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Shivering in the Hills, Chilling in the Backwaters

10th April 2010 Currently in Kochi, AKA Cochin, in the southern state of Kerala. We’ve been up to the old British hill station of Ooty, and taken a houseboat around the Keralan backwaters since I wrote last, with lots more good stuff to go before I say goodbye to Chris in around three weeks time.

When I left you last, I was in Hampi, with a forty hour journey to Ooty to look forward to . . . or not, as the case may be! Basically our journey was to consist of around 27 hours of travel and 13 hours of waiting in between trains. Our first train ride was to start at ten in the evening, so we had another almost full day in Hampi to enjoy before we left. Our accommodation had to be vacated at 0930, so this left us with almost another 12 hours of waiting around before our long journey began.

We were able to leave our packs at the hotel, which made life easier, so we went first to visit the Virupaksha temple at the end of Hampi bazaar. Here I got to meet an old friend, Laxmi the temple elephant. You can feed her bananas – she gets through hundreds a day – or you can give her a coin, which she passes to her mahoot (keeper) before giving you a gentle blessing by placing her trunk on your head. We also watched the young monkeys playing in and around the temple.

Once the heat of the day kicked in we retired to the Mango Tree, a nice little eco-friendly restaurant where we’d eaten the previous day. Its shaded location overlooking the river made it the perfect spot to kill a few hours. After emailing and eating in the town it was almost time to leave, so we went for a final stroll up and down the bazaar. The following night Hampi was to hold a large festival, which around 70,000 people would attend. Many had arrived already, and were camped out in the usually quiet far end of the bazaar, with colourfully decorated cows tethered nearby, bells tied to their horns. The influx of pilgrims meant that the rickshaw drivers were keen to get back to the railway station at Hospet, so we managed to get a good price back to the town.

After a couple of hours waiting at Hospet station (during which time Chris had a rather close encounter with a cockroach which had been crawling around under his shirt – yuk! He took it better than I would have!), our train arrived. Neither of us slept that well, and Chris is now seriously reconsidering our 43-hour journey to Agra. He’s tempted to upgrade to air-con. I’m reluctant to do so for a number of reasons: firstly the cost is considerably more – okay, so it’d still be pretty damned cheap considering the distance travelled, but still; secondly the hawkers don’t come into air-con, so the journey would be a lot more dull; and thirdly – and most importantly to me – the smoked glass, fixed windows mean that you feel detached from the countryside and can’t enjoy the view as well as from sleeper class. All that said, we would probably have a much more comfortable journey, and arrived relatively refreshed. The jury’s still out – I’ll keep you updated.

We arrived at Tirupaty around nine in the morning, when the temperature was already in the high 30s. The town is a popular pilgrimage place for Hindus, who go there to visit a large temple on a hill just outside the town. Many women donate their hair to the temple, which then make it into wigs that get sold around the world. Consequently the station was well populated with shaven-headed women. We checked our big packs into left luggage, and passed the time as best we could. We spent some time in the AC waiting room – a bit naughty really, as it is only for the use of passengers with an AC class ticket, but I correctly figured that the attendant would assume that, being foreigners, we would be travelling in an air-conditioned carriage. Whilst enjoying the cool, we checked the thermometer keyring and were astounded to find it was 30 degrees in there! Mind you, it was over 40 outside, so it did feel very pleasant.

At 1435 we boarded out second train, to Coimbatoire Junction. We were seated amongst an odd family, who bore a strong resemblance to the shopkeepers in The League of Gentlemen (“this is a local shop for local people, we’ll have no trouble here!”). I don’t think any of them they cracked a smile during the ten hour journey. Chris got talking to a guy from another carriage, who told him that the station we were due to get off at – and catch our connecting train from – was closed. I hoped he was wrong, but figured I should seek out the TTE (the Travelling Ticket Examiner) to find out for sure. I checked with the catering staff in the pantry car, and was told that the TTE hung out in AC.

I showed him our tickets, and asked him what we should do. Amidst much head wobbling, he decided that our best option would be disembarking at the station before our destination, and asking permission from the station master to catch a different train to Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills. We did this, and the grumpy station master allowed us to catch the train we needed. We had almost four hours to wait, and in the early hours of the morning the station was quiet, save for a cute mouse, a couple of rats & the to-be-expected pack of station dogs. Every now and then a train stopped – and sometimes one would shoot straight through at terrifying speed, whistles blasting to warn those walking across the tracks to get out of the way.

Around half past three our train arrived, and we found a couple of free bunks and rested, safe in the knowledge that our stop was the end of the line, so we couldn’t over sleep. It was just getting light as we arrived at Coimbatoire, where it was confirmed to us that the steam railway up to Ooty was indeed out of action – a shame, as it was a BBC program about the train that had prompted us to visit Ooty in the first place. Our plan B was to catch the bus, but we were persuaded instead to get a taxi – they get up the hill two hours quicker than the buses, and it had been an awfully long couple of days. The road was hairpin bends all the way, but that doesn’t put the drivers off overtaking each other. After the heat of the plains, the temperature of 25 degrees felt most chilly to us, and we both had goosepimples by the time we reached Ooty.

We arrived at Darshan Hotel and booked straight in, sleeping for several hours to catch up. The hotel is opposite from an area called “Boat House” on Ooty’s man-made lake, where you can hire boats, or take a short horse ride up and down the road, while cars, buses and auto-rickshaws speed by, horns blaring; there’s no “slow down for horses here!” In the afternoon we took a stroll into the shabby, noisy centre – which is pretty typical of chaotic Indian towns. We enquired at the station, and discovered that the diesel-powered train was running as far down as Coonor, and decided to take a trip on it the following day.

We queued up and bought our tickets, taking the Lonely Planet’s advice and going first class. When the train arrived we found suitable seats in the front carriage . . . and were then told by the guard that we were sitting in second class, and made to move into the crowded section at the front of the carriage. We’d have been better off where we were. At Coonor we hired a taxi to visit a couple of local viewpoints – Lamb’s Rock and Dolphins Nose – and stopped off at a “tea garden” (where they grow the tea) and a tea factory where the picked leaves are processed. It was an enjoyable few hours, and our driver dropped us off in good time for the train back up the mountain.

We joined the queue to buy our tickets – having decided to travel second class this time – but when we asked for them the guy behind the desk seemed irate that we weren’t travelling first class, and became most obnoxious. Obviously I gave as good as I got! We both managed to get seats by the window for the journey back up. The carriage was very full, and we found ourselves sat next to a couple with two badly behaved children who screamed and carried on most of the way. I guess they were a little spoiled, as usually kids get a swift clip round the ear over here when they start creating.

We rounded the day off with a visit to the busy Boat House, opposite our hotel, where holidaymaking Indians have lots of fun on a handful of dilapidated fairground rides, and take boat trips on the lake. Chris and I decided to join in, so rented a pedalo with Mickey Mouse as our figurehead. Fortunately neither of us fell in, as the lake’s rumoured to have the town’s raw sewage dumped into it; knowing India I can quite believe it.

During the rest of our stay we visited the Botanical Gardens, where a friendly dog followed us around, and took a sneak peek at the 150-year-old library – one of the last vestiges of the time of British rule remaining in Ooty, and one that few visitors to the town get to see. We were able to get in by dropping the name of Giri, the manager of Darshan, a rather eccentric Indian gent. He had very good English, which he told us was all thanks to his headmaster at school, an Englishman by the name of Mr Fox. He recommended we take a walk in the hills, taking a rickshaw with us to ensure we were dropped off at the correct place, and reciting some words that are transcribed on the wall of a house:

If you wish your children to think deep thoughts, to know the holiest emotions, take them to the woods and hills, and give them the freedom of the meadows, the hills purify those who walk upon them.

Richard Jeffries

The hill we walked upon was called Cairnhill, and there we saw black langur monkeys, a fleeting glimpse of some deer, and a giant squirrel – an odd creature with a long, bushy tail and a maroon streak on its back. A couple of trails lead up to the top of the hill, where there was a small shrine and an iron lookout tower, which Chris and I both tentatively climbed – quite brave of us really, as we’re both nervous when it comes to heights. It was a lovely, peaceful place, and quite deserted apart from ourselves. We felt it was a great shame that the domestic tourists preferred the clamour of the fair at Boat House rather than the tranquillity of nature . . . but then again . . .

As the train was running no further than Coonor we intended to catch a bus back down to the plains, so got a rickshaw to the bus stand and located the bay where the bus to Mettupalayam pulled in. There was a bus there, but as there was standing room only (and very little space for luggage) we decided to wait for the next one. After half an hour or so (during which time which a number more passengers got on) the bus left. The bus stand was amass with people, and we watched as hordes of Indians swamped each arriving bus, throwing their bags up at the still moving bus in the hope that the passengers inside would “bags” a seat for them. Before the bus had stopped moving, a mass of people were pushing inside – making it nigh on impossible for the alighting passengers to get off.

After a while likely looking bus headed towards our bay, and I joined a throng of Indians also going to Mettupalayam, having checked with a man amongst the crowd that this was the correct bus. We moved as one body, following the bus as it reversed into the bay trying to keep near the door area – but being careful not to get too close to the moving vehicle; I’m sure many people must die over here at bus stands! Finally it stopped, and I tried to allow people to exit the bus before the force behind me became too great, and I was jostled up the steps and into the bus, pushing and shoving as I in turn was pushed an shoved in my quest to find a seat, and room for my pack.

I checked behind me and saw that Chris too had been swept onto the bus, sandwiched between his packs, and a crush of Indian bodies, a bewildered look on his face. The man I’d spoken to earlier gestured to me, kindly allowing me to sit next to him, and I wedged my pack and myself into the narrow space, trying as best as I could to keep it out of the way of river of passengers still flowing into the bus. I made sure Chris was okay, and tried to assist him in finding a seat . . . and then something strange happened. The bus began to empty, many of the people that had fought so hard to gain entry to the vehicle had got off. It turned out that the bus was not stopping at Mettupalayam at all. At least we were not alone in our mistake, so we didn’t have to feel too silly as we slunk off the bus.

We waited around a while longer, and then succumbed when a guy offered us seats in a share taxi for Rs150 each. Our bags were tied to the top of the large jeep-type vehicle, and we joined the nine other passengers squeezed inside. Fortunately our chauffeur was a safe and sensible driver, and took no unnecessary risks on the two-hour journey down from the hills, depositing us safely near the railway station.

Two trains and ten hours later we found ourselves in Kollam, where we traipsed round looking for digs for an hour or so before settling on the Sha International. The room wasn’t quite ready, so we left our packs and went for breakfast at the Nani hotel, which was absolutely lovely and not too expensive – we kicked ourselves for not staying there instead. Kollam was a dirty, smelly, polluted town – we didn’t like it much! Our reason for being there was to organise a houseboat trip in the famous Keralan backwaters. We walked down to the boat jetty (getting lost on the way there and passing the most disgusting smelling canal/open sewer ever), where a man with an honest face approached us. We’d decided to do a trip lasting two nights, and settled on a price.

The next two days were spent relaxing on a kettuvellam, traditionally a rice barge, but now a must-do tourist experience when in these parts. We saw a multitude of kingfishers, Brahminy kites swooping down to catch fish, and numbers little boats containing fishermen, as we floated gently around the waterways. We also saw the huge scale of the illegal sand industry – tonnes of the stuff is dredged from the riverbeds and sold for construction. It will surely have a significant effect on the countryside in due course. Our crew were nice, although there English wasn’t great. We did have a large number of coconut and mango trees pointed out to us though, and eventually realised that “player, player” meant that the bell we’d heard signified the start of prayers in a nearby church.

One of the highlights was a trip though some of the narrower waterways in a small boat, punted by a young man by the name of Veteesh. His English was very good – all the more impressive when you consider it was mostly learnt from talking to tourists – and he had a cheeky sense of humour. He showed us coir making – rope made from the fibres in coconut husks – and pointed out numerous plants and herbs.

When our trip was over we were returned to Kollam in good time for the eight-hour journey to Alleppey. Allepey isn’t really eight hours away, at least not by road, but the trip on the tourist boat was part of the package we’d agreed to, as was a night’s accommodation at Allepey. It was a little bit of boat overkill, although the scenery was very pretty as we neared Alleppey, so I’m glad we did it. Our room there was huge a cool – we wished we were staying longer. The town was nice too, much more relaxed that Kollam had been. Just the one night though, and we were off to Kochi, where we are now.

By the way, Chris did persuade me that AC would be just the ticket for that long journey up to Agra . . . only when we checked at the booking office it was fully booked. I’m sure we’ll survive sleeper class though; I’ll let you know.


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