Even before we arrived in India the thought of exploring this vast country was daunting. The Rough Guide bought in KL all those months ago is twice the thickness of most on our shelves. As Temptress crossed the Bay of Bengal I dug into the chapters on the southern states of Kerala (where Cochin is located), Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The latter I had never heard of! Even focusing on the southern third of the subcontinent offered a myriad of options.
After a visit to a friendly local travel agent St Monica’s where the young chap delivered us a travel counselling session for free, we ruled out things like a trip along the backwaters of Kerala or a few days at the beach resorts south of Cochin on the basis of having been on the water long enough! He suggested we took the train inland and after some discussion the germ of a plan began to form but it would be easier to book trains ourselves. Armed with some tips about asking hotels to book us a car and driver to join any gap in train travel we thanked him and returned to the boat to work out a route. After much chopping and changing of dates due to boat repair woes we finally could get away on our second Tuesday in India but needed to be back on Friday 9th as a friend from Changi Sailing Club was coming to visit enroute from Mumbai to Calcutta!
Sorting out train times and availability of seats appeared more daunting than trying to work out where to go. The best advice on negotiating the labyrinthine Indian Railways website came from The Man In Seat 61 (www.seat61.com), a brilliant resource for train travel. Step by step and with much muttering I worked it out. The keys to successfully booking a ticket are discovering the number assigned to the service you want to travel on, signing up to the Indian Railways website (www.indianrail.gov.in) for which you need a debit/credit card that works in India and preferably an Indian mobile number. Finally find an app that will sit on top of the cumbersome website and make sense of it all, for this we used Confirmtkt which was brilliant.
Our first ticket though was booked at the train station as I failed to find a sleeping berth on the overnight train to Mysore. Nazar, who has been helping us with everything since we arrived, kindly took us to Ernakalum Town where the guy in the booking office quickly released to us tourist tickets (at a premium of course) in AC3. The final bit of knowledge you need is a grasp of the acronyms used in to refer to the different classes of travel, AC3 means three tier bunks in an air conditioned carriage. Indian trains are often late but no one was too worried that our fifteen hour journey to Mysore from Ernakalum Junction, Cochin’s main station started over an hour late.
On boarding, our doorless compartment held a large group of travellers some standing leaving us a bit bewildered as we had confirmed seats. On the seat a teeny baby whose nappy was being changed by Mum with help from Grandma. The family quickly sorted themselves out across three compartments and we slotted into our allocated window seats. Around 10:30 pm we all agreed it was time for bed, a necessary arrangement as, once the middle bunks are down it is not possible to sit up on the daytime seating. We had bottom berths, due to being foreigners and/or my age. One lady slept with her daughter in the bunk above me, a young lad above Kevin. Only the top tier above Kevin was occupied by a tall businessman who climbed the end ladder backwards, unfolded his upper body onto the bunk then slithered headfirst towards the outer edge where the head room was tiny. His feet hung over the inside end. Needless to say in the night when a transverse bunk on the other side of the corridor to ours came available he moved. We arrived on time the next morning having had a reasonably comfy nights sleep.
From Mysore our rather eccentric but very cheap and clean hotel, The Park Lane, booked us a car with Heritage Cars to the mountain town of Ooty. Udhagamandalam the modern name for this colonial hillstation is almost impossible to pronounce, even the locals still call it Ooty, a contraction of the towns colonial name. It is some three or four hours drive away and a lovely scenic drive through two wildlife reserves then up into the mountains via a road with no less than 36 hairpin bends, they are numbered!
On the train to Mysore I had managed to book two first class seats on the Niligiri Blue Mountain Railway, one of the only steam trains left in India and a popular world heritage site. First class because that was all that was left. They were for the following afternoon meaning we had an afternoon to visit the spectacular Mysore Palace and wander around a very colonial Victorian town centre with parks and crazy traffic. From the lower terminus of the little railway at Mettapalyum we’d need a taxi to get us to the nearest city Coimbatore as, though the train schedules fitted together, the chances of getting a seat were below 30%. I know this because Indian Railways tells you via their complex analysis of their even more complicated wait list system!
Coimbatore is a dusty, ugly industrial city akin to Birmingham or Manchester. A sprawl of factories producing car parts and cotton fabric, it is however a railway hub as it sits close to where a major river passes through the mountain range. We had passed through the city at 1am on Wednesday morning as the train from Ernakalum is routed north and east through the valley to Coimbatore before heading north east to Bengaluru (Bangalore) then west to Mysuru (Mysore), rather like a big question mark!
After a night in affordable four star luxury in Coimbatore and a tour round the fascinating Tamil Nadu Police Museum, we retraced our steps to Ernakalum via a four hour train trip in CC (chair class, comfy reclining seats with air conditioning) which initially we’d been waitlisted for, with a very high percentage of bagging ones held back by the railway company til closer to the day of travel. This system enables tourists and locals alike to get a seat in a system where most seats are booked months in advance. As always the train was full and our travelling companions friendly and helpful. A final tuk tuk trip took us back to the marina.