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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.