Solo Travel to the Least Visited Country in the Middle East
Where: Kuwait City, Kuwait. Middle East, Asia.
When: May 2014
Highlights: Arabian Gulf Coast, Kuwait Towers, The Liberation Tower, Mubarakiya Souk, Grand Mosque, Siddiqa Fatima Zahra Mosque , Tallest Sculptured Building in the World, National Assembly, National Museum, Air raid siren.
How: International flights, Taxi, Airport transfer
Country counter: Country No.56
Illnesses or mishaps: Trying to see the city's sights by foot in 42 degree heat and falling on the mercy of a local restaurateur who came to my rescue; experiencing the unsettling moment when the authorities decided to test the air raid attack siren.
I like the Middle East: the culture, faith, language and climate combine to make me feel very far away from home, although relatively speaking it's not really. As a male traveller I have had very few problems here - and have often been touched by the respectful welcome I have received as a visitor to this region. Having been to this region many times now, I can safely say that the Middle East is one of my favourite in which to be a traveller - and so much more fascinating than yet another trip to yet another European country. Yes, this is a region with issues but this shouldn't deter you from visiting. Never one to avoid a country which many would probably choose not to visit, I packed my rucksack for the Kuwaiti capital and in doing so clocked up my 56th country. It was also a personal record for me being, as it was, the furthest I have ever travelled alone. In travelling to Kuwait I was setting out to explore the capital city of the least-visited country in the Middle East...
Kuwait is a small oil-rich nation on the north eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, a Gulf state land-locked between Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I am of the age where, unfortunately, the word "Kuwait" is indelibly marked by the events of the Gulf War of the early 1990s: think Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein, invasion and the desperate bid to re-cap oil wells sabotaged by an Iraqi army in full retreat. Travelling solo, and flying via the Doha hub in Qatar, this trip was about setting the record straight, about seeing the country beyond the "we're interrupting this programme..." news flashes of my childhood. For me, these events merely served to give Kuwait an added mystique which, as a traveller oft drawn to off-the-beaten track destinations, I found hard to resist. Indeed, when I was resting in my hotel room on the second afternoon of my trip to Kuwait, I was startled by the familiar wailing sound of an air raid siren. I rushed to the window, throwing back the net curtain and sliding the glass, to see if I could work out what was happening. Instinctively I looked down to the ground from my high vantage point (I had been given a room many floors up) to gauge the reaction of locals. If they were panicked then, I figured, I should probably be too. I was reassured when I saw a man, wearing a traditional white keffiyeh, looking completely unperturbed by the siren as he proceeded towards an ATM. After several minutes the siren faded and I assumed that this must have been a practice drill (you can watch the footage I filmed from my hotel window here). It was unsettling nonetheless and a reminder that I was in an interesting part of the world.
The heat in May is almost unbearable, and was made all the more so by my having to wear trousers instead of shorts as these are deemed culturally too informal to be acceptable in public spaces. Temperatures reached 44 degrees and 'dropped' to 37 at night. If you're unaccustomed to how this feels just imagine a hair-dryer blowing directly into your face and you'll get the idea. Indeed, many wealthier Kuwaitis seek cooler climes from May to September by escaping abroad. The unforgiving climate also goes some way to explaining the car-oriented nature of the Kuwaiti capital; it's just too hot to walk anywhere. As a consequence Kuwait City isn't really geared towards pedestrians; pavements are either rendered hazardous by building materials, covered in sand from recent sand storms or they just disappear abruptly, leaving silly tourists like me marooned in a sea of zooming motors. For reasons which remain unknown, even to myself, I decided, rather stupidly, to walk the three kilometres from my hotel in the Wattiya district to the iconic Kuwait Towers on the coast. I made it - but only just. After grabbing a few snaps of the incredible spiky, bulbous structure, I dived into the nearest air-conditioned mall and ended up being pitied by restaurant staff; I was dripping in sweat, my shirt soaked through and perspiration running in rivulets down my back. I purchased the largest bottle of water they had and drank the lot. It was an intended take-away purchase but staff proffered me a seat to give me more time to cool down. They even offered me free salad from the buffet - but I don't know why. Perhaps I just have one of those pitiable faces? After half an hour of cooling time I opted for a taxi straight back to Wattiya, courtesy of the mall receptionist who arranged one for me. The reality is that I tried to tackle Kuwait's midday heat as a bold, determined traveller but ended up running back to my air-conditioned room embarrassed and a little wiser than when I had set out. Whilst some would worry about you visiting Kuwait, primarily because of events already described, the reality is that your biggest danger here in May is heatstroke and dehydration.
Kuwait City is hot and dusty with seemingly hundreds of unremarkable buildings, many of which are unlikely to win any architecture awards any time soon. In amongst these generic, beige constructions are some wonderful architectural offerings which are daring in that they offer creative re-workings of traditional Islamic architecture. The striking Liberation Telecommunications Tower is the second tallest building in the city and so-called because it was finished in 1993 - not long after the Iraqi invasion. It is supposedly the fifth tallest communications tower in the world. It became a bit of a friend of mine during my time in Kuwait, helping me to orientate myself around the city as many other buildings appeared indistinguishable from one another. Also of international significance is the sandy coloured Al Hamra building, the tallest sculptured building in the world and thus the tallest in Kuwait. The Grand Mosque, the National Museum and National Assembly of Kuwait are also worth the long walk along Arabian Gulf Street which, if you are lucky, will reward you with a light breeze coming off of the coast. Kuwait City's visual landscape is accompanied by an auditory one, too. The obligatory Call to Prayer sounds five times per day, beginning at around 3am. Indeed, it quickly became the soundtrack to my visit. I like the Call to Prayer - it's visceral and, at around 9pm, gently lulled me to sleep in my hotel room. I like destinations with spirit and soul.
My one little escape from all of this culture was a branch of Costa Coffee in the Sharq area of the city which seemed to emerge from out of the dusty haze like a desert-induced mirage. I know, I know - this wasn't exactly authentic Arabia but needs must in such hot, unforgiving temperatures. It was air conditioned, served great coffee and had high-speed Wi-Fi! This branch of Costa Coffee was also home to a member of staff who thought I should ditch my teaching job in England and teach in tax-free Kuwait for the British Council.
After my experience attempting to traverse Kuwait City on foot in the middle of a Kuwaiti summer, I decided that from then on I should take it a little easier. Enter, stage left, Naseem, a chatty taxi driver who proudly stated that he listened to the BBC World Service religiously. Thanks to Naseem, I picked off some of the things I wanted to see without the possibility of being hospitalised with heatstroke. First, the playful modern interpretation of religious architecture that is the Siddiqa Fatima Zahra Mosque with its emerald, mushroom-shaped pyramid, located in the Dahiya Abdullah Mubarak community. This was followed by a stop at the Pyramid Mosque in the Salmiya district which drew, as its architectural inspiration, on Egyptian designs and motifs. Some of these creative interpretations of the mosque are evidence that the traditional and modern need not be mutually exclusive: in fact, they appear to complement each other perfectly. Another quirky sight I was desperate to see was the blue and white-striped funnel-shaped water towers which, from the roadside, looked not unlike large sticks of fantastical candy sticking out of the ground. They're certainly not the kind of thing one readily associates with Kuwait. They are fun, frivolous and a work of design genius.
Naseem dropped me off at the wonderful Al-Mubarakiya Souq in the heart of the city. Wandering around the souq is a quintessentially Arab pastime. Not only is it a syneasthetic collision of sights and smells but it is also thankfully cool during the oppressive heat of the day. The Arabian love affair with the air-conditioned mall with boutique shops and expensive brands is, arguably, merely a modern-day reinvention of the traditional souq. The Al-Mubarakiya Souq retains a feeling of history in an otherwise bland city landscape cluttered with medium-sized glass towers, misleadingly long boulevards, and hot, dusty pavements. Go to the fish market to see an array of crabs and fish of all shapes, sizes and kinds. Go to the spice hall and go to the meat hall, all of which offer an authentic Arabian experience in an otherwise modern city. It's also the perfect place to grab a souvenir or two under the watchful gaze of the Royal Family, whose images are affixed throughout the warren of lanes and draped in Kuwaiti bunting. The souq is also a great place to get a little closer to locals. Buying a banana as my traveller snack of choice (always a safe bet) I was asked the obligatory question "Where are you from?" A thumbs up and "very good, very good - welcome" met my answer of "UK - England". I found this to be a not uncommon response from Kuwaitis and is likely not unrelated to our support in the liberation of the tiny Gulf state from Iraqi occupation. On hearing where I was from, the fruit seller charged me a little less for my banana as a gesture of good will. Naseem, my driver, also displayed a similarly hospitable disposition: "I don't want to barter - just pay me what you think is best" was his reply to my question of "how much?" which, I should add, my Lonely Planet Guide to Oman, UAE and Arabian Peninsula insisted I clearly establish at the start of any taxi ride. Never before have I been in a country where a taxi driver lets the passenger pay what they think is best! Another memorable moment where I experienced the Kuwaiti respect for the guest was in a queue at an ATM. The gentleman in front of me, wearing traditional thobe and headdress, moved aside to let me go in front of him. All of these gestures, along with a whole host of others I experienced during my time, are testimony to the fact that the Middle East is a welcoming and hospitable place to travel - particularly important if, like me, you are travelling alone. I was an aberration; I was not an oil industry worker and I was not travelling as part of a family group. I was a true alien in the eyes of Kuwaitis and they treated me well.
The Kuwait Towers are the undisputed iconic landmark of this tiny Gulf state.
Making it to Kuwait Towers in 43 degree heat - flushed and overheating.
A mosaic bench foregrounds the wonderful Kuwait Towers.
The famous Pyramid Mosque in the Salmiya district looks to Egypt for its inspiration.
Fatima Mosque: the playful modern interpretation of mosque architecture that is the Fatima Mosque with its emerald, mushroom-shaped dome.
The Al Hamra Tower, the largest sculpted tower in the world.
The 372 metre Liberation Tower helped me to orient myself as I navigated the city.
This most in central Kuwait City is a modern interpretation of traditional Islamic architecture.
A man wearing a thobe passes an evocative doorway.
Inside the Al Mabarakiya Souq's fish market where you can see dead versions of an array of crabs and fish of all shapes, sizes and kinds. The man is wearing the traditional head dress of the Ghutra. In Kuwait, the red and white and pure white are the most common forms of headdress.
The wonderful water towers on the outskirts of the city appear not unlike giant sticks of striped candy.
travel tips, links & resources
- Take account of local sensibilities when packing your clothes; the more flesh you show, the more offence caused. It is also a region where it pays off to acquaint yourself with some of the basic do's and don'ts.
- This is obvious, but learn a couple of basic phrases in Arabic. These go a long way to building bridges even though English is widely spoken.
- Check your passport does not have an Israeli stamp. Entering Kuwait could be problematic if you do. Luckily, my visit to Israel in 2011 was recorded in a previous passport. You may wish to do your research in this area before booking flights.
- If you are transiting through Doha for your onward flight to Kuwait you may wish to ensure there is enough time to transfer. Hamad International Airport is an absolute beast . I made my connection with seconds to spare.
- Avoid photography of women and any government buildings in particular.
- Kuwait, along with Saudi Arabia, is completely dry. Drinking alcohol here is against the law.
- If visiting in the summer months (late April - September) do not be too ambitious with plans to see the city by foot. Instead, jump in a taxi. They are relatively cheap and the drivers are always up for conversation.
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