*disclaimer #1 – All photos were taken by myself or Kim on our travels.
*disclaimer #2 – This is a (rare) blog post by Sean. Kim’s top ten could indeed be very different, and she does not take responsibility for any potential repercussions from my rankings.
*disclaimer #3 – These 10 countries are countries I have actually been to (or seen) in the Middle East. There are many other countries that are in the middle east that I am sure are fantastic, I just haven’t been to them…
*disclaimer #4 – I wanted to get to “10” countries, so I kind of cheated with 3 countries… I have never been in Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, but I have seen them, in person, with my own eyes, so that counts right?
More accurate title for this blog post:
Top Ten Countries in the Middle East (that I have been to…or seen…or been 20 feet away from…)
Ok, enough with the disclaimers.
I felt like I needed some kind of closure after our 2 years of teaching in Kuwait. We have seen and done a great many things these past couple of years, sometimes amazing, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes just plain mundane. But I wanted to conclude our stay in the middle east with a look back on some of my favorite memories and reminisce with you about the good, the bad, and the ugly (but mostly the good 😉
So, for your reading pleasure, here is “Sean’s Top Ten Countries of the Middle East” ranked by my personal experiences.
#10 – Saudi Arabia (or rather the border of Kuwait/Saudi…)
I never actually got the chance to go to Saudi Arabia, but the picture you see above is indeed Saudi Arabia in the background – I promise! This is a photo of Kim and a friend at the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It is rather difficult for a westerner to get a visa into Saudi Arabia. For a long time we talked about getting a 24hr visa (which would be much easier to get for us in Kuwait) in order to drive through Saudi to get to Bahrain. I hear the drive there is quite scenic with a 365 view of sand, sand, and more sand…
#9 – Iran (or rather, as seen from a boat in the Strait of Hormuz…)
The photo above is the Strait of Hormuz and one of the 14 behemoth oil tankers that passes through there each day. Twenty percent of the worlds petroleum passes through this narrow stretch of sea from the oil rich countries of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, Iraq, and UAE out to the rest of the world. On one side is Musandam, which we were visiting at the time, and on the other side is Iran. You can see the rocky cliffs between the strait leading to the “fjords of the middle east”.
We were told by local Omani fishers that the smuggling between Iran and Oman/UAE is quite frequent. We even saw some Iranian smugglers when local Omanis clued us in on how to spot them. “Look for the mustaches” they said. When we asked what they were smuggling they told us that the Iranians wanted “American Cigarettes” and what did the Omanis get in return? Goats. Lots and lots of Goats. The middle east is full of them…
#8 – Iraq (or rather the border of Kuwait/Iraq)
I ranked this number 8 because the experience I had was so surreal and strange compared to the other “border” or “view from afar” countries.
We drove out to Mutla Ridge in Kuwait (highest point in Kuwait), and decided to keep on driving to the Iraq border, you know, to see what it was like. Maybe we’d see a tank, or fire, or explosions, or lots and lots of guns!
Nope. It was a pretty ordinary border crossing with a lot of trucks of supplies and local people going through. There was only one point of entry and only a few cars in the 30 minutes we were there.
We pulled up and parked in a flat, desert-like parking lot next to the crossing. And we just started…walking up to the gate. You know. To see how far we could get before they….I don’t know….gunned us down?
When we got to the 1 car entry point the guard you see above in the full camo smiled and waved us over. Surprisingly he knew little English (most people in Kuwait know English quite well). We asked him basic questions like “Is that Iraq?” and “Can we go?” and “Can we take picture?” Note that there were giant signs on the way up saying “NO VIDEO OR PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED”. He smiled when we pulled out the camera, grabbed our friends shoulder and offered to be in the picture. Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti man in the car (who wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon) got out and decided he was going to be in the picture too, just, because… (he is on the phone on the left). The guard in the camo then called over the other guard to come join us in the picture too (man in blue with gold shoulders). My friends and I then pose for what was the most surreal photo experience of my life – on the border of Kuwait and Iraq.
#7 – Kuwait
Kim and I lived in Kuwait for two years. By the first week we had seen pretty much everything Kuwait had to offer. Unfortunately, the outdoor activities that Kim and I truly enjoy are really nonexistent in Kuwait. And Kuwait is not what you’d call a “tourist country”.
Kuwait does have a long path along the Persian Gulf (or “Arab” Gulf as we were forced to write in our textbooks over the word “Persian”). It is really quite pretty most days. On Eid al-Adha, however, you might want to avoid this area if you are squeamish (or any area really). On Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate the day Abraham was going to sacrifice his son for God, until God said, “just kidding”, and so Abraham sacrificed a lamb instead. In celebration of this day Muslims kill their own sheep, and when your whole country is pretty much Muslim, that’s a lot of sheep…and blood…
So what happens to all these sheep carcasses? Well, some are thrown into the ocean and eventually wash up on shore. Then they get buried in the sand and are pulled up by middle school children during a community and service “beach cleaning” event…
…to the horror of everyone.
A common theme in the middle east is the sometimes stark contrast of hyper-conservative tradition paralleled with more liberal western influences. The gulf countries especially are going through a clash of middle-east meets west and different countries are dealing with it in sometimes comical, sometimes depressing ways.
The first week that Kim and I arrived in Kuwait we were taken to a bookstore to get school supplies. The only way to get to this book store, however, was to walk through an amusement park with rides and mini-roller coasters. As we walked through, there were Kuwaiti mothers completely covered in black burqas, dishdasha-ed man, and western dressed children speaking English to the Indian, Sri-Lankan, and Pilipino ride operators. As we walked through this confluence of cultures our ears were blasted by, get this, hardcore rap music. This ultra-conservative society was basting F-bombs by Jay-Z and 50 cent in a children’s amusement park. These blatant contradictions turned out to be a common theme throughout the middle east.
Mutla Ridge, the highest point in Kuwait at a staggering “nosebleed” level of 475 feet, is one place in Kuwait that I quite enjoyed the view. At the end of our hike along the ridge which has the occasional Kuwaiti “desert camping” (see Kim’s previous blog entries for what that really means), we reached a protruding peninsula that provides one of the coolest views of the Kuwait skyline (as seen above in the picture).
Lastly, Failaka island was a very unnerving and surreal experience. Failaka is an island in the Gulf that is part of Kuwait. In the 1980s Kuwaitis lived on the island, had homes there, had cars there, mosques, banks, etc. But in 1990 Iraq attacked Kuwait, invaded the island, and drove all the Kuwaitis off of it. It was never rebuilt and remains frozen in time to 1990. It was fascinating, humbling, and horrifying to walk through people’s homes and see bullet holes in the walls, bullet shells on the ground, and see people’s clothes, books, and dishes still lying around the home.
#6 – Qatar
Kim and I went to Qatar our first year in the middle east. We had a long weekend over thanksgiving and decided to go to Qatar because, well, when else would we ever probably be in Qatar? Qatar, although it is building up, is not exactly know as a vacation destination. In fact, when we arrived in the Doha airport, an American family that was on the same flight from Kuwait asked us why we came to Qatar. We told them vacation, they looked at us, as if we were joking, then realizing we were not, laughed and asked why, insisting there was nothing to do in Qatar. In many ways, they were correct.
One of my favorite places in all of the middle east, however, is in Qatar. It is the beautiful and unique building you see behind us in the picture above. It is the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by famed architect I. M. Pei, it is a spectacular building sitting on a peninsula opposite Doha city proper across the bay. Inside the museum is a collection of the most brilliantly preserved, priceless, and unique items of Islamic history and art from the 6th century to modern day. Much of the art focuses on the Medieval era, or the golden age of Islam. Most of my favorite works were from Iran. The Persian art is more relaxed when it comes to showing living things, where as most Islamic sects forbid it.
On the top level was a modern Arabic calligraphy artist that took lines from famous Arab, Turkish, and Persian poems and wrote them in the most delicate and beautiful script. I found a quote that really jumped out at me, and had great meaning for myself. It gave me a connection to this museum I won’t long forget. My favorite quote was from a poem in Ottoman Turkish by Hami-i Amidi, translated it said,
“Some among the sensitive and cultured people come to live where they find their heart’s desire. To some, strange places will become home, and sometimes some will stay home but find it strange.”
Souq Waqif is one of my favorite souqs in the middle east (a “souq” is a marketplace). It has a rather modern main streets but the side streets will bring you back hundreds of years to the time of pearl diving and camel caravans. You’ll find everything from Qatari daggers, to jewelry, to spices and perfume. We eventually accidentally walked into a “hawk shop”. In the picture above Kim is holding a real, and very living, falcon. The man in the shop could tell we obviously weren’t here to buy a falcon (which many Qatari’s do, and walk around with on their arm because, why not?), but he was so eager to show us his birds. So, we put on the glove, pet, and even fed the falcon. When he took the sleep mask off the falcon, and you looked into her large and beautiful eyes, you felt like she was peering deep into your soul and judging everything you had ever done. Like no animal I have ever encountered, nothing past or present gets by a falcon.
As I said, Qatar is growing, and although it is not currently a major tourist destination, they are the up and coming in the gulf region. Walking through the streets they are ecstatic about, and make it well know to you, that they are hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The photo above is from the area of Doha know as “The Pearl”. When the construction is finished (whenever that might be…), it will be pretty spectacular and will rival the Dubai Palm in most ways.
#5 – UAE (Dubai)
Dubai, as you may notice in the picture above, has some rather unique architecture. When Kim and I first visited Dubai we were blown away by the modernity of the place. My friend described Dubai by saying, “It’s architecture is so modern, you might not be surprised to see George Jetson fly across the sky in a spaceship.”
Dubai is a perfect example of the middle-east meets west clash and contradictions. We would walk around the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world by area), and see Emirati Women, dressed in a fully covered Burqa, walk into Victoria’s Secret, with mannequins and posters of half naked women. Or we would see Emirati Men (and all Gulf coast men), drive around wearing ghutras on their head that completely block their peripheral vision. It seems rather dangerous to us.
In an attempt by the Emirati to hold on to their traditions, they still have a traditional souq (which is mainly run by expats such as Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, or Filipinos), and they have dhows (boats) to take you across the Dubai Creek. It was pretty cool having someone take a raw coconut, chop it up, stick a straw in it, and then jump on a boat to take you across the creek. All the while being surrounded by buildings of architecture of the future.
You may have noticed the rather tall building in these pictures. It is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Kim and I did take the elevator up a staggering 124 floors to the (open air!) observation deck. We watched the sun set across the desert in the distance. You can truly see for miles and miles with nothing to hinder you view (except the occasional dust storm).
I do have a lot of respect for the people of Dubai economically. They have the foresight to realize that one day their oil money will run out. So instead of saying, “Well, let’s just live large and ride this gravy train until it derails”, (like Kuwait), they said lets use this money to invest in a tourist economy that will last long after the oil has run dry. In that regard, they have preserved the few physical cultural heritage sites that they have.
The photo above shows some of the arrowslits of a fort that was built in Dubai in 1787. They have preserved it and turned it into a museum. It was one of the most informative places I have been to in the middle east in terms of showing daily life of the Arabs long ago. The fact that it was built of rock, and mud, and even ocean coral, makes it even more impressive that it still exists today.
(If you click on the picture above, it will open in a new page so you can view the panorama in greater detail.)
Dubai is the epitome of a city in constant contradiction. Check the news, everyday the Emiritis are struggling with the balance between, or the blatant contradictions of, the progressive nature of modernity and the western culture that comes with it, and their hyper-conservative Islamic traditions and laws. For all of its faults, Dubai has become a major player in not only the middle east, but now safely holds its own on the world’s stage.
#4 – Musandam (Oman)
Ok, I cheated again. Musandam isn’t its own country. It is “technically” part of Oman, but it is cut off from Oman culturally, linguistically, geographically, and even physically! Musandam is a peninsula, jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz, and it is not connected to Greater Oman. The only way to get to Musandam from Greater Oman is to either drive through the UAE, fly there, or take a boat around the UAE coast. So that is why I made it my #4 country, deal with it : )
The picture above is one of my favorite photos that I have taken in the middle east. This inlet of water surrounded by the rocky fjords of Musandam is called Khor Al Najd (which possibly means “hidden place”, but I wouldn’t go throwing that around with any certainty). Kim and I flew into Dubai and rented a car. We then drove across the UAE and crossed the border into Musandam. From that point the scenery became spectacular. Giant rocky cliffs falling straight into the crystal blue-green ocean. We climbed the extremely steep dirt road from the inland side in our rented two wheel drive car and when we reached the zenith the view before us was jaw-droppingly beautiful. We stayed there for hours taking in the view and walking around the little paths from the viewpoint.
We brought our tent on the plane and just lived out of our car for the weekend. In all of Oman you can camp pretty much wherever you like. In the picture above we set up camp on a rocky cliff that dropped over the ocean and watched the sun set reflect on the mountains in the background changing them from the most brilliant red, to pink, to purple.
The next day we chartered a dhow cruise through the fjords. The best, and only real way, to truly experience Musandam is by boat. Weaving in and out of the inlets of water you dive deeper into the heart of Musandam. We explored an island with the ruins of a colonial fort, brightly colored fish swimming through coral, and small Omani fishing villages living on the edge of existence. We were able to snorkel and swim in a few places. When we got back on the boat, we had a few marine friends following us.
At least 5 times we had dolphins skimming along next to our boat. They would go under us, behind us, jump out of the water, and squeak at us. There was a particular family with a baby that kept following us. It was a really cool experience, and the first time I have seen dolphins in the wild.
That night we asked the boat driver to drop us off at a secluded beach only accessible by boat so we could camp for the night (a common request). He dropped us off, gave us some firewood (a rarity in the middle east), we set up camp, and hoped he would remember to pick us up the next day. It was the most picturesque beach cove – I could have sworn I was on a movie set. It was called “Seebel Kareeb” – a perfect half circle of soft sand completely hidden by the surrounding mountains. We swam, cooked dinner on the fire, and slept under the shooting stars. It was unreal.
The last day in Musandam we followed the one road through the peninsula as far as it goes. To our great surprise it dead ends into a forest. Now, if you know anything about deserts…there’s not a lot of forests. We got out and followed the many herds of goats through the forest, around trees, and sometimes up into the trees. Yes, these goats climbed trees. There were plenty of places to camp but we had to get to Dubai that night and so our Musandam journey had come to an end.
Musandam is quite unknown, even within expat communities in the middle east. This makes it an infrequently traveled, untouched enclave among the major tourist destinations in the Gulf.
#3 – Egypt
Number three was a difficult choice. I was torn between number two and three. In the end, Egypt has the population factor and the stress that comes with it that pushed it to my number three.
Egypt is fantastic. Don’t let the current political situation dissuade you from any thought other than the fact that Egypt is fantastic. From north to south it has over 6000 layers of history that sometimes you literally see “layered” in the ground. Egypt contains remnants of human existence from the pharaohs, the biblical Jews, the Hittites, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Nabataeans, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the French, the British, and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting. Can any other country in the world claim that kind of diverse history. It is astounding and visible.
When I was in middle school I went to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. I had seen many pictures of it and expected it to be huge. When I got there, it was rather incredible, but it was smaller than what I was expecting. With the pyramids, I think I’ve seen thousands of images of them in my life and expected them to be huge again. When I got there, they were BIGGER and grander than I could have ever imagined – and they are so numerous that they stretch along the Nile for miles and miles. Seeing these gargantuan stones, over 4500 years old, piled up on top of one another in perfect mathematical alignment, and then being able to actually go inside them… to me, it was like a kid in a candy store, if the store was also made of candy, and the candy could be inserted directly into your veins. I was high on history.
In our trip we visited no less than 7 temples (I lost track). I was given free range to meander through these structures, witness the great artistic skill in carving the hieroglyphs, listen to the echos in the inner chambers bounce off Isis, Horus, and Seth, and feel the eternity of the stones…oh, if walls could talk…
In the valley of the kings there were no temples, but tombs where the pharaohs were buried. As the quality of the wall carvings and paintings got better (more preserved), I couldn’t help but realize how alike these ancient people of the past were to us today. Especially in the necropolis of the wealthy and workers tombs where they depicted scenes from everyday life on their walls. A son helping his father carry baskets of wheat, a man sleeping on the shore of the Nile while his friends fished, a wedding with man and wife holding hands surrounded by beautiful riverbed flowers. In these 4000 years, our relationships and the emotions of our human interactions haven’t changed much.
The way that Egypt can transition so flawlessly from 4000 years ago, to 2000 years ago, to modern day, all on the same block is a uniqueness all its own. Cairo is a mega-city. It is the most populated city in Africa with streets and city planning created over 1000 years ago. Cairo hustles, it churns, it spits, it screeches, and it does it well into the night. The streets have shops, in front of shops, in front of shops, in front of other shops and you wonder where people walk, and where they actually drive. Some parts of Cairo are a fluid of people. But then you’ll turn down a side street where cars can’t go, and you’ll find a thousand year old mosque. You wander inside and see the most beautiful stone insets, geometric shapes, and delicately drawn Arabic calligraphy. This is where the Fatimid Caliphs, the Mamluk kings, and the Ottoman Sultans prayed and meditated on their next conquest.
Turn the next corner and you’re smack in the middle of Tahrir Square, the heart of the Egyptian revolution, where effigies hang from light poles. We talked to a lot of people throughout Egypt about the revolution and they all knew, without hesitation, that turmoil, and uncertainty, and even bloodshed were likely repercussions for the revolution, but they wanted it so badly, they were willing to accept it. That was the sentiment when we were there in January of 2013 – now I don’t know if they would say so much. I think now they are more angry and divisive than they ever were with Mubarak. As one Egyptian dhow sailor told us in Luxor, “The Revolution is like giving birth to a new born, a new nation. It’s exciting, it’s emotional, and it’s messy!”
When I think of the revolution, I always have to put things in perspective and think, it took the United States 13 years, and essentially a civil war to get rid of a Monarch. Egypt does not appear to need all that. Inshallah.
Visiting Egypt made me glad that Kim and I included a reading of an ancient Egyptian poem in our wedding. The following are my favorite lines from that poem, translated from the hieroglyphics on a wall in a temple built some 3000 years ago:
“With my hand in your hand
we shall wander together in beautiful places,
my soul inspired,
my heart in bliss,
because we go together.”
#2 – Jordan
My number two, Jordan. Oh, how I love this country. It is amazingly vast and diverse for a country little bigger than Maine. Although a good area of land is desert, the remaining topography has mountains, hills, valleys, wadis, lakes, oceans, and rivers. Not only is it a beautiful country, but the people are so genuinely nice and helpful (and not just because you’re a tourist).
The above photo was taken from one of my favorite places in Jordan known as Wadi Dana. If you ever visit Jordan, please book one night in the little medieval village of Dana. If you look closely, you can see the entire village hanging perilously on the edge of the valley in the center left of the picture. The reason I say “medieval” village is because the rooms you stay in are the ruins of a village built in the middle ages. We hiked up to the ruins of a Roman bath on the left side of the picture where the water is held in an underground well and slowly trickles down a stone built aqueduct to the village and into the wadi (a “wadi” is a dry riverbed). It becomes quite green in the rainy season.
At night, Kim’s family and I huddled in a majlis tent with a few Bedouin where we smoked shisha and drank “Bedouin tea” (which was sage and sugar). One man played the oud, another drummed, while the last man danced, clapped, and sang. For a goat herder he had quite the moves.
Like Egypt, Jordan’s history is long and convoluted. There are castles upon castles in Jordan from the many crusades and crusader states set up here. My favorite is the one in the picture above, Kerak Castle. This castle is huge, don’t be fooled by the photo. Where the photographer is standing is also on top of the castle with many rooms and tunnel ways underneath. What you see before you is only the very top of the castle. This castle is my favorite because it was attacked and conquered by one of my favorite characters from the crusades, Saladin (Salah al-Din). Saladin was Richard the Lionheart’s bitter rival, but they had a relationship of mutual respect and admiration. In fact, the 3rd crusade actually ended with a rather fair peace treaty for the middle east.
The guide told the story of Saladin when he attacked this castle. The castle was controlled by a Templar Knight named Raynald de Chatillon. He was a rather ruthless man. He used to throw Muslim prisoners off of the castle walls (into a deep valley below) with a wooden box fitted around their head, just to make sure they didn’t pass out before they hit the ground – the goal being that they stayed awake to feel all the pain associated with falling that great height. He frequently attacked Muslim pilgrimage caravans and slaughtered them. When Salah al-Din conquered the castle, he let the Christians go uninjured, except for Raynald, whom he personally beheaded. Ah, I love history!
Step back another thousand years and you’re in the time of the Nabataeans. Petra is truly one of the great wonders of the world. When you approach Petra from the outside, you cannot see anything other than rocky hills. Then you wind your way through a narrow passageway at times only six feet wide that goes straight up hundreds of feet. You continue walking about 20 minutes like this until you reach the opening of the Siq, and you’re standing directly in front of beautiful sandstone like building carved directly into the wall. But there isn’t just one, there are over 800 carved tombs in the walls as the walls in the valley open up to the size of a football field. But soon you realize it isn’t just tombs, there was a thriving city here, complete with aqueducts, homes, and even a carved in amphitheater. We spent three days in Petra and did not see everything.
Further north is the Roman town of Jerash. Because it was completely built by Romans, and it was abandoned and never built over, it is one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world. It even boasts the best preserved hippodrome in Asia. In fact, they even perform Roman military formations and a chariot race in the hippodrome with ex-Jordanian military men dressed in complete Roman costume. Unfortunately, it rained the one day we went to Jerash and they canceled the chariot races. Jerash was the first place I had ever seen Roman ruins, and if you know me, you know how much I love ancient Rome. It was a seminal event for me.
Separating the countries of Jordan and Israel are the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. At 1,400 feet below sea level, it is dubbed “the lowest place on earth.” In the picture above, the rocks are not covered in snow, or sand, rather they are covered in crystallized salt. The water has no where to go but up when it evaporates, making the Dead Sea one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. We jumped in and could not sink though we tried. You just bob like an apple. As I listened to the waves lap across the salt baked rocks, from the southern shore of the Dead Sea I looked to my right at the hills of Mt. Nebo, where Moses viewed the promised land but could not enter – and I looked to my left where the light dome of Jerusalem bounded upward behind the hills of the river valley and instantly everything felt so ancient and unending. Much like the country of Jordan.
#1 – Oman
And my number one is….Oman! People that know Kim and I are probably not surprised. Oman is by far our favorite middle east country. In the 2 years that we were living in Kuwait we went to Oman 3 times (that’s 3 times more than any other middle east country). Oman has everything an outdoors lover would want including mountains, wadis, lagoons, soft sand beaches, rocky beaches, waterfalls, caves, coral reefs, sink holes, and real wildlife (a rarity in the middle east). It is a country just daring you for adventure.
The above panorama (click to enlarge) was taken at As Sifa beach about an hour from Muscat. You have to drive some astoundingly hilly roads but your reward is the most beautiful beach I have ever been to. Flawlessly white powder sand only a tiny village nearby. There is a major hotel that just opened up and the coolest restaurant serving the freshest seafood right on the beach. You can put your toes in the sand and watch and listen to the waves lap up on the beach. We camped right on the beach.
You can camp virtually anywhere in the entire country. In our main trip to Oman we brought a tent and sleeping bags on the plane and then rented a car when we got there. We had a long 5 day weekend and I wish it was longer. We drove all around the mountain and gulf coastal region and just pulled over to set up camp whenever we were getting tired. We camped in Wadis, on beaches, on mountains, and even once under a tree next to a mosque where we were greeted in the morning by a rather loud call to prayer and a handful of overly friendly goats.
The above photo is not staged in any way – it is me just pointing my camera down at the beach sand in a town south east from Muscat called Sur. I couldn’t believe it, there was no sand! The entire beach was shells and coral. Unfortunately we did not have time on our trip, but right near Sur is a sea turtle sanctuary where you can go with a guide and watch baby turtles hatch out of their sand nest and crawl to the ocean.
Throughout Oman are either original, remnants, or restored sand colored forts, castles, and towers. Some are Omani made, some are Portuguese made. The oldest ones dating back to the 1200s! There are over 500 in the whole country. The picture above is the giant fort in Nizwa. In the picture below you can see a tower near the center left on the mountain. They are a cool aspect of Omani culture and Sultan Qaboos (who I am fascinated with and you should read about him) has done a great job restoring and maintaining them.
The first time we visited Oman we went to a conference in Muscat for only a couple days. We immediately were enamored with the country. The people are so friendly. Oman does not have as much oil money as the other gulf coast countries and because of that the people seem to be more down to earth, middle class, and genuine. Oman is rich in culture and history. Even the clothing the men and women wear are colorful (unlike the black and white clothes of the other gulf countries). Trade with India over the centuries has created an infusion of outside influences.
We didn’t stay in Muscat, actually, we stayed in a smaller area that is attached to Muscat called Muttrah. The above photo is of the Muttrah corniche and we actually did a hike over the mountains you see in the background. Problem was I had just dislocated my knee the week before and had a straight leg cast on. But that didn’t stop Kim from pulling me up that hill to the reward of a breathtaking view over the ocean and Muttrah coast.
Our favorite thing about Oman were the Wadis. A wadi is a dry canyon or riverbed. Except these wadis are almost never dry! The mountains in Oman create clouds and more frequent rain which fills these slot canyons with steams, pools, waterfalls, waterslides, and just plant life and animal life in general.
The above photo is from Wadi Shab. Starting from the Ocean where the water empties into, you step into this gigantic canyon with 90 degree angle sides. In order to get into the Wadi you have to either take a boat across the initial river of water or just wade across. Of course we waded across waist deep in the water. We were in our swimming suits anyway because at the end of the hike (after hours of pools, and canyons, and cliff climbing) you reach a few narrower pools that have an underground waterfall. The waterfall is in a cave and the only way to reach it is to swim underwater through a 5 foot wide tunnel about 20-25 feet and then come up for air once you’re inside the cave. It took a lot of coaxing but eventually I got Kim to do it. It was very cool.
Our favorite wadi was Wadi Bani Khalid, but not the tourist side (although it is beautiful and also includes a long and deep waterless cave), the down stream side of Wadi Bani Khalid. It seemed virtually untouched and we only encountered one other group of people the whole hike. You follow the wadi which is quite dry initially until the canyon becomes much more rocky and narrow. Then out of no where the water starts flowing with huge pools and 30 foot waterfalls. We watched the other group actually jump from the top of one of the waterfalls into a pool below (Kim wouldn’t let me do it…). We went swimming and had a picnic near one of the waterfalls and about 5 lizards came out from under the rocks to meet us, eager to steal our food. I liked them but they kind of freaked Kim out.
My last story about Oman is a bit embarrassing. Like I said, we drove around and camped the whole time we were there. We never had a problem finding a place to camp, especially along the ocean. However, one night when we were driving down from Jebel Shams (a beautiful mountain), we arrived to the village inside of Wadi Bani Khaled in the dark. We went to the Wadi pools on the tourist side and it was wall to wall people with noise and trash everywhere. This was because it was Eid al Adha and everyone was off work vacationing. We decided there was no way we were going to camp there tonight.
So we drove back into the village but the canyon walls around the city did not allow any open space for camping. We even drove back towards the highway and found a place near there that we thought might be ok, albeit noisy, but it was pitch dark and there was a human like shape laying under a tree two feet from where we wanted to camp. The paranoia got to Kim and “there is no way I’m sleeping here” she said. So we drove back into the village and looked around again. After a couple hours of this we found the Wadi Bani Khaled visitor center, which had a parking lot and we thought, whatever, lets just camp in the parking lot. A man came out and asked us what we were doing. We replied that we needed a place to camp. He told us, no problem, of course we could camp in the parking lot. So we went around what appeared to be an animal pen (with no animals) and set up camp for what was a somewhat restless night.
When we awoke, we were greeted with the most serene, awe inspiring and exquisite view. Because it was pitch black when we set up camp we did not realize that we were at the top of the valley overlooking a forest of palm trees encircled by imperial canyon walls. The sun was just peeking over the mountains and the moisture from the pools of water evaporating created this mist over the place that was ethereal and magical.
There truly is no bad place to camp in Oman.