of all those dotted along this coast.

Birka is also famous for its halvah, a unique, laboriously made sesame confection, found throughout the region. Eaten with a strong black coffee often poured from a tall ornate pot, it was the ideal sugar boost to power me along the flag lined road to the capital. I stopped for lunch and got chatting to a local engineer who was also taking a break. When I came to leave, the café owner told me that yet again my account had been settled for me.      

‘Muscat is a port the like of which cannot be found in the whole world, where there is business and good things that cannot be found elsewhere.’ As the great Arab navigator Ahmed bin Majid recognised in AD 1490, old Muscat, even to this day, has a character quite different from neighbouring capitals. There are few high-rise blocks, and even the most functional building is required to reflect tradition with a dome or an arabesque window. The result of these strict building policies is an attractive, spotlessly clean and whimsically uniform city. Muscat means ‘anchorage’ in Arabic, and the sea continues to constitute a major part of the city, so I took a taxi ride to see the harbour and old souk as I wanted to find some of the famous frankincense in its pure form of crystallised tree sap. The best frankincense is still reserved for the sultan and much of the remainder is exported to religious centers in the Middle East and Holy Land along the Frankincense Trail through Yemen and Saudi Arabia. I’d negotiated what I thought was a reasonable taxi fare into town and asked for a price to wait an hour or so and then return. I can imagine the response to such a question at home, but my driver simply said, “You are smiling and a smile is worth more than money so it’s free”. He was serious and wouldn’t accept any more than the original fare. On top of that he gave me a complimentary guided tour to include the Sultan’s palace and the museum.    

Oman isn’t a cheap country to travel through, with prices on a par with the UK, but the generosity and hospitality of its people made it a place that I left with a wallet full of Rials and a heart full of gratitude and admiration for the people of this wonderful country.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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