Apr 5th-7th, 2017
After a long and nauseating tuk tuk ride, we arrived at the train station and caught a train headed for Coimbatore, our jumping off point to Udhagamandalam. With a name like that, it is no wonder everyone just refers to it as Ooty.
From Coimbatore, there is a rickety uphill government bus, aka absolute shit bus, that takes roughly 3 hours to reach Ooty.
Ooty is located at an elevation of 2240m and as a consequence, the bus has to do around 20+ hairpin turns in order to reach it! If you don’t do well with motion sickness, then this is not the bus ride for you.
What was nice, however, is that as we climbed into the Nilgiri Hills, the landscape changed from arid desert to lush greenery, with tea plantations and cool crisp air! Yes, I said cool air!
We had originally planned on taking a cute miniature toy train up which would have been less nauseating but the seats had essentially been sold out for months, so the bus was our only option. Paul in Kochi tried to help us get tickets, but it was literally impossible.
Ooty was established by the British in the early 19th century as a hill station to be used by the Madras government in the stifling summer months. Now, it is an extremely popular destination for Indians in the nearby states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu who try to escape the heat as well.
And much like the latter, it feels a little British (very, very little) with some colonial architecture and a horse track (a very dirty horse track filled mostly with starving horses and starving children).
We arrived just before sunset and were taken aback by how un-natural and polluted Ooty was. It happens to be a major stop along the mountain transit route and as a consequence, has non-stop transport trucks and buses honking at all hours of the day.
We managed to get a little room not far from the traffic circle where the bus dropped us off and while nowhere near luxurious, and having to climb over open sewage numerous times a day to get in and out, it was nice and cool and actually had a 24-hour hot water shower (apparently a rarity in Ooty)!
We had a quick bite to eat and slept like babies for the first time in weeks (except for when we had air conditioning)!
The following morning, we had a good South Indian breakfast and started to walk around the town.
Ooty really isn’t on the “whitie” backpacker trail. Rather, it is really popular in the Indian holiday market, and as a result, we were a real tourist attraction for them: everyone stopping to ask for selfies, asking where we’re from, extra attention from beggars, you name it.
Another consequence of being popular with Indians is that the town is quite filthy. Putting garbage in garbage bins being a completely foreign concept in the world’s largest democracy, Ooty’s original draw of clean natural surroundings unfortunately resembled that of any other Indian shit-hole town, but with an even more impoverished feel (beggars actually come here from all over India to try to get money from the more wealthy crowd).
We walked to Ooty’s market and stumbled upon a nice Tamil temple with some pretty awesome drummers playing some sick beats on the outside.
From there we continued our walk towards Ooty Lake and made our way to the boat house. Unlike the serene, tranquil lake we were expecting, you had to pay an entrance fee and then pay to actually get any use out of the lake. Fronting the lake was a small but rowdy amusement park. Not the most relaxing environment.
One interesting thing about Ooty is the quantity of stray horses. While it still has the quintessential stray dogs, cows and cats of other Indian cities, this is the first place we saw random horses just wandering the streets, without an owner in sight and looking completely malnourished.
I thought it would be a good idea to walk to Fernhills Palace, the former summer residence of the Maharaja of Mysore to try to get a better view of the lake, but it had a barbed wire fence around it and the roads surrounding it were really not meant for pedestrians.
We ended up taking a tuk tuk to the palace, which now acts as a fancy hotel. We thought we would grab a drink there but the prices were a little prohibitive.
We took a quick tour of the palace and its opulent facilities and then made our way down to the main road. Coincidently, that Italian reality show we had seen in Kochi was also at the palace at the same time we were and we spoke to a producer to see what the show was about. Essentially it was an Italian Amazing Race.
Once down, we took a rickshaw to Ooty’s famed Botanical Gardens. They were established in 1848 and provided us with our first taste of greenery in this otherwise concrete hill station.
Here, more than anywhere else to date, we were treated as celebrities. We must have taken at least 25 selfies and been part of numerous family portraits.
The gardens themselves were really quite nice and did provide a welcomed escape from the hustle and bustle of central Ooty. Indian cities as a whole don’t have much green space, and what green space they have is either torn up or used as a collective garbage dump.
Just outside was an unimpressive Tibetan market, with Tibetan refugees selling children’s clothing to Indian families.
As we started to walk back to our place, it started to rain quite hard. Luckily there was a homemade chocolate shop where we took refuge and enjoyed one of Ooty’s signature treats.
The following day we had agreed to meet a mountain guide at a kiosque next to the bus station. He was going to bring us to some of Ooty’s famed greenery. We started by taking a local bus 7km to our start point. We passed a Toda village and our guide bribed a woman with some candy to let us onto her land.
The Nilgiris mountains are home to numerous hill tribes, each with their own unique language and culture.
As we walked across their land, we passed a few villages as well as some unfortunate deforestation/agricultural work taking place in the distance.
It was a commercial operation and our guide was pretty adamant for us to not take any pictures, perhaps because he got in trouble in the past.
Being respectful of his wishes, I put my shutter on silent and took some pics without his knowledge. I know, I suck.
Once we passed the most populated area, he said we could take a few quick pics, which we gladly did.
Before long we continued to a small Kota village, who are known for their leather goods. We stopped here for a quick chai in a cavern-like den and continued through the country side.
As soon as we arrived back in town, Tracy witnessed a man get beat up by three men and one woman. He was then dragged into the middle of the traffic circle, all the while witnessing a motorbike accident and an assault on a woman. Yes, Ooty can be rough.
Either way, I decided that we should go to Doddabetta, the highest peak in the region.
We took a winding tuk tuk up and were unfortunately underwhelmed by the views that we saw from the top. An observatory perched up at 2637m should have given better views, but the clouds and the poorly planned layout left very little to admire.
We took more selfies with locals and made our way down. On the way back, we stopped at Waxworld, probably our highlight of Ooty.
Waxworld is a wax museum that is both hilarious and pitiful at the same time. Some of the figures were so godawful, that you couldn’t help but laugh at them. Definitely worth the price of admission!
As we drove back down, we were treated to some nice views of Ooty’s colourful architecture built up on the side of rolling hills. This was the Ooty we had hoped for, not what we experienced in the centre.
All in all, we enjoyed Ooty. Not the garbage filled city itself due to the sheer poverty of the locals and the out-of-our-price-range hotels and restaurants, but the brief glimpses of greenery and nature that it holds beyond its city limits and in its parks. It was also nice to be a celebrity in India and give some locals bragging rights on Facebook. Not only that, but it was wonderful wearing a sweater and being comfortable doing it!