Al Jebel Akhdar
We’re a month into our move and starting to explore, discover Omani culture and the vast desert landscape that, for now, still feels quite foreign. When friends asked if we’d like to visit Jebel Akhdar, we jumped at the chance, happy to have our friends, and tour guide John, to point the way.
To reach Al Jebel Akhdar, “The Green Mountain,” as it’s called in Arabic, you drive south west for a little over an hour. At the town of Birkat Al Mouz you take the exit (we missed it the first time, then drive to the base of the mountain and a police checkpoint. The law requires anyone entering the mountain road to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and no more than 6 passengers. It’s for good reason, Jebel Akhdar is not to be trifled with. Roads are safely paved and there are guardrails, but the journey is steep and cars have been known to burn out their breaks on the descent to disastrous consequence.
Seeing our GMC and 6 passenger group, the guards waved us through and we began our ascent into the Al Hajar mountain range. Jebel Akhdar comprises the central region of this vast series of rocky peaks separating the coastal region of Northern Oman and the high desert plateau of the south. “Al,” means the, and “Hajar” is rock or stone in Arabic. An appropriate description for endless ridges that have been features of our planet for millions of years. The mountain formed when tectonic plates collided, the Arabian plate and the Iranian plate, and the earth rose up and in effect, took a bow and stayed there, the sedimentary rock hardening to a sand-colored moonscape.
Omani’s love to go to the mountains and spend an evening camping. The weather is 20 degrees cooler and the air feels much drier, a welcomed change from the humidity and 100 degree and higher temperatures of the coast. This region of Al Hajar is also famous for its pomegranates and as we neared mountain villages, sure enough men and boys sat on lawn chairs, cardboard boxes by their feet, proudly displaying their crop. We stopped to buy some, “How much?” we asked.
They weren’t cheap. Each pomegranate cost between 1-2 Rial, that’s 3-4 US dollars apiece. But trust me, they were worth it. I’d never tasted anything so unbelievably juicy and sweet. Absent of the bitter pith you get with typical varieties, the outside was as large as a grapefruit, the skin a pale red blush, and inside the fruit was bright and rosy. It tasted like eating miniature grapes. Seven-year-old Maggie described it best when she said, “It tastes like happiness.”
Afterward, we drove and parked in an area next to a mountainside village. As we began to hike I fell in love with these colorful villager’s doors.
Ancient history doesn’t feel so ancient in Jebel Achkdar. The old and the new mix. The stone steps, built into the mountains hundreds of years ago, are still used today. So are the farming techniques of planting and reaping the season’s bounty from lush terraced landscapes.
It was harvest season, so villagers were out plucking up pomegranates, young Omani men, balancing fruit in blue plastic crates on top of their heads as they navigated the stone stairways upward.
After our first long hike, Maggie needed a break (maybe I did too). So we let the adults and teenagers go ahead and we sat for a while near some village houses. Nearby was a stall, manned by a group of boys no older than twelve. They were selling glass bottles filled with colored liquids…tinctures and “medicines,” potions and concoctions to cure everything from tummy aches to baldness. They were also selling corn.
We asked to buy a cup and a boy with grey blue eyes gave us a capable nod before ladling a spoonful from a steaming hot pot into a silver bowl. He added spices, sprinkling in finely ground black pepper, red chili, and salt, then added a splash of lemon juice and oil. He stirred and stirred until satisfied, then spooned the contents into a plastic cup.We took our golden treasure back to the shade and sat to eat. Ohhhh, the taste was heavenly! Big sweet kernels with a bite of heat, tempered by tart lemon. For the second time that day, we felt we’d made a life changing discovery.
After devouring the corn Maggie’s energy returned, along with her sense of adventure. She wanted to race down the stairway and catch up with the group. On her way she stopped and said, “Mom take my photo.” The backdrop looked treacherous. “Taking your photo here,” she explained, “makes you look brave.”
I laughed. But you are already brave, I thought. No need for backdrops. And in that moment I saw the girl who’d moved Oman without complaint, leaving behind friends, family and a school she loved. Bravery might be in the landscape, but it was also in Maggie. And maybe in all of us for hiking on these stairways.
After a morning of hiking there’s nothing better than eating outdoors. We decided our best option for lunch was a local hotel so we piled into our vehicles in search of a good meal and clean bathrooms. Hotels are for more than just sleeping in Oman, they offer gym memberships, pools and clean bathrooms—a helpful tip to remember.
The hotel we found had a lovely courtyard overlooking the ruins where we’d just hiked.
We dined outdoors, eating sandwiches and drinking Pepsi. Like many places in Oman, they don’t sell Coke. Some Omani’s refuse to drink Coke…something to do with rumors (maybe started by Pepsi), that the Coke label when held in a mirror says something against Mohammad when read backwards. Of course there’s overwhelming evidence to refute this, including the fact the label was created in Atlanta in 1886 and the Spenserian script was simply popular at that time, but some rumors never die.
The Green Mountain offered us another view of Oman, this country of contrasts, and reminded me bravery is more than a backdrop, in truth it’s facing your mountains and making the climb. We did plenty of climbing. Jebel Akhdar, we’ll be back, for cooler temperatures and more pomegranates!