What a beautiful world #3 – the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiris 1989. John Sullivan, the father of Ootacamund, in a letter to Thomas Munro the future governor of Madras. *

This is the finest country ever…it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any part of Europe…the hills [are] beautifully wooded and [there is a] fine strong spring with running water in every valley.

To be fair, Ooty has lost much of its charm to crass commercialization. There are tourists thronging all the roads leading to the hill station and much of the city center. But there are a few experiences that still retain their old world charm, like taking a ride in the decades old Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built by the Britishers in colonial times and still doing yeoman service to the local  populace and the tourists alike.

Read about why hopping on to the ‘toy-train’ as it is more popularly known, is an experience that is not to be missed, in Alde Baran’s article. Some great photographs contribute towards bringing the experience alive. Don’t skip this one – read it now.

Capture

Rain, from inside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, has to be the most uplifting sight ever. Some people keep their windows open and stick their tongue out. I choose to keep my window closed and watch it shudder as the rain hits it. When we finally arrive at Ooty, people disembark, but stick around for a few minutes more. Yes, they look like they’re checking their luggage. But maybe another cup of mint tea will warm them enough to admit that they’re actually gazing affectionately at the toy train that gave them a journey that was, strangely, not about the destination at all.


Here is the link: http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/tamil-nadu-all-aboard-the-nilgiri-mountain-railway-1008373

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays and blogs by other photographers and writers.  

* Taken from the book “Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York” By Githa Hariharan


 

Snapshots in our memories

I was reading a Jim Corbett book  the other day. One of the pages mentioned Rishikesh in passing and all of a sudden, my brain pulled out a vivid snapshot of an extremely  beautiful evening that I had spent in Rishikesh, back in the spring of 2012.

It is a curious matter that out of the countless hours I have spent peering at scenes through my camera’s lens, none come close to the mental images I register while travelling. This blog post is devoted to 2 such snapshots and I will try to describe them to the best of my abilities, without resorting to any photographs.

An evening in Rishikesh

Back in 2012, I had spent a week’s time on the road covering Shimla, Kufri, Kullu, Manali and Dharamsala and had the misfortune of gulping down an old croissant in a  bakery in McLeodGanj. The next 2 days were spent trying to calm down a revolting stomach in Amritsar, before I landed up in the religious and cultural center of Rishikesh.

Here, while my stomach calmed down, the infection had not subsided completely. As a result, I was laid up for most of the day cooped up in a tent on the banks of the Ganges, shivering slightly with fever.

I distinctly remember that it was close to sunset then. My friends had cajoled me to step outside the tent for some tea, and break my languidness. As soon as I stepped out, I knew the moment was picture perfect, and somehow, my mind was feeble enough to dissuage my body from stepping back into the tent for my camera.

The sun still had nearly an hour to go down, and it had cast a golden yellow glow all over the surrounding hills. The forests on the hills were lit up spectacularly with this mellow sunlight, with odd patches of orange and vermilion providing some relief from the monotony of green.

The sunlight had also brought the otherwise chilly weather down, making it feel warm and salubrious.

In front of me, the Ganges gently babbled her way across hundreds of white rounded stones. There was an odd fish that we could spot in places where the river was shallow. On the opposite bank, there were 2 horses grazing on the sparse green grass. One had a rich lustrous skin, brown in color while the other had pale shade of white, turned slightly creamy due to the sunlight. Sometimes, the white one would gracefully toss its mane aside, without ceasing to graze.

I think I must have sat down on a boulder on the banks for half an hour, trying to implant in my mind, the beauty of everything that lay in front of me. It was a panacea, from the agony of the past few days and a memory of a beautiful moment, that I will carry with me to my grave.

A morning in Sakleshpur

In the monsoons of 2016, we were in Sakleshpur, in a colonial era bungalow surrounded by 7000 acres of tea estate. There, our previous day had been a sharp antithesis to the term monsoon capital, for we didn’t experience anything more than a slight drizzle, compared to the torrential rains that Sakleshpur receives every year.

Our host had told us that the previous 2 weekends had been a blur, with guests not even being able to venture out of their cottages due to the incessant rain.

Therefore, after a sumptuous dinner, we had gone to sleep amidst the cacophony of crickets and other nocturnal inhabitants of the estate.

The next morning, sharply around 6, I had woken up since it had grown deathly silent. I groggily pushed open the doors of our cottage and a veritable fairy tale setting came alive in front of my eyes.

There had been no rain at night, but the absolutely thickest fog I have ever seen in my life, covered miles and miles of estate ground and the forests beyond. I couldn’t see beyond a few yards.

The lights dotting the estate were still lit. The ground was wet and it smelt heavenly, and dew drops hung onto virtually every blade of grass. The fog seemed to be alive, darting in and out of places, revealing tea bushes in one instant and hiding them in the next. There was a slight chill in the air, but one that you wished would never go away.

It was a window of time when the birds had not yet stirred from their nests but the insects had all retired, so the silence was deafening. It felt like mother nature herself had a good night’s sleep and had woken up before everyone else, feeling fresh and wishing every one a hearty good morning.

That morning left an indelible mark in my mind too.

Ironically, I think I will visit these places again someday and try to capture vestiges of these scenes on a camera. Before I grow old and hopefully, before my memory fails me.

What a beautiful world ! #2 – Grand Trunk Road

There can be no doubt about the fact that Steve McCurry is one of the greatest photographers ever. Award winning contributions to leading publications notwithstanding, there is a very humane, down-to-earth appeal that is immediately evident in all his photographs.

One of my favorite photo essays are his vignettes of the Grand Trunk Road, which crisscrosses the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Kabul to Kolkata, and is dripping with history at every turn. Virtually all of these photographs will transport you to a different era, in a different place.

Pay attention to the way he captures the proletariat in these places, going about their daily lives, against cinematic scenes unfolding in the background (for e.g., a coal fired train chugging over a bridge, crowded markets buzzing with action); narrating stories of an era long lost.


Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers,
barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming.
It is to me as a river from which I am
withdrawn like a log after a flood.
And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle.
Such a river of life as no where else exists in the world.
– Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Kolkata

Here is the link: https://stevemccurry.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/river-of-life-2/

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays by other photographers.  


 

What a beautiful world ! #1 – Skardu

India’s neighbor, and erstwhile inseparable part of the family is no different when it comes to being blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. How naive it is though, to be a tiny part of a massive universe and see more of the differences between us than the similarities.

In his series of photo essays from the magical land of Skardu-Baltistan (geographically contiguous with Ladakh and the Tibetan plateau), Bukhari gives us a glimpse of the treasures his country has been blessed with. After going through it, there lingers a romantic hope that someday, may there be no borders.


 

“I was walking on a narrow strip, when a window of a nearby home opened, and a boy with green eyes and a warm smile waved at me. All my exhaustion seemed to just melt away.

I then, made my way to the main road, crunching over fallen leaves that had covered both sides of the road.”

Untitled


 

For it is such a beautiful world that we live in ! Click the link below to view the photo essay.

http://www.dawn.com/news/1174695

 

A glimpse of Kalvari Mount

When I first tasted the joys of travel during my MBA days, I naively started drafting a list of destinations. A sort of to-do list. And on top of this list, the very first destination that I wrote, was a little known place named Kalvari (or Calvary) mount. Why Kalvari mount, of all places ? The desire then, was to go truly offbeat. My biggest source of travel reports in those days was the travelogue section on motoring forums in India. And one look at the photographs was convincing enough.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, that place wasn’t to remain off beat for long. A regional film released in 2013 implanted it firmly in the mainstream consciousness. But it wasn’t until I came across Ram’s blog that memories of that dusty old list were rekindled.

When plans for a weekend excursion to Munnar district started germinating, there was hardly any excuse to not visit this particular place. Although, with not much information available even now, we had no idea how the roads were, what kind of terrain would we have to cover to reach the point, and most importantly for me, would we encounter leeches.

Idukki
Follow the Google maps route, but take the diversion to Adimali and then rejoin the road towards Idukki. Though slightly longer, this is a flat stretch of road whereas the Google maps recommendation is narrow and awkwardly steep in places.

An early start, as I always endorse, was treated with much disdain by my travel mates. Sumptuous breakfast notwithstanding, we covered much ground in the morning but as soon as we left the hills of Munnar, the incessant heat wore us down steadily. Stepping wearily through the gates of Kalvari mount (there is a ticket involved), we were greeted with an enormous cloud cover that blockaded the sun’s heat entirely.

Our first view was nothing short of breathtaking.

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Behold, a bird’s eye view of the catchment area created by the Idukki Dam. A small shelter made out of bamboo stem pillars and a thatched roof occupied the otherwise verdant viewpoint.

Not a single sound pervaded the place. Not even the gentle rustling of the overgrown grass in the breeze. It was as if everything stood still for a tiny moment and etched a sharp technicolor photograph inside your brain.

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Tiny islands dotting the catchment area, almost seemed to have been added as an afterthought, in order to add some more variety to the scene.
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I remembered reading somewhere, that on a lucky day, you could see elephants from the forest wading into the waters.

While the eastern side of the hill is owned by a private party that runs a tea estate, the western side of the hill throws open more panoramic views. A rough road connects everything and I walked over to the western side, past a basic toilet, a small garden with vegetables and a few grazing cows. There I came across the caretaker Benny, digging and planting a few plants, who told me that there is a lot more to explore on the western face.

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Benny, the caretaker’s hut is like a dream come true. He told me that the forest office was building a few cottages on the hill, to let out to tourists. 

The sky grew darker through the afternoon. Before long, the calm was interrupted by the sound of thunder in the distance. A strong wind brought in it’s wake, ominous dark clouds from the western horizon.

Kalvari mount deserved a lot more time, I realized with a heavy heart. Something for the future maybe.

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One last look from that view point again. 

Oct – Jan would be an ideal time to visit Kalvari mount though monsoons cast a different kind of magic on the place. A tiny shop provides noodles, packaged snacks and other refreshments at the entrance to the place. Though the road to Kalvari mount is not tarmac all the way, we saw hatchbacks carefully treading the incline without too much fuss. 

You have an option to stay in one of the two cottages built for tourists on the hill. Each one accommodates 5 and includes basic sanitation facilitiesthere is no provision for cooking. Get in touch with the forest office at Idukki or Mr. Thomas at +91-9447166084 for reservation.


 

A mention in the Economic Times Travel

Photograph and excerpt by yours truly, appeared in the Economic Times Panache Travel section – dated Dec 10, 2015.

Small moment of joy. And much pride.

And another small step towards travel journalism.

Here is the link.

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Postcards from Pangong Tso

.. Though the country is so barren, the lake has its beauties in the varied tints of surrounding hills and mountains, and the rich deep blue of its waters, becoming quite of an emerald green colour as they shallow near the shore.*

Once in a while during your travels, you come across a place that is different from everything else you’ve ever experienced. It captivates your imagination and the mind, already lured away from the monotone of routine, is suddenly unshackled and left free. As the body relaxes and somehow starts breathing differently, every whiff of fresh air invigorates you, like never before. This strange sense of absolute bliss and tranquility etches out memories that stand out not much unlike flame trees in full bloom. For once, you feel truly alive.

The Pangong Tso is one such place. It throws out all the undulating hype that has been building in your brain from weeks of anticipation. Only words can do it even a modicum of justice, and since I won’t attempt the sacrilege, I will depend on a few photographs to lend the narration some respect.

First view of Pangong Tso
To think, that having seen countless photos of the place, you’d not be awestruck is a sheer understatement; for at the first glimpse you are left wondering whose brush has unleashed this piece of art. From afar, when you first sight the cobalt blue waters, it looks magical. From up close, it is otherworldly.

.. a fine view of the first long reach of this elevated and interesting piece of water is obtained. Its colour is of an intense blue, the water as clear as crystal, but far too saline to be drinkable; there was quite a true salt water feel in the air as the wind blew off it.*

To see it in a photograph or read about it in a book is different. But to be able to witness the changing colors and the natural play of light and shadows, to hear the gentle waves lapping at the shores, to ignore the cold wind biting against your skin while breathing in the rarefied air; is a privilege – one that is not meant to be forgotten.

Spangmik
You can opt to stay farther away in Tangste. Or you can choose to camp on the banks of the Pangong lake. The choices vary from Lukung, which is to the west of the lake; to Spangmik seen here, where we stayed or further east at Man-Merak village. In either case, good woollens, mufflers, balaclavas and mittens are highly recommended since the temperature often dips below freezing point at night.

Daytime temperatures near the Pangong Tso are not much of a botheration. But in the evening, the temperature drops rather quickly into single digits. What makes it unbearable is the ferocious wind. The wind chill makes a bearable 10 degree Celsius feel like sub freezing. The cold penetrates exposed skin and soon, the nerves start tingling due to the numbness. The wind makes the ears scream in pain, the cold makes the nose weep too.

At night, the wooden walls of our cottage provide minimal respite. Outside, we can hear other tents flapping in the wind. Inside, our drinking water becomes too cold to be drinkable, and any contact with unheated water is like sifting through a sack of needles. The mink blanket and quilt feels like heaven, but that is only after you’ve put on 4 layers of clothing. Getting out of bed once you’re tucked in, is unthinkable.

In spite of all this, I do step out at night, briefly, to take a look at the starlit skies above. The milky way is not as crystal clear as made out to be, but the sky does seem darker and the stars by contrast, brighter. The wind protests against my intrusion in its space, and soon forces me inside. For a couple of tourists though, liquor and a bonfire prove adequate. Pangong is at a considerable altitude, and none of us sleep well at night.
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