December 10, 2007

Arabian Excursion Day 3: Omani Coast and Wahiba Sands

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8am early start today as I will be out for a full 12 hours, combining 2 excursions into one. Saif has returned to be my guide again. Must be the tip I left him yesterday…

As we leave Muscat, we encounter detours as there is lots of road construction going on. Saif explained that a few months ago the flash floods coming through the wadi had been severe, and washed away lots of road sections throughout the country. We would be seeing a lot more of this throughout the day.

First stop if Quryiat, a small fishing village not far from Muscat. It’s quiet, with a couple of dozen small fishing boats on the shore inside the small half moon bay. As one would expect, there is an old watchtower on one end of the bay. The atmosphere is so laid back and serene as I sit underneath the gazebo…listening to the waves washing up on the beach, and the seagulls looking for a meal…I really didn’t want to leave this place.

We continue along the coast, but Saif decides to take a “short cut” as he wanted to take advantage of the new highway that is being built. We end up going through more than an hour’s worth of very rough terrain, including being in a dried wadi where we really had to fully utilize the capacility of the Toyota Landcruiser. It was quite some time before we found ourselves back on paved roads again.

The obligatory next stop is the so-called Bimmah Sinkhole, a natural hole carved into the rocky ground that has a mixed flow of salt and freshwater year round. With the terrain and the turquoise water, I am reminded of the volcanic lakes of Kelimutu on Flores in Indonesia. Unlike Kelimutu, the water here is fresh and clear to the bottom, and I can see schools of little fish swimming among the seaweed and moss. It’s a wonderful sight. Unfortunately we are in the dry season, so there isn’t enough water for me to go for a dip.

We continue along the coast on a rough, unpaved road. Interestingly, we are running parallel to the new highway that is partially completed. The half of the project from Muscat to Tiwi has been given to a Turkish company, while the section from Tiwi to Sur is being done by a Chinese company. We try to drive on the completed sections, but most of the road remain closed despite having been completed.

This section of the coast is really beautiful, with rocky cliffs and white, sandy beaches along the way in little alcoves. The water is shows many graduated shades of blue. The contrast is striking.

The first highlight of the day is Wadi Shab, a green riverbed close to the village of Tiwi. After driving for hours in the barren canyons, the welcome sight of the mountains opening up into a green valley, with palm trees on both sides and lush, green riverbed is a godsend. One gets a hint of how people in the desert must feel when they catch sight of an oasis. I quickly take in my picnic lunch here while Saif goes off for his lunchtime prayers. Numerous other visitors pass by on the way into the depth of the canyon, and by the time I am done with lunch, none had returned. I make my way inside the canyon, but can see no end to the meandering wadi. Where did all the other people go? There must be something deep inside that captivated them, something so nice that makes people unwilling to leave the place. Unfortunately I am running out of time, so I double back to the car and move on.

Incidentally, the Chinese are constructing a bridge to cross the gap at the opening of Wadi Shab. As I started my trek inward, I see a lone Chinese construction worker taking a break. He looked longingly in my direction, clearly homesick and overjoyed at the sight of a fellow countryman. He has been here for 20 months, a long time to be away from home. I promise to chat upon my return, but did not see him as I returned to the car.

Further along the coast we make a brief stop at Bibi Miriam’s tomb near Qalhat, a simple structure that has stood here for several hundred years. Details are sketchy and even Saif does not know much, but it appears that Bibi was a rich daughter who, centuries ago, broke with tradition and received a proper education.

We finally reach Sur at around 2:30pm. This is one of the largest cities in Oman, yet it remains a quiet coastal fishing town. We park along the Corniche and I walk to the beach, admiring the clear water. How nice it is to have such a clean beach right in the city. I think of San Sebastien and the clear water inside that beautiful half-moon bay. The water is cold and I decide not to jump in completely, wading only knee-deep with camera in hand to snap a few shots of the beach front.

With only a couple of hours to sun down, we quickly make way to the Wahiba Sands. Other than the Empty Quarter, this is the largest area of sand dunes in the country, stretching more than 100km at its widest point. The area is famed for its golden sands with the reddish tint. We arrive at the entry point around 4:30pm, an hour before sunset.

Saif first takes me to the dwelling of a Bedouin family he knows. We are invited into the reception area for guests, and offered a small cup of coffee and some dates. Saif pours coffee from an old thermos (and not a traditional Arabic coffee pot) and there are dozens of flies buzzing around the dates, but I accept the offering out of courtesy. I hear the mention of money in the exchange between Saif and the hostess, and know that I should purchase a token handicraft for the privilege of the visit. After about 20 minutes (which unfortunately is precious time wasted today) I pay 2 Rials for a simple woven bookmark without bargaining.
Now I have a little less than 1 hour before sunset. I tell Saif to drive to a spot for me to take pictures, making sure that we face the right direction away from the sun. We don’t have much time to go far, and settle for something close.

The sand here really is golden, with an orange/reddish layer on top and a paler base. The reddish top layer makes for excellent photographs as it contrasts with the rest of the area, appearing as a highlight on top of the dunes. I relax and enjoy sunset over the dunes. It’s been 8 years since I last watched the sun set over the Mingsha Dunes(鳴沙山)in Dunhuang (敦煌), China.

Just before leaving, I catch sight of a camel calf suckling on its mother.

Saif takes me back to Muscat, flying at between 120-140km/h on the highway. Before he drops me back at the hotel we visit a traditional shop selling halwa, the national dessert which is basically a jello of dates, saffron, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices. I try 3 different varieties and settle on buying both the cheapest (which is the most common and my favorite) as well as the most expensive (yellowish in color from the saffron). I am happy.

For dinner I am too tired to venture out. I polish off the huge chunks of baklawa as well as other Arabic desserts purchased from Lulu the night before, and decided to stay away from baklawa for a long time going forward as I’ve just OD’d on it…

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