Disclaimer: I apologize for the length of this post. I was shocked to see how long it was but I blame it on the amount of writing I’ve been doing for my masters. I could have done some editing but I was too lazy!!! You can skip the reading and just look at the pictures if you wish :o)
The what??? If you’re like me, and I know you want to be, you haven’t heard much about Oman let alone where it is on the map. I have to admit that this country, or to be more accurate, this Sultanate, wasn’t even on my radar when I came over here just about 10 months ago. It was only in the last 4 – 6 weeks that I heard some friends talking about how nice it was there. So, I took a bit of flyer, and booked a trip to Oman. Ok, so you don’t necessarily want to go there in the summer months as the temperature gets to above 45C on a daily basis. For those you already making plans to go, I strongly suggest you do it between October and April. The people, however, are open and welcoming and a lot more contemporary in their ways than other Middle East countries. Everyone seems to be much more relaxed.
The heat notwithstanding, Oman is a truly beautiful place to visit. My hotel was in Muscat which is on the east coast of Oman. I stayed at the Crown Plaza Muscat on the shores of the Sea of Oman and the entrance to the Arabian Sea. I don’t really talk about the hotels I stay at (except with Kathy, of course) but this was a GREAT place. A private beach, swimming pool, beautiful open spaces, and a pool bar are only a few of the things that made this an awesome hotel. Palm trees and tropical breezes were also relaxing. They had these incredible supper buffets that started in the restaurant on the ground floor and stretch out to outdoor BBQ’s on the grounds. The food was amazing challenged only my view. The sunsets were like stuff out of travel brochures. It was almost a shame to leave this Shangri La for the tours I had planned.
Once again, I will do my best to remember pertinent information on the places I went to but please forgive if I mix up facts and names. My tour guide for my stay was Mohammad. He was incredible. He did a lot of driving during my stay as some the places we went to were a good distance from Muscat. Thankfully, he is a good driver, as are the rest of the Omani people. The Saudis could learn something here! LOL. Even though we travelled 120km, 240km to some locations, the scenery was never dull. We were always surrounded by mountains. I asked Mohammad to stop a few times just to get pictures of them. Looking at some of them, you can’t imagine the violence of when they were formed. The earth must have shook a tremendous amount when these mountains sprang up from the earth. You can literally see the layers of the earth’s crust jutting out at 30 to 45 degree angles.
One of our first stops was at a little village called Rustaq. It is, however, a bona fide Oasis. What makes it even more special is the fact that it boasts a hot water spring! Deep in a little wadi (valley), you can get to it by following the river bed. At this time of year, most of the wadis are dry but in the spring and monsoon season the water returns. In Rustaq, the hot spring flows all year long. It is a local gathering spot for both people and goats. Well, there were goats there when I was there. The government has built a bit of a picnic area where the springs comes to the surface and while it was still early when I was there, some teenagers were taking advantage of the spring and river to refresh themselves. The goats were on the other side of the wadi. The water of the spring is about the same temperature you’d expect from a hot tub. There was no steam though as it was already near 40C by that time. It certainly was relaxing to soak your feet in the natural pool though.
Oman is rich with history that the people are very proud of. The government has rebuilt and maintained many of the forts dotted along the mountain sides of the Sultanate. I visited two of them with the first being Nakhal Fort. Located some 120 km to the west of Muscat, it is one they are especially proud of. The locals refer to it as Husn Al Heem and it was built way back in pre-Islamic times. It’s surrounded by palm orchards and nestled around the rocks at the base of Mount Nakhal, which is probably how it got its name.
We made our way to the tiny village (real tiny!) of Wakan. What makes this a place to see is the fact that it’s located some 2,000 meters above sea level, clinging to the mountain side in the middle of nowhere.
It has just recently been opened to tourist owing to the fact that there are some military bases nearby. The government is in the process of building a better road to access the village and they could use it!! Holy crap…it was exactly like the mountainside roads you see in cheap movies. I’d look out my window and there was no ground!! Just a 1,000 foot drop. Big boulders above us being held up by…I don’t know!! And this is half way through the government’s work to improve it LOL.
It was all worth it when we reached Wakan. The view is indescribable. The pictures, as good as they are (thank you, LOL), do not do it justice. You could see forever. We were so high, we were looking down at other huge mountains, something that was to be repeated the next day in another location. I took a ton of pictures and then simply sat down on a rock and gazed out onto this vista. Looking from right to left and back again, it was almost too much to take in.
Wakan had another surprise in store for me. One of the last things I would have expected to see 1,500 meters above sea level, clinging to the side of these spectacular mountains, there were gardens. Garlic, French beans, sour oranges, pomegranates, palm trees and grapes…growing and thriving. It was difficult to take in. It was totally bizarre being in the middle of desert mountain range, completely surrounded by majestic peaks and sandy valleys with a temperature of 45C all while walking along this fertile and abundant land. All of this was reachable courtesy of the government building paths and stairs…lots and lots of stairs. Did you know that stairs are the natural enemy of short, fat people? Up and up and around we went and every bend in the trail revealed more wonders. At one point, the wind picked up and I could feel drops on my face. For a second I thought we were in for a storm. Not to worry, it was just me huffing and puffing and sweating heavily. It was well worth the effort though. Those scenes are forever etched in my memory. Simply brilliant.
I visited my second fort of the trip. This one was about 240 km outside of Muscat in the town of Nizwa. Can you guess what it is called? You got it! Nizwa Fort. It was built at the foot of what the locals refer to as the Green Mountains. More on them in a bit. This fort was huge! Its main feature is a big, round tower that is 24 meters height and about 43 meters in diameter at its base. It dates back to the 17th century and has numerous wells spread around that reach all the way into the roots of the mountain where, to this day, they still pull up fresh water. Pretty important that, especially if you’re going through a siege, being stuck inside the fort while a marauding foreign army tries to out wait you just outside your fort’s walls.
The fort is also surrounded by palm trees, a very important source of food and defence. The food, is quite obvious. I’ve grown to love fresh dates since I’ve been over here. Sweet, chewy and delicious. Using dates for the defence of a fort was, however, a new concept to me. Mohammad had fun getting me to guess how they used them for defence. Among some of my other sorry attempts was to dry out the dates and use them in slingshots. OK, he laughed too but it was all I could come up with. In reality, the truth is much simpler. Dates contain a sweet and oh so delicious honey.
As you can see in the picture above, they would pick the dates and put them in burlap sacks for storing. They would stack them up on top of each, using the weight of the dates above to press out the honey for the sacks below. In this room, you can see the ‘trenches’ along the edges of the where the sacks are stacked. They had holes along theses trenches were they put jugs to collect the running juice. Every morning someone would empty the collector jugs into the bigger jugs. How cool is that?! I know, I know. But how did they use this for defence. Well, they would take some of the date honey, or juice, and boil it, which would result in a very, very hot and incredibly sticky liquid. You got it, they would then pour it onto the invaders from the top of the fort walls or down specially built conduits from the roof to pour out from above the entry gates. Amazing.
After our visit of the fort it was time to drive up to the top of the Green Mountain. Luckily this road is much, much better. Fully paved and properly maintained, it is still quite the drive as we made our way up past 3,500 meters above sea level. The mountains are AWESOME. The road had so many twists and turns that a snake would have a hard time duplicating it. Once at top, we were in this picturesque little town which, unfortunately, I can no longer remember the name. Mohammad drove us to the edge of the town, LITERALLY! We parked and took a very short walk on a wooded trail to end up at the very edge of cliff. Not the place to be if you suffer from vertigo or are afraid of heights. Looking down this precipice, I had to swallow my heart back down into my chest but, man oh man (get it…Oman?? See what I did there?) what a view!!! I literally cannot describe it. I apologize that pictures simply to not relay the utter beauty of my view. Suffice it to say that I have never seen anything like this and may never see its equal anywhere.
When we reached the bottom of the Green Mountain, Mohammad had one more surprise for me. A visit to a small, 700 year old village made entirely out of mud and stones. It is located in Izki and tiny little dot along the main highway known for its palm and banana farms. Just on the outskirts of Izki is this time capsule of a village. For some the reason, the government hasn’t seen fit to restore and maintain this place. As you can see from the pictures, it’s in terrible shape. However, keep in mind it has survived over 700 years with no one helping to upkeep it. The fact that there is still so much standing is absolutely amazing. What strikes me the most about my visit is the absolute lack of colour in the village. Everything is sand and mud coloured; earth tones, if you will. I have no doubt that when this village was populated, there were bright colours all over. Unfortunately, now it just sits empty, slowly disintegrating back into desert sand. Sad, really.
As if to make up for my deprivation, my senses were overloaded with a virtual kaleidoscope of colour at the Mutrah Souq, just outside of Muscat. At over 200 years old, it is difficult to find as its entrance is relatively non-descript, located between two buildings. It looks like a simple entrance to an alleyway, which, in essence it is. This souq is really just a network of alleys and small roads that snakes its way into the heart of the ‘old quarter’. The locals call it “The Market of Darkness” because the tall buildings pretty much block out all of the sun. What a great place though. I wish I would have had more time to wander but the hour or so I did spend there was very exciting. As you enter the souq you are immediately struck by the mugginess of the air. Hot and humid is the order of the day here. However, there are shops on both sides of the alleyway and most have A/C so you can duck into one for a refreshing break. As with any souq I’ve been to, there isn’t anything you can’t find here and there is no shortage of retailers trying to get you to enter their shops.
I was on a mission to buy a Kuma (Omani hat). It was not to prove too difficult as everyone and his mother (literally) was selling them. Mohammad had given me some tips on ‘Kuma shopping’ and they came in handy for my purchase. After showing him the Kuma I purchased and disclosing the price, he proclaimed it an excellent choice.
I continued to roam through the souq, stopping here and there to look at the various wares on display. The smells from the spice and perfume shops were intoxicating. Many were burning frankincense in braziers. I was so taken with the smell of frankincense that I bought some along with a brazier, of course. A few more trinkets purchased and it was time to go.
My last stop on my great Oman adventure was at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
Wow! Sultan Qaboos, the current and much loved leader, had this Mosque built in the early 2,000’s. As you will see, he spared no expense. The best marble from Italy, crystal from Austria, stained glass from France, rugs from Iran. The list goes on and on. The mosque is spread out over many square kilometers and includes beautiful gardens and landscaping. It is very much a ‘working’ mosque and thousand come to pray here every day. So as not to disturb these people, the mosque is only open to the public from 8am to 11am, when it is then readied for daily prayers. The men’s prayer room is absolutely huge! If I remember correctly, it can hold a couple of thousand people with outside courtyards available for an overflow of a few thousand more. This mosque was obviously built to last and hopefully it will for many, many years.
Finally, here are some random pictures of the beautiful Sultanate of Oman.
As always, I have many more pictures of my trip to Oman on my Flickr site: