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 6

Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.

Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!

But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.

I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!

By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.

IMG_2985
Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.

I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.

To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:

  1. If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
  2. Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
  3. Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 5

Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.

We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.

A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!

The Bakthang Waterfall
The Bakthang Waterfall

Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!

Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!

We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology- Photography prohibited inside!

Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.

A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?

A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.

Do Drul Chorten
Do Drul Chorten- The effort paid off!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 4

Continuing from Chapter 3, about Baba Mandir, do you believe in the supernatural? If you do, good! If you do not, just keep an open mind when you come here.

Legend has it that Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy with the Indian army, fell into a nullah and was washed away while transporting mules. His body could not be found. Later, he appeared in the dream of his colleague and informed about the spot where his body could be found. He further asked for his ‘samadhi’ to be built there. His body was found exactly where he had mentioned in the dream and thus his ‘samadhi’ was built.

To this day, it is believed he protects the Indian army personnel. Even the Chinese believe in him and revere him; they leave a chair empty for him during flag meetings. Till the time he had not retired, he was given his annual leave; his uniform was escorted back to his village. Faith surely makes us do unimaginable things!

The legendary Baba Mandir
The legendary Baba Mandir

It was now time for me to visit the Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake as called by the locals. It is a beautiful, small lake surrounded by mountains on one side. The best part is – it just pops up on the main road. No off-road driving, no hiking required to get to it. Despite that, it’s loveliness is worth seeing.

This is also the spot where you will come across dozens of yaks, their owners offering you a ride or photography with the yak. For INR 50, I posed happily with a yak, standing next to it. I dislike climbing on top of animals or taking rides on them, for I do not wish to torture them. The yak owner obliged with the camera.

At times, you think that if you travel solo, you will have to rely on selfies to capture your moments. But you will be surprised how eager people are to help. Thus, drop the hesitation folks! Moreover, is a selfie not a poor way to capture a gorgeous background because the entire focus is on the face?

Autumn colors
Autumn colors

I found Tsomgo Lake special not just for the gentle yaks, but also for the fall colors I witnessed there. I had thought I would have to go to the USA or Europe to see the colors of autumn. But the same was evident in Sikkim too. I guess India still has miles to go to advertise its full tourism potential.

My excursion for the first day was now complete. I made my way back to the hotel, stopping intermittently to gape at astounding sights and capture them in my camera. Tiny waterfalls, with water tumbling down on rocks, or lakes that popped up suddenly, or faraway mountains covered in mist – my heart could not be more content.

In the evening, I intended to visit the iconic MG Marg, the hub of activity in Gangtok with eating and shopping options. Alas, I fell asleep on reaching the hotel; by the time I woke up, it was late.

The Tsomgo Lake
The Tsomgo Lake

The locals had recommended taking a taxi to MG Marg, stressing that its reliability & safety, no matter what time of the day. But, somehow, my north Indian anxiety forbade me from trying this out. This is the only regret I carry from my trip…

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 3

Continuing from Chapter 2, a few kilometers before Nathu La, I switched to the other car. I was in for making new friends. A group of Rajasthani couples was on holiday to Guwahati, Shillong and Gangtok.

When I say Rajasthani, I mean ‘proper’ Rajasthani. The men wore dhoti – kurta with pagdis; the women were in ghoonghat. All middle-aged folks, they first assumed I did not know Hindi. I hastened to correct them, and we got chatting.

One of the gentlemen was an ex-farmer, now a linesman with the electricity board. He had educated his children who were now doctors and engineers. The pride was evident in his voice. And then, of course, my interview followed.

My Rajasthani friends
My Rajasthani friends

Indians are such a curious bunch. They wanted to know if I worked, if I was married, if I had children, why I had moved to their car etc. but, surprisingly, they did not seem astonished that I was traveling alone. I loved interacting with them. N calls me antisocial, but I am pretty social when not overshadowed by his incessant chatter!

The tourists from Rajasthan were also proud of the fact that they had traveled to Guwahati in a ‘plane’. It made me realize how badly we take for granted the things that are still luxuries for millions.

They asked me about the pollution in Delhi; I bared my heart to them – my wish of not returning to Delhi but of settling down in Gangtok itself. Maybe, take up organic farming. I wish it was as easy as talking about it…

Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!
Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!

Chatting and laughing, we were at Nathu La. From the drop-off point, the climb was not too much but the lack of oxygen made every step difficult. I am unsure where I found my courage from. I marched ahead of others and was soon at the top. And I was stunned!

A rope marks the international boundary. It is easy to crossover to China, except that the Chinese would dislike it. The building on the left belongs to India, the one on the right to China. Even neighbors in the posh colonies of Delhi have higher fences & boundaries.

A Chinese soldier walked out to click a photograph. He looked like a teenager in front of our tall and strong Dogra regiment jawaans. But, underestimating them would be suicidal.

Nathu La
The temperature was still a bearable 10 degrees at the pass but the winds would penetrate the strongest of defenses. The smaller building is India while the taller one is China…

Having contented my heart soaking in this piece of my personal history, and having saluted the Indian tricolor, I started my descent.

Let me not make you think the climb was easy. Everyone struggled. A few senior citizens abandoned their plan of going all the way to the top. Walk slowly, take deep breaths, and travel light. In any case, camera, mobile phones and handbags are prohibited. Sip frequently on water. If you feel faint, do not proceed.

A 15-minute visit causes such tribulation to us; imagine how our soldiers man their posts 365 days of the year, in any weather. They are definitely made of superhuman elements.

I see empty roads & want to move here.
I see empty roads & want to move here.

On my way down, I picked up a warrior certificate; one that says I was brave enough to visit Nathu La. Yay!

Once back down, I realized my co-passengers were still making their way down. I had some time to click photographs. While doing so, the cab driver paid me a rare compliment – that I was the first Dilliwala he had liked. He wanted me to stay back in Gangtok and was ready to lease his land to me for organic farming. I smile every time I think of this.

It is uncommon for the people of the plains to extend innocent friendships; anything remotely friendly seems creepy to us. This cabbie was not the last person to become friendly; I was to encounter this again and again in Gangtok. I realized that it was just openness towards a guest but the cynic in me questioned their motive, even if my demeanor remained friendly. It is sad that the people of the metropolitan cities have completely lost their goodness. For us, everything seems to have an underlying agenda.

Another Friendly Encounter
Another Friendly Encounter

Coming back, a last note on Nathu La – carry an identification card (any government – issued one except a PAN card).

We made our way to the Baba Mandir where my own cab awaited. I bid a hearty goodbye to the Rajasthani tourists but I was to bump into them again.

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 1

I’ve been on a sabbatical for almost six months now. One of my sabbatical dreams was to travel. & I did – to Bali & to the Indian West Coast. I had one more desire which I wanted to fulfill but was unable to draw adequate courage for. I wanted to travel solo.

I had done this once before but somehow, I felt intimidated. I guess I’d got used to traveling in company; venturing out alone seemed a daunting task. With these thoughts in mind, I got reminded again why N is my soulmate.

He not just encouraged me to plan my trip but also booked it for me before I could change my mind. After evaluating options like Kashmir, the northeast & Tamil Nadu, we narrowed down on Sikkim. Good weather, not too difficult to access, pretty & safe – it ticked all the relevant boxes.

The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery
The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery

I browsed a number of travel websites before I narrowed down on a 4 days-3 nights package by Make My Trip. Being the travel control freak that I am, I made the lives of the MMT holiday experts hell with my queries & requests.

But by the end of these calls, I was relaxed & looking forward to my trip. My departure day began quite badly, unfortunately. Google Maps pushed me to a route to the airport which was unusual & I was caught in the morning office traffic.

I’m one of those who prefer to bide time at the airport rather than running at the last minute. I was terribly anxious by the time I reached the airport. The chaotic check-in counters of Jet Airways didn’t help matters.

Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre
Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre

There are just three pieces of advice I would give to Jet Airways: 1) Please streamline your check-in counters; 2) Please fly your flights on time; and 3) Please drop the cocky attitude you have towards passengers.

The chaos at the counter gave me minor panic attacks about missing my flight but I needn’t have worried. The flight was delayed. It began with 10 minutes, then 15, and then a solid three hours, out of which two were spent sitting in the aircraft.

The excuses varied: smog, only one runway being operational, and VIP movement taking place. The two hours in the aircraft were almost a hostage situation. The crew served water bottles only when many passengers asked for it.

Ekla cholo re...
Ekla cholo re…

Food requests were summarily shot down saying they can serve only once the flight takes off. I had to plead for at least a bun mentioning that I’d not even had breakfast given that it was supposed to be a 1025 flight. If the two hours of waiting had been at the airport, passengers could at least have eaten something. Mercifully, the crew member gave me a pack of cookies.

My folks were getting more & more worried with every delay as from Bagdogra, it was a 4-5-hour drive to Gangtok. Driving in the hills & crossing west Bengal – both seemed ominous at night. To assuage their fears, I’d to keep my own morale high.

I kept telling myself that the worst was behind me. & I was right.

To be continued…

(This is the first of the six chapters of the 500-words-a-chapter chronicle of my Gangtok trip. Back with Chapter 2 soon!)

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