Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day Trip: Oman

To the Border and Back

Camel transport is getting to be a common sight as
the Camel Festival approaches.
We rose early Saturday morning after the big 40th celebration; it was time to do the Oman border crossing. This is a ritual that we’ve heard some people go through on a monthly basis. Travel visas are only good for 30 days and aren’t renewable, but if you leave the UAE and then come back in, you start the calendar over again. We knew we weren’t going for the spa retreat of our dreams, nor were we going for the eco-tour, but hey, we were getting out on the road to see some new scenery and that was good enough for us.

We headed south with Dana and Deb toward Al Ain, known as the “garden city” and the birthplace of Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al Nahyan family, including the late Sheikh Zayed. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain form an equilateral triangle 130 kilometers on each side, and thus people who work in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai can live in Al Ain and commute, or perhaps live in the city during the week and return to their families on weekends. Mubaruk, our public relations officer, makes his home in Al Ain although he lives in an apartment during the work week. He told us that he has many fruit, nut and date trees, and also that he enjoys the peace and quiet of Al Ain, compared to his noisy city apartment in Abu Dhabi. It reminded me of our peaceful home in Nevada, where the wind is usually the biggest noisemaker.

The scenery began to change, and we noticed every nuance. Scrubby open spaces reminded us of California’s Central Valley, or Baja California. Then we began to see reddish sand dunes. I love the sculpted look, and can’t wait to get a chance to take photos, but we were speeding by at 120kph. Soon we began to see groups of camels. They reminded me of the mustangs we see in the American West, running in groups. As we arrived in the city of Al Ain, trees rose up before us – not the burjs, or towers, that we see in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This city must be what the others were like a few decades ago – although much greener.

Al Ain has been inhabited for over 4,000 years and it’s Abu Dhabi’s “heritage heartland.” The name means “The Spring” in Arabic; the city’s water comes from natural springs originating in the limestone peaks surrounding the city. Remnants of the traditional irrigation system, or falaj, can still be seen on the farms.

Mark did research and found out that there are three border crossings in Al Ain; he asked for the group’s opinion on where to cross. We decided to go to the smallest one, thinking that it would the least crowded. We began to follow directions from the handheld GPS and I have to say that, once you sort out who is in charge of reading the device, the driver or the navigator, that thing is a marriage saver. Mark had ordered software for the Middle East region before he left. It’s pretty accurate, except that because so much is still under development here some intersections, roads, and gas stations don’t show up as they are on the ground. But that can be a happy thing, as when we were worried about being low on gas – the tank only holds 9 gallons! – and we came to a new gas station that didn’t exist on the GPS.

The city of Al Ain exists because of water stored in the Jebel Hafeet limestone.

As we approached the Mayzad border post, we left the Garden City behind and the landscape returned to scrubbiness. We passed a camel lot that once again reminded me of Nevada, this time the ranch in Carson Valley where they keep rescued mustangs so people can adopt them. We saw riders out exercising these “ships of the desert.” The terrain was becoming more rocky and I suddenly realized that we were headed toward Jebel Hafeet! Rising to 1,240 treeless meters, Jebel Hafeet, or Hafeet Mountain, isn’t a mountain that someone who grew up in the Sierra Nevada would consider impressive in the traditional mountain sense. But I studied geology for several years, it fascinated me to see the limestone rising from the surrounding flatness, its water so important to the civilization below.

How many movies have you seen in which wind-blown people walk through a landscape of vacant buildings surrounded by desert? Where they aren’t sure where they are going and how they will get back? Have you ever wondered what that would be like? If we were looking for a deserted border post, this was it. Insert your own mental movie image.

Because we didn’t have insurance to drive in Oman, we walked through. Of course the first sign I noticed was the one forbidding photographs. In the UAE they restrict photography of government buildings, and if they catch you they will seize your camera and might even throw you in jail for a night or two.

I took my chances with this photo of the Oman side.
We walked through a couple of gates, and found our way to the place where we got our exit stamps and paid an exit fee. Walking on, we weren’t sure where we needed to walk through, but nobody called to us to stop or come over for another stamp so we just walked through the border into Oman.  

About a quarter mile up the road was the Oman immigration office and tourist center. We walked into a huge, cavernous building that was empty except for a couple of officials. We picked up some tourist literature and a couple of DVDs, then went over to the immigration counter. After some discussion about whether to get a tourist visa or not, for which we would have to pay fees to Oman, we decided we needed only a passport stamp.

Five minutes (what did we say in that other post?) and we were walking back into the UAE. Because there was no signage prohibiting photography there, I took a chance and snapped one photo of the Oman side. Reentering the UAE was a comedy of stamped papers which were given us by one official and promptly collected by the next. There was only an occasional vehicle, including several pickups with camels riding in the back, on their way to the camel market in al Ain. We so wanted to take pictures of these placid looking animals.
Mark and I thought we saw the marine layer on the southern horizon.

After we stopped at a mall for lunch we decided we had time and energy for one more activity – remember, we were up until midnight the night before, celebrating National Day. A drive up the winding road to the top of Jebel Hafeet, where we could snap a few photos, was the perfect solution.

In the way back through town toward the main highway back to Abu Dhabi, our wish came true when we got the opportunity to take photos of these camels.

Everyone had a cool day; even the camels.
Our day trip to Al Ain was a success, because Deb and I got another 30 days, but there is so much more to do and see there: a wildlife park, hot springs, historical sites, museums, camel market, hiking, a golf course for our golfing friends, an equestrian center and even a shooting range. And don’t forget shopping for perfumes, incense and spices, clothing, and Arabic coffee pots in the traditional souks.

Visit this website to learn more about Ail Ain: http://www.visitabudhabi.ae/en/explore.the.emirate/alain.city.aspx  

Sunday night we gathered for dinner in Mark’s and my apartment, and watched two travel DVDs.
Here's a link to one of the videos:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VmV8ycERd0
I know where I want to go for our 12th wedding anniversary on December 24th.
Oman! Stay tuned for more about this beautiful country, and lots of photos. 

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