Monday, June 25, 2012

Oman Road Trip – Jibreen, Bahla, &Nizwa

Bahla Fort is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The fort in Bahla is believed to be Oman's oldest.
Ever since our anniversary trip to Muscat in December, Mark and I have wanted to return there. So we took advantage of a three-day weekend in June observing a religious holiday, the Ascension of the Prophet. Mark booked us at the Shangri-La Bar Al Jissah resort
We don’t normally go to big resorts, but the diving and snorkeling spots are right there and the rates were actually very reasonable, with breakfast buffet included. We found out later that the hotel was offering a promotion including air fare from Abu Dhabi so the hotel was full, even though it’s not high season.

Shangri La BTB 011
Pool day at Terry's.

We invited Lucy and Tom to join us. A week or so before the trip, Lucy and I were having a “pool day” with Terry at the Shangri-La Residences in Abu Dhabi, where she and Pete live. Since we haven’t found the good Mexican food we’ve been craving anywhere, we made our own homemade quesadillas and margaritas.

Shangri La BTB 010
Terry's view includes the Ritz Carlton
under construction with the
Grand Mosque minarets behind.
During lunch on the patio overlooking the residents’ pools and beach, Terry mentioned that they were going to Muscat. When? The same weekend we’re going! Where are you staying? The Shangri-La! So are we!! By this time, we were all screaming like teenagers. Their daughter Kelly and her husband John were coming from Doha, Qatar where he is a pilot, and meeting Terry, Pete, and son Christopher. As luck would have it, their family ended up in the rooms directly above our two, a couple of floors up.

It’s a one-hour flight between Abu Dhabi and Muscat, but we wanted to drive. The drive is part of the adventure! I wanted to visit Nizwa, which is in Al Jabal Al Akhdar, or the Akhdar Mountains.

Abu Dhabi to Muscat
The golden line represents the route from Abu Dhabi through Nizwa to Muscat.

I will see and photograph this for myself.
Photo: catbirdinoman
Nizwa is one of Oman’s oldest cities and was once the capital as well as an important trade and cultural crossroads and center of religion, education, and art. Remnants of the wall that once surrounded the city still exist, as well as the Nizwa Fort, which has been restored and contains many exhibits. I’ve been reading a blog by a U.S. expat English conversation teacher. Her site has beautiful photos, descriptions, and stories about her adventures exploring and trekking the wadis. She calls herself “nomad in the land of Nizwa.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet up with

With all there is to see and do in Nizwa, we started the trip right after the guys got off work, planning a stop for the night at the Jibreen Hotel, which is very inexpensive and had good reviews. We would spend the next morning and early afternoon exploring Nizwa before heading to Muscat, an hour and a half away.
Snapshot 2 (6-25-2012 4-18 PM)
It's bleak but it reminds me of Nevada.

It was a good thing we were stopping. The landscape between the UAE-Oman border and the Al Jabal al Akhdar region is bleak, and not long after we hit the road and got gas the car started to act up. The first gas station only put in a few gallons, then told us it was full. As soon as we pulled away, we could see that we only had a partial tank. Why did the pump read it as full?

Nizwa Oman 016
It's stressful to drive in hot weather,
but worse when the car isn't running right.
So we stopped again for more gas. Then, the car got worse. It would balk instead of accelerating, and then suddenly roar ahead. What gives? Bad gas? I had been noticing for a while that it was a little hard to start and ran rough after filling up with gas, and I wondered if it had something to do with air getting in the tank. Big mechanic, that’s me. Fortunately, Mark knows a lot about vehicles. He guessed that it wasn’t anything fatal, but the engine wasn’t getting the right amount of oxygen. A bad valve needing replacement?

We were heading uphill into the middle of nowhere. The temperature was up to117 degrees Fahrenheit. We kept going. There was some breath-holding, which made the people in the car unusually quiet.
We began to anticipate needing to find a Porsche dealer in Muscat. I fantasized that a part would be ordered, and offered that Lucy and I could stay in Muscat for a day or two more sightseeing, going to museums and getting the car fixed while the boys flew home to go back to work. “That’s not going to happen,” Mark said.

Nizwa Oman 107
Not much help to us expats.

Eventually we made it to where we thought the hotel would be. Was it on this road, or another? Would there be a sign? The problem is that there is no standard way of spelling place names here, or anything else, for that matter. And it doesn’t help that every place has several different names. Plus when you get out of the cities, almost everything is in Arabic, anyway.


Nizwa Oman 046
Like a mirage in the desert, our hotel appeared.

Then Lucy said, “There’s our hotel.” And there it was, JIBREEN HOTEL, looming up alongside the road so prominently that you could easily overlook it. We were there. But it didn’t even look open. There were no cars parked outside. It was a little like a Nevada ghost town.



Nizwa Oman 031
This hotel had everything including free Internet.

The door was open, and the minute we entered the lobby, even before we saw our rooms, we could see and feel why they got such good reviews. Cool air, comfortable furniture. And the rooms! They were large, freshly redecorated, clean, clean, and clean. Mark and I had a corner room with several windows. There was TV. In the morning there was a newspaper in English! Mark was in heaven.


Nizwa Oman 040
It's not easy to find ice in this landscape.

We had beverages, but they weren’t cold. Where could we obtain some ice? Not at the hotel! So we ventured up the road and, on the third try, found ice for a few dirhams a bag. In the 110-degree heat, we hurried back to the hotel with our precious commodity.


There was a large restaurant in the hotel. What time would you like to eat dinner, they asked? At first, Lucy and Tom expressed some doubt about eating there – without much business this time of year would the food be fresh, and safe? But Mark had a good point: where would we prefer to eat? There didn’t appear to be any other prospects, so we made our booking for 7:30.

Nizwa Oman 032
Good food, good friends, quiet dining room.
The menu, like most here, features several types of cuisine: Arabic, Indian, Chinese, and Continental. Without going into lots of detail about the food (I’m still planning to write about the food here in the Middle East,) let me just say that it was some of the best food we have had! And we had the whole restaurant and staff to ourselves.
Breakfast the next morning was part of the package and just as good, with eggs cooked to order.

The next morning the car was better behaved. We passed up the Jibreen Castle but stopped in Bahla, a town 40 km from Nizwa. The fort there is the oldest in Oman, and believed to date back to pre-Islamic times. I loved this town, which is famous for its pottery. People live a simple and rustic life amidst the ruins, blending the old with the relatively modern. Because we were there just before a religious holiday, the goat market was busy. Since Lucy and I were wearing shorts, we didn’t venture into the market but Tom and Mark took a peek.

When we made it to Nizwa, we proceeded to lose our way and drive the narrowest passageways I have ever been through in an automobile. Lucy, who could do nothing but gasp in the back seat, later said she didn’t know how we did it, and of course by the time I got my camera out to take video we were through. But it was the kind of drive where you suck in your breath and try to make yourself smaller, as if that would help, and hope you don’t scrape the wall or run someone over as you round a corner.

We explored Nizwa Fort and the famous souk, where I saw scenes that appear on the catbirdinoman blog come to life.
We didn’t get to drive the steep, winding road to see any of the terraced hillsides, wadis (ravines) and villages in Al Jabal Al Akhdar, but that’s ok. It’s really the wrong time of year to be there; the best time is March or April when the roses, from which they make their famous rose water, are blooming. Mark and I will be going back, for sure; it’s only about a three hour drive from home. I would like to see it after it’s been raining and the wadis are filled with runoff from the mountains. Right now through September is harvest time for the many fruits that are grown there. It’s no wonder this place was a crossroads between the many harsher landscapes that surround it.

Next: paddling, snorkeling, turtles and a flat tire at the Shangri-La in Muscat.

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