Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

Oman is looking very festive at the moment. All around Muscat, buildings, trees and anything else that can be, is adorned with green, red and white decorations. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the Sultanate is getting into the Christmas spirit, but it is in fact all in celebration of Oman's 44th National Day.  The 18th November marks Oman's independence from the Portuguese in 1650, but as it also coincides with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said's birthday, the country celebrates his rise to power in 1970 on this day too.

Although Oman celebrates the 18th November with much fervour, the day isn't actually a public holiday. Instead there are two days later in the month reserved for the holidays. While this seems strange initially, the logic behind it is to try and ensure the majority of the country stays in Oman to celebrate, rather than taking advantage of the four day weekend and disappearing off to the UAE.

One of the local office buildings

the road near to my office

one of the SQH flyovers

The Walk at The Wave

In addition to decorating buildings, the Omanis love to decorate their cars. There seems to be an endless array of stickers which you can use to show your loyalty to the Sultan. Here are just a couple of examples of some of the more extreme ones.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Let's talk about the weather...

Unlike at home, it's not very often that the weather in Oman is a topic of conversation. Oman like other countries in the Middle East is famous for its extreme summers and the year round sunshine, but occasionally there is some reprieve from the intense heat and a day or two of rain will ensue.

This is celebrated by the local people with awe and excitement. Pretty much the same way us Brits treat a day of sunshine. In the same way that a single leaf on the railway line can bring an entire nation to a standstill, so can a single drop of rain. People will literally just stop their cars wherever they are and get out and take photographs.

We've had a couple of extreme weather warnings lately, with just last week the potential of cyclone Nilofar hitting our shores. Fortunately, the storm took a late turn away from the coast and all we were left with was a few dark clouds.

The most recent weather advisory was for last weekend, with a small chance of thunderstorms. This didn't sound like anything major, other than a potential inconvenience to the outdoor event I was organising.

Just before lunchtime the wind picked up and the heavens opened. However, it wasn't just the rains that came. It turns out that just a short drive up the road, parts of the country had a massive hailstorm and some parts even saw snow. I don't think I could have ever imagined Oman getting snow (outside of the mountains). I'm not even sure if the UK or Chicago has seen any snow yet this season.

I found these pictures online, so not sure on their authenticity, but the second one makes me smile.

 Never fear though, the sun was back out a couple of hours later!!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Chedi

We were first introduced to the Chedi and its Friday champagne brunch by Jenny's uncle last year and since then it has become a home away from home, with word spreading far and wide so that friends and family all want to go when they come to visit.

Things have been pretty hectic at work lately and I must have been looking a little stressed out, because my amazing boss Maha decided that I needed a little break and some care and attention and booked us a night at the Chedi with massage.

The treatment started with what appeared to be a ceremonial washing and scrubbing of the feet before we moved into the other part of the room for a massage. Maha had booked us in for the Chedi's signature Jade massage which involved two masseurs pummelling away at each of us for 60 whole minutes. Absolute bliss.

After our massage we floated our way along the corridor to the lounge for further relaxation and rehydration.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon relaxing by the long pool, then dining at the award winning Beach restaurant.

It was a truly relaxing experience and the perfect way to recover from our adventures at Wadi Ta'ab.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wadi Ta'ab

Finally summer seems to be ending and with it the mercury is falling. This signals the time to start getting out and about again exploring the countryside and sampling the adventures that Oman has to offer.  Looking for a bit of adrenaline and with a full week of public holidays for Eid, we booked to do the Wadi Ta'ab trip with Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre.

Wadi Ta'ab is located about two hours drive from Muscat just outside the town of Fins. Despite the relative closeness, we decided to drive down the night before and camp over. We thought this would be a much more relaxing option rather then having to get up at 5am. With hindsight, maybe not so!

We met up with Gil and Amy and headed in convoy down the coast. Once we arrived at Fins we turned off the highway onto a smaller road which soon disappeared into a very dusty dirt track. We drove for about half an hour until we were about a third of the way up the Salma plateau and found somewhere to base ourselves for the night. 

With the light fading fast we set up our tents, got the barbecue lit and sat back to take in the scenery and appreciate the peacefulness. The temperature was perfect, not too hot, not too cold and there wasn't a breath of wind.  After enjoying a hearty bowl of Irish stew (only slightly ruined by Jenny's insistence of adding dumplings) we settled down for the night. That was until about midnight when a hurricane seemed to blow in out of nowhere.

The wind was so strong it was picking up corners of the tent. Given the fact that we were camped on a ledge with about a 500m drop into the gorge, we decide that the best plan of action was to decamp, let the tent down and move to the back of the jeep to sleep. All was going to plan until the jeep developed some kind of fault such that the interior lights would not switch off. After about an hour searching in vain for the fuse panel, I surrendered and taped up the lights only for them to go off by themselves about 10 minutes later. 

However, it was not just the wind that was an issue, the temperature seemed to rise by about 10 degrees making it practically impossible to sleep. One of the benefits of not being able to sleep was being up early enough to see the sunrise. 

So after a eventful and restless night, we were joined in the morning by our guides for the day Justin and Rob and two other gentlemen taking part in the trip.

The trip starts with about an hour long hike into the Wadi. By the time we actually reached the entry point everyone seemed pretty glad to be getting out of the hot sun and into the shade. 

We started with a nice short abseil into the wadi. Despite the simplicity of the first abseil it did signify the point of no return.  

After a short walk on we reached the first 50m abseil. It has been a very long time since I've done any kind of abseiling, but once I was over the edge it all came back like it was yesterday.

We descended into "the cauldron" which is sometimes filled with water. Unfortunately for us it was empty which meant we had to climb out. 

Waiting to go over the top

Climbing through "the keyhole"

Climbing out of "the cauldron"

After a short walk we arrived at the second 50m abseil. This time it ended with a jump into the water which was nice and refreshing. 

As we continued on through the wadi clouds started to appear overhead. This was concerning because if it does start to rain the wadi is not a good place to be. We started to speed up a bit just in case. 

After a couple more shorter abseils we made it to the bottom of the wadi. It hasn't rained in a while so the pools at the bottom of the wadi were full of weeds which got tangled up around your ankles and wrists as you tried.  I swear I'm going to have nightmares about this for weeks. 

To get out of the wadi we had to climb. The MDAC has set up a via corda which meant we were protected as we climbed. On the way up, our guide Rob had to remove the rope and one of the carabiners got stuck so it took some time to get it removed. By the time everything got sorted it was dark. Luckily for us it was nearly a full moon.  Although a little bit nerve wracking, climbing out in the dark added to the excitement. 

We had a great day but I was glad to get back to my bed. 

Big shout out to all the staff at MDAC who are fantastic and seriously know their stuff. Really easy to book the trip, good level of training prior to it and a great blend of fun and adventure on the day. I highly recommend using professionals like Justin and Rob for this kind of adventure! 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Walk up Jebel Akhdar

Jenny and I have both been pretty busy over the summer and we have neglected getting out into the countryside. Our friends Gil and Amy had been given a book on trekking routes in Oman so we looked through and selected a grade 1 walk up in Jebel Akhdar as we thought that it would be nice and cool up there.

Jebel Akhdar, which translates from Arabic as the "green mountain" is part of the Western Hajar mountains. It takes about two hours to drive from Muscat and requires a 4x4. The road up the mountain is probably one of the best roads I've ever driven, but for some reason there is a police checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain which only permits 4x4 vehicles to drive to the top. 

The start of the trekking route is just outside the village of Al Aqur at an altitude of just over 2,000m.  This meant that the temperature was around 25C, a noticeable 10 degrees less than Muscat. We couldn't plan to go for a walk without taking Ralph, but even out of the city he attracts a lot of attention. As soon as we parked up, the car was surrounded by Omani gentlemen all looking to take pictures of Ralph. As a sign of their appreciation (it was a huge effort on my part!) they gave us some pomegranates which are one of the local delicacies. 

Jebel Akhdar is famous for its green terraces, where all the local market gardening takes place. It's obviously early in the season, but you can get the idea from the pictures above. Apparently Spring is the best time to visit, as all the roses are in bloom, but still pretty impressive views at this time of year.

We walked through the village, watched the kids playing on the roof and then down through some of the terraces. Even though it was considerably cooler than Muscat, it was still pretty warm and Ralph enjoyed cooling off in the falajes.

After about an hour of walking down through the terraces, doubling back because we'd missed one of the route markers, passing through a couple of smaller villages, meeting more locals who very generously wanted to give us more pomegranates, we arrived at the village of Sayq, the end of the trek. We stopped for a little picnic, before turning around back to the car.

According to the guide book this was only a 1km walk, but that must have surely been as the crow flies, because even with the back tracking, it shouldn't have taken that long.  The walk back was a bit more tiring as we had to climb back up the terraces and of course, this was right at the hottest part of the day. Anyway, it was nice to get out and have some exercise in somewhat fresher air and we all, especially Ralph, slept pretty well that night.

As a bonus, at least now I know if it ever comes up in a pub quiz, that pomegranates grow on trees!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Thai Cooking Class

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love food and especially dabbing in the odd bit of cooking. So it seemed appropriate whilst we were in Thailand to go and take a cooking class. After a bit of research online we selected the Silom Cooking School.

The day started off with an early morning visit to one of the local markets with our chef for the day, Hung. One of the market sellers very kindly showed us the live chicken that we were going to be cooking, but fortunately for us we didn't need to watch. 

The Chef had a wicked sense of humour alongside an amazing ability to cook some amazing dishes in a very simple manner. This is pretty much the essence of Thai food and fingers crossed some of the lessons we were given have sunk in so I can try and replicate some of these fantastic dishes. 

Making the Pad Thai

Spring Rolls with sweet chilli sauce

And yes this is Jenny cooking. First time for everything I suppose!

Chef selfie time!

Chicken Mussaman curry

Deep fried banana with coconut batter and coconut ice-cream


The final stop on our trip was three nights in Bangkok. We crammed quite a lot into these few days with a river trip, market trip and a lot of shopping. Overall I was very impressed with Bangkok and found it to be a city definitely worth visiting again. Some brilliant restaurants and cafes with plenty to see and do. 

We stayed in the W Bangkok which was a pretty cool place to hang out. Jenny seemed impressed with the cushions as you can see and took the opportunity to work out some of the anger she had built up.

This was the sky bar at the top of the Lebua State Tower. One of the coolest bars I have been to and was the same bar they used in the Hangover movie. What an amazing view!