My interest in traveling to Oman started with a bicycling race and some mountains — common features of a lot of my travels. It was 2010, winter in Lake Tahoe, and J and I were watching the first Tour of Oman on television. The peloton snaked along the route with its usual gracefulness, but the backdrop of the race featured unusually stark mountains, a pristine coastline and a series of towns and villages painted in infinite shades of white. I looked up Oman in Geographica’s World Reference (an excellent source which still holds an important place on our antiquated bookshelf), noted Oman’s location on the Arabian Peninsula, and set Oman to simmer in the back of my mind.
Fast-forward five years and here we are in Muscat. Since moving abroad, Oman’s proximity has enabled us to get here sooner than we expected – it’s just eight hours from Singapore, through Colombo or Dubai. But beyond its proximity, everything we’ve read and heard over the years has consistently portrayed the country as a welcoming, peaceful and fascinating place to visit, with a concerted interest in preserving both its cultural heritage and its environment.
First impressions confirm all of the above to be true. Before setting out on our road trip, we spend the first two nights in deep relaxation at a resort along the coast outside of Muscat. The view over afternoon coffees at the Al Bustan Palace (the next bay over) foreshadows what we’ll be seeing throughout our trip — barren but dramatically formed mountains that quash our limited knowledge of geology. I soon find myself researching the Semail Ophiolite (more on that later) and struggling to comprehend 800 million years of tectonic and volcanic events.
At dusk, we venture into Old Muscat for a few hours to explore the souk with its narrow alleys selling gold jewelry, frankincense and kumas. I admire the men’s dishdashas – simple white robes worn every day, often smelling of frankincense and always projecting an indelible air of elegance. What marvelous garments for hot weather.
J stops for a shave at one of the many barbers around the souk and we’re soon introduced to the meticulous rituals of Omani manscaping. This is Next Level Grooming, as proven by the guy next to J who is having his mustache threaded. Within 10 minutes, J’s beard transforms from a western mess to a sculpted garden reminiscent of the Sultan of Oman himself (go ahead, you know you want to Google image him — he’s beautiful and perfectly groomed at age 74). The Omanis have turned a simple shave into an art form.
The next morning we visit the fish market, a bustle of activity and a potent glimpse at daily life in Oman. We follow this with a walk through the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and I am as awed by its beauty as I am by St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The Grand Mosque is home to the world’s second largest handmade carpet, as well as a 14-meter, 8.5-ton chandelier in the prayer hall made of 600,000 Swarovski crystals. I can say with honesty that the chandelier is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.
Our trip to Oman has started splendidly and in the past two days we’ve settled in and gotten a sense of what to expect in the coming week. People have been friendly, but what’s absent is the profuse, sometimes insincere, pandering to tourists that’s often found (and expected by some) in overly-traveled destinations. And I don’t miss it. People here acknowledge our presence and welcome us, but they are clearly not dependent on us being here. Life goes on in Oman, with or without us tourists, and it’s refreshing to find it this way.
On our third afternoon in Muscat, we take a taxi to pick up our rental car. Thankfully, our taxi driver helps us sort out some considerable confusion about where it’s located and we finally arrive at a house in a quaint residential neighborhood. An Omani man is waiting with the car and a Filipino woman is waiting with our rented camping gear – tent, sleeping bags, stove, chairs, cooler and all. Within an hour we’re on the highway back to the hotel, this time in the driver’s seat, excited to begin our road trip the next morning in our awesome, nearly-new Mitsubishi Pajero. Good thing it’s a four-wheel drive.
Next up… Road Trip Oman: Wild and Wadi Camping
P.S. for cycling fans… the winner of the 2010 Tour of Oman was the charismatic Fabian Cancellara.