DOHA, Qatar — After Sheng Xie, a 33-year-old soccer fan from Vancouver, booked his flight to the World Cup, he went looking for a place to stay.
Using the official tournament website, he quickly settled into a relatively affordable venue called Fan Village. The room pictured looked functional and clean. There were two separate beds, wifi, AC, and a fridge, all for $200 a night.
He didn’t realize it was inside a shipping container.
“What have you booked?” Xie asked himself in recent weeks, as he began to see pictures on social media of his residence under construction.
What he found when he arrived was a sea of colored metal boxes, lined up side by side in neat rows, lettered and numbered, stretching as far as he could see. His container/trailer was one of thousands hastily set up in a dirt field near the airport. The workers said there were 4,000 of them. A map at the entrance showed blueprints for more than 7,500, as well as a section for staff. It was like a one-story Lego city.
And down the well-lit stretches of artificial turf laid over the gravel soil, past the giant tent that serves as the dining hall and the big box that houses the grocery store, and all the little boxes that sell food or coffee or medicine or fans and not far from the outdoor gym and spaces the size of The football stadium where people can gather to watch football matches on a big screen, Xie finds his room, in section E8, behind a metal door.
Brief guide to the 2022 World Cup
Inside, it looked exactly like the picture. The air conditioning kept it cool enough and the Wifi worked. There were two small windows to let in a little light. He was relieved to know the doors were locked.
Tuesday night was his fifth night. Will he book it again?
Xie considered. He just suggested that the accommodations he chose might provide a good model for housing the homeless in places like the United States and Canada, hardly a strong endorsement for a vacation setting.
He said, “Maybe I’d say yes.”
Qatar has a population of only around three million, and fans from all over the world who swarm the World Cup stadiums in Doha for four matches a day have to stay somewhere. Most found hotels, Doha offers a range of luxury brands. Others have booked places on one of the few docked cruise ships brought in for the occasion.
For many fans, though – particularly the more adventurous or economical among them – the place they’ve found somewhere is in a field that often seems like nowhere.
After all, Qatar knows how to build vast expanses of utilitarian housing for temporary residents. The dusty outer reaches of Doha are filled with sprawling neighborhoods not unlike that, with names like Asian Town and Industrial Zone, permanent camps for the migrant workers who do most of Qatar’s construction and service work. The World Cup organizers seem to have used this concept as a solution for fans.
Not all options were as boxy as the appropriately designated shipping container. In the most upscale fan village called creekwhich is a 40-minute drive north of central Doha near the beach, the concept is ‘Arabian camping’.
Visitors stay in canvas tents decorated with furniture, plumbing, televisions, and a refrigerator. There is a swimming pool, a restaurant, a range of pop up shops and an ‘entertainment area’ with a large fire pit and large screen TV’s. Advertised rates this week were over $400 a night.
At the lower end of the spectrum it is Caravan City, a set of 1,000 white square trailers on wheels. Rates there started at about $115 per night.
But the most popular option was the containers, which the organizers cleverly renamed “cabins”. They are, basically, pop-up trailer parks, soccer-themed campgrounds, and there are three of them around Doha.
One called Free Zone, where Xie stayed, has a laid-back atmosphere among the low-flying planes coming in and out of the nearby airport, due in large part to the lack of alcohol on the premises. (Hotels are among the few places in Qatar where alcohol is allowed to be sold.) There is a kind of main street, a yellow-grass road that acts as a platform for a diverse mix of football fans.
Towards the horizon, a dead end of yellow grass in a construction zone where, days after the tournament, heavy machinery was arranging more containers. In the darkness of a Tuesday night, battalions of workers hooked up the water and electricity, moved the furniture and cleaned the units to receive the arriving guests.
When Xie arrived on Friday, he was one of the first to check in. By Tuesday, the village was bustling with people and disorganised. Simply waiting to check in took hours. Electric vans brought in to take people to their remote rooms — Xie said he had told the man who drove him to a temporary home a few days earlier — were parked with dead batteries.
Gihanna Fava and Renan Almeida, who are engaged to be married next year, have arrived from Brazil. Like Xie, they booked the village not knowing what to expect, but the price was right. Almeida said hotels downtown were either overbooked or well above their budget.
After a long flight (and a missed flight), they spent nearly three hours on Tuesday standing in line to check-in. Vava and Almeda finally get a key, get to a room and find it already occupied.
Found a new room – literally -. It was on the edge of evolution, though, far from everything in the S4. There were twin beds, not the queen they booked. Everything was covered in a recognizable layer of dust. The cleaners haven’t reached their unit yet.
Vava worried that someone else might be handed the wrong key and come to his unit in the middle of the night. Can they leave their belongings safely here when they go to games?
Someone knocked on the door. Vava and Almeida were sure that another guest had been sent by mistake. But he was a worker making sure the fridge worked. It seems to work.
The two tried to take a shower. Spray a strong stream of hot water. They smiled.
“I told Jehana we should lower our expectations and expect the worst,” Almeida said. “Because it is not a hotel.”
“Thinker. Wannabe twitter lover. Entrepreneur. Food fan. Total communicator. Coffee specialist. Web evangelist. Travel fanatic. Gamer.”