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In the hot, shimmering desert sands of western Qatar, something strange, colossal and very strange looms on the horizon.
There is seemingly no logic in the appearance of four gigantic monoliths stretching into the distance along a barren corridor between low limestone cliffs.
And yet these metal invaders have felt strangely at home in the rugged landscape – adding a majestic dimension to this corner of the tiny Gulf state.
The steel plates, spread over a kilometer of desert on Qatar’s Zekreet Peninsula, are the work of Richard Serra, an American artist known for creating imposing metalwork sculptures.
The landmarks, titled “East-West/West-East”, which rise to 16.7 meters, were installed in 2014 after Serra was asked by art-loving Qatari royalty to make his mark on their land.
Several years later, the records are as bold as ever. Affected by rust and daubed with graffiti, but no less impressive for that.
These sentinels keep watch over empty terrain and look like they’ll last forever.
For the creator, the artwork’s obscure location in a destination where summer temperatures can exceed 50 C (122 F) was both a source of inspiration and concern.
“This is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” he told The Independent during the installation. “It’s a piece I’d really like to see and I don’t know if it will happen.”
He needn’t have worried.
Although ‘East-West/West-East’ is hardly overrun, it has become a place of pilgrimage for locals, tourists and art lovers alike.
However, it is not easy to get there.
The nearest major highway is more than three miles away. There is no road leading to the statue and the trails crossing the nearby desert are not clearly marked.
Anyone driving there will need an all-terrain vehicle, which are generally not available for rent in Qatar to drive themselves. So visitors either need a local friend with access to big wheels, or join an organized trip – Qatar Inbound Tours is highly recommended (Souq Waqif, Souq Asiri, Waqif, Doha; +974 5553 1002).
And unless you’re with someone who knows their way around, a GPS device comes in handy. Despite its size, “East-West/West-East” cannot be seen from the main road. The only clue to the turn is a signpost prosaically pointing the way to “Camel Underpass No. 7.”
Then it is a matter of carefully choosing a route through a maze of tracks in the sand, past the occasional encampment.
It’s a bad place for a flat tire or breakdown – there are few other vehicles here and, apart from lizards and perhaps a stray camel, hardly any living creatures.
However, when the sculptures come into view, it’s all worth it – especially for fans of the classic sci-fi movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
Being placed along a straight line at a distance of 250 yards, they rise slowly, one overshadowing the other in an obviously deliberate trick of perspective.
Up close, they are neck-raisingly tall, casting huge shadows that quickly lengthen as the hot sun blasts through the afternoon. They’re sturdy enough to absorb blows without making much noise, but when viewed from the side they’re barely there.
It’s hard to get a real sense of scale unless other people are around, but it’s worth making the somewhat rocky five-minute climb to the top of the nearby cliffs to get the full view of admire the monoliths that stretch out to the sea.
And if the temperatures aren’t too unbearable, walking the full mile of the statue is a must.
Serra’s fears of a lack of visitors were clearly unfounded, judging by the amount of graffiti scrawled on the metal plates over the years. While hardly an improvement, it has become part of the artwork.
During a 2014 CNN visit, some of the graffiti simply stated “I was here”, but others are outlets for artistic debate or national pride – with some of the more recent homegrown additions from Qatar expressing defiance in the face of regional sanctions .
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tallest graffiti on one of the slabs was apparently the work of visitors from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.
While there’s plenty to see in ‘East-West/West-East’, the artwork isn’t the only attraction the Zekreet Peninsula has to offer.
A short drive further west leads to the Al Reem Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO protected area believed to be home to gazelles, oryx, osprey and other rare desert fauna, although they seem to be difficult to spot.
Inside are more local quirks.
First, there’s Film City, a fortified town standing empty in the desert, with a Qatari flag flying from the mast atop the tallest tower. The gates are usually open and visitors can stop, explore and, if lucky, share a cup of sweet tea with the guard.
There is no real intrigue around this place. It was built as a filming location and has occasionally featured in Arab dramas and promos for the Qatar-hosted 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Somewhat more mysterious – in appearance at least – are the “desert mushrooms” of Qatar, another few kilometers along the peninsula.
Here, centuries of wind erosion have eroded a limestone bowl, giving the rocks beautiful, mushroom-like shapes. A prominent feature, known as “umbrella rocks”, is an island of weathered stone topped by an inaccessible building.
These and other small structures in the hollow are recreations of traditional shelters used for storing dates.
Today, they are just the last stop on a tour of one of the Arabian Gulf’s more unusual destinations.
Or the beautiful setting for a night camping under the stars, exchanging stories about strange things in the desert.