Khor Fakkan – Sharjah’s Best Kept Secret

“Sharjah” – this name would often conjure up an image of a desert with mosques scattered across its parched terrain. I thought this Arab city would be a quick trip – a short walk by the souqs, a desert safari, and I’d have seen pretty much all that this place has to offer. I would realize on my maiden trip to this emirate how wrong I was in my imagination.

Khor Fakkan - beyond the desert plains

Sharjah – beyond the desert plains

Big Surprises Come in Small Packages

On my third day in Sharjah, the plan was to visit the town of Khor Fakkan. Little has been spoken or written about this place which technically is a part of Sharjah, but geographically surrounded by Fujairah. It was a long road journey which took us through the Hajar range of mountains, and well into the emirate of Fujairah.

Our terrain transforms from plains to mountains

Our terrain transforms from plains to mountains

Time-Traveling to the 15th Century

We passed a couple of mosques on our way to Khor Fakkan, but the most striking of all was Al Bidiya – a mosque wrapped in layers of plaster from 1446 AD. This mosque is quite unusual in its architecture as it has four pointed domes – something missing in the modern mosque designs.

We had started ascending the Hajjar Mountains soon enough. And, I knew this when it started to get cold. I wasn’t carrying a jacket as I’d assumed Sharjah would be anything but cold on that sunny afternoon. I did not have the time to hike up those mountains, and I know I’ll have to go back to do just that someday.

We start gaining altitude on the Al Hajar mountains

We start gaining altitude on Al Hajar mountains

Mountain-Top Local Markets

We stopped for a while in a little village to have some Suleimani chai and succulent dates. You will be surprised to know of the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Emirates, especially around oases. The fertility of the soil varies here. This land is not all dry and barren. Local markets are also where you can bargain well. The friendly shopkeepers will let you taste some of their dry fruits on display when they know you will be buying. Food aside, you can also find warm kaftans and jackets with middle eastern prints as you stroll through the roadside.

A fruit market in a village in Fujairah

A fruit market in a village in Fujairah

Seeing the Arabian Sea

As we drove further, our view changed completely! We were driving along the Gulf of Oman, gulping down the dazzling waves of the Arabian Sea with our eyes. Khor Fakkan (which literally means ‘gulf of jaw’) is the only town in Sharjah which lets you see the Gulf of Oman.

The Gulf of Oman beckons!

The Gulf of Oman beckons!

A Bite of Luxury at the Oceanic Hotel

Khor Fakkan’s 4 star Oceanic Resort and Spa was the perfect place to put up my feet and take in the view of the turquoise waters of the Khor Fakkan Beach. Even though alcohol is strictly prohibited all across Sharjah, you will miss none of the beach excitement when you can spend your lazy afternoons sipping on some iced tea and gazing into the horizon before you.

Chilling at the private beach of the Oceanic Resort at Khor Fakkan

Chilling at the private beach of the Oceanic Resort at Khor Fakkan

Meandering into Mleiha

A short drive from Khor Fakkan lies the Mleiha Desert. Its sand is distinctive with a touch of orange in the light brown. The Mleiha Archeological Centre is where they study fossils unearthed from this desert. There is a museum here that every kid touring Sharjah must be taken to. It’s quite experiential and informative.

We arrive at a gorgeous oasis and see scores of palm trees

We arrive at a gorgeous oasis and see scores of palm trees

Time for Desert Safari

Mleiha is also where you can take a desert safari over the undulating sands. Unlike in Dubai, the experience you have in Sharjah will be more intimate as you won’t have the crowd. This is also a no non-sense desert safari which focuses on nature, and skips the belly dance in the end. Plus, you get to stop at some locations to examine some fossils yourself! (I can already see the paleontologists smiling 😉 )

The smooth sands of Meliha desert are perfect for a safari!

The smooth sands of Mleiha desert are perfect for a safari!

Khor Fakkan and Mleiha may not be Sharjah’s only (open) secrets, but they sure are worth exploring! We often make the mistake of judging a place by the first look or through someone else’s opinion. It is time we went out on our own to discover what popular media won’t tell us. Some secrets are better kept when shared, don’t you think? I’ve let you in on Sharjah’s secret. Won’t you tell me yours?

Soaking in the breeze of this arid land

Soaking in the breeze of this arid land

Have you also discovered lesser known things about popular places? Let my readers (and me) know through your comments below! 🙂

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Disclosure: I was hosted by the Sharjah Tourism and Commerce Development Authority. However, all views are entirely my own.

Kolkata with my Eyes Closed…

We experience so many sensations when we visit a place. Some dazzle us with their visual appeal, some delight us with their melody, some flatter our taste buds with their strong or subtle flavours. And then there are those that refuse to leave us when we have long left the place. Today, I’m going to talk about some sensations that have attained a state of permanence in my subconscious. And most of these are deeply linked to the distinct scents they carry.

Of all the smells that my olfactory faculties sense, those originating in Kolkata remain the most powerful. Last year, my mum and I booked our tickets, packed our bags, and set off to “the city of  joy”. Here’s the first meal that greeted us:-

A full Bengali meal

A full Bengali meal

The inviting aroma of warm mung dal drew me out of my room and I decided I should unpack later. Before me was a large plate full of Bengali delicacies. Food so flavourful is eaten with hand! The hot meal was spiced with asafoetida and turmeric, but there was a perfect balancing element – the sweet dish. The blood-red tomato-chutney was subtly sweet and tempered with black sesame seeds. But my favourite dish was mishti doi, the famous pink-tinted yogurt which is sweetened with khejur-gur (date-jaggery). Served in a small earthen urn, mishti doi always manages to tranquilize me with its delicate scent of succulent dates that mixes with the smell of  baked earth.

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Kolkata feeds not just your body but also your mind. On our way to Victoria Memorial, we walked past a string of royally embellished carriages drawn by handsome Arab stallions and English thoroughbreds. I don’t know what the 18th century smelled like, but to me it smells like fresh paint blended with hay from horse stables. This unusual odour is so potent, it makes one dream of the times one only reads in History textbooks.

Human cart

Retirement? What is that?

When one thinks of the olden times, one cannot help but notice old age. I walked around the streets to find several rickshaw pullers awaiting their customers. Quite a few amongst them were well past their middle age; their hair, a snowy shade of white; their salt-and-pepper beard, more salt and less pepper. In the damp air, I smelled their spirit and strength to carry on with work and let age only remain a number.

The 'sisters' at the annual procession

The ‘sisters’ at the annual procession

Kolkata is full of noises – the bleat of a cycle-rickshaw horn, the holler of a bag-seller, the ringing bells of a tram, the creaking of a rickety State-bus and the constant shuffling of feet. But I found peace amidst the noise – several nuns (from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity) walked quietly through the streets at their annual procession. If peace has a smell, it’s most certainly that of starched cotton.

Nepalese momos in Calcuttan streets

Nepalese momos – Calcutta’s street surprise!

This city can start feeling like home in a few days. The Albanian Saint Teresa stayed back in Kolkata for many years and so have people from various other countries. The intermingling of different tongues has also brought about a revolution in the Bengali food circuit with the introduction of many cuisines. The momos, every other Bengali’s favourite, are actually from Nepal. For only 20 rupees a plate, these momos are a steal! The stuffed, steamed dumplings come with a spicy dip and a bowl of piping hot soup. I take one long whiff of this street food and my brain instantly declares Chinese! But I bite into a tender momo and know this is definitely not Chinese.

The Bangali puchka

The Bangali puchka

Once enamoured by a street-snack, I can’t help but dig into some more. I reach a puchka-stall and order a round of serving. The ellipsoid puris are like nothing I’ve seen before! These flour-crisps are bigger and longer than the regular spherical puris one sees in the rest of India. The smell of tamarind in the puchka-water makes me ask for another round of puchkas!

Ever been invited for a Bengali tea break?

Ever been invited for tea at a Bengali’s?

Eating in Kolkata doesn’t only happen outside. In fact, it mostly happens in the homes of the locals. The snack-spread in Bengal is slightly different from the elaborate lunches and dinners. Tea time is an intimate moment of reflection and discussion on all matters that affect the world. Friendships are forged over the aromatic Darjeeling tea or the malty Assam tea with some sugar-coated biscuits on the side. Bengalis drink tea like a European would wine. Tea is first tasted with the eyes as one discerns whether the colour is strong or translucent. The teacup is then brought to the nose to appreciate its aroma. It is finally sipped and gulped with some knowledge of the flavour.

I can distinctly smell Kolkata when I close my eyes, every fragrance becoming clear to me. Do you ever notice the smell of a new place? Has any place left a scent in your soul?