Fully Booked -- Christmas in Karnataka and Kerala, India

December 18, 2009 - January 6, 2010

Schoolgirls enjoying Hoysaleshwara Temple, Halebidu, Karnataka.

 

 

Our flight from Colombo to Bangalore arrives the Friday before Christmas. We had been warned, but still we don't take seriously that it will be a busy travel time in this predominantly Hindu country. But over the next two weeks, it finally sinks in: travel without advance reservations in south India over the Christmas and New Year holiday can be a major challenge! Apparently the whole country, along with extended families from around the globe, are out and about with plans to visit all the same tourist sights as us...

The trains are full, so we are on the bus -- Bangalore to Hassan, Hassan to Mysore. Bouncing along with the windows open, dust and diesel fumes blowing on our faces, it's another world here in rural Karnataka State. Just outside India's IT capitol of Bangalore, life appears to be pretty basic and surprisingly rustic, and out the bus window there is a continuous series of little movies unfolding around us.

 

Hoysaleshwara Temple

 

A forty-five minute ride on a local bus from Hassan takes us to Halebidu for a visit to the Hoysaleshwara Temple. Built in the 12th century to honor the Hindu God Shiva, it is covered in ornate stone carvings, inside and out. Circling the building are layers of friezes, the lowest depicting elephants (symbolizing strength), then lions (courage), horses (speed), Hindu epics, and finally swans. The friezes span over 200 meters, and no two sculptures are alike. There are 240 carvings under the eaves (like the dancing Ganesh to the right) which some consider to be the finest Hindu sculptures in India.

 

 

 

We hop on another bus full of locals and pilgrims and travel just a few miles to the town of Belur where we join more friendly mobs visiting the amazing Chennakeshava Temple. This was the first capitol of the Hoysala Empire, the Kannadiga people who ruled from the 11th to 14th century in the state now known as Karnataka, and supported an exuberant era of art, literature and religion.

A mob of school kids at Chennakeshava Temple gateway.

 

Everyone wants their photo taken!

 

Another mob at the temple entrance.

 

 

At Mysore we join throngs of uniformed school boys and sari-clad girls (and a few families) swarming the palace, the former seat of the Wodeyar maharajas. This dynasty ruled present-day Karnataka almost continuously from 1399 until India became a sovereign nation in 1947, when the reigning maharaja became the state's first governor. The original palace was built entirely of wood, but was gutted by fire in 1897. We press in with the crowds touring the current building (completed in 1912) admiring elaborate stained glass windows, halls lined with mirrors reflecting long lines of painted columns, rooms filled with magnificent sculptures, refreshing our bare feet on cool marble floors... but no photographs of the amazing interior are allowed.

Vendors at Mysore's vibrant spice and flower market.

View out our hotel window in Mysore.

 

 

 

To us, it seems a tad reckless the way whole families ride around on motorbikes in India (and most other countries we visit in Asia). Women sit sidesaddle, seemingly totally relaxed -- feet dangling, often with two or three kids hanging on -- as they weave in and out of Mysore's heavy traffic.

 

Fully booked! We are foiled in our plan to visit the hill station of Ooty, and instead embark on what turns out to be a 9.5 hour bus ride from Mysore to Mangalore. After hours on the hot dusty roads, careening wildly around corners, over potholes, and through crowded towns, we vow that this is our last bus ride of this trip -- trains from here on!
 
 
We end up waiting five days in Mangalore until we can get reserved seats on the train south to the state of Kerala. Fortunately, the food in Mangalore is superb and we spend our days immediately before and after Christmas sampling delicious and spicy cuisine in this coastal city (population1.5 million).

 

 

Riding the rails in India is a joy, also an adventure. We discover that the online reservation system allows us to see the country-wide route map and reserve seats. After picking up a hard copy of the master train schedule Trains at a Glance for 35 rupees, we are able to plan journeys near and far. This time around everything is booked out, but for our next India trip (in the off-season), we are all set.

After traveling on trains in Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, Japan, and Sri Lanka on this trip, we are surprised to discover our first onboard power outlet for the laptop here in India. And, like in Sri Lanka, the doors between the cars are wide open and I can hang out on the step as we roll along, taking it all in as this fascinating country slips by along the tracks.

 

Ticket line at Ernakulam train station, jumping off point for our stay in the state of Kerala.
 
 

Expert wiring!

Cantilevered fishing nets were first introduced in Fort Kochi by Chinese traders from the 1400 AD court of Kublai Khan.

We toured Fort Kochi harbor with these friendly folks from Hyderabad. They know how to travel: In their chartered AC bus, with a personal chef... for 45 days!

 
Christmas is going full force in Fort Kochi, Kerala. Decorations are everywhere, folks are in a festive mood as carolers entertain us at dinner. Although Christians comprise a tiny fraction of India's populace, most live in South India. Some believe Jesus wandered through Kerala, others believe Christianity arrived with Saint Thomas in AD 52, many scholars say Christianity arrived in the 4th century with a Syrian merchant who set out for Kerala with 400 families to establish a branch of the Nestorian church (some church services are still conducted in Armenian.) After the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered Fort Kochi's beautiful natural harbor in 1498, Roman Catholics established a strong presence. Fort Kochi continued to be controlled by the Portuguese until 1664 when Dutch merchants captured the fort and established spice trade routes from the Persian Gulf to Japan. This lucrative trading post was taken over in 1804 by the British, who reigned until 1947. Fort Kochi continues to be a premier world trading center for locally grown pepper and cardamom.
Pepper and cardamom? We have become food-obsessed on this journey, and since Kerala is known for its exquisitely spiced cuisine we sign up for an evening cooking class. We take careful notes as Mrs. Leelu Roy and her assistant of 23 years prepare a mouth-searing fish curry, tasty lady finger (okra) curry, spiced cabbage and coconut, fried string beans, and chapatis. Twelve of us crowd into her tiny kitchen watching and waiting, clumsily rolling out chapatis. By 8pm everything is ready and we scarf down a delicious meal.

We need a coconut grater like this!

Leelu's Garam Masala:

  • 1 handful broken cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2 handful cloves
  • 1/2 handful anise seeds
  • 1 tbs peppercorns
  • 5-8 whole green cardamom seeds

Grind and store in an airtight container.

 

We escape the cities and crowds for three days to ring in the new year at a nature resort and bird sanctuary in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Thattekkad, Kerala.

After a 2.5-hour ride from Cochin in a classic ambassador taxi (breaking down along the way!) we arrive in Thattekkad on New Years Eve. The resort manager tells us that today, the kitchen is closed for normal meals, while they host the town for a New Years celebration, and we're invited.

Ahhhh, but we don't want to be invited!

Our three days of peace and quiet begins as the band is setting up across the lawn from our bungalow, and raucous families dance to Bollywood show tunes (broadcast over the blaring PA system) well into the wee hours. Fortunately we carry earplugs!

Determined to get out hiking, we arise New Year's morning at 5:30am, and by 6 we are on our way with an ace birding guide, Rajeev, into the dawn light of Salim Ali National Park. We are greeted by a sunrise chorus of birdsong, and through binoculars, the colorful birds of South India come into focus. Next morning we head out again for second peaceful hike through the forest at another nearby wildlife sanctuary.

What a fine finish to our short tour of India and five months in Asia!

A pair of rare Sri Lanka Frogmouths are perched just above our heads!

Feet up at our Birds Lagoon bungalow.

How cool is this! A GO game, with commentary in Korean, at the Seoul International Airport. Korea is now on our list to visit next time we're in Asia!

 

 

After five weeks of heat and humidity in Sri Lanka and India, we are jarred with a stopover in Seoul, South Korea where it's below freezing and the runways are covered in a fresh coat of snow from yesterday's storm. We are hit with a welcome blast of icy air as we exit the jetway. One more flight and we'll be back in the San Francisco Bay Area!

Five months of travel, eight countries, sleeping in 56 different places, we are once again on our way home. This trip has been another happy adventure, thought provoking in many unexpected ways.

We've discovered that we don't need to see all the tourist hot spots, instead, the highlights are meeting people (the bell hop in Mangalore, who gives us restaurant recommendations every evening; Gihan, our new pen pal from Sri Lanka, who just graduated to 9th Grade; Rie who sends best wishes for our Tiger Year from Hiroshima) and discovering and savoring mouth watering, scrumptious Asian cuisine from one country to the next.

Well, except for Mongolia, land of bland boiled mutton. Oddly, we visited much of the former empire of Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandson (Kublai) who conquered one Asian country after another in the 13th to 14th centuries. They started on horseback in Mongolia (hey, so did we!) then swept into China (where they ruled from Beijing for more than a hundred years), then rode into what is now northern Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, setting up a major encampment at Bagan, one of our favorite places. They were foiled by cyclones and ruthless warriors in their attack at Fukuoka, Japan (where we watched a Mongolian become Japan's new Sumo champion!) The Khan-clan never invaded South India, but their Chinese sailing fleet regularly visited Fort Kochi, one of our last stops. What a shame they didn't pick up a few spices to bring back home!