It so happened last summer that I got an opportunity to take the plunge and travel alone. In retrospect, I’m still confused how I convinced my parents, my overtly protective father, to let me go to Ladakh alone? It’s difficult for them to fathom this too. Honestly speaking it was spontaneous. I wanted to bid adieu to Bombay for a while and travel someplace, but I also knew that my family couldn’t take on a vacation because of their work commitments. I started watching a lot of ‘solo trip’ videos on YouTube and I was so fascinated. I knew I wanted to do something like that, I had to do something like that. I presented my case to my parents, showed them articles, blogs and videos of girls who had travelled alone. On a whim, my mom said yes and convincing my dad was now upto her. My parents then called up many travel agencies and finally decided to book a tour package with Thomas Cook after pestering them for days and assuring my safety at all costs, because obviously they wouldn’t just let me pack my bags and leave. Next thing I remember is being on a plane, feeling overwhelmed and content at the same time.
Now I would like to think that I had done my research, I knew oxygen levels were low in Ladakh, that it would take time for someone from Bombay (on a sea level) to get used to that altitude. I knew that network was poor and only postpaid worked. I was aware that sunscreen was extremely important and lip balm was imperative. Drinking 4 to 5 litres of water would be the only way to sustain. I was proud of myself to know all this, but to my surprise even after this extensive research so many challenges popped up.
I remember waiting at the Ladakh airport at 7 in the morning for my cab to come and my postpaid sim card not working. After almost an hour, I finally spotted a family that was travelling with Thomas Cook as well. We travelled to our hotel together.I garnered a lot of interest back at the hotel, the manager, the bellboys, all were waiting for my parents to arrive for a long time and were constantly enquiring if I was with the Khannas, or xyzs.
When you reach Ladakh, you are supposed to take the day off and just rest in your hotel room. I did just that, and yet all the acute mountain sickness symptoms were now in action. I was puking my guts out. This is when the survival instinct kicked in, I called up a cab and left for the hospital on my own. The doctor was zapped that I was travelling solo I remember the other family from Bombay was also there at the hospital, they too were sick. The female head of this family was so concerned that she wasn’t ready to leave the doctors cabin, constantly repeating about how I was alone there; thankfully the doctor shushed her out. After the checkup and a few meds we decided to leave together. Midway, the uncle stopped for some work at the BSNL office. I had not spoken to my parents the whole day and maybe that gave me the strength to get down and buy a sim card. For me to buy a sim card on my own became a huge deal. We come from such guarded families and sometimes we don’t realise how dependent we are on our parents and this trip sort of made me realise all of this. The whole trip, adults were dazed that I had a BSNL sim from Ladakh while they struggled to contact others.
But this wasn’t the highlight of my trip.
There wasn’t just one, there were many. The same day that we visited the doctor, I got awfully sick at night, and the auberge’s manager had to bring in the oxygen cylinder (which all hotels in Ladakh have to have) inside my room, this was the first time I was a little worried about letting someone in my room, but well I survived. The manager ended up being one of the most caring person after all.
There were many old couples, families and I, that always ended up being together. I remember everyone being so captivated by the girl who was traveling all by herself. They all had taken it on themselves to look after me. There were two aged couples who were deeply invested in me. They always took my pictures, brought me tea and snacks, gave me a camphor necklace to help in breathing. I was stuck up in a very bizarre situation though, one of the old uncles was so attentive towards me that it almost always made his wife angry and for me it got nothing but awkward (although I would like to believe that he had nothing but good intentions) I also vividly remember the group of drivers I was with, especially Ali. He found me completely peculiar, I guess, and his inquisitiveness gave me anxiety in the beginning.
We had a two-day camping stay at Nubra Valley. I remember reaching there, getting out of the car and sitting in an open field. I soaked in the warm sun and felt the cool breeze. I played FKJ’s Tadow and was full of gratitude. We had a tour guide, Taashi, who was of my age, studying at Delhi University, maybe the age factor made me feel very secure around him. In Nubra, at night, the lights go out at 8pm, and I was nervous. There were no locks on our tents (obviously) and all the drivers knew that I was alone. I confided in Taashi and he assured that everything would be safe. I held onto my pepper spray and Kada (Punjabi bangle which symbolised more as a weapon than a religious bangle) and tried sleeping. I woke up every few minutes, kept my mobile light on and then eventually fell asleep. Maybe it was the fatigue but when I woke up the next morning, I felt so refreshed. It was the best sleep ever. The very same morning I made a new friend, Sara, a young girl in 6th standard travelling with her parents. We bonded over badminton, music and an adorable Ladakhi child. She later introduced me to her parents, who in a way made my decision of choosing media studies feel exactly accurate. They were well established in their fields, although both of them were engineers, they had immense knowledge about the boom that is going on in media and also other unconventional careers, and I had a good 2 hour talk with them over dinner.
We got back from Nubra around 8pm, and there was just one day left. We were going to spend that day in Pangong Lake, leaving as early as 7am. So I just had those 2 hours to shop. I called up Ali (the driver) and asked him to meet me at the Ladakh market and later drop me off at the hotel. So I finally ended up trusting his humble, compassionate eyes and man did he hook me up with great discounts at the market. After shopping for a while, when we were entering his car, a stranger came and sat with us. Ali introduced him as his brother. My heart started racing again, it was almost 10, pitch black and I was in a car with two strangers. I held onto my pepper spray and Kada and showed my cool.
Believe it or not, that was the best 20 mins I’ve spent in a car.
I learned so much about Ali. He was from Kashmir, trying to earn a living in Ladakh.I felt so grateful for him. Grateful that he came to pick me up, grateful that I got to learn so much about a stranger. When he dropped me off, and I tried giving him the money, he was hesitant. I reached my hotel and asked the manager to get me a huge bag of chocolates and snacks. Ali loved chocolates and I knew that. Next day when I gave him the bag, he couldn’t believe it “ye mere liye hai?” He was so thankful, as was I.
Pangong was our last destination in Ladakh, a day long trip. Words fall short to describe this beautiful enigma. It seemed like every tube of azure blue and khaki brown were made specifically to translate Pangong Tso’s beauty on a canvas. Yet one of the jolly memories are seeing the many bum-chairs from the famous 3 Idiots, photo-booths to click pictures with Amir and Kareena’s boards and locals earning a very nice living out of this. This had me thinking though, about how living in Bombay makes you almost immune to be fascinated by being starstruck but for such small towns, it becomes life changing. For Ladakh alone, tourism raised 3 times since 3 Idiots.
When we were back at the hotel, Krishna aunty, Sara’s mother approached me to take her for shopping, and this is how I ended up spending a huge chunk of cash on a very precious necklace, which I would definitely advise each individual who’s interested in jewellery to invest in when you’re in Ladakh.
The motorbiking, the rafting, the camping, definitely made my trip memorable but the people that I met made it unforgettable and hence I have focused only on that. I will someday visit Ladakh again, but this time it will be on a motorbike (too ambitious of me haha).
If you plan on a solo trip thinking that your whole life will change, spoiler alert, it won’t. If you think that your life’s purpose will dawn on you, it won’t. But I promise, you will discover a new sense of self. I have discovered that I can feel both invincible and intimidated at the same time. I met such amazing people, heard their stories, told them mine and I made memories, memories that will last me a lifetime.
By Vedika Kedia