Ooty vs. Kodaikanal
Established by the British, around 100 years ago. Set in the Nilgiri hills (draped with tea plantations and eucalyptus forests). Extremely popular with Indians at Independence Day weekend. Small but absolutely jam packed with people, vehicles and buildings, creating a dusty, polluted, crowded, noisy, litter-filled anti-oasis where it can be very hard to relax, unless you walk directly out of town (e.g. all the way around the lake).
A short bus ride away is Doddabetta (highest point in South India). Best visited on a sunday (weekly holiday) of the holiday weekend, when the car park is overflowing with smoke-chugging jeeps and buses honking their horns and the “lookout” is overflowing with posing, shouting, whistling Indian tourists. And the view’s not great because of the clouds.
A further bus ride is Kotagiri, another British-established Hill Station. The bus journey is winding and the scenery along the way is stunning. Here there is a quiet fruit and veg market that you can wander around without being pestered every 3 paces, and a restaurant where you can get a bottomless Thali for the record-breaking price of 25 rupees (about 30p).
A phenomenally scenic taxi ride along quiet hillside roads will take you to “St Catherene’s Falls”, where you walk through a tea plantation, past two unfeasibly happy tea-pickers, to a rocky outcrop overlooking waterfalls tumbling down the cliff on the opposite side of a steep, lush, wild green valley. Here you will meet a grand total of zero other tourists, and the sun will come out, you will feel warm for the first time since arriving in Ooty, and will finally realise why there is so much written about the beauty of the Nilgiri hills. You wil take lots of pictures, and be sad you can only stay for 20 minutes as your taxi driver is waiting.
Best of all, the next day you will leave Ooty, knowing that the cold, tense, noisy half-sleep of Hotel Shiv Sagar (of the “panoramic” views) is behind you, and a comfortable hotel awaits you in Coimbatore, your stop-off before heading back into the hills of Kodaikanal. You will arrive early at the train station in Ooty (around 10am), knowing there are no reserved seats available, and wanting to be at the front of the queue (which, it turns out, begins forming at around 1pm). You will get the first unreserved ticket when they begin selling them at 2pm, but will not be first onto the train carriage, as you are not aggressive enough about forcing your bag/coat/small child through a window and onto a (still occupied) seat as the train pulls in. However, after the carnage of boarding the train, once you get going you will find that all those who battled to get into the little carriage are now friendly and generous and will offer you seats as they rearrange themselves with children squeezed into the smaller spaces. You will descend, very slowly, chug chug chug, through the stunning scenery of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, stopping to see many cheeky monkeys. This will take 3 1/2 hours, and cost you 9 rupees.
The connecting train to Coimbatore will cost more, but only last 45 mins, which is lucky since you are again on an unreserved ticket (only a 15 minute queue this time though) and must be content with the tiny bit of space you have to stand in, or you sill sit on the floor almost overlapping with other clever Indian women in the passageway). Hopefully you’ll be next to the open door (so you can look out and catch a breeze – it’s warmer down here on the plains), and you will be so, so thankful not to be in the postition of the french students you met in the queue at Ooty. They were on the same train down the mountain, but in a smaller compartment more crammed than yours. They are now on the same train, in the same class (cattle-class), but they boarded late (only 10 mins before departure) when the train was already full to the brim, so probably found no comfortable space at all, and who had to stay on that train for 10 hours overnight to Chennai.
You will laugh later when, after your shower and hot meal, you climb into your soft bed in your hotel room in Coimbatore, and you remember they are still on the train. Then you will sleep the best sleep in many days..
And then, just when you are worried that you don’t really know which bus or buses you need to get to Kodaikanal, your rickshaw driver in the morning a conductor at the bus station will know, before you speak, where you are going and point you at the bus. The one direct bus of the day, which just happens to be leaving in 15 minutes, and has plenty of seats. Surely, you think, this is a miracle. And after travelling across the plains for a few hours you will ascend again into the hills.
The road up to Kodaikanal (aka Kodai) is even more winding that that up to Ooty, as it goes up steeper, even more stunning hills, with less tea but more diverse crops growing further up. By this point Emily was getting excited, for three main reasons.
- She was nearing the end of her book, The Shadow of the Wind.
- She was nearing the school where she spent 6 months running through the hills at the age of 13.
- It was a particularly exciting part of the Hindi romantic comedy they were showing on the bus, and it was very, very loud.
Arriving at Kodai, and finding our cottage, was such a wonderful, calming moment. Kodaikanal is another hill station, set up by Americans about 100 years ago, mainly for the school they built here (now Kodaikanal International School, or KIS). It is small, friendly, there are no rickshaws, there is little traffic or noise, there are not too many people. It is green. Our cottage is surrounded by grass and trees and has a log fire, water filter, and kettle, and the we-sell-everything-under-the-sun-in-a-tiny-space shop sells Marmite to go with the delicious fresh bread from the Daily Bread bakery next door.
As you can see, Kodai trumps Ooty in every way. So we are very very glad to be halfway through our trip, and have all of this week to relax in Kodai, and then one overnight stop in Cochin before staying in Calicut (aka Weddingtown) for five days, before we begin to make our way back towards Exeter.
I have to go now, all this second person/first person business has me confused, and it might be time to get another brownie from the bakery.