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Jebel Shams to Muscat

February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat

JoeTourist: Jebel Akhdar &emdash; Beehive tombs on the ridgeline

Beehive tombs on the ridgeline at Al Ayn

After driving down the steep roads from Jebel Shams, we visit the beehive tombs at Al Ayn.These tombs are about 5,000 years old, although not much is known about them. This means the necropolises were built in the same era as the Egyptian pyramids. The tombs are fascinating and quite photogenic, however as we descend from the ridge to return to our 4x4s, the wind picks up and a sand storm blasts everyone as we hurry to get back inside our vehicles.

Next stop is Jabrin Castle, which was built by the Yaruba dynasty Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, who ruled from 1679 to 1692. This is without a doubt the most impressive castle or fortification we have visited in Oman. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is beautifully restored, and is surrounded by groves of palm trees in a lush valley. The castle has impressive wooden painted ceilings in some rooms.

After driving back along the highway to Muscat, we say goodbye to our driver Ali, who drops us off at our hotel, the City Seasons Hotel. He has been an excellent driver; taking us over sand dunes at Sharqiya Sands, along back roads to Bedouin camps, and zooming up and down expressways and mountain roads. It has been a wonderful driving adventure in our 4x4s over the last five days. Tomorrow, we drive from Muscat back to Dubai (in a bus) for our final day in Arabia before returning home.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

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Jebel Shams

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

After lunch in the Al Hamra oasis, we make a brief stop to see the abandoned Persian village of Ghul before climbing 2,000 metres up into the mountains. Our destination is Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun),  Oman’s highest mountain at 3,028 metres (just over 10,000 feet). We stay at the Jebel Shams Resort, which is at the end of a long, winding and steep road. The resort is situated a few hundred metres from Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

I walk over from the resort to the rim of the canyon before dinner, and find a spectacular sight that is much deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I peer over the edge of Wadi Ghul to a small abandoned village barely visible almost 1,000 metres below! The wind is terribly strong, but at least it is blowing up the canyon and over the rim, so it isn’t a safety hazard. I find taking photos of the canyon in the late afternoon very challenging, and resort to bracketed photos and HDR settings.

Jebel Shams Resort has pretty basic accommodation compared to the luxury we have had so far on the tour. I keep the electric heater going in my room, since at this elevation, it gets very cold at night. The Internet connection is down, so I use my time this evening to catch up on my journal and tag my photos with locations and titles.

February 21, 2015 – Jebel Shams to Muscat

I get up before dawn this morning and take some photos of the mountains bathed in the pre-dawn light. The pre-dawn view of the mountains, the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus is spectacular! After an early breakfast, we drive (as a group) the short distance from the resort to see and photograph Wadi Ghul after sunrise, and then drive down the mountain and onto the wadi and other sights before returning to Muscat and civilization.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Nizwa

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

It is another full day today, beginning with a visit to yet another souq: the Nizwa Souq. This souq is perhaps the most interesting of them all, since it is huge, and offers an amazing variety: cattle and goat market, butchered meat, fruit and vegetables, silver jewelry (especially silver khanjars – traditional daggers of Oman) and crafts. The Halwa shop (Omani sweets) is undoubtedly the busiest place in the whole souq. However, there are no camels at this livestock sale. In addition to the large number of locals, there are lots of tourists at the souq…and everyone arrives early!

I have lots of time to people watch, and yet I see only one woman the whole time I’m there. Omani men (and their sons) are doing the shopping, at least at the souq. Nizwa’s fort is on the edge of the souq. It was built in the 17th century, and dominates the city with a 40 metre (125 foot) high huge round tower. I walk the back streets to see where the residents live. It is considerably quieter away from the souq, and the city appears to be very well developed, and offers its residents a good quality of life.

After leaving the souq, we visit the oasis village of Al Hamra, at the foot of the Hajar Mountains. This village is one of the oldest in Oman, and has a well-preserved row of two- and three-story mud-brick houses built in the old Yemeni style. We visit a traditional Omani house (Beit al-Safa) and have lunch in the oasis.

After leaving the oasis, we climb 2,000 metres up the tallest mountain in Oman, Jebel Shams. We are staying at Jebel Shams Resort, situated across the road from Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Jebel Akhdar

February 19, 2015 – Sharqiya Sands to Nizwa

We depart early this morning for Sinaw, whose Thursday souq attracts many Bedu from Sharqiya Sands. This is a good place to interact with Omani women whose Bedouin lifestyle affords them a more visible social role. They wear brightly coloured costumes with peaked masks and an abeyya of gauze. I find some shade while we are at the souq in Sinaw and spend my time taking people photos using my long telephoto zoom, since the people here are camera-shy.

After leaving the souq, we climb some roads near Birkat Al Mouz which are controlled by the army for some reason. The road is extremely steep and also has sharp curves, so our 4x4s get a good workout today on Oman’s spectacular mountain highways! Two of our 4×4 vehicles have broken down so far, but the local tour company is replacing them with no delays. We drive through the lower plateau of Jebel Akhdar, where most of the market-gardening happens in terraced plots in small villages clinging to the steep hillsides. We have a wonderful buffet lunch at the very remote Jabal Akdhar Hotel., which is 2,000 metres above sea level.

Our final destination today is Nizwa, a large city which lies on a plain surrounded by a palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Sharqiya Sands

February 17, 2015 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

After driving from Muscat to Desert Nights Camp, we quickly get settled and then go out on a dune ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes.

February 18, 2015 – Wednesday – Sharqiya Sands

We drive out of the desert camp and take the highway to Ibra, where we wander around the Wednesday Woman’s Souq being held in Ibra. On the way back, we see the 400 year old town and fortifications of al-Mudayrib, where the buildings are made out of mud.

We travel across the dunes once again to a Bedouin camp, where we see some of their handicrafts (some people buy), and have a traditional lunch under the shade inside their reed houses. A couple of our group have a ride on a camel. It’s very hot by this time, so we are all glad to climb back into our air-conditioned vehicles for the ride back to our air conditioned rooms and nice showers at our luxurious desert camp!

Our tour leader Michele organizes a group photo in front of the sand dunes late this afternoon. We manage to find a camel to stand behind, and it behaves itself very nicely while we pose in the afternoon heat. I opt out of this evening’s 4×4 drive to the sand dunes at sunset, since I need some down time.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

February 17, 2015 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We drive from Muscat along a new inland road to our lunch stop in Sur at an Indian restaurant. Our first stop is to see a large sink hole, where some people are swimming. The Bimmah Sinkhole is in Muntazah Hawit Najam Park. This otherwise sun parched area obviously has water below ground, since there is vegetation here and I even spot some birds.

Our next stop is Wadi Tiwi, which is a lush river valley just a short distance from the coastline. The plantations and a string of emerald pools in the narrow valley are especially beautiful as we walk along the narrow road as it winds up the valley from village to village.

We stop for lunch in the sleepy little town of Sur, located right on the coast. There is a wonderful view across Sur’s corniche, beach and fisherman’s boats to the nearby village of Ayjah, with its whitewashed houses and dhow-building yard.

A couple of hours later we approach the little town of Bidiyah, and turn off the main road to drive across a sand road for about 11km to Desert Nights Camp, where we will stay for two nights. It is pretty luxurious considering it is setup in the desert along with another more modest camp about a kilometre away. Sharqiya Sands (aka Wahiba Sands) is a large area of rosy-hued dunes, some of which are over 100 metres high. We quickly get settled and then go out on a dune ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Muscat

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

After spending the morning seeing some sights around Khasab, we take a noon Oman Air flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. As the flight takes off in a northerly direction, it circles over Khasab and the harbour before turning south, flying over the wadis we drove through yesterday on our way up the mountains to Jebel Harim.

The flight to Muscat gives me a good opportunity to take some aerial photos, especially of the harbour, coastline, and the dams in the wadis, which are obviously for flood control, since Khasab and the suburbs are all built in the valley floor on low ground. It takes about an hour to arrive in Muscat, and shortly after leaving Khasab I don’t see much, since it is cloudy the whole way.

After landing, we meet our Omani guide Yacoob, who will be with us until we leave Oman. The bus takes us to the City Seasons Hotel in Muscat, where we have the afternoon to ourselves. I catch up on my travel journal and photos, and have a nap this afternoon. We have a sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel, consisting of western, Indian, and Omani food. Table service is top notch, and the desserts are amazing! The Al-Zawawi Mosque is nearby and is beautifully lit at night, so several of us find a good vantage point to take photos.

February 16, 2015 – Monday – Muscat

This morning we visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: a beautiful example of Islamic architecture with exquisite crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows, wonderful flower gardens, and a beautiful exterior design. Arriving early means we are ahead of the cruise ship tours, so it’s nice to have lots of room and few crowds for the first 45 minutes. The whole experience at the mosque is peaceful and sublime. I am most impressed with this Grand Mosque, since it is a bit less gaudy than the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque) which we saw in Abu Dhabi.

After leaving the Grand Mosque, we drive down to the harbour, which is the Mutrah area of Muscat – an attractive corniche of latticed buildings and mosques. The Sultan’s very impressive yacht pulls into the harbour while we are there. This souq is the same as all the others we have visited, so after a quick walk through, I sit in the shade waiting for the group to reassemble. Our next stop is the nearby Sultan’s Al-Alam Palace, which has a beautiful plaza with flowers everywhere. The palace is very small…obviously for ceremonies only. We are not allowed inside, but we have fun taking photos of the grounds, the plaza, and Michele directs our guide Yaqoob (as our ever-willing model) to add some interest to the scenes by walking in front of the palace and along a colonnaded breezeway. Yaqoob (and our drivers) are always impeccably dressed in turbans (or hats) and robes.

Later, we also see the Portuguese-built Mirani and Jalali forts at either end of the harbour, which the Palace is also located on. Jalali was a prison and is now a museum of Omani heritage. Mirani fort guarded the harbour entrance. Neither fort is open to the public, so we take a few photos of the beautiful harbour setting with the forts on either side and then return to our hotel. We indulge in another sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel.

2015.02.17 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We leave Muscat this morning, driving south along the coast for most of the day to Desert Nights Camp. We are in 4×4 vehicles (3 per car) for the rest of our time in Oman.

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Musandam Peninsula

February 14, 2015 – Saturday – Musandam Peninsula, Oman

This morning we board a traditional Omani dhow for a half-day cruise into the Musandam Peninsula’s nearby fiords, or khawrs. Dolphins play in the wake of the boat as we travel along the tranquil waters. We arrive at Telegraph Island, which was a repeater station built in 1864 by the British to connect Bombay with Britain via an underwater and overland telegraph cable. The boat is anchored and I am the first one in to have a swim. The water is a bit cloudy, but it feels great, and floating is no problem in the very salty water.

We see the famous Sherry fish marinated and grilled for our hot buffet lunch, which is served aboard the dhow, and then we return the same way back to Khasab harbour. There are numerous fishing villages along the shoreline. Some have power, water and communications, while others don’t. As we return to Khasab harbour, we see Shinas, the fastest catamaran ferry in the world docked. It travels between Khasab and Muscat down the coast in about five hours.

This dhow cruise is one of the highlights of the tour for me!

In the afternoon, we take a 4×4 drive, climbing up into the mountains along steep gravel roads to Jebel Harim (1,800 metres or 5,900′ elevation), where we see a beautiful oasis and some petroglyphs. There are century-old villages built into the rocks on the sides of the wadis, including Bait ai-Qufl with its old stone houses, and the lush nature of Al Khalidiyyah Park with its many acacia trees, and interesting clam and oyster fossils.

The gravel roads throughout this mountainous region are very impressive, since they are very well engineered and maintained.

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat, Oman

We visit the Khasab Castle, originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, but now a museum to showcase Omani history and culture. Traditional boats and other historical artifacts unique to the Musandam region are featured. After withdrawing some Omani Riyals from a bank machine, I take a few photos of Kasab’s lovely Friday Mosque: As Sultan Qaboos Mosque. There is a small souq in the town square, with mostly livestock, fodder, and a few food items for sale under the tents. Next, we drive to the nearby Oudah village, located in Wadi Oudah. There are some petroglyphs in the rocks at Tawi village at end of road.

We drive to Khasab airport and take an Omani Air mid-day flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. We meet our Omani guide Yacoob and our driver, who take us to our hotel, where we have the afternoon to ourselves.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

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Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

February 13, 2015 – Friday – Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

I get up a bit earlier this morning, since we are leaving early for the long drive north to cross the border into Oman. The breakfast buffet is very extensive, and they have cappuccino, which is always a big bonus in my books!

Before leaving Al Ain, we stop at their camel sale this morning, where there are hundreds of camels in sheds and open air pens, as well as sheep and goats. It is fun watching the haggling, but I finally go back to the bus early to get away from the heat and the smell. Kais tells me even city people buy camels and keep them outside the city, in order to maintain their connection with their culture…and no doubt some race them.

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

We drive along the expressway to the outskirts of Dubai, and then north to Ras al-Khaimah. Here we drive along the coastal highway to the border crossing, and leave both our UAE guide and driver. The border crossing process takes awhile, due to some confusion which I don’t fully understand. Our Omani driver and guide meet us, and we drive the beautiful and scenic highway along the Musandam coastline to Khasab.

Before we check-in to our hotel, we have a late lunch or early dinner at the Al Shamaliah Grill and Restaurant in the New Souk Area of Khasab. Since it is Friday, everyone is being called to evening prayers – the whole town is filled with wailing sing-song broadcast from the minarets on the mosques. Our hotel is the Atana Musandam, built right next to the harbour, and it is right next to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE, and is in a very strategically important location with the Strait of Hormuz separating Oman from Iran. Iranian smugglers pick up goods (mainly household appliances and cigarettes) in Khasab early every morning and zoom across the strait to customers in their country. The Musandam Peninsula is very arid and rocky, but features beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages, and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.