Editor’s Note: CNN Travel’s series often carries sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.
Out in the hot, shimmering desert sands of western Qatar, something alien, colossal and very weird looms over the horizon.
There’s seemingly no logic to the appearance of four gigantic monoliths stretching out into the distance along a barren corridor between low limestone cliffs.
And yet these metallic invaders have made themselves oddly at home in the rough landscape – adding a majestic dimension to this corner of the tiny Gulf nation.
The steel plates, located across a kilometer of desert on Qatar’s Zekreet Peninsula, are the work of Richard Serra, an American artist known for creating imposing metalwork sculptures.
Titled “East-West/West-East,” the landmarks, which rise up to 16.7 meters, were installed in 2014 after Serra was asked by art-loving Qatari royalty to make his mark on their country.
Several years down the line, the plates are standing as bold as ever. Tarnished by rust and scratched with graffiti, but no less imposing for it.
Keeping watch over empty terrain, these sentinels look as though they’ll last forever.
For its creator, the artwork’s obscure location in a destination where summer temperatures can breach 50 C (122 F) was both a source of inspiration and concern.
“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Independent at the time of its installation. “It’s a piece I’d really like to be seen and I don’t know if it will.”
He needn’t have worried.
While hardly overrun, “East-West/West-East” has become a place of occasional pilgrimage for locals, tourists and art devotees alike, adding to a roster of Qatar desert activities that includes dune bashing, Bedouin camps and camel treks.
Getting there isn’t easy though.
The nearest major highway is more than five kilometers away. There’s no road leading to the sculpture and the tracks that criss-cross nearby desert aren’t clearly signposted.
Anyone driving there will require an off-road vehicle, which aren’t typically available to hire for self-drive in Qatar. So visitors will either need a local friend with access to big wheels, or join an organized trip – Qatar Inbound Tours comes highly recommended (Souq Waqif, Souq Asiri, Waqif, Doha; +974 5553 1002).
Maze of tracks
And unless you’re with someone who knows the way, a GPS device will come in handy. Despite its size, “East-West/West-East” can’t be seen from the main road. The only clue to the turnoff is a signpost prosaically pointing the way to “Camel Underpass No. 7.”
Then it’s a case of picking a route carefully through a maze of rutted tracks in the sand, past occasional encampments.
It’s a bad place for a flat tire or breakdown – there are few other vehicles out here and, beyond lizards and perhaps a lost camel, barely any living creatures.
When the sculptures come into view though, it’s all worth it – especially for fans of classic sci-fi movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Because they’re spaced out at 250-meter intervals along a straight line, they rear up slowly, each one dwarfing the next in a clearly deliberate trick of perspective.
Up close they’re neck-craningly tall, throwing out huge shadows that lengthen rapidly as the hot sun scoots through the afternoon. They’re solid enough to absorb strikes without making much of a sound, yet viewed side-on they’re barely there at all.
Voice of defiance
It’s hard to get a true sense of scale unless there are other humans around, but it’s worth making the somewhat rocky five-minute scramble to the top of the nearby cliffs to take in the full view of the monoliths stretching out towards the sea.
And if the temperatures aren’t too unbearable, walking the sculpture’s full kilometer is a must.
Serra’s fear about lack of visitors was clearly unfounded if the amount of graffiti scrawled on the metal plates is anything to go by. Though hardly an enhancement, it’s now part of the artwork.
Some of the graffiti merely declares “I was here,” but others are outlets for artistic debate or national pride – with some of the more recent homegrown Qatari additions voicing defiance in the face of regional sanctions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest graffiti on one of the plates is apparently the work of visitors from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.
While there’s plenty to take in at “East-West/West-East,” the artwork isn’t the only attraction the Zekreet Peninsula has to offer.
A short drive farther west leads to the Al Reem Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-protected area that’s supposedly home to gazelles, oryx, osprey and other rare desert fauna, though they seem to be hard to spot.
Inside are more local oddities.
Firstly there’s Film City, a fortified little town that stands empty in the desert, a Qatari flag rippling on the mast atop its tallest tower. The gates are typically open and visitors can stop, explore and, if they’re lucky, share a cup of sweet tea with the security guard.
There’s no real intrigue surrounding this place. It was built as a filming location and makes occasional appearances in Arabic dramas and promos for soccer’s 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 hollowed out a limestone bowl, carving the rocks into beautiful, mushroom-like shapes. One prominent feature, known as “umbrella rock,” is an island of weathered stone topped by an inaccessible building.
This, and other small structures in the hollow are recreations of traditional shelters used for storing dates.
These days, they’re merely the final stop on a tour of one of the more unusual destinations in the Arabian Gulf.
Or the beautiful backdrop for a night camping under the stars, swapping stories about strange things in the desert.