St Gilgen – Things to do and sights to see

The Salzkammergut is our itinerary. Initially, I had planned a self-drive in the Salzkammergut. But owing to India’s archaic IDP regulations, that plan had to be shelved. My next best option was to stay either at St Gilgen or St Wolfgang or Bad Ischl. Bad Ischl easily tops the connectivity charts in the Salzkammergut. It enjoys rail and road connectivity to most of the attractions in the lake district. However, it reminds me of Salzburg due to it’s traffic and while it’s streets don’t really bustle all that much, the villages of St Gilgen and St Wolfgang offer a more peaceful, charming getaway to the lake district.

Moreover, who in their right mind, would not want to stay close to the banks of one of the famous lakes in the region ? We realize later on, that the touristy buses making their way for Salzburg or Hallstatt are missing out on a real gem, by driving past St Gilgen.

How to reach St Gilgen from Salzburg

We caught a train from Vienna to Salzburg. From right outside the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof (railway station), we caught Bus No. 150 from terminal F, that for 19 euros each, dropped us in around 50 minutes to a stop named St Gilgen Hollweger, although everybody we met, including the bus driver referred to the stop as the Spar supermarket stop.

Sightseeing around St Gilgen

There are numerous sight-seeing options around St Gilgen. Tickets for these destinations can be bought on the bus itself. Their services run on all days, with only a limited routes running on Sundays. If you plan to use public transportation to visit places in and around St Gilgen, then buses could be your choice, albeit a bit expensive. Latest fares and timings can always be checked on their useful official app here.

Note: I couldn’t find any self-drive options in St Gilgen. The nearest self-drive outlets seemed to be in Salzburg.

The history of St Gilgen

St Gilgen’s claim to fame is that Mozart’s mother was born here. Her father’s erstwhile residence has now been converted into a museum, a stone’s throw away from the lake and is open to the public on select days of the week. St Gilgen also has a war memorial dedicated to the memory of the soldiers who perished here during the second world war. Interesting anecdote from a war hero, if you wish to read about it here.

Mozarthaus St Gilgen
Mozarthaus at St Gilgen – Where Mozart’s mother lived

The sights of St Gilgen

It is evening when we first set out to explore St Gilgen. In halting English, the kind gentleman at the counter that sells tickets to the Schafbergbahn, explains to us that the last ferry to Wolfgangsee has already left. It would be better for us to come back the next morning, he assures us and we move on. There is a light breeze and the mild, cheerful banter of the crowds gathered to enjoy the evening on the banks of the lake. We take a leisurely stroll here and enjoy the sights and smell the fresh air, just what the doctor ordered.

St Gilgen Banks of Wolfgangsee
Enjoying a lovely evening on the banks of the Wolfgangsee, with a scoop of Gelato in one hand and friends and family on the other. We caught a few folks swimming in the clear waters of the lake, some sunning themselves, some playing fetch with their dog in the shallow bed near the lake.
St Gilgen Village
The pretty Alpine style houses and Pensiones (a kind of bed & breakfast) of St Gilgen add a lot of color to the village. Some of the bakeries and restaurants host a delightful menu of fresh Apfelstrudel accompanied by great coffee. One of them, Cafe Dallman is our recommendation in St Gilgen – their Apfelstrudel with icing sugar and vanilla was heavenly when it grew a little cold in the evening.
The church of St Gilgen
Amid the colorful houses and pretty guesthouses, the bells ring today in a church named after the patron saint of St Gilgen, Saint Aegidius (or St Giles) whose statue we walk past daily, to cross the road and reach the village

 

St Gilgen Attractions

  1. The village itself is a charming little retreat, with multiple Airbnb options, Pensiones (Austrain BnBs) to cater to every budget, on the banks of the Wolfgangsee lake
  2. The Zwolferhorn cable car or gondola ride is walk-able from the St Gilgen bus stop. Even from the village, you can easily spot colorful cable cars making their way up the mountain. Use this for splendid views of the Wolfgangsee lake. Give it
  3. The Schafbergbahn is a delightful cog railway line up the nearby Schafberg mountain. From St Gilgen, you need to take a ferry to the Schafbergbahn terminal. Read more about my experiences on the Schafbergbahn here. Between the Zwolferhorn and the Schafbergbahn, I’d pick the latter for the stunning views it offers of all the 3 lakes in the vicinity
  4. Boating on the Wolfgangsee: Swim, or hire a boat from the banks for an idyllic journey on the calm waters of the lake. You can also use the ferry as a mode of transport for getting to St Wolfgang or Strobl
  5. Catch a bus or drive down to Postalm for the beautiful, wide open pastures in the summer and ski areas in the winter
  6. The gorgeous Gosau village and it’s ethereal Gogsausee lake – you must read about it here. This place is most definitely our next best choice to stay, in the Salzkammergut
  7. Hallstatt & it’s salt mines, the ice-caves, the Dachstein five-fingers and toboggan rides in Strobl are also another option. Out of these, Hallstatt is a must, must-do – there simply is no village like it.

 


Stay: We stayed in a fully equipped apartment – Alplet Apartment on Teichstrasse which is a 5-10 min walk up an incline from the village of St Gilgen. The apartment could comfortably accommodate 4-6 people and had generous parking space outside. The trade-off, of not living in the center of the village itself, was that we had a fully stocked supermarket in the vicinity, which ended up saving us a fair bit of money that would otherwise have been spent on restaurants and cafes. Also, there is a tourist center on the way for pointers on sightseeing in the vicinity. The tourist center, the supermarket and the St Gilgen Hollweger bus stop are all co-located within a few meters from each other.

On a budget, my other choices were the equally splendid bed-n-breakfasts Pension Falkensteiner and the Haus Mayerhofer, which we did pass by every day while walking to the lake. If we were to choose a self-drive option, I would have opted for the charming Haus Seehof on the edge of the Wolfgangsee Lake.

In retrospect, we think that staying in the village itself would not have been a bad idea either. Watching pretty villages decked up in the colors of the night, is one of the better ways to spend some time in the Salzkammergut.



 

What a beautiful world #4 – The Longest Train Ride

One of the most fascinating aspects of travel in India, are it’s extensive rail networks. And what better way to explore the diversity of the country, than by getting on board the longest train ride India has to offer.

Snaking it’s way from Kanyakumari at the southern tip to Dibrugarh in Assam in the Northeast, train no 15906 is eponymously named the Vivek Express after the revered Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda. Befitting moniker as well, since the Swami toured the Indian subcontinent extensively, wishing to understanding the conditions prevailing in British ruled India in the late 19th century.

Vivek Express, the longest train ride in India

National geographic photographer Matthieu Paley got on board the Vivek express and shared a photo essay of his experiences on the 5 day journey.

We accompany his camera as it captures the chaos in the second class compartments, the people for whom the train is a lifeline and for others, a source of employment; the food on offer during the journey and the variegated scenes across the country, as well as scenarios that you would be hard pressed to find in other rail networks across the globe.

The Indian railway network, introduced by the British as a way to bridge enormous distances; brought trade and commerce to distant lands as it did communicable diseases. The train is a throwback to those days and Paley dwells on the dwindling romance of this slow travel in our lives, amusingly evidenced in the way he gets time to wash his shirt in a stream, as the train makes an unscheduled stop in West Bengal.

Be sure to catch a glimpse of his work here.


The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays and blogs by other photographers and writers.  

Disclaimer: National Geographic and Matthieu Paley own all the respective copyrights to the photos and the article shared on this blog post. 


 

The charms of Test Cricket

From our broadcasting box you can’t see any grass at all. It is simply a carpet of humanity.” – Richie Benaud

I don’t remember a time when I was not fascinated by Test cricket. Cricket in it’s other forms, yes – vacillating when it came to One Day Internationals, a resolute no when it came to 20-20s. But a test match played between 2 of the best internationally matched teams ? An unhesitating yes. Heck, as a kid aged 9, I would even follow the fortunes of Ranji teams in India and first class matches in England on the back pages of the dailies.

Testing a player’s grit, stamina and temperament, their ability to break down a mammoth 5 day affair into a couple of hours at a time, drawing out fascinating battles between bat and ball, these are all characteristics that test matches have dished out in droves over the years, inadvertently creating true classics of the sport. And these are oddly, the same things that are in short supply in the other formats. So it was no surprise, that when a dear friend called me up, to ask if I was interested in watching the 2nd day of the India v/s Australia test match at the M. Chinnaswamy stadium at Bangalore, early March of 2017, I didn’t hesitate for a moment.

I have some memories of an attempt to watch Test cricket earlier. Exactly a decade and a half ago, as a freshman in my engineering college. A classmate had an extra pair of passes to watch India take on the West Indies at the Wankhede in Mumbai on a rain-drenched weekend. On the 4th day of the test match, I distinctly remember traveling for more than 2 hours and setting my foot in the Garware pavilion end’s stands, only to discover that the match had already been wrapped up some time ago.

This time though, we arrived right on time. India, after having ignominiously lost the opener at Pune, had put in another dismal performance with the bat. A score of 189 had left even the pundits wondering whether this was the same team that had beaten South Africa and England so emphatically in the last 6 months. But nobody could have foreseen the fascinating duel that lay ahead.

Test cricket at the Chinnaswamy stadium Bangalore
A carpet of lush green welcomed us, when Australia began their innings on the 2nd day.

Here, I have to put forth a few observations about watching a match from the stands, as compared to watching one on television.

There is an interaction between the spectators and the players, that is not immediately evident on a digital screen. Whether it is booing the opposition, or rooting for the home team, one can see the immediate effect the crowd’s loyalties have, on the playing teams.

It is a matter of give-and-take as well, because, in a session that leans towards sopor, a Virat Kohli can whip up enthusiasm with his gestures and ask the crowds to get going. At which point, the crowds, roaring, infuse an amount of energy that lifts drooping shoulders and spirits, and veritably the ball, the over and the session itself. Things that I never realized all these years, from television. Heck, at one point, Kohli even introduced a change in bowling just as Ravichandran Ashwin was getting ready to bowl his next over, just because the crowds started chanting Ravindra Jadeja’s name. This dynamism has to be witnessed first-hand, to appreciate the nuances that test match presents to the crowds, who are treated as much a part of the game, as the players themselves.

Then there is the rhythmic, thunderous beat that accompanies a bowler as he runs in to deliver. Ball after ball, in anticipation of a something that they hope would materialize, the spectators keep up the tempo. Like the background score accompanying a cinematic sequence.

Exchanges between spectators and the players, who are demi-gods in India, are as much a matter of pride and inspiration, as a matter of mirth and much joy. A kid no older than 5 or 6, shouted himself hoarse for every player that came to field near the boundary ropes. Only one, KL Rahul managed to hear the kid and looked up, and that acknowledgement, lent itself into a great cheer that rang through the stands for the kid. A dose of inspiration for the kid, who, you never know, could wield the armor for his country some day.

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As is wont to happen, we also overheard a bit of backyard punditry on the game. One that veered from the correct line and length to bowl to paeans on how cricketers from a previous generation would have coped with the situation.

As the hours ticked by, the Indian bowlers put up a great spell of bowling to restrict the Australian batsmen, but didn’t take too many wickets. In a match where fortunes swung a lot, not much happened on a Sunday when my friend and me happened to witness one of our favorite sports, live. But as we were to introspect in the days to come, our team began to claw their way back into the match and series on that very day. Us, with the players and the rest of the spectators, had played no small part in keeping the spirit of test cricket alive.

Ball by ball, over by over and session by session, as the cricketers toiled away, we had realized what a great microcosm of life, a test match was.


The featured image on this blog post belongs to a wonderful photograph, shared on Getty images and here: http://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/1083469/the-end-over-jitters

A much better account of the test match we witnessed, can be found here: http://www.cricbuzz.com/cricket-news/93110/a-day-for-the-ages-at-chinnaswamy

A road trip following the Kaveri

The Kaveri (or Cauvery) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. For peasants and the gentry, it is a source of life and livelihood, for pilgrims it is as sacred as the Ganges and for politicians, it is a pivot that might decide the fate of the next election.

For tourists and travelers though, the river can be a source of great inspiration. For it is born in a spring adjoining a temple, been a witness to kingdoms and civilizations of great importance through the ages, it’s waters irrigate the great rice bowl lands of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

A gently flowing river, I have often wondered what it might be, to trace the Kaveri from it’s origin to it’s end point – accompany all the places it journeys to and learn of the culture, the cuisine, the history and the stories that emerged as it’s present day narrative.

I have visited most of these places, but not while following the Kaveri. Sometimes, you must let your imagination precede your actions. So where do we start ?

Through exotic Coorg

Following the Kaveri means a road trip starting from the pious temple town of Talakaveri to neighboring  Bhagmandala. Then, passing the famous arabica  and robusta coffee estates of Coorg, blooming and fragrant in the right season, through the jungles and the elephant camp at Dubare, abutting Coorg and later, the vast farmlands and the touristy yet calming Tibetan settlements in Bylakuppe.

Through historic Mysore and Srirangapatna

Lesser known temple towns give way to the erstwhile capital of the kingdom of Mysore, famous for it’s sandalwood products, it’s silk sarees and the delicious, eponymous Mysore pak, made with pure ghee. This is also where the Krishnaraja Raja Sagara dam has held the Kaveri’s water for decades.

Onward to the historic island of Srirangapattna, the capital of Tipu Sultan’s kingdom, which was originally named after the Hindu god Sri Ranganatha, a deity that you will see plenty of, as does the Kaveri. Srirangapatna is the first of the sacred islands created by the Kaveri and hence, the Ranganathaswamy temple dedicated to the deity. Further on, immerse yourself in the cool waters of the Triveni sangam and witness the union at Tirumakudal Narasipura with the Kabini river bringing greetings from Kerala.

On the way, take a slight detour to the exquisitely carved Hoysala era temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu at Somanathapura. Do not forget to stop at Talakadu, the mysteriously cursed land that purportedly has quite a few temples buried in sand. A brief fall down Shivanasamudra, this is where you’ll see one of the first hydroelectric dams of India and also hyper-excited tourists making a day trip from the IT city of Bangalore. This is the second of the sacred islands created by the Kaveri.

Tamil Nadu greets the Kaveri

A short union with the Arkavathi later, prepare for a change in language as you enter Tamizh (the official language and the correct pronunciation where the z requires you to roll your tongue – ask the locals)  –  Nadu (land).

Hogenakkal falls created by the Kaveri, is a good place to visit only in the wee hours of the morning otherwise, you’ll witness the tourist crowds of Bangalore thronging the waters during the day.

Hereon, speed south across the land crossing the union with the Bhavani river, until you reach the agricultural and textile hub of Erode.

The great temples of Tamil Nadu

From Erode, it is a steady clip ride to the city of Tiruchirappalli, where the Kaveri forms it’s most famous sacred island we’ve seen so far – Srirangam. Srirangam is a massive temple town complex, one of the biggest in India and it is also dedicated to the same deity we’ve paid obeisance to earlier, Ranganatha.

Srirangam on the banks of the Cauvery
A photograph of Srirangam from 1870 – courtesy Wikipedia

From Tiruchirappali, the river splits into two – the Kollidam as it moves up North towards Chidambaram and finally meeting the bay of Bengal. Here, it is worth taking a detour to the grand temple of Gangai Konda Cholapuram.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram near the Kaveri
Courtesy Wikipedia: Entrance to the great living Chola temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram

The southern river, known as the Kaveri, passes along vast tracts of green paddy fields and moves closer to Thanjavur, site of yet another magnificent temple – the Brihadeeswara temple and pride of the Chola Empire. This temple, along with Gangaikonda Cholapuram and another temple up in Darasuram, forms the trinity of the ‘Great Living Chola temples‘ a UNESCO certified heritage site.

Brihadiswara temple near Cauvery
The grand Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur

From here, the Kaveri flows languidly to meet the bay of Bengal a few kilometers south of the town of Karaikal.

Banks of the Kaveri river
As the sun set on the horizon, it tinged the sky red and amber. And it almost seemed like the Kaveri, reflecting the sky, was shining a metaphor on the unrest over it’s waters. Fire on the Kaveri, I termed it that evening on it’s banks, keeping with the history and events of the land that the Kaveri has flown through and the imagination and desire that it had sparked, to fructify the idea of this road trip. Wish me the best of luck !

Back in time: A weekend at Kadamane in Sakleshpur

Sakleshpur

The hill station of Sakleshpur is not blessed with the kind of beauty bestowed on some of its brethren in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. But in July of 2016, that is not what I was gunning for either. July is when the monsoons have well and truly arrived on the Indian subcontinent and Sakleshpur, situated on the foothills of the Western Ghats, witnesses the kind of downpour that gives a whole new meaning to the word torrential. And the tea estate of Kadamane in Sakleshpur, is probably one of the best places to experience it.

As soon as we enter the town, and it is a small town on the Bangalore-Mangalore highway, the shades of green are kicked up a notch. There is still not a single drop to welcome us, although there are remnants of muddied puddles beside the road. On narrow, winding roads surrounded by thick forests, we eat up the miles towards Sinna Dorai’s bungalow. This colonial-era bungalow, painstakingly renovated and quite reminiscent of a bygone era, served as the erstwhile residence of the British managers of the Kadamane (literally translates to the home – mane, in the forest – kaadu) tea estate.

Sinnadorai’s bungalow and the tea estates of Kadamane

Benson's memoirs from his time at the Kadamane estate
Benson’s memoirs from his time at the Kadamane estate, Sakleshpur

The ancestry is quite evident from the moment you enter your room. J. L. Benson, one of the colonial-era managers, lovingly penned down notes on his experiences on the tea estate that take you back in time to the early days of the tea estate operations.

Then there is the fascinating story of the bear-girl of Sakleshpur, a veritable Mowgli thought to be taken by a man eating leopard but in reality, reared in its infancy by a bear.

These and a few other, related books are a staple in every room in the bungalow. Some of the places described in the story of the bear-girl, the hospital for instance, are just a walk down the tea estate. It is an enthralling feeling to see what has hitherto been etched in your imagination, appear in front of your eyes.

Late afternoon, we meet Radhika who manages the estate along with her husband. She expresses her surprise at the errant monsoon this year. Apparently, bright sunshine is a rarity during the monsoon. The previous weekend, the monsoon didn’t even permit guests at the bungalow to step outside. This weekend, there seems to be no such luck. So we take a leisurely stroll through the tea estates, deliberately avoiding many of the touristy places to see in Sakleshpur.

Tea estates at Kadamane Sakleshpur
Tea estates at Kadamane

The grass on your feet is a heavenly feeling. There is a wonderful fragrance in the air, one whose source I cannot place at all. In the tea estates that we had strolled down to, there is nobody to be seen. We make our way through a rough road, passing by a gurgling stream that creates a small waterfall. Radhika later cautions us to avoid strolling around by ourselves since wild elephants are not a rarity there. The previous week, an abandoned calf, feral and hurt, stumbled into the tea estates and became aggressive around the caretakers. So we make our way back to the bungalow, not before we spot a snake in the compound wall, for some tea and pakoras, delectable and a fine accompaniment to the ominous dark shadows growing on the horizon.

Soon a fine misty spray falls down, the mildest of downpours if it can be termed that. Indoors, there is a reading room full of books, a fireplace, wall-mounted animal heads and some indoor games. Cicadas and crickets call out the alarm to retire for the night and inside, it does grow a little cold for comfort.

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The next morning at around 6, I curiously peer through the curtains and a most ethereal scene presents itself. A thick mist hangs around in the air. The bungalow’s retro-looking path lights are still on and it adds a timelessness to the scene. Not a single sound can be heard, mother nature has silenced all her children for some time between dawn and morning. There is dew on the window panes and the unmistakable smell of wet earth.

I wipe the dew to get a clearer look and even in the impenetrable morning mist, I can still make out the faint sight of a gentleman in a hunting hat and rifle on his shoulder making his way down the tea estate. But perhaps, I am just dreaming. For Kadamane has that effect – it really does take you back in time.


Sakleshpur really comes alive during the monsoons and time spent at the Kadamane estate, undoubtedly one of the best places to stay in Sakleshpur, can be quite an experience if the thought of witnessing torrential downpours does not stress you out. We were probably destined to miss the rains considering it was a near-drought year in Karnataka, but the delectable food, the stories that permeate from the bungalow’s walls and the estate itself were rejuvenating. There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied – cycling, badminton, tennis, a 4-wheel drive to vantage view points in the hills in the estate. In fact, I’ll highly recommend that you ignore the thought of staying in random hotels in Sakleshpur and stick to a place like Kadamane or popular homestays like Mugilu. I will leave you with a video of the Sinnadorai’s bungalow shared on their website.

Sinnadorai’s Bungalow

Do not miss:

  1. Traveltwosome: A beautiful post on driving in the monsoons from Bangalore to Sakleshpur
  2. Travelescape: A beautiful blog post on the stay experience in Kadamane

The lost romance of train travel

“The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical. ”
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The aspects of uncertainty and serendipity in our modes of travel, are dying a slow death. Not that their presence is a particularly good thing, but I think it certainly keeps some of the romance alive in travel. Think about it, how many times have you fondly remembered the time spent at an airport, even if you were embarking on a life changing trip ?

Most of us are guilty of trading the romance of the journey for the guaranteed pleasures of the destination. While a self-driven vehicle comes quite close to fulfilling athirst for serendipity, nothing comes close to a journey by train. There is a true sense of letting go, almost unrivaled in any other mode of transport. I might be biased, attributable in no small measure to the fact that I was born in the family of an Indian railways employee.

Much into the late 90s, train travel was an annual exercise, replete with minor festivities of its own. Although we usually traveled to our native place in Kerala, I cannot imagine the setting becoming any different for people traveling to other parts of India by rail.

Preparation for the journey would begin months in advance, for there was no way of knowing whether you were lucky enough to bag a precious ticket. Latest train timetables, even booking agents were consulted before booking. I recollect my father spending a night at the ticket reservation counters to better his chances at booking a ticket.

As the date of journey approached, there was a sense of importance accorded even to the act of packing luggage. Old luggage was first cleaned and polished with a wet cloth. Clothes, gifts and items indigenous to Bombay were neatly packaged at least a couple of days in advance. As d-day neared, meals were prepared and packed separately for each day of travel. Clothes to be worn for the journey were set aside separately, drinking water kegs were brushed and dried, and even footwear was religiously washed.

On the day of the journey, we would reach the boarding station at least a couple of hours in advance. Then as now, the grandiose architecture of the British era train stations in Bombay never ceased to amaze. There was the fear of getting lost in the milling crowds. But that was quickly overtaken by the temptation of snacking at the mobile food carts and the omnipresent chai-wallah. Before the advent of Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri, there was Campa Cola, Aarey and Gold Spot. The ubiquitous weighing machine contraption spat out not only our weights on a ticket, but also our horoscope for the day. There was the delight in discovering treasures at the old book stall, usually a HigginBotham’s, that was manned by a stoic book-seller, standing on a tiny island of space surrounded by reams of print. Then there was the mild exultation when you found your name on the reservation chart, even if it had already been confirmed months in advance.

The journey itself was as variegated as the lands you passed by. Crowds, electric poles, slums and the overbearing noise and smells of an Indian metropolis gave way to hillsides, rivers, pastures and farmlands overnight. The cacophony of metal rolling on metal was accompanied by the (mildly) wondrous smell of diesel fumes mixed with grease and the onomatopoeic chugging of the locomotive.

The food changed with the landscape as well. The comfortingly familiar vada pav and samosa of the city gave way to slightly soggy puri-bhaji as you ventured south, then to bland dal-rice and sour curd and pickle before reverting back to the tastiest idli-vada and fried plaintain you could have on this planet. Just when you were in the mood for a post-lunch snack, a vendor would magically appear out of nowhere, peddling freshly cut cucumber and tomato slices sprinkled with a spicy masala. Ice creams, even close to melting, were prized most heavily in the sweltering Indian summers. And most surprisingly, I never fell ill from the drinking water refilled from the railway water taps.

Conversations with fellow passengers were inevitable, as is wont to happen with people traveling to the same destination. Invariably, someone would turn out to be an acquaintance of a distant relative. Notes on the family size, the parents’ occupation, children’s ages and each other’s residential addresses in the metropolis were exchanged. I recollect a bank employee who stayed in touch afterwards, even managed to help us with some work later, just because we had the good fortune of meeting him on a train.

Boredom could be tackled with an exchange of comics and magazines. Not a day or night would pass by without somebody playing cards on the top berth.

Before you knew it, the morning or evening of disembarkation soon arrived. Hasty byes with co-passengers were exchanged, and a wave at the train as it sped by leaving you at your destination only with the promise of making a journey in the reverse direction.

Maybe I am naive in comparing my childhood memories with an almost certainly better mode of travel that my adulthood has seen. But every now and then, I cannot help wishing for the rocking lullaby of a train, whistling into the night, putting me to bed with happy memories made for the day and promises of more to come.


Get a taste of what travel by train was like in India, in the past few decades in this wonderful BBC documentary.

A filter kaapi in Bengaluru

The joys of an early breakfast in Bengaluru.

Newspaper boys tying and untying bundles of newspapers for delivery. Milkmen and egg vendors ringing their cycle bells. Sweepers doing their best to clean the roads after the previous day’s onslaught of dust and dirt. Flower sellers setting up their stall well before the adjacent vegetable sellers set up theirs. The infamous traffic snarls are either a memory or an omen.

The drift of smoke from the nearest Udupi ‘darshini‘ lures you in. Never knew salivating was something you could experience this early in the morning. The concept of a late continental breakfast seems alien now.

“Yes saar”

“Ondu neer dosa, ondu masala dosa, ondu plate idli vada, ondu coffee

The order given, it is time to look at what others are doing on their plates. But the staff are efficient, making sure you don’t have to wait for too long.

More often than not, the soft and slightly more textured idlis and the crunchy hot vadas are the first to arrive. Accompanied by a small bowl of fresh coconut chutney and piping hot sambar that is filled with radish and tomatoes and is heavier and spicier than their cousins from other states.

That is followed by the masala dosa. The smearing of red garlic and chilly chutney on the insides of the crisp-to-a-fault dosa strikes a good partnership with the mashed potatoes, chilli, onion, ginger and coriander that make up the ‘masala’. The chutney and sambar are on par again.

Next up, the slightly lesser known cousin, the neer dosa – is the perfect antidote to any leftover space in your tummy. Soft, light and fluffy in spite of being so thin – this one has 2 different chutneys. One is a spicier version of the coconut chutney you had earlier. The other is grated coconut mixed with ghee and jaggery. These 2 infuse a world of flavors to a small bite of the mild neer dosa.

After all that needs to be discussed in between is done, and the morning seems like a good start, the filter kaapi (coffee) arrives. Concocted in special brass coffee maker for a few hours, this one has a roasty, mildly bitter taste. Milk poured in from a height so that you get a layer of froth on top, ensures you don’t burn your tongue at the first sip. The sugar sprinkled at the bottom of the silver tumbler doesn’t know how to combine with the coffee yet, but you let it be. Because this kaapi is the perfect end to a good south Indian breakfast and the best start you could have to a day in Bengaluru.

Filter kaapi in Bangalore
South Indian filter coffee served hot in metal tumblers at Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR) in Bangalore : Charles Haynes, Foaming filter coffee, CC BY-SA 2.0

What a beautiful world #3 – the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiris 1989. John Sullivan, the father of Ootacamund, in a letter to Thomas Munro the future governor of Madras. *

This is the finest country ever…it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any part of Europe…the hills [are] beautifully wooded and [there is a] fine strong spring with running water in every valley.

To be fair, Ooty has lost much of its charm to crass commercialization. There are tourists thronging all the roads leading to the hill station and much of the city center. But there are a few experiences that still retain their old world charm, like taking a ride in the decades old Nilgiri Mountain Railway, built by the Britishers in colonial times and still doing yeoman service to the local  populace and the tourists alike.

Read about why hopping on to the ‘toy-train’ as it is more popularly known, is an experience that is not to be missed, in Alde Baran’s article. Some great photographs contribute towards bringing the experience alive. Don’t skip this one – read it now.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Rain, from inside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, has to be the most uplifting sight ever. Some people keep their windows open and stick their tongue out. I choose to keep my window closed and watch it shudder as the rain hits it. When we finally arrive at Ooty, people disembark, but stick around for a few minutes more. Yes, they look like they’re checking their luggage. But maybe another cup of mint tea will warm them enough to admit that they’re actually gazing affectionately at the toy train that gave them a journey that was, strangely, not about the destination at all.


Here is the link: http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/tamil-nadu-all-aboard-the-nilgiri-mountain-railway-1008373

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays and blogs by other photographers and writers.  

* Taken from the book “Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York” By Githa Hariharan

Also

  1. Read more about what to expect off the beaten path, in Ooty’s famous Avalanche and Emerald Lakes.
  2. And also, my experiences at the most beautiful water body in the Nilgiris that can give it’s more famous counterparts, a run for their money.

 

Snapshots in our memories

I was reading a Jim Corbett book  the other day. One of the pages mentioned Rishikesh in passing and all of a sudden, my brain pulled out a vivid snapshot of an extremely  beautiful evening that I had spent in Rishikesh, back in the spring of 2012.

It is a curious matter that out of the countless hours I have spent peering at scenes through my camera’s lens, none come close to the mental images I register while travelling. This blog post is devoted to 2 such snapshots and I will try to describe them to the best of my abilities, without resorting to any photographs.

An evening in Rishikesh

Back in 2012, I had spent a week’s time on the road covering Shimla, Kufri, Kullu, Manali and Dharamsala and had the misfortune of gulping down an old croissant in a  bakery in McLeodGanj. The next 2 days were spent trying to calm down a revolting stomach in Amritsar, before I landed up in the religious and cultural center of Rishikesh.

Here, while my stomach calmed down, the infection had not subsided completely. As a result, I was laid up for most of the day cooped up in a tent on the banks of the Ganges, shivering slightly with fever.

I distinctly remember that it was close to sunset then. My friends had cajoled me to step outside the tent for some tea, and break my languidness. As soon as I stepped out, I knew the moment was picture perfect, and somehow, my mind was feeble enough to dissuade my body from stepping back into the tent for my camera.

The sun still had nearly an hour to go down, and it had cast a golden yellow glow all over the surrounding hills. The forests on the hills were lit up spectacularly with this mellow sunlight, with odd patches of the spring foliage colored orange and vermilion providing some relief from the monotony of green.

The sunlight had also brought the otherwise chilly weather down, making it feel warm and salubrious.

In front of me, the Ganges gently babbled her way across hundreds of white rounded stones. There was an odd fish that we could spot in places where the river was shallow. On the opposite bank, there were 2 horses grazing on the sparse green grass. One had a rich lustrous skin, brown in color while the other had pale shade of white, turned slightly creamy due to the sunlight. Sometimes, the white one would gracefully toss its mane aside, without ceasing to graze.

I think I must have sat down on a boulder on the banks for half an hour, trying to implant in my mind, the beauty of everything that lay in front of me. It was a panacea, from the agony of the past few days and a memory of a beautiful moment, that I will carry with me to my grave.

A morning in Sakleshpur

In the monsoons of 2016, we were in Sakleshpur, in a colonial era bungalow surrounded by 7000 acres of tea estate. There, our previous day had been a sharp antithesis to the term monsoon capital, for we didn’t experience anything more than a slight drizzle, compared to the torrential rains that Sakleshpur receives every year.

Our host had told us that the previous 2 weekends had been a blur, with guests not even being able to venture out of their cottages due to the incessant rain.

Therefore, after a sumptuous dinner, we had gone to sleep amidst the cacophony of crickets and other nocturnal inhabitants of the estate.

The next morning, sharply around 6, I had woken up since it had grown deathly silent. I groggily pushed open the doors of our cottage and a veritable fairy tale setting came alive in front of my eyes.

There had been no rain at night, but the absolutely thickest fog I have ever seen in my life, covered miles and miles of estate ground and the forests beyond. I couldn’t see beyond a few yards.

The lights dotting the estate were still lit. The ground was wet and it smelt heavenly, and dew drops hung onto virtually every blade of grass. The fog seemed to be alive, darting in and out of places, revealing tea bushes in one instant and hiding them in the next. There was a slight chill in the air, but one that you wished would never go away.

It was a window of time when the birds had not yet stirred from their nests but the insects had all retired, so the silence was deafening. It felt like mother nature herself had a good night’s sleep and had woken up before everyone else, feeling fresh and wishing every one a hearty good morning.

That morning left an indelible mark in my mind too.

Ironically, I think I will visit these places again someday and try to capture vestiges of these scenes on a camera. Before I grow old and hopefully, before my memory fails me.

What a beautiful world ! #2 – Grand Trunk Road

There can be no doubt about the fact that Steve McCurry is one of the greatest photographers ever. Award winning contributions to leading publications notwithstanding, there is a very humane, down-to-earth appeal that is immediately evident in all his photographs. One of my favorite photo essays are his vignettes of the Grand Trunk Road. This road crisscrosses the Indian subcontinent, stretching from Kabul to Kolkata, and is dripping with history at every turn. Virtually all of these photographs will transport you to a different era, in a different place.

Pay attention to the way he captures the proletariat in these places, going about their daily lives, while cinematic scenes unfolding in the background (for e.g., a coal fired train chugging over a bridge, crowded markets buzzing with action, a sea of humanity descending on the roads); narrating stories of an era long lost.


Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers,
barbers and bunnias, pilgrims – and potters – all the world going and coming.
It is to me as a river from which I am
withdrawn like a log after a flood.
And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle.
Such a river of life as no where else exists in the world.
– Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry’s Photo Essay on the Grand Trunk Road

Here is the link: https://stevemccurry.blog/2016/08/24/river-of-life-3/

The “What a beautiful world” blog series is my attempt to share stories of our world, captured in the form of photo essays by other photographers.