Skopje in a day :)

SKOPJE pronounced as Skopae for the uninitiated (like me) was my quick next stop in my  south eastern europe escapade.

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The otherwise demure town was a surprisingly queer concoction of old and new, frailly connected together by the famous Stone Bridge which was the first “joint” between the two. Though it now has few other “colleagues” serving the same purpose , its hard to escape the aura and erstwhile appeal of the pioneer.

As you , cross the bridge, a remarkable difference  between architecture ,eateries , populace and prices is conspicuous.fullsizeoutput_83

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The bridges seem to rightly  “bridge” the gap between the Ottoman and modern era, successfully binding Skopje as a city which has something to offer for everybody.

Here is my list :

OLD BAZAAR

Cited as the second biggest bazar in Europe after the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul , the  heavy Turkish influence in this wide area abuzz with tea shops , gelato stalls , Louis Vuitton “outlets”, silver jewellery stores, and souvenir shops is almost unmissable. Don’t let the size of tea shops fool you as the smallest ones are quipped with one of the most essential requirements for existence, and no I am not talking about toilets!

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The souvenir shops are filled with tokens ranging from 1 euro magnets and embroidered pouches to more expensive showcases made in silver. One of the shop owner shared with me his friend’s shift in perspective of life after his meaningful and soul stirring trip to India. At the cost of sounding presumptuous , admittedly, not the first of  many such India-induced life changing stories I have learnt on my travels. As I sipped my Turkish tea in one of the wifi equipped tea stalls I realised the magnetism my motherland possesses.

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Old Bazaar makes an affordable and authentic spot to shop for gifts and artefacts to take back home. It also is an apt place to dig in to some cheap eats of fresh salad and kebab. It is the only place I devoured a burger which was bigger than the one depicted in the picture on the menu.

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Old Bazaar is 1-1.5 km away from the international bus station and the taxi ride would cost a meagre 1 EUR. Insistence to taxi drivers to switch on the meter would be a good idea, though, unlike other parts of the world , most taxis in Skopje quoted a reasonable price in the first go.

MATKA CANYON

Following the advice on every possible travel blog describing must dos in Skopje and after sifting through the pictures , I succumbed to the temptation called Matka Canyon.Matka meaning womb in Macedonian is an organically formed waterbody.

The emerald clear waters of match canyon are almost unreal.

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Kayaks can be hired for approximately 2 euros for half an hour . Boat rides are much cheaper but the boat starts only when they are filled with almost 6-8 persons . Kayaking to the caves would be almost 2 hours however return boat ride would be 1 hour.

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While I exercised my arms kayaking in the calm waters, my attention was diverted by incoherent sounds by young kids. Gazing up the cliff, I found the giggling boys folding their hands in the traditional way to greet in India aka namaste. I laughed and acknowledged them with a slight nod.

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The kayak guy had the same warm and customer friendly attitude I encountered in most of Skopje.”Pay later. Pay only if you like. No like , no pay.” His broken English didn’t come in the way of establishing his welcoming and friendly demeanour.

The cheapest mode to reach Mataka is public bus costing 1.5 EUR one way. Bus stations in Skopje are equipped with screens showcasing the schedule in real time, however, buses can run late. Bus 60 ran on the route at the time of writing this article. To get a bus ticket, you can ask the driver for an electronic ticket  and if you are lucky, the driver won’t have it and he will let you in anyway.( Guess who got lucky !).

Local taxis would make for a 35 EUR ride one way.

On the way back,  I ended up waiting for good 45 minutes for the bus at the wooden and almost dilapidated bus stand, till a taxi driver offered a ride for all the people (there were 4 of us) collectively to Skopje for 10 EUR. Needless to say, we jumped on the opportunity and I shared the cab with a French couple , to reach New Skopje in time to enjoy a drink before exploring it.

NEW SKOPJE

AS you cross the Stone Bridge, the shift from past to present is almost palpable. Right from sartorial to culinary, sensibilities change. The Archeology Museum is a spectacular example of the gap between old and new Skopje.

The towering statues of soldiers, fountains, presence of high end brands like Marriott and popped up “Bistro London” and “Irish pub” as opposed to my favourite Turkish tea stall.

 

I spent few minutes observing the flock of admirers , tourist and locals alike , vying for a perfect selfie with the monument. New Skopje is apt for shopping for clothes , accessories etc as a number of International and local brands make their presence felt around the main square.

WHAT TO EAT

Macedonian food is as interesting as the country’s  history. Chicken pie commonly called Pastrmajlija was my personal favourite.

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I found the food to be a heady mix of Turkish , Greek and Balkans. It is abundant with salads, fresh cheese , oven cooked meat and rake. Interestingly ,unlike eateries in Old Bazar , if you happen to order a burger in a traditional Macedonian restaurant, be ready for a “open burger”.Much to my surprise, the burger came with “beef patty” , some salad and separate bread, instead of the conventional burger form. Skopski Marek was my favourite restaurant.

IMG_5064With live music, smiling servers , delicious food and reasonable price  and complementary shot of a “digestif” there was little more I could have asked for.

SKOPJE BUS STATION

As I was on my Balkan tour and my next stop was Albania , I tried unsuccessfully to look for bus tickets online.Most of the schedules online are not uptodate and therefore I was advised by my hostel to go directly to the bus station and look for tickets. Tirana bus station reminded me of bus stations back home in more ways than one.With cheap restaurants ,souvenir shops , various tour agencies and passengers of all kinds. There were big families with even bigger bags fighting their way to the platform only to wave goodbye to their loved ONE. Simultaneously , the joy of a parent on seeing his offspring, the irritation of a young daughter trying to help her mother navigate through the crowd and youngsters nonchalantly smoking before their journey was extremely relatable. Once again strengthening my belief that same emotions run much deep in human race and they easily surpass colour ,nationality and continent. Don’t get astonished if you see young local guys aka randomly assigned passengers collecting passports from all the passengers of the bus, providing them to Border Control Officers , and distributing them to the owners after stamping. No need to get down of the bus and queue!

Talk about comfort  🙂

Skopje Bus station has ATMs , locker room and SAS bus service counters. The Tirana bus from the counters costed 18EUr however if you book it from one of the travel agencies it curiously costs 15EUR. The staff at inquiry office come across as clearly overworked and patience is the key to deal with them successfully. Most of the staff speak reasonable English. Toilets can be used at a sum of 50pence.

My Final Thoughts 

Skopje is an interestingly beautiful city and surely a place which deserves much more visibility. For solo women ,modest dressing is advisable. I gathered  questioning glances from old women due to my attire of shorts and crop top ..oops. Skopje has a large group of people following Islam and most young women are dressed in long dresses and jeans.Hijab clad women are also a common sight. It is the peaceful coexistence of tradition and modernity in all aspects which made Skopje amazing for me.Comfortable shoes are recommended for Matka Canyon as it includes some walking from the bus station to the canyon.

If you have enough time , a quick activity is to take the cable car up the Millennium Cross to witness Skopje in all is glory beneath you. I could not squeeze the same as I was super tired from my previous travel.

All in all , a day in Skopje, is a day well spent.

PS – This article was written on the road from Tirana to Sarande (Albania) ,more on it in my next post 🙂

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Gem of Georgia : Part 1

The tiny Eastern European country popped up on my list since it allowed me entry with a Qatari Resident Permit (yippee!!!). It was my first trip of 2014 in the month of April and I decided to go solo in the real sense (read hostels). The decision did not go down pretty well with my apprehensive folks back home and I decided to avert ..or did I (wink).DSCN3768.JPG

I stayed in the somewhat strangely named and supremely welcoming hostel Why Not Tblisi?

Cut to my arrival at Tblisi airport , I was warmly greeted by hostel’s driver who was quite surprised to see an Indian , an Indian girl and an Indian girl traveling alone ; in the same order. The old taxis caught my attention so did the highly modern airport terminal and the calligraphy. Tblisi airport is located 17 kms southeast of the city and it takes 20-30 minutes to reach the city. Taxi service is available 24 hrs for a fixed price of 25 GEL. Train and buses are scheduled at regular intervals.

I met Ferdinand ,  an  Italian solo traveler and guest at the same hostel, and we decided to visit the famous and widely photographed Mtshketa city the next day. I had a hearty dinner of Georgian wine with Lobio (the famous Georgian bean dish) and Khinkali at a traditional restaurant situated in the city centre.

The next day , after a big complimentary breakfast and chatting with some more like minded people , we set out with our cameras. Mtshketa is located 20kms away from Tblisi and is a UNESCO world heritage site. As we neared the city streets turned into cobbled pathways , scenery became greener , air became thinner and atmosphere turned quieter. The city is located at a confluence of rivers Mtkvari and Aragvi. We wandered on the almost deserted streets and bumped into smiling nuns from the near by convent and played with their little dog for a while. That was unquestionably the most astounding sight of green patch I had seen in a long while . A church was perched atop a distant hill.

The famous Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is straight out of a movie set. It is so beautiful it looks unreal .

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Postcard eque ..I bet!!

The photo friendly site where the confluence of rivers serve as the perfect background is a few minutes walk from the cathedral. It is one of the few sites which characterise Tblisi. Again , pictures would speak louder than words .

We had to leave before sun set as the skies were turning grey hinting at an impending downpour . We were luckily successful in hitchhiking .Another “real solo thing” for me.

In the hostel , I was warmly greeted again , this time by a cat . She seemed to be a favourite of all the travellers . I ended up having an interesting conversation with an Egyptian man who could have easily passed off as a Rasta priest due to his hairdo and beliefs. He wore a saffron T-shirt and had enough years of experience behind him , to know my sun sign by talking to me! “You are a Sagittarian”, he declared , much to my amazement. He owed the conclusion to my short history of solo travel, my love for my profession and my err personality.For once , I believed in the typical traits of Sagittarians according to Linda Goodman.  He strengthened my resolve of being on the move to discover new lands and shun comfort zones. He embodied wanderlust , what with his insane journey across continents and his “I don’t know where I will be next” attitude. A bit extreme and scary for me at that point , however he surely made me realize how small we were in a larger scheme of things. That was quite a rendezvous!

The next day over breakfast I met Per or as I call him now “American who speaks Mandarin”. I was amazed by his height , his tales of travel and his spontaneity in decision making. Well , spontaneity is another important element of solo travel which makes it not so..(so)lo . Not sure if you got the joke there. It was my first realization that solo travel entails forging new relationships , learning about different people and their stories , getting inspired , drawing comfort from like minded people and living or perhaps seizing  the moment.

After the breakfast we decided to go for a wine tour to Kakheti to witness how Georgian marvel is bottled from ordinary looking grapes. We were a set of six now. There were 3 guys from Belgium who had high end banking jobs but were on a sabbatical , Ferdinand , Per and myself. We learnt that it was better to leave by afternoon , live in one of the local’s house and go for the wine tour the next day. We happily agreed at the proposition of not just witnessing but experiencing the authentic local household. It was a wonderful idea by the staff of Why not Tblisi and he was kind enough to accompany us .

We set out with our night stop kits and boarded the much talked about Marshrutka. At a glance , Marshrutka mirrors a homely ,meek, domestic and typical “wife material” girl (van) ; however things take a wild turn (pun intended ) as she hits the streets. The docile Marshrutka turns into wild, aggressive , intimidating ,bad girl .

The  90 minutes  journey from Tblisi to the village in Kakheti  is by far the most nerve racking road trip of my life . Our Marshrutka housed 10-15 people and hit the road at a blinding pace on a moonless night , on a lightless road , where other “bad girls” were charging at a similar if not higher speed from opposite direction. Weirdly , I liked the thrill. ( I am a bad girl myself shh).

We blessed our starts (another “real solo” thing) as we reached our host’s home and called it a night . I was taking my baby steps in the direction of  a seasoned solo traveler .

More on the wines coming up in my next blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Jordan Joy – Part 2 Wadi Rum

As promised in my last blog , I am back to take you through the unending , beautiful and mystical desert of WadiRum (Valley of the moon ).

The trip to Wadi Rum from Wadi Musa is around 90 minutes on a well cemented road . I was accompanied by my two newly found friends , the ever so welcoming hotel employee and the shy professional from Taiwan. You can buy the tickets at the tourist centre at Wadi Rum directly.

As you are on the threshold of the Wadi you will be greeted by  Jabat al Mazmar (commonly known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom) on your left . These , as the name suggests are towering conjoined rock formations rising majestically from the ground.

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Jabat al Mazmar

We sped through the expanse of sand which beleaguered us on both sides and reached an establishment where our sedan was parked and we were shifted to a badass open air 4WD. The local Bedouin guy dressed in  ankle length robe and black and red head gear became our new driver. I immediately felt like a quintessential Hindi movie actress who featured in a dream sequence, romanced and sang ballads as never ending sand swept in the backdrop ,atop a sturdy military green open air SUV , hair and sari all perfectly flying away from face . Quite a vivid imagination eh !

As our vehicle entered the real Wadi , the ride became bumpier and more fun. The place has to be seen to be believed. There were gargantuan sandstone formations which much like my imagination , gave the place a dramatic feeling.I could not get enough of the view of the Nature under the mild evening sun rays. Wadi Rum depicts human evolution and nature’s magic simultaneously. The 74000 hectare area has numerous inscriptions and rock art which hint at continual human habitation and metamorphosis. It also boasts of completely organic arches , various narrow gorges , humoungous cliffs and sandstone mountains.

I was particularly psyched about climbing any of the rock bridges Wadi Rum boasted of . I wanted to feel like that Indian film heroine again . The dust had settled and thick red sand of desert had enveloped the landscape now . We climbed the Um Fruth Bridge ( the cover picture of this blog post )which is roughly 15 metres above the ground. The ascent was marked with slabs of rock and some narrow paths guiding us to the bridge . While the climb is easy , the bridge itself is quite narrow ,therefore , anyone with slight vertigo may need a helping companion. In my case , I was now the quintessential Hindi film Hero for my Taiwanese friend as he hesitated to “risk his life ” for a perfect photo. It was only after much cajoling and my driver and me striking a classic Titanic pose on that narrow bridge that our friend finally gave in. We spent sometime there marvelling at the landscape , various hues of red sand , purples of the cliffs and the over all majesty of this natural piece of art which was painted before us.

It was intriguing as well as somewhat scary to tread through the confined abyss which are abundant in the desert . The walls of these gorges bear rock art from as long as 200 years back , I was told .We interesteingly found that sometimes they narrow down drastically ,enough to allow a person who is on a diet to pass through ! (I am not divulging which one of us was not able to squeeze .) We imbibed some more of the sun and its colourful effect on the desert , had some insight into the Bedouin way of life, played on the red sand , let out the child in us for a while and then decided to head back. I promised myself to be back to Wadi Rum , stay under the stars in the Bedouin camp and live without cell phone signals for a day or two . “Next time” , I consoled myself and produced “only my second time alone” as an excuse .

We had to sadly return the open air bad ass blah blah 4WD to its rightful owners and realise the importance of our sedan in the dropping night temperatures . We began our journey back to Wadi Musa. You must be thinking all is done now .

As we advanced through the pitch dark road devoid of any traffic lights , the only illumination was from the speeding vehicles from the opposite direction. The driver began to slow down and I suddenly had my heart in my mouth. (Hindi films do not have a positive impact on your psyche all the time). I was toying with various ideas of self defence when he called us to come out of the car and watch something. I could not see a soul in the dark , turned out I was looking in the wrong direction. As I corrected my orientation and acclimatized my eyes to the darkness ,I saw the most beautiful night sky of my life .It was my first sight of the Milky Way. The night was devoid of any cloud cover , light pollution and mist. The sky looked like a long scarf or “duppatta” of an Indian woman adorned with thousands of sequins .(And Hindi flims are back!). It was one of the most gorgeous views of my life and will be etched in my mind forever . It was silent and surreal. We all were spellbound. I thanked my stars again. Wink !

I wrapped up my night with a much required Hammam. You will find a plenty in Wadi Musa .The procedure was shower, steam , scrub , lying on hot stone and shower again.I bid adieu to my Taiwanese companion after a hearty dinner and lauded him for being a single father to a three year old daughter.

Owing to the unpredictable nature of my job, I had to skip Dead Sea . However I will be writing about that journey soon from a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum .

Jordan Joy – Part 1 Petra

So after being bitten by the bug in Bali , I could not wait to be mobile again . Within a duration of 4 months I zeroed in on my old dream – Petra . While the Treasury  ( Al Khazneh ) or the characteristic image which flashes in our heads when we think of Petra was breathtaking , it was the image of the red sand stoned canyons (Al Siq) which was my motivating factor.

I arrived in Amman on a surprisingly pleasant August afternoon. Much to my relief the cool winds blew off my misconception that all Arabic countries were ALWAYS hot as hell. I had booked myself in Valley Stars Inn which was a 3 star property offering complimentary breakfast , customised itineraries and located only 1.5 kms from the gate of Petra.

The journey from Queen Alia airport to Petra takes 2.5-3 hours . The road runs through barren lands and you can see a number of heavy vehicles plying . There are road signs in Arabic and English . I was greeted by one of the hotel employees and as Namrata had predicted was lovingly “Welcome(d) to Jordan” N number of times during our journey.His welcome messages had a hint of harmless flirting . We briefly stopped at a roadside tea stall where I was treated with Sulemani or black tea by my new friend . The shop also had enticing and impressive range of  cosmetic products made of the famous dead sea mud. I succumbed like any girl would.

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I had booked a night tour of Petra typically called “Petra by night” scheduled on my arrival night. After getting much needed rest , I was excited to experience Petra in all its glory in the dark August night. I purchased the tickets from Petra visitor Center and the tour commenced. Everyone was repeatedly requested to murmur or better still , keep shut , during the tour.We later understood the reason of this somewhat autocratic regulation.The group marched through Al Siq or the narrow pathway which was lit with candles ,under the moon, in silence . The only sound we could hear was of light thuds of people’s footsteps on the slightly uneven ground , whispers of mesmerised tourists and an occasional innocent banter of a kid . This sound was negligible compared to the cacophonous “silent” nights of big cities . The walk is a 2 km silent and slow stroll which leaves  you with enough time to soak in the atmosphere and come to terms with the fact that you are in one of the wonders of the world. As you reach Al Khazaneh or the main building you will see it candescent in the warm lights of 1500 odd candles. The view is nothing short of dazzling ,pun intended.  A local musician would be playing a traditional wired instrument. The tourist group settled in front of Treasury to imbibe its beauty and enjoy the symphony of the indigenous artist . I was propped up on a high rock by one of the local men and “Welcome(d) to Jordan” again. It was a perfect vantage point and I sat there soaking in much as I could , sipping ginger tea and pinching myself that I had really made it to Petra. I would highly recommend doing the night tour before experiencing Petra during the day.

The next day was dedicated to Petra. Petra and more of Petra . I met a fellow solo Taiwanese traveller during breakfast and we decided to explore Petra together.

As we entered the gates I could not help but notice that Al Siq was nothing like what I had seen the previous night . The red sandstones emanated a rosy glow in the sunlight and magnified its beauty . Siq was full of awestruck tourists , families on horse drawn carriages , photo enthusiasts and few uncomfortable selfie takers ( selfies were not a rage in 2013 ). We made our way through Siq stopping at every possible spot to capture its beauty . There was a peculiar shaped stone which looked like and elephant head and fish from different angles . We could not get enough of it.  As we confronted Al Khazaneh the last night’s feeling of disbelief came rushing back to me . It was a marvel . The area was thronged by tourists , camels , ponies and horses . Everyone had a smile on their face. (No, not the animals!).Guess it took a structure built around 2000 years back to bring us all together and share the same feeling of fascination.

The ignorant and unprepared me thought that Al Khazaneh and Al Siq is all that Petra had to offer , when I was enlightened by my fellow traveller that the way from the right side of Khazaneh would lead us to the ancient CITY of Petra . We excitedly jaunted and soon discovered the gems Petra had to offer . The 264  square km city had numerous rock cut tombs which made me gape at the intricate architecture and wonder to myself the tools ,time and tenacity it would have taken to build this wonder . There were  large number of sacrificial and religious high places , the glorious remains of a well engineered water crafting system and an enchanting aura which was capable of taking you back in time. I learnt that Petra was a major hub for Arabic incenses , Chinese silk and Indian spices . It was essentially a bridge between Egypt, Arabia and Syria- Phoenicia . I suddenly cursed myself for not paying attention in the history class as the only words which came to my mind were Byzantine , Greek , Roman.. in no significant order or relevance.

We set out to explore the city and make the most of the day that we had got there. While we were walking on the uneven low land , there were more athletic tourists climbing rocks! There are more than 800 low steps to climb, however the uneven remains of the steps make them challenging to tread. We took break at regular intervals to regain our spent energy and rest our calves. The path was home to Bedouins selling local jewellery , souvenirs etc .You will find locals selling horse or donkey ride up the streets too. After stretching our stamina to almost full , we reached the famous Monastery . Needless to say , it was a magnificent piece of architecture. It filled us with renewed  vigour and we treaded ahead . The terrain became less rocky but more vertical now . There were signs luring us to reach and witness the “best sight”. We debated upon the direction and finally chose the one which seemed the easiest and closest. As we reached the vantage point the wind became cooler , sky became blue-er and atmosphere became silent again. I once again tried my best to capture the sight and sound of seemingly endless expanse of  land , occasional chirps of birds and general feeling of rejuvenation. We climbed 3 vantage points and could not decide which had the best views

As evening inched closer , we took our leave from Petra and simultaneously strived to gather all possible memories of the heritage.

We had a scrumptious lunch of all things non vegetarian (read shawarma , kebab , mansaf) and decided to meet for a mezze dinner at night.

The next day was scheduled for the majestic Wadi Rum . More of it in my next blog .

General Do’s and Don’ts for Petra -Use your common sense and gut instinct ladies . You would be more stress free if you keep your shoulders and knees covered as a mark of respect for the local custom. You should carry sunblock , water and chocolates or energy bars on the tour. Your closed , sturdy gym shoes would suffice for the walk in Petra. Jordanians respect their guests and are very warm and cordial people. I am sure you would be “welcome(d) to jordan ” a number of times too.

I made my dream come true in Petra and hope you do the same too.

PS – Still looking for my Indiana Jones  😉

Love this monkey :D

Eat, Pray, Love is what Bali brings to my mind. It was my first ever solo trip which, needless to say, brought with it, it’s own apprehensions and doubts, all of which were cleared by the end of my sojourn.
I stayed in Kuta beach area which is the hotspot amongst partygoers, families, surfers and backpackers alike.If you want to feel the pulse of Bali, this is a recommended area.It is also a 20- 25-minute ride from the airport ( well, depending upon the frenzied traffic in and around the beach area ).Potential holidayers to Bali will find a confusing comparison between Kuta and Ubud. While Kuta is the pulsating, restaurants-and-shops-filled, somewhat noisy and touristy area, Ubud is its quieter cousin. You can choose what you are looking for, why not both?
In Kuta, you can relax on the beach, shop for souvenirs, faux Chanel and Gucci bags, hammocks, colourful  Bintang t-shirts and queer-shaped bottle openers which hint at a special part of male anatomy, ahem ahem. I got two for my girlfriends.Surfing lessons are provided on the beach. A turtle conservation shelter  is located wherein you can have a glimpse of these adorable creatures. Kuta is lined with spas and beauty centres offering all possible kind of beauty treatments and especially Balinese massage. Balinese coffee is a good purchase too. The atmosphere reverberates of music, youth and vacation.
As Kuta sits on the west coast of Indonesia, visiting the temple of Tanah Lot is a good idea for a half-day trip. Tanah Lot is an ancient mesmerising temple and a site of pilgrimage for Bali Hindus. While only pilgrims are allowed inside of the temple, visitors can still go up the stairs and confiscate the beauty of the Indian ocean. Girls could be asked by shy teenagers to appear in a picture with them, totally harmless. Tanah Lot is a popular tourist destination and surprisingly commercialised. The area is peppered with shops selling hats, sunscreen lotions, souvenirs, coconut water (bliss) and every fathomable object that could be of use. An afternoon in Kuta is a good idea in order to catch the sunset behind Tanah Lot. It is an awesome destination to capture the various colours of the sky during the wee hours of the afternoon. As you make your way back to Kuta in the evening, be prepared to be welcomed by the sounds of  Pitbull and J Lo blaring from the restaurants. Resting for a while and rejuvenating for the night ahead could be a wise choice. Bounty club needs a special mention as it is the most popular one, brimming with Aussie tourists.The main attraction is the “cage” in Bounty which hosts “spirited” party goers all night. Do not be surprised if you are offered Hashish by a 10-year-old on the street. Establishments advertising “mushrooms” are commonplace too. On my way back to the hotel, I decided to stop for a Bintang in one of the shacks which also served delicious Nasi Goreng and Sheesha. The breeze from the sea was serene. “Where are you from?” , I was asked by a group of Balinese men who seemed to be enjoying a guy’s night out. Upon learning that I was from India, the conversation steered towards Hinduism and later to a less serious subject aka Hindi films.My insistence on paying for Bintang fell on deaf ears and I was reminded of my status of “our guest “.
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Next day I made my way to the famous Monkey Forest in Ubud and later to  Elephant Safari Park and Lodge. The ride from Kuta took approximately 1 hour 30 minutes. Most tour companies combine Monkey Forest and Elephant Safari in a half-day trip or include Tanah Lot to the itinerary for a full-day tour. I stayed in Wina Holiday Villa and rented a car for the day.The hotel offers individual cottages and rooms with balcony and complimentary breakfast. As you enter Ubud you would be greeted by paddy fields and vast green patches of land. The journey from Monkey Forest to Elephant Safari might be through some villages and you would see villagers selling their handmade pieces of exquisite art at throwaway prices.
Monkey Forest is another popular destination in Bali. Our ancestors can be fed and photographed with, however holding on to your personal belongings might be a good idea. There are picturesque locations to click photographs and listen to the birds chirping.Sacred Monkey forest, as the name suggests, encapsulates old banyan trees, quaint temples, ancient stone sculptures and a general aura of peace.
The journey from Monkey Forest to Elephant Safari Lodge takes 45 minutes.The sight of these magnificent creatures can not be described in words.It’s interesting to see the bond each elephant shares with his/her mahout. Every elephant is assigned a particular mahout who takes care of the giant beauty, thereby fortifying their relationship and understanding.You can have a look at the elephant sheds and be mesmerised by their strength and huge stature.  An elephant tour through Taro village is unmissable. I was greeted by an enthusiastic and chatty mahout who was more than happy to click some pictures.I was told elephants are generally friendly and domestic animals who would not be mean to you unless provoked.Please bear in mind, as elephants are tall creatures and they walk on uneven terrain, you might feel some bumps during the ride.It was a bit scary for my fellow rider. However, I enjoyed it thoroughly. You will have another chance to buy Balinese coffee here. The elephant ride lasts around 20-30 minutes. For tourists who fancy waking up to the sight of elephants while having a steaming cup pf Balinese coffee, the lodge offers accommodations too.

 

Next in line was some physical stuff. Now before you get too carried away I mean hiking a volcano. The first hike and the first volcano of my life. Mount Batur is an active volcano. it is 1717 metres high and its last reported eruption was in 2000. (The ’87 born me still thinks that 2000 happened  6 years ago ! ) Now being an avid gym goer I thought I was ready for the climb. Natural terrain is much tougher than the shock absorbing incline of the treadmill belt. I discovered it and how!
The sunrise trail of Mount Batur is extremely popular amongst tourists. The trail starts at an unearthly hour of 4 am , which means you leave your hotel in Kuta around 2 am. Yawn! It is highly recommended to hire a guide as Batur climb can be challenging at spots. The volcano has thick foliage, slippery ground, narrow paths, numerous type of flora (poisonous and otherwise), and a number of points where the inclination is at a 70-degree angle. At some points, your guide will suggest you walk with a stick to maintain balance.
Now, after scaring you enough, here is the real deal. Mount Batur climb is completely doable and totally worth those screaming calf muscles. The trail takes approximately 2 hours. It is advisable to carry a bottle of water, chocolates, mosquito repellant and towel or tissue. I did the climb in my gym shoes so you can choose the most comfortable closed shoes you can.
Guides are present at the car park at the base of the volcano and it is here where all tourist-groups and their respective guides assemble and start the climb.Our guide was a short man whose first question upon knowing that I was Indian was if I was a Hindu. (Totally needless but Indians might get that frequently). He was my support and belief during the climb. There were times when the steep angle left me out of breath (you can ask your guide to take a break whenever you feel like) or I thought of my cosy bed, however, I kept reminding myself the reason I was there for. And the reason was beautiful as hell ( quite an oxymoron here ). As you reach the top, you are hugged by the most refreshing breeze, the most beautiful sky and the most delicious cup of tea. It is advisable to bring a thin jacket/sweater as the top of the volcano gets cold at dawn. As you bask in the glory (literally), forgetting about the descent for some time, you would witness the most ethereal sunrise where the sky turns into myriad shades and gives you just another proof of nature, its beauty and might. This is a perfect spot to get Instagram-worthy pictures without its confusing filters. You might encounter professional photographers having the time of their lives. The beauty is indescribable.
I was accompanied by Christian from Netherlands. We had a somewhat juvenile competition of the minimum number of falls. I can proudly say that I won.We spent some time at the summit, talking to other tourists and finally decided to head back. I personally feel descent is a Herculean task. What with tired leg muscles and that complex science behind the distribution of body weight! Not to mention the rubble under your feet. The key, however, is to lean back a bit and advance. It was during the descent that Christian kissed the ground a couple of times more than me, thereby aiding my win. As you are half way down, the sun is out and things become sweaty and salty. You may come across monkeys which inhabit the volcanic flora.
Mount Batur climb does not require extreme fitness or athleticism. What it does require is constant advances and the determination to reach the top.We thanked our guide, exchanged social media addresses, wished each other well and left.
As far as general Dos and Don’ts for a solo female traveller in Bali are concerned, my advice would be to use your common sense, trust your gut instinct and be aware. Avoid flashing expensive watches, bags and jewellery, choose a well-lit road instead of a dark by-lane, do not leave your drink unattended at a bar (commonsense). Bali is considered a backpacker’s heaven and extremely safe for solo female travellers, however being mildly aware of the surroundings has done no one any harm.
I wound up my Bali escapade with a Balinese massage, Bintang and more Nasi Goreng! Guess “Eat” was the only part of the movie I concentrated on.(Luckily, mushrooms were not a part of it !) Apprehensions cleared.