Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hill Climbs, Coffee Plantations and a Dazzling Palace

Sullia – Mysore - Gundlupet

“Madikeri!” exclaimed the hotel manager. “Oooh. The road is closed for construction. Let me just call the traffic police to see if you can pass through.”

“The road is very bad,” mentioned the shop keeper. “You might have to walk and push for most of the way.”

“You will have to cover your faces,” advised a tea shop owner serving up steaming cups of chai. “It is going to be very dusty as there is construction going on.”

“Madikeri?” said two passing doctors on a motorbike. “You will need lots of energy for that road. Here, let us buy you a fresh sugar cane juice.”||

The road sounded like hell. The last 20 kilometers on the way to Madikeri were a steepish climb of over 1,000 vertical metres, and according to the locals, there was construction going on the whole way up. We had nightmarish visions of sandy, rocky surfaces, construction vehicles passing backwards and forwards, and expected that we would have to walk most of the way. In the morning of our big day, we got up extra early, all pumped up for our toughest cycling day yet.

The first 25km were quickly covered, and at 9am we had arrived at the start of the dreaded climb. Just before the roadblock we had one last chai and some snacks to ready ourselves for the road ahead. Passing the roadblock along with some motorbikes and a bus (private vehicles were banned due to the construction work), we noticed people looking at us with pity. This was going to be bad.

Climbing up to Madikeri   Thirst!

For the first few kilometres, the road surface wasn’t great, but not any worse than it had been for the previous 100km or so. Perhaps this was the calm before the storm. As we cycled further on the potholes got worse, rocks were strewn across the road and sections became very sandy, but nothing that we were not already used to. 10km later, we were actually enjoying the cycling through the plantations of rubber trees, bananas, coconuts and betel nuts, and the road condition held steady. Later on, we passed a few construction workers on their lunch break, and still later, some families breaking up the old road. Women in pink and green saris, with children on their hips, were carrying heavy baskets full of rocks on their heads, while the men broke up the road with their pickaxes, pausing only to take a photo of us with their mobile phones.

The road was quiet as most traffic was banned, and we plodded on up the mountain undisturbed, watching an amazing variety of butterflies – small lemon coloured ones, black and white ones with tiger stripes, and huge bright blue ones with black tips on their wings. Eventually we passed a 3km section with “real” roadworks going on, but the temporary dirt road was good and we passed the section quickly. Arriving at the top of the long climb in the afternoon, we were tired but could not believe how much everyone we had been talking to had exaggerated the condition of the road. We had made it to Madikeri without even getting off and pushing once.

Madikeri is the centre of the Coorg region, an area known for its coffee and spice plantations. We took a rest day here, staying in a nice hotel in town, along with dozens of young, affluent members of the Bangalore IT crowd. We find that there really is a large middle class in India, with most cars being mid-range and quite new. Former food shacks have swapped their coconut drinks for mobile phone contracts, and big brands such as Pepsi and Kingfisher run grassroots campaigns by splashing their logos in bright paint over village shops and bus stops. On the other hand, we also pass very poor farm areas where people’s lives are not that dissimilar to how they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago. In these villages, ox carts with wooden wheels are the vehicle of choice, and most houses don’t have running water, a reminder that India´s booming economy is not benefiting all levels of society.

We were looking forward to exploring the Coorg region south of Madikeri and decided to take a detour there on our way to Mysore. Following a small, quiet road, we passed many coffee, spice and banana plantations, as well as cheerful farm workers bringing in the hay.

Farm workers

During the day, we had noticed several “home stays” advertised along the road, which sounded like a pleasant way to experience life on a plantation. The road surface was pretty bad, and there were many small hills to conquer, so by mid afternoon we started to feel a little tired and spotted a sign for a home stay. For a while we debated whether we should stay, but in the end we took what we thought the “sensible option” of pushing on a little further, as we had only covered 50km, which would make the next day a very long day into Mysore. “I have a feeling we will find somewhere to stay down the road,” Freddie chirped and got back on her bike.

Coorg house   Coorg region

We agreed that we would start looking for accommodation around the 60km mark. By then it was 4pm and we enquired at a shop if there would be any hotels or home stays down the road. “It’s all forest down there, no accommodation,” the shop keeper said. “The next hotel is in Hunsur, 35km away.”

This was bad news. We only had 2.5 hours of daylight left and did not relish the idea of cycling in the dark on bad roads, as our lights were not good enough to allow us to spot the pot holes. Usually that would be plenty of time to cover 35km, but on these broken roads and steep hills it would require a serious push. “Thanks!” we yelled as we took off on the bikes at top speed. Shortly afterwards we zoomed past a sign welcoming us to Rajiv Gandhi National Park. Not the kind of sign you want to see when you are looking for accommodation late in the afternoon. Dodging potholes and skidding through sandy sections, we raced through the National Park, passing groups of bemused monkeys, listening to creaking noises of bamboo trunks splitting and imagining how freaky it would be to cycle through the park at night.

After about 20km, we passed through a village and saw what looked like a hotel. Guy went in and immediately came out again. “There’s no way we’re staying here, better to take our chances in the National Park,” he proclaimed, putting his helmet back on. The place had a seedy whiskey bar downstairs and a brothel above. We pushed on.

Out of the National Park, we now cycled through many small villages, watched ox carts being loaded up with hay, and chatted to kids on their way back from church (there are many churches in this area!). Even though we still received many waves and greetings, we have found the people a little less friendly since Madikeri and also found that people were overcharging us much more frequently.

To our relief, the road surface finally improved a little and the hills became less steep. This made all the difference, and we flew into Hunsur right on dusk. Stopping to ask for directions to a hotel, Guy was surrounded by a group of men trying to help out, while Freddie was swamped by about 20 boys who were curious about her bicycle. These boys were a little different from the ones we had encountered on the coast, all prim and proper in their school uniforms. Here, they were of a rougher variety, with grubby clothes, no shoes and dusty faces. They played with the brakes and gears, pulled at the panniers and quizzically pointed at the bike computer and water bottles. Although the attention was a little overwhelming after a long day on the bike, Freddie practised being patient as the boys were just curious and had probably not met many cycle tourers before. Surprisingly, this was the first time we had received so much attention in India, as we had had visions of this happening on a daily basis.

At the hotel, we had a well deserved cold shower. When we asked about hot water the hotel manager gleefully announced they have 24/7 cold water! Hot water is not that common in Indian hotels, which was fine in the heat of the lowlands, but up in the cool hill areas it was a bit cruel. After dinner, we sunk into a deep sleep. We had cycled non-stop since lunch and covered 96km on very bad, hilly roads. A tough day!

In the morning, we had a sleep-in and got ready to leave at 10am. However, first we had to get our deposit back (it’s common for hotels to request an up-front deposit), and wait for our bikes to be unlocked from their storage room. The hotel manager took his time, and after half an hour of waiting we were starting to get annoyed. It did not help that he then tried to short change us, and we left without another word, only to be stopped a few metres further on by a local journalist. We were still bothered and not really up for sweet talking the local press, but Guy did his best to answer a few questions, and we posed for a photo before we were on our way.

The final 50km into Mysore were on a good road, and we had a nice lunch in between, so although we were a bit low on energy we got there quite quickly and found a nice hotel. Mysore was a fairly relaxed city with less traffic chaos than other Indian cities. There were plenty of tourists around, and we returned every day to a popular tourist restaurant for its cheese and mushroom omelette. During our previous backpacking trips, we usually spent a lot of energy trying to get away from the tourist trail, but since we cycle tour, we are off the tourist trail most of the time anyway and really appreciate the facilities that touristy locations offer! Sometimes we do have pangs of guilt though, especially when the huge Indian portion sizes defeat us once again and we leave bowls of rice and curry behind, only to step outside into the street where people go hungry.

We spent a few hours exploring the dazzling Maharaja’s Palace, which was rebuilt in 1912 after the previous palace had burned down. It was designed by an English architect and has a magnificently over the top interior with golden columns, stained glass windows, mosaic floors and intricately carved wooden doors. The paintings of state processions in the Raj’s time were impressive: regiments of turbaned and moustachioed gentlemen carrying swords and daggers, the Raj being carried in a palanquin, and the state elephant wearing a golden head piece and bracelets on its tusks.

Mysore Maharaja's Palace

Mysore’s colourful market was worth some exploration too. Rows of serene flower sellers making garlands for the local temples, and pushy merchants selling powders as colourful as their personalities, which they mixed with water to make body paint. 

Mysore flower market    Mysore flower market garlands

Leaving Mysore, the road was quite good but busy. We were now on a high plateau and found the cycling fairly easy. Coconut sellers were everywhere, carrying their coconuts on overloaded bicycles or hanging them from trees to display them. With a machete, they cut a hole into the coconut and provided a straw for a refreshing, natural drink.

Coconut seller

That night we stayed in a weird, overpriced hotel in the small town of Gundlupet. After we arrived in the afternoon, we went out in search for a snack and decided to get some takeaway food for dinner so we did not have to go out again. However, all restaurant kitchens were closed, and cooked food was only available from 7pm. Fair enough. But then we got a little busy and went out for dinner at 8:30pm, by which time the kitchens were already closed again! Eventually we found a small restaurant, which looked like a garage and was absolutely filthy. We had no choice as we were starving so we took our chances. They were still serving rice and dhal. So far, we had always managed to get a spoon or a fork to eat with, but this time we were out of luck and had to eat the gruel local style - with our hands. Messy!

Back at the hotel, the manager made food gestures (English is not widely spoken in rural India, so communication can be a little tricky at times). “No thank you”, we said, thinking he was asking us if we wanted food, “we’ve already eaten.” Things became clearer when we unlocked our room and he poked his head in, pointing to our bunch of bananas and then to himself! Seeing it was a case of “what-else-can-I-get-from-these-rich-foreigners” Guy gave in.

“Alright”, he grumbled, “you can have the smallest banana I can find.”

The following morning we were woken up at 5:45am by a persistent knocking on our door. “What is it?” we asked. “Sir! Sir! Chai! Tea!”

“NO, thanks” we groaned.

Despite our protests, the knocking continued every 10 minutes after that, until we finally got up as we thought there might be some other reason for the persistent knocking. Guy opened the door.

“Chai?”

“Arrrr, no, just sleep” insisted Guy.

With that “Mr Chai” put the TV on, extra loud of course.

Obviously we weren't allowed to sleep any further so we grudgingly packed up and left Gundlupet to head towards the hill station of Ooty via some hopefully very scenic national parks and the odd tiger reserve, not the place for a flat tyre.

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