Last week, I had a chance to visit Tokyo on the back of a business trip… and it was an incredible experience! Despite it being such a large city, it is very easy to move around on foot and using the metro (once I figured out how to get a Suica or Pasmo card), and I was able to check out all these top spots in about two days. Here they are, in a very non-scientific order of preference:
- Hiking all of Petra… and marveling at the Treasury at night
NICE TO HAVE:
- Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert
- Floating in the Dead Sea
- The Roman ruins of Jerash
- The Crusader Kerak Castle
- 5 days
- Ferry from Sharm el Sheikk (Egypt)
- Buses / public shuttles if you can make the schedule work…
- … Otherwise private drivers / taxi for Aqaba – Wadi Rum, Wadi Rum – Wadi Musa (Petra), Wadi Musa – Dead Sea, Dead Sea – Amman (airport)
- Organized tour in Wadi Rum
- Hiking on your own in Petra
Just 10 days earlier I had marveled at the pyramids of Giza, one of those rare sights that live up to their tremendous expectations. The pink city of Petra, immortalized in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, stands to the same test. And our first impression of it, on a dark, starry night and lit up by hundreds of candles, was magical. I definitely recommend planning your trip to make sure that you can enjoy Petra by Night, which runs only certain days. Make sure to get there early (they let people in way before the official 8:30pm start time), and don’t let the high price (17 JD, ~S25), the hordes of tourists, the organizational chaos (if too many people come they just sit them in front of the first row, blocking the view), and the tacky show ruin it for you.
A cruise on the river Nile between Luxor and Aswan, stopping in several ancient sites, is a classic in any Egypt itinerary. We arrived in Luxor on a fairly comfortable overnight train from Cairo, and embarked on a 4-day cruise southbound. The word cruise is a bit of a misnomer, since these it’s rather floating hotels; all the boats do the same itinerary, and travelers from different groups get on them for sleep, food and the limited transit that actually occurs on the river, and are picked up by their respective guides at each stop. We got a pretty good deal through Imperial Egypt ($360 all inclusive); our guide was fantastic and private (absolutely recommended to really immerse yourself in the culture and history), while the boat we were put on, the Liberty, and the food on board were quite crappy. Below a quick recount of the places we visited.
It must have at some point in elementary school when I saw a picture of the pyramids and heard about the ancient Egyptians for the first time. I knew I wanted to go there one day, and I’m sure most people have felt exactly the same way. Few places on earth have this magnetic power, maybe The Chinese Great Wall, Peruvian Machu Picchu, and to a lesser extent, the Greek Parthenon, the Roman Colosseum, and the Cambodian temples of Angkor.
The pyramids of Giza are surprisingly right in the city of Cairo, about 30 min south west from the center. Our Uber dropped us off at the east gate, which is only used by individuals, mostly locals, so we avoided the large tourist groups. It was right after opening time (8am in the winter), and we barely saw anyone as we walked in on the right side of the Sphinx, the pyramids in the background. Wow, it was as amazing as I had imagined.
- Waitomo glowworms
- Tongariro Crossing hike
- Abel Tasman beaches and hike
- Cook National Park hike and the views from Lake Pukaki
- Road trip, and stop in so many great spots: lush hills in the North Island, Huka Falls, Punakaiki pancake rocks, Blue Pools, Lake Tekapo, etc.
- Penang, its street art and food
- Diving in Sipadan
- Orangutans in Sepilok
Penang was he first stop in my trip around Malaysia, where I landed from a Taipei layover / quick visit. Despite the long trip, I still had the energy to get on a public bus (401) toward the central street Lebuh Chulia. The bus took ~45 min, the same a taxi would, and cost RM2.7 ($0.6) vs. the RM38 ($9) of a taxi. Once in the central area, it was easy to find a decent hostel for RM40. I took a quick walk and swallowed some delicious char kway teow (fried noodles) from a stall, before heading to bed – the next day would be a long one.
After a super intense first day visiting many of Istanbul’s highlights, we had a packed Sunday ahead of us. But first, we wanted to return to the Blue Mosque. We had seen so many other mosques that we couldn’t remember this one :S and hey, it was free! We appreciated its scale and intricate tiled and painted interior even more than on our first day.
Then it was time for one of the icons of the city: the Topkapi Palace. The residence of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and the 19th centuries, it is now a museum (TL 30, ~$10, plus TL 15, ~$5 for the harem). The complex is quite large, structured around four courtyards. We walked it counterclockwise, checking out first the kitchens and several rooms that displayed all sorts of objects: porcelain, weapons, etc. The most impressive, without a doubt, is the Imperial Treasury, its collection of gemstones presided by a massive diamond. Known as ‘the Spoonmaker’s Diamond’, this 86 carat rock is the 4th largest in the world… and said to have been exchanged for three spoons by the poor fisherman who found it.
Since I visited it in 2007, Istanbul has been high on my list of top cities around the world. Back then, it was a first stop in a classic route that would take me to the fairy chimneys and hermit chapels of Cappadocia, the travertine hot springs of Pamukkale, magnificent ancient ruins like Ephesus and the Mediterranean beach of Bodrum. This time, taking advantage of one of Elena’s business trips and with barely a weekend, we devoted ourselves to Turkey’s de facto capital (the actual capital is Ankara since 1923, but Istanbul remains the largest city and economic and cultural heart). 48 hours turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore all the highlights of Istanbul.