Tag Archives: adventure

India Pt 5: Turtle trains & Ramshackle Chic Lodgings

28 Jan

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

I peered out the window of the moving train to see the oddest sight: a jeep filled with ten, terribly squished passengers speeding past, its occupants smiling and waving at us.

This was unusual mainly for the following reason: a jeep so laden down with body weight was still going faster than our train.

The boy and I had finally decided to say our goodbyes to Darjeeling, having had a wonderful three day break in the little town. But instead of taking the speedy route of a shared taxi down the hill 32km to Kurseong – our next stop – we opted for a lumbering and hilariously slow train journey instead.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

At first, we thought it would be a quaint way to travel. It was to take three hours to cover the short distance but – with the turtle-slow traveling – we figured we’d get the chance to enjoy the views down the mountain in a wonderfully relaxed manner and all at the low price of around £3 each for “first class” tickets (this relating to the ancient, dusty seats covered in a carpet-like material that were an upgrade from the wooden benches in “second class”).

But, as soon as we boarded, we realised our mistake – we’d forgotten how much people in all parts of India love to use horns. While we’d only experienced this in cars, as it turned out, the same logic goes for trains.

That’s right – THREE hours of a blasting, blaring train horn.

So much for a laid-back journey!

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

But, regardless, the trip was incredibly memorable. The old diesel locomotive runs along a frighteningly narrow track that zig-zags back and forth across the main road. This seemed to be the primary reason why the conductor had to blast his horn constantly – to stop distracted drivers plowing into the side of the carriages. When the train wasn’t trailing over the roadway, it mainly traveled alongside it, giving us a good view of the inside of the jeeps that beeped their way past. As we lumbered our way downhill, villagers would come out of their houses to wave at us, while dogs howled at the horn. At times, we passed so close to shops and houses, we could have easily leaned out the window for a packet of crisps or a pair of pants off a laundry line. It was – quite possibly – the oddest journey I have ever taken.

"The most tourist friendly hill station in the world."

“The most tourist friendly hill railway in the world.”

When finally we arrived in Kurseong – which labels itself the “most tourist friendly hill railway in the world” for reasons unbeknownst to the boy and I – we were longing for some peace and quiet.

P1170437We’d made reservations at Cochrane Place – a hotel on the town’s outskirts. Since we weren’t spending the extra money on a trip up to Sikkim, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a couple of nights of more upscale lodging.

The hotel was formerly the home of British colonial Percy John Cochrane who acted as the area’s magistrate in the early 20th century. It has been restored to house a wide variety of individually decorated, slightly ramshackle rooms and has a restaurant on-site, which made for easy dining.

At the back of the first floor was our room – am expansive, two-floored deluxe space with lounge, bedroom and a balcony that overlooked nearby houses and mountains. We even had a teddy bear to greet us.

King Kong anyone? Odd decor at Cochrane Place.

King Kong anyone? Eccentric decor at Cochrane Place.

But despite the more upscale space and welcoming soft toy, everything about Cochrane Place felt slightly haunted – from the old abandoned games room, to the colonial pictures on the walls and strange antique dolls in cabinets.

And, while at the hotel I can honestly say I experienced something that will haunt me for years to come – a stick massage.

Billed by management as a local treatment, I expected a “stick massage” to use, well, sticks, that would likely be rolled up and down my spine or arms to help the masseuse work out tough knots. Given I’d had 10 days of lugging around a heavy backpack, it seemed like just the thing that would relax me.

But oh how I was wrong. A stick massage is – quite literally – a massage that uses different shaped wooden instruments that are hit against the skin in a tapping manner to stimulate the nerves. As I lay on the bed, fully clothed, and had sticks rattled against me like a drum for an hour, I realised it probably would have been best to confirm how this massage was done before agreeing to it.

I’ve never seen the boy look so happy to have missed out on something than when I regaled him with the tale of being rat-a-tat-tapped for 60 long minutes.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

The bizarre nature of Cochrane Place was, however, one of its most charming aspects. We would dine each afternoon and evening with a different group of guests in the large dining room, chatting about our travels and asking them where they had been, while looking out towards the sparkling, lit up hills where thousands of strangers were likely eating their meals in their homes. In the daytime, we trekked around tea estates and up long, winding hills near the hotel.

Both it and the train journey will stick with the boy and I for years to come – and, sometimes, that’s what traveling is best for: experiencing the unexpected!

In Part 6, the boy and I head south for our last leg around Kerala and fall head over heels for Varkala.

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India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges

4 Jan
Varanasi at sunrise

Varanasi at sunrise

The moment I fell for Varanasi was when it finally became peaceful. It was six in the morning, the pale sun was lifting a yawning head above the skyline and everything was dripping in an orange and pink haze.

Our captain.

Our captain.

The boy and I boarded a small rowboat with two young American girls from our hotel and our rower – an older gentleman with a welcoming smile. A little boy – no more than six or seven – hopped across the deck and over other boats to ply us with candles draped in marigolds to light and send bobbing out over the Ganges. We agreed to the inflated price he was offering and handed over our rupees, before lighting our candles, making a wish and nudging them away from the boat. Around us, dozens of other tourists were doing the same thing but – rather than feeling like we were on a tour group with these strangers – it felt oddly peaceful.

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We had been in Varanasi for less than 24 hours, having arrived via a 12 hour train journey from Delhi. I was still feeling delicate, having succumbed to Delhi Belly sickness two days prior, which saw me curled up in the fetal position at my friend’s flat in Delhi for an extended period of time. Primed with antibiotics and three other unpronounceable pills, the boy and I took a risk of boarding our planned on train and continuing our journey.

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Luckily, I managed to rest and I arrived in Varanasi feeling worse for wear but ready to continue our trip with increasing hopefulness.

Varanasi is considered the holy city in India. Belief goes that if you come to die in Varanasi and have your body cremated by the riverside at one of the burning ghats and your ashes spread by your relatives in the Mother Ganga (as they all refer to it as) you will break the cycle of reincarnation, finally allowing your soul to escape to the other world. It is here that people come to pray, to die, to live – it is a city full of more noise and colour than anywhere else I experienced in India but it also has its wealth of peace.

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We were met at the station by a young man from our hotel – Kedareswar Bed and Breakfast, a small, family-run place right on the river Ganges. We’d arranged the pick-up ahead of time opting for a non-AC car. What we found was barely a car itself dating back to the 1960s and driven by a man so sun-weathered and wrinkled we were amazed he was still able to walk, let along operate a vehicle. After multiple attempts to shut the trunk and doors of the pea-green car, our bottle-glasses wearing driver inched his way out of the train station lot into the insanity of Varanasi’s traffic.

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We had both thought that Delhi was bad – but Varanasi took chaos to a whole new level. It is the superstar of insane roads and with the smog, dirt and stench rolling in through our windows, it was soon clear that my nausea had not yet abated and that taking an AC car would have probably been wiser.

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When finally we arrived at the B&B – located at the end of a string of winding alleyways piled high with cow dung and rubbish – we were most glad to discover our place of residence for the night was cool, clean and relatively quiet bar the workmen pounding away on the building next door. It faced straight onto the Ganges and, at the cost of £16 for the night for a room with AC and private bath, was just right.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

After a nap, we went out exploring, but the 35 degree heat proved too much for my exhausted self – having not really eaten for two days I was weak. Instead, we did what we normally avoid and opted to take a tour arranged by the hotel. I’d heard negative things about the tours in Varanasi being overpriced and usually a scam, but we lucked out and had an honest hotelier who arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk with a knowledgeable and friendly driver all around the city.

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The Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

We toured the beautiful, tree-lined grounds of Banaras Hindu University – one of the top universities in the country according to our driver – and proceeded to visit four different temples, including the peaceful Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Hanuman, and the 8th century Durga temple, with its grounds filled with (not so evil) monkeys. For £5 for the tour for us both, it was well worthwhile in my state.

Evening puja.

Evening puja.

That evening, we punted out onto the Ganges in a private rowboat (arranged, again, by our hotel at a steal of 100r (or, £1.20 each) to watch the evening puja (or prayer) ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Dozens of other boats came up beside us but we were lucky to be the only couple with a whole boat to ourselves to sit back in and relax while we watched the intense dance of men from the temple wearing orange and red, dance with fire and make music.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

But it was the next morning when I really fell for Varanasi. In that beautiful morning light, the city came alive as hundreds of people bathed in the Ganges, said their prayers and let the cremated ashes of their relatives float out onto the river. Despite the continual chaos of the city, that morning’s boat ride was filled with peace.

Our candles drift out.

Our candles drift out.

Varanasi for us both ended up being a highlight, which surprised me not only because I was still quite ill but because I had read numerous negative stories about it before arriving.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

I believe much of our enjoyment came from staying in a place with friendly owners, who seemed to really care about their guests, without wanting to rip them off or overcharge for tours/transfers/the room. It was basic but just right for letting the peace of Varanasi wash over our tired, Delhi trod-souls.

In Part 4, the boy and I escape the heat of central India and head north to the Himalayan hills of a tea estate and Darjeeling in West Bengal.

Highland Adventure: The Torridon

29 Apr

“I don’t want to leave,” I whined to the boy as I looked at the purple hued mountains that had finally cleared of mist.

“C’mon,” he said, grabbing my hand and nearly dragging me along the pavement due to my feet having firmly frozen themselves to the tarmac.

The Torridon Hotel at Loch Torridon

The day before we’d arrived at The Torridon hotel, which sits at the base of Loch Torridon in the far west of Scotland. A former stately home, the space has been converted into one of the most blissful places I have ever rested my head.

With crackling fires that beckon you in from the cold, to cosy drawing rooms filled with chess sets and walls lined with whisky, the Torridon exudes a certain level of relaxed opulence I have yet to find elsewhere in my travels.

The warming entrance with smoky, crackling fireplace.

In our room, which looked out onto the vast mountain landscape, was a bed so plush and high, I had to do a little leap up to get onto it. In the bathroom, a roll-top bath and REN products awaited to warm my bones, chilled from the feisty Highland air.

The view from our room at The Torridon

After settling in, we – like every guest – were treated to some lovely hot coffee and shortcake in the comfort of the drawing room. Tastefully decorated and holding on to a certain “classic” charm, the room is a welcome space to sit back in the large leather chairs and look out onto the manicured and misty gardens out front.

Coffee & delicious delights awaited us in the drawing room.

The Torridon has 58 acres at its disposal, which include long walking paths, gardens and a lochside boating launch. The boy and I put on our walking shoes and headed around the squelchy paths, taking in the fresh air so uncommonly found in Londontown. A kitchen garden, filled to the brim with various herbs, spices and veggies, was reassuring: everything that can be grown for the food served at the hotel’s AA three Rosette restaurant will be. That includes the friendly, shaggy highland cattle which munch happily nearby, not knowing their fate but at least allowed to roam and be as natural as any creature should be if it’s going to be eaten. There is a separate inn onsite which includes a pub. As it was Sunday, the boy and I stopped in for a swift pre-dinner pint – a perfect remedy after all that muddy trekking.

A Highland Cattle soft toy in our room - just as cute as the real version!

But the final and, potentially, most rewarding part of the evening came with dinner: five courses of delectable delights starting with the sweetest mini eggs benedict amuse-bouche and a starter of creamy, sweet almond soup. A starter of handmade, juicy lobster and crab ravioli, and mains of tender guinea fowl and the best sea bass fillet I’ve ever had, followed.

The delicate yet fully flavoured food of the Torridon.

After dinner, over a raucous game of chess and a cheese platter, I sat back and thought about the day – how far we’d traveled in the rain and how warm I felt now. I can truly say, the stress had completely left me by this point and I think it was the most relaxed I’d felt in months.

Chess and cheese: my kind of night!

Next time, I become shaky with nerves over the bends along the Applecross Way, feel weepy at the sight of the Isle of Skye Bridge, try some amazing Talisker whisky and land at another delightful hotel…

Thank you to the Torridon for hosting the boy and I. For more information on the hotel, its activities and rates, visit: http://www.thetorridon.com

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