Chhomrong, a Himalayan village on the edge

The extraordinary landscape of the snow covered Himalayan mountains on the Annapurna Base Camp trekking trail in Nepal.

The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.

You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.

Sinuwa by Balaji Srinivasan

Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.

I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.

Machapuchare by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Machpuchhare aka Fishtail mountain from the rooftop of the lodge.

The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.

Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.

Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.

So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.

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Lunglei, a hilly paradise hidden deep inside Mizoram

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the scenic Aizawl road from the Tourist Lodge in Lunglei

The road from Aizawl to Lunglei is long, winding and arduous. The city feels farther away than most cities in India. But it’s worth taking the bumpy ride for the pristine mountain scenery on the way. The closer you reach Lunglei, the more scenic it gets. Verdant hills surround you with mist enveloping the green slopes.

Lunglei is the second largest city in Mizoram with a population of over 57,000 people. But you wonder where all the people are when you check in to the Tourist Lodge run by the Mizoram Government in the outskirts of the town. The lodge, at 700 Rs. a night, is one of the best bargains to be had. From its surroundings, you only see foggy hills around you.

Lunglei Church by Balaji Srinivasan
The Baptist Church in Lunglei overlooking the Mizo hills.

Lunglei city gleams in the distance with dense clusters of buildings crowding the hilltops. It looks more beautiful from the distance than it does up close. I had to venture into the town only to book my onward jeep ride to Lawngtlai.

But it, too, is an experience to remember. While Lunglei is no culinary paradise, it’s only when you walk through the town and eat momos in its cafes that you get the true sense of what the city feels like. The steep winding lanes and high buildings built on near-vertical ridges can be both dizzying and exhausting.

The Hills of Lunglei by Balaji Srinivasan
A view of the Lunglei city at dusk

Beyond Lunglei, the road gets worse but the scenery only gets better. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture even further to the unspoilt mountain towns of Lawngtlai and Saiha and climb Mount Phawngpui, the highest peak in the state of Mizoram. There are budget Tourist Lodges at both Saiha and Lawngtlai. You might need to hire a vehicle for maximum flexibility but it is possible to find share jeeps if you look hard in the town.

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Kolasib – the lake, the sunset, the farewell

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When I returned to the market square, I saw a concert going on at the main thoroughfare where a Mizo rock band was playing to an audience of bystanders. It was impossible to tell how good they were because all I could hear was a loud pinging feedback from the speakers I was close to. This pinging resulted in a resounding ringing in my ears and for a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing. I felt as if time had stood still and my head was doing a 360 degree move like one of those cinematographic shots from Gravity. When I snapped out of this reverie, I realised I couldn’t hear a thing and I feared I had gone deaf and just as I was beginning to run helter skelter in panic, a hand pulled me aside and threw me inside a shop.

It belonged to the lady who ran a small tea and snack store that doubled up as a sumo counter. A cup of tea landed on my table along with a yellow pill. The face of the lady who pulled me inside was staring at me to make sure I consumed the contents on the table. I was still dazed and dizzy from the ringing, so I gulped down the pill with the cup of hot, watery chai without thinking of the repercussions.

The pill worked. The ringing slowly subsided and I felt fresher and more energetic than before. I asked the lady how she knew what was wrong with me. She replied saying these impromptu gigs happened all the time and she had been a victim of some of these before.  We made conversation as I ordered more cups of tea to celebrate my recovery. She wondered if I worked for the government and when I replied in the negative and told her I was merely a tourist taking pictures, she crinkled her eyes in suspicion and asked me why I had come all the way to Kolasib because there was nothing to see or do there. I told her I was wondering about that myself and that I liked boring towns to which she sighed unconvinced and pointed at the hilly range looming in distance and said I could go look at the lake from the Church if I wanted to.

So I went up to the Church located on a hillock down the road to have a look at the lake in the hills. While the view of the hills from here was magnificent, I could only see a hint of the lake and it wasn’t an ideal place to get pictures because the landscape was criss-crossed by the power lines in between. Then I saw some houses on the other side of the street which appeared to have a more direct view of the lake and the hills.

Now I’m hardly the sort of guy who would knock on a stranger’s door asking if I could get on their roof to take pictures but I don’t know if it was the tablets the woman had given me or a general adrenalin rush because that’s what I ended up doing. The woman who opened the door was understandably coy and perplexed at my request but went inside and got some big keys to open up a rusty lock on a wooden door that was broken up in 10 different places. On the terrace, I weaved between laundry lines to get to the edge to witness a glorious unobstructed scene of the Mizo mountains in the distance and the water body that spread between densely wooded lands below.

The lake was the result of the Serlui hydel power dam and in the evening light it was shimmering in myriad shades of blue to go with the honey orange hues that were filling up the forests around. The woman too had walked up to see what I had been doing and while she approved a picture or two that I had taken, went away thinking I had gone crazy as I stood there clicking a 100 more. Perhaps I “had” gone crazy because this beautiful scene ought to have been enjoyed by keeping the camera asida and sitting on a wooden chair gazing into the distance because when was I ever going to see these Mizo hills again?

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When I got off the roof and hit the street again, I found the musically secular boys walking back to lodge. I assumed they were going to the wedding but they said they knew a spot to watch the sunset. So I tagged along and we took a road that turned right from the lodge to a wide playground that one of the boys said belong to a hostel for blind children. At the edge of the field, there was a grassy vantage point surrounded by trees and infested with mosquitoes that gave away views of distant hills, now glimmering and fading away in a misty orange glow as the sun set behind them. It was a glorious view, the sort the makes you want to live in a place and keep seeing it every day. I wanted to go back to the lady at the teashop who rescued my ears and show her the pictures to tell her my trip to Kolasib wasn’t so futile after all and that what I wanted to do was to spend many more days here taking in the languorous vibe of the place and do nothing.

But, alas, my permit was about to run out the next day and I did not wish to be rounded up for questioning for prolonging my stay further than I was allowed to. It wasn’t so easy to get this month long permit to roam the mountains here in the first place and I wanted to come back many more times and take in its chilled air and explore this most unexplored corner of India. The next morning, I went to the market and boarded the first Silchar bound vehicle that had an empty seat and left these beautiful hills once and for all.

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Gour PE Wrap-up – The Baishgazi wall and the Gour landscape

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The Baishgazi wall was a massive brick wall built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah to protect and encircle the main palace area of Gaur. Much of the palace now lies in ruin where just the foundations remain. 

 

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The archaeological site is still being excavated by the ASI but the caretakers here appeared to be pessimistic about the possibilities of uncovering anything worthwhile in the future. On a quiet day, you find more goats than people wandering about the brick foundations.

 

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The site is reached by walking through a verdant green landscape of mango orchards and photogenic pools of water. It’s worth coming all the way to Gour just to experience what a true rural hinterland in Bengal could be like.

 

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Languid fishing poles loll in stagnant pools of water while fishing boats float by to inspect the catch. It feels as if these scenes couldn’t have played out very differently in the 15th century to which many of the monuments that dot the landscape belong.

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Reiek Tlang I (the mobile camera version)

Reiek is a hill about 30 odd kms from Aizawl. At an altitude of 1594 metres, it doesn’t seem particularly daunting but once you make the steep hike up to the top here, the views are just gobsmackingly beautiful. From the top here you get a panoramic view of the city of Aizawl on one side and an endless range of Mizo hills on the other. If you aren’t here on a weekend, it’s an extraordinarily tranquil spot. I, for one, was glad there were a few people around because the hike up is quite steep with some exposed sections that could be a nightmare for anyone who suffers from mild vertigo.

All of these pictures were taken with my Galaxy S7 phone.

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Tansen

IMG_6500Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.

I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.

I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.

The Madi Valley
The Madi Valley

I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.

“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”

He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.

An old traditional house in the town
An old traditional house in the town
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace

Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.

The white lake
The white lake

Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.

Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.

The holi dahi handi
The holi dahi handi

Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.

The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek
The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek

One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.

After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.

I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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