Published: 25th May 2008
The weekly goat auction in Nizwa, the former capital of Oman, is a mixture of Crufts gone wild and a Wall Street trading floor, and everyone is far too busy to give me, a western woman, even a glance.
Some men hold staffs, dead ringers for Abraham, their brown faces deeply furrowed as they watch the display of struggling goats and cows. It's like stumbling into the Old Testament.
A shaggy goat and its sleek, golden baby are dragged round and round the stone marketplace while the crowds demand to examine teeth and orifices; know age, weight, health. Close on their tail, a man staggers in carrying two black kids. Another tugs three, and traders yell out their questions and bids. The men haggle, the sheep bleat, the goats complain and the hungry calves groan. One Moses of a man swings around to tell us the price he paid, bright-eyed with glee about the deal. The little goat he has bought stands wagging its tail.
This is Oman, an eight-hour plane ride from London, a four-hour drive from the glitz of Dubai - and 2,000 years back in time. This is a country of austere desert and hard people, yet it is full of wonders. It has hilltop forts, sultans' palaces, medieval villages growing papaya and pomegranates, and old dhows in which Omanis sailed the seas and became a great maritime people. Many here live as they have for millennia, though oil money and the reforms of the present sultan have brought fine roads, hospitals and schools. As a visitor, you can go camel racing, take dolphin-watching trips on a glamorous catamaran or see turtles laying their eggs at night.
The mystery still abides - the Arabian Nights world of Sinbad the Sailor. Here, lean men with the faces of prophets command the streets in long white gowns, a few sporting curved silver daggers on their belts. Behind them lie the mountains, in front the blue waters of the Gulf of Oman, with its dolphins and whales, and so many fish that the catch at the morning market is the gaudiest thing I saw in this monochrome nation, all glistening parrotfish, orange-red snapper, shimmering tuna.
The market fascinated me: Dubai I spent ages observing the traders on their upturned buckets, brown legs astride under their snowy dishdashas, presiding over their catch. I saw silvery tuna with gashes in their flanks, baby sharks barely a foot long, black sailfish that appeared to be made of leather - and a mass of greyish-white squid guarded by a plump man who looked so like his produce, I feared a genie might have transformed him. Later that evening, I ordered tuna in the restaurant at my hotel. Its flavour was delicate yet rich, sinfully at odds with Oman's unworldliness.
I stayed at the Chedi, in the Omani capital, Muscat, which is very 21st-century and thoroughly worldly, though with a low-key, zen style. From the banquettes by the infinity pool, you can lounge like an Arabian princess and sip mint lemonade while gazing over the blue pool to the beach and the green gulf.
I watched an English couple steel themselves before running bravely into the sea - then pause for a shocked moment, allowing themselves beatific smiles, and submerge. The water is balmy here - in summer, they have to chill the pool.
The hotel was full of couples. They can indulge in a Love Bath at the spa - a sunken affair soaked in oils, scattered with petals and well supplied with champagne and canapés. And how I loved returning to the Chedi each evening as the sun died down, swimming in the hot ocean and watching the couples gathering around the coal burners, the flames illuminating their faces and dancing among the palm trees, the water gardens and the fountains, as the smell of dinner wafted through the still air.
You must not, however, allow the Chedi's sultry seductions to prevent you from getting out to explore the desert, the mountains, the wadis. Safe and clean, Oman is huge and stark and uplifting in its beauty - 120,000 square miles of it for just 2 1/2m people.
The country's tribal customs and its domination by Islam have helped to preserve its toughness. As you drive, you see watchtower after watchtower on the desolate brown hills, and only the occasional minaret of a mosque. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, TE Lawrence wrote: "Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers terrible: a death in life." And: "The common base of all the semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever-present idea of world worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty, and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the winds of the desert pitilessly."
Out in the desert of Wahiba Sands, our Jeep jitterbugged over 300yd dunes, plunging down and up and down again. We stopped and I floundered on foot over their shifting slopes, causing avalanches of the caramel sand to collapse in crescents as the wind whipped my face.
Later, we ate sweet watermelon beside a rocky wadi named Bani Khalid. It was good to cool off from the obliterating 40C heat in the wadi's turquoise waters, fed from a mountain stream, though the interest my swimming caused among the young men took the edge off the magic - and I was extremely well covered up, shirt and all. I wish I'd been allowed to swim in peace; the wadi's surface skidded with red dragonflies and swooped with swallows. Little fish nibbled at my feet and, on the banks, wild goats drank.
You seldom see a woman in the streets and shops of Oman; if you do, she is swathed in black, like a shadow. It is as though the women have vanished, been stolen away, and all that is left is men, stately men, like angels in their crisp, clean white gowns and fetchingly embroidered caps - no boring white cloths for headdresses here.
Back at the goat market, however, the dishdashas are not so spotless and the long, lean faces are less remote - especially when butted by a grand grey bull that objects to being dragged by the horns around the stone arena.
Here, I do see a few women - Bedouin in black face masks, wrenching open the mouths of kids and calves. One wears a gold mask. A few westerners hang about on the edges, taking pictures and looking astonished. Their bright clothes look absurdly out of place, like something Doctor Who brought in.
If you want to time-travel, Oman is certainly the place. Less conservative than Saudi Arabia, much less westernised than Dubai, it is the perfect introduction to the Gulf states. Flying home, I felt refreshed - perhaps in part by the barrenness. I felt as though I'd been on a retreat, rather than just a holiday. It was even oddly agreeable to feel invisible after a while.
While Dubai, it is said, is losing its soul, Oman's is still intact, and its tourism is just beginning.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson was a guest of ITC Classics.
Tour operators: ITC Classics (01244 355527, www.itcclassics.co.uk) has five nights in a Serai superior room at the Chedi (www.ghmhotels.com), from £910pp, including British Airways flights from Heathrow to Muscat and private transfers. A trip to the Wahiba Sands in a 4WD vehicle, lasting 11 hours and covering more than 300 miles, costs £210 for two people; a four-hour Muscat city tour costs £150. Other operators include Harlequin Holidays (0845 450 6433, www.harlequinholidays.com), Seasons in Style (01244 202000,www.seasonsinstyle.com) and The Private Travel Company (020 7751 0880, www.theprivatetravelcompany.co.uk).