The account of my first trip to Oman. On this journey I fell in love with this wonderful country with all its sights and amazing people.
A 5000-year-old historic in harmony with the modern age, barren highland formations, unspoilt beaches, green highlands as well as desert – Oman is a country of contrasts, which takes the visitor into a fairy tale from 1001 nights.
“Welcome to Oman!” A smile and polite hospitality are our greeting at the airport of Mascat, the capital of the country. The pleasant smell of incense hangs in the air. “Sinbad was born here and the incense that the Magi brought to the Christ Child came from here”, the driver tells us during the ride to the hotel.
We decided to spend a few days of our trip in Oman before flying to the Maldives. The country is located on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Compared to other Arab tourist metropolises Oman is very reserved and quiet. When Sultan Qaboos took over the government in 1970, he opened the country to the West, keeping the old traditions in mind. The capital city does not stand out with the highest skyscrapers, but with bright low buildings in traditional architecture that harmonize with the surrounding landscape. There is no emphasis on material luxury. Visitors to Oman can find peace and forget about time.
Residing with the Sultan – the Al Bustan Palace
The saying “guest is king” applies to the Al Bustan Palace Ritz Carlton Hotel in the truest sense of the word. Here you are indeed visiting the Omani Sultan Qaboos, as the top floor of the Superluxus Hotel is reserved just for him. In 1985 he had the octagonal building built for the kings of the Arabian Peninsula who attended the meeting of the GCC (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf). The hotel is located on the outskirts of the city of Mascat, surrounded by barren Hajar mountains and a white sandy beach. It reopened in 2008 after extensive renovation. Just by entering the 40 meter high reception hall you are overwhelmed. The scent of incense and the splashing of the fountain, which in combination with the nine chandeliers custom-made in Austria cost over one million, greet the guest. No expense was spared. It is not surprising that this six-star facility is among the best in the world. Here, too, the pomp and circumspection is restrained, although the finest materials such as the best marble and precious woods were used. Four restaurants and an in-house bar ensure the guests’ well-being.
Oman’s 5000-year history recounts the home town of Sinbad, probably the most famous sailor, adventurous ship voyages to India, journeys along the spice and incense routes. Even if Sinbad is a fantasy figure from 1001 Nights, the place where the fairy tale takes place would certainly be in Oman. Oman corresponds approximately to the size of Germany with nearly 3 million inhabitants. All destinations are easily accessible by car, as the highway network is fully developed. We meet tourists who travel alone with a rental car. Oman is one of the safest countries in the world. And the fuel is, as not to be expected otherwise, very cheap: one liter of gasoline is about 24 cents.
We choose a travel guide. Abdullah is in his early twenties and a student. He is studying tourism and works as a travel guide during the semester break. We become familiar with him quickly. Abdullah and I find some similarities in the Omani and Bosnian culture. We talk a lot about both countries. Our first destination is the UNESCO cultural capital Mascat. We are surprised: there is no rush and you don’t meet any crowds of people. The Omanis primarily wear their traditional clothes. Men are dressed in white shirt-like robes (“dishdasha”). A small colored tassel hangs from the collar, which is dipped in perfume. They mainly cover their heads with a richly embroidered cap or cashmere scarf. Women usually wear traditional black abbaya, which can also be embroidered with colored threads. They cover their hair with fine black scarves. The Omanis attach great importance to hygiene and good smells. After washing and ironing their clothes, they hold them over an incense burner to let them absorb the scent. One of the most precious perfumes in the world also comes from Oman. Sultan Qaboos commissioned the famous perfumer Guy Robert to create a fragrance in the 1970s. Robert was set no limits, neither financially nor creatively. Thus a fragrance essence of 120 rare and precious oils called “Amouage” was created from his hand. To this day it is still produced in Mascat. Even though the scent is very pleasant, it was unfortunately too intense and very dominant for us.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Until a few weeks ago, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was considered the largest in the world. A recently opened new mosque in Abu Dhabi has taken its place. The chandelier in the middle of the prayer room was built by Swarovski and weighs eight tons. For four years, 600 women tied 1.7 million knots on the Persian prayer rug. The mosque has room for 20000 praying people. Oman is a very tolerant country. The state religion is Islam, other religions are respected. We notice that nobody asks about our religion, also unusual for the Orient. Abdullah explains to us that this is considered rude in Oman. No one should be judged by his religion, tolerance is very important.
Calm trading – Mutrah Souq
In the Souk of Muttrah it is very quiet. No advertising, no trying to drag the guests into the stores. Our guide takes us to the stores where he too does the shopping for his family. He asks us to choose all the things we want to buy and leaves the trading to him. From previous trips to the Orient we know how loud and hectic the bazaars can be and how long the trading can take. Even at an Omani bazaar the following is true: peace, restraint and respect are the most important things. The fair price is agreed on quietly and quickly. Our bags contain several cashmere cloths from Pakistan, an abbaya, the popular oriental spice Za’atar and of course the best Omani incense including a traditional incense burner. Incense was already very desirable in ancient times. It made the country rich. In the north, there are a few incense trees in private gardens. They grow in the south near Salaleh, near the Yemeni border, about 1000 kilometers south of Mascat. Luban, as incense is called in Oman, still plays an important role today. Whether in private houses or public buildings, incense burners can be found everywhere. It is also said to have healing powers.
The salesmen are happy to tell us about their home country and their customs. No matter who you talk to, as soon as their home and sultan are mentioned, their eyes light up. The Omanis love their country and their Sultan. Sultan Qaboos was sent by his father to England in order to study. When he returned home, he noticed how badly his people were doing under his father. There was a seven kilometer long tarred road, hardly any hospitals and schools, the illiterate made up 98% of the population. In 1970 he overthrew his father. Within a few years he rebuilt the country. There is equality between men and women and it is enshrined in law. Even veiling is not mandatory for women. They are very self-confident and highly educated.
Our next destination is Wadi as-Shab, a dry riverbed. There are several of them in Oman, this one is among the most beautiful. We drive along the east coast towards the south. You could just stop anywhere to take a break at the beach. The highway is new and surrounded by high barren mountains and extensive unspoiled beaches. “Just a few decades ago, you could only travel here by camel or donkey,” Abdullah tells us. We noticed that we had not seen a single camel all these days. Today, it is primarily Asian SUVs with all-wheel drive that are used, as only all-wheel drive is allowed on some mountain passages.
Hawiyat Najm – the place where the star fell
Before that we make a stopover in the middle of the desert in Hawiyat Najm Park. Our guide Abdullah, who has become a good friend within three days, wants to show us a miracle of nature. We walk through a barren plain for a while. Many locals and an Indian tourist group walk in front of us. When we arrive, we are speechless. In the middle of the desert landscape lies a sinkhole with turquoise green water. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom from above! The Bimmah sinkhole was formed due to a meteorite impact, the inhabitants tell each other. When this occurred is not clear. The water, a mixture of salt and fresh water, is fresh and very clean. If you want, you can take a bath in it. Omanis do it too.
Afterwards we continue to the fortress from the 16th century at the small port city of Quriyat. We visit the interior and enjoy a wonderful sight over the city from the roof.
Wadi as-Shab – like in a fairy tale from 1001 nights
Next we go to the wadi. During the drive I observe the lonely dream beaches we pass. On arrival we pack provisions and bathing suits in our backpacks. The trip takes about an hour and leads over big rocks and nature trails through a canyon between two mountains. One really feels like in the fairy tale of Aladdin or Alibaba and the 40 robbers. There are hardly any people around and you are overwhelmed by the scenery, you don’t want to miss out on any detail. Even the sometimes rather unsafe nature trails do not stop you from continuing. Too great is the curiosity of what could still be hidden behind the rocks. At times there are small waterfalls, at other times banana gardens, which are supplied with water after the millennium old irrigation system. Finally we reach our goal. Standing in front of a natural pool with green water, we are grateful to take a bath in it. As the sun goes down, we return. We meet a group of young Omanis having a barbecue. Abdullah tells us that wadis are very popular among the population. Every Omani loves the nature of their homeland and spends as much time outside as possible. Also, you will not find any garbage in the outdoors, the upbringing to love nature takes place in childhood.
Artists’ city Nizwa
No other Arab country is home to as many fortresses and castles as Oman. The one in Nizwa inland is one of the most famous. Today, the city is considered an artists’ city, in the Middle Ages it was the headquarters of the Imams.
Direct link to my travel guide on Nizwa.
The castle is surrounded by bazaars and artists’ studios. The bazaar featuring live animals is famous throughout the country. The castle is completely renovated. The view over the city is phenomenal: white house roofs protrude between the palm trees, with rock formations in the background that seem to shine endlessly into the horizon.
Gebel Akhdar – The green mountain
From there, we drive 2090 meters to the top of Gebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain. The road is perfectly developed, but only SUV’s with all-wheel drive are allowed for safety reasons. Lady Diana has visited this area and because she was so impressed by the view, they named this area “Diana-Point”. I can understand her: endless widths of canyons as far as the eye can see. We visit a 500 year old village and stand at the foot of a rock formation of the Sayq Plateau. Below and around us terraced gardens with almond, rose, apricot and pomegranate trees. Since it rains here more often, the harvest is very rich. The roses and pomegranates from this part of Oman are considered the best in the country. Abdullah tells us that Gebel Akhdar is especially beautiful in spring, when the scent of roses mixes with that of almond trees. In summer, when it gets very hot in the valley, Omanis like to spend their vacations in these heights.
Finally, Abdullah and I climb to a centuries-old abandoned village and take a nice look at the architecture of the houses from the inside. There is nobody there but us. We enjoy the peace and are moved. There are no prohibition or danger signs anywhere. Indeed, the country has a liberating effect on the soul.
On our way home we stop at a snack bar. We eat sandwiches and salad. It tastes fantastic and the prices are very reasonable.
In the evening we invite Abdullah to dinner at the hotel. Matthias puts on the Omani clothes he bought at the souk a few days ago. Abdullah and the staff of the hotel are delighted. In the evening there is an Omani buffet. We sample everything and Abdullah tells us about the preparation. The Omani cuisine is very diverse. I am addicted to starters like Houmus (chickpea puree), Tahina (sesame paste), Moutabel (grilled eggplant in sesame garlic yogurt sauce), Baba Ganoush (eggplant puree), Labneh (cucumber-yoghrut salad), Zeitun (tomato, olive and onion salad), Tabuleh (salad of finely chopped parsley, finely diced tomatoes and onions with lemon juice and mint) and Achar (pickled vegetables). And that is only a small extract. The main course includes wonderful lamb dishes like Kabsa (lamb stuffed with rice and almonds) or Ghuzi (grilled lamb on rice with nuts), Shawarma (a kind of kebab with lamb or chicken), Kubali (breaded minced meat balls). Vegetarians can also find Omani delicacies such as Foul Medames (thick bean stew), Sabaneq (spinach with coriander), Sambusas (stuffed dumplings). Besides the traditional oriental sweets like baklava and halva, wonderful desserts like Umm Ali (pudding made of bread and milk with cinnamon and raisins), Mehabiya (pudding with rose water, honey and pistachios), Basbousa (cake made of semolina and almonds) sweeten the palate and the soul. For in-between, we recommend: various dates, pure or filled with various nuts and fruits.
On the last day before our departure we go to meet with Abdullah. He picks us up from the hotel and takes us to the store where Omani women buy their abbayas. They are much cheaper there than in the malls and the selection is huge. I quickly find what I am looking for. “And now take your time”, smiles Abdullah, “now I will show you how we Omanis spend our evenings. We drive to an Omani tea house. The waiter brings the order directly to the car: black tea with milk, rose water and saffron threads. As a surprise, Abdullah invites us for dinner at his family’s house. “My father said, people who are so kind to me must be invited. I do it with pleasure.” We were touched. It was served on the floor in accordance with Omani tradition. As a starter we had fruit, rose water, pancakes and soft dates. For the main course we had plates of grilled meat and vegetables. Eating was done with the right hand. After the meal valuable woods from India were ignited on coal and held under our clothes. This should make the smells of the meal disappear from the guests. We got to know some brothers of Abdullah. It was a wonderful and eventful evening.
The next day we were very sad about the departure, although our next destination was the Maldives. The spirit of Oman was with us and has remained to this day. Oman is the perfect destination for travelers who are looking for peace and self-discovery. And for adventures in untouched nature. The country is a magical place that wants to be discovered with peace and patience. The magic of Oman has infected Matthias and me. The Omanis have shown us how love and respect for fellow human beings ensures a peaceful life and that peace among all religions is very possible. May Sultan Qaboos be with his people and this wonderful country for many years to come. We thank Abdullah and his family, who conveyed the spirit of Oman to us, as well as the dear Omanis, who told us unforgettable stories about their homeland with their shining eyes. Our next trip to Oman is already planned for this year – there is still so much to discover. And we already miss our friend Abdullah very much.
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