Saturday, 19 October 2013

An Oman Excursion

As we were only aiming to get as far as Sohar, there was no need to rush in the morning, and we enjoyed yet another slow start. We felt slightly like we were channelling Ross from Friends, as we checked out of our hotel with just one minute until the deadline. The ride out of the U.A.E. took us through beautiful desert scenery. It was truly the stuff of postcards, with rolling golden sand dunes as far as the eye could see. We even spotted a few groups of camels, completing the classic desert image.

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We have generally found on the trip that smaller border posts are the easiest and quickest to negotiate, so with this in mind decided to avoid the Hatta crossing, and go via Mahdah instead. We were a little confused when the solitary man guarding the border merrily waved us through. We asked whether he needed to stamp our passports, but he said not to worry so off we went. The small road took us through beautiful and harsh scenery. Mountainous in parts, and forming huge flat plains in others, the Omani landscape is also characterised by its numerous wadis (water courses). Although given the time of year these were mostly dry, they still looked amazing as they wound their way through the plains.

As we passed through the rocky desert, we saw storm clouds brewing up ahead. It was definitely not what we had expected to see on the Arabian Peninsula, but it was most unmistakably rain. It was incredibly hot, so for once we were actually delighted to hit this weather, and riding through the light shower was a beautifully surreal moment given the dry and arid landscape. We opened our visors and let the droplets hit our faces, enjoying the scent of the cool rain on the parched ground.

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All was going well until we were 50 miles into Oman. For some reason, this is where the actual Omani border post is. We expected the process to be easy, as visas are available on arrival and it is common for European visitors to pop into the country whilst holidaying in neighbouring Dubai. It was here we discovered that the man at the previous post really should have stamped our passports, as we could not get our Omani visas without proof that we had exited the U.A.E. Some would argue that the fact that we were standing at the Omani border was proof enough, but sadly this is not how bureaucracy works. We were sent back to the nearest U.A.E.  border post of Al Ain, 20km from the Oman checkpoint.

Grumbling and aware of the fading light, we bombed it down the highway to Al Ain. Given the distance between the border posts, we had expected an empty no mans land. Instead, this is a populated part of Oman, complete with small towns, shops, restaurants and hotels. It seemed pretty bizarre to us that essentially you could just come here without officially having entered the country, but the situation was what it was.

We arrived to Al Ain quickly, but then had to wait an hour in a crowded portacabin to receive our much needed exit stamps. Nobody working at the border seemed at all surprised by our situation, so we could only conclude that it is a common occurrence. Whilst we waited, I got chatting to a lady from Japan. She worked in Kuwait but was in Oman to visit a friend. She seemed nice enough, until she surprisingly turned out to be an enormous racist, noting that there were a lot of Indian and Chinese people living in Britain when she went to visit. She asked me if there were any problems with this. I answered that I had no issues, and nor did the majority of people. She was surprised and started telling me that they had problems with Chinese and Korean immigration in Japan, and that these two groups accounted for the highest proportion of prison inmates. I politely suggested that perhaps racial prejudice in the social, economic and judicial systems that might account for this, but there was no convincing her. So, that was nice and awkward.

After an hour, we finally had our exit stamps and hot footed it back to the official Oman border. From here, it was a simple process of filling out a quick form, and making a small payment. Relieved that it had been easy, we again clambered back on the bike, eager to get on our way. There was just one final check to get through, which should have been a simple case of handing our exit paper over to the border guard. Annoyingly however, he asked us to stop and said he wanted to search our panniers. After all the earlier hassle we were not exactly in the mood, but obediently started unlocking our various bags. He had a half-arsed rifle through, before seemingly getting bored and asking us outright if we were smuggling whisky. The amused surprise on our faces must have registered with his colleague, who quickly apologised to us and said they occasionally had problems. I told him we'd come from Iran so it had been a long time since we'd had a drink, which made him laugh and ended the search.

We started to repack our bags, as the less friendly guard had upset the delicate balance and made a mess of the contents. He quickly got impatient and shouted for us to do it faster. I almost got the giggles as Oli paused and stared pointedly at him for a second, before calmly stating that it wasn't a car, and he was doing it as quickly as possible. Of course Oli was actually taking his sweet time deliberately, but we were allowed to continue the process without further comment.

From the border post, it was an easy ride in the dark to Sohar. Finding the hotel itself was another matter. Probably due to the intense heat, finding people on the street to ask directions is difficult in this part of the world. We rode fruitlessly in circles for a while, before finally spotting a taxi driver, who kindly showed us the way without asking for any payment. The hotel itself was surprisingly nice, and our room was enormous.

As is our style in the Middle East, we quickly took ourselves to the nearby shopping mall to sort out our evening nourishment. The French supermarket chain Carrefour seem to be taking over, and it was here that we stocked up with supplies for both dinner and breakfast. It was a pretty bizarre experience – like being in France itself, but with a strong Arab twist and missing alcohol aisles. We behaved exactly the way you would expect people to if they had not seen so much food in one place at one time for so long, and ended up buying far too much. Sadly however Carrefour did not stock sunglasses, as even Oli was now close to admitting that the glasses of doom needed binning.

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Unfortunately, Oli woke up the next day feeling rough indeed, a dangerous case of the man-flu. We had originally thought we would probably head straight to Muscat, as there isn't really enough to do in Sohar to warrant two nights. However, mindful of how my minor illness had evolved in Tabriz, we decided it was best that he take it easy. We passed an enjoyable day in our hotel room, abusing the free high-speed internet and getting all of our Iran photos uploaded. It was late afternoon by the time Oli felt up to stirring, so we took a quick trip to the beach. The evening light on the quiet sea front was beautiful, and we sat for a while watching the waves break on the sand.

From here, we walked the short distance to the Sohar Souk, as had heard it was worth a look. It had very recently been renovated, and whilst it was nicely done it was mostly empty and more than a little soulless. We stayed to snap a couple of photos, and that pretty much exhausted what there was to see really.

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The next day Oli awoke feeling much better and in fine spirits, so the decision was made to head towards Muscat. The roads in Oman are truly excellent, and we covered the short distance easily despite the baking heat. We were delighted to find that our hotel was again brilliant. It seems that cheap accommodation is not easy to find in Oman, but although we ended up paying around £40 per night the standard was very high in both of the places we stayed.

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The original plan had been to go and see the old town in the afternoon. However, almost as soon as we arrived Oli announced that his hair was making him too hot, and that he was off for a haircut at a barbers he had spotted on the way. Slightly terrified he was going to come back looking ridiculous, off he went clutching a passport photo for reference. He reappeared half an hour later. Thankfully the haircut was actually great, with the bonus of only having cost one Omani Rial (about £1.60). Phew.

We set off for the Old Town a little too late in the day, blithely assuming it would be well sign posted and not anticipating the heavy traffic. Whilst the roads in Oman are perfect in terms of surface, it turns out that useful signs are somewhat lacking. The assumption seems be that you will either have a decent GPS or know where you are going already. Sadly neither of those things were true for us.

After a long battle with the worst city traffic we have encountered so far on the trip, we finally arrived at the old town in the dark. Sweaty and dishevelled, we were disappointed to discover that it was not worth the effort. This district appears to have been the recipient of a very recent and heavy facelift, which although nice has sapped any character or charm from the area. There was almost nobody around, and the proliferation of restaurants that we had thought would be present was nowhere to be seen. We had got what we deserved from our poor (read 'no') research.

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However, this was of course the Middle East, so a shopping mall can always be found in times of need. Our hotel was conveniently close to the Muscat Grand Mall, so we swung by here on the way home, helping ourselves to a classy food court dinner like uncultured swines. It was brilliant.

Whilst we had been enjoying the incredible scenery, we had to admit that so far in Oman we had failed to do any touristy things. With this in mind, the next day was ear-marked to see two of Oman's most recommended sights, the Wadi Shab and the Bimmah Sinkhole. Both located approximately two hours from Muscat (and close by to each other), it was easily manageable as a day trip.

The trip to the Wadi was more than worth it for the drive alone, as the road carved through incredible mountain and seaside vistas. It was mercifully quiet when we arrived at the car park, and we wasted no time in getting the boat across the river and beginning our walk. Our route took us through the vast canyon, the rocky walls rising steeply towards the sky. Although it was the end of the summer season, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that there was still plenty of water around, settled in deep aquamarine pools. The rich colour of the water contrasted against the harsh dry landscape certainly made for a beautiful sight. Sadly we didn't make it to the waterfall at the end, as the heat was insane. Pouring sweat as we were wearing our motorbike jeans and boots, we were both starting to feel a little queasy so decided the sensible thing to do was throw in the towel. Even though we were disappointed not to make it to the end, the Wadi Shab was well worth the trip and really is spectacularly beautiful.

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The Bimmah Sinkhole is located just off the main route to Muscat, so we decided to drop in and see it on our way back. Even on the short drive from the wadi to here, the scenery was breathtaking. Unable to resist, Oli parted ways with the tarmac and we bounced along off-road over the rocky ground to get closer to the sea. It was well worth the diversion, and despite the punishing heat we stayed for a while and happily drank it in.

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The sinkhole itself is located in a small, scrubby park. The unspectacular surroundings made the outstanding beauty of its turquoise waters all the more surprising. It looked like a refreshing spot for a swim, and we were definitely regretting having to be in our motorbike gear.

We were slightly alarmed to spot a couple of teenagers precariously balanced on the cliff edge, ready to jump down into the deep waters a heart-stoppingly long distance below. The boy went for it quickly, and happily resurfaced un-injured. His sister however was less convinced, and kept shouting down for her dad to come up and help her climb down the final few feet to reach a safe jump off point. Rather than telling her there was no way she was doing the jump, he instead resignedly climbed up the steps and went to go and assist. Oli and I didn't stay to watch, as we were definitely more panicked than the parents. The family were Australian, and evidently much braver and tougher parents than us wussy Brits.

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We enjoyed the drive back as much as the journey out, and made slow progress due to numerous photo stops. We watched dramatic clouds form over the mountains and were slightly worried we were going to get a soaking. Thankfully though the rain never materialised, and we made it back without getting wet.

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The next day it was time to head back to Dubai, and we were up early as we knew it was going to be a long drive in relentless heat. The journey back was without incident, aside from the fact that we had overlooked the approach of the Qurbani (sacrifice) festival. When initially planning our onward route from Turkey, we had thought we would be well out of the Middle East by then, but time had marched on. Whilst there was no evidence of the mass slaughter in the main towns, going through the dustier, smaller villages we saw some sights that were not pleasant to a vegetarian, or anyone for that matter. Countless split bags of animal entrails were dotted along the roadside, and on a couple of occasions we saw what could only have been cows' stomachs due to the size. Even though we were whizzing past at 70mph, the smell in the 40 degree heat will linger in my mind for a long time and those sights cannot be unseen. Eurgh. On the whole, Oman is a very developed country, so we had definitely not expected this.

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We arrived at the border in surprisingly good time, and did the usual dance on the U.A.E. side of queuing for the relevant stamp. On exiting, one of the guards jokingly asked us if our bike was for sale. When we told him that alas it was not, he pointed at his bearded colleague and offered to swap 'Osama Bin Laden' for our machine. We weren't entirely sure how best to respond to that, so smiled, waved and drove off.

It had been a flying visit to Oman, and we could easily have spent more time here were it not for our Indian visas rapidly ticking down towards their expiry dates. We would definitely like to return in the future, but in a slightly cooler season, making use of some local knowledge to enjoy the great outdoors and doing a spot of wild camping. We have filed it away in the ever growing mental list of places we are keen to re-visit, and hopefully will make it back one day...

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