The UAE/Oman Road Trip: Khasab, Musandam Oman

The UAE/Oman Road Trip: Khasab, Musandam Oman

  

 

After 3 days road trippin’ around the UAE and visiting all 7 Emirates and Omani/Emirati counter-enclaves, it’s finally to the literal end of the road to Khasab: the main city in an exclave called Musandam Oman and can be considered Oman’s “Alaska”. It’s also called the “Norway of Arabia” due to its topography of desolate mountainscapes and fjord-like inlets.

If you’re planning to do the drive yourself, make sure you have a NOC (No Objection Certificate) that the car rental shop will give to you when you tell them you’re making a drive to Musandam Oman. Evan was able to thankfully arrange all this when he arrived into Dubai 2am the night before.

Giving Evan only 4 hours of sleep, we all woke up early at 7am to begin our day. Ambrose also happened to befriend a Persian girl named Samira last night after I asked him to do my laundry downstairs, so we all had breakfast together at the hotel before beginning our drive at 8:30am.

 

 

We first drove up an hour and half up past RAK city to the UAE/Musandam Oman border, reaching there at around 10am.

 

 

First you have to enter the offices there and formally exit the UAE, paying the 30 AED exit fee first along with your passports, NOC, and car registration papers.

 

 

They then give you a pink slip to show to the border guards as you drive into No Man’s Land.

 

 

Then when you reach the Oman border, you have to enter the offices there to get a visa on arrival stamp at the border for 5 Omani Rials. There’s an ATM inside in case you need it.

 

 

They also hand you another slip to show the border guards that you’re good to enter Oman.

 

 

Once you’re past this border, you need to quickly clear customs.

 

 

Then it’s another 45 minute drive down gorgeous curvy seaside cliffs to reach Khasab.

 

 

All in all, it took us about 3  hours in total to drive from Dubai to Khasab.

Once there we first stopped by the Central Sultan Qaboos Mosque, which holds 1900 people. We were not allowed inside.

 

 

Then we drove up to Alkmazrh Fort (or Khmazera Castle), located inside the city that still belongs to a local tribe; it currently is taken care by the tribes’ younger generation who remain proud of their ancestral possession. It was free to enter for us.

 

 

We then drove 3 minutes uptown and paid 0.50 Rials to check out the slightly larger Khasab Castle for 10 minutes: Built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, this castle once housed the Wali and his family, then prisoners, before being converted and restored into a regional museum.

 

 

The view from the top:

 

 

Then we drove up 2 minutes more uptown to scarf down a fantastic 10 Rial seafood lunch complete with fresh fish at Amjad Restaurant:

 

 

We then finished our drive at Khasab Dhow Port for the ferry-boats to Muscat. Here you can hop on a full day 6-8 hour or half-day 3 hour dhow boat ride (Or take one all the way to Muscat!).

On a side note, if you’re lucky you can find Iranian Smugglers here where everyday hundreds of small jet boats carrying supplies cross the Strait of Hormuz heading to Southern Iran. The former brings over goats and sheep for the UAE, and then carry back televisions, cigarettes, and other goods to avoid Iranian import duties. Because Khasab is a free trade port Oman tolerates all this.

They must avoid not only shipping traffic but also the Iranian Coast Guard who have no reservations of shooting them on sight.

 

 

Since smuggling wasn’t on our minds, we were able to arrange a 3 hour boat ride at 1pm at the last minute for 100 AED (you can bargain it down) per person thanks to a contact provided by Sean the night before.

 

 

Dolphins chased down our dhow about 20 minutes into our ride!

 

 

About an hour in, they’ll take you to a freshwater area deep in the Strait of Hormuz where you can jump in for a swim and snorkel off the coast of Oman (or Iran, depending on how you look at it). A US drone was just shot down here 3 days ago, but we saw nothing of it: No warships, no media, no helicopters, and no military activity. Just a bunch of American tourists going for a dive.

 

 

Then it was simple relaxation for the rest of the journey where you can just take in all the views as they serve you unlimited fruit, tea, water and coffee onboard.

 

 

Just lounge away:

 

 

After our dhow cruise docked back in Khasab at 4:30pm, we began our drive back to the UAE:

 

 

Once returning to Dubai by 7:30pm, we freshened up at our hotel and rendezvous’ed with Sean, his girlfriend Chelsea (who also has been living in the UAE for the past 9 years), as well as inviting Samira out for a final night out together by the Dubai Fountain and facing the Burj al Khalifa.

 

 

After a wonderful meal complete with shisha and drinks, we finally said our goodbyes, with Wendy running to catch her 1am flight back home, and Sean and Chelsea having to go to sleep early for their classes tomorrow morning.

The 5 of us left then headed to Dubai Mall for the obligatory visit to the world’s largest fish tank and one of the largest aquariums in the world:

 

Then Samira and the gang had one more round of drinks and shisha at Garage Café before we all finally turned in at 1am. In a few hours: Kabul, Afghanistan!

 

- At time of posting in Khasab, it was 40 °C - Humidity: 28% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: so so hot

 

The UAE/Oman Road Trip – “Conclaves”: Fujairah, Madha, & Nahwa

The UAE/Oman Road Trip – “Conclaves”: Fujairah, Madha, & Nahwa

 

 

UAE

After visiting Abu Dhabi and the Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman-UAQ-RAK pentafecta of emirates yesterday (which epic-ness will be hard to beat), we woke up early and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel-with-hostel vibes at our lodgings in Rove City Centre . . .

 

 

. . . before heading further off-the-beaten-path an hour away across the country to Fujairah, the only emirate with a coastline solely on the Gulf of Oman and none on the Persian Gulf.

 

 

Madha (Oman), South

From Fujairah we drove from the southern side to the Omani exclave of Madha, located halfway between the Musandam Peninsula and the rest of Oman. It’s a part of the country of Oman located within the UAE.

 

 

This is their international border:

 

 

Although the boundaries of the UAE were decided in 1969, residents of Madha decided to commit to their allegiance to the Sultan of Oman that began in the 1930s.

You can tell you’re in Oman once the lampposts get all fancy and you see pictures of the Sultan of Oman everywhere.

 

 

I just realized I was in Oman proper nearly exactly a year ago. Happy one year anniversary!

 

 

Head for the lookout point up by a hilltop restaurant.

 

 

The town of Madha below is dead, but that’s probably because it’s over 104ºF outside.

 

 

If you keep driving there’s random, newly built dams that serve zero purpose because there’s no water.

 

 

Nahwa (UAE), South

And make things more unconventional, after a 10 minute drive you can reach a second-order enclave inside Madha called Nahwa, which is part of UAE Emirate of Sharjah. You can call it a second-order enclave, a counter-enclaves, or as Sean’s girlfriend Chelsea quips: a “conclave.”

To access Nahwa, take the northernmost road into the Madha enclave south of Khorfakkan and follow the signs to New Madha. From New Madha, there is a paved but winding road that eventually leads to Nahwa.

 

 

There is no official border crossing between Madha, Nahwa, or the greater UAE. Just 2 flags and a 40m strip of no man’s land in between.

 

 

Madha/Nahwa is mostly empty. The population altogether in this region is less than 3,000.

 

 

Madha (Oman), North

And through Nahwa we exited in the north back into Omani Madha. This part of the enclave is mostly gravel and hills:

 

 

UAE

Then out from Madha of Oman, it was back into the UAE.

 

 

Other than Google Maps, the only way to know is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it white marker up a small climb.

 

 

There’s a little oasis here. So we forego’ed the undeveloped “tourist road” in favor of “restricted access.” Nobody bothered us.

 

 

And after less than hour driving around, we returned on an hour’s drive back to Dubai. Seeing that today was a much shorter day than yesterday, we opted for an early dinner/late lunch with a traditional Mandi at Al Nadeg in the Deira district of Dubai.

 

 

And at 6pm we took advantage of our early evening by making an impromptu visit across Dubai Creek on a 5 dirham local boat.

 

 

On the other side we explored a bit of Old Dubai including Dubai Fort:

 

 

…and the souqs:

 

 

We then hydrated with bougie coconut water and tea at the Arabian Tea House:

 

 

. . . before heading back across the creek to check out the Gold Souq, the largest concentration of cheap gold anywhere in the world:

 

 

You can find the Guinness Book Of World Records’ holder for “world’s heaviest gold ring.”:

 

 

Tomorrow Evan gets in for our drive up to Musandam Oman!

 

 

- At time of posting in Nahwa, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 51% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: hazy & hot

 

Wa Wa Nizwa!

Wa Wa Nizwa!

 

After overnight camping at Wahiba Sands and leaving at 8am, we drove north up to Nizwa, arriving at around 11am.

 

 

The main sight and reason to come to Nizwa is for its fort, built in the 1650s by the second Ya’rub and was the administrative seat for the presiding imams at the time. It also served as a stronghold against raiding forces that desired Nizwa’s abundant natural wealth, water, and its strategic location at the crossroads of vital trade routes. It is also Oman’s most visited national monument.

Admission fee is 5 rials for tourists, 3 rials for locals:

 

 

Views from the top of the fortress:

 

 

It took us about 30 minutes to see everything here.

Afterwards we briefly took a look at the small number of shops still open in the souq before heading to an ancient nearby falaj, an intricate engineering system of water channels acting as aqueducts, used to distribute water within a community. It sits close by the Harat As Sibani settlement and is under UNESCO restoration.

 

 

 

By the falaj is what I consider a more interesting site if you were to come to Nizwa: the Birkat Al Mouz Ruins. Bombed out by the British Royal Air Force at the request of the Sultanate during the Jebel Akhdar War against the rebelling Imamate of Oman, Birkat Al Mouz remains today as a ghost town with its rubble scattered across like jewels in a desert oasis.

Being able to roam around here so freely reminded me immediately of my visit to the ruins of Old Mosul in Iraq 2 weeks ago, and the ancient ruins of Beng Mealea in Cambodia.

 

 

Be careful not to step on any rooftops as they’ve been known to collapse. Just keep your footing on the old staircases and any piece of rock that won’t give with an easy step. Keep your wits about you and you can climb all the way to the top of the village:

 

 

Views from the top:

 

 

"Vincerò!"

 

We then drove around and up another hill to gain a vantage point of Birkat Al Mouz and other abandoned mud villages from afar:

 

 

We then headed back to Muscat mid-afternoon to make it in time for 7pm dinner reservations at one of the fine dining options in Muscat: Al Angham Restaurant.

 

- At time of posting in Nizwa, Oman, it was 32 °C - Humidity: 59% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

O Man, Oman: Wahiba Sands

O Man, Oman: Wahiba Sands

  

After a few hours swimming in the beautiful water holes of Wadi Shab, Talal and the gang continued south towards Sharqiya Sands. Also popularly known as Wahiba Sands named after the local Bani Wahiba tribe there, it boasts sand dunes up to 100 meters high and 170 km long:

 

 

When we got here in the later afternoon, Talal immediately took us dune bashing, which is when our 4×4 simulates itself as a roller coaster on the dunes.  I unfortunately took this video after all the craziness happened, so I did my best by adding in some appropriately cheesy music:

 

 

 

We then parked our 4×4 and sat on top of a dune ridge to admire the sunset:

 

 

Afterwards we headed into the nearby town of Bidiya where we sat on a carpted floor outside and had a traditional Omani/Yemenese dinner.

 

 

After dinner, we found a new café that just opened to enjoy some outdoor shisha while watching the England vs. Nigeria football match:

 

 

We then retired back to the middle of the desert for outdoor camping underneath the stars. Because of Ramadan, it seemed like we may have well been the only tourists out there that night:

 

 

It was dead silent and so calm that we all quickly fell asleep. As I drifted off into slumber, I was instantly reminded of the time I wrote The Beauty of Relevance, back when I camped in the middle of India’s Thar Desert back in 2011.

The sun began to rise at around 5am:

 

 

We began to get up at around 7am and cleaned ourselves up for the ride back to Muscat.

 

 

Talal even let me drive on the open desert to a nearby tribal camp. This would be my first time driving in a decade!

 

 

Once arriving at the camp we had some tea and breakfast, after which Ann shopped for souvenirs while Mihaela rode her first camel for 3 OMR.

 

 

Onwards to Nizwa!

 

- At time of posting in Wahiba Sands, Oman, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Wadi Bani Khalid: An Oasis In The Desert

Wadi Bani Khalid: An Oasis In The Desert

After picking us up from Muscat and showing us around Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the morning, Talal drove us about 2 hours towards Wadi Bani Khalid, a literal oasis in the middle of the desert.

 

 

We stopped for a few photos along the way for some photo ops.

 

 

 

Once you arrive at Wadi Bani Khalid, you’ll see palm trees everywhere, just like what you imagined an oasis would look like.

 

 

Follow the streams of drinking water to the lake. You can’t swim just yet because this is where their drinking water comes from.

 

 

You can grab shelter from the sun at the gazebo by the bridge over the lake.

 

 

Weave around the bridge and café and continue walking up on the right into the gorge. You’ll get more privacy here from the rest of Oman, so we stripped down and got straight to swimming.

 

 

Wadi Bani Khalid is one of the popular wadis in Oman where foreigners and locals alike can go for a dip in the crystal clear waters of the gorge.

 

 

Stop along wherever for a swim, or keep hiking inland for more swimming holes.

 

 

Talal showed us plenty of small little waterfalls to climb up through, small rivers to do a quick swim around, and diving holes to jump into (see following 8 second video):

 

 

What made it even better was that Ramadan season ensured nobody else else was around to bother us or take any our stuff; Wadi Bani Khalid became our little own playground for a few hours.

 

 

If you decide to venture further into the underground cave, be forewarned you have to be a pretty decent swimmer to get there — it involves swimming under and through a small tunnel to get inside. And Talal warned us to not bring anything that isn’t solidly waterproof or can be dropped; if you lose something you might lose it forever…it’s pretty deep!

After about 1-2 hours here, we headed back to the car and drove on for the desert of Wahiba Sands.

 

- At time of posting in Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman, it was 38 °C - Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Muscat Mallrats

Muscat Mallrats

 

After 24 hours in Kuwait, Ann, Mihaela and I boarded our 9:05pm Oman Air flight for Muscat, landing at around 12:15am.

Muscat’s new international airport is really really nice.

 

 

The current fee for an Omani tourist visa on arrival is 20 Omani Rials (OMR), which you can quickly pay at a desk next to passport control with a credit card. Unlike the runaround I had back at Kuwait Airport, the visa process here takes only a few minutes.

 

 

Like Kuwait there are no hostels in Muscat for the budget traveler, so I found an apartment for all of us to share on Booking.com. And Muscat as a city is not a single entity but rather 6 distinct, separate provinces connected by a highway along the coastline, so when looking for lodging you have to choose where you want to stay depending on what you want to do.

We wanted to be near the mosque as that seemed to be the top tourist attraction here so we stayed around Al Ghubrah South. I found a great value at Somerset Residences, which is a newly designed apartment complex located inside Panorama Mall. They offer an airport pickup service for 15 OMR which I took up since I didn’t feel like haggling after what we had experienced all day back in Kuwait.

 

 

 

We arrived at Panorama Mall’s Somerset Residences at around 1am, where after checking into our room, we were delighted how great of a value we got. Unlike our awkward place at Arkan Residence yesterday in Kuwait, everything works perfectly here.

 

 

We woke up to a brutal 107ºF day the next morning, and given that everything was closed during daytime for Ramadan, we decided to stay in until the weather cooled down.

 

 

Mihaela and I both hit our respective gyms inside Somerset (they separate male and female gyms here, and funny enough — or disappointingly — Mihaela had weights that only went up to 10kgs whereas I had weights going up to 20kgs), after which we became famished after working out. Fasting for Ramadan was not going to do us any good; we needed to cook something ASAP, so we quickly went grocery shopping on the bottom floor of Panorama Mall.

It’s worth mentioning how much of a difference it makes when your lodging is is connected to a giant mall — we never stepped foot outside to brave the 107ºF weather once.

 

 

After my recent successes cooking Gordon Ramsey’s scrambled eggs both in New Zealand and in Austria, I decided to try out his method of making poached eggs today….NAILED IT:

 

 

By 5:30pm it dropped to only 105ºF outside so we said screw it and decided to go out anyway. We headed downstairs and hailed a cab towards the 3 forts/palaces on the eastern side of the Muscat coast, stopping first at Al Mirani Fort.

 

 

Right in front of Al Mirani is a strategic harborfront location where you’ll get scenic views of the other 2 palaces/forts. One is Al Alam Palace, the ceremonial residence of the sultan that’s famous for its facade with bright blue & gold columns.

 

 

The other in the distance is Al Jalali Fort:

 

 

You can’t enter any of the 3 as a tourist as they’re all government buildings guarded by the military. So we drove back west along the corniche.

 

 

We then got out at Mutrah, where we walked along the corniche for sunset.

 

 

Turning left towards the city, we checked out Mutrah Souq:

 

 

The sunset adhan began to play so we stepped back outside for a surreal, serene moment where the entire city quiets down to break their Ramadan fast for iftar. Everyone begins to eat in silence.

 

 

As everyone was distracted by their iftar, we climbed up unguarded Mutrah Fort for views over the famous Mutrah Corniche:

 

 

We went up as high as we could, even hopping up on a precarious ledge with no guardrails. Don’t fall! The photos are worth it.

 

A Sunset in Muscat

 

Take all the selfies you want.

 

 

Mutrah glows during sunset:

 

 

We then headed back down from the fort and did another round at the souq for some more shopping.

 

 

Afterwards we took a cab to Moorish Café in the Shati Al Qurum province, arguably the best shisha café in the city.

 

 

Then it was one last walk along the beach before heading back home.

 

 

The next morning we got up early for our 2 day journey across the rest of Oman. Thanks to Ihita, another monsooner who had traveled with me to Russia last year and was just in Oman 2 weeks ago, I was referred to Talal Al Alawi of Talal Transport, a master tour guide in a country where it seems that everyone knew his name.

He picked us up promptly at 11am, our first stop being the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the 11th largest mosque in the world and home to the world’s largest chandelier. Visiting hours are 8:30am-11am Saturday to Thursday and admission is free.

 

 

Our first stop was the women’s area to pray, which can fit about 500-700 people:

 

 

The mosque complex as a whole can fit as many as 20,000 worshippers inside.

 

 

…and the main prayer hall features an 8-ton chandelier from Germany, with its wooden doors from Myanmar, the single-piece giant carpet from Iran, and the marble from India.

 

 

We spent about 45 minutes here exploring, as well as getting free gifts (I got a picture frame, the girls got Frankincense) from the tourist center.

 

 

We now head onwards to Wadi Shab!

 

FLASH FORWARD 2 DAYS–

After an epic 2 day adventure swimming at Wadi Shab, camping overnight at Wahiba Sands, and exploring bombed out ghost towns by Nizwa with our fearless guide Talal, we returned to Muscat the next evening for one of Muscat’s handful of fine dining options at Al Algham Restaurant, located at the newly constructed Opera House.

We went at the recommendation of Ihita, another monsooner from my Russia trip who was in Oman 2 weeks ago (she also had helpfully referred us to Talal).

Upon arrival into Muscat at around 4pm, we decided to book a last minute stay at nearby Al Qurum Resort, which is a 10 minute walk away from the opera house complex in the Opera Galleria Mall.

 

 

Al Angham is meant to represent the highest class of Oman cooking, serving traditional recipes in a glamorous, modern, setting.

 

 

When we say down we already had a plate of dates, fruit, a basket of fried starters, and fresh juices waiting for us.

 

 

Our next course was a lamb congee soup.

 

 

Next was a French presentation of a lamb pasta course, followed by unlimited rounds of coconut chicken, grilled lamb with rice, a glutinous lamb dish, and fried lamb with rice, all served to you on your plate by rotating waitresses:

 

 

Dessert featured a series of small bites that included a pumpkin pastry, frankincense flavored ice cream, and cardamom rice pudding:

 

 

Since it was Ramadan they only could serve their iftar set menu, which cost us 20 OMR per person. There have other set menus and a la carte options if you choose to come at a different time of year.

 

 

After dinner we headed out to the opera house to take some photos:

 

 

…which wouldn’t be complete without it getting served:

 

 

Tomorrow we head to Qatar!

 

- At time of posting in Muscat, Oman, it was 36 °C - Humidity: 24% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy