It is 7.20 in the morning and I quickly gulp down my coffee and start trotting towards the taxi stand which is right outside MG Marg. Glancing back, I bid adieu to New Modern Central Lodge – the lovely place that housed me during the first two days of my travel. Even as I walk across the near empty MG Marg, trying to grasp as much of its beauty as I can for the last time, I cannot help but wonder what my next destination Ravangla is going to be like. I hurriedly buy my shared jeep ticket to Ravangla upon reaching the taxi stand (= share jeep tickets to Ravangla could be booked in advance on the previous day as well) and head to the cab.
The cab starts off at 7.45 am sharp and the drive to Ravangla is magnificent, to say the least – Winding roads across the gigantic Himalayas, the cold breeze, tallest trees, unending farmlands, the most exquisite birds and wonderful co-passengers. It feels like a dream. There is a visible change in climate and environment as we move away from the commercial hub of Gangtok. (= My co-passengers Simmi, Bishey and her mother are the most enthusiastic company I could have asked for. Even as they intently listen to all my stories of Bombay, they animatedly point out to the mountains outside the window and keep me updated with our geographical location. They share details of their life in Sikkim, and constantly keep checking if I am comfortable. All this in a shared-cab! These lovely ladies already make me look forward to Ravangla and I can’t wait to get there!)(= One more thing that I could not help but notice, was the availability of clean and hygienic public toilets on the route. I instantly drew comparisons with my visit to Himachal Pradesh a couple of years back, where availability of public toilets was one of the bigger challenges we faced during our road trip. Thumbs up, Sikkim!)
We reach Ravangla by 10.30 am, and even as Simmi continues her homeward journey to Kewzing (which is approximately 10 kms away), Bishey and her mother continue with me, till I manage to locate my hotel – Hotel Melody. They bid adieu with the warmest smile and wish me the best of luck for my journey ahead. I am welcomed into the cottage-like hotel by the owner / manager, Bobbit Das, and my room offers me a brilliant view of the town. It is such a pleasant day and the sun rays beaming through the window make me wonder why everyone kept telling me about how cold Ravangla is! After getting some rest, I head to a restaurant called ‘Kookay’ for lunch (Bobbit sir’s recommendation). (=Now I need to mention that at this moment, a million thoughts are bouncing all over my head! Firstly, during my conversation with Bobbit sir, I learnt that I was the only guest at the hotel during my stay in Ravangla. I don’t know how to say it, but I am scared. This is probably the first time I am experiencing the true meaning of solo travel, but I just cannot put my apprehensions to rest. My solo-traveller instincts have obviously taken over, and I have got my guard up… but I don’t know if it’s a good idea to stay here – all alone. Sigh. Maybe I should just move to some other place that is not as deserted as this one? But the reviews on tripadvisor were very positive. What other option do I even have? From what I gather, there isn’t much to do in Ravangla anyway. Maybe I should just leave tomorrow? Sigh. Maybe I should just go and have lunch first? A whirlwind of thoughts).
I walk to Kookay which is barely 5 minutes away from the hotel, where I meet Norzang, who is meticulously redecorating a wall with post-it notes left by the many visitors at the restaurant. The restaurant is beautiful and exudes a lovely vibe. I request Norzang to suggest a local delicacy for lunch and he gladly recommends the thali. ‘It is not a local dish, but it is cooked in the local way. Maybe you can try it’, he says. So thali, it is! Given that I am the only guest at the restaurant (again!), we end up making small talk on why I am travelling alone and what my folks think of all the photos that I keep sending across to them. Soon, my meal arrives and my appetite takes me by a big surprise as I gobble the food down. To call it delicious, would be gross injustice to the food! After my meal, I randomly ask Norzang to help me with off-beat places to visit at Ravangla. What happens next, is something I will always remember. He tears off a couple of pages from his diary, and begins to draw miniature maps to help me with directions to what he suggests are the places worth visiting. Another brush with the affectionate Sikkimese hospitality!
I thank Norzang, collect my bag from the hotel and merrily start walking to Tathagata Tsal (=more famously known as Buddha Park – Yes, that is the first destination!). It is easily a 15 minute walk, to say the least. As I stride away from the dreamy town, I am left walking alone along the empty road (again!), even as a number of tourist vehicles zoom past me. However, as I near Buddha Park, the Buddha emerges through the mountains and its sheer size leaves me captivated. I purchase my entry ticket (=which costs Rs. 50) and make my way through security. The guard collects my ticket and asks me if I am alone (=First emotion: fear. Is he a creep? Why should he ask me this? What has it got to do with him? Should I tell him the truth or lie? Why am I stuck in Ravangla? So many thoughts in a fraction of a second. Funny how the human mind is so quick). I reply in the affirmative, and he politely shows me directions to the Buddha, the souvenir stores and the washrooms before welcoming me with a smile. I am completely taken aback. (=Next thought: this place is beginning to shatter all my opinions on sixth sense and intuition).
As I set foot into the park, the view of it leaves me enthralled – the strong wind, manicured lawns, the prayer flags and the enchanting Buddha statue with the mountains acting as a perfect background. I climb down the stairs and walk along the path only to be left mesmerized by the ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ prayer playing in the park. Wow! (=I can’t stop thinking about the powerful vibes that Buddha Park exudes. It is undoubtedly one of the most serene places I have visited). In all my excitement, I make a mental note to stick around the place for at least a couple of hours more, and explore every corner that I possibly can. However, the bright sun-rays are slowly beginning to vanish, and a cloud-army is marching towards us in the sky. I am quite enjoying my walk along the elaborate path-way, but silently praying for it to not rain. As I reach the foot of the statue, I can hear loud thunders from some place far away in the mountains. I quickly take my shoes off, and enter inside the statue. I am welcomed to the sight of a magnificent stupa at the centre of the hall! To the left is a museum with 1,000 Buddha statues and straight up is the route to walk what feels like 3 floors up inside the statue. This circular-walkway runs through various wall-paintings of the story of Buddhism – its origin, how it got to India, the story of Buddha, etc. Just when I am about to exit from the statue after completing my tour of the inside, a group of approximately 50 South-Asian tourists walks in with 5 monks and they start chanting prayers and do a parikrama of the shrine. Almost as a reflex action, I step back inside the statue and sit down in a corner to watch them pray. (=It feels so powerful, almost hypnotic). Having lost track of the amount of time I have spent here, I slowly move out of the statue after a while.
My worst fears come true as I step outside – It had been pouring. The strong winds are making whistling sounds and causing the prayer flags fly – which is a vista I want to remember forever. The bright sunny day that had welcomed me into the town has now disappeared and all that is visible now, is the grey sky. The thundering has gotten louder and closer and even more vicious. (=Honestly, I love rain. A part of me was actually even wanting to get drenched. But I had my phone, camera, diary, story book, map, wallet and tickets with me in the bag… with no plastic to cover these things up. Hence, the caution). I quickly trot along the path-way, on my way back to the gate. I am contemplating hitch-hiking my way down to the town, but then decide to just make a run for it instead. As luck would have it, only a minute into my exit from the park, it starts to drizzle. I am too far away from the parking lot to ask for a lift, so going back is not an option. I then notice the other gate to the park (which has a roof) and run to seek refuge. All this while, I can feel small pebbles hitting my back. I look around to see who is throwing these at me, but not a soul in sight. It is now pouring heavily, and I am safely under the shade of the roof at the gate. It is only then that I realise that nobody was throwing pebbles at me – it was raining hailstones!! HAILSTONES! I am just standing there, at the gate, with no other human being in sight – awestruck – as the rain lashes the ground and as the hailstones fall with a force like never before, as if it was never going to stop. (=Even though I am alone and stranded, in this moment I feel happy like never before. I think I am the happiest I have been. It feels like every cell in my body is feeling the joy of experiencing a hailstone shower. It feels so wonderful to feel so vulnerable to nature. I want to absorb every bit of the beauty that I am witnessing – the falling hailstones, the clouded mountains, the roaring thunder and my feeling of infinite happiness. In this moment, I am the happiest I can be 🙂 )
In a short while, it stops raining, and I dash back to the hotel. I get to my room and the anxiety of being the only guest at the hotel floods my head again. I call a friend to pour out my concerns… and after immense pacification, I finally decide to go ahead with my stay and enjoy the beauty of Ravangla. Just as I finish my call, it starts thundering and raining hailstones again – almost as if the rain gods want me to stay 🙂