My tummy is feeling a little better this morning so I attempt some of the breakfast buffet. When we try to check out, we find that someone has charged some beers to our room – naughty naughty.
Today we are spending some time exploring Nizwa, the second biggest city in Oman.
Oman's capital back in the 6th and 7th centuries, Nizwa wasn't always as friendly and welcoming as it is today. When Wilfred Thesiger did his epic journey in Arabia over half a century ago, his Bedouin companions thought the ferocious conservatives of the town would finish him off, so told him to avoid Nizwa. He would have been amazed to find that Nizwa is now the second-biggest tourist destination in Oman.
Although most famous for its Friday animal market, there is still plenty to see in the souq (market) on other days. Today we see large groups of tourists from cruise ships, mainly French, but manage to mostly avoid them.
The pottery for sale in the souq is not made here in Nizwa, but has been transported from nearby Bahla where the special red mud is found. The white clay for the paler objects is imported from the US and UK.
The whole market has recently been rebuilt, but the souq itself is still traditional, with mainly just Omani men selling their wares; unlike the markets we have visited so far in Oman, where the stall holders were mostly Indians.
Most of the fruit and vegetables have been imported to cater for the large immigrant population from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. After visiting the vegetable market, we go to learn about the ubiquitous dates, and their importance in Omani culture.
There are over 40 different types of dates in Oman, some are for eating, some for making syrup, others for animal fodder.
Loosely woven baskets allows for the date syrup to seep through.
Date syrup for sale in large tubs in the market
Jam, and even 'datella' is also made from these fruits.
As with most establishments we visit in Oman, there is a small seating area for enjoying complimentary Omani coffee and dates.
Later we see how the halwa is made. Halwa is a sweet popular all over the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and each country has its own style and jealously guarded secret recipe.
In Oman it is usually made of brown sugar, white sugar, cardamom, ghee and rosewater. Sometimes saffron (imported from Iran) and nuts are added.
The ingredients are mixed together and are cooked in a big copper pot (called mirjnl) over a fire traditionally made with acacia wood, and requires constant stirring for 3-4 hours.
The sticky sweet then needs to be cooled for around the same amount of time – this halwa was made early this morning and is still warm.
Nizwa souq is also well known for its silver and copper work, usually sold by weight.
The spice market is the only part that has not been restored and it carries a warm and traditional atmosphere.
Spices are mostly imported from India, Tanzania, Zanzibar and other parts of Africa.
Local products include chamomile, dried roses and lavender.
Frankincense. This is the first time I have seen this mysterious stuff – I have to confess that I had no idea what it looks like, how it is created or what it is used for. All I knew about frankincense is that it was given to baby Jesus by one of the wise men. An explanation for all these questions will follow in a later blog entry, as we do get to see the origin of frankincense and hear how it is produced and its various uses in a few days' time.
Nizwa Fort and Castle
In the 17th century, when the fort was built, it controlled the whole area, including the old walled city of Nizwa. It took twelve years to construct, using stone, clay, sarooj (ancient Persian lime mortar) and date syrup.
Nizwa Fort is the biggest of several such defence outposts in the country.
Renovations of the fort took place between 1985 and 1995, and while the work is very tastefully done, it almost makes it look too 'new' or 'clinical'; reminiscent of a recently constructed Disneyesque theme park.
The actual fort itself was merely used for defence purposes; the living quarters and admin areas were inside the castle (which is also within the fortifications)
A woman can be seen making the traditional Omani flat bread from brown flour and salt water, using her hands to distribute the mix on a flat pan.
Making ghee / cream from milk agitated in animal skin.
The narrow, winding staircase to the fighting platform is protected at numerous intervals by slots in the roof (known as 'murder holes'), through which a sticky mix of hot oil and honey was dropped on any enemies who were brave enough (or stupid enough) to try and to enter. A nasty and sickly sweet end.
Inside the complex there are twelve wells, in addition to secret escape tunnels leading for 12 kms under the ground.
The castle part of the fortifications dates back to the 9th century and is now a museum depicting Omani life as it was.
About an hour later, we arrive at our second castle of the day.
Again the castle has been painstakingly restored (between 1980 and 1985), showing how it would have looked in its heyday.
The 17th century Jabrin Castle was built as a palatial residence for the Imam and his family and was more of a centre for knowledge and education than a fortification for battle.
The castle was later abandoned when the Imam's brother took over reign of the country in a bloody coup.
On the ground floor the kitchen and stores are located, the first floor housed the admin staff, the second floor was the living quarters for the Imam, women and young boys and the third floor would have been the prayer and study rooms. Around one hundred people lived here during the Imam's time.
One of the most unusual aspects of Jabrin Castle is the fact that the Imam had a room for his horse built on the upper storey near his personal quarters. The horse would have been led up a ramp in the curving passageway, in what is now a stairway for visitors. The animal was kept near in order to facilitate a quick escape as well as for sentimental reasons.
David and Said look down on me from the very top
The Imam's tomb
Today seems to be a day of historical forts and castle, as we proceed to a viewpoint over the old town of Bahla, with the new town in the background (on the far left) and the fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, standing proud and prominent.
The oldest parts of the fort are thought to date back to 500 BC, whereas the main building was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries. Like the other forts we have visited, Bahla has just finished a 15-year restoration project.
The old town of Bahla is surrounded by some 12 km long adobe walls. The walls are said to have been designed 600 years ago by a woman.
I am secretly relieved when Said suggests we merely photograph this fort from here, rather than traipse around it. I am feeling a little 'castled out' at the moment and rather hot and weary. I guess not having been eating much doesn't help.
I am fascinated by the old style traditional cemeteries in Oman, such as this one from 200 years ago. There are no headstones as such, and to the uninitiated it just looks like a random stony ground.
We make a brief stop in the new town of Bahla for lunch, consisting of a simple falafel sandwich. I love how they put fries in their sandwiches.
From Bahla it is uphill all the way as we make our way to Oman's highest mountain, Jebel Shams, in the Hajjar Mountain range.
Look at the amazing crevice opening up at the bottom of this picture
We are amazed to see a couple of European motor homes; they are a long way from home. Here in Oman, you can camp anywhere you like, no permission required.
The journey into the mountains this afternoon starts off on a sealed road, but as we climb higher, the smooth road becomes a dirt track.
The scenery is stark and barren, yet strangely varied, at least geologically.
Finally we reach the summit and our destination: Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in the Arabian peninsula at just over 3,000 metres high. It is not the mountain itself that is the main attraction here, however, it is the deep gorge affectionately known as 'Oman's Grand Canyon'.
Jebel Shams means 'Sun Mountains' in Arabic, and is so called because it is the first place to greet sunlight at dawn and the last to say farewell at dusk.
As we reach the balcony overlooking the ravine in the late afternoon, the shadows are long, and the contrasts too great for any photo to do this incredible view justice.
It is at this stage that my fear of heights takes over and I become irrationally paranoid with just a flimsy fence between me and the thousand metre drop below. I feel the chasm pulls me towards the edge, willing me to stumble and lose my footing. For a while I stand well back until I get my emotions under control and slow my heart beat down to something resembling normality.
When I finally pluck up enough courage to venture back to the edge of the cliff, I have nothing but admiration for the farmers who once toiled the earth on these terraces half way down the precipitous escarpment. It is not a good photo as the bush gets in the way, but it is best I can do; there is no way I am going to hang out over the railings to get a better view.
You can see the dizzying position of the terraces better on this photo. I would bet my bottom dollar that they didn't get danger money or use a safety harness.
Here you can see the village in the wadi at the very bottom of the canyon.
The area is popular with hikers, and as you can see where I have highlighted on the pictures below, there is a track that goes down into the canyon. There is absolutely zero chance that you would get me on that path, even if you paid me a million pounds.
I hope the people staying in this tent tonight are not prone to sleep walking.
Jebel Shams Resort
Thankfully we have a more solid accommodation for tonight, in an appropriately named 'Sunset Room'.
The room is fairly basic, but quite comfortable. We have a sofa, a table and chairs and a small patio outside with a picnic table and fire pit.
As we are miles from any habitation (and thus light pollution) here, I intend to wander out after dark to take some photos of the stars later tonight. I spot the picture on the wall, and vow to find that tree – or at least something similar – to ensure I have something of interest in the foreground for my photograph.
We grab ourselves a glass of Duty Free rum and Coke and settle down on the terrace to wait for the sunset.
The view from our terrace - which of these will be my tree for later?
The weather is considerably cooler up here in the mountains and makes a very pleasant change from the stifling lowlands. We get our thermometer out and notice it did get rather hot earlier today. No wonder I was feeling so washed out in Nizwa.
While we are waiting for the sun to go through its nightly ritual, David picks up a number of different stones (there are plenty of them to choose from) to create a small rock cairn – partly as a joke because he knows how much our friend Ilona hates them!
His success rate is so-so.
Ilona was suitable impressed.
The sun slowly makes its way towards the horizon, painting the sky a beautiful yellow, with the misty mountains a darker shade of orange.
Even the grasses in the foreground are reflecting the rays from the golden globe in the sky.
We are hoping the sun is going to set in the valley between the two mountains.
Almost, but not quite. I am not complaining though, it is a stunning sunset.
It seems we are not the only ones who think so; a group of people appear right in my photo just as the sun disappears behind the mountain. I find I can use them as props for my photos rather than try to avoid them.
And then it was gone. All we are left with is a blood orange sky for a while, then a short time later a tiny sliver of a moon appears.
This evening's meal is in the main building by reception and consists of a buffet. I still don't have much of an appetite, so I just have a spoonful of what looks like a cross between a cottage pie and a lasagne (minced meat with a cheese sauce topping), some coleslaw and tabbouleh; while David tries a little bit of everything (fish, rice, vegetables, potatoes, the minced meat concoction, sweet and sour chicken, vegetarian stir fry) minus the salads. It is all very nice, but we don't linger as we have things to do and stars to photograph.
We take a couple of chairs from the room with us and walk out across the plateau and find a tree to use as foreground for my star pictures. Once we reach a suitable specimen, I set up my tripod and take a few test shots.
Much as the stars are rather impressive up here, the core of the Milky Way does not show this time of year. My plan for tonight is to take a number of shots in succession to create a star trail. Hence the chair, as this could be a time-consuming venture.
The stars are amazingly bright and it is such a quiet area with very little light pollution. At least for a while. We've been sitting by the tree, chatting, watching the stars and letting the camera do its own thing for a while when the guests in the room next-door-but-one to us decide they are going to light a fire, play some (awful and very loud) music and get rather drunk. Hoping that I can rescue the bright red glow on my tree (from the fire) in Photoshop when I get home, I continue taking pictures for a while, until the party-goers turn the car headlights on to illuminate the whole plateau. Thanks guys. That is the end of my star trails.
I do mange to capture enough to make some sort of trails (153 images before the spot light is turned on), however I would have liked to do another hour's worth of photos at least. But it is not to be.
Here you can see a speeded up time lapse of how those stars move across the sky during the1½ hours, and the moment our neighbours lit the fire, plus every time they stoked it and the flames went up:
A little deflated I start to pack up my camera gear when I suddenly feel very nauseous. I have only walked a few yards towards to hotel before being violently sick. Throwing up several more times on my way to the room, I spend the next hour on the toilet with a bucket in my lap. Oh dear. I guess it was probably the salad, as that was the only thing I ate which David didn't, and he is right as rain.
Vomiting aside, it has been an absolutely amazing day, and I would like to thank Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fabulous trip for us.