We Brits can never be satisfied, I think. I used to long for days and days of eternal sunshine; but after working in Saudi Arabia when it rained for four days a year and the temperatures rose to 60 degrees in the summer, we all used to long for a shower or two, if not a downpour!
Having spent the best part of three years in Beijing, I now long to see blue sky again instead of the PM2.5-filled pea-soupers that passes for fresh air here; and now that winter has well and truly settled in, it’s also nice to dream about warm days and shorelines being gently lapped by blue oceans.
So it is a bit of a no-brainer to be asked if, for a second year in a row I would like to participate in Doha’s now annual bash – the Qatar International Boat Show.
10 o’clock at night sees me trundling my case up Huixinxijie to the Beikou where one of the many airport bus terminals is located…
…and being whisked up the expressway to Beijing Capital Airport’s terminal 3. I always love T3. Light and spacious and beautifully designed (by British architects Foster & Partners) – not a bit like the dowdy Terminal 2 which I hate having to travel through. Just before the corridor leading airside is a model of an armillary sphere known as Ziwei Chenhang – a device invented in 117AD by the Chinese astronomer ZhangHeng to measure the movement of the sun and stars.
As is usual in any place in China, one can spend endless hours being amused by the signs that ordinary Chinese take for granted. T3 is no exception.
The plane leaves just before 2 in the morning and winding my watch back by five hours and doing a quick mental calculation confirms arrival in Doha at around 5.45 in the morning local time after a pretty uneventful nine hour flight.
For the past few years I have been flying in to the old Doha Airport; but today we land in the newly opened Hamad International. It’s clean, it’s orderly, and welcoming for the first time visitor. I think I already like it!
I have been booked in to the old Marriott Hotel near the old airport. OK I was thoroughly spoiled last year when I stayed in the Ritz Carlton; but even without the comparison, this hotel seems definitely well past its sell-by date. (It was actually built in 1972 and refurbished in 2005.)
Although, in theory, rooms cannot be taken until 3 in the afternoon, I arrive at the hotel around 7 in the morning hoping I can be allowed in early to have a quick shower before rushing off into town for my first meeting. Fat chance! There is no mention of my booking in the hotel’s computer system, not that this seems to faze the charming receptionist in the slightest. He wonders if I have perhaps come to the wrong Marriott (there is another one near the City Centre).
But no; a quick phone call to the other Marriott confirms I am an unheard of quantity there too. Would I like to help myself to a coffee from the machine over there and we will see if we can find the problem for you, sir.
It would appear that this is a regular problem for the Marriott (later in the week I am told that one of the guests whom they had given a new room to just half an hour earlier was not staying at the hotel). The problem is made worse by their Assistant EBC Manager who goes by the name of Sunday Aigbomian. (The Lord was obviously having a rest the day he was born, or else he forgot to stand in the queue when they were handing out the brains.) Sunday’s laissez-faire attitude to doing anything on time beggars belief. But eventually he comes up to me four coffees and 115 minutes later to tell me that my name was on the system after all and my room is now ready.
As rooms go, it isn’t bad. The bed, though only queen size, is comfortable in the extreme; the TV sports a good selection of channels; the bathroom is perfectly adequate, if somewhat basic; and there is a kettle with cups, but no coffee, tea bags or anything remotely resembling anything you can add to the boiling water. The room service trolleys have no tea or coffee on them either and accordingly every day I instead make a morning raid of the tea and coffee in the lobby area where there is a selection of five different types of tea bag.
Breakfast, too, is a hit and miss affair. Very friendly staff, who sometimes remember to bring coffee when asked (well, on four of the seven days anyway), while the fruit is excellent, the cooked stuff mediocre, the arabic stuff OK, the cold meats and cheese selection excellent, the croissants cold and rubbery, the omelettes-to-order good, the coffee sometimes excellent and sometimes too watery for my taste; and they even have a special freshly-squeezed machine with which the hotel guests can have fun trying to work out how to operate it. But I don’t like the fact that the invoice is plonked down on the table every day virtually before I have taken my first mouthful.
Throughout the week there are workmen who do their very best not to make too much noise before 7am; but it’s a shame that no one has explained to them that hotel guests (well, this one at any rate) aren’t much taken with having to walk over carpets that look like this…
But the hotel staff – whom I at times feel positively sorry for – have been well trained to grin and to greet every guest. One of the guys who works on the concierge desk is incredibly friendly and helpful. No surprise, then, that his name badge reads “Thank God”. LOL!
One of the things that I most like about Qatar is its currency. It has to be some of the prettiest in the world. No wonder, then, that I feel so sad when I have to give it away to errant taxi drivers and their ilk…
And you have to hand it to the Qataris – unlike the Chinese who just block multiple web sites and then keep quiet hoping no one will complain or perhaps even notice, they at least have a sense of humour as you sit there fuming that you cannot get into that naughty little web site. Thank goodness I have my free Chinese VPN with me to circumvent the restrictions!
But I haven’t come to Doha to access naughty web sites (honestly I haven’t!). I am here to work (I think that’s what they call it) and take a taxi into town for my first meeting …
…before going on to the organiser’s office to meet the team and get briefed on how things are going to look at this year’s Boat Show.
I am given a grand sounding title and even some business cards to match, though throughout the whole week I only succeed in giving away a small handful of them.
One of the first jobs is to work on a press conference which is to be given the day before the show opens on board a super-dhow ̶ that is, a boat that looks like a dhow on the outside…
… and a super-yacht on the inside. This is a unique creation from Qatar’s Al Mannai Marine. The 150 tonne dhow is 30m in length and incorporates the latest in technology and as such, it is the very first of its kind in a luxury dhow category with yacht specifications. The entire build of this design takes from 18 months to 2 years, and currently Al Mannai Marine has six such dhows in production.
There’s time during the setting up – of course – for a quick pose before getting on back to work and preparing for the imminent arrival of the media. (OK, maybe I should have brought a comb with me. I never imagined there would be such a breeze that day!)
The big day arrives, and with it a posse of VVIPs – including the Minister of Economy and Trade, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Bin Mohamed Al Thani, who executes a snazzy snip of the red ribbon before the world’s waiting media.
There are countless ambassadors, too, making their way up to Mourjan Marinas in Lusail City, where the show is being held throughout the week. Here’s the British Ambassador who is well taken care of by my colleague Farheen, who was obviously born to mingle in such exhalted circles!
Actually, the first day, Farheen wears a very loud pink pair of trousers which proves to be a blessing when trying to locate her in a hurry right from the other side of the marina. We decide as a team to wear similar dayglo colours throughout the show so we can spot each other easily. I have with me this greenish-yellowish creation which almost glows in the dark when the sun shines on it, if you get my twisted logic!
The official hours of the Show are from 3 till 9.30 – since no one in their right mind would want to spend too much time outside in the daytime in Doha. As dusk falls, the number of visitors swells, the last day – Saturday – having the most rubber neckers and baby push-chair owners .
There’s plenty to feast your eyes on – such as a house boat manufactured in Abu Dhabi with six state-sized bedrooms, each with its own jacuzzi-filled bathroom. Wow!
There’s even a cinema on board. And as for living rooms – yes I did use the plural deliberately – well feast your eyes on this one and compare it with what you have at home. And then double it, because there are two of them! There’s also a third open topped ‘living room’ if you include the roof space that’s been done up with astro turf, not to mention the other open decks.
Lighting is used to great effect as the marina sits overshadowed by the ongoing construction of Lusail City. This appears to be the one week of the year when taxi drivers are ever asked to come here, with at least four taxi drivers telling me they haven’t been out this way in months. But the canny organisers have placed direction boards at every road junction from downtown Doha, so the hoardes keep on surging along, driven, no doubt, by the fact that the licence conditions forbid the organisers to charge an entrance fee, coupled with the fact that Doha has to be one of the most boring places in the Middle East for anything to happen.
Bored with boats? No worry … even though it is in fact a boat show, you can also feast your eyeballs on over 50 Harley Davidsons , courtesy of the local H.D. road club.
One of my jobs is to write the speeches given by the good and the great. Many of the speeches are given in Arabic, and I am then told it is up to me to deliver an English translation of the Arabic-translated script I had written in English… if you see what I mean. At least my day-glo tie means everyone can see this normally shrinking violet!
Another evening – another set of speeches required. This time it is a posh event held in the Al Sharq Village where another colleague, Joanna, is busy looking after some of the journalists. Despite it being an Islamic state, we are greeted by proffered trays of champagne, and white and red wine. And none of your cheap stuff either. Or maybe I have been in China too long to tell the difference! Either way, I down a glass or two of bubbly, wash it down with some very acceptable sauvignon blanc, but since I am required to present more of my translated-translated-speeches, I decide to leave a critique of the red wine until later – only to discover that it is packed away the moment the speeches end, and I never do get to try it out. Ah well… win some, lose some.
Everyone agrees that this year’s show has been a thoroughly spiffing event; and we all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Its time to head on back to Hamad International where the checking in hall is vast but where there are only three check in desks open. I am required to wait for all of three minutes.
With all the paperwork complete and my case riding around the airport somewhere on a conveyor belt, I pass through immigration and move on down to the airside waiting area – which is somewhat spoiled by a huge and grotesque bear taking up valuable floor space.
And again, despite it being an Islamic State, pragmatism rules the day here and there is no shortage of alcoholic beverages on sale – such a contrast with next-door-neighbour Saudi Arabia where they are slightly less hypocritical…
The authorities have done their very best to keep the spoiled Arab brats amused by providing in a number of places funky slides and climbing frames for them to wear themselves out on…
Finally we are off. I’m sitting on the starboard side of the aircraft for a change – a good choice, it turns out, for geat views over the Pearl immediately below us…
The onboard info keeps us updated – well, those of us, at any rate, who have watched enough of the vast film library over which we have free reign.
There are stunning views over the himalayas, too, as we down some fried pangasius with sweet and sour sauce, herb potato, sautéed beans, baby carrots, chick peas, cucumber salad, and a chocolate slice, all washed down with champagne, mango juice and Fosters beer. Despite about 90 per cent of the flight being Chinese, Qatar Airways haven’t taken it upon themselves to provide chopsticks, and my neighbour worries over how to balance the chick peas on his knife before finally giving up the unequal struggle.
Eventually the onboard computer shows us making a bee-line for Beijing - بحين - and we start our descent, arriving on the tarmac thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
As usual the majority of Chinese passengers totally ignore the impassioned pleas of the flight attendants to “remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop and the seat belt signs have been switched off”. Doesn’t the airline ever educate these stewardesses that all Chinese know instinctively that rules are only meant to apply to other people, never to themselves?
It’s been a great week off, enjoying the sunshine and adding to my waistline; but it’s also good to be back in Beijing even if it is only 1 degree above zero.
Hey – it sure beats having to work for your living!