From Salalah to Nizwa

One of our last visits in Salalah is to the Land of Frankincense Museum.

That’s a frankincense bush behind Maria

Oman has been a source of the world’s best frankincense for millennia. Most famously in the New Testament.

We would buy some to take home, but we don’t have a cathedral that needs regular censing. Nor does anyone we know.

We head north again. Instead of the coast road through the desert, we now take the central road through the desert. It’s desert all the way. Have we mentioned that we love deserts?

I’d walk a mile for a Camel…’

The coast road is quite mountainous and scenic. This route is mostly flat and featureless.

Signs warn of drifting dunes.

You may have heard of ‘forest bathing’. We stop now and then for some ‘desert bathing’: just let the heat, utter silence, and total isolation wash over you.

…Back to nothingness, Like a week in the desert…‘ – Crowded House

Mind you, having said that, the way to go is in a well-airconditioned reliable car!

A convoy of Omani military vehicles passes us on the other side. Probably heading for some upcoming National Day event in Salalah.

The stability of Oman stands in stark contrast to the hot mess that is next-door Yemen.

We stop for the night in the Arabian Sands Hotel.

It’s in the village of Haima.

Haima, Oman

The next morning, I get my haircut on a whim before fueling up Laurence and heading out again. Fuel here is .88 Canadian cents/litre.

Last Chance Texaco?

One good thing about deserts – they provide material for dozens of cartoons in The New Yorker.

Nizwa is where we spend a few days when we are in the north once more. It’s one of about half-a-dozen towns in Oman that was at one time the capital.

Nizwa fortress

The walls give a good view of the courtyard.

View from the fortress

Maria poses with one of the guides.

Note the big-ass knife on the man’s belt. This is a khanjar, standard wear for the well-dressed Omani male.

Some more guides take a break. (The walking sticks are also an Omani thing.)

View over the town of Nizwa.

Maria shows off her new chapeau.

As usual, there is not a cloud in the sky.

Mosque, hills

A woman prepares a light, fluffy bread that is then drenched in honey.

We visit the Nizwa suq. The indoor food market is the cleanest market building we’ve ever seen. It’s full of men selling (and buying) sugary confections.


There are lots of ceramic pots for sale. They’re made in the nearby city of Bahla.

Legal pot shops

Sight or Insight of the Day

While we’re in the Nizwa suq, two women approach Maria and say they would like to photograph her for ‘a project’.

Oman’s Next Top Model

Maria complies. She spends the next twenty minutes being snapped by these ladies.

Maria rocks the Casbah

Down the Omani Coast, Continued

After our turtle-viewing, our goal is the city of Salalah, Oman’s third-biggest city. It’s two days drive through the desert to get there.

We pass through a few fishing villages. The harbour is busy with dhows and other fishing boats.

It’s good to get out of the car and stretch our legs every hour or so.

On the shore, some locals sit around and shoot the breeze. Maria asks if she can take their picture. They’re happy to oblige.

Some industrious types are at work mending their nets.

Like young people everywhere…

Local youth looking for entertainment

At some point, inhabited places are few and far between.

Bedouin encampments dot the land. Like elsewhere in the Middle East, they don’t seem to get much of the oil wealth that’s floating around.

At a gas station, we are greeted by the first friendly dog we’ve seen here. (The first dog, really.) We think he belongs to the owner.

Pleased to meet you

We stop for the night in Duqm, a strange place in the middle of nowhere.

Little Mosque on the Prairie

We pass through some stunning, Grand Canyon-esque scenery as we get to the coast again.

We listen to the radio from time to time. Sometimes we pick up what sounds like a non-stop prayer channel. (I’m sure they have those in the USA.) Other times, there’s Omani music with an interesting, drum-backed droning melody, sort of like the oriental-style chorus on Kate Bush’s The Sensual World.

The Arabian Sea

We spend a couple of days in Mirbat in search of places to snorkel.


Salalah – and the south of Oman in general – enjoys monsoon rains in the summer that make it much greener than the rest of the country.

How Green Was My Wadi

Salalah has no shortage of mosques. At prayer times, it gets pretty loud. It’s like a titanic Battle of the Muezzins five times a day.

In a local supermarket, the variety of dates and date products is mind-boggling.

The Dating Game

At Al Haffa Beach, Maria models her do-it-yourself birkini.

Itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, black unflattering birkini

Meanwhile, I hold down the fort with Lawrence.

Haffa Beach

Ad Dahariz is another beach we visit. Many families arrive around sundown.

Couple frolics in the surf at Ad Dahariz Beach

One day, we drive further down the coast towards the Yemeni border. One beach, Al Mughsail, is nearly deserted.

Al Mughsail Beach

The beach has several pergolas to keep out of the sun.

One has the following graffiti on it. This is pretty commonly how visitors perceive Omanis.

We carry on to the even-more-secluded Al Fazayah Beach. Maria gets her swimming fix.

Mermaid ahoy

I huddle into what little shade there is.

Sight or Insight of the Day

Hamlet: ‘Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?’
Polonius: ‘By th’mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.’

Let’s hear it for camels!

You really do have to watch out for them on the road. We’ve seen hundreds since we’ve been here.

Coming through

Seeing some always makes us feel good. Their faces are so endearing.

Hi, how you dune?

Sometimes seen alone in an otherwise vast emptiness. Sometimes in large groups.


Camels make the world a better place.

Down the Omani Coast

We depart from Muscat.

Muscat from the hills above

The dark mountains that cover north Oman make us feel as if we’re exploring another planet. (The surface of Mercury?) Maybe because of the contrast between the white buildings and the blue sky, and the incredible heat.

Our first stop is the Bimmah sinkhole. A good place for a refreshing dip.

Overnight, we stay in Qalhat. This tiny seaside village was once a thriving trading port. Marco Polo visited in 1272 and had this to say:

Calatu (his name for Qalhat) is a great city, within a gulf that bears the name of Calatu. The port is very large and good. From this city, spices and other goods are distributed in the interior cities. They also export to India many of the original Arabian horses.’

The Road to Qalhat

Now, there lies ‘not one stone atop another’, as Jesus predicted would happen to the Temple in Jerusalem. One of the few structures still standing is the mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, an influential ruler. (And a woman, at that.)

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation, and bury all, in heaps and piles of ruin.’ William Shakespeare – Coriolanus

Back to the new town

A quiet bay near town gives us an opportunity to try out our new snorkeling gear.

One shockingly pale gringo

Back at our guesthouse, we are once again plagued by pesky cats.

Is that single malt whiskey in that glass?

Warning: if you park your car under a tree for shade, there’s a good chance some goats will come along and use it for a steppingstone to reach the leaves.

Thankfully, not our car

We continue down the coast to the town of Sur.

To Sur, With Love

As we mentioned, many men wear white dishdashas here, while many women go for basic black.

People here are fairly devout, but admirably moderate. I can’t imagine an Omani strapping on a suicide vest, murdering cartoonists, or sawing someone’s head off in a video. (Speaking of which: Welcome Home, Canadian ISIS Sisters!)

Dhows are still constructed here. The only place in Oman, as far as we know.

Landlubber in the shipyard
Dhow under construction
Workers at work on a smaller boat
Man carves a decorative panel

A nearby museum recounts the glory days of dhow commerce in the Indian Ocean.

The good ship Fateh Al-Khayr

After an afternoon coffee, a stroll around the old town is in order.

View from the lighthouse

The aging, pre-oil-wealth buildings have a lot of character.

Our next stop from Sur is Ras al-Jinz.

Shortly before reaching it, we stop at Ras al-Hadd to check out the fort. We have fun climbing the tower.

Newly restored

There is supposed to be a WWII-era RAF airstrip in the vicinity, but we can’t find a single trace of it.

We spend a night at Ras al-Jinz. Its main claim to fame is that it is one of the few places on Earth where sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs year-round.

We sign up for a night tour of the beach. There is no flash photography allowed. (In fact, there are supposed to be no lights at all, except for the guide’s red light. Including cellphones. Of course, in our group of 10-plus people, a significant number have to surreptitiously check their cellphones every 37 seconds.)

The beach is dotted with crater-like nesting sites. We’re lucky enough to come across a 200-kilo green turtle busy digging her nest. Powerful flippers eject turbo-blasts of sand behind her.

Our guide leaves us to see if he can find another nesting turtle.He returns out of the dark and places on the ground four newly-hatched tiny turtles. They immediately make for the sea and we cheer as they disappear in the water.

They’re so cute! Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Sight or Insight of the Day

The currency here, the Omani rial, is worth a lot. This is a 50 rial note.


It’s worth about $175.00 Canadian. According to Wikipedia:

‘It is the third-highest-valued currency unit in the world after the Kuwaiti dinar and the Bahraini dinar.’

This makes the Swiss franc look like the Indian rupee. On the one hand, it makes things sound cheap. On the other hand, when you do the math, things are, um, not so cheap.

Also, interesting – the rial is divided into 1,000 baisa, so you get prices like ‘3.750 rials’.

The Sultanate of Oman

Our flight from Yerevan via Abu Dhabi goes without a hitch. (This is not strictly true, but that’s a long story.) We arrive in Muscat early in the evening.

The arms of the Sultan

It’s a change from Armenia, that’s for sure. The most obvious difference is the intense heat. It’s a withering 35 degrees Celsius here. We love it.

Muscat looks like a prosperous Gulf oil state. People are well off without the staggering excesses of other Gulf monarchies.

That’s the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in the distance

On our first full day in Muscat, we pick up a rental car. We dub him Lawrence.

This is Lawrence. Lawrence of Oman.

We usually don’t like to drive in the capital cities of non-Western countries. Mostly because of the decayed road infrastructure and the insane driving patterns. But Muscat has neither: the roads are well-signed and pothole-free. And the drivers are certainly less lethal than where we’ve just come from.

Besides, Muscat is spread out across dozens of kilometres and public transport is patchy. (Most people drive.)

Heading for Mutrah

In the harbour is one of the Sultan’s boats, the Fulk Al Salamah. It’s the size of a small cruise ship.

We like these dark mountains that separate the neighbourhoods in Muscat.

We visit Old Muscat, which doesn’t really look old anymore. It has government offices and the Sultan’s Palace.

Maria in front of the Al Alam Palace

Typical dress for men in Oman: a full-length robe called a dishdasha. Male government employees are mandated to wear these during office hours.

We visit the Mutrah souq. Among other things, this man is selling two Omani specialties: dates and frankincense.


The National Museum is good place to spend a few air-conditioned hours.

Cool museum

Behind these buildings is the Al-Lawatia district in Mutrah, a Shia enclave that is closed to visitors.

There are dhows in the harbour. Oman is one of the few places where dhows are still constructed.

‘Wouldn’t a Dhow go good now?’

Sight or Insight of the Day

Oman is pretty easy-going these days, relatively speaking, but in its pre-oil heyday, it was a centre of the East African slave trade. (They tend to skip over this part in the National Museum.)

I could never quite understand the fashion for some black people in North America to give their children Arabic names, such as ‘Jamal’ and ‘Hakeem’.

The point may be to turn one’s back on the religion of your white oppressors and instead turn to the imagined egalitarian aspect of Islam. But slavery was still enthusiastically practiced in the Arab world halfway into the 20th century.

‘In 1948, the United Nations declared slavery to be a crime against humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after which the Anti-Slavery Society pointed out that there were about one million slaves in the Arabian Peninsula…’

Maybe it’s time to go back to Bob and Dave and Joe.

Leaving the Caucasus

We depart for the town of Areni, by way of Lake Sevan. Sevan is the largest lake in Armenia.

By the shining Big-Sea-Water

From Lake Sevan to Areni, we drive over the Selim Pass.

Pass coming up

Near Areni is the dramatically-situated Noravank Monastery.

It’s dramatic because of the surrounding red rock canyon.

I climb down to an underground chamber that we are told was where a monk would go if he wanted to meditate in solitude.

Down in the Hole

Areni is one of the premier wine districts in Armenia. We visit the Hin Areni, Trinity Canyon, and Old Bridge wineries.

View from the Old Bridge winery

We purchase a bottle of Areni Noir.

They have a cockatiel who reminds us of Charlie.

Charlie redux?

There are roadside kiosks in the area that sell wine in soft-drink bottles. We are told that these are purchased by Iranian truck drivers who smuggle them into Iran (where there is a total ban on alcohol) for personal consumption.

The pause that refreshes

From Areni, we drive further south. Along the way, we overtake a truck carrying a tank.

Trouble brewing in Nagorno-Karabakh?

En route, we stop in Karahunj, the ‘Stonehenge of Armenia’.

Many of the stones have holes drilled into them. Some archaeologists believe that the holes lined up with celestial bodies. This is yet to be proven for sure.

To get to the Tatev Monastery, we take what is billed as the world’s longest cable car ride.

On the journey, we pass over another ruined monastery far below.

Tatev Monastery itself is well preserved. Probably because they get some help from US Aid, according to a sign at the entrance.

The exhibits of found objects are well-presented, too.

An Eastern Orthodox priest walks by.

Nice dress, padre

Our destination is the southern town of Goris. Close by, we visit the abandoned cave community of Old Khndzoresk. To get there, you cross over a very wobbly suspended bridge.


On our way back north, we come across some Russian military vehicles. Russia acts as a peacekeeper between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Pax Russika

We overtake more on the road.

It beats dodging bullets in Ukraine

This is a common occurrence in Asia. A vehicle breaks down on the side of the ride. The driver sets down a bunch of large rocks in lieu of warning triangles. When the vehicle drives off, as often as not they leave the rocks on the road.

This truck is from Iran

Out of nowhere, the double peaks of Mount Ararat (in nearby Turkey) appear. It’s gigantic.

No sign of an ark

Maria takes dozens of photos of this spectacular sight. We’ll limit ourselves to two here.

Visible from afar

At a roadside bakery. These ladies are making lavash, Armenia’s most popular bread.

Service with a smile

Our last stop before returning to Yerevan is Garni, the only standing Greco-Roman building in Armenia.

Back in the hubbub of the big city, we prepare to depart the Caucasus region.

Last view of Yerevan from the Erebuni Fortress

Sight or Insight of the Day

For something different, let’s list three facts about the Caucasus that we didn’t know before coming here.

Georgia – Even though St. George is the patron saint of Georgia, and St. George iconography is everywhere, the name ‘Georgia’ does not derive from St. George.

St. George statue in Tbilisi

According to this exhaustive article in Wikipedia:

‘The European “Georgia” probably stems from the Persian designation of the Georgians – gurğ (گرج), ğurğ – which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia and, erroneously, explained its origin by the popularity of St. George (Tetri Giorgi) among the Georgians.’

Azerbaijan – in the Tintin series, Captain Haddock is famous for his descriptive insults. One of his favourites is ‘bashibazouk’.

We learn that a bashi-bazouk is a Turkish term for unpaid, undisciplined shock troops, sent in to ‘soften up’ and terrorize would-be conquests.

During the September Days massacre of Armenians in Baku in 1918, the Turkish army used Azerbaijani bashi-bazouks in the following role:

‘Regular Ottoman troops were not allowed to enter the city for two days, so that the local irregulars – bashibozuks – would conduct looting and pillaging.’

Armenia – Almost everyone (well, almost every male) knows that the standard Russian jet fighter is the MiG. The ‘Mi’ part comes from Mikoyan, that is Artem Mikoyan, aircraft designer extraordinaire. (The ‘G’ part comes from his design partner, Mikhail Gurevich.)

It turns out that Artem Mikoyan was Armenian, from the small village of Sanahin. We visit a nicely-executed small museum dedicated to Artem and his brother Anastas, a big shot in Soviet Union politics.

MiG shot