01:34 am - Friday 25 July 2014
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Oman: Journey to a mountainous heart

By staff - Fri Nov 25, 2:54 pm

In Oman, the sultanate’s mountainous interior is a world away from its urbane coast, says Gail Simmons.
“Yallah – let’s go!” Leaving Muscat, Oman’s capital, we hightail through low-rise neighbourhoods of whitewashed villas, splashes of bougainvillea spilling over garden walls. Soon the suburbs fade and the mountains rise ahead, sheer and serrated.

The al-Hajar mountains were once the barrier, but are now the gateway, to Oman’s interior. For centuries they separated Oman’s hidden hinterland from the country’s cosmopolitan coast – a physical and psychological obstacle between seafaring and mountain-dwelling Omanis. Today, newly asphalted roads wind up the mountains and cut through the wadis, linking the capital to its country.

Our destination is the ancient city of Nizwa, commanding a landscape bristling with fortresses – Bahla, Nakhl, Nizwa, Jabrin – built to protect the towns, oases and valuable date plantations from marauding tribes. From afar these forts are almost invisible, merging into the ochre landscape. Up close, they are the very image of a child’s sandcastle, complete with flag on top.

We stop at Jabrin where Nasser, my gentle and knowledgeable guide, leaves me to explore the newly restored fort, with its painted wood ceilings and pale pink rooms pierced with shafts of light. This was the seat of the sultan imams, who until a few decades ago ruled Oman’s interior and took refuge here in times of trouble surviving on dates from the nearby plantation. Today, I find it hard to imagine that this tolerant country was once a divided, war-torn land.

As the light fades we arrive at Nizwa, one-time capital of Oman. Before the reign of the current Sultan Qaboos, who recently celebrated his 40th year in power, Oman was officially two countries. To prove it, Nasser pulls a worn banknote from his jellabiya, inscribed with “Sultanate of Muscat and Oman”.

“Many old folks still view it that way,” he explains, “with Muscat citizens referring to the interior population as ‘the Omanis’.”

Nizwa was at the crossroads of caravan routes linking the interior with the port of Muscat and the frankincense-producing region of Dhofar in Oman’s south. The city is calm and conservative, its recently restored souk a cool and shady refuge from the afternoon heat. Dominated by its fort, the biggest on the Arabian peninsula, it comes with holes for pouring boiling date syrup onto assailants.

Nasser arranges an early alarm call to see the Friday livestock souk, where people from the surrounding mountains come to trade goats, cattle and sheep. Amid the bleats, dust and dung I spy the creased and sculpted faces of mountain tribesmen, many wearing the khanjar, the curved ceremonial dagger carried on an embroidered belt. Some ancient characters also sport silver-trimmed rifles that look as old and worn as themselves.

As the sun rises, the traders dwindle and the day starts to grow searingly hot. Nasser suggests we escape the heat and drive up into the mountains, so we twist our way to around 10,000ft and the highest peak in Oman: Jebel Shams – the Mountain of the Sun.

Jebel Shams is known as Oman’s Grand Canyon. Edging close to the rim and peering over at the once-cultivated terraces spilling down the mountainside and abandoned stone-built villages, I can see why.

It seems a miracle that anyone could have lived in this most precarious of environments, where only a narrow path snakes between the villages – a spectacular trail for trekkers, provided you don’t suffer from vertigo.

Which, unfortunately, I do, so we descend instead to discover some of the settlements in the foothills of Jebel Shams. One, the al-Hamra (“Red Town”), is now deserted and I wander alone the narrow alleys of tawny mud-brick houses with carved wooden doors.

People haven’t yet abandoned the village of Misfat, clinging to the edge of Jebel Akhdar (“Green Mountain”). Everywhere you can hear the whispering water of the aflaj, the ancient and complex system of irrigation channels the Omanis have perfected over centuries.

Here, we take a marked path through date palms and banana groves, accompanying the aflaj as they thread through the terraced gardens, distributing water using an ingenious method where everyone co-operates and everyone benefits.

I’m keen to find out more about the aflaj so Nasser takes me to ash-Shirayjah, from where I trek to the hamlet of Al Ayn (“The Spring”) on one of the trails that have linked these mountain villages forever.

Jebel Akhdar is not called Green Mountain for nothing. Enjoying the hot sun on my back and cool air on my face, I follow the aflaj through verdant terraces of pomegranates, figs, almonds, grapes, apples and roses.

Each garden is tended by careful hands and I glimpse old farmers strolling among the vegetation. Later, Nasser tells me that the roses are a crop, used for blending perfume, washing guests’ hands and making the sweet known as halawa (halva). Everything here, though beautiful, has its use.

But it’s now time to leave the cool, green mountains and drive to the desert. Not to the Empty Quarter, that huge expanse of sand that stretches over some 250,000 square miles of the Arabian peninsula, but to Sharqiya Sands, closer to Muscat and Nizwa.

Formerly Wahiba Sands, Sharqiya is everyone’s idea of the perfect desert landscape, where endless billowing dunes ripple into infinity. Ever patient, Nasser stops for me to take endless photos and we arrive at our camp – traditional wool tents with beds, carpets, even showers – to sip mint tea and nibble dates before we climb a dune to gaze at the sun slide behind the horizon.

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