Oman in 6 Days Part 6

Day 6: Nizwa and back to Muscat

I headed down the mountain after breakfast, feeling “done” with Jebel Shams. .Going down was easier than going up of course, and barring my emptying gas tank, I was in good spirits. .I was able to fill up eventually and then head out towards Nizwa, where I’d heard there was a really good souk and some more forts. .I got there earlier than expected, and easily found the souk area. .It was actually quite nice, much cleaner and better laid out than the one in Muscat. .I saw some really nice jewelry but it was way above my budget. .I did snag some HOPEFULLY food-grade frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood (we use these in Chinese medicine brewed as a tea to help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and increase blood flow in the body) in a back corner of the market that I mostly saw locals in, along with some really nice dates in the produce market building for just 1 rial (about $2.60) .I ate lunch at a place with wifi across the street, had some “Zanzibar curry” which was a nice chicken kinda thing with saffron rice. .I was feeling a little beat so thought maybe I’d head early to the airport and chill at the lounge. .Got there around 2pm (my flight wasn’t until early the next morning). .Fail here- #1- they won’t check you in until 3 hrs before. .For whatever reason I couldn’t check in online for my flight on Swiss to Dubai, so I had to wait a painful 10 hrs or so in the front of the airport. .There were a few places to grab something, but I was out of rial basically…also did I mention I’m a pretty broke student? .Was waiting for some big checks (scholarship money and work) to go through…so, I made do with a cup of tea, some study materials, and my favorite app, the oddly-named “Turdus” (offline wikitravel).

Fail #2 came at check-in when the agent insisted I wasn’t star gold status, and wouldn’t print it on my ticket (only silver). .Not good, as I was sorely in need of food, a hot shower, and a quiet place to chill for a bit. .I went to the lounge anyway and tried to talk my way in…they weren’t having any of it and wouldn’t even let me get the password to use internet to pull up my united status. .Luckily I happened to see a spare paper with it….went outside, pulled up the page, went back in, argued again…they told me the ticket agent would have to reprint my ticket and I had to go back to check in…past where I stamped out…not happening. .Eventually they got tired of arguing with me and let me in. .The lounge was pretty satisfactory and let me tell you, I certainly enjoyed that shower!

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Oman in 6 Days Part 5

Day 5: Jebel Shams Canyon rim walk

I guess I finally warmed up though was feeling cold from the bottom a bit- the area where my tent was had carpet underneath, but below that was cement, which was hard obviously, and cold. .I kept trying just to stay warm, doing some reading, and napping a bit. .Finally it was time for breakfast to be served and I got in there and warmed up. .I walked past my car on the way and there was frost on it! .Yikes, it must have been really freezing last night. .Some idiot decided to trace the Subaru “S” in the ice which was a classy touch. .I got hiking maps from the main office the night before. .The summit hike I ruled out since I didn’t find anyone to go with, and it was a 13 hr hike which would have required me starting before sunup (and missing my warm breakfast). .I decided instead for hike 6 which took you along the rim of the canyon to an abandoned settlement. .I asked which way to go and leave it to me to ask directions from the mute staff member. .After going a couple km I realized it had to be the other direction, and THEN realized I had yet another rocky road to go up. .This road was also another couple KM but not on the edge of the mountain at least. .It led to a village overrun with goats, and there was a parking area. .I asked another group who had just gotten out if they thought this was it, and they thought so. .They didn’t even have a map. .I ended up hiking with them which was very nice. .They were a Dutch family- a young married couple and the girl’s dad. .They had saved up money and decided to do a long trip from the Netherlands down into Africa, aiming to go for 7 or so months with no official end date or destination (ostensibly it was South Africa but they were open). .I thought it was really inspiring that the dad came along also. .I can’t imagine many dads (definitely not mine, though I sure as hell wouldn’t want him to go) I know doing something like that. .We were pleased to find a little waterfall and trees just past the abandoned village, where we rested a bit before turning around. .By the way, I had to stash my load of clothes I stripped off on the way as it probably was around 25-30 C at least over by the canyon. .They were there when I got back though

I got back fairly early, maybe between noon and 1pm, so I warmed up in the sun, had some lunch, and took a nap for a little bit before doing some more reading and wandering around for sunset pictures. .The rest of the night was pretty much the same as the one before, except the French tourists from 2 days ago were there. .They also still wouldn’t talk to me, even though we were sitting at this long table together.

Oman in 6 Days Part 4

DAY 4: Wahiba Sands to Jebel Shams

Hotel (day 4 and 5) Jebel Shams Resort $39

I woke up fairly early and got up on the dunes again to take some sunrise photos. .Unfortunately, once I got up there, I took about 2 pictures and my phone/camera died….one of the Italians was there and got a lot of shots it looked like. .Breakfast was a wannabe English breakfast of boiled eggs, baked beans, toast, oranges, yogurt, and cereal w/milk. .There was coffee however, which made it all better. The German woman came in and we talked well past when the French throng left. .Eventually her husband joined us and we really just had a nice day relaxing. .We had wanted to ride camels the night before- they had told us it would happen 8am that morning, but then the Bedouin women who were the contacts showed up and we weren’t able to get something happening until that evening, after I left. .Hopefully the Germans got their ride in!

At some point the Pakistani head guy came in and said they were closed for the day, but the Germans bartered for a day just staying self-catered. I was really tempted to stay also, but decided to let them have some privacy and head on towards the next place. .In retrospect I would definitely stay at this camp again, but use my tent (I didn’t realize until I saw the Italians doing it you could bring your own) and self-cater breakfast. .Still, it was nice to see the “Bedouin” thing, and my tent was really spacious with nice decor and actual furniture (3 twin beds and a queen!)

I finally left around noon for Jebel Shams, which is also where the Italian bikers were headed (though they wouldn’t get there quite so fast, obviously). .I had read the end of the drive was up a steep mountain so I didn’t want to start too late. .It looked REASONABLY straight forward on the map, and with the directions I had, but that is where I forgot the golden rule of directions in Oman: there are only TWO directions: Salalah and Muscat. .So a road that is supposed to point towards Nizwa (city I needed to go through) will say Muscat, or Salalah, if at some point many hours later you can get there via that road. .

There is another rule about directions in Oman, by the way: if it’s not Salalah or Muscat, it’s probably not worth labeling. .Even streets (ie, a major highway called the N1 or something) often won’t have any name. .In this way I managed to miss my left turn about an hour or so in, and that is with paying attention to # of km and time that’s passed. .Probably a GPS would have been better than my google maps, but that’s not how I roll as a budget traveller (I’m also technologically challenged and have no idea how to use one of those things).

My back-up plan of driving north until I hit this REALLY REALLY major highway (of course, saying Muscat at first) proved to be the best course of action, even though I sort of had to backtrack southwest a bit. .After an hour or so I passed through the turnoffs for Nizwa and headed towards the end of the road, which hooked up the local road for Bahla, the site of a UNESCO fort structure, which is on the way to the Jebel, or mountain.

The fort seemed rather massive from the side of the road, but it wasn’t exactly clear where the entrance was. .I walked towards the back where apparently the edge of a settlement was, and an Omani boy was .half-nude bathing. .Ooops, turn around and jet before he sees me. .I head to the front of the fort where an Indian family is taking photos on top of a big pile of boulders and see a sign stating that the fort is only open regretfully on Friday and Saturday mornings from 8-11 am. .That has to be one of the worst opening times ever for a UNESCO site, I’m frankly quite surprised. .Well, I snap a couple photos and am off towards Jebel Shams.

I manage to guess the correct roundabout turnoffs a couple times and find myself on a road going through a valley through increasingly imposing rock sides. .There are one or two villages along the way, but not really that much. .At one point school lets out and I see many boys in traditional dress wearing backpacks. .I don’t see any girls or women there. .I finally see another sign confirming I’m on the right track and how many km are left. .The road starts to go up, and up, winding and winding up the sides of mountains. .I am getting slightly nervous and think maybe I should have filled up just in case, in Bahla (I have a little under half a tank). .Then, the scary thing happens- after a couple encouraging signs saying how many km are left, the road turns into a dirt road. .Well, not really a dirt road, but a dirt-and-rock-and-pothole-filled road. .On the edge of a mountain. .I get to drive through this in my rental car that has 5k km on it, which is a whole potential for disaster.

Luckily for me, however, I spent last August in the last glory days of El Guapo, my mystery green ’98 Mercury Sable, purchased with R side body damage to the tune of $300, driving through the high desert of Oregon looking for some hot springs in the middle of nowhere. .At one point it involved me driving on a very similar road (okay, maybe not as rocky, and definitely not on the side of a mountain), but instead of it being 5km, it was more like 40 miles. .And I never found that particular hot spring. .So I knew I could do this, I just had to go slow. .I want to say it took about 45-60 minutes, gut-wrenching minutes to get through it, I didn’t know exactly how long the road would last, just about how many km SHOULD be left. .This was combined with Omani guys driving at relatively breakneck speed around me in SUV’s. .Inexplicably, 2.5 km from the end, the road became immaculately paved, and I found myself at the resort where I set up my tent in a rather nice “sun shade” area with Bedouin cushions. .I got there in time to take some lovely sunset photos of the mountains and had dinner 2 hrs later, which I didn’t find quite as good as at Al Areesh. .The other tourists I couldn’t say were friendly at all and I just was by myself. .I was getting really cold, with the temperature outside going down more rapidly than I expected, so I decided to just put on all of the clothes I had, crawl in my sleeping bag, and hibernate.

Oman in 6 Days Part 3

DAY 3: Sur to Wahiba Sands

Hotel:.Al Areesh Camp, Al Qabil, Oman $65

Well, obviously not the best night of sleep before. .I really just wanted to get out of there. .Once again I found the signs hard to navigate, but after about an hour [!] of driving around Sur (not the worst thing in the world with the handmade dhow boats in the morning light), I finally got on the road going northwest to Al Qabil, the nearest spot to my camp (desertdiscovery.com). .A popular thing to do is stay in Bedouin tourist camps in the desert. .This one was the most reasonably priced one at 25 rial/night (20 each for couple sharing) and was also reviewed well. .The driving was really cool as the landscape changed from craggy mountains to desert scrub and eventually full on dunes to the west side. .I stopped in Al Qabil 4km north of the camp entrance road to get cash at an ATM (can’t use credit cards there, sorry!) .A little sketchy as again, no women to be seen, but lots of dudes hanging out, getting money from the ATM, just talking. .Hijab-time for sure even though obviously I stuck out.

I got to the camp really early, around 10:30am. .It’s only 7km into the Sands. .YOU DO NOT NEED A 4WD TO GET THERE!!! .People seem to be rather paranoid about this on the internet and even in person, but you absolutely would be fine with this camp. Again, the roads in Oman generally were impecabble, especially for this LAX based driver.

There was only one Pakistani guy there, he said the guests usually didn’t start arriving until 2p or so. .I just wanted to crash so he let me in. .This was the cheapest camp I could find. .All the camps provide dinner and breakfast. .This one also had free tea/water all day long, dates, and, coffee! .I was craving something decent and not nescafe, this was perfectly made with just the right amount of cardamom (when I make it that way I usually mess it up with a heavy hand). .I slept for a few hrs when the owner, a Bedouin Omani, woke me up to tell me they had bought me lunch and I was to eat it with him. .I was sorta disheveled but since I didn’t want to offend, I figured, all right, cleaned up, and went over. .It was Indian food picked up on his way from Muscat (apparently he lived there) and he was just checking in. .Okay….it was actually a quite tasty curry and rice, though I didn’t eat the cabbage salad, I was just already full from eating a couple croissants in the morning. .He went off to do his thing and I went back to the tent to grab a book. .By the time I got back he was passed out on one of the couches, so I finally felt at ease about the whole thing. I enjoyed the next few hrs reading and napping until closer to sundown, when I saw an Indian or Pakistani (sorry, they were far away!) family up on the dunes behind. .I decided to climb up and they had already gone down in their SUV (dune-bashing). .Later another large group of French came up though they were rather unsociable even though I spoke French and not English to them. .Had many beautiful pictures. .The dunes were really fun to run down and so soft!

Dinner was what I soon found to be the typical “tourist camp” meal: Arabic salad, hummus and pita, rice, and currys. .It was pretty tasty here though. .At dinner I heard some people speaking English and met two Italian men in their 40s-50s doing a bike tour and a German couple. .I went over to say hi, and hung out with the Germans all night. .The woman was born and lived in the US for a while, and a DO, while the guy was a psychologist. .We really got on well and had many common interests! .However, eventually it was time for bed, since it gets dark, that pretty much ends the partying early (for us, the “nite-owls”, it was around 9:30p). .

Oman in 6 Days Part 2

DAY 2- Muscat to Ras al Jinz (Wadi Shab, Sur, Ras al Jinz)

No hotel, car-camped

The next day after my coffee and a little more beach time I stopped at the Carrefour where I heard you could by a tent for 10 rials. I actually got one for just under 4 ($10) that was pretty decent! Also I bought a pack of zataar croissants (I guess I was immediately addicted) and a pair of sandals (forgot mine) that really didn’t fit in retrospect. If you have large feet (I usually take 42/US 11 narrow), the middle east is probably not the best place to find shoes. Buyer beware. This all cost me 7 rials in total. Then stopped off at the gas station to fill the tank from about empty for roughly 4 rials. Crazy cheap!

I took the road down towards Sur hoping to get to Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. It took me a little time to get on the correct road as signs are a little vague (there are 2 directions in Oman: Muscat, in the northeast, and Salalah, 12 hrs to the south, regardless if you are somewhere in the middle of the country trying to go west). The roads, however, were in excellent shape. Be prepared for others going well over the speedlimit, and tailgaiting you regardless of no one in the other lane for miles and miles. I got a late start so skipped the sinkhole, but had a nice hike to Wadi Shab. There were flash floods 3 days prior, so there were a lot of stream crossings and a fairly strong current. Luckily the local boys act as guides if you like. There is a boat to get you across the stream to the start point which is 400 baisa round trip. I gave the guide a total of 3 rials including that since he came with me the whole trip, helped me with stream crossings, and I was the last person of the day. I drove through Sur which is a bigger city about 30-45 minutes south of Wadi Shab. The only people out and about by around 6/6:30pm were guys. I had thought about grabbing dinner somewhere but didn’t have a good feeling, so kept going.

In the evening I was supposed to meet with a guy for a guesthouse camping in Ras al Hadd to the south. He refused to give me the address and wanted me to meet at this gas station. I couldn’t find it and had a meh feeling so I headed straight south to Ras al Jinz for a turtle watching tour. The guides used a bright flashlight which I wasn’t used to (I had been to see this in Panama and they used only 1 red light which the tour guide had). We got to see one green turtle laying eggs and then some turtles ran off to the beach. Most guests were staying at the center for a ludicrous amount, though a few drove in from guesthouses in Ras al Hadd area or were on a tour. If you just book the tour at the center it’s 3 rials. It’s definitely recommended to email them in advance to reserve because it’s quite popular; there were 3 groups that went out around 8pm with 20-25 people each.

I’d originally booked an additional am tour (you can take photos then) at 4am [!] but was feeling tired and not really like it would be that great. I had wanted to just crash in the car (camping not allowed @ Ras al Jinz) but there were a lot of local bus drivers or something hanging out with loud music and talking outside the center, so I headed up again towards Sur hoping to find an isolated spot along the beach as many guidebooks recommended. I just didn’t find a spot I liked though, so ended up in Sur again before I knew it. I drove around the town a few times before finding a spot I liked next to a big dhow boat illuminated in lights. Got about 2 hrs sleep before I heard people outside and decided to jet north of downtown, finally finding a quiet, nice spot where I slept past sunrise. It seems like the big social thing to do in Sur, maybe all of Oman, for dudes is to drive around town at night, pull over, and then congregate with whomever else is there. Sorta bizarre. No women out and about at night!

Oman in 6 days Part 1

Here’s a replay of an article I made a ways back for a frequent flyer website, of a trip to Oman.
A couple of years ago I decided to hop on the infamous BAH fare for $710. I had earned a $500 credit a couple months prior so applied that for a very cheap $210 to the mid-east and back. This was pretty much my first mileage run, in my first year “in the game” and getting status and all that. I timed it for Thanksgiving since I’d have half the week off anyway.

Being a broke student, I couldn’t in good conscience go all that way without spending some time, if not in BAH, then SOMEWHERE. Later in the summer I found some cheap fares that would let me go to DXB and MCT.
BAH-MCT RT was $168 and MCT-DXB RT was $69. So for under $400 I had a pretty nice trip lined up.

A couple months in, my original in-bound flights were cancelled, and UA offered to put me on some LX flights that earned 100%. I decided to do this even though it was fewer miles, to maximise the time I spent abroad.

Flight 1: LAX-FRA in Lufthansa econ

Pretty unremarkable once I got on the plane. I was stopped by a security guard as I was boarding and got questioned for 2ish minutes. When asked about my final dest, he was like, “aren’t you scared?” I said no, but I admit I had a touch of nervousness about it.

I had hoped for “poor man’s business” in the back of the plane, having the only seat in a row of 4, but there was one other person. However, later on the guy said, I’m crashing, feel free to stretch out on the other 3 seats. Sweet! I requested a lactose-free meal since LX meals I have always been disgusted by all the cream and mayo and such. Dinner and breakfast were the same thing, veggies in tomato sauce + rice, didn’t get me sick, but far from filling me up either. I guess that must have been the veggie meal too? It was reasonably fresh at least.

I had about 3 hrs in FRA and didn’t do much other than check email. .I learned that I passed my preclinical exam, so indulged in a little vino in the senator lounge.

Flight 2: FRA-BAH in Luft econ

Also s/w unremarkable. This time I was able to score a row of 4 and after dinner (polenta w/veggies in, you guessed it, tomato sauce) and knocked out most of the flight. There was a stop in Doha which would have been awesome to get as a seperate segment, but I couldn’t talk agents into this. We weren’t allowed off the plane or even to stand up/use the bathroom! Crazy.

Once in BAH, I had a coffee and zaatar croissant for 1 dinar at Jasmi’s cafe (who apparently also sells organic halal beef cheeseburgers) before my 4:30am flight to MCT. .It was a smedge awkward as expected. I had put my scarf on beforehand and felt a little more at ease- saw a handful of Western women without hijab, but none travelling solo.

Flight 3: BAH-MCT in TK econ

The flight was about 2/3 full. I had a seat in the front of the plane. TK seats always seem wider to me and I always have a pleasant experience. Food was fresh lemonade with mint, dry-roasted hazelnuts, and a cherry cake.

Once in MCT I went through immigration fairly painlessly. You have to have 5 rial ($15) for the visa (10 days for tourist) which you can get at the money change desk right next to the visa desks. I felt slightly conspicuous as one of only females there and put a scarf on. In general I dressed conservatively on the trip, loose pants and long tunicy kinda stuff.

I went to pick up my rental at the Budget desk which I got for 78 rial ($200) for the week with a coupon. It’s pretty much impossible to travel in Oman without your own vehicle unless you are going on a really expensive pre-arranged tour.

Day 1: Muscat

Hotel: Crown Plaza Muscat (5K IHG points)

I spent the morning at the big mosque on the way from Seeb airport to Muscat proper, which is open from 8-11am. It’s the 3rd biggest mosque in the world, with a large garden complex outside. It was really quite impressive, with marble floors all around the complex of buildings. Free.

Afterwards I went down to the Corniche area to have a look at some forts, the fish market, and the souk/gold souk (all free). They apparently had bad rains a few days before, so the floor in the souks were really wet and drenched my shoes. I really wasn’t all that impressed by the souk, but a lot of shops were closed due to the rains previously, and many people were sopping up the wet spots. Very busy, however. I had lunch of pineapple-orange juice, a falafel, and “chips” for 1.5 rial at the big juice center at the corniche area (it’s right in the center of the cafes, with pink tablecloths outside). Quite a few tourists here, mostly German, though I did see one young Japanese couple. I actually didn’t meet any fellow Americans my whole time in Oman/UAE, nor any solo travellers.

I stopped off at one of the Lulu hypermarkets on the way back from the corniche (it’s near a big roundabout on the right) where I got some fresh hummus, fatoush salad, dolmades, and kidney bean salad, along with 6L of water for a little over 2 rials.

Later in the day I headed to Crown Plaza Muscat which I got on a point breaks for 5K points. It was REALLY nice, with a huge bath and fancy bath products, and private beach in addition to a big pool area. I guess I signed up for some drinks promo so I was offered a free drink at the pool bar. I ended up not using it that day and got them to exchange it the next morning for a pot of coffee at the restaurant instead (the room had decent tea, but only nescafe, typical of the mid-east).

 

Istanbul day 2; and salep time!

I made sure to get up early in the morning because I was going to the Topkapı Palace.  There are two parts to the palace, and it’s definitely worth visiting both.  One is the main museums and palace, and one is the “harem apartments”, where the ladies of the sultan’s harem resided.  It sounds like it would have been a quite awful place to be kept in, with all the politicking and possibility for instant disposal if you were not to someone’s liking (sounds a little like the entertainment/music scene in LA, cough cough).  The harem-ees were often the “spoils” of war, Circassians from the Caucasus being a popular choice.

The entrance for this part of the museum is a separate fee, and there are often really long lines.  It’s worth getting there early to avoid crowds, though being there in the middle of winter I think helped also, it was not overly busy.

Again, I didn’t go insane with the pictures though I did take a few.  There were a couple rooms, one in particular, that was sort of a study area for one of the sultan’s sons (I believe one who did NOT go on to become a sultan), that were interesting to me.  I had this sense of, familiarity and safety (from official duties) in those rooms, and yeah, I might have been here before.  I’m not sure if these things make any sense but I do find it curious.

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There could be worse views to wake up to in the morning…

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Again there are a ton of better pictures elsewhere.  ALSO!  all of the crazy jewels and artifacts in the museum- you aren’t allowed to take pictures of most of these.  Unbelievable sculptures that are of various tombstones, the most ornate jewelry and accessories I’ve ever seen, clothing, ancient artifacts, just really amazing and breathtaking!  If you go to Istanbul, you have to go to the palace.

Afterwards I headed northwest towards the Spice Bazaar.  I was in quest of a certain ingredient that is IMPOSSIBLE (wink wink, nudge, nudge) to find in the US, salep.  Salep is the root of an orchid that is protected in Turkey and illegal to export.  It has a creamy, delicious taste, that same creaminess that you get from drinking hot chocolate (I think hot chocolate is really creamy, even chocolate con agua, which has no dairy in it, anyhoots), but a subtle flavor that’s hard to compare it to.  I want to say vanilla, and some saleps do have vanilla added, but there is something additional.  It was popularized during the Ottoman Empire, and spread to the rest of the Balkans (where you can still find it today), to the cafes of Vienna, and as far as Germany and England.

I had salep for the first time in Philadelphia at a lovely Turkish cafe called Cafe Fulya just south of South on 2nd street.  I’m pretty sure it was the legal type which is okay to export, that has artificial salep flavor.  The woman thought I was totally nuts (she was correct, but for the wrong reasons) when I would ask to make it with almond milk instead of regular milk to avoid the dairy in the powder.  I’ve found salep mix without dairy in some middle eastern and Palestinian markets in Chicago last year near a place I played at, Brown Rice (now closed), but these don’t taste the same.  If I had a boyfriend I would totally want to take him to Cafe Fulya for Sunday brunch every week.

fulya

How is this in Philly?

Anyway, I digress.  Salep contains glucomannan, a dietary fiber, which some believe can help various conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.  As far as I’ve been able to research the jury is still out on this, as high fiber often means high carbs, which is usually NOT GOOD.  The major constituent by percentage is mucilage, which is responsible for the creamy texture of prepared hot salep drink.  Plants containing mucilage have also been used for cough suppressants and to deal with spasming of the gastrointestinal tract (everything from acid reflux to various bowel disorders).

If you’d like some more info on this very interesting beverage, a great site can be found here: http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/o/orchid13.html