Muscat: 20,000 worshippers under the sun!

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April 2nd 2014
Published: June 26th 2017
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Khor Fkkan to Muscat (Muttrah)

Temp: 94F 32C

Distance travelled: 498 nautical miles

We are still a few days away from pirate/bandit country. The badlands lie around the horn of Africa along the Somalian, Eritrean and Djibouti coastline. We followed a small tanker out of the Khor al Fakkan port. I noticed that the tanker had rolls of barbed wire coiled around the hull of the vessel. This seemed to be for no other reason than a deterrent to would be hijackers. Ships will go to any length no matter how basic to slow down a potential attack just to allow enough time for the security services patrolling the area to come to assistance. As soon as we cleared the coast of Khor Fakkan and entered the Gulf of Oman, we counted 22 ships of varying sizes all trying to go slower than each other. It's as if they're saying, 'Go on! You go first!!'

Each evening on board a dress code is recommended. This will either be Casual, Informal or Gala. Casual is usually t-shirt, trousers or jeans for men and a dress, trouser suit or sporty outfit (I don't know what this means) for ladies. Informal should be the same as casual but drop the sporty look for ladies and a shirt with a jacket and trousers (no jeans) for men. Gala is the whole tux and cocktail dress look (and the same for ladies but drop the tux!!) To be honest for the informal and casual I tend to wear an open neck shirt and trousers. However this evening a curveball was served. The recommended dress code was themed 60s or 70s. This is the first time we have encountered this dress code on board MSC. Our dining partners Margaret and Jim say that if P & O or NCL have a themed dress code, the passengers are informed well in advance of the cruise to prepare. In this case I wasn't prepared at all although some would argue I couldn't have been more prepared and it was a case of ‘come as you are'!!!

Today is the first of 2 official excursions we have booked; Panoramic Muscat and Nakhl fort. This was a full day 8 hour excursion with lunch included. Knowing Roisin's adverse reaction to small mini coaches, I took the opportunity to check the transport situation by looking over the balcony to the quayside below as the coaches started to arrive and line up awaiting the onslaught of tourists. A selection of 5 different tours, each in one of 5 languages (English, Italian, German, French or Spanish.) There were a few mini coaches that I assumed to be the free shuttle to take passengers to the port gate where they are free to negotiate a deal with the local taxi driver population. Our time and location was 8:30am in Le Cabaret lounge. At 8:20am we rolled in to the lounge where we approached the makeshift counter and were immediately given a sticker with a large number 7 and told to proceed straight to the quay and to look for the bus with this number.

We were given a landing card as we disembarked the ship '15, 14, 13…' The buses were lined up in numerical order, '12, 11, 10, 9, 8…oh bugger!!!' Of all the 20 or so coaches only 2 were mini coaches. One was the free shuttle bus and the other was coach number 7 – Panoramic Muscat and Nakhl fort (Eng). There was no way Roisin was going to set foot in this vehicle. Not on an 8 hour excursion. She climbed the steps and peered in. Not even 2 seats left together. No way, Jose. At that point, Jose, the guide from the Spanish speaking tour turned around and saidSi??'

We explained the claustrophobic effect these type of vehicles have on Roisin. The ships organiser was very sympathetic and offered that we join either a German speaking tour or Jose's tour. She also added that, although it was against MSC policy, she fully understood our concern and as this wasn't made clear at the point of booking, was happy to refund 1 ticket without a doctor's certificate. Although I didn't like the arrangement, Roisin insisted that I continued with the tour while she stayed behind. I reluctantly boarded the bus, took my seat and waved a tearful farewell as the bus started off.

Our guide started by telling us a little about the country of Oman. Muscat is the capital. No shit Sherlock or as the guide mentioned later that shia law is still practiced in parts of Oman I should have perhaps said ‘No shi'ite Sherlock!!!') The population of Muscat is just over 1 million of which more than half are made up of foreigners.

Since the ascension of Qaboos bin Said as Sultan of Oman in 1970, Muscat has experienced rapid infrastructural development that has led to the growth of a vibrant economy and a multi-ethnic society.

The city lies on the Arabian Sea along the Gulf of Oman and is in the proximity of the strategic Straits of Hormuz. Since the Sultan's reign, he proclaimed that no single building in Oman should be more than 8 stories tall and either white or beige in colour hence low-lying white buildings typify most of Muscat's urban landscape. As expected in the Middle East, Oman's and Muscat's economy is dominated by petroleum. For 1 Rial, you can buy 8 litres of petrol. This equates to approximately 20p/ltr!!

Muscat has a somewhat medieval appearance with two old Portuguese forts, Jelali and Merani long since uninhabited but still standing guard over the port of Muttrah. Both are currently in the throes of being renovated and one of them, to this day still serves as a prison (I can't remember which one!!) but as crime is practically none existent, the prison remains empty!! Speaking of crime, as we left the port of Muttrah heading towards our first stop, the Grand Mosque, our guide explained that driving with a dirty car is illegal in Oman hence why you will never see a mucky car on the road!! If that was the case in the UK, I along with most of the population would be doing a 20 stretch!!!

An English woman sat at the front of the bus kept asking bizarre questions: ‘Can an Egyptian and an Omani speaking Arabic understand each other?' asked this lady. The guide gave me the impression that he didn't understand at first but after the question being put to him again in a slightly louder but slower tone (as if speaking louder is going to make him understand any better!!) the guide saidYes!' without expanding on his answer. I now got the impression that he fully understood the question but was dumbfounded as to the stupidity of it. Arabic is Arabic just like English is English. An Australian and an American may have slight cultural differences (e.g. Falcons Crest versus Home and Away or Fosters versus Michelob!!) but they both understand each other.

We arrived at the Grand Mosque in Muscat. This was nowhere near as impressive or as grand as the mosque in Abu Dhabi but nevertheless was still a master class in engineering skill. We were led across a courtyard were we were asked to remove our shoes. Unlike Abu Dhabi where the shoes were left on the steps of the great hall on show like some charity shop cast offs, everyone had a pigeon hole in which to place ones footwear. The mosque can hold 20,000 worshippers at one time so there were 20,000 pigeon holes dotted around the outer court yard. We were now instructed to line up ready for muster. The dress code is very strict to be able to enter a mosque. Men must wear long trousers although t-shirts are OK. Women have to cover their ankles and wear long sleeves as well as covering their head ensuring hair is completely hidden from view. One of the mosque officials walked up and down the line of bemused tourists with the guile of an old Sergeant Major looking for a weakness in one of his new recruits! He pointed to a lady whose hair was peeping out from a pashmina she was using to cover her head. An elderly Australian gentleman was moved to one side together with his niece. He was wearing shorts and she had ¾ length slacks. Neither had been prepared for the visit to the mosque as there had been a mix up with their tickets. (after asking about this later in the day and having it fully explained to me I still don't fully understand so won't write anything more about it.) The rest of us having passed the inspection were shown in to the grand prayer hall to roam around at our own leisure.

The mosque is named after Sultan Qaboos and is relatively new, being built between 1995 and 2001. I learned that although the mosque can accommodate 20,000 worshipers in total, the main prayer hall only holds 6,500. The mosque features a 90 meter tall main minaret flanked by four 45 ½ meter minarets. 5 minarets in all representing the 5 pillars of Islam.

A flimsy runner flanked by ropes either side, cordons off the carpet from tourists and other visitors. The mosque opens its doors to the world between 8:30-11:00 every day except Friday. The runner protected the carpet from being worn down by tourists constantly walking over the same area. This prayer carpet was indeed a work of art and is the second largest handmade carpet in the world. Apparently it took four years to produce, is made of 1.7 million knots, and weighs some four tons!! Imagine ringing B & Q. ‘Hello, Homebase?? I have just had a carpet specially made but need someone to fit it for us. Yes, it's probably at least a 2 man job!! I would be grateful if you could fit it between 8:30 and 11:00 but Friday is usually not a good day!!!'

I spied on a local indigenous type using his mobile phone inside the great prayer hall. What could be so important that he couldn't wait until he got outside!!

Our next stop took us the 75 mile journey outside Muscat to the 16th century Nakhl fort. During the 1hr 20 minute journey, the landscape was very flat with scattered communities appearing through this barren landscape. Toward the end of the journey, the scenery became more rugged. These were the foothills of the Al Hajar Mountains.

Nakhl in Arabic means ‘date farm' as it became evident as to how this fort got its name. From the ramparts of the fort, many date trees could be seen creating the illusion of an oasis in the middle of this dusty landscape. Built as a protective measure for an oasis and nearby trade routes, the fort is unique in that it was built to fit around an irregularly-shaped rock,with some rock exposures jutting out into the interiors. Our guide explained that to ward off enemies and any armies that tried to storm the bastion, the protectors of the fort would pour boiling date syrup over their protagonists from the battlements. With oil only 20p a litre in Oman I would have thought using boiling oil would have been cheaper!!!

This is one of the best preserved forts I have visited despite having been renovated. However due to its unsymmetrical design, after having wandered for 5 minutes taking photos, I took me nearly ½ hour to find my way out!!

Before lunch, we were taken to a nearby hot spring of Ain A'Thawwarah where many locals were setting up to have a picnic. I spotted one family bathing up to their chests in the spring. The formation that they were sat in, gave the impression that their boat had sank and they were waiting to be rescued!!

Lunch was taken at the Al Nahda spa and resort. There seemed a good variety of buffet from Salad then hot dishes of Chicken Biryani, Dal Masala, Cajun potato wedges and even Lancashire hot pot!! Desert consistent of that well known Omani dish of bread & butter pudding or the Bedouin delicacy of strawberry trifle. I had some time to stroll around the grounds taking in the lush greenery and well maintained swimming pool. I did notice the high walls that surrounded the complex topped with rolls of barbed wire. The gates to the complex were kept locked and there was an ever present security guard visible in the gate house. ‘Unusual', I thought, especially with such a low crime rate in Oman. Perhaps the measures are to keep the patrons in. We can't have busloads of tanked up Brits and Irish running riot in the streets of Oman!!

We were now on the home leg, driving back to Muscat to visit Al Alam Palace. This is in the new suburb of Muscat and is one of 8 Palaces owned by Sultan Quaboos. The Sultan is a very reserved person and no one knows much about his private life; how many wives he has or indeed children. When he dies, he will have already chosen a successor to his throne. The next in line is not necessarily the eldest son, it is who the Sultan choses. It might even be his favourite camel if he so wishes!!

The Palace was built in the 1970s and certainly looks like it was, with its plastic-looking pastels and unusual trumpet-shaped flaring columns. The palace, we were told, is not open to visitors, nor is it the full-time residence of the Sultan. However, when the Sultan has dignitaries over such as Queen Elizabeth II, he will usually hold a banquet here in their honour.

Our final stop on this tour was not far from the ship in Muttrah at the souk. We were scheduled to have ½ hour stop at the souk but as we have been bang on time at every stop we were allowed 1 full hour. Some women on the coach actually whopped with joy! I watched as most people reluctantly headed in to the den to be mauled by Euro eating tat sellers!! I managed to sneak off in the opposite direction for a long stroll along the Corniche before heading back for a quick dart in to the souk to take a couple of photos. It's amazing how the stall owners leave a bloke on his own alone! No one made eye contact with me or stepped in front of me or beckoned me to ‘Just look. No have to buy!!' Despite wearing a baseball cap and having a bloody great big camera around my neck, I could have been invisible!!

I met back up with Roisin who was happily sitting on the balcony of our state room. She had spent most of the day on the Big Bus tour. This is a version of the hop on-hop off bus. A whole new adventure but for a different time!!

Every evening when we receive our Daily Programme for the following day, apart from the programme of events, there is a section on ‘Important to know'. This can be anything from Crew Safety Drill, Internet and TV reception, medical charges and in this instance Safety throughout the ship. The notice started: ‘In the interests of your safety and the safety of other guests, please avoid running around the ship…' With the average age on board topping 73 the message should have read: ‘‘In the interests of your safety and the safety of other guests, please avoid moving slower than a snail, especially at lunch time in the buffet as those people who can walk without the aid of a stick or other artificial contraption are obstructed by you and by the time they get back to their table the food they have just chosen is past its sell by date!!!'

From Muscat we now have a whole day at sea before we dock in Salalah, Oman's second city based in the South of the Country.

Additional photos below
Photos: 35, Displayed: 32


5th April 2014

Fab pics :-) I'd of opted for the big bus tour too!

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