Exotic surprises await in the desert

┬áDOHA, Qatar — It wasn’t until we crested the mountain of sand and I stared through the car’s dusty windshield at nothing at all that I realized what awaited us.

The ground had disappeared; we saw only sky. In the driver’s seat, Abdul Aziz smiled mischievously and gunned the engine. Down we careened at what seemed an impossible angle, like a roller-coaster car that had jumped its track. My stomach rose, and I let out an involuntary yell that no one else heard, as my companions in the back were screaming just as loudly.

“Stop! Please stop!” one begged, but Aziz was oblivious. He didn’t speak English and he was just doing his job.

Our desert safari had been billed as a leisurely drive through the desert to see the beautiful inland sea, Khor Al-Adaid. When we finally reached level ground and piled out on the sea’s sandy shore, catching our breaths and stilling our pounding hearts, I understood what dune bashing meant.

“If this is an easy ride,” I said, “I don’t want the hard one!”

My three days in Qatar were like that: surprises around every turn. Called the cultural destination of the year by The New York Times, Qatar is a spectacular destination for decidedly unbusinesslike reasons. Not in the way of Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, Qatar has chosen a different path, using its oil wealth to invest in the arts and education. But there’s no shortage of the “wow” factor here.

Islamic art
Doha’s latest architectural marvel, the Museum of Islamic Art, was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei and houses the world’s largest collection of Islamic art.

The collection spans more than a millennium and stretches halfway across the globe, from Central Asia to Spain and from the dawn of Islam to more contemporary works. The structure itself, with its soaring lines, spiral staircases and its very own island, might dwarf a lesser collection.

But that’s hardly a problem with exhibits including the armor of a fierce Ottoman soldier on armored horseback, a silver Turkish war mask, the glittering jewels of an Iranian princess and a high-tech touchscreen exhibit introducing the works of the Arabic predecessor to Leonardo Da Vinci.

Visitors can wander the Corniche, a sweeping boulevard of restaurants and skyscrapers that hugs the bright blue waters of Doha Bay; luxuriate in a private villa with a butler and a seaside view at the Ritz-Carlton’s Sharq Village, an Arabian nights-style resort with the Middle East’s largest spa; strap on skis and carve their way down a dune; tour the studios of Al Jazeera, the CNN of the Middle East; or scuba dive in the crystal waters of Khor Al Adaid.

Or, if none of that appeals, shop for a trained falcon, silken-stringed oud or silver khanjar dagger in the souk.

Visitors can wander the Corniche, a sweeping boulevard of restaurants and skyscrapers that hugs the bright blue waters of Doha Bay; luxuriate in a private villa with a butler and a seaside view at the Ritz-Carlton’s Sharq Village, an Arabian nights-style resort with the Middle East’s largest spa; strap on skis and carve their way down a dune; tour the studios of Al Jazeera, the CNN of the Middle East; or scuba dive in the crystal waters of Khor Al Adaid.

Or, if none of that appeals, shop for a trained falcon, silken-stringed oud or silver khanjar dagger in the souk.

Work in progress
Our drive along the Corniche revealed a city under construction. Parts are beautifully landscaped with palm trees and colorful flowers; Qataris sharing the broad promenade with an international cast of characters, jogging, walking, sipping drinks at a coffeehouse or boarding a wooden dhow to take a ride on the Persian Gulf’s calm waters.

Farther down the boulevard, the peaceful scene disintegrates into round-the-clock commotion. The sky fairly bristles with cranes, and taxi drivers circle endlessly amid the seemingly random street

In the past decade, under the leadership of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Doha has grown from a nondescript gulf backwater to a bustling metropolis of more than a million, with foreign nationals making up about 80 percent of the population. An estimated 180 skyscrapers are expected by 2012.

High end real estate
Land is being “reclaimed” from the sea for a variety of high-end real-estate ventures, such as the Pearl, a $2.5 billion mix of five-star hotels, boutiques, restaurants and condos. The development is named for the source of Qatar’s centuries-old livelihood, an industry eclipsed by the discovery of petroleum.

Sporting life
Our whirlwind city tour included a stop at Qatar’s Equestrian Center, home to some of the most expensive and well-cared-for horses in the world; a Venice-style shopping mall called Villaggio, reminiscent of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas, with indoor canals, gondolas and a spectacular painted sky; and the Aspire Sports Hall in Sports City, constructed for the 2006 Asian Games.

Qatar has become a leading sports destination, with high-level events like the Qatar Masters Golf Tournament, held while we were there, and the Qatar MotoGP, a Grand Prix-style motorcycle competition coming up in April.

We also took a drive through Education City, a 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha that provides a base for five U.S. universities and offers an American-style education to Qatari students. Here, too, the architecture is bold and groundbreaking; renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the brightly edgy A&M building with a distinctive Latin flair.

After our tumultuous ride through the desert, we arrived at Khor al-Adaid exhilarated and ready to feel our feet on solid ground. The sun sparkled on the water, and shifting dunes cut gentle curves into the blue horizon. I longed to stay for sunset, to spend the night in stillness beside the water. I imagined sleeping in one of the tent communities set up along the way to house “ecotourists,” as they call campers these days. I wanted to outlast the dune bashers and the tourists, to be alone with the silent, star-filled desert night.

“A taste of the desert is a dangerous thing,” Palestinian author and poet Ibtisam Barakat warned me when I told her of my trip.

Back home, I still dream of a night in the desert.

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