HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ooty to Chennai: The Great Railway Snafu

After returning to Ooty after our trek I demanded that we go to a kebab place I had heard about - my three traveling companions were vegetarians, and India (particularly the south) is heavily veg as well, so I had had very little meat thus far. To be sure, Indian vegetarian food is amazing but...sometimes I need my animal product. I hoed into a huge plate of chicken and then we headed back to the hotel to clean up.

It was our last night in Ooty, and we were curious to see if there were any decent bars to check out. We asked the guys at the hotel if they knew of any, and after making a few phone calls Sentil dropped us off at a small, neon-lit bar that was heavy on concrete and light on menu items: they were out of nearly everything we tried to order. We each had a bottle of some type of beer called 10,000 and a couple of whiskey shots and soon decided that we were hungry again. (We also noticed a sign of India's conservatism, especially in regards to women, at the bar: the only bathroom had a single urinal in it.)

We returned to the Jain restaurant we had eaten at two days earlier and ordered a stupid amount of food. As we ate and talked in our tipsy state a young girl at the table next to us broke into tears thanks to our presence. It was getting fairly late...by Indian standards...and the place was shutting down, so we called up Sentil and asked him to pick us back up. As we walked outside the police cut off all of the street lights, and a cop car cruised by ordering people home since it was time for the curfew to begin. At 11pm.

Back at the White Residency we talked to Anand and Sentil for a while. I've largely excluded those two from the narrative thus far, but they were crucial to our time in Ooty, and couldn't have been more helpful. Anand wasn't the manager but he was in charge of day-to-day things like checking people in, etc. He is an electrical engineer for Vodafone, but instead of going into an office every day he is simply on call for repairs to cell towers. Sentil is an insurance salesman, and he was also our personal chauffeur - constantly offering to cart us around in his little Tata. Sentil is Anand's older brother, and they lived with their parents on the hill across the street from the hotel. They clearly enjoyed having young native-English speakers around, and we talked about life in India and America. They also told us that there were 38 Muslim men staying in just four rooms that night, which sounded awful to us.

The following morning Anand brought us some fantastic dosa and vada, along with fresh-squeezed mango juice, and we discovered that they had been prepared by his mother. How often do you get a home-cooked meal at a hotel? It was time to head to the train station, so we bid farewell to Anand and gave him a huge tip. If you're going to Ooty, stay at the White Residency - it's a little dilapidated, but the service is unbeatable.
Kevin and I with Anand
Sentil dropped us off at the station and reluctantly accepted a tip before leaving. Ooty is famous for its cog-driven railway, which was built by Swiss engineers and runs through the mountains to Mettupalayam, where passengers can switch to the standard-gauge national rail network. Although the distance between the two towns isn't great, it takes several hours for the little train to travel the length of the line since in certain stretches it is pulled by a chain, slowing the machine to a crawl on the steep slopes. The views along the way are supposed to be epic, and we had booked four tickets months in advance to make sure we got a seat. Or so we thought.
another example of India's funny signs
In terms of transport we had been lucky on this trip so far - flights had worked out well, buses were on time (by Indian standards), and nothing had gone amiss. We should have known, then, that with just a few days left in-country things would fall apart. We learned from the conductor that our tickets (which were for first-class) hadn't been confirmed, and he wasn't sure if we would be able to get on the train. This surprised us, since we had bought the tickets almost soon as they had become available. We didn't understand how we could have paid for the tickets and not actually gotten the seats. The first-class section filled up quickly, and then the rest of the train did too, as we stood by and watched helplessly. We were shit out of luck, screwed out of seats we were sure we had. (We got a refund, but still...how does that make sense? EDIT: We were not actually credited with refunds. Enjoy your money, rail system.)

Our only option now was to get a taxi, and Sentil came through again: he offered to drive us all the way to Coimbatore, since we had also found out that our tickets for the ride there from Mettupalayam were unconfirmed. Coimbatore is a pretty big city, and that is where we were set to take a night train from to get to Chennai, all the way on the east coast. So we piled, once again, into Sentil's little car, this time for the 3-4 hours drive to Coimbatore. The scenery for the first hour or two was fantastic, as we descended out of the Nilgiris on tight hairpin turns on a mountain road lined with dozens of monkeys.
Once we hit the plains of Tamil Nadu we were soon in Coimbatore's dirty, noisy, congested outskirts and made it to the train station with a few hours to kill before our 11:00 train. We thanked Sentil profusely before he turned right around for the return drive to Ooty, but we soon realized we had more train issues to deal with. A random Indian man saw us looking confused near the entrance and took us under his wing. He was determined to help us figure out where we needed to go and what the status of our tickets was, but the query desk informed us that only two tickets - for Kevin and Ryan - were confirmed. We had booked a four-bed sleeper cabin (again, several months in advance) and fully expected to all be in the same one. The staff told us to wait another hour or so for the final manifest to be printed, so we wandered off in search of a bar.

We found one called H2O, and it was so dark we couldn't even read the menu. A man sat alone, talking to himself, at the next table. There was no female bathroom here either.

After shooting the shit for a bit we returned to the station and learned that Jobie's ticket had been confirmed, but mine had not. I was now picturing the alternatives: a hellish overnight bus ride, which would have guaranteed a sleepless 10 hours at the hands of a maniacal driver; or a last-minute ticket in the lowest-class section of the train, where I would've been packed like a sardine into a car with bars on the windows. Neither sounded appealing. The previously mentioned random man (Whose name was Edward. He had spent time in Chicago.) reappeared and told me to get in a ticket line, explain the situation, and buy a regular ticket while asking for an upgrade.

I did that, patiently explaining to the teller what was going on while people behind me shoved money into the window and shouted out where they wanted to go. The woman said only general tickets were on sale, so I walked off. My chances of getting a decent seat were looking more and more grim, but then another random person came up and said the ticket woman was looking for me. I went back and she said I could buy a general ticket (for $4) and ask the conductor if I could be put into first-class. So I did, though I had no idea if this was going work.

With a little over an hour to go we went to another bar, where we were given an obnoxious amount of free snacks while the power kept cutting out.
all of those plates were free
Finally it was time to head to the actual train. Edward popped up at our side again and led us to our cabin. I wasn't technically supposed to be there, but I claimed a bunk and the four us sat there, expecting someone to come in and demand my place. The conductor showed up and I showed him my $4 ticket, but he laughed and said I didn't even need it. According to the passenger list there was supposed to be a doctor in the cabin, but he assured me that if the good doctor didn't show up I could stay. We waited with bated breath for the train to start moving, and once it did I let out a woop of joy. There was no sign of the doctor...and that's how I got to ride first class for $4. Night trains are possibly my favorite form of transport, and I fell asleep quickly. We would be arriving in Chennai, our last stop of the trip, early the next morning.

Suffice to say that this day had left us completely confused as to how the Indian railway booking system works. I took a few trains when I was there last year and had no problems at all, but in one day we had been booted from two trains that we thought we had secured seats on. I still don't understand what happened, but in the end we got where we needed to be. Sometimes that's just how India works.

p.s. If any of you are pining for something on Vietnam, we're nearly there. Just two or three more India posts and then it'll be back to good old Nam, I promise.


  1. Icing on the cake: I never got that money refunded to my credit card...lol...India...

  2. Many thanks for the exciting blog posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a brilliant writer. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up.. :)Ooty Hotels

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.