Muscat Travel Blog› entry 1 of 4 › view all entries
April 1st, 2008 – by: rosemary_mcandrew
Our Iran Air flight was bound for Dubai, and I was interested to see if the women kept their head scarves on during the flight, or whether they would be whipped off as soon as we were airborn. On the Emirates flight over, it was only at the last minute that they were put on.
However, they all stayed on for the duration of the flight. Although I didn’t see anything written or said about it, because Iran Air is the national carrier of Iran, I think the rules are that women must dress ‘Islamic’.
It was only a short flight to Dubai, and I certainly didn’t waste any time losing the coat and scarf once we landed. UAE may have only been next door, but I wasn’t breaking the law here.
We stayed 2 nights in Dubai and while we were there, organised our flight to Oman. This was to replace our planned trip to Tunisia, which we cancelled due to kidnapping threats. Two weeks wasn’t really enough time in Tunisia anyway, and when it settles down we will plan another trip there.
We took a very quick flight (40 mins) to the capital of Oman, Muscat.
My first glimpse of Oman was getting off the plane to brilliant blue sky and seeing some men in long white robes, embroidered flat caps, and elaborately decorated daggers in their belts, waiting on the tarmac to great somebody of importance who was on our flight.
Because we planned to get into the mountains and also off road, we hired a 4WD and then set off to find our hotel. This wasn’t exactly easy as we didn’t have a map for Muscat, so got fairly lost. We did however stumble across a hypermarket so could stock up on nappies, water, and some food. We also soon realised that Oman is like the UAE in that it relies heavily on foreign labour, mainly to do the work that the nationals don’t want to do ie. Cleaning and service type jobs. There were many, many Indians and Bangladeshis at the airport and also at this hypermarket, (which fittingly had a very large section of Saris). We saw later that we were in the suburb of Ruwi which is described in the Lonely Planet as ‘Little India”.
We eventually found our accommodation, “The Beach Hotel”, which was only a 5 minute walk from the beach. We didn’t know when we left Australia that we would be coming to a beach, so none of us brought any togs. I tried in vain to find some in Dubai but left there empty handed. I found a small section in this hypermarket in Muscat, and eventually picked out the best of a bad, bad bunch. They won’t be coming home with me, but at least I will be able to go snorkelling and swimming.
We went for a swim later in the day. Hugh loved it. The Arabian sea is so warm.
Some of the beach front resorts have their own section of private beach, but our hotel wasn’t directly on the water, so we swam at the public section. We weren’t really near anyone, but when I was in there, I looked around and realised that there were no women swimming – only men and kids. I felt a tad uncomfortable to say the least, and later read in the Lonely Planet that outside of the resort areas, women may feel more comfortable wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the water. Next time (The togs are ugly anyway).
The next day we drove on to Nizwa, which is a few hours inland and a base for exploring the Hajar Mountains.
We found our hotel easily this time. It is a nice place with the lowset rooms wrapped around 2 courtyards with swimming pools and the mountains looming above. There were heaps of families here, some with up to 3 kids, and we realised that Oman is very family friendly.
On the way to Nizwa we stopped at the Jibreen Castle. This rises out of the desert and is from the 17th Century. We almost had it entirely to ourselves – there was another 2 Australian families travelling together and that was it. We were free to look around on our own – there were no guards or staff hovering. There was a maze of rooms over many levels, little staircases around every corner – you could almost get lost. The Australian kids were having a ball – running around exploring and crawling through secret tunnels and the underground dungeon. It was kids paradise.
We also went to another town called Bahla and saw the massive fort, which is heritage listed. Of course it is being restored (there was scafholding at one end). Apparently it has been under restoration since 1987. I guess it’s a big job.
Oman has so many forts, leftover from the Portuguese. You also notice when driving around that there are watchtowers on almost every hilltop.
The next day we set out to Mount Jebel Sham – the highest mountain in Oman. We passed many wadis (oases) which were obvious from the clusters of date palms. These are where villages are, as there is a source of water and cool shade. A lot more liveable that the hot desert outside. We drove through a small wadi, and it was so nice and shady, almost like you were in the middle of a rainforest.
On the road up the mountain, we came across another wadi – Wadi Ghul. There is an abandoned village here with crumbling houses. It made for a good photo.
We kept going and were getting higher and higher. The sealed road soon ended and a dirt road started. It was pretty steep, so a 4WD really was necessary. It was very hot outside. At one stage we saw an old man, dressed in the traditional white robes with his hand out, wanting a lift. Only the hardest heart could leave an old man on the side of the road on a hot day, so we stopped. He said something that obviously we couldn’t understand – knowing no Arabic and all. We gestured to get in, so he climbed in next to Hugh (who was sleeping in his car seat and missed it all).
We weren’t sure where this guy wanted to go, but the direction we were heading was obviously OK with him. After a while we reached a side road and he gestured to us to stop. He shook both our hands and put his hand on his heart, saying something in Arabic (thank you I assume) and was off.
We kept on going and reached the viewpoint for a massive canyon (wadi ghul which we passed on the way up was at the bottom). It is called the Grand Canyon of Arabia. We were admiring the view, and out of nowhere appeared some women selling some weaving. She said they were keyrings and bracelets, though they are destined to be Christmas decorations.
I was going to buy 2 of them from this lady, then another lady appeared (child on hip), puffing from running to catch us before we left, who also had a bag full of exactly the same thing. Lady 1 didn’t look happy, but they were obviously from the same village. I only bought one thing from Lady 1, as I felt I should buy something from Lady 2 to be fair.
Transaction completed, another puffing woman appeared with some larger weavings. I didn’t really like them, so had to turn her down (plus I read that although you can haggle a little, don’t expect a bargain and the asking price is quite a lot for what they are).
On the way down, we stopped again at Wadi Ghul, and drove along the dry river bed on the floor of the canyon. Huge cliffs were on either side and there were lots of shady date palms all around. We got out of the car for a photo and from the distance, could see children running (sprinting, really) towards us. We knew they would have bags full of weavings to sell, but they were still a bit of a distance away, so we could get in a few leisurely photos. They soon caught up to us, and sure enough, they were selling weavings. Exactly the same designs as the women further up the mountain. I had to turn them down, and they looked pretty disappointed, but there are only so many of the same thing you can buy.
Another day we drove up another mountain called Jebel Akdhar. There is a police checkpoint to make sure you were driving a 4WD as normal cars are not allowed. Although it is sealed all the way, the road is very steep and there have been many accidents from cars losing control on the prolonged descent, not to mention not having enough power to get up. The road is new, and they built it short and steep. No unnecessary winding here. We visited a beautiful abandoned village clinging to a mountainside above a lush wadi. We had lunch here and then explored the abandoned buildings, and didn’t see another soul. This has been the case for much of our travels in Oman – we feel like we have the place to ourselves (unlike in Iran where we shared each tourist site with the rest of the country).
When driving up these mountains, it looks so dry and barren, but there is a network of hidden Wadis and lush villages and bountiful fruits are grown. We visited another village which clung to the side of a steep hill. The narrow road through the village was an extremely steep descent. At the bottom of the village, ancient terraces growing all sorts of exotic fruits were growing. We walked along them on a path and it started to rain quite heavily. We were a bit worried about getting up the very steep road through the village, but thankfully made it ok.
Back on the main road, we kept driving and continued to ascend the mountain and noticed an Omani guy in his white robes obviously in trouble. His car was stopped and gestured to us for help. He spoke enough English to say that he couldn’t get his car up the hill. It was wet and the road was steep and although he was driving a 4WD ute, it didn’t have enough power and kept rolling back. Cameron put it in low range 4WD for him, which worked. We were a bit surprised that he didn’t know to do that himself if he lived in these parts. He said, “Thank you, my friend” and was off up the hill.
Today we left Nizwa via a spectacular mountain road. There was nobody on the road and didn’t pass another car for an hour or two. We had a sealed road to the highest point of the mountain but that abruptly stopped and we had a steep dirt road clinging to the mountainside all the way down. There were no guard rails and it was only single lane. On one side of us there were huge sheer cliffs, and the other a drop of several hundred meters. Needless to say, Cameron was concentrating very hard, and it was a long slow descent. It was very spectacular though. At one point we passed 2 European cyclists (we actually saw them in the Jebel Sham mountain range 2 days earlier) – crazy guys.
It was a long descent to a village at the bottom of the range, and then we continued on to another village called Biyat Saed which is picture postcard perfection of mudbrick houses set into the side of a mountain with lush terraces below. We kept going and the road went through the floor of an extensive canyon called Wadi Bani Awf. Although these wadis are usually dry river beds, they can be subject to flash flooding, and there were storm clouds in the sky so we thought we’d better keep moving.
We were following directions in the Lonely Planet and several times wondered if they had actually been here. The distances they said were totally out and it was very vague. It made out that we drive through this certain village but when we did, there were no signs indicating that we were still heading to our destination. We asked directions from one of the villagers, who pointed us in the opposite direction, and realised that we weren’t supposed to come into the village at all. Lucky we asked, as we would have got very lost.
The whole trip was only 70km but took well over 4 hours.
We were on our way back to the coast for the night, before heading along a coastal track to the seaside town of Sur the next day. Because it was just a room for the night, we didn’t stay in Muscat since it is quite expensive but rather the seaside village of Seeb 30km away. There are no tourists sights as such, just watching life go by. We walked along the beach to some vendors who BBQ meat and squid kebabs and saw Omanis going about their normal life - walking along the beach, eating kebabs, sitting by the sea. Walking back to our hotel, the sun was setting and the call to prayer sounded which made an exotic end to the day.
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