The very name of this exotic sultanate has always seemed an epitome of fairytale. Closed off to all visitors for so long, it seemed to hold endless secrets somewhere among the shifting sands of Arabia. Visiting it seemed an impossible feat, like going into a fairytale. Little did I know…
Oman was not always a hermit of nations. In 17-18th centuries the Sultanate of Oman was a dominant seafaring empire which controlled the Indian Ocean and possessed a network outposts in an arch stretching from Mozambique all the way to India. Oman successfully held off and defeated the Portuguese and only in 19th century did the British and the French gradually subdue it. In Arabia only the Oman’s ruler is titled “sultan” – which is the most important title in the East. (The king of Saudi Arabia does call himself “the guardian of Mecca and Medina”, which is more prestigious from the religious point of view, the word “king” used to translate it into Western languages being a kind of a misnomer.) Moreover, the Oman’s dynasty is by far the oldest of the Gulf dynasties. Thus when the Arab rulers gather, the sultan of Oman possesses a special weight among them – rather like the sultan of Brunei among the Muslim rulers of South East Asia. In the case of Oman though the historic importance is not supported by economic might – among the Gulf states Oman has long been the poorest, endowed with the least oil. Yemen is poorer still but it’s not in the Gulf. In recent times Oman has embarked on an energised development track, to a great extent inspired by the current sultan Qaboos, a unique figure.
I had considered flying to Oman from Dubai or combining it with Bahrain or Kuwait on a sort of an air triangle. Soon I realised that it was not worth it price-wise, and then I came across information that Dubai is connected to Oman by a regular bus! Which is ridiculously cheap – about 10 euros. Actually taking a physical bus seemed a lot more interesting too. And so I did -not with some difficulties, as the office of the Oman’s company that provides the link is well hidden in Dubai’s Deira, and there is no bus station as such. Soon though I find myself on the bus wondering if the border guards in Oman are aware of the new rules freeing me from the visa requirement?
No problem at all! Crossing the border was quick as a flash. The bus did have to stop three times, with intervals of several kilometres – first on the UAE border, then Oman border guard, then the Oman customs. On the last stop all the bags had to be removed from the bus and lined up for a friendly dog to sniff. Last time I went through such an old fashioned check was in Paraguay customs as I took an endless bus over Chaco from Bolivia.
The bus reaches Muscat about 10pm at night. The smartphones have transformed the way we travel – as I’d downloaded a map of Muscat, even in the dark of the night I easily found my hotel, which was some 20 minutes walk from the bus stop. The next morning a set off for a walk around Old Muscat.
The geography of Muscat is rather extraordinary. The capital of Oman is built on the ocean coast among the hills. The hills separate it into many valleys which historically used to be separate settlements, and to get from one to the other you need to drive several km. Therefore Muscat stretches along the coast for some 30 km. Its major areas are Old Muscat, Mutrah, Ruwi and Qurm. The sultan lives in Old Muscat, surrounded by fortresses, museums and administrative buildings, but no hotels are located there. The hotels are either in the business centre of Ruwi, the touristic and port centre of Mutrah or in posh expat area of Qurm. I stayed in a middle range Mutrah Hotel about midway between Ruwi and Mutrah.
On my first morning in Muscat I passed through the old souk to the Mutrah Corniche. First sighting of the sea:
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