Friday, December 30, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXXVII (Journeys to Oman-I)

During my frequent longer duration stays in Dubai I had two opportunities of visiting the Sultanate of Oman. My cousins there were keen for me to visit the country for its history and landscape. First time, I went on the invitation of Irfan Reshi who had a handicraft store in Muscat, the capital of Oman. I wanted to drive from Dubai to Muscat as there is a very good road connection. However, non-Gulf country nationals were not allowed by road and as such I had to fly by Oman Air to Muscat. Entry to Muscat was smooth. The immigration and customs was rather quick and Irfan was waiting for me outside. Muscat airport has a very luxurious waiting lounge. The drive from the airport to city was the loveliest I have had in any Arab country. The entire route has flower beds and trees on both sides. In the distance are desert and date trees but all along the road and in a number of places en route one can see flowers, shrubs, and trees of all varieties. Road crossings are like mini-gardens. The flowers in the desert are a sight worth seeing! While driving to the city there are also some official buildings housing various ministries. All these buildings are in traditional style resembling palaces and heritage houses. Omanis seem to be fond of their heritage and traditions.
We drove straight from the airport to Irfan’s home. The family was happy to see me. After lunch he took me to his shop which was in a supermarket nearby. Omanis dressed like other Arabs in long robes but the head gear is different. It is a scarf which is worn over head like a turban. I was told that the quality of the turban varies with the status of the people. The highest quality is of pashmina from Kashmir. It was news to me that Oman imports crores worth pashmina from Kashmir for these turbans. Irfan has also been supplying this to ruling family. A striking feature in the dress I noticed was a strange black nose cover worn by women especially the elderly and from villages. It is a pointed thing made of black cardboard or cloth covering the cheeks and the nose of the lady.
Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos is quite popular. Incidentally, he is a bachelor! One of Irfan’s friends was associated with the local English daily newspaper, Oman Daily Observer. He was keen that I should give an interview on Kashmir and Ladakh to the newspaper. T S Almeida of the paper interviewed me and the story came out prominently with photographs of Ladakh. In the meantime, we visited the coastline where the local authorities have created some beautiful gardens and parks. Driving through the city towards sea coast, I saw lot of traditional local houses. Almost all the houses are white. This is probably to prevent heating up due to harsh Sun especially during summer. There are a large number of mosques in traditional style. In the newer part of the city there are some high rise buildings and five star hotels. Modernisation creeps into every place but the Omanis have tried their best to preserve their heritage also.
Irfan also wanted me to meet the head of Tourism in Oman. The meeting with the Tourism Chief was quite interesting. The news story in Oman Daily Observer had impressed him. He was amused when I told him that I was a bachelor. He told me that their Sultan was also a bachelor. He had heard a lot about Kashmir and Ladakh but had not visited the area. He knew we were quite advanced in our tourism organisation and promotion. He offered me to be an advisor for the Tourism Ministry of Oman. I was offered a very good salary, a house, and also a “wife”! When I told the Chief that I still had five years of active service left back home as the Director General Tourism, he told me that they can wait!
I also had the opportunity of meeting the Indian Ambassador to Oman. In fact, one of the diplomats was related to a senior Indian Administrative Service officer from Jammu. He invited me to his house and I introduced him to Irfan. I informed the Ambassador about the possibility of promoting Kashmir and Ladakh to a large expatriate population especially the British in Oman. It was proposed to hold some presentations to local travel agents through the local office of Air India. In fact, some of the travel agents did visit Ladakh.
During my first trip I had limited choice for sight seeing and concentrated on meeting people. However, Irfan did arrange a short trip to Nizwa, the traditional town of Oman. It is truly a very traditional town with old style houses and markets. Quite a change from the highly westernised Dubai and other places in UAE. There is an old fort which has been well maintained. The drive to Nizwa was also quite interesting along the desert and mountains. There are plenty of mountains in Oman. We also visited the vegetable and fruit market. I also had a short trip to view Jabal Akhdar, the highest mountain in Oman. The top of the mountain gets snow in winter. It is not possible to visit the top as there are some military installations there.
While in Muscat, everyone I met told me that I should visit Salalah. It is supposed to be the best tourist attraction in Oman. However, to visit Salalah would require at least three days or so. I was pressed for time and had to return to Dubai and then back home to Kashmir. Nevertheless, I did manage to visit Salalah during my next visit which I will describe in the next episode. Oman impressed me a lot and I would love to visit the place anytime for a holiday!
(To be continued…)

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