Sun 20 December 2009 - Wed 6 January 2010 Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar & surrounds
UPDATE -MAY 2012: Volunteers urgently needed for animal charity in Ahmedabad. We were contacted recently by Lalu whom we met briefly whilst in Ahmedabad. Lala works for the Asha Animals’ Foundation a charity which does much to help street animals in India. To see more of the excellent work they do please see www.ashafoundationindia.org.
They are urgently seeking volunteers, so if you are an animal lover currently in, or planning to visit Ahmedabad please contact them via their site or via Lalu’s mobile +91 9824037521.
So - bright and early off we went to Ahmedabad Toyota. As has happened before Toyota weren't overly helpful - they seem to only be set up to help with new cars - anything different like us with our old car - goes straight into the "too hard" basket!
So instead we managed to track down an excellent mechanic Jahid of SM automobiles. In the end we didn't need to get any parts from overseas we were sorted out locally by Jahid and his team with a minimum of fuss. If you need a mechanic in the Ahmedabad area he comes highly recommended and can be contacted on 9898124842. Obviously he also speaks good English! Whilst there we visited a nearby wheel alignment workshop and had our wheels aligned and balanced - the first time since before we left Sydney 5 years ago now. Jigar and his team did an excellent job and refused any payment - so we put their sticker on as a sponsor! Ahmedabad Wheels & Alignment can be contacted on 9825139253.
Happily between car maintenance duties we actually got to see a bit of the city. Ahmedabad (A'bad) is a large bustling modern city with quite a lot of wealth but it also retains an old world flavour in parts- the camels jostle at junctions, alongside flash cars and you see ladies carrying loads of buffalo dung cakes used for fuel just round the corner from opulent shopping centres. As ever sadly there is also a lot of poverty. We went to McDonalds - it's amazing we'd never go back home but as it's a rarity it's a real treat here to have a McVeggie burger !- and as always this bastion of wealth is surrounded by kids begging - with specially employed security guards with sticks keeping them back. We think a lot do the beggars are actually from poor rural areas - mainly in Rajasthan - and they flock to Ahmedabad as it is a wealthy area.
It soon became clear we were going to be in A'bad over the festival season - getting the car seen to necessitated this. A'bad isn't very Christian and there wasn't much of an Xmas vibe - though they were selling santa hats and we spotted some very scrawny looking Indian santas at a shopping centre. We haven't had a remotely festive Xmas on the trip -the first year we were in strictly Muslim Indonesia, the 2nd we planned to join Margie for an Aussie celebration but Andrew got sick so we canned it and this one we planned to get to Diu - but failed. Hopefully we'll have a really good festive English Xmas (this) next year to make up for it!
Anyway realizing we were here for Xmas we decided to buy a bottle of wine for Xmas day. This was when we came to really understand the full extent of being in a dry state which Gujarat is. We understood alcohol wasn't freely available but our LP guide book had said it was an easy enough task to get a permit - you just fronted up at a licensed liquor shop - of which there are a few usually near the big international hotels. It was a lot harder than that!!! As we had driven in we didn't have an air ticket- also we needed a letter from our hotel saying we could drink (in our own room) on the premises. The Toran Guest House where we were parking refused to give us this as we weren't in a room but were camping outside. Thus where were we going to drink??? The plan had been to head to the country and have a glass out of sight but this wasn't acceptable. Basically we wasted a few hours going round in circles before concluding that the whole thing belonged in the too hard basket!! We had also thought that we could drink in a big hotel with our meal - but nope - this is a public place and so off limits. We were assisted in our struggle by a very nice local guide Jamshed who took pity on us and tried his unsuccessful very best to get us a permit. Jamshed spoke very good English and offers tours of all of Gujarat - contact him on 9376132535 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course a black market flourishes and in a nameless Gujarat hotel we were approached by a waiter winking lewdly at us and making the universal Indian alcohol sign (fist with thumb out brought to the lips bottle style) asking if we wanted to buy alcohol "sec ret secret ….you my best friends.." He didn't have beer or wine only whisky so we decided to give it a miss - god knows what it'd have cost!! The whole dry thing is a nod to Mr. Gandhi. He was very anti-alcohol and concerned re: it's effects on the poorer members of society and it was a big wish of his - officially honoured after his tragic death - to keep Gujarat dry. Put like that it's hard to argue with but our timing was lousy - we were looking forward to a special treat glass of wine over Xmas!! Ahh well …on Xmas day we went to the House of MG for a really nice vegetarian lunch and later to the Taj hotel for their Xmas buffet - though it was very much an Indian Xmas dinner - no turkey and not a sprout in sight! As I said next year!
Where we camped was a quiet reasonably leafy area for this very busy city and the pollution levels were far better than other cities visited - say Udaipur. We were directly opposite Sabarmati Ashram - Gandhi's Ashram and the head quarters of his freedom struggle- in a residential area. Every morning we were in the middle of the mobile market place as carts selling everything - fresh veggies, milk, earthen pots did a parade shouting out their wares and drawing out crowds of sari-wearing ladies from the nearby houses. It was very atmospheric.
On Xmas day we went across the road to Gandhi Ashram. Initially founded further out of town in 1915 and moved to this location a couple of years later this was really interesting. We had met an Aussie guy Jesse who was an architect and on a program there doing voluntary work building better schools for the slum kids and there were quite a few western volunteers around working on similar projects. Backing onto the River Sabarmati the ashram had a lovely setting. Gandhi's small room - where he received numerous foreign dignitaries - was left untouched. They still produce home spun goods for sale here and there was a spinning demonstration alongside a really interesting display on the great man's life and various of Gandhi's writings. Interestingly these included his letter beginning "Dear Friend" addressed to Hitler asking him not to pursue the 2nd world war but to refer the whole thing to an arbitrator! Apparently the Government suppressed it so it was never sent but I can't see it would've done any good! He really was an amazing incredible human being - Gandhi not Hitler!!
Just nearby was another spinning outlet and a paper factory. These initiatives were both set up to revitalize cottage industries a big focus of Gandhi's. The paper factory was fascinating - paper was produced from wetting and squashing off-cuts of cotton and various - really nice - goods were produced for sale.
In general A'bad seemed to be very harmonious with its mixed inhabitants - predominantly Hindu then Muslim with minorities of Sikh Christian Jain and even Jewish- getting on well. The City Museum had an interesting display about all this housing everything from old wooden houses to the first steam powered fire engine.
Downstairs was a Kite Museum, reflecting the fact that kites are really popular here with kids playing with them on every corner.
We are in the run up to the yearly kite festival which happens mainly in A'bad but throughout Gujarat in mid January and on every street you could see the kite production in full flow - and whole families working to dye the strings beautiful colours. We tried to see the Calico Museum - supposed to be very impressive with great displays of Indian textiles - but we wasted half the day trying to find it (it was in the wrong place on our map) and when we got there it was too late. Never mind you can't see everything!
A'bad has a strong Muslim influence in its history and architecturally their legacy can still be seen. We visited the Sarkhej Rosa an interesting cluster of Muslim building dating from the 15th century about 8km out of town. There has been a real focus in recent years to clean up and preserve these buildings and it was nice to see they were still being used with lots of families sitting in the shade and kids running around and (of course!) playing with kites.
The next day we drove over the river to the old part of town to see the various old Muslim buildings -Mosques and tombs - again dating from the 15th century. As we drew nearer to the old town there were traffic diversions teeming crowds and a heavy police presence so we knew something was up.
A few days before we had seen some kids with what we knew was a Tazia (see our Lucknow page) as we found out then Tazias are used during the Shiite Muslim festival of Moharrum. This was what we were now right in the middle of!!
Also celebrated in Iran and Iraq this festival is actually a mourning event - though everyone seemed very upbeat! It commemorates the death of Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussain. He died due to lack of water, and so once a year these large replicas of his tomb (the original is in Iraq) are paraded around town prior to being thrown in the river.
It was very friendly but very full on we were the focus of a lot of attention and I actually got filmed for TV beating on a drum for the cameras …fame again!! I also got dragged into having my arms stamped with henna whether I wanted it or not in front of a huge crowd!
We couldn't get near most of the religious monuments (and a lot of them were shut to non-Muslims and/or women anyway) but we did see the gorgeous jails depicting a tree on Sidi Saiyad's Mosque which are apparently quite famous.
For our final night at A'bad we made it to the famous night markets. These evening markets are set in the streets around the Law Gardens and are a riot of handicrafts - mainly Gujarati embroidery and jewelry. Kutch the area we go to in a few weeks is the main centre for this work and we plan to see more of it there but we had a good preview here and it was very atmospheric. Next morning we had a lazy last look around A'bad before we headed on towards our next destination Bhavnagar.
That night we camped at a truck stop 10km outside the Velavadar National Park -an expanse of grassland with a large population of blackbucks and many lovely birds. Blackbucks are a rare sort of deer with curly antlers endemic to this area so we decided to detour slightly and have a look at the park and maybe even camp there for the New Year if it was very nice. The next morning when we reached the park there was a big sign at the entrance giving the prices which were incredibly unfair - very cheap for Indians given in rupees and much higher for foreigners given in US $. We thought it was a bit cheeky - by the time we'd paid for both of us and the car and the camera it was over 1,000 rupees or $25 - a lot for India. There was also a huge charge for camping and food - again far more for us than Indians - all in all we decided not to bother.
The road onward actually passed through some of the park and we saw a few birds and one or 2 of the famous blackbuck deer so we got a bit of a flavour of it for no cost! We drove on to hit Bhavnagar by midday where we stopped for lunch at the Nilambag Palace Hotel a mid 19th century heritage hotel which was once a Maharaja's palace. It was New Year's Eve and they were flat out setting up for a big party with streamers and lights going up everywhere. We were invited - an all you can eat vegetarian spread complete with soft drinks dancing and music. We thought about it that day but we were pretty tired and there wasn't really anywhere to camp so we gave it a miss and instead had dosas for our NYE dinner at the Sankalp chain (see Udaipur page) which had a Bhavnagar branch! Afterwards we drove a few kms out of town and found a camp spot behind a little petrol station where we had an incredibly low key end to 2009 - we were in bed asleep by 10pm!!! This is the first time ever I've missed midnight - must be getting old!!
Next day we hit Bhavnagar. This is an industrial town which grew mainly as a centre for trading cotton and is a huge centre for ship parts which was why we were here!! Alang a coastal area about 40 km south of Bhavnagar is the site of the world's biggest ship breaking site and Andrew had learnt about it when he was at technical college so he was keen to see it. It also featured in a 60 Minutes (Ozzie current affairs program) program a few years back.
Due in part to this (the 60 Minutes program) we were unsuccessful. The site has been the focus of quite a lot of investigative journalism most of it hugely critical of the working conditions (on average 1 man dies a week supposedly) and the pollution. Greenpeace went in under cover posing as buyers in 2002 and particularly since this getting in as a foreigner has been nigh on impossible. Maybe in view of all this driving up in our car with the camera up front wasn't a smart move- as everyone always assumes we're journalists anyway!! We were greeted warmly and all the guards wanted their pictures taken with us - but no way were we getting past the gates!!
Still it could have been worse as we did still get to see the junkyards. This was a Mecca for Andrew- rows of stock from stripped off ships - everything from shampoo, and dinner plates to huge chains and ship fenders - all of it jumbo size in rows and rows. Andrew disappeared with an expression of ecstasy and wasn't seen for 2 hours!! Ho hum…at least I had my book!!!
Bhavnagar isn't really a tourist centre and we received a lot of attention around town - when we pulled up to change a flat tyre the entire population came and watched us - and we were soon approached by Sony Jaswinder Singh (Sony) a friendly guy who ran a nearby workshop and offered us tea. He had a Landcruiser - even older than ours - which he planned to restore and Andrew was really interested in this.
Sony then kindly invited us home to meet his family and ultimately to stay for a few days which is what we did! I had actually gone down with the lurgy that day so it was really nice to have somewhere for r & r whilst Andrew spent a few very happy days poking around the shops and stocking up on spare parts for the car.
Sony lived with his parents his wife and 3 kids and his sister and brother in law and their new baby were also visiting, thus there was a full house of us. They were lovely people and made us very welcome and our stay was a fascinating insight into cultural differences. I spent most time with the ladies who were a bit horrified at my traveller's uniform of fairly drab clothes and the fact that I didn't dress up or wear makeup or much jewelry. Indian ladies tend to be very appearance conscious and are often shocked at how unfeminine westerners seem - as the ones they meet are usually back packing and you don't really do that in high heels and gold! I was taken across the road to have my hands painted with henna designs by the neighbours which was fun!
Sony's family are Sikh and the neighbours Hindu but both live in extended families and one of the main duties of the ladies is to look after their in-laws. They found our situation - travelling on our own with no family - really hard to grasp.
I told them Andrew's mother lived in Australia and they were worried (him being the only son and thus me the only daughter in law) as to who was cooking her food whist I was gone! Poor Mary I wouldn't wish my cooking on her!! Similarly the fact that my parents live alone shocked them - the extended family is so much stronger here. We spent a lovely few days with them and I soon felt better after I slept solidly for one whole day - sometimes you get really tired on the road and sleeping in is rarely possible when we're camping.
We had a bit of a look around Bhavnagar seeing a few local temples - a elaborately carved Jain one, and the Hindu Takhteshwar Temple which had a lovely view down over the town. It's hardly a beautiful city but it did have an old world sort of charm with jumbling bazaars and wooden houses on windy streets filled with the omnipresent cows & goats - alongside modern department stores. We loved the mode of transport here - actually throughout this region - which was old Enfield Motor bikes converted to trikes. These are used as taxis and it's truly amazing how many people you can fit in/on one!!!!
Before leaving the area we did a side trip to Shatrunjaya one of Jainism's holiest pilgrimage sites about 50km to the north. This was both very impressive and pretty exhausting! We went on the first Saturday of the new year and the road was crammed with pilgrims from all over India many of whom make this pilgrimage annually at the beginning of the year. Set on a plateau perched on a hill top 600 metres high there were 9 separate enclosures of temples - each having a central temple and many minor ones - over 800 in total all encircled by sturdy walls.
There are 3200 steps to the top - hence the exhaustion remark. It was a good few hour's slog up and what really amazed us was the thought that the builders had to also carry all the materials.
The temples originally date from the 11th century though marauding Muslims destroyed alot of the earlier ones in the 14th and 15th centuries so those remaining largely date from the 16th century. On that note it was interesting to see that there was a Muslim shrine near the top. This was dedicated to Angar Pir a Muslim saint who allegedly once protected the temples from a Mughal assault saving a few from destruction.
The temples were incredible - with lovely carving and lots of silver marble and inlay work - and the view from the top just about made up for the pain of getting there!
A lot of the pilgrims we spoke to forgo food and drink a day or so each side of the pilgrimage just to make it tougher.
For weaker pilgrims (or young or ill ones) wishing to wimp out you could hire a dholi along with a few porters to cart you up or just pay a couple of people to support you on your way!
Proudly we both managed under our own steam- with a few breather stops along the way!!
So finally on Wednesday 6 January we drove 230km to arrive at our next destination Diu - an island which is an ex-Portuguese colony and - joy of joys - alcohol is not only available but duty free!!