Archive | April 2014

Tales of Tehran

Home to over 14 million residents, Tehran, the bustling capital and the largest city of Iran is also the most populated in the country where tradition and modernity coexist peacefully.

Tehran Skyline

Situated 1200 meters above sea level in the north-central part of Iran at the foot of the towering Alborz mountain range is Tehran. Within its 1500 sq. kms, the city packs an amazing variety of attractions catering to the fancy of every kind of traveller. Breathtaking museums which showcase the ancient and rich heritage of the country, well-maintained parks (over 800) to unwind and relax, world-class stadiums hosting sports and games, theatres staging plays, an amazing selection of culinary outlets to tickle the taste buds, are but a few of the attractions.

To witness firsthand how antiquity is coexisting peacefully with modernity, Tehran is perhaps one of the best examples in the modern world. Being the heart of Iran’s vibrant culture, burgeoning economy, dynamic politics and rich social life makes Tehran a destination not to be missed by any discerning traveller.

History: Tehran’s history dates back centuries, but is today a cosmopolitan metropolis. Possibly the first mention of the name Tehran can be traced back to the 10th century as some excavated manuscripts have revealed. In the distant past it seems to have been nothing bigger than a small hamlet with gardens. The city began growing in size and stature between the years 1501-1736, during the Safavid period. Ruled by different Kings, from Shah Tehmasp (1524-1576), Agha Mohammad Khan who founded the Qajar dynasty which flourished from 1776-1925, Naser od-Din who was the Shah of Iran from 1848-1896, Tehran was converted into a walled city to repel attacks from ambitious invaders who were drawn towards the city’s riches. Blessed with year-round holiday activities, Tehran can be enjoyed almost equally during any part of the year.

Golestan Palace: This must-visit complex is the oldest of the historic monuments in this city. The complex is in fact a strange combination many different things including 17 palaces, museums, and halls. The Qajars’ royal residences with its accompanying gardens and the Golestan (Rose Garden) citadel are one of mainly visited places in Tehran. An unpretentious building houses objects d’art from the Qajar period. In the Golestan garden, a one-story pavilion shelters one of the best organized museums in Tehran. It encloses about thirty showcases presenting almost everything related to Iran, which makes up the critical originality of Iranian life across the variety of provinces of the country.

Treasury of National Jewels: Check out the amazing collection of some of the world’s most expensive and exclusive jewels kept here for public display. Not to be missed items include the world’s largest uncut ruby, the ‘Sea of Light’ which happens to be the world’s largest pink diamond and an astounding free standing globe made from some 34 kilos of gold and studded with 51,366 precious stones!

National Museum of Iran: This is actually two buildings connected as one. The old building serves as a store house of excavated artefacts including stoneetched figurines, ceramic pieces and carvings dating from the pre-Islamic, Neolithic period of 5th millennium BC up to the Sassanid period, while the new building house more recent 1,400-year old Islamic history.

Tehran

Azadi Tower: This most iconic symbol of Tehran was built in a unique style which combines the Sassanid and Islamic architectures. This monument was constructed to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Directly beneath the entrance of the tower are the main vaults which lead visitors into the Azadi museum down in its basement.

Milad Tower: Claim to fame is this tower happens to be the world’s 12th tallest freestanding structure in the world and the 4th tallest tower in the world. Needless to add, one can spot this landmark from almost any corner of Tehran.

Jamshidieh Park: No mention of Tehran will be complete without talking about the absolutely picturesque Jamshidieh Park, situated at the foot of the Kolakchal mountains. Besides this star attraction, Tehran is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural parks like the Mellat Park, which also happens to be one of the largest recreation centres in the entire Middle East, the Niavaran Park, next to the Niavaram Palace, which is very popular with the locals as well as the tourists, besides certain areas colloquially known as the ‘parke-jangali’, meaning ‘forest parks’, a favourite haunt of the locals for day outings and family picnics.

Tehran Snow

Ski attractions: The mountain slopes on which this city stands provide for some excellent skiing during winters. Particularly famous are the ski resorts situated in the Alborz range of north Tehran, hosting the tallest peak. Shemshak and Dizine are the other noteworthy ski destinations, where ski experts claim the snow quality is one of the finest in the entire world!

Jordan – The Kingdom of Culture

Jordan’s cultural, historical and natural treasures play a huge part of what the country is about. Any story on Jordan would be very incomplete without them…

Petra

 

The ancient city of Petra has traditionally been what Jordan is most famous for. The design and construction of Petra represents the engineering genius of the Nabataean tribe – an industrious Arab people that settled here over 2,000 years ago, when the area was an important junction for the silk and spice routes. Access to the entrance of Petra is through a deep, narrow gorge. From here, visitors get their first glimpse of the city’s massive, 50 metre high façade of the main entrance. Petra today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’.

The Dead Sea, resting over 420 metres below sea level, is another Jordanian icon. Since ancient times, people have made their way to the sea’s warm, buoyant and mineral rich waters. Wellness treatments combining Dead Sea water and the rich black mud found along its shore can increase circulation, ease arthritis, revitalise the skin – and provide many other health benefits. It is hard not to be deeply affected by the surreal quality of Wadi Rum – the famous desert valley in southern Jordan, which is home to a maze of monolithic rock formations that rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres. It is possible to schedule a trip of several days in Wadi Rum – done on camel back or by four-wheel drive.

A close second to Petra on the list of historical destinations in Jordan is the ancient city of Jerash. Located 48 kilometres north of Amman, Jerash is one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world, outside Italy.

General Jordan

Modern Jordan – the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon – was founded by King Abdullah I after World War I. It was ruled by his grandson, the late King Hussein, for 46 years until his death in 1999, when his son, King Abdullah II, assumed the throne. Since then, Jordan has grown into a modern nation that has enjoyed remarkable measures of peace, stability and economic growth. With warm, dry summers and cool winters, Jordan has a Mediterranean-style climate. This makes it an attractive year-round destination for visitors. Major cities are the capital Amman and Salt in the west; Irbid, Jerash and Zarqa in the north west; and Madaba, Karak and Aqaba in the south west. Major towns in the eastern part of the country are the oasis town of Azraq and Ruwaished.

The highest point in the country is the 1,854 metre high Jabal Umm al Dami, which experiences seasonal snowfall at its peak. The lowest point is the Dead Sea, which is at 420 metres below sea level in the Jordan Rift Valley. The waters off Aqaba, on Jordan’s section of Red Sea coastline, contain a vast array of tropical marine life. Here, there is the chance to dive and snorkel with schools of colourful fish – and possibility encounter sea turtles, dolphins and whale sharks. It has been said that Aqaba also represents a microcosm of all the good things Jordan has to offer: excellent hotels, superb visitor facilities, good shopping and friendly people.

Jordan’s Natural Wonders

One of Jordan’s greatest assets are its nature reserves – most of which are ‘undiscovered’ by mainstream tourism. For instance, the Ajlun Nature Reserve in the Ajlun highlands consists of beautiful Mediterranean-like hill country, dominated by open woodlands of Oak and Pistachio trees. The spectacularly scenic Mujib Reserve is called the ‘lowest nature reserve in the world’ due to it’s proximity to the Dead Sea. And the Dana Biosphere is interesting as it is the only reserve in Jordan that encompasses all four of the country’s bio-geographical zones. There are other nature reserves too. The Shawmari Reserve was created in 1975 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, and is today a thriving environment for the protection of rare animals from the Middle East. The newest addition to Jordan’s network of nature reserves is Dibeen. Located north of Amman, it offers nature walks, wonderful views of the countryside, and an exceptionally large variety of tree species.

Amman: Jordan’s Centre Stage

If much of Jordan’s attractiveness lies in its history, culture, and natural resources, then the capital, Amman, represents something completely different. The city still retains much of its old-world charm, and if one is willing to look for it, they’ll be fascinated by the history and heritage of what is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. However, there’s a good reason why Amman is often referred to as the most sophisticated city in the Middle East, and a bustling metropolis. Amman is the modern, trendy, commercial centre of the region, and it hums with the energy of trendy cafes, start-up businesses, galleries, boutiques, classy shopping malls and entertainment venues – all of which are filled with Jordan’s fashionable, fun-loving crowd that are serious about ‘living the good life’. The city consists of an older, more traditional region referred to as the downtown area – and then a more modern, vibrant area in the western part. Amman is very much a city of hills – to get anywhere one will have to zoom up and down many hills. The positive part about this is that there are spectacular views at almost every turn. Amman’s mall and market culture is a big part of what the city is about. Besides the malls that stock international brands and designer items, there are other shopping experiences not to be missed.

For instance, at the Balad, the busy downtown area in the old heart of the city, you can walk through a maze of street cafes and shop stalls that sell everything from fruits and spices, to souvenirs, clothes, hardware items, and all kinds of tasty local dishes. Wakalat Street is a pedestrian street in Sweifieh that has shops, restaurants and cafes with open areas for sitting, relaxing and ‘people watching’. The much-loved Shari’ Al-Rainbow is a cobblestone street that has a European feel to it, and is populated with small antique stores, clothing shops, restaurants, cafes and tea shops.

It’s been said that the people of Amman are multi-cultural, multi-denominational, welleducated and extremely hospitable – and they welcome visitors and take pride in showing them around their fascinating and vibrant city. What more could any visitor desire?

Oman Air flies seven times a week between Muscat-Amman.

Diving the Daymaniyats: The Jewel in the crown of undersea Oman

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Oman and its people have a long and rich history with the sea. For thousands of years, Omani merchants and sailors have journeyed into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean in search of trade and adventure.

In modern times, Oman has become well known for its spectacular diving potential. The jewel in the crown of Oman diving is the Daymaniyat and Sawadi Island chain, which is located about 75 kilometres east of Muscat, beginning just off the coastline at Barka. While the Sawadi Islands are always worth seeing, the nine main islands that make up the Daymaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, which are further out to see, are the most impressive. From Nabucco´s Al Sawadi Beach Resort to the uninhabited island group, it is just a 45 minute trip with the Extra Divers Worldwide dive boat. (The Extra Divers Al Sawadi centre forms the closest base from which to dive the Daymaniyats).

The islands begin about 18 kilometres out sea, and are clustered together in three groups – often referred to as the Western, Central and Eastern (including the Southeastern islands) sections. There are between 20 and 30 dive sites scattered around the area – all of which are accessed via boat. However, the nature of the undersea terrain means that at almost any point, there is a fascinating array of marine life to experience, and underwater features like caves, drop-offs, huge boulders and underwater swim-throughs to explore.

Aquarium: One of the most popular dive sites of the Daymaniyats is the Aquarium, where there is a huge variety of reef and pelagic fish species, and larger marine creatures like stingrays, eagle rays, turtles, moray eels, scorpion fish, various species of sharks, and Whale Sharks at certain times of the year.

Hayut: At the Hayut dive site, which would suit more advanced divers, there are coral coated walls – many of which are overhanging – that drop down to 25 to 28 metres in depth and contain all kinds of marine creatures, including large Moray Eels.

The Daymaniyat Islands have been protected as a nature reserve since 1996 and provide an important nesting site for hawksbill and green turtles, as well as a wide range of migratory birds – mostly during the summer months. Given their protected status, access to the Daymaniyats is restricted, and you’re not allowed to land on the islands during certain months during summer. During the rest of the year you’ll require a permit, which can be arranged by your dive centre or tour operator.

During the trip out to the islands, dolphins are also often encountered. Coral reefs with dozens of hard and soft coral species cover up to 70% of the dive sites. The marine life is prolific and there are all kinds of colourful reef fish and large pelagic fish in abundance.

Various types of sharks and rays, and numerous other large and small marine creatures (including the much-loved seahorses) are all part of the experience.

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Whale Sharks are also frequent visitors here during the summer months – from around July to September. ‘There is not much in the world that can compare to an encounter with a whale shark,’ says Gerrit Schneider, from Extra Divers Worldwide. Turtles are common too, with many returning during the summer months to lay their eggs on the island’s white, sandy beaches.

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Diving conditions: Water visibility is generally decent throughout the year, but during the summer months it can be excellent – up to 15 to 20 metres and more at certain times. Water temperatures are around 29 C° to 31 C° in summer and 20 C° to 22 C° in winter. Most of the dive sites are between 8 metres and 27 metres deep.

If you aren’t a qualified scuba diver, you’ll still be able to experience the marine life and sea creatures by snorkeling. Typically, you’ll join a boat of divers heading out to the islands, and while they’re busy underwater, you’ll be able to explore the shallower patches of coral reef in the area. Under the water, or at the surface, the Daymaniyats are not to be missed!

Ancient Paths

A visitor to Oman, Danny Buckland, describes his experience of an endangered green turtle laying her eggs in the sand at Ras-al-Jinz, and tiny hatchlings from another nest making their way to the sea.

turtle

The atmosphere can be hypnotic, and the true wonder happens early in the morning when, atop a 100-foot high dune, the full moon slips into view and a lazy sun lumbers over the horizon to provide colours and hues no human hand could create. The sensory overload is matched by the wonder of watching a giant green turtle emerge from the waters of the Gulf at the Ras-al-Jinz turtle reserve, to lay her eggs.

The early signs were not promising. Too many visitors and a full moon created a disturbing combination to deter the giant green turtles from emerging from the waters of the Gulf. An endangered species through over-fishing and pollution, the cycle of life for this graceful creature of the deep is perilous. And, here on a beach in Oman, at the very eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, it is a Discovery Channel moment as a female turtle lumbers across the sands to lay a clutch of around 120 eggs. On the beaches of Ras-al-Jinz, the Omani government’s environment ministry is balancing protection for the turtles with the need for greater awareness of their plight. Their policy allows small groups to be guided to the beaches, which are the hatching grounds for five species of at-risk turtles. The process for the green turtle is laborious and fraught with danger. The pirouetting dynamism of a seaborne life disappears as they become slow-moving targets on land.

Females return to their birthplace after almost 37 years to lay their first set of eggs. Only two of the hatchlings will live to maturity and make that same journey. The mother invests massive amounts of energy to lay her eggs – a two hour labour of love that brings her to the brink of exhaustion – only to become the ultimate absent parent by not taking a backward glance after covering the eggs and vanishing off into the deep waters on an astonishing migratory route that will cover more than 2 000km miles and bring her back to the same beach three years later. Some people will have seen this spectacle on television, but nothing can compare to a front row seat. Low-level torches gave a dull glow to reveal a turtle that had dug a large hollow and was lying at an angle over a deeper cylindrical chamber where her glistening white eggs, the size of golf balls, were dropping. In 30 minutes the last egg would be in place and she would engage in the primeval choreography of covering the hole by flicking sand back with her massive front flippers and smoothing the surface with her rear legs before edging forward. The flashlight occasionally picked out the brightness of her jet-black eyes, full of intent. Periodic gasps revealed the huge effort needed to perform on land. This is a raw, natural event. Her DNA had propelled her up the beach and locked her into a Herculean effort to create life and then, after the selfless act, she slithered back into the sea, having nothing to do with the hatchlings, which would attempt to follow her route some 55 days later.

Further down the beach, three tiny sand-flecked turtles from a different and earlier nest site – smaller than a handprint – had emerged from their nest to head down to the sea. It was a treacherous 100m dash with jackals and rodents patrolling nearby.

Turtle 1

Their miniature flippers skittered as they struggled up ridges in the sand and somersaulted down, landing on their back with frantic flaying. Small and soft-shelled they were easy pickings for a predator. The trio had probably the safest run to the sea because of the group’s presence, but they didn’t know that and every fibre of their existence was wound up to reach the breakers. They scaled tyre tracks and ruts and careered down the slopes to the sea. All three made it; whether they would return was in nature’s hands. The turtle reserve at Ras-al-Jinz is just one of the growing array of eco-tourism opportunities on offer in Oman, the Middle East sultanate. The range is impressive, from pristine beaches to towering mountain ranges, from deserts to wadis – pools of water in rock formations – where Omanis gather to swim, dance, sing and fire up barbecues.

Visitors can trek and climb through the spectacular ranges, enjoy nature reserves and shop and bargain through traditional souks, which have stunning displays of goods. The natural friendly nature of the people enhances every moment in this experience-rich land, which balances ancient and modern, from the traditional crafts and mosques to luxury hotels.

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