Middle Eastern Road Trip, Part 2
Here I continue the tales of our recent road-tripping adventures on the Arabian Peninsula.
Oman has a different climate than Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. It is slightly cooler, and definitely wetter. In fact, near its mountainous border with Yemen, Oman's landscape is misty and rainy this time of year, because it is affected by the monsoon season. (Need a geography refresher? Look here.)
For most of our time in Muscat, Oman's capital city, it was in the 90s (F), overcast, and humid. Which doesn't sound like much of a picnic, but I felt my skin soaking in the humidity, and my eyes were nicely moist. For a girl used to D.C. summers, this felt like home--but with no mosquitoes!
Because it's summertime, and it was the end of Ramadan, I was able to get a great deal at The Chedi, a very elegant resort at the edge of Muscat. Condé Nast Traveller describes it as "a setting that has been meticulously designed to be part Philippe Starck, part Lawrence of Arabia."
We are fortunate in the Middle East to have access to 5-star hotels which, unlike in Europe and North America, are reasonably affordable for riffraff like us! So we have seen our share of baroque-style gold bathroom fixtures and ridiculous chandeliers.
But this! Our room had an alcove with a built-in sofa and meticulous, modern architectural details that reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright, actually. The sheets had such a high thread count that they felt like silk. There were burbling fountains and zen-like pathways between the low, whitewashed buildings. I caught a whiff of a mysterious, intoxicating incense each time I passed through the lobby.
We noted with surprise that their main restaurant won a 2013 Wine Spectator award for its wine list. So, of course we had to speak to their sommelier--how wonderful to be in a place where they have one! You'd expect it in Europe or the U.S., but in the Middle East? Not so much. Because this was the tail end of Ramadan, drink service was limited to dinnertime in the main restaurant. Fair enough.
We did manage to drag ourselves away from the lovely Chedi to see Muscat's waterfront corniche, and its souq (which opens directly onto the corniche.) There were millionaire yachts floating next to traditional wooden dhows.
Muscat's busy, maze-like souq is built around a series of central spaces like this one, with paths spoking out in every direction. The souq was crowded with Eid holiday shoppers, as gifts are traditionally exchanged during the Eid (which is the celebration that follows Ramadan). It was noisy and crowded, but felt very calm and safe. In fact, all of Oman felt very calm and safe. Michael bought Omani headscarves, and the shopkeeper taught him how to tie one in the Omani way, which is unlike the loose style worn in other Arabic countries.
After a couple of days of 5-star pampering, it was time to head down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, a sheltered beach that is the breeding ground for four types of sea turtles.
It was hard for me to figure out exactly when breeding season is supposed to be--different sources say different things. I think it's a long season, what with four different breeds of sea turtles showing up, but for all that we've heard plenty of stories of people coming to Ras Al Jinz multiple times and standing out on the beach in the dark seeing ... nothing. But we got lucky.
Around 9:30 p.m., a guide took a group of us out to the beach and immediately we found a mama leatherback turtle, easily 175 pounds, who was in the process of laying her eggs in a deep hole she had dug in the soft sand. Watching those pearlescent eggs coming out of that huge, silent creature felt sort of intrusive, certainly weirdly intimate. (No pictures--flashes weren't allowed and anyway that would have been crass!)
Next we saw another mama turtle who was in the process of burying the eggs she had just laid, using her powerful back legs to kick sand into the hole. Several of our group got sprayed with flying sand. Finally, we saw a third turtle making her way back across the sand and into the sea. We watched as her shell, at least five feet long, disappear into the waves.
The next morning, we drove inland from the coast up into the Hajar Mountains, where we stayed in the city of Nizra. The picture above shows the kinds of views we had once we got out of the car and started walking through the countryside high in the Jebel Akhdar region, up in the mountains. This was after we crossed the check-point where the police make sure you really do have a four-wheel drive vehicle! Bear in mind, these pictures were taken in August--in the hottest, driest season of Oman's year. Yet, look how green!
We hiked down to an abandoned village--one of two in a valley. They had been traditionally constructed of stone and mud. It felt like the village must have been hundreds of years old, but we walked through others that looked fairly similar--and they were still occupied.
Each of the mountain villages had a parking lot, usually perched on a plateau or a widening of the road above the village proper. There are no cars inside the villages themselves. We couldn't resist taking a picture of a Jeep with a University of Maryland sticker on the back window! (I retouched the tag so the numbers don't show, but it's an Omani license plate.)
How did we know where to hike? The whole region is riddled with hiking trails, all blazed with the striped mark shown above. Sometimes the trail marches right through the middle of a village--in which case, there will be trail blazes painted on the sides of buildings themselves.
After a day of tramping around the mountains, we returned to our hotel in Nizwa. Earlier I had noted with some concern that the emergency exit in the hallway near our hotel room was padlocked shut. That afternoon it became clear why: the neighborhood goats like to hang out in the shade of the hotel building--and you KNOW if that door wasn't bolted shut someone would have let those goats in to roam the halls.
Finally it was time to bid a fond farewell to Oman, and begin our return trip north. We stopped off in Qatar for the weekend to visit friends--and saw sculptor Richard Serra's ambitious and strange installation out in emptiness of western Qatar. (Another instance where four-wheel drive was the only way to get there.)
If you're interested in reading more about this piece, the New Yorker did an article on it back in April, when the installation was being unveiled. In the article, I learned that the head of Qatar's Museums Authority, Sheikha al-Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a sister of the Emir and a Duke University graduate, was recently named the most powerful person in the art world by ArtReview. The Museums Authority spends about a billion dollars per year on art. A billion!
After our East-West/West-East experience, and a picture-postcard sunset on the beach of Qatar's west coast, we returned to our friend's house for pizza, beer, and our own artistic outpouring!
The next day we made our final push for home. We have talked several times since then about how happy we are to have made this 9-day road trip and seen so much of this part of the world--our new home. Each of the countries we visited has its own feel, its own energy. When you just fly in for the weekend, it can be hard to get that.