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


 

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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.


 

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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The Ladakhis

Famous western explorer Marco Pallis, while on an exploratory tour of the region way back in 1936, had this to say about the peasants of Ladakh, although it can be taken as a description of the Ladakhi populace in general too.

The inhabitants of these villages must surely be some of the happiest on the face of the earth. One can only pray that no zealous enthusiast will feel impelled to ‘improve’ or ‘enrich’ them, acting on some sociological theory worked out under totally dissimilar circumstances. Certain writers have alluded to the poverty of the people, doubtless referring to their lack of ready money and their rather spartan simplicity of life. There is no luxury, nor a big margin of surplus food, but if the enjoyment of a sufficient, if rather unvaried, diet composed of tasty, unadulterated materials and the leading of a healthy, outdoor life in majestic surroundings with work which has its leisured as well as strenuous phases, the wearing of durable and comely homespun clothing, the dwelling in spacious, well-built homes, and the possession of a restricted number of objects pleasing to the eye – if all this be poverty, then let us deplore our world.

The brief time that we spent with Tashi, our driver, gave us exactly the same impression. These are a happy set of people who have learnt to take the hardships of the land in their stride. One only wishes that they do not court controversies like disallowing private vehicles and self-drive schemes from plying in Ladakh, after all they need us (the tourists) as much as we need them.

References:

Prem Singh Jina, Famous western explorers to Ladakh

The Chang Thang Plateau – Doorsteps of Tibet

Changthang: Large northern plains

Durbuk: flourishing village in the valley

Tang ste: higher ground

Take a look at this image to get an idea of the scale of this plateau. At an average elevation of 10-15000 feet, it rightfully deserves the moniker ‘roof of the world‘. It is also the life-blood of the Asian subcontinent as all of Asia’s major rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Irrawaddy and the Yangtze originate here. Courtesy: http://www.thelandofsnows.com/faqs-on-travel-in-tibet/

The difference in the landscape as one exits the Chang La is immediately palpable. For this region consists of the western fringes of the Chang Thang plateau, which is itself, an extension of the enormous Tibetan plateau that runs thousands of miles to the east.

In ancient times, one would now be treading through Tibet itself. Of course, today it is a part of the Indian mainland and the Indo Chinese border separates it from it’s parent.

The Chang Thang is noticeably colder than the other regions of Ladakh due to it’s higher elevation. It’s winters are referred to using the adjective ‘Arctic’ in many places, indeed this is the place where one can be afflicted with frostbite and sun burns on the same day. Another major difference is the total absence of trees that are usually present in abundance in the valleys to the west of the Chang La. The locals here, more Tibetan than the Ladakhi populace back in Leh, used to be, and even now in some cases, are Nomads, called as the Chang Pa. Tashi, our driver, points out a nomadic hut on the plains – the tent is apparently made of Yak skin and can withstand the fierce cold here.

Closer to the pass, a lot of snow-melt irrigates the land and hence, serves as ideal grazing grounds for a variety of wild life. One comes across wild horses, the ubiquitous Yak as well as hordes of domesticated Pashmina sheep on these pastures. From time to time, mormots, some of them accustomed to the presence of human beings and the food they carry, also scurry out of the ground to greet tourists.

Frozen ponds Chang La
Frozen ponds dot the descent from Chang La to the plateau.
Melted ponds Chang Thang
The roads lead past numerous such scenes – towering snow peaks benevolently feeding snow-melt and watching over the grasslands.

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Crossing the Chang La

Chang La: Northern pass

A drive through the town of Shey is one of the most rewarding experiences in Ladakh. Here, the morning sun blesses the willow and poplar lined roads, resulting in lateral streaks of soft light falling on the ground. Accompanying this are bird songs and the sight of irrigation canals running merrily along side the road. This pleasant feeling sets you up nicely for what Ladakh has in store, up ahead, on the road to Pangong Tso.

Indus river near Karu
The Indus shines a brilliant aquamarine under the mid morning sun and merrily accompanies you till Karu, where it deserts you in favor of the Leh-Manali road. From here, the only sight of water will be snow-melt from the high passes.
Thiksey monastery
The Chemrey monastery presents an imposing sight. Even from a distance, it easily dominates the surroundings and stands out from the beige landscape and the green plains below.

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Zorbing in Kolukkumalai

“It’ll be 1600 Rs, Sir” said the driver.

“Let us fix it at 1500”, I tried to bargain it down.

“You take a look at the roads first. Pay us only if you think we don’t deserve it”, he retorted.

That reply totally caught me off-guard and I had to agree with the rates he was quoting. We were in Suryanelli, a small town near Munnar on a cloudy afternoon, with dark clouds looming ominously on the Kollukumalai hills above us. Kollukumalai, an attempt at discovering the slightly offbeat side of Munnar, was what had led me here. As it turned out, only 4WD vehicles with a generous ground clearance can attempt the roads to the tea estate situated on these hills. And hence, the deal with the jeep driver.

Once we bundled in, the jeep lurched forward and for around 10 minutes, my companions doubted whether the roads really were that rough. No sooner did we cross a bend than the driver stopped and engaged the 4wheel drive on his Mahindra Major. We could see that the remainder of the way uphill was a rock-strewn, off-roading exercise, masquerading as a road.

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While one tyre would be climbing up a rock, it’s partner would be diving into a ditch and the remaining 2 would be dealing with problems of their own. It felt like being inside a toy raced around by a 5 year old with a total attention span of zero.

Soon, the backseat of the jeep felt like being inside an orb, albeit without the cushioning. One moment, our backs would be thrown against the seat, and the next, our heads would almost bump into the canopy. The overhead bars in the jeep provided some purchase, but even then, it almost felt like your insides were being tossed about violently. For what seemed like hours, our bodies were subjected to this unrelenting torture until the driver finally stopped the roller coaster ride and pointed outside, indicating to us to take a look. It took a moment for us to realize our organs were still in their rightful places, before we stumbled outside, where, the most magnificent sight awaited us. Continue reading