a dhow being built in Sur

The Sharqiyah is the eastern-most province of Oman, where the old trading towns Ibra and Sur are located.

This is rapidly becoming a tale about, for one reason or another, deserted villages and towns. Whether civil war-bombed Tanuf, crumbling Fiqain or abandoned Al Hamra, in many places we encounter houses that have been left by their occupants.

Ibra is another case in point. Located in the eastern Hajar Mountains, in the province of Sharqiyah, this was an important town in colonial times – Oman as a colonial power, that is. It controlled the trade  with Zanzibar and along the East African coast -, which can be seen from the homes of wealthy merchants, who traded. The houses have now been abandoned and are falling in disrepair – according to an Omani we spoke because people die, and their children are not interested in maintaining the old house anymore, but prefer to move to modern housing on the other side of town, with better facilities. Which is a pity; some of those once magnificent houses, with arched entrances, multiple story, high ceilings, and wooden beams and walls decorated with plaster, are even as ruins still very impressive – and quite different from the crumbling houses in Tanuf and Al Hamra. Here, too, niches have been built in the inner walls, now sadly exposed to the elements. But in this climate it may take a while before they entirely fall to pieces…

old door in between the ruins of Ibra

ruins of a mansion

remains of a wall and what may have been the bedroom door

Outside Ibra, desolate country side. Bare rocks, mountains in colours varying from black to grey to brown, and hardly any vegetation, safe for the occasional low scrub. Somewhere here is the Iron Age archaeological site of Lizq, with a unique ceremonial staircase and dramatic views from the top of the fortified hill across volcanic landscape. Unfortunately, this will remain one of the regrets: lack of time prevented me from visiting this exiting-sounding place off the beaten track.

Instead, we continued to Sur along an excellent highway, skirting the desert, and the dunes of the Wahiba Sands.

the lighthouse of Al Ayjah, part of Sur

a game of dominos keep the men off the street

Sur is a coastal town, mostly famous for its dhow-building, the construction of the large, ocean going wooden ships. This age-old Omani skill survives only here – but in a curious process of reverse skills transfer the building is actually done by Indians and Bangladeshis, I didn’t seen many Omanis on the site. The building remains impressive, though; there are several boats being constructed at the same time, each surrounded by enormous frames, a kind of a scaffold, in which they are patiently being put together, individual wooden planks carefully being shaped, and connected not with wood joints anymore, but screws and bolts. The wood comes, apparently, from the mango tree, but most of it must be from outside Oman, given the sparsity of trees here.

a dhow in the shipyard of Sur

ship builders at work

narrow shopping street in Sur

The centre of town is a small peninsula, with the sea at one side and a lagoon on the other, and connected across with a suspension bridge.  The sea side has an attractive corniche, and a wide sandy beach, which is separated from the road by a marble-covered wall: no doubt largely to keep the fancy 4WD cars off the beach. Behind the corniche the individual houses obviously date from before the motorised era, there are no real streets here, just enough space to walk inland. Which leads an old souq, mostly narrow streets with a variety of shops, each indicating whether it is a tailor, ladies tailor or men’s tailor, or garments, or ready-made cloths – these distinctions still mean something here. Not very exciting, all together, but good for a stroll of an hour or so.

fishing dhows in the protected bay of Sur

A little further north is the port, full of fishing dhows floating, or moored. Along one side a wall has been constructed that protects the bay of the port, a long bending pier with concrete slabs to shelter anybody walking along here. As an unusually jolly initiative, these concrete slabs have been given over to local artists, who each have painted a piece of the wall, very colourful – even though the artistic level is not always of equally high standards. I am not sure whether it is related, but the pier is, in the late afternoon, a popular place for a walk and for people jogging, it is quite busy, in fact, nice atmosphere.

fishing boats outside Sur

three fishing boats, with equipment

part of the painted wall protecting the harbour

a popular place for a stroll late afternoon

one of the art works in the wall

and another one, colourful

a more original piece of art

view of the harbour of Sur

the entrance to Wadi Tiwi

palm trees at the beginning of the wadi

the ever narrower canyon towards the end

Some 40 km north of Sur is Tiwi, another fishing village along the coast, flanked not only by pebbly beaches, but also by two narrow wadis, Wadi Tiwi and Wadi al Shab. We opted for the latter, because I had read that there was no road, no cars, inside the wadi, just walking. And so it was, although we learned that this does not necessarily mean that it is peaceful. Let me put it this way: we were not the only ones, neither were we the noisiest – what is it with people, that they need to shout as soon as they are with a group of more than three.

At the entrance of the wadi are plantations of date palms and other terraced agricultural fields, irrigated by  a well-maintained falaj system, as well as several thick black hoses for water transport. The path is mostly well marked, with the occasional concrete steps to help the less agile walkers – we gracefully accepted the opportunity -, although in places we also needed to clamber over rocks, or precariously cross the stream. Further into the wadi, the walls come nearer and nearer, and turquoise pools appear, which, despite clear signs forbidding this, are happily being used for swimming. In weekends, this must be even busier than today. And yet, the spoils of the tourist industry haven’t hit here yet: the access to the wadi, across a deep pool, is by small boat with outboard engine, which drops you on the other side for a Rial per person – although 10 years ago there was apparently a bridge across the water, now no more, which provides a convenient income for the local population. Drinks in a local mobile truck coffee shop cost even less, much less. Despite the ‘crowds’, this is one of the nicest outings in Oman, so far.

from Sur, we started on the coastal road to Salalah

a window and a bucket in Misfat

Several villages, amongst them Misfat and Al Hamra, are perched against the Hajar Mountains, in between Jebel Shams and Nizwa.

On the way down from the mountain we turned to Misfat village (fully Misfat al Abriyyin, to distinguish it from other Misfats), one of those mountain villages built on a steep slope, and somewhat reminiscent of Iranian villages. As is often the case, the view of the village is best from the other side of the valley, from where one also gets a good impression of the extensive plantations that surround the place, well irrigated, and full of date palms and bananas. Inside the village, once again lots of dilapidated houses, fringing the narrow alleys and passage ways. The flow of visitors is well-managed, as long as everybody sticks to the signs, something we do have some difficulty with – which meant that we frequently had to backtrack, because our initiative led to little stairs off in one direction or a dead-end street in another, to a private house or – also encountered – a place forbidden for non-Muslims. Yet, fun exploring.

date palm plantations below the village

one of the houses in Misfat

another house in Misfat

small covered alley

colourful metal door

Misfat al Abriyyin, from a distance

In Al Hamra, another small village a bit further down the mountain, we found again lots of deserted houses – something of an Omani thing, it seems. In an older guide book, from 2007, the houses are highlighted as some of the most elegant two- and three-story buildings in Oman, Yemeni in style and remarkable in that many of them, 400 years old, were still inhabited. But that is not the case anymore. Apparently, heavy rain three years ago literally flooded the last remaining people out of their houses, and into newer ones further down in the street. Some seem to have been abandoned in a hurry; we find remains of books spread across the floor. Several ceilings have collapsed, but others still show beautifully painted beams and, in one house, we find the walls decorated, too. There is also the old souq, largely collapsed. We climb roofs for the views, find old doors rotting away and cupboards and niches exposed to the elements. And lots of rubbish in the narrow lanes, where no cars could pass, no modern amenities could be installed.  You can see why people moved, even before the floods.

the elegant houses, now abandoned, in Al Hamra

some of the inner walls exposed

some window frames have been taken, others left behind

old wooden door in Al Hamra

painted ceiling beams

and wall decorations, in one of the houses

a decorated room, inlcuding the ceiling

As so often, there are no women in the streets, but the men of Hamra spent the late afternoon in the sun, on a bench lurking tea. And they don’t mind being photographed, on the contrary, they asked for it!

the grass market, camel fodder, in Al Hamra

the men keen to be photographed

which yields nice portraits

another one

and a third, proud Al Hamra citizen

We didn’t know at the time – poor preparation, once again -, but there is a road from Al Hamra down into Wadi Beni Auf, where we had been a few days ago. Strictly 4WD only, but this must be an exciting road, too, and saves backtracking to Muscat.

in the event, we moved on to the towns of Ibra and Sur in the Sharqiyah

the plateau at Jebel Shams and the view of Oman’s Grand Canyon

From Oman’s mountains Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams are easiest accessed, both providing spectacular views

Nizwa is a good base for excursions into the Hajar Mountains, the mountains that separate the interior of Oman from the coast. Nearest is the road that leads up to Jebel al Akhdar, which starts at the village of Birkat Al Mawz, some 45 minutes out of Nizwa, in the direction of Muscat.

Just past the village is a police check point, assessing whether you have a 4WD or not – without it, no access to the mountain is granted; apparently, there have been many deadly accidents with people descending the steep road using their breaks instead of the gears. In the past the only way up was by donkey, but Oman wouldn’t be Oman if they hadn’t done the infrastructure. Now a modern tarmac road leads up the mountain, through a multitude of hairpin bends, and in places indeed frighteningly steep. However, in the urge to provide a safe road, much of it has been lined with a concrete wall on the valley-side, taking away most of what could have been a spectacular view. All along are small, and some larger, parking places, with a sign stating the elevation, and an explanation of the view – useful, but in most of these places the views somewhat obscured, and it being pretty hazy didn’t help.

so-called hanging village in Jebel Akhdar

Once on top of the Saiq plateau, at around 2000 m elevation, there is not much to see anymore, either, except some undulating rock landscape, loose boulders and very patchy vegetation. Nevertheless, there are lots of tourist facilities, in the form of picnic shelters around yet more parking lots, complete with fruit stalls and coffee shops – mostly closed, today; I suppose this is a popular weekend destination in summer, when it is a lot cooler here than down at the coast.

steep, irrigated terraces provide the only green in Jebel Akhdar

It is only at the town of Saiq that we manage to reach the edge of the plateau again, and look down on several villages – Al Qasha almost at the bottom of the valley, and Al Ayn and Al Aqor perched on the opposite slope, above a series of extensive terraces stretching from top to bottom. Some of them are even being irrigated, and show traces of green, a colour conspicuously absent on Jebel Akhdar – which means Green Mountain…

A little back from Saiq another road leads right, to an even higher plateau – we are well over 2200 meters, here -, equally devoid of interesting scenery, except for the canyon at the end. This is also the location of a flashy resort, called Alila, literally in the middle of nowhere . Altogether a lot of effort, for perhaps too little reward.

the edge of the Saiq Plateau of Jebel Akhdar

view of the gorge off the Saiq Plateau

Which cannot be said of a trip up Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest peak at just over 3000 m. Not that you can get to the mountain peak itself, which is a military zone closed to the public, but the drive up to a plateau near the top is a great way to experience the mountain landscape of this country. The first part leads past a wide dry river bed, Wadi Ghul, with half-way the village of Ghul. The hamlet on the left has been abandoned in favour of the more modern houses on the right side of a steep gorge that ends in the wadi here.

the old hamlet of Ghul, abandoned

hand-woven cloths for sale at Ghul

the mountain view on the way to Jebel Shams

a rare view, on top of the birds of prey

another one, in close-up

A little further the roads starts to climb to the plateau, where a feeble wooden fence protects the visitor from a drop 2100 meter down – or 1500, different sources state different numbers, but in any case, it is a lot – into Wadi Nakhl, better known as Oman’s Grand Canyon. Fifty meters along, even the fence has disappeared, and one looks unobstructed into the abyss, the deeply eroded valley of the river that, far below, meanders uncomfortably in between the rocks. There is no better view point in Oman. And there is no better picnic spot than here, protected from the wind behind some outcrop.

next: to Misfat and Al Hamra

great picnic spot

panoramic view from the plateau of Jebel Shams, looking down into Wadi Nakhl

Bahla Fort

Outside Nizwa are the towns of Tanuf, Bahla, Jabreen and Fiqain, each with their own story, often expressed in the state of their buildings.

Tanuf, half an hour outside Nizwa, looks, on the face of it, a modern town. However, towards the back of the town, almost against the mountain slope, are the derelict quarters of an older version. In the 1950s plenty of Omanis were dissatisfied with the Sultan, the father of the present one, and a group of rebels led by an elected Iman, and covertly supported by Saudi Arabia, tries to overthrow the regime. They hid in the mountains – the jebels, in local language -, which explains the term Jebel War, in which equally covert British troops supported the Sultan. And Tanuf was made an example, when it was deliberately bombed on 27 July 1957.

more deserted Tanuf residencies

ruined houses in Tanuf

a bombed-out window, Tanuf

Just past the old town a falaj system, the traditional irrigation systems in Oman, leads from a valley through an intricate network of channels to town, still very much in use. The channels cling to the mountainside, and probably step down several times to ultimately end up in an underground canal.

water flowing through the falaj

the falaj system in a wadi behind Tanuf

the imposing contours of Bahla Fort

With so many forts in Oman, we have to make choices, we are not going to visit all 1000 of them. The Bahla fort is described as one of the most comprehensive ones in the country, and with Unesco World Heritage status, this is perhaps one of the ones to go and see. It is indeed impressive, very big, surrounded by imposing walls and towers. Apparently,  this has been a human settlement for a very long time, with finds dating back three centuries, but the current structure is almost certainly from the early 17th Century; well, what remained of it in the 1990s, before an extensive restoration program was started that has turned the fort in what it is now. The restoration has been done tastefully, and you could imagine that the fort now looks like what it used to be in the past, except for the sockets and the electricity switches, which allow for a sophisticated atmospheric lightning in the various rooms.

another view of the fort

one of the towers at the edge

an a tower at the other end

three windows, perfectly restored

the view from the top, date palms in the Bahla oasis

the market area in Bahla town

the mobile livestock market outside town

 

At 2 pm, Bahla’s souq area was deserted, everybody was having their siesta accept us. Yet. the colonnaded side of the square had a certain attraction, with all the small shops shuttered closed. The mobile livestock market, at the edge of town, was equally empty, except for the cows, goats and camels packed in trucks or in the back of a pick-up. An interesting concept, the animals never leave the trucks, which are well-equipped with bales of hay. Presumably, the next day the trucks occupy a place at another livestock market.

curious camels inside a truck

one of the rooms from carpet to ceiling

Unlike the Bahla Fort the Jabreen castle in the middle of a plain is much more of a palace-like structure, not designed to be defended. Which was unfortunate, because its builder, a 17th Century Imam, died inside after a siege of the palace by his brother. The castle, restored in the 1980s, is a wonderful building, different from the usual Omani fort in that this has been built as a residence, the 50-plus rooms over three floors somehow all connected via internal stairways; many of its rooms are beautifully decorated, too, with painted beams on the ceiling and carpets and pillows on the floor, but without the usual overdose of artefacts (hear who is talking!).

pasage inside Jabreen Castle

the date store inside Jabreen Castle

stairs in the castle, in the late afternoon sun

several passages inside a house in Fiqain

a door left in Fiqain

Fiqain (or Fiyqin, or Fiqeen) is the site of yet another restored fort, thankfully closed by the time we arrive. The mudbrick village surrounding the fort has been abandoned, and the houses are crumbling; a great place to wander around at the end of the afternoon, through narrow corridors and onto almost collapsing roofs. I suppose the people here weren’t bombed out, but just moved to better housing, with increasing wealth – something we will see again later on.

next, to the mountains of Jebel Shams and Jebel al-Akhdar

the restored Fiqain Fort contrasts with the abandoned village

display in Abu Eyad Al Mantra date shop

The thing to do in Nizwa: visit a date shop, and – as a minimum – try!

There are actually quite a few date shops in and around the Nizwa souq, but the shop of Abu Eyad Al Manthri is our favourite. At least 10 to 12 different types of dates, some sweeter, some a little less sweet, some darker coloured, some lighter, are displayed, and toothpicks are available throughout the shop, for obvious purposes. Abu Eyad makes you try much more than you had wanted; all are nice, of course, but the Suwari dates, from Saudi Arabia, are in a different league, both in terms of taste as well as price. There is an incredible variety in products, all derived from dates: date paste, and date-cubes with sesame seeds, and with rasped coconut, all delicious. We settle for a box of fresh dates, butter-soft, and various other boxes and pots. Abu Eyad, in the meantime, serves coffee, in between attending the stream of other tourists – this is obviously a popular place. Rightfully so.

part of the dates selection

and the various products derived from dates

the shop, and its basic product

souvenir pots in Nizwa

Oman’s interior is ruled from Nizwa, which offers not much except for good food, and is an excellent base for exploring the surrounding mountains and forts.

the road to Nizwa, bare mountains and modern towns

From Muscat it is a couple of hours drive to Nizwa, the main town in the interior of the country, on the other side of the Hajar Mountains. The modern highway passes through the Sumail Gap, a natural break in the mountains and the most obvious route inland. Because of this, the area is plastered with forts and watch towers wherever you look, remnants of the old defence works for this most strategic of passes.

what you can buy in the Nizwa souq

Notwithstanding Nizwa’s relative importance, both historically and present-day, as the administrative centre of the interior, there is not a lot to do. The fort, dominated by a huge round tower, is mostly big, but not very special. It is nicely lit at night. The souq, as in so many other towns in Oman, has been turned into a tourist market, a modern and clean platform for selling mostly souvenirs. The other buildings, like the fruit and vegetable souq, or the meat hall, were largely deserted both times we visited. In the fish hall, only two sellers had occupied a table, the rest of the considerably large building was empty. The only fish available is tuna. The area set aside for trading and packaging of dates – now, that is something unique for Oman, perhaps! – was empty, too. However, next door is a date shop selling the most delicious stock, perhaps ten different types of dates, plus a whole range of date-derived products, like date syrup, date cubes with sesame seeds or with coconut rasp, the one even more exquisite than the other. And the best is, you can try!

tourist set-up in the souq

no self-respecting Omani buys this, I don’t think

but it makes for a colourful picture

spices, and pulses, and nuts, and dried fruit

entrance to one of the sections of the souq

the kebab maker, best in town

Outside the souq are the kebab stalls and outdoor restaurants. We just sit at a table to eat our food, there and then, but most people drive up in their car, blow the horn for one of the attendants to come and take their order, which is brought to the car a little later: the perfect take-away, where you don’t even have to get out of your car. Engine keeps running, and more importantly, airco, too, although in January it is not that hot in Nizwa. One of the stalls is so popular that the street outside is almost permanently blocked; we have to try this one, so we get in, find one of the three miniature tables empty, and wait for the menu. There is no menu. You can have a beef kebab, with or without bread, the flat Arab-type. Most people take with bread, the Omani version of a hamburger. Complete with sauce, every table has its bottle of Jumbo hot sauce, and the take-away orders are inclusive of a whole bottle, too. We cannot get enough of it!

next: to Bahla and Jabreen

Nizwa fort, lit at night

view from the Nakhl Fort over date plantations and wadi

A trip to Wadi Behi Kharous and Wadi Beni Awf, with a stop at the impressive, but heavily restored Nakhl Fort on the way

A popular outing from Muscat is a day trip to the wadis west of the city. A wadi is a river bed in arid areas, which means that for most of the year it is dry, and thus easily accessible. Make no mistake, though: if it rains, or if it rains upstream, the wadis are subject to violent flash floods, exactly those moments you don’t want to be trapped there.

There are several wadis coming down from the Western Hajar Mountains, the nearest to Muscat being Wadi Beni Kharous and Wadi Beni Auf. On the way, there is Nakhl, a small town with a big fort. We are certainly not going to see all forts in Oman – there is an estimated more than a 1000 fortified structures in the country -, but the Nakhl Fort, apparently, is one of the best.

Nakhl Fort

crannulations at the fort

and more defences, same fort

two of the towers of Nakhl Fort

The 350-year old fort, probably built on pre-Islamic foundations, is heavily restored in the 1990, but as much as possible with traditional materials – still, it is difficult to get a sense of authenticity here, it is just too nice, too perfect, too much of a museum. It does give a good overview of what these forts, or fortified houses, looked like. The fort is built on a rocky outcrop, which determines the lay-out, and was added to over the years. From a simple tower it evolved during the 17th Century into a structure with no less than six towers and a series of enclosure, housing several well ventilated rooms. Access to the towers is via a vertical ladder against one of the walls, a great entertainment for visiting children (and some adults, like me).

date palm plantations around Nakhl

recent “rock paintings” in Wadi Beni Kharous

From Nakhl it is a short drive to the entrance of Wadi Bani Kharous, once again protected by a small fort. Apparently, another feature at the wadi’s entrance are ancient rock engravings, a subject dear to me. But trying to find them proved difficult; it being Friday, most people who could have pointed us in the right direction were in the mosque, and those who weren’t didn’t speak a lot of English. In a small village, just off the road, they do seem to understand what we mean, but then send us to some recent graffiti on the limestone outcrops, which has little to do with what we are looking for. They also insist that we come inside, and with traditional Middle Eastern hospitality force a fabulous lunch upon us, with fruit and dates, and deliciously grilled fish.

the wadi floor, and the steep flanks in the distance

The wadi itself is a wide valley, deeply eroded into the mountains. All around us, sheer vertical walls, and very little vegetation. Yet, there is water underneath, and every couple of hundred meters, or so, wells have been dug in the wadi. And further on several terraces are actively being irrigated, providing ample space for lots of date palms, but also other crops. The irrigation here must come from the falaj system, an age-old network of water channels that lead from springs in the mountains to the villages, everywhere in Northern Oman – and obviously, provide a life line for the people living here.

 

date palms and agricultural terraces

more terraces, and the irrigation system, the falaj, in the back

entrance to Wadi Bani Awf

even more colourful in flight

a bird in the wadi

What we didn’t know at the time – poor preparation -, is that there exists a link with Wadi Bani Awf, across the flanks of the mountains. In the event, we drove all the way back, and then to the entrance of this wadi, which is equally spectacular with its rugged, barren landscape. Fairly soon, we ran out of tarmac, and continued on an unsurfaced road. Time prevented us from reaching the end of the wadi, or the beginning, whichever way you look at it, from where a steep (4WD only) track leads up the Hajar Mountains, to the village of Al Hamra and on to Jebel Shams. Equally, we never reached Snake Canyon, a steep gorge almost at the end; but we did get to what is called Little Snake Canyon, an equally steep, but smaller gorge.

this is, in any case, pretty obvious

goats keep their balance on the steep slopes

Little Snake Canyon

with a bit of water left, after rains

Another aspect of the wadis are the cemeteries, of which we found several. The valley floor must be far too hard to bury anybody here, but in certain places stones representing graves had been erected, roughly arranged in rows, and firmly placed in the ground. I am not sure how this works, exactly, but it’s a peculiar feature, these stones.

next, to Nizwa

one of the mysterious cemeteries

stones firmly planted in the hard valley floor

more stones, arranged in rows

Royal shield at the Sultan’s palace in Muscat

Oman’s capital Muscat is a pretty humble city, a series of characteristic coastal villages

For those familiar with the capital cities on the Arabian Peninsula, Muscat is a humble place. Arrival is at the relatively down-to-earth airport, nothing compared to the flashy neighbours (but rumour has it that this will change soon, too, and evidence of a new terminal building is there). And elsewhere in town, too, no high-rise, no ostentatious expressions of oil wealth; no senseless competition to build the highest tower or the most luxurious artificial island. Humble is the word that fits Muscat.

In fact, Muscat is a string of coastal villages, many of which have their own bay, with a beach and often a natural harbour, in between rocky promontories. Expansion is limited to the coast, in western and south-eastern direction, because behind Muscat rise the Hajar mountains. Thus where the international airport, named after Sultan Qaboos, used to be a fair bit out of town, nowadays Muscat’s urbanisation has not only encroached, but has overtaking the airport, from which a highway, also named after Sultan Qaboos, leads into the capital of Oman.

Most visitors to Muscat, including ourselves, start their exploration in Mutrah, the neighbourhood just past the main port, named after – guess who? – Sultan Qaboos. In the morning, fish is being landed here, and traded in the fish market, once again a rather humble affair. A small covered area is dotted with tables where a great variety of fish is being displayed. Rather than praising their wares loudly and aggressively, the traders are stoically sitting behind the piles, waiting for a buyer to turn up. This, too, is going to change, though: the new fish market, for what I could see from behind the fences, is an attractively designed tall round building, almost ready to be opened – I wonder what it is going to be called.

Mutrah fish market

impressive fish for sale

Mutrah corniche

Portuguese origin Mutrah Fort

a dhow in front of visiting cruise ship in Muscat

the inside of the Mutrah souq, a pretty modern passage

Omani hats for sale

and souvenirs, depicting the local scene

not everything along the Corniche is equally solid

two windows in Mutrah, also not the most modern ones

The fish market is at one end of the Mutrah corniche, the sea front lined with slightly deteriorating commercial buildings. The occasional dhow (perhaps even the Royal Dhow?) floats in the harbour, but the view is mostly dominated by the huge visiting crew ships, a stark contrast. At the other end of the corniche is the Mutrah Fort, one of the few originally Portuguese 16th Century castles, and the Souq. The formal entrance to the souq looks grander than is warranted by the few seemingly not so old covered passages and the network of small alleys that make up this market area. The merchandise is dominated by souvenirs and crafts, as well as frankincense, Oman’s other export product, besides oil and gas. Some of the merchandise is no doubt produced in Oman itself, but much of it has a distinctly Indian look and feel – which is being reinforced by the many Indians, that seem to work here, as shop attendants (Oman foreign population is probably 95% Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi). Having just been to Iran a few months ago, the souq was in fact somewhat disappointing. What didn’t help was that the dominant customers were the hundreds, if not thousands of Germans from the cruise ships moored in the port. Who we met later on again, in almost equal numbers, in the fairly small museum Bait al Zubair…. I suppose there is a difference visiting Muscat when there are, and when there are not, cruise ships around.

one of the buildings along the Corniche

and another one, with balcony

Al Mirani Fort, on the Old Muscat bay

the Sultan’s palace, blue-and-gold mushrooms

and defence mechanism now

defence mechanism then….

The next village, once again around a promontory, is what is called Old Muscat. But don’t expect – like we did – a maze of narrow winding streets flanked by old, decrepit houses, with children playing, women washing, men lurking the shisha. Old Muscat is the area of flashing government buildings, of the imposing national museum, and last but not least, of the Sultan’s Palace, a huge mushroom-like construction in blue and gold. The palace is defended with bright red anti-aircraft guns – obviously, no need to camouflage those, next to such an expressive building, no doubt easily recognised from the air. In earlier days the bay was defended by two imposing forts, but next to the palace they look, well, humble almost. And so look their defences. The palace is flanked by spectacular hedges of Bougainvillea, from which a wide promenade leads away to the National Museum.

the stretch between palace and National Museum

houses in Old Muscat

In all fairness, there is an older part to Old Muscat, just past the museum in southern direction, where older houses, with grated windows, crenulated rooftops and rusty satellite dishes. Small neighbourhood shops, ice-cream parlours and coffee houses are the only commercial undertakings here, it seems. Similar neighbourhoods appear further south along the coast, in the villages of Sidab and Haramel. One end of the beach in Sidab is given over to small fishing boats, now drawn up the sand, waiting for the next tide, perhaps. Fishermen are mending nets, cleaning engines or just sitting around, in an utterly peaceful atmosphere that is far removed from the big city around the corner. Haramel, in between the main highway and the coast, is accessible from one road only, that leads to streets lined with simple two and three story houses, and another small port.

the fishing beach of Sidab

some of the fishing boats

and some of the equipment on board

more Sidab boats

At the other end of Muscat is Al Bustan, mostly known for its flashy hotel with private beach and numerous pools, all full of people– more so than that the area is known for the parliament building, which is several times bigger than the hotel, but totally deserted – there is no visible activity what-so-ever. Perhaps that, too, is fitting this country.

next: to the Wadis

the lights on the stretch

dunes near the Khor Al Adaid

A trip to Qatar’s ‘inland sea’ is definitely a rewarding experience, as long as you don’t expect to be alone, in the desert.

The Khor Al Adaid is Qatar’s prime natural beauty spot, located to the south of Doha, on the border with Saudi Arabia. Popularly known as the Inland Sea, it is in fact not an inland sea (like the Caspian, for instance), but a lagoon with a connection to the Arabian Gulf. Surrounded by extensive dune fields and salt flats, only accessible by 4WD, this sounds like the ideal retreat for those seeking the virgin desert environment, peaceful, idyllic and romantic. Indeed, it has been on a list of tentative Unesco World Heritage Sites since 2008, on account of its “diverse scenery of exceptional, undeveloped natural beauty, in what remains predominantly a ‘wilderness area”

Perhaps the reason it is still on the tentative list, is that both the concept of ‘undeveloped’ and that of ‘wilderness area’ need to be revisited. The idea that an area is remote because it is only accessible by 4WD doesn’t work in Qatar, where everybody owns a 4WD. And less than two hours drive from Doha, this is too good a spot not to attract lots of visitors.

The first of those two hours is on a good tarmac road, now intersected by major works on round-abouts and fly-overs because of the development of the new port, Hamad Port – the amount of infrastructure investment in this tiny country remains impressive. Part of this may be aimed at becoming the preeminent transit port for Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf, whilst a lot of Qatar’s own industry – a petrochemical plant, a fertiliser plant, an oil refinery and an LNG plant; an area marked by storage tanks and permanent flares – are visible from the road, too, already somewhat compromising the idea of approaching a wilderness area.

this is the type of private weekend accommodation

quads lined up for dune bashing

wide enough to land an aircraft

Long before the tarmac runs out, the first tented camps appear, opposite the refinery. Some of those are commercially run, but most are kind of weekend accommodations for Qataris, who have set up their own tents, complete with generators, satellite dishes, water tanks and other comfort-providing facilities.  This is also where the first rows of quads start appearing, the toys to do dune bashing: speeding past, but preferably up and down the dunes that start appearing off the road. You can rent these, for an hour or two, say, or for a weekend. Don’t get me wrong: the scale of this, both the number of tents and the rows of hundreds, no, thousands of quads, is impressive. All at the edge of the wilderness area.

across one of the dunes, back to the desert highway

looking in the right direction, there is the sense of virgin desert

the lagoon, with Saudi Arabia at the other side

rubbish along the shore

dune crest, almost perfect

The real adventurer, of course, doesn’t stop here, but takes his 4WD off the road. It is advisable to lower the tyre pressure, to improve the traction on the soft sand; in Qatar, there are people to do this for you, for a small fee, at the end of the tarmac. Ready to hit the sand, the first part of the desert in fact can be best described as a 200 meter wide (!!) runway for wide-bodied aircraft, on pretty solid ground of bedrock with only a thin, pressed sand cover; the only feature being the hundreds of car tracks all leading in the same direction: the inland sea. To be fair, further along the tracks split in various directions, and I am sure if you go far enough, you can probably find some virgin territory, but we only have the day, and we want to get to the water edge. With a variety of apps – 4G coverage everywhere, in the desert – we find our way, navigating between impressive dunes. Until we see the water in the distance, indeed a beautiful sight, great place to picnic or camp. Which, judging from the amount of rubbish along the coast line, has been done by others before. But the lagoon itself is fabulous, many different colours of blue, a few rocky islands in the middle, and surrounded by dunes. Climbing onto the highest, the views all around are spectacular. Perhaps not the undeveloped wilderness we had anticipated, but definitely the thing to do in Qatar.

dune landscape towards the late afternoon

dune landscape towards the late afternoon (2)

view from the dunes to the larger part of the lagoon

pomegranate, that quintessential Middle Eastern fruit

pomegranate, that quintessential Middle Eastern fruit

Some tips and tricks for traveling in Iran

Iran is pretty unknown for most travellers, so much is clear, yet, many people I talk to after our trip are very interested. And they have lots of questions about the actual process of traveling in this country: is it safe, is there public transport, is it difficult to find hotels, restaurants? There are plenty of blogs on the Internet, and there are the guide books, which give plenty of information on traveling in Iran. But some people will experience certain things differently from others. So below I have captured some of what I call the more mundane issues of traveling in Iran, to help future travellers get an impression of what to expect. Of course, they are just my own impressions, which someone else may have interpreted totally differently.

 

one of the best buys in Iran is saffron, in pots in all shapes

one of the best buys in Iran is saffron, in pots in all shapes

another famous Iranian product, rose water

another famous Iranian product, rose water

Culture: Of hospitality and tara’of.

There are probably no more hospitable people in the world than the Iranians. They will strike up a conversation, even if they don’t speak anything else than Farsi. A fair bet is that their first question is “where are you from?”, so even if you don’t understand the question, the answer should be easy. Often this is followed by “welcom in Iran (or in the city where you are)”, and they mean this, genuinely. The conversation may stop here, or may continue, with the suggestion to come and drink tea at their house, have dinner, anything. And this is where it becomes tricky, because you are entering the wasp nest of tara’of. Iranians will always invite you, but not necessarily mean it, and thus maybe highly embarrassed when you accept the invitation. But then again, they may mean it. Point is that from that moment onwards you are their guest, and they will insist on paying everything, which for us Westerners can become very uncomfortable – because we don’t want to abuse the hospitality. They will also insist on taking you everywhere, and it may be difficult to disengage yourself again. Having said all this, Iranians are generally very pleasant company, and a certain fear for overindulgence should not get in the way of genuinely exploring human contact, something that in Iran can be very rewarding, for both sides: Iranians are very interested in how the West works and lives and thinks, and they expect you to be quite honest – without being rude – in your answers to their many questions.

We carried a bag full of small souvenirs from home, as well as large boxes of chocolates, to give away as a token of appreciation when we once again failed to pay anything. Works well, and is well appreciated.

 

Dress code: Of headscarves and shorts:

You just need to accept that in Iran you cannot go around as you wish. Most Iranians are fairly well dressed, in Tehran you find the newest fashion, whilst in the country side, and smaller towns, the cloths maybe a little more old-fashioned. Best is, for your own comfort, to try to fit in. Men don’t go around in shorts, in a country where women are forbidden to watch a football match, because of all these half-naked men’s legs. And women, well, just have to cover their head when outside the home, or hotel room, essentially when you are running the risk meeting a non-family male. That doesn’t mean you need a burka, or a chador, for full coverage, but you cannot show too much skin, you cannot wear tight-fitting cloths, and you must cover your hair. Now there are ways and ways to cover your hair, and in Tehran many young women are testing the water, with hijabs (headscarves) at the very edge of their hairclip, but again, outside Tehran life is more conservative. You can argue the issue until the cows come home (and whether this is what women want or not: the reality is that some do, others don’t), but in the end it is the law, like it or not. Buy cotton headscarves, they are much cooler than anything with the faintest amount of nylon in it.

 

not sure whether the Swedish brand owners have a franchise agreement, here

not sure whether the Swedish brand owners have a franchise agreement, here

Money: Of cash, and nothing but cash.

The Iranian finance system is still very much shut off from the international payment circuit. Foreign credit cards don’t work, neither do any of the foreign cards to draw money from a machine (which is a shame, because payment by card – local card – is widespread in Iran). So bring cash, enough to pay for all your local expenses, and a little extra for emergencies. Most large town have exchange offices, which give a much better exchange rate than the banks, and are much quicker, too. US$ or Euros most commonly accepted by these offices.

Once you have changed money, you are quickly a millionaire, in Rials, the local currency. But most Iranians think in Toman, 10 Rials being 1 Toman, even though Tomans do not exist, there are no coins or banknotes in Tomans. Takes a while to get used to, but you will, eventually.

 

especially if you need to order food

especially if you need to order food

language can be daunting

language can be daunting

Language:

They speak Farsi, in Iran, which is quite different from our Western languages. What is worse, they also write in Farsi, which has its own script, completely unintelligible for the average Westerner. On top of that, they write from right to left – except if they write numbers, then it goes from left to right. Numbers is not too difficult to learn, though.

The good news is that almost always, right when you need them, somebody will turn up who speaks a bit of English, to ask whether he or she can help.

 

Travel: Of busses, trains and taxis.

Iran is a quite developed country. There is an excellent bus system connecting most cities – and if your destination is not connected by direct bus, people will tell you where to go to change busses. Long distance there are VIP busses, very comfortable, with spacious, reclining seats, and biscuits and drinks provided. And also cheaper, less luxurious busses, without biscuits and with less leg space. VIP or not, they do not often stop for intermediate toilet breaks, though, but they stop for lunch. One hitch is that if you want to get off before the final destination of the bus, you often still need to pay the full price – which is, however, never very expensive.

There are also trains, between certain towns, a very comfortable way of transport. But it is not necessarily easy to get tickets, and a travel agency is often a better bet than the station itself. And frequency is much less than the busses, with times often not the most convenient. For long distances, the overnight sleepers are a good alternative. Of course, you can also fly, relatively cheaply, but again, depending on the flight schedules. Once again, best bet is a travel agent – who will level some commission, of course

Busses, trains (I think), and planes can be booked online, too (this is a developed country, I told you), but websites are in Farsi, and payment methods only by local card, international cards are not recognised in Iran. So you need a Farsi speaker who can also pay for you – some hotels will help you, if you ask. And some bus reservations can be made online, with payment in cash later at the terminal.

An alternative for shorter distances, say, two hours or less, are the savaris, or shared taxis, which congregate in certain places in town (your hotel, or any taxi driver, will know where, for which destination); they leave when full, which means four people. Sometimes the front seat is slightly more expensive than one of the three back seats, but then, if you travel as a couple, you may be shifted around when somebody from the other sex enters, as women will not normally be seated next to unrelated men (same on the bus). Savaris are also not very expensive.

an old Peykan, Iran's home-grown car, popular as taxi

an old Peykan, Iran’s home-grown car, popular as taxi

and the Zeymad, that all-versatile rural pick-up

and the Zeymad, that all-versatile rural pick-up

In town, taxis are the easiest option, seldom cost more than the equivalent of 1-2 US$ (except in Tehran, where they are a little more expensive, in the order of 5-7 US$ depending on distance). Taxis are not necessarily recognisable as such: lots of clearly marked yellow or green cars, but also completely unmarked cars will stop if you raise your arm, or if you are just looking lost along the side of the road. Some are indeed taxis, others are not, but their drivers will happily earn a little on the side. They charge the same as taxis. Oh, and tara’of plays a role, too, initially many taxi drivers will refuse payment, which does NOT mean that you should get out without paying, you just need to insist a little harder. Such is customs in Iran.

the Rapid Transit System in Tehran

the Rapid Transit System in Tehran

Tehran has a well-functioning metro, as well as the Rapid Transit System, which means busses that have a dedicated lanes, bypassing most of the traffic jams. The busses (and the metro, too, at times) may get jammed themselves, though – they can get pretty busy. On the town busses, women are expected to enter at the back, where there is a separate female section; the metro has the same, but less strictly enforced. RTSs are operational in some other cities, too, like Tabriz. You buy your RTS tickets outside the bus, in ticket boots near major stops (not always very clearly sign posted, just ask).

 

Hotels:

In most towns you will find one or more mid-class hotels, in the range of 30-50 US$, with varying room quality. We had mostly good experiences, clean, comfortable, private bathroom with, in most cases, a Western toilet (although many hotels will also have rooms with squat toilet). You can go cheaper, or more expensive, and quality will vary accordingly. That said, quite a few mid-class hotels charge up to 100 US$, without offering anything more than their more economic brethren, so it pays to shop around – if you can: in smaller towns hotels are not necessarily plenty. Negotiating prices down only worked a few times. Almost everywhere quite reasonable internet is available, if not in the room, then at least in the lobby.

 

a typical Iranian dish, koresht and something

a typical Iranian dish, koresht and something

the national dish, kebabs from the fridge

the national dish, kebabs from the fridge

Food & drink: Of kebabs and pizza, and the non-alcoholic aperitive.

My favourite subject! Iranian food can be very tasty, and varied. Home-cooked meals, of which we sampled a few, are generally excellent, stews of meat and vegetables, often including beans. Outside the homes, restaurants quickly revert to kebabs, and more kebabs, usually chicken or minced meat. Which is very nice, served with rice or flat bread, a roasted tomato, very acid pickles and quite often fresh herbs like parsley, coriander, mint and/or basil (called ‘vegetables’ or ‘mountain vegetables’). It is just that after a while you want something else. The occasional traditional restaurant, often large, for some reason often unfriendly, and often overpriced, serves a wider menu than kebabs, including vegetable (=bean) stews, eggplant dishes and fesejun, chicken or something else with a walnut and pomegranate sauce. Despite the bazaars being full of many more fresh vegetables, they do not seem to enter the restaurant menus. The alternative is fresh salad, often available in pre-packed plastic dishes, but quite OK (be careful with the dressings, though, they may not be your taste).

fast food is the thing, in Iran, but stressful

fast food is the thing, in Iran, but stressful

Most popular are the fast food restaurants, serving hamburgers and/or pizzas. But Iranians don’t know about hamburgers, here they are just flat, overcooked and tasteless frisbies, served with lots of lettuce and acid pickles in an oversized sandwich – not my favourite. And pizzas: slightly better, but they don’t resemble anything close to the Italian (or New York) version; cheese is often a rather mild white feta-type of cheese, and although Iranians eat tomatoes with almost everything else, curiously, they don’t put them on a pizza. Never. Yet, a pizza might be an alternative if you are fed up with kebabs.

Another possibility may be to shop for fresh fruit in the market, and with fresh bread or cheese, or fresh dates (in October, harvest season) munch this in your hotel room, quite a filling meal. Fruit is really excellent, here, whether melons or peaches, delicious small, very sweet pitless grapes, apricots, pears, you name it and it exists – in season.

fruit and vegetables galore

fruit and vegetables galore

white mini-aubergines

white mini-aubergines

bread outside a mini-market

bread outside a mini-market

A word on breakfast: don’t expect too much. All that delicious fruit is not served with breakfast. Instead, the standard is flat bread with packaged cream cheese, or in the better versions, real white cheese, a plastic cup of jam and/or honey, and with luck sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Top locations have boiled eggs, and occasionally somebody will serve fried eggs or omelette. And the bread? Really nice, often served in a plastic bag or to be taken from a large plastic container, but in open air it gets hard while you are looking at it, and then it becomes almost inedible.

In between your meals, there is bastani, the Farsi word for ice cream. Varies from excellent quality to pretty chemical, which you can often tell from the colour. In the better ice cream parlours, they mix vanilla ice cream with carrot juice – try it, it is excellent! Many ice cream shops also have fruit blenders, which serve melon juice, or banana, or peach, or a kind of mix milkshake. Great alternative for a gin-and-tonic in the late afternoon. Because gin-and-tonic is not available (no gin, neither tonic). And no other alcoholic beverage either (although, if you cosy up to the right Iranians, you may be offered some kind of moonshine liquor – which is best avoided, not only to stay out of trouble with the authorities, but also in order to protect your eyesight).

diary products in 'your shop'

diary products in ‘your shop’

and sheep's heads, same franchise

and sheep’s heads, same franchise

a cheeky brand, this one, it is not Coca Cola

a cheeky brand, this one, it is not Coca Cola

The drink of choice in Iran is tea, served everywhere, often even without asking. Except in restaurants, where one assumes that you will have a soft drink, Coca Cola or Sprite or Fanta (or, sometimes, a cheeky look-alike). Or an alcohol-free beer, with peach or lemon taste, not my favourite. There is also doogh, a sour yogurt drink, very refreshing. And water, in small (500 cc) and large (1500 cc) bottles (although tap water is, in most places, perfectly potable, if not always tasty).

Whatever you order, everything is between cheap and very cheap, compared to Western prices.

kettle store

kettle store