The alarm went off at 4am. Considering we have been altering our body clock to go to bed earlier and earlier and wake earlier and earlier it wasn’t as bad as it sounds especially as we had pretty much crashed at 8pm after our 70 mile ride the previous day. But what on earth were we doing getting up at 4am? The answer was trying to get unreserved tickets for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, also known as the Toy Train. Yesterday we had been told to arrive at 5.30am and then at 5am and a recent blog advised being there at 4.30am to be at the front of the queue. Given it was going to be more difficult with the bikes, we opted for the 4.30am option.
David stirred the sleeping hotel night staff to reluctantly open the gates to the adjacent parking area so we could get our bikes out. We cycled the 1km to the station at probably to only time Mettupalayam is quiet (having previously been voted by us the most noisy vehicle hooting town so far – quite an achievement).
All was hushed and calm as we walked along the platform and parked out bikes right outside the Station Master’s office. No one else in site so we thought we were first in the queue! Objective 1 achieved! Even time to get a brew going for a very welcome cup of coffee. While David was down the platform brewing up in a dark corner a few other people arrived. Then someone waved them all off down the platform. Nothing was said to me of course and I did not want to leave the bikes.
When David was back with the coffee, someone then told us the queue was on the other side of the Station Master’s Office on the other platform! We duly found the sign for the queue next to the Toy Train. 6th in the queue – damn! – but we were confident we would get tickets. Then a couple of other families, or more likely one extended family, arrived and joined the queue after us with sleepy children. 5am passed with no sign of ticket allocation, 5.30am passed, 6am passed and nothing happening from the Station Master on the ticket front. At about 6.15, 2 officials came out and eyed up the bikes. Have we got tickets? No (clearly not- we were still in the queue waiting for tickets to be allocated – but we did not say that).
David was then given the precious “ticket allocation ticket” with the magic official stamp, which meant he could go over the road to buy 2 train tickets. This is bureaucracy that can only have been learned from the British.
Having secured the magic train tickets he then had to get parcel tickets for the bikes. At first he was sent back to the ticket office, then to the parcel office, then back to the ticket office and finally caught up with the right official at the parcel office. There is an element in Indian bureaucracy of “your issue is someone else’s problem”, so getting referred from A to B, then B to A repeatedly until you can find someone to take ownership of your issue is fairly common. I wonder where they got that idea from?
Having found the right man with the right set of multiple forms and multiple stamps, David set out to complete the paperwork in triplicate to secure parcel tickets for the bikes. Carbon paper, multiple forms in prepared books and totally irrelevant details are a feature of this bureaucracy all over the world. Yes, the post code of our UK residence is essential on the form!
Our train tickets cost 30 rupees each (about 35p) and the bike ticket cost 70 rupees – so just over a pound each in total for the 5 hour trip! We would have happily paid 250 rupees for first class (about £3) but these weren’t on offer for the non-reserved tickets.
Suddenly at about 6.45 there was a surge of activity – the carriage door to the tiny train was opened and the ‘unreserved’ queue herded in, with the station official directing people precisely where they were entitled to sit. We tried to sit on the left hand side of the carriage but were told firmly that our seats were on the right side. I expect this was kindness – delivered brusquely – because this side had the better views as the train climbed the valleys.
As it was there were 29 seats in the half carriage for us and I was glad that everyone got on and there were even 2-3 seats to spare. Perhaps our excessively early waking was unnecessary but I am sure there are busy days with disappointed passengers. As I crammed our panniers under the seats, David got the bikes safely into the guards van. At last at 7.30, 3 hours after our arrival, the train puffed out of the station.
The Toy Train has Unesco World Heritage status. A steam train pushes it up the steep incline into the Nilgiri hills up to Coonor at 1700m. There is a special third “cog wheel” that meshes with a third ‘toothed’ rail between the conventional rails to get it up the hill. At Coonor the steam train retires and switches to a diesel engine for the final push to Ooty at 2200m.
It was a very memorable ride – as much for the people watching in our carriage as for the spectacular views as we rose up the mountains. It was raining when we left but this eased off. The train rose through patches of fog and mist that we could see swirling round the steep mountainsides.
Eventually the sun came out at about 1300m when the tea plantations started. The train stopped every 20-30 minutes at little stations to take on water (it was a steam train after all). Everyone would pile out of the carriages, look at the views, buy snacks at the slightly larger stations and take hundreds of photos. The whistle would blow and we would all pile back in.
The ‘selfie’ culture has definitely circumnavigated the world and been taken on with avengeance in India as every photo taken seemed to be a selfie. The other day we were on the bikes climbing a hill when a car load of 4 youngsters stopped and came out to cheer us on, saying “one selfie please”. So we stopped, and posed whilst they took a photo with them and us in a single frame. Goodness knows why they wanted a photo of a couple of hot and sweaty middle aged English cyclists with 4 young men in their 20s, but we were happy to oblige. Selfies predominated as people took views of the mountain with themselves as foreground interest. Being old fashioned we still don’t like our photo being taken and take traditional views without our mugshots in them – you will be relieved to see when you see the photos.
There is a rather puritan feeling as a cyclist that, if you haven’t pedalled up, you haven’t earned the view. But I rather easily put that thought to one side as the 5 hr train ride (including all the stops) would have taken 2 days of 2 massive climbs. The point of going to Ooty was really just an excuse to take one of the world’s most memorable train rides and it was worth it!
Ooty (or Udagagamandalam) is an old colonial ‘hill station’ where the Brits would flee the heat of the plains in the summer. We hadn’t booked anywhere and we tried to follow the map in the guide book to find the tourist office and got very frustrated when none of it seemed to match up to reality. After circumnavigating the town a couple of times we found the Tourist Office. It was the sparsest tourist office I’ve ever seen and did not look as if it saw a tourist from one day to the next. There was a huge desk covered in newspapers but nothing else. I asked the man for a map of the town and he rummaged around a room in the back and found one that was marginally better than the guide book one. Nothing like wifi and he did not know anywhere other than the hotels (and our experience before is they will only give the password if you have a room number, which is fair enough).
The other reason to go to Ooty is to stay in one of the old colonial houses. Having no technology we did the old fashioned turn up and negotiate and opted for Lymond House. This was an old bungalow kitted out in colonial era furniture with a central sitting room with comfy sofas and a fabulous old car parked at the front. It all felt a bit bizarre as we sipped tea from china cups and all the more bizarre as we were clearly the only guests.
The garden was beautiful and there was a long list of birds that have been seen in it but it was overcast and rather chilly (remember we are at 2300m) so not sitting out weather. We strolled out to look at St Stephen’s church but it was closed but it was interesting to look round the disintegrating grave yard. Every name with a military title or women or children dying at a tragically young age. Most dated around the 1850’s so mothers and children dying would have been common anywhere then but we guessed the conditions were harsh in many ways in spite of the colonial privileges.
We then strolled on to the botanical gardens, which was busy with visitors from all over India. Most tourists here are Indians from other parts of the country, exploring the delights of their own country – more selfies with plants and trees this time. The gardens were a typical Victorian space with various species of trees and plants but a haven of peace and greenery that was filled with families playing and strolling couples.
Then we had our first tuktuk ride back to the hotel- how could we have been in India for 2 weeks and not had a tuktuk ride!
We have had so many experiences in the last couple of weeks it seems unbelievable. Even the memories of a week ago seem months ago. No doubt there are still many experiences to be had but we feel comfortable in India and increasingly in awe with it, despite its manifest contradictions and growing pains. We are energised for the days ahead.