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To the Infinity Pool and Beyond: Inland Oman

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The original plan for Sunday was to find a driver to take us from Muscat to the inland towns of Nizwa and Bahla to see their forts and then return to the Muscat airport. From there we would fly back to Dubai and then remain at the airport until the departure of our flight back to Miami. It was my brother Michael who suggested it might be better to be driven from Muscat all the way back to Dubai with stops in Nizwa and Bahla. I was somewhat skeptical that we would find a driver with the capacity for eight passengers willing to cross an international border on a one way trip, but once I buckled down and began collecting contacts it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. The best price I was quoted was three hundred rials, the equivalent of eight hundred US dollars. I may have been able to bargain it down but I was concerned that our driver would never show up if the trip was only marginally profitable. In that case we would be royally screwed so I went with the first price that operator quoted us, still much lower than several others.

We carefully packed and had breakfast in our hotel room again. Our driver showed up at nine as scheduled which alleviated most of my remaining anxiety about our plan. The only thing I could think of to be worried about now was the border but our contact didn't seem to have any concerns. Our driver was of African origin and spoke minimal English and no French. I had no idea if he was an immigrant or if his family had been living in Oman for generations. We communicated using my original contact as an intermediary on WhatsApp. It was a two hour drive through boring scrubland. I tried to read and not let the constant squabbling emanating from the back two rows bother me too much. Finally a traditional gate marked our entrance into Nizwa. The gate was constructed in a classical Arabic style but was less than ten years old.

Our driver had recommended that we see the souq first as it would close for several hours in the afternoon. Nizwa is an ancient city and its souq is reputedly one of the oldest in Oman. Our driver deposited us in a central area with pristine traditional buildings that displayed colorful arrays of newly-made pottery. One thing the area was missing was people. There didn't seem to be any customers around and just a scattering of pedestrians, probably because it was a Sunday during Ramadan. A few shopkeepers nodded at us benignly, probably well-aware that with five kids in tow we weren't shopping for ceramics.

The pottery was pretty enough but rather basic and all of similar design. Close by we found a covered market which had some stalls with fruits and vegetables, although nothing very impressive or unusual. There was more emphasis here on coffee, dates, and spices and once again very few customers. Staircases led to a mezzanine level which was occupied by a labyrinthine shop selling everything from antiques to crafts to jewelry.

We wandered around the souq area for a bit longer but we didn't come across any energetic scenes. There were a couple of stores selling packaged dates and other delicacies that seemed geared to visitors on package tours. The most interesting place was probably the grocery store where we stopped to buy water and had an opportunity to examine the staple items that local people really bought on a daily basis. I couldn't resist a package of plump golden raisins although I reminded myself to only nibble on them when I was out of the public eye.

We noticed some promising little alleys that led away from the market into the surrounding neighborhoods. Soon we found ourselves in a network of narrow lanes paved with flagstones, surrounded by crumbling brown buildings constructed of a mixture of concrete and mud. This was the scene we had been unable to find anywhere in Muscat. Some of the ruined houses appeared so antiquated that we couldn't tell if we were looking at urban decay or an archaeological site.

I used the phone GPS to navigate in the direction of the fort. As we approached Nizwa's main attraction the streets grew wider and asphalt replaced the flagstones. The crumbling mud walls and piles of rubble disappeared and we walked among handsome two and three story buildings with terraces and roof decks. Many of these were hotels and historical houses.

Nizwa Fort was built in the late seventeenth century by an Omani sultan and is considered one of the most important historical sites in the country. Once past the entrance we found ourselves in a complex of familiar-appearing beige buildings with steep walls topped with battlements. Within the main building there were museum-type displays devoted to such subjects as the processing of dates and the manufacture of indigo, a local specialty. Some of the meeting rooms in the fort had been furnished with carpets and cushions and one had even been turned into a library.

We quickly got lost among the warren of rooms so we just made a point of heading upward wherever we could. Some of the staircases had gaps in them that were covered with Plexiglas. These fenestrations could be used to pour boiling date syrup onto invaders trying to ascend the flight underneath. Eventually we arrived at the roof where we could see the entrance to the prodigious main tower and look out over the entire layout of the fort.

The main tower is forty meters tall and even more impressively wide. Four dual staircases ascended from the lower level to a walkway at the top which provided access to the battlements. From here we could see much of Nizwa including its tallest minaret as well as the barren hills that surrounded the town.

On the grounds of the fort there was a slightly threadbare garden which had some male and female oryxes in separate fenced enclosures. There were greens available for a donation to feed to the oryxes and everyone got a thick bunch. The male looked quite ominous with his long horns and I was grateful for the wire mesh fence.

Bahla was only another half hour's drive from Nizwa. This smaller city also had a modern Arabic gate at its entrance from the main road. Bahla seemed to be even sleepier than Nizwa although it may have been because we arrived during the slow midday period. Our driver pulled up in the empty parking lot beneath the Bahla Fort and tilted his seat back for a nap. A dusty road ascended through a cluster of houses at the base of the hill on which the fort stood.

At the top we found what we had been looking for, an isolated sitting area shielded by a stone wall where we could violate local customs with a picnic. We still had quite a bit of food from our supermarket trip on the first night in Muscat including bread, fruit, and roasted chicken. The ambiance wasn't ideal but if we hadn't been prepared for Ramadan we would have starved.

Mei Ling and the kids get bored of old castles quickly and they elected not to enter the fort, having just completed a thorough tour of the one in Nizwa. Michael and I went inside for a quick spin around the walled compound while Mei Ling lined the kids up for a photo shoot in front of the entrance.

I didn't spend much time inside the fort as it was quite similar to the one we had just visited. Although the Bahla Fort is not as popular as the Nizwa Fort, it is several hundred years older and the only Omani fort that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sand-colored walls had pleasing rounded edges that reminded me of the adobe houses of New Mexico. I went back outside and rejoined the others while Michael spent another fifteen minutes ascending to the highest level of battlements.

We were quite close to Jabreen Castle, the last historical site in the area. This seventeenth century building is a palace that was not constructed as a military fortification but rather as a palace for a powerful sultan. Nevertheless from the outside it looked very similar to the forts we had just visited so we decided to only walk around the outside of the building. We weren't exactly tight on time but we still had to negotiate the border and the last thing we wanted was to finish our trip with a mad rush to the airport.

The drive from Bahla back to Dubai was long and largely uneventful. As we approached the border we passed a huge box truck which had capsized on the opposite side and spilled crates of juice all over the highway. Thankfully there wasn't enough traffic to create a jam. At the border we had to exit our vehicle twice, once on each side, to personally present our passports and be peered at by the immigration officers. The entire process took over an hour.

We had our driver drop us off at Deira City Centre, a large mall close to the Dubai Airport. We figured out that he was planning to sleep in his car that night rather than trying to drive back to Muscat. He had done a good job for us so we tipped him with our remaining Omani rials in addition to the three hundred agreed on with our contact. I'm not sure how much of that three hundred the driver was actually getting. Inside the mall was a food hall called Food Central that was on the list I'd made prior to the trip. It wasn't as beautiful as Depachika but there were plenty of different cuisines to choose from and we absolutely stuffed ourselves ahead of the long trip back to Miami. Afterwards we made a quick stop at Michael's villa to retrieve our large suitcase and then we were off to the airport.

Our departure from Dubai was efficient and timely, something we had come to expect in the Emirates. The flight back to Miami was uneventful but very long, although the kids thankfully slept most of the way as they had on the outward journey. Dubai had been an absolute revelation, one of the most fascinating and frenetic weeks of traveling I could remember. I couldn't say that Oman had been equally interesting but it had been a worthwhile use of two days to gain a better understanding of the country. I expect we'll return to Dubai in two years to experience the city outside of Ramadan, spend more time in Abu Dhabi, and possibly visit Qatar.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:08 Archived in Oman Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog nizwa bahla tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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