A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: ibeamish

Day Fifteen - The Forgotten City of Champaner

Nr. Blackpool-on-the-Hill

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 The mosques, though no longer active were still complete and were immensely enjoyable to be in.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.

Posted by ibeamish 13:57 Archived in India Comments (0)

Day Fourteen - The Magic Of the Night Market

Having conquered the mountain pass the previous evening we had found ourselves in the fairly deprived town of Chalisgoan. We'd chosen the Bridge Corner Hotel because a.) there were only two hotels that existed and this was the one in front of us and b.) it offered parking, hot water and a bed. As long as the latter wasn't inspected too closely, the Bridge Corner was everything we needed.

We still had kilometres to eat-up and our over-ambitious destination was Vadodara in the province of Gujarat. Our top speed was about fifty kph with a prayer and a tail wind. Factoring in petrol stops every two hours; where we tried to eat, drink and pee in an efficient manner, as well as occasional stops to satiate moments of curiosity, our real average was around 30kph. My physics knowledge is still tip-top, Distance = Speed x Time and since our speed has limited flexibility we have to increase our hours slogging it out on the open road to make the numbers add up. So we set off at 5:30am.

Our chai stop three hours later was a peach. Bread rolls stuffed with potato curry, battered and deep-fried before us. A handful of little vegetable pakoras and some deep-fried chillies to smooth the whole process over. That and a couple of lovely cups of primo chai. We're going to miss this.

Now at this stage a special mention has to go to whoever is the minister for India's roads. Their road safety signs are keeping us entertained and we haven't yet seen the same one twice. "Our desire is your content", "Impatient on road. Patient in hospital" but our favourite so far "Safety on road is Safe 'tea' at home". Kenny and James; I've found your calling.

Back on the road and the streets had become mean. There were a lot of angry drivers out there and the atmosphere had changed. We were less entertainment and more hindrance as other drivers started recklessly trying to undertake/overtake and fit through impossible gaps hoping their horns' sonic boom would part the waters. We were entering business territory on the road Surat we were turning away and north at Kadodara. Means streets equals hard attentive driving which is as draining as it is secretly fun. It's real life computer games again. And as we threaded through another tricky cross roads at an underpass we saw the mighty Arches ahead and left. Their golden glow, their familiarity on another continent. Whether globalisation appeals to you or not sometimes enjoying a wee bit of capitalist oinkery is a pleasure. I looked back to suggest a pit stop only to find Emma was already indicating. We were going for a McDonalds.

Chicken burgers and fries, chocolate milkshakes and ice creams. We were fattening the goose and greasing the wheels. The Big Mac was now a Maharaja Burger but it wasn't to anyones taste. We ate, we grinned and we wiped the grease from our lips. It was heaven; even the manager came over to get a picture of us all.

Bridges had been our conundrum. We had needed to negotiate several level crossings and, as I've stated before, trains are the universal halter of Indian vehicles. No one and no thing can stand in the way of thirty or forty carriages loaded with cargo and people. We slowed to a halt behind an exceptionally long string of lorries as we waited for the railed juggernaut to sail through. We queued because that's what we english do; but Doctor Alasdair Cameron is an outside-the-box thinker. Everyone else's loss was our gain as he put foot and ragged it straight to the front of the queue, ducking back in front of the first lorry tight up against the barrier, just in time to see hundreds of tonnes of train thunder past about 20 inches in front of Pasha. The Cameron technique was applied several more times through the day and our suddenly 'nippy' motors gained a few easy yards each time. God help the truckers though; there were tail backs for kilometres after the crossings.

The highlight of our day of bridges however was on the way into Vadodara. There were three bridges to be precise but someone had invented a filter system to make sure that only lorries used the big bridge or rather, only cars used the rickety old bridge. A bridge so rickety that it's concrete and iron sections moved up and down several inches as we drove across. The third bridge seemed to be for oncoming traffic only and so was definite no go. The only issue was in getting the cars from the section of north bound highway they currently occupied, across three lanes of oncoming southbound traffic to the afore-mentioned rickety bridge. The obvious solution I hear you cry is manpower. You are right! It seems so simple now. A team of about a dozen traffic officers stood in the centre of the motorway and, using only themselves and their pea-whistles, hand picked whichever vehicles they thought best to be placed under friendly fire and run the rickety gauntlet. We survived, by luck, very little judgement and the cry of "Fortune favours the brave" as we closed our eyes and trusted in Tony.

Vadodara itself was a bustling university city and under the cover of darkness our fatigue was re-energised by the vibrant night markets we drove past. With Tony and Pasha tuk'd up (apologies) together in the car park of the Ambassador Hotel we went exploring.

The markets were enchanting, lines of 'stalls' with their beautifully fresh produce laid out before them with only sheets of pretty cloth between them and the earth. Cross legged vendors beneath electric bulbs, each with their own brass scales. Cows wandered the streets chancing their arm at whatever they could pinch, even in the face of a thwack with the shillelagh. Kites had become a theme too. A spectra of colours with patterns galore and huge reels of multicoloured line. These weren't kites, they were pathways to the heavens, offering their handlers the vicarious living of the eagles above. Sound and scent replaced noise and stench. India had become electrified and we were experiencing it in HD.

Posted by ibeamish 08:00 Archived in India Comments (0)

Interlude- Selfies

Getting pulled over by the young lads on our first day out to the garage way back down in Cochin had been our first experience of the 'selfie.' Two weeks into India and it's easy to see just what a pop culture entity the concept is.

Major phone companies are advertising their products with catchphrases such as "For the perfect selfie". Everywhere we go we're asked for a one, at tourist spots or petrol stations it feels like being some sort of celebrity as 'just one selfie' turns into 'and now with my friend' and a few more to boot once the pack scents blood.

The irony is that we turn up with our SLR cameras hoping to capture the life's work of a man through his perfectly lit wrinkles and elegantly coiled moustache; whereas all his son's want are a few snaps with us to show friends. Of course that's all well and good the first few times that particular morning but when you become more aware of the myriad groups of kids goading each other to ask for pics than the thousand year old monument in front of you then it starts to wear thin. Don't fear, we are well aware that the pleasures of having one's cake come with responsibilities.

What's more, India recognises it has a selfie problem. Signs at tourist sites instruct people not to shout, run or take pictures of people without their express permission. Teachers extend their arms to herd groups of shouting kids not to request pictures. The problem is that I'm now so accustomed to being 'selfied' if they don't ask me, I find myself asking them.

Posted by ibeamish 22:55 Archived in India Comments (0)

Day Thirteen - Rocking Temples and, Service! Compete!

World Heritage Sites are boss. No half baked tourist attraction ever makes the UNESCO grade and, especially for a bunch of increasingly grotty travellers, they guarantee a spectacle.

The caves at Ellora were to be no exception. We entered the gates at 6:30. The entire compound, a series of 34 Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves dating from around 500AD to the late 11th century, were ours alone.

The caves had been built as places of worship and some were built by different religions at the same time. Their original wealth had cone from being situated along a trade route from the western coastal ports up to the cities of the north. They are something to behold. Cut out of sheer rock these are not just caves they are pieces of art on a huge scale. The first twelve caves are Buddhist and within coukd be found huge Buddha's surrounded by their Buffhavistas and nymphs. Cave Ten had been cut into an elongated hall with a vaulted roof; the stone cut to represent wooden beams. At the end was a free standing statue of a seated Buddha which you could walk around completely yet was still part of the same continuous piece if stone as every other aspect of the cave. With the cave to ourself we sang to hear the (sometimes) sublime echoes of our own voices. The window cut into the veranda illuminated the Buddha beautifully, this cave was a master-piece.

Further on, Buddha's became Vishnu's as the religion first merged and then switched. It was all too easy to start looking over wall carvings that would have taken years to produce as they became similar to others; entire underground halls with pillars from floor to ceiling every wall decorated elaborately. And then we arrived at Cave 16.

If Cave Ten was a master-piece then Sixteen had been created by the gods. The worlds largest monolith, the Kailash Temple is actually a rock hewn building rather than a cave. Instead of starting from the side, they began at the top and dug down. Krishna I had the idea sometime during his reign in the mid 8th century. It was a hundred years and four generations of kings before it would be complete. It is staggering.

First of all, men would dig trenches with pick axes. Into these trenches huge wooden stakes wrapped in cloth would be jammed and then soaked in water. The wood would swell and the mountain would move. Two hundred and and fifty thousand tonnes of basalt they reckon was shifted this way. But that's not it. Once you're past the grunt work of prepping the site then you've got decades of careful sculpting, hollowing and craftsmanship, and, you can't afford to make a mistake! Because once you've chipped it off you can't glue it back on.


Flanking the temple are two life size elephants. The temple itself has no square foot left to engrave upon. Lines of elephants emerging from the foundations of the church, towers pointing to the heavens, horses, figures, cornices and balconies all from the same single rock. Ethiopia has some outstanding rock hewn churches but none are quite so extravagant as this. Even more so it is believed to be modelled on a temple in the foothills of the Himalayas and as such was originally covered in white lime render as if the snow had fallen in the heat of Matharastra. It was a place you could sit quietly in for days on end. A place that could take you a life time to study. A place for half an hour of overpowering awe.

Al had stayed behind as he'd been sporting spinach green skin tones the previous evening. But as we ate a very late breakfast he was up and raring to go. On the way Emma was assaulted by the monkeys who, baring teeth, made for her bananas. Luckily she managed to fling her fruit at the mini terrorists just before getting a nasty bite.

We wanted to get the Tuks serviced and we met a very nice chap who spoke little english but knew his car parts. "Left wheel! Complete! Carburettor! Complete!" Etc until we eventually reached, "Complete! Complete!"

With all bearings greased we were slicked and ready to roll. Our plans had changed somewhat as we could no longer make it to Dhule but we didn't want to hang around. We drove through a mountain pass and down the other side as the sun bowed and India glowed. A proper boss day.

Posted by ibeamish 01:52 Archived in India Comments (0)

Day Twelve - Fort Dalautabad

In the dark hours of the morning I loaded the Tuk Tuk as Laura found a new friend. A little dog only too happy to play with her.

As we pulled out, the little dog followed all the way to the motorway slip road. He ran out happily until the traffic caused him to apply the brakes only just in time.
Out on the road we've found what looks to be oil or grease in a place we've never seen it before. It's covering the gear box, CV joint and an as yet unidentified rubber pipe coming out of our engine. Tony hadn't grumbled so we carried on. One way or another we'll find out what's causing it eventually.

Horns on vehicles are a big thing over here. People don't use their rear view mirrors as much but rather, if you're about to overtake you give a little friendly toot to say "Hey there, coming through." If a pathway doesn't open then you can give a longer toot which means, "I'm still coming through, how do you want this to end?" Many people don't actually pay much attention to the road, even pedestrians will walk blithely out onto the tarmac as if the Green Cross Code had never been invented. One toot of the horn though and they're scrambling for cover. We've now learnt the horns of India too which helps enormously. An angry bee is a bike. They can do little harm but given the number of people on each bike and the random location of the single crash helmet it'd probably take a while to clear up the mess. A road runner 'Meep-meep' is a tuk-tuk. That's a dog eat dog level playing field. He who dares wins Rodders and we're getting braver. A traditional car horn is, well, a car. Most likely a Mahindra or Tata 4x4 driver (think Defender or Jeep) who is probably on a mission somewhere but will happily slow down so that he and his passengers can take selfies of 'Tourists in the wild'; whilst overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and certain death. Throughout the experience his smile will never waver his head nod will stay consistent and his eyes will stay fixed to you rather than the road. The next category houses coaches and trucks because they have proper horns. Some actually have two, the first is a diddle-iddle-iddle parp and as stated earlier, that's friendly; the second inspires a spurt of adrenaline and some evasive action on our part. It's like a mouse taking on a bull; it can't be done. One more horn exists but is rarely heard and that's the train. It sounds like a fog horn on an ocean liner and no one gets in the way of that.

We watched the Swiss Cheese team conk out on a particularly steep hill today. Laura and I did slow but Em and Al were caning the life out of it and so 'team' took precedence over 'charity' and unlike the cheeses we know how to take a side.

Todays destination was the fortress a Dalautabad. It was a hill fortress started in the eleventh century by the Yadavas though I haven't worked out who they are yet. Then in 1327 a Muslim leader took control of the camp and moved his entire court from Delhi 1100km to be there. The Yadavas cut away the edges of the mountain so that it effectively had a cliff around it's base. Subsequent occupants then added to the fort so that there was a 15m deep moat half way up the mountain, this was filled with crocodiles. Cannons were placed all over one of which had a barrel that I could climb into! Then there was a maze of passages with the last designed so that a fire could be lit and the passage would become the chimney.

We watched the sun set and then did half an hours night driving and got to our hotel near the Ellora caves at 6:30. There were a few Tuks in the car park, one of which was Ollie and Squirrel. They'd spent the last two days seeing the caves and would be leaving at 5am the next morning. We had dinner with the Swiss who had proved to be quite capable in patching up their vehicle until they could get a full service. We got their mechanics location; it was about time we gave ours some TLC.

Posted by ibeamish 18:40 Comments (0)

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