From being a protectorate of India post independence to becoming a full fledged state in 1975, post the decisive referendum, this region nestled in the Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayas has only evolved over time. With its organic produce, warm people, good connectivity and impeccable record in sanitation, Sikkim has been drawing a lot of visitors of late. We speak to Kalindi Manek who took a solo trip to this region.
Travelling solo in India can be a fascinating experience, I am sure you would agree. But why solo? And why Sikkim with Darjeeling and not any other state?
Indeed! Travelling solo is one of the most thrilling experiences. I desperately wanted to take off on a long vacation, and my plan was to go to Vietnam initially with a friend. But when that didn’t work out, I decided to be flexible with the location, and just started to ask friends / acquaintances if they would be okay with any other place. But surprise, surprise! Everyone I asked happened to have some or the other commitment in March (I wanted to utilise the long Holi-Good Friday weekend and save up on my leaves and hence, planned my trip for March), and all the rejection just left me very dejected. It’s only then that I decided to not let my travel aspirations depend on others people’s availability, and decided to just travel solo instead.
About how Sikkim came about, I’ll be honest…every article / write-up about solo travel that I read, mentioned that with Sikkim was one of the safest places for solo-travellers. Besides, my brother had also done a solo-trip to Sikkim last year, and he had had a wonderful experience to share. Add to it the fact that the North-East region is relatively unexplored by “tourists”, I knew in my heart that I wanted to go to Sikkim. At some level, you could say it was intuitive, too. As for Darjeeling, I wanted to go there only for the toy train! I still remember watching the movie Parineeta 10 years ago, and telling myself that I would sit in that beautiful train someday! After some online research, I figured that Sikkim and Darjeeling could definitely be visited on the same trip, so I just decided to give it a shot and booked my tickets.
Tell us in brief about the route that you took and how did you travel between those places?
Well, I decided that if I was taking the decision to travel alone, I wanted to experience all facets of solo-travel. For me, it meant that I had to acknowledge my fear of travelling alone by train, and conquer it. So I booked my train ticket to New Jalpaiguri (NJP, closest railway station to Sikkim). Luckily for me, the Guwahati express, which is a weekly direct train from Mumbai to NJP, had a few 3AC tickets available, so I just went ahead and booked my ticket rather impulsively. From NJP, there are plenty of share-jeeps to Darjeeling (costing Rs. 200 per person) and Gangtok (Rs. 300 per person)…so I took the shared jeep to Gangtok.
Thereon, my route was as follows:
Gangtok → Ravangla → Pelling → Yuksom → Lamahatta → Darjeeling then onwards to Calcutta and then to home.
Sikkim has an excellent transport network with connectivity to most places rendered simple by shared jeeps.I used shared jeeps as a means of travel all through my trip. It’s one of the most economical means of transportation. I was surprised to know that shared jeeps were available even for the route to Lamahatta (a tiny mountain hamlet, approximately 24 kms from Darjeeling)!
What kind of preparation went into it? Convincing yourself, your parents, talking to other travellers?
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous as time passed by. It did take a lot of self-talk, but I think it is also very important to have positive and encouraging people around you, to calm you down and to enthuse you every time you feel scared or nervous. Firstly, I decided to stay mum about my vacation, and not divulge details of the trip to everyone. Sounds strange, yes. But I was just not ready to take on the burden of convincing others about my decision to travel solo, while I was still trying to come to terms with it myself. So only a few friends and my family knew of my travel plans. In hindsight, I think that really helped. Secondly, I also read up a lot. I tried to browse through traveller blogs, lonely planet, Wikipedia pages and everything that was possibly available online. Good research helped me come a long way. The indiamike forum was also extremely helpful.
Convincing the parents was not as difficult as I thought. I still remember the first time I bounced off the idea to them; they were hell bent on joining me for the trip!! I think I just played it smart and didn’t reveal my travel dates to them, so they couldn’t really do any of the booking themselves! But on a serious note, I had a couple of serious discussions with them, and explained why this trip was so important to me and convinced them that I would not do anything reckless and remain safe. I also had my brother’s unending support, and gradually, as time passed, my folks were finally okay with me going alone. In fact, after I returned, they told me just how proud they felt of me for having travelled alone and how I had managed it all by myself.
I did speak to quite a few travellers to understand their opinion of Sikkim-Darjeeling in terms of safety for a female solo-traveller. Trust me, one thing was common across whatever each of them had to say – Sikkim was the safest place to be! I can’t tell you how reassuring that was. It increased my confidence by leaps and bounds.
Also, I would like to take this as an opportunity to thank everyone who helped me with this trip – In any big / small way. While planning this trip, I realised just how generous and helpful people can be…even with strangers ☺
Did at any point you felt scared or lonely and you questioned your decision to travel solo? If yes, what happened?
Yes, a couple of times.. I was on the train to NJP. It was a 43 hour journey (2 days and 2 nights), and on the first night, I was feeling so lonely that I actually started to panic about how I would be able to spend the next 11 days all by myself. So I just phoned a friend and after all the pacification, I felt much at ease. I also had to pep myself up – “You’re not going to be able to escape from this train right in the middle of Bihar… so may as well stay calm and take each day as it comes”. The rest of the trip passed by remarkably well ☺
Then again, I felt a little strange in Ravangla on my first day there. Having arrived from Gangtok, which was a fairly populated city, it felt uncomfortably strange to move to a small, sparsely populated town. I was a bit worried initially because there weren’t many travellers around and I was the only guest at my hotel. And it rained heavily that day. I was feeling unsure about my stay. But a few phone calls later I calmed down and to my pleasant surprise had a memorable day 2 in Ravangla.
Another time towards the end of my journey, just when I was leaving for Darjeeling from Lamahatta – I had a bit of an upset stomach and was feeling terribly weak and nauseous. Honestly, that was the only time when I felt like I shouldn’t have travelled alone. I was scared and nervous as hell, because I had a long return journey (Darjeeling to NJP to Kolkata to Mumbai – since I could not find a suitable direct train for the return). It was taking a toll on me. So I decided to just live in the present and not worry about the return journey at all. I also spoke with my family and friends and they were super motivating. These things really helped.
Did you ever face any harassment while on the road? You mentioned that you took shared cabs and trains for most part of your journey. How was that experience? Would you recommend them to everybody?
I can proudly say that the answer to the former question is an emphatic no. I was particularly afraid of the train journey, especially during the nights. However, I faced no harassment. Though, remember while passing through Bihar, everyday commuters enter and occupy 3AC compartments as well for short durations. Something that I have never experienced before. On the road, I felt safe too. The shared-jeeps are super convenient and very easy on the pocket.
I would absolutely recommend them to everybody. They are also a great way to interact with locals as well as other travellers as long journeys can be wonderful opportunities to break the ice with your co-passengers. I’ve also had some of the most interesting conversations with the drivers and I still remember how my jeep driver actually offered me his umbrella because it was raining when I reached my destination! I was so moved. The people of Sikkim are truly giving and lovely! Besides, all the share-jeeps are government registered.
However, it will still be advisable to stay alert, keep your guard up and not be too gullible with dealing with people while on the road. All standard rules of safety during travelling apply irrespective of the region.
What would you say to people who would like to go on a solo trip to this region?
I would say, GO! Sikkim is gorgeous and the people are beyond welcoming! Personally, I think it’s a great place for first-time solo travellers – there’s so much scope to meet travellers from all over India and the world, so many interesting stories to share, so many friends to make! I met so many trekkers who had just returned from various treks across Sikkim…so trekking is also an option. I also came across a bunch of solo-travellers who had met each other on a trek, and then decided to travel together for the rest of their trip. So cool, isn’t it?
Also, throughout my trip, I was staying at budget, backpacker accommodations and home-stays that allowed me to meet and interact with so many travellers! These places are basic, but offer the best food and company. For instance, if you’re in Pelling, then then I would highly recommend staying at ‘Hotel Kabur’- The food there was beyond delicious, I got a chance to meet travellers from so many countries and learnt so much from them! The management at the place was also very friendly and helpful. Then again, in Gangtok there’s the New Modern central Lodge (NMCL) – excellent place. Solo trips offer the best opportunities to meet new people and understand new cultures…I wouldn’t want to trade for the typical hotel room!
The locals are an absolute delight to interact with, and unlike any other place that I have been to, they were so keen on talking to me and learning about my stories of Mumbai. Such innocence, so much love! It made me realise that the world is indeed a beautiful place!
Also, for someone who loves the mountains, this is the place to be. The Khangchendzonga is magnificent and so are the valleys. Sikkim also has some of the most gorgeous monasteries I have seen. Calm, serene, peaceful and so enigmatic. Must visit. Not to forget, Sikkim has some lip-smackingly delicious food – the momos, thukpa, local thalis, taipoo, Tibetan fare, mushroom soup and what not! It’s a foodie’s place to be!
Remember, Sikkim is also a budget friendly place. I could complete the trip within Rs. 20,000 all inclusive partially because the trains, shared jeeps and homestays that I chose. Package trips easily cost 1.5 times more or upwards.
Where would you like to go next? Where are you off to next?
I’ve got the following places on my list: Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Nagaland, Bhutan – in no particular order. I’m still trying to figure it out, although I’m very keen on a trek. I love the Himalayas…and I think the mountains always find a way to call me back ☺
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