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Published: August 8th 2015
Nilgiri Hills view
Greetings from the Nilgiri Hills! “Nilgiri” means “Blue Mountain”, and is an upland area in the north-west corner of Tamil Nadu state. It is home to a number of ex-colonial British-founded hill stations, where the Brits of colonial Madras used to come to escape the heat of the Indian summer and spend time in the beautiful forested mountains and tea plantations. My trip here has taken a very different turn from Kerala, and feels quite unusual and off-the-beaten track to be honest. I am currently in a town called Ooty, the main tourist destination of the Nilgiri Hills, yet I am very much off the foreign tourist trail. Many Indian families seem to come here for holidays, presumably also away from the heat of the plains (it is deliciously cool up here, no need for air-conditioning!), but I have not seen another traveller since leaving Kerala two days ago. It is very different, very unusual, but very enjoyable in an adventurous sort of way, particularly the place where I am staying at the moment, which I will relate further below.
So, I believe I last wrote from Alleppey, exploring the Keralan backwaters and observing the warm-ups for
These house-dwellers are paid around £5 a month by Idea, an Indian mobile phone service provider, to have their advertising painted on their houses. An unusual sight greeting one's arrival in Ooty.
the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, which is in actual fact taking place today. After a wonderful two days at the Sona Heritage Home, continuing to be the only guest there in the faded grandeur of a place, the owner gave me a lift on the back of his motorbike, my two backpacks in tow, to the town’s bus station. Amazingly I met up with a French couple who I met way back in Madurai, who were waiting for the same AC bus as me to take us northwards to the beautiful ex-colonial Portuguese/Dutch/British town of Fort Cochin, or Kochi as it is known today.
And what a beautiful little place it was, and if I am to compare it with Pondicherry, which I probably shouldn’t do, felt much more relaxed, with a great traveller-vibe but still not being overwhelmed by tourism. True, the rickshaw drivers were a little more insistent than usual, and are known to whisk tourists away unwittingly to numerous Kashmiri-owned souvenir shops rather than to the place that they requested. But I thoroughly enjoyed my two days there, the first involving a blissful walk around town through its colonial heritage backstreets, and some fantastic little places
to fill up with food and drink. Indeed, one little tea house called the “Tea Pot” really stood out for me here, being completely decked out with tea-related ornaments, decorations and furniture fittings: tables were placed on tea-crates, teapots occupied every ornamental space, and paintings depicted old, Indian adverts for tea. A truly tea-oriented place, which also rustled up a mean curry!
My second day I had planned to do more sightseeing, but upon setting foot in my fantastic, wonderful, delightful home stay there, I felt completely called to have a down-time day there, nothing else. It was wonderful. The place was called the Delight Home Stay, a home stay being a few rooms added on to a family home, where you’re often made to feel like part of the family. I took the prime room, with a wonderful balcony and view over some playing fields and one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. It also looked out onto the home’s immaculate garden, with the finest lawn I have seen in a long time, even nicer than many I have seen back home. Tied in with being a stone’s throw from the winner of Asia’s top
boutique hotel award for 2014, the Malabar House, this was just bliss, and Thursday was spent truly winding down, eating well at the Malabar’s fine restaurant, enjoying a spot of tea at the Tea Pot, and chilling out on the beautiful balcony with the amazing view. Honestly, travelling really doesn’t get better than this!
Or does it...?
In fact, the last two days have been just wonderful also, in a different way. Friday morning I caught a train from a place called Ernakulam, the large modern city attached to beautiful Kochi. Though I almost in fact missed it. The ironic thing is that for a touristy town where you can’t cross a street without a rickshaw driver asking if you want to go anywhere, there were absolutely none around at 8am in the morning when I needed one to take me the half-hour journey to the train station to get my train. The home stay owner, the fantastic David, said this was because all the souvenir shops were not open yet, and I believe he wasn’t far from the truth. It took us 15 minutes to find one, and when it came, we got stuck in the almightiest
of Indian traffic jams as everyone and their neighbour seemed to want to cross the two bridges linking Kochi with Ernakulam, unsurprisingly due to it being the early morning rush hour. This was stressful. I did arrive at the station 15 minutes in time for my train, but being a person who likes to get to transport places at least an hour early just in case, and faced with the alternative of having to take a government bus, probably non-AC, for 4.5 hours instead, this was a major relief, and I really settled into the journey and enjoyed it.
The train took me inland, away from the Keralan coast, and through a mountain pass in the Western Ghat mountain range back into Tamil Nadu. The mountain pass was just stunning – the train stayed on the flats between the mountains on either side, but passing through these huge, boulder-type outcrops of mountains covered in forest was mightily impressive. The train took me to Coimbatore, a large and seemingly quite prosperous industrial town in the north-west of Tamil Nadu, home to around one million. They call it “The Manchester of India” for its textile industry, and I thought “yeah, right,
I’ll believe that when I see it”. But in fact, if Manchester is considered to be a large, prosperous city away from the central capital region of a country, then the title does not seem too far off the mark.
Most hotels in Coimbatore looked a dive, though, to be honest, and I was fortunate to check into the fantastic Hotel ESS Grande, in a beautiful business-class suite with an extremely enticing view over the city and towards the Nilgiri mountain range in the distance. Indeed, watching the sun set over the mountains with a Kingfisher beer in hand, thinking that that’s where I’ll be headed the next day, was a wonderful way to spend the evening. Although Coimbatore has few tourist sights, and nothing whatsoever listed in the Lonely Planet except for a few hotels, restaurants and a map, I actually really enjoyed my time there. Definitely off the beaten tourist track, I did a bit of Internet research and found a modern shopping mall nearby. The afternoon was spent endulging in the pleasures of Western delights, and I plied myself with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway cookies, a delicious iced brownie drink, chocolate and yoghurt. I have in
fact adored the Indian food I have had since arriving here, the cuisine is just so tantalisingly tasty, but I still revelled in this afternoon of Westernised reminiscence. Never had a chicken wing tasted so good…!!
So my plan was to arrive in Coimbatore, and hopefully somehow book a ticket on the famous, UNESCO World Heritage status “Toy Train”, which climbs and negotiates the steep mountain journey from nearby Mettupalayam to Ooty, tourist centrale of the Nilgiri Hills. However, Coimbatore’s train station wasn’t too helpful, and I didn’t fancy joining the mile-long queue for ticket reservations (well, maybe not a mile, but it was long and hardly moving…) only to find out that you don’t book the tickets there. In fact, I believe you are only able to book the tickets at Mettupalayam itself, else perhaps on the Internet or through Tourist Agencies. There were seemingly none of the latter around town, and I don’t really trust Internet purchasing while I’m over here. Finally, my hotel receptionist told me that they only decide whether to run the train on the morning of departure, departure time being 7.10am from Mettupalayam, an hour’s drive from Coimbatore, due to many trees, branches
and rocks falling on the railway line each day. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it just seemed rather a lot of hassle to book a ticket on this amazing way to get to Ooty, despite the fact that a TV documentary on it I saw around a year ago was the very inspiration for me taking this trip to India in the first place. I also didn’t fancy taking a government bus up there, the Lonely Planet says the four-hour journey is often very crowded and actually recommends taking a taxi up there. So that is what I did, and parting with around £19 enabled me to travel up the mountain this morning in style!
The journey up was amazing! After around an hour or so of plain road driving, the road started to go up, and then followed hairpin after hairpin bends, through thickly forested mountain slopes, over bridges crossing mountain streams and waterfalls, and past families of mischievous-looking monkeys. What was just wonderful were the constant, often quite amusing, signs encouraging safe driving and environmental protection on the way up. This is something I remember from travelling up to Darjeeling, another hill station in
the North of India on my last visit to the country, with “Hurry burry spoils the curry” still sticking in my mind ten years later. The classics this time were “Accidents bring tears, safety brings cheer”, “Clean Ooty, green beauty”, “Find a bin, put it in”, the rather direct “Hospital ceilings are boring…avoid accidents”, and the somewhat enigmatic “Stop and ponder. Posterity should thank you not curse you”. A memorable trip up to the hill station indeed, with many wise words to ponder on the way up!
On the way I did pass the Railway Workers’ Village Compound, which featured in the TV documentary a year ago, which despite not taking the toy train, was memorable enough for me. But the driver was rather irksome to say the least. I believe I can tell more or less which ones are going to be the bother: the ones who want to point everything out to you and ask whether you want to stop and take a photo, or stop for a chai, or stop to have something to eat, they seem to believe they are providing something more than just a taxi service, some kind of alternative but rubbish sightseeing
tour for tourists. I had no doubt that he would hint for more than 1900 rupees (£19) upon arrival, which he did rather pitifully by saying he was hungry and needed to eat. What the…?! No! This really annoys me, that on top of charging much more for foreigners like myself than locals, some people believe that they are owed something in addition. It is not the first time I have encountered this kind of thinking, having seen it many times in certain African countries in particular, and it is unfortunately the negative and unwitting consequence of the benignly-intentioned system of international aid. That Westerners abroad can often be seen as walking money cows, there to just donate to the locals. Indeed, I could tell things may be heading in this direction as the driver also asked me on the way up if there are any “trusts” in my country which may help him to provide his children with an education (?!). I believe it is also why the hotel porter in Kanyakumari took an instant disliking to me, as although I did give him a tip for a meal he brought up to me, he didn’t seem to like
asking for it (by pointing to his mouth and then to his stomach…?!). No, not nice, and this doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth to be honest. I would not want to tip either, as I would not want to set a precedent for future tourists.
Anyway, I did arrive at least, in my current place of residence for two nights. And what an unusual but seriously stunning place this is. It is called the Mount View Heritage Home, and is housed in an old British bungalow home overlooking the main valley and town of Ooty. It is seriously stunning for the absolutely enormous room I have here, covered in wall-to-wall hard wood, including all of the walls, the fireplace, the beautiful bed, and the three-piece suite. There appears to be just one other couple staying here, but it is still quite spookily quiet. Unusual in that the owner, who I spoke with on the phone a number of times to make my reservation and ask for directions, is not on-site, and the place is seemingly run by a number of people who don’t really seem to know what they’re doing. When I arrived and said I
had a reservation, they just looked at me rather perplexed until I suggested that they perhaps show me to a room. They then agreed that this would be a good idea, and here I am. The service may not be spectacular, if there is any service at all, but blimey what a find!! I include some photos here of my room to hopefully illustrate what I mean – amazing indeed!
Finally, and this is just perfection indeed, this wonderfully faded grandeur of a place is right next door to a modern resort hotel, complete with tourist desk and a wonderful restaurant – perfection again! I enjoyed a delicious curry lunch there, followed by a wonderful two-hour hike with the hotel trekking guide and a teenager from Dubai staying at the hotel with his family, up a nearby viewpoint. The trek involved a steep hike, past a temple dedicated to the monkey-god Hanuman, perhaps halfway up the mountain due to the importance of mountains given to Hanuman. In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, when Hanuman, half-monkey half-man, was asked by the avatar-god Rama (a human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu), to whom he is completely devoted, to fetch a
rare mountain plant from the Himalayas in order to prepare a medicine to cure a wounded comrade, Hanuman wasn’t sure which one to get whilst up there, so instead was said to have brought back the whole mountain! Indeed, Hanuman statues are often shown with him holding a mountain in one of his hands. Perhaps this is why the Hanuman Temple was there…? Anyway, not sure, but past the temple we climbed on up, through forests which the guide said were walked by bears and leopards at night (!!), to a viewpoint affording spectacular views across the tea plantations and Nilgiri Hills to the south and west. Stunning, and well worth it. Photos attached here.
So, this brings me to the present moment, writing this one from my stunning and enormous room in this Heritage Home, to hopefully upload onto my blog shortly at the reception, which has Wifi connection but doesn’t seem to be too strong – hopefully it’ll make it along with the photos…
I will sign off here for now. My journey has indeed taken a different turn as I have left the Keralan coast and somewhat exited the beaten tourist track. I believe these
next few days will open up a bit more of the natural side of India to me, as I spend two nights first here in Ooty, and then a further two nights at a safari lodge in the nearby Mudumalai Tiger Reserve – one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots apparently, and having one of the best chances in India of seeing a tiger in the wild. Looking forward very much!
I should also say for now that I may not be too connected to the Internet over the next few days, until Wednesday at least. Along with the not-so-great connection here in my lodge in Ooty, apparently my lodge in Mudumalai does have Wifi, but they say it is rather intermittent…
So until the next time, most likely from either Mysore or Bangalore, my final two destinations after Mudumalai, thanks for reading, all the best, and bye for now!
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