Part of the planning of our big trip was that we would be visiting some of the most amazing places on Earth, places that may not be around forever. There is a reason the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat are world-famous and that is something we took into consideration when explaining what I considered “the best thing.”
Delhi was covered in a fog the morning we left for Agra, our train crawled across the country side and we couldn’t see a thing. That didn’t bode well for the Taj everyone told us. So we arrived in Agra in the late morning, only a couple hours overdue, and headed to a cafe near the southern entrance where we could wait off the fog. Our tuk tuk driver told us the afternoon would be better, but as the minutes ticked by we figured we’d go ahead and enter.
The Taj Mahal in the fog was stunning. This photo is the first time we could see it. It was impossible to see from the entrance. There was no crowd and it was actually quite cold, making our experience rather pleasant. We could study the inlay without being rushed. It was a good day to see the Taj after all… however no beautiful sunset photos here. Another time maybe? If it doesn’t collapse first.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Golden Rock was THE inspiration for this entire trip. Of course, it was one of the expected amazing things. You can read all about it here.
The Temples at Angkor (more commonly called Angkor Wat)
Of course the Temples at Angkor were amazing. This city was lost and then rediscovered by missionaries in 1860, a vast complex of crumbling Khmer temples. Ryan and I reserved a motorized tuk tuk with driver for the day and went to some really inspiring places. While Angkor was amazing, I didn’t love the town of Siem Reap that has grown up around it, but that is for another blog post.
Great Wall of China
Another big hitter on the list of amazing places. Here we took a day tour, arranged through our AMAZING Airbnb homestay (also, please use my Airbnb referral link… free money for both of us!), to the Mutianyu portion of the Wall. It had snowed the previous day and was freezing when we left Beijing in the morning. Fun fact: if it’s cold and windy on the ground, it only gets worse up on the wall without the protection.
We were very lucky that day, as the sun was shining and the wind was generally low. Meaning it was somewhat hot up on the wall with all the hiking around. We opted to take the stairs to the top, instead of the gondola, and covered something like 7 watchtowers. I wish we’d had a little bit more time to explore, but am happy I got to see a beautifully preserved/rebuilt portion of the wall. Seeing the expanse of wall laid out before you is incredible.
The Hagia was once said to be the most beautiful building in the world. It served as a functioning Christian cathedral for over 900 years and then a mosque for almost 500 years, making it the longest-serving religious building in the world. Atatürk converted it into a museum in 1935, allowing everyone the ability to see a piece of this incredibly beautiful building.
I’d seen the Hagia before, on a previous trip to Istanbul, but it was just as incredible to see a second time.
Petra is considered one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World, and with a very good reason. Seeing this ancient city carved out of rock–and seeing the engineering it took to make it happen–was phenomenal. Click through on the panorama for a bigger photo.
We visited in mid-March, shortly after news came out that a Jordanian pilot has been executed by ISIS in Syria. Petra is in Jordan and Jordan is just south of Syria. Needless to say, the place was deserted. Others loss was a huge gain for us, as we were able to spend an entire day exploring without seeing very many people at all. Most of our photos are empty of people, a bizarre experience to say the least. That said, we felt perfectly safe the entire time we were in Jordan. Most of the big tourist sites lay toward the south, near Israel or Egypt. Jordan was incredible and certainly a highlight despite the short time we spent there.
Jerusalem is another one of the world-famous big hitters. The entire old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it’s more known for the pervasiveness of religion that surrounds it.
The only place we weren’t able to visit was Temple Mount because it’s restricted to Muslims only during a vast majority of the time. However, Ryan and I really enjoyed the Via Dolorosa, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is believed to have been buried and risen (by Catholics and Orthodox, Protestant Christians believe he was buried elsewhere) and we visited the Western Wall, the holiest place in all of Judaism. The Western Wall is often referred to as the Wailing Wall and my experience there was quite powerful and personal, something I have found difficult to experience in the modern Western religious context.
Side note: Jerusalem was also on my list of unexpected places I loved.
So there you have it, the places we expected to be awesome, and they were.
This is a young man we met in Israel who is descended from the House of Israel (Bet Israel). He is doing is military service right now and let us chatter away at him in Amharic, even though he spoke neither Amharic nor English much, only Hebrew.
It was the first person we met with ties to Ethiopia after leaving six months ago. Little did we know we’d soon see some of the Ethiopian Orthodox community in Jerusalem on our way along the via Dolorosa.
These are the priests who keep watch over the Ethiopian Orthodox altar at the Church of the Holy Selpulcher. One of these three is actually from Bahir Dar.
While it shouldn’t have been wholly unexpected to meet these Ethiopians in Jerusalem, it was a wonderful experience all the same. I’ve been contemplating over the past couple days as Ethiopia has appeared once again in unexpected places.
Welcome back! This is a continuation of a previous post (The Unexpected, Part I) covering the second half of the trip.
Tet in Vietnam
Vietnam is one of those places that is absolutely incredible. It is one of those places that just seemed to call to me and is a place I so desperately want to go back to and see more of. Since we were here during a major holiday, we only were able to stay in one place and not explore the rest of the country. The north is definitely on the list for next time.
We were here during Tet, also known as Spring Festival, Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year. It was a thrilling combination of chaos and quiet, often wedged back to back and together. Ryan and I stayed in an AMAZING Airbnb (if you are not already signed up, use this link for $25 off your first stay!) with a family during the holiday. The family was SO kind and invited us to celebrate the New Year with their extended family on the night they hosted. We were able to visit Flower Street on New Years Eve and then watch the fireworks from our room. (If you are heading through Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for more than a couple days, check out Chau’s Airbnb listing. It’s a wonderful base to explore from!)
On New Years Day, when the entire city shuts down, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a museum that remembers the other side of the US War with Vietnam. Growing up an American, I’ve always known what America collectively thought of the war, but it was very grounding to see what it was like for the victors and survivors. The museum also includes perspectives on the French colonial period and Chinese wars.
Ryan studied abroad here and my sister taught English here, so I expected a lot out of Beijing. It fulfilled all my expectations and more.
We stayed in a lovely little hutong near Lake Houhai. And since Beijing is such an ancient city, we were never short on things to see and places to explore. Not to mention, the food was amazing! We had so many incredible dumplings, Beijing duck, hot pot and basically whatever we could find.
In Jordan, you hear so much about “Bedouin” hospitality that I shouldn’t have been surprised when we were welcomed with wide open arms by everyone we encountered. From the hotel owner and his brothers (who showed us the best places to eat in Petra and took us to an illicit beer bar) to the random guy we met in a hookah cafe while trying to use the internet, everyone was so kind. It surprised me a little, since I’d heard some negative stories from other travelers, but for us it was great.
Jerusalem actually falls under both expected and unexpected. The unexpected is that I didn’t expect to find such open dialogue and, for the most part, acceptance. When you have a city that is the holiest city in three major world religions, it’s hard not to find amazing things around every corner. The city emits a vibe of holiness, even outside the old city walls. It was a fascinating experience and I hope to get to return there some day.
That wraps up some of the best things that were unexpected, but next week I’ll talk more about the best of the expected.
When you take a holiday, everyone wants to know what the “best thing” was about it. It’s easy to pick a couple if you visit Morocco for ten days. However, when your trip spans eleven countries and almost four months, it can be hard to choose.
But I did choose, only because it’s fun to remember the things that went well. Let’s call this list, the unexpected bests. The ones that could have gone either way (love or hate) or were just completely unexpectedly something I loved. This list is in order of travel, not order of love, because I wouldn’t even want to try. All of these were such different experiences.
Varanasi & the pervasiveness of religion
Oh Varanasi. This is one that, much like all of India, you either love or you hate. When we arrived it was pouring rain and the city was muddy and deserted. Since we only had one night, we headed out anyway into the twisted streets that rise up from the holy Ganges. People sprinted to their next destination. The guru continued to sit in his alcove. The funeral pyres still burned, despite the drizzle. And when it stopped raining, the fog settled in, enhancing the city’s already very holy aura. That night we had front row seats to the nightly Ganges Aarti ceremony at a nearby ghat. The place was packed, but only a handful were foreign tourists, the rest were Indian and many, very devout Hindus on pilgrimage to this holy city.
Ever since I saw the movie the Darjeeling Limited, I knew I wanted to go to Darjeeling. (Spoiler: The real place is nothing like the movie, but it was awesome anyway.) Plus, they grow amazing tea!
Darjeeling is a precious little mountain resort that lays in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. In fact, you could see Kangchenjunga, the third (or second, depending on the ice caps) tallest mountain in the Himalayas from the doorstop of our local hosts house. Most days it was covered by fog (more on this later), but our last morning we caught a glimpse of the peak. We took a train ride on the famous, narrow-gauge track called the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a functioning coal train, and spent hours drinking the many Darjeeling Teas at Nathmull’s Sunset Lounge. The final morning we visited the Tibetan refugees who’s camp literally looks out over Tibet.
While I’m talking about India, I have to mention the fog. It followed us EVERYWHERE. But instead of it being a curse, it was a blessing. No one wants photos shrouded in fog, but it didn’t bother me. The monuments were empty. It gave the places we visited a mysteriousness that can be hard to envision when you’re sweating and the place is crawling with people.
I don’t have any photos of this (fail) but with the major exception of Burma, we had the BEST experience with trains around the world. India’s trains are top-notch. I did the research and got us on the highest-level trains possible (meaning if there were delays, these would be put through first) so we didn’t have any crazy, multi-day delays. I think the worst was 4 hours, but most of them were on time.
Thailand and China also had most excellent trains.
When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I received a travel magazine from my mom and in it were two photos that inspired this entire trip: Mt. Kyakito (Golden Rock) and Bagan. This made Myanmar, a country that had recently been taken off the “do not visit” list, at the top of mine.
It can be hard to fathom, and indeed to photograph, a plain with 2,000 temples spread across it. It was awe-inspiring, to realize what humans are truly capable of when called. At sunset, the pink rock glows under the setting sun. I talked about this a little in my earlier post on the temples at sunset.
(By the way, the United States (including the US Peace Corps) still calls Myanmar by it’s old colonial name, Burma. It is a political choice. I have chosen to call it Myanmar, as that is what it seems to function under in most of the world and my choice is in no way political. It’s just simplest.)
Chiang Mai was not originally on our itinerary, but due to some logistical issues with India’s visa, we ended up with two extra weeks here. That turned out to be a happy change! We LOVED northern Thailand and did so many fun activities. I wrote this up in a post at the time, and after everything, it still rings true. Chiang Mai was awesome and next time we’ll explore more of the surrounding area.
This was something that Ryan really wanted to do. I was willing to give it a try for him, but I had a ton of concerns. For my Open Water, we used Scuba Junction in Koh Tao, Thailand, and could not have been happier with them. They are such a world class organization and I felt in good hands at all times. It also turns out that I really loved scuba diving. So much so that we added more scuba to the end of our trip when a happy flight cancellation gave us several extra days in Israel. We went down to Eilat and did our Advanced Open Water and Nitrox with Shulamit’s Diving Adventures, another world class dive shop.
And if you are wondering whether to dive Eilat… it was amazing. The clarity of the water was absolutely jaw-dropping and coming up on the wreck in that clear of water was absolutely incredible. And so much marine life!
Also, I do not have one single photo of us in scuba gear, or of the places we scubaed, save the one above I posted to Instagram. That’s how you know I enjoyed something, when I forget to photograph anything.
P.S. Follow me on Instagram!
So that covers the first two months of the trip, stay tuned for The Unexpected, Part II coming up next week!