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Where I stayed
Ibri hasn't always been the safe and welcoming place it is today. Up until the Jebel Wars of the 1950's, slave traders and arms dealers were more common than the odd British explorer. Evidence of its truculent past - crumbling forts, castles and watchtowers - accentuate the harsh desert landscape. At the crossroads of the old trade routes between Zanzibar and Persia, these fortifications once protected caravans laden with copper ingots from Bat as they trudged the perilous 'copper trail' to the temples of Mesopotamia. From the shores of Africa to the rivers of Babylon, travelers passing through have left the region's history as colorful as the goat-haired rugs for sale at the local souk.
While paved roads and sidewalks have caught on in a big way, street names and numbers have not. To find something, you'll need to know where it is in relation to the town's arteries, the roundabouts. The main road, running east to west and dotted with four of them, begins at the Grand Mosque (the Nizwa roundabout) and ends at the Hospital roundabout. The main and college roundabouts lie in between. The souk roundabout is off the main road, north of the main roundabout.
Ambulance, Fire & Police (9999) This number connects you to a switchboard in Muscat that contacts the appropriate department in Ibri. English spoken.
Ibri Police Department (25689218; west of the main roundabout next to the Al-Majd Hotel Apartments)
Ibri Buwabat Cyber Café (95133124; south of the Nizwa roundabout; ˝ hour 300 baisa, 1 hr 500 baisa, 2 ˝ hours OR1; 3:30pm - 12am). Skype and curtained booths available. Around 10:00pm (when everyone is Skyping) it can get noisy.
McAfee Internet Services (99208016; email@example.com; north of the Mazda dealership on the main road; 1/2 hour 300 baisa, 1 hour 500 baisa; 7:00am-1pm & 4pm-12am Sat-Thu, 4:00pm-12am Fri) A faster connection than Buwabat but there's no Skype.
Caffiyana Internet Café (no phone; north of the main roundabout at Masarrat Shopping Center, 3rd floor; per hour 500 baisa; 7:30am - 12am) A speedy connection with real coffee on-hand.
Oman Polyclinic (25689929; north of the Nizwa roundabout past Bat Marketing; registration 500 baisa, consultation OR1; 8:30am-1pm, 4:30pm-9:30pm) Good for non-emergency medical services. Next-door, the Al-Ariaf Pharmacy (25689929) keeps the same hours as the polyclinic.
Ibri Hospital (25691905; Emergency: 25691990; at the hospital roundabout; OR 5 per visit and an I.D. or passport is taken as collateral)
The 'financial district' is around the main roundabout. Western Unions, ATM's and exchange places abound.
Oman International Bank (25689036; 8am-1:30pm Sat-Wed, 8am-12:30pm Thu)
National Bank of Oman (25691161; 8am-2pm Sat-Thu)
Bank Muscat (25688293; at the Nizwa roundabout; 8am-1pm Sat-Wed, 8am-12pm Thu)
Oman Post Main Office (25689294; www.omanpost.net.om; north of the Nizwa roundabout opposite the Ibri Polyclinic Sign; 8am-2pm Sat-Wed, 8-12 Thu, 4:30pm-7:30pm)
When dialing landlines (numbers with 6 digits) outside of Ibri from a mobile phone (8 digit numbers) add a two-digit prefix. Prefixes by region: Dhofar 23; Muscat 24; Sharqiya & Al Dhahira 25; Batinah & Musandam 26; Masirah 25504. All numbers listed in this chapter include the prefix.
There is currently no tourist office in Ibri but the Chairman of the Tourism Committee Mr. Al-Jassasi (99880101; firstname.lastname@example.org) plans to open one soon, insha'allah (God willing).
If you have ever wanted to shrink into your sandcastle at the beach (or longed for life in a fortified Omani village) pop-into the mud-brick ruins of Al-Sulaif (east of the Nizwa roundabout; admission free; dawn till dusk). The citadel's watchtower is clearly visible guarding the eastern-passage into the oasis. Warning: your kids will have died and gone to hide-n-seek heaven.
The largest desert in the world, the Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, is just around the corner from Ibri. Following the signs for Ramlat Khalia at the main roundabout, go right at the first radio-tower turret, drive an hour through the PDO oilfields and you'll soon come to the edge of the world. The sensation of being at sea on the sand dunes, the proximity of the stars and the solitude are overpowering. Camping recommended for the adventurous, bring full gear.
With jaunty towers, proud parapets and commanding views of the surrounding area, 400 year-old Ibri Fort (north of the souk roundabout; admission free; 8:30am-2:30pm Sat-Thu) is worth a visit. The stronghold's claim to fame is the austere mosque inside can accommodate up to 1,000 prostrating worshipers at any given time. When we were there, it was as empty as the Rub al-Khali.
Even though Mokneyat doesn't mean 'Garden of Eden' in Arabic - it should. A stroll under the umbrella of a 1,001 desert palms, where the wild mangos and banana trees grow is an evocative and romantic experience. When the green valley contrasts with the surrounding black crags and the towering sand-turrets of a 16th century castle, ancient Arabia seems to unfolds as it has for millennia. Go north from the Nizwa roundabout 46 kilometers, right at the first Shell Station after Al-Dariz.
Some of the hillside watchtowers at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat (14km north of the Nizwa roundabout, right at Al-Dariz, left at the Wadi Al-Ain sign; admission free; dawn till dusk) are not towers at all - they're actually honeycombed tombs more than 4,000 years old. Constructed by the Umm An-Nar culture during pre-Islamic times the necropolis towers were symbols of wealth made from the lucrative copper trade. The Kasr Al-Sleme (castle of peace), palm-gardens and nearby tomb 401 are all worth visiting. Topographical maps of the area (with suggested walks through the necropolis and surroundings ruins) are available in an info-box at the fenced-in Kar Al-Rojoom site (also worth a look) across from the electrical-transformers.
A fern-gully in the middle of the desert? Cascading pools of mountain spring water? Only in Wadi Dhum will you find such aquatic delights. Pack a picnic and your bathing suit (modest swimwear recommended). From Bat, counter-intuitively follow the signs for Wadi Hajar (signs for Wadi Dhum don't appear until you're actually there). Once you are, whistle your way up to one of the only year-round swimming holes in Oman.
Fire your romantic notions of Indiana Jones by volunteering at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat (92933829; email@example.com; Jan-March). The international teams of archeologists love the outside company - they're as curious about why you're in Ibri as you are about archeology. Give them the inside scoop and you'll be handed one (and told where to put it too).
If you've ever fancied yourself a latter-day Theisger, a trip to Ibri's lively livestock auction (in front of Ibri Fort; 8am-10am) is the perfect place to gear-up for your trip across the Rub al-Khali. The desert-ship of your dreams (i.e., a camel) is all a matter of outbidding the guy in the deep-pocketed dishdasha (shirt-dress) next to you. From goats and cows to dates and honey (and swords and rifles even) the livestock souk is the place to stock-up for a desert adventure.
On Friday mornings from mid-October to mid-April the Seih Al-Masarat Camel Field (left at the hospital roundabout, follow the signs; admission free) hosts a spectacle like no other. First, blaring horns, then a wall of dust and out of the cloud, lumbering giants appear - moving like you've never seen before. Egged on by the whipping of their underage riders, the humped-back beasts pad by almost silently. On either side of the track, the vehicular mob, all horns and flashing lights, keep time with the riders at 40 km an hour, all the way to the finish line.
In Oman, the Islamic call to prayer is a humble and gentle reminder to worship: more like a nudge from Mom than a bullhorn in your ear from Dad. So if your travels in the Middle East have left your ears ringing and your nights sleep-deprived, you'll love the peace and serenity of sleepy little Ibri.
Ibri Guest House (96310233; Nizwa roundabout; s/d/t OR 12/14/16) Next to this only budget option in-town, you'll find taxis to the border, a speedy Internet Café (Ibri Buwabat) and the ruins of Al-Sulaif. Cigarette burns on the bed sheets, stained carpets and squat-toilets detract from this hotel's convenient location.
Al-Majd Hotel Apartments (25688272; Fax: 25688727; firstname.lastname@example.org; west of the main roundabout, look for the Nissan sign; s/d apartments OR 20/30) Don't let the garish reception throw you; the flats are almost as tasteful as they are well-appointed. Stocked mini-fridges, satellite TV in the bedrooms, sitting rooms, bathtubs and extra beds on-hand, make Al-Majd a popular choice for groups.
Ibri Oasis Hotel (25689955; Fax: 25692442; 9 kilometers west of town, exit the hospital roundabout; s/d/deluxe OR 21.800/ 29.500/ 40.400) With the only bar in town, an on-site restaurant, clean spacious rooms and nightly entertainment, the Oasis (despite the uninspired food) lives up to its name.
New Ibri Restaurant and Coffeeshop (96078095; west of the main roundabout; meals OR1-1.5; 10am-3pm & 7pm-1:30am) Chinese-Indian fusion, free movies in Malayalam and Omani style family rooms (i.e., floor space) available.
Minarat Al-Dhahira Al-Shabi Restaurant and Kitchen (25692118; between the main roundabout and the Grand Mosque; meals 1.3 OR; 6:30am-12am) If sitting in a faux Bedouin tent while eating traditional Omani food with your fingers sounds like fun, you'll love Al-Shabi. Main dishes of mutton, chicken, fish and/or shuwa (a slow-cooked Omani delicacy).
Rowdat Damascus Restaurant & Grills (92946002; north of the Nizwa roundabout opposite the post office; meals 800 baisa; 6am- 2am) The Omani version of the drive-through; just pull up and honk. With a bobble of his head, an Indian will take your order of shawarma, burger or rotisserie chicken right from the comfort of your car.
Ibri Oasis Hotel (96310233; exit the hospital roundabout; 9:30pm-2:30am; OR2 cover) has the only alcoholic watering hole in town. The cover charge gets you a table and 'Arabic show' i.e., fully-clothed Moroccan girls 'dancing' to the musical stylings of an electronic keyboard. The real show is watching the Omani men trying to one-up each other with how many juices they can buy the girls.
Namar Al-Sulaif Entertainment Games (99340204; main roundabout opposite Omanoil; 5pm-1am; free admission) The only game room in town has pool - 200 baisa per game; snooker - 900 baisa a half-hour; foosball - 100 baisa a game and PlayStation2 - OR 1 per hour. The opium-den atmosphere and aroma of hashish is free.
Al-Tawoun Markets (99518689; north of the main roundabout; 8am-11:30pm Sat-Thu, 8am-11:30am and1pm-11:30pm Fri) The best-stocked grocery store in town is fun for expat-sightings.
Masarrat Shopping Center (25692296; north of Al-Tawoun; 7am-12am) Gear-up for your camping trip here.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
ONTC (24492948) has bus stops at the main, Nizwa and souk roundabouts. Bus prices/times: Dubai OR 6/1:30am; Salalah OR7/7:00pm; Muscat OR 3.7 7:00am and 3:50pm; Nizwa OR2/7:00am and 3:50pm; Yanqul 800 baisa/6:45pm; Al-Iraqi 200 baisa/12:00pm and 6:30pm. Tickets upon boarding.
If you can't afford OR10 a day for a saloon-car, a taxi ride anywhere in Ibri shouldn't cost more than 100-200 baisa. If that starts to add-up, take advantage of Bedouin hospitality - hitchhike! You'll get picked up in no time and make lots of friends along the way. Any offer to help with petrol expenses will usually be politely refused.
Camel Racing - boys to 'bots
Camel racing is to the Arabian Peninsula what stock-car racing was to the American South fifty years ago: heralded by locals but laughed at by outsiders. In the west, the term 'camel jockey' has pejorative, if not racist connotations. In Oman, it often means a minor kidnapped or sold into slavery. These boys, some as young as 2 ˝ years old, are trafficked from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania into the Persian Gulf to jockey camels. Wealthy owners reckon that the younger the jockeys are, the lighter the load, the faster the camel runs the race.
Not wanting to participate or encourage such exploitation, socially conscious travelers often opt out of attending a race. Boycotts, vigilance and international pressure to dismantle the practice have finally paid-off. And as stock-car racing found legitimacy and acceptance through corporate sponsorship, so has camel racing found it through technology. Robots have now officially replaced child camel jockeys in the Sultanate of Oman (and in the U.A.E. too). The guilt-ridden days of snapping photos of children racing camels and sending them to UNICEF are gone. You can now snap pictures of robots racing camels and send them to your friends and family, guilt-free.
Al-Majd Hotel Apartments
Arabic kitsch meets Bedouin sensibility
Garish outside, overwrought inside but comfy where it counts, this is where Arabic kitsch meets Bedouin sensibility. At the back of a car-dealership, the Al-Majd (Arabic for glory) is Ibri's best bang for your buck - orange & blue two-bedroom flats comfortably sleeps six.
Just behind the car showroom floor, pink marble frames a pair of golden-mirrored doors. Like sesame they open, blasting the dry heat outside with robust air conditioning and the cleansing smell of frankincense. The concierge, a bearded man in turban and starched dishdasha (shirt dress), rises in greeting, 'Welcome, welcome!' His smiling presence is nearly as overwhelming as the miniature chandeliers, faux-skylights and electric-fireplace of the Reception. Coaxed into taking a peek upstairs, you find the flats neither over nor underwhelming. Like Goldilocks in baby bear's bed, they're just right: stocked mini-fridges, ceiling-fans, satellite TV and rows of cozy single-beds. With five of your closest friends, it's perfect for a slumber party deep in the Omani hinterlands. Room service available upon request.
Come sundown, slide into the semi-seedy Al-Hajeer Coffeeshop for a taste of Cairo. Along with Cheshire smiles, the Egyptian-staff serve a mean sheesha (a giant water-pipe of improbable flavors). Swimming in a banana, grape or jasmine cloud of tobacco, you hear a Lebanese pop-song blasting from one TV, the latest football-match from another; a discussion heats-up over backgammon and you swear you're back in Tahrir Square.