Wednesday 7 February 2007

Ooty. Magical train trip

Nowe why did I think I needed to set the alarm on my mobile? I should know by now that I am likely to hear the temple priests (my bedroom is always close to a temple) waking up Shiva and Parvati at 5.30. And should I sleep through that, there is always a siren. In Mettupalayam it goes off at 6am.

Still, not a bad night. It was not as cold as Munnar, but cool enough to reduce mosquitoes to a mere handful. And I only had two cockroaches in the shower. My room was decidedly grotty, but I have discovered that you can get small bottles of Dettol in the market, and I now use this liberally on such occasions.

I had been determined to take the narrow gauge railway up to the former British hill station of Ooty, and I've made it. I arrived a good 40 minutes before the train was due to leave in order to get a good seat and discovered to my annoyance that the train had been standing there since 5am. Still, I managed to get into the front carriage.

This is a delightfully dinky little train - feels a bit like going on one of those toy trains by the seaside. I had a first class ticket (I think it cost me all of three quid for the 46 km return journey) in order to get a good view. The first class carriage (the only one with windows - of a sort) is right at the front. The steam engine pushes the train up the mountain from behind. My fellow passengers were a gay (English/Scottish) couple of my age who live in Kovalam and a young French diplomat living in Moscow, with a Russian friend.

A signalman sat on the platform in front of our compartment. He has done the job for 30 years, he told me, and retires on 31 March. His work seemed to consist of pulling the lever that activated ear-piercing warning signals and waving green and red flags (repeated by three or four other signalmen placed along the train, so the engine driver at the back could start or stop.

It must be over 50 years since I was on a steam train, and I had forgotten the thrill of the jerky, slow start out of the station, the hooting and the belching black smoke (in this case, luckily behind us). Here I had the added fun of watching the track ahead. The railway lines have a third, rachet line in the middle, as the train goes uphill on a cog system. There was a dicey moment about ten minutes after we started when the train sighed, and came to a halt. But then it recovered and chugged on, at a fast walking pace.

We soon started to rise off the plain, and started to cross the first of the 31 bridges. There are also 16 tunnels on this stretch of line, which goes from a height of 326m to 2193m. The bridges are distinctly hairy: old train sleepers, with spaces in between, and increasingly dramatic drops below. (At one stage we stopped at a station which had a board commemorating The Great Calamity, when a landslide did indeed destroy a section of line and killed people (presumably the passengers?). Beside the track there are often piles of old, buckled track, as well as lots of evidence of landslides. I do wonder how much longer this line, built by the British in the 19th century (British train, the guard said to me with admiration), can survive, given it appears to be getting closer and closer to the edge.

The scenery got more and more breathtaking as we rose and rose up the mountains, with views to the valleys way below and across to precipitous rockfaces opposite. It was even more dramatic than the previous two days. As usual I can't name the vegetation, apart from eucalyptus trees, but it is predominantly green, although there were some lovely orange and pink flowers on the trees beside the line. The rail cutting is so narrow that I could have reached out and touched the leaves of passing trees. Sadly I don't think I have any photos which do this trip justice: apart from being on the wrong side of the carriage, and the usual haze in the valleys, it is really difficult capturing panoramic mountain views, as I know from the Cevennes.

The train stopped at little stations on the way, the first one looking particularly like that in 'The Railway Children'. At one there was a longer stop and we all got off and rushed to the chai stall. I had hardly eaten the day before and was starving and bought a couple of delicious, spicy vegetable pakora-like balls. Unlike British Rail, you never need go hungry or thirsty on an Indian platform. As we approached the two hill stations of Coonor and Ooty, the now familiar tea plantations appeared and the tall eucalyptus like trees which I still dont have a name for.

At Coonor the steam train was replaced by a slightly faster diesel (with no cog line) for the last less precipitous leg of the journey. I was really sad when we finally drew into Ooty station. This had been a wonderful journey, even better than I had expected. Paul, if you are still out there reading this, you HAVE to make the trip (and book seat number 1 on the left side.

Coonor had looked tatty, dominated by what I think is a military munitions factory. Ooty (easier to say than its other names Udhagamandalam and Ootacamund) is a also and unappealing, uncontrolled sprawl, with little signs so far of its colonial past (though I'm going to explore more tomorrow). However, as it is less frenetic than larger towns, I have just enjoyed my afternoon stroll through the bazaar and commercial area, taking photos of the stalls that one so quickly takes for granted in India.

I'm staying at the YWCA in a rather bleak (bottom of the range, at 250 rupees a night) but clean room in what was in previous existence a palatial tea planter's bungalow (unlike British bungalows, it is actually on two floors). There is a huge sitting room, complete with fireplace - necessary here - and dining room, where I had lunch with an English couple and a French/Polish couple with a ten-year-old child. The English were probably nearer 70 than 60 and clearly habitual travellers since taking retirement. Improbable at first, as the husband, a retired 'Government scientist' (meteorologist he hastened to add, nothing directly to do with defence) was particularly British. They were both very jolly and I could see that the guesthouse staff and rickshaw driver responded with warmth to their obvious enthusiasm and appreciation.

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