Dispatch from Doha: Free rides, Chilli crab chips and even bubble tea on Qatar’s sparkling metro system

The bustling Msheireb metro station, which is the heart of the Qatar railway network, boasts a variety of shops. ST PHOTO: SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ

DOHA – I am over 6,000km away from Singapore. But every day, I feel like I’m at home. Especially when I am on the go in Doha.

This is thanks to the Gulf state’s Metro system, its new, still-gleaming railway network which will allow the estimated 1.5 million World Cup visitors to get around Doha with ease. Efficient, vibrant and clean, it reminds me of the MRT system in Singapore.

All eight stadiums at this World Cup are located within a radius of about 60km, making it the most compact edition in history. Travel to multiple venues each day is possible, although Fifa has limited fans and the media to just two games a day, with a four-hour window between kick-offs.

Still, there is plenty to do other than the games and with the Metro, which opened in May 2019, stops like Souq Waqif, where the centuries-old traditional marketplace is, or Corniche, where the official fan festival zones are located, have been popular among fans here.

Public transportation has been made free for visitors for the whole tournament, and gantries at Metro stations are left wide open. At some of them, friendly marshals suggest “tap your Hayya card” – a personalised e-card for World Cup attendees – but most do not even bother because of the sheer volume of passengers.

The largest station on the network, the cavernous Msheireb station, is at the heart of the 37-stop Metro system with the three lines – red, green and gold – running through it.

Msheireb features convenience stores, artisanal cafes, shops selling perfumes, toys and optical instruments, and even a bubble tea joint, across four main levels. At one point, as I was walking through it, I wondered if I had somehow been transported back home, and to Dhoby Ghaut.

Its design, which features brightly-lit, high-arched ceilings, derived from historic Islamic architecture and inspired by traditional Bedouin tents, was even awarded a prize at the Prix Versailles – the world architecture award for stores, hotels, and restaurants – in 2020.

Efficient and clean with free rides for the duration of the World Cup, Qatar’s Metro system makes life on the go much easier for Doha’s estimated 1.5 million visitors. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Qatar has ensured that its network’s reliability is as impressive as its cosmetics.

The 75 three-carriage, 60m-long trains, which move at about 80kmh – and can reach up to 100kmh – are supplied by Mitsubishi Corporation and Kinki Sharyo, ensuring Japanese efficiency.

After one game I covered, travel from the Khalifa International Stadium to the National Museum stop near my accommodation about 13km away took about half an hour, according to Google maps.

That is just four minutes more than what it would take for a drive in an Uber, which would have set me back about 45 Qatari riyal (S$17).

Singaporean fan Firdaus Khan was not let down when he used the train system to catch two games on Wednesday.

He watched Japan’s stunning 2-1 upset of Germany at the Khalifa stadium, before catching Belgium’s 1-0 win over Canada at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium about 17km away.

Firdaus, a 32-year-old account manager, said it took him about 90 minutes to travel between the two venues, including walking time from the stadium to Metro stations and negotiating crowds.

“The Metro system has been really easy to navigate. Very straightforward.

“The only thing I struggle with is the correct pronunciation of the station names,” he said.

He noted that the variety of shops at different stations has been a boon – he bought a small cup of traditional Karak tea (spiced tea with milk) at one – and said he was struck by how they were “extremely similar” to the ones you would find in Singapore. “Easy to just pop in, (buy) and go,” he said.

Just for a taste of home, I bought a cup of brown sugar milk tea at the bubble tea shop at Msheireb, which even sold bags of “Singapore salted egg crab” and “Singapore chilli crab”-flavoured seaweed tempura chips.

I don’t normally drink bubble tea in Singapore – I’m more of a Ya Kun coffee guy – but I am quite sure there will be at least a couple more visits before the tournament is up.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.