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Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

With David still being unable to put weight on his leg to walk, we take a serious discussion about the programme this morning; and when Meylis and Artem arrive, we tell them about our suggestion for Plan B:

Instead of driving from Turkmenabat to the village of Koyten where we have two days of walking in the Kugitang Mountains at the end of the trip, we propose that we return to Mary for a night, then continue to Ashgabat for the last night here in Turkmenistan. It seems totally pointless to travel all the way to the far north east of the country, seven hours drive each way, when David would be unable to do ANY walking when we get there.

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Discussing Plan B

It also means the journey home won't be so arduous, as the original plan saw us driving seven hours to Turmenabat, flight to Ashgabat, a few hours for change and a shower in Ashgabat, then fly home via Dubai – making it a heck of a long day.

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The boys think it should work, but obviously they have to check with the office, whose immediate reply is “of course”. The service from Owadan Tourism, the local agent here in Turkmenistan has really been excellent!

Pharmacy

Before we leave town, Artem takes me to a pharmacy so I can get something for my upset tummy, as the Ciprofloaxin isn't working. I am given some capsules and told to take one of the green ones and two of the silver. Getting it all mixed up, I take two of the green and one of the silver.

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I later find the green packet contains Tetracycline and the other one probiotics, so no real harm done by the 'overdose'.

Konya-Urgench

The UNESCO Heritage Site is the place of the the ancient town of Ürgenç, and the capital of Khwarazm Empire, parts of which are believed to date back to the 5th century BC.

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Its inhabitants deserted the town in the 1700s in order to develop a new settlement, and Kunya-Urgench has remained undisturbed ever since.

Many ruined buildings of the former town are dotted over a large area, and most tourists walk between one site and the next. With David's bad leg, however, we are given special permission to drive, and the barrier is lifted up for us to enter.

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Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

This is the largest and most impressive of the surviving monuments at Konye Urgench, the mausoleum is final resting place of Türabek Khanum.

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The story goes that a renowned architect was madly in love with Türabek and asked what it would take to win her love.

“Design me a unique building, like no-one has seen before” she said, “and I will marry you”

He does.

Still not satisfied, she stipulated: I need you to jump from the top of the building to prove you love me. Then I will marry you.”

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After he made his leap of love and broke both legs in the process, the cruel heartless woman stated with disdain that she couldn't possibly spend the rest of her life with a cripple. Ouch!

Instead Türabek married the ruler at the time (1321-1336) - Qutlugh Timur.

Türabek Khanum Mausoleum is recognized as one of the earliest monuments to make extensive use of mosaic faience (multi-coloured ceramic tiles).

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The inner dome is of particular interest with its 365 stars (one for each day of the year), 24 arches with 12 of them open to the elements, and the other 12 closed (to represent the 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night time). The 12 larger arches below denote the months of the year.

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And lastly, four large windows stand for the four seasons.

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The tomb chamber

Another interesting thing about the mausoleum is that while the outside shows eight sides, from the inside you can only see six.

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This drawing shows you how.

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Kutlug Timur Minaret

Legend tells that the minaret once had a golden dome atop with a fire inside, and when Genghis Khan arrived at this site, he thought he was seeing two suns and fired his catapult at the minaret, causing the top of the tower to lean. A much more logical story would be that it was caused by the Mongolians breaking a local dam, creating a considerable flood which undermined the structure.

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In the photo below you can see the entrance door is a considerable distance from the ground. When the minaret was built the access to it was via a bridge from a mosque close by.

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Inside the mausoleum there are 144 steps (12x12) in a spiral fashion (anticlockwise, of course, as it would be in Islamic architecture). At 62 metres high, it is the tallest building in Central Asia.

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The site includes a few more reminders of its once great importance at the time when Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm Empire.

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum

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Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh was the founder of the Khwarezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200.

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum

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The mausoleum of famed Muslim theologian and philosopher (1149-1209) is one of the earliest surviving structures in Konye-Urgench.

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Kufic Arabic letters

Reading these intricately carved scriptures, taken from the heart of the Koran, is said to bring forth angels to protect you from the evil eye.

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

The façade of Kubra's mausoleum (on the left) is leaning toward the Sultan Ali Mausoleum which stands directly opposite it, in what is believed to be a show of respect.

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Pilgrims make an anticlockwise circumbambulation around a piece of wood sticking up from the platform of the gukhana - the building which contains Kubra's cenotaph. The post is said to mark the traditional place where Kubra's head was cut off and buried during the Mongol conquest.

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Lunch

We stop in Konye Urgench town for lunch in a very touristy place with several other westerners. Both David and I order samsa – a pasty-like snack which traditionally is made from a choice of meat, spinach or pumpkin. Today we have the meat variety.

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Desert Drive

Driving out of town we head for the Karakum Desert and the adventure that lured me to this country in the first place.

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I love these little three wheel tractors - I have never seen those anywhere else

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There are miles and miles of cotton fields along the side of the road

After a couple of hours, we leave the sealed road behind and continue on sandy tracks.

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I have to pinch myself at this stage, as it doesn't seem real. For so many years I have dreamed about the burning crater of Darwaza, expecting it to be out of reach for me, and here I am, on my way to see it, and in a few hours I shall be feeling its heat.

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I gasp as we reach the top of a hill, and there, spread below me, is the flat desert floor. With a huge hole. Darwaza Gas Crater. Wow.

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Darwaza Gas Crater

The crater – or more accurately sink hole – far exceeds my expectations. Although I thought it would impress me after dark, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude and drama exuded during daylight hours.

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Even the disappointment of finding the crater surrounded by a fence, does not take away from the extraordinary sight before me.

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The fence was erected within the last twelve months as The Mongol Rally made a stop here, and officials were concerned about drivers going over into the massive fiery hole. And quite rightly so: from a car it can be quite difficult to see the edge of the crater.

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I guess the fence is there more as a visual barrier than a physical one as such, as it has been broken down in many places, and is easy to climb across.

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The back story

Colloquially known as The Gates of Hell, the Darwaza Gas Crater was accidentally created in 1971 when a Russian drilling rig punctured a gas chamber which subsequently collapsed, taking the entire rig with it into the newly crated sink hole.

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Fearing the poisonous gases would create an environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight, figuring it would stop burning within a few weeks. That was 48 years ago.

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We chat to four German guys who have travelled down from their home country in their campervan, a journey which took some three months. I am concerned that they have parked so close to a flaming crater with a massive gas cylinder on the side of their van!

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The temperature in the centre of the fiery cauldron is said to be between 6,000 °C and 7,000 °C. That is mighty warm! Standing close to the edge (where the flames reach around 700 °C), is OK for short periods, apart from downwind from the crater, where it is unbearably hot!

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Although I could stare into the flames for hours, we reluctantly leave the burning crater to head to the nearby yurt village, owned by Owadan Tourism, our local agent.

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I must admit that while it almost seems like sacrilege to build a (semi) permanent camp here next to the crater, the thought of having a proper bed and toilet facilities does rather please me. But first we are shown how the local chorek bread is made in traditional ovens.

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We get a chance to taste it as well.

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The general director of Owadan, who we met in Ashgabat, is here, and he explains how he leased this land to build up a solid tourism business here for people who want that little bit more comfort.

Horses and camels have been brought out here, for tourist rides and photographic opportunities.

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Our accommodation is not part of the main complex (which is occupied by a larger Belgian / Dutch group); we have a small, select camp with is much more private, with just 3 yurts for the four of us.

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It is set up on a hill, overlooking the crater.

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Chez nous on the right

The yurt is spacious, with three beds and a set of drawers.

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There is also a toilet block with cold showers and flushing loos. Plus a massive pile of toilet rolls. Now I know why there has been such a shortage of paper in all the bathrooms so far on this trip – all the rolls are here!

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In a small communal area we are served dinner, and get chatting to a couple from Brazil who flew in from Almaty in Kazakhstan this morning and are continuing to Baku in Azerbaijan later this evening. They are obviously 'collecting countries' and boast of having visited 120 so far. Meylis takes great delight in informing them that we can beat that, with over 150 countries and overseas territories. They struggle to understand why we'd want to spend two weeks exploring the one country, rather than moving on to one we haven't been to.

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The kitchen and dining area

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Vegetable soup

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Grilled chicken with grilled veg, tomato sauce, [] smetana[/i] (Russian style soured cream), chips and salad

Artem has gone off to fill the car up with diesel for the long journey across the desert over the next two days, and once he is back and has had something to eat, we all go down to the crater for a party.

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And what a party! The boss gifted us a bottle of vodka earlier, and we are joined by one of the other drivers called Max, as we share jokes and stare into the eternal flames.

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The fire in the crater is made up of thousands of little flames, and is stunningly spectacular. Photographs cannot do it justice, and I give up trying to take pictures, and just sit by the crater enjoying the moment. After all, I have dreamed of this place for so long.

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We eventually retire to our yurts, where I promptly get locked in the toilet! Eventually, after no-one hears my screams (for what seems like an eternity), I figure out that there is a double lock and you have to pull the door towards you and lift it at the same time as turning the key.

David has more luck in the ablutions block and comes back terribly excited, having seen a three-inch long scorpion on the path!

Even after the generator is switched off for the night, the moon lights up the landscape beautifully, and I go outside for one last photograph of the crater, before going to bed feeling unbelievably content, having just fulfilled a long time ambition and dream.

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Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:15 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged desert horses party flames fire unesco tractor camels ancient gates_of_hell scorpion pharmacy yurt turkmenistan minaret timur central_asia gas_crater undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy sink_hole karakum toilet_rolls darwaza ex_ussr karakum_desert dashoguz ciprofloaxin owadan_tourism konye_urgench tetracycline urgenc khwarazm soviet_central_asia tubarek_khanum mausolem kutlug_timur soltan_tekesh fahr_ad_din_razi kufi_arabic_letters najm_as_din_al_kubra darwaza_gas_crater darwaza_crater locked_in_toilet vodka_party yurt_camp chorek Comments (5)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

Wahiba Sands - Ibra - Jebel Akhdar - Nizwa

Leaving the desert behind and heading for the mountains


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we leave the desert this morning, we see more Bedouins with their camels making their way across the desert. Like we did on the way into the desert, we stop at the small town of Bidiyah, this time to increase the tyre pressure again. By this time I am desperate for the loo. I was hoping that my tummy troubles were over, but obviously not. We aim for a Public Toilet at the edge of the desert – this could be an 'interesting' experience.

Wow! I am totally overwhelmed by the modern facilities and absolute cleanliness of these loos; much better than the majority of public conveniences you find in the UK. Well done Oman! (You'll be glad to hear there are no pictures)

Ibra

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One of the oldest cities in Oman (it is said to predate the Prophet Muhammed's calling), Ibra was the centre of trade, religion, education and art, and enjoyed great prosperity during Oman’s colonial time.

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Many of the 400-year old houses have been painstakingly restored by their owners, others have been left to crumble. Here you can see the original and restored side by side.

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More crumbling mansions

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The houses were constructed 400 years ago using stone, clay and sarooj (traditional Iranian water-resistant mortar made from clay and limestone mixed with other materials such as fibres and egg) and have laid abandoned for around 45 years.

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These large mansion-style dwelling were not used by 'ordinary' people, rather they housed administrative heads of tribes.

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Wells were constructed inside the housing complex as it was difficult and dangerous for the inhabitants to venture outside to fetch water during times of war.

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The walls are deliberately kept thick to keep the houses cool during the hot summers.

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The tiny door has two purposes – enforcing people to bow as a sign of respect; and making it easier to catch any enemies trying to enter. In fact, Ibra is full of fascinating doors.

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And other details

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All around the village there is a 25km long wall, with watch towers every three kms.

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Mosques were/are not just for prayer, they also act as a place for learning the Koran.

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David looks up at the hole in the ceiling of the gate, which was used to drop hot honey or oil on enemies.

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Lookout holes come in two sizes, small for humans to survey the surroundings, and larger ones to point the canons at approaching enemies.

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Jebel Akhdar

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We are heading up in the mountains, some two hours drive away. So are hundreds of cyclists as today is Tour de Oman, a cycle race from Muscat to Jebel Akhdar. We see a lot of spectators along the way, and whole school classes supporting the riders with banners and flags. We want to make sure we get through to the road up before it is closed for the race, and judging by the number of police in the small town of Berkat al Mouze at the start of the climb, we only just make it.

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At the start of the dead-endy road leading up to the mountain-top, is a Police Check Point, making sure that only 4WD vehicles attempt the climb as there have been too many deaths from regular saloon cars not being able to negotiate the bends.

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As we continue up through the mountains, every bend offers a more magnificent vista than the previous. The name Jebel Akhdar means 'Green Mountain', but it is neither green, nor a single mountain, but an 1800 km² range, with several peaks reaching up over 3000 metres.

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The massif is also home to 58 villages and over 700 wadis.

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Near the top, we stop for lunch: dhal, sabzi, channa, roti, chapati, rice and salad. Just a small lunch then.

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Wadi Bani Habib

The old village of Wadi Bani Habib clings to the side of the canyon. It was deserted back in the 1950s as a result of the challenges faced by the villagers in terms of bringing supplies to their homes, which prior to the construction of the road were accessible only by a six-hour steep climb by foot or donkey.

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The people moved into nice modern houses on the top, while still keeping their plantations on the valley floor, watered by the ever-present felaj irrigation system.

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The trees we see today may mostly look dead, but after the rains, they will produce crops of almonds, pomegranate, figs, grapes, oranges, mandarins and peaches.

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Diana's Point

Named after the late, and much loved, Princess Diana, who arrived here by helicopter in 1986, this vantage point on the Saiq Plateau offers insane views over the canyon below.

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Close by, the recently built hotel Alila Jebal Akhdar has magnificent views from all its bedrooms and restaurant. With a price tag to match, of course. We are not staying there tonight.

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Wadi al Ayn

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The wadi (valley) of Al Ayn has the most amazing hillside terraces I think I have ever seen. This area is famous for its rose plantations, mainly used to produce rose syrup and rose water for cooking.

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Animal fodder is also grown here.

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Some of the terraces have been abandoned, while others are still in use today.

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Nizwa

As our budget does not extend to staying in either of the two posh hotels on the summit, we return to the lower levels to spend the night in the modern town of Nizwa.

The drive down is, if possible, even more spectacular, with better views out over the canyon (impossible to photograph though). This drive is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and every few hundred yards there are escape lanes for use if your breaks fail. Said explains that in the rainy season this road is perilous, with running water and gravel covering the surface.

As we get lower, all signs of the Tour of Oman have gone, we just see a pick-up loaded with bikes and a truck full of barriers.

Falaj Daris

Another hour's drive takes us to our hotel for the night, and unfortunately we arrive at the same time as a large bus-load of French tourists. As the hotel is fully booked, Said has to sleep elsewhere tonight.

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The hotel is quite modern and nondescript, but comfortable enough.

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We take a buffet dinner by the pool and go to bed soon after.

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Thank you yet again to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fabulous private tour of Oman for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:09 Archived in Oman Tagged villages mosque view canyon mountain plateau doors road fruits terraces ancient cycling oman swimming_pool islam koran vista wadi 4wd trave abandoned plantations middle_east viewpoint bends nizwa undiscovered-destinations snaking jebel ibra reconstructions medresa madrasa sarooj crumbling_mansions jebel_akhdar green_mountain tour_de_oman tour_of_oman cycle_race police_check bendy_road wadi_bani_habib terrace_farming diana's_point saiq_plateau alila_jebel_akhdar jabal_akhdar wadi_al_ayn falaj_daris falaj_daris_hotel Comments (3)

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