The Asia Diaries

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After a short break in my trip, I continued with the second part of the tour. The Middle East, and with it the Arabic peninsula, lay behind me. My first stop was the Maldives, a country with barely any land mass or roads to cycle on. With a total of 88km of paved roads, I had my fun by actually cycling all of them. Every single paved road in an entire country. That's a first even for me. After 2 days on the islands, I can't even recall how many loops I've ridden around Male and Hulhumale.

The main islands around the airport are only a few kilometres wide and high, you only need a couple of minutes to cycle around them. Shot of Male from plane window. To get to any other location, you need boats or planes.


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The local ferries are extremely cheap, a ride costs only a few cents; while the private boats that bring tourists to private resort islands are the opposite, extremely expensive. The same is true about the accommodation. With only a few spots of land, property costs are high and until a few years ago, only high-end resorts existed on the Maldives. This is the lowest rate you can get, officially. But in Male you will soon discover that people rent out rooms in their private homes, cash in hand.

Couchsurfing is non-existent, and camping Another big surprise for me was the religion. Of course I knew that the Maldives are a Muslim country on paper, but all I knew about the country was pristine beaches, rich couples in swimming gear and resorts. Women cover their head and wear hijabs, some full burqas in mono-black. Swimming suits, bikinis and the like are forbidden on beaches. Away from the resorts there is garbage is everywhere. Houses are in disrepair, next to construction sites building new high-rise apartment blocks or hotels.

However, if you have the money, you get on your private boat to your resort on a private island, and it's all good. No need to see the impoverished population. It was truly bizarre. At the airport all kinds of tourists arrived, but on the islands I visited, all public ones, I only met Asians, Russians and a few low-budget backpackers. The rest just disappeared, never to mingle with normal folk. I split my time between resting in the hotel, reading, sitting on the beach, swimming and cycling round and round in loops around the islands.

By public ferry I tried to explore the country a bit, visiting tiny islands, all of which were very calm and relaxing.

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The main islands of Male and Hulhumale are chaotic, filled with traffic; but the smaller islands have no cars. Since they are only reachable by the small ferries, all you see are bicycles, scooters and the occasional motorbike. I wish I had my own a boat. Being able to independently move between islands with your own place to sleep and cook would be heaven.

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The way I experienced the Maldives was not that great In fact, my first stop after Male was Colombo. Near the airport, at the ferry terminal. But on a more positive note it was a rather unique experience, I don't think many bike tourers visit the Maldives to bike. Nor did I ever see a traffic light that turns red because of airplanes: The road to the airport is so close to the landing strip that cars have to wait until any plane finished landing or take-off.

My sixth stop in the Middle East are the U.

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To tell the truth, my destination was just a single emirate, Dubai. Everyone here goes to Dubai, especially for New Years. Since I had visited the city on a backpacking trip years ago, I cut this second visit short and stayed just two nights, the 30th and the 31st of December. A day to get my bearings and plan the trip to Oman and one day for the total chaos that is New Years in Dubai.

There are two good spots to see the fireworks, one is at the beach near the Burj al Arab, the 7-star hotel shaped like a sail; the other is at the Burj Kalifha, the worlds tallest building. I chose the tallest building, since I was really curious about how it looked. On my last visit to Dubai it was still under construction, now I finally got to see the finished version. And while the interior of the mall was designed to mimic his travel locations, it was distinctly western in its choice of shops. The food court could have been anywhere in the US and I ended up having a delicious philly cheese steak sandwich.

Not strictly speaking traditional Arabic food. It is a km ride through the desert to get there and since I was travelling with non-biking company at the time, we decided to take a bus together. After that it was finally time for the Burj Kalifha. This time I left the Brompton at the hotel and we headed there with the metro, just to be greeted with a massive amount of people, mostly of Indian descent. I did not expect this large of a crowd In the end we decided to stay near the Address Hotel, a massive, story 5-star hotel next to the Burj, from where we had a nice view.

This decision should proof to be a disaster. For those of you who do not remember the news from that night, here a picture of how the Address Hotel looked around Slowly moving further south through the Arab Guld, Qatar is the next destination on my list. A country on a peninsular attached to Saudi-Arabia, yet again a country I can only reach by plane and another opportunity for the Brompton folding bike to shine. Through five countries it has accompanied me so far, zipping through the crowded chaos of Istanbul, the coastal areas of Lebanon, the kinda-deserted streets of Kuwait and the lively neighbourhoods of Bahrain.

Qatar is a mix of my two previous destinations. Oil-rich and expensive like Kuwait, full of Indians and bazaars like Bahrain, with something new: A healthy dose of green parks, public places and a fully restored historic center. Dare I mention it? I could not believe my eyes, but the airport, which is 10km out of town, is actually connected to the center by a dedicated bike trail. Physically separated from the road. With its own lighting system. I was blown away to say the least, I would have never expected this. And so it came that I cycled well past midnight away from the airport and towards the Warmshower hosts place, out in the suburbs of town.

Carla, the one who invited me, plans to do a big bike tour herself and we had a lot of good talks about routes, gear and bikes. On that first day I met fellow cyclists, Marcel from Poland, a medical student who took some time off his studies to work for Qatar airways and travel a bit. He was the only foreign cyclist I'd likely meet in the Middle East on this tour.

He quickly explained to me the lay of the land, where to go, what to see, and headed off for his daily cycle. I spend most of the day in the national museum, which was so far beyond anything that Kuwait or Bahrain had built, that I can barely compare them. A giant, modern art-deco building on the waterfront, 4 floors high, intelligent lighting, small cinemas, restaurant, guides, a park outside Since Qatar does not have that much of a history, besides being a spot for pearl-divers and some Portuguese forts, they simply starting amassing a collection from anything nearby. Welcome to the Arabic Gulf, full of super-rich oil states On a first glance, Bahrain is just like its neighbours: Small, rich, Arabic, full of expats and highly developed.

But there was in fact a lot more to Bahrain than met the eye. Bahrain is the black sheep of the gulf, it barely has any oil and therefor has had to establish its economy in a different way.

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But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was no longer the lone tourist, I arrived in the evening to a busy airport, unfolded my Brompton and cycled around the small island that surrounds the airport, and across a bridge to the center of town. The first difference to Kuwait were the people.


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Pedestrians, cyclists, people waiting at bus-stops Here it felt like actual people lived within the city. Small fast food restaurants, mostly Indian or Filipino style, bazaars and mini-markets lined the streets. Over half of the population are foreigners, mostly cheap labor force from Asia, including my couchsurfing host, a Filipino chemist, who was eagerly awaiting his job application for Qatar, not only because it is much better paid, but because his wife is waiting for him there.

Sharing a shoe-box sized apartment with an Indian and me , it felt like my previous trips to India or South-East-Asia. High humidity, occasional rain, street-food eaten at cheap plastic tables in front of a small restaurant, the constant background noise of a city, the crammed alleys winding their ways through the local bazaar. For a cyclist, there is not much to do besides city-tours, which are perfect for the Brompton. An old fort and the tree of life, a very old tree growing all by its lonesome in the desert.

And a small tree at that. The best experience were the people. Be it playing late-night scrabble with the Filipinos, confusing hockey, ice-hockey and street-hockey while talking with a Pakistani, discussing business opportunities with an intrepid Indian, or the extremely knowledgeable Canadian guide, who walked with me through the Grande Mosque of Bahrain, which is one of the architectural highlights of the city. The mosque greets everyone with a giant sign saying "Visitors of all religions are welcome! Due to Bahrains small size, I spent less time on the bike than usual and more time in museums, mosques and bazaars.

The national museum displays the history of a pearl-fishing heaven, until the modern Bahrain was established. My travels took me to Kuwait. A rich desert country threatened by its neighbours, invaded twice, yet still a modern and highly developed city state. It is a small country measuring km in diameter, wedged between Iraq and Saudi-Arabia, on the northern end of the Arab gulf, Kuwait is famous for its oil, which at the same time is the source of all the money and with it, the economic growth.

Kuwait city nestles along the harbour, radiating into the countryside. The rest of the country is made up of desert. Days have started to grow longer here compared to the rest of my trip but the view is often obscured by sand and dust in the air that is blown into the city by strong gales. The skyscrapers are a mix of grey and brown, built along wide avenues. Kuwait is my third destination after my relaxing week in Istanbul and the trip through Lebanon, which culminated in me being robbed. Kuwait should prove a completely different experience yet again. This is the first time that I would be picked up from the airport.

The friendly couchsurfer, a Filipino teacher who has lived for 6 years in Kuwait made sure that I felt welcome. Kuwait does not do bike infrastructure, everything is build around car traffic. Very few pedestrians are on the sidewalks, buses are rare with most people driving. There are giant shopping malls, American chain restaurants, cinemas, etc. It is a wash with western culture and industry. It's the first truly rich state I have visited on my journey and the difference was huge. The first evening I spent with the couch-surfer, who gave me all the info I needed to find my own way around Kuwait, followed by a quick ride around town.

Navigating is easy thanks to the long straight roads, landmarks like the Kuwait Towers can be seen from many kilometres away. It's one of the easiest cities to travel round, if it weren't for all the traffic.

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The people drive like crazy and besides a few lone Indian workers on their steel bicycles, no one else rides bikes. Black SUVs seem to be the standard. In only took 2 more trips around town on my bike and I had pretty much explored the whole city. I visited the museum tiny , the harbour beautiful , the largest mall in the world large I had two personal highlights in Kuwait: The expat community and Star Wars.

Expats are all over the Middle East, thanks to the high wages and the lack of specialized education of the locals. People from all over the world come here to build, design, teach etc. They are super welcoming of visitors and always eager to see a new face.

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Within one week, I was invited to two parties, and met people from a dozen nationalities. Most of them stay only years, save some money and head home. High wages or not, Kuwait is still a tiny place in a desert. Like most other countries in the world the premier of the new Star Wars film was a big occasion for the cinema industry with all the cinemas showing the film. Share this article Share. Einstein's travel diaries reveal 'shocking' xenophobia Books The Guardian.

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