30 November 2009

Ahmedabad - really bad!

The last time we were in Ahmedabad, a few days ago, a tuk-tuk driver asked Liz "What brings you to Ahmedabad?". Her rather blunt answer was "Nothing, we've been trying to avoid it!".

I think that statement pretty much sums up all you need to know about the unbelievably hectic and smoggy state capital of Gujarat, that some call the Manchester of the east. If I was a Mancunian I think I would campaign to put an end to such slanderous associations.

On our last visit we were only here for 7 hours whilst we waited for a train out of town but
this time we've had the misfortune of having to stay overnight.

The two most positive things we can think to say about Ahmedabad is that it has cheap internet access (Rs15 / 20p per hour) and is home to the House of MG hotel. Although the rooms at the House of MG are a bit outside of our budget we have made the most of their very nice restaurants.

I'm not a celebrity, but get me out of Ahmedabad! Next stop Mumbai / Bombay, the home of Bollywood.

28 November 2009

Lions go grrrr in Gir

We've had a great time in Gir and have been incredibly lucky with the wildlife. On our first trip out yesterday we were fortunate enough to see 14 lions and lionesses.

The one group included a very cute triplet of cubs who were only about 4 months old.

As well as the Asiatic lion the reserve is also home to lots of lion food including various types of deer and antelope.

After yesterdays lion frenzy we spent todays safari looking for leopards but unfortunately our luck ran out and the elusive big spotty cat remained unspotted! However to keep the spotted theme going we did see a couple of spotted owlets hiding in a tree.

27 November 2009

Getting to Gir

We're currently in Gir so that we can visit the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, the last place on Earth where you can see the Asiatic lion in the wild.

The domain of the Asiatic lion used stretch from Greece in the Mediterranean, through the Middle East, all the way to the Bay of Bengal on the East coast of India. However; loss of habitat and hunting decimated the population so that by the end of the 1870's there were thought to be only 12 Asiatic lions left.

They probably would have been driven to extinction if it hadn't have been for the actions of the nawab of Junagadh, who in the early 1900's turned his hunting grounds into what is now Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. The numbers are slowly recovering and there are now estimated to be around 370 lions in the park.

It had taken a fair amount of effort to get here. We left Mount Abu at 9 o'clock yesterday morning, had a 1 hour taxi ride to the train station followed by a 4 hour train journey to Ahmedabad, the state capital of Gujarat. We then had a 7 hour wait before we could catch the overnight train to Veraval.

Veraval had the distinction of being the ugliest town we've had the misfortune to pass through since Lusaka in Zambia. It looked like it had just been on the receiving end of some huge industrial accident that had affected the whole town. . . plus it smelt of fish! We quickly made our escape in a taxi and headed an hour up the road to Gir.

When we arrived at our accommodation we discovered that the booking agency we'd used for the hotel, despite charging my credit card, hadn't actually made a reservation for us. So after more than 24 hours on the road we arrived to find we didn't have a room. After much faffing about we eventually managed to sort things out and get checked in so that we could unwind before we went out on our afternoon safari.

We're staying at a place called Gir Birding Lodge where we have a quaint little hut in the middle of a mango orchard on the edge of the reserve. There's no TV or traffic so other than the sounds of the wildlife it's incredibly quiet, calm and relaxing, something of a rare experience in India.

25 November 2009

Nothing to do in Mount Abu!

It's taken us two days of train travel, with a brief overnight stop back in Jodhpur, to get from our last destination Jaisalmer to Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a Hill station on the southern edge of Rajasthan and is a popular holiday destination for people from the neighboring state of Gujarat. It's not a single mountain but a hilly plateau that rises 1.2km above the plains below. The town is centered on Nakki Lake where, if you're swept up in the romantic mood of the place, you can take a pedalo out onto the dirty water.

The town is a strange place and has the feel of a dilapidated seaside town, even down to the penny arcades and greasy spoon cafes! Although there must be hundreds of hotels here there isn't actually much to see and do.

We weren't expecting much from the town of Mount Abu, but you know you're in trouble when your guide book tells you that the highlight of town is Toad Rock, unsurprisingly a lump of rock that is shaped like a toad! If you ask me they only got the name half right, not very much like a toad but 100% rock.

Maybe we weren't standing quite in the right place or squinting hard enough.

Although there's not much to do in town they do have 8% larger which we found highly entertaining when we had a sun downer overlooking the town at Jaipur House Hotel.

The reason why we've come to Mount Abu is to visit the Jain Dilwara Temples which are located a few miles from town. The temples, the oldest of which dates from 1031, are famous for their stunning use of detailed marble carvings. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take any pictures but there are a few on line here.

The carvings in the temple are so detailed as, according to legend, the sculptors were paid by the amount of dust they produced encouraging more intricate carving. On that theory I should be a millionaire with the amount of dust the last lot of tenants have just left in my old house.

Jainism is one of the oldest religions in India and was thought to be developed some time around the 9th century BC. One of the central principles of Jainism is ahimsa, nonviolence in thought and deed towards any living thing. The more devout sweep the floor before their feet with a brush as they walk to avoid stepping on an creatures and have a piece of cloth tied over the nose and mouth to prevent accidentally inhaling any insects.

18 November 2009

In the desert with Mr Desert

Jaisalmer lies at the edge of the Great Thar Desert and one of the most popular activities is to go on a Camel safari. When Liz was last in India she did a bum numbing, thigh burning, three day trek. In light of the pain that this caused she advised a much shorter half day trip this time.

We booked our trip with Sahara Travels run by Mr Desert (real name Mr Bissa), who runs a tour company and is also a bit of a local celebrity.

We started our trip by taking a jeep into the desert where we were given brief operating instructions before heading out into the dunes.

Steering was fairly simple but I appeared to have been lumbered with a very greedy camel who could barely pass a piece of scrub without stopping to eat it. He appeared to have a severe case of the munchies!

He was also appeared to be affected by a heavy cold as he kept throwing his head back and blowing thick gooey camel snot into the air. This however paled into insignificance when Liz's camel managed to blow a maggot out of its nose!!!

After two hours on camel back we dismounted to explore the sand dunes on foot as the sun set.

Whilst dinner under the stars was being prepared we gathered around the camp fire to hear the story of how Mr Bissa became Mr Desert, the poster boy of Rajasthan, the face of Jaisalmer Cigarettes and the star of a Coca Cola advert.

Once the sun set we we treated to a fantastic curry under an incredibly starry sky. A great end to a the day before we jumped back into the jeep and headed back to our hotel.

Some of the people on the trip where doing an overnight stay sleeping out under the stars. It sounds very romantic and great fun but when we left at half nine in the evening it was bitterly cold and they only had blankets for protection. Some of the people appeared to be quite horrified when they found out that they weren't sleeping on a bed in a tent! As if they weren't worried enough, just as we were leaving one of them had their bag stolen by a wild dog who was after the biscuits that were inside it.

17 November 2009

Jaisalmer - the golden city

After pink and blue, our final coloured stop in Rajasthan is the golden sandstone city of Jaisalmer.

The town grew to prominence as an important link on the overland camel train routes between India and the Middle East. The wealth that this generated enabled the town's merchants to build some grand, elaborately carved havelis.

The town is dominated by the massive sandstone Jaisalmer Fort which looks like a giant sand castle sat on a hill in the middle of the city.

Inside the fort, which dates from the 12th century, it's a maze of narrow twisting streets full of the usual Indian hustle, bustle, bazaars, temples and cows.

I think we've seen enough forts now after the last few weeks!

Jodhpur to Jaisalmer

Last night we caught the overnight sleeper train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, giving Paul and Sarah their first taste of sleeping on the Indian rail network.

We were traveling in the three tier A/C sleeper car which we appeared to be sharing with half of the Indian Army.

We had a nice welcome when we arrived at Jaisalmer Station in the very early hours of this morning. A cow was stood in the middle of the arrivals hall, looking very pleased with itself, having just finished a big poo all over the floor.

16 November 2009

Jodhpur - the blue city

We're working our way through the coloured cities of Rajasthan. After the pink city of Jaipur we're now in the blue city of Jodhpur, home of the flappy thighed horse riding trouser.

The old town of Jodhpur is probably the muckiest place we've stayed in a long time (since Varanasi). The sides of the street run with open sewers and effluent whilst the roads themselves are overrun with cows and goats. Outside of our hotel felt (and smelt) more like a farm than a city of nearly a million people!

Normally we can use our hotel as a place to get a bit of peace and quiet from the chaos of the streets outside. However this proved quite difficult at the Jee Ri Haveli where we were staying. The owner and his son where what would best be described as a little over attentive and wouldn't give you a seconds peace. To say it was a little wearing would be somewhat of an understatement.

Thankfully Paul and Sarah where staying on the outskirts of town at the much more relaxing Ajit Bhawan where they had a luxury tent!

We've seen quite a lot of forts and palaces since we arrived in India but we think that Meherangarh is probably the best. The fort sits overlooking the town on top of a 125m hill.

The fort and the views of the city from the battlements where really spectacular.

In Hindu society people are divided into one of four castes which are used to denote your social standing. The highest of the Hindu castes is the Brahmin which is for priests and scholars. In Jodhpur the Brahmins painted their houses blue and from the fort walls it's easy to see how the city got its nickname.

Just down the hill from the fort is Jaswant Thada, a white marble cenotaph that was built in 1899 for the Maharaja Jaswant Singh II.

The marble walls were so thin that on the inside of the building you could see the sun light glowing through from the outside.

We had planned to end our day in Jodhpur with a sundowner at Umaid Bhawan Palace, the home of a Maharaja that is now also a hotel and restaurant. What we didn't know before we arrived was that you needed the wallet of a Maharaja to to be able to afford to visit the bar. There was a cover charge of 3,000 rupees (about £40) per person, which we thought was a bit steep for a few gin and tonics so we headed back to the equally pleasant surroundings of Paul and Sarah's flashy hotel.