Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bordering on the ridiculous

Yesterday, Shannon and I finally made it across the UAE border into Oman. I say 'finally' because it was our second attempt to do so. I recently purchased a guide to hiking in Oman, and I’ve been eager to leave the coastal deserts of the UAE to test out the rugged terrain of the al Hajar al Gharbi (the Western mountains). Having consulted the slightly minimalist but seemingly sufficient maps included in the guide as well as taking care of a few other necessary logistics, we set off confidently last Friday morning for a day hike in Oman, looking forward to the scenic vistas and invigorating exercise we would soon enjoy (is that enough foreshadowing for you?).

Our 2-hour drive to the UAE/Oman border was lovely but uneventful. The trip only began to get interesting once we came to the border post. Pulling up to the "drive-thruesque" window, we told the Emirati officer that we were heading to Oman to do some hiking, in response to which he wished us well on our journey and pointed us in the direction of the correct Omani checkpoint for our intended destination. And we were off! I had read online that some tourists encountered difficulties at the borders, but I found myself thinking: That wasn't so bad (there's some more of that foreshadowing).

As we drove away from the UAE border, we marveled at the extreme change in scenery, the distant horizon suddenly filling with jagged mountains. But after about 10 minutes without any sign of a border, we began to ask ourselves, "Uhh, where is this checkpoint our friendly Emirati officer mentioned?" I consulted the map only to discover it did not have the detail required to be of much help in our current situation. Finally spotting a service station, I pulled in to buy a better map, but sadly they did not sell maps. A second service station wasn’t open at all. Not knowing if we should turn back or keep going, I cursed myself for not having been better prepared and grew increasingly frustrated, letting out deafening sighs every thirty seconds or so as we drove on.

Shannon, ever the good trooper, sweetly suggested that we just enjoy exploring the magnificent scenery around us, even going so far as to suggest the possibility that we might have to postpone the hike for another weekend (as it was growing late). Incredulous to what I was hearing, I scoffed at her weakness and vowed to never give up (of course, this was only my interior monologue).

Well, after another seemingly interminable ten minutes of continuing blindly down the road, we spotted the Omani border. "Huzzah!" I thought to myself, "Victory at last!" We pulled into the parking lot and went inside to take care of the necessary paperwork to enter Oman legally. But when we arrived at the counter and presented our passports, the Omani official asked us a simple question for which we had no answer: "Where is the UAE exit stamp on your passports?"

"What exit stamp? We were just waved through the UAE side of the border; they gave us no exit stamp." As I said these words, I realized that we had made a huge mistake, or more accurately, our friendly Emirati border patrolman had made a huge mistake. The Omani officials could not let us into their country without an exit stamp from the UAE to prove our legitimacy, and very politely but firmly suggested we retrace the 30 kilometers to the UAE border to obtain the stamp before returning to the Omani border. At this point, we broke out in laughter (what else could we do?) at the silly day we were having and headed to the car, concluding that this development coupled with the dwindling hours of daylight meant we must retreat back to the UAE in temporary defeat. Little did we know that we had one more obstacle in our way…

On the road back to the UAE, we noticed signage for a border checkpoint closer than the one we had originally crossed. Happy to shave off a few minutes of driving, we turned in and presented our passports. The Emirati inquisitively flipped through them, paused for a few moments, and asked us to park our car and come inside (never a good sign).

Once inside, he asked us where our Omani exit stamp was. We explained that we didn't have one because we didn't actually go into Oman because we didn't have a UAE exit stamp. This did not clear up the situation. Why don’t you have a UAE exit stamp? He wanted to know. "Because one of your colleagues at the other border point slacked off" didn't translate well from English to Arabic, and we basically found ourselves talking past each other in broken sentences. He wanted to send us back to Oman for an exit stamp before he would let us into the UAE, but he didn't seem to understand that we needed to enter the UAE now in order to get an exit stamp so we could go back to you see the tragic cycle we had entered? As I was beginning to imagine a scenario involving Hilary Clinton negotiating our rescue while we camped out in no-man’s land, the officer decided to waive us through.

At that point, you might think that we grabbed our passports and rushed back to the UAE as quickly as possible, thankful for avoiding any further bureaucratic complications...but you'd be wrong. Having just discovered on the map what looked to be another point of entry into Oman which made more sense in light of our hiking destination, I decided to make the most of our time there and ask for future reference, "Is it possible to cross into Oman at Mezyad?" Immediately, Shannon began tugging anxiously at my sleeve, to which I brushed her off with a "Hold on honey, this'll just take a moment." But precisely at this moment, the officer’s superior entered the room and looked at me expectantly, so I repeated my question.

The superior motioned for me to hand back our passports."You want to go to Mezyad? Where is your exit stamp?" I heard Shannon let out an exasperated sigh beside me and could feel an "I told you so" coming in the near future, but I continued trying to get my point across.

I replied, "No, we're fine for now. We've already been cleared by your colleague here. We want to go to Mezyad next week."

He kept repeating the need for an exit stamp and eyeing me and my passport with suspicion, and I realized that his mastery of the English language did not extend to the hypothetical or even future tense. After trying another few times to communicate my intentions only to be met with blank stares, we found ourselves at a stalemate. But just as frustrated with the experience as we were, and seeing the line queuing behind us, he finally returned our passports and waived us into the UAE. After vigorously thanking him, we drove away as fast as legally permissible, grateful to be on our way back home.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we did finally make it into Oman (yesterday) for that hike, having done a bit more research and planning this past week and determining to say as little as possible at the border checkpoints. As it turns out, the excursion proceeded quite smoothly, and we were able to enjoy some of Oman's fantastic scenery, both in the car and on the trail. Below are a few shots from our hike.

Abandoned village near Wadi Ghul

Exploring the ruins

At the top

View of Wadi Ghul

Heading back down at sunset


  1. I went through the UAE border at Hili as the more convient one is for GCC Nationals only (hope Heathrow dosnt decide to copy that and send all non EU nationals to Gatwick.
    Hili is probably the only border in the world where the same queue of traffic is for exit and entry and where the appropriate room has no signage at its entrance at all - simply luck or verbal directions

  2. As usual, your pictures are incredible. I love your stories, Sam!

  3. I was holding my breath while reading about your first experience. Kind of scary. Looking up Oman online, I see where you were is pretty close to Yemen, which is not a place you would want to wander into. Like those hapless three students who wandered over the Pakistan border into Iran early last year and are still being held there. You need lots of extra angels stationed around you for your future ventures into Oman, it would seem. That's where the gal I told Shannon about, Mona, lives.

  4. AWESOME!! Loved the stories and pictures. wish i could come visit!! thanks for sharing. XOXO

  5. Great story. The best part was when you used the word "Huzzah!" I know you are living in the UAE, but I didn't know you were also living in the late 1800's.

    Keep the posts coming!

  6. Priceless! :-) You guys are making some great memories. It was fun to read your story, Sam, and recollect some of the crazy border crossings I have had in Africa. It's so fun for me to have friends who are experiencing some of the same stuff I have. I look forward to hearing more...