Three years after my first trip to India, I decided I had to return. Even if I was foregoing an opportunity to see something new, it was worth it to return to India. I would leave in January … and maybe visit another country along the way.
Looking back on the journey, I’m always surprised that the highlight of my six-week trip to India was actually a short stopover to an obscure Middle Eastern country – a stopover I only planned out a few weeks prior to my departure, as a ‘plan B’ when protests flared up in Bahrain. Let me walk you through the steps I took to plan this trip and I’ll show you why you Oman is one of my favorite countries in the world and one of the top 10 destinations for 2014.
Where to go in South Asia?
The idea to add a second country on to my itinerary to India made a lot of sense, particularly once I started checking out the fares available on ITA Matrix.
There were a few other countries near to India that I was interested in visiting, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and possibly the Maldives. First I visited the US Department of State Travel Advisory website (travel.state.gov) and the UK’s travel advice section (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice) for any security or safety advisories for these countries, as well as information about entry visas that are required to visit the countries.
(The security/safety information found on these websites applies to people of all countries of course, but specific visa information for non-US citizens can be found at the website for an embassy of the country you want to visit.)
All my possible destinations in South Asia seemed safe enough (despite a few cautious paragraphs from the US State Department about political protests in each location). The visa fees varied greatly for US citizens like me (between $0 for the Maldives to over $140 for the Bengali visa.) I checked Numbeo.com to get a feel for real world costs in each place (like the cost of restaurant meals, local transportation, cell phone service) and hostelworld.com or a similar site for information on hostel and hotel prices.
Ultimately all the factors pointed to Sri Lanka. While this isn’t a super cheap option (Bangladesh would have been cheaper overall), it is much cheaper than the Maldives and the entry visa is cheap, easy and only requires you to complete an online web form prior to your departure. (http://www.eta.gov.lk/)
The airfares on ITA Matrix from my home airport were sky high. Instead, searching for flights that originate and terminate at a major hub airport shaved about $400 off the price right away. I could buy a JetBlue ticket to get from my home airport to the hub airport (in this case JFK airport) and then get a ticket on Gulf Air to Sri Lanka with a layover in Bahrain (Middle East). I could then fly from Kochi in South India back to JFK and hop on another JetBlue flight home.
Free Stopover In the Middle East
After checking the ‘fare rules’ for the Gulf Air ticket on ITA Matrix, I realized that I could add a free stopover in the Middle East at the airline’s Bahrain hub. I jumped at the chance to return to the Middle East and decided to add a 4-day stopover in the Persian Gulf. I booked the flight and started applying for visas and buying travel insurance.
At the time, the Arab Spring was still simmering away (or boiling over, depending on your exact location). While Bahrain never got the media coverage of Egypt or Libya, my February 2011 visit to Cairo satisfied all of my curiosities of what it would be like to visit a Middle Eastern country during a political revolution. When I booked my ticket to Bahrain, Sri Lanka and India, it never occurred to me that the Arab Spring violence in Manama would last into the next year, let alone intensify.
About 3 or 4 weeks prior to my departure, Bahrain started slipping towards chaos. As educational and even thrilling as it can be to visit a country during those times, I wanted something a bit more tranquil.
Flights to Oman
After a few more minutes with ITA Matrix, I discovered that airfares between Persian Gulf countries are cheap and flights leave often. Oman is safe but exotic, and also close to Bahrain. I booked a return ticket from Bahrain to Muscat, Oman that would connect perfectly with my Gulf Air flights (leaving myself about 2 hours of airport time to connect between the flights I purchased as separate tickets). I wouldn’t need to officially enter Bahrain; instead I would slip past the chaos and land in mysterious (and safe) Oman.
At the time, I knew very little about Oman. From Google Earth, it looks to be an edge-of-the-world type of place. The coast has rugged mountains rising straight out of the bright-blue Gulf. While neighboring Dubai hosts the world’s tallest building, the Omani capital city Muscat has exactly zero high-rises and prides itself on maintaining its old (and fantastic) Arabian character.
Given my limited time in the country I decided to stay in Muscat and rent a car to check out the excellent destinations nearby. On my last full day in Oman (and the day before my departure to Sri Lanka) my destination was the desert oasis Wadi al-Shab.
I woke up first around 5am with the high-decibel morning call to prayer coming from the neighboring mosque. Struggling with jetlag, I fell back into a deep sleep minutes later and woke up late. By 10:30 I was out the door with maps on hand; hoping not to get lost (I was expecting to be able to get a GPS with my rental car, but no such luck). I had a conference call that evening at 10pm and had to be back to Muscat by then.
Wadi Tiwi and Wadi al-Shab
The drive down south to the town of Tiwi takes less than 2 hours, but given that highway traffic moves at nearly 100mph in Oman, this can be closer to 90 minutes. It is a beautiful drive (I got lost only once). When you approach Tiwi, the highway runs close to the ocean. The destination, Wadi al-Shab is a canyon running perpendicular to the road. The entrance to the wadi is at the point where the canyon opens to the sea on the Northern end of Tiwi village.
As you travel south on Highway 17, you will reach an exit for Tiwi. Take this exit and continue until you reach a T intersection in Tiwi village. Take a left and continue back North towards the overpass of Highway 17. You can park directly under the overpass (just remember that the parking lot can get crowded and disorganized). Depending on the season, you may need to cross the river Shab in a small boat (there is a modest charge for travel in each direction) to get to the trail that will take you deep into the wadi.
Wadi commonly means river or riverbed in Arabic. Wadi Tiwi and Wadi al-Shab are small rivers, (actually more like a series of fresh-water pools) but they cut deep, stunning canyons through the desert mountains of Oman. The pools formed by the river create a lush oasis with palm trees along the banks of emerald pools. These Wadis are popular weekend getaways for south Asian migrant workers who live in Oman. But the crowds of fellow visitors diminish when you head farther into the canyon and away from the road. Keep walking for several kilometers – but make sure you have lots of water, sunblock, hat and sunglasses.
There is a path leading you deep into the wadi that can be slightly tricky to follow at times. When heading in, keep in mind that you’ll need to get back out of the wadi before dark (or make preparations otherwise).
As I ventured farther into the wadi, I was stunned over and over again by the natural beauty of the oasis. I ate lunch in the shade of a palm tree grove. Afterwards I continued on another kilometer or so until finding a beautiful cave with a waterfall inside. This is the common destination for hikers in Wadi al-Shab, but I’ve been told there is still a lot to explore beyond this point.
Driving Back to Muscat
Leaving the wadi and coming back to the parking lot gave a crude sense of returning to a more every-day reality. The oasis proved to be a world of its own: mysterious, isolated and astoundingly beautiful. But the town of Tiwi has its own beauty too, and exiting the wadi I drove south through the town to see some excellent beaches.
I rendezvoused with a French guy and fellow hiker at an Indian restaurant in Tiwi after the hike. The food was simple but delicious and the crowd was a good mix of locals and foreigners. The best part? The meal cost just 700 Biaza (less than $2 USD).
Afterwards, the drive back to Muscat seemed easy. While Muscat isn’t the most pleasant city, many of Oman’s gems lay just a short trip away. I made it back to the capital in time for my conference call that evening. And on the other end of the phone were cubicle dwellers in the midst of their typical 9-5 day having no idea that I was on the other side of the world, just returning from quite a day in Wadi al-Shab.