Ali's first words to us when he picked us up at 8am this morning were ‘ok, let’s go buy a goat’.
Photos of the Sultan are everywhere in Oman - in hotel lobbies, on the street, in businesses. In most of them he is unsmiling, so I liked this one at Alila. As we drove to the souq, I asked Ali whether the Sultan is married. He was once when he was younger but it was short-lived. He has no children.
He was educated in India and England, graduating from Sandhurst before joining the British army. He studied politics and went on a world trip before returning to Oman in 1964. His father immediately put him under house arrest, and didn't speak to him. I've since read that at that time, the infant mortality rate was 75%, the literacy rate was 5%, there were 3 schools and 6 miles of sealed roads in Oman. In 1970, Qaboos staged a successful palace coup. He exiled his father who made the Dorchester Hotel in London his home for the last two years of his life.
Qaboos married his first cousin in 1976 but was divorced soon after. He has recently spent eight months in Germany having medical treatment. His achievements are legendary. He's spent his life bringing Oman into the twenty-first century and Omanis speak of him as you would a loved and respected father. Now there are roads, schools, hospitals, power, water, industry, internet. He's also a man of refinement with a love of music, theatre, architecture. The cost has been a loss of personal freedoms. He enjoys a 95% approval rating and Omanis feel he was the right man at the right time.
We parked outside the souk in a huge parking area designated ‘tourist ‘parking’ and entered via the souk gate. It’s been operating for at least 800 years and has recently been rebuilt. We agreed to meet Ali again in 2 hours at a coffee shop near the entry to the fort.
With mature shade trees here and there along the street, it's a pleasant place to meet and chat.
The goat and cattle market starts very early in the morning. It’s held around a circular raised concrete dais under cover, with seating around the edge and in the middle. The animals are tied up to red painted steel pipe posts all around the perimeter. The auction had happened before we arrived.
Buyers were still inspecting stock, kneeling down to feel the feet, or the udder, or running their hands along the animal’s back as they negotiated. A great shout went up and people ran everywhere when one cow escaped her handler and charged around the outside of the ring. Someone caught her rope and she was led away by her embarrassed owner.
This young bull was the opposite - he didn't want to move at all.
There were mother goats and tiny little kids. Men were chatting after the sale. Animals were being loaded on to the back of utilities on a loading ramp.
They have such expressive faces, goats.
This man was thrilled with his kid goat.
Do you think the man on the right, with a fistful of cash, looks a little unhappy with the price on the day?
When your buttons come undone, you need your daddy to do them up.
How many rials did you say? Let me see....
It's a tiring business.
But a profitable one.
The main fruit market was inside a quadrangle - dates still on the branch, date syrup in take away containers.
Pomegranates, bananas, different coloured dates, limes, all sorts of vegetables.
There's a caged bird market with budgies, pigeons, chooks. People haggling, inspecting, paying, children laughing and running away when they saw us with cameras. Most people were happy to be photographed while others waved us away good-naturedly.
A shy birdseller.
A cheery mother.
The crocheted kufi cap is unusual here.
I am constantly impressed with the colour co-ordination in clothes - the brown in his turban matches his hair colour and complexion, while the taupe picks up the colour of his dishdasha perfectly.
My favourite turban though is this red and white geometric design in a very fine fabric with tiny holes in the hemstitching.
Dishdashas come in all sizes.
A happy camper giving the globally recognised V sign.
We passed baskets, pots, spices, nuts...
It was soon time to find Ali so we left the souk via one of the massive gates leading to the fort, into the shade of fig trees outside.
Here we found not only Ali but the gun and dagger market.
Some of the guns were antique with silver decoration.
The khanjar or dagger is part of the ceremonial dress of Omanis. It's worn on the waist on a silver belt, and the style ranges from elaborate 5-ringed royal designs like this, to the plainer one below.
These days it's social taboo to draw it out of its scabbard, so we were fortunate to see them so close. The design and materials used are prescribed by government and sultan decree.
He's extolling its finer points to his buyer.
Two essentials - your khanjar and your mobile.
We were hot and thirsty and very glad to see the cold lime lemon and mint juice Ali had ordered for us at a modern coffee shop near the fort. Like a mojito slushie. Heaven.
We were at the Nizwa Fort entry ten minutes before it closed at eleven. It's a massive complex which has been rebuilt in the last few years and the maze of rooms and corridors are newly mud plastered.
If you were wanting to invade, the tower is well-secured with three or four doors with spikes where you could have boiling water or date syrup poured over you, and if you got through the door, you'd fall into a deep well via a trapdoor. At the top, around a big open space, three double-sided staircases lead to defensive positions on the walls.
The fort overlooks the mosque which was the Grand Mosque before the Sultan built a new Grand Mosque in the outer suburbs.
The tower overlooks the souk below.
Love the sign for 'look up'.
A wee visitor to the fort wearing kohl on her eyebrows and eyes, nail polish on her fingers. Mum was equally beautiful. This is the only child I've noticed wearing kohl here, unlike in India where we saw it more often.
It was a little too early for lunch, so we drove out to the heritage listed Daris falaj on the outskirts of town where locals were enjoying a swim. Ali assured me that this isn't drinking water.
While we were there, Ali took off his scarf and did a demonstration of how to tie the Omani turban. He's a natural performer with a great voice. Will this be your new look?
We went back to Al Arabi Al Thurat restaurant just outside the souq for the best lunch we've had in Oman. Don't even ask. You know I didn't try it.
The pomegranate juice was freshly squeezed, and big! By the way, Ali said to get all the tiny segments out of a pomegranate fruit, run the knife around just to sever the skin, twist to separate the two halves, then put each half upside down on the kitchen bench. Tap the outside with the back of a spoon all over gently, then more and more firmly. All the fruit segments will fall out.
My salad was delicious, with croutons of fried unleavened bread, and a dressing of wine vinegar and date syrup.
John's bread and yoghurt to accompany his chicken wings.
I had an extra side called harees, like a chicken risotto but made with bourghul.
On our way back to the car, a carpet display.
Full and satisfied after lunch, we drove on to Birkat Al Mouz which means 'well with bananas' because this oasis has always been known for its bananas.
We drove deep into the beautiful palm plantation which is flood irrigated from the falaj.
The palm trees are in full fruit.
Each year the lower fronds are cut, making steps for future harvesting. On the older trees, the wood is beginning to rot, making it dangerous for the climber.
This is a closeup of the Christ Thorn foliage - you can see the savage thorns.
The falaj here is on a raised wall about 4 metres high. Ali explained a little more about the water rights system. His family owns 6 water shares, which means 3 hours watering from the falaj. These water rights can be left as assets in a will, and if sold, must be offered to neighbours or interested parties before being put on the open market. Civil authorities tell you when you may take your water.
The system works like this: your neighbour turns on his water at the appointed time. When his time is up, you turn it off his land and onto yours. When your time is up, your neighbour downstream turns the water off yours and onto his plot.
A datura grows in front of an old doorway in the old town.
Ali has split a fruit of the poisonous datura to show me the seeds which look like chilli. If your neighbour turns off your water too early, just pop these in his salad.
We walked for a little through the abandoned village.
John and a local are examining the ancient method of dividing a water flow into three. The local is saying it's amazingly accurate.
We drove through peak hour holiday traffic to Muscat where Ali delivered us to the Grand Hormuz Hotel near the airport and we said our goodbyes. We have both very much appreciated his knowledge, generosity, good manners and cheerfulness. He’s not yet 30 but has an old head on young shoulders.
The Grand Hormuz is an airport hotel which has been opened for two years. It has a grand foyer and a perfect bedroom palette of beige and black and travertine bathroom. Our flight leaves at 5am so we must be at the airport at 3. We've set the alarm for 1.45am. Hardly seems worth going to bed!
Another final bedouin saying to end our trip:
When you sleep in a house your dreams reach the ceiling, but when you sleep under the stars your dreams reach heaven.
It's been amazing. Iran and Oman were not on the top of my must-see list, but I'm so glad we came. I realise now how ignorant I have been particularly about Iran. It's made me realise we're a little brainwashed in the west.
The highlight has been the friendliness of the Iranian people and the colours of the desert and mountains in muted pink, lavender, blue, sand, palest copper. I'll never forget the rushing clear torrents of water in the ancient qanats and alfalaj and the dramatically contrasting green of the cities and towns. And the Crown Jewels.
Thank you again for taking this trip with me. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed having you along.
Until we travel again together, I wait you.