post

Kasab to Muscat

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 the road.

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.

Aerial of residential development behind dams on two wadis south of Khasab
Aerial of residential development behind dams on two wadis south of Khasab

As the flight climbs out of Khasab, I have 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. Shortly after leaving Khasab I don’t see much, since it is cloudy the whole way.

It takes about an hour to arrive in Muscat, where we meet our Omani guide Yacoob and our driver. They take us to the City Season Hotel, where we have the afternoon to ourselves.

Our travels in Oman
Our travels in Oman
post

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. Once the boat is anchored, 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.

post

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 a 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 adjacent to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).

Supplying Iranian smugglers with goods at Khasab harbour
Supplying Iranian smugglers with goods at Khasab harbour

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE. It 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.

post

Al-Ain

February 12, 2015 – Thursday – Liwa Oasis to Al-Ain

We leave early this morning for Al-Ain, so I gulp down some breakfast and coffee before boarding the bus. We drive down the main highway back to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and then take a freeway to Al-Ain. It takes over three hours for the trip with one rest stop.

The highways and expressways in UAE are superb. They have all been built within the last twenty years, so they are in great shape, and support high posted speeds. The interchanges and ramps rival or exceed any found elsewhere in the developed world.

After arriving in Al Ain, we have some time at the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This was the residence of the sheik who unified and created the United Arab Emirates. I find it fascinating to walk through the formerly private rooms, and ask myself “if these walls could talk”. In particular, the Private Majlis meeting room must have seen some pretty important discussions during the unification process.

We go for lunch to nearby Foodworld Restaurant, which was a very nice meal. They handle our group of twenty and our drivers very promptly. Our final stop for the day is the Al-Ain Zoo. I’m not a big fan of zoos at the best of times, although this one has large enclosures for the animals. It appears they have a mix of indigenous species to the Arabian Peninsula, and also have some exotic (mainly big African) animals.

Our hotel in Al Ain is the Al Ain Rotana. This is a five star hotel…very posh. This is obviously the place to stay in Al Ain, since I see a couple of cars with government plates on them (a crest and three digit number). Despite this, our tour leader Michele has some trouble to contend with before we are all settled in our rooms, however I won’t publish the details online. My room is quite luxurious…too bad we are only staying one night!

post

Liwa Oasis & sand dunes

February 11, 2015 – Wednesday – Liwa Oasis

Today we go on an early morning sunrise sand dune 4×4 adventure, and then again for sunset. Several vehicles get stuck in the sand, but eventually the drivers get them out either by towing, pushing, or rocking them. The morning sunrise is the most rewarding, since the light was just right, and our guide finds a relatively pristine location with no vehicle tracks or footprints visible.

I enjoyed hanging out during the midday at the Liwa Hotel. Several of us take advantage of the very nice pool at the hotel, which we have to ourselves. I have a nap in the afternoon, and then catch up with my journaling while drinking a cappuccino made in the lobby bar.

We visit a nearby camel farm in the late afternoon. Camels are used for meat, milk, and racing, and every Emirati family seem to own a camel, even city dwellers. One of our tour group samples the camel milk – a brave man, since there is no refrigeration.

The evening sand dune 4×4 adventure is not as rewarding as this morning, and it actually ends up being pretty stressful. The light at sunset is totally flat, and the wind is up causing sandstorm conditions. Our driver misses taking the correct track along one of the dunes, so our 4×4 ends up stopped, right on the edge of a big hole. I get out and climb uphill in the soft sand to the top of a dune to watch, as do my two vehicle mates. The expert is called, and drives the 4×4 out with pushers behind. Our guide Kais rides a snowboard down a sand dune, which is fun to watch!

post

Dubai to Abu Dhabi & Liwa Oasis

Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach
Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach

February 10, 2015 – Tuesday – Dubai to Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis

We leave our Dubai hotel this morning to drive along the coast to Abu Dhabi, largest of the emirates. First stop is along the beach to photograph the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel. Unlike yesterday, the sky is blue and the haze hasn’t had a chance to gather, so we all get some good photos.

Our next stop is the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque), and it is indeed grand! Some of the women on the tour are hassled about not covering up enough when we arrive, but that is soon sorted out, and we enter the mosque. This is my first time inside a mosque. The floors and walls are decorated with beautiful inlaid flower patterns, and the main prayer hall has the largest silk carpet in the world (handmade in Iran), as well as the third largest chandelier in the world.

Qibla wall inside the main prayer hall - Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque)
Qibla wall inside the main prayer hall – Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque)

The outside of the mosque is all white marble, and the inside is also marble. The whiteness of the exterior hurts my eyes in the noon sunshine, even while wearing sunglasses. The Men’s Ablution (washrooms) are palatial – I take a photo! Members of my tour group who have visited the Taj Mahal tell me this mosque is grander…but who really knows?

The Liwa Oasis at sunset
The Liwa Oasis at sunset

We leave the coast and drive 240 kms into the desert to Liwa Oasis. There are villages and farms in this remote area, which hugs the edges of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. We arrive a bit too late for our planned sunset 4×4 drive through the sand dunes, so that will be put off until tomorrow. I’m happy to have some down time at the Liwa Hotel this evening. It appears this hotel is the only accommodation of any consequence in this sleepy place.

post

Old Dubai

February 9, 2015 – Monday – Old Dubai – first full day of the tour

I’m awakened by the 5:30AM call to prayer outside. I sleep a bit longer and then go to breakfast at 7AM, since we depart on tour at 8AM. The buffet breakfast served downstairs is great: lots of choices, freshly made hot and cold food, very good coffee, and great table service.

We meet our local guide Kais (or Qais) this morning as we board our bus outside our hotel. He is Tunisian, but has lived and worked in Dubai for the last 10 years with his wife and daughters.

An abra transporting people along the Creek
An abra transporting people along the Creek

This morning, we walk along the Creek in the historic Bastakia Quarter, which has souqs and some fascinating displays of Emirati culture. The Ruler’s Court is located in this area, which is where the sheik still receives delegations of local people. Vendors in the souqs in this area sell spices, gold, perfume, and more. We take an abra (small taxi boat) to cross the Creek, and have lots of time to explore all the nooks and back alleys – it’s like a shopping mall full of specialty shops!

The Gold Souk - Old Dubai
The Gold Souk – Old Dubai

We have lunch alongside The Creek at Al Bandar restaurant. We have a variety of salads, hummus & another spread, pita bread, grilled lamb sausage and chops, chicken chunks, vegetables, french fries, and non-alcoholic beverages and water. Fresh fruit is served for dessert. There are some scrawny small cats lurking around, loudly begging for table scraps. Our guide Kais smokes a hookah, and one of our group tries it too.

This afternoon we photograph the lovely exterior of Jumeirah Mosque and later drive through the ruling family’s residential area, making a stop at the famed Burj Al Arab hotel, supposedly the only seven-star hotel in the world. Driving out onto the Palm Jumeirah Island reveals a world unto itself: lush homes (all waterfront), very posh shopping districts, high end business offices and towers, and a still developing resort complex.

Rush hour traffic back into the city means it takes well over an hour for our final stop of the day in New Dubai’s Marina District. This is a superb example of beautiful modern architecture combined with futuristic urban planning – a dream come true for architects and community planners. We leave after the sun sets to return to our hotel, the Arabian Courtyard Hotel. By this time, most of us are sleeping in the bus due to jet lag.

There are only 950,000 Emirates citizens. The rest of the 9 million people living in the UAE are foreign workers. When asked on CNN why Dubai is so “over-the-top”, the current sheik states that he feels it is his obligation to give his people the very best of everything possible.

Dubai is one of several sheikdoms in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai only gets 5% of the oil revenues of the UAE, but is traditionally a trading centre, and specializes in transportation. The Dubai port and airport are the biggest hubs in this area, and support extensive business interests both here and abroad.

 

post

Victoria to Dubai

February 6, 2015 – Friday – Victoria to Atlanta

I’m out the door at my home and in a taxi to the airport by 4AM.  The United counter Victoria airport opens at 5AM (2 hours before flight time). Once my bag is checked through to Atlanta (US$25+tax), I clear security and grab a cappuccino from the Spinnaker’s On The Fly restaurant in the boarding lounge. My flight for San Francisco leaves at 7AM, so I have some time to kill. Once the flight to San Francisco departs on time I can relax, since there is nothing further I can do about anything except find my gates at each airport along the way. I’m flying through San Francisco and Houston to get to Atlanta today.

Canyon and flatlands - enroute San Francisco to Houston - flying over New Mexico
Canyon and flatlands – enroute San Francisco to Houston – flying over New Mexico

I only have an hour to find the gate in Houston for the final leg to Atlanta, but I catch a break. The flight arrives on time, the aircraft isn’t full so unloading goes well, and the next gate turns out to be in the same terminal. So instead of rushing around, I have a few minutes to spare.

Atlanta’s domestic terminal is under construction, and is a mess both inside the terminal buildings and outside with the access roads. I finally find the hotel shuttle and arrive at the Hyatt Place at South Terminal. This hotel is a pretty good choice. Although the room fixtures are starting to show wear, check-in is quick, and it is clean, quiet, and well-run.

February 7, 2015 – Saturday – Atlanta to Dubai

Today is a lazy day to start with, since my flight to Dubai doesn’t leave Atlanta airport until 9:45PM. I have a leisurely breakfast in the hotel lobby, fool around on the Internet for awhile, and then go for a walk in the sunshine along a local bike trail. I pay the hotel an extra charge so I can stay in my room until 6PM, since it makes no sense to spend an extra half day in an airport when I’m facing a 14 hour flight later today. I have a shower and sleep in the afternoon, and put on some fresh clothes before catching the airport shuttle at 5:30PM. The shuttle takes me to the domestic terminal parking area, where I have to transfer to the International terminal shuttle, which takes a good 20 minutes. I remember Atlanta airport being big, but not quite this big!

I check in at the Delta self-serve kiosks and give my tagged bag (Dubai-DXB) to the check-in clerk. Since I am “TSA Pre-cleared”, I breeze through security and onward to the concourse and find our gate by 7PM. An hour later I meet the tour group near the gate for the flight to Dubai. Of course it is a blur of introductions; names I will not remember for a few days yet. Boarding is disorganized, and it is a full flight on a Boeing 777-200SP. I purchased Economy Comfort in order to get an additional 4” of legroom and more seat recline, so I am in the Group 1 boarding. It’s nice to get onboard ahead of about half of the passengers for this 14 hour direct flight.

The captain announces we will arrive in Dubai a few minutes ahead of schedule. Our route is up the Atlantic coast, past Newfoundland, south of Greenland and Iceland, and over Western Europe. Let’s hope we steer clear of war-torn Syria on our way to Dubai!

February 8, 2015 – Sunday – Atlanta to Dubai

Sunrise over the Atlantic - Mid-Atlantic south of Iceland
Sunrise over the Atlantic – Mid-Atlantic south of Iceland

7AM (Azores Time) I take a guess at the time zone as we are south of Iceland when the Sun rises. Sunrise over the North Atlantic is spectacular from my SE-facing window seat, and of course I take lots of photos since I’m such a sucker for sunrises and sunsets.

I’m the only one with my window shutters open, but I can’t sleep and want to look out the window. We are served a cold breakfast bun and some coffee, and then everyone goes to back to sleep, except me of course. A flight attendant comes by and asks me to close one window and keep the other one half-shaded, so I finally give up and close them both and try to sleep as we fly over Europe. Now I’m sitting here typing this journal entry in the dark cabin while it’s full sunshine outside as we pass Sicily, crossing the Mediterranean on our way to the Middle East. Four hours and 15 minutes to Dubai.

We are now 1 hour 50 minutes from Dubai, flying across the Arabian Peninsula. The cabin is still dark despite it being early evening outside…bizarre! We are served another meal before our 9PM arrival in Dubai. The airport is controlled chaos as our group retrieve our bags and walk at least a kilometre (no people movers) to clear immigration, and then wheel our bags out to the waiting bus. We are staying in the old part of the city at the Arabian Courtyard Hotel, which is an older hotel, but I like it. My room is very nice, they have a couple of restaurants and a bar, and the location is ideal for shopping and sightseeing.