Southeast of Muscat stretches Al Sharqiyah (The East) province, one of Oman’s most diverse and colourful regions. Scenically, Sharqiyah packs in a varied range of attractions, from the wind-blown dunes of the Wahibah Desert through to the craggy heights of the Eastern Hajar mountains and long stretches of unspoilt coastline, many of them visited regularly by nesting turtles. Cultural attractions include the handsome old port of Sur, home to Oman’s only surviving dhow-building yard, through to the great mudbrick castles and fortified houses of the Interior, best seen in Ibra and Jalan Bani Bu Ali. This is also where you’re most likely to see traditional Bedu going about their daily life, especially in the traditional souks of Ibra and Sinaw.
It is possible to make a rewarding loop through the region, travelling down the coast through Qurayyat to Sur and then on to Ras al Jinz, before heading back inland via Jalan Bani Bu Hassan and Ibra, with a detour into the Wahibah Desert en route – an enjoyable three- or four-day excursion.
Along the coast lies one of the country’s most beautiful wadis. Wadi Shab (76km/47 miles from Qurayyat) is a narrow, palm-fringed ravine hemmed in by spectacular cliffs – the wadi is so narrow that it remains in shadow until midday. It’s possible to drive (in a 4x4) a kilometre or so into the wadi over loose gravel, but after that, progress is on foot only, following the narrow footpath which winds up the gorge, past huge boulders, rock pools and the ruins of a couple of abandoned villages.
From Qalhat the road descends to Sur (150km/93 miles from Qurayyat), a major trading port with East Africa until early in the 20th century and still the biggest traditional port in Oman. Sur’s most interesting sights are the traditional dhow-building yards, the only surviving example in Oman. The yards lie on the edge of the creek, some 4km (2½ miles) east of the town centre. Old merchant-style houses line the creek in Al Ayjah, a short drive over the bridge near the dhow yards. At low tide the view of Al Ayjah from Sur crosses extensive mudflats and beached bumboats, which in the evening are bathed in rose-coloured sunlight; at high tide this is one of the most charming corners of Oman.
Significant numbers of green turtles come to nest at Ras al Jinz. This is one of Oman’s most memorable natural spectacles, as dozens of turtles come ashore nightly to dig a hole in the sand and lay their eggs, covering them carefully before returning exhausted to the sea. The eggs, which may number up to 100 per turtle, take about 60 days to hatch, after which the tiny turtles must burrow their way to the surface and head as quickly as they can for the safety of the sea. Turtle-watching tours depart from the modern visitor centre.
Sunset and sunrise provide spectacular photo opportunities of this unique desert covering 10,000 sq km (3,860 sq miles) of the eastern Sharqiyah. The best way to experience the sands is to spend a night or two at one of the increasing number of desert camps hidden away in various parts of the dunes. Access to most camps is via 4x4 only, although most places can arrange pick-up from the highway. The further into the dunes you go, the more pristine the scenery becomes. Most camps offer a range of desert activities, including dune-bashing and camel or horse rides, sometimes guided by local Bedu. Needless to say, you shouldn’t attempt to venture off into the sands without the services of a guide.
Bustling Ibra is the main town of the region, still north of Al Qabil. There’s a colourful souk here, although even more interesting is the famous women’s souk held on a Wednesday from 9am until noon, with local Bedu selling bolts of silk and satin brocades, jewellery, kohl, sandalwood, kitchen goods, spices and other produce. The town preserves rich reminders of its past in the old mudbrick villages of Al Minzahah and Al Kanatar on the edge of town (and clearly signed from the main highway), two picture-perfect walled villages packed with fine old merchant houses sporting elaborately carved windows and archways. On the edge of Al Kanatar lies the venerable Al Qablateen Mosque, with a dense cluster of columns inside the solid (though now roofless) rectangular structure.
Just north of Wadi Nam roundabout on north side of town
Sur, the East and the Wahibah Desert
tel: 2557 1666
Simple but very comfortable budget hotel with bright and spacious modern rooms at very competitive rates. No facilities, although there are a couple of cafés nearby.
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