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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oman's Oases Await You




It may not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a vacation, and in Russia its only claim to fame is as an investor in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. But Oman has palm-lined beaches, formidable mountains, desert, tropical oases and, at the right time of year, almost constant sunshine.


On the shores of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, this oil-rich nation was virtually closed to foreigners until the late 1980s. With a vast array of landscapes and even climates, it is full of surprises and unspoiled by tourism.


Despite the gradual arrival of visitors, and a much larger influx of foreign labor, Oman is anxious to hold onto its traditions. Men still wear flat topped caps, or scarves wrapped like turbans, and a flowing robe called a dishdasha On formal occasions they wear a curved dagger at their waist. Women cover their heads and bodies with a loose garment called an abbaya and in rural areas they often cover their faces with either a mask or a veil.


Thirty years ago, a vacation here would have been almost impossible. Oman had 4 kilometers of paved roads and 12 telephones. In the capital, Muscat, night time was so dangerous that the city gates were locked shut every night. But the discovery of oil and ensuing reforms have fast forwarded its development from the middle ages to the present day.


Criticism of its rulers, however, is not taken lightly, while adulation is strongly encouraged, and the government of this nation of about 1.1 million is firmly in the hands of Sultan Qaboos bin Said.


In Muscat, order is almost Teutonic. Car owners are fined if their vehicles are not immaculately clean, and shrubs look as though their leaves have not only been manicured but individually filed.


The souq or market, however, is a different story altogether. It is vast and wonderful and one of the most authentic in the Arab world. The main artery is a huge hall with an intricate roof made of painted date palms. Ornate lanterns hang down from it and the stalls sell everything from cheap pens to treasure chests.


This is a perfect place to sample Omani food, from the ubiquitous dates, to halwah - a sweet gelatinous mass of sugar, ghee, rosewater, nutmeg, cardamom and almonds. Oman's large Indian and Bangladeshi populations have left a strong culinary mark and many of the stalls sell tasty curries.


Tiny alleys emerge from the main hall like tentacles to form a maze of their own, and slowly these give way to another maze of small white houses on a road so narrow that you can almost touch them. A pleasant breeze materializes from nowhere, or perhaps five goats who disappear as quickly as they appeared, ushered into what looks like somebody's front door.


Eventually, you emerge on the Mutrah corniche, looking at the sultan's two enormous yachts. A fortress stands on either end of the bay, guarding the white latticed merchants' houses that flank the shore in between.


Small motorboats sail into the harbor and unload vast quantities of tuna, hamour, sardines and shark. In a nearby portacabin they can be grilled with delicious Indian spices.


By mid-morning the city is already very hot and a choice of beaches is only a short taxi ride away. There is a lovely one just left of the Crown Plaza Hotel or, more centrally, a glorious chain of bays between the city and the Al Bustan hotel.


Gas is cheap, and if you intend to travel outside Muscat it is worth renting a car when you arrive at the airport. If you can tear yourself away from your palm tree, the Rustaq loop makes for a nice excursion, running inland toward the mountains, then back to the capital along the coast.


Visit the beautiful fortress at Nakhl, then regain your strength at the nearby hot springs where water flows at bath temperature and at a perfect depth for wading out toward the hills.


Apart from its scenic value, on Thursdays and Fridays (the Moslem weekend) this is a fascinating place to observe Omani courtship. Young girls dare to open their abbayas and wade over stones in long pencil skirts and tightly fitted jackets. Boys cruise through the river in four-wheel drives that emit loud Arabic music and everyone seems extremely merry.


Rustaq fort is the next stop, where you can see a daunting prison, and the beginning of a 20-kilometer underground passage. If you still have not satisfied your appetite for fortresses, a day-trip to Jabreen and Nizwa is also a must.


But the most rewarding excursion from Muscat is to the Wahiba Sands. Drive south for 150 kilometers to the market town of Ibra and you are in a different world. Almost on the border of the desert, Ibra feels like an enormous outdoor shopping center. Go on a Wednesday morning and you will see the country's only all-female souq where women come to sell everything from henna to brightly colored textiles to kohl eye makeup.


Named after a Bedu tribe who mendaciously told British mapmakers that its people owned the desert, the Wahiba sands stretch for 200 kilometers from the Eastern Hajar mountains to the Arabian Sea.


Bedu tribes ("bedouin" is a double plural and grammatically incorrect) still roam the sands, their lives barely touched by the changes that have revolutionized the rest of the country. Some have built palm huts, but in summer they sleep under open skies, traveling from time to time with all their belongings to follow the rains.


Subbiah lives with his 10-member family under a palm roof supported by four poles. An ornate black and gold chest stands in the corner, beside several trunks, some pictures and a washing line covered with clothes. Rugs and mats are strewn on the ground, and we arrive to a warm welcome of khawa strong Omani cardamom-flavored coffee, and sweet, sticky dates.


In some ways life in the desert is no different than in any suburban street. Days are long, slow and generally uneventful, and the Bedu's skill at making much from little extends to the art of conversation. Greetings are stretched ad infinitum, with inquiries made about the health of each member of someone's family before conversation can proceed.


Subbiah's hut is conveniently close to The Lost Village, a glorious oasis whose future is threatened by the sand dunes that surround it and move 5 centimeters closer every year. A serious sandstorm can leave the village completely submerged.


In more lenient conditions, however, it is a beautiful place. Watered by an extraordinary and ancient irrigation system, it is a pond of date palms in the desert. Land is divided into small allotments where water trickles from a network of canals and feeds a luscious tropical paradise of fruit.


It would be tragic to leave the area without visiting Wadi Bani Khalid, a spectacular pool of crystal clear water surrounded by cliffs and palm trees. Families picnic by its banks while teenage boys swing on palm trees, jump 10 or 15 meters from the rocks into the water, and occasionally bombard the swimmers below them with pellets of dried donkey dung.


But there is of room to escape by following the stream up into the mountains. Everything about this place is peaceful, soothing and beautiful, and leaving is to be postponed at all costs.