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Muscat - Salalah

Leaving Muscat and the North of Oman behind and heading South


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

We wake up to a delicately muted sunrise over suburban Muscat, as seen here from our balcony.

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Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

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As the largest Mosque in the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos' place of worship is a construction on a grand scale in every way and took six years to build, using materials from several different countries.

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20,000 tons of Indian sandstone was used, while the marble came from Oman.

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The Mosque has five minarets, with the tallest being 91.5 metres and the others measuring 61 metres. In addition to the minarets, there are ten domes. The Muezzin's call to prayer is always live, never recorded. The entire complex covers 40,000 m²

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In total, including the men's and women's prayer halls, the inner courtyards, paved ground and passageways, 20,000 people can pray here at the same time. Only on certain auspicious days is the mosque full, however; normally only between 100 and 500 faithfuls actually do attend.

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More men come to pray than women, as this picture shows the scale of the vast, cavernous men's prayer hall.

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70,000 tons of pure cotton was used for this carpet, and it took600 women (in Iran) two years to weave the 1,700 million knots. There are 28 different colours in this single piece of woven floor covering which weighs 70 tons.

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The prayer hall is adorned with a spectacular chandelier, some 14 metres tall and weighing 8.5 tons. Featuring 600,000 Swarovski crystal trimmings, 24-carat gold plated metalwork, this ceiling light has 1,122 halogen lamps operated through 36 switching circuits. The chandelier is truly of gigantic proportions with a diameter of 8 metres making it the size of an average 3 bedroom detached house but twice the height! For maintenance purposes there is a staircase inside the chandelier. Not surprisingly it is reputed to be the largest in the world.

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I love the way the chandelier reflects on the tiles of the mirhab (niche which faces towards Mecca and in the direction Muslims face when they pray), specifically illuminating the beautiful golden Arabic writing.

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I have always been captivated by Islamic architecture, and love looking at the pendentives (curved triangles at the intersection between the arch and the dome), the squinches (small corbelled arches) and muqarnas (the 'honeycomb' effect caused by the geometrical subdivision of a squinch) found in the mirhab and other niches throughout the mosque.

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There are a number of smaller chandeliers throughout the mosque. When I say "smaller"; they are still not exactly 'small' as you can see if you compare the size of the lights with the people below.

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Unobtrusive speakers are hidden in the pillars that support the roof and dome of the prayer hall.

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The detail and amount of design followed by craftsmanship that has gone into the construction of the mosque is staggering

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Under the colonnaded walkways outside are a number of niches, each with a bench underneath, each one boasting a different design, and each with a panel explaining the origin of the pattern. Inspiration for the various artistic design styles has come from all over the Islamic world.

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The Grand Mosque does not differentiate between the various denominations of Islam, and welcomes Sunni, Shia and Ibadi (the predominate sect in Oman) alike. It is also the only mosque in Oman to allow non-Muslims to visit.

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Shoes have to left outside and women have to cover their hair and arms.

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All Muslims have to undergo ablutions before prayer.

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Before we leave the mosque I visit what is the most disgusting toilet I have seen in Oman by a long way. Three cubicles, two of which are squat-style, filled with excrement, cigarette packets, toilet paper, nappies and other items that I do not want to study too closely. The one western toilet is even worse: blocked and overflowing with goodness knows what. If I wasn't so desperate, I would hold it.

Muttrah Souq

The 200 or so stalls in this traditional souk, the oldest in Muscat, are all somewhat similar, selling a curious mix of tourist tat, traditional clothing and colourful haberdashery amongst other things.

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The traders are not at all pushy, which makes a pleasant change.

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Muscat is a popular stop on the cruise ship circuit and today there is a ship visiting, something we see evidence of in the market.

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Entrance to the souk

Juice Bar

We take a break on the Corniche at a juice bar that serves fast food where David has chocolate milkshake, pizza and garlic bread. I pinch one of his garlic breads while I enjoy a lovely mango juice.

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We spend some time watching the traffic police issue tickets to motorists parked in a loading bay before we go back to the hotel to pick up our luggage from their storage area. On the way we drive past the Sultan's Palace (stopping not allowed), an extremely impressive place!

Al Falaj Hotel

We pick up the suitcases and make ourselves comfortable in the lobby as we have a couple of hours before we have to leave for the sunset cruise and on to the airport for our flight. The delightful receptionist approaches us and offers us the use of our old room until we are ready to leave. “Yes please!” Consequently we have a lovely siesta before getting ready for the next part of our adventure.

Sunset Cruise

We arrive at the marina in plenty of time before the boat departs, as the company has changed their sailing times to one hour later but forgot to inform the ticket holders. This gives us time to wander around and admire the beautiful yachts anchored here.

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Dhow

This evening we are sailing from the marina along the coast to Muttrah for sunset on a traditional Arabic wooden sailing ship known as a dhow.

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There is a free bar on board (soft drinks only) and the crew walk around with snacks at regular intervals, as well as a never-ending supply of coffee and dates.

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The cruise follows the ragged coastline, lined with small communities, luxury villas and fancy hotels.

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I love the way the mist obscures the hills in the distance, giving them a wonderful dreamy effect.

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The scenery itself can best be described as rugged, with lots of little islets and curiously shaped rock formations.

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The other passengers are an eclectic mix of nationalities, including the first British tourists we have seen on this trip, and an Iraqi-British family with their gorgeous teenage daughter. It turns out they live in Wembley, just a few miles from where David and I first met, many years ago.

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Said, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

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The sun is getting lower on the horizon now, enveloping everything in its wake a in a golden hue.

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We are delighted to see a few birds along the shore too, one of which is a new one to us.

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Great Cormorant

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Grey Heron

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Sooty Gull

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Hundreds of cormorants make their way in murmuration style along the shoreline.

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They just keep on coming, it's an amazing sight.

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Al Jalali Fort

As we get nearer to Muttrah, we see the Al Jalali Fort, built in the 1580s by the Portuguese Empire to protect the harbour of Muscat following a couple of attacks by Ottoman forces.

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Al Mirani Fort

Close by is the 16th century Al Mirani Fort.

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More watchtowers follow as we get closer to the city

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Portuguese Cemetery

Sunset

By the time we reach Muttrah and the busy working harbour, the sky is alight with a glorious golden colour. The bay is full of ships, containers being unloaded, people walking on the Corniche and other evening life.

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All to often 'sunset cruises' disappoint in that the colours are uninspiring, but today the weather gods have given us exactly what we signed up for.

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The birds are back.

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Who would have thought that an industrial landscape could look so beautiful?

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The sun is almost at the horizon on its final journey for today.

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As the sun gets lower, the gorgeous golden sky fades and the sun turns into an orange ball.

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We hang around to watch the sun disappear behind the distant hills before making our way back to the marina where we started.

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Other pleasure cruisers are doing the same.

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The light is fading fast.

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By the time we return to the marina, it is pitch black.

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Flight to Salalah

From the marina we make our way to the airport for an evening flight to Salalah. It is always sad to say goodbye to a guide at the end of a tour and today is no exception. Said has been a trusted friend, an excellent driver and a very knowledgeable guide.

Airport formalities are super-easy this evening, and we go straight through to the gate, where a couple of young adults offer us their seats. Much as I appreciate the sentiment and am very glad of somewhere to sit for the two-hour wait before our flight, it does make me feel really old.

Passengers are transported to the plane by bus, where we are made to stand for 15 minutes before boarding as the cleaning and checking of the plane has not quite been completed by the time we arrive.

The seats on Oman Air domestic flight have to be the most cramped ever. Mind you, I still managed to catch a nap on the 2-hour flight.

Salalah

The driver who meets us a Salalah Airport has certainly not won any 'personality-of-the-year' competitions, and only just manages a groan of recognition as we make ourselves known to him.

Al Fanar Hotel Salalah

The hotel is approached along a long driveway, lined both sides with palm trees that are beautifully lit from below, making it a very warm welcome. I am very surprised at how lively the hotel is at half past midnight, but I remind myself that this is not our usual type of accommodation aimed at guests who are ttavelling around, this is a beach resort. I feel positively scruffy amongst the fashionistas dressed to the nines in their figure-hugging gold lamé dresses and impossibly high stiletto heels.

Ismalda, the receptionist, more than makes up for Mr Personalitiless Driver, especially as we are upgraded to a superior room with a seating area and a large balcony overlooking the pools and the beach beyond.

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As we slip into bed and switch the lights off, we notice the ceiling has twinkling stars that change colour from red to yellow, through green to blue. We can even control the sequence and pattern, have them flashing or just a single plain colour. This is definitely a first for us! Photographs can't really show it, and my video is rubbish.

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Another fabulous day in Oman as arranged for us by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:27 Archived in Oman Tagged mosque sunset religion forts sunrise muslim balcony crystal dome oman tiles worship islam carpet marble muscat souk souq chandelier sandstone minaret swarovski sunset_cruise shia muezzin al_falaj_hotel muttrah grand_mosque squinch muqarna pendentive mirhab prayer_all sultan_qaboos_mosque sultan_qaboos_grand_mosque sunni largest_chandelier_in_the_world gold_plated ibadi ablutions muttrah_souk muttrah_souq juice_bar cormorants dalalah al_fanar_hotel oman_air domestic_flight Comments (8)

Jebel Shams - Misfah - Al Hamra - Wadi Bani Awf - Muscat

From 3000m to sea level, we travel full circle back to where we started


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

Despite last night's shenanigans, I slept surprisingly well. I do feel like a wrung-out dish cloth this morning though, and therefore decide to miss breakfast. Said is very concerned when he hears I was sick last night; he says I should have woken him so he could have taken me to hospital. Really? Like they are going to want to know about a little vomiting.

We had been warned before we left home that the night time temperatures here in Jebel Shams can drop drastically and looking at the weather on-line a couple of weeks ago we saw that it had fallen below zero. We left our thermometer outside last night and when checking it this morning it said Minimum 5 °C. Quite cool, but not freezing.

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Weather forecast for Jebel Shams prior to leaving the UK

We take a different route down from Jebel Shams today, and the journey is, if at all possible, even more spectacular than driving up yesterday. I hang out of the window holding on to my camera for dear life, trying to get a decent shot. My success rate is very hit and miss.

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Look at this hairpin bend!

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Followed immediately by another.

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The impressive turns continue all the way down.

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Craggy peaks line the horizon.

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Goats seem to thrive in this hostile environment.

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Misfat Al A'briyeen

This 400 year old village is considered the most beautiful in Oman.

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Some of the houses are still occupied, mostly by farmers who grow dates, mango and papaya on the slopes below the village.

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Many of the older generation are reluctant to move from their family home, although some of them only use their houses in the village as a weekend retreat/holiday home, escaping the heat of Muscat in the summer months.

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A sign at the entrance to this village, a popular stop on the tourist route, asks visitors to show respect by covering their arms and legs before entering and always asking before taking pictures of people. I have deliberately learnt that one phrase in Arabic: “Mumkin sura, minfadlik” (May I take your photo please), and have not been refused yet, as people are usually so taken aback that I have spoken to them in their own language.

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The donkey doesn't seem to object to having his photo taken, although I have to admit I didn't ask. All transport within the village is by donkey or hand carts.

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It's a fascinating place, with narrow alleyways and steep, uneven stone steps. There is a lot of renovation work going on though, making it very difficult to take decent pictures.

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The village rises around 1000 meters above sea level and is named after the original inhabitants, the Al Abri family.

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There are no wells in the village, the only fresh water available is from a spring higher up in the 'Grand Canyon'.

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Al Hamra Village

This traditional village with its mud brick houses dating back some 200-400 years, is very reminiscent of many such places we saw in Yemen back in 2007.

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We wander along narrow passageways, with towering walls either side, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like when it was bustling with women in dark abayas, men in their flowing white dishdash kaftans, donkeys braying and goats roaming free.

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Today, the only people we see are construction workers.

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The village is otherwise hauntingly empty, with just the remnant echoes of bygone days and happier times.

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I am fascinated by the many ornate doors, some in better repair than others. “Who passed over these thresholds?” “What secrets lay behind them?” I mentally transport myself back 400 years and try to imagine the families who lived here.

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Wadi Bani Awf

From Al Hamra we continue downwards, through Wadi Bani Awf, the magnificent 'Snake Canyon', one of the most spectacular road trips we have ever taken. Not for the faint-hearted or those suffering from vertigo, the sheer escarpment of the Western Hajjar Mountains provides a breathtaking vista around every nerve-wracking hairpin bend.

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The drive is nerve-janglingly dramatic, with stupendous scenery and a rough, vertiginous track which challenges the skills of even experienced off-road drivers, and a 4WD is a must. Not to be attempted lightly, this journey is positively lethal during or after rain.

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As we swing around each and every bend, I try to get some photographs by either hanging out of the window or holding my arm up through the open window and over the roof of the car, neither of which are terribly successful (or safe).

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Very occasionally we see another car, but mostly we have the track to ourselves.

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Our road on the left, the village of Haat on the right, at the bottom of this canyon.

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Look at how this track snakes its way down the canyon - hence the name "Snake Canyon".

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This terrain is definitely best suited to goats.

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We see the occasional isolated village (this one is Haat again), but mostly it is just stark mountain after mountain as far as the eye can see. It is an austere but beautiful vista, although living here must be harsh.

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Around villages we find plantations, and even a beautiful oases in a narrow gorge cut into the mountain.

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The most incongruous sight of them all, however, is this football pitch; miles from any obvious human habitation and on the only flat ground around. A abrupt piece of civilisation in an otherwise forbidding and almost monochrome environment.

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What? No floodlights?

We travel ever downwards, past fascinating rock formations on tracks that at times throw up a lot of dust, making us shut the windows to keep it out of the car and our lungs.

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We come across a convoy of vehicles filled with tourists travelling the opposite direction. I am so glad we are going downhill as I am sure the view is better this way.

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I am overawed by the technical engineering logistic and sheer amount of work it must have taken to create this road in such a perilous location. How did they get machinery up here to cut into the declivitous rock face and construct a road in such an improbable place?

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It makes me feel somewhat (but not a lot) safer to know we are in a 4WD vehicle, and Said is an excellent, and very experienced, driver. Just look at that drop along the side of the road... “gulp”.

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Bait Bimah

At a flat area in the bottom of one of the gorges we stop in the shade of a tree. Intriguingly, there is a gate next to the tree. What on earth would you want a gate for in this remote and wild area? And what is behind the gate?

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We go through and find a gravel path leading past a building made from rocks. I look around as various parts of the surroundings come into view and I cannot believe my eyes: there is a veritable oases, with colourful bougainvillea adorning the perimeter fence, a restaurant, clean toilets, children's playground, sunbeds and outdoor seating areas. Unbelievable!

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To one side of the covered seating area a buffet is laid out with delicious looking curries and rice. After last night's vomiting my stomach is still very fragile so I daren't eat anything. There are no public toilets along this road, and with a steep mountain one side and a sheer drop the other, 'going behind a bush' isn't an option either.

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After lunch, we continue on our journey ever downwards, and the scenery doesn't exactly get any worse.

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A large group of German tourists are blocking the road as they have got out of their cars to take pictures of the view. Again I feel grateful for travelling on a private tour for just the two of us.

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We drive precariously near the crumbling edge to get past them.

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As the dirt track meanders in a zigzag fashion further down the valley, we see more goats and a traditional felaj (irrigation channel) running alongside the road.

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Irrigation channels a couple of metres up the rock face.

The felaj brings water to the plantations that start to appear.

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We both wish we had a geologist with us to explain the various types of rocks, and how the fascinating and varied strata are formed.

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Eventually the mountain track joins a main road and we are out of the canyon.

Nakhl Fort

At the imposing Nakhl Fort, built in the 16th century to protect Muscat from invading marauders coming across the mountains, we make a brief photo stop.

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From here, the 120 kilometres or so to Muscat is along a smooth, asphalt road, and I doze in the car all the way.

Al Falaj Hotel

We have now made a full circle and are back where we started. This time, we have been upgraded to a corner suite, with a dining table for four and a lovely seating area with a cosy sofa and armchairs.

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The bedroom itself is no bigger than a standard hotel room, but the living room is enormous!

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Muscat by Night

Said, being the kind gentleman he is, has agreed to take us down to Muttrah Corniche tonight, just as the lights are fading, so that I can photograph the city after dark.

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He goes off to the mosque to pray while I set up a tripod and admire the bright lights reflected in the harbour.

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Room Service

Once we return to the hotel, we consider what we are going to do about food this evening. Despite having dinner included tonight (buffet) we decide to treat ourselves and order room service instead. It seems a sin not to make the most of the facilities we have here in this suite, and as most of you know by now, we are not at all keen on buffets. I eat half a burger and three chips, which is the first thing I have eaten all day after my vomiting last night.

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And thus ends another fascinating day here in Oman, all thanks to Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:35 Archived in Oman Tagged road_trip view ruins panorama lunch deserted journey buffet vista muscat 4wd steep vertigo suite goats ruined corniche haat spectacular jebel_shams hairpin_bends al_falaj_hotel lunch_buffet muttrah hajjar_mountains al_hamra falaj precipitous specticular declivitous craggy_peaks misfat_al_a'briyeen narrow_alleyways deserted_village wadi_bano_awf snake_canyon nerve_jangling football_pitch bait_bimah muttrah_corniche muscat_by_night room_servce upgraded felaj irrigation_channels nakhl_fort wadi_bani_awf Comments (5)

Muscat

Half a day in the capital


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

Having arrived at the hotel at 03:30 this morning, we miss breakfast totally and sleep through until we are woken by Housekeeping at 11:00. I am sure this is a sign of getting old: some 30 years ago we would have been up at 07:00 to make the most of our time here in Muscat; today we thoroughly enjoy the lie-in and leisurely start.

Al Falaj Hotel

Named after the traditional irrigation channels that Oman are famous for, the hotel is in a residential suburb of Muscat, with very little around in the way of amenities. The hotel itself, however, is very pleasant, with super-friendly staff, a nice pool and comfortable rooms.

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Hotel entrance

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Lobby

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Self-playing piano in the lobby

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The outside dining area

Interestingly, it has a Sri Lankan Tea Shop off the lobby and a Japanese Restaurant on the top floor.

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Lunch

While not being at all keen on a buffet lunch, there really isn't much choice here. The mezze starter selection is nice, and I enjoy the tabbouleh and hummus in particular.

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Mezze selection

The chicken is a little too dry and I am intrigued by the 'bacon', which looks and tastes exactly like regular bacon. As Oman is a strict Muslim country, pork is banned, so it is probably turkey, but it is certainly a very good imitation.

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Thinking this is labneh in oil, I am very disappointed to find it is in fact pickled Brussels sprouts. I guess it was meant to be for decorative purposes only...

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Fresh fruits and desserts

The chocolate mousse is even better than it looks!

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Aslam, the restaurant manager, comes over to chat with us. Like most of the staff, he comes from Sri Lanka. That could explain why all the main course dishes are Indian-style.

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There are some nice decorative touches in the restaurant too.

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Old Muscat

At 15:00 Said, our guide for the next eight days, picks us up for a short tour. First he stops for a view over Old Muscat, with the City Gate, Forts and Palace clearly visible.

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Bait Al Zubair Museum

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Photography is not allowed inside the museum unfortunately, which is a great shame as there are some amazing displays: clothing and jewellery, including the khanjar, the ornamental dagger worn on a belt. Mannequins show the traditional costumes from various parts of Oman, much of which seems to be inspired by Indian outfits. The Omani wedding displays are my favourite.

Scaled models show the four main forts of Oman: Nizwa, Quriyat, Jabrin and Al Hazm.

The section dedicated to guns is of less interest to me than the kitchen utensils and cooking implements. I am particularly taken with the Al Dallah, the coffee pots that look like they are taken straight out of an Arabian fairytale.

The second part of the museum, housed in a different building, shows old photograph from Oman before the Renaissance of 1970, when the current Sultan turned the country around from a poverty-stricken backwater with just three schools and one hospital in the entire country; to the modern progressive nation we see today.

There is also a wonderful exhibition with winners from a recent photographic competition. Absolutely breathtaking photographs!

Rooms are set out as they would have appeared in the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (founder of this museum) in the 1940s and 50s. It is interesting to note that most of the furniture came from England and India.

Amongst the exhibits are two items that make me feel particularly old – my very first camera (Kodak 66) and a desk caddy very, very similar to the one I inherited from my grandmother.

The grounds of the museum are nicely laid out, with further exhibits and a miniature village scene.

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There are also a number of these sponsored painted goats dotted around the grounds.

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Kalbuh Bay Park

After a refreshing juice stop, we continue to the Muttrah Corniche from where we will watch the sun set over Muscat.

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The park is a lovely little haven, with fountains and pavilions; and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

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David climbs the watchtower for a better view

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David's view

I love the way the low sun makes the hills disappear into misty oblivion, with paler colours on the further away peaks.

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Off shore is the Sultan's private yacht – better looking than any cruise ship!

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On a hill above the park stands a giant frankincense burner

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Tourists are ferried around the harbour in dhows, the traditional ships historically plying these waters.

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As the sun gets lower, the colour of the sky intensifies.

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Going, going, gone

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We stay for a while after the artificial lights come on along the promenade and on the giant frankincense burner.

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Kargeen Caffe

Tonight is the only night where food is not included, so we wanted to make the most of it by choosing a restaurant very carefully. Usually included hotel dinners tend to be international buffets, and I wanted to try some traditional Omani food. I spent a fair amount of time on the internet searching for somewhere not too touristy, but not so traditional that we have to sit on the floor. This is what I came up with, and we certainly aren't disappointed as we walk in: the place oozes atmosphere. The clientele is a mixture of ex-pats, tourists, families and trendy young Omanis.

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I am not sure how I feel about being watched by a couple of sheep while I eat...

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Labneh plate and breads

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Traditional stuffed bread

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Main course of shuwa and chicken biriyani

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Shuwa - tender lamb traditionally cooked for 24-48 hours in an underground oven.

What a lovely way to end our first day in Oman. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:38 Archived in Oman Tagged sunset sheep museum oman buffet muscat dhow corniche mutrah undiscovered_destinations al_falaj_hotel old_muscat lunch_buffet bait_al_zubair muttrach_corniche muttrah kalbuh_park kargeen_caffe shuwa labneh Comments (3)

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