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A Sprinkling of the Best: The Expected

I’ve already covered the unexpeced things and places I loved on our travels (here is part I and part II), but now for the expected.

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.”

Taj Mahal in Fog Lora Kathleen
Taj Mahal

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.

Golden Rock Kyakito Myanmar Lora Kathleen
Golden Rock

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.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Lora Kathleen
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.

In sum, Angkor Wat is amazing and it is worth seeing. You can see more photos here and here.

Great Wall of China Lora Kathleen
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.

Hagia Sofia Istanbul Lora KathleenInside Hagia Sofia Istanbul Lora Kathleen
Hagia Sophia

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.

Camels at Petra Lora Kathleen Panorama of Petra Lora Kathleen
Petra

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.

Western Wall Jerusalem Lora KathleenInside Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem Lora Kathleen
Jerusalem

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.

A Sprinkling of the Best: The Unexpected, Part I

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.

Ganges Aarti Varanasi Lora Kathleen
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.

Darjeeling Railway Lora Kathleen
Darjeeling

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.

Sunderbans Morning Fog Lora Kathleen
Fog

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.

Rice Paddies Burma Myanmar Lora Kathleen
Trains!

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.

Bagan Myanmar Lora Kathleen
Bagan

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.)

Climbing Crazy Horse Chiang Mai Thailand Lora Kathleen
Northern Thailand

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.

Just a little slice of paradise after a day of diving

A photo posted by Lora Kathleen (@lorakath) on

Scuba!

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!

Mumbai Sunsets

Mumbai Sunset 1
Mumbai Sunset 2

Mumbai has some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. Ryan says we can thank pollution for that, but at any rate, this one from the ferry was stunning.

Lord Shiva Temple on Elephanta Island

Lord Shiva Temple Elephanta Island Lora Kathleen

Reflections on India

India has been full of surprises. I didn’t really know what to expect, but if I had expectations, India has exceeded them and then some.

At times it seems like pure chaos. I watched men launching themselves onto (and off of) a moving train, tuk tuks squeezing into impossibly tight spaces on the road, and sacred cows and monkey running amok. Motorized vehicles would rather get into an accident than accidentally hit a cow.

Other times, it’s incredibly peaceful. We walked along the ghats of Varanasi in the rain, stopping to quietly contemplate the cremations happening along the bank of the Ganges, listened to Sufis since Qawwali at a dargah, seeing a Muslim and a Sikh laugh toghether, walking along Chowpatty Beach at sunset, and the tranquility of the Taj Mahal lost in the mist.

I’ve been disappointed. By touts and scammers who tell us our train tickets aren’t valid or that we have to go to a “tourist office” to fix it and by knock-off restaurants that mimic a charitable organization.

But I’ve also been pleasantly surprised. Mostly by the kindness of strangers. I can in blinders up and ready to play hardball but, most of the time, it’s been unnecessary. The kindness shown here to two fareng who don’t speak any Hindi has helped humble me and restore my faith in humanity a little.

And so far, I have loved it. It’s been trying at times and desperately in need of some quite time, but it’s been incredible.