December 9, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 2: Omani Forts

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Left the hotel before 8am today for my tour of Omani forts. Oman is a country dotted with watchtowers and known for its classical forts, so I wanted to get a cultural perspective on the country. My tourguide Saif speaks excellent English, and seems very knowledgeable about the world economy and clearly has done some homework on Hong Kong and Asia.

First stop was Nizwa, the fourth-largest city in the country. I walked through the Nizwa souq but it wasn't very interesting. The Nizwa Fort sits next to the souq, dominated by its large round tower. Like most other forts in the country, this one continues to be under restoration. Climbing to the top of the tower gives a commanding view of the historic town settlements with its date palms. We see trap doors in the stairwells and openings through which hot honey would have been poured on the enemy. Pretty interesting.

Before moving on, we passed by a food shop selling a local delicacy whose name escapes me. It is a variation of shwarma, but here the meat is mutton kebab instead of sliced. It is delicious and help push back lunch time by about an hour or so.

We make a quick stop at Al-Harma, one of the oldest villages in Oman. Here the houses are built Yemeni style although certainly not as elaborate as the ones in Sana'a. There is a large date palm planation giving a good contrast in colors.

Next stop is Jabrin Castle, where we go through the maze and look for every hidden nook and cranny. Of particular interest is the date store, where grooves are made in the floor to enable the date juice to flow through an opening in the floor to the storage vats. We pass by rooms still decorated with handcuffs, some with iron bars on the windows.

On the way back, we pass by Bahla Fort - a UNESCO World Heritage site currently under major restoration for the next couple of years. It was built in 1500 B.C. and was protected by surrounding walls which look like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. Unfortunately I was not able to go inside and can only snap a few pictures from outside.

A word about modern Omani architecture: there are no skyscrapers, even in the capital. Most houses today are still built in the traditional Omani style, with maybe 3 stories and niched tops bearing resemblence to the country's forts. Most are whitewashe or colored like the sand. The most interesting feature is the water tower on the roof. As you trvel across the country, you realize that most are shaped like the round tower of a fort, and come either in white or sand to match the house. It's actually very cute.

Lunch was a disaster. I was dropped off at the Falaj Daris Hotel in Nizwa and led to the buffet. While there were local appetizers such as hummus and fatoosh, all the hot dishes were Western. The saving grace was the desert - ummali - a pudding with milk, raisins and nuts.

I had dinner at a very local eatery in Qurm. The fare was decided Lebanese and I had a very thin mutton shwarma along with fatoosh and vine leaves.

Shopping here is not as big of a fasttime as neighboring Dubai, so it's not surprising to discover that the malls are rather small. However, it has been quite a while since I have seen shopping centers so tiny and poorly stocked. I had to get myself to the Lulu Hypermarket near the hotel to finally see some scale, and real shopping buzz.

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