Mysore and Ooty: 25th January - 30th January
We were overnight at the Radisson Blu, chosen because Booking.com said it was five minutes from the station. Unfortunately it was not the station we needed for our rail journey to Mysore the next day.This was 17 kms away, a costly mistake in terms of an early start – our train departed at 6 am - and the necessity for an early morning taxi across town. We caught our train and enjoyed a seven hour rail journey to Mysore. The train was as good as any UK train. We were in first class and were offered tea, coffee and meals at very regular intervals. In between the carriage was swept and any litter removed. The carriage was air conditioned and quite chilly.
The journey was fascinating, through rural India, passing small villages, neat paddy fields and other crops. Wherever there was water we saw people up to their necks in it with fishing nets.As we approached Bangalore we started to see huge numbers of black kites circling.
We were aware that there had been political demonstrations in Bangalore and Mysore due to a dispute with Goa over water rights to river water that crossed both regions. Even so, we were perturbed when train staff lowered all the blinds and told us that demonstrators ahead might stone the train, also that they may be present at Mysore station. In the event we saw no sign of trouble, though other travellers we met later said they had seen peaceful demonstrations.
When we arrived we went by taxi to our Homestay. We were staying in a rural area just outside of Mysore with a family who farmed both coffee and pepper. They had five very lovely rooms with verandas overlooking a lovely garden which attracted hosts of birds.There were three other rooms occupied by British couples, including two elderly brothers and their wives. One of these brothers was an ex pat living in Kenya, which her persisted in calling Keenya. This older pronunciation was abandoned by the Kenyans after independence when Kenyatta came to power. They displayed many other old fashioned ex pat behaviours and bigotries and assumed that everyone agreed with them. We had to contend with their views on Young People Today, the benefits of Brexit and the jolly good job that Teresa May is doing as prime minister.
Otherwise the place was lovely. We had evening meals there, three day running, eating as one large group. The food was wonderful, the company a bit wearing!
The major sight in Mysore is the royal palace, which we duly visited, taking advantage of our fellow guests’ driver and guide. It was a beautiful place in an over the top, bling sort of way. Commissioned by the Maharaja’s widow in 1897,after the previous rosewood place burnt down in the late 1800s. It had taken the fire brigade 3 days to get to Mysore from Bangalore to douse the flames, which had by, then extinguished themselves. Too little, too late. The new palace, finished in 1912 was designed by a British architect and was an amalgamation of styles and buIlding materials. The iron frames of the massive rooms were made in Glasgow, some floor tiles in Stoke on Trent, the chandeliers in Venice and Bohemia etc etc. It was quite vulgar in a pretty sort of way. We returned in the evening because every Sunday and national holiday it is lit up with 100,000 bulbs. It was Republic Day so we were there for the spectacle and it was indeed lovely.
We went to the market in Mysore which mainly sold a gaudy, beautiful array of fruit, vegetables and spices. There was a whole separate corridor of bananas which are kept apart from other produce because they cause them to deteriorate (hence never leave your bananas in the fruit bowl with other fruit).We met a teenage boy who was a superb businessman in the making who persuaded us to come to his brother’s incense factory, a market stall and watch him make joss sticks and to buy some lotus oil which he promised us would deter mosquitos. Actually it did seem to work quite well. When the market closes the wandering cattle, who meander in and out of the traffic are allowed in to eat any of the remaining fruit or vegetables. Many of the cattle had been stained yellow, using turmeric and their horns painted in bright colours for an earlier harvest festival. We were told that the turmeric doubles up as a great deterrent to tics.
We experienced an unpleasant incident in Mysore. Within minutes of withdrawing cash from an ATM we noticed we were being followed. This became very blatant and our attempts to cross the busy road back and forth did not shake him off. He stared right back when I eyeballed him and then told him to go away. We jumped into an autorickshaw, (Tuktuk) and he came even closer as we tried to tell the driver where we wanted to go. It felt quite menacing and the driver did not help. He did not understand where we wanted to go and we had to get out again. Fortunately this negotiation took so long that the menacing man drifted off, thinking we were safely ensconced inside the autorickshaw. We were quite shaken up and had to take ourselves to a beautiful colonial style hotel for lunch, whilst we took stock and recovered with a beer.
We only had one full day in Mysore before moving on by car to Ooty – the queen of the hill stations, proper name Udagamandalam. Ooty sits at 7350 feet and was adopted by the British during the Raj as a cooler alternative to the city during the hot season. It became known as Snooty Ooty. The drive was a real delight through the Mudumalai tiger reserve – we didn’t see any but did see some enchanting deer – and up into the mountainous Nilgiri Hills.
Once out of the reserve, where cars are searched for alcohol, we started the steep climb up to Ooty, up 36 precipitous hairpin bends. Incongruously, at the top we found a chaotic Indian town with some heritage 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. It had been lost to an Indian at some stage in a card game. It has changed very little and even has the same antique furniture shown in the old photographs.
However, Ooty is alcohol free, as Mahabs had been, as some states have banned alcohol in response to alcohol abuse issues. In enquiring about where we might buy beer or wine we were directed to a dark alley and a dingy, dark bar. We decided this was a risk too far so had a few dry days.
The temperature dropped dramatically in Ooty, as we had been expecting. We piled on the layers and accepted the offer of a log fire and hot water bottles in our room. The food was the best we had had and determined the pattern of our three days as we tried to be back for lunch.
We had read the guide book and accordingly went off to hire an official guide for a trek into the Nilgiri Hills. It was, at the same time both a good and disappointing experience. We climbed up through the forest to the top of South India’s highest peak, Doddabetta. It was a 16km walk and a shock to our systems as we have grown flabby and unfit, with little opportunity for exercise as we have been traveling around. The view from the top would have been spectacular but there was a haze. The walk up had been partly on a minor road before it diverted steeply up into the forest on steep paths. However on the return journey we followed the main road, either directly on the road, which was lethal with tourist vehicles of all kinds or on a parallel path just inside the forest. The guide, who had barely any English said the government had prohibited access to to the forest due to the dangers of buffalo. Lower down he took us back into the forest, on a very precarious downwards path which eventually went through a tribal village and Ooty’s botanical gardens. We certainly felt we had had a work out but had not escaped the traffic congestion and fumes as we had intended.
We had a peaceful time for recovery in the hotel’s lovely garden before venturing out again, this time for an Ayurvedic massage at a nearby spa hotel. This was a very good experience, ranking for me as equal first amongst my massage experiences, together with the Bath Spa hot stone massage.
The following day we had had nothing planned. We took a autorickshaw to the nearby lake and went onto an excursion on the water. We shared our boat with a couple from New York who were also on a three month trip. We hit it off, sharing experiences and arranged to meet for dinner. Meanwhile we did a bit of retail in the town and retreated once more to our hotel garden, there to be entertained by a troupe of monkeys on the roof of the building and nearby trees. All very entertaining! The dinner with Peter and Ellen, newly retired New York lawyers provided good company and predictably wonderful food from our hotel. When travelling we meet people who have the potential to become good friends but who remain as ships that pass in the night. The next day we left on the ‘toy train’ to Ooty.
The toy train experience was the finest rail journey I have had. Started in 1867, it took thirty years to build and runs on narrow gauge tracks. The carriages sit four across. We switched from a Diesel engine to steam after the first stretch and it seemed to struggle to hold us back as we descended through the mountains, past tea plantations, mountains and gorges. It was very slow, taking three and a half hours to trace fourth kilometres. We stopped occasionally, either at stations or in between. Everyone climbed down, either to interact with the monkeys who knew just when to expect the train, or to go to strategically placed toilets. These were unlike any I had seen before. Cubicles without doors, squat style but designed in such a way that you face inwards. When I walked in I just saw a row of three bottoms. Amazing how you lose inhibitions when you need to pee!
Our destination was Mettapulyam, where we had a car waiting to take us to Coimbitore where we staying overnight. The next stage is the train to Cochin.