It’s a beautiful feeling to know that you have someone who has your back, no matter what. Someone to inspire you, to call your bluff, to make you feel challenged and complete altogether. Ya, it’s the definition of a quintessential soulmate. Anjali Kalra is that for me, my best friend, my comrade, my soulmate!
Living two doors away since we were four years old, with crests and troughs in our relationship, we finally accepted the importance of each other in our lives after years, but when we did, the bond came to us very naturally.
It’s befitting that I write about her today, because today, 5th April, is her birthday. It’s befitting because every year on our birthdays, we used to take trips to the mountains, away from Delhi, in search of new experiences.
You see, in Jan of 2018, both of us were in a transitional phase of life, both facing a hard time professionally and personally, and in need of some positive reaffirmation. While both of us believe that we are complete as individuals, it helps to know that there is a non-judgmental ear waiting to listen to your pleas and give you an objective third-person point of view. And at the end of that conversation lay a pact that we made, to travel together, on each other’s birthdays. This trip that I write about today is the first of those trips, which we took for her birthday in 2018.
Sikkim was the destination we locked on. After a lot of research, we realised that there is no way we can cover the whole of this majestic state in a 4-night/ 5-day trip, and so, for the purpose of this trip, we picked east and south Sikkim.
We took our flight from IGI Airport, New Delhi to Bagdogra which was the nearest airport to Sikkim back then. A 2-hour flight and a 5-hour cab ride till we reached the capital, Gangtok, where we were scheduled to stay for 2 nights. The journey from West Bengal to Sikkim was undulating and unpleasant but the minute we crossed the teal green Teesta river (a popular spot for river rafting) and the border into Sikkim, we saw the stark difference between the states. Everything from cleanliness of the roads to the quirky, positive quotes by Border Roads Organisation (BRO), Sikkim instantly caught our fancy. We checked into hotel Pearl Retreat at six that evening.
There is something about birthday eves that brings energy into any dull night, so while we were exhausted from the drive, we freshened up quickly to find our spot for the night at Mall Road. We took a stroll around the market, which was brimming with tourists from all over the country, gorging on their favourite delicacies, shopping souvenirs and exchanging pleasantries. Our last stop for the night was Café Live and Loud – the heartthrob of Gangtok night life - and luckily there was a Coldplay night with a live band playing. After a fun night of Thenthuk, Pasta, drinks and chatting with the band after hours in the twinkling fairy lights of our cosy Cabana, we walked back to our hotel. As the clock struck midnight, began madam Kalra’s birthday.
The morning of her birthday, she dressed up in yellow like sunshine, and the cab took us on a sight-seeing tour of east Sikkim. We drove up an hour as the snow-clad mountains came in plain sight. We reached our first stop, Lake Tsongmo (also called Changu lake), a glacial lake situated at 12,400’, 40 km from Gangtok. We walked across a small bridge covered in Buddhist Prayer flags to reach the foot of the hill, where we waited in line for a rope way ride to the top. It’s safe to say that the joyride up and down along with 20 mins of bliss at the top are etched in our memories forever. As we were pulled up our love for the mountains shone in our ear-to-ear smiles and we were in awe of the majestic beauty of that lake. At the top, we forgot all that was and played with the fresh snow. That time was a blessing.
This was followed by a ritual of Maggi and tea, along with some momos, in a small market nearby, where we sat and watched men on Yaks and women dressed in traditional Sikkimese attire and warm smiles indulging in chatter.
After an hour or two spent reminiscing old times and strolling around the market, we drove back towards Enchey Monastery which, unfortunately, was under renovation. This was followed by Hanuman Tok, a temple complex dedicated to Lord Hanuman, that serves as an observatory for the Kanchenjunga. The intricate paintings depicting the Ramayana and the long passage to the main dome were my favourite parts. We basked in the glory of the Sun as it went down on the Kanchenjunga peak, before heading back to Mall Road for another adventure.
It was evening and we had two more stops in mind – Rachna Book Store, a book store + café famous for its ambience and host to several book launches, and Nimthoo, a restaurant well-known for it’s unmatched Nepali thali.
Gangtok has a very strong literary heritage and consequently, their oldest book store and café, Rachna Book Store embodies the culture. On any given day, you could find poets and writers sipping coffee and discussing excerpts of books that inspired them. What you won’t find here is the work of most best-selling authors thanks to their dubious literary merit. We took a table outside to hear rain drops and take a breath of fresh air, and nibbled on some pav bhaji and pakodas. Since that was the smoking lounge, we met some interesting people – teachers, magazine editors, sisters meeting at their usual hangout, that transcended us into times that were simpler, away from the conundrum of the metropolitans. And just like that, over stories with new friends, we cut her birthday cup tea-cake. A Nepali thali for dinner and we retired for the day.
The next morning, we set out on 4-hour drive to Ravangla District in South of Sikkim. We were meant to stay at this resort in the wilderness called the Barfung Retreat and yes, we were meant to be there that night. Enroute, we stopped by at the Buddha Park in Ravangla. While the park itself is a very well-planned and maintained tourist spot, with food joints serving warm Thukpa and momos, when you look closely, it is a very humbling experience. As you enter the 130-foot high statue of the Buddha, you are guided along an upward path that is adorned by painting and scriptures explaining the Buddhist philosophy and describing the life struggle of the Gautama Buddha. The 40 mins that we were inside, we did not talk to anyone. We looked inside and found this profound sense of being.
We reached Barfung Retreat at 4 in the afternoon and met Sonam, who manages the resort. The retreat was truly secluded and the large windows in our room gave us a view of green foliage. We freshened up and made videos dancing in our room, played football with the handful of kids there, and went to the restaurant balcony for tea and snacks. We don’t know how it happened but a few hours later, someone was playing the guitar, someone else was singing self-written songs, we were drinking local alcohol in front of a bonfire and sharing stories of Enfield rides from Manali to Leh.
And while this happened, Kanchenjunga was watching us.
The following morning we bid farewell to the good folks at Barfung and headed straight to our last stop on the itinerary – Darjeeling. We reached there, our spirits tainted by the rainy afternoon, and went around looking for a hotel to spend the night at. The first couple of hours there were gruesome but eventually, we settled in and got dressed to take Darjeeling by foot and food. A friend of mine from my Bangalore days, a local to Darjeeling, offered to take us around and met us at the infamous, Chowrasta. As the name suggests, it’s where 4 roads meet, each leading to a completely different experience – something quaint, something religious, something food and something shopping. We took all of those and found ourselves sitting on the steps of the Open Air Theatre at the heart of Chowrasta. Rumour has it that every time there is a football match, hundreds of fans gather around to watch and cheer for their favourite teams. Adi sat with us, telling us stories of his childhood and we laughed. We had a Turmeric Cappuccino and Hot Chocolate at Himalayan Java Café and went back to our hotel. Did I mention how much we ate through the day? Lafas, Momos, Aloo Dum, Sael Roti, Bakes from Glenary’s and so much more!
Our 5th day was the day we left for Delhi, and we managed to steal a scrumptious breakfast at Glenary’s again and it was heart-warming. Also, just what we needed to take our mind off the fact that we were about to enter the mundaneness of the city soon.
On our drive back to Bagdogra, we listened, not to each other but to our driver, who had a lot to say about the Gorkhas, about his matriarchal marriage, about tea gardens enroute and a sense of well-being.
This trip brought me peace, as it did to her, and it embodied our friendship, where we have no expectations or demands, where we are individuals looking to grow, and yet, where we are together in our journeys.
So Anji, while I can’t give you a trip this birthday, here’s to reminiscing good times and hoping for better ones soon. Cheers and happy birthday babe!