Gold, Frankincense and Me

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Middle East » Oman
March 16th 2016
Published: March 16th 2016
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I am on board the Aegean Odyssey in the Gulf of Aden, with the Yemen off the starboard side and Somalia off the port. Where else in the world would you want to be? The sea is calm and the sun is shining, it is in fact very peaceful.

I’ve been on board the ship for a week now so I am well accustomed to the routine and can find my way around without getting lost… most of the time. I’m the youngest fare-paying passenger on board, although plenty of the staff are younger than me. I guess that has helped me to become known to many passengers – mostly as either the tech guru or as the writer. I sometimes pass people who say hello to me by name who I am sure I’ve never met! I guess this is a small taste of what being famous is like. Although, I must apologise to my fellow passengers because by and large I have forgotten the names of people I have met!

We left India still suffering from the delay leaving Mumbai. We had a full day at sea on Thursday which I filled up with writing, wine and attending a couple of fascinating lectures by the professors we have on board. Crossing the sea from India to Oman was very calm – I’ve seen rougher seas on the Manly ferry!

We gained a total of an hour and a half by moving through timezones, yet still the arrival in Muscat was later than scheduled, because of the delay in Mumbai. On Friday once we arrived we were supposed to have an optional cruise on traditional Arabic dhows. This was cancelled, however, because of recent torrential rain. None of the passengers I talked to had any idea why torrential rain affected boats but apparently it does. The upside was that we had a free afternoon in Muscat.

With all museums closed because it is a Friday and Oman is an Islamic country, most people headed straight for the souk, which is the traditional marketplace. As we would be visiting there the next day on the tour, I decided a long walk was in order instead. From the port, I figured a walk around the bay and on to Old Muscat would be about 5km and should provide plenty of photo opportunities.

I set off around the
The Aegean OdysseyThe Aegean OdysseyThe Aegean Odyssey

At port in Muscat
bay and soon left the other passengers behind. The waterfront has been beautifully paved all the way, so it was a pleasant walk. I headed out to a less attractive cement walkway on the end of one promontory but unfortunately the sun was shining directly into me so the photos of Muscat there didn’t come out too well.

Muscat is surprisingly modern and pleasingly clean after our time in India. I hope the photos that did come out show how beautiful it is. The Sultan Qaboos has been very good for the country and the people here seem to love him for it. He is old now though, and apparently quite sick. Without a clear successor, I hope the transition, when it comes, is peaceful and Oman continues the way it has under Qaboos.

I kept walking around the small bays that make up the port of Muscat. Soon the road headed inland slightly and headed between the small mountains that come almost to the sea here. Aside from the artificially watered grass, there is little natural vegetation and it provides a nice contrast from sea to grass and modern city to bare, mountainous terrain.

The entrance to old Muscat is marked by a gatehouse. It looked fairly modern to me, although it was clearly designed to mimic a gate in old city walls. If the museum there had been opened I could possibly tell you more. I still climbed up the top of the gate and had a look around. There was a serene little park up there with nobody around so I sat there for a bit before continuing into old Muscat.

Instead of descending down to the main road again, I walked down via an alley way where I got a few strange looks. Nothing bad, just people wondering why a tourist was walking down their street, I think. I saw some interesting buildings and an old Portuguese fort off to my left so I headed in that direction. It was obviously the government building district and the buildings were picturesque.

I crossed a road at a crossing and realised it lead to a tunnel heading under the rocky outcrop that the Portuguese fort was built on top of. I spied a nice little bay through there so headed through to have a look. I guess because it was Friday, but there
Walking by the bayWalking by the bayWalking by the bay

Muscat, Oman
was almost nobody around. This bay had a couple of forts protecting the entrance and I did my best to capture it. Unfortunately, the photos didn’t quite show how peaceful it was so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I followed the road around the Portuguese fort and found myself at the back of what I later found out was the Sultan’s palace. I knew it was something important because of the army sentries and what seemed to be a couple of modern cannons pointing out to the water. The guards thankfully had no problem with me taking photo. Although, I should have researched if Oman was one of those countries where you can get arrested taking photos of government buildings before I headed out to take photos!

With diversions and walking around Old Muscat, I figured I had walked 7 or 8kms and it was still pretty warm. With my water running low I saw a taxi and decided to get him to take me back to the Souk. Once there I withdrew some Omani Rial from the ATM and bought myself a Pepsi. The guy wasn’t happy with me not having anything smaller but there wasn’t much I could do. I only had what the ATM gave me. Most shops here also take US dollars though and that was how I paid for the cab, but I didn’t have much in the way of small notes yet and I knew I would need them for tips on the tour.

I walked back to the port and caught the shuttle bus to the ship – we’re not allowed to walk around the port itself for obvious reasons. I had dinner aboard the ship (the food, by the way, has been fantastic) and noticed that Muscat looked beautiful over the water with many coloured lights. After dinner I went and grabbed my tripod and tried some night photography from the boat. Although the ship didn’t feel like it was moving at all, it must have been. The longer exposures came out slightly blurred. Thankfully some quicker shutter captures came out fine and you can get an idea of how beautiful it looked from the photos I have posted here.

On Saturday morning we had the tour. We boarded the buses and our first destination was the Grand Mosque which was about 30 minutes away.

The entrance to old Muscat
We got a good look at modern Muscat and it was pretty impressive. There are large shopping centres, freeways and other amenities of any modern city all surrounded by barren, rocky terrain. It really is amazing to see.

The Grand Mosque was built by Sultan Qaboos as a gift for the nation and it is apparently the fourth largest mosque in the world. It also has, again apparently, the largest chandelier and the largest Persian carpet in the world. They’re pretty big so I can believe it, but I have learnt better than to take these sorts of claims at face value. We had a tour around the mosque, first visiting the much smaller and less decorated women’s prayer room. There are a couple of televisions in there so the women can watch if something important is happening in the main prayer room. Regardless, it is obvious that women get a bit of a raw deal. Compared to some of Oman’s neighbours, women have more freedoms but there is still a long way to come.

Our next stop was the main prayer room where the big chandelier and Persian carpet are. It was certainly a majestic room. I
The view into old MuscatThe view into old MuscatThe view into old Muscat

From the gatehouse
think some of my photos capture it pretty well, but of course it isn’t the same as being there. Although the walkway for tourists restricts exactly where you can go, it does cover the best locations so I cannot complain about that. From there we had a look around at the place for washing before prayers and so forth but the two prayer rooms were the highlights.

We were ushered back on the bus for our next stop, the Muttrah Souq. Originally we had been told we would have an hour there so I had not bothered visiting it when it opened on Friday evening. As it turned out, we had barely 30 minutes so I did a quick bit of shopping for souvenirs and postcards. I didn’t have time to shop around so I just grabbed a couple of things at one of the first shops. I would have loved to have bought an Omani kanjer, which is their traditional, ceremonial knife. However, my research before I left Australia made it clear that I would not be able to get it into Australia because they are too small and therefore concealable. There’s also the question of whether I can bring such a weapon onto the ship – something I decided not to test.

Once we were back on the bus we headed into old Muscat, where I had visited the day before. Thankfully we didn’t go to any of the places I had visited. Our first stop was at the Bait Al Zubair museum which was small but pretty interesting. Of course, I spent most of my time looking at the various kanjers and other swords they had on display, as well as the models of the various Portuguese forts around Muscat. No photos were allowed inside though so you will have to visit yourself if you want to see. There were some displays outside that we could photograph though, so you can see some of the model forts in the photo I have posted.

Our final stop was the Al Alam Palace, the official residence of the Sultan. As we looked at it from outside the front gate, I realised I had walked around the back the day before. It was a pretty spectacular palace. There wasn’t much activity going on besides a few busloads of tourists walking around taking photos. We had a few minutes there before we returned to the bus and headed back to the ship.

That was Muscat, and I have to say I liked it. It is a modern city and the surrounding terrain only makes it more impressive. There is a lot of construction going on, so presumably Oman is a country on the move. The thing that surprised me the most though is that English is everywhere. Most people I interacted with spoke it well, and most of the shops and signs had English as well as Arabic. And the streets felt extremely safe. I would recommend visiting Muscat and Oman.

We left port almost as soon as the last passengers were on board. Although we headed to sea, we weren’t leaving Oman yet and we followed the coast down to the city of Salalah. It is about 1000km from Muscat to Salalah by road so we were at sea Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday. We arrived in Salalah on Monday morning.

Although we were arriving at the wrong time of year to see it, Salalah is unique on the Arabian Peninsula because it gets the monsoon. So for 3 months of the year
Al Alam PalaceAl Alam PalaceAl Alam Palace

Muscat, Oman
instead of the desert we saw, the city is apparently lush and green. Salalah is the second biggest city in Oman and the #1 holiday destination for Omanis. We had two morning tours on Monday and Tuesday. The second was an optional one, but it looked the most interesting so I had signed up. In fact, I have signed up for all of the optional tours because why not? I don’t know when, or if, I will be back in any of these places again.

Monday’s tour was called “Scenic Salalah”, but only the first stop was particularly scenic. Salalah Port is quite a ways west of Salalah, but Mughsail Beach is even further west so we headed there first. There was some interesting scenery along the way, but it is mostly devoid of vegetation. As we reached the beach, we found camels wandering around. The beach was almost empty aside from the camels, because it was a work day. I guess camels just aren’t the 9 to 5 type.

Our guide for the tour was quite the chatterbox. His name was Salim and he referred to the tour as the Salim show – just like the Oprah
Omani government symbolOmani government symbolOmani government symbol

On the gate of one of the government buildings in Muscat
show, he said. He kept telling us we were having a break for 1 minute, and then would keep talking all the way through. He was quite amusing though. He is studying for his PHD at the moment and his subject is Malaysia. He says he is hoping to be Prime Minister of Oman in 5 years. If enthusiasm was the only requirement, he’d be a shoe-in!

We stopped at the end of the beach where there are caves and blowholes. We walked past the caves first. They were just overhanging rocks, really, but one is the morning cave, one the afternoon cave. As the names suggest, one cave is good for sitting in the morning as it’s protected from the morning sun, the other is for sitting in the afternoon. We then headed down to the blowholes. I must admit, they weren’t overly impressive. Only one was “working” and it was nothing compared to the Kiama blowhole back home. The view from there was pretty impressive though, so I still managed to get a few nice photos.

Our group was gathering in the morning cave to leave as one of the other groups from the ship arrived. Most of them headed down to the blowholes but it was a very hot day already and a couple of people stayed at the morning cave. Suddenly I heard a woman call out in alarm and I looked up to see that someone from the other group had fallen backwards off the bench. My first thought was that someone had just fallen, but unfortunately it was more serious than that. A poor gentleman from the ship had suffered a heart attack. I have no first aid and there were plenty of people to help, so I kept out of the way. Eventually our guide told us we needed to leave, so we did. We later found out the man had died.

We continued on to our next destination which was the Al Husn Souq which, again, is the marketplace. The main thing being sold was frankincense, which seems to be the most famous product of Oman. Salim gave us a demonstration of how they use it as a kind of deodorant by standing over an incense burner. The frankincense was placed inside with some burning charcoal and the smoke rose into his gown. With that done, he took the burner out and said some special words while letting the smoke blow all over us. He said this would protect us all from the evil eye. It only lasts for one month though, so I don’t know what I’ll do after that. We had some free time to check out the market place but there was little of interest, to be honest. Most of the shops were just selling frankincense, or frankincense-based products. I did find the shop selling rifle cases and bandoliers interesting, but I decided not to buy anything.

We then continued on to a strange stop. It was the Al Husn Palace, the summer residence of the Sultan. Our stop was just long enough to take a couple of photos, but we were outside a closed gate and couldn’t really see anything. It seemed a bit pointless really.

Our final destination for the tour was the tomb of Job. This is allegedly the burial place of the prophet Job from the bible, so it is a sacred place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tomb is located out of Salalah, up in the surrounding mountains. Apparently during the monsoon, the mountains come alive with greenery. Even now there was a certain beauty to the scenery, and for me that was the highlight of the trip to Job’s tomb. If his tomb reflected him in real life, apparently he was 4 metres tall. There is also a very large footprint there, in what looked like concrete. It was all a bit odd, but the drive into the mountains was good.

We then headed back to the ship. Originally, it had been suggested that we could get dropped off in town to look around for the afternoon. I had been planning to do that, but as it was a hot day and there really didn’t seem to be much to see in Salalah so I decided to head back to the ship for lunch. I spent the afternoon writing and drinking wine in the bar.

On Tuesday we had the Sultanate Heritage tour and it was much more interesting than Monday’s tour. Thankfully, there were also fewer fatalities. Our first stop was a spring at the foot of the mountains north of Salalah. There was another cave there. It was quite a nice spot, and the water was extremely clear. But ultimately there wasn’t much
Royal Opera HouseRoyal Opera HouseRoyal Opera House

Muscat, Oman
to do there so we boarded the bus and headed east.

Our next stop was the fishing village of Taqa. There we stopped and visited a restored 19th century castle. It was a bit of a squeeze for two busloads of tourists, but it was a lovely little castle. I headed straight upstairs to the roof so I could try and get some photos with minimal sightseers in them. I had varying degrees of success on that count, as you can see in the photos. I then headed outside to take some photos around the castle. They also had a gift shop but there was not much there besides… frankincense! Honestly, the stuff is everywhere here.

We boarded the bus again and headed to the best destination so far. It was quite a ways east of Salalah – an ancient village called Samhuram. It is now an archaeological site, but it was a very important location. From here, frankincense was traded with places as far away as China and Greece. The village is right on the coast and the combination of desert and coast reminded me of the archaeological site I visited near Lima in Peru – Pachacamac.
The Grand MosqueThe Grand MosqueThe Grand Mosque

Muscat, Oman
There was apparently less human sacrifice performed in Samhuram, however. But like Pachacamac, it was very impressive and had a great view of the ocean. We had a bit of a tour around, and I took plenty of photos.

It was stinking hot. Our guide, however, said it wasn’t hot. It was only the low 30’s! I’m glad I wasn’t here on a hot day then! We boarded the bus again and headed back into Salalah for our final destination. This was a museum at Al Balid, which is another archaeological site. This one is in the middle of Salalah itself, but we only visited the museum. It was a very good museum, though. A touch small, but it was very informative and covered the history of Oman from the stone age to modern times.

With that done, it was back to the ship. When everyone was on board we left port and thus Oman. Oman has definitely been the surprise of the trip so far. I knew very little about it before I came here so I’m not sure what I expected. It is a deeply Islamic country, but also surprisingly open to the west. It seems stable and prosperous, no doubt due to Sultan Qaboos. Although the 3 ½ days we spent on land here was almost enough, I would recommend a visit if you get the chance. It definitely smells better than India, and not just because of all the frankincense!

Additional photos below
Photos: 71, Displayed: 35


Ladies Prayer RoomLadies Prayer Room
Ladies Prayer Room

At the Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman
Decorated wood panelDecorated wood panel
Decorated wood panel

In the ladies prayer room at the Grand Mosque
The main chandelierThe main chandelier
The main chandelier

Men's prayer room, the grand mosque, Muscat, Oman

18th March 2016

Gold etc.
Fascinating read and great that it seems to be going so well, but what struck me most perhaps was those photos of the sea showing the intense blue of the water. How sad that someone died during his excursion. Looking forward to the next instalment.
18th March 2016

The Arabian Sea was amazing. Very blue, and I was surprised by how calm it was. I suppose it's not always so calm though. Yes, it was very sad that the man died. One small consolation was that his last view was spectacular.
25th March 2016

Oman may be in my To visit list
Incredible photos David, all the places look so beautiful and yes, I agree, much cleaner than India. I guess both have their own beauties in their own different ways. So sorry the tour lost one of their tourist ? . Place looks amazing and definitely a place to visit in the future.

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