I’ve been offline for some months, enjoying down-time with family and friends between travels. We wandered so much in 2019 (7.5+ months in total, including 12 countries and a couple of extended U.S. roadtrips) that I got behind on blogging. Also, I wasn’t sure I had much to add to the sea of info out there, and if I don’t think I can add something meaningful, I don’t feel compelled to blog just for the sake of it. That said, I do feel remiss about not sharing the awesome Tasmanian itinerary laid out for us by native-Tassie friends, Gail and Lyndon.
We’d been considering a trip to Bhutan for some time, but hesitated because of the requirement that western tourists only visit with government-approved tour guides. The minimum cost for travel to Bhutan is a set $250pp/day, a not insignificant amount for the constant presence of a guide, something we generally don’t like and actively avoid. But still, we heard great things about Bhutan and we’d be in neighboring Nepal, so why not?
I decided a relatively short 4-night stay would be a good way to dip our toes into Bhutan and see how we liked the mandatory guide set up. If the country really entranced us, we could always come back for a longer stay another time. Government-approved guides were an unknown quantity, so I decided to book through kimkim, a company founded by the creators of TripAdvisor and other travel apps. Kimkim brokers local guides and I felt comfortable using them. Kimkim put me in touch with Pelden who was generally good about communicating with me and tailoring a trip to our interests, which meant adding a visit to Bhutan’s first craft brewery/brewpub, coincidentally founded by a former classmate of Pelden.
The one daytrip I really wanted to make from Sofia was to Rila Monastery. It’s one of the, if not the, Bulgarian site most touted when I was doing my pre-trip research. (Rila Monastery even made an appearance in an audiobook I enjoyed, Street Without a Name, by a Bulgarian woman who left Sofia as a teenager shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and returned years later to her much-changed country.)
Lots of tour companies offer day visits to the monastery from Sofia, many of them combining the monastery with a stop at Boyana Church, another UNESCO site. I settled on Traventuria, a company that operates mid-sized motor coaches from near the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church.
I added Sofia, Bulgaria, on whim to the 8-night side trip I’d planned for us before our latest house- and cat-sit in Antwerp, Belgium. It was really a matter of “as long as we’re in the area (Bucharest, Romania), why not?” I didn’t know much about either Sofia or Bulgaria before then. Pre-travel research confirmed my general impression of a less-than-wealthy Eastern European capital, still recovering from Communism and still relatively new to the EU. As of the latest census I could find, Sofia has a population of 1.2 million people as compared to Bucharest’s 1.8 million. Bulgaria is both the poorest country in the EU and the fastest shrinking population in the world.
I admit I had low expectations of Bucharest. I’ve been to many former Soviet bloc countries and there are certain less-than-positive aspects to them all: the ugly over-sized Brutalist architecture (so often built on the site of historic buildings that would be a treasure now), abundant graffiti (which my dad plausibly chalks up to unleashed freedom of expression), and infrastructure and common areas suffering from the financial costs of Communism. Bucharest definitely has those aspects, but it still boasts a wealth of gorgeous French-style architecture, a picturesque old town, and lots of restaurants, cafés and bars (beyond the “drink till you puke” bars and strip clubs that some Eastern European cities use to entice westerners looking for cheap thrills). Despite some streets still holding onto that grubby party vibe and derelict buildings scattered amongst the pristinely restored, Bucharest has the feel of a city moving up and offers many charming streets, elegant boulevards, and cosmopolitan shopping and dining options at great prices.
We weren’t interested in trekking, but I did want to see a little more of the Kathmandu Valley while in Nepal. Research narrowed it down to Nagarkot or Dhulikhel. Nagarkot is popular with tour companies, has more hotels and boasts the possibility of glimpsing Everest in the very far distance on a clear day. Since we planned to (and did) take a plane trip past Everest, that last selling point didn’t mean a lot to me, especially with the well-known vagaries of weather. Everything I read said that having an Everest view from a Nagarkot hotel was a rare thing. Dhulikhel, on the other hand, was the smaller, less touristy option, something that appeals to me. It also reportedly had pretty awesome Himalayan views itself plus a temple or two in walking distance and the very intriguing Namobuddha monastery a short drive away. (See top photo and below.)
I spent the flight from Delhi to Kathmandu re-reading a funny-but-dire blog post I’d saved on my phone about all the horrors of the Kathmandu Airport: How I should have gotten a visa ahead of time instead of relying on the airport machines which are always broken, how the customs and immigration lines were horrible, how airport staff were rude, and generally what a miserable time we were going to have upon landing. Meanwhile, the flight was smooth, the airplane clean and new, the staff friendly, the food good (in the realm of economy seat airplane food) and the Nepalese beer free.
We were in and out of Delhi three times on this trip. Given this, I wanted to try different areas and types of lodgings on each stay. I settled on the following: First up, was Hotel Bright a moderately-priced Indian business/tourist hotel right in Connaught Place, the large, arcaded shops at the colonial center of New Delhi. For a two-night return between Bhutan and Dharamshala, I chose the new Aloft Hotel in the modern Aerocity enclave near the airport. Finally, we used some free Hyatt nights for a stay in the elegant Hyatt Regency Delhi in the more removed southwestern part of the city. Each had their pros and cons and we enjoyed each in their own way. I’ll leave it to others to go in depth about Delhi and New Delhi (There’s lots out there.) and just touch here on a few highlights and useful bits.
We arrived in bustling Agra in the afternoon after spending the first part of the day touring our way from Jaipur via Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri. Our driver threaded his way through the jumble of vehicles, pedestrians, cows and trash as we headed straight to Agra Fort. Hurrying to meet a waiting guide, we didn’t even have time to drop off our luggage.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The semi-circular fort occupies 94 acres and sits behind 70′ walls on the Yamuna River. Part of the fort is occupied by active military so tourists only see a small portion of the huge complex. From the main tourist courtyard, we could see soldiers atop the wall separating us from the military area.
Our guide from the previous day’s visit to Agra Fort met us at Coral Court Homestay to walk with us to the nearby entrance to the Taj Mahal. Visiting the Taj was a highlight of this 3-month travel extravaganza, but I worried a little that the iconic landmark would be a let down after the countless images I’d seen over my lifetime. I needn’t have worried. The Taj Mahal was spectacular and we loved every minute of our leisurely visit on a gorgeous day.
We opted to skip sunrise at the Taj, something that’s touted a lot, but which sounded to me like a gimmick…and I just plain didn’t want to get up that early. Besides, we’d put off our visit to the Taj until this year so that we’d see it just after the major cleaning that had its domes covered in purifying mud for much of 2018. I had no particular desire to see it turned pinkish by the rising sun. I wanted to see its freshly-restored gleaming white. The choice turned out to be a good one. We chatted with fellow guests at Coral Court Homestay who got up for a sunrise visit and said they were disappointed to find the entrance queue long and the Taj Mahal grounds crowded. They said it was pretty, though. We arrived around 10am to find only a short line and sparse crowds. And the Taj a brilliant white in the sunshine. The April weather was ideal, too: warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Fantastic!