Friday, 23 June 2017

OMAN: Ever Been To Oman? Listen To This

The former capital of Oman offers cooler weather, architectural sites to die for and a valley that's surprisingly green

THE CAPITAL of the Sultanate of Oman between 1932 and 1970, the coastal city of Salalah is a popular holiday destination during the khareef season, when the normally arid mountain ranges and pastureland take on a refreshing green hue.

The sky is brushed with grey and blue streaks by the Indian Ocean monsoon from June until September, making the summer here considerably cooler than in other parts of the Arabian Gulf.

The average mean temperature in Oman in summer is 44 degrees Celsius but in Salalah, it’s a balmy 35 degrees. While we don’t get a lot of rain, we are blessed with the monsoon from June to September, and the cooler climate draws tourists from Yemen, the Emirates and India, the local guide says.

Spread over the southern Omani coast, Salalah is the country’s second largest city after Muscat and the capital of Dhofar Governorate, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said was born and grew up.

Located 925 kilometres from Muscat, Oman Air’s flight takes just one hour and 15 minutes to arrive in Salalah and I take full advantage of my luxury business class seat and in-flight facilities to make the most of my journey.

Rich in nature and cultural interest, Salalah has a backdrop of lush mountains, white beaches, and a charming old town to explore.

It is also famous for high-quality Arabian frankincense used for creating essential oils for massage treatments, incense and wedding products representing fortune and the beginning of good life.

Salalah was the leading dried sardine exporter but now people tend to prefer king fish. Today, we export frankincense, frankincense oil and other merchandise to India.

I join a city tour the next morning and a local guide leads us to the well-preserved Taqah Castle in the heart of old town.

Built in the 19th century, it originally served as a private stronghold for Sheikh Ali bi Timman Al-Ma’s ashani and in 1984 was converted into the official residence and administrative centre for local governors (Walis).

The walls are fashioned from solid blocks of Taqah stone, a local limestone composed of fossilised shells and corals was used widely in ancient constructions.

Inside the complex the atmosphere is intimate, just like a real home and the principal rooms are furnished with refined handicrafts.

The food store on the ground floor displays large quantities of dried fish, grain, dates and other vital supplies and offers an interesting reflection of how people lived in bygone days.

A well in the courtyard ensured an abundant supply of fresh water for drinking and an outdoor oven provided for the well-ventilated roasting of meat and daily cooking.

The living room in the well-preserved Taqah Castle is decorated with beautiful hand-embroidered cushions and draperies

The luxury family suite on the upper floor is designed as a living room, where family members enjoyed light meals and shared news during the day.

Adjoining the living room is a reception area, where the wali would hold private discussions with special guests.

Colourful and elegant, each room is adorned with locally made cotta pottery, porcelain plates and bowls obtained through trade with China, India, Europe and Zanzibar, as well as beautiful hand-embroidered cushions and draperies.

Leaving the castle, we head to the Wadi Darbat valley, passing camels and donkeys making the most of the pastureland.

Reaching the top of hill, visitors are spoiled with a picturesque panorama of a turquoise crystal lake. Boat rides on the lake are offered with prices starting at OMR 3 (Bt260) for a 30-minute paddleboat for two and OMR 5 (Bt442) on a motorboat.

People living outside the area have 10 to 20 camels and let them graze on the land.

They will come to see their camels once or twice a week and feed them with sardines. Most villagers raise camels for meat. Camel meat has low fat and people always give it to the guests as a gift.

We use camel milk to make cheese too. During the Khareef season, the mountain is very green and potatoes taste sweeter. You will see plenty of healthy looking cows because they can feed on the grass to eat.

The government also has a project to provide water and electricity for houses on the mountains at no charge.

We return to the old town and continue for another 20 minutes to Marneef Cave and Al Mugsayl Beach, a much-loved picnic spot for local folks and tourists.

The cave is formed from eroded limestone and the beach entertains travellers with three stunning blowholes, from which the water shoots up as high as 28 metres.

Back in town we visit the Al Baleed Archaeological Park, the Unesco World Heritage Site, which is home to the ruins of the ancient city on the Indian Ocean and the Museum of Frankincense.

The complex has several rooms in different sizes and a water basin linked to a range of drainage channels that date back to 750-950 AD.

The Al Baleed Castle occupies 5,000 square meters and is built with large stones showcasing the craftsmanship in the Iron Age. Another impressive building is the Al Balled Mosque. B

uilt in 850 AD, it boasted 144 columns parallel to the qibia wall, mostly octagonal or cylindrical, with square bases and crowns decorated with floral ornaments.