Our original plan was to ride from Diu to Alang on the gulf of Khambhat. Alang is known for its ship breaking yard and second hand market where everything which can be recycled from the ships are sold. A decade ago it was in the news for polluting practices thanks to Green Peace so they now have heightened security and have hopefully adapted some greener practices. The ship breaking yard is therefore out of bounds but I hoped to spend the day wandering around the market and then head out of Kathiyawar peninsula towards Lothal, a port from the Harappan Civilization.
Adithya from Hoka (refer previous post) however threw a curved ball on our plans, he told us that Alang was a dump not worth seeing and suggested that we ride inland through the Gir forest to Bhavnagar. He said that he had spotted lions crossing the roads once here and needless to say the Other was sold. I really wanted to see Alang, I was secretly hoping to buy some knick – knacks there and have them courier it. I had found a way to shop even when we were on a bike trip. So we called a truce and decided to ride through the forest and hit Bhavnagar, check into a hotel and then ride to Alang and back in the late afternoon. It was a win – win
We rode out of Diu in high spirits and spotted several waterbodies with the usual birds. Flamingoes had become as familiar as crows to us. I spotted my first ever purple moor hen and was very excited. The Other laughed at me saying they were really common, but how often do you see a bright purple hen near the water? Guess I married a bird snob.
If you plan to take this route, you need to ride towards Amreli from Diu, but google maps will not show you the forest route, so keep asking the villages that you will pass by for the forest check post, and bingo you will arrive. You have to write your name and other contact details here, along with the vehicle number and the time of entry, and when you leave the forest on the other side – they will cross check it and get you to sign – a way to ensure no one is lost in the forest I suppose. I gave them my name and the guard refused to believe that it was it, he kept asking for my surname, and I had to disappoint him and tell him that X was my father’s name and that was it, I was just X and X. He stared at me in disbelief and then grunted his consent for me to get back on the bike and leave. Gujrati’s like many other northern states use surnames to figure out someone’s caste and social status. It is a common method of assessment, but we south Indians use our father’s / husband’s name as a surname so they get really flummoxed. When I lived in Ahmedabad I have had several people ask me my name and then expect more and finally give up and ask me my caste. So once while getting a facial, the lady in the parlour had my face in her hands and was like what’s your name.. blah blah.. and I was like X and X.. and then she stopped massaging, but didn’t let go of my face.. silence..
Tick tock tick tock
She then asked what is your caste ?? I was going crazy, what’s the right caste ??? Shit !! My face was in her hands.. But get ready to clap, because I thought quick and said, I am from the south and we don’t have castes there, we just take our father’s name and after marriage we will take on our husbands name. We are very dutiful like that.
I held my breath
She bought it and resumed massaging my face.. 🙂
So back to Gir, it is where the last remaining population of the Asiatic lions live. Lions have been the symbol of royalty across centuries and regions in India right from the time of Ashoka, and infact only royalty were allowed to hunt lions for a long time, but they still managed to diminish the population and isolate them into this small region by the time of independence. If we don’t relocate some to other states, one epedimic can be the end of the Asiatic Lion, but apparently the state of Gujarat does not want to part with its pride.
We drove through the beautiful forest and passed a lot of skittish chital on our way, and several sign boards asking us to go slow as lions tended to cross the road here but no sign of the big cat. I wanted to see a lion and I was terrified, we were on a bike. If we were in a big SUV it would have been so different.
At several points we thought we saw something, a moving bush, but it would be the wind or a lurking chital. Sometimes I do think not seeing the animal can be as exciting as seeing it, I felt like we were stalking the lion.
The other was riding very very slowly but apart from the beautiful forest and herds of chital we didn’t see anything for around 10 KM and then while taking a slow turn we heard it; the roar of a lion. We had no idea which direction it came from, but it chilled us to our bones and whatever was under it too. We moved ahead cautiously but there were no alarm calls, birds were chirping and we relaxed. A few minutes later we spotted some chital grazing off the road and then the other suddenly stopped the bike. He had spotted a jackal, it had come bursting out of the undergrowth with a piece of meat. Presumably from a bigger animal’s kill. Presumably why we heard a lion roar 5 minutes ago. The other however was just very excited on seeing a jackal, firstly because it is rare to see in the day time and we had missed seeing them in Kutch, heard them in Mandvi and seen one dead on the road in-between somewhere. So he stopped the bike to pull out his camera, and in all that excitement lost balance. As buttercup is heavy and laden with luggage, she slides slowly and then rests on the side bars rather than falling. This gave us enough time to slide off. But for those of you who know me, you know I scare easy.
So we are in Lion country, had just heard one and then this jackal runs out with a piece of a kill, and we were on the road trying to lift a 300 KG bike, please imagine my ultimate terror. To put it mildly I was freaking out. With all this commotion the jackal obviously ran into the bushes to eat peacefully, the chital watched us with amusement and after a brief struggle with a large dose of panic we were back on the bike.
Time had stopped still for me for those 5 minutes, and believe it or not the Other was mad at me because the jackal ran away !!
We left the forest and were back on meandering village roads when we went over the biggest pothole ever. Ouch ! Something jarred, my vertebrae shook and I was done for. I am fairly resilient, and except for a sore bum which develops after 200 KM or so the bike rides have not affected me much; but this was one killer pothole.
We reached Bhavnagar in a couple of hours but I was done for. We checked into the first hotel we came across – Hotel Basil Park, a no – nonsense standard hotel with clean rooms and great toilets for 2500 Rs a night. For being what it is, an honest non fussy hotel with clean rooms I would rate it 4 out of 5.
The original plan was to check in and go to Alang and catch the sunset at Gogha beach on the way back. But the pain in my back made me feverish and I thought I would take a power nap, which extended all the way to dinner time and I still woke up exhausted. When you are travelling for 40 days and 6000 KM, I think a few rest days in between are necessary so Alang is back on the bucket list, perhaps if the Other and I ever get financially stable enough to buy/ build a house I can plan a shopping trip there ….
Bhavnagar also claims to be the fifth largest city in Gujarat along with Jamnagar, and has been a port of historical importance along with Khambahat and Surat in that gulf. The royal family are still actively involved with the city, and have converted their palace into a hotel, which is apparently beautiful and worth staying in, but I only had energy to eat room service and sleep again.
Luckily all that sleep helped and I woke up ready for our next trip – riding through the blackbuck national park at Velvadhar and spending the rest of the day at Utelia near Lothal where we were going to stay at a palace homestay I read up about in another travel blog – therediscoveryproject.com
We once again passed a salt dessert as we rode parallel to the gulf of Khambatt. I had been wondering why there were so few cities on this part of the coast, Even ports like Bhavnagar were 30KM inland, and I think I had my answer – salt marshes. The water comes in and recedes quite a bit making agriculture hard and perhaps the ground water is salty too. I actually couldn’t find accommodation anywhere near the coast, which is why I had picked Utelia, a little inland. This is in complete contrast with the bottom part of our East Coast where I come from – town, villages and hamlets dot the entire coast.
The blackbuck national park at Velvadhar is just 50KM from Bhavnagar and is a beautiful grassland home to the endangered blackbucks and wolves apart from a whole host of other creatures. It reminded us so much of the photos and documentaries we have seen of African Savannah. I had initially wanted to stay here, but the blackbuck lodge, the only resort in the area charges 15000 Rs a night, and we decided to skip it. On retrospect we both feel it would have been money well spent, as we don’t get to see grasslands too often and to spend sometime there would have been amazing.
We managed to see a lot of buckbuck while riding through the park however and stopped for tea at the most delightful little tea shop. The old men there had never seen a smart phone and looked at us like magicians, they hadn’t heard of Tamilnadu or Chennai either. They were so happy with our visit that they kept offering the other beedis which he gladly took and they shared a smoke. It is one of the best tea stops and definitely the warmest this trip.
After a short scenic ride, google diverted us onto a single track mud road. It was obviously used by other bikes, we could see fresh tracks, but I really doubt if a car can get through. I love it when google maps does this !! If there was a job where someone needed to go andverify roads for google, I would love that job… but I guess they don’t use humans for this, just powerful satellites hovering over us.
At the end of this dirt track, we came to a little hamlet – Utelia. We passed a local school, and a bunch of kids ran out to greet us. They took one look at us and knew we were going to the palace and offered to take us there. There were kids running in front of us, around us and behind us, till we reached the door of the palace. We aready felt like royalty.
The huge gate was locked, we could see into the front yard, but could see no one. There were a few ancient men sitting on the porch, but they had no use for conversation, they preferred staring into space. The ever helpful children went and brought a near by shopkeeper, who spoke a bit of Hindi and offered to call the owners of the palace who lived in Ahmedabad.
Basically booking.com ( never ever use that site !!! – we have had two terrible experiences with them ) had screwed up our booking, and the caretakers were not expecting us, and booking.com had given us the wrong rate. We were in the middle of nowhere, and the closest city was another 100 KM away. However the owner agreed to let us stay there for the agreed rate ( 4300 Rs) and asked the caretaker to open the room for us. Open, not clean – we had to remove the dust covers, request for pillow covers and put it on the pillows ourselves and pour a couple of buckets on the bathroom floor to be able to use it.
Now the word palace has been used very loosely here, the building is an old crumbling 2 storied haveli. It oozes charm and character from every bit of peeling plaster, and there are a lot of beautiful nooks and corners and fantastic antique furniture. The other and I spent a couple of hours just walking around and photographing all the elements. Unfortunately the owners, the erstwhile kings of the village have decided not to maintain it as it is more trouble than it’s worth and are planning on renting it out till it falls apart. (This is what the caretaker told us, it looks true, but we have not verified it with the owners).
When we entered the haveli we realised we were the only guests – spooky. I couldn’t help but sing this song from Chandramukhi – ra ra ( the tamil version of Manichitrathazh).In the movie, a family moves into an old mansion and one of the girls gets possessed / develops a split personality disorder and believes she is a dancer who used to live there hundreds of years ago. I wanted to spook the other but ended up scaring myself. When it comes to the supernatural I am the biggest scaredy cat ever. I cannot watch ghost / gore movies or even listen to stories.
We were told that the cook had left from Ahmedabad and would be there to make dinner for us, but we had to ride 15 KM to find a restaurant on the highway for lunch. I guess we looked positively crestfallen, so the helpful shopkeeper invited us to his house for a home cooked meal.
He lived in one of the more affluent homes in the village, with a shop in the front. We were ushered into the living/dining/bed room of their house and made to sit cross legged on a furry yellow mat. His daughters then served us the most delicious kathiyawadi food I have ever had. Bajra rotis, the baingan-yogurt sabji (this is my pick of this region), a spicy potato sabji, chaas and all the condiments that comes with a gujrati meal. They were hospitable, chatty and showed us some family photographs and clothes too. Our host also made sure we knew he was a Rajput, he told us it was the best caste in Gujarat with a proud smile.
The other and I shifted to our smile and nod routine. We also learnt a new trick; If you are eating during a conversation you don’t want to be part of chewing your food slowly and looking at them thoughtfully also helps.
We were wondering if we should offer him money, and then were worried we would offend him and left in confusion. Luckily the caretaker reminded us to pay him the next day. We went to visit him on our way out, and his daughter asked us for whatever we felt like giving them. After a few awkward exchanges where no numbers were exchanged, we gave her 400 rs hoping it was right sum.
Post that amazing lunch we rode down to Lothal a few KM away. Lothal was a port town part of the Mohenjadaro – Harappan civilization and has the first known dock in the world. The river that connected this area to the sea is long gone now. It has an informative museum with details on the port city, their lifestyle and items of trade. We saw bits of hand painted pottery in the museum, which were so alike to what the potters in Kutch do today. It is amazing how this tradition has survived 4000 years. You can also walk around the ruins, peer into the dock and see the foundations of the warehouse. I felt Lothal is far better maintained than Dholavira, probably due to its proximity to Ahmedabad, they even have guards to shoo away people walking on the ruins, but you know tourists they will do anything for a selfie.
Humbled as always by history, we went back to our palace, as we were the only ones there, we decided to be king and queen for a day. The eerie looking cook, with a slight hunch and a smile that didn’t meet his eye met us and informed us that dinner would cost us 750 Rs a head for homecooked dhal-roti-sabji and rice, no chaas even and if we wanted breakfast the next day it would be 450 rs per head.. When asked why – his simple reply – you are in The Palace. I found out the next day that they also had charge 100rs a cup for tea, we spent 400 rs in total on tea !!
Steep as it is, we didn’t have a choice, there is literally nothing around so I got into queen mode and set the menu with him for dinner and we left for a walk around the delightfully beautiful village. We were almost immediately followed by a bunch of scruffy boys who were giggling at us, themselves and being an adorable rowdy bunch. They were extremely curious as to why we were photographing the buffaloes and old doors but more than that, we were just foreign novelties and we had a nice photoshoot with them. There was an almost scuffle when I told them that I would take one polaroid and give it to them to share, but they sorted it out and unanimously agreed that one of the boys would be its safe keeper. They stood in a straight line, chests pushed out and stiff and refused to relax – but where very happy with the magic camera that gave them a photograph.
The sun had set and we went back to the palace and spent time in the courtyard. With a little maintenance and management this place can become one of the nicest homestays in our country, there is so much potential. But because of the screw up with our booking, the overpricing of the food and the lack of maintenance of the place I am forced to give it a 3, though the ambience and character scream for a 5.
There are little tables on the courtyard and we were served our dinner on this – decent standard food. The cook would hang around after serving us, at a respectable distance and wait incase we needed anything. I guess this is how they treated the owners, who are the descendnts of the royal family, and the villagers still think of them as the ruling monarchs. I had to gently let him know several times that it wasn’t necessary and we would call if we needed anything and he would retreat to the kitchen.
We lingered over dinner, and then it was time for bed. Both of us were feeling a little spooked, the caretaker and cook were going to retreat to their quarters outside the building and it was just us in this large old house, where everything creaked. We decided to watch a movie for a bit till we were too sleepy to imagine things but I knew we were going to sleep with the lights on.
Lights on or not, the Other was snoring in 5 minutes and I lay tossing and turning forcing myself to think of cupcakes and rainbows and everything nice.
But we did survive, woke up to another beautiful lazy sunrise and prepared ourselves for our last stop in Gujarat – Surat before heading down to Maharashtra. See you guys soon with my last post on Gujarat.