As I mentioned before, we were in Salalah this past weekend. The city is the capital of the southern region, Dhofar, and the scene of some intense fighting back in the 1970's, as Communist rebels from Yemen fought against (at various times) the Sultan's forces, Iranians, and British SAS. It is also the frankincense capital of the world, as the frankincense trees are only able to grow in the unique environment that is Dhofar.
As soon as we stepped off the plane in Salalah, we could tell it was the frankincense capital of the world. Some cities have a very distinct smell, and Salalah is one of them. The entire city smells of luban, the Arabic word for frankincense. Everyone burns it, the hotels, the suqs, even the poor neighborhoods of South Asians. What might normally sell for $60 to $100 in the US sells for $5 in Salalah, there's just so much of it. Consequently, we bought the stuff by the kilo. Frankincense comes in small whitish green rocks, and consequently, we made numerous jokes comparing buying frankincense to buying crack rocks.
Salalah also seems like its on another continent. It has a heavy historical connection to Yemen and Somalia, and it shows throughout the city. Salalah is also the only place in the Middle East where the Khareef (monsoon) touches, and consequently it looks like a lush tropical rainforest for 4 months out of the year. Unfortunately, we were not there during the khareef, but the topography is nonetheless incredible. Salalah is built on a coastal plain, and after going inland 10 km, the mountains rise up at a nearly 90 degree angle. These were the mountains that the rebels were based out of during the insurgency, and I can only imagine, having looked at the terrain, how hard it must have been for British commandos to deal with. The hills and valleys in parts of Salalah make Afghanistan look like a minor mountain range.
While in Salalah we did quite a bit of touring. While in Mirbat, we stopped at the fishing port, and while we were there, the local fishermen hauled in a baby whale shark, still alive. Mirbat was the scene of one of the fiercest battles during the civil war, and the Sultanate bought up the part of town that was destroyed and preserved it as it stands, a reminder to what happens when you mess with the Sultan. The day after that, we visited Mughsail. The waves have eroded the limestone cliffs on the shore, and in parts, worn through to the surface. When a strong wave hits the cliffs, water shouts out like a geyser. Mughsail is also the location of an incredible beach. While a bit rocky in places, the water is an incredible shade of turquoise, and we had a great time swimming and getting tan. The beach is all the more incredible by the fact that it is utterly abandoned, even on a Friday when we were there. There were no tourists, or even locals, on the beach, we had it all to ourselves.
After touring the outskirts of Salalah by day, we would return to the city and hit the suqs by night. While a lot fo the stuff was made in India, we were still able to pick up lots of frankincense, and they had an incredible Yemenese restaurant. It sold lamb kebabs by the stick, great chipati bread, and excellent juice. We followed it up with shishah on the beach. All in all it was a very successful trip.
On our way back to Muscat, our plane ride was delayed by two hours. This might have been normal in the US, but the Salalah-Muscat flight was the only flight of the day. Flights in Salalah are not given by flight number or time they get in, they're given by which day they arrive, as in the Wednesday Muscat flight. Apparently our flight was delayed from Muscat, and thus the wait. I think Hopkins airport in Cleveland deals with more flights in one hour than Salalah deals with in a month. Still, Salalah was a great place to relax. I never thought I'd think of Muscat as a busy city, but after visiting the sleepy city of Salalah (Oman's second largest city), it's good to be back in the thick of things in Muscat.