Tag Archives: Travel

Losing Weight

Now, there are many ways to lose weight. There is the crash diet, the go-to-the-gym-and-make-your-wallet-lose-weight, the buy-larger-size clothes way. Plenty. We chose the climb-a-9th-century-fort-in-the-afternoon-sun way. I mean, we went all the way to Trichy and we didn’t climb the Rock Fort Temple because the heat would be unbearable we were told. But we went ahead and climbed Gingee (or Shenji) Fort at 3 PM on a gloriously hot September day.

But that was later. What we were originally doing was wandering about in Pondicherry. I know, everyone’s been there, done that and drank the cheap booze. But still its wonderful. The last couple of times I’d been there, I really don’t remember doing anything in particular. And that was not because of the cheap booze. It that that is pretty much what I do when I’m travelling. Plus the avid followers of this blog (6) will attest to that fact.

We went on a perfectly and gloriously hot weekend towards the end of September. The stretch from Krishnagiri is kind of like your annual performance review. Your boss starts off with your good points, highlighting how you’re basically the super glue holding the entire company together and how without you the world as we know it will end. However, when you get your rating it’ll be kind of like the big pothole in the middle of the Krishnagiri Tindivanam route. Which is also equally unexpected. Unless you’re an experienced driver like yours truly, who after numerous such roads and performance appraisal cycles is now extremely wary of smooth roads and smoother bosses. So essentially, be warned. The road beyond Tindivanam is now being upgraded to a 4 lane strip, so all the attendant caveats apply.

The requisite yellow-wall-white-bordered doorway photo from Pondi.
The requisite yellow-wall-white-bordered doorway photo from Pondi.

We stayed at The Richmond, and thought that it was quite nice. It is on the smaller side and the food tends to take it’s time, but hey, it’s not like a billion dollar deal was waiting on us. The Missus especially liked it which in my opinion says a lot about the place. In a nice way. Just to be clear.

While we were there, there seemed to some sort of event sponsored by the Pondicherry Tourism Department. During the evenings, the area near Gandhi statue sported a shamiana where a Debate in Tamil, a musical evening and other events were organised. It was preceded by a concerned citizen playing the ghatam for 24 hours to promote awareness for Global Warming. The entire stretch has a feeling of a mela, with the local government pitching in and shutting down traffic on Goubert Road (the road on the beach). There are all the elements that make up a traditional carnival, small Ferris wheels, cotton candy sellers, balloon sellers, you assorted chat sellers – admittedly with a very Southie twist, but excellent nevertheless and the essential element, crowds of children whining. But don’t let that deter you, for you can come upon interesting sights. Like a band from the Reunion Island singing in French and the crowd enjoying it or like the family out for an evening stroll and the father deciding to “borrow” some plants from the Kargil memorial for the family garden. When The Missus caught him at it, he loitered and then sent his kid to do the job. It is wonderful to see how our country passes on it’s glorious 5000-year old values.

The mornings were spent loitering around the French part of town, which is very elegantly called the “White” town. As opposed to the Indian part, which is the “Black” Town. Of course no one calls them that any more. But it was interesting to note. And my loitering didn’t go unnoticed. A gent on his morning walk, when running into me for the nth time, politely enquired if I was lost. I had all the trappings of the tourist anyway, the camera bag, the dangling camera, the gawker’s pace. Not a pretty sight. Which is why The Missus very wisely does not accompany me on such ramblings.

However, we did put in some solid leg kms. Driving up to Grigorio’s (or was it Grigio’s) which is a shack just off the road that leads to Auroville for some solid, yummy, wood burned pizzas and then walking all the way back to help the food do it’s job. We did get a lot of stares though. And that would be because we were the only ones sauntering about in the afternoon sun.

In the morning we spent poking about the streets of Pondicherry looking at the huge houses. But like all things they seem to be coming to an end too and are being replaced by either hotels or glass fronted buildings.

... and the requisite photo from Auroville.
… and the requisite photo from Auroville.

And that is when, after all the walking in the sun was over and we were heading back, we decided to outdo our selves. Around 3 in the afternoon, we decided to hike up to Krishnagiri section of the Gingee fort complex. The fort itself itself is divided into 3 parts, so there is still some exploring to do. The fort is quite clean, and it doesn’t have a lot of people visiting it. Or it could just be the heat. Some of it got into my head as well and all my photos turned out to be crap. Like they say, always find someone or something to pin the blame. Between the 3 sections, I would think it will take around 2 trips to completely see the fort. And the climb might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I did plan one again in December when we stayed over at Thiruvannamalai, but I had to play conscientious mate to a sick Missus. That involved pulling the curtains, staying very quiet and watching TV all day. It was the best help I ever did according to her.

So, next time you’re heading towards Pondicherry (or Puducherry or Pondi), take some time off to visit the Gingee fort. As they say, you’ve got nothing to lose but your weight.

Country Roads

End of June is not exactly the best time to be travelling to Central Tamil Nadu. Especially when our friendly Gormint is trying to improve the infrastructure. So in short, the drive was hot & it was dusty. But they did do a good job of improving the infrastructure. And while they were at it, they also made all maps redundant. Because as the NH 7 moves up in life to a 4-lane track, like all things that move up in life it has also moved out of the neighbourhood. Post Krishnagiri, the NH 7 has a different alignment, and all towns till Thoppur have been passed by.

After a pit stop at Salem, a combination of stupidity & lack of road signs caused us to travel an extra 30 kms. We did go through some pretty countryside though. We re-joined the NH some where near Namakkal. Which is where the heat & dust comes in. And the constructions. And the heat. And the bikers coming the wrong way. And the heat. And the speed demons. And the heat. Well, actually it wasn’t that hot. But it felt like it. But what I don’t understand is, why in the name of all that is holy, there are no places to eat along these new fangled highways. Not that there are no places at all, but The Wife didn’t like the looks of them. And what The Wife doesn’t like, I don’t like. Or at least I have to say so.

Since we were travelling after almost 6 months, we decided to splurge. We ended up at the Gateway in Madurai and thanks to the country jaunt, we reached in the middle of afternoon. The place is incredibly green & there is a visible drop in the temperature. Or rather a sense-able drop. It’s on a small hillock called Pasumalai just off the highway. You’ve to admit the Brits did choose the most sensible way to live & work on the sub-continent. As opposed to the steel & glass structures that we seem to favour nowadays. For this is the erstwhile residence of the MD of the erstwhile J B Coates company and reportedly boasts of South India’s first swimming pool.

Outdoor dining at the Taj Pasumalai

Getting around in Madurai seems to be fairly easy. Autos go everywhere. Predictably, they don’t go by the meter. The bus service is fairly efficient and fairly un-crowded as well. Not to mention unbelievably cheap. A 7 to 8 km ride costs all of 2.5 INR. That same ride will cost you 70 to 80 INR in the autos. Buses & cars don’t go all the way to the Meenakshi Amman temple so walking will be involved. And I’m assuming that that temple is one reason most folks go there. There are tons of other stuff to see there though. In Madurai, the temple leitmotif cant’ be escaped however. If that’s not your thing then you can go visit the palace. It is called the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal. From the temple it is a 3 km walk. And of course, we did just that. The entry to the palace is INR 10 with a 30 INR charge for still cameras. Of course, all foreigners fork out more. That’ll show them. Going around colonising. There is work going on to spruce up a Light & Sound show here. The work is expected to complete by August of ’09. Crossing the lane opposite the palace will bring you to the St. Mary’s Cathedral Church. But besides walking around the Meenakshi Amman temple we didn’t do much of significance at Madurai. Except laze around at the Gateway. Watching the peacocks. Which are in hordes at the Gateway. Come to think of it, besides the walking we didn’t do much. But such is the effect of heat.

A corridor abutting the The Porthamarai Kulam inside the Meenakshi Amman temple.
A corridor abutting the The Porthamarai Kulam inside the Meenakshi Amman temple.

Onwards took us to Villa Retreat in Kodaikanal. Now for someone with an obvious bias towards the Nilgiris, Kodai didn’t enthuse enough. Again, besides one very long walk around the lake & a half-hearted attempt at going to Bear Shola falls we didn’t do much. Plus Villa Retreat has one of the best views going so there was not a lot of incentive. It’s right next to Coaker’s Walk. Right, so we did that too. For those who don’t mind exerting a bit, the walk around the lake is highly recommended. It’s around 5 kms and besides the lake & pretty houses around it, the view will also throw up assorted honeymooners doing what honeymooners everywhere do. Trying out goofy stuff which somehow makes abundant sense in the hormonal period when you’re finally getting some on a regular basis. The point is, there is plenty to look around in Kodai. The interesting thing is that there is an Observatory, but it’s only open on Fridays during the off season & that too only for 2 hours from 10 to 12 in the noon. It’s a solar observatory before any of you ask. The peak season runs from March 15 to June 15 when it is open in the evening too. However, if you give prior notice, they’ll allow you to visit at night. This option was not exercised for the simple reason, that I didn’t know it existed.

A view of Coaker's view from the Villa Retreat resort, Kodai.

That was sort of the end of the vacation. We wanted to extend, but Villa Retreat was full up. But we had a couple of days in hand & figured it wouldn’t hurt to extend the vacation by a day. A lot of research done by the slacker writing this, (basically clicking on the first links Google threw up) told that the route from Kodai down to Palani was scenic. Considering the heat we encountered on the way in and the fact that The Wife was rather partial to tanning quite fast and the fact that she expressed her displeasure at that state of things quite vocally & frequently, we decided to take this route. The real reason was of course that I wanted to enjoy the drive.

And the drive didn’t disappoint. Especially, the drive down from Kodai to Palani is worth the superlatives it gets. And at this point in time – middle of 2009 – I have to say that the TN state roads are the best. It is smooth, it is empty & it has signs all the way in Tamil. But that’s alright. At least they didn’t change their alignment. The plan was to hit Salem & stop off at Yercaud. Some ways through we hit a fork on the road – well not really, but it was clearly visible on the map – which promised Yercaud 123 km to the right & Coonoor 123 km to the left. The Wife being very partial to Coonoor, indicated that a lot of brownie points could be scored by bearing left. So bore left is what I did.

Well since it is Coonoor, the 1 day extension turned to 2 days. We stopped off at The Wallwood Gardens and did what we did all vacation. Walked some more. We walked towards Tiger Hills for no other reason than the fact that it was there. The mist precluded any activity apart from looking at the mist, but there were folks who squinted hard as they were shown around the tea factory there. The rest of time was spent eating and some more walking. Thankfully, not in the heat this time.

The dining room at Wallwood Garden, Coonoor.

We decided to take the scenic route back. Well not all of it was scenic, but some of it allegedly was. So we went down the Mettupalayam route. Right up to Avinashi, the state roads are excellent & the drive very pleasant. At Avinashi they give you the tour of the town, presumably because of the work going on on the NH 47. There is work going on, but the roads are excellent. We took the right at Bhavani towards Mettur and as we knew, the road didn’t disappoint. What did disappoint was the heavy tipper trucks that seemed to be piloted by speed demons. At Meccheri, we took the left to Pennagaram the plan was to get into Bangalore via Anekal. All the way upto Pennagaram that was the plan. That’s when it went kaput. Due to extremely bad roads from Pennagaram to Anchetti, we had to detour to Hogenakkal. The road from Hogenakkal to Anchetti was bad as well. But Anchetti onwards, the roads reverted back to the 2009 standard TN state roads. So before you quibble about where the scenic route sections are, the drive from Meccheri to Pennagarm was wonderful. The drive from Hogennakal to Anchetti was too, but you might appreciate it more if you had a vehicle with good ground clearance. But the best was the route from Anchetti to NH7 near Denkanikota. It helped that around that time, it started raining, not heavily, but just enough for the weather to cool down. And in this case, country roads did take us home.

The road leading to Pennagaram and beyond from Mecheri, Tamil Nadu.

Spending Weekends.

A new car, overly enthusiastic room-mates and a sick grandmother lead you to Munnar. At least it did me. The new car and enthu roomies are mine, the grandmother is one of my roomies’. My roomie expressed a desire to spend Christmas with his grandmother who had just recovered from a brief illnes, so off we went to Kerala. Turns out his place is close to Munnar. Relatively speaking.It’s about 90 kms from where we stayed, but having travelled 530 kms already, I wasn’t going to crib about an extra 90.

Munnar rises 5,000 ft above sea level and at about 600 km from Bangalore, the drive is not something to be attempted on a regular weekend. However, it is the perfect getaway for the longer weekends. Summer temperatures range between 15°C and 25°C. In winters the temperatures vary from 0°C to 10°C. The best time to go would be September to May. And since common sense dictates we go at the best time, we went in the middle of winter; December to be exact. Thus proving once more, that common sense is not so common. However, we took comfort in the fact, that we were not alone in our stupidity. We encountered crowds from half the states of India during our 2 day stay.

“Iridescent colours streaking a clear sky, low clouds, the twittering of birds, squat green tea bushes spanning acres of land, and meandering roads” is how a travel site describes it. Apart from the “iridescent colours” part the rest of it is spot on. Munnar offers a lot places to drive, take short walks and generally enjoy the peace and quiet.

Winding roads leading to the Ervikulam National Park. Yes, it is this green.

Take the Hosur road and get on the NH7 – NH47 combination right up to Salem. Just before you enter Salem proper, there is some work going on on the Salem bypass. At this juncture there is an excellent dhaba – I don’t know the equivalent in Tamil – where you will can stuff your self on good South Indian breakfast. Three hungry guys having a go at the fare like refugees from a diet camp, and we ran up a bill of 45 bucks. [Update: Sadly, progress has consumed this restaurant; after the 4 laning of this highway]. After you cross Salem, take the turn to NH215 towards Coimbatore. Coimbatore you can bypass the town and get on an excellent road which will lead you into God’s Own Country (you know what they say about the people). You get to Munnar via Thrishur, and Palakkad. After Palakkad take the road to Permbavur. Munnar is 90 Kms from Permbavur on the Munnar-Alwaye road

Munnar is also known as the Darjeeling of the South so there are lots of tea gardens there. The road from Permbavur is excellent and fairly fast if somewhat narrow. It winds its way through some beautiful countryside, and is best taken early in the morning. The first 3 hours in Munnar were spent trying to get acco. We knocked on the doors of all the staying places, high-brow to low-brow, and found none. There are a lot of touts – as is common with all tourists places, and even they declined room for us. We finally settled for Spring Valley Dorm a little outside town. At 100 Rs. a bed we were not complaining. The place is surprisingly clean – including the toilets – the owner is quite helpful, and they have some sort of private areas for people travelling in mixed company. We did see a group which was thus. Having said that, the prop. was surprised that we weren’t tight as owls when we checked in, so be warned.

An early winter morning at Munnar.

Places to stay are not a problem, there are plenty. The problem is getting one the exact same time that you want it. For those taking their own vehicles, there are Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum outlets in the centre of town. Both take credit cards.

Munnar is not some place where you ‘do’ things. But if you are all up to it, you can do the tourist thing, which basically involves going to the Matupetty dam, the Echo point, and the Eravikulam National Park. About one-third of the world’s population of Nilgiri Thar (allegedly a mountain goat – but looks more like a small mule) is in Eravikulam. These goats are surprisingly tame, and will allow you to come quite near. The park is about 15 km from Munnar and the entrance is from Vaguvarai (auto fare is Rs 75 one way and Rs 150 for a round trip). Now the thing to wonder is whether this is worth it. As a nature lover I would’ve said yes. As a car-owner and someone who likes to keep breathing, I would’ve passed. Saying that the road is narrow is like saying Bangalore traffic is a little senseless. The road is about one car wide. One small car wide and has a healthy 1000 foot drop on one side and the mountain on the other. Oh did I mention the blind curves? Again, allegedly, elephants, gaurs, sambars, mountain goats and tigers can also be seen here. But I didn’t see it. You could drive to the base, where there is some sort of fall(a water fall, not the kind where you drop off), and climb the last 3 kms. Much safer. The park is open from 7 am to 6 pm. Anamudi, the highest peak in south India, is located in the southern region of the park. One can trek up to the foot of the peak. Permission for trekking can be obtained from the District Forest Officer in Munnar (Tel: 530 487). Another trekking area is Rajamala – the natural habitat of the Nilgiri Thar. But you’ll need to check with the District Forest Officer before you do so.

A Nilgiri Thar getting on with it's life, unmindful of gawking, squawking humans.

There is the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary about 20 Km from Kothamangalam, which is on the way to Munnar. Boat rides are available form Boothathankettu to Thattekkad and the best time to visit is early in the A.M. That time, I believe, counts most folks out.

Top Station is known for the Neelkurinji plant that flowers only once in 12 years. It is at a distance of 37 km on the Munnar-Kodaikanal road at an altitude of 1,700 m. Top Station also has a panoramic view of the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. A round trip to this place by jeep would cost about Rs 400. While the drive itself is quite scenic, top station itself might not appeal to all. It used to be a station for the rope-way, whence all the tea used to be transported to TN in the earlier days. Nothing of that exists now.

However, the rest of Munnar is still yours to explore. And that’s not a bad way to spend a long weekend.