Day 3: Daggers, Zombies, and (more) Forts
We woke up to have breakfast, which was as you should expect at camp, dry and cold, but we still enjoyed the waterfront view. I was fully prepared to load up and head off, as we were driving all the way to Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) that day, again having no real idea of time or distance, but then in a fit of whimsy (as he is prone to do) my husband suggested we go for a dip in the water first. Frankly, despite typically leaping at any chance to get in the water, I wasn’t too enthused this time as I’d already showered, dressed, and packed up. But, reminding myself that we were on vacation, I relented and we quickly changed and grabbed our towels.
Throughout our breakfast several people had been swimming and playing in the water, so when I dashed over and started to walk in, the frigid temperature didn’t register immediately, until I got in to my ankles. Then it registered and I was truly shocked that anyone could have gotten in, let alone do several laps like we saw. I said this to my husband and he pointed out, “He was a Brit.” True enough; wacky Brits. We did our best, but really couldn’t get in any farther than our mid-shins, but even still we proudly proclaimed that this was the farthest east we’d ever “swum” and called it a success. Then we returned to our hut, changed back into our clothes and loaded up the car.
Conferring with our map and GPS, we decided to take the coastal road south a little farther, then catch the in-land road heading north, which would take us past the towns of Jaalan Bani Bu Ali and Jaalan Bani Bu Hasan, both of which had small write-ups in the local tourism brochures. As we were driving through more small towns, we started to notice that while all of them can claim a grocery store, barber, carpentry (or “carpentary” as we saw more than once), gents tailor, coffee shop, super market (for brooms and buckets), and restaurant, the second common thread was that the signs were often the same.
Regardless of whether we were in Sur or in Nizwa, the “Gents Tailor” was the same sign, as was the “Coffee Shop,” even down to the same pictures of the food, most of which they don’t actually serve. As we continued driving along the coast we passed through a beach town where the road had been washed away by high waters, so we followed the detour off into the desert and wild brush. We decided to pull off the path and stop a minute to change drivers, and as we were doing this, every single car passing us stopped to make sure we were okay.
Even a truck, with five or six Omani men standing in the back, stopped and waved and blew kisses. This latter move we had been noticing as we drove through the villages and the young boys would blow kisses at us. At first we weren’t sure quite what this gesture meant, but we soon realized there was no ill intent, it was just a genuine greeting. Everyone was being so friendly we were taken aback a bit. This is definitely not something we experience in Kuwait, where they’re too busy speeding and texting at the same time to stop and wave, let alone inquire as to our well-being.
Coming in to the outskirts of Jaalan Bani Bu Ali, we passed a bus stop, not unlike all the others we’d been seeing in the towns. However this one was completely packed with lounging goats, just hanging out in the bus stop. With a little begging from me, my husband did a rather wild u-turn and we did another pass to ensure I could get a good photo. I mean, in hindsight, we never saw this again on our trip, so aren’t you glad we made the effort? Passing them this second time, we saw that some had decided to lounge on the bench, others were standing on the bench (there’s one in every family, huh?), and the rest were just milling about in the shade. We have no idea if this is a regular thing, or, as my husband surmised, they were all just waiting for the bus to the beach.
Leaving the goats behind us, we continued on. To get to the Jaalan Bani Bu Ali fort, the brochure said we’d drive through the “modern town”, which we were able to discern because in addition to the coffee shop and gents tailor, they also had a ladies tailor, as well as multiple super markets and several restaurants. We drove straight through and as we were getting in to the residential area we could see some stone battlements peeking up over the rooftops.
Having our hopes dashed with the Quriyat fort, we were skeptical whether this would be worth the stop, but we’re so glad we took the chance! This fort was a huge ruin standing in essentially the suburbs. Some of the stone walls surrounding the complex were still standing, but others had crumbled. We drove around it, marveling at its size, and found a young boy crossing the street. We stopped and asked him if there was a caretaker for the fort, or if we could go in it. “Yes, anyone can go in,” he answered. He then asked where we were from, and we told him, then he smiled and walked off. So, feeling that we’d gotten as much permission as we were going to get, we parked and got out.
We decided to enter through, or really over, the crumbled wall; being ever so careful to not break an ankle or step on a nail from 1502 A.D. As friendly as everyone had been, were still weren’t angling for a visit to the local doctor.
The fort’s inner complex had multiple buildings, all of which were in varying states of standing, but some were replete with turrets and battlements and ancient wooden doors and all things castle-like. There was a large central building that we could only really peek in to due to the state of collapse. We were able to explore a little more of the side buildings, even daring to climb some still-standing stone stairs that led to the landing, on which you could see down to the grass below as the floor on either side had given way over time.
There was even a small double-domed mosque at the back of the complex. Our twelve-year-old tour guide had long gone, so we had no information on the age of anything we were seeing, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
As we headed back to our car, I saw a man slowly walking towards us across the empty lot. He was dressed in traditional Omani clothing, with a turban of sorts, carrying two plastic bags. At first I was a little hesitant, and found myself walking with great purpose to the car, but as he got closer my husband said hello and remarked on what an amazing place this was and the man agreed. As they chatted, I marveled that he didn’t even bat an eye at the two strangers who found their way into his neighborhood. As he was turning to leave, I whispered to my husband to ask him if he wouldn’t mind if we took his picture. He didn’t mind at all. But before I could snap away, he tucked his bags behind his feet, and then whipped his kefiyah (scarf) off his shaved head, and with great care, carefully replaced it just so. I then nudged my husband to stand beside him and snapped off a few quick pictures and thanked him profusely. These are some of my favorites from the entire vacation; this wonderfully serious Omani man, with his galabeya, turban, and twelve-inch curved silver dagger (a khanjar), standing proudly next to my husband who happened to be wearing his “People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies” t-shirt. Really couldn’t get any better.
Knowing we still had an uncertain drive ahead of us, we opted to skip the fort at Jaalan Bani Bu Hasan, but we did stop in the local grocery store looking for some lunch. It was about the size of an average gas station shop, with similar type items for sale, so we just grabbed some sodas. As we were checking out, my husband tried to ask the proprietor about the fort, hoping to get some background on it. However, not knowing the Arabic word for fort, proved to make the entire exchange rather difficult. As my husband kept repeating in Arabic, “When was the *fort* built?” the proprietor kept nodding and offering him dates. By the third time, I interjected and smiled and said, “Shukran” and pushed my husband out to the street. We could have been there all day, or at least have ended up purchasing a carload of dates.
We grabbed some odd egg sandwiches on the way out of town at “the restaurant” and then continued heading northwest. We did make one more unscheduled stop. As we were driving through one town, we saw a large sign saying, “Sooq Qadeem,” which means “Old Souq”. Having a quick debate, we decided to check it out, just in case they had some fantastic souvenirs we hadn’t realized we couldn’t live without. We took the turn, and drove through a narrow street, with houses on one side and cars parked along the other. We squeezed through and came to a t-junction, with just more houses. There was an old man standing in his yard watching us, so we drove over and my husband asked him where the souq was. As they chatted away in Arabic, I tried to catch a word here or there, but before my ears could tune in, we were thanking him and turning away. “There’s no souq,” my husband said. “It’s the name of the neighborhood.” Well, how ridiculous is that? It’s like naming a suburb “Old Grocery Store, Ohio” but then having no grocery store.
We knew approximately where we had to go to get to our hotel on Jebel Akhdar, however it was approximate enough that the plan was to get to one of the towns at the bottom of the mountain, then call. So, arriving in Ibki, we called the Sahab Hotel to get further directions. This hotel came recommended by a friend who’d been here a few months prior. But the odd thing was that the hotel was not registered in our GPS, whereas practically everything else was.
We managed to get three-quarter directions, which would get us to the top of the mountain, then we’d call again. We started to head up the mountain road, which, like all other roads in Oman, was in perfect condition, and after a few miles, we came to a police/ranger stop. He took my driver’s license info, then with a smile handed us some colorful brochures about Jebel Akhdar, reminded us to use lower gears when descending and sent us on our way. Really, people are just so damn nice here.
The drive up was not bad, considering my vertigo. And at no point did I burst into tears and make my husband lead me around the edge (much as I did at the Duomo in Florence). It helped greatly that there was a solid cement railing leading up the entire time. It was switchback after switchback, and we argued over which gear to be in the whole time. Which also helped distract me from the dizzying heights. We finally made it to the top, 2,000 meters above sea level, and we called again.
We finally made it to the Sahab Hotel, which from the outside looked like it was under construction, but after entering, it was a stunning oasis. Apparently coming during the week enables one to get a free upgrade to the best room in the hotel, as well as not having to fight with others for parking. In our case there were only three other cars there, and they might have belonged to the staff. Our room was on the second floor, with our own patio and looked out over the hotel grounds and this amazing expanse to the valley below. We wandered the grounds a little, and with a quick check, I confirmed that the hot tub was indeed hot. So we grabbed our suits for little dip. As we bobbed in the hot tub, perched at the edge of the grounds, overlooking the valley, the stars came out in spades, and we were serenaded by that evening’s call to prayer and one lone toad, croaking to us from an unknown location. Capturing the surreal moment perfectly, my husband whispered, “Do you believe it yet?” I really didn’t.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner that night at the hotel’s restaurant, where we ran in to two other sets of guests. So we knew there were at least three rooms being used. The manager also approached us and offered us two hand-drawn maps of the area, covering at least six of the terrace villages, which we could drive or hike to, as well as a few other local sites. After dinner, we retired to the sitting area of the lobby where my husband enjoyed an Omani coffee and we both partook of the fresh dates, which were the most amazing dates I’ve ever had; rich and chewy and seemingly so decadent. We perused the coffeetable books they had on Oman, and in doing so discovered even more things we wanted to see. We had one more full day in Oman, and we were apparently going to try to get as much out of it as humanly possible.