Guests, beaches, restaurants, rain, and Ramadan preparations

Life here has been cruising along and we are enjoying the lull between our winter guests and our summer travels.

We must have done a good job of selling Oman, even before we arrived, because a lot of people came and visited! I love having visitors because I think Oman is such an incredible place and it’s so much fun showing off the country. It’s also a great excuse to try new places, like the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, 1000 Nights Desert Camp, Wadi Dham, and Misfat Al Abriyeen. We would have eventually made it to those spots, but visitors pushed up the time line and I have zero regrets. At this point, though, after six trips to Wadi Shab I’m never going back there again.

We took advantage of having visitors on a free Sunday morning to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque complex

Each tiled wall portico is different and throughout the mosque complex the themes vary

Inside the main prayer hall. That chandelier is enormous.

The only place we’ve taken every single one of our visitors to is our favorite beach, Sifat Ash Sheikh. The snorkeling off the beach there is great, and it’s getting better as the temperature climbs. The other day Nate saw a turtle! A few weeks ago, though, the ocean and beach were full of golfball sized jellyfish. We hired a local fisherman to take us to a beach maybe a 10 minute boat ride away, were there were less jellyfish both in and out of the water. Luckily they didn’t sting, but they sure did smell bad drying out on the sand in the heat.

Our favorite beach: Sifat Ash Sheikh

A passable substitute for when the normal beach is full of jellyfish

We’ve been taking Athena to the beach during the week to swim and play fetch in the waves. For some reason she will play fetch for hours in the water, but for only 5 minutes maximum on land. She’d much rather play tug. But when she’s in the water she’ll happily run back and forth, and even drop her toy when you tell her to. We took her to a cove a few weeks ago and as soon as we got there she made a bee-line for the water, spun around a few times, and plopped down. She loves the water, and it’s nice to see that she’s having as much fun here as we are.

Athena in her happy place

Lately we’ve gotten more adventurous with trying new restaurants. It’s easier here where everyone loves kids and no one glares at you when your toddler wants to get down and run around. We’ve started going regularly to a south Indian vegetarian restaurant called Saravan Bhavan, and there is a cluster of 4 booths that all share a wall. The kids stand in the booths and peer over the sides at the other kids and they keep each other entertained. Then when things go to hell we just pull out the Kindle with downloaded movies. You gotta do what you gotta do.

The best tacos in Muscat at TacoMan

Fantastic Japanese food at Tokyo Taro

Speaking of new restaurants, we’ve been hearing about the Turkish House restaurant since we arrived in August and a few weeks ago we finally decided to give it a try. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up to the location provided by Waze and we found not one, but no less than three, Turkish Houses. We decided to go to the one with blue lettering, slightly set back from the others. The food was spectacular, especially the fish. Unfortunately I have zero photos, I was so busy eating. It turned out we’d gone to the correct Turkish House. Some people have said that each restaurant is a separate Turkish House, and others have said that they all share the same main kitchen. So I have no idea what the situation is. But, if you want good Turkish food, excellent seafood, and freshly baked bread go to the blue Turkish House.

One thing here that I will never get used to is how dirty the rain is. I associate rain with fresh air and greenery, but here after it rains it looks like Mother Nature took a dump. Everything is covered in mud. The air is so dusty that when it rains, it just carries the dust and dirt down onto whatever happens to be in its path. It rained while we were driving a few weeks ago, and our car was remarkably dirty afterwards. Normally, who cares if your car is clean or not, but here it is against the law and you can get a ticket if your car is dirty. Nate had some first-hand experienced with this the other day when he got pulled over at a police checkpoint and was asked why his car wasn’t clean. He responded that he was on his way to the carwash, which given the circumstances indeed he was, and narrowly avoided getting a ticket. I think the sting over getting a ticket for a dirty car hurts more than the actual fine, which is around $25 from what I’ve heard.

That’s about it for now. We are preparing for our first Ramadan here, which I’ve heard is an interesting experience. Nate has ordered some long light-weight pants since he won’t be able to wear shorts, and some long sleeved shirts to cover up his tattoos. I’ve ordered a few more light-weight cardigans because apparently I won’t be able to have bare arms. The word on the street is that you can get a ticket if you so much as drink water in your car, even if you aren’t Muslim. So, like I said, it should indeed be an interesting month.

 

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Petroglyphs at Hasat Bin Salt

Can you spot all four people?

On our way to Misfat Al Abriyeen we made a quick detour to look at the Hasat Bin Salt petroglyphs. Oman Off Road sets your expectations low with the following language: “The most impressive petroglyphs of Hasat Bin Salt have mainly disappeared from the surface of this ancient rock, or been vandalized. This is particularly sad given that when they were found, the clear drawings of people and animals were said to be the most significant found in Arabia.” Whomp, whomp.

We followed the book’s instructions and turned off to the right when we were supposed to (right after the brown arrow pointing right saying “Hasat Bin Salt”), bumping down a dirt road. There were no GPS coordinates or specific instructions for how exactly to find the petroglyphs, however. We found ourselves crossing a dry wadi bed, wondering exactly where we were going. But we couldn’t stop because then we probably wouldn’t have been able to get back out of the six-inch deep lose gravel! Once we crossed the wadi, we stuck our heads out the windows to try to get an idea of where to go. Our friend spotted a rock maybe 100 yards away that was encircled with metal rebar sticking straight up into the air. Bingo!

If it weren’t for the rebar, this would have looked like just another rock.

We go closer to the rock and all we saw was lots of graffiti. I looked up a little higher on the rock, past the reach of the more recent artists that had been leaving their marks, and, much to my surprise, there were human forms carved into the rock. We were expecting gazelle etchings or something like that, not legit rock carvings. So that was pretty cool.

The GPS coordinates for the rock are 23.074553, 57.282935. You can easily see four human forms; from left to right there is a medium sized figure, probably a man, next to him there is another medium figure wearing a hat or something, possibly a woman, then a figure seemingly flexing his muscles (it seems men haven’t changed much over the past 5,0000 years), and finally smaller figure on the corner below the muscle man, probably a child. Apparently there are other human forms on the rock also, but they aren’t as easy to find; I think you’d probably have to really search. We mostly focused on the four obvious ones and didn’t find the others with a cursory initial glace.

From left to right: man, woman, and the Muscle Man

You can barely see the woman to the left of the Muscle Man and the child is carved onto the corner of the rock

Further research after the fact revealed that this rock is also called Coleman’s Rock, named after Robert Coleman, who apparently made its presence known in the 1970s. I hesitate to write that he discovered it, since the local people probably knew that it was there well before that. The petroglyphs are estimated to be over 5,000 years old! Yet there’s hardly any information available about them, and definitely no signage other than the initial arrow pointing in its general direction off the main road. It’s nice to see that someone tried to protect the area with rebar, but you can easily walk through and get close to the rock; we certainly did. Thankfully the petroglyphs are just high enough that you can’t touch them.

This is one of my favorite things about Oman: if it weren’t for the rebar, we would have felt like the first people to have ever seen that rock. It takes effort here to find things, which can be maddening, but it also keeps the casual tourists away. Oman is a do-it-yourself place where you really have to try to find what you’re looking for, but once you finally find it, it’s almost always better than you could have possibly imagined.

Abseil trip to 7th Hole

I’m all about trying to conquer my fears, but I’m not quite ready to do that with my fear of heights. A few weeks ago, when Nate decided to hook himself to a rope and jump into a cave on top of a plateau in the Hajar mountains, I said “F*** no” and stayed behind. So I’m letting him take over to write about it:

When the Embassy fun coordinator (she has an official title, but that is a significant part of her duties) announced that there was going to be an abseiling trip into a 120 meter deep cavern, I first looked up what abseiling was, and then I enthusiastically volunteered. I also asked Kathryn if she wanted to come, but she did not seem super interested in hanging mid-air attached to a rope.

We had heard a lot of good things about the company that was guiding the tour, Twenty 3 Extreme, so I was fairly certain it would be a safe, competently led expedition. Our friend had used them for a trip a month or so back, and said all of their equipment was top of the line and in really good shape, which is what you want to hear when you’re going to be dangling over an abyss in short order.

I also liked that they required nine hours of training over the course of three sessions at a local climbing facility. If I need to use a lot of new equipment to do something, I want to get a lot of opportunities to use it in as safe an environment as possible.

We were given a helmet, a harness, an ASAP (a safety device with metal teeth that attaches to a rope running alongside your descent / ascent rope), an ascending device attached to our chest (a piece of equipment with metal teeth that keeps you attached to the climbing rope, but also allows you to move up it), a Jumar ascending device (a device with a foot loop attached to it that allows you to climb a rope essentially by standing up repeatedly), a descender device, and several cables attached to carabiners that could be used as safety devices when attached to anchors.  Most of these devices rely on weight and friction, and if you take your weight off them you can detach them from the rope you’re on. This became necessary when we were transferring from rope to rope mid-climb.

It took a little while to get used to all these pieces of equipment: I still can’t really describe the process of what I was doing as much as I can say it became much easier as I continuously did it. Pretty soon everyone was going up and down ropes with ease, and using the descender to more rapidly go down. The last part of the training was adding an additional 15 kilos of weight to the bottom of the rope we were using to see if we could still feed it through the descender device. This was to simulate having 200 feet of rope hanging underneath us, which we might need to manipulate at some point.

Getting the ropes ready to abseil into the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

After the final training we packed up our camping gear and headed to the Hajar mountains, overlooking the town of Fins and some very deep canyons. The mountain road was extremely twisty and steep, and our Mitsubishi Pajero overheated twice before we made it to the hole we planned on abseiling into. We set up camp maybe ten meters away from the hole, and our guides Joe and Justin set up the ropes we’d be using the next day. We got a grill set up and cooked chicken and steak under the stars. The view of the sky was amazing. Joe and Justin regaled us with tales of their cave exploring throughout the world. One of their many interesting stories was Justin’s tale of cannibals threatening his life and the life of a BBC film crew while trying to explore a cave in Papua New Guinea.

The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, ate some breakfast, and started dropping into the hole. I went second so that I wouldn’t psych myself out, though I don’t think I needed to worry. Joe was at the top, and was extremely reassuring, even though I was literally backing myself off the edge of a cliff. I did not look down very much, enjoying the views of the cave and the cliff above me. When I did look down, I mistook the mouth of the cavern for the ground, so I thought I was halfway down when I was actually about a quarter of the way there.  It took about 17 minutes to make it all the way down.

When we got to the bottom we took some group photos, signed the Twenty 3 Extreme cave guestbook they had hidden there, and hiked a short distance through a dark tunnel. We came out on the other side, rappelled down a ten – fifteen meter drop and then climbed up what was variously described as a 40, 50, or possibly 60 meter rock wall. Another short hike found us climbing a final 30-meter high rock wall. As we climbed we saw two huge lizards fighting it out for dominance of the cave by trying to grab each other by the tails and fling each other off the wall.

Climbing through the aforementioned dark tunnel (Photo by Stephen K.)

Climbing out of the 7th Hole (Photo by Stephen K.)

Another view climbing out of the cave (Photo by Stephen K.)

The cave itself was beautiful, deep, and cool. A nearby wadi feeds into it, and you can see where torrents of water have created a series of deep cauldrons. Apparently it goes another 160 meters down, though exploring that part is another expedition. The initial descent alone is worth the trip. I strongly suggest trying it out, and using Twenty 3 Extreme; their guides are excellent, and will make you a successful abseiler no matter how scared of heights you are.

Misfat Al Abriyeen

Abandoned houses in Misfat

I’d heard that the mountainside farming village of Misfat Al Abriyeen is one of the lushest, prettiest areas of Oman. With summer and its repressively hot temperatures encroaching quickly, we decided to make the drive to Misfat Al Abriyeen a few weeks ago before it got too hot.

I’ll tell you right now that it did not disappoint. There were hiking trails along the mountains, and also paths you could take through partially abandoned neighborhoods and down into terraced farmlands.

Falajs are used for irrigation

To access Misfat, you can either turn right by the playground after you go up the hill with all the switchback turns, or you can go straight. If you go straight the road curves right and you’ll find yourself in a parking lot. We followed two SUVs full of tourists up the mountain and they turned right, so we went straight. As we were unloading the car and getting ready for our hike, the SUVs came lumbering past. By going straight I think you access the hiking trails more easily.

HOLY SHIT! A map!

Yellow, white, and red flags mark trails throughout Oman, the W9 trail in this case.

Near the parking area is a tourist center with a map of the area! I was shocked; this is the first of its kind that I’ve seen in Oman. Note that the map encompasses a very small area. From the “you are here” star indicator to the mosque in the opposite corner, it’s maybe a 10 minute walk and that’s only if you stop and take lots of photos. Otherwise it’s about 5 minutes. You can easily explore the entire hillside in an afternoon and still have time for a rest break at one of the cute guest house cafes perched on the mountainside.

Beautiful scenery along the W9

Oman has a fairly well-developed network of trails, and one of them, the W9, starts in Misfat. It heads into the canyon away from Misfat and it looks to be a lovely walk as long as it’s not summer. We walked along it for maybe 20 minutes, although it felt like an hour it was so hot. There’s not a lot of shade and the sun reflects off the mountains and hits you full-force. Eventually we turned around an headed back towards Misfat, hoping to find a more shaded area to explore.

We heard this guy well before we saw him, whistling while walking his donkey along the trail

Walking on the shady breezy trails along the falajs, taking in the view and smelling the fruit trees, was exactly what I’d been hoping for. This was also when M decided he was “stuck” in his hiking pack and demanded to be turned loose. From here he did the rest of the hiking on his own, holding our hands on the stairs and trying to say “careful.”

Ruins in Misfat

A note for tourists: knees and shoulders, for both men and women, need to be coveredto enter the village. Those SUVs full of tourists I mentioned earlier? We saw them walking about with sarongs tied around their waists and scarves over their shoulders. You’re not going to be doing much hiking, or be very comfortable, dressed like that. Also, don’t pick the fruit. This community’s livelihood is farming.

Baby pomegranates

Oman never fails to impress. I have yet to go someplace and think, “Well that sucked.” Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself.

Our tour here is 1/3 done :(

What post about the awesomeness of Oman is complete without the requisite Wadi Shab photo?

Yes, I feel so strongly about that I needed to put an emoticon in the subject line.

Folks, the past eight months have flown by. Like, I feel like we got here maybe 2 months ago. I’ve counted it off on my fingers several times just to make sure we are actually at the 8-month mark. (And I just did it again.)

Classic Oman: sand and camels in the Wahiba Sands

One thing I’ve learned in life is that things can go to shit real fast. Keeping that in mind, with every week that goes by, I remind myself how lucky I am. Oman is a truly incredible place, and we are very fortunate to be here. That might seem like a crazy thing to say, given the fact that we are in the Middle East, bordering Yemen, with Iran just across the Straight of Hormuz, but Oman is such a special place.

The beautiful Dayminiat Islands

Don’t get me wrong, there are things about Oman, or at least Muscat, that annoy me. Like the driving. The other day we were sitting at an intersection, and the light had just turned red. We watched a car turn right and head in the opposite direction from us, and then inexplicably do a 3-point turn and turn around, going in the wrong direction. He then proceeded to plow over the 8-inch tall median (in a sedan, nonetheless, so he must have really been keeping his foot on the gas) and t-bone a car waiting for the light to turn going in the opposite direction from us. It was nothing short of ridiculous. Nate was worried the driver had had a heart attack because why else would you drive like that, but then the driver got out the car and started pointing at the dude he’d just t-boned like he’d something wrong.  It was mind-boggling. I am convinced that if it weren’t for the red light cameras, all hell would break loose.

Deep under water, where crazy drivers aren’t a problem. We saw turtles, along with electric rays, moray eels, and loads of fish while scuba diving off Jissah Point.

But, for the most part, I feel like we have things figured out and we’re able to spend our weekends exploring and having fun. There are a few things that we brought with us or purchased since arriving here that have helped us to maximize our fun, or at least made life a little easier.

Bimmah Sinkhole

Here, in no particular order, are a few things that I would recommend you have when in Oman:

  • A large, durable water bladder.  We keep one of these MSR bags in our car all the time. It’s perfect for rinsing off after the beach and doubles as an emergency water supply if necessary.
  • A beach tent/shelter. The tent we had previously would blow away like a sail with every strong gust of wind, and I got tired of chasing it down the beach. This tent is anchored with sandbags and an attached floor that you weigh down with all your stuff. It’s stayed put through several strong wind gusts that would have certainly uprooted the other tent. This tent is also amazingly easy to put up and take down; I can do it by myself in less than 5 minutes.
  • For the ladies, I give you the perfect pants for hot climates. They are also great for traveling and hiking, and if you have to wade into the water at the beach fully clothed these pants will dry in less than half an hour. I got my first pair at 40% off, and given that summer and Ramadan are coming I recently bought a second pair at full price. At $79 these pants are an investment, but totally and completely worth it.
  • Oman Off-Road is the best guide for exploring Oman, and definitely worth the $50 price tag. You an buy it at any Borders book store (yes, those still exist here) and at some grocery stores. It is full of helpful info and you can do some of the routes in a sedan. I just wish it was spiral bound because it is so big that when I open it in the car the sides hang off my lap.
  • Shoes you can wear in and out of the water. We use Chacos, but Tevas or Keens would also work.

Water/hiking shoes an absolute must if you want to explore Wadi Al Arbaeen

  • A CamelBak or some other on-the-go hydration system. When we go hiking, Nate carries M in the metal-framed hiking pack and we use a 2-liter Platypus in our day hiking pack, which I carry. Everyone, including M, drinks out of the Platypus.
  • A high-clearance vehicle with four wheel drive, if you really want to explore and go on adventures. You can rent one, but most of them have a 200 kilometer per day milage limit (we learned this the hard way). Our CR-V is great for day-to-day driving, but she can’t handle anything more than light off-roading.

    You need 4WD to get past the police checkpoint if you want to explore Jebel Akhdar

  • An unlocked cell phone. The two main cellular companies here, Omantel and Oredoo, have shops in the airport and you can easily get a SIM card as soon as you arrive. They just need a photocopy of your passport. The cellular network here is pretty good, although I think Omantel is stronger than Oredoo. You can use Waze for turn-by-turn directions (not Google Maps) to get just about anywhere.

I’m glad we have 16 more months to explore Oman. There’s still so much we haven’t done: Jebel Shams, Salalah, Masirah Island, Musandam, the Sugar Dunes, Wadi Tiwi, the list goes on.

Al Thorwah Hot Springs, near Nakhal Fort

Also, if I do say so myself, if these photos don’t convince you to come visit Oman, you are immune to fun and adventure!

Wadi Dhum

Wadi Dhum

While we were visiting the Bat and Al Ayn tombs, we also checked out Wadi Dhum. It was totally worth the long drive out. The water is beautiful with lots of spots to jump in, the canyon itself is lovely and the rocks are surprisingly very interesting.

One of the best things about the hike to the end of the wadi is that it’s actually a pretty quick hike. I’d say 45 minutes maximum, and that included jumping into some pools along the way. It’s also more of a true wadi hike because you do have to scramble over some rocks and look for a relatively-unobstructed path. The only downfall is that it’s a 3 hour drive from Muscat.

On this wadi hike, make sure you bring a dry bag you can stash all your stuff into and shoes that you can wear both in and out of water. Also, as usual, bring plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen!

The view out of the wadi towards the carpark shortly after starting the hike

Oman Off Road has good advice for how to reach the end of the wadi, but I’ll go through what we did and what we’d do differently next time. First, if you have a high-clearance vehicle, you basically drive down the wadi bed until you can’t go any further. Park to the left under the rock ledge by the falaj if you want your car to stay shaded. If you’re driving a sedan, you might want to pull off the road where you can and park there because the closer you get to the parking lot, the more big rocks there are jutting out that could scrape the bottom of your car.

After you’ve parked, head up the wadi towards the dam. It’s maybe a 5 minute walk, and you could walk along the falaj or on the wadi bed. Cross the dam on the right side, and stay on that side for an easy walk to the a small waterfall with a massive boulder on the left side. Or, after crossing the dam go over to the left and jump into the first crystal blue inviting pool that you see to cool off. Then scramble over some slippery rocks to get to the right side with the trail to get to the waterfall. To the left of the enormous boulder by the waterfall you’ll notice a rope going up a rock into a cave-like rock formation. To proceed, either climb up the rocks by the waterfall (which I think would be possible if the rocks aren’t too slippery) or use the rope and climb up. If you take the waterfall route, bring a drybag for your stuff because you’ll have to swim to the rocks.

The rope is to the left of the large boulder, where the guys are standing.

The view along the hike through Wadi Dhum

From here we kept to the ledge on the right side of the wadi, which eventually spat us out a good bit above the final pool. The wadi eventually makes a 90 degree angle to the left and ends with a cave full of bats. Right before the wadi turns left you’ll find the last few pools. Getting down to the pools involved leaping over a big gap between two rocks and then clambering down while being careful to not touch the black rocks, which by 2 pm were burning hot. Then you go down through an opening in the rocks to climb down into the pools.

In the beautiful final wadi pool

Next time we’d stay on the right side of the wadi, but stay closer to the water rather than going up. Leaving the wadi, we climbed and swam through the water until there were easy ledges on either side. This route is definitely easier than the one we took coming in. You’re on the same side of the wadi as before, but there’s less climbing, scrambling and leaping over rock gaps.

We reached the point where you’d have to use the rope to go back down the slippery rocks and we figured out how to avoid that entirely. Keep to the left side of the wadi, and you’ll notice a path that goes up past the waterfall on the left side. You’ll have to scramble up a dicey area full of loose rocks and thorny shrubs, but if you just keep looking where you’re going, you’ll be fine. Note that this particular stretch of the hike is why I would not recommend taking this route entering the wadi. If you slip and fall going down, there is nothing stopping you from basically falling down a steep incline and off the side of a cliff. But going up it isn’t bad. After the dicey part you come to a nice wide path along a ledge in the wadi and you just follow that until you’re near the car park. It’s easy enough to walk down the hill and climb over a few rocks from there back to the car.

View out of the wadi towards the carpark as you leave. Keep to the left on the rock ledge, and then scramble up when the ledge stops. I promise there’s a trail up there.

Alright, so I reread my directions and they’re a bit confusing. If you plan on going and have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me personally!

Bat and Al Ayn Bronze Age Tombs

Al Ayn tombs

We first visited the 5,000 year old Bronze Age tombs at Al Ayn (in Oman, not UAE) several months ago. There’s another archeological site at Bat, maybe 30 minutes from Al Ayn, but when we first went we couldn’t find it. You might think that a UNESCO World Heritage site would have clear directions and labeling, but in Oman that’s not always the case.

We drove in the direction of the Bat Necropolis, thinking we’d see it from the road, and, as we bumped along an unending dirt road, we eventually gave up. We decided we’d go home, research the exact location, and come back knowing exactly where to go.

Remains of a tomb at Bat

Recently we had a chance to give the Bat Necropolis another shot, and this time we were successful! With the help of omantripper.com and precise GPS coordinates (23.274667,56.747666, in case you’re interested) we finally found it. If you use the GPS coordinates, you’ll drive along a paved road with the exact coordinates on the right. Before you reach the exact spot, you’ll notice a break in the fence with a dirt track leading into the site. Take the dirt track, which is most easily navigable with a high clearance vehicle, and you can drive around the Bat necropolis and explore. It’s a big area with rough dirt roads leading all over.

One of several tomb groupings at the Bat Necropolis

From the Bat Necropolis it’s about a 30 minute drive to the Al Ayn tombs, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Bat is more expansive than Al Ayn, but Al Ayn definitely wins for the “wow” factor. You can actually see the tombs from the road as you approach, perched on a ridge with a stunning mountain backdrop. It’s incredibly beautiful, especially in the late afternoon when the lighting is just right.

View of Al Ayn tombs from the road

Reaching the Al Ayn tombs is also a little tricky because, surprise, surprise, there are no signs. Each time we’ve gone, we see vehicles full of tourists stopped, not knowing where to go, and then they follow us in. To get to the tombs, turn to the left off the paved road onto a dirt track before you’ve gone past the tombs. Follow the dirt track up past the houses, and through the opening in the compound walls, where it looks like you’re driving into someone’s back yard. From here go down towards the wadi bed and turn right to drive up the wadi in the direction of the tombs. You’ll see a rough dirt track on an incline off to the left, which leads to a small parking lot. From here it’s a short walk uphill to the tombs.

Apparently the tombs at Bat and Al Ayn are some of the best-preserved Bronze Age tombs in the world. They were constructed 5,000 years ago, which makes them older than the Giza pyramids! It’s remarkable how well they’ve survived the passage of time, but I guess the environment in Oman facilitates that with little rain, climate change, or geological instability.

A note to tourists: please don’t climb on these structures. It may seem obvious, but judging by the number of people we saw climbing on tombs last time we went, apparently it’s not.

 

Race review: Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Running along the sea during the Muscat Marathon 2018 half marathon

Last month I ran the Muscat Marathon half-marathon, mentioned here, and it was a fun race. I like to write race reviews mostly for my own benefit; they’re fun to go back and read later, but, who knows, I might actually be helping someone that’s considering running the race. If you don’t give a shit about running (and who can blame you) you might not want to waste your time reading this.

The race was run on January 19, 2018 and race registration closed on December 1, 2017. I thought that was a little odd, as it’s almost a two month gap, which is more than enough time to train for a 10 k or, if you’ve got a good running base, a half marathon. The half cost about $65, so is was pricey but nothing too crazy if you’re used to US prices.

The race date was Friday morning (the workweek here is Sunday to Thursday) and packet pick-up was Monday-Wednesday before the race. There was no morning-of packet pick-up. I wish I’d taken a picture of the packet pick-up. It was a huge tent full of tables and volunteers, but hardly any runners were there. I don’t know when people picked up their packets, but it definitely wasn’t 6:30 pm on Wednesday. The guy who gave me my race bib and stuff told me my shirt was in the bag, but I got home and discovered he’d left it on the table. The race was at Al Mouj (formerly The Wave) which is half an hour away, and I wasn’t going to go back and get my shirt. I don’t need another race shirt that badly.

The race was initially going to start at 7 am, but the week before they changed it to 6 am. We left home around 4:30 to make sure we made it in time, and let’s just say we made it with plenty of time to spare. I milled around for over an hour before getting to my starting corral. I couldn’t find the port-a-pots so I used the toilets in the mall, which are really nice (although as we got closer to the race start they ran out of TP and paper towels).

The race started around 6:20 and the first few miles were on brick pavers, then we ran through a sandy construction area for maybe a mile, then it was back onto the brick pavers as we ran through the Al Mouj golf course. Then there was another half mile or so in the construction area, during which I had to stop and dump the sand and pebbles out of my shoes. Next we had another 2 miles on brick pavers before finally hitting asphalt. The brick pavers are no fun because they are particularly hard, whereas asphalt has a little give. There were probably 6 miles on the asphalt, 5 on the brick, and 2 on packed sand.

Sunrise over the mountains while running through the Al Mouj golf course

There were regular hydration and fuel stations, although at the hydration stations they were literally handing out full-sized plastic water bottles. It was so wasteful. I felt like a terrible person for taking a few swigs of water and then throwing a 2/3s full water bottle onto the ground (there were no garbage cans, or recycling, for that matter). There were a few stations with gels and at least one station with bananas.

There wasn’t tons of crowd support, and the course wasn’t particularly scenic, but I still enjoyed it. You run along the sea for a good chunk of it, and the part through the golf course is pretty. Running through the neighborhoods is fun; people are out in the bathrobes with their coffees, kids, and dogs, giving out high-fives.

The end of the race was kind of a mess. I ended as the 5k and 10k races were getting ready to start and the finishing area was jam-packed with people.

The morning of the race was unseasonably warm. I was expecting to be cold standing there in shorts and a tank top at 5:30 am, but I was sadly comfortable. I knew that meant I’d get hot quickly during the race, which unfortunately proved to be true. Thank god for those aid stations with water bottles; I also drank all the water in my hydration belt. When I finished I had crusty salt in my eyebrows.

In summary, the race was disorganized, but it was fun and you could tell the race organizers were trying really hard to make it as good as possible. I think in the years to come it will only get better!

Driving from Muscat to Dubai (and back)

Because sometimes camels have to cross the highway

Over the weekend we drove to Dubai to visit some friends from Dhaka that are now posted there. We’d heard that the drive can take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours, depending on how the border goes. There’s not a lot of information available on how exactly to cross the border now that apparently only two border crossings are open to expats entering the UAE. I’ve heard stories about families getting turned away at one checkpoint and needing to go to another, passports not getting stamped, passports disappearing into the immigration building for no apparent reason for nearly an hour or being rejected entirely, and other ridiculousness that can make the trip take forever.

So I’m writing this in case other people want to make the drive and are similarly confused and bewildered about the best way to make the trip. We reached out to everyone we knew that’d done the drive and things went off without a hitch. The drive there took about five hours and 45 minutes, and the drive back was about six hours. (Yes, we could have flown, but it only would have saved us a few hours and we didn’t want to buy plane tickets and pay for a rental car.) There might be a route to take, but this is what worked for us and knowing is half the battle.

Before embarking on the drive, make sure you have the following:

  • Passports (duh): If you are in Oman for diplomatic purposes get a multi-entry UAE visa in your dip passport and travel with that passport! Otherwise use your tourist passport. We brought both just in case and only used the black books.
  • Vehicle registration card
  • Car insurance documents
  • MFA card (if applicable; you might need it coming into Oman so they don’t search your car)
  • Lots of snacks and water
  • Travel packs of tissues for gas station bathrooms with no TP

Leaving Oman, we used the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing (GPS coordinates: 24.226667, 55.956783). To get there, we took the Muscat Expressway north until it ended, and then drove north along the Battinah highway toward Sohar. In Sohar we took Highway 7 (you need to exit the highway before the roundabout or you’ll miss it) straight to the Oman border post. It looks like a big toll gate. After you go through the Omani border checkpoint, you’ll drive another 30+ kilometers to the UAE border. You’ll pass an Al Maha gas station on your right and directly after that, turn right and take the bridge underpass. (This Al Maha is your last chance to get gas in Oman; it’s more expensive in the UAE.) You’ll see signs for the exit. Make sure you take that exit and use the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing. Otherwise you’ll get sent back and it’ll add over an hour to the trip because there is no where to turn around easily.

When you get to the UAE border they will check you passports, car registration and car insurance, each at separate checkpoints (it’s tedious and you feel like they’ll never stop checking your shit, but eventually it does end). At the passport checkpoint we all had to get out and go inside the immigration office, where they examined our passports and UAE visas, stamped the passports, and that was it.

Our first views of the Burj Khalifa entering Dubai were very exciting after hours of desert

Each time after we got our passports stamped we made sure they stamped everyone’s. Otherwise you have to turn around and go back, which can add a lot of time.

It took 2.5 hours to drive to Sohar, just over 3 hours to the border, and we crossed the UAE border at the 4 hour mark. After the border you have to drive through Al Ain, which is kind of annoying because there are a shitload of round-abouts, and from there it’s another 90 minutes to reach Dubai.

A note about navigating: unless you have a UAE SIM card or a Google Fii phone (or you want to pay the ridiculous roaming charges, I guess), once you leave Oman you have no cellular data. I downloaded an app called maps.me which allows you to download maps ahead of time and then does turn-by-turn directions even when your phone is in airplane mode. I didn’t get a chance to test it though, because Nate has Google Fii, which doesn’t work in Oman ironically, but is awesome for travel to other countries because it’s essentially a global data plan. Once we got into the UAE, he swapped out his SIM card and we used his phone to navigate to Dubai. We followed the border fence through Al Ain and then took E-66 straight to Dubai. It was really easy. For a 6 hour drive it went by quickly.

Driving through the mountains of Oman will never get old.

For coming home to Muscat, we plugged the Khatm Al Shakla border crossing into Nate’s phone and followed the directions, making sure we didn’t cross the border until then. His phone kept trying to get us to cross the border earlier, but by then we knew which direction to go.

At the UAE border they asked for our vehicle registration and then printed out and handed us some document specific to our vehicle but it was in Arabic. We had no idea what it was. We handed it to the border guard along with our passports, and we once again had to go into the immigration building to get the passports stamped. At the Oman border they tried to search our vehicle, but once they noticed the diplomatic plates they waved us through.

Eventually the Muscat Expressway will reach all the way up to Sohar and that will cut even more time off the trip. As it was, we took it to Suwayh and I think it was easier than taking the Sultan Qaboos Highway up.

Another perk of driving is that you can stock up on pork products in Dubai, which are pricey, but less expensive than in Oman. For instance, here one pound of American bacon costs nearly $20 (sob) and in Dubai it costs about $9. We came home with a cooler full of brats, sausages, Jimmy Dean sausage, bacon, pork shoulder and pepperoni.

We also found gas canisters for our Coleman camping stove, cheap canned pumpkin (which you can find here, supposedly, but I don’t know where), Sriracha hot sauce, and cheap Pam cooking spray. If I hadn’t been pressed for time due to a sleeping baby and waiting husband in the car, I probably would have found even more good stuff.

Oh, and you may be wondering about how hellish a 6 hour drive is with a 2 year old. It actually wasn’t that bad. He has a Kindle fire that we fill with downloaded Netflix movies and shows, and he is generally happy to watch that, nap occasionally, look at books, and eat snacks.

And then there’s visas. Good grief this post just keeps getting longer and longer. If you’re with the American embassy you can get multi-entry UAE visas in your dip passports. If you’re traveling on a tourist passport you can apparently get visas at the UAE border (and I think they might be no-fee but I’m not 100% certain). If you’re starting your journey in the UAE and coming into Oman you can buy visas at the border.

That said, make the drive! It really wasn’t as bad as we expected it to be.

Vacationing, non-biolumnisecent algae, running, and other stuff

Oh, man. Winter is going by way too quickly. I feel like I blinked and January was over. Why is it that time always flies when you’re having fun? Never in my life have I been like, “Well that sucked. Thank god it was over quickly.”

Sunrise over paradise

Nate and I spent five days in the Maldives and it was the most vacationy vacation I’ve ever had. It was fantastic. In case you have questions about our trip, here are my responses to the most common queries:

  • Yes, it’s worth it.
  • We stayed at the Centara Grand Island Resort and Spa and we loved it.
  • Yes, it is a kid-friendly resort (but you’ll have more fun if you leave them behind unless they are amazing swimmers).

Our bungalow was the third one.

While we were away Athena stayed at Jebel K9 and she had a great time. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, about 45 minutes from Muscat, and the hours aren’t exactly work-friendly, but I think it’s the best boarding you’ll find in the area. I drove down the driveway to the main house and felt like I was entering Doggy Manor. The dogs are kenneled in a huge fancy house and then they have a bunch of dog runs outside in a humongous compound where the dogs play with handlers and with each other. She came home happy and tired, so I’ll take it.

M has started going to half-day daycare/preschool and it’s been great for him. He and one Korean girl are the only non-Arab children in the class, and he’s even getting Arabic lessons once a day (the school operates primarily in English).  The school focuses on developing children into responsible, helpful, and mindful citizens, so they’re learning about gardening, recycling, helping around the house, and community service. Recently he had a field trip and the school sent a text message telling all the parents they need to give a carseat for their child to use that day. In a country where you see children riding on the driver’s lap, hanging their heads out the window, this was great to see. Let me know if you need Muscat daycare/pre-school recommendations, because we’ve been very happy so far!

Not a bad view for a road race!

A few weeks ago I ran my first half marathon since October 2014. My training didn’t go perfectly and I didn’t PR, but I ran the whole thing and I finished. And my time was only 9 minutes slower than my last half. The race was through Al Mouj north of Muscat and I thought it was relatively well-run, no pun intended. They didn’t finalize the race course until like a week ahead of time, there was no race expo at packet pick-up, and parts of the course were through a construction site (after which I had to take my shoes off and dump out the pebbles and sand). But they had lots of water stations and they were handing out gels and bananas. Maybe I’ll do a separate post on the race since I think this is quickly getting boring for anyone who doesn’t care about running.

Moving on… We spent Christmas day at our favorite beach with some good friends. One of the upsides of having an artificial Christmas tree is that you can take it apart, so I pulled the top off and brought it to the beach, along with the star tree topper. We drank prosecco and grilled chicken and sausages while the kids played in the sand and chased crabs. It was a perfect way to spend the day and I didn’t miss the cold Wisconsin winter weather for even a minute.

Mother Nature tried to be festive and decorate for Christmas

However, one thing that was odd about the beach that day was the amount of algae. It was ridiculous. The water was bright green. We went back again a few weeks later thinking maybe it would be gone by then, but it wasn’t. One of my friends said she’d heard it was bioluminescent algae (which I can’t mention without thinking of the quote “Oh, I see what she’s done, she’s covered a barnacle in bioluminescent algae, as a diversion.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have kids.) so I even drove back to the beach late at night to try to get some cool photos. Turned out it wasn’t bioluminescent, or I wasn’t doing whatever needed to be done for it to be bioluminescent.

Not bioluminescent, just green and smelly.

We drove to see the beehive tombs at Bat and Al Ayn/Ain a few weeks ago. We couldn’t find the ones at Bat, but the Al Ayn (not to be confused with Al Ain in the UAE) tombs were visible from the main road. I may have shrieked when I first saw them. They are 5,000 year-old tombs that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they are pretty fricking cool. There are supposed to be more tombs at Bat, but the ones at Al Ain are spectacular because of the setting. They are perched on top of a hill in front of a huge mountain and they’re very well-preserved. Once we figure out how to get to the ones at Bat, I’ll write a separate post about that too.

Beehive tombs at Al Ayn

Alright, I have to go finish my book club book. I didn’t finish last month’s and I’m not failing two months in a row!