Hanging Out In Oman

photo: start of camel race

Pow! And they're off to a great start.

And Not Betting On the Camel Races!

Text and Photos by Linda Thalman

Paris:- Tuesday, 13. February 2001:- What do Jemma Springs, Masafi, Oasis, El Jabal and El Akhdar have in common besides not being in Oregon? They're the names of some of the fine waters of Oman - millésime 2001 - that I drank by the litre recently.

France has its wine and Oman has water - luckily! - which is useful in a warm, dry, desert country, even in January.

But in July you'll be drinking 'Jemma Springs' morning, noon and night - for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus during between-time snacks - in three-litre gulps, because the temperatures routinely go over 40 degrees Celsius.

From Paris, from the Charles-de-Gaulle's airport terminal one, we had a pleasant nine-hour Gulf Air flight. A bonus stopover in Abu Dhabi was included on our way to Muscat, capital of the Sultanate of Oman. In reverse, it was the same trip with an extra-bonus refueling touch-and-go in Bahrain.

In Muscat we were met on the dot of 23:25 by Brigitte and Rob of the Diving & Adventure Center. While we reveled in the warmth of 22 degrees at midnight, they said it felt cold and were wearing sweaters on account of it being the middle of winter.

Arriving at our desert paradise 'camp site' - the Hotel Intercontinental - was not a severe hardship. In Oman it's either a four or five-star hotel or a tent. We didn't try out thephoto: 4x4, one of many forts tent accommodations on this trip.

The first morning's sunbath by the pool turned my leftover Cadillac Ranch 'tan' into a shiny pink shrimp color, of course. We were facing two weeks' worth of 26 degree daytime temperatures, cloudless skies and no rain. It was just bliss.

The first of many fine forts, and our very own 4x4 jeep or station-wagon type truck thing.

To avoid walking for rainless days we rented a car so we could have meals in Muscat - and its neighborhoods of Mutrah, Ruwi, Al Qurm, Shati Al Qurm, Al Khuwayr and Al Wadi Al Kabir - as well as visit the sights at our leisure. Yes, I can decipher these name in Arabic thankfully, as our maps were more confusing than the signs.

Driving was a dream in Oman. This is a country that had something like only six kilometres of paved road 20 years ago. Now it's got an extensive country-wide highway system. And I mean nice pavement!

There are 50 kilometres of a six-lane autoroute from the airport to Muscat. It was bordered by putting-green-quality grass, flowers, sculptures, rockeries and shrubs - all seemingly tended by only two teams of 20 gardeners.

It would be difficult to go hungry in Oman - except if you get lost off-road in unnamed deserts or in named ones like the Wahiba Sands that have no restaurants.

We tasted traditional Omani food at the Bin Atique Restaurant in the Al Khuwayr district of Muscat, where we sat on the floor in our own private room with a small TV playing nifty video clips of Indian pop music.

I don't know why, but the Dijajkhasoosi - chicken - tempted me more than Vasala Ras Ghanam Mahalby - fresh boiled head of local goat, with fresh soup and bread.

We dined twice at the Woodlands in the Ruwi quarter of Muscat - because of its friendly service, tasteful decorations, excellent Indian cuisine and lots of cold beer and wine.

In fact, the only time we ordered wine was at Woodlands because their one-litre carafe of house wine was only four Omani Riyals, or 80 French francs. In the hotels, the house wines from France started at 160 francs a bottle. Which is - twice as much!

There was Lebanese food on the patio byphoto: al jadeed resto coffee shop the Beach Hotel, spare ribs at the OK Corral and a huge choice of Indian or Chinese food at the Golden Spoon, which was especially tasty and good value.

The Al-Jadeed Restaurant & Coffee Shop has good fish. The next-door shop had bait.

Delectable fried fish in the Al-Jadeed Restaurant & Coffee Shop on the bay in Mutrah came straight from the fishing boats in the bay and couldn't have been fresher.

On Saturday, 20. January at the Arabian Sea Restaurant in Sur - we had excellent fresh fish, too. The U.S. Presidential elections were on the customary restaurant TV, but the voice-over in Arabic blotting out the English was no worse than the French version of the same thing.

The month-long Muscat Festival was in full swing during our stay. An announcement in the Omani Daily Observer caught my eye - for the Arabian Camels Qudra Race.

We scoured the maps and queried the hotel concierge to determine where this was happening and asked if we really needed to be there by eight. "Yes, before eight," we were told.

So we were there by 7:40 and the jockeys - all about 12 years old - were being handed their jersey numbers and doing the final whatever you do with a camel saddle before a 20-kilometre long race in the part of Oman that is still desert and not yet a paved autoroute.

Seventy-eight camels took off all at once when the starting gun went off. The camel owners - from all around the Gulf States and beyond - followed the race in 78 Jeeps, using walkie-talkies to urge their jockeys to urge their camels to go faster.

Us silly tourists, once we'd finished snapping camel photos, were left standing in the clouds of dust at the starting line. We quickly realized we needed to hightail it over to the grandstands - which we could see in the distance - to be able to see some of the distant race, and its finish.

Forty minutes later the first camel crossed the finish line. It was named Al Shahinia, and owned by Obeid Mohammed al Wahaibi of Bidiya. The first prize was a spanking new white pick-up truck.

Betting isn't officially allowed in Oman. Thank goodness, or I would have lost a big packet of Omani Riyals on the cute camel of choice!

Camel racing is indeed serious business and Oman has a Directorate General of Camels and the phone, fax and mobile phone numbers are listed in the phone book. Races take place regularly around the country. Check the local papers for race dates if you are a camel racing fan.

I was glad I hadn't lost my life's savings on my favorite camel, and with the sun having only been up for two hours, we were ready to head off to see Nakhal Fort - free entry! - followed by the fort in Al Rustaq, which was Oman's capital in the Middle Ages.

We didn't just beat all the other tourists there, we were the only tourists while visiting both forts!

In fact, I didn't see one tour-bus during our stay, although we did come across seven jeeps full of Frenchphoto: plate of omani specialties tourists at 'The Sinkhole' on the way to Sur. We felt we had the whole country to ourselves and we nearly did.

A typical array of tasty Omani dishes that we had many times.

Oman's considerable revenues from its oil has brought the country well into the 21st century. No expense seems to have been spared on restoration work, government buildings, museums, roads and so on. There weren't any old clunkers on the roads and the 'average' individual homes all around the country were out-and-out opulent.

Perhaps the most unusual thing in Oman was the very few women we saw. I can count on one hand how many women I saw driving during our two-week stay. But shopping, walking, being out and about, I saw maybe dozens, perhaps a hundred Omani women.

We visited the Oman Museum in Madinat As-Sultan Qaboos - more or less up the hill from our hotel one afternoon. Another morning we took in the new Gate Museum - free entry! - in Muscat.

These are both small but fascinating museums. We were shown around the Gate museum by a charming 26-year old Omani who said he'd a hard time finding a job in spite of his archeology degree.

I'm not one to miss being at the pool-side soaking up the rays, which I managed to do most days. But the off-road trip beside the Hajars mountains down to Sur in the desert beckoned.

Brigitte and Rob helped arrange for the rental of our 4-wheel drive, at - honestly! - rock bottom prices for Oman. If you've never driven a 4x4 in Oman - or elsewhere - it is quite an experience if it is in Oman and not in a mall's smooth parking lot.

We consulted our map to figure out how to get to the paved road to Quriyat. It is southeast of Muscat and you cross the Tropic of Cancer - not signposted! - to get there. In the end it wasn't all that difficult to find.

Then we hit the boonies. Rarely a sign, sometimes a pile of rocks - indicating the turnoff for 'The Sinkhole' - with graded roads which were sometimes bumpier than striking out overland. There were a lot of choices of which way to go when there were no roads to choose from.

If there was a sign - for example, to a village - you weren't supposed take that one, or else! Staying on the 'main' road, track, trail, faint signs of passage, was the motto.

The cliffside road to Sur along the Gulf of Oman is starkly beautiful with pristine sea views and beaches. Not a high-rise, house, resort or hotel in sight. And I fervently hope it will stay this way, by not succumbing to the non-planned urban disasters of most countries bordering the 'Med,' including France.

We followed the camel tracks of Marco Polo who visited Qalhat, just north of Sur, in the 13th century. Only a crumbling sanctuary - Bibi Myriam - remains. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Marco Polo.

Vasco de Gama also visited Oman's coast in 1498 and the Portuguese occupied Oman in 1507, but todayphoto: carpet buying on top of nowhere there's little evidence of any architecture or even ruins left by the Portuguese.

Following our 'harrowing' off-road drive we recuperated at the Sur Mercure Hotel - a little bit of France in Oman - but not very Omani!

The next morning we stopped by the dhow builders' shipyard in Sur to see the traditional boat building techniques. Just one boat was being worked on and it looked like it would be another year or so before it was ready for its maiden voyage.

High up on Djebel Shams, these carpet ladies appeared from nowhere with bargains.

While trying to visit all the 'must see' spots, we got lost looking for old architecture in Jalan Bani Bu Hassan and Jalan Bani Bu Ali. We decided we'd rather get lost in the Wahiba Sands, so off we went to find the dunes.

We'd have needed two or three days and a Bedouin guide to do a serious trip through the Wahiba Sand dunes. We had the 4-wheel drive, but not the time or the 'stupidity' to go it alone through the 200 by 80 kilometre desert. Next time.

Behind schedule as usual, on account of being lost, my partner suggested a shortcut towards Nizwa, assuring me it was only 30 kilometres and we'd see some more camels. We saw the camels, crossed a camel race track and, yes, got even more lost.

A friendly Bedouin in a red Toyota pick-up said, '"Follow me!" - in English - and then gave us detailed instructions in Arabic that we couldn't follow too well.

Pointing left and right and indicating a T-junction somewhere down the paved superhighway we'd reached, seemed to mean we'd eventually roll into Nizwa, possibly just before sunset. And this we did.

In Nizwa you can look at the fort, see the mosque, shop in the souk or cruise the boutiques on the main drag almost at the same time because it is not a huge metropolis. They are all conveniently clustered in about two square blocks or less. This saves on film, walking a lot and maybe even a few Riyals.

But, our real goal was elsewhere, although we weren't really lost anymore. We had a date up in the mountains at 2000 metres - at Djebel Shams - the Mont du Soleil, Sun Mountain - for the literal high point of our visit to Oman.

Our 4x4 was definitely handy for the 37-kilometre climb up the graded road to the plateau, with a panorama of Grand-Canyon-style views. The thousand metre sheer drop is not for the faint-hearted and my companion would not venture near the edge for any money - not for Riyals, francs or hard DMs!

There were no shops, no buses, no railings, no signs, no people, no other cars, vans, wagons, carts, 4x4s, water or camels.

But! three Omani ladies, their daughters and son approached us with handwoven rugs for sale about two minutes after we had arrived.

I'd already sort of priced the souvenirs around Muscat, but when they asked for 25 Riyals for a big rug, I wasn't really sure.

I bargained for a while, chit-chatted - in English - and we eventually came to an amiable agreement amounting to 31 Riyals for a hall rug, a small one for the wall, and a woven key chain. Later I saw similar items for three times as much in downtown Oman in 'tourist' shops!

In the souk in Mutrah we only bargained half-heartedly. The prices were not inflated and after a few minutes of back and forth, a bit of 'how's the weather, show me a blue T-shirt or a green hat,' the price would drop a bit and everyone would be pleased.

We were never accosted, harassed, bothered or intimidated by any of these merchants in the souk in any way.

We saved the best fort for last and it was exquisite!

This was Jabrin Fort, west of Nizwa. Again, we were the only visitors to this splendidly restored castle built at the end of the 17th century with an indoor water system - calledphoto: port of oman a 'falaj' - with wells. The fort was a labyrinth of floors, rooms, towers, staircases and dark corners, but no ghosts that we saw.

Oman's port was visited by Vasco de Gama or Marco Polo, or both of them.

Three days of driving on and off-road around Oman and 10 more days in and around Muscat were a pure delight. I'd love to return to do some diving, some driving through those sand dunes, and a lot more soaking up of the Omani sunshine.

And, of course, go back to enjoy the extremely friendly people and welcoming country of the Sultanate of Oman.

Oman On the Web

In case you want to give Oman a tryout, here are three Web Sites to consult. Check out Rob and Brigitte Gardener's Diving & Adventure Center, P.O.Box 552, Al Azaiba/Muscat, P.C. 130, Sultanate of Oman. InfoTel.: 968 59 74 88, InfoFax.: 968 50 35 13, and InfoGSM.: 968 94 23 696. Drop the '968' if calling locally.

For books on Oman and the Middle East, try the Lonely Planet selection.

For really expensive 'house' wines, don't forget the Hotel Intercontinental in Muscat.

Some Other Info About Oman

One Omani Riyal - OR - is divided into 1000 baisa and was worth approximately 20 francs in January 2001. You will need a visa to visit Oman. The best time to go is during the winter, from November to February. Temperatures over 40 degrees are common for the rest of the year.

Get a copy of the Apex Map of Oman in hotel bookshops and if you're exploring in a 4-wheel drive, get 'Off-Road in Oman,' which is not quite up-to-date. Museum and fort entry fees are 500 baisa - about 10 francs or $1.40 - and they are closed on Fridays like almost everything else in Oman.

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