|India Part One Chennai to Ooty
We left Hanoi and flew to Chennai formerly Madras on the East coast of India, via Kuala Lumpur. For once we didn’t cross the equator, having done so five times on this trip.
We arrived in Chennai just before midnight with a car waiting for us from our hotel, my first time in India, first impressions chaotic traffic, a cow eating out of a dustbin on the pavement of a busy street with goats wandering about and street front shops as ever always open.
The following day we headed down to Mahabalipuram (hereafter known as Mahabs a coastal town on the Bay of Bengal)having negotiated a driver from the hotel to take us. He turned out to be a star, first of all taking us to register to get a SIM card each. The whole of this three week stretch of our tour we have organised ourselves so we need to be in touch with each other in case we get lost.. Quite an epic to gain a SIM card as you fill in copious details often in triplicate, have your passport and visa photo copied and have to give the telephone number of a referee who lives in India. I was nearly driven to distraction when it came to photocopying our Visas. The copier was a very old computer printer covered in dust. The gentleman operating it sat in his seat whilst the stack of printing paper was constantly falling out of the cracked feeder tray. He kept leaning back on his chair to straighten it with no effect at all to the point I was nearly jumping over the counter to help him.He then photocopied Sue’ Cambodian Visa, fortunately she spotted this. An hour later we left and it can take up to three days for it to be activated. We happily left expecting the cards to work in a couple of days time.No one told us there was a further activation process but another visit to an airtel shop in Pondicherry got them sorted. Great value for 28 days, 4G system, 28Gb of data , 1Gb per day and unlimited calls and texts £2.90. Good one India.
We stopped off on the way at Dalshina Chitra – a well presented tourist place of reconstructed ancient regional houses. It was an open air museum showing how religion, culture and climate determined different styles of architecture in different areas of South India.This gave me a good start to understanding something about Southern India. We had a great lunch and then went on our way.
Mahabalipuram is known for an extensive collection of ancient religious monuments dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.
The town has 40 ancient monuments and Hindu temples, including one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world, which was one of the monuments I particularly wanted to see called the Descent of the Ganges or Anjuna’s Penance. This carving shows the penance of Anjuna’s, who in seeking the good will of the god Shiva and is stood on one leg, attended by dwarves, celestial beings flying overhead and many animals, especially elephants looking on.
All of the sites were close enough to walk to, there were just so many of them. Having been to Angkor Wat I thought the Indian monuments would be a disappointment but they were several centuries earlier and very impressive. In Mahabs we were always within 100 metres of an impressive monument. India is taking the restoration of its heritage sites very seriously but amazingly allows people to clamber all over them, taking hundreds of selfies at every opportunity including white greying english ladies whenever possible !
We came across a group of women on an outing from their local temple dressed in red and yellow, they looked stunning.
We took a walk to the beach where we came across hundreds of people, many standing in the water fully clothed, not a swimming costume in sight and no one swimming, they just loved standing and rolling about in the waves and I suspect could not swim.
Our hotel in Mahabs was as suspected, not one of our finest choices , but there was little to choose from. It had a fabulous swimming pool and seating area, staff who were reluctant to do very much, we had a huge shabby room with a balcony with seats falling to pieces. It could have been fabulous but little maintenance had been undertaken for many years. The restaurant served very good Indian food but their restaurant toilets had toilet seats on the floor, cracked porcelain and no water. However the “Jane and Sue” criteria for totally unacceptable had not been reached. Our criteria being water of unknown origin on the floor which has the potential to come over the top of your flip flops!
After three nights and two days in Mahabs we were picked up by our driver Basil who had been arranged for us for the next few days by Anandhi a friend of Sue’s who lives in Pondicherry now known as Ponducherry .We went via Auroville a community something like Dartington Hall , set up with 2,500 Indian residents and people from 50 other countries living on the created campus.The plan is for 50,000 people to live there.
The journey down was lovely, we headed away from the coast and drove through more rural India, which was flat with paddy fields ready to be harvested, storks, pelicans and black and white Kingfishers and of course cows and goats on the road. As we drove, we came across road side shops with their wares spilling out on the road with the vendors sitting chatting but always ready to do business. Women in the most beautiful Saris coming out of the trees seemingly from nowhere and school children in perfect white shirts waiting for the rickety school bus to take them to school. Orange motorised auto rickshaws hurtling down the road, large lorries and numerous motorbikes all overtaking and undertaking, lovely trees and water lilies in ponds interspersed with piles of hard wood tree trunks ready to be moved on. Piles of rubbish which looked like they had been sifted and resifted and clearly been there for a long time. The houses varied from modern flat roofed properties to houses made of rushes, thatch and tarpaulin and the ever present corrugated iron with emergency repairs undertaken with cement and rice bags. Newer properties all favoured blue corrugated iron for their roofs which looked very colourful. The majority of women wore Saris, the men were either dressed in western style clothing or wearing lungis ,cloth skirts mid length or full length.It was a lovely journey giving a real insight into rural Southern India.
We arrived at Auroville and saw a short film which explained what it was all about.Two Indian philosophers with a vision to facilitate groups of people from all around the world living in harmony and to quote “be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness”.
Auroville was set up in 1968 and was transformed from a barren plateau to a lush green landscape which continues to be developed into a city with residents researching , organic farming techniques renewable energy etc.
We spent a very happy afternoon looking at the Matrimandir which is a huge structure at Auroville where residents go for meditation and concentration, it looks very much like a huge golden golf ball with a magnificent open air auditorium and beautiful gardens.
From there we were only a short distance from our destination which was Pondicherry, now spelt Ponducherry and the House of Blue Mangoe where we were staying for a couple of nights. The House was a 1920s traditional house with many original features. During our time we visited the French quarter known as White Town where the French who had control of Pondicherry lived , it was called White Town by the locals as they all had white skin.
We went to an annual cultural event and saw some magnificent dancing ( Kathakali dance which id story telling through dance )and enjoyed spending time with Anandhi who cooked us a magnificent traditional lunch.
We left Pondicherry with Basil who drove us back to Chennai ready to catch the train early the next morning. We were booked into the Radisson blue and I was congratulating myself on having booked a great hotel close to the train station. However self praise and all that, I quickly discovered wrong train station, we were next door to the main metro station, however all it meant was that we had an hour or so less sleep and had to get up at 4 am to be in time to catch the 6 am train for a 500 kilometre journey to Mysore. The journey through a bustling Chennai city at 4.30am was interesting, the train station was hectic with sleeping people and sleeping dogs all over the place.
We boarded the train and took our place in a carriage with good seats and air conditioning turned up to Baltic ferocity, it was chilly.
The journey was fascinating, through rural India, seeing small villages, with colourful people going about their business ,vast empty plains where you would have expected to see elephants but no longer in this day and age , neat paddy fields and other crops. Where ever there was any kind of water there were people up to their neck with fishing nets.
As we approached Bangalore we started to see a lot of huge birds circling which were black kites and they were something we saw continuously from then on into Mysore. As we left Bangalore the train staff, who had served us continuously with food and drink ( none of which we dare eat or drink in case it made us ill ) then shut all the blinds. There was a big demonstration going on about water, involving a river and a dam, a conflict between two Indian States one of which was the area around Bangalore and Mysore. The train staff expected the demonstrators to stone the train. What, they can’t be serious!.The Indians sitting near us where all on their phones telling family and friends not to come to the station in Mysore. BBC breaking news came to mind, where shall I send pictures!!
We decided we should be ready for this so started planning the best place to position ourselves but in the end we saw and heard nothing and the journey to our homestay was totally uneventful.
We were in a rural area of Mysore with a family who farmed both coffee and pepper.They had five very lovely rooms with verandas overlooking a delightful garden which attracted an array of birds.
We took a walk around the estate and had a relaxing afternoon before a very tasty Indian meal which was prepared by the homestay. We ate with the other residents all of whom were British and on organised tours.
The following day we joined two of the British guests in the homestay for a visit to the Royal Palace. The original had been made of rosewood and was burnt down in the late 1800s, it took the fire brigade 3 days to get to Mysore and the burning palace, too little too late.
Mysore was big Maharajah country and still has a Maharajah but the title is no longer formally recognised.However the the people of Mysore still refer to their Maharajah and he with six members of his family still live at times in the palace when not in another of their palaces or abroad.
The Palace was rebuilt after the fire in 1897 taking 15 years by the wife of the then Maharajah who was at that time in power as it burnt down, he died but she continued with a British Architect and the help of the eventual Duke of Wellington, taking in the best building features from around the world.Belgium stained glass windows, the floors from Stoke on Trent, glass chandeliers from Venice.
The Palace had a courtyard from where the Maharajah would get on his elephant and surrounded by courtiers undertake parades for all sorts of events, birthdays, ceremonial occasions, weddings etc. When a Royal elephant who regularly carried the Maharajah for these ceremonies died the taxidermist would preserve the elephant head and they could be seen hung on the walls of the Palace
We went back to the Palace in the evening as it was Republic day to see it all lit up, something that only happens on Sundays and National holidays
We went to the market in Mysore where we saw different items on sale, colourful paints and the biggest corridor of bananas I have ever seen. We were also followed by an Indian who the only way we could shake off was to get into an auto rickshaw. First time we have had an incident like this.No bad thing as made us a bit more aware.
We met a teenage boy in the market who was anxious to try out his language skills and persuade us to buy some lotus oil which he claimed is a great mosquito deterrent. He also told me I looked familiar which explained why I had been stopped by quite a lot of people over the last couple of days, wanting selfies with me, in fact one person stopped and got off their scooter to come and talk to me and then realised mistaken identity. Unprompted our young friend told me I look like an ageing Bollywood star, I do t think so !!!,who obviously doesn’t get their haircut either!!.
When the market closes the wandering cattle who meander in and out of the traffic are allowed to go and eat any of the fruit or vegetables left out. Many of the cattle were black and white Friesians who were yellow and white as they had been rubbed in turmeric for a special festival and their horns painted in bright colours. Allegedly the turmeric is also a great deterrent to ticks.
We left Mysore with a car and driver to take us to Ooty ,proper name Ootacamund or Udagamandalam which sits at 2240 metres 7350 feet, a hill town favoured by the British during the Raj to get out of the heat and sometimes known as Snooty Ooty. The drive was a real delight through the Mudumalai tiger reserve. We didn’t see any tigers but we did see elephant and the most enchanting deer. Once at the exit of the reserve where the locals had their cars searched for alcohol, we started the climb up to Ooty, 36 hairpin bends often much tighter than the 27 up to Grimentz. On arrival I think I expected to find a chic Swiss ski resort as it felt like a drive up through the alps, but of course what we found was a chaotic Indian town with some delightful colonial buildings, parks and lakes and a mountain peak of 8640 feet.
We stayed at the Kings Cliff hotel which was originally a house owned by the British Governor and was perched above the town of Ooty, we took the yellow auto rickshaws to take us where ever we wanted to go, the roads were very rutted and in need of repair making for some bumpy journeys The whole area had suffered from under investment in maintenance.
Thea Kings Cliff had an interesting history, owned by the Governor, used for weddings during the time of British rule, was lived in by members of the English aristocracy and then lost by the British in a card game to an Indian.It is magnificent and has changed very little except for a few mod cons, ensuite WiFi etc. It even has the same furniture as it had originally. Ooty is hot in the day with blue sky’s and full high altitude sun, however as soon as the sun goes down it is very chilly. Our room had an open fire which was lit at about 6 pm and then more wood for the night. Hot water bottles were also delivered to us at 9 pm all of which added to the delightful stay in this hotel.
It also had a really fabulous restaurant and we thoroughly enjoyed our meals and it was very popular with the Indians. Up until leaving we were the only Europeans at Kings Cliff and we didn’t see any around and about Ooty
Ooty was however alcohol free, India is having a real issue with alcohol and so it is banned from being served in certain states including this one, but you can go to a liquor store. We of course went to the store, it was down a dark alley, no light, a risk too far we decided, so no alcohol for us for a couple of days.
We hired a guide to take us up through the farmland and forest to the top of the mountain which turned out to be a bit like snowdon as all the Indians had driven up. It was a walk of about 16 kms thankfully due to the altitude the heat was not a problem. On the way we saw a huge squirrel in a tree about the size of a small dog which was Black and Tan and apparently the Indian tree squirrel.It was a lovely walk through interesting farmland wonderful soil for growing carrots and beetroot, locals making eucalyptus oil and cows and goats wandering as they wished.It was good to get some exercise as we have had little whilst we have been travelling, the last being the Australian walk but we have had plenty of good food.On our return from the mountain walk we had a Ayurvedic massage which is about working on Marma points and pressure points. It was excellent, as ever everything was massaged and I came away smelling of spicy India.
Ooty has some interesting landmarks created by the British, the botanical gardens originally set up to grow vegetables, the lake created for fishing. We went into the gardens and also a trip on the lake and wandered around Ooty which has a huge number of schools including an International school.
Our hotel gardens were a delight to sit in up until the sun went down, monkeys were frequent visitors swinging through the trees bouncing on the roof and looking for a chance of food. Lower down the hill traditional Indian music was regularly played all adding to the ambience of our stay. Someone on the staff of the hotel had a liking for Coldplay which could be heard early evening in the lounge area which was all a bit bizarre.
We left Ooty via the narrow gauge train down to Mettupalayam station where we had a driver waiting to take us to Coimbatore ready for the last train journey on this trip to Cochin.The train journey was magnificent, past little villages and tea plantations. It took 3 and a half hours to go 40 kilometres, the train started off with a Diesel engine and then changed to a steam engine which took us slowly down the steep mountain. We organised a driver to take us to the station from Kings Cliff and then on to our hotel in Coimbatore when we eventually got off the train. The same driver offered to do both journeys and take our luggage which we thought was a bit strange but there is little room on the train and this is what most people do.
The train stopped at various point, every got off the train and wandered about and then the train whistle went and everyone jumped back on, guards in each carriage with a red and green flag hanging out the window and the train only moved when all were hanging the green flag so the driver knew it was god to go. On one stop a troupe of monkeys mingled with the passengers and jumped about all over the train. Each stop had toilets as the train had none. We sampled one of them, porcelain foot plate style , very strange to see a row of Indian backsides all lined up.
At Mettupalayam the train came to a halt and our driver was there to meet us and took us to our hotel about an hour away, usual Indian style, using his horn to tell the car in front he was overtaking or warn a motorbike or pedestrian so every journey the air is full of honking horns. It was a fast journey with one or two anxious moments on the overtaking of lorries.
We arrived at our apart hotel just in time for something to eat. Again we are the only western people here but have been warmly welcomed. Tomorrow another train journey and the final stage of our trip