We'd covered an incredible amount of ground the day before. 416km to be precise and all in an auto-rickshaw with three wheels each similar in size to that of a wheelbarrow. The miles felt like they'd flown by. We had made some time and, truth be told, it was starting to feel like we were within striking distance of our goal: The finish line in Jaisalmer.
We had come to rest just 50km from yet another UNESCO world heritage site. The ancient city of Champaner dates back to sometime before the eleventh century. In 1297 it became the stronghold for the Chaian Rajputs and so was the capital of Gujurat, the province we were currently in. In 1536 the capital relocated and Champaner fell into decline until it was 're-discovered' in 1803 by the British. Picture the scene, you’re out mowing your lawn one fine day, it’s the late 19th century so it might not be petrol powered and you’re probably wearing a top-hat. You’re exclaiming “Crikey!” as you hear ructions down the road. A bearded foreigner struts into town and exclaims to all nearby "Look what I've discovered!" There really is nothing quite like a bit of imperial ‘discovery.’
Champaner is now a meld of UNESCO buildings inlaid with a complex system of ramshackle constructs serving as homes and businesses in varying states of repair. We visited two mosques as well as seeing some amorous donkeys going at it amongst the ruins of what was the Champaner city exchange. The mosques, though no longer active were still complete and were immensely enjoyable to be in. We slowed within their grounds and came to a pleasant halt even sleeping in their grounds for a while. The grandest of those we saw was the Jama Masjid which still had two huge minarets flanking the entrance. Within the mosque the cool stone floor had hundreds of individually carved pillars rising to the ceiling. And that led the eyes to the beautifully intricate roof plates carved in striking detail and carefully set in place. Amongst the green and manicured gardens we saw a young Indian Romeo and his Juliet flirting and giggling. Her beautiful blue and gold sari, his shock of dark hair, together they looked like the couple Walt Disney would imagine if he was animating young love in Bengal. They were comedy to watch as they set about videoing themselves. Juliet took the role of videographer as Romeo strutted in front of the minarets. No. No good. Try again. Off came the jacket as he slung it over his shoulder for the more relaxed 80's pop video look as he smouldered into the camera for her. He had her wooed. We tried to mimic the moves but sadly we failed miserably. Cliff Richard power fists are all good but Romeo’s strut could not be matched.
From the blissful solitude of the forgotten city we looked at the lone mountain stood quietly watching over us. We were going to summit that mountain, that big hill was known as Pavagadh.
We did have time constraints however and this wasn’t to be a Sherpa assisted assault. First of all we found a car park with an attendant that would look after our bags, a procedure we were now nicely familiar with. Secondly we found a taxi, he’d be driving us half way up. Pavagadh is a spiritual place and for many it represents the end of a journey. It's a popular pilgrimage route for many Indians who will trek for hundreds of miles before climbing every step to the top. We had a different agenda and, like I said, already had a taxi taking us half way up. Up there for thinking. Once we got half way up we arrived at the holy cable car, not its real name nor a physical description, which would take us another two fifths further up so that we could begin to bask in the unparalleled solitude and spirituality of such a blessed location.
We stepped off the cable car; the views had been most pleasing and were spoiled only by strewn plastic. Solitude is a word that does not represent anything associated with the summit of Pavagadh. Within forty five seconds of leaving the cable car building we were being 'selfied.' And what proceded was roughly one straight kilometre of a bilateral tat assault from stalls that seeed to endlessly repeat the sale of sweets, snacks, trinkets, keyrings, shoes, photos and various other unnecessary bumf. Lines of donkeys carrying massive bags of coconuts plodded their way to the top only to be given a thwack when they stopped one foot in front or one foot behind their masters chosen unloading point. It was sad that this was one of the first times we had experienced animal cruelty in an otherwise animal friendly and respectful India.
We climbed yet further and eventually broke free of the tat merchants. Our final ascent took us past the billowing red sheets and ribbons set from a mast like the whole mountain was ready to sail out across the land. At the summit we de-shoed and queued to pay reverence to Ganesh and, as religion invariably requests, paid our financial dues as an offering to a God that needs not for material possessions. Everyone else got a coconut for their offering; we were rushed out the second the cash left our hands. Ganesh was not a happy elephant.
We had been blessed though as it turned out Em and Al didn't even get to the money stage. They were kicked out before any blessings could be bestowed.
We moved back down the hill and found that the number of beggars had exploded. The cool calm and collected far side of the temple clearly proved a better setting for generosity than the sweaty final steps into the near side. There were many men and women all requesting a hand out and we gave to quite a few. The real highlight was a massive woman, sprawled out on her side recreating a familiar scene from Star Wars, and miming that she needed money for food. That was the last thing she needed. Twenty donkeys couldn't have shifted her coconuts. We gave her a necessarily wide berth only to fall, blind-sided, into the trap of an enforced bindi as a crazy old lady smeared Laura's forehead with red powder. Al had been stung too. Red marks on western foreheads seemed to lack sincerity, they were erased swiftly.
We meandered back through the glitter and gleam of gold plated plastic to find that the cable car was closed for lunch. There was no overlap shift system; all workers take one hour between one and two o'clock. We sat and ate ice cream whilst listening to some miffed Indian chaps telling those same workers to get back to work before holy hell was unleashed on the mountain. They started up again at twenty to. What splendid chaps.
At the foot of the cable car we waited for a taxi. Foreigners are generally expected to book a fifteen birth jeep (9 at a push by our standards) in its entirety rather than mingle with the locals. That had sounded like an experience not to be missed in the way up and we were keen to mimic it in the way back down. We were sat with a couple of nice guys and their wives waiting for our jeep to fill up when suddenly everyone started jumping out of the car and running away. "Quick", shouted one man. "The bus is here, much cheaper." Every taxi lost their business for the next run as economty of scale reduced the fare from twenty rupees to eight. We were on our way down in no time.
I can imagine that Pavagadh was once a beautiful place that is now blighted by tourism. Champaner was as magical when we returned as when we had left. Time never tires of running away and we had done quite enough sight-seeing. The sun would set as per usual regardless of where we were. We thanked our car park man and got on the road; bound north once more.
The highway had been lined with hotels every ten kilometres or so and safe in that knowledge we were pressing on through dusk. A few more minutes into the edge of darkness would make the next day a little easier. We crept on until the light reached a critical low and, conceding, we pulled in and asked for a room. "There is no room," said our host with the most. "We're a restaurant." We looked up at the five foot high block-lit lettering attached to the side of the building he seemed to be representing. H-O-T-E-L. When is a hotel not a hotel? When it’s in India. None of the hotels were hotels. They were all restaurants. Trucker stops to be precise answering an earlier question of 'Why are there so many truckers at these hotels when they have beds in their cabs? Hindsight creates fools. The stars were coming out as we got back onto the motorway and it was dark as we put-putted into Motara. The lights were on, the horns were out, the adrenaline was up. We still had nowhere to stay.
The wheels kept rolling as four pairs of eyes peeled wide for anything in english writing suggesting a hotel. Nothing. And then, as desperation loomed, Al and Em pulled up alongside. A taxi driver had started chatting with them, a benefit of having no windows on a tuk-tuk, and on discovering our plight began a tour of the towns two hotels. It was a hectic night. Each day that passed fatigue had been strengthening its grip. We were all tired, the cauldron of light and sound was disorienting, I managed to grind wheel arches with another taxi driver who wonderfully thought it was funny rather than a cause for concern. After a brief escapade we parked up and checked into a guest room. The taxi man wished us well, turned down a finders fee and made his merry way. What a legend.
Dinner was at a little street restaurant across the road. Vegetable thali for four followed by an evening stroll to find for the Liverpool Fashion Store that Al had spotted on the way in. It was closed. I'll never know what was behind those shutters.