Oman

Although Oman is right next to the United Arab Emirates on the tip of the Arabian peninsula (less than a two hour flight from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi), it feels like it’s on a different continent. Going from the sterile, Disneyfied environment of the UAE, where everything is shiny and new and everyone is from somewhere else, Oman was a very pleasant shock to the system. At last, we found the true Middle East.

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We landed in Muscat, the capital of Oman, after a decidedly unpleasant six-hour flight delay at the Abu Dhabi Airport. Given our international travel resume, Kara and I had thus far been lucky to avoid major airport delays, and Abu Dhabi’s airport was charmless and overcrowded. Suffice to say, we were happy to finally get out of there. The friendly Omani immigration official greeted us with “Welcome to Oman!”, stamped our passports with an official tourist visa, and we collected our bags and were off.

Five of us (Kara and me, my parents and my brother) piled into a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser and we made the quick, 15-minute drive to neighboring Seeb. After a few wrong turns, we found our accommodation: a five-bedroom house in town owned by a British couple, Sarah and Rob. I found their homestay on AirBnB.

Rob greeted us at the door and helped us get situated. He had the look of a serious adventurer, a middle-aged guy who had rejected a quiet life in suburban London for action and fun in remote mountainsides. The house had a warm feel, with a spacious living room filled with travel books, a full kitchen, an outdoor patio, and a number of bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms on the upstairs floors. We shared the house with Rob and a young German backpacker, and my cousins arrived from Maryland that night. Over a pot of freshly-brewed coffee and cookies, Rob briefed us about Oman, let us know what to expect and pulled out a map and gave a few travel suggestions. He had moved from the UK to Oman twenty years ago, and knew the country about as well as any local could. He told us that while 85% of the population of the UAE were foreign ex-pats, in Oman, it was the reverse. He seemed to like that the country was toned down, and much less susceptible to rampant commercialism and Western influence. That suited us just fine.

That night, after listening to the haunting Muslim call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque at sunset, we headed to dinner. Driving through Seeb, we noted that Rob was right. Gone were the Starbucks and megamalls and glitzy skyscrapers of the UAE, and in its place were modest homes, beautiful mosques, ornate architecture, and impressive mountain scenery. Every once in a while we passed a McDonalds or a Shell gas station, but for the most part Oman reminded me of India, with better infrastructure and cleaner streets. We made a few wrong turns but ended up at the Seeb waterfront, and had dinner at a Turkish restaurant and ordered enough food for a dozen: hummus, raw vegetables, lamb and chicken kabobs, the staples of Middle Eastern cuisine, washed down with fresh fruit juice. Other than the restaurant, there wasn’t much to see on the Seeb waterfront, which, from a tourism standpoint, seemed to be a work in progress.

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The next day, with my second cousins Lily and James now in tow, we set off east of Oman, a scenic two-hour drive to Wadi Shab, located in the Al Sharqiyah region. The entire country only has 3.6 million residents, and so once we left Seeb and the Muscat city center, we were in the desert. The highway was very well maintained, on par with any roads in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. We stopped for lunch at the Wadi Shab Resort, a spot on the Arabian Sea with some of the bluest ocean views we’d ever seen. The water was a picture-perfect turquoise. The resort was a popular honeymoon destination, and an easily-accessible escape for those who wanted to leave the city life. We spent some time on the beach, taking pictures and collecting shells.

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We’d be on a deserted beach in New Zealand, but that was in a national park, on a remote campsite. This beach was rocky and uncomfortable to walk on, but it gave the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most resorts, there were no beach umbrellas, and no tropical drinks with little straw hats. I could imagine how nice the beach would be at night, under a blanket of stars.

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The Wadi Shab was only a few minutes drive from the resort. From the parking lot, we walked across underneath the highway bridge and came to a riverbank area. The river itself wasn’t wide enough to spit across, but we couldn’t exactly walk across either. Luckily, some enterprising Omanis charged us $3 a person to shuttle us across on a speedboat. Once safely across, we began our hike in stunningly gorgeous scenery. It was what I imagine the Grand Canyon is like, with red cliffs on both sides. It would be an amazing place to camp.

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There was a waterfall area and a swimming hole about an hour’s hike away, but unfortunately we didn’t bring out swimsuits. The hike itself, in a narrow gorge with lush, oasis-like vegetation and ponds, was unlike any we’d ever been on, and was easily the best part of our entire Oman trip.

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To get to the swimming hole, we were aided by a friendly Omani who volunteered to be our guide. His English was good, and he asked us where we were from, and what we had seen so far in Oman. When we told him we were American, he told Kara, “I wish more Americans would visit our country. Please tell them to come visit.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that 98% of Americans have probably never even heard of Oman, much less find it on a map.

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Our sherpa expertly lead us through the rocky path all the way to the swim hole, and I tipped him $10.

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Driving back from Wadi Shab, everyone was tired from the combination of sun and heat and the long hike through uneven terrain. It took us about two and a half hours to make it back into Muscat, right after sunset. We took Highway 1 into Mutrah and parked the car next to the Corniche, the waterfront area, and walked to the Mutrah Souq. A “souq” is a marketplace, and the Mutrah Souq reminded us of Stanley Market in Hong Kong. Kara and I haggled over, and eventually bought, a copper Arabic coffeepot, and my parents purchased a ceremonial Omani knife called a Khanjar, which they would comically forget to pack in their check-in luggage on our flight back to Abu Dhabi a few days later, causing a minor scene at the airport.

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After we wandered through the Souq twice, we had lamb and chicken kabobs for dinner at the appropriately named “Fast Food ‘n’ Juice” next door.

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The next day we headed to the Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque. It was the only mosque in the country which allowed non-Muslims to visit, although it had strict rules of what constitutes proper dress for a visiting non-Muslim. The enforcement of the dress code was arbitrary, as I saw European men in shorts being waived through, while Kara was forced to buy a hideous orange and yellow Hijab. It was only after our visit that we realized she could’ve rented a much more conservative black Hijab instead.

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The mosque was built in the 1990s, so unlike many religious sites that we’ve been, there wasn’t an ancient quality to it. Still, it was impressive and beautifully decorated. We probably would’ve gotten more out of it had we had a tour guide. I don’t know nearly enough about Islam to appreciate the mosque as a place of worship, and I would like to learn more.

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After the mosque, we headed south toward Nakhal Fort. The fort was located at the base of a mountain range, in the midst of a desert oasis. We drove an hour and half on a dusty desert highway, and all of a sudden there appeared lush, green vegetation and a sea of palm trees. Like all things in Oman, the tourist sites were largely devoid of tourists. We had the entire fort pretty much to ourselves, and I wondered how cool it would be able to rent out the place for a private event.

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From the fort we could see a mosque below. Mosques were ubiquitous in Oman, like churches in rural America. It seemed that every village, no matter how small, had a mosque which broadcast the daily calls to worship.

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After the Nakhal Fort, we drove back to Muscat, and made it to the Corniche just as the sun was setting. The sunset provided a great cap to our trip. Even though the country was small, Oman had a lot of sights and its landscape was very appealing to nature lovers. It’s not possible to see Oman in two and a half days, but I thought our trip provided a good overview. In passing along the message to our Omani guide at Wadi Shab, I hope more Americans choose to visit such a beautiful country, rather to sticking to what is known and familiar in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

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