It’s strange. I took my first flight alone to a foreign land at 14, but when I took a bus to a city 500 km. away in my own country, my family panicked and worried about variables that are really out of anybody’s control- What if the bus topples? What if the man sitting beside you is indecent? What if the bus breaks down at midnight? Well, what if? I think for approximately four seconds and decide it’s too much of a loop to get into. Put my earphones back on and stare out the window.
I graduated in April last year and before I started my first job, I decided to take a trip by myself to an unfamiliar place. Regular exercises like visiting forums online, typing in keywords- “female+solo+traveller+india+safe” and beautiful image searches followed, and I zeroed in on Sikkim. Tsomgo Lake, Nathula Pass, all seemed unreal in the photographs. I had to make it to the Chinese border. My trip extended beyond Sikkim and my itinerary changed- I met with an old friend in Shillong and stayed at an army cantonment with another, a little further away from there. Quaint little town you will want to go back to for the people, food and the local beer.
Insanely talented, the most humble, makers of the best momos and oblivious to all negatives is what I inferred of the people I met there. Driving through the most scenic routes through the clouds, jamming at 6200 ft. above sea level and looking across the border into Bangladesh- it kept getting better. The living root bridge was however, the highlight. Step left and across, walking on roots of a tree? Strength and resilience.
If it starts with a sunset, it has got to end with one.
My first train ride alone. Girl. Overnight. Sounds worse in your head, sounded like an adventure to me. But frankly, it was prosaic. No better way to describe it. Travelling on a shoestring budget exposes you to better things than otherwise. I shared a cab ride to Gangtok from Jalpaiguri (the closest railway station) with 5 construction workers from Calcutta. It’s on a first come-first serve basis so you don’t get to pick who you travel with unless you book a cab all for yourself. The clashes we had in our conversation with the horribly different Hindi accents was definitely one for the books.
NH 31A. Cheese maggi? Never tasted better.
Gangtok- fresh black mushrooms, the best blues musicians, the promenade with the view of the hills straight ahead and cute notes on the walkway. Seriously, step forward, look down, read and smile, look up and you have the best view of the Himalayas. Being able to watch the Kanchenjunga turn orange at dawn from my hotel room was the biggest add on.
No trip to Sikkim is complete without smiling monks, swivelling roads, kinema and raksi– locally made rice beer which is mild and goes best with a great book and a view you wouldn’t trade for more dumplings.
A meal at 9’ine, a restaurant featured by Ian Wright was inevitable considering my love for food. Local cuisine is the best, anywhere you travel. Made with love, of course. So good.
My trip to Nathula Pass and the Chinese border was due and I was discussing it with the restaurant owner, who gave me a travel agent’s number. The next day, I went to the common cab area (50 tourist cabs get permission to go up to the border for security reasons) and was well on my way with two couples and some students from Assam. The couples from Amritsar and Lucknow asked me if I ran away from home while passing on the fifth pack of chips behind. (Couldn’t call shotgun because well, “ladki toh aage nahi na”) I remember a Choir of Young Believers song playing and I looked out of my window. No road. Straight drop. Long, long drive up and probably the most introspective I’ve been in my life. I made it. Teary eyed and all worth it. Tsomgo Lake, the Chinese border and Baba Mandir which is a faith temple based on a true story of a ghost soldier looking after the Indian border and the jawans there. “Jo chahe milega agar wahan pe dua maange” was what our cab driver told me.
That’s it. I was leaving for home the next day with those stills etched in my memory for a long long time to come. There are always the pictures anyhow. It started to rain. The drive back seemed different with the half smile and side glance of the Punjabi woman turning into a proper one that seemed devoid of a negative meaning. The rain got heavier but I enjoyed seeing the canvas in shades of grey and blue. 25 kilometres from Gangtok and our cab was stopped by army men. I figured it was the regular en route checking and notched the volume one up to avoid listening to everything around me. An hour passed and it got much darker. “Aaj toh impossible hai vaapas jaana. Two landslides and they can only clear it by morning. It’s raining too hard. We have to spend the night here.” “Where?” “In the cab. No army camps close by anywhere” No network and the same “poor girl” look from the aunties in my cab. I definitely had to get back the same day because I had a flight from Bagdogra back home the next. It would be too much explaining to do if I hadn’t been able to text my family before midnight that I’m safe.
After arguing with the people in my cab about how it’s impossible that ten of us stay in the car freezing all night and paying our driver a few extra thousand, I finally unplugged my earphones and got myself prepared for the trip of my life. I had to take the route all the way up to the border, cross multiple frozen lakes and 7 hours later, crawl into bed. Easy. The Guru Granth Saheb(the holy book of the Sikhs) playing on loud on my co-passenger’s phone didn’t help calm the situation. Dark roads, passing through waterfalls and moonlight on the snow capped peaks. It was in my destiny. I wouldn’t care if it was the last journey I took, but the full moon that night almost made it symbolic. Tsomgo Lake had never looked so beautiful in any of the photos I had seen. The rain had it being selectively visible and I had to control blinking too much because I was afraid I would miss the most beautiful frame. I was the last one to get dropped to my hotel but the first thing our driver told me when it was just us was “You’ll get home and tell your family about this wonderful journey. I’m going to do that too.” I smiled in agreement because I knew it was a life changing one.