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Balkanabat - Yangikala - Gözli Ata - Turkmenbashi

One of our more surreal days: camel jam, bizarre rock formations, ancient pilgrimage site, agonising leg injury, restricted tourist zone, 5* yacht club, self-locking doors


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

Continuing the trials and tribulations of a cloth napkin this morning, the waitress surprises us by NOT removing it when she brings our breakfast out. She does, however, make a big point of giving us paper serviettes. We let sleeping napkins be, and stick with the paper ones.

Breakfast just appears this morning, and a very substantial affair it is too, with egg, sausage, bread, cheese, jam and pancakes. We are not going to starve on this trip, that's for sure.

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Picnic Lunch

Last night Meylis ordered a picnic lunch from the hotel restaurant for today's journey; to be ready for 09:00. When he goes to collect it, they say it will be another 25 minutes before it is ready, as it is “just cooking now”.

25 minutes later, and he is told “it has just cooked now, another 25 minutes for steaming”.

They were correct about the timing – 50 minutes late we pick up the food and can leave for the next part of the journey.

As we drive out of the town on Balkanabat, we spot some cool horse riders at the side of the road. They look so right here, like something out of a historical Silk Road movie. This is the first time we have seen anyone on horseback out here.

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Wild Horses

These are of course not the valuable and sought after Ahel Teke horses, but rather amore common breed known as Yomut.

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Eurasian Griffon

A large bird is circling quite low overhead, and Artem stops the car so that I can get out to take some photos.

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Camels

We share the road with a small herd of free-range camels. There are infinitely more camels than cars on this stretch.

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Sand

As I have said before, 80% of the country is covered in desert, and we soon see some classic dunes along the side of the road.

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And not just beside the road, it is blowing across it too.

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The sand is remarkably deep considering the wind apparently only started yesterday – if this is what it can do in a day, I dread to think what it will look like by the end of the week. It is obviously quite a common phenomenon, as we see a sign warning of SAND BLIZZARD.

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More camels

As we climb higher into the barren mountains, we come across a huge herd of camels. These are not free-range, however, they are being guided along the road by a camel herder on a motorbike.

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For the last few hours we have been driving along a flat stretch of land, with wide open spaces on either side, and no ditches or other obstructions on the side of the road. This section, however, has barriers either side of the road, so we end up having to travel at camel-speed until we can get past this jam.

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A few of the camels have somehow ended up on the wrong side of the barriers.

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Two of the animals clumsily try to cross to the road-side of the fence, and totally fail.

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It seems that the stray camels are somewhat stuck, as the embankment and part of the road have slipped down into ravine below. Not sure what they will do now if they can't cross the barrier – go back I guess.

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Footnote: I don't know what they did in the end, but when we drove past again a few hours later, there were no dead camels at the bottom - I checked.

Yangikala Canyon

Having passed the camels, we climb to the top of the cliffs with amazing views of the plateau below. This completely flat area that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, was once the ocean bed of the pre-historical Parathetys Sea.

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It is not the empty and barren lowlands that are spread before us that we have come to see, and soon we catch a glimpse of a series of surreal rock formations rising mysteriously from the planes below: The 'Badlands of Turkmenistan'.

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I am fascinated by the crusty layer of rock on top, which has kept its shape and hardness while everything underneath it has been eroded away.

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I wish I knew more about geology and could identify the different rocks and their formation / age.

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Erosion, wind, weather, and tectonic shifts over the last 5.5 million years have all contributed to carving out the curious landscape we see today: Yangikala Canyon. Rose coloured rocks, tainted by the presence of iron, vie for attention with ribbed white limestone folds and alluvial fans in this extraordinary range of cliffs stretching some 15 miles across the desert to the Garabogazköl Basin.

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Crocodile’s Mouth

Continuing across the top of these rock formations seems almost like a sacrilege. There are no roads or tracks, we just drive along the flat surface, until we come to a formation known as the Crocodile's Mouth. From its gaping overhang, it is easy to see how it got its name.

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Both Meylis and David go to the top of the snout of the croc to have their photo taken, but as I am none too fond of heights, I flatly refuse. After a bit of persuasion I start walking out towards the edge, and find that it is not as terrifying from the top as it looks from across the small ravine.

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I am not as brave as Artem, however.

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The view in the opposite direction is much more picturesque, and not so terrifying.

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We decide that this is a great place to have our picnic. With the temperature being in the mid-thirties (centigrade) and no shade for miles around, it makes sense to sit in the air conditioned car to eat. Overlooking one of the most sensationally striking landscapes imaginable, we tuck into cold manty while the music is blaring out Ra Ra Rasputin by Boney M. Could life get any more surreal? This surely has to be one of the main highlights of our trip and a memory to cherish forever!

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Manty - traditional Turkmen beef dumplings

Adding to the bizarre feel of this place, peculiar spherical bushes, reminiscent of tumbleweed, dot the flat plateau as far as the eye can see.

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Taking one last glance back at the multicoloured cliffs and the place I overcame my fear to stand on the overhang, we leave Yangikala Canyon behind and turn back the way we came.

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Gözli Ata

The mausoleum of Gözli Ata, a respected Sufi teacher in the early 14th century, is now a popular place of pilgrimage.

You can read all about him here:

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Visiting pilgrims walk around the mausoleum three times, always anticlockwise.

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Surrounding the mausoleum a cemetery has sprung up, with some unusual grave markers.

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This, a somewhat more traditional grave stone, features Persian writing, evidence that worshippers come here from far and wide.

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Many of the graves have hollows cut out or a cup at the base such as this one. It is not for flowers as we would do here in the west, the containers are for collecting water to quench the thirst of the souls who are resting here. In reality, the water is used by wildlife, meaning that even in death you are still supporting life.

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And here is that wildlife:

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Not only do pilgrims come here to pay their respect to the revered sufi leader, they also use this site to create cairns, such as these modest collections of stones, which they believe will act as vehicles for their prayers.

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A much larger and more formal structure has been created for worshippers to pray for children, health and wealth.

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Items left at the site indicate what the families are wishing for, such as this comb which indicates they would like a daughter.

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It seems this family were desperate for the addition of a son.

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The small cot means that gender is unimportant to the hopeful couple as long as they are bestowed with a child.

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Keys suggest that a new home is on the wish list.

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Other visitors will make their wish in a more traditional way, such as tying a piece of cloth around a stick.

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Injury time

A large building housing a guest house as well as a covered picnic area has been constructed on the site to cater for the pilgrims who visit here. We therefore make a point of utilising the facilities before we leave. While making his way back to the car and stepping up onto a 'platform', David misjudges the height of the step and takes am awkward tumble. I know nothing of this until I see him hobbling at a snail's pace across the car park.

Finally making it back to the car, he tells us the story, and admits that he is in a great deal of pain, fearing that he has torn a muscle in his calf. Right here right now there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, so he just swallows some pain killers as we make our way to our final destination for today.

Waterhole

Huge crowds of sheep and goats signal the presence of a waterhole.

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I always struggle to tell the difference between sheep and goats in this part of the world, as they both look very similar, unlike the sheep in the UK.

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The little brown and white blighter who is looking at us is a sheep, whereas the black one with his back to us is a goat. I have always looked at the coat to tell them apart – sheep are fluffier with curly hair, whereas goat wool is straighter and courser. Meylis informs us that the goats are the ones with horns, although I am pretty sure that this is not always the case.

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Looks like the sheep and goats will soon have company, as we meet a number of camels making their way towards the waterhole.

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They seem to be as curious about us as we are about them.

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I can just hear the conversation over a drink later:

Camel 1: “Did you see those tourists earlier?”
Camel 2: “I know, the woman even had bright orange hair”
Camel 3: “You don't get many of those around here do you.”
Camel 4: “I wonder which waterhole they were going to?”

We pass more areas covered with sand dunes on our way to Turkmenbashi.

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Awaza Tourism Zone

Turkmenbashi is a town of two halves and one of the more peculiar set-ups we have ever encountered. The large modern town (it is the second city after Ashgabat) is much like any other port town, with oil storage facilities and a large passenger terminal, plus the normal residential / shopping areas.

Then there is Awasha Tourism Zone. This is the bit that has me scratching my head (and shaking it).

'Normal' cars are not permitted into the area, so Artem has to drop us off at a huge covered parking area, which houses around two thousand cars. We see less than two dozen.

From here we have to take government approved taxis to our accommodation, which is around two miles away.

It all happens in such a flurry of activity that I end up not taking a photo of the enormous, empty car park. To try and redeem myself, I snap this through the taxi window as we make our way to the hotel.

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Yelken Yacht Club

This five star tourist hotel is in beautiful, green sprawling grounds, such a contrast to the barren scenery earlier today. I shall post more about this hotel with lots of pictures in tomorrow's blog entry. It is so big in fact, that we are taken to our room by a golf buggy; despite Meylis arranging for us to be in the nearest room to the main building as David can hardly walk on his damaged leg now.

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Drinks on the Balcony

We have a large, well furnished balcony overlooking the extensive hotel gardens, so we make the most of the remaining sunshine with a drink outside.

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Thankfully we have wifi here, so I email our trusted chiropractor (and good friend) John, to see if he has any suggestions what David can do to alleviate the pain in his leg. John recommends elevating the leg, taking Ibuprofen, putting ice on the painful part; and he also suggests some exercises that David can do to speed up the healing. I do love my chiropractor for providing instant remote consultation.

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Meylis pops his head around the corner and we invite him to join us for a drink. Being young and fit, he simply jumps over the bannister and on to the balcony. When I try to get a glass from the bedroom for him, I am unable to open the door. David tries, Meylis tries. None of us can shift it, which is odd, because I went back in earlier. The door was a little stiff then, but not insurmountable.

Jumping back over the railings, Meylis goes to the reception to get a card key for the room. Being the sensible, security conscious person I am, I double locked the door to the room when we arrived, so the key does not work. Back to reception for plan B. I am so grateful Meylis happened to turn up at the right time, as we'd never be able to explain this to the receptionist in Russian / Turkmen / sign language.

When he returns, Meylis explains that the self-locking door is a safety feature, so that you cannot enter the room from the balcony once the door is closed. How absolutely ridiculous! There are no signs warning us not to close the door when we go out there, something we are obviously going to do in order to keep the room cool and the air conditioning working efficiently.

Reception send a maintenance worker, who has to use his electric drill to take the handle and lock off in order to let us in. By now I can see the funny side of this, and cannot stop giggling.

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Dinner

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Turkmenbashi is situated on the Caspian Sea, so it seems logical to order fish for dinner this evening. I choose the speciality dish called 'sturgeon on a tile'. This is a new fish to me, and while it is pleasant, it is nothing out of the ordinary. It comes with lovely rich mashed potato, however. Not sure where the 'tile' comes into it though.

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The fried meatballs that David ordered

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An unusual dessert of pumpkin with tahini sauce and walnut syrup

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David's apple and raisin tart with (a very white) ice cream

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Meylis just has ice cream. As you can see, even here in this posh restaurant, all we get is café-style cheap paper napkins. I'm afraid I am a bit of a napkin snob and I do judge an establishment on whether they offer paper or cloth for their diners to dab their lips with. There, I've said it!

After dinner we retire to the room, reflecting on what an fabulously adventurous day it has been.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this great private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:23 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged horses canyon cemetery sheep sand balcony camels picnic dumplings sand_dunes rock_formations graves mausoleum badlands prayers vulture injury goats waterhole turkmenistan griffon turkmenbashi chiropractor sturgeon central_asia wild_horses manty yomut undiscovered_destinations yacht_club picnic_lunch ex_ussr caspian_sea paper_serviettes napkins horse_riders yangikala yangikala_canyon parathetys_sea garabogazköl_basin crocodile's_mouth bomey_m gözli_ata pilrgimage_site sufi_teacher grave+markers grave+stones persian_writing prayer_scarves prayer_cloths leg_injury awaza awaza_tourism_zone yelken yelken_yacht_club locked_out maintenance_man pre_dinner_drink Comments (6)

Nizwa - Jabreen - Bahla - Jebel Shams

Souqs and Castle, Canyons and Stars


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

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.

Nizwa

Today we are spending some time exploring Nizwa, the second biggest city in Oman.

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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.

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Nizwa Souq

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.

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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.

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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.

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There are over 40 different types of dates in Oman, some are for eating, some for making syrup, others for animal fodder.

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Loosely woven baskets allows for the date syrup to seep through.

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Date syrup for sale in large tubs in the market

Jam, and even 'datella' is also made from these fruits.

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As with most establishments we visit in Oman, there is a small seating area for enjoying complimentary Omani coffee and dates.

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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.

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In Oman it is usually made of brown sugar, white sugar, cardamom, ghee and rosewater. Sometimes saffron (imported from Iran) and nuts are added.

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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.

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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.

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Nizwa souq is also well known for its silver and copper work, usually sold by weight.

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The spice market is the only part that has not been restored and it carries a warm and traditional atmosphere.

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Spices are mostly imported from India, Tanzania, Zanzibar and other parts of Africa.

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Local products include chamomile, dried roses and lavender.

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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.

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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.

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Nizwa Fort is the biggest of several such defence outposts in the country.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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Making ghee / cream from milk agitated in animal skin.

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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.

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Inside the complex there are twelve wells, in addition to secret escape tunnels leading for 12 kms under the ground.

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The castle part of the fortifications dates back to the 9th century and is now a museum depicting Omani life as it was.

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Jabrin Castle

About an hour later, we arrive at our second castle of the day.

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Again the castle has been painstakingly restored (between 1980 and 1985), showing how it would have looked in its heyday.

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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.

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The castle was later abandoned when the Imam's brother took over reign of the country in a bloody coup.

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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.

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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.

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David and Said look down on me from the very top

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The Imam's tomb

Bahla Fort

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cemetery

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.

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Lunch

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.

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Hajjar Mountains

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.

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Look at the amazing crevice opening up at the bottom of this picture

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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.

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The scenery is stark and barren, yet strangely varied, at least geologically.

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Jebel Shams

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'.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Here you can see the village in the wadi at the very bottom of the canyon.

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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.

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I hope the people staying in this tent tonight are not prone to sleep walking.

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Jebel Shams Resort

Thankfully we have a more solid accommodation for tonight, in an appropriately named 'Sunset Room'.

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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.

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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.

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We grab ourselves a glass of Duty Free rum and Coke and settle down on the terrace to wait for the sunset.

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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.

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Rock Cairns

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!

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His success rate is so-so.

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Ilona was suitable impressed.

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Sunset

The sun slowly makes its way towards the horizon, painting the sky a beautiful yellow, with the misty mountains a darker shade of orange.

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Even the grasses in the foreground are reflecting the rays from the golden globe in the sky.

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We are hoping the sun is going to set in the valley between the two mountains.

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Almost, but not quite. I am not complaining though, it is a stunning sunset.

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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.

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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.

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Dinner

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.

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Star Gazing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:
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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.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:33 Archived in Oman Tagged grand_canyon canyon fort market castle oman armoury spices pottery arabia wadi souk souq fortification steep vertigo dates bonfire sickness middle_east spice_market nausea vomiting hajar_mountains nizwa jebel_shams vegetable_market hajjar_mountains bahla halwa frankincense escape_tunnels sun_mountain jebel_shams_resort ravine jabreen jabrin hajar hajjar jabrin_castle bahla_fort oman's_grand_canyon precipitous fear_of_heights tabuleh tabbulehsunset fire_pit 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)

Muscat - Sur - Ras el Jinz

Along the north coast


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

The breakfast buffet this morning is huge, with choices of various breads, Indian, English, American and Middle Eastern dishes, plus Continental cold meats / cheese and cereals.

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The whole place seems in a bit of a muddle this morning though, as there are no cups by the coffee machine, so people take them off the tables; there are no spoons in the cinnamon nor syrup, they run out of waffles as well as orange juice, no teaspoons are available so David has to stir his coffee with a dessert spoon.

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I managed to get a couple of waffles before the ran out

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David had to 'make do' with a fry-up.

Fish market

Our first stop on today's journey is at the fish market in Muscat, housed in a nice new modern building, a mere four months old.

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The long thin fish on the left are barracuda, while the big yellow ones with spots are the famed kingfish.

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The market is all very clean and the produce looks of high quality.

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Tuna

Most of the workers in the market are 'middle men' rather than the fishermen themselves, often ex-boatmen who maybe now find the all-night fishing a bit too much.

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Totally in awe of his skill and speed, we watch this man de-bone and fillet a large fish in next to no time.

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Vegetable Market

Next to the fish market is the equally new and modern vegetable market.

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Most of the produce is imported, and among the more familiar items, we see a lot of typical Indian vegetables, obviously to appease the immigrant population.

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The dates, however, are local and a must to accompany kahwa, the traditional Omani coffee.

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Off-roading

Said asks if we would prefer to take the main road between Muscat and the coast, or a short-cut which would mean 20km of off-roading.
Without hesitation, we both answer in unison: “off-roading please”

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The road is way smoother than either of us anticipate, but the geological formations alongside it are fascinating: bleak, ragged, crumbly hills more akin to man-made slag heaps than anything nature has created.

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I desperately try to take pictures through the car windows at every turn in the road, most of which don't turn out at all.

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The only other car we see on the 20km journey.

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Eventually, we stop on a ridge to tale photos out over the surreal landscape at Wadi Al Hawh. Is this really Planet Earth, or did we travel to the moon by mistake?

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Hawiyat Najm Park, featuring Bimmah Sink Hole

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Fresh water is mixed with sea water in this sink hole, making for a beautiful iridescent aquamarine colour, some 50m x 70m large and 20m deep.

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Despite the Arabic name Hawiyat Najm, which literally means 'the falling star', this depression was not caused by a meteorite as suggested by local folklore, but rather as a result of limestone erosion. Said suggests it was a fairly recent occurrence, maybe 25 years ago.

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The area around the sink hole has been turned into a leisure park, with decent toilets, shaded picnic areas and steps leading down to the water for locals and tourists to swim. Apparently it is a very popular place with families on the weekend. I can see why as there is a nice cooling breeze coming in from the sea.

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Kahwa and dates

Before we leave, we are invited for kahwa by Said's friend who is the gatekeeper guardian of the park.

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Kahwa is more than just a 'mere coffee' to the Omanis, it's a ritual that occupies a special place in their society. Friends and guests will always be served coffee and dates, usually in small, handle-less cups.

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By handing back the cup without any further ado, you indicate that you would like some more. If you have finished, you should shake the cup as you give it back.

Wadi Shab Oasis

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What an odd place. The initial access to the oasis is underneath a highway flyover, with the pillars supporting the road sitting on an island in the wadi.

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Having read all about this place before we left home, I had already decided I was going to give it a miss. Hearing that after the initial boat trip across the river we have to walk for an hour or more along a small rugged ledge and scramble over huge boulders just to get to the initial pools; then if we want to see the main attraction, we need to swim and wade across three pools; and in order to enter the cave, we actually have to swim through a hole between the mountains then climb up using a rope to reach the waterfall.

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I think we'll leave this place to the adrenalin-seeking youngsters we once were.

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Apparently, the 2012 Red Bull Cliff Diving final was held here in Wadi Shab.

Wadi Tiwi

To make up for not fully exploring Wadi Shab, Said suggests that we drive up the road through the five villages of Wadi Tiwi. Sounds like a fair exchange to me.

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My, oh my, what a drive! This really has to be one of the most amazing roads ever. Initially the road runs along the valley floor, between date and banana plantations and rock pools with boulders so large we discuss how they could possibly come to have rested in such a place.

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Known as the 'Wadi of Nine Villages', the road snakes its way between towering canyon walls in amongst old, traditional settlements (where Said seems to know everyone), criss-crossed by a network of aflaj (the traditional Omani irrigation channels).

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I am fascinated by the huge, upright boulder in the middle of this village. Real or mad-made I wonder...

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Said expertly handles the car around huge boulders and rocky outcrops in some impressive bends.

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Trying to grab photos of passing scenery is proving quite a challenge, with me hanging out of the window holding on to the camera for dear life.

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Eventually Said does stop the car so that we can take a proper look at the views.

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If driving up was impressive, travelling down is mind-blowing, with impossibly sharp bends, large rocks jutting out into the track, crumbling plantation walls and local houses seemingly blocking our way.

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During the rainy season this road becomes completely impassable for a few days as flood water gushes down the valley.

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The ever-present falaj (irrigation system).

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Lunch

At the bottom of the valley, we stop at a small road-side restaurant in the village of Tiwi.

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We order traditional Omani kingfish which is lovely and fresh and comes in a tasty coating. We also have a dish with vegetables, a spicy sauce, a salad and roti; and no self-respecting Omani would have lunch or dinner without a mountain of biriyani rice.

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Sur

With the appearance of a sleepy little seaside town, it is surprising to learn that Sur is the fourth largest city in Oman (after Muscat, Nizwa and Salalah) with nearly 70,000 inhabitants.

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Said looking out over the estuary

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Turtle in the water

During the 1500s, Sur was the region’s most important port, importing and exporting goods from India and Africa, including slaves.

Dhow Museum

It's for the construction of dhows, the traditional Arab sailing vessels, that Sur is famous today, however.

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Sur established itself as Oman’s most important ship-building centre around the 16th century, a trade which continued until the beginning of the 20th century and is barely kept alive today.

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The word 'dhow' is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals will either refer to them as safena or suh-fin which both basically mean just ‘ships'; or they will use the more specific names such as boom, sambuq, ghanjah – which for all intents and purposes are different styles of dhow.

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Houri Al safeena – a small sailing boat used to send a rescue team to stranded boats.

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Launch samak – diesel boat from 1983 used for fishing with cast nets.

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Al Mashouh – a light canoe with a square shaped stern used for ferrying sailors to their ship and back.

Dhow Shipyard

The traditional Arab sailing vessels known as dhows are still being produced here at this shipyard in Sur, the only remaining of its kind in Oman.

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This dhow has been a 'work in progress' for over two years now, and will cost somewhere in the region of 200,000-300,000 Rial (ca £400,000-600,000).

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Traditionally, dhows were constructed of teak planks sewn together using coir rope and powered by enormous triangular lateen sails. These days iroko wood is mostly used.

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Many people work on the construction, with each person having a specific task, such as this woodcarver. Traditionally all the work was carried out by locals, but these days many immigrant workers, mostly from India, have taken over the jobs.

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I decline the invitation to climb on board the partially finished ship as health and safety is non-existent.

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Ras al Jinz Hotel

We continue to our hotel for the night, and as soon as we have checked in, we go to our room and await the porter bringing our bags.

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He arrives fairly promptly, but once he has left, we can't find the key to our door. We search everywhere. No sign of it. Eventually we give up and ask Housekeeping for a spare, so that we can actually lock the door when we leave the room.

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As it will be a late night tonight and an early start tomorrow, we try to have a bit of a nap, but struggle to get to sleep on the very hard bed.

Some two hours later, a very sheepish porter turns up with the key that was in his pocket all along. Doh.

Turtle Information Centre

There is only one reason for coming here: turtles.

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One of the main tourist destinations in Oman, Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve was set up in 1996 to protect the rare and endangered green turtle which returns every year to lay its eggs on the same beach where it was born decades ago.

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The well laid out visitor centre showcases the lifecycle of the green turtle as well as the archaeological findings from this area through museographical displays – whatever that means!

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There are interactive displays and a short film showing the life of a turtle and the work carried out here.

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Dinner

Having a bit of an upset tummy, I am not feeling up to much food this evening. The buffet is mostly Indian, with the odd international dish thrown in. I stick to potatoes with a yogurt-type dressing.

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Turtle Watching

Turtles are big business here, and I have to admit to finding the whole organisation rather too big and commercialised with far too many people.

This is considered the low season as far as turtles go, so we are told to gather in the lobby at 20:15 for news on whether any turtles have been spotted on the beach this evening. The area is very crowded, with nowhere near enough seats for everyone. We are lucky, as we arrive early to find a spare sofa.

We wait. And wait. And wait. No news.

Finally, at 21:15 we rush off in seven different groups. As hotel residents, we have priority and are in group # 1.

We exit through the rear of the hotel, each group being led by a local naturalist with a torch. Initially there is a smoothish gravel path, but soon the ground becomes like slippery mud, then slightly looser sand. As we get near to the water, the sand is deep and soft, making walking rather hard work.

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This photo, taken the next morning, shows the gravel path leading out from the hotel

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Here you can see the 'slippery mud' (the shiny bit reflecting the sun) and just how far away the sea is.

With just a small torch, it is hard to see what is going on, but eventually we come across the one and only female who is on this beach today. She has finished laying her eggs and is now covering them with sand, ready for her to leave them to their own devises as she returns to sea. Flash photography is strictly forbidden, as is individual torches, making for very dark conditions for getting any sort of photograph of the turtle. (For my photography friends: these images were taken on ISO 32,000)

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After digging a hole by scooping out clouds of sand with her flippers, the turtle deposits up to 100 eggs, before carefully covering them again and returning to sea, exhausted.

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The eggs take around 60 days to hatch, and the tiny creatures then have to not just burrow their way to the surface of the sand; they have to make it safely to the ocean, avoiding any predators on the way.

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AS there is only one turtle on the beach tonight, each group is only given five minutes at the nesting site, before moving on to make room for the next group.

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Sitting on a rock at the water's edge I become aware of something luminous in the water, being washed up on the beach with each wave: bioluminescent algae or glow-in-the-dark plankton. Never having seen this phenomenon before, I am absolutely mesmerised. Trying to take photos proves impossible, so I just sit there enjoying the spectacle, which coupled with the bright starry sky above, makes this a totally magical moment.

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As we leave to return to the hotel, the turtle has finished her duty and sets off to sea. Confused by all the people crowding around her, she leaves the nesting site in the wrong direction, and it saddens me that maybe we have caused her some unnecessary stress by our presence here tonight. Or at least the sheer numbers of us – there must be between 70 and 80 tourists here this evening.

Returning to the hotel we are offered a ride in the pick-up truck, which we gladly accept.

What a perfect ending to an amazing day! Thank you Undiscovered Destination for this fabulous trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:05 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains boats turtles fish oasis park canyon scenery breakfast valley sur ships sinkhole coffee oman stars buffet muscat wadi dhow dates shipyard fish_market ragged starry_night short-cut outer_worldly bimmah bimmah_sinkhole sink_hole hawiyat_najm_park kahwa wadi_shab ras_al_jinz bioluminescent glow_in_the_dark_plankton plankton egg_laying tiwi wadi_tiwi Comments (2)

Delhi - Jabalpur - Bhedaghat - Kanha

Don't rock the boat


View Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright - India 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The jetlag continues to blight me this morning as I lie awake from 02:30 onwards.

Flight from Delhi to Jabalpur

At Delhi Domestic Airport we are approach by a uniformed official as we queue to check in. “Would you be interested in an upgrade?” At 700Rs per person (less than £10), we gladly accept. It includes extra legroom and free food, as well as priority baggage. It doesn't stop us from having to pay excess baggage fees for being over the 15kg limit for checked in bags, however.

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Waiting at Delhi Airport

The choices for food on board are not great – sandwich or pot noodle (or rather pot lentil).

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It's a quick flight and soon we are met at Jabalpur Airport by Rakesh, our driver for the next few days. He takes us directly to a fancy hotel for use of the facilities and where his boss (I assume) talks to us about our itinerary; about which there seems to be some confusion. Rakesh does not speak any English, just a simple few words, and my Hindi is no better.

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Jabalpur from the air

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Fire engine at Jabalpur airport

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Baggage trolley at Jabalpur airport

Marble Rocks

Before heading to Kanha National Park for our tiger safari, we want to make a detour to Bhedaghat.

The small town is famous for two things: Dhuhandhar Falls, and Marble Rocks. After climbing down a number of steps, we reach the river's edge where we board a covered boat for our trip into the steep-sided gorge where the aforementioned marble rocks can be admired.

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As the boat moves upstream, the Narmada River flows through a narrow gorge flanked either side by steeply rising cliffs in various colours, from dazzling white to pale yellow and from a pinkish hue to different shades of green.

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Indian Cormorant

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Fisherman

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White Browed Wagtail

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Red Wattled Lapwing

Jumping boys
For 50Rs, young buys jump off the cliffs into the water below.

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The Journey to Kanha

The steps back up to the town and car again seem steep and we are all feeling the heat. The car, thankfully, is beautifully air-conditioned as we make our way towards our home for the next three nights: Kanha National Park. At this stage we realise that we will unfortunately not have time to stop at the waterfalls, as we still have a 4½ hour journey ahead of us.

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One step up from a zebra crossing - a horse crossing

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Overloaded bicycle

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Judging by the number of people we see along the road carrying hay, I would say it is harvest time at the moment.

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We go through some rural and agricultural communities, with the odd long-distance truck on the road.

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Once the sun goes down, we realise we are not going to reach the lodge in the light.

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Indian roads can be quite intimidating for the first time visitor, and even more so after dark. Lyn describes the experience as “Wacky Races on Speed”.

Kipling Camp

Our arrival at Kipling Camp is exceptionally welcoming. As we pull up in the dark, a whole welcoming committee appear with torches and wet flannels to wipe away the dirt from the journey. Astrid shows us around the main facilities of the camp – the Shamiana, an open sided terrace with comfortable seating as well as a bar and dining area; while the two volunteers, Alex and Franco, take the luggage to our rooms.

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As we relax with a drink, Ahmed, the friendly chef, brings round the tastiest pakoras I have ever eaten, followed by cream of vegetable soup in little cups. Dinner is buffet style, with chicken curry, cabbage, potato with capsicum and dhal, followed by a tasty sweet treat (banana fritters if I remember rightly).

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After dinner we continue our friendly chats with the staff: Astrid, the manager, the two young boys, Alex and Franco, who are here as volunteers and show a maturity way beyond their years, and Jeswin, the naturalist. We are the only people staying tonight, and by the end of the evening, we feel very much part of the Kipling family. What a fabulous place!

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Our Room
Our room is in a single-storey cottage set in the lovely grounds, shaded by tall trees; and with a path leading to it, lit by intelligent solar lamps that glow dimly and 'magically' light up brightly as we approach.

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Our cottage in the middle.

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Our room is on the far right of the cottage

We have a balcony with seating, and the interior consists of a four-poster bed with mosquito netting, ample storage space and a generously sized bathroom.

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The terrace in front of our room

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My only 'complaint' is that the bed is rather high, making it impossible to sit on the edge of the bed to get undressed

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I know we will enjoy our stay here very much, and I go to sleep a very happy and contented bunny.

Posted by Grete Howard 01:18 Archived in India Tagged boat canyon india cows harvest boat_trip jabalpur kipling_camp bhedaghat marble_rocks rowing_boat harvest_time khana Comments (5)

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