Blog - March 2020

Previous Blog: United Arab Emirates

Wednesday March 11th - Al Hayl

Cycled to the Oman border at Al Ain. Straightforward crossing. I did my homework on coronavirus in Dubai. At the moment Oman is only not accepting tourists who have been in the COVID-19 hot spots such as China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. There were no questions asked at the border. I'm glad to be here in Oman. I have trudged across an enormous desert to get here. I have heard excellent things from other cyclists about the cycling here. The mountains of Al Hajar that run all the way across the north of the country are supposed to be an excellent and challenging place to cycle. 40 years ago Oman was an under-developed nation and almost completely closed to visitors. Nowadays it's economy is thriving and it has become a popular tourist destination with it's dramatic mountains and pristine beaches. Cycling wise things immediately improved as soon as I crossed the border. I was soon on quiet back roads heading up into the mountains. After weeks of desert they were a sight for sore eyes. I was glad to see that the trusty water dispensers are back. Oman does not see a lot of rain and I expect the rivers to be dry at this time of year. At first glance it seems there are water dispensers in every little village which bodes well. Now that I will be climbing every day I want to keep my bike as light as possible.

Thursday March 12th - Haylashi

Took my first dirt road through the mountains. Just about good enough to cycle and just about bad enough to ensure there was no other traffic. After the constant roaring of trucks in the Emirates it was bliss to bask in the tranquility of the mountains once again. There was not a sole around. Saw something I had not seen in a while. A stream. Running water. It was just a trickle but a trickle is an endless supply of water so I sat by it, quenched my thirst, washed my feet and basked in the soothing sound of babbling water. Things got tougher in the afternoon. The sun beat down, the road got rockier and the climbs got steeper. I was off my bike pushing uphill and off my bike holding on going downhill. Took me 3 hours to do 12km but I didn't care. I had water. I had food. I had nowhere to be. I was in no rush. Camped by a rock pool and had a bath cowboy style. Fully clothed.

Friday March 13th - Bani Shahum

One of those ideal days. 25 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind and empty back roads winding through mountains and sleepy villages. Made a point of leaving my map app alone. I just made it up as I went along. If there was an interesting looking dirt road I would take it. Whenever I came to a junction I would go whichever way took my fancy. I soon lost my bearings. Only the sun gave me a vague idea which direction I was heading in. Checked my map at the end of the day and sure enough I'd pretty much gone around in a circle. I'd cycled over 100km and covered about 20km as the crow flies. This is fine. I have the time and inclination to explore. The mountains are only 500km across and the last thing I want to do is fly right through them. The only issue I had was stocking up on food. Friday is Sunday in the Arabic world. It is the Islamic day of worship and most shops close. The Islamic work week is Sunday to Thursday. It hasn't been a problem so far in my time in the Middle East. Normally the food shops are open at some point in the day but today every village I passed through the local store was shut. Fortunately I was loaded up with oatmeal and honey. So I had that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I always carry ridiculous amounts of biscuits so I still had something to nibble on in my tent at night.

Saturday March 14th - Al Hamra

Another excellent morning in the mountains on a quiet dirt road. Slow going but the views were spectacular. In the afternoon I came down out of the mountains to the town of Al Hamra. Found a cafe with Wi-Fi. The folks were down at my brother's so we had a family Skype which is always a joy to behold. Caught up on the coronavirus latest. A lot can happen in a few days. A lot had happened in a few days. Oman has now closed all its borders to foreigners. I was lucky to get in when I did. I could have been stuck in Dubai. Where next could be interesting but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I have another 3 weeks on my Oman visa. There are worse places to get stuck.

Sunday March 15th - Qayut

Great day of climbing. Conditions were perfect to begin with. Nice and cloudy for my 1.4km ascent into the heart of the Al Hajar mountain range. It would have been thirsty work under a glaring sun. Hairpin bends all the way up. Staggering views at the top before a short descent and then more climbing up a deserted dirt road to finish. The climb turned out to be a dead end. I hoped to get across the range via a footpath going up and over a pass but it soon became impossible. The path was steep and rocky. I was unable to cycle and I would have put my back out trying to drag my bike up and over. I would have to beat a retreat but still worth the effort as I ended up with one of the best camping spots I can remember. The clouds disappeared and I enjoyed a glorious sunset listening to Technique. I could see so far I could actually make out where I'd camped the night before. Not sure that has ever happened before.

Monday March 16th - Lizq

Hair-raising dirt road descent first thing in the morning. Made it to the valley and realised I had a puncture. Managed not to throw my toys out of the pram as I often do when I get a flat tyre. I have a tendency to take scary situations calmly and completely over-react at minor setbacks. It helps when you puncture right outside a cafe. Had a coffee and an egg chapatti and then sorted it. Snapped a tyre lever in the process. Had to use my wrench to get the tyre off. Disappointed in my new Marathon Schwalbe tyre to puncture only a week in. Dirt road or no dirt roads it should hold up better than that. Covered a lot of distance today. Not too much climbing but still excellent cycling on back roads winding through a peaceful valley. Cycled further than I intended to in order to find water. As a result I got lazy with my camp spot and pitched on the outskirts of a village after filling up. This meant I had to listen to a four hour barking contest between the village dogs. In the end they called it a draw. Then the roosters started crowing at 3am. My own fault. I could have easily have gone on a few kilometres and found a peaceful spot.

Tuesday March 17th - Al Kamil

Today I went looking for a bicycle shop as I have one broken spoke and one very loose one and my back wheel is wobbling. Very few Omani's cycle for leisure. I don't see any between towns but many people use bicycles to get around town so there are a few basic cycle shops about. None had the right size spoke for my wheels. My search meant I spent most of the day on a highway which wasn't much fun. Oman has the second highest traffic deaths in the world but as I have just spent a month in the first, Saudi Arabia, I'm not going to worry about it too much. UAE is third. They do drive quickly around here but it's not a problem. The back roads are quiet and the main roads have a shoulder. There are a lot of long straight boring desert roads in this corner of the world which is part of the problem. People lose concentration or even fall asleep. If it is possible to fall asleep whilst cycling I certainly would have managed it by now. Camels are also a problem. They have no sense of oncoming traffic so they step out into the road whenever and if you are doing 150kph and half asleep then it's goodnight camel and goodnight you. I've seen a few dead camels by the side of the road. Apparently Saudi, UAE and Oman have topped the traffic fatalities charts for decades and as they have only recently allowed women to drive maybe that puts paid to a certain myth. Got away from the highway in the afternoon and camped in a dried up Wadi.

Wednesday March 18th - Arabian Sea

Found a bicycle shop when I wasn't looking for one and got my spokes fixed. Took on a remote dirt road that led steadily down to my first sighting of the Arabian Sea. Much like many other seas but a fine sight on another beautiful day. Met a cyclist. Anna from Switzerland. The first cyclist I have met in the Middle East. The conversation inevitably turned to coronavirus. Anna had recently been online so was more upto date than me. I reeled off a number of countries I might head to after Oman. She told me they had all closed their borders. Oman has relatively few cases. Only 30 at the time of writing but you can see the affects. Now on the coast there are hotels, cafes and restaurants along the road. All closed. Now that Europe is the centre of the pandemic I'm beginning to notice a stigma attached to where I am from. I went into a bakery today and the guy behind the counter was dealing with the customers in front of me. When it came to me he went to find his gloves in order to receive my money. We both laughed. You can understand it. Oman is quite rightly not waiting for an escalation of cases to to take stringent measures. Mosques are closed. Public parks are closed. Public transport is not running. Omani nationals are not allowed to leave the country. No foreigners are allowed in. Found a beautiful spot by the beach so decided to camp early, go for a swim and look at the ocean.

Thursday March 19th - Sur

Perfect morning on a stunning stretch of coastline with a lovely tailwind. It was a shame that I hit the town of Sur but I'd been on the road 10 days since Dubai and I needed a hotel. Lucky to find one open. The owners were telling me how they would normally be full this time of year. I was the only guest. Went and did my laundry. Very easy in the Middle East. Everyone is immaculately turned out here. There is never a mark on their white tunics. Laundry shops are as frequent as hairdressers in Brixton. Every other shop. Small villages will have nothing more than a little food store and a laundry shop. Good for me. Whenever I stop anywhere I can give my clothes a proper clean instead of the hotel sink washes they are used to. All non essential shops are closed but the launderies stay open. Not just clothing the whole country is refreshingly clean. You see very little litter by the side of the road. Bins are provided. Bins are used. It's actually illegal to drive around in a dirty car in Oman. You may get stopped by the police who can fine you OMR10 (£20), although they are more likely to just tell you to wash your car. I should probably clean my bike. Instead I spent a couple of days in the quaint seaside town of Sur working out which countries I could possibly get into after Oman. I came to no positive conclusion. I'm not even sure it is possible to leave. The fact that Omani nationals are barred from leaving the country means there are practically no flights. Land borders are closed. I might be stuck in Oman. If they'll let me.

Friday March 20th to Sunday 22nd - Sur

Spent a few days in Sur figuring out my next moves. I have 3 options. Stay in Oman and bunker down. Go somewhere else and bunker down. Go home and bunker down. I see no sense in the last one. I'm aware that there are many people stranded abroad at the moment pining to get home. I am not one of them. Of course these people have homes and jobs to get back to. I have neither. I read about British nationals stuck in Peru pleading for rescue. Stuck in Peru sounds awesome. England is obliged to welcome me home but I'm just another potential strain on the dear old NHS. If I did find a way to get home I would have to travel through at least 3 airports on at least 2 planes and could conceivably pick up the virus and start unknowingly passing it on. Not what my country needs right now. I'd love to see family and friends but I wouldn't be able to anyway. I'm fine with flying somewhere else but the number of places that will have me that I can also get to is dwindling by the day, by the hour, by the minute. Therefore the preferred option is to stay in Oman. I can stay here legally until May. After that I would be relying on the authorities here to relax the rules with regards to overstaying. Not something I've ever known any country to do ever but these are exceptional circumstances so it is not beyond the realms.

Monday 23rd March - Quryat

I would normally have taken the long winded mountain back roads to get to Muscat but I was anxious to learn my fate from the Omani visa folk in Muscat so I decided to head straight there. Still an enjoyable road that hugged the coastline for the majority of the morning before rising slowly into the mountains in the afternoon. Conscious that I am going to have to take a prolonged hiatus from my outdoor cycling life I resolved to block out the state of the world for a few days and simply enjoy it. Considering what many people are going through right now I am fortunate to be able to look at something as glorious as sunlight reflecting off the sea. As always after a few days doing zip my legs were great in the morning and then faded badly in the afternoon so I called it a day and camped an hour earlier than usual. Managed to lose my camping spoon. This is by no means a catastrophe but it does reduce my cutlery to nothing. I stirred my noodles with the arm of my sunglasses and scooped them into my mouth with the lid of my coffee jar. It was fine actually. Maybe I can live without cutlery.

Tuesday 24th March - Al Amerat

Continued through dramatic mountains towards Muscat. I wouldn’t say wildlife is abundant in this corner of the world but today I saw mountain gazelles, lots of donkeys, eagles, vultures and a few orange back lizards. Out in the sticks life carries on as normal. Each village has a cafe that remains open where I stop everyday to have a coffee and an egg sandwich. There is a large Bangladeshi community in Oman. They often run these cheap eat cafes that I tend to frequent so I meet a lot of them. I always tell them how much I enjoyed cycling in their country a couple of years back and name drop a few places I passed through. This makes them smile and they often give me free coffee. That’s not why I do it of course. The Omani people are also a friendly lot and very welcoming. They are known for their warm hospitality as is most of the Arab world. Omani's in particular take great pride in their country and heritage and are therefore delighted that you would take the trouble to visit them. Despite the virus I’m glad they still find me approachable. There is the initial awkward moment when we would normally shake hands but then remember that we shouldn’t. They then ask me to reel off the things I like about their country. I wax lyrical and they look well chuffed. A guy gave me a big bag of dates this morning as I was getting back on my bike. I get given lots of dates. There are 200 different kinds of dates in Oman I am told. They are keeping me regular. The bag was way too big so I scoffed a few and gave the rest to some kids a little further down the road. Another night shovelling noodles into my mouth with the lid of my coffee jar.

Wednesday 25th March - Muscat beach

Self esteem rose this morning when I managed to attach my solar panel battery pack to my handlebars using a piece of string in such a way that I could move it directly into the sun as I cycle along. Self esteem returned to normal when it fell off and bounced down the road 5 minutes later. Made a beeline for the airport over a mountain pass with a birds-eye view over the city of Muscat. Another scorcher I arrived at the airport all sweaty and dishevelled and frankly looking like I might have a virus so made a point of cooling off before I rocked into the Visa office. The airport was spankingly clean and completely deserted. It was no great surprise to find the Visa office shut. It had closed a few days before due to the near shutdown of the airport. There was a guy there however who assured me that although I could not get an official extension I could stay on legally until May 10th. He said if the corona situation was still the same in May I would be aloud to overstay my visa and all ensuing fines would be waived when I did come to leave. This buys me some time. Cycled down the coast away from the city and and camped on a quiet beach. For a few minutes it rained. It was lovely. First time I've seen rain since Christmas.

Thursday 26th March - Yiti

The cycle into the centre of Muscat strengthened my resolve to stay here if I can. It's a beautiful place and immaculately clean. A picturesque city of white houses and tree lined streets surrounded by mountains and the sea. It's almost business as usual in the capital. Everyone seems to be going about their day to day as normal although I expect the roads are a little less busier than usual. Oman has put in very strict restrictions at its borders but within life is carrying on. All the cafe/restaurant chains are closed or takeaway only but there are many local cafe/restaurants open. People are advised by the Sultanate to stay indoors but it is only advice at the moment and not an order. The people I have spoken to sense lockdown is coming so people are getting out and about while they are allowed. The world is waking up to the fact that lockdown is the answer if we’re going to beat this thing regardless of how few or how many cases a country has. At the supermarket I saw signs of change with a lengthy queue to enter as staff tried to restrict the numbers in the shop at one time. People queued outside a metre apart on social distancing markers before being handed trolleys recently wiped down with disinfectant. I also figured I should carry on cycling while I can and carried on through the city. Bought a spoon. Passed through the Mutrah Corniche, a waterfront of latticed buildings and quaint mosques popular among tourists, that was practically deserted due to corona restrictions and a policeman motioned for me to move along. Enjoyed a beautiful and empty back road out into the mountains overlooking the sea and pitched my tent.

Friday 27th March - Yiti

I lived with a friend at University who came downstairs one morning to find nothing in the fridge except 18 eggs. Too lazy and hungover to go to the shop he proceeded to cook up and eat all 18 eggs. He was then violently sick and could not even look at an egg for the rest of the year without feeling queasy. Needless to say the rest of us in the house spent the rest of the year cooking up omelettes at every opportunity. I'm beginning to feel the same way about noodles. You can have too much of a good thing. You can get too rich, you can get too thin and you can eat too many noodles. I throw in a few green things from local markets to help spice things up a little but I have simply eaten too many noodles. I still wolf them down at great speed but with little enjoyment. I'm quite looking forward to my upcoming lockdown where I will ensure I am somewhere with a stove and I will get creative in the kitchen. You can of course camp cook creatively but noodles are my food of choice simply because they take so little time to cook and I can conserve camping gas which is often quite hard to get in this part of the world. I'd be quite happy if I never see a pack of noodles again. I wonder if I'll ever grow tired of biscuits. I doubt it. Oman has excellent butter, almond and cashew cookie biscuits. I have added them to my little biscuit notebook which will one day become my life's work. I'm going to call it a 'A Biscuiteaters Guide to the Galaxy' and it will sell more copies than the bible. If you are wondering why I'm banging on about noodles and biscuits it is because I didn't really cycle anywhere today. I just sat by the sea self isolating watching the fishing boats come in and the fishing boats go out again.

Saturday 28th March - Al Sifa

Final day of cycling before I go into hibernation. I’m booked into an AirBnb tomorrow where I will join the rest of the world in lockdown. Oman has suspended all flights in and out of the country. Land borders were already sealed. No one can come in. No one can leave. Decided to cycle myself into the floor before my indefinite period of rest. Spent all day boshing up and down the coast in searing heat. I spend nearly all my days outside in the midst of nature at its finest and frankly there are times when I take it for granted. One of the annoying things about being human is that we stop appreciating the things that we are used to. I make a conscious effort to fight this with varying degrees of success. No problems today. With the current state of the world and a period of self-isolation looming it was easy to bask in the the simple beauty of mountains, the sea, the sky and the birds. Amazing really. Like a bear storing up berries for the winter I lapped it all up. Ended up back where I started. Camping on a beach. Slept under the stars. My camping mat clearly knew it was the end of the trip and decided to slowly deflate over night. Reckon I’ve slept on it about 400 times in the last 2 years and it's had enough. A sure sign for me to get indoors and sleep on a bed for a while.

Sunday 29th March - Qantab

Short cycle back to Qantab, stocked up on pasta and pesto and found my AirBnb near the sea. Under normal circumstances I would have hopped across the water to Karachi in Pakistan and cycled to the Himalayas but like so many things around the world this is on the back burner. This trip has come to an abrupt end but I’m grateful for the cycling I have managed and the places I have seen. It’s always good to shake off preconceived notions about the world and I have certainly done that the last few months in the Middle East. The Arabian culture is rich and varied and the people are extremely kind hearted and welcoming. Oman has been a fine way to end. Expectations were high and expectations were met. In many ways it is an ideal place to cycle. Mountain roads, coastal roads, lovely weather, incredible camping and hospitable people. There are great dirt roads and there are great paved roads. If you are like me and like to mix it up each day it’s perfect. Oman even seems to be devoid of those minor annoyances that can irritate on a cycle trip like dirty exhausts and psychotic mosquitoes. I don't even remember being chased by a dog. It was worth crossing a desert to get to. Now all that remains for me is to end this blog and join the rest of the world in lockdown. Wishing everyone love and health in these strange times. Take care…

The End