Saturday, December 26, 2020

What's the Weekend COVID Lockdown in Istanbul Like For a Tourist?

Today, I had a chance to experience the weekend lockdown in Istanbul.  We made our way to Turkey from Ukraine, as we needed visas and Turkey was one of the few countries that was open for US Citizens to visit.  So, we mulled it over for a couple of weeks and decided to plan for Turkey.  

One day before buying our tickets, we saw that Turkey had gone into a COVID lockdown and that things were rapidly changing from bad to worse.  We asked ourselves if we should go to Turkey.  Yet, that was the cheapest and easiest option for us, and we saw that much of Istanbul was open for tourists even during the lockdown.  We bit the bullet and bought ourselves tickets, leaving and arriving on December 22nd.  

December 22nd is Beverly's birthday, and we thought it would be a nice time to travel.  We had missed traveling over the year due to that nasty pandemic.  What a trip it was! We took a train from Dnipro at 6:02 am to Zaporizhzhia and then flew to Istanbul.  After arriving, we took a bus and ferry into the city, arriving at our hotel in Fatih (a part of central Istanbul) around 10pm, well after the local curfew hit.  The streets were pretty dead and it looked otherworldly--far different than our previous trip to Turkey in 2015.  



We immediately realized that everyone was wearing masks, both indoors and out.  It was strange for me to get used to wearing a mask outside due to not having to do so in Ukraine.  Yet, we quickly got used to this.  Likewise, it was very strange to see all the restaurants closed up for dine in eating (some restaurants will sneak you into the back, as one in Sultanahmet did for us on Christmas Day.  The windows were covered in black tarps so that nobody could see in).  

On Friday evening (Christmas Day), the city went into lockdown.  The next day we decided to go out and explore a bit.  We were told that it was okay for tourists to be out, but locals could not go out unless they had a reason to go, such as a doctor's appointment or working in an essential job.  Right away, upon leaving our hotel, we entered into quiet streets with few local residents.  As we walked towards the Spice Bazaar and ferry terminals, we saw many buildings that were shut up.  Streets were empty.  The same streets that were loaded with vehicular traffic one day prior were almost empty.  It was surreal.

We made our way to the bridge leading to Galata tower and noticed that all the fishermen were missing.  Instead, a few tourists were making their way to and from Eminonu.  After taking a few pictures, and witnessing a large fire near our hotel, we made our way towards Topkapi palace.  The Egyptian spice bazaar was closed and locked up.  Cobblestone streets were missing their cars, and very few restaurants were open.  A couple of the shops selling food near the spice market were open, but few people were shopping.



Near Topkapi Palace, we came across the largest numbers of tourists, but far fewer than expected.  After resting for about an hour, we headed back through the market streets that were completely shuttered, with only a small number of stragglers making their way around.  We did notice a small amount of construction taking place, and street cleaners were out, taking advantage of the empty streets.  In the end, the most interesting parts were the streets surrounding the spice bazaar.  These streets are usually loaded with people throughout the day and into the night.  To see this place completely lifeless in the day was crazy!  

Some people say that it is good that Turkey allows tourists to come to the country, despite the lockdown, as it is helpful to the economy.  Turkey is one of the most visited countries in the world and many depend on tourism for their livelihood.  However, others claim that it is quite unfair that they can't go out and about in their own country, but tourists can do so.  I completely understand both sides.  As far as experiencing the city, the novelty wore off quite quickly.  In the end, I missed the busy traffic and opened shops that were a part of the Istanbul that I fell in love with in 2015.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

Why Poltava Ukraine Makes a Great Weekend Trip


At the end of the summer, my wife, daughter, and I decided to take a short trip to Poltava, Ukraine. We wanted to go somewhere that was not too far away yet that we had not yet visited. We took the tram to the bus station from our house in Dnipro. On the way, our daughter, Sephie, realized that she forgot her cat head pillow and was pretty upset about it, so I jumped off of the tram and ran back home. This caused our trip to be a bit delayed, but not by much.

The bus station in Dnipro is a close walk from the train station. There are many great places to travel to from Dnipro. Some places we had visited in the past were Zaporizhia and Berdyansk.  This time we were off to Poltava after quickly purchasing a ticket and being told that the bus would leave in five minutes.

The bus station in Dnipro is super convenient and easy to navigate.  On the second floor is the ticket counter, and upstairs are all the buses and marshrutki (smaller minibusses).  The ride to Poltava was a pleasant one, passing through farmland and picturesque small villages.  The ride there was quite comfortable, and there were not too many people on the bus.  After a couple of stops to stretch our legs and purchase food, we arrived in Poltava.  The ride was probably between two to three hours long.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF POLTAVA

When we arrived at the Poltava bus station, I realized that we were not anywhere near the center of the city.  Luckily, there are a few ride-sharing services such as Uber in the area and it was easy and cheap to get to our rented flat from the bus station.  The ride took about 10 minutes.  

Our Booking was a cute little loft near the Poltava market.  I really liked our apartment and its location. I recommend using Airbnb or Booking to find a cheap but comfortable room in this small city.  After getting comfortable in our new place, we decided to walk around the city a bit.

Poltava isn't so different than many other Ukrainian cities, but it has a lot of charm that makes it worth a visit.  Being that we were from the United States, we were somewhat of an oddity in this town that is a bit off the beaten tourist path (this is something that we are very used to).  There are some tours that go from Kyiv to Poltava, but I doubt they visit the area where we stayed.  



WHAT TO DO IN POLTAVA

As we meandered around the town, we saw many people selling goods outside of the main central market.  Beverly purchased some hand-knit socks Sephie and herself for less than $2 each.  The market is a very busy place, and there are many people shopping for meat, vegetables, bread, and other goods at this indoor and outdoor market that is located not so far from the center.  After passing through this part of the city, we continued towards Corpus Park, which is located in the center.  

Corpus Park, in the center of Poltava, Ukraine

Corpus Park is surrounded by Sobornosti street, and you could say it's kind of like a giant roundabout.  In the center is a restaurant, statues, and a lot of greenery that makes it a lovely park to walk through.  Along the outside are big white buildings with columns.  Many of these look to be government buildings and have beautiful architecture.  There are many large trees which provide some respite from the heat on hot summer days.  Being that we visited in October, the weather was great for strolling around the city.  Seeing the leaves change color only added to the charm.  

One of my students in Dnipro told me that Poltava was built on the same model as Saint Petersburg.  I have never been to Saint Petersburg, but I found that interesting.  

The most popular sites to see in Poltava are the historic churches.  The Assumption Cathedral, near the Rotunda of Friendship, is a beautiful Orthodox style building.  To get there, you follow Sobornosti street.  Near the Rotunda of Friendship is a whimsical monument to dumplings.  Poltava is famous for dumplings, and the place to find them is along the cobblestone pedestrian-only part of Sobornosti street that connects Corpus Park to Sonyachnyy Park.

The Rotunda of Friendship with beautiful flowers in Poltava.


The dumpling monument is a fun place for a picture.

Poltava's famous dumplings are some of the best.  There is even a vegetarian version!  I was able to try some at Hulushka and they were delicious.  They resemble a more bread-like cake of dough.  The dumplings I ordered came in a savory yellow garlicy sauce.  They are a must-try when in Poltava, and can be made easily at home.  There is also a Lviv Handmade Chocolate restaurant near the center of the city as well, which is always a nice place to stop for a delicious drink and some high-quality chocolate goods.  There are many eateries scattered throughout the city as well.  

There are some other parts of Poltava such as Dendropark which has another large Orthodox church that we were not able to visit.  This was due to us all feeling pretty lousy on our last day and not going out except for some food.  I would have liked to visit, but I realized that this gives us a good excuse to go back.  I would definitely revisit this small Ukrainian city again.  It's a wonderful place to just walk around, interesting architecture and eat good food.  The historical parts of the city make for a great backdrop for many photographs.  
A pedestrian-only street that leads to the Rotunda of Friendship.


On the way to Poltava, we stopped in Kobelyaky

LEAVING POLTAVA

I would have liked to have stayed a little longer in this picturesque city, but hope to go back one day.  The bus ride back to Dnipro took a little longer than the ride to Poltava (about three hours), and it was far busier (it was also a full-size bus instead of a marshrutka).  It really depends on the "luck of the draw" as far as what type of transportation you will end up with when taking a bus (I also noticed this when going to and from Berdiansk).  Overall, the trip was comfortable and worth it.  I would say three to four days is a good amount of time to enjoy Poltava.  

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Ain Sokhna Egypt - Cairo's Closest Red Sea Beach Resort

Most people go to Egypt for either one of two things. 

•Many people visit for the antiquities:  The pyramids, Valley of the Kings, tombs, and ancient relics.  

•Others go for the beaches:  The Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, or Dahab.  Yet, there are some other beaches that are less explored.  One of those places is Ain Sokhna.

After a short bus ride from Almaza bus station in Cairo, we turned south towards Porto Sokhna.  I wondered, "why are we going south?"  I knew that the resort of Ain Sokhna was north, towards Suez, but I figured the bus would likely turn around.  It didn't.  About half an hour later, we were in Porto Sokhna.  I suppose we should have asked to get off at the junction where we turned, but I did not know.  Now I did.  

After contacting our hotel and looking for a taxi, I realized that we were out of luck.  We needed to go north.  After talking to some people, we were told that there was a van/bus that went north and down along the Red Sea highway.  We waited with a group of locals who were very helpful in getting the right bus for us.  After a very cramped ride, we arrived in front of our hotel.  

After checking in, we enjoyed a nice dinner, a large room with a view of the water, and a private beach to relax under the stars.  The next two days were perfectly relaxing.  A perfect quick getaway from Cairo.  It wasn't anything super special, but as for a place to relax, it was just perfect and super easy.


What Makes Ain Sokhna special?



Ain Sokhna has something that makes it stand out:  A rather short distance from Cairo.  Ain Sokhna is one of the closest resorts for those who live in Egypt's largest city.  Going to Sharm El-Sheikh takes almost a half day (7+ hours) by bus.  Dahab takes a couple of hours longer than going to Dahab (closer to 9 hours).  If you want to go to Nuweiba, you are going to have to add about two more hours to Dahab's distance (11 hours or more!).  If you want to go to Hurghada, you have at least a 5-hour ride by bus.  Of course, you could fly, but after waiting to go through security and board your plane, you are going to have to add at least an hour and a half to your flight time.  

Ain Sokhna can be reached from Cairo in as little as just over an hour by taxi.  It's just south of Suez.  By bus, it's only a couple of hours away from one of Cairo's bus stations.  By the time you get comfortable on the bus, you will be close to the beach and ready to relax.  To make things even more interesting, you won't be surrounded by thousands of tourists.  The beaches here are pretty chill, yet the sea here is still a wonderful place for a swim.


What does Ain Sokhna lack?

Ain Sokhna may be great for a relaxing trip to the beach, but it lacks a few of the things that make Hurghada, Dahab, and Sharm El-Sheikh resorts famous.  First, Ain Sokhna does not have the same opportunities to dive or snorkel that the other resorts have.  Ain Sokhna is also a bit more dated and does not have the same variety of international-level amenities that the big resorts of Egypt have.  

Being that Ain Sokhna is not an international beach resort, you may find that most of the local people speak Egyptian Arabic instead of English, Russian, French, or your local language.  Lastly, There's not a lot of places to go out and walk.  You are kind of limited to the resort that you are staying at.  

Sunsets are beautiful on the Red Sea
Ain Sokhna is a fun place for little ones.

Why Go to Ain Sokhna?

Ain-Sokhna is a great place for the long-term traveler who is in Cairo and wants to get away for a quick weekend or someone who wants to see the Red Sea but does not have time to go further out.  It's a great place for a person who wants to enjoy a relaxing weekend at a low-cost all-inclusive hotel with a family. I don't recommend it as a replacement to Dahab or Sharm El-Sheikh (I've never been to Hurghada, but have heard that it's comparable to Sharm El-Sheikh).  There are reasons why the big resorts of Egypt are famous.  They are literally gorgeous.  Ain Sokhna isn't quite at the same level.  It's pretty.  But it's not drop-dead fantastic nor does it have the world-class diving that the other locations are famous for. 

Ain-Sokhna also lacks the surroundings that make the other three places rightfully famous.  It lacks Dahab's Bedouin culture, Three Pools, and famous Blue Hole.  It also doesn't have anything like Sharm El-Sheikh's Ras Mohmmad National Park and nearby Sinai attractions.  But, if you are looking for a quick and easy getaway, Ain Sokhna is a great place to unwind for a while.

There are many good, inexpensive all-inclusive hotels with tons of things to keep you or a family busy for an enjoyable weekend.  Some of these places include delicious local food, fun games and activities, comfortable rooms, and soft sandy beaches.  There are good deals to be found on sites like Booking.  Most of the clientele are local Egyptians, as tourists generally opt for the bigger resorts.  In fact, I would say that this only adds to the charm of Ain Sokhna.   It's quiet and peaceful, and that makes it a good place to check out.

How To Get to Ain Sokhna

•You can go from one of Cairo's many bus stations to Ain Sokhna (it's about two hours.  Some buses go to Porto Sokhna.  If you arrive in Porto Sokhna, you will have to catch a taxi bus north, which is about 30 minutes away).  

•Take a taxi from Cairo.  The drive is a little over an hour and a half.  Some of the taxi drivers try to make it take about an hour.  Scary!

Off the Beaten Path in Cairo, Egypt: Gabal Asfar

There's this little pocket in Cairo that you have probably never heard of.  I don't think there's a single guidebook out there that mentions this area of Egypt.  I am not surprised, as it's quite a bit away from the big tourist attractions of Cairo.  There are no museums, pyramids, or huge seemingly-ancient markets here.  Yet, if you were to visit Gabal Asfar, you would see a part of the real Egypt that many tourists never encounter.

How did I end up in Gabal Asfar you ask?  Well, to be honest, I lived there.  How you ask?  Well, it's quite simple, actually:  I volunteered at a boarding school in this part of Cairo for one amazing challenge-filled year.  It (obviously) goes without saying that living in Gabal Asfar was like no other experience I have ever had.  

WHAT IS GABAL ASFAR LIKE?

There are still a few walled farms in this rapidly-growing area of Cairo.



The day begins with the rising sun moving high above the red brick buildings and minarets.  It ascends over cornfields and date plantations.  The sound of the adhan (call to prayer) plays from dozens of mosques scattered across the land.  Outside, Ibis, Egret, and a host of other birds hunt for their food in the cool of the morning.  Mist rises over the pockets of irrigated greenery.  Soon the engulfing heat will come.  In a little while the sky will turn hazy.  Yet for now, the city is quiet.  Mornings in Gabal Asfar are not a lively time.  The excitement, and the hustle and buslet will come later.  The roads are quiet.  Apart from the sometimes ominous call to prayer, it's almost silent.  Few people walk up and down Gabal Asfar's main road.  The markets are still closed.  

As the day grows hotter and as people begin to start their daily work, this part of the city begins to get louder.  Now, large trucks are moving slowly through traffic that consists of donkey carts, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and white taxi vans.  The barrage of honking can be heard, echoing against the large unfinished red brick and grey concrete buildings that stand in mass, seemingly never-ending.  It is a loud place, yet in the back alleys, it becomes quiet once more.

As you move through the side streets and alleyways of this city, you see people going to and fro from their homes to the various shops and marketplaces.  There are side streets where people sell all sorts of household items and food.  As you walk, you see stands with caged chickens, mangos and bananas, and plastic shoes.  Above these stalls are rows of windows from the apartments above.  Motorcycles with trailers full of gas canisters inch their way through the throngs of people.  Women dressed in abayas and men in shorts and t-shirts dart back and forth.  Dust is kicked in the air.  The shadows of the buildings block out the sun's harsh rays.  If you are not from this area, you will be noticed.  Young children from the local schools rush towards you, holding up their phones and asking for a selfie.  Market owners smile at you, beckoning you into their shops.  A man pushing a cart, selling erk soos (a strong licorice extract drink), grins as you try this strange yet delicious drink.  

Children playing in the back roads and alleyways of Gabal Asfar.
The main road through Gabal Asfar is quiet in the early hours, but gets loud and busy later on.


After passing through the maze of alleys you once again arrive at one of the main streets.  Now the noise level increases.  The puttering of tuk-tuks and the piercing blare of the horns threatens to deafen you once more.  You must move quickly now, as the traffic will overtake you if you stop for even a minute.  There are no sidewalks.  You move in line with the people and traffic.  The only respite from it all is in the shops and restaurants that serve falafel, foul, pizza, crepes, and pastries.  Speaking of pastries, the Egyptian bakeries are worth a look.  Inside you will see the most beautifully decorated assortment of cakes, cookies, and chocolate goods.  Typical Egyptian sweets such as basbousa, harissa, om ali, and rice pudding all appear to tantalize. 

Like much of Egypt, it is night when this area comes truly alive.  This is especially true during Ramadan, which is an absolutely amazing time to be in Egypt.  After the bright red sun descends across the land, turning the sky a brilliant crimson color, the night is when the air cools and the city lights up.  It's still loud and noisy, but the atmosphere is completely different.  You will see many families outside, adult men smoking shisha pipes at the small cafes, and food stands loaded with hungry customers.

This is the real Egypt.  This is the part of Cairo that almost no tourists get to see.  It is a world different than the city center or the area around Khan el-Khalili.  This is a place full of friendly people and new sensations to fill your mind.  It is an experience you will never forget.  I believe that no trip to any country is complete without seeing how the people actually live.  If you are looking for something authentic in Egypt, I recommend this part of the city.

Ramadan in Gabal Asfar is probably the most interesting time to visit.
Egypt has some of the sweetest, most delicious strawberries.


If you want to learn more about my year in Gabal Asfar, check out my book Nile Union Academy: a Memoir.  I taught at a boarding school in the center of this pocket of greater Cairo and it was a life-changing experience.  

HOW TO GET TO GABAL ASFAR

The El-Marg subway station can be a bit busy!
As Egypt grows, trash problems are a part of life.  This is a part of the local struggle.

Getting here is half the fun, and it's quite an adventure:
 
•From central Cairo (Sadat), take the blue line to El-Marg (the last stop on the train).
•At El-Marg take a city bus or tuk-tuk to the New El-Marg bus stop (it's under the bridge)
•At New El-Mart, change to a white taxi bus and continue north until you reach Gabal Asfar.  

WHAT TO DO AND SEE 



The koshary is delicious!

•Enjoy walking around the neighborhood, getting lost in the back alleys.  
•Buy some delicious Egyptian mangos, try some crepes or koshary at the local shops. 
•Pop into one of the bakeries and try some Egyptian style snacks and cakes.  The prices are very reasonable.
•Visit the markets deep within the maze of buildings.  
•Spend a couple of hours exploring and getting to know what Egypt really is like for those who live there.
•Pop into the local Halal Market grocery store and see how the locals shop.  

There are likely no places to spend the night in this area, and there is no need to spend more than a while here.  If you want to experience Egyptian public transit, the subway, and local buses, this is a great little adventure to take.  As there is a large boarding school with an international workforce in the area, it's a place you can feel safe visiting.  

Even with the pollution that you will encounter, Gabal Asfar is a wonderful place to visit and will leave you with a far more complete idea of what life in Egypt is like.  

Pollution is often a problem in much of Egypt.  Scenes like this are quite common.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Why Nagarkot Is Worth Visiting When In Nepal (Even During the Low Season)

It was a cold, dusty, and quite an uncomfortable February day when we left the awe-inspiring historic city of Bhaktapur for the hill town of Nagarkot.  Visiting Bhaktapur was a ton of fun (more about this in another post), but for some reason, the hotel we stayed at didn't have any hot water, so feeling clean wasn't happening for us.  The hazy air in Kathmandu made seeing the Himilayas impossible, and we thought that maybe going into the hills at Nagarkot would give us a glimpse of Everest and the other majestic mountains in the distance.  

As we climbed higher and higher, with our small bus turning around hairpin curves and making its way closer to the small hilltop village of Nagarkot, I just knew that we were not going to see much other than a big cloud of dust when we got to the summit.  Oh well, I thought.  We are here [in Nepal] for a few more weeks.  Surely, we will get to see the mountains before we leave.  

Our bus turned into the small "station" in Nagarkot.  I say station, but it was more of a bus stop with a small food stall next to it.  We disembarked from the bus and opened our map apps.  "It looks like the hotel is about half a kilometer down the road," I said to my wife, Beverly.  Sephie (our daughter) was looking around, scouting for interesting stores that may sell toys.  "Let's get going," my wife said.  "We can check into our hotel and get some lunch."  Lunch sounded nice.  

We made our way along the winding road through what was a very small mountain village.  The buildings were about three to four floors high.  Many of them hung off the cliffsides, promising epic views of the valley and mountains in the distance.  As we walked I peeked between them, only to see the haze in the distance.  "I looked at the weather forecast and it doesn't look like it's going to clear up," I told Beverly.   "But, this should be an interesting place to hike and get to spend time in nature."  She agreed.  It was nice to be somewhere new.  

We finally made our way to our hotel.  It was called the Hotel Nagarkot Holiday Inn.  I don't think it was affiliated with the more-famous "Holiday Inn" chain.  Yet, it was not bad.  Just kind of cold.  Having come from India a couple weeks back, we were not acclimated to the cold yet.  "I really hope we have some hot water," I told Beverly.  I don't like cold showers at all.  



It didn't seem like we would.  If anything, this hotel was a little less "fancy" than the one we had in Bhaktapur, which was a part of the Oyo hotel chain -- a well-known hotel group based in India.  And that hotel's water didn't even get warm at all!  Both hotels had reviews that mentioned hot water, and I was hoping and praying that this one would at least have something comfortable.  

We checked into our room.  It was a pretty nice room.  It had a patio with an awesome view of the valley and the clouds beyond.  Yet, there were no mountains to be seen.  Not even a hint or outline of any.  A shame.  "Here's a heater and some extra blankets," our host said, smiling.  I turned on the heater and enjoyed the blast of warm air.  "This is nice," I said, not wanting to leave for a while.  My wife went to the bathroom and checked the water.  "It's warm!" she said. 

I grinned.  "That's great!"  Even our apartment in Kathmandu didn't have that warm of water.

We made our way down below for a Nepalese lunch.  It was the usual:  Momos and fried rice.  It was satisfying, though.  Then we headed out, wondering what we would find.

WHY NAGARKOT IS WORTH VISITING, EVEN DURING THE LOW SEASON.

I think that we maybe saw maybe four or five other tourists in our two days of staying in Nagarkot.  There's no doubt about it--we visited during the lowest of the low season.  Most of the hotels were empty.  There was nobody in many of the restaurants.  The hiking trails were virtually empty (we only passed by two other couples).  We walked miles (or should I say kilometers) around the village and were greeted by local children, villagers, and smiling people wanting to sell us locally handcrafted goods.  We purchased a couple of inexpensive knitted colorful Nepalese winter hats and went into the hills.  



Part of the charm of visiting places like this during the low season is seeing how the locals live.  Sure, the mountains were not out to be enjoyed, but getting to hike on empty trails gives a place a whole different kind of atmosphere.  Many of the hotels in this area depend on tourism to operate, and it was nice to support these people during the low season.  Restaurants are still open and you can have the entire place to yourself, which creates a nice quiet and homey atmosphere in some of the local eateries.  

We particularly enjoyed the Nagarkot Panoramic Hiking Trail, which goes deep into a valley before climbing back up to another road that follows the cliffs and hillsides around to a couple of other small villages.  The whole hike took a day, and at the end of it, we were all pretty exhausted (especially our six-year-old daughter).  

There are many idyllic hotels in Nagarkot, and most have rooms that overlook the valley and mountains.  Below you can watch local farmers and livestock at work.  Along the road, there was quite a bit of construction and large bonfires burning trees.  This adds to the hazy air, which was probably my least favorite aspect of Nepal.  Mixed with the cold, it can be quite uncomfortable, and I was not prepared for it.  I recommend getting a mask.  

The best thing about Nagarkot is just enjoying local life.  Hiking along the roads provides a ton of photo opportunities.  You'll see lots of homes, schools, some restaurants and shops, and a lot of amazing views as you make your way along the main road.  There are a ton of little trails that you can explore, which makes Nagarkot really interesting.  You could spend a ton of time here and not see it all.  If you are adventurous, you could actually walk back down to Bhaktapur via the trails.  We would have likely tried this, but with a six-year-old it would have been a bit much.  Maybe when she's older.  

GETTING TO NAGARKOT FROM KATHMANDU

The Bus from Nagarkot to Bhaktapur


It's super simple to get to Nagarkot.  All you have to do is head to the Bhaktapur Bus Terminal in Kathmandu.  It is located east of Ratna Park.  You will take two buses in total.  First, you take a bus to the city of Bhaktapur, which is beyond a doubt worth a visit.  It was a huge highlight of my trip to Nepal.  The bus to Nagarkot is close by.  The bus takes about an hour and a half, even though the city is only about 10 kilometers away.  The bus gets pretty crowded.  On the way back it was super crowded.  It's comically slow and somewhat uncomfortable.  The ride is interesting though.  The views are great, but it's very windy.

There are a lot of hotels, and if you visit during the low season, you won't need a reservation.  



Friday, December 4, 2020

5 Interesting Must-See Places to Visit in Uzhhorod, Ukraine

Ukraine is full of interesting cities, and there are many gems in the west that are often overlooked.  Not so far from the border of Slovakia is the historic city of Uzhhorod.  Best known for its castles and proximity to the Carpathian mountains, Uzhhorod is a charming city that has many sights for the traveler who is looking for something a bit different than Lviv, Kyiv, or Odessa.

Uzhhorod is a very green city, and if you visit during the summer months, you will be surrounded by trees no matter where you go.  

If you like nature, mountains, and beautiful surroundings, you can't go wrong in Uzhhorod.  One thing that I really liked about this small city is just how enjoyable it is to walk around.  What made it even better was that it's kind of off the beaten path, but also so close to the European Union.  

If you are visiting Kosice, Slovakia, it's worth taking a side trip to Uzhhorod for a day or two.  

ANCIENT CITADEL

The city's number one attraction is the ancient citadel.  If you like history and castles, it's easy to see why this place is so popular!

One thing that I particularly love about Ukraine (especially the west side), are these ancient forts and castles that let you take a step back into the past.  This particular citadel is constructed in a trapezoidal shape with 15 meter/ 50 feet high bastions.  There is a three-story building with towers in each one of its four corners.  There is even a dungeon that used to house a prison and torture chamber.  Inside is a local history museum.  

MUSEUM OF FOLK ARCHITECTURE

Just outside the citadel is a museum of folk architecture.  If you are visiting the fort, you can't miss this exhibit!  In some ways, it's even more interesting.  It's also quite idyllic. 

This folk museum is not unique to Uzhhorod.  In fact, these museums exist around Ukraine and they are all quite interesting for those who enjoy seeing what life looked like in times long past. 

The Trans-Carpathian Museum of Folk Architecture and Heritage has many different style houses built around a hill.  As you walk along the circular paths, you will see old wooden style churches, ancient-looking wood and stone houses, and workshops full of relics from long ago.  There is a windmill, watermill, and Guzul houses.  

St. Michael's wooden church, which has stood since the 18th century, is perhaps the local favorite.  Don't miss it!

PLACES OF WORSHIP


Uzhhorod is home to some really nice churches that are a must-see for architecture lovers.  The Holy Cross Cathedral and the Roman Catholic Church of St. George are the most famous two.  Both of these are located near the center of the city.  

For those who prefer onion-domed Orthodox architecture, you will be very impressed by the Christ the Savior Cathedral.  This church is located near the bus and train station.  

Even if you are a staunch atheist, you may find the architecture of these churches to be quite impressive!

BEAUTIFUL PARKS



Close to the center of the city are a few parks that are worth seeing.  

Follow the river embankment, and you will find some quiet places to rest and enjoy nature.  Some of the city parks (such as Bozdosh park) are great for children and families, full of small food stands and even some older amusement park rides.  

During the hot summer days, these parks provide some respite from the heat.  

CITY CENTER

You can't visit Uzhhorod without enjoying its city center.  Uzhhorod's center has a European feel to it, with small shops, ice cream stands, cafes, and marketplaces. 

 Along the Uzh river is where the action is, as people come and go from the citadel and enjoy the views and people watch. 

 Coffee is a big deal in Uzhhorod, and many people like the taste of local Zakarpattia style coffee. I particularly like the ice cream in Ukraine, and Uzhhorod's ice cream didn't disappoint.

Bonus:  Must-Try Restaurant

As a vegetarian, my favorite restaurant hands down was Ясне сонечко, or "Brightly Sun."  Even if you are not a vegetarian, this restaurant has some of the best vareniki that I have ever had.  They have many options, and their smoothies and drinks are also amazing.  They have outdoor seating as well as a nice indoor area, and the prices are really good.  It's a walk south along Mynaiska street and is somewhat close to the city bus station.  

Ясне сонечко:  Mynaiska St, 6A, Uzhhorod, Zakarpattia Oblast, 88000

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Egypt's Must-See Markets: Khan el-Khalili and El Ataba - Cairo Egypt Travel Guide


I have explored many markets throughout the world, but none are quite like the mesmerizing and awe-inspiring Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. Climbing out of our tuk-tuk taxi, we were greeted with sensory overload. Setting foot into the market is like entering into a maze of visual delight. Your brain enters into a level of heightened alertness as you navigate through seemingly endless corridors of stalls, shops, and workshops. Everywhere you turn, upon looking up, you see colossal minarets rising skyward.

To not take your time and enjoy this immense market would be a waste. One or even two visits are not enough. As you meander along the narrow passageways and alleys you will discover crafters piecing together artifacts and tailors creating the most elegant Egyptian style clothing.





If you are looking for local style food, this market allows one to sample quintessential Egyptian cuisine. Anything from falafel to foul, and even aromatic Koshary, can be enjoyed as you stop to take in the constantly moving scenery.

As evening approaches, the sky turns a deep red color and the sun disappears over the lofty minarets. The market now truly comes alive in all its splendor. This is the time to visit. The call to prayer echoes throughout Khan el-Khalili, as devotees fill the mosques. The market is ablaze in light and sound. People push past as children rush along the cobblestone streets. Vendors fill the local squares with their wares. Cheap toys with flashing lights and street food with aromatic aromas compete for your attention. Shopkeepers beckon you to enter their shops, sometimes physically grabbing you. It is, safe to say, probably nothing like you are used to.  Khan el-Khalili is mind-blowingly old, especially for an American.  The market was said to be established in 1382.  Walking along the streets, you can see the history oozing out at almost every turn.  

The market is divided in two by Al-Azhar road.  On the north side of the road are the more touristy souvenir and craft markets.  This could be called the "prettier side," as the buildings are in better condition and the shops cater more to the foreign crowd.  This is also where many of the historic buildings and mosques are located.  If you are at 
Khan el-Khalili, you can't miss the south side.  This is the more local market, and it is a great place to get some deals on some authentic Egyptian items.  If you venture to this side, you will get more stares.  Some locals may even ask you if you are lost.  Just enjoy yourself and keep on walking.  There's a lot to see here.



On the south side of the market, you will find a couple of restaurants (which are far cheaper than the ones on the north side).  You will also see a lot of clothing, food, and animal vendors.  There are a couple of mosques on this side that are also worth checking out.  The air here is a bit dustier, the ground rougher, and you will not be accosted quite as often as you will on the other side.  It's a bit of the real Egypt that many tourists sadly miss out on. 

If you want to see a more authentic market, head west to El Ataba market.  If you think that 
Khan el-Khalili is out of this world, you will see a real, and sometimes not-so-pretty market where there are thousands of people and probably no other tourists in sight.  This is almost as real as it gets.  If you are traveling by Subway, there is a stop at this market.  Both Khan el-Khalili and El Ataba can be done in one trip, but you will be exhausted once it's all said and done.  





Comparing Cairo's Central Markets:

Khan el-Khalili (north) is known for:
•Beautiful architecture
•Moques and historic ancient walled Cairo.
•exotic souvenirs 
•local food

Khan el-Khalili (south) is known for:
•Intricate and small alleyways
•Local vendors selling a wide variety of locally sourced items
•more local food, but at better prices
•Less harassment

El Ataba is known for:
•A totally local experience
•chaotic atmosphere that makes 
Khan el-Khalili look tame
•small spaces and hordes of shoppers from all over the city
•clothing, shoes, and other sometimes low-quality items that you may not be interested in.
•lack of restaurants and food stalls.
•Architecture is not that interesting.

Etsy Shop Product Update: Boho Pinback Buttons, Forest Mushroom Buttons & Asian Architecture Travel Pins

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