The Omani interior is hot, arid and sandy. Cut-off from the Gulf of Oman by the Al-Hajar mountain range, its terrain is inhospitable. Yet despite the harsh terrain and climate, the interior teems with life. Guard towers, forts and castles pepper the region and, steeped in history and culture, the towns of Ibra, Nizwa and Bahla offer a unique glimpse into the lives of everyday Omanis, their rich culture and the history of this nation.
As public transportation in Oman is scant, the only viable mode of transport to the interior is by shared-taxi. Ibra, Nizwa and Bahla are easily reachable by shared-taxi from Muscat, the Omani capital. You can hail one at the Clock Tower in Muscat.
Ibra was the first town I visited. It is in the A’Sharqiyah region and often extolled as the door to the Wahiba Sands – a vast expanse of desert. This town serves as the main commercial hub for the region, where farmers and traders merchandise their goods at the local souk.
I departed Muscat in the morning by shared-taxi for Ibra. The 2-hour ride was priced at OMR 2.500. As always in Oman, the sun-scorched rugged landscape was a sight to the eyes. By noon, I was at a roadside eatery devouring my lunch.
Mid afternoon came and in true Omani fashion, it was time for siesta. Shops closed and streets emptied as the mercury soared above 40C. And at 4pm, the empty streets came back to live and shops resumed operations.
While waiting for my Couchsurfing host at the petrol station, Ashahzad, a Pakistani retailer who works at a local paint-shop, invited me to his shop. While conversing with him, he broached the topic of politics (he was a political science student back in Pakistan) and we soon drank tea while talking about constitutions ( the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta).
Soon, evening came and I met my Couchsurfing host, Humaid, and we headed to his home, where we met his friend, Zayd. Zayd took me to see old Ibra and before ending the night at an event at the A’Sharqiyah University, where Zayd is currently learning English. Unfortunately, as women were present at this event, photography was prohibited…. Surprisingly, women outnumbered men 3:1.
The following day was a lazy day. I didn’t really do much except exploring the city and slowly feasting my eyes on what the city had to offer, from its old town to the Ladies Souk, where photography is prohibited.
Humaid, like all Omanis I met, was extremely kind and friendly. He speaks English fluently and we had really interesting conversations about Oman and its culture!
Take a shared-taxi from the Clock Tower in Muscat. Price is OMR 2.500 (as of May 2017).
Nizwa is one of Oman’s oldest cities and it was once a centre for commerce, learning and religion. Today, it’s the largest city of the Al Dakhiliyah region and a centre for date-growing and livestock trading.
My trip to Nizwa was meh. While the sights and people of Nizwa were awesome (this is an understatement), the experience I had with my Couchsurfing host there was terrible (another understatement).
To summarise a long story, this host of mine, whom I’ll not name, pestered me to have sex with a friend of his from Grindr, a gay dating app, and he was persistent about it until I threatened to call the cops. Moreover, he was pretty xenophobic and held prejudices against Omanis and Indians. Thank goodness the ordeal only lasted two nights.
However, Nizwa itself was nice. It boasts a strong fort that has been recently restored and a traditional souk (one of the better ones I’ve seen in my life).
Erected in the 17th century, the Nizwa Fort is Oman’s most visited national monument. It’s distinctive drum-shaped tower rises 30 metres above the horizon and gives visitors a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings, which is flecked with date plantations. It was totally worth the OMR 0.500 I had paid for it.
Another must-visit is the Nizwa Souk, one of Oman’s oldest markets. This place teems with activity during mornings and the post siesta hours (after 4pm). On sale are dates, potteries and crafts, vegetables, fruits, meat-products and fish. The Thursday and Friday livestock souk, which ends at 8.00 am, is something incredible that shouldn’t be missed!
The livestock souk was an organised chaos, to say the least. In the centre was a circular platform where traders sit. Sellers herd their livestock (usually a cow or goat) around this platform. Interested buyers are then welcome to inspect the livestock and a deal is usually sealed at the end.
Take a shared-taxi from the Clock Tower in Muscat. Price is OMR 3.000 (as of May 2017).
I visited Bahla on a half-day trip. Bahla is Nizwa’s smaller cousin. Home to the Bahla Fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, this town makes a good day-trip from Nizwa.
Though the Bahla Fort is less renown than its counterpart in Nizwa, to me, this fort was the more superior of the two, both for its size and its condition. It is certainly larger in every aspect and, despite its recent restoration, not every part of her has been restored, thus giving her an old world charm!
Its towering ramparts, sandy-yellow colour and wooden window frames gives it a Maghrebi look from the outside (Though this fort is on the other side of the Arab-world).
The ruins of Old Bahla sit in the shadows of the Bahla Fort. Currently, no occupants inhabit the mud-brick houses. Some houses are still standing strong while others have caved in after standing for decades (or even centuries).
The neighbouring Bahla Souk was closed when I visited it as it was time for the Friday noon prayer. While I’m used to visiting souks thronged with shop-owners, hagglers and the curious photo-snapping tourist, this was my first time to an empty souk void of any activity or humans. Shops were closed and people were nowhere to be seen. In other words, it was desolate (though in a good way).
My camera gave up on me and I had to resort to my phone for photos, thus the sketchy resolution.
Take a shared-taxi from the Nizwa Souk in Nizwa. Price is about OMR 1.000 (as of May 2017). Some drivers will charge unsuspecting tourists OMR 5.000 for the same ride. Don’t be fooled!
No trip to Oman is complete without a trip to its interior. Despite being cut-off from the coast by the Al-Hajar mountain-range, this seemingly hostile environment is home to an extremely rich culture and history. Visit her magnificent cities to sample Arab and Omani hospitality at its finest!