Paul's Travel Pics

Friday, October 17, 2014

Desert Oases of Central Oman - Part 5: Medieval Mountain Village of Misfah

One bad turn and we're ambushed by an legion of Arabian goats.

It was a most unusual destination for both Jose and myself. Both of our guidebooks touted this remote mountain village as "medieval" or even "stone age," promising of an idyllic hamlet where locals carried on a lost lifestyle from the Middle Ages or beyond.

Misfah. Misfat. Misfah al Abriyeen. Misfat al Abryeen. Or perhaps Abreyeen or Abriyyin or even Abreen. While there seemed to be no consistent Romanization of the name even on the official road signs, the direction was clear enough -- take the winding mountain road into the heights of Jebel Shams and locate the village at the dead end.

No matter how you spell it, the meaning is the same -- it's the home of the Al Abri tribe in this secluded corner of Central Oman, overhanging a sheer cliff on the rugged plateau of the Hajar Mountains. For centuries it's entirely cut off from the rest of the world, until a couple decades ago when a motor road finally established its link with modern Oman.

There's no town gate. There's no ticket booth. There're no signs. You just park your car at the dead-end road in front of the village, and walk through one of the ancient rock arches to time-travel back to the 12th Century.

This is an ancient land that predates history and script, let alone the nation of Oman or even Islam. The 4500-year-old beehive tombs of Bat are in a region to the northwest, and standing guard just above the village is a ruined fort from the old Persian Empire.

Centuries of geographic isolation has fostered a closed society with its own ancestral customs and mentality, similar in theory to Wuyuan Shicheng in China or Shirakawago in Central Japan. But Misfah has only opened up to the outside world in this current generation, and at the time of our visit there was absolutely no commercial activity and seemingly no desire to welcome any form of tourism. I hear that this has since changed with the opening of the first guesthouse, though thankfully the village is probably decades from mass tourism and gentrification.

We've had a glimpse of Omani tribal culture at the Bedouin goat auction in Nizwa, but medieval Misfah was at a totally different level. Whereas the people of Nizwa were generous with smiles, in Misfah we could sense watchful eyes from a distance. As travelers sometimes we can feel it when the locals don't even want to engage in an exchange of "Salam"; this was such an instance.

Gingerly we trod the narrow and claustrophobic alleys while mindfully avoiding disrupting the daily routines of the villagers and especially the local women. Painted stripes of yellow, white and red marked a "suggested" path for visitors, intended less as guidance and more as deterrence against violations of privacy and taboo.

This is your classic mountain stronghold of the Middle Ages, made self-sufficient by a system of ancient underground Falaj which channeled life-giving water to the village and its livelihood of date palms and pomegranates. To modern day visitors like us the canals provided refreshments under the 40-degrees climate, though we had to be extra cautious to avoid the forbidden areas where the local women would wash clothes and carry out their daily chores.

The moment we turned back from the Falaj and stepped into the rocky outcrop at the rear of the village ... Whoa! ... we're entirely surrounded by this flock of village guardians! And just as we established that we weren't in danger of being edged off the cliff side ...

... a little girl started yelling and hurling stones at us two camera-toting outsiders, and with alarming accuracy. That's when I had to advise Jose to pack away the camera out of respect for the locals and work on our diplomatic skills. The girl eventually stopped and retreated inside and we resumed photographing her flock.

To be honest I'm not entirely convinced by general claims of Misfah as an exhibit of untouched medieval life as promised by many of the guidebooks, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide among them. While timeless (and occasionally antagonistic) customs still persist, many houses have been modernized into ugly concrete complexes and the overall visual impact couldn't quite match nearby Al Hamra in my opinion.

On the way down we stopped for a panoramic view over the desert plains of Ad Dakhiliyah. This was the most rewarding day of sightseeing in my entire Middle East trip, covering Nizwa, Tanuf, Al Hamra, Misfah plus the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Falaj Daris and the Fort of Bahla, all in 12 hours. We would return to Nizwa for dinner and overnight stay, still stoked about our favorite photos at Al Hamra earlier in the day. At this point we had no idea that we would soon discover our favorite spot in Oman the next morning, at the deserted ancient oasis of Manah.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Desert Oases of Central Oman - Part 4: Mud-Brick Town of Al Hamra

This was one of my most memorable and satisfying afternoons of the trip, rummaging thru ancient mud-brick towns at the edge of an Arabian desert.

The excitement was due only partly to the breathtaking medieval townscape at these exotic locales. It was also fun to start a journey with my newly acquainted friend Jose, whom I met merely 2 hours ago at the wild and spectacular Friday goat auction of Nizwa.

I'm Canadian; Jose's Spanish; and we crossed paths at this ancient crossroad of desert caravans in Southern Arabia. Both of us were relatively seasoned as backpackers, and we're both seeking that perfect image of genuine Omani culture through our camera lenses.

Having arrived for a couple of days, Jose was familiar enough with the area to act as my co-driver (i.e. human GPS). I on the other hand had a rental car and could take him to places he couldn't access on his own. It was a natural fit and together we had a great time exploring Central Oman.

Neither of us had a set itinerary in mind. Jose carried a copy of the Rough Guide to Oman and I possessed only a few photocopied pages of the Bradt Guide. We knew that we wanted to explore the historic small towns around Nizwa, and I wanted to stop by the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Falaj Daris and Bahla Fort. Aside from these, we really had no idea what we would encounter on this day.

But first, finding lunch proved to be a challenge as the entire city of Nizwa closed down for Friday worship at the Grand Mosque. Luckily we found one roadside restaurant -- run by non-Muslims of course -- serving the local Indian community which enjoyed the Friday afternoon as a de facto holiday.

Our first stop was the legendary Falaj Daris, an ancient feat of civil engineering in which miles of underground aqueducts were chiseled out of bedrock to channel water from underneath the Jebel Akhbar mountains towards the oasis of Nizwa. Its UNESCO World Heritage Site status apparently doesn't stop it from becoming the community swimming pool, occupied this Friday afternoon by ethnic Indian immigrants while the Omani Muslims congregated at the Mosque.

Some 20km northwest of Nizwa we came across the charming ruins of an ancient town once known as Tanuf. The name is still well-known today for its namesake brand of mineral water bottled nearby, but to the older generation it symbolizes the price paid for peace and unity of Oman as a nation.

There was a time before Saddam Hussein became Saddam Hussein, when Sultan Said of Muscat was the original madman of the Middle East, reigning over one of the world's last feudal states where he was still served by slaves. Traveling within his country was forbidden even for his own peasants, and foreigners like myself would have no chance of visiting even Muscat, let alone Nizwa and the interiors.

Back then existed the Imamate of Oman, ruled in effect by the conservative tribal leaders of the interiors separately from the rich and moderate Sultanate of Muscat. Muscat was Muscat and this landlocked region of barren deserts was the original Oman, where Bedouins roamed the wilderness and sparse settlements existed in this form of mud-brick villages.

Then one day, some 50 years ago, 1000-pound bombs rained down on this ancient town of Tanuf, dropped by the British RAF at the behest of the Sultan of Muscat. These medieval walls of mud-bricks and round stones were utterly destroyed, leaving the centuries-old houses in their current crumbling state.

Whatever survived the bombing -- heavy wooden doors, window frames and roofing material -- had long been cannibalized by neighboring villages over the decades. The precarious arches and half-collapsed walls are all that linger as reminders of that one-sided civil war between Muscat and Oman, won mainly by a foreign force with petroleum on its sight.

But abandonment of the town wasn't fully complete –- at least one devout local was returning to worship at this thousand-year-old mosque that had been reduced to nothing but walls. The Mihrab on the west-facing wall survived and continues to point towards the direction of Mecca, and hence the ancient ritual of worship carries on.

It's a haunting scene with beautifully poignant and yet untold stories -- the suicidal defiance of the Omanis, the young British pilot shot down and buried nearby, and innocent lives in an idyllic medieval village caught in the crossfire. All were merely pawns in a grand game of politics and profit.

After visiting the crumbling ruins of Tanuf we drove further west towards an equally medieval but much better preserved oasis settlement. Navigating through unmarked village roads based solely on directions from the locals wasn't easy, but we knew from the moment we arrived that it was well worth the effort.

This old town of Al Hamra was the classic Omani oasis that we'd been searching for, an intact community of mud-brick complexes congregated beside an ancient system of Falaj still in everyday use. Lush groves of date palms still surround the old town, itself built atop a gigantic slab of rock on a gentle slope, right where the Hajar Mountains start to rise out of the desert.

The best part about the medieval town was that it's still partially inhabited to this date. Locals could be seen herding a few goats down the narrow alleys and electricity wires were the only giveaway that we're in the 21st Century.

The tribesmen here weren't so different from those of nearby Tanuf in opposing the influence of secular Muscat and governance by Sultan Said. But rather than being bombed out of existence, Al Hamra survived the civil war intact and witnessed the ousting of the Sultan by his own British-educated son.

Whereas the old Sultan muzzled the interior Omanis with an iron fist, the new Sultan Qaboos earned their trust with capital projects from his oil-funded wealth. When the townsfolk of Al Hamra cried of harsh living conditions in their 400-year-old houses of mud and clay, the Sultan gifted them new modern homes at the top of the town. Many of these medieval houses were abandoned in various states of decay, and time is still frozen in the 1980's.

But a number of peasants still live out of their ancestral homes, many dating from the Ya'aruba Dynasty and beyond. Partially sustaining these local families to this date are the ancient professions of date farming and goat herding, after Al Hamra lost its function as a major caravan stop with the arrival of motor vehicles in the mid 20th Century.

Jose and I had a great time exploring the now-vacant houses and deserted streets under the warm glow of the afternoon sun. Even in the murderous heat of early August the temperature stayed around 40 degrees Celsius in the shadows of the Hajar Mountains, which was much more comfortable compared with 45-plus degrees at humid Muscat or Dubai.

Nobody seems to know what the future holds for this atmospheric medieval town. While the government knows of its potential as a tourist draw, the town is also encroached on three sides by the new Al Hamra. Unless specific efforts are undertaken to repair and preserve the deteriorating walls after the region's infrequent but devastating flash rainstorms, we may be witnessing the slow and painful death of a historic spectacle.

On our way out we're passed by two local children, no older than perhaps 7 or 8, who would absolutely put me to shame in terms of riding skills. Watching from his new house across the street was their English-speaking father who was also pampering his own ride, an American muscle car with 250 horses. "Toys for the children," said the rich dad as he pointed at the horses, sounding as normal as buying a video game console for his kids.

That may be the reality of 21st Century Oman -- a newly affluent nation shaking off its past as the lazy backwaters of the Arab world. With all that petroleum reserve the Sultan is certainly bringing rapid modernization to his vast and sparsely populated homeland. As a traveler though I just hope that heritage sights such as Al Hamra and Tanuf will be well-protected in the course of progress. After all this is where Oman beats the ultra-modern metropolises of the UAE hands down. Why else would I travel here all the way from Dubai?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Desert Oases of Central Oman - Part 3: Goat Auction of the Bedouins

For two hours I found myself inside a frenzied Arabian livestock auction, right out of some National Geographic video.

Nomadic Bedouins would herd goats and cattle in a circle like sharks around prey; buyers would interrupt goat owners and commence an impassioned ritual of bargaining and counter-offering; masked women would patiently wait while their husband sold off the clan's precious baby camels as payoff for years of labor.

This was Nizwa's famous Friday Goat Market, held once a week on the morning before Jumu'ah when men traveled in from tens of kilometers away to worship at the nearby Grand Mosque. For herders it's the big pay day, and for the local townsmen it's a chance to pick up that coveted goat to fatten the entire extended family, as this day also happened to be exactly one month before Ramadan fasting.

For more than 1000 years this marketplace has been the crossroad of caravan routes where overseas commodities from Muscat would cross path with Dhofari frankincense from the southern tip of Arabia. Today it remains an open-air market in the most traditional sense, thriving on the ancient trade of livestock herding in a region of the world that's still remarkably tribal even in the 21st Century.

Deals are negotiated in Omani Arabic, but the drama and amusement certainly transcend language barriers, especially if you're tolerant of the local standard of animal treatment. Cattle prod the handlers impatiently, goats thrash about and camels bark at their new owners as they get shoved onto pickup trucks. Everyone gets a good laugh aside from the goats which would soon become somebody's family dinner.

Within 5 minutes of my arrival I was almost convinced to buy a goat.

"Twenty six," this man pushed hard for the sale in reasonably good English, "Twenty six. Very good goat!"

By traveler's instinct I declined ... but at the back of my mind I also calculated that it's actually less than CAD$70. For a live goat!

For a moment I wavered ... wouldn't it be cool to own a goat for a few hours? And then what ... releasing it in the desert? Or gifting it to some random stranger? In any case I decided to keep my 26 Rials and spend it on something more useful. Like 2 nights of hotel room rent.

As in any traditional old-world market, the timeless art of haggling was an intense seesaw affair requiring concessions from both sides. Buyers probed, sellers countered, and everybody else watched on the side for a feel of the day's price fluctuations. These two had been haggling on for a good 15 minutes, until ...

... the prospective buyer turned his back, and the seller chased him down! But instead of lowering the price and closing the deal, the seller lectured the bargain hunter in a serious tone then pulled his prized bull out of the sale. Deal or no deal, the man stood his ground.

For city dwellers like myself there's much to learn about the essential skill of goat inspection, checking its teeth for nutritional issues and grabbing the hind leg beside the crotch to gauge its fat reserves. Inspection was generally swift and business-like, as most of the livestock would change hands by 10:00 and the auction would wind down.

All around the market cash and goats changed hands, and the new acquisition would be towed away or tied onto an unattended pole should the new owner decide to shop for some more. Stealing someone else's goat wouldn't even cross the mind. Eventually the sheepish little guy would be brought home, butchered according to the practice of Dhabihah and appear at the family table for the next 3 weeks. Those large droopy ears are cute, but one really shouldn't get emotionally attached with the main course.

This was before the whole coronavirus scare and every child around came to admire these gentle giants, loved by all Omanis for their durability and life-giving milk in harsh environments, not to mention big money camel racing. Only a few years later 50 people died and Omani camels were specifically identified as carriers of the MERS virus.

On top of all this the herders would occasionally lose control of their cattle, and bystanders would dash out of harm's away as naturally as avoiding motorcycles at a crosswalk. There's a bit of Pamplona in the atmosphere and was definitely not for the timid.

This was the perfect time and place for people watching, as men dressed their best for the upcoming Jumu'ah at the Grand Mosque sporting gleaming white Dishdashas and beautifully embroidered Kumma caps.

Most intriguing were the Bedouin women in black, draped in their loose Thawbs and hiding their faces behind the distinctive Omani Burqa. Getting a good picture of these women was risky business given the conservative tribal culture in this land, and I had to be careful with my camera etiquette, often employing stealth techniques taking blind shots at waist level.

In Canada I do see Burqas once in a while as a statement of religious observance, but in this desert climate one can easily appreciate the sensibility of a pieces of clothing that can protect the face against the hot sand and dust, and possibly provide some minor UV protection as well.

These Bedouin women had probably worn the Burqa for most of their lives, at least from puberty onward when in the presence of any men outside of the immediate family. The local non-Bedouin women however dressed somewhat more moderately, only covering their hair with the Hijab and leaving their faces exposed.

Fancy the Kumma (3 men on the right) or the Massar (2 men on the left)? While both are considered national headdresses of the Omanis, I generally saw a lot more Massar in the desert regions of Central Oman and more Kumma closer to the capital city of Muscat. After all the Kumma is an East African invention, imported into Muscat through centuries of seafaring tradition.

It was here that my solo trip unexpectedly turned into a social adventure as I bumped into fellow backpacker Jose, the only other foreigner in the crowd. I had a rental car; he didn't. He had a few days of experience around Nizwa and Muscat; I didn't. It was natural that this Canadian and a Spaniard decided to travel together for the rest of the trip. We decided to separately finish up what each of us wanted to see in Nizwa, before meeting up again at noon for a drive to the nearby towns.

Just outside the auction grounds there's another small market for those without enough money for a live goat. This is one of the largest Souqs in the Arabian peninsula after all, and goods of all varieties streamed in from different corners of the Middle East. There's the aforementioned Souq for goats, a Souq for pigeons and quails, a Souq for handicraft, and a Spice Souq among others.

I was surprised to find a Fish Souq in the middle of a desert, 150 km from the nearest coast. Not sure whether this was tuna or shark, but the kid was clearly a Real Madrid fan.

There's also a Souq dedicated for dates of all types, many locally grown from the date palm groves at the peripherals of this oasis city. To this date Nizwa remains Oman's powerhouse for date cultivation, 1400 years after it was originally established as the capital.

This little roadside stall gave me my favorite meal in Oman, better than any sit-down restaurants I encountered in Nizwa or Muscat. Grilled meat and flatbread has always been the traditional food of the Arabian desert, and the Omanis do it really well with their Mashawi.

Look at this juicy kebab of lamb with spiced garlic paste in the Mashawi, two for 800 Baisa (CAD$2) at the street corner before the masses headed for the Grand Mosque. No unhealthy carb fillings like rice or French fries often found in the Turkish or Greek versions, just charbroiled lamb, fresh veggies and oven-roasted bread.

Even the locals concurred that this was good stuff! I had to shrug off these feral-looking cats to meet Jose back at the Souq entrance. That afternoon we would journey to the medieval villages of Tanuf, Al Hamra and Misfat al Abryeen, before returning to Nizwa for the night.