Monday, May 11, 2009

Muscat : From Dusk Till Dawn

Arriving Old City of Muscat

Have you ever watched a 1996 horror movie called From Dusk Till Dawn? This is one of my favourite road-trip movies and it has been my inspiration for spirit and excitement for road trips in the past. That includes my recent road trip to the land of Sinbad the Sailor - City of Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.

I was having a chat with my friend Zulkifli Hasan last week when we suddenly talked about going for a road trip to Muscat. None of us have any information about the journey and the destination but we thought it will be a great adventure for both of us, the lonely husbands in Dubai.

We started our drive at 8.00am, slightly late from what we planned (as usual we planned right after Solat Subh) and the temperature was already hot like in a mid-day. In denial of the hot temperature and the desert surrounding us, we packed our home-made Nasi Lemak with a dream that we will enjoy it at any good spot in the desert (I magined the silky soft sand dunes..yehh) we could find on our way to Muscat. After 2 hours of driving, we reached Hatta, the last town before the UAE border post and we decided to finish our breakfast at the best spot we have found. Inside an air-conditioned shopping mall.

The immigration process in UAE border post was smooth amidst the fierce faces of the Emarati officers and the hot air blowing to our faces. Next we drove into the no-man's land, a stretch of 4 kilometers road between UAE border post and Oman border post. Before reaching the Oman border post, we stopped to buy an insurance policy for our car which caused us AED100. I found it interesting that despite Dubai's addiction to big buildings and structures, the UAE border post was very simple, only movable air-conditioned cabins where visitors have to queue outside, compared to the Oman border post which has a proper building, a big parking lot and an ATM machine. I guessed the comfortable working place made a difference when we noticed that the Omani officers were more friendly in their communication to us.

We passed through the Oman border post without any problem and drove for our first marking in the map, Al Widayat junction. By the will of Allah, we couldn't find the junction but we found a short cut which led us to the freeway to Sohar. Sohar is famous for being the birth place of Sinbad the Sailor as well as its souk and ancient forts. However we decided to just pass through it and continue our drive to Muscat. For the first 1 hour I was really amazed with the scene along the journey. There were a lot of dates trees, banana trees, green bushes, wadis, camels and sheeps visible from the main road. For a brief moment I thought we were driving in Terengganu because the houses, the landscape and the calmness of the place resemble the typical scene in Terengganu. We didnt feel like we were driving in a desert at all !

After driving for about 3 hours, we reached our first destination marked in Zul's tiny pocket map - Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. I read that this is the biggest mosque in Oman. We went in and snapped a few pictures. As I was busy taking photos of the main entrance to the prayer hall, I was stopped by an officer (tok siak). The following dialoque ensued:

Officer: wein ruhh? (where are you going?)
Me : Solah ! (praying)
Officer: Ente muslim?
Me : Aih, ana min Malaizi, ismi Muhammad (yup, I am from Malaysia, my name is Muhammad)
Officer: Kam raka'ah fi Zuhr? (how many rakaat for Zuhr?)
Me: Arba'ah ! (Four)
Officer : tayyeb (ok)

Big Lamps Inside Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Cheh.., I guessed because Zul and I looked like Filipinos or Indians (I of course look like Italian la..) to him, that we have to answer his quiz first before we can enter the prayer hall. And the "tok siak" was carrying a pistol ! I wondered if our tok siak carry a gun in Malaysia.

We continued our journey towards Muscat. We passed through the modern Muscat city area where we observed there were no tall towering buildings but 3-10 storey buildings lining up the streets. Muscat certainly don't need tall buildings to impress its visitors because it already has beautiful rock mountains surrounding the city. The view of the city backed by the rock mountains was simply majestic !

Frankinscence burner..not flying saucer

Gate Museum

After about 2 hours we reached the Old City of Muscat. The view of the old city from a top of the hill was really fantastic. The buildings were painted in white surrounded by black rocky mountains and the architecture was truly of ancient middle eastern. I felt like a merchant arriving at a busy port city to trade my spices. We checked the map and took the right turn to Qantab beach. Again we were in a state of denial hoping to dive and swim in the Oman Gulf in the middle of a hot desert afternoon. The road to Qantab beach was quite steep and winding as it ascend and cuts through the rocky mountains. The view of the mountains and the sea was fantastic. We were completely mesmerised by the beauty of the rock formation and the greenish sea next to the rocky fjords.

Winding Road to Qantab Beach

Qantab area and the yachts

After spending about 30 minutes in Qantab beach, we drove down to the Muttrah area. Muttrah is one of the areas in the Old City Muscat. The main attraction in Muttrah is the Muttrah Souk where visitors can find and buy varieties of perfumes, silverwares, fabrics and traditional jewelleries. There are several old forts in Muttrah namely Muttrah Fort, Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort. These forts were built during the Portuguese occupation of the area in the 17th century. I was surprised to learn, that not only these forts are preserved in good condition, but they are still being used by the military for security purposes. Amazing isn't !? Imagine our A Famosa fort is still in use by our military! Other than the Souk, Muttrah also offers 1.5 kilometres pavement by the corniche for visitors to walk and enjoy the sea breeze and the view of the busy port of Sultan Qaboos. Yeahh, we found out almost every building and big road here is named after Sultan Qaboos. He is the Sultan anyway..

Muttrah Fort

Muttrah Souk

Ceiling inside Muttrah Souk

We checked in at one of the hotels facing the corniche. At night we tried to look for a local Omani restaurant selling "mandi laham". We drove around up to Ruwi city area to look for the restaurant. Our clue was based on the direction given to us by one of the hotel staffs. After searching for about 1 hour we concluded that the hotel staff misunderstood us because the area that we went to was full of meat shops (selling "Luhum") and not even a single restaurant serving "mandi laham"....chit poddahh..!

Muttrah corniche at night

I couldn't finish it

The next morning we went to Qantab beach again with an ambitious plan to swim. Again we were disappointed because the temperature was so hot. In fact when we arrived at the beach we were the only visitors. We were greeted by a fisherman who offered us a ride in his boat to explore the area. Hahaha.. he must have thought we came there to be fried and baked by the sun. ..No thank you sir, I have enough tan on me.

As the temperature continued to rise, I suggested to Zul that, instead of feeling down, let's embrace what the nature was giving to us. Let's enjoy the heat and the dryness. So we hung out at one of the alfresco cafes facing the corniche and enjoyed a good glass of iced tea (actually several glasses and a big bottle of mineral water) under the cafe's facade. We looked around and there was a table full of "mat saleh" group sitting beside us, also enjoying the heat and the sunshine. The temperature was at 48 degrees celcius. We felt so cool...

Zul and the Huge Rocks

Grand Canyon?


As soon as we got to our senses and sanity again, with the help of the iced teas, we decided to visit the museums in Muscat. There were quite a number of museums and art galleries in Muscat. In my opinion, if a city has museums and art galleries, indeed the city and its peoples have souls and organic growth. We chose to visit a private museum called Bait Al Zubir first. This museum was actually the house of Shaikh Zubair Bin Ali, a wealthy merchant of Muscat during the early 20th century. The house was built in 1914. In fact, the items displayed in the museum were his private collection of the daily items of Omanis like old pictures of Muscat and other regions in Oman, swords, personal affects, clothes, musical instruments, guns, silverware and jeweleries. The items and the information gave us insights of the rich traditions and cultures of the Omanis. No wonder when Marco Polo visited Oman, he called the place "paradise".

Entry Fee 1 Omani Rial

Abu Fatylah (P. Ramlee called it "Senapang Gajah"). 
Guns were amongst the early export of old Muscat

Dishdasha and Khanjar of Omani

It was a shame that we had to cancel the visit to Omani-French Museum because we were running out of time and hungry. So we headed off to the town of Al Khuwairah searching for a restaurant called Bin Ateeq which serves traditional Omani foods. The GPS system in my brain worked this time and we found the restaurant after just a one time miss of a junction. We ordered a local Omani food called "Qabooli Laham" which was a serving of rice cooked with ghee, raisins and mutton. The dish was served in a big iron tray (dulang) in a private room where we can eat while lying on the carpet. We wiped out the tray clean in less than 30 minutes. Amazingly Zul did it whilst texting his wife ! The dish was so delicious and it was worth cracking the GPS in my brain to look for the restaurant.

On our way out from the restaurant I bumped into a guy wearing a suit. He looked like a Malaysian. So I asked him and my guess was right. Apparently he is the Third Secretary in the Malaysian Embassy in Oman. He came to the restaurant together with the Malaysian Ambassador to Oman, His Excellency Datuk Mohd Zamri Mohd Kassim to entertain a group of Malaysian lecturers (Ustaz) who came to Oman for Arabic language courses. I was about to leave the restaurant when the Ambassador came out from a room to wash his hands. I greeted and introduced myself to him and we ended up joining him in his room with his guests. We had a great tea session with the Ambassador and his guests chit chatting about the Ambassador's adventure in Oman. The chance to meet our Ambassador in person really compliment our road trip. At the end of the session we were even invited to join them for a group photo. I thought, had I worn my Motorhead t-shirt that day, that group of Ustaz would have a guy with a Motorhead skull t-shirt in their group photo. Pheww...

Qabooli Laham..settled

Datuk Ambassador cracking his joke

Our journey back to the Oman border post was filled with picturesque view of rural Oman and its dwellings. I kept saying to Zul that the feeling was really like driving in Terengganu. We tried to look for any stall selling local fruits or delicacies but there was none around. But we could see Omani children and youths riding their scooters without helmet, playing football on sandy pitch, hanging around at coffee shops, sitting with friends playing poker and discussing about cars in front of a car workshop. We even saw camels and cows jaywalking by the road sides. It was really a retreat for us from the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan life in Dubai.

We arrived at UAE border post around Maghrib time and proceeded smoothly to my home in Al Warqaa 1. It was a great introductory excursion to Oman and I am planning to do it again in the near future.

Zul was happy to have made the trip before he leave Dubai this weekend. I look forward to do the road trip again with my family and friends. In the meantime.. I will go to work.

Ma'a as Salamah..

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.

Robert Louis Stevenson
(Scottish travel writer 1850 - 1894)


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