Friday, 14 October 2016

Bolivian adventures: La Paz, Titicaca and Sucre

This is the first post in the series of three.
Part II: Bolivian adventures: Potosí and Tupiza
Part III: Bolivian adventures: From Tupiza to Uyuni in 4 days

The first night after my return to London was strange. I kept waking up, wondering where I was and getting scared – before inevitably understanding that I was at home. I would breathe a sigh of relief – each time noting with thanks how full of oxygen the air at sea level was – and go back to sleep, only to repeat the same sequence minutes later.

Being back in London was truly worlds apart from the place where I have recently returned from: Bolivia.

Believe it or not, I was originally going to travel to Turkmenistan (of all places!) for this holiday, but was eventually put off by the idea of having to follow an organised tour. Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in the world which restrict travellers in this way. After visiting Bhutan last year, I found the idea of a mandatorily attached guide extremely cumbersome (albeit sometimes helpful!) and turned my plans around to travel to Bolivia instead. For one thing, there are no imposed organised tours in Bolivia.

Llamas are nothing short of a symbol of Bolivia


My time in Bolivia limited to 16 days including travel, I chose to stick to the well-trodden “gringo trail”. I would start in La Paz, visit Lake Titicaca not far away, continue by bus to Sucre and Potosí, travel to Uyuni to visit the world-famous salt flat and cross the border to Chile. Yes, following my excellent trip to Chile earlier in 2016, my mind was absolutely set on seeing another region of this superb country, if only for two days. Besides, connections to London from Chile were substantially easier than from Bolivia.

My original itinerary underwent some changes closer to the trip. Firstly, having sought opinions, I opted not to rush and spent two nights on Isla del Sol in the Titicaca lake. Most visitors are rushing to head across the nearby border to Peru and tend to stay for only one night, or skip overnighting altogether and take a day trip from Copacabana instead. Having more daylight hours on Isla del Sol allowed me to explore the entire island without rush. Altitude is a major hurdle for hiking activities, and I could not have walked as much without the fall-back of the second night.

Lake Titicaca views from my hike between Challapampa and Yumani

Secondly, I decided to fly to Sucre from La Paz instead of taking the bus. While I sadly missed out on the scenery along the way, flying meant saving in excess of 10 hours – and gallons of traveller dignity, for what it’s worth. Bolivian buses are not the world’s newest, cleanest or fastest, and, given how ridiculously tired I was after my bus journey to La Paz from Lake Titicaca the previous day, it proved to be a great decision.

Finally, I decided to visit the Uyuni salt flat on a jeep tour from the town of Tupiza rather than Uyuni. While the Uyuni-originating trips are very much popularised in the “gringo world” and offered by numerous companies, there are only a handful of Tupiza-based agencies offering the same. Most visitors head to Uyuni almost by default, such a staple such tours have become. I longed for something different and headed to Tupiza – a town somewhat out of a limb close to the Argentine border, 200km southeast of Uyuni.

Stunning landscapes on the way from Tupiza to Uyuni

This probably proved to be the best decision I made on the entire trip, for numerous reasons: (i) the Tupiza trips are 4 days and 3 nights long while the Uyuni trips are shorter at 3 days and 2 nights, meaning one could see more; (ii) Uyuni jeeps are stuffed to the brim with 6 people in an 8-seater car, while Tupiza companies top the number at 5 and it is possible to pay up to reduce the number of companions (I ended up in a jeep with only 3 other travellers); (iii) since Tupiza travellers are heading in the opposite direction, the arrival times to sights of interest are different, and it is helpful to avoid crowds of Uyuni tourists at every step; (iv) Tupiza tours visit the Uyuni salt flat in the better sunrise light while Uyuni tours get there during the day.


My point of entry into Bolivia was La Paz’ El Alto airport. I landed around 1am and was immediately hit by the local altitude. At 4,061.5 m, El Alto is the world’s highest international airport and the fifth highest commercial one. I would not advise anyone coming from near sea level to make La Paz their first stop in Bolivia. Ideally, one would start their journey somewhere lower and gradually ascend the altitude overland; sadly, taking a short holiday from my full-time day job, I did not have the luxury of time on this trip.

Given the extreme differences in altitude, time and weather between La Paz and London, I understandably was not in top form the following day. I spent the day riding the city’s cheap cable car network (Mi Teleférico) and managed a walk through the city centre. My tiredness was quickly exacerbated by the hilly layout of La Paz. Every flight of stairs left me panting, with tears in my eyes – me, a gym freak back in London! – and the long ascent to Mirador Laikakota forced me to take an hour-long break on the bench before deciding to call it a day at barely 4pm.

Thankfully, I did not feel I was missing much. La Paz had a typical feel of a large South American city without quite the charm of the likes of Buenos Aires or Medellín. I certainly spotted some interesting colonial buildings in the city centre, but the majority of buildings in La Paz were made of red brick without any attempt of outer finish, dotting the hills like nearly identical puzzle pieces. Add to this choking traffic and obvious poverty spilling into the streets of a big city, and I was finding it very hard to fall in love with La Paz.

View from Mirador Montículo in Sopocachi

Approaching El Alto on the yellow line of Mi Teleférico

Riding the green line of Mi Teleférico to Irpawi

Indigenous lady selling brick-a-brac near Parque Raúl Salmón de la Barra

Urban jungle of La Paz from Parque Raúl Salmón de la Barra

TIPS: I stayed in the Sopocachi area of La Paz, which was a perfect compromise. It is a reasonably safe lower middle-class area with easy access to the central El Prado street. There is a bustling square called Plaza Abaroa, with numerous restaurants around. Sopocachi station of Mi Teleférico is a short walk away. By far the best way to see La Paz is from Mi Teleférico which so far only has three lines (seven more are in the making). Yellow and green lines are the most accessible to visitors. For panoramic views, I found Mirador Laikokota viewpoint underwhelming but hear that Mirador Killi Killi is the city’s most impressive. I was too tired to eat in a sit-down restaurant but street food in La Paz is great, including ubiquitous salteña pastries. There are several user-friendly supermarkets in Sopocachi. For a quick bite, I also recommend “chifa” restaurants which serve a blend of Chinese and local food – the result can be quite interesting.


Many foreign visitors take the so-called “tourist buses” from La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia’s gateway to Lake Titicaca. Such buses tend to call at several central stops and hotels in La Paz, finally stopping at the central bus terminal before continuing to Copacabana. The alternative, local buses, depart from the Cementerio General area of La Paz, which is outside the centre, reportedly somewhat dodgy by night and could be inconvenient for most travellers. At least in theory, tourist buses are supposed to be of better quality than the local buses and to make fewer stops en route.

With this homework in mind, I, too, booked a tourist bus through my hotel, with a company called Vicuña Travel. The result was somewhat unexpected: the tourist bus was old, freezing cold in the early hours of the morning (some dusty blankets were provided) and with one window smashed to tiny pieces still magically holding together. The journey to Copacabana took a whopping 5.5 hours over a distance of 150 km. This could partly be blamed on the terrible state of roads and ongoing construction works, but – running somewhat ahead – I took a local bus for my return two days later for comparison purposes and found it better, faster, cleaner and substantially (2.5 times) cheaper.

Every bus journey from La Paz to Titicaca involves crossing the Tiquina strait between the villages of San Pablo and San Pedro: passengers are carried on smaller motor boats while vehicles cross on ferries. “Ferries”, of course, is a very strong word for what those floating vessels really are: most are floating wooden platforms with engines. Seeing a whole bus (full of people’s various possessions) make the crossing is nothing short of entertaining. The strait crossings provide a major source of livelihood to the locals and the year-long idea to build a bridge between the two villages is quite unpopular here.

Looking towards San Pedro de Tiquina from San Pablo de Tiquina

The remaining 1-hour journey from San Pedro de Tiquina to Copacabana provides spectacular views of Lake Titicaca and the snowy mountain peaks in the distance. Copacabana itself is an overgrown village catering heavily to travellers headed for Titicaca’s various islands and the Peruvian border – the latter is less than 10 km away. There is little to see in Copacabana itself: I enjoyed seeing the 16-century Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, the city’s principal cathedral, and the small market area, but otherwise felt like heading to Isla del Sol as soon as possible.

There are numerous companies offering identical 1.5-hour boat journeys from Copacabana to Isla del Sol, all departing at the same time. Boats first stop at Yumani in the south of the island and then continue to Challa and / or Challapampa settlements in the north.

Driving to Copacabana with views of Lake Titicaca

The elevation here reaches 3.8km

Stunning landscapes begin after the Tiquina crossing

TIPS: Having experienced both, I would recommend taking a “tourist bus” from La Paz to Copacabana and (unless you are continuing to Peru) returning with a regular local bus. Avoid the Cementerio General area of La Paz in the dark and only get licensed taxis to wherever you are headed next. Both sides of the bus have views of Lake Titicaca but I found I preferred the views to the left of the direction of travel best. In San Pablo de Tiquina, do try a snack of grilled fish – offered by numerous local ladies by the waterfront – before crossing. Last sailings of the day from Copacabana to Isla del Sol are at 13:30. Groceries will cost more in Isla del Sol, so stock up in Copacabana before you travel.


Visiting Isla del Sol was one of the most memorable experiences on my Bolivian trip. The island is perfect for hiking north-south (there are two trails overlapping in parts) and provides a wonderful glimpse into the simple life of the islanders whose main source of livelihood is farming. The island was populated as far back as 3rd millennium BC and has numerous Inca ruin sites.

I stayed in the island’s main northern settlement, Challapampa, in a simple hotel on the northern beach. The location was perfect for the starting point of the stone trail to Chincana ruins further north. The views along the hike were spectacular, especially when sunset started to fall. It is important to bring a torch in case one is caught out after sunset as there is not a single light around. Also, air temperature drops dramatically after dark and very strong night-time winds are common in the early spring (September). I was most grateful for the layers of clothing I had brought.

On my full day on Isla del Sol, I hiked from Challapampa to Yumani via the coastal route and back on the ridge trail. Most travellers prefer to carry their stuff from Challapampa to Yumani and depart the same day. This is perfectly reasonable if you are in a rush, but I enjoyed having more time on the island, not having to carry more than a daypack and generally seeing more. It is also important to respect the altitude of 3,812 m above sea level and not overestimate one’s strength. I took numerous breaks on the hike and felt wiped out upon return to Challapampa. After another long rest, I wandered around the settlement in search of good sunset shots – this is the time when many locals lead their cattle home from grazing, which is fascinating to watch.

Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana in Copacabana

Chincana ruins on Isla del Sol

Sunset over Piedra Sagrada, Isla del Sol

Beach in Challapampa, Isla del Sol

Baby llama in Yumani, Isla del Sol

Kakayo-Queña ridge on Isla del Sol

Llama grazing in mountain view on Isla del Sol

Local girl and her dog in Challapampa

TIPS: I recommend staying at least two nights on Isla del Sol to do the island justice. The facilities and comfort are generally better in Yumani, but Challapampa is quieter, more authentic and conveniently located for the start of the trail to Chincana ruins and sunset viewing. Do not miss the local meal of fried trout (“trucha”): I can recommend restaurants La Ñusta and Arenal, both in Challapampa (the latter has a great beach view). There is little to no phone reception on Isla del Sol (little in the south, none in the north), but several places in Yumani offer wifi connection. To return to La Paz at a reasonable time, take the 8:30 boat from Challapampa to Copacabana and connect with the 11:00 bus, arriving in La Paz around 15:30.


Sixth largest city in Bolivia, Sucre is defined as the country’s capital in the national constitution. It is certainly Bolivia’s prettiest city and features some of the country’s finest colonial architecture. The altitude of 2,810 m is much friendlier than that of La Paz or the nearby mining city of Potosí, making Sucre a welcoming stopover in-between those physically challenging locations.

The road between La Paz and Sucre (Ruta 1) is definitely not the worst in Bolivia and is paved the entire way. I could have easily undertaken this journey by an overnight bus (12+ hours over 700 km), but instead flew to save time – and was happy I did so. First, I was completely exhausted after the return bus journey from Titicaca to La Paz, and longed for some comfort. Embarking on another bus straight away for the whole night would have wiped me out. Second, the one-way flight with Amaszonas cost less than 50 pounds – I know this is shockingly expensive compared to the bus fare, and probably not in the spirit of a barebone budget trip, but, again, I longed for some comfort. I was on holiday, after all!

After the sprawling La Paz, I found Sucre wonderfully relaxing. It is without doubt the most beautiful Bolivian city I have visited, with a wealth of colonial buildings for architecture enthusiasts to admire. I could have honestly spent a whole week wandering around Sucre’s pretty streets, observing local life and admiring the stunning architectural pieces on every step. My favourite examples were the Cathedral, Convento de San Felipe Neri and the inner patio of the main University building.

Plaza Anzures and Franciscan Monastery

Gorgeous Convento de Santa Teresa

Sunrise colours over Sucre from my hotel

View towards the Cathedral from Convento de San Felipe Neri

Inside the stunning Convento de San Felipe Neri

TIPS: Sucre streets being irresistibly pretty, I found the best way to see the city was from the various rooftops. I climbed atop two religious buildings: Templo Nuestra Señora de la Merced and Convento de San Felipe Neri, and highly recommend both views. The third stunning view was provided by my guesthouse, Casa Al Tronco in the Ricoleta district, where I not only had a spectacular view from my top floor room but also had access to the equally amazing view from the common terrace. There are only three rooms at Casa Al Tronco and I highly recommend travellers booking early to secure a place. I found Farmers’ Market (Mercado Campesino) somewhat underwhelming, with some vendors visibly hostile to a visitor with a camera. Central Market (Mercado Central) was more manageable, with two rows of excellent fresh juice stalls actively frequented by locals. A superb local snack is stuffed potato (“papas rellenas”), a kind of croquette popular in many parts of South America and offered by several vendors in Parque Simón Bolívar in Sucre.

~~~Continued in Bolivian adventures: Potosí and Tupiza~~~

Friday, 19 August 2016

In search of peace in Oman (II): Sur to Muscat

With the majority of locals owning cars, intercity transport in Oman is not exactly well developed. Buses connect only the largest urban centres, for which Sur most certainly does not qualify. My only hope is to get a lift with local people; thankfully, one of the taxi drivers from the day before is kind enough to offer me a lift to Bidbid (en-route Muscat) as he is heading to the capital anyway. 1 OMR (1.6 GBP) is barely money to pay for a 80-km journey and I accept the offer with thanks.

Out to the highway I walk and, 30 minutes past the agreed hour, my driver Monsur appears. Our journey begins well but is soon cut short – not sure whether it is my camera, put to use all too frequently from the front seat, but Monsur quickly changes his plans about me. Suddenly, he stops in the middle of the highway and, in a voice giving away impatience, apologises and tells me to leave his car. He refuses to take any money, hails me a minivan passing by and once again apologises. I might never know the reason for my driver's abrupt change of heart.

"Salaam alleikum," I greet the minivan party, only to realise that I might as well have been speaking English; all the passengers inside turn out to be nationals of the Philippines. While Oman's Filipino population is predominantly represented by construction workers and housekeepers, my inadvertent companions are notable exceptions and all teach at the Nizwa College of Technology. We chat happily (finally, I think, can I use more complicated English words without the risk of being misunderstood) until a semblance of a settlement appears on our right. Bidbid! I get out of the minivan, thank my new acquaintances and, in the burning midday sun, hurry towards a large concrete booth on the side of the road – the bliss of a shade one can never underestimate in this part of the world.

An outdated timetable, faded out almost completely by the sun, is nailed to the wall. The next bus to Sur is not until the next morning. Luckily, ride hitching seems to be an established practice in a country where public transport is otherwise as good as absent. Soon a local man drops his bag in the shade next to me; he, too, is heading to Sur today. At least if I am stuck in the middle of the desert, I will know for sure that I won't be there alone.

But getting stuck is decidedly not on the cards. Several cars zoom past; some stop to inquire about our destination and politely refuse – they must be heading elsewhere. Finally a car with two Omanis stops, and, Alhamdulillah, they are going to Al Kamil – a decidedly convenient stopover mere 50 km away from Sur. There isn't any room for my backpack in the boot, so I position it carefully on my lap, take out the camera and, for the next hour or so, lose myself in the scenery passing by. Stunning mountains gradually get lower as desert takes over; it is by that paced change in elevation that I register our approach to the coast.

The remaining 50 km from Al Kamil to Sur in another car I wave down are nothing short of entertaining: I am sat next to an Omani who immediately announces his ardent love for Bollywood music. The journey promptly evolves into an unofficial soundtrack to "Slum Dog Millionaire", as the music blasts out in a surreal manner over the calm of the surrounding desert; we both sing along. I only interrupt my driver's performance once to photograph a warning sign bearing an image of a camel; sadly, real camels are nowhere to be seen.


Rather small even by the local standards, Sur amazes me with its quietness. It is 18 November, Oman's Independence Day, but there is hardly anyone in the streets and most shops are closed. The city's celebrated Corniche is part blown over by sand, with little sign of human activity besides a stray dog and brightly coloured plastic rubbish. I remember Nizwa – the city almost identical in size to Sur – being similarly empty in the early afternoon hours, and do not fret.

My walk takes me towards the natural lagoon surrounding the city and past the shipbuilding yard in the old harbour of Sur. Back in the day, Sur used to be an important trade hub and was renowned for its shipbuilding. Traditional wooden boats, called dhows, continue to be made in Sur to this day, the only remaining place of this kind in Oman.

I walk under a large bridge (which, I later learn, is Khor al Batar, the first and only suspension bridge in Oman) and a view of an incredibly beautiful seaside village opens: this is Aygah. Its whitewashed houses and fishing boats scattered around the small bay gaze invitingly at me, and three watch towers dot the surrounding hills. Many years ago these watch towers used to lead the dhows returning from the sea to the relative safety of the lagoon.

On top of the first watch tower, I meet three young men who insist I take their picture. We spend some time sitting on the battlements and chatting. Two of the men are Indian and one is Omani; they announce themselves as good the friends as the three musketeers, and I find it incredibly refreshing in a Gulf country.

A large lighthouse looks positively tempting in the corner of the bay in Aygah and, realising that the sunset is fast approaching, I continue to it. Local kids shout greetings to me from every direction and some ask to be photographed. Many fishing boats are returning home at this time and older children can be seen wading through the water towards their fathers' boats.

I soon reach the lighthouse: it is a modern but an incredibly eye-pleasing structure incorporating motives of traditional Arab architecture. The view over Sur in the fading colours of sunset is absolutely superb; several concurrent football matches are taking place on the beach and I spend a while admiring the sunset-lit sand thrown into the air by dozens of speedy feet. Golden minarets dominate Sur's low skyline in the backdrop of the hazy mountains: this is how I have always imagined the Arabian peninsula.

I get up early the next morning and make my way, in nearly complete darkness, through Sur's largely unpaved streets back to Khor al Batar Bridge. A watch tower looming ahead serves as my goal, and I am soon making my way uphill to its sand-coloured walls. There is no way to get inside, but I do not need to: the pink-lit sunrise view across the narrow strait to Sur is beyond any words. Breath-taken, I enjoy the stunning solitude of this Saturday morning.

After the sunset I return to a visibly livelier Sur – it is the equivalent of Monday morning in the West (note: in 2013 Oman changed its weekend from Thurday-Friday to Friday-Saturday) and children are hurrying to school while the city's many South Asian residents are sipping masala chai in small groups. I would love to visit the famous sights near Sur but it is simply too difficult without my own transport, and I make my way to the junction from where shared taxis depart back to Muscat. Albeit small, Sur grew on me thanks to its warm Arabian atmosphere and superb morning light.


Thankfully, I do not need to backtrack to Muscat along the same desert route. As my shared taxi speeds away mercilessly along the coastal Route 17, I am once again amazed by the fantastic quality of roads in Oman. We pass a massive LNG facility and several industrial complexes on our right as the scenery grows increasingly more spectacular and mountains once again replace dull desert views. The journey of 200km barely takes a couple of hours as the driver, a stern-looking young Omani, visibly disregards the road signs' pleas to reduce speed.

Before I am able to say "please slow down", I am back in Muscat and strolling along Qurum beach. The area is noticeably wealthy, with luxury hotels rising out of purpose-created parks of greenery. There is not a cloud in the sky and not even a modern international coffee shop (that chose to remain unnamed) mars the beach-side promenade on Al-Shati Street.

I spend a few hours walking along the beach. Bright sunlight changes into sunset and the first joggers appear, swooshing past as I have enormous fun capturing their silhouettes disappearing into the golden Arabian sun. The atmosphere is so wonderfully relaxing that I feel I could live in Muscat one day – if only to watch these beautiful sunsets every evening on my stroll by the sea.

The next day is my last one in Oman, and I have not made many plans. Oman is the first country in the Arab world to welcome sunrise, and I make sure not to miss it; luckily, Qurum beach is only a short walk from my hotel. The coffee in the hapless coffee chain is suddenly offered to me for free, and my morning is complete.

I hail what I think is a taxi and ask the driver for his fare to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. He laughs: he is not a taxi driver, but a Keralan office professional on his way to work. His English is not great and he has absolutely no idea where the said mosque is but does offer to try and find it together. We exchange a few pleasantries before a massive minaret appears in front of us. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the largest place of worship in Oman and is difficult to miss. I thank my driver, place the mandatory scarf on my head and am ready to walk in.

The size of the mosque is astonishing. I learn that it can accommodate 20,000 worshippers and that the elaborate floor carpet, measuring 70m by 60m wide, is the world's second largest hand-loomed carpet in the world. It was designed in the best Persian tradition and took 600 women four years to weave. The mosque itself was Sultan Qaboos' gift to his people to celebrate his 30th anniversary of reign.

It is hot and, exiting the mosque, I am relieved to unwrap my improvised hijab. Outside, dozens of South Asian workers are laying out irrigation pipes for a new delivery of palm trees: the soil in the desert is brutally infertile and each tree is only sustained by its individual supply of water.

A busy highway passes by the mosque and I notice a few people by the roadside waiting for transportation. All of them are South Asian and glance at me in disbelief, but, remembering how long it took me earlier to find a taxi (which did not even turn out to be one), I decide to follow the locals and take the first minibus to its final destination. Sure enough, a minibus soon appears: it is headed to Ruwi, another part of Muscat, and I jump in.

Upon arrival, I can hardly believe my eyes. The place has a distinct subcontinental feel and not a single Omani is in sight. Hundreds of South Asians go about their business and a wonderful spice scent dominates the hot midday air. I later learn that the area is (aptly) called Little India and is an interesting attraction in itself, but, right now, I am a little overwhelmed and make my way towards quieter looking rows of dull commercial buildings nearby.

Ruwi is Muscat's business district but looks surprisingly quiet on a working day. I become bored in minutes and start pondering a repeat visit to Muttrah Souq, but, not knowing my way around, somehow end up in a parking lot between two low-rise office buildings. Cursing the heat and sort of regretting leaving behind the bustling Little India, I suddenly hear an English greeting to my left.

An Omani man about my age is standing next to me and is about to get into his car; smiling, he repeats his hellos and asks, very appropriately, what I am doing here. I explain that I am a little lost and seriously overheated from wandering around in a long skirt and a long-sleeved shirt on a hot day.

Dhuhai (as he introduces himself) laughs, tells me to wait and hurries away to an office building next door. He soon returns, beaming, and motions me to his car. "I excused myself from work for the rest of the day. And I told my boss I had run into an old friend so he gave us 50 OMR to spend." What a great introduction to the Gulf.

My new friend is convinced that I am hungry so our first stop is an Indian food joint, which, apparently, he owns. Having never been to India before (and barely having eaten any Indian food – we are talking 2011 here, folks), I am floored by my first ever taste of spicy briyani. As Indian waiters stare at me, visibly entertained by my inability to eat their food correctly, one of them shyly comes over to Dhuhai and, in a quiet voice, exchanges a few Arabic phrases.

Something in the man's tone makes me curious, and, on our way out, I ask Dhuhai what the conversation was about. It turns out that the man has been in Oman for two years and would like to go home to visit his wife but is afraid of losing his visa. Dhuhai smiles. "I told him to go home. We'll make him another visa."

We continue to Yiti beach 25 km south-east of Muscat. There really isn't much to see but the beach has some beautiful rock formations and an old stranded dhow. The luxurious Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah hotel is not far and, for a laugh, we have a soft drink under a canape on the beach. Seeing European faces around me, I finally realise where so many of the visitors to Oman are hiding; until now, I have not seen a single European-looking person here.

I mention this to Dhuhai, and he immediately feels obliged to show me a "true luxury hotel". And I immediately know what he is talking about: even a bumpkin like me has heard about Al Bustan Palace, one of Oman's best known resorts and the Gulf's most opulent hotels. Unlike most luxury hotels in the Gulf, this one is relatively old and was built some 30 years ago for a Gulf Cooperation Council conference.

It takes us a while to park at Al Bustan and I feel positively out of place when we do enter. It sure is luxurious to death and, I hear, has the longest private beach in the entire sultanate – but perhaps I am here on a wrong kind of occasion. Next time I will make sure to dress to impress and bring my husband along.

My flight time is approaching, and we make our final stop at the Muttrah Souq. Dhuhai disappears into one of the stalls and returns with a traditional clay incense burner (mabkhara), a pack of small charcoal bricks and a jar of incense (bakhoor). Burned in local homes on special occasions, it is Dhuhai's parting gift to me. He thanks me, but I do not really understand why – wasn't it Dhuhai who extended a welcoming gesture and took me around for a few hours of sightseeing around his city?

He smiles. It is his pleasure.

Back in London, I make good use of the mabkhara and the bakhoor I received from Dhuhai to this day – and, when I do, I think back to Oman's historical forts, its impressive mountains, its long golden beaches – and, above all, its people's wonderful hospitality.


View my photos from Oman: Muscat and Sur