Oman may be the anti-Dubai. Although the Persian Gulf country is found just south of the famed emirate, it boasts no glittering skyscrapers. Instead, low whitewashed buildings skirt the coast of the capital, Muscat, its sole tall edifices the colorful minarets of mosques. Five times a day, a person — rather than a recording, as is common in other Gulf cities — recites the call to prayer from each.
The aesthetic is no accident. When Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, overthrew his father in 1970, he inherited a country with six miles of paved road, three schools and one hospital. Qaboos’s father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, had been so suspicious of the outside world, particularly the West, that he banned things such as radios and sunglasses. Qaboos set about developing Oman using its moderate oil wealth, but he pledged to keep its traditions and culture intact.
Almost 50 years later, Oman’s infrastructure is first-rate, with approximately 18,000 miles of paved road, more than 1,500 schools and about 250 hospitals and medical centers serving its population of more than 4 million. Yet Qaboos’s cultural vision was evident as soon as I arrived at Muscat’s airport in late February. Omani men strolled by in national dress, a crisp long robe called a dishdasha, and the sweet, spicy scent of frankincense — long an Omani commodity — soaked the air.
Fellow tourists, while in evidence, didn’t seem to come in hordes as in neighboring Gulf cities, although the time of year I was there is peak for visitors. With temperatures in the 70s and 80s during the day and cooler at night, it’s dream weather. (Summers are a lot hotter, except in the southern governorate of Dhofar, which experiences a cooling monsoon that creates a lush, green landscape.) In my light long-sleeved shirts and pants, with the aim of dressing respectfully in a Muslim-majority country, I felt comfortable and at ease.
While Oman’s tourist sector is, like the rest of the country, well developed, it takes a bit of effort to see some of the truly stunning sites. My two-week trip in the north and east of the sultanate included some of these out-of-the-way places. And while I kind of cheated — I traveled with a guided tour — it’s possible to rent a car and do it on your own.
After spending a few days in the capital getting acclimated and exploring Old Muscat, the main souk and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, I flew to the first of these remote locations: the Musandam Peninsula. You have to look closely at a map to understand how this part of Oman is separate from the rest of the country. Positioned north of the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, the enclave protrudes into the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which about 30 percent of the world’s oil travels daily.
In the regional capital of Khasab (population 18,000), toothbrush in hand, I boarded a dhow, or traditional Omani boat, with 10 other tourists for an overnight sail. Dhows, made of wood, were originally lashed together using coconut rope rather than nails. Today, they are still used for trade, as well as to ferry tourists such as me around the stark and beautiful khors — or fjords — of the peninsula. Tiny villages hug the tan, rocky shores, layer upon layer of sediment rising up behind them — a beginning geology student’s dream. Dolphin sightings are common, their fins a shiny streak, as are Iranian speedboats carrying smuggled goods, such as Marlboro cigarettes, to the Islamic Republic’s shores only about 50 miles across the Strait.
After a leisurely float among the khors and a swim in the chilly waters off the dhow, the captain anchored for the night in a small cove. A tiny boat arrived with dinner: lightly spiced chicken, rice, lentils and other dishes emblematic of Omani cuisine, which embodies the culture’s seafaring and imperial past (Oman once controlled parts of East Africa and South Asia) with its mix of Indian, Persian and African fare and spices.
That night the wind picked up, rattling the vessel’s fabric roof, and I tossed for a good hour in my sleeping bag before slumber took over. But by morning, all was calm, and the boat made its return to Khasab. My next stop, via a flight back to Muscat and a southerly drive into the interior, was the desert.
The Wahiba Sands, named for one of the Bedouin tribes that inhabit them — the Bani Wahiba — consists of almost 5,000 square miles of rippling orangy desert in eastern Oman. At the edge of the great expanse, my guide let out some air in the tires of our 4WD so the vehicle wouldn’t get stuck on the way to our overnight locale, a bit cheesily named the Safari Desert Camp. As he worked over the tires, I took my first steps in the sand. The only sound was the wind constantly brushing over the dunes and making narrow rivulets of sand on the flatter terrain.
After about an hour’s roller-coaster-like drive past occasional forlorn outposts housing camels, I arrived at the decidedly un-cheesy camp. Small huts made with long, narrow sticks were scattered about a plateau, the interiors outfitted with vibrant red Bedouin textiles and attached open-air bathrooms. Groups of elderly Omani men sat together in the reception area. My visit happened to coincide with the camp hosting them as part of a local nonprofit organization’s mission to ensure that Oman’s elderly are provided services and companionship. After a buffet dinner in the dining hall, local musicians sang and played the oud and drums for the graying crowd.
Early the next morning, I joined a group on the camp’s outskirts for a camel ride. I had heard that camels are ill-tempered, and the fact that many of them sported crocheted muzzles around their mouths — ostensibly to keep them from spitting on us — seemed to confirm this rumor. Yet the camel right behind mine seemed friendly enough, stretching its neck and batting its long eyelashes at me as I stroked its head and cooed. And one camel left behind — the would-be rider who had reserved her was a no-show — followed us forlornly about a quarter mile back when it realized its fellow camels were leaving.
My sense of camel humanity affirmed, I enjoyed the fiery sun beating down on my head as our caravan made its way farther into the desert, the vista one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen, with endless undulating dunes and camels not designated for tourist rides (and thus obviously more authentic) ambling in the distance.
My last stop was in the mountains of Jebel Akhdar, about a three-hour drive west from the desert and near the historic city of Nizwa. Jebel Akhdar is made up of the central section of the al-Hajar Mountains, which sweep the country from the Musandam Peninsula south through Muscat and end near the seaside town of Sur.
Wikipedia calls Jebel Akhdar Oman’s “wildest” terrain, and the term struck me as appropriate. On a steep, curvy drive up to the Saiq Plateau, situated at 6,500 feet among rugged peaks, the rain commenced, its brownish waterfalls plummeting down the sides of the crags. In some places, the water created large pools that our vehicle had to traverse. Such rains can prove dangerous in Oman, as floodwaters quickly fill wadis (dry riverbeds), sometimes surprising hikers and campers. Many have drowned this way, as well as by trying to cross torrential wadis in cars.
Safely delivered to the plateau and in better weather the next day, I hiked through the nearby villages of al-Aqr, al-Ayn and al-Sharayjah. Areas of terrace farming were carved into the rocky summits and dotted with tiny mosques and crumbly stone and concrete houses.
While following my guide and fellow hikers, I had to walk on aflaj, Omani irrigation systems in which water runs through channels dug into the earth; the channels I saw in Oman were constructed of concrete. Some of the aflaj on the hike seemed to be almost carved into the side of a mountain, with the view from my narrow walkway a sheer drop to the left or right. I swallowed my fear of heights and tried to laugh when the guy behind me advised that I fall “toward the mountain” if I lost my balance. “It’ll hurt less that way,” he joked. Despite some sweaty palms, the experience was well worth it.
Kirk is an editor and writer based in Washington.
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