Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crashing the border to Oman

I spent 15 minutes in Oman, perhaps illegally. Does that count as a country visited?

We took a road trip to Hatta, a small town about 100 kilometers outside of Dubai, nestled in the mountains of the same name and hard against the border with Oman. It's a beautiful area, surrounded by rough, jagged peaks. High in the hills above the town is spring-fed lake, by far the most serene spot I've seen in the UAE.

We started out from Dubai and watched the scenery gradually change from urban sprawl (not just an American phenomenon, apparently) to low desert hills and scrub brush to massive red dunes, and eventually, the dark and rugged Hatta Mountains.

In the town of Hatta, there's a heritage village and museum but not much else: a few stores, a police station, a bus station, and on the outskirts of town a new housing development that was noticeably devoid of people. But the lake was beautiful. We hiked along a small peninsula to a rocky outcrop surrounded by water and enjoyed the sunshine and solitude.

Leaving Hatta, we decided to continue east the 10 kilometers to the Oman border. Laborers who leave the country illegally are known to cross the border here, making a dangerous, six-hour trek through mountain passes and wadis, always at night, and far enough from the highway to slip through undetected.

Our plan was simpler: just drive to the border, take a look and then turn back. But after a quick passport check on the UAE side, we were suddenly across the border and into Oman, where we somehow missed the checkpoint and were stopped by a guard who, incredulous, asked us, "Why you not stop at immigration?"

He sent us back to the checkpoint, where we had to get both an entrance and an exit visa, which at first befuddled and then amused the woman helping us. She smiled and gave us a three-week visa anyway, and we turned the car around and headed back to the UAE, laughing all the way.

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