COVER STORY: A Scenic Tour of Oman’s Route 31
The following pictures were taken on a five-day, 2,186-mile road trip from the north to the south of Oman, the southeastern-most country on the Arabian peninsula. Together with the photographer Kuba Ryniewicz, I had rented an old Nissan Micra to trace Route 31, a dusty four-lane highway that cuts through the desert which covers 90 percent of the nation’s territory. The starting point was Dubai, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, from where we crossed through the Al-Hajar Mountains against a vivid blue sky to Oman’s northern coast where small rambling villages open onto wild stretches of beach. Our end destination was the southernmost city of Salalah, on the border with Yemen, joining a seasonal migration when Gulf residents make the long trip down to Oman’s Dhofar region for the khareef, the monsoon that transforms a dusty dull-gray landscape into vibrant green from July to September.
Our first stop was Oman’s capital, Muscat, on the northern coast. In the city’s chocolate-box old district, Muttrah, understated white and beige buildings hug the lunar-like foothills of Al-Hajar. Facing the pristine port, where the superyacht belonging to Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, is docked, 19th-century merchant houses with intricate wooden balconies stand alongside newer buildings that feature modern interpretations of traditional detailing, such as ornamental arched windows and mashrabiya. Eschewing the rapid development and high-rises that have transformed many Gulf cities, Muscat has taken a slower and more measured approach to urbanization. Sultan Qaboos’s court enforces regulations on modern building design to preserve the traditional architectural style, dictating everything from the number of stories permitted to methods of arch construction.
After a quick stop in the dreamy port city of Sur, a chaotic network of unfinished highways and sand-covered tracks led us inland to Oman’s “interior,” the desert expanse that covers most of the country. Separated by mountains from Oman’s northern coastal cities — once important trading ports connecting to Iran, India and east Africa — the country’s interior wasn’t easily accessible until the early 1970s, when Sultan Qaboos launched a modernization project after overthrowing his father in a palace coup. With this wave of reform came asphalt roads, schools, and a new culture of classical music, with the flamboyant ruler, himself a lute player, founding a royal symphony orchestra. (A love of the arts doesn’t necessarily correlate to moderate rule, however. With criticism of the sultan strictly prohibited and political parties illegal, donkeys sometimes become tools of dissent, political messages spread anonymously over their flanks.)
Stretching almost the entire length of the country, Route 31 is a highway of monotony. On either side, as far as the eye can see, a flat desert-scape is set on a continuous loop, with only a sparse scattering of desert shrubs to relieve the tedium. Occasional uniform clusters of sand-colored villas appear and disappear, with backyard dumpsters lined up outside. Grinning 2D wooden models, dressed in hi-vis jackets, stand at regular intervals on the roadside, holding out red flags to warn of upcoming works. At points, the road passes monumental reddish dunes, like soft peaks of meringue, and whirlwinds of sand constantly twist by. Service stations, every 50 miles or so, are like points of pilgrimage, where canteens serve up dahls, kingfish curry, and karak chai — a strong and sweet milky tea — and the gas pumps back onto diminutive makeshift mosques.
As the road nears Salalah, the landscape begins to change. The highway twists and turns up the Dhofar Mountains and clear skies eventually give way to thick fog and rain. Descending from the peak, the rolling landscape is covered in a blanket of lush green. After a never-ending expanse of flat dusty beige and gray, these mountains transformed by the khareef are a sight for sore eyes.