My Road Trip Around Oman
Note: This page a reprint from my update on January
24, 2009 in which I describe my visit to the city of Abu Dhabi in the U.A.E.
and my subsequent 1,000-mile road trip around the country of Oman.
The United Arab Emirates is about the size of Indiana and
has the sixth-largest reserves of oil in the world. The largest cities are
the capital, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Both cities are on the coast.
Oman is next to the U.A.E. at the end of the Arabian
peninsula. The population is about 3 million and most people live in
northern Oman, which is very mountainous. The southern part of the country is
flat, sandy and largely unsettled.
I opted to
fly in Coach instead of Business Class and I'm glad I did, because I sat next to
a nice grad student named Amy. We
talked during much of the 10-hour flight from Portland to Amsterdam.
On To Oman
On Sunday, I checked out of my hotel
in Abu Dhabi and left for a three day, 1,000-mile road trip
around the neighboring country of Oman. I rented what was probably the
smallest car in Abu Dhabi, a three-cylinder Toyota Yaris, with a tiny back seat
and a super-tiny trunk (or "boot" as they call it in the U.A.E., a British term), but that was fine because I didn't need much
room. And I think it had an extra rubber band to wind up in case the
engine quit. Before heading out, I stopped at a Wal-Mart equivalent called
Carrefour's, a large store under the Marina Mall where they seemingly sold
everything, including lots of camping gear, which I stocked up on.
I left Abu
Dhabi around noon and took the modern freeway across endless deserts and
sand-filled landscapes for several hours east to the city of
Al Ain on the Omani border, reaching the border late in the day. I
figured the crossing would be simple like it is in the U.S. when going into
Canada, but I was wrong because I waited in line for a half-hour to get something
approved, then I waited in another line for a half-hour, and then another. The customs agents spoke little
English and I spoke little Arabic, which complicated matters, since they
couldn't figure out why a lone American driving a rental car would want to visit Oman,
but finally after about an hour and a half, I was waved through.
The sun was
starting to set and I had no idea where to spend the night, but I finally found
a dirt road leading off the highway, which I followed for a couple miles until I
discovered a flat area where I could set up my tent. I've camped in the
American deserts numerous times and don't think twice about it, so I didn't
think twice about camping in the Oman desert either, though maybe in
retrospect I should've. But no one bothered me even though a few cars drove by
on the dirt road that night, but they didn't stop to check out who was camping. If
they had, they probably would've been surprised to discover it was an American. In fact, during the three days I was in Oman, I didn't
see one other
It was pretty
chilly that night and I didn't sleep much since I'd bought a thin
sleeping bag, so I got up before sunrise, had a quick breakfast, packed up and
hit the road. I drove all day through Oman which, as I discovered, is much more
mountainous than the flat and sandy U.A.E. The mountains were mostly barren but
were expansive, some over 10,000 feet high. I also discovered that the drivers in
Oman are borderline crazy and I felt like I was the only person in the country
driving less than 100 miles per hour as I tooled along at 60, but I made it to the historic coastal city
of Sur that afternoon, where I checked into a modest hotel on the beach. The
desk clerk was in a good mood because, as he cheerfully told me after seeing my
American passport, "This is inauguration day for Obama!"
It struck me how much people in the Middle East,
and also in Belize, know about
America. In fact, many folks in the Middle East (and Australia, and New
Zealand...) know more about what's
happening in America than many Americans do. The election of President Obama
was no different and it was celebrated by many of the folks I met in the Middle
East, as they hoped for improved relations with the United States and not eight
more years of belligerence. I hoped for that, too.
On Sunday, I rented the smallest car in Abu Dhabi and
headed to the neighboring country of Oman. Gasoline in the U.A.E. was about $1.50 U.S. per gallon
and in Oman, it was about half that.
Above center: I got to
Oman at sunset, then pulled off the highway and camped in the desert. That's my $5 sleeping bag,
which I bought in Abu Dhabi. It was pretty chilly that night and I wished I'd
sprung for the $10 bag.
The next afternoon, I reached Sur on the coast.
Omanis are crazy about soccer and they'll play it
anywhere at any time. Those ancient watchtowers are ubiquitous throughout the
country. You see them everywhere.
Above center: A Sur
sunset. And if you look closely, you can see another watchtower on the far
My little Toyota Yaris got 45 MPG, so my total gas bill for my
1,000-mile drive was about... oh, six dollars.
An Amazing Race Around Oman
I visited Sur that
evening, walking through the back streets and then at dusk hiked up to a magnificent
watchtower overlooking the harbor, from which I saw
some of the dhows (sailing boats) that were built here, which is what Sur is
historically known for. The next morning, I left Sur for what I knew would be a
long drive. I had to be at the Abu Dhabi airport, about 400 miles
away, that evening for my midnight flight back to the U.S. but before that, I wanted to visit
Muscat, the beautiful capital of Oman. If you're going to visit only one place in
Oman, friends had told me, make sure it's Muscat. I drove all morning through the
desert mountains, and by early afternoon I reached the coast at Mutrah, a city on
the waterfront a few miles from Muscat. Mutrah was absolutely stunning, so
I parked the Yaris and spent a couple hours exploring the town, including the
very impressive Mutrah souq (pronounced "sewk," an open-air market).
through the scores of market stalls at the souq, I spotted a one kilogram bag of
frankincense, which I'd learned about on the PBS television series,
"Globe Trekker," one of my favorite shows. Megan McCormick, the main host
of Globe Trekker and a woman I would love to meet someday (o.k., I admit she's
my dream travel companion, but it probably won't ever happen), once explained that frankincense is resin from a certain
tree that grows only in Oman and people burn it as incense or chew it like gum.
In fact, Megan's show on Oman is what prompted my visit to this country, not just to see
the sights but also to buy frankincense, and I was determined to buy that kilo
bag. First, though, and in the Omani way, I haggled with the merchant for
several minutes. Never buy anything in an Oman market at face value, and instead, cut the marked price
by two-thirds and bargain up from there. We went
back and forth for a while and I finally walked away with the bag of
frankincense for about 10 dollars -- mission accomplished! I hope Megan's
proud of me.
I nervously glanced
at my watch and thought about my midnight flight, but I drove on to Muscat for a quick visit. It's a beautiful
coastal city that I'd first seen on the CBS television series, "The Amazing
Race," another show about travel with this one about contestants who race around
the world. If you've been reading my website, you know that "The Amazing
Race" was the inspiration last year for my visit to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of
Malaysia, just as "Globe Trekker" was the inspiration for my visit to Oman.
Muscat is at the end of a coastal road and is beautiful but, being the capital
of Oman, large sections of the city are closed to the public so you can't really
see much of it. After taking some pictures, I hopped back in the Yaris and
hit the road, and after a couple hours and what seemed like a thousand roundabouts, I turned
left and took the highway up into the mountains where I crossed the
U.A.E. border at sunset. A few hours later I skirted Dubai and could see
lights in the distance, then I made it to the Abu Dhabi airport by 10 p.m., a
full two hours before my flight. I was determined not to make the same
mistake I'd made last summer when I had to run through the airport and
almost missed my flight, so I checked in early and had
plenty of time in the terminal before boarding.
The flight back to
the U.S. was pretty uneventful because, by now, I was getting used to long
flights -- or I should say my backside was, and that's probably not a good thing. The plane landed at Amsterdam
around 5 a.m. and my flight for Seattle was leaving in five hours, so I thought
about going into Amsterdam for a few hours to see it. But it was cold and rainy so I
didn't go, and instead I settled for two huge slices of pepperoni pizza and a
Pepsi at the airport food court -- and for breakfast, no less! After another 10-hour flight, I reached Seattle and
after a short
flight, I returned home to Portland. It was a good trip and I'm glad I got my
work done, but the best part, by far, was my 31-mile hike around Abu Dhabi
and the 1,000-mile road trip around the spectacular country of Oman, albeit
without Megan McCormick.
And regarding that bag of frankincense? It made it through
U.S. Customs without
being confiscated (it is plant material after all, so I was a little worried).
So as with all my house guests, if you ever visit me in Portland, you'll leave
my house with a small bag of frankincense. And in that way, you can bring a
little bit of the wonderful country of Oman into your own home.
A roadside camel. I had to be at the airport in Abu
Dhabi that night and still had 400 miles to go.
Above center: This is
Mutrah, near the Omani capital of Muscat and probably the most beautiful city in Oman.
Those are dhows in the foreground.
A watchtower on the hill overlooking Mutrah. See, I
told you that watchtowers were everywhere.
I spent a couple hours in the eclectic and lively Mutrah souq. This place is huge and there's
seemingly no end to it.
Above center: I haggled
with this fellow over that bag of frankincense (front row,
right). Frankincense is resin from a certain tree that grows only in Oman,
and you can either burn it or chew it like gum.
My reflection in Muscat, the capital of Oman.
Heading back to the U.A.E. that evening. I had only four hours to
catch my flight, so I hustled.
Above center: But I got
to the airport with time to spare. Get ready for a very long flight.
And back in Portland. From the time I'd waken
up in Sur to the time I went to bed in Portland, I'd been awake for 52 straight
hours. I really wish I could sleep on planes! But it was a great