December 27, 2000: Day 23, Hassan
Date: 12/27/00, 11:39 AM EST (10:09 PM in India)
Re: Ooty to Mysore to Hassan
We're in Hassan now, which is about 70 km north of Mysore and near Belur and Hallebid, the sites of two ancient temples.
Since we last wrote, we did a bit of walking around Ooty to take a closer look at a tea plantation and a terraced farm area where a family was growing western veggies for hotels (brussel sprouts, artichoke, red lettuce, oregano, and things like that). We ended up getting invited into their house for tea after we asked about the crops, and they showed us the orders they get from hotels looking for an Indian source of these crops. They definately made pretty good money compared to other things they could grow. We asked if they ever try to cook with these things, but they just laughed and pointed to us and said "no, only people like them eat these things!".
We also took a drive up Doddabetta, the highest mountain south of the Himalayas, but that was a bit of a tourist trap.
On our last day in Ooty we tried to change hotels to the Savoy, because Gina had the romantic notion of a fire place on christmas eve... but that was a bust as they were quite unfriendly, the room was dirty and ugly, the fireplace of questionable use, and there was a huge spider in the bed, which I (Stephan) heroically killed. So we paid the ripoff taxi amount they wanted to transfer us back to the Sullivan Court (200 Rs) and took a nap instead. This was actually pretty stressful because of the way they treated us and it underscored the fact that attempting a trip to India without some experienced fellow travelers is not necessarily going to be much fun.
Christmas day we left Ooty as planned, with our driver Ravi who is still with us until tomorrow evening. Unfortunately we were delayed until 2 PM (instead of 9 AM) and the ride turned out to be somewhat hellish and very scary. The reason our driver was late was that the Indian FBI had closed the main road into Ooty in order to engage in a military shooting match with a bandit that lives in the hills around there. If you listen to NPR, you may have heard about the kidnapping of a famous Indian film star... that was done by his gang, who also smuggle sandal wood, elephant ivory, and other banned endangered resources. They are a pretty violent and merciless bunch and are generally feared, especially in the towns that they control entirely.
I should note that the Drda wedding was in the opposite direction, although also in areas they sometimes are in. The risk was pretty low, though, or so we were told... and we like all travelers avoided the towns that the bandit "owns"... more or less anyway!
Anyway, after all the delays (the bandit was apparently injured but so far has gotten away) we took off from Ooty on a smaller road down the west ridge into the valley where Mysore is. The road was in incredibly bad condition and very windy both up and down and right and left and into huge potholes and out of them. On the left was a cliff face going up, on the right another going down, and little by way of guard rail. To make matters worse almost the entire length of the already narrow road had a trench dug along it for a fibre optic cable that will supposedly be laid at some point in the future, so much of the road wasn't more than one vehicle wide. Why they dig the entire 25km trench first and then lay cable, rather than doing sections is a mystery to us, but may have something to do with the fact that it was being dug by hand by laborers with pick axes.
Anyway, we nearly died about 3 times when busses refused to move over far enough for us to stay on the road, apparently because our plates were Karnataka and we were still in Tamil Nadu. We couldn't even enjoy the incredible vistas, most of us were either car sick or terrified, or both, and we got no photos, not even of poor Rashmi tossing her cookies by the roadside one of the two times we stopped. We were scared to linger too long on the road anyway since we were in bandit country... although we knew he was probably somewhere else, we had to guarantee of that.
Luckily road conditions improved after we dropped down about 3/4 of a mile, and we came through the incredibly beautiful Bandipur national park, a wildlife preserve that is home to elephants, tigers, peacocks, buffalo, several types of monkey, some antelope of various types, and many other critters, and amazing huge trees that tower over the semi-open savanna like grass and bush terrain underneath. We saw some monkeys, including a rare black faced variety, peacocks, and some elephants (but only ones being trained, no real wild ones).
Unfortunately, still quite shaken from the previous descent, I didn't get the driver to stop to capture some of the beautiful old growth forest, but I did manage to photograph some elephants perhaps from a bit closer than I should have been (but the poor things were hobbled so I could outrun them easily).
Well, it was all still too rushed and would have been great if it hadn't been for the bandit... darn it! We were also rushing to avoid driving after dark, which we ended up doing anyway because the ride was simple too long and we didn't let our driver drive like an Indian (90 km/hr on a single lane road, passing on curves, and stuff like that).
Eventually, we got to Mysore and managed to find our hotel, which was a beautiful old palace-in-miniature built from some daughters of the Maharaja early this century. This place is run by a non-profit group based in Britian, and was the first that matched my naive ideas of India still being more like it was when the british were here... that is somewhat manicured, organized, and clean, with a certain worn charm. The hotel wasn't perfect but it was the nicest place we've stayed, just for the atmosphere of it all. It's a nice plus that it's a non-profit aimed at preserving the building, providing non-exploitative employment, and helping to train people in hospitality jobs, while being environmentally sound (solar heated water and such).
Actually, speaking of exploitation, we learned that our driver gets only about $20/month base pay and drives often 22 hours per day for multiple days in a row. Once he drove 55000 km in 22 days. He told us he feels like he's on vacation because we've kept such a relaxed pace. We'll definately tip him well since he's also taken care of errands for us like fixing a watch band, getting a ripped bag sewn, getting Gina's birthday cake, and so on. Man, we'ld like to take him home with us!
In Mysore we started our day (Gina's birthday) with a nice breakfast on the lawn of the hotel, and then got our driver to take us to see the huge Maharaja's palace which is in surprisingly good condition and very beautiful. Got a guide so we had the VIP bypass-the-line treatment and we learned more even though he rushed us a bit. One thing they have there is some very interesting wall paintings that contain a clever optical illusion to trick the eye into seeing the painting's perspective differently at different angles. Lots of amazing carving and inlay, and the floors are in great condition because no shoes are allowed inside! It was definately packed, so Mysore met our expectations not just in the hotel but also in the full crowd immersion experience at the palace. And oh, yea, they have a lot of gold here... thousands of kilos if you believe the guide.
If you're confused about palaces, note that Mysore has many of them, including also the famous Lalitha Mahal (also a hotel now) which we didn't see. We also didn't see the Chamundi Hill with its huge statues, the musical fountains, or the famous market... just too much to do in one short day (remember, the bandit detained us so we lost about 1/2 day).
But we did see the art museum, which is quite nice but unfortunately with it's open windows in this pollution is not a really great place for preserving the works of art...
The last thing we did for Gina's birthday (other than eating dinner and cake back at the hotel) was to attend a Bharat Natyam dance performance at the university nearby. This included a solo artist and then a group performance, and was done with live music and lots of real gold and real jasmine and other flowers (instead of the recorded/fake substitutes we americans end up using all too often). The performance was one of many that happen here in a relaxed atmosphere created by dance teachers that want their students to have performance opportunities. Although a man sitting in front of us seemed to lament the decline of interest in classical dance, the hall was full (on a Tuesday at that) and the fact that this program exists made us hopeful that he's just being pessimistic.
OK, then today we went on to Hallebid and Belur, two towns with some ancient temples. Again delayed a bit while the car's wheels were taken off to repair the brakes in a tiny town enroute, we luckily had enough time in the end. Hallebid, which we saw first, is carved with an intricacy that is hard to describe except to say that it's about as intricate as anything possibly could be. The huge columns were turned on a lathe powered by elephants, and the Nandi statues must weigh 100 tons each. It was really interesting to see the hairstyles and fashions in such detail, in the context of the story lines for just about every Hindu god. We even saw some of the stories depicted last night in the Bharat Natyam dance (which for those that don't know are temple dances, originally used for ritual purposes only). We even could see the dance spaces in the temples, raised platforms where the dancing would happen.
Belur, because it predates Hallebid, was much less ornate but also very beautiful. Belur was a finished temple, so all the various associated sub-temples and the plaza area and wall are there, while Hallebid was stopped after 190 years of construction when the king at the time fell to the invading muslims. At Hallebid the partial completion is noticable if you look, because you can see some roughed-in carvings that were never finished and ornamentation stopped mid-stream.
Luckily photos were allowed inside and out so we have two rolls of details for any interested parties...
Before leaving Belur, we got the movie star treatment bigtime when Gina and I were discovered by some highschool groups visiting from Bangalore. We had literally hundreds of people around us in a huge circle interviewing us about where we were from, what our names were, our itinerary, wanting to shake our hands, get photos with us, and get our autographs and address. We've had people want photos with us the whole trip since Kanya Kumari but this was nuts... we literally had to wave and do a rushed getaway while people were waving pens and paper at us and yelling "photo please, photo please". To complete the scene, we got into our luxury car (which has very deeply tinted windows) and escaped the area while kids tried to peer through the windows between cupped hands.
Tonight we're in Hassan and will drive to Bangalore in the AM to do some shopping and inspection of the high tech boom there. At night we fly to Chennai/Madras, then onto Bubaneshwar the next day, from where we will surely write again.
Until then, hope all is well, and that everyone had a merry xmas, good holidays, and will have a happy new year!
- Stephan (mindless typist) and Gina
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