Friday, November 14, 2008

Heading out west

Before we leave Udaipur we try to work out our train tickets to Kerala in a month's time by logging on to Indian Railways' website: The experience is a bit like doing a sudoku puzzle in the dark. The railway system is of course huge in India, and it is now possible to log on and book tickets if you know how. We've picked up tips from other travellers and there are websites that explain how to use this website. Before we dissolve into babbling wrecks we opt instead to do the old-fashioned thing - turn up at the railway station reservations office, fight our way to the window to get a request form to fill-in and then fight our way back to the window and book a ticket. It's all a bit sweaty and unnecessarily violent, but much more satisfying. Mind you, our ticket tells us we are numbers 26 and 27 on the waiting list. "No problem" everyone says.............

Next stop and it's all the fun of the fair at Mount Abu - an old colonial hill station and pilgrimage place on the border with Gujarat. Diwali holidays are continuing apace and the little place is crammed with Indian holidaymakers having a ball. Every building is either a hotel or restaurant or a shop selling tat. It reminds us of Blackpool. We don't feel homesick. We pass on the 'Sheratone Hotel' and 'Holiday In', opting instead for the foreigners' choice, a quiet place with rooms painted asylum green. There's a real hurly-burly bustle on the streets, as extended families parade past the street hawkers and stalls, ice-cream and 'English Wine & Spirits' shops. The crowd is focused at one end of a small lake which has a flotilla of pedalos, row boats and punted gondolas. Along at 'Sunset Point' an eager crowd is already gathering at 4 o'clock to watch the sunset over the plains 1,000 metres below. You can have a horse ride while you wait. There's not many people walking around here, despite the cooler temperature - jeeps and 4WDs whizz past, and for those in the centre who find it all too much of a bother you can hire a man with a trolley to push you to your next destination. The latter appears very popular with overweight Indians. We visit a collection of finely-carved Jain temples. Two are particularly special with marble columns and archways, domes and ceilings, doorframes and walls covered in figures and scenes. Too much for the eyes to take in.

Seeing as most of Gujarat seems to be in Rajasthan, we head for Gujarat, the western corner of India's kite, if you see what I mean. Bhuj was hit by a big earthquake in 2001 and as we wander around we can see where the cracks have been filled in. It's hard to tell what survived and what is new - everything looks a bit scruffy and tatty and well, Indian. But it's all low-key and the centre is a warren of streets that make up the bazaar. It feels more normal than the tourist towns of Rajasthan, and we sense over the days the genuine warmth and hospitality of Indians, as opposed to the artifice and shallowness you come across in the tourist hotspots. And the food is better too.

"I spy with my little eye something beginning with d."
"Yes, your turn"
I spy with my little eye something beginning with n."
"Nose ring"
Yep, your turn."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with c."
"Okay, your go."
I spy with my little eye something beginning with t."
The tin can of a bus rattles along the road through the desert of the Rann of Kutch. We're standing in the aisle, hemmed in, and surrounded by locals from the villages that are dotted around in the scrub. In the distance all we can see are heatwaves and a blurry hill poking up above the salt flats. We are returning from a village close to the border with Pakistan. We've been looking for traditional mud houses that have been decorated. We find only concrete box houses and some plain mud houses - the earthquake might have reached up here? A family invite us in and offer us tea, but before we can reply they produce tatty embroidered clothes and bedspreads in a desperate hard sell. We are obviously not the first tourist in these parts. We say no thank you and leave quickly, and give up our search. Another day we visit a village known for its embroidery. India's biggest product is textiles, and Kutch is known for its tie-dye, batik and block-prints, but especially for its embroidery. There's a shop selling fine work from a collection of villages in the area. It's run by a charity set up by a woman who wanted to help village women affected by drought. The venture looks like a success and the quality of the work is very high - too high for our wallet. Instead we admire the samplers that are exhibited like artworks - stunning large detailed pieces.

On the coast south of Bhuj is Mandvi, an old port where pilgrims would depart to Mecca for the Hajj. They still build wooden cargo boats here that sail the seas around East Africa, the Gulf states and the Arabian Sea. We while away some time sitting with Tony, an English pensioner, at the chai stalls and soda stands that can be found at each junction of the little town. We also taste possibly the best thali in Gujarat. A thali is a traditional Indian meal, usually vegetarian, served up on a stainless steel tray with small dishes of different curries, sauces and dal. There's always rice and chapatis to bulk it out and the Gujaratis are famed for their good thalis. Down the coast sits the maharajah's palace surrounded by trees and close to the sea for the breeze. The building was used in a Bollywood film called 'Lagaan', where a song and a dance is made about the Indians beating the English toffs at cricket. They still do. We use a private beach here - it's quiet, clean and the first time we have swum in the sea since last October. Lovely.

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