Bhutan – Thimpu, Punaka, Paro, 02 – 05 December 2017

Bhutan – Population 800,000 was an absolute monarchy until 2008, it has never been colonised. The minimum fee for tourists that visit the country during peak season is US$250 per day and during off peak season US$200. This fee includes accommodation, food, car, driver and a guide. You have to book your tour and get your visa through an authorised travel agent. The only airlines that are allowed to fly into the country are Druk and Bhutan Airlines, both are significantly more expensive than other commercial airlines. As you would expect there are very few tourists. It is clean, the people are friendly and the views spectacular.

My marathon journey went from Perth to Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka to Paro by air. I was picked up from the airport and driven to Thimpu where I finally checked into my hotel after 19 hours of travel.

Thimpu – A big statue of Buddha, a Stupa, a Fortress and the National animal called Takin, which has the head of a goat and the body of a cow. No photographs allowed inside religious places. First day at 2,200 metres was breathless.

Punakha – From Thimpu we drove to Punakha passing the 108 Stupas then to Chimi Lhakhang Temple in honour of a crazy monk called the Divine madman who painted the town red wherever he went, his legacy being the Phallus symbol and after that the obligatory fortress.

Paro – From Punakha we drove back to Paro, after about 2 hours of driving the hotel I stayed at called to say they had put the wrong suitcase into our car’s boot, so we had to drive back to a meeting point and find a car going back and give them the wrong suitcase and then the hotel had to find a car coming our way to bring my suitcase to me. In the end it all worked out but until I got my suitcase that evening I was not too happy.

The main attraction at Punakha is the Tiger Monastery built into a cliff, I made it halfway before my tachycardia kicked in and I had to return. My knees thanked my heart as they were not looking forward to the hike hahaha.

 

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Israel, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth, Tiberias, 31 August – 06 September 2017

Bethlehem to Acre (Akko, Ako) is quite convoluted and requires multiple changes if you choose to make the whole journey by bus/train so I decided to take the easy way out. The easy way was to take a special taxi that is allowed to cross the border between Palestine and Israel without being stopped through a special border crossing, from my hotel directly to the Jerusalem train station. The taxi driver got very nervous when I took a picture of the border crossing from a distance saying that if I was seen they would delete all the pictures from my camera. Cost 120 shekels or US$34 for the 20 min journey. Ticket to Acre 50 shekels, with one change at Tel Aviv, left at 0915 and arrived in Acre at 1230, very easy and comfortable on the train. The train goes very slowly through the hills around Jerusalem and then speeds up for the last few kilometres to Tel Aviv, the rest of the journey is along the coast to Acre with views of the sea.

Walk to the Acre Promenade

The Citadel, this is quite a large complex which has been restored, you can buy a combined ticket to it and several other historic sites in Acre. Turkish Bath and Okashi Museum.

Treasures in the Fort Wall, Old Acre and a tunnel.

Haifa – The main attraction in this city is the Bahai Gardens which are very impressive, maintained by volunteers from around the world. The only way to see these gardens is on a free guided tour that starts at the top. You are allowed to take pictures from the bottom and then you take a bus to the top and join the tour walking down 700 steps to the half way point from where you exit the Gardens.

Nazareth – where Jesus grew up is mainly Arab and Christian.

Tiberias, very hot and humid. Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water and performed many of his miracles.

Acre Prison, where Jewish and Arab rebels (freedom fighters) were held and executed by the British, now a museum.

 

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Israel, Bethlehem, 28 – 30 August 2017

I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by bus. You have to take the 231 bus from the Damascus Gate Bus station or it is simpler to catch it at any of the stops along Hebron Road which is what I did. This is a Palestinian bus and runs 7 days a week, it is not one of the Sherut vans but a big modern bus. It follows a roundabout route to get around the wall and takes 40 min, cost 6.80 shekels, buy your ticket from the driver. Bethlehem is located in the West Bank which is administered by the Palestinian Authority and the people who live there have different passports to the people that live in Israel. They also cannot use Ben Gurion Airport, they have to travel to Amman in Jordan and fly out from there. Israeli’s that wish to enter the West Bank need a special permit, this is because of the risk of kidnapping, foreigners are free to travel to both regions. When you leave Israel for the West Bank you pass through a border check point but you do not have to stop, when coming back you have to go through a check similar to an Airport security check. The exception to this rule is if you hire a special taxi which has a separate checkpoint and does not always get stopped. I did this when returning from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and we drove straight through, because I had an early train to catch and did not want to have to change busses 3-4 times with a suitcase, cost 120 shekels.

Shepherds Field – where the angels gave the Shepherds the good news.

Milk Grotto – where Mary spilt some breast milk.

Church of the Nativity – where Jesus was born.

Rachel’s Tomb – mother of Joseph and Benjamin, revered by the Jews. The tomb is located right on the border on the Israeli side which means following a convoluted path and going through security to cross the border and get to the other side. Next I walked to the gate and was told that you can only enter in a vehicle, the guard very kindly flagged down a tour bus that was waiting and I jumped on board for the short ride through the security complex surrounding the tomb. The tomb as it was does not exist, it has been completely covered up for security reasons. Inside no photographs, crowded with Orthodox Jews swaying and praying, some quite loudly.

Jericho – this place is also in Palestine and I got a Sherut from the Bethlehem bus station direct to Jericho for 25 shekels. You get dropped off at the centre of the town and from there I walked to the cable car past the Zacchaeus tree. Cable car costs 60 shekels and takes you to the top of the Mount of Temptation where the devil tested Jesus. A monastery has been built along the cliff face and the stone where Jesus sat is inside.

 

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Israel, Jerusalem, 25 – 27 August 2017

I visited the Israel Museum, very good, unfortunately it closes at 2 pm (1400) hours on Friday due to the Sabbath. As a tourist this is very annoying and they are even stricter about Saturday opening hours in Jerusalem than Tel Aviv, nothing is open and no public transport either, some shops open at 9 pm (2100).

The City of David is an Archaelogical Park, basically ruins and some very long tunnels. Avoid the drainage tunnel, its about a kilometre long, uphill and slippery, if you are not claustrophobic at the beginning you will be by the time you get to the end. It is very narrow in parts, you have to turn sideways and low in parts where you have to bend to get through hahaha not for weight watchers.

 

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Israel, Masada, 24 August 2017

Masada – This is where the Jewish rebels made their last stand against the Roman army in 73 AD. When all was lost they all committed suicide, men, women and children rather than become Roman slaves.

I took a bus from Jerusalem, the bus leaves from the main bus station, either bus 444 express bus (1:15 hrs) or the 486 which is more frequent and stops to pick up passengers at Kibbutz’s along the way. I took the 486 which is more interesting and takes 1:45 hrs. Buy your ticket from the driver on the bus, its cheaper if you buy a return ticket and have a RAV KAV card. This route takes you through the West Bank and there are two IDF check points when you enter and when you leave.

When you get off the bus you feel an instant blast of heat but soon get used to it. There is a cable car and a walking path to the top. The path was closed due to the hot weather. Cable car return ticket is NIS 74. There are toilets and free water coolers at the top so you only need to bring a bottle. A spectacular location.