A Travellerspoint blog

Saturday, February 27th, 2010: Our trip is in ruins!

It was our last day and we arose with serious feelings of regret. We had packed a lot into our six day introduction to Oman, but everyone always made us feel so welcome that it would be difficult to leave. There were two more sites we wanted to explore before breaking for the border and we started by bouncing around town to locate Ibri Fort. We had no directions or address, just a vague idea where it was in the city – the forts typically towered over everything so we figured cruising the right neighborhood would permit us to catch a glimpse of the prize.

Ibri Fort is massive

Ibri Fort is massive

Fortunately John was behind the wheel. He has an uncanny knack for ferreting this stuff out, and after I was ready to punt he exclaimed “ah-ha” and there was the fort! The fort looked inviting, but since today was Mohammed’s Birthday we had back-to-back days of closed forts. It was as massive as we imagined and I’m still not sure why I never glimpsed it before John practically drove through it. Once again there was an abandoned village abutting the fort, reinforcing the notion that folks just up and leave as buildings grow derelict.

Ibri Fort

Ibri Fort

Ibri Fort - it was Mohammed's Birthday so the doors remain shut.

Ibri Fort - it was Mohammed's Birthday so the doors remain shut.

The final Omani destination was an “official” abandoned village. Al Sulaif is a walled village on the fringes of Ibri that was only abandoned twenty five years ago. Our guide book stated you might still find some old timers hanging out at the old souk in Al Sulaif (probably wondering why business was so bad, lol).

Wandering about Al Sulaif

Wandering about Al Sulaif

We did encounter somebody, but it was Afeef (or something close to that), an Omani who claimed to be a government employee offering free tours of the site. He showed us a card indicating his government status and didn’t ask for money, but of course we were incredulous. Still, we outnumbered him three to one and after reinforcing we would not pay anything, Afeef immediately launched into a grand tour. Afeef pointed out many Arabic inscriptions and had cleverly set up his cell phone so he could recall text messages displaying the English translations. Though his English was not very good, he was very energetic and accentuated his explanations with many gestures and frequent role playing.

Afeef regales us about Al Sulaif

Afeef regales us about Al Sulaif

When it got to be 11AM we informed Afeef that we had to go. He appeared sad and replied “five minutes”. Okay, we followed along and fifteen minutes later reiterated our need to depart. “Two minutes” he replied. At this point we started thinking that it must be pretty boring standing out in the sun all day waiting for a random visitor to entertain (Ibri isn’t a hot spot). When Afeef was reduced to exclaiming “one minute” we declined and departed.

Al Sulaif Inscription - Afeef used his cell phone to show us the translations!

Al Sulaif Inscription - Afeef used his cell phone to show us the translations!

Afeef, Mark and John at Al Sulaif.  We were not sure Afeef was legitimate, but there were three of us and we were all bigger than he was, lol!

Afeef, Mark and John at Al Sulaif. We were not sure Afeef was legitimate, but there were three of us and we were all bigger than he was, lol!

Our tour with Afeef was a poignant conclusion. The people we had interacted with in Oman consistently went out of their way to assist you and I’ve never felt so genuinely welcome. We bade Afeef farewell and still gave him a modest tip, concluding the trip.

John investigates pottery at Al Sulaif

John investigates pottery at Al Sulaif


Al Sulaif - this view reminded me of THE SCREAM

Al Sulaif - this view reminded me of THE SCREAM

Only the drive back to the UAE remained, and shortly we returned to the desert environment, leaving the Hajar mountains behind. Our entry back into the UAE would be via Al Ain this time and things had changed from six years ago. After displaying passports at a border post we were instructed to park and enter a nearby building. Here John and I received eye scans, although Mark got exempted. The eye scan is part of a program to identify aliens who have been expelled from the UAE and attempt to get back in. It was an interesting and painless procedure.

In Al Ain we enjoyed lunch at a Lebanese BBQ joint, but how odd to be back in the UAE. The contrasts between the two countries earned a serious exclamation point here. Once again the diner had separate rooms for men and ‘families’ (for unaccompanied women or husbands with their family). Although disappointed women weren’t being treated as equally in Oman as I had anticipated, the return to the UAE reinforced Oman was certainly more proactive on this front than most Arabic countries.

Sahary Barb-Q

Sahary Barb-Q

Another disparity was a bit selfish. I relish the presentation of complimentary trays of vegetables when dining in the UAE, and did not recognize this had been absent in Oman until a basket brimming with olives, hot peppers and hummus appeared almost instantly after we were seated. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and this meal compelled me to curtail my complaints of too much hummus!

Didn’t get back to Mark’s home in Sharjah until after 3PM, so John and I quickly showered and re-packed for the return flight beginning in a few hours. Ready to roll, Mark, Samia and Maya took us for a quick tour around the American University of Sharjah. What a treat to see Mark’s endeavors realized. Six years ago the Student Center was a construction jungle and the College Library little more than a massive hole in the ground. Today these were immaculate beauties and I was happy to enjoy Mark’s pride in completing these massive efforts.

American University of Sharjah

American University of Sharjah

But no time to dally, it was off to the Blue Souk and this was just like my first visit, a rush-rush shopping spree before the return flight home. Once again we battled traffic into the souk, but once again arrived with sufficient time for shopping. There is no way to describe the confidence I have when shopping with Samia and I happily entered the familiar pashmina merchant’s shop. We didn’t sit for tea this time, but entered directly into negotiations and came away with some beautiful scarves.

Blue Souk at night

Blue Souk at night

Immediately we steered to Samia’s jeweler in search of black pearls. Last trip I had purchased pure gold jewelry for my wife from the Gold Souk and wanted to get something different this time. Dubai has a long history of pearl diving, so that seemed ideal. Samia’s jeweler had plenty of black pearls, but the size and coloring varied considerably. No worries – just pick out a long strand and he would create a matching set of necklace, bracelet and stud earrings on the spot!

A string of pearls.....

A string of pearls.....

Al Sabak Jewellers - custom jewelry on the spot!

Al Sabak Jewellers - custom jewelry on the spot!

This final stop reinforced my notions of how gracious people are. Manufacturing all of our items right away was not easy and after an hour Samia told Mark he should take Maya away to get something to eat. Our jeweler raised his hand to signal they should stay put and grabbed his phone while continuing to work. Within five minutes a guy walked into the shop with a glass of juice and sandwich. Then on our way out of the souk, Mark suddenly realized he had forgotten to ask for a pearl that Maya could put in the jewel box necklace he had gotten Maya in Nizwa - Samia and Maya both raced back to the jeweler’s shop, returning moments later with the gratis pearl. Talk about customer service which amazes and delights!

Posted by vances 16:49 Comments (3)

Friday, February 26th, 2010: Goat Rodeos and Beehive Tombs

Buffet breakfast at the Golden Tulip was almost elegant, except John was with us. For his morning cup of joe, John grabbed a cereal bowl and practically emptied an entire urn of Arabic coffee into it ---inventing Arabic Super Sizing.

We checked out and headed to Nizwa for the Friday Goat Market. The Nizwa Market is a glorious collection of souks: a fruit and vegetables souk, a meat souk, a date souk, a fish souk and others all adjoining. Friday morning they hold a goat market and things get rather chaotic. We pulled up around 10AM and disappointed to realize the goat market had just closed.

Escaping from the Nizwa Souk

Escaping from the Nizwa Souk

Nizwa Souk is a busy place Friday mornings!

Nizwa Souk is a busy place Friday mornings!

We did not miss all of the action, however, because the exodus was a real goat rodeo. Cars were attempting to stream into the parking area from all directions, but merely stacked up because of all the folks attempting to load livestock purchases onto trucks and get out. Goats and cattle milled about everywhere, very similar to all the cars paralyzed in the gridlock. Mark dropped John and me off to seek parking further away, and we all met up later inside the sprawling marketplace.

Nizwa Souk

Nizwa Souk

The Nizwa souk is a magical place, countless alleyways and aisles crammed with merchants and their piles of wares. It is very old and you feel as though you’ve stepped back into time as you stride past bags of spice and counters of silver and gold. Deep within the bowels of the souk we actually came across a guy raising a bucket out of working water well.

Nizwa Fort

Nizwa Fort

There was a jewelry merchant we struck up a conversation with and everyone made several purchases. The cutest piece was a necklace with a tiny jewel box on it that Mark bought for his daughter. Our jeweler embodied the honesty of all the other merchants we had bargained with, always letting you know which silver pieces were pure by saying “92.5” (for 92.5% silver) or “not 92.5”.

We emerged from the souk at the Nizwa Fort, which was closed (Friday being the holy day), but took a few pictures and then everyone purchased a mussar at a shop near the fort. The merchant tied the head scarves on us, so at least for today we somewhat resembled the locals and I snapped a photo of the three Omanigo’s, lol. By then it was one o’clock and things were rapidly shutting down so we returned to the car, grateful that the parking lot was practically deserted now.

The Three Omanigo's

The Three Omanigo's

Mark spotted a lunch spot with outdoor seating that was serving shi-sha and we ducked in to afford John the opportunity of smoking a water pipe. Our waitress spoke zero English and there were no menus, so it was a bit of a challenge getting everything ordered, but persistence paid and it was another positive experience. The restaurant was packed with locals, almost everyone smoking shi-sha and playing dominos, a handful playing backgammon. John got right into the groove of shi-sha, a broad grin revealing his delight.

Shi Sha John

Shi Sha John

Bahla Castle was next on the list. Bahla is a village just down the road from Nizwa, and even though it is not open to the public, Bahla Fort is the only Omani fort on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This expansive structure was begun around 1000 B.C., easily the oldest fort in the country. Despite there being no chance at seeing the interior, the exterior of Bahla Fort is breath taking. We were taking the fort in but wound up getting sucked into the adjacent area, another abandoned old town. These sections of run down mud brick structures weren’t completely deserted, as the occasional clothes line or satellite dish attested, but for the most part it would be several blocks of abandoned buildings. The unfamiliar and exotic architecture was very appealing and quite fun to explore.

Bahla Fort

Bahla Fort

Bahla Old City

Bahla Old City

Another ten minutes down the road we stopped at Jabreen Castle, yet another enticing fort. Jabreen was the very first fort to be restored by the Omani government and the inside is reputed to be spectacular. Friday wasn’t shaping up to be the best day to tour forts, but once again the exterior was worth stopping for.

Jabreen Castle

Jabreen Castle

Jabreen Castle

Jabreen Castle

We were heading towards Ibri, where we had reservations for the night, and our final target on the way there was another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the beehive tombs of Bat. These diminutive stone huts which shelter group burial sites are exceedingly old. Research dates the earliest tombs back to 3000 B.C. and their resting spot in the Hajar mountain range has allowed them to withstand the ages remarkably well.

John checks out a camel along the road outside of Bat

John checks out a camel along the road outside of Bat

Unfortunately we got a bit lost in our search for Bat – none of the roads are signposted in Oman so it is difficult to be certain which road you are on. John had taken over driving duties in Jabreen, however, and espied some tombs on a ridge beside the road we were on. We pulled off the road and sized up how to get back there when an Omani working in the field noticed us and gestured how to zig zag through the wadi separating us from the tombs. A magnificent setting, the tombs were highlighted by a backdrop of stark mountains and deep blue skies. We spent about a half hour investigating this splendid area and even though it wasn’t the “official” UNESCO site, I doubt there is much difference. Oman is basically a galaxy of cool things to explore.

Beehive Tombs

Beehive Tombs

Beehive Tombs

Beehive Tombs

There was still a bit of a drive to Ibri, but we eventually arrived at the Ibri Oasis Hotel, next to the local camel racetrack. In all the restaurants and hotels the attendants seemed to be completely comprised of Omanis, but here the staff was mostly Indian. We had a hunch that might impact the menu in the restaurant, and it certainly did. In addition to a nice complement of Indian dishes, the menu had several Chinese and Thai options, so a spicier meal for our last night in the country.

Posted by vances 09:29 Comments (0)

Thursday, February 25th, 2010: A Grand Tour

Check out time for the Beach Hotel and Muscat, but we had one last wonder to check out. The Grand Mosque is a must see if you venture to Muscat. If you get in the ballpark it is fairly easy to locate, because it is a spectacularly massive landmark. This was a good thing since I was driving, lol. Plenty of free parking and free admission, so entering the Grand Mosque was a cakewalk. Despite the easy entry it is critical to bear in mind that this is a sacred place: men need to wear long pants and women must cover arms, legs and wear a head scarf.

Arcade at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Arcade at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

You will be enraptured by the grounds from the moment you get inside. The arcades are immaculately landscaped and granite walkways abound. We entered the Inner Sahn first, after removing our shoes and admired the ornate interior decorations. The details were truly mind boggling, but this hardly prepared us for the grandeur we faced upon entering the Main Prayer Hall.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Grand Mosque scenes...

Grand Mosque scenes...

With sixteen Swarovski crystal chandeliers (the monster in the central dome being the largest chandelier in the world), an Indian carpet weighing twenty one tons that took six hundred women four years to weave (by tying 1,700 million knots!) and so many other jaw dropping aspects, this was beauty beyond belief. Please know there are armed guards at the entrance, but so long as you are appropriately attired you may waltz past them without concern. I have never witnessed anything so reverent and inspiring as the Grand Mosque in Muscat.

World's largest chandelier in Main Prayer Hall of Grand Mosque

World's largest chandelier in Main Prayer Hall of Grand Mosque

Main Prayer Hall Rug at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Main Prayer Hall Rug at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Main Prayer Hall Mihrab (niche indicating direction towards mecca - way to face during prayer)

Main Prayer Hall Mihrab (niche indicating direction towards mecca - way to face during prayer)

Main Prayer Hall Minbar (pulpit from which imam delivers sermons - to the right of mihrab)

Main Prayer Hall Minbar (pulpit from which imam delivers sermons - to the right of mihrab)

Back in the Mark’s 4WD, I steered us back to Nizwa, relieved as we put distance between ourselves and the millions of cars tooling around Muscat. The speed limit was 120 kmh most of the way, and Naseeb had tipped us off the cameras monitoring speed limits granted a 14 kmh grace, so we made pretty good time. It wasn’t too long before we made our first impromptu stop, since we were now officially on the ‘whatever strikes our fancy’ part of the trip.

Bidbid Fort is massive and fully restored, but not open to the public. It was still interesting to walk the fort’s circumference and snap a few photos, especially of the falaj by the fort.

Bidbid Fort

Bidbid Fort

No more diversions before we arrived back in Nizwa and the Golden Tulip. Mark wanted to get us into his favorite hotel in Oman, the Falaj Daris, but they were booked solid and we settled for rooms at the expensive Golden Tulip. We got some value for the rate when they permitted us an early check-in at 1:30PM. After getting situated at the Golden Tulip we went into Nizwa for lunch at Nizwa Catering, a joint Naseeb pointed out yesterday. This was an excellent recommendation; with Omani cuisine served in a couple of enormous majlis-like rooms (they also have table seating). It was actually a bit more traditional than we first thought, the food served without any silverware. Our hands were certainly immersed in the culture by the time we finished the tasty lunch.

Eating Omani style at Nizwa Catering

Eating Omani style at Nizwa Catering

Our destination after lunch was a return through Al Hamra to Misfah Al A’briyeen, an inhabited village that hearkened back to the Middle Ages. But driving through Al Hamra we stumbled upon an amazing section of town which was largely deserted. This would be our first ‘abandoned village’ --- because the mud brick dwellings here are not terribly durable, we concluded it must be common practice to simply abandon buildings once they deteriorate. We would cross similar areas in every town we investigated and this is what leads me to doubt we actually saw the bombed out portion of Tanuf.

Al Hamra Old City

Al Hamra Old City

The scenery in the old town was splendid and the only difficulty was turning around. Mark had taken over driving once we reached the Golden Tulip and had to execute a tight 180 to point back out of an alleyway we had parked in. An Omani approached me as I was giving assistance to Mark and after I responded to his greeting in Arabic he fully engaged me in the now familiar Omani spirit of friendliness. I looked up just in time to yell for Mark to halt as he was inches from driving into the falaj!

How close we came to backing into the Falaj!

How close we came to backing into the Falaj!

Misfah is a wonderful place I am hesitant to share. It lies a few kilometers up a twisty mountain road outside of Al Hamra, and there is no admission charge. As you enter there is a sign imprinted with a large map displaying two different routes to follow through the village: one going up through the village and the other heads down to a date plantation. Visitors are requested to stick to the paths, highlighted by Omani flags painted here and there. We headed towards the village and almost immediately passed through a group of children playing. They hurled some comments at us and I don’t think they were too kind. However, I had to consider what it would be like if my back yard was deemed a national treasure and random individuals could stroll through at will. I felt like an intruder the rest of the time in Misfah.

Walking around Misfah

Walking around Misfah

Misfah children

Misfah children

There was a substantial hoard of visitors and I was surprised most were Omanis. We were greeted frequently and learned this was a popular day trip for nearby citizens. The ‘star towers’ were an amazing facet of Misfah: cairns built upon a ridge just outside the village permitted telling time at night by how stars progressed across the piles of rocks. Telling time at night was important because it informed the ‘water master’ when to divert water flows in the falaj.

Misfah Star Towers sign

Misfah Star Towers sign

Misfah Star Towers

Misfah Star Towers

Misfah Falaj

Misfah Falaj

The Misfah falaj system was very photogenic and we noticed quite a few locals walking along this network. This led to concluding the falaj offered smoother passage then the rocky and somewhat muddy pathways through town. At one point we opted to follow a couple guys down a falaj to get back into town. Our frequent stops to snap pictures allowed our trail blazers to get away and we wound up being confronted by a sign asking us to avoid the ‘ladies area’ without clearly indicating which direction to go!

Let's follow those guys!

Let's follow those guys!

We briefly debated, reached a consensus and marched up the stairway to the right. Everyone was immensely relieved when we confirmed we had made the right choice. Followed Omani flags back into town and then checked out the other trail to the date plantation. A charming destination, but I personally felt a bit guilty trespassing on folks just trying to live their lives.

Rebounding from Misfah we ducked into the Falaj Daris in Nizwa for a drink, confirming it would have been a splendid lodging choice. Then back to the Tulip, where everybody showered, but we let John go first so he could scout the options on campus for dinner and entertainment. When you permit John to pick an entertainment option you are definitely living on the edge, and his choice was Al Wasit, one of four bars on the grounds of the Golden Tulip. It was a strange affair that reminded me of the night Mark, Samia and I experienced at Liwa Oasis in the UAE six years ago.

Golden Tulip

Golden Tulip

Once again there was a somewhat sinister looking dude sitting behind a synthesizer with three scantily clad ladies in front, dancing and lip-synching. Please remember we are the Middle East and by ‘scantily’ I mean everyday western dress, just not veiled. None were Arabic, my guess was they were mostly Slavic.

They performed a collection of pop tunes and oldies that were re-makes. We never reached agreement whether the vocals had actually been sung by the group on stage. Clearly lip-syncing (only the dude and one of the girls made a half-hearted effort to mimic), the vocals were not top notch and may have been pre-recorded by the people on stage. The performance was punctuated by frequent breaks and the only interesting set was when one of the ladies appeared solo and did three belly dances. She was actually quite good and it was an anomaly because she pretty much stood around when the entire group was together.

Al Wasit was crowded, almost entirely Omani men. When we first sat down an older Omani was out on the dance floor making poor attempts at modern moves. I would have felt sorry for him, but he seemed to be really enjoying himself! After a couple rounds and some crappy chicken tikka for dinner we retreated back to our room.

Nursing Camel outside Al Hamra

Nursing Camel outside Al Hamra

Posted by vances 17:19 Comments (8)

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010: Rim Shots at Jabal Shams

Dawn for the second day of hiking revealed the stunning setting which Jabal Shams rested in. Feeling sunlight on your face this far up was bracing, the air still chilly from last night but whispering things should shortly be toasty warm. Everybody congregated in the restaurant for a buffet breakfast and soon returned to our rooms to re-pack.

Carted my pack out to Naseeb’s Patrol and dropped it along with a plastic bag containing wet clothes from yesterday’s hike, then strolled around the grounds to take in some of the views. Heard the others and walked back, only to discover my wet clothes strewn all over the place – damn goats! The incident would lead to a running joke that goats ate my underwear at Jabal Shams.

We were practically at the trail head for today’s venture, the Rim Trail of Jabal Shams. Not nearly as arduous as Snake Canyon, the appeal of this route was towering views and a visit to a deserted Arabian village nestled amongst the cliffs. On the short drive over Naseeb asked if we minded him sitting this one out: he was tired and his sinuses were acting up from yesterday’s cold and wet. In his stead he promised to hire Suleiman, a local who was intimate with the trail, to guide us. We readily agreed, secretly pleased that we had outlasted our guide.

There were several decrepit huts around the beginning of the trail and Naseeb barked some Arabic at a pair of boys scampering about. Suleiman’s wife (well, one of his wives) informed Naseeb that he had hiked down the wadi and wouldn’t return for several hours. So the substitute for our substitute became Saif, Suleiman’s son. While all of this was being sorted out, a really old dude with flowing white beard was holding a handful of rocks in my face, trying to get me to buy one. Hurled all the Arabic I knew to make him stop, but he was persistent. Fortunately Naseeb told me that the gentleman didn’t hear or see too well anymore and it was okay to ignore him.

Lookout over Jabal Shams

Lookout over Jabal Shams

Naseeb accompanied us for a short ways and I followed him a bit too closely. When he stopped suddenly I put my left foot down in the wrong place and heard a distinct snap, followed by excruciating pain. I didn’t say anything, but after a few steps I knew this wasn’t one I was gonna walk off. However, I would probably never pass this way again and already the views were amazing. When Naseeb turned around I didn’t accompany him, committed to pushing ahead so long as I felt it was safe and could endure the pain.

Saif

Saif

Trying to keep up with Saif on a busted ankle along the Rim Trail (John Keener photograph - all copyrights reserved)

Trying to keep up with Saif on a busted ankle along the Rim Trail (John Keener photograph - all copyrights reserved)

Hiking the Rim Trail - the cluster of white squares is a village almost a mile below

Hiking the Rim Trail - the cluster of white squares is a village almost a mile below

The Rim Trail basically follows goat paths along the edge of Wadi Nakhr, an enormous and spectacular gorge. Though the trail skirts the rim, it is a safe jaunt, probably a little under five miles to the deserted village and back. Even though Saif only spoke a handful of English words, the relative ease of the path didn’t require any intense communication and he proved to be a wonderful guide. Incredibly sure footed, Saif would point out interesting sights along the way and had an uncanny knack to spot fossils along the trail. All of the fossils he handed to us were ancient sea critters and it was hard to get my head around the fact that this trail, 10,000 above sea level, had once been underwater!

Rim Trail Village

Rim Trail Village

Took about two hours to reach the village, absorbing thrilling views and scenery the entire way. Sitting inside one of the hovels, Saif gestured at one nearby and uttered “baba”, which means father or grandfather, and we were stunned. Perhaps the old guy trying to sell rocks had lived here? We would learn later that this isolated spot had only been given up thirty years ago. Both Saif’s father and grandfather had lived here. The government apparently funded construction of the tenements at the trail head to lure everyone back from the edge.

What we learned directly from Saif was that he was twenty years old, attended school in Al Hamra where he was in the twelfth grade, and that a school bus actually transported him back and forth. That didn’t explain what he was doing leading hikes on what one would have thought was a school day, but there could be many reasons why he was out and about today.

At the abandoned village we posed a question to Saif where the inhabitants got water. Saif gestured up the path beyond the village and indicated fifteen minutes, or so we thought. John and Mark took him up on the offer to visit, but my ankle was screaming with pain so I bid them farewell and found a shady spot to do some journal writing.

Naturally the side tour took a full hour, but I savored the utter peace of the environment. Surrounded by magnificent views, a yawning chasm and towering rock faces was balm for the soul and I relished sitting on the sidelines. Did get somewhat nervous when they ran late, but when they came back I learned Saif had introduced my companions to the village pond. Saif went for a quick dip and tried to entice the others to take a drink, but since they wouldn’t even sample tap water, the cultural immersion would be limited to photographs…...

The return walk was mostly uphill, which was easier on my ankle although I wasn’t too happy that the leg which could potentially buckle was now poised on the edge of the rim. The side trip to the pond had put us seriously behind schedule – Naseeb was expecting us back at the village at 1PM, and it was 12:40PM when we started back. We made the mistake of explaining this to Saif, who set a blistering pace. Well, Saif simply appeared to be floating along, but it was a pretty brisk uphill tempo for the rag tag collection of old farts behind him. He would get way ahead, stop where there were a few rocks suitable for sitting on and give us a minute to catch our breath, then raise his arm and suggest “go”? I was surprised how quickly we made it back, probably around 1:45PM, and I didn’t even mind having the old man pester me to buy his crappy rocks again.

Then Saif invited us inside their majlis, or family room, for coffee and dates. This was quite an honor and reinforces the value of hiring a guide. Naseeb was not only a capable guide and wonderful resource for all of our questions, his contacts had given us access we never could have imagined. The majlis was a small, separate building with carpet, pillows and a few knick knacks adorning the walls (an umbrella was one of these decorations, perhaps the majlis also served as a closet?). We entered after removing our shoes and settled in. Now Saif assumed the role of attentive host, plying us with dates and coffee that were refreshing after our hike. A really special moment with the sole regret that language barriers precluded doing anything beyond nodding heads to acknowledge Saif’s graciousness.

Saif and John in Majlis (Mark Kirchner photograph - all copyrights reserved)

Saif and John in Majlis (Mark Kirchner photograph - all copyrights reserved)

The family started to gather around the door as we were enjoying the hospitality. Saif had several younger brothers and soon they brought the air rifles down off of the majlis walls and started target shooting, doubtless enjoying the attention from a captive audience. Naseeb even squeezed off a few rounds and I cannot begin to share how much I treasured this feeling of welcome.

Saif's Brother in Majlis - time for target practice (Mark Kirchner photograph - all copyrights reserved)

Saif's Brother in Majlis - time for target practice (Mark Kirchner photograph - all copyrights reserved)

Even Suleiman returned before we got out of the majlis, much older than I had anticipated (at least he looked old, I’m sure such a rugged lifestyle ages one). One of Saif’s younger brothers reminded us life was difficult here: he had a nasty eye infection and walked around covering the eye with his hand. In spite of the apparent poverty there was a palpable joy here you seldom sense. On the way out in Naseeb’s Patrol, he stopped at the little souvenir stand Suleiman’s wives had set up. Living at the beginning of such a splendid trail had certain economic advantages and we noticed four other white 4WD’s parked nearby. Naseeb paid one rial for a key chain the wives had braided from goat wool and I opened Pandora’s Box by buying another from the same wife. Competitive spirit kicked in and Suleiman’s second wife aggressively marketed us to insure a sale of her own!

Mark and John wound up buying a few more and we headed off into the sun with no worries about what to do with those pesky extra keys…

We retraced our pathway through Al Hamra, stopping at Khaleej Al-Gubaira restaurant for a late lunch. Clearly a tourist guide favorite, there were several more white 4WD’s parked along the road in front of this eatery. While we were eating an obvious tourist (i.e., white male in western dress) opened the back of our vehicle, rummaged around in our cooler and plucked out a bottle of water. John was watching this and when their eyes met, the guy realized what he had done. He sheepishly returned the bottle and any tension was relieved by laughter – everyone appreciated how easy it was to confuse which white 4WD was your own!

It was a few more hours back to Muscat with one more photo opportunity. Shortly after Nizwa we sidled down a narrow lane through a palm-studded oasis town. I remarked how beautiful it was and asked where we were. When Naseeb informed us this was Tanuf, I asked whether this was the town bombed out of existence by the RAF during the Oman civil war in the 1950’s. He told us it was indeed and pulled over so we could take some photos of what appeared to be a strafed village (though as you will see in the next few entries, I suspect this was just one more example of an abandoned part of town).

Tanuf

Tanuf

During the home stretch we enjoyed one last conversation with Naseeb. It actually got rather intense as several topics were political. Said goodbyes with regret and admiration for all of the insights Naseeb had provided into his world.

Rounded up the night by heading into Duke’s at the Crowne Plaza in Qurum Heights. Mark raised this opportunity to visit the sister establishment of the famous Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki. Only this wasn’t – it was simply Duke’s Tavern, a hangout for the local British ex-pats, lol. It was disappointing because we had to battle all the cars which seem to jam Muscat roadways after nightfall. The traffic helped us decide that Duke’s was a swell place for supper, a haven where we could wait for traffic to dissipate. Still a fun dinner as we revisited highlights from the last two action-packed days.

Posted by vances 17:26 Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010: Snake Bit

The gang arose at 7AM and got ready to meet up with our guide for his planned 8:30AM arrival in the parking lot of our hotel. A beefy white Nissan Patrol pulled in on schedule and I was delighted to discover it was Naseeb, the owner, whom I had exchanged numerous e-mails with to customize our two day adventure. Though I figured Naseeb would hire on somebody else, it turns out very few folks want to be the guide for Snake Canyon, so Naseeb was stuck with us.

Off we went. Naseeb jetted us away from Muscat and through Barkha to Nakhl, our first arranged stop. Think it took just under two hours, but everyone was gabbing and I can’t claim paying close attention to driving time. Nakhl is an oasis town embedded in the beginnings of the Hajar Mountains. We were enthused to enter Nakhl not only to enjoy the mountains which we could barely glimpse from Muscat, but also because there were a bazillion palm trees!

The splendid Nakhl Fort was the first place Naseeb took us, then he put our anticipation on hold and drove right past it. I’m glad he did, because his slight diversion brought us to the hot springs about three kilometers beyond the fort. The Nakhl Hot Springs (Ain A’thowarah) are popular and you can only get there by taking the tarmac road past the fort. There was a decent crowd of locals hanging out and this was our first chance to really get up close and inspect a falaj, the ancient irrigation system still used extensively in Oman.

Nakhl Fort

Nakhl Fort

The fort beckoned, however, so we didn’t tarry long at the hot springs. Soon we were back at the monstrous Nakhl Fort. Even though Mark had previously toured this fort and I had read about how easy it was to overdose on forts in Oman, this was the entrée for John and myself and we were excited. The Nakhl Fort was constructed pre-Islam, so it is among the oldest around and brilliantly woven into the chunk of stone it sits on.

Naseeb accompanied us and pointed out some fascinating tidbits. He showed us how you can distinguish a hand made coffee urn from a manufactured one (no seams) and introduced us to the “date room”, where bags of dates would be stacked up. The weight of the upper bags served as a press and there were funnels guiding the resulting syrup into urns resting in holes dug into the floor. A clever operation to manufacture this commodity that could be used as a foodstuff or heated and dumped on warriors besieging the fort!

Date Press at Nakhl Fort

Date Press at Nakhl Fort

Before long Naseeb herded everyone together and we piled back into the Patrol for the push to Snake Canyon. It may have been 20 or 30 kilometers outside of Nakhl when the blacktop disappeared. Now we had a twisty dirt pathway strewn with rocks galore. I know better, but swear Naseeb accelerated after we hit the rocky road. Simultaneous with the change in road conditions, I found it amusing that Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” started playing on the car’s radio!

It was probably an hour or so banging down the dirt track before we entered a valley where five white 4WD’s were congregated. Naseeb had made a call on his cell phone earlier to coordinate a pick-up here, the end of the trail, and get driven to the trailhead at the top of the gorge. I figured one of these vehicles was our ride, but disappointed there could be so many tackling a hike I had envisioned as seriously intimidating.

I was wrong on just about everything. Naseeb said hello to one of the guides in the caravan and we soon learned this group of twenty five was only sightseeing at the gorge. Had I taken a moment to discern the age, dress and physical condition of the group I could have inferred that. Our ride, however, was absent. Thank heavens for Naseeb’s contacts and the gracious attitudes of Oman. The guide Naseeb was chatting with told us he’d shoot us up to the top, no problem. Off we went.

Driving to Snake Gorge Trailhead

Driving to Snake Gorge Trailhead

The way to the top was gut wrenching. The road was nothing but a perpetual switchback…and still seemed to head straight for the heavens! Looking out my window I could see the gorge was a narrow crack at the bottom of a valley. Excitement was building along with our elevation gain.

Our group started off immediately after being dropped off. The first five minutes we walked beside a small, rocky stream. In one spot the stream vanished beneath the ground for about forty yards, then re-appeared. Before long the gorge tightened up and began descending, the way turning into a bunch of loose rocks. Now you had to watch your step and look ahead to identify the best way down among several options.

Jump or climb down?  Frequent decision in Snake Gorge

Jump or climb down? Frequent decision in Snake Gorge

After twenty minutes of this warm up, the descent got serious. The ‘best way’ was typically the sole option where you could shimmy down, extending arms and legs to render yourself a plug that could ease down a shaft in the rocks. Your reward for each harrowing descent was dropping into bone chilling water. Naseeb had already shared his distaste for Snake Canyon because of how cold it is. He further shared that the canyon is constantly changing. Apparently there had been a flash flood just a week ago and the game had changed again…we would learn this more fully in a little while.

Deciding how to descend at Snake Gorge

Deciding how to descend at Snake Gorge

Come on down, I am waiting!

Come on down, I am waiting!

In the water I performed an awkward side stroke while holding my camera aloft with one arm. I had purchased my first digital camera, an Olympus Stylus Tough, for durability in anticipation of Socotra. Unaccustomed with cameras that could take a wet beating, I was vainly attempting to keep it as dry as possible. The camera would earn its stripes at Snake, frequently getting dunked and picking up a few battle scars against the rocks as we made our way down.

Geronimo-o-o-o-o-o-!-!-!

Geronimo-o-o-o-o-o-!-!-!

John navigating through Snake Gorge

John navigating through Snake Gorge

Tight squeeze at Snake Gorge

Tight squeeze at Snake Gorge

The canyon was stunningly beautiful. Often a six-foot wide stream flowing between twin rock faces that shot up roughly 200-300 feet. Of course this architecture meant there was no sunlight, explaining the cold water. Both air and water were chilly and after an hour I couldn’t stop shaking.

Naseeb and Vance twist and turn at Snake Gorge

Naseeb and Vance twist and turn at Snake Gorge

We continued downhill, challenged by a myriad different obstacles – but a splendid test of mind and body that confirms you are alive. There were several leaps into a pool of water below, but nothing approaching the 12-meter plunge I had read about in one of my guide books. More common was pin-pointing were you could spread-eagle yourself to inch down a chute and avoid a leap of faith. Naseeb was invaluable, aware of good bets for passage despite the continuous re-shaping of the gorge.

Looking up in Snake Gorge

Looking up in Snake Gorge

Two hours into the hike everyone was freezing and Naseeb showed us a neat trick. Many of the massive boulders littering our path were quite toasty, apparently hanging on to heat received during the brief period when sunlight struck the depths of the gorge. When you found a warm boulder you just sprawled out over it and gathered every shred of heat you could! We were all banged up by this stage and everyone had at least one bloody knee, shin or elbow and the hot rocks were about the only positive development.

Naseeb gathering warmth from a toasted rock in Snake Gorge

Naseeb gathering warmth from a toasted rock in Snake Gorge

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we arrived at the entrance to the cave you have to swim through and it was a coagulated mess of plastic bottles, sticks and miscellaneous trash. Naseeb reminded us that there had been a flash flood last week and this was where all the detritus collected. We must have been the first group back since the washout, so we won honors for breaking the logjam. There are plenty of warnings not to attempt Snake Canyon if there is rain, and the mess in front of the cave entrance gave us quite an appreciation for the caution.

We stood around sheepishly for several minutes as nobody was excited about wading into the swill, so John reminded Naseeb he was the guide and a chagrined Naseeb gingerly stepped in and started wading. I spotted him ten yards, hoisted my camera and followed behind. Our pre-hike excitement to snap pictures in the cave was put on the shelf as anticipated joy dissolved into a grim task.

Swimming through the cave at Snake Gorge

Swimming through the cave at Snake Gorge

I struggled with my ‘camera stroke’ through the lumber and heard Naseeb exclaiming he was having a hard time moving forward. Soon I bumped into him and joined the aqua-bulldozer effort, but it was strenuous going. I was starting to wonder if we were going to be able to push through when light appeared at the far end! Naseeb swam over to the side of the cave where you could grab onto some rocks and we both just hung on for a minute to catch our breath and give our weary muscles a rest.

The tension was somewhat dispelled with the end in sight and then John came floating by on a big log he had latched on to. Didn’t hesitate for a moment to accept his invite to come aboard and it was indeed a pleasure cruise the rest of the way out of the dark. It was exhilarating to escape from the clogged cave, especially because the tremendous expenditure of energy had halted my shivering…for about five minutes.

Ecstatic to have survived the cave of no return!

Ecstatic to have survived the cave of no return!

My camera took a licking and kept on clicking!

My camera took a licking and kept on clicking!

There was only another half hour back to the car, more freezing water and several cautious descents (though nothing comparing to the earlier part of the canyon). The gorge began to broaden and sunlight was extending its fingers further down the walls. When it got reasonably close, Naseeb headed to the side and climbed up a ways to find his place in the sun --- and we were all right behind him!

Naseeb and John follow the falaj back to our vehicle

Naseeb and John follow the falaj back to our vehicle

Reaching the car again was a moment of jubilation. Everyone agreed it was one of the most challenging hikes we had ever attempted, and we could revel in the glory of having conquered it. It was particularly rewarding because all of us will soon be too old and decrepit to attempt something this idiotic…

Then it was into the Patrol for two-and-a-half hours to Jebel Shams Resort, where we would park our tired butts before tomorrow’s hike. Our path to the Shams re-traced the same climb from earlier in the day to reach the trailhead and already there were fond memories of a grand adventure. Naseeb continued to make exceptional time along the tortuous dirt track and I eventually realized this was the road system out here: we would occasionally pass by a shiny new road sign indicating directions and distances to nearby villages.

I was truly grateful that John had accompanied us at this point, because he asked Naseeb whether it was considered offensive for westerners to wear traditional Omani dress while visiting. We had read in the guide books this was taboo, but Naseeb forcefully denied this…and to validate this assertion donated one of his mussars (turbans) to John and showed him how to tie it on! Very cool.

Seems like we climbed continually for the first hour and once Naseeb pulled off and clicked a picture of our party on an outcrop above the world, providing the gang with a treasured memento. Shortly after the photo opp the road miraculously returned to blacktop and started heading back down. Naseeb cruised down through switchbacks galore into Al Hamra, the largest village in this area. Once through Al Hamra it was back up again, and naturally the blacktop went bye-bye.

John, Mark and Vance on top of a Jebel beyond Snake Gorge - thanks, Naseeb!

John, Mark and Vance on top of a Jebel beyond Snake Gorge - thanks, Naseeb!

Bounced and careened through the dark for the final 45 minutes of our steeple chase, arriving at Jebel Shams Resort around 7PM. Jebel Shams Resort is the only option for this remote speck that is the highest point in Oman at around 10,000 feet. The rooms were spacious and clean, all that was required for our worn out bodies. It clearly wasn’t a resort…but it wasn’t a sham either.

After unpacking we rendezvoused with Naseeb at the restaurant on the grounds, which was quite nice. It was typical buffet fare, but served family style at our table. Better yet, they allowed you to consume alcohol (of course they didn’t serve any, but Naseeb had tipped us off and we packed a cooler along) and a beer never hit the spot like it did at Jebel Shams that night. While we relaxed with a beer, Naseeb entertained us with humorous stories from his lengthy annals of tour guide nightmares. A brilliant day.

Ascending to Jabal Shams at dusk...

Ascending to Jabal Shams at dusk...

Posted by vances 07:45 Comments (0)

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