KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
At last we arrived in Udagamandalam, the new name for the hill station formerly known as Ootacamund and nicknamed "Ooty". This was a bit of a dream come true as I have been hearing about this "Queen of the Nilgiri Hills" for as long as we have been married. Once I made this lifelong commitment to Anil's Indian heritage, I began to read a lot of books on Indian history, especially ones about the British colonial period. I remember reading a little about Ooty and once I learned that the British had built a "toy train" to the hills, where they would escape the intense heat of the summers, I promised myself that I would visit this romantic sounding place. But I am getting ahead of myself....
We made the decision to hire a car and driver to take us to Ooty because the toy train (narrow-gauge railway) departs from the Mettupalayam station at 7:15 am and in order to get to the Mettupalayam station we would have to take the Nilgiri Express from Coimbatore at 5:15 in the morning - way, way too early for these travellers! The trip to Ooty takes over five hours and then has to return before dark so this is the reason the timings are set as they are. This makes it pretty hard for all but the very determined traveller to ride the train into the hills.
We did not have a great experience in Coimbatore and did not like the hotel where we stayed, so we were not in the best of moods and the prospect of getting up at 4:00 am to catch a train was not very appealing. The journey by car took just over two and a half hours, and was very comfortable. As we started our climb up into the hills, we passed a sign that read "1/14 Hairpin Turns". This indicated that we were entering the first of fourteen hairpin turns on the narrow road.
We climbed very quickly and the forest soon engulfed our car. After several of the aforementioned turns, we found the view to the plateau below us breathtaking. We could also see the sheer drop below and it was a little nerve-wracking. The climb reminded me very much of a similar road to Dalat, the hill station that we visited in Vietnam and as we had survived that road, I felt confident we would make it on this one as well. After passing the fourteen turns, we began to see signs of habitation with small villages and cultivated terraces along the steeply sloping hillsides. The dark green of the forests gave way to the lush green of tea gardens and fields of vegetables as far as the eye could see.
Eventually we came to the small town of Coonoor, mid-way on our climb to Ooty. The town began in a small valley but has grown up the sides in all directions and there are a couple of large hotels that now dominate the skyline. We passed the small train station and noted that it still retains the look of the British Raj era. We felt badly that we were not making the journey up to the hills on the narrow-gauge railway and sadly carried on along the paved road.
Just above Coonoor, we passed the community of Wellington. It was here that our extended family member, Brigadier Krishan Mehra (brother to Anil's sister's husband, Kamal) had been the Commanding Officer during his military career. I will have to ask Krishan more about life in Wellington when we see him again in Delhi. Wellington has the very clean and tidy look of all the cantonment areas we have visited in India.
There were not a lot of places in Ooty recommended by the Lonely Planet, even though this is a major tourist destination, so we decided to first check out the Sullivan Hotel, one of the top end hotels. It is nestled in a little valley not far from "Charing Cross", the center of town, and is up a very steep winding road. The hotel is quite lovely, but too rich for our taste with a doorman, and far too many staff for comfort. As we drove back down the road, I noticed a new hotel halfway down and we decided to check it out. The Silver Oak was just perfect for us, and as this is still off-season, the rates were significantly lower than they will be once the schools are closed and the Indian tourists pour in. The hotel staff was very welcoming, quickly bringing us extra pillows and blankets to make us even more comfortable.
We had lunch at the newly-opened vegetarian restaurant next door and then set off to explore the town. I can't tell you how disappointed we were with our first impressions of the town. Many people had told us that Ooty is not what it once was, but then that can be said of almost any place these days. Even our hometown of Edmonton has changed dramatically and can be frustrating at times with more traffic, noise, litter and pollution. The Lonely Planet notes "if it were not for the climate and the rolling hills, Ooty's centre resembles any overburdened provincal Indian town". There is no doubt that the hills above the town are really charming, but even they are beginning to see a great deal of deforestation and there seems to be "urban sprawl" up the hillsides in some areas that reminds us of the North Shore of Vancouver near the Port Mann Bridge. How sad...
As soon as the sun set, the temperature began to drop and we retreated to our hotel room and snuggled under the warm blankets and began to plan a hasty departure northwards towards Mysore. We had delayed our arrival in Ooty waiting for the low temperatures to increase, but even a low of 14 degrees is pretty chilly when you have to get up to marble floors in an unheated room. Thank goodness for the hot water in the taps between 7:00 and 9:00 am. We had a great south Indian breakfast, happy to be back in Tamil Nadu, home of the idlies, utthapams and masala dosas. We had really missed these dishes in Kerala.
We knew we couldn't leave Ooty without exploring the area more, so after checking the internet for emails we headed out to see the Botanical Garden and some of the old buildings that were built during the 1800's. We didn't expect much after the disappointing botanical garden in Pondicherry, but what we found was spectacular. The early part of March is the period when the gardeners are just beginning to remove the mulch that they have laid down to protect the plants from the heavy frosts of winter so we did not see any of the flowers that will fill the beds come summer, but the lawns were a lovely green and there is an amazing variety of trees in the garden. The site covers over fifty-five acres, starts near the center of town and then climbs up the side of one of the hills so that as you walk up the paths and winding staircases, the garden keeps unfolding in front of you. I have to say, I enjoyed the garden as much as the famous Butchardt Garden on Vancouver Island, I would love to see it in the height of summer, but then I know it would be swarming with people and some of the charm would definitely be lost.
From the gardens, we took an autorickshaw up the winding roads to the other side of the valley to have lunch at another hotel called "King's Cliff". At last, we were beginning to see some of the charms of Ooty - I think we had finally found the beauty that we were looking for. The hotel is an old one built in the British colonial style with loads of open wooden beams and lovely lawns. We had a light lunch there while the auto waited for us and then we traveled down the hillside to see the St. Stephen's Church, built in 1829. I wanted to see the church, but was dismayed to read that in order to build the church the wooden beams were taken from the Tipu Sultan's Palace near Mysore. The beams were dragged the 120 km by a team of elephants. Such lack of respect for the buildings of a bygone era is appalling to me. However, it is a lovely old church, with unusual pews made with wicker seating. I was also taken aback by a marble plaque in memory of a missionary who lived in India almost two hundred years ago. It noted that he had been "working among the heathen...".
From there we took a local bus, eleven kilometers out of town, to visit the Tribal Research Center. The bus was loading when we arrived; first come, first served and it was almost full. However, the definition of a full bus in India must be seen to be believed. We packed ourselves into the last bit of standing space inside the bus and more passengers crammed themselves in behind us and hung onto the rails outside the door. The bus set off along the winding road, in a different direction from the road that had brought us up to Ooty. The scenery was breath-taking, maybe a good thing because some of the odors on the bus were pretty rank. I was glad when we reached our destination and we could escape out into the fresh mountain air once again.
The Tribal Research Center is located atop a hill about one kilometer from the village of M Paladi so we had to walk along the road and then up a steep hill to the center. When we arrived, a woman who works at the center took us up to the top of the hill where the museum is located. We were the only visitors that day and from the guest book that she asked us to sign, it looks like there are only one or two visitors a week at this time of year. That worked to our advantage in some ways, as she was free to walk with us through the exhibits and in her very limited English, help us to understand what we were seeing.
There were several tribal groups who lived in the Nilgiri region before the British established their presence here. The various groups maintained their distinctive customs, dress and languages even though they were dependent upon each other. Some tribes were cultivators, some lived deep in the forests and another group were herders of buffalo. The British settlement began in the early 1800's and some of the tribes adapted to the foreign presence, but eventually the economic systems of the tribals began to collapse. Today, the tribal people are experiencing the same problems that aboriginal peoples all over the world suffer. The museum is filled with implements, utensils, photographs and models of the different tribal homes. In this way it is very easy to see the different ways in which the people lived and worked. The journey out to the museum is well worth the effort.
We walked back to the road and sat on the grass enjoying the afternoon sunshine until the local bus returning to Ooty arrived. This time there were fewer people on board and we were able to get seats near the front. I enjoyed sitting with the local people and we took turns looking at each other out of the corners of our eyes. We arrived back at our hotel after the long walk from the bus stand absolutely exhausted. We had packed a great deal of walking into one day and much of it was upstairs in the botanical gardens and up hills in the countryside, all this at over 8000 ft above sea level. We ate an early dinner and fell into bed early as well.
The next morning, we woke to the cold once again and were happy for the steaming hot water in the taps at the hotel. Today we decided that we would ride the toy train down to Coonoor and after having lunch there, would come back up on the train in the first-class compartment at the front of the train. Please see the journal entry dedicated to this fabulous experience.
For our last day in Ooty, we decided that we must visit the former summer palace of the Maharaja of Mysore that has recently been restored and turned into a hotel. The hotel is not open for the season yet but we were able to pay a small fee and have a tour of the main rooms. The interior is almost completely made of Burmese teak and the restoration is still a work in progress. The palace is over 150 years old and they have managed to capture the feel of the era. I would love to see the hotel when it is opened with the fireplaces and the rooms full of flowers. We also made a quick stop at the unique "Thread Garden" near Ooty Lake. This "garden" has been created with colourful threads, over 150 species of flowers from all over the world. The flowers are not embroidered, but rather the threads are wrapped around stiff pieces of canvas to make the petals and leaves. Apparently, it took the Keralan artist over twelve years to create the garden.
One of the best things about our time in Ooty has been getting to know the family that runs the vegetarian restaurant next to our hotel - Sumukha's Kitchen. We have eaten almost all our meals there, each time we enter we are welcomed as if we are family. We have enjoyed each and every dish we've tried and were tempted to stay and work our way through the entire menu. I wish them all the success in the world in their new venture.
Before leaving we also needed to take advantage of the fabulous chocolates that are sold in almost every shop in Ooty. While the chocolate itself is imported, the local merchants mix it with nuts and dried fruits that are grown in the region. The other famous product of the Nilgiris is aromatic oils - eucalyptus, almond, geranium, citronella and clove to name just a few. We stocked up on chocolates and some of the oils as we know they will be a hit when we start visiting family in India once again. It is hard to leave Ooty and the hills, I understand that we face 36 hairpin turns on the way down to Mysore, but there are wonderful things to see and I can't wait to see what is over the next hill....