A Girl Who Travels

I was nine when I went on my first school trip. More such school/ college trips happened when I was 15 & then 20. I traveled alone to attend my friends’ weddings in Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Uttar Pradesh when I was 25-26. Those same years, I visited Thailand & to Bordi with just my girlfriend.

I went on a solo trip to Australia when I was 27, to Gangtok when I was 32, & to Ladakh when 33. I visited Beijing with my girlfriends when I was 29, Bhagalpur with my mother when 31, & Goa with my niece at 32.

sightseeing, ibrahim shah tomb, bhagalpur, bihar, india
I go sightseeing at the Ibrahim Shah Tomb, Bhagalpur.

I roam around my city all the time for sightseeing, either alone or with my mother. Lastly, from the time I began my post-graduation till my early retirement from the corporate sector, I traveled alone for work.

Why do I list these? Because, I acknowledge that a female traveling, in India, is still a big deal. A female traveling solo, an even bigger one! An older male friend recently asked, “Why do women prefix their trips with ‘solo’? Why can’t they just say that they are going on a trip? Like men do!”

I had not come across this question earlier, but the answer hit me in a split second. It was because every time I have mentioned – ‘I am going on a trip.’, the first response is a question – ‘with whom?’ I guess so is the case with most girls, which makes us want to #SoloTrip.

nathu la, furry, dog, sikkim, india
On the way to Nathu La (Sikkim), I met this brat. Like it happens with all furry creatures, I befriended this pocket sized terror…

Women are brought up to believe that the world is a dangerous place. That they are better off within the confines of their homes, or only when accompanied by men. I have rebelled against this for as long as I remember. The world is only as bad or as good as we want it to be.

In all my solo travels, I have been treated with curiosity (sure) but also with awe & respect. Despite being an introvert, I have got into more conversations with strangers when traveling alone, than when in company. I have felt freer on my journeys alone. More introspective. More at peace!

And I wish more girls experience these moments of exhilaration for themselves.

sightseeing, Beijing
Fresh & raring to go sightseeing in Beijing

P.S. I thank my parents for instilling this independent spirit from an early age. They never stopped me from undertaking any kind of travel. Also, my spouse who encourages (not ‘allows’) me to travel solo every now & then.

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.

I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.

Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.

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Stunning vistas- Sikkim can easily be called the Land of Lakes

It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.

New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.

On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.

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I wish I could have reached out & touched the clear water…

Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.

I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.

I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.

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I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.

We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.

I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.

The blue sky made my day even better!
The blue sky made my day even better!

The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.

But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.

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