Wednesday, January 25, 2012

T-Bird checks out the Blue Hills

Here are some pics of the trip that T-Bird, Blandine and I took to the Nilgiris - No, not the supermarket of that name for the weekly shopping - the *real* Nilgiris - the 'Blue Hills'... This was the approximate route we took:   Mysore, Bandipur, Ooty, Conoor, Sultan Battery and Wayanad. Also a couple of pics of a trip to Coorg around the same time.

A Nilgiri Tea Plantation
T-Bird checking out a tea plantation. No, T-Bird doesn't drink the stuff, preferring for some reason  refined hydrocarbons and motor oil - but T-Bird doesn't mind looking at plantations of the stuff. Very soothing, says  T-Bird.

The hotel where we stayed in Coorg - the Green Hills Estate. A lovely old heritage building in the midst of a tea plantation. It used to belong to the Dewan of the Coorg Royal Family. Verry Old World  - read fungus on the ceiling and rickety grand four-poster beds that threaten to fall apart if you try monkey business. Just slightly done up to cater to the modern tourist - it's been left largely in the state it might have been back in the days when men were mustachioed. Transports you to another time.

T-Bird checking out the room where we stayed at the above mentioned hotel. T-Bird approved. Of course, T-bird wasn't allowed in. The hotel staff would have none of it, even though there was lots of room for T-Bird on the four-poster bed. But T-Bird didn't mind, preferring the open air. A nice change from the stuffy garage you usually shove me into, said T-Bird

A side-benefit of biking to Ooty is that you get to bike right across Bandipur  National Park, and see  our dumb chums right up close - it isn't quite the same if you're in a car or a bus. Here are some friendly spotted deer.
And here is a merry elephant, partaking of the midday meal. He went on eating, flapping us a courteous ear. We politely declined to join him, but I did feed on a bar of Snickers while Blandine took a long video of the lunch. No, I didn't drop the wrapper there - I took it along. We are eco-friendly travelers, we are.
Transportation, Bandipur style. 
An attractive spur of rock that looks rather like the rampart of a castle - on the way down the hill from Ooty. 
Same thing, another shot

An indescribably cute farmers cottage in Coorg. Somehow the cuteness doesn't fully come out in the picture,  but believe me, it was CUTE.
Another heritage hotel - this time in Ooty. King's Cliff, it is called, a former British planter's mansion. Blandine has a thing for heritage hotel. This one is more done-up than the one we stayed at in Coorg. More posh, more modernized. But it still has a distinct old-world charm, and the restaurant is amazing.

A Nilgiri Langur - snapped by Blandine on the way up the hill to Ooty.  A cousin of the Gray Langur found in many parts of India. Blandine has a thing for monkeys. Is that why she likes me?

A multi-hued plantation workers village - on the route from Ooty to  Conoor. Creates a lovely splash of color on the green hills. 
Another plantation - but not in the Nilgiris. This was on the way down  from Ooty,  on the way  to Sultan Battery. What was memorable about this particular plantation was that there was a tea factory attached to the plantation, and right outside it was a little tea shop where the workers have their tea - and the glass of tea we got there was simply the best I've ever tasted in my life. Delicately perfumed and full of flavor. Obviously, this was one chaiwallah who knew to make tea, and didn't murder it the way his brethren usually do. And possibly it was because this was tea fresh from the factory - just off the dryer. I checked out the name of the estate - it's a part of Parry's Estates and that tea gets into the Parry's brand of tea. Couldn't find it in Bangalore, unfortunately.
By the way Sultan Battery: yes, that really is the name of a town in Kerala. It used to be Tipu Sultan's armory and battery . It's supposed to be an historical town, but we didn't have time to check it out - T-Bird wanted to keep moving. It was on the route back to Bangalore from Ooty, via the Wayanad forests. I didn't want to go back via Bandipur - T-Bird hates taking the same route back.

T-Bird and Blandine taking a break along the way - the blue hills in the background.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

T-Bird doesn’t go to Kathmandu

T-bird is in a mighty sulk. Refuses all nourishment, makes gnashing noises with the teeth – the sort that entails expensive visits to the repair shop, and will not be consoled. You see, Blandine and I went off to Nepal without her – and what is worse, we hired another bike there. T-Bird is a jealous bird.

Sure I can take you, T-Bird had said. Bangalore-Kathmandu? Poosh! Boosh! Nothing to it! While the offer was tempting, spending a week getting there, and another week getting back – when we had just a month for the whole Nepal trip – it just wasn’t on. We sneaked off on an airplane when we thought T-Bird wasn’t looking.
Landing in Kathmandu

Kathmandu was cold and blustery when we landed – and it had an easygoing, freewheeling way about it that was like a shot of bubbly wine. The fellow at the emigration desk waved me through with a grin, glancing at the blue of my Indian passport. He didn’t even open it.

First Impressions… Meandering streets leading nowhere, tumbledown houses, broken pavements. It looked a bit like good old Bangalore on a bad day, but with a certain kind of charm that Bangalore doesn’t have – not any more, it doesn’t. Wandering around the crowded bylanes is a lot like exploring the old quarters of any old Indian city – except that every few steps or so you come across unexpected moments of sheer beauty. Like this sea of pigeons at a corner Buddhist shrine….

Buddhist Pigeons

We had a nice cup of Nepali tea just beside this particular stupa. Teen Pati – that was the tea brand. Very perfumed. It seemed to be the hangout joint for the local teenagers. A Buddhist temple as a hangout joint… A sad looking long haired Gorkha youth sat beside me. He looked like a lost rock guitarist. How you like Kathmandu, he says. Beautiful, I reply. Yes, but very dirty, he sighs. I take a diplomatic sip of tea. Boy, wait till you see my hometown, kid, I say to myself.

Temples seem to sprout all over Kathmandu like a bout of eczema or a bad rash. There must be a million there, all sorts. But they’re quite unlike the Indian temples – they look sort of exotic to the plainsman eye. Red pagodas and cast iron dragons and screaming eagles of brass and stuff. And the Buddhist temples look very definitely exotic – being unusually clean.
An absolute jing-bang Buddhist temple bang in the middle of a busy neighborhood
The temple dragon

Getting a roof over the head… We installed ourselves in a cozy little apartment-hotel – Melungtse. More apartment than hotel, actually. After a couple of days, it seemed we’d been living there forever. Highly recommended for long stays in Kathmandu. It’s a bit on the outskirts, not in touristy Thamel, where most of the other hotels are. You can see the Himalayas from the rooftop. No, you can’t see it from any odd hotel in Kathmandu. You wouldn’t believe you were surrounded by the Himalayas, in most parts of the city. And it has a nice little garden. Tea on the terrace looking at the Himalayas waking up to the sun and pretty flowerbeds down below, and the owner Mr. Giri bellowing a cheerful Good Morning fixing the fiendishly complicated water recycling gizmo on the roof – what a way to start the day. Just some peanut crumbles needed to make it perfect, and yup, you get those too – at the Pumpernickel bakery in Thamel. I brought back a small cartload to Bangalore. Actually, just the sight of Mr. Giri fixing the water recycling system is the money’s worth. He’s a nice guy, he really is. Even when negotiating the rent. Make you feel right at home. Even when negotiating the rent.
Hotel Melungtse, Maharajgunj, Ring Road Kathmandu – 5 Stars

Keeping the fingers in… Here I am at the apartment, doing guitar practice. It’s a baby guitar. Discovery: the baby guitar is an absolutely marvelous travel guitar. Not performances, of course, but it’s perfectly adequate for scale practice and keeping the fingers from going rusty. Besides, if you buy a decent one, not the cheepo ones at Reynolds, you can get amazing sounds from it that you just can’t from other guitars. Since you have to get the same note from a much shorter neck length, the strings are strung much looser – so you can bend, pull and hammer them almost like an electric guitar, but the sound is that of an acoustic with a soar throat. Very bluesy.
Congress baby guitar as the itinerant guitarists travel guitar – 3 Stars

Getting a bike…  After a couple of days braving the local busses and taxis – if you complain about public transport in Bangalore, boy, wait till you get to Kat – we decided for the sake of our sanity to hire a bike. We checked out a lot of bike hirers in Thamel – including the ones listed in Lonely Planet. But the thought of leaving my passport with one of those pluguglies – you have to do that, you see, as surety; that’s the hitch – it made me downright queasy. They looked to a man something right out of a B-movie of the more violent type.

I finally settled on Balaram – largely because of his wide, honest smile and booming laugh. And the fact that his bikes looked a shade better than the others. And the fact that he was offering us a brand new Yamaha YBR 125 – just 128 KM on the odometer. A new addition to his stable, he said – just that week. Balaram is also highly recommended; we had a great experience with him. His is the first bike hire joint you see when you enter Thamel from the King’s Palace side via Tredevi Marg and take a sharp turn right on Thamel Marg.

Here is the man himself, complete with his bike and his wide, honest smile:
Balram’s Bike Hire – Narsing Chowk, Thamel Kathmandu, Nepal – 5 Stars
After T-Bird, a 125CC Yamaha seemed like coming down in life. It whined and screamed on climbs that T-Bird would have sneered at. And by golly, there are climbs when you set out to explore Kathmandu Valley. But hey, the little bird did the job, getting us from point A to point B without problems.

Finally having something growling between the legs – a bike, I mean – opened up the vistas. We bought us a map of Kathmandu Valley and set out to explore it like it had never been explored before.

And what a place it is… much as we love Bangalore, we have to admit that after you’ve done Nandi Hills and Tipu’s Palace, you’ve more or less shot the bolt as far as tourism is concerned. But the Kathmandu Valley – Oh Me God – just go off in any direction from the city in a 360 degrees arc. It’s bursting with places to see every 100 meters or so. We’d barely scratched the surface by the end of the month.

Where we went: The absolute top favorites…

Boudhanath: Despite the simplicity of the giant stupa, there is something mesmerizing about the place. We went back thrice, once in the late evening for night worship by butter lamps.
Boudhanath by day

Boudhanath by night

Bhakthapur Durbar Square: About 20 km out of Kathmandu. It’s a lot better than the two more popular Durbar Squares within Kathmandu. At first glance it’s enormous, spreading and grand.  Then you see the smaller details, like an intricate stone carving here, a brass serpent rising from a water tank there… and it’s painfully exquisite. We spent two whole days exploring the place and could have spent another two. It’s not just the main squares where the tourists breed, the little side alleys where real people live real lives in centuries old traditional Newari houses, temples and stupas and religious water tanks loitering all over the place. There’s the shock of discover at every other step.

Bhakthapur Durbar Square

Bhakthapur - Serpant robinet in the king's bathtub

Bhakthapur - pillar detail

Bhakthapur - another square

Down the bylanes of Bhakthapur

Bhakthapur - old men at play

Tistung village perched over the Palung Valley: A little side road leading off the busy Tribhuhan highway at Naubise soars into another world. The road climbs on and on, over hills and ridges and valleys. Firs and pines all around. It looks like Switzerland, in parts. And always, in the backdrop, the Himalayas glistening in the cold bracing air. No one around except the goats. Finally you come to the picture-perfect hamlet of Tistung on the very summit at the height of 2030 m.

The Himalyas from Tistung

The Tibet boarder – the road to Lhasa: We didn’t want to go through the hassles of a getting a Chinese visa, so we didn’t bike all the way to Lhasa. In any case, it can’t be done with 125CC under you. With T-Bird, yes. But the way up to the border post is doable and is a lot of fun too.

Here’s a gorgeous gorge along the way, and our little bird taking a picnic break beside it.
Little-Bird on Lhasa Road
Gorgeous gorge on Lahsa Road

Buddhist Monasteries: There are about half a million, each more beautiful than the other. Here’s one I particularly liked, on the way to Dakshin Kali (which by the way is heavenly too, esp. the lonely Mata temple perched on the hilltop with strong winds blowing through the simple stone structure).

Monastery on the way to Dakshin Kali

And dozens of other places, which I simply can’t do justice to in a single post… I ought to have made a post a day while I was there, like some other bloggers do. But then this isn’t a travel blog, kids – it’s a humor blog. You ought to know that. Serious posts like this are an aberration.

Nepali Cuisine… In a word: Momo. That place is bursting with momo joints. Small, greasy ones; big, posh ones; middle of the road ones (which are only half greasy and half posh). We had momos morning, noon and night. We ate momos until it spilled out of our ears. Yes, there was that thing called Nepali Thali Set, but it looked suspiciously like a watered-down North Indian Thali, so we left it alone. All this was a bit sad, in retrospect, because Thamel – the touristy quarter of Kathmandu – is crammed with tempting cafes, restaurants and patisseries. French haute cuisine, Korean noodle houses, Irish pubs, German bakeries… you name it – most run by expats settled in Kathmandu, so the food is pretty authentic. Reasonably priced too. In that small 5 km square area, there were more interesting-looking restaurants than in the whole of Bangalore, and Bangalore doesn’t have a shortage, on that front at least. But in the name of being true to the local cuisine, we avoided them. So: momos. Regret it, now we’re back.

Actually, one day we tried going beyond momos. There was this little Tibetian restaurant we found in a hidden side street behind Boudhanath that actually went beyond momos and thukpa. They had all kinds of unpronounceable stuff. They even had freshly made Chang rice beer, which I couldn’t find anywhere else. After getting over the mental block of boiled rice bits floating in my beer and the gamey smell, the Chang proved surprisingly tasty. But not a repeatable experience. And we had this greenish thing with a long unpronounceable multi-part name which turned out to be nettle soup. Yes, the stuff that looks like a thorn bush. It tasted like nothing on earth. And I had dysentery for the rest of my visit. Nettle, it seems, can cause food poisoning unless carefully prepared. Next day: back to momos.
The courtyard at Nepali Chulo
Nepali Chulo: We finally buckled down to eating a Nepali Thali at this restaurant caught in a time warp, a traditional Newari mansion cluttered with ethnic geegaws. Yes, it wasn’t all that different from a standard North Indian Thali. But the experience of eating in this sunlit old-world courtyard was something else.

Nepal Police…Absolutely impressive, totally unlike the rude, pot-bellied perishers here. They look lithe, sharp and poster-boyish to a man, in smart blue uniforms – like something out of a Jacky Chan movie – and they are unfailingly friendly. One of them stopped me once – he was diverting the traffic for a political rally. Sounds familiar? Ah, but instead of whistling rudely in my face and yelling Munde Hogi! Munde Hogi! He smiled an apologetic smile, asked where I was going, and then gave detailed instructions for alternative routes to get there. And this, mind you, in the middle of the rush hour with cars honking like mad behind me. If that had happened in Bangalore, I would have fainted from shock. And Bangalore policemen are reputedly the best mannered in the country…

Drivers License… Legally, you need an International Drivers License to drive there. But Lonely Planet says the Nepal Police never check. Taking courage from that, I landed in Kathmandu not only without an IDL, but without even my Indian Drivers License. I’d just submitted it for renewal – I had just a Xerox copy of the old one. The first day, I puttered out on to the roads with my heart in my mouth… was Lonely Planet correct? Oh Me Gosh, No! – The police were stopping and checking fellows left and right. Luckily, we never got stopped. The Nepal Police seem to have a policy of not hassling tourists and Blandine with her pretty brown hair fluttering in the wind looks a bonafide tourist. Actually, I did almost get stopped once. Blandine’s brown hair was for once tucked away in a helmet, and I didn’t look sufficiently exotic to the Nepali eye. But the moment I said ‘India’, he waved me on with a grin. Blandine didn’t even have to undo her helmet strap.


When I handed Balram the bike back, at the end of the month, the gear was sticking a bit and there was a bit of chipped paint on the rear. His smile slipped a bit, but he didn’t make a fuss. But as a fellow bike lover, I could read his eyes. It was after all a brand new bike. But hey, however careful you are – if you are going to go roaring up mountainsides on a bike, it’s going to show. I promised him this writeup on my blog to cheer him up.

Back to T-Bird and her sulk.